The Lost Path 6
The next few days, I do my best to avoid the mysterious stranger to Centre Valley. What I cannot avoid is talk of him and whenever I am seen wandering the valley, I am hit with questions. While I dismiss these questions with a shrug, what I cannot dismiss as easily are my feelings for Karn. Each night I sit by the lake, looking up towards Opening Way where Karn keeps camp. There are times when I think about heading up there to share the warmth of his fire, but I resist. Instead, I hope he comes to the lake.
Of course, Karn never visits. Did I really expect he would after I had made my feelings clear to him? Now my harsh words fill me with regret. The days go on and I follow them with less lust. It is as though Karn has taken something from me. When I see Rek, there is no skip of my heart. There is just a man my own age who I have known since I was a young ‘un. When Rek speaks, I imagine it is Karn talking and I look guiltily away until Rek is fed up and leaves me to be miserable by myself. To Arin I am even less tolerant and I push all those close to me away.
As this day draws to a close and Blazing Ball has nearly crossed Outer Maze, I turn away from the lake and instead head towards the forest. My mother calls me home, but I ignore her and keep walking. In the cool shadows of the trees, I listen to the animals in the forest waken for the night as a wind blows through the trees and brings with it the earthy smell of the forest. Everyone knows it can be dangerous within the depths of the forest at night, but at least with danger I can feel something other than this emptiness.
“Who is there?” The creaky old voice is a whisper on the breeze. Spinning round, I see the old witch Malek coming from the forest. She is often found wandering the forest before the night falls on Centre Valley. No one asks what she does in there, but it has been a ritual for all her long years. One day, she will hurt herself, the blind old fool; perhaps, I think, she will cross the Broar that took my father’s life.
For a moment I think about sneaking away, but I sigh. “It is just Brook, Malek; sorry to startle you.”
Malek huffs. “I think it was me who startled you, child.” She stares at me with those old white eyes and I wonder how much she can see. “So your heart is wandering and you refuse to follow it?”
“What are you talking about?” My tone is ruder than I planned, but Malek is just a momentary distraction from my mourning of what could have been with Karn, of what I would tell my father if he was still alive. These moments are now lost to me, taken by the wind and scattered across the Maze.
Malek gives a sly smile. “My eyes are not what they were, but my ears are keen. I heard you in the forest, with that stranger a few days back.”
My face glows read and I am lost for words. Perhaps she just calls my bluff, I wonder; everyone has seen me walk with Karn. “We were just walking,” I lie. “He wanted to see around the valley.”
“And you showed him so much more. I do not judge you, Brook, I just observe and learn. Your actions are your own choices, do not let dwell on what has been or what will be.” She pauses, as if she reads my mind. “Or what might have been.”
“I have ruined everything,” I mumble, biting back tears by staring up into the wind that cools my face. The last of the light fades and I embrace the night.
“The Droth Draili are the footsteps of doom on our quiet valley,” Malek says, a tinge of sadness in her tone. “You can see this threat, can you not?”
Backed into a corner, I nod. “Karn speaks with soft words and twists his speech in clever ways; but they will come and take our valley by force. They greatly outnumber us.”
Malek takes my arm. “Walk me back to my hut,” she demands. We follow the tree line towards Malek’s lonely little hut at a slow pace. “There are those who will try and fight them,” she says.
“What choice is there?”
Malek ignores my question and we continue in silence. The darkness spreads across Centre Valley. There is the light of a fire dancing within Malek’s hut and smoke drifts up from the chimney into the twinkling lights of Outer Maze. White Ball is whole tonight and lights our path in silver. One of the younger witches will light Malek’s fire and bring food for her, respecting the eldest of them. One day it will be them in the position, so they serve her well and she teaches the lessons passed down through the generations: Centre is Life, remember where we came from. As we climb the steps up to the wooden porch, a young woman a little older than me comes to the door, dressed in the black robes of a witch.
“How is the evening finding you, Elder Malak?” she asks brightly, her eyes shifting suspiciously to me.
I cut her a look back, but before I can say anything, Malek waves her hand in dismissal. “Leave us be,” she mutters, pushing past the witch.
The witch bows slightly and hurries down the steps and into the night, giving me one final look of distain. When we enter Malek’s hut, I am hit by a wall of warmth. Pulling her robe around herself, Malek goes to sit in a chair by the fire where she huddles for warmth. It is a warm night outside, and I feel like I will pass out from all the heat in the tiny room. My eyes shift around in the gloom, at the disarray within the hut. Her possessions are few, but what ones she does have are carelessly thrown about in no order. My mother would hate such a mess.
“Sit, child,” Malek says, her eyes on the flickering flames. “Don’t be scared of me; I was the one who helped bring you into this world, so you have nothing to fear from me.”
I sat on the floor, for there were no other chairs; Malek is not one who welcomes visitors, so I guess this is an honour for me. As I sit on the dusty bare floorboards, I wonder what she wants of me. Instead of asking, I sit in silence and wait for her to tell me. I will not give the old woman an easy time. Why should I? Deep down I know that it will be the joining at the next tree dance she wishes to discuss. Rek has been to see her, I reckon, going behind my back.
“What did you learn from this Droth Draili apart from how to bump?”
Malek cuts me off with a hiss. “Do not argue with me! Tell me what you know of the Droth Draili.”
“It isn’t much,” I say, submissively. She listens intently as I tell of Droth Karn’s land that is a vast desert, far bigger than Centre Valley. Malek stares emotionless at the flames as I tell her that the Droth Draili are fighters, carved in a harsh environment. “He says they have an army of thousands, that he is a general and part of an advance scout group.”
“Did he say how far their land is away from Centre Valley?”
“He said a month away. But there is something else-”
Malek speaks over me, musing to the flames. “So we have at least two months before this Droth Draili general will return. Excellent!”
“Yes, but he also told me that we are not the Centre. We are the lost tribe who went their own way.”
Malek shakes her head. “The truth can never be known,” she admits. “Time brings all beginnings to myths and legends. Have you ever heard of the Lost Path?”
The fire crackles and spits, making me jump. The Lost Path was a story the Weavers told us, of how our Founders mapped out their route through the great maze. Father used to tell me about it when I was a young ‘un and it had fired my imagination. It was a glimmer of hope that one day we would find that map and leave for Outer Maze. “It was lost a long time ago, when the tribes had their disagreement. It was burnt in the fight.”
Malek nods. “We all know the legend of Wayfinder and the Lost Path. Most of the tale is made of guess, very little truth. But with all legends there are great truths. The story has changed over the course of two hundred years, added to by each generation of Weaver to make it sound more heroic. But there is always Wayfinder’s Lost Path.”
Intrigued, I lean closer. “Are you saying Wayfinder’s map is real?” Thoughts of Karn and Rek are far from my mind in this very instant. Never have I heard a witch talk so blasphemous about our history. We were always taught that in the legend of Wayfinder the map was destroyed, trapping us at the centre for all time; our entire society was founded upon it. “Why are you saying this now?”
Malek turns and faces me, though her eyes look through me. “We have learnt that we may not be the Centre of Great Maze with the arrival of the strangers. It is time to look beyond the stories and myths. Us witches, and the Weavers, have helped keep tradition and faith in our founders and shaped our world. It was going to unravel one day.”
Slamming her fist down on the arm of her chair, Malek snaps, “The Droth Draili will come, they will take Centre Valley! Now we must choose to flee or fight. But to make the choice, we must see there are choices.” She stands and hobbles across to the corner of her room, bends down and kneels at the foot of her bed where she fumbles with a loose floorboard.
I go to her, helping her pull the board up. Reaching in, she pulls out a long, narrow box, covered in dust. It bares a carved symbol of a figure with bow and arrow raised: Wayfinder‘s arrow that points to the Lost Path. She hands it to me. “I give this to you, for you have become the centre of events, albeit unwillingly. There has not been a leader to Wayfinder’s tribe since his death, and I choose you to be Wayfinder.”
I stare at the box. “What is this?”
Malek gives a half smile. “Wayfinder’s map of the Lost Path, handed down from elder witch to the next since the time of the Finding one thousand years ago.”
Taking the box, I say, “We have been in Centre Valley for only two hundred.”
Malek shakes her head. “The truth is closer to a thousand.”