The Lost Path 3
In Centre Valley, there are four villages and the furthest from South Wall is North Wall which takes less than a day to journey to. Because of this, we know everyone and our families are close. So when I see five people I do not recognise, I am in awe. The silent sea of faces around me stare as the five new people to Centre Valley stand before us.
The first thing I notice is their tallness, for being named Brook after the tallest tree in Centre Valley makes me immediately sensitive with heights. They are even taller than me which makes them tower above the average woman within the valley. They are roughly the height of Rek and have that same muscular build.
The second thing that I notice is how they dress. They each wear a hardened leather hide that covers their chest and a dark green cloak billows out behind them. Their faces are darker than ours as if kissed by blazing ball many times over and their black eyes look casually around at the gathered villagers of South Wall.
It is the third thing I notice about them that sends a chill through me. Each carries a spear, the silver tip glinting dangerously as they point up to Outer Maze. We only carry a weapon when on the hunt in the forest and there is no Broar or Feydeer by South Wall. There is just us.
Malek makes a move towards them. “There is nothing for you here, Weylings!” she snaps. “Back to the Maze where you belong.”
There is a moment of pure tension and I grab Rek’s hand, unable to take my eyes from the strangers. When Malek called them out to be Weylings, people cowered away from them, but not me. I do not believe they are the Weylings, creatures of Myth that eat those who wander into the Maze beyond Crossing Path.
Then the silence is broken by laughter that rings loud and light through Centre Valley. The laughing stranger steps away from the other four and approaches Malek.
“Do you speak for all here?” His voice is strange, and I struggle to understand their corrupted speech.
Malek’s blind eyes stare through the stranger. “We are the truth of Centre Valley, keeper of tradition.”
The stranger looks at Malek and the three younger witches dressed in their black robes, their hoods throwing their faces into shadow. “Then know this truth, old woman: this land is claimed by the Droth Draili.” He looks around at us, then his eyes focus on me and I hold my breath. His dark features, black eyes and strength sends a shiver through me and I slowly let my breath flow, pulling my hand free from Rek. The stranger’s face breaks into a smile and approaches me.
“You have a name?” he asks, ignoring the protests of Malek.
I straighten up and look him direct in the eye, though I am unable to keep my eyes locked with his for long and my face flushes red. I quickly look down and study the grass at my feet. “I think we would all be more interested to know your name,” I say, looking up again once I have drawn courage from within.
The stranger looks back to his comrades and shrugs, then looks to me again. “I am Droth Karn.”
My voice has left me and my mouth hangs open. Arin steps to my side. “Her name is Book after the tallest tree.” His face is flushed red with anger, yet I can sense fear in his voice. With pride, he adds, “She is also my cousin.”
Droth Karn ignores Arin. “Book of the tall tree, I shall walk with you alone.”
Suddenly I realise there is a gap surrounding me and I stand in the centre of the crowd in my own valley. My head feels light and I want to run and hide in the forest. But the time for hiding is over. Yet all I want to do is lay down and go to sleep, to go back to dreaming. “It’s actually Brook,” I correct. “Just Brook.”
“Then show me around your land,” Droth Karn says with a glint in his black eyes. Malek protests, but the four Droth Draili move in front to block her. They stand as silent guards, their faces stone. Droth Karn holds out his hand towards me and smiles warmly.
Rek pulls me back. “You don’t have to go anywhere.”
Droth Karn’s hand remains outstretched. “I mean this woman no harm; I wish to learn, that is all.”
I tell Rek that I can look after myself. Turning from Droth Karn, I walk through the crowd towards South Wall village. Droth Karn follows me, driving his spear into the ground leaving him unarmed. I keep walking until we are far enough away from the crowd who stand back in fear. “Do not think you scare me, Droth Karn.”
Droth Karn laughs softly. “Then why does your voice tremble when you speak?”
I blush. “Your ears deceive you. But do not pretend you come here peacefully, for you make a claim to our land and it is not freely given.”
We walk slowly, moving towards the lake. The day is turning hot and I enjoy the coolness of the grass on my bare feet. Droth Karn appears not to be bothered by the heat, even wearing the heavy clothing. I try to read his expression, but I see that he is guarded. Except for the occasional look that I have seen in men’s eyes before. When a man wants to bump I can tell, and though our people might be different, he was the same in that area. Again, I feel a hot flush and I clench my fists tightly to gain control of myself.
“I have made no threat of war,” he says, strolling ahead of me. He stands at the edge of the lake, his hands behind his back. “I have no army with me.” The light from blazing ball dances upon the calm surface of the lake and we both stare, hypnotised by the water.
I stand back from him. “Where do you come from?”
Droth Karn turns to me. “We live in a valley a months trek from here through the maze. It is a dry place, not as lush and green as your land. There is a great desert that stretches out for days. It is a harsh land, but it has carved our people strong, pushed us out to explore the great maze.” Droth Karn’s eyes glaze over and he looks across the lake and into the distance towards North Wall. “That is what has brought me to you.”
There are so many questions I have, but my mind is unable to think clearly. From the grief of my father’s death to the arrival of the Droth Draili has been too much and I sit down at the edge of the lake, splashing cool water on my face. I am aware that Droth Karn is watching me, sizing me up. He crouches down next to me and scoops up a handful of water. He drinks, his eyes closing with what appears pleasure.
“Do the witches lead you?” he asks, his eyes softly closed as he enjoys a breeze that blows in from the lake.
I shake my head, looking at the water droplets fall from his mouth after moistening his lips. I lick my own lips and wonder what it would be like to have them press against his. “No one leads us,” I quickly answer. The witches keep the traditions of our ancestors alive.”
Confusion crosses Droth Karn’s face and he looks up at me. “How can you not be led?”
I shrug. “Where is there to be led to?”
“You have never left this valley?”
“We thought there was nothing else beyond the maze.” A thought strikes me. “Are you the lost tribe? The ones who never made the centre?”
Droth Karn stands. “Our land is the centre of the maze,” he declares. “You are the tribe who became lost and now we have found you. That is why we have right to own your land.”
Jumping to my feet, I turn on him. “You will never own us.”
Droth Karn’s face darkens, the humour leaving him. In place is a strong hunter, proud and unrelenting like a storm. “We already own you, Book. We have an army of thousands that can march in on your lands and take whatever we want by force. But why shed blood when it can be avoided? I am a general, a leader of men and I will wager that I have seen more battles than any man here.”
Fear grips me and I take steps away from this stranger in our land. “Then why bother with talk?”
Droth Karn looks me up and down hungrily. “Because I find you desirable and I would have you.”
Flustered, I back further away. I try and think of a clever response as I would normally be quick to, but nothing comes. “Have you ever been told you cannot have everything you desire?”
Droth Karn looks at me with those black eyes and I can feel his gaze penetrating me, seeking out my inner most secrets. “Yes,” he says, colder than the lake. “But I always get it.”