The Lost Path 7
At first light I head for the forest, carrying the most secret thing in all of Centre Valley: a way out. It is kept in a wooden box with a carving of Wayfinder and his arrow. Wayfinder is one of our greatest tales in Centre Valley, the first hero who led us to the centre. It is said that with his bow aimed high, he shot an arrow into the air and declared it was the way. It was said that he scribed the paths as he led the lost adventurers through the vast maze.
I try to imagine what it must have been like, to be lost out there within the great maze, unable to find the way back. As I head deeper into the forest, I am unable to fathom the vastness of Maze. There have been times when I have become lost in the forest depths. Maze was thousands of times bigger. The whole of Centre Valley was just a tiny speck within the great expanse. Then there are those who believe that Maze has grown, that the Architect has built more walls.
When I come to the clearing where I had met Rek those long days ago, I sit in the shade of a Brook tree in the long grass. Hymming birds flutter through the air above and I close my eyes to listen to their song. For a moment, I think they are singing the tune for Forest Flower, but it is just my imagination. The time with Karn flashes in my mind and I shy away from it, my stomach clenching. Instead, I draw my attention to the small box within my hands and my fingers trace the fine carving of Wayfinder. The carving seems heroic in the way he stands tall, pulling back on his bow and about to shoot the famous arrow.
After a few deep breaths, I open the box. Inside is a scroll of yellowed paper. Carefully, I take it out and unfold it, laying it down on the grass. My eyes follow intricate lines that etch across the brittle paper. They fill the entire page and I am disappointed at seeing no meaning within it.
As I am about to fold the paper away, I suddenly see a larger circular area the lines lead to. Peering closer, I see what appears to be a tiny drawing of trees within the circle and a symbol of water in the centre. With new wonder, I realise I am staring at Centre Valley. My eyes follow the lines coming from this area and I recognise Crossing Path just down from Opening Way. Suddenly, I am in Outer Maze, staring down at Maze below and seeing the Lost Path!
The paths continue across the paper, splitting in and joining others. Some lead away but end suddenly as though the drawer had no idea what lay further in that direction. Scanning through, I find the paths that lead to more circular areas, some twice the size of Centre Valley. In one area there is nothing but the symbols for what I guess to be water. So engrossed with the map and the idea that there are more valleys, I do not notice a Broar until it is on top of me, snarling menacingly.
We lock eyes and the Broar makes a wide pass around me, tusks glistening in the sun. Putting the map safely back into the box, I tuck it in to my dress and slowly get to my feet, backing away from the Broar. My back bumps up against the Brook tree and I feel for a foothold, something to help me climb up to safety. There is no way out and the Broar appears to have worked out that I am an easy target. It crouches down, about to pounce at me. Panic floods through me and I turn and run as fast as I can through the trees. Behind me I can hear the Broar bounding through the undergrowth after me. My foot catches on something and I fall flat to the ground, waiting for the inevitable.
The Broar gives a startled yelp and is silent. Turning over, I sit up and dare to look behind. Karn stands over the Broar, a spear driven through the back of it. He looks up at me and gives a smile. Shamefully, I feel so happy to see him. There are no words that come to me as I see this cloaked figure looming over me, regarding me with those dark eyes.
“It is not safe for you, this deep in the forest,” Karn says, his smile dropping as he pulls his spear free from the dead Broar.
“I have been coming here since I was a young ‘un,” I say, getting to my feet and brushing myself down. “Broars don’t normally attack like that.”
Karn shrugs, kneels and gathers up the dead Broar in his arms, slinging it over his shoulder. “Was it not a Broar that killed your father?”
That really angers me, for I know he has been asking around after me. “That is not your business,” I simply say, turning away from him and heading back through the forest. “Anyway, I told you to leave me alone.” It is difficult to hide my trembling body, so I make large strides to put distance between us. Do I tremble at coming close to death? I wonder. Or is it something more?
Karn chases after me and is soon walking at my side, the Broar still over his shoulder. The Broar’s eyes stare lifeless me at me and I look quickly away. “Had I not been here hunting, then you would have been dead,” Karn says. “Besides, I wasn’t actually looking for you.”
My pace slows and I turn to Karn, frustrated by his words. Somehow, I feel like it is I who is being rejected. “So what have you been doing these last few days? Apart from making enquiries about me.”
Karn looks at me for a long moment, his dark eyes staring into mine. “We have been making preparations for our return to Droth Draili. It is a long journey through the maze, so we will require supplies.” He nods to the Broar.
“Well, then, you’ll be gone and that will be it.”
Karn sighs. “I have missed you, Brook. There has not been a night where I haven’t thought about you. When I see a figure down by the lake at night, I imagine it is you. It is all I can do to stop myself going down there and making a fool of myself.”
If only he knew that figure was me, I think. But I couldn’t be taken in by his kind words. “So you will return in force to take our valley?”
“There will be a small number of Droth Draili; I do not expect there to be resistance from our occupation, from what I have seen of your valley. In fact, it will be more an integration of our people.”
I snort. “Whether we like it or not?”
“We will bring back metal tools that can harvest this fertile land and feed thousands. Our bloodlines shall mix and bring a new generation that will one day conquer all of Maze. You should embrace this and look to the future, for one day we shall lead us all out of here again.”
Shaking my head, I remind him that our land is free. “My people will not welcome this.”
“Then that is unfortunate.” Karn turns as three Droth Draili appear. He holds his hand out to them, and they back away slightly. He turns to me. “We leave today in the later afternoon.” He stares at me, leaning in closer. In my ear, he whispers, “Come with me. It will break my heart to leave you here.”
For just a moment, I consider what it would be like for me as Karn’s partner: Droth Brook. It is hard to imagine the dry land that Karn describes, but I picture a strong race that destroys anything in their path. How would they see me, just a girl from a land where we cower in our little valley, too afraid to wander beyond and explore the maze as they have done? They would see me and my people weak. There would be no peaceful integration between us, I realise: our people are too different, and will have no choice but to be dominated by the Droth Draili and their ways. Our witches have kept traditions of our people through every generation; what will happen to those when these strangers come in force?
“No,” I whisper, but inside I yearn for Karn. I take a long, lingering look at his handsome features before I turn away and leave. “Goodbye, Karn,” I say, holding back tears. This time, Karn does not follow. With my heart heavy, I return to South Wall village where I ignore the suspicious looks and the snippets of gossip about me as I pass. When I get to my little hut, I go straight to my room where I shut myself away from the world, ignoring mother.
For sometime I lay on my bed, contemplating Wayfinder’s map. What exactly was Malek expecting me to do with it? Sitting up, I look at the box containing the legendary map and I wonder if it is real. Could it just be a test that Malek has set for me? Getting the map out again, I follow the lines of Maze. If the map is real, then there are so many valleys. What if we could find another, far from Centre Valley and the advancing Droth Draili? It could be years before they find us again and by then perhaps we could have had enough time to prepare better. It must be difficult moving an entire army across the maze, I figure, being that at most times only two can walk abreast. And to feed that army would be a difficult task as I do not imagine food is easily available out there. But armed with a map of hidden valleys...
But Wayfinder is legend; the map was likely a fake. There was, of course, a way to find out how accurate it is: I could follow the lost path to the next valley. If it turned out the map was accurate, then I could return and bring as many people as I could back. Perhaps we could even go beyond the maze. Right at the bottom of the page, the paths ended. I wondered how long it would take to make such a crossing, and if the maze had really grown vaster than what it is now.
It was time to prepare, I think. Supplies would be needed for the journey, plenty of meat and as much water as could be carried. There was no way I can do this on my own, I will need help. But I do not want everyone to know what I plan just yet. What I needed was someone I could trust.
Then I am running from my house, through the meadow towards North Wall village to find Rek.