Audiobook Edition:

2

↤ THE STAIRS ↦

(that is, the people who wish to walk)


The World Rake had emptied and all its temporary inhabitants congregated around the base of the steps embedded in the hillside of bladegrass, just a short walk down an unassuming dirt path behind the old building. Arteo was one of the last to arrive with everyone else, doing his best to keep his worries to himself. He distracted his thoughts by flitting through what he knew of the entrance to the Valley.


The ancient stone stairs had divots worn in from tens of thousands of feet pressing down into them over the eons. It was a rite of honor to walk in those footsteps, reminders of things past and heroes written. No one sings stories of the poor, destitute, or evil who stepped similarly. No one wishes to walk the path of their failure — as travelers or people.


It is unknown who placed the steps as they are. Curiously, a symbol is carved into the first step at the bottom of the hill that leads to the Trail: a twisted gnarl of roots spun from a central axis, reaching to the edges of an undrawn circle. This symbol has yet to be found anywhere else in literature, artwork, or architecture, save for when discussing the stairs themselves. Perhaps the remnants of a stonesmith’s personal sigil, or only a remark on the Tree itself, a note of what travelers will face should they ascend to the top.


As Arteo stood with the throngs surrounding him, the sun teetering on the backside of the horizon beyond, he could only breathe and wait. There was no going back once he stepped on the stairs, this was the law of old and breaking it would mean death — of the body and of his family’s honor.


Tales tell of a young man, just past his budding age, suddenly finding the fear of the journey unbearable and hastily retreating down the steps. As soon as he touched the earth at their base, a half-dozen sharpened blades fell upon him and cut him down almost instantly.


There was no need for an official enforcement of the law, no constables or guardians, as there were more than enough people with a taste for blood available to freely execute a coward. No punishment could touch those who killed such a person, and the delight of a consequence-free murder was more than enough reason for a small gathering of cuthroats to await people who retreated back.


Arteo could see such reprobates standing a few paces from the stairs. They would never dare block the path or pull anyone away, as they’d meet a similar fate. None of them even wanted to traverse the Trail, they only sought the freedom to kill. He could think of few people more despicable than that.


And there were no other paths around or back besides the stairs. The thick brambles surrounding the hillside were so sharp that they could cut even the hardiest leatherwear to threads, and the strongest, sharpest metal would be worn to dull nothing in the space of a few moments against their sturdy thorns.


No, once you ascend, the only way to escape is to finish nature’s maze. At the top of the stairs was a series of switchbacks leading down to the Southriver Valley, and from there he could only trust his maps, his books, and his instincts to guide him.


The roar of conversation suddenly subsided as the first rays of dawn stabbed through the thorn trees and cut into the silver darkness. This happened every season, a spellbinding of silence that enrapt everyone. There were no stories of it or rules about quieting down before you begin the walk, but it happened nonetheless.

Everyone watched with patient eyes as the light turned downward. Once the golden red glow touched the bottom step, they would be free to walk. This, too, would be silent.


Arteo felt his heart doing its best to escape his chest, the thrum reverberating in his ears like deity drums.

The boisterous man with his curly red beard and his small contingent of gruff companions stood in front of the semicircle surrounding the stairs. He was even larger than inside the Rake, his arms taut and flexed underneath his leatherwear. His relaxed demeanor inside had been replaced with steely concentration, a deep intensity that blazed within the core of his emerald eyes.


He felt less like a son of wealth and more like a dangerous man that was dedicated to his journey at any cost. The three similarly-situated men standing astride him possessed an intensity to match his own, but they were more worn. Where Red Beard was sculpted, they were carved.


Arteo made note of them all, and to avoid crossing their paths.


The raven-haired girl held her own council under the shade of a basilisk tree at the edge of the crowd, still whittling the wooden man in her hands.


It was unusual for a woman to participate in the journey through the Valley. Not only was it frowned upon, but even finding help in crossing through the labyrinth of branches, forests, and rivers was nearly impossible for women. They either went alone, or not at all.


Perhaps, Arteo thought, it was less about the taboo and more about being smart enough not to throw yourself into a deadly situation in the first place. The fairer sex seemed more considerate about not getting themselves killed.


He pulled his gaze from her, remembering that she had a preternatural sense and he didn’t want to invoke her ire again. Though he continued to be entranced by her delicate features and the tight curves of her body that revealed themselves even underneath the flowing cloak surrounding her.


He wondered if anyone had ever thought of him that way. He also thought that, even if they had, would he feel the same about them? Maybe that’s the curse of being a woman, the constant flood of desire with only a parched taste of reciprocity.


The sun crept across the final step, the light hushing whatever murmuring remained, leaving only the susurrus of wind through the canopy.


This was his moment to decide. He had time now to quietly make his way to the back of the gathering and slink off to home. He could try again the following year, or forget the entire affair altogether. Maybe his plans were too grand, too outside him. He was scrawny, poor, and alone. He didn’t have the conviction worn on the faces of many around him, nor the resources to hire experts to guide him.


The understanding of what he was about to undertake crashed onto him like a storm wave at sea. His breathing shallowed and pulse rattled as a subtle yet uncontrollable shivering passed over his body. An older man, who had to be close to Arteo’s father’s age, leaned over to him.


“You’ll be a survivor,” he said casually. Arteo wasn’t sure if he’d heard him correctly, or if he was even speaking with him at all.


He managed to sputter out, “Why do you say that?”


“The fools are the confident ones. You’ve got the jitters of a man who knows he could die,” he said sagely. “A fearful man is a careful one, and only the cautious get out of this place.”


Before Arteo could consider a response, the warble of a horn broke the silence and the thousand or so eager journeymen began to walk up the stairs. He stood frozen watching them ascend before being bumped in the shoulder. When he looked to find the older man, he was gone.


The raven-haired woman and Red Beard had already taken their place in the single-file march up to the crest of the Valley, but he quickly lost them as they passed through the shadows of the forest cover. Without thinking on it further, he hitched up his rucksack, walked to the edge of the stairs, and began to climb.



Perhaps one aspect of the journey that is most poorly conveyed is the time it takes to walk up the stairs. Maybe due to their mundanity and complete lack of danger — unless one were to sprint off to either side into the deadly thorns — the plodding ascent gets little more than a casual mention in even the most thorough accounts.


If a traveler was somehow unburdened by the pace of hundreds surrounding them, the time to rise to the top step would still take the better part of an hour. With the uneven movement of so many people, it would be nearly twice as long.


Each stair could fit perhaps two people side by side, and a kind of unspoken courtesy had arisen over the years that slower climbers would fade to the right, allowing faster ones to pass on the left. This was not a stonecarved rule though, and Arteo found himself a quarter of the way up stuck behind an old woman who clacked up each step with her cane at the pace of a growing blade of grass.


It was inexplicable that she was even on the journey. She looked to be almost as old as his grandmother, who’d died many years ago when Arteo was young. Deep-set wrinkles ran rivers down her face and disappeared into the dark basin of the loose-fitting top that did a poor job of containing the swaying of her pendulous chest. It was no wonder she had a cane, what with the back problems she surely had.


Arteo vacillated between saying something to get her to move and not wanting to upset someone that was surely on a march to her own death, for reasons he wished to leave mysterious.


“Excuse me, madam?” he spoke up, but perhaps too softly for her to hear. No change, and the rumble of annoyance that was following up behind him became that much more punctuated. Not only was she holding him up, but everyone behind him.


“Madam?” he managed more firmly. “Could you please move to the side so I can pass?”


She had to have heard him this time, but she didn’t so much as tilt her head to acknowledge he’d said anything.

From behind him, a throaty huff preceded a meaty hand pushing Arteo aside, nearly causing him to tumble. The man walked up swiftly and bumped the woman gruffly, causing her to fall to the right, her cane tumbling onto the stone with a clatter.


“Out of the way, you fucks!” he declared as he moved up. Everyone pulling up behind took their window and fed through the opening to the left of the woman. Arteo could have followed with them, but decided to help her instead. He squatted down next to her and held out his hand.


“I’m so sorry, are you hurt? Let me help you.”


She glared up at him with angry, sullen eyes.


“Go shit in a river!” she barked. Arteo was stunned to silence. “I don’t need your charity.”


He stood up, every morsel of sympathy for her gone. He watched as she struggled to stand and reach for her cane. He knew he probably shouldn’t have done it, but as he walked over her to continue up the stairs, he happened to kick her cane into the thorn bushes.


She scowled and tried to grab at his ankles, but he was out of her reach. Too embarrassed by his actions, but maybe not very sorry, he didn’t look back as he pressed on to the summit.

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