She slowed as she reached the wall of rock, stopping within a few paces of it. They had run for an hour or more from the clearing where Teth and the assassin lay dead. She had gotten lost a few times, but had been able to find the trail again. Shin had kept up with her easily. She felt his presence beside her now and was thankful for it. She turned to look at him. He spoke, his eyes on the wall in front of them.

“Sh’ra, what are we doing here? Why have we stopped?”
“I am going to get the stone.”
“Sh’ra, no. We need to get out. Forget the stone. Forget this stupid competition!”
“I can’t do that Shin! My family needs this.”
“Don’t pretend this is about them! You promised your father you would leave the games if your plan didn’t work. Let go of this dream. We can find a different way.”
“There are no other ways! Not for us. And the plan can still work, with this.”
She held out the bow she had taken from the assassin.

“Sh’ra, think about what you are doing, about where we are. The air clan will find our trail. It will not take them long to follow it here. Here, Sh'ra. Have you even realized where we are? This place is forbidden! We are not safe. We have to keep going.”
“Where will we be safe Shin? Who will protect us? My family is lost without that stone. With it, we have a chance. Even the clan would not kill the stonebearer.”
“Stop it with the stupid stone, Shi! It doesn't exist! They are just stories to entertain children.”
“You're wrong Shin.”

She stepped toward the wall, but he caught her wrist.

“Sh’ra, please. Don’t do this. I… I can’t lose you.”

Warmth radiated through her from his touch. His eyes were desperate, pleading with her. Something in her softened. She leaned in and kissed him. She closed her eyes, feeling only his lips on hers, wanting to hold the moment for as long as she could. Then she pushed him away, stepped quickly up to the wall, and began the climb.

He followed her. She could hear him grumbling below about how they would be visible for miles as soon as they passed the treeline. He was right. She had not thought this through completely. She also had not planned to make the climb while being chased by assassins. Maybe all her accidental doubling back would cause them to lose the trail. She chuckled at that. The clan was the most trusted group of assassins in the scattered lands. No one escaped from them. That is what everyone said. Of course, it was in the clan’s best interest for everyone to believe that so they probably went to great lengths to suppress any stories to the contrary.

She thought of Shin’s words, of her promise to her father. Was there another way? Could she escape and restore her family without the stone? She reached a narrow ledge. With her feet secure, she leaned her body into the wall, giving her arms and fingers a break. They were not too high yet. She could still go back. She could return to her father, keeping her promise. He was concerned for her safety in the games, so that is what he would want her to do, right? In a few more feet she would be above the treeline. There would be no point in turning back then.

She craned her neck to look up the wall. She could see the ledge. She was within twenty feet of the entrance that would lead her to the lodestone, to salvation for her and her family. Could she really turn her back on that? Her father had no other solutions. If he had, he would not have submitted his daughter into the Trials. That was a last ditch effort. Whatever small respect he still had with people was exhausted by that choice. He had poured over the ancient rule books for months to ensure he was not missing anything, that there truly was no stipulation preventing her entry. In the end, they could not deny that it was allowed, but the rules that truly govern are not those that are written down.

Could she return empty handed? Worse than empty handed. She would return with a target on her back. As soon as she was home, that target would spread to her family. She would place another burden onto her fathers weary shoulders. He would never mention it. He would accept her return and say he was thankful she was safe. He would say that he would take care of everything, for her not to worry.

She stretched her fingers upward, feeling the rock for a place to hold. To her right, a vertical crack was just wide enough to slide in the fingertips of her middle and index fingers. Above her left foot, a sliver of stone would be enough to bear her weight if she kept her heel tucked in. She pulled herself close the wall with her fingers and pushed herself upward. The sharp stone cut into the ball of her foot, but it held her.

Her confidence settled as she resumed the ascent. The stone was meant for her. The goddess had chosen her, had shown her this place. It was her destiny to become the stonebearer, to restore her family, and to bring justice to the many others who had been wronged by the corruption and greed of the stewards. They had thrown her father out because of his stand against them. She would see him brought back in.

She reached the entrance to the cave, heaving herself over the ledge. Shin followed shortly afterward. Both of them sat in silence for a few minutes, their breath coming hard after the climb. He looked around, examining the walls and ceiling. The opening was small, but the interior expanded into a room large enough for five or six people to sit in comfortably. The walls were covered in an ancient cypher.

“How did you find this place?” His voice holding a small measure of awe.

Sh’ra closed her eyes, still working to slow her breath from the exertion. She decided to tell the truth.

“When I was nine, I got lost in these woods. Do you remember?”

Shin nodded. “Practically the whole city was out looking for you. You were gone for a week. Most thought you were dead.”
“I had pestered my father until he agreed to bring me along on his hunting trip. Our group entered the forest near nightfall, tracking a deer. Father made me promise to stay by his side, but the thrill of the hunt got to me. We spooked the deer, but I saw where it was heading. I ran in the opposite direction of the rest of the group to try to head it off. I thought if I went to the left, they would herd the deer right at me. But I got disoriented. I tried to retrace my steps, but I couldn’t find them. I sat down under a tree and waited, but it was getting cold and father was carrying the blankets in his pack. I thought I was going to die right there, that they would find me frozen stiff if they ever found me at all. That is when I saw her. She approached and beckoned for me to follow. I knew I couldn’t survive the night, so I went after her.”
“Who was she?”

Sh’ra shook her head, not ready to share her belief, not until he had heard the whole story.

“She lead me to the base of this wall. Then, at a gesture, it opened for her. That is the best I can describe it, like two great doors, sections of the stone swung out on invisible hinges. Inside, we passed through room after room until we reached a chamber in the back that was heated somehow. There was no fire, but the floor and walls were warm to the touch. The floor was covered in large fur blankets. Exhausted I laid down, pulling some of them over me and fell asleep.”

She braved a glance at Shin’s face, afraid of the skepticism she expected to be there. Instead, she saw openness, perhaps even belief. It was enough for her to keep going.

“When I woke up, I went looking for her. That’s when I found the lodestone. The room was just like elder I’ra described in her stories. At the far wall, the lodestone sat on a wooden pedestal. I realized what it was but there was no floor, no way to reach it. I tossed a stone into the chasm, but I never heard it hit the bottom. I went searching for something that would get me across, but the whole place was completely bare except for the blankets in the warm room. Finally, I returned to the room where I had slept. She was there again. I asked her how to reach the lodestone. She shook her head. ‘Not yet’, she replied. Then she pointed to the wall and a crack opened in it. ‘Go’, she said. ‘Your father searches for you.’ Not even considering disobedience, I crawled into the crack. It lead to the back of this cave. When I looked out, I saw my father riding past below.”

They sat in silence for a moment before Shin stood and went to the back of the cave.

“The entrance is still here Shi, but I don’t think I can fit through. I will wait for you here.”
“So… you believe me?”

She couldn’t stop the tears. She had carried that story alone since childhood. She had thought if she shared it, they would call her crazy. She feared they would throw her from the cliff as a blasphemer.  A child claiming she was saved in the forest by the goddess herself - it was unheard of. She had deserved to die because of her foolishness. And yet, instead of letting it happen, the goddess Lor’ah had intervened.

“I believe you. I didn’t before. I thought I could keep you safe by destroying the bow, that you would give up and return home to your father. Now, I see I was working against the goddess herself. I have so many questions, but we don’t have time for them right now. You need to go get that stone.”
“I… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I was afraid. I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”

In two steps, Shin was by her side again. He embraced her.

“I understand Sh’ra. I’m not sure I would have believed. And it was wise of your father to wait until the games to try to retrieve it. He never told anyone where he found you. That makes sense now.”

Sh’ra let him hold her for a little longer. Then she went to her pack and picked up the assassin's bow, undoing the ties that had held it in place for the climb. Placing one end on the ground, she pressed on the top enough to unloop the string. Without the string to provide tension the wood flexed back, almost straight. She took out a single arrow. Placing it against the bow, she wrapped them together with the string.

At the back of the cave, she examined the opening. It was smaller than she remembered, or maybe she was bigger. She let out a breath she had not realized she was holding. This was it. She was here. She looked back toward Shin.He sat at the opening, observing the forest below.

"Did you really climb the Sun Wall? To catch up with me?"

He gave her small smirk and shrugged, before turning his gaze back outside. She smiled to herself. He had outmaneuvered everyone, making a climb they had all thought was impossible, so he could reach the supply cache first. He would be safe here, she assured herself. She breathed in and out a few more times. Then she crawled into the gap.

Chapter 4
Sh’ra crawled, sometimes on hands and knees, sometimes flat on her stomach, always the stone pressed on every side. After the climb outside, it felt disconcerting to be so enclosed.
continue to Chapter 4