Audiobook Edition:

4

↤ SWITCHBACKS ↦

(that is, where to go and how to go it)


The dirt path from the summit was a serpentine series of switchbacks that descended to the lush forest below. Visible through the trees, even from the beginning of the trail, was one of the massive limbs of the Great Tree, stony and unmoving in the distance. As eager as he was to see its bark up close, Arteo’s mind was on practical matters.


He had brought along his most relevant books — which he had, indeed, stolen from the library — rope, a full water pouch, and enough food to easily last him three to five days, depending on how hungry he was willing to be. It mostly consisted of jerky that had been smoked and preserved in a salt box he'd squirreled away in a hole underneath some moss at the far edge of the farm. The jerky would be tough and barely edible, but keep him going.


However that was for quick energy when nothing else was available, he was planning on hunting to sustain him. His time on the farm setting traps for foxweasels and prey birds had given him enough experience to be a trapper, so he was confident in his ability to provide for himself.


Yet now it wasn’t just him. He was always Kessa’s favorite brother, even if she never said so. And with the loss of their three brothers to the plague, an ailing mother, and an emotionally distant father, he was all she had left.


The other girls in the nearby towns looked down on pig farmers with disdain, and no amount of beauty, personality, or wit could wash that off her. He sympathized with her leaving, though felt even more guilty that their parents were now left to tend the farm alone.


As they walked, he deliberately kept them behind the others that had reached the summit first, leaving a few breaths between them in front and back to speak without being interrupted.


“So you brought nothing?” he spoke sourly.


“What do you mean?” she responded distantly, entranced by the world around her.


“No food, clothing, supplies, anything like that?”


“No, why?”


He stopped and swung around to face her. She was so distracted that she nearly ran into him.


“Did you not think for a moment about what this journey entailed? The distance we need to go, the hazards?”


“I knew I’d have you, Tey. I thought we’d figure it out together.”


He squeezed his eyes shut and groaned, the frustration building up inside.


“What’s wrong?” she asked, her expression sinking. When he looked up to see it, his heart softened his anger.

He remembered that face, it was the face she gave him when she asked what losing their brothers meant. Would he be there for her? Would he always care for her? What if mother and father died, what would become of her then?


She hadn’t asked all that in exactly that way, but her eyes, glassy and verging on collapsing to complete sorrow, asked for her. He said of course he would be there, everything will be fine, we’ll make it okay even when it’s not because we have each other. That was enough.


Now he realized that in the time between then and now, he had been selfish. He thought of himself and his own frustrations, and not of her or their parents. He had forgotten his promise to her, and left for somewhere that would likely kill him. Even if it didn’t, successfully completing the Trail meant he would be able to leave to better places, places that might feel like his real home in a way the farm never did.


But just like dying, he would be abandoning her. How could he possibly yell at her?


“It’s alright, truly.” And it was, or would be.


“Are you just telling a story to me?”


“No, Kess, I promise.”


“You swear?”


“I swear that if I’m lying, my feet should fall off.”


“And your tongue will turn to turds?” she asked.


“And all my hair will fall out. Though seeing Father, that might happen anyway,” he grinned.


“Okay!” she beamed. Each time their promises got a little more intricate and absurd. Last time it was something about lizard breath and sausage hands.


He noticed Red-Beard and his group approaching from around a switchback behind them. He didn’t want to be anywhere near those burning, determined eyes.


“Come, Kessa, let’s go.”

To view the hundreds trudging down the mountain from the ground was mesmerizing. A centipede of enormous length winnowing in unusual, jerky movements, each section connected by invisible strands guiding them onward. The obscured light through the canopy danced and played shapes on their faces, like reflected light from a sparkling pool turned to shadow. The range of faces and peoples was remarkable, all there for reasons secret to them.


Mostly paired in groups of two or four, the odd single person stood out, but they were the most interesting to watch. Arteo couldn’t help but people-watch to pass the time in his head while he interrogated his sister.


“How did you even come so far without anything? The journey to the Rake alone is three days on foot, two on horse.”


“You’ll be angry with me...”


“I can’t possibly be more angry with you than I already am. Unburden yourself.”


“Weeeell,” she began sheepishly. “You know how the man from the Southern Isle comes every month to purchase another stock of hogs to ship?”


“I do…” He felt he knew where this was going, and she was right, he wasn’t pleased.


“After Father helped load them into the cart, I slipped in back when the man wasn’t looking. The ships are just an hour’s walk to the Trail.”


“How were you not seen?”


“I hid in the bottom of the root bin, under the sack cloth — no one ever checks that. I slept under the cart during the night.”


“Kessa, you could have been killed! Those damned hogs don’t care what goes in their mouth when they eat out of that bin.”


“I know! But they like me. And,” she said confidently, “I went about it the smart way — I fed them by hand.”


“You could have —”


“I know, I know, I could have lost a finger, but here I am, whole and without even a hair gone.”


He sighed. “I suppose.”


“So where are we going next?” she asked excitedly, bobbing up and down beside him.


“Down this hill.”


“Yes, Tey, I know, but then where?”


“We should eat not long after we reach the bottom. Better part of an hour to get there, so something fast to replenish us.”


“And then?”


“Then we need to find our first cave before nightfall.”


“Why?”


“We’re sleeping there tonight.”


“In a cave?” her face scrunched up. “On the cold earth?”


“I was planning on bedding down upon a blanket I brought, but I might have enough room for you.”


“But why in a cave? Is there nowhere else?” she whined.


He could already tell this was going to be exhausting.


“Do you know what a marpha is?”


“Mmm, no,” she responded as they rounded another turn. Each level was growing narrower and the drudgery of it was beginning to wear on the journeymen in front of them.


There were places ahead where a brief pause from only a few people caused a slowdown that rippled back through the entire line up the hillside. Arteo decided to hang back as much as possible to avoid having to stop and send his own ripple back, for that would mean Red-Beard would catch up.


He swung his rucksack around front as he walked and searched inside, eventually pulling out the rebound pages of Erod’s A Kindly Way in the World. He had removed the covers on all the books to save him the extra weight and instead strung rope through holes in the pages.


Kessa moaned. “No, brother, please, I don’t need —”


He held up a hand.


“You wanted to know, I’m going to tell you.”


One of the most useful facets of the books he brought was a description of safe caves to sleep in while on the journey. Many caverns contained deadly marpha, a type of parasitic insect about the size of a thumb that burrows into the tough outer skins of the caydyd shelled-sloths to lay eggs.


This doesn't hurt the caydyd, as they have an even stronger inner shell (and the excretions of the marpha larvae help boost the lining of the inner shell, strengthening it further — a symbiotic benefit), but the marpha frequently confuse similarly-sized animals, like sleeping humans, for hosts.


When they burrow into human flesh, it’s fast and extremely painful. While marpha usually realize their mistake quickly, the wounds bleed profusely from the caustic chemicals they use to burrow, and can lead to infection and death, or simply bleed out. Almost a quarter of all who die on the Trail are casualties related to marpha.

She recoiled in disgust.


“Exactly,” he said.


“And so… we want to sleep in these caves?”


“No, we want to sleep in ones without them.”


“And you know where they are?”


“In a way.”


She frowned at him.


“Listen,” he began defensively, “this isn’t like following a recipe or learning a tradecraft from a master. The Trail isn’t supposed to be easily understood, that’s what makes it challenging.”


There were no maps of the caves, he explained, just like there were no detailed maps of the Trail itself. Such things certainly existed — and it was rumored that the wealthier travelers had access to them — but were banned by decree. Only general outlines of the Trail and descriptions of beasts and plantlife were allowed to be publicly disseminated, anything more granular was confiscated and burned.


It was supposedly because the Trail was meant to be conquered by strength, cleverness, and tenacity, not by exacting details on how to cheat your way through it. He cynically believed it was to thin out those of the lower classes that wanted to leave the Central Continent or even just better themselves — perhaps out of spite, or perhaps because they would no longer contribute to the wealth of the ruling class. Regardless, he had to work with what was available.


Erod had provided a series of descriptions of caverns that were free from the parasite, and generally thought to be safe. At the least, he had slept in them without issue, and little changed in the Valley over the centuries.

They were written in order from the Valley entrance to the final exit up north, but the way he described their locations was strange. Instead of simple directions, he gave poetic and obtuse information.


“For instance,” Arteo said as he flipped to the pages, “one of the first caves is said to be, ‘Splashed with blood, over a shutter of white flowers, and lit by ocean waters in the night.’”


Kessa tried parsing it. She asked him to repeat it, and he did, but to no avail.


“That’s so strange. Why didn’t he just say, ‘It’s by this big rock that looks like a pig skull,’ or ‘It’s right behind a tree that has purple leaves’?”


“Who can say,” he replied, depositing the book safely in his pack. “He did live during the Era of Poets, so I think most everyone wrote like that. Nothing was straightforward.”


“The Era of Poets?” she asked. He kept forgetting how uneducated she was. It was his own fault, as his parents could read little more than purchase orders and simple numbers, so it was up to him to teach her. But he hadn’t done much of that after his brothers died, his own journey consuming his time too much to want to bother. He regretted that now, as she wouldn’t be able to help read the books and remember information, and also because it made him less than the brother she needed him to be.


“I’m sorry, Kess,” he said. “The Era of Poets was when Erod, the author of this book, lived. It was about a century of time when there was great abundance in the Central Continent, and it became a kind of social necessity to teach ‘proper speech.’ So many people learned to read, even lower classes, and when they spoke to each other it was supposed to be elevated in some way.”


“What do you mean ‘elevated’?”


“It’s hard to describe. As an example, if you went to the markets to buy a dram of saproot oil for your joints, you couldn’t just say, ‘Here’s this-and-that amount for the oil,’ you’d have to be more regal. Something like, ‘My joints are weary and in need, can you assist me?’ and the medicine woman would reply, ‘If you wish for saproot oil, then I require some recompense.’ And it would go on like that for a bit.”


“Sounds exhausting,” she responded. Even thinking about it made her feel worn.


“It was, that’s why it faded out. Erod lived during its peak, so his writing feels a lot like that. I think it reads better than it speaks.”


Kessa smiled at him brightly.


“What’s that for?” he asked with his own cautious grin.


“You’re so wise, brother.” And she meant it.


“Thank you, Kess. I don’t know if I’m that, but I do know a few things. Maybe wisdom will come later.”


With his spirits replenished, they turned the final corner and saw the end of the switchbacks as the dirt path emptied to an emerald meadow aglow in golden light that stretched out to the forest ahead.



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