“We lost a section of the northern trail m’lord. And a patrol.”
“How? That rain two nights ago was surely not enough to wash the trail out. Have your men gone slack on their investigations of the structure?”
“It’s possible sir. I am not sure yet. I will investigate it myself. There are… oddities.”
“Yes, sir. I want to see them for myself before I report. The men tend toward superstition sir and what reports we have seem… enhanced.”
“Tell me the rumors, Fen’rich.”
“Sir, they are nothing, not worth your time - just the men entertaining themselves.”
“Tell me Fen’rich.”
Fen’rich hesitated, but he could not disobey the direct order regardless of how it reflected on him.
“Sir, they say Tor and his men were attacked by a stone witch. That she skewered Tor on a stone spear and brought the rock down on the others, sinking them into the earth while leaving their fire undisturbed.”
“What did she do then?”
“Sir? You can’t be taking this seriously?!”
“Must I repeat myself Fen’rich? What did she do then?”
“She took the form of a guardsman, stole their clothing and supplies and went north in search of more victims.”
“Interesting…” The K’al replied, rubbing his short beard in a mixture of thought and amusement.
“Mighty K’al, pay these rumors no mind. Likely Tor fell and his men were caught in a mudslide.”
“That is all Fen’rich. You may go.”
The K’al waved the man away. Fen’rich left with a stiff bow, his pride clearly affronted but held tightly in check. When he was gone, the K’al turned to the man standing beside his thrown.
“Could this be your Stonebearer Za’reth? Your Sh’ra?”
“It could be.” Za’reth answered cautiously.
“Was this your plan? To help her elude me?”
“No my lord. I assure you. My plan was to bring her here, to you, that we might guide her.”
“Well, it appears Fen’rah had other ideas. Still, it is for us to make plans and for Fen’rah to thwart them. Regardless, we must retrieve her.”
“I fear it is too late for that now. How many days has it been since this incident with the patrol? Three? The brethren will have her by now.”
“Then, my friend, let us hope your instruction was enough to prepare her for what she faces.”
Sh’ra felt the point of the spear in her back before she heard the sliding, crunch of a boot behind her. She would have thought it merely a sharp branch, but she had not been moving when it pressed into her.
“Lower your weapon.”
The voice of her attacker grated harshly. She followed the direction, careful to avoid unexpected movements. Holding a weapon was a misdirection anyway, a distraction from the true danger she wielded.
“I need your help,” she said, as she raised her arms away from her sides to avoid any suspicion. She could kill this man easily with barely a thought, but she needed him alive. She would never find acceptance from the Air clan if she began by killing. And she needed their support, now more than ever. She could no longer hope for anything from the Water clan, nor did she want anything from them.
“And why should we help a water wench?”
Ah, so there was more than just him. He had a companion hidden somewhere close by. The man behind her she could kill. She was not sure she could react quickly enough to prevent an arrow from a hidden assailant.
“I am not of the water clan. This is a disguise.”
“Even less reason to trust you then.”
She swallowed. This next part would be the trickiest.
“I have come to see Brith.”
The man stiffened at her usage of the name.
“Now, how did you come by that name?”
“Take me to him. He will be angry if I am delayed.”
“That is not how things work here." The man replied, pressing the spear more firmly to her back.
"I seek to undergo the trials."
The pressure lessened.
"If it is your wish to join the Air clan, I will lead you to the brethren. All are welcome; not all choose to stay.”
The man recited the words, but was clearly not happy about it. Still, he removed the spear from her back.
“Gather your belongings. Follow me.”
Around them, three masked figures emerged from their hiding places, each wielding the same deadly looking black bow.
Sh’ra woke to the wind in her face. She made to stand but her hands were tied behind the pole she had been propped against. Her head was groggy, her thoughts slow to cooperate. Slowly, it came back to her. This was her test. Brith had explained it to her. Despite what her captor had indicated, Brith did seem to be a leader of sorts in the Air clan, just as she had hoped. He had explained that if she could do this, she would be accepted into the Air clan. If not, death.
“We are the servants of the air. You must show yourself to be one of us.” He had said.
Shortly after, he had given her the drug that had rendered her unconscious. They must have brought her here and tied her to this pole. She swiveled her head to the left and right. She sat on a narrow ledge, the ground falling away into nothing on both sides. For below, she could make out the tops of trees. Craning her neck, she could see a smooth wall of rock arching over her. How did they get her here? The wind whipped snow into her face, cutting off the thought. It did not matter. She felt the growing cold that signaled approaching night. If she did not move, they would find her body frozen to this pole in the morning, though perhaps the sun would thaw her once it crested the mountains to the east. She shivered. The thin cotton dress they had clothed her in might as well have been nothing for all the protection it provided. She needed to move.
She stood, shimmying herself up the pole. There was a blade embedded into the back of it somewhere that would cut her bonds. Za’reth had told her that much, but that was all he had known of this trial. Brith had divulged little more, telling her only that she must submit to the wind to be set free. Submit to the wind — what did that even mean? She raised her arms behind her until her shoulders strained, searching the back of the pole for anything that could cut her bonds. There was nothing. Looking up, the pole extended for several feet above her head. Going over was not an option. Briefly she considered options of how to climb it, but dismissed the possibility just as quickly.
Returning to a sitting position, she reached out with a foot to pull a loose rock closer, thinking she might be able to cut her bonds with it. The rock refused to budge, leaving her with a gash on her instep for the effort. Could they not have at least given her shoes? Her throat constricted as the fear began to set in. Then she felt the leather pouch secured to the center of her chest beneath the wrappings that kept her breasts in place. It was odd that they had not removed those. A chill gust told her they had no such misgivings about the garments which had protected her groin. Though, perhaps that was a service since she had not had a fresh set in weeks. She brought her mind back to the stone. The fear abated. Relaxing her arms, she focused inward, seeking the calm center. She carried the stone, but dared not use it. They would consider that cheating. It would not matter if she survived the elements and completed the trial. They would never accept her. It was reassuring all the same, even if she must find a way without it.
Submit to the wind. What is an act of submission to the wind? She had thought of it being metaphorical or spiritual. What if it was literal? Leaning forward, she searched with her fingers along the surface of the pole. At the base, she found it. Gathering her legs, she moved to a kneeling position. There was just enough rope between her wrists to slide into the slot her fingers had discovered. She bent away from the pole, pulling the cord through. It caught. She pulled harder and it gave, two ends of cleanly sliced rope dangled at her wrists. She stared at them in disbelief. The blade was inside the pole? She had no time to investigate. The narrow bridge she would need to traverse next lay directly in front of her. She let herself take five deep breaths, accepting the cold and biting wind, accepting the fear and the exhilaration – for both were deadly. Then she moved. To the west, the sun was dropping behind the ridge. Out across the valley in front of her, narrow rock formations jutted from the earth — a sea of blades.
For the moment, the rock beneath her remained warm from the day’s heat. That would not last long. She cursed again at her bare feet. Brith had explained that the lack of shoes and sparse clothing was meant to be an encouragement to keep moving. Sh’ra was not sure she believed him. The clothing she understood, but not the shoes. Was anyone foolhardy enough to attempt to remain up here overnight just because they had shoes?
She scrambled in the direction of the sky bridge as quickly as she dared. There were many risks to balance. The setting sun meant dropping temperatures, urging speed. The dangerous terrain, the gusting wind and her bare feet demanded caution. She would die just as easily and much more quickly from a fall than from the cold.
A shadow crept over the narrow path in front of her. A slender bridge, no more than a foot wide and three feet thick connected the tower of rock she was on with one to the west of it. The ground plummeted away. She could not see it below. A thought of it full of the bones of the fallen lingered for longer than she would have liked. She must cross this so-called sky bridge to reach the relative safety of the other spire. On the far side, she would catch a few more rays of the sun’s warmth before the leap. It was too soon to think about that. First, the bridge.
Brith had said there was no shame in crawling across, but the smile on his face had indicated otherwise. The mere fact he had mentioned crawling cemented her determination to walk, to stand tall, refusing to give in to fear. Her first step out over the abyss had her reconsidering. One at a time, she told herself. One step at a time. She took another. The wind pushed her to the left, but it was steady at least. She leaned into it, letting it carry part of her weight. She moved her left foot forward, then her right. Now, her left again, her eyes locked on the path, not daring to raise her head to check her progress. Another step and the wind stopped. She nearly stumbled to her right before correcting her balance. A single gust struck her from the left before quickly dissipating. She crouched, clinging to the path with her hands. Trembling, she waited for the next blow. Nothing came. She stood and it struck from every direction, driving her back to her knees. She crawled forward, blinking back the tears of humiliation.
When she reached the far side, she sat, legs pulled up to her chest, shame roiling through her gut. The wind had defeated her. The fear of slipping to her death had been too much for her. Now, she would be known as the one who crawled, the one who cowered. She looked at the bridge, considering briefly going back out onto it to prove she was not afraid. But she was afraid, even at the thought of stepping foot on it again. She could not. She could only keep going.
Gradually, she got back to her feet. The path led her around the spire, the warmth of the sun striking her as she reached the southern edge. Just beyond, the path rose outward to an overlook. This was the place. She trudged to the edge. Kneeling she peaked her head over the edge to see what was below. She could see only darkness and shadow. Examining her surroundings, she recognized the marker Brith had told her to find. She angled her body according his instructions and leapt. As she fell, the air tearing through her, she debated if was pulled down by the earth or by the weight of her own failure.