I spent most of the next morning walking by myself. I had temporarily ditched that stupid horse Minerva and Riordan insisted I needed so bad. One of the wagons was overloaded to begin with when one of their draft horses got something they called a stone bruise on its foot. The team was having some problems hauling that load uphill as the trail was getting steeper. I told the merchants who owned the wagon that I didn't want to wear out my horse having it carry me up the side of the mountain anyway, so they might as well use it to help pull.
Normally Riordan would have been yapping at me about how I needed to have the horse close by in case either Minerva or we needed to make a speedy getaway, but I had temporarily gotten rid of Riordan, too. He had put out his bedroll the night before, climbed in, and fell asleep, all without saying a word to me, which suited me fine. But in the morning, he looked inclined to open his yap and start making shitty comments, so I waited until no one was looking and then bounced him off the side of a wagon once.
The guy checking the team had poked his head around to see what had made the traces jerk like that, but he had taken one look at me examining my fingernails and a second look at Riordan trying to stop his nose from bleeding as he got up off the ground, then decided smartly that there were more buckles and stuff to check on the horses. He disappeared. As soon as he could stand up without falling back down again, Riordan gave me a dirty look and did the same. Hadn't seen him since.
I was figuring on spending the entire day walking alone and reminding myself that I liked it that way when Minerva showed up. She had been letting her horse walk slower and slower, drifting back, until by late morning she was riding next to me.
I kept my eyes on the road ahead. I didn't need her sympathy any more than I needed Riordan's, and she didn't need some big ugly jerk drooling all over her. She didn't say much, though, except to point out an occasional weed or wildflower.
"Sapen," she pointed to a patch of red flowers. "Some call it mekon or khash-khash. The sages call it papaver. The oils can be pressed from it for cooking, but wizards and healers can use it to create powerful spells to cure disease, ease pain and open the inner eyes to realms of knowledge beyond what the eye can see. Sages without scruple can use it to create a substance that provides a false sense of tranquility and joy."
I frowned, thinking that sounded a little familiar. Because it was Minerva, I took a risk and voiced my guess. "Opium?"
She flashed me a quick smile and nodded. "Correct. But we used to eat the seeds sprinkled on cakes when I was a child." Her dark eyes clouded over again and she added almost to herself, "All knowledge and power can be turned to evil."
Suddenly I noticed the new, jittery brightness to her eyes, the tension in every line of her body. It hit me like a load of freight that maybe she wasn't hanging around because she thought I was the one who needed some company. I broke into a nervous sweat, wondering what to say. "Um... unh." Great. There's no better way to express concern and sympathy than with a non-committal grunt. I was so stupid.
She didn't even seem to hear me, though. She was busy watching the trail up ahead. Now and again, her eyes would dart to something on the sides, then away again just as fast. I found myself frowning, wondering what she saw. She was coming back home to the place she had grown up. The place where she had been -- how had she said it? -- been "tithed" to the temple of the demon king when she was fifteen years old. What kind of memories must this all be bringing back?
Riders drifted past us as our pace dawdled. The silence between us grew until I was aware of the faint sound of blood rushing in my ears. As we continued on, the drumming sound increased. I stuck a finger in my ear and wiggled, then decided it actually had to be something far off.
I broke the silence. "What is that?"
A driver of a nearby wagon cleared his sinuses with a snort and spat. "I don't smell nothin. Mighta been the horse."
I sealed my mouth in a sullen vow never to speak again and turned in exasperation to Minerva. At her questioning look, I said, "That sound. It's like a rushing, or a pounding. Can you hear it?"
Minerva seemed to be wrestle with something for a moment, then gave me a small smile. "No, but I know what it is. Follow me." On some cue that I could not see, her horse broke into a trot, leaving me to jog gamely behind. We moved ahead on the trail, passing wagons and riders. We drew some stares as we moved up the train, but no one asked our business, and twenty minutes found us well ahead of the caravan and as good as alone. Though there were still rocks jutting up on all sides of the winding road, I realized we had reached the summit. She kept her horse moving forward though, and I wondered where we were heading.
The thundering sound was growing steadily louder, becoming a roar that was making me a little nervous, but still Minerva led me forward. Finally, we reached a place where the trail emerged from between slabs of granite to allow a view down the other side.
"Welcome to the west," Minerva raised her voice to be heard above the rumbling, giving me a wry smile as my jaw dropped.
The thundering sound was water. Shooting out the side of the mountain in a torrent that could have held several sailing ships and plummeting down onto the rocks below, a huge rocky river that snarled its way down one or two more waterfalls until it settled down into a broad, sleek, satisfied thing that disappeared across the land and into the haze of distance.
Minerva dropped gracefully from her saddle and left her horse, stepping toward the edge of the rock that jutted out and provided our view. She knelt on the ground and beckoned me forward. As I joined her, she lay on her stomach and slid smoothly to the edge. When I hesitated she looked back over her shoulder at me, slightly amused.
If I was going to have any chance of flinging Minerva back to safety as the rock beneath her crumbled and gave way, I was going to have to be there beside her in the first place. I took one deep breath to steel myself and then got down on my stomach and dragged myself to the spot she indicated.
"This is the Third Cataract," she said, moving over so she didn't have to shout above the din of the falls. The air was alive with moisture and I could feel the rock underneath me trembling slightly. Or maybe that was just me reacting to Minerva's arm pressed against mine. "It is the birthplace of the Divine River, and the gateway to our lands." Her voice dropped to a whisper and I found myself leaning in to hear her. I caught the sweet scent of her hair and for a minute, I forgot about the sudden doom plummeting down just past my fingertips. "This was once the home to one of the old gods and a holy place. They say of all the gods, his temple is the only one to remain, for his worshippers did not come to it, but celebrated him along the banks of his river. He dwelt alone in the caves here, hidden somewhere."
Maybe I should have been drinking in the way the river shattered into mist and colors in the air, the way the rocks were alive with living things and flowers all the way down to the valley below, the way the river rolled out across the land as if over a green carpet stretched out for it over dead and burning sands, but all I could look at was the fever-bright glint in Minerva's black eyes as the words tumbled from her mouth. "I can see the priests of the old god, Osgun. They line the road and shout warning to travelers to turn back now before they enter the sway of the demon king. They scream of their murders, of the murders of the old gods, of the treachery of Noksheoth. They speak of their god to any who will listen." Her lips trembled as she stared out into the waters. "There is no one left to hear them but me."
I was at a total loss as to what to say, but she didn't seem to expect anything from me. "There, there on the rocks is an old man with a symbol about his neck, depicting the lotus and the papyrus. He is teaching the tenets of the old god, but there will never again be students to listen to him. 'He cannot be brought forth from his secret abodes,' the old priest says, 'the place wherein he is cannot be known. He is the waterer of the fields, the bringer of barley, the lord of fish. If his flood is low, breath fails, and all people are impoverished; the offerings to the gods are diminished, and millions of people perish. The whole land is in terror.'" Her eyes regained their focus and looked to me, sad and soft and a little scared.
Frowning, I tried to think about what things must be like for her. "You mean these kooky old guys been screamin at you all day?"
She bit her lip, trying to hold back a reluctant smile. "Since we left the plains. It is believed that their god makes his home in caverns deep within these mountains, and certainly the spirits of his servants feel free to roam beyond where a mortal eye can see the river."
"Isn't there anything anyone can do?"
She shook her head. "Noksheoth is a jealous god. He tolerates no competition. For all I know, the river god himself is just a ghost, ranting his anger over and over again somewhere beneath the cataracts. But perhaps I have been foolish, Osgun." With a worried look, she slid back from the edge of the precipice. "So close to the dwelling place of an Old One, surely Noksheoth would have agents."
"Agents?" I repeated stupidly, thinking about the guys back home who booked shows for bards. My old master had always said he was this close to needing one.
"It would not please the demon if a mortal were to find a temple of an elder god, or learn the proper rites of worship. He has worked too hard to erase them from the lands as best he can. There will be things out here watching, ensuring that no mortal survives to stumble upon that knowledge. Not," she admitted, rising to her feet, "so close to the road, perhaps. Travelers have little to fear, for commerce pleases Noksheoth. But neither should we tempt..."
She was cut off as something the size of a rowboat dropped out of the sky. I caught a flash of golden feathers and heard the tearing of cloth, then I had time for one last glimpse of Minerva's beautiful dark eyes, as wide and surprised as mine, as she and the rowboat disappeared, swooping up and out of sight behind the rocks of the mountain rising across the trail.
What else was I going to do? I was on my feet and pounding after them before my mouth even snapped shut.
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