The Mihtea roared past them, strengthened by all the waters of the mountain’s summit melted by summer sun. It was some hundred feet from bank to bank in this particular place, and it flowed with a swift current.
“Can either of you swim?” asked Jorund. Both his companions shook their heads. “Couple of land-legs,” he muttered. “We’ll need to find somewhere to ford it. Either of you, find me a long stick.” While they did as bid, he began removing his pack and some of his clothes until he was shirtless. Kate returned with the desired object, giving him a long, twisted branch. With an approving grunt, Jorund accepted the stick and began testing the river bottom.
He stuck the branch down, prodding the ground underneath the water while moving along the bank. Finally, he took a step into the river, planting one boot on the bottom, followed by the other. Using the branch to measure the depth ahead of him, he took a few more steps. “It’s getting deeper,” he remarked, turning back. “And the current is swift.” He walked back on land, shaking his feet. “Let’s move upstream. I can see a bend up there.” He pointed in the aforementioned direction. “The current will be slower.” He picked up his pack and clothes, starting to walk. Deferring to his wisdom, Kate and Egil fell into place behind him.
It took them half an hour to reach the bend. The river was wider, but as Jorund predicted, it flowed with less force. Putting down his pack, he set to work again, stabbing his branch into the river bottom.
“You’re sure we have to cross?” Kate asked Egil while staring at the water.
“Two different books mentioned it. I’m sure.”
“Very well.” The look on her face gainsaid her acceptance.
“There may be a way here,” Jorund shouted over his shoulder. He kept his cautious crawl forward for a good while until he was half across the river; the waters reached to his chest. Satisfied, he returned to his companions. “Let’s give it a try. Let me have my pack,” he told Egil, extending a hand. The boy picked it up with some difficulty, using both hands, and Jorund grabbed it from him, slinging it onto his back. “You both stay here,” the Dwarf told them upon seeing Kate stepping towards the bank. “I’ll go across first. If it’s fine, I’ll come back and bring each of you across, one at a time.”
“That’s going to take ages,” Egil complained.
“You have a lot of opinions on crossing rivers for someone who can’t swim,” Jorund remarked dryly, and the boy shut up.
“We trust your decision,” Kate said pointedly. Meanwhile, Jorund turned around and walked back into the river.
He walked with careful steps as before, even the first part that he had already traversed. In the middle, his pace slowed further; he spent a good while examining the ground with his branch, stomping it down as hard as he could through the water. Only when he was fully satisfied did he take the next, tentative step, starting the process anew.
At length, he reached the other bank and could throw his pack onto dry land. Taking a deep breath, Jorund turned around and began the crossing again. With the slowest of steps, he made his way back towards Kate and an impatient looking Egil.
Stepping onto the bank next to the others, Jorund looked at them. “Which one first?”
“Let me,” Kate said. “It won’t hurt Egil to wait a moment longer.”
“Listen both of you,” Jorund told them with a sharp voice. “You grab hold of my shoulders, you hold on fast no matter what, and take each step as I take them. Understood?”
“Yes,” they both replied.
“Good. Kate, let’s go. Tread where I tread.” Jorund descended into the river once more, making room for Kate to fall into place behind him. Once she was in the water as well, she placed her hands on his bare shoulders; thanks to his short stature, she did not have to raise her hands much.
They began their cautious crossing; for each step, Jorund planted his stick into the ground, lending him support against the swift current. They reached the deepest part of the river; the water rose to Kate’s neck. “You in good order?” Jorund asked loudly over the sound of the rushing waters.
“All well,” Kate shouted back, squeezing his shoulders. As he continued on, she raised her chin and followed. Eventually, the ground inclined upwards, the water fell, and the current became less fierce; gasping for breath, Kate could step onto the bank. Jorund did not waste time but turned back, making the crossing once more.
“Ready?” the Dwarf asked. Despite the heavy exertion, he did not seem weary nor cold from having walked through the river several times.
“Been ready for a while,” Egil replied.
“Hold onto my shoulders,” Jorund instructed him.
“I got it. I saw you cross with Kate.”
“Very well. Let’s go.” Jorund turned around yet again, stomping his twisted walking staff into the ground. Behind him, Egil entered the river. A violent shiver went through the boy as the cold waters surrounded and soaked him to his waist.
“Let’s hurry,” Egil urged.
“Not a chance,” Jorund dismissed him.
“It’s freezing cold,” the young scribe complained. In his eagerness, he slapped his foot into Jorund’s leg, having moved too soon.
“It’s summer, lad, you’ll live! Now eyes down, step when I step, and not before!”
Egil grumbled at the admonition but did not reply. They continued the crossing, and the water slowly rose up their bodies. The boy’s hands shook with cold as he held onto Jorund’s shoulders, and his teeth chattered.
“Everything well?” asked Jorund.
“Fine,” Egil said, just as he hit his foot against Jorund once again. Thrown off balance, the Dwarf struggled to gain a foothold, as did Egil; the former succeeded, the latter did not. With a yell, Egil’s hands were torn from Jorund, and the current swept him to the side.
The boy flailed his arms to little effect; the coursing river pulled him along with ease. On the bank, Kate screamed and ran downstream. Jorund, born on the islands of Thusund, dove into the waters. Rather than pursue Egil, he swam directly south towards the bend in the river. This let him reach the bank, climb up, and race across the terrain to the other side of the bend, and without hesitation, he jumped in.
Egil had also made the bend, courtesy of the current. His body was dragged over several rocks that rose from the river bottom, twisting him around and forcing his head under water. He tried to kick his legs, but his wet robe clung heavy to him, hindering movement. Water entered his mouth, and his attempts to spit it out only invited more. His arms ceased their flailing; his body became limp. On the bank, Kate screamed, but her words drowned in the thunder coming from the waterfall several miles south.
With a powerful motion, a hand shot through the water and seized the boy by the collar. Moving like an eel, Jorund had caught up with him and now dragged his head up in the air. With a slap to the face, he roused Egil, and the boy immediately began waving his arms and kicking his legs. Another slap left him with shock on his face, and his frantic motions stopped. With one arm safely around the boy, Jorund kicked his legs to push them both towards the bank. Moments later, he flung Egil onto dry land, climbing after him.
The boy coughed repeatedly, spewing out gulps of water. Reaching them, Kate bent down to slap him on the back. Jorund wiped the water from his face and beard, blinking. “Got all your arms and legs, boy?”
Egil attempted to reply, but only water issued from his mouth. “He’s hurt,” Kate replied on his behalf, pointing at his legs. The robe was torn in a few places, revealing gashes underneath.
“I’m fine,” Egil finally managed to gasp. “It doesn’t hurt. Much, anyway.”
Jorund got up and moved north-east along the river, while Kate slapped Egil on the shoulder. “You bloody fool!”
“Ow! Don’t you think I’m hurting enough?”
“You deserve worse! You could have drowned!”
“I know that! Why does that make you mad?” Egil rubbed his shoulder.
“Because it’s your own damn fault! You couldn’t be patient for half an hour and make the crossing safely,” Kate seethed. “You risked both your lives!”
“I lost my footing,” Egil defended himself. “It’s water, it’s slippery. It could have happened to any of us.”
“But it happened to you because you can’t wait to pursue this fool’s errand. As if an extra hour or two would make any difference.”
“It’s not a fool’s errand,” Egil mumbled. “Besides, I didn’t slip because I was impatient.”
“Is that so?” Kate all but sneered at him.
“I’m afraid of water.”
“You’re – what? You’ve never said anything like that before.” Kate looked at him with accusation in her eyes.
“It’s hardly something to brag about, is it?” Egil retorted. “I don’t like water. For good reason, I might add! To Hel with this river.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I wasn’t impatient to continue our journey,” he muttered. “I just wanted this crossing over with.”
Jorund returned with his pack, dropping it to the floor. “Right, let’s take a look.” He bent down to examine Egil’s scratches and wounds, prodding them with a finger.
“Ow, again! Careful!”
“Well, it doesn’t feel broken. You don’t sound like you have a broken leg either,” Jorund remarked with a wry look. “Normally, I’d tear your ear off for not listening, but I imagine you’ve had enough of a fright to learn your lesson.”
“Definitely. Only cross rivers on a bridge,” Egil grumbled.
“We need to take care of that, though.” Jorund pointed at the boy’s superficial injuries. “Limp over to the water and stick your leg in. Get it cleaned. Kate, make sure he doesn’t fall back in.”
Egil attempted a vague objection, but Jorund had already turned around towards his pack. With Kate’s help, he hopped over to the bank. Suppressing the look of anxiety that overcame him, he extended his leg down into the water; he gasped at the cold sensation, while Kate knelt down to grab a tight hold of him.
“That should be fine,” Jorund said a short while after. “Up again, lad, and let me ply the physician’s trade.”
Egil did as commanded; turning away from the river, he saw what Jorund had dug out from his belongings. “You brought bandages?”
“Of course,” the Dwarf replied brusquely. “I’m not some landlocked boy whose never felt the spray of saltwater! I come prepared.” He opened a small jar, applying a salve to Egil’s gashes, and followed up with a tight bandage. “There! First time I had to do this, me and the lads were on the run after a skirmish gone bad outside the city of Surru. I dare say I’ve gotten better.”
“Thanks,” Egil mumbled. He got on his feet, cautiously putting weight on the hurt leg.
“You’ll have to mend your clothes yourself,” Jorund told him, packing his items away. “I’ll lend you needle and thread, but the work is yours. You both should get out of your wet clothes,” he told them, walking back towards the original crossing point where Kate’s bag remained.
The children followed him, one moving with more difficulty than the other. Once upstream, Egil removed his robe and sat down, rubbing his leg. “Don’t touch it,” Kate admonished him.
“It itches,” he mumbled.
“You knew all this time we’d have to cross a river like this,” she said, abruptly changing topic. “Why did you ever think this was a good idea?”
“I didn’t,” Egil said in defence. “But I also didn’t know what else to do. Master Quill is sick. I couldn’t get him out of prison, but I won’t fail him again.”
“But you did get him out,” Kate pointed out. “You got him released.”
“The prince did, not me.” Egil tugged on his robe as it lay on the ground, slowly drying in the sun. “He gave me a trade, a home. If all the knowledge in the library can’t help him, what use is it?”
“I don’t know about books, but nobody would ever deny the usefulness of a needle,” Jorund inserted, handing over said tool along with thread to Egil. “Mend your robe, boy, while you’re sitting down anyway.” The Dwarf pulled out his short sword and stabbed it into the soil. Loosening the dirt, he used his hands to dig a hole.
“What are you doing?” asked Kate.
“Making a mark that the crossing is here. We’ll need to go back the same way on the return journey.”
“Gods above,” Egil uttered.
“Less talking, more sewing. We’ve already wasted half a day at this blasted river.”
“We need some time for our clothes to dry,” Kate argued. “Besides, what are you so impatient for? You barely know Master Quill.”
Jorund mumbled something in reply.
“I’m not being paid by the day,” the Dwarf grumbled. “That miserly quartermaster would only pay the same coin, whether our little trip takes a week or a month.”
“At least you’re getting paid,” Kate told him.
“I hope so!” Jorund exclaimed. “The old bastard certainly wasn’t happy to promise me anything. Just because I got a hawk and not a star on my chest, he doesn’t feel I’m trustworthy!”
“He wanted Order soldiers to accompany us?” asked Egil, sending needle through cloth.
“Damn right he did. He didn’t think the Quill’s apprentice should be left in the hands of a mere mercenary,” Jorund explained, sneering the last words. “The prince had to write a letter to convince the old curmudgeon he ought to pay me! He still had the nerve to inform me that payment would only be issued if the Quill’s apprentice declared his satisfaction with my services.” The Dwarf spat into the ground.
“So,” Egil considered, “you’re saying that you won’t get paid until I’m satisfied? No matter how many days we spend up here, you have to stay if you want your coin?”
Jorund glanced away. “I just remembered why I didn’t tell you.”
Kate in turn sent the Dwarf a look. “Well done, Master Jorund. We’ll never get off this bloody mountain.”
Next to them, Egil finished mending his robe with a smile.
Eventually they continued their journey, following the vague directions given them by Wilhelm. Using the river to maintain their bearings, the travellers began traversing the landscape. Wyrmpeak itself was directly north; the area around them rose and fell, hindering their sight. They walked for hours in a particular direction, keeping their eyes open for any signs of caves or openings into the mountain; eventually, Jorund would set a course leading them back to the river. In this manner, they combed the area for days.
“How much food do we have left?” asked Kate on the morning of the third day after their crossing.
“We should have for three or four days,” Jorund replied. “If Egil can keep his appetite in check.”
“I’m of growing age,” the boy protested. “Can’t we look around for food?”
Jorund demonstratively let his gaze sweep over the rocky terrain. “Be my guest, lad.”
“I don’t know what to look for,” Egil admitted meekly. “But there must be something.”
“There’s only this sorry excuse for grass.” The Dwarf kicked the brown stubbles on the ground. “There’s goats and birds, but we got no weapons for hunting. You could look for eggs, I suppose, if you fancy climbing the peak while fighting off the eagles as you plunder their nests.”
Egil looked up at the imposing summit in front of them. “Fine. We can go back to Wilhelm and Hilda. They’ll not begrudge us a few days’ provisions.”
“Perhaps not, but their life is harsh enough as it is. We shouldn’t impose,” Jorund declared.
“You just want to get back to Middanhal and your payment,” Egil retorted.
“We have to cross the river to go back to Wilhelm and Hilda for more food, only to cross it yet again to return here and continue,” Kate pointed out. “Do you really want to keep doing that?”
“Let’s just keep our eyes open,” Egil mumbled. “Maybe smaller birds have nests here too.”
Jorund slapped the boy’s back. “That’s what I like about you, lad. You always hope for the best, not caring how foolish it is.” He slung his pack onto his back. “Let’s be off.”
They set out, following the same pattern as before. They walked nearly half a day northwards, following the terrain and exploring any hopeful possibilities of caverns hiding nearby. During the afternoon, Jorund led them east and finally south, finishing their search of the area. As darkness fell, they reached the Mihtea and made camp, drinking greedily from its waters. With few words exchanged, they ate their meagre provisions and sought rest.
“We got food for another two days of searching,” Jorund declared as they woke the next morning. “These caves we’re looking for, I don’t think they’re close by. We’d have seen them. We need to widen our search.”
“What do you suggest?” Egil asked.
“Either we follow the river and search the way we have so far.” The Dwarf pointed in that direction. “Or we go further north or further west than we have the other days.” His finger flew around the air.
“Which way is best?” the boy continued.
“I can’t say, lad, this isn’t my expedition. Don’t your books say anything?”
“They only mention that Sigvard followed the Wayfarer, crossing the river. But I don’t know if it means he went that way until he reached the Mihtea, or after.”
“The Wayfarer points in that direction,” Kate interjected. She gestured towards the peak of the mountain. “I noticed it last night.”
“The choice is yours, boy. You have two days left.”
Egil swallowed, staring north. With the sun rising in the east, any stars were gone by now, including the Wayfarer. Only the Wyrmpeak itself met his gaze, rising indomitably against the horizon. “We’ll go north.”
“North it is.” With the summit as their own wayfarer, they set out.
The entire day passed with little conversation, except to discuss the terrain. They strayed from their course to investigate rocks and cliffs on occasion, but never with any luck; the mountain stood sealed before them. When night arrived, so did rain, joining the harsh winds that blew at these heights. They ate their meagre supper while huddling together under a small, solitary tree.
“Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of water tomorrow,” Jorund told them. “We’ll need to find more before we return to the river.”
Egil held out his hand, catching raindrops. “I found some.”
Jorund snorted. “How’s your leg?”
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“Let’s put a new bandage on, just in case. Kate, hold my cloak over us to give some shelter.” She did as bid while Egil pulled his clothes away and Jorund rummaged around for a new bandage.
“Egil,” Kate said apprehensively, “you know we’ll have to turn back tomorrow, right?”
“We just don’t have more food.”
“Yes, I’m aware.”
“Very well. I just wanted to be sure we all agreed.”
“We’ll simply have to find the cave tomorrow,” Egil declared.
Jorund finished wrapping the cloth around the boy’s leg, throwing the used bandage away. “I can’t argue with that. Let’s sleep.”
They woke to find the drizzle of rain had either continued through the night or else begun anew. Regardless, the result was the same, and they chewed through bits of bread and meat while holding their cloaks up as shields against the rain.
“Right,” Jorund began to say. “I’ve been thinking about our rations. We can either spend the whole day going north, after which we’ll have to return in a straight line back to Wilhelm and Hilda, and even then it’ll be with starving bellies.”
“Or we spend half a day going north, make a turn, and explore some of the area west or east. By staying closer to the river and eating less, we might be able to stretch our food another day.”
“Eat less?” Kate winced. “I’m already starving from sunup to sundown!”
“Master Egil? You’re the helmsman on this trip.”
The youth looked from Dwarf to kitchen girl. “We’ll keep straight north. Follow the Wayfarer.”
Jorund nodded. “Very well. Let’s get going.”
The land sloped upwards in their chosen direction; the Wyrmpeak still loomed above them, casting long shadows westwards. It had never been climbed to the top according to the memories of Men; if any had tried, they had never returned. Far below the summit, the weary travellers continued.
The hours crawled by; the terrain remained the same. The only change from the last few days was an increase in exertion, as they walked more uphill.
Nightfall remained an hour away when they reached the top of a slope; the land moved down to form a small and shallow valley with Wyrmpeak itself on the other side. “I see water,” Kate exclaimed, pointing ahead. A brook rippled through at the bottom of the valley, working its way west.
“Good eye,” Jorund told her. “Let’s get some drink in our skins.”
They moved with renewed speed, walking downhill. Twilight appeared to surround them with each step they took down the valley; one by one, the stars blinked into sight above their heads. “There’s the Crown,” Kate explained, pointing at a constellation above them. “That was the first one Master Quill taught me to spot.”
“Are you sure? It doesn’t look like it,” Egil argued.
“That’s because one of its stars appears later than the rest,” Kate explained with a superior smile. “You can see one is missing. It’s not as bright as the others, so we won’t see it until it’s proper dark.”
“That won’t be long now,” Jorund muttered. “Hurry up, you two! Eyes on the ground, not the sky.” Realising that their stargazing made them fall behind, Kate and Egil hurried to catch up to Jorund.
Despite setting a quick pace, darkness arrived in the valley before they did. “How far are we from the brook?” asked Kate. “I’m so thirsty!”
“Impossible to tell,” Jorund grunted. “I can barely see ten paces ahead of me.”
“The land barely slopes,” Egil pointed out. “We have reached the bottom of the valley. The brook must be just ahead of us.”
“Sure, but how far ahead? Ten steps or a hundred?” Jorund stopped abruptly. “It’s getting foolhardy to continue. Before we know it, we’ll stumble headfirst into the water, and I can’t pull you land-legs ashore if I can’t see you.”
“It’ll be fine,” Egil claimed. “We’ll hear the stream before that happens. Let’s just keep going.”
“Jorund’s right,” Kate chimed in. “There’s no point in continuing. It’s too dark to see anything.”
“Just a little longer,” Egil urged. “The moon will provide light.”
They looked up at the clouded night sky. “We should make camp here,” Jorund declared. “We’ll find the brook tomorrow morning and fill our skins for the journey back.”
“We can’t go back yet,” Egil insisted. “We’re close to the actual Wyrmpeak. We should cross the brook tomorrow and search the northern side of the valley!”
“Unless you’re a goat that can eat brown grass, we’ve got to turn back,” Jorund reminded him. “We can’t go on.”
“We can! You won’t get paid unless I’m satisfied with your service!”
Jorund snorted. “If the other choice is starvation, I’ll forego the coin. Calm yourself, lad. You knew this would come.”
“You said I’m the helmsman! I set the course!”
“And I’m charged with seeing you both return home safely. I won’t have it on me that I let the Quill’s apprentice starve to death on the bloody Wyrmpeak a stone’s throw from Middanhal!” He raised his hand as he saw Egil about to object. “Enough! Make camp and rest. We have a long journey home.” Scowling, Egil turned his back towards them and made his bed for the night.
“I’m so thirsty,” Kate complained, unpacking her bedroll.
“You won’t feel it once you sleep,” Jorund told her, making his own preparations. “Tomorrow, we’ll fill our skins at the brook.”
“I guess. Good night.”
“Good night to both of you,” Jorund replied.
Egil did not.
The day was yet to break when Egil awoke; the clouds had gone from the sky, revealing half a moon shining down on his face. Rubbing his eyes, he reached for his water skin, turning it upside down only to find it empty. He pushed his cloak aside and stood up; nearby, he could hear Jorund snoring. With a glance upwards, he found the Wayfarer star, showing him north. Skin in hand, he walked in that direction with the occasional yawn. Soon, the tranquil sounds of water rippling through the valley reached his ears, and he continued until the pale moonlight illuminated a brook before him.
Bending down, he slaked his thirst before filling his skin. As he stood up, he saw Wyrmpeak staring back at him. Above, the Wayfarer shone as it had done for Sigvard nearly eleven hundred years ago.
Egil looked back; the darkness prevented him from seeing his companions. Hesitantly, he set one foot into the brook. He touched the bottom easily; it only reached to his ankle. He took another step. The stream was only about ten feet or so; with a few more paces, he reached the other side.
Once more, his eyes darted between the Wyrmpeak ahead and the darkness behind, where his companions still slept. Indecision was written on his face, and he sat down by the bank, taking a hefty sip of water from his skin. He craned his neck to observe the stars above him, eventually lying down on his back to watch them. No matter where his gaze sought, it always returned to the Wayfarer; it was the centre around which the other stars moved.
Hours later, he woke up abruptly; the sun shone on his face, as the moon had done earlier. His water skin fell to the ground; it had been lying on his stomach when he had fallen asleep. With a yawn, he stretched his shoulders and glanced upwards again. The Wayfarer was gone; only Wyrmpeak remained, illuminated by the rising sun. Egil stood up, looking at the imposing mountain; his eyes widened, and the skin fell from his hand. He turned around, running south across the stream.
“Where’s that boy run off to?” asked Jorund with a frown.
“His water is gone. He probably went to get some,” Kate considered, packing her bedroll away.
“It wouldn’t have hurt him to fill ours as well,” the Dwarf mumbled gruffly. “I hope he isn’t thinking of anything foolish,” he added as an afterthought. “I know he must be disappointed we’re turning back, but he can’t honestly have expected we’d find anything up here. I mean, finding one small cave on the biggest mountain in the world,” he laughed, “we’d need more luck than a eunuch among norns!”
“He probably thought he’d learned enough from the old books to retrace Sigvard’s steps.”
“I suppose.” The Dwarf shrugged.
“What’s a eunuch?”
Jorund cleared his throat. “Never you mind. Pack your things. I’ll go find the boy.”
That proved unnecessary as Egil came running towards them. “I found it!” he shouted; his wet robe clung to his ankles as he ran. “I found the cave!”
“The fates must be toying with me,” Jorund grumbled. “Where have you been, boy? Did you go wandering off alone?”
“Just to the stream,” Egil explained, closing the distance between them. “On the far side, you can see a cave leading into Wyrmpeak.”
“You didn’t go in, did you?” Jorund asked brusquely.
“Of course not,” the boy replied, sounding offended. “I came to get you as soon as I saw.”
“It might not be a real cave,” Kate pointed out. “Just a trick of the eyes.”
“Well.” The Dwarf took a deep breath and hefted his pack with one hand. “Only one way to find out.”
They followed Egil to the stream; words flowed from his mouth as swiftly as the water in the brook before them, explaining his find, whereas his companions were tight-lipped. “I don’t know how long I slept. When I woke – there!” the young scribe exclaimed, interrupting himself and pointing forward.
Jorund squinted. “I suppose that could be a cave, but it’s an hour away or more.”
“We have to investigate!” Egil pleaded.
“We will, but don’t complain when your bellies are empty on the march home.”
Kate made a wincing sound, but Egil was already trotting through the brook with Jorund following. With an expression of defeat, she did as well.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.