Sh’ra shared U’ri’s lighthearted giddiness as they descended the mountain, racing ahead of Lu’rik. They ran and whooped, slipped and laughed at how close they came to falling off the deadly ledges. Lu’rik held silent, only snapping at them once when they nearly knocked her off balance.
With the dread of the trial behind her, Sh’ra felt like a weight had been lifted off. She had done it. She had learned what they had come here for her to learn. She carried the truth, though she was not sure she could explain it. That would come later, or so U’ri told her.
At the bottom, they sat and waited for Lu’rik. Sh’ra lay in the green grass, staring up at the sky as the blue faded from it, replaced by the reds and oranges of the sunset in the west. U’ri lay beside her, watching her.
“Have you never been free?”
“No, not really. My mother said it was not proper for me to spend so much time outdoors. I snuck out every chance I got, but I never felt I could just lay and watch the sky. No, I hid in the trees, hoping they would never find me, hoping another family would come along and take me in.”
“And now you fight to save them? Why?”
"They are my family. What am I supposed to do?”
“Leave them to their fate. It’s not your problem.”
“But it is U’ri. It is my problem. I have been given a gift and I must use it. When I am the Stonebearer, I can restore them to their rightful place. And then, they can be happy.”
“What about you? Will you be happy?”
Sh’ra was unsure how to reply. As she opened her mouth, they heard footsteps quickly approaching from the direction of the camp. U’ri rolled into a crouch, hand hovering over her belt knife. A small boy came into view and U’ri relaxed.
“T’lek! What are you doing out here, running the paths alone so close to dark?”
T’lek stopped as he neared them, bending forward with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. U’ri walked to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Za’reth…” With a few more deep breaths, he was able to stand straight. “He says you must return at once. The scouts have seen Ur’in approaching with a legion of the stone guard from the north.”
Sh’ra rolled quickly onto her feet, readying herself for the run back to camp. U’ri looked back up the mountain, indecision evident on her face. When she turned back toward them, she had settled on her choice.
“I must wait for grandmother. It is not safe to walk these paths alone at night, even for the great Lu’rik. T’lek, you take Sh’ra back to camp by the fastest paths.”
She offered him water from her flask and he drank greedily. U’ri stepped toward Sh’ra and gave her a hug.
“I will see you back at the camp. If not, then I will catch up to you on the road.”
Sh’ra pushed her back to look into her face.
“You… Your going to come with me?”
“Of course. I still have much to teach you.” U’ri replied with a wry smile.
Relief flooded through Sh’ra from the release of a fear she had not yet realized she had been carrying. She hugged U’ri fiercely. The thought of losing this friend had been unbearable. Knowing she would not have to, returned the strength to her body.
“Oh, and you might want this.” U’ri dropped the stone of power into her palm. “Grandmother asked me to carry it for her, but I think it’s time for you to have it back.”
Then her expression grew serious. She grasped Sh’ra by both shoulders and looked directly into her eyes.
“I see you Sh’ra. I see the person you are. Though I have known you for only a day, I name you my sister in blood and bone. This pact cannot be broken. You are ready, my sister. Go.”
Sh’ra felt herself straighten, pulling her shoulders back. “Thank you U’ri,” she whispered. “Thank you sister.” Then she turned to T’lek.
“Come T’lek, show me the way.”
When they arrived back at the camp barely an hour later, Za’reth paced impatiently at the gate.
“We need to leave. Now. Ur’in will be in here with the stone guard by midnight.” He stepped close to her and asked the next question so only she could hear. “Have you adjusted the Shard?”
Sh’ra cursed. She had forgotten. Za’reth looked around him before continuing.
“Do you know where it is?” He asked.
“Yes, Lu’rik’s tent lies at it’s base.”
“Then go now. I will ready the horses. Meet me at the south gate. The Horn clan is willing to fight for us, but I would rather they did not have to.” He held her gaze for another moment. “Do you remember what to do?”
“Good. Then go.”
Sh’ra ran toward Lu’rik’s tent, dodging past members of the Horn clan who seemed to be preparing for battle. As she went, she played back what Za’reth had told her of the Shards of Ee’rin.
She reached Lu’rik’s tent and slipped inside before she was noticed. Immediately, she felt she was being watched. She held her breath waiting for someone to call out her name, waiting for Lu’rik herself to stride into the tent and demand to know what she was doing. No one came. She released the breath, but the tension in her neck remained. Behind the tent, an uneven slate column shot skyward. Taking the lodestone from her pocket she held it in her left hand and placed her right hand against a piece of the slate that jutted through a break in the tent cloth. Za’reth had said that what she would need to do would be obvious. Well, here goes old man, she thought, closing her eyes. As soon as she did so, the lines of power sprang up around her. She had never seen them so strongly. Out on the road, they had appeared as thin as a strands of hair. Here they were massive cords spreading out from the Shard. She dropped to one knee and sent her awareness downward, following the largest cord.
The strand continued, straight as Ha’leth’s spear. Down and down and down into the depths of the earth, never bending off of its course. Thoughts broke into her mind as she went. What was she supposed to find? What would be so obvious that even she could see it? With her awareness so far from her body, the thoughts were barely whispers.
Then she saw it: a knot. Carefully, she drew near to it. The ramifications of its existence overwhelmed her. She knew instinctively that it must be undone. She circled, taking it in from every side. It felt wrong. That was the best word she could put to it. Wrong, like an animal in a cage, or a crooked arrow, or a body without life. The strain on the overlapping cords was causing them to fray. If one of these broke, the world itself would do the same. She was not sure of how much time had passed. How long did she have before she was discovered? There was no way to know. All she could do was get to work.
She traced the lines of the other cords. Some were thinner, some thicker. She pressed on them gently, judging her strength. She found she could pull on the cord she had followed, but only push on the others, as if she did not have the leverage. Is this why she would need to visit each of the Shards? She would not be able to untangle the entire knot this time, but she could loosen it. She imagined her self larger, holding the ball of cords in her hands. Her fingers pushed and pulled at different parts, until she found a strand that was loose enough to move. Over and under, she pulled it back toward the taught cord she had followed, until she was able to pull the extra length out of the tangled mass. Immediately, she felt the release, the strain on the cord reduced to where it was no longer in danger of snapping. She searched a little longer, but that appeared to be all she could do from this vantage. Retreating up the cord, she returned her consciousness to her body.
She sank back onto the carpeted floor of the tent, her body soaked in sweat. Beneath her, the ground shook and rumbled from the effects of the loosening.
“What have you done?”
She twisted to see U’ri bracing herself from the small quake in the opening of the tent, her eyes narrowed, suspicion in her voice.
“What did you do?”
U’ri advanced on her, belt knife in her hand.
“U’ri stop. I can explain.”
U’ri did not stop. Sh’ra scrambled away, trying to find something to put between herself and the warrior advancing on her, but the tent was sparse. As a last act of desperation, she held out her hand with the stone in it.
“Stop this! Let me explain!”
U’ri stared at the hand, disgust written across her features. With a feral cry, she lunged at Sh’ra, swatting her hand away, tackling her to the ground.
“We welcome you in. We teach you the secrets of the stone, and this is how you repay us? You are just like the rest!”
She said as she hit Sh’ra across her face and body. The blows ceased and Sh’ra lowered her arms to see her U’ri with dagger raised, death in her eyes.
Before U’ri could plunge the dagger down, a bony hand grabbed her wrist. Sh’ra saw the shock in her eyes as her arm halted its motion. She reacted quickly, releasing the dagger from her right hand, it fell into her left. Before U’ri could slash out, Lu’rik twisted the wrist she grasped, wrenching U’ri off of Sh’ra and onto the carpet beside her. U’ri kicked out with her leg, sending the old woman toppling backward.
U’ri cried out as she realized the identity of her attacker. Immediately, she rushed to Lu’rik’s aid. Sh’ra, momentarily forgotten, scrambled to her feet and made for the exit.
“Sh’ra!” The old woman’s voice cracked like a whip.
Sh’ra stopped, unable to move. She turned back toward the two women, tears coming to her eyes at the look of hatred on U’ri’s face.
“Explain it to me, Sh’ra.” Lu’rik said gently. And Sh’ra did her best.
They rode in silence through the night, first southward and then to the west. They would make for the shores of Yu’al, hoping to arrive with the dawn. Za’reth had sent a messenger ahead. There would be boats from the Water clan waiting.
Sh’ra turned to look at U’ri again, but she did not return the gaze. She sat stiffly, eyes fixed in the black distance.