After riding upon your horse for nearly an hour you find already your body has grown weary, your joints are throbbing, your bones are rattled. This unforgiving countryside. Each hill comes to you like the crashing of a wave. The air is cool, clean and crisp, the sky cloudless, the sun radiant. After a few more hours of riding you dismount for the day. As you pat the animal softly on its shoulder, a sublime tightness suddenly takes hold along the small of your back, down to your thighs.
You have chosen a place at the outskirts of the wood. Quickly you set to building a small fire, as the darkness and cold begin to take, and soon the fire rages. You open your bag, take a few bites of bread and a small sip of water from a glass bottle. You struggle to make yourself comfortable. Your horse takes to the wood. You fall asleep fitfully on the bare earth, at the foot of the fire, before it returns for the night.
You wake in the morning, cold, stiff as dead, your horse standing obediently a few paces off. The wind has blown ashes over your clothes in the night, and you stand up slowly to brush yourself clean. You limp to the horse and pat its neck, running your fingers through its short, thick hair. Its skin is cold to the touch, but your hands can sense the warmth and vitality beneath. Such a strong baby, you whisper tenderly. You hug the horse’s neck, and suddenly the fierce warmth from within the creature spreads into your arms, down through the rest of your body. You smile. Such a strong baby, you whisper again…
There must be a community of some sort living in these parts. As I gather myself to ride for the day I hear their voices quietly echoing from the wood, words spoken softly, drifting further than they were intended. I cannot understand what the people are saying, but they sound calm enough, and far enough, for me to let my guard down. This is only the second day of my journey, but I am tired, and my body aches. I climb onto the horse, and we continue our journey south.
The pain starts in my inner thighs and quickly reaches up my spine. I have not recovered from yesterday’s ride. The horse knows it and stops to make sure I am okay. I tell it to keep going, that I will just have to push through. The pain will taper soon enough, and I hope that will be the worst of it. I gain some strength in the second hour, then lose it again around midday and slump forward in agony for the remainder of the day’s ride.
We stop around sunset, both of us exhausted. I step to dismount the horse, but my leg fails and I fall to the ground. I feel my shoulder dislocated. I cry into the grass and roll to my back. I am hungry and thirsty, but I can’t reach my bag from here, and I’m not getting up from this spot. The cool earth feels good against my broken body. The horse stands close to me, but I get the sense that it is unconcerned. I fall asleep studying its breath against the cold air.
I wake up cold. It is morning. The sun is beginning to rise but it is still quite dark. For a brief moment I feel nothing but numbness and relief. Then my body begins to shiver uncontrollably and the ice in my muscles begins to break apart, and once I am fully awake I know that I am dying. I can’t move. My horse is huffing over my chest, I can just make out its heavy breaths in the air. I feel utterly helpless, but also calm, like my fear has died already, or was never really there.
That is when you appear. At first you just stand there, a few paces off, watching me. But once our eyes meet you rush to my side, take me in your arms and tell me you are going to help me. I close my eyes against a rush of tears. You throw me onto my horse and tell me to hold on tight. I do not have the strength to tell you how weak I am, but you seem to understand. I feel the horse fussing beneath me, and I hear you talking it down softly. You lift my head to pour a liquid into my mouth. Then you lead us into the wood.
You are fully unconscious when we arrive at the shore, but your breathing is normal, and the elixir has taken effect. Now it is afternoon. I know you will survive the ride to the mainland, of other than that I cannot be sure. The barge is still where I left it in the summer, anchored to the shore. I climb onto the boat, then carefully guide your horse aboard. I pull you down from the horse and sit your stiff body on the floor of the bow, propped against a bench, facing the boat’s interior. The horse stands at the stern and looks down with ambivalence at its front hooves, then up to me. I jump out to push us off, then climb back aboard and take my seat. I grab my oar and begin to row.
Due to its strange tides, this stretch of water is innavigable to those unfamiliar with these parts, but I know the way through. Although it is only six miles of water, there is no straight path to the mainland from here, and what might take an hour to row in ideal conditions, here will take four hours at best. Night will fall before we reach the opposite shore, and from there we must journey many miles inland. It is the only place I can take you, and I am afraid we will get there too late. But I row as swiftly as I can.
There is an hour along this ride during which one can see land in neither direction and the waves are strong, and that is when you wake up briefly, as the water begins to rock us to and fro. At first it is just your arm moving, then your eyes open, and you moan softly in pain. You look at me, then the horse, then down at the boat. Your eyes begin to widen. You try to look around at the water but you cannot turn your neck. You try to shift your position a few times but the pain is too great. You close your eyes and fall back to sleep. Behind me, the horse is completely quiet.
Now it is dark. As we near the mainland I spot several small fires on the coast, likely men trawling for fish migrating south this time of year. Only the men would venture so far at night… My pace stays steady forward, and, although their presence on the coast is concerning, I do not panic. I knew the risks of taking you here. It is too late to change course, anyhow… the tide is taking us in. The men here will do us no personal harm, but they are a liability nonetheless. I would prefer not to be seen here at all, by any soul…
We hit land a quarter of a mile from the nearest fire. A man is walking our direction, though still a way off. Cursing, I haul your limp body to shore, lay you on the sand, then go back to help the horse. The moment its four hooves touch ground the animal begins to run away, but I yell to it under my breath until it returns. Working quickly, I heave you on its back. I want to get us off the beach before we are seen. The men will take the boat for themselves, and I likely won’t find another, and I will be stuck on this land for some time…
I grab the horse’s reins and lead us inland. The earth here is flat and barren, dirt, grass and rock stretching for miles. After walking east for an hour I feel we are fine to stop briefly. I check your breathing and your heart, and feed you more elixir. Though you’ve already had one dose, and a second will not be so effective, it is all I have. I could make you a poultice myself, but your condition is far too critical; I cannot save you myself, especially not out here… It is imperative for you to reach Minnai, if you are to live.
We are still twelve miles away. Up ahead I can see the mountain outlined in the starry sky. We will be there by sunrise if we go now and do not stop. My hopes have diminished over the course of the day as I, too, have become weak. The air is growing cold, and it is beginning to snow… I lead the horse onward, and I pray… mostly that you don’t wake up. If you wake up the pain will take you, and we will have to stop. I would rather you died peacefully, unawares…
The landscape turns to large, forested hills. They would make easy enough walking, but the snow is coming down harder now and beginning to pile up around my footsteps. I am filled with dread, afraid you are going to die. In fact, I haven’t checked on your condition in hours— you could have died already. I could not bear Minnai a fresh corpse… But again and again I am forced to clear my thoughts, none of which are reason enough to stop, even for a moment, even just to check on you. We must get there as soon as possible.
Then, as if I’d willed it out of the earth myself, I am tripped up by some gnarled root hidden beneath the snow, and I fall to my knees. The horse, so silent up to this point, finally releases a whinny of reproval as it comes to a halt. I stand up quickly. Ignoring the horse, I come to check your condition. You are alive. We keep moving.
Then, through trees, branches, and heavy snow falling, I see the lights of Minnai and, though we are still some distance away, I know you will live.
I awaken in a small, wattle and daub hut. There is no pain, only a slight ache in my back. My bottom half is clothed in soft skins, and my chest is bare. There is an impressive wood stove in the corner of the room calmly raging, keeping me warm, and a glass of water at the bedside table. Just as I have begun to retrace my steps, moments after opening my eyes, you appear in the doorway, as if you’d been monitoring me somehow. You move your hands along the door’s frame and smile.
“I knew you would wake up around this time.”
I sit up in the bed. It takes me a moment to form words. “This is… Minnai?”
“Yes.” You walk into the room, sit down at the foot of my bed and stare into my eyes.
I lay back and look torward the ceiling. “I have only heard of Minnai in legend, and I never knew it to be true… But somehow I knew this was Minnai the moment I awoke, before I could even recall how I came to be here… there is some power surging through this place…” I sit up. “How long have I slept?”
You are looking at the floor now. “Three weeks.”
“I was dying. How did you find me?”
“I followed you from Farisheld.”
“I never saw your horse.”
“I need no horse… I move quickly through the trees. You rode the fields south, around the wood… I knew where you were going.”
“Minnai is said to be a place of death. But here I am, and not yet dead— aye, I need no reassurance of that. I can feel it in my bones, this place has brought me to life!… Yet, I am wary of being here. There is much talk of Minnai, in Farisheld…”
“There is no need for you to worry.” You stand up, walk to the door, and turn around. “When you feel ready, please join us outside. I will come back within the hour, to check on you… unless you find me first.” We look each other in the eyes, and you smile. Then you turn away and disappear from the hut.
I wish you had stayed longer and told me more of this place. I stand up from the bed, expecting some difficulty, but my body feels fine, and I stand right up. There is a grey tunic laid neatly on the dirt floor by the fire. I wrap the warm fur over my shoulders and take a sip of water, the most pure I have ever tasted. I sit down on the bed and consider going outside. The hut is small and empty, and I feel curious. After finishing my glass of water I stand up and exit the hut.
Outside is a small clearing in the middle of a wooded area. It is midday, and the weather is fair. Looming high above the trees, standing in my direct line of sight as I exit the hut, is a large mountain covered in trees. We are at the very base of the mountain; in fact, I can see the land slope upward not thirty paces from where I stand, into the trees… Seeing to the top, I have craned my neck so high the mountain seems to be hanging over my head. Part of me wants to move immediately toward it, but I look back down, and away…
There is another hut to my left, made from the same material as mine, but larger, taller. It is plain, but there is an energy about it; I know this is where they worked upon me. There is no one around, so I move towards the building. The door is open, and I can see that it is dark inside, empty, but as I cross under the frame of the door there is a scene illuminated before me: I am lying on a table in the center of the room, covered head to toe in moss. I look pale, lifeless. Large candles line the walls. It smells of fire and dirt. There are two people circling the table, moving their hands over different points of my body, repeating phrases in low tones in a language I do not recognize. But I recognize their voices— perhaps I heard them when I lay there, when they performed this procedure on me, some weeks ago… As I step further into the room it becomes dark again, save for a bit of sunlight coming through the doorway behind me. The table is empty, the voices are gone, and the room smells only of stale air. As my eyes adjust to the darkness I move to the wall and grab for one of the candles. I grip it in the palm of my hand like a staff. It is cold, dry.
I leave the building. It is only these two structures in the small clearing, and there is still no sign of anyone, so I begin walking toward the mountain. I am barefoot, but the earth is soft. As I enter the wood I hear the sound of a stream and move toward it, but my ears are playing some trick on me— the stream does not become any louder. I hurry forward, listening intently, then indeed, after a mile or so the stream has slowly become louder, and I know I am closer. Even then, it takes me some ten minutes to finally see water splitting through the trees, so loudly I cannot hear my own footsteps, and I see you there, standing barefoot on the opposite side of the stream in a shawl, looking down at the water. But there is only chance for a single breath before you look up at me, like you could sense my eyes upon you. You smile and wave me over.
Feeling clumsy in your gaze, breathing heavily, I stumble over the pebbles at the edge of the stream. I stop before the water and look up, into your eyes.
You look up, and around. The stream is still aggressively loud, but I hear your strong voice clearly say, “This is a wonderful place, is it not?”
Still I try to catch my breath. “But where is it? Where are we?”
“We are on Minnai. It is the mountain.”
I realize now, looking around, we are some way up the slope. “Why did you bring me here?”
“To save your life.”
“Why were you following me?”
You remain calm, but your face hardens. “Because you were dying,” you respond gravely. “I didn’t think it such a questionable thing to do, given the circumstances…” You look away. “And I was part-expecting to be met with gratitude…”
I am taken aback by your sudden candidness. “Well, of course,” I stammer, “I am entirely beholden to you. In fact, I know not how I could repay you, even…”
Quickly and with little effort you cross the stream, gently grab me by the shoulders and look me in the eyes. The sound of the stream seems to fade away. “You owe me nothing. You are safe here. No one here will do you any harm.” You let go of my shoulders and begin walking downstream.
I struggle to match your pace. “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but you have to understand— I am completely in the dark, here! Do you not wish to tell me more of yourself, of this place?”
You continue walking. “It is perfectly bright out. Anyhow, my only concern is for your health. If you follow me downstream you will meet more of our people. I’m sure many of your questions will be answered, and in a manner more thorough than what we might accomplish on our way there.”
“You seem to me plenty verbose,” I respond heartily, “but very well, then, take me to your people.”
“It’s not much further…” Your voice trails off, and again the noise of the stream fills my ears. But as we hike the stream sinks into the earth, fades into shadow, then disappears completely underground, so that I am no longer able to hear it, and now the only sound is our footsteps…
You are taking strange, sudden turns, as if following the course of the stream below. But you say nothing. We carefully weave through a dense thicket of trees, then up ahead there is a clearing where the earth falls away suddenly, and you stop at edge of it and look across, waiting for me to catch up. You take my hand and guide me to stand next to you. Your hand is soft and warm.
It is a magnificent cliffside, a straight drop. The stream is pouring out of the earth some way below us, spraying a thick mist over the air, shrouding whatever earth lies at the bottom. Rising from the mist in every direction are colossal tree trunks that extend up and above us, so that we remain, uncannily, beneath a vast canopy. The air is suddenly warm and humid. I am breathing uneasily, exhausted, frail from my weeks of recovery. You point to a ladder, so plainly hidden I would not have seen it on my own. “This ladder will not break, but be sure to focus on your steps. It is a long way down, and I know you are tired.” I want to stay here for a moment, but you let go of my hand and begin climbing down.
I begin my descent; the ladder is finely built, sturdy, but the wood is wet and slippery. A few rungs down I look through my legs to spot you below, but you have already disappeared into the mist. Then I, too, am surrounded by mist, losing track of my steps… I hear the water falling from above and down past me. The sound is deafening and rages from every which way, yet when you call up to me from below it is again as if all that noise has faded away, so that I can hear clearly what you are saying, that I am not far from the bottom… Now the water is raining down on me hard, forcing me down… and just as I am about to lose my grip on the ladder, your arms appear through the torrent and wrap around my waist. You are much stronger than I thought— in one fluid motion, still holding me by the midsection, you spin around, take a few large steps and plant my feet firmly on the ground just outside the fall, in effect presenting me quite abruptly to a large group of people, all wearing the same shawl, all facing me, now watching me…
“Why— on earth!” I cry, exasperated. I turn around to you and point up at the waterfall. “Was there no other way to get down here?” I am gasping for breath, angry. Angry to be soaking wet, angry to be so disheveled before this mass of strangers, angry that you haven’t better prepared me for this… And then, feeling the pressure of the crowd on my back I become nervous, and ashamed. I feel my cheeks blush. You are soaked as well, looking at me with that same smile, something akin to pity in your eyes, unphased by my concern. And now I feel tired. I have no idea what you are thinking or feeling. I turn back around. One of the older members of the group has moved forward, and says to me, “Welcome, stranger. This is a sacred place; you may come and go as you please. I can send you on your way this instant, if that is what you wish… As for the waterfall— tonight is an eclipse, and the moon is full, thus the rivers and oceans are risen high, and the stream flows generously. Tomorrow morning this downpour will be nothing more than a calm drizzle… The water flowing from it, too, is sacred… You are fortunate to be caught in such a storm. In fact, we stand before you now not only to welcome your arrival, but also to soak in this great fall ourselves…” I look up, and, indeed, there is a heavy mist falling over us, so dense I cannot see the tops of the giant trees. “Now, of course, Isthmy hasn’t made you aware of these things in your time together, so any frustration you feel now is completely understandable. My name is Geoia, and these,” Geoia gestures to the people behind him, “are the people of Minnai. Now, if you wish to know more, you must follow us to our dining area, for we are ready to eat. You are more than welcome to join us, if you wish. If not, as I’ve stated, arrangements can be made for your departure.”
I am again struck by the way your voices can be heard so clearly over the deafening sound of the waterfall. Geoia turns around and begins walking down a path with the rest of the group into the wooded area. From behind you put your hand on my shoulder, and I begin to cry, but I quickly brush the tears away. I look at my feet and realize I’m standing up to my ankles in water. The waterfall flows into a stream, which disappears alongside the walking path into the trees. I move out of the water and follow the group. You walk a few paces behind me, and I can feel your eyes against my back. I approach the first of the giant trees and marvel at its size. I have difficulty balancing as I look to the top. The sky is mostly obstructed by the dense canopy, but I can see the sun is beginning to set. The sound of the waterfall fades away. The stream flowing away from it makes no noise. The group ahead lights several torches which cast their glow upon the underbelly of the immense canopy, as if we were in a vast cave. You quicken your pace to walk alongside me.
We walk silently for a while, then night falls slowly through the thick branches. The night is eerily quiet; I have yet to hear a creature stir, or a bird call… The group is quite far ahead of us now, their distant torches the only lights guiding our way.
You ask, “May I hold your hand again?”
I keep my eyes forward. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening.”
“That is no help,” I respond quickly, but as I say the words aloud I hear your true meaning, and I grab for your hand in the darkness. Your hand is warm, and holding it calms me. Further on, you whisper something under your breath.
“What was that?” I ask, caught off guard— usually able to hear you so well.
“I’m not supposed to tell you.”
“They cooked your horse. It’s what we are eating tonight. I’m sorry.” Your voice is stiff, uncomfortable.
My body jolts, as if something is shifting inside me, but I remain composed. “Why weren’t you supposed to tell me?”
“Because you never would have come to know it on your own.”
I think for a moment. “I admit, I hadn’t considered the horse in the wake of this, until you mentioned it now… It wasn’t mine… It nearly killed me… But I still don’t understand. Why are you telling me this?”
“It is the right thing to do.”
“Would you still have me eat the horse tonight?”
You think for a moment. “Yes. That would be best. But you need only take a few bites.”
My shrunken stomach turns at the thought. “Agh. I feel sick… I believe I would have liked some manner of say in mare’s fate, despite my contentious history with it…”
“I can understand… Again, I’m sorry. But meat is scarce here, and Minnai is no fit for the life of a horse…”
Now my anger begins to surface. “Yet you’ve kept it here for weeks while I slept, stuffing it with fatty sustenances of every sort I presume, only to kill it the day I awoke! Why not simply let it free? Surely you folk are capable of hunting for your meat?” You say nothing, and I throw your hand away from mine and stop in my tracks. “I assume you pushed the horse down the waterfall just this morning, then,” I yell madly, tears streaming down my face, “is that how you got it down here? Is that how you killed it, then? No! No, I’m sure there is a perfectly ordinary pathway in and out of this place— the demented plunge into the reservoir is proffered to only the weakest of your guests! Bah! I am had enough of Minnai!”
You say nothing. I sob uncontrollably. I think to run away from you, from the torchlight, from these enormous trees… but even the thought makes me intensely frightened; I remain at your side, and after some time you pull me softly by the shoulder, and we continue walking.
The group ahead has stopped at what from a distance appears to be a large clearing. As we draw nearer I see they have gathered around a grid of small, round tables. They have lit more torches around the perimeter of the dining area. I hear their voices. I look at you, your face now bathed in torchlight. You seem calm. But in your eyes — and maybe it is merely the torchlight toying with my vision — I see fear, too, maybe sorrow, and for the first time to me you are familiar, something human, I am suddenly aware that you, like me, are powerless in the face of this strange night, this ritual…
There are several dozen tables each topped with a single large plate of food and two glasses of water. The group has split into pairs, each of which stands beside a table, waiting for us to arrive. You take my hand and lead me to the nearest table, the only one left unoccupied. “We share the one plate,” you tell me softly. You motion me into my chair, and sit down across from me. Then the rest of the group sits and, without announcement, begins to eat. I take a sip of water. “That is from the stream,” you tell me.
There is horse, egg, and a variety of nuts, berries, and seeds on the plate. You take a small bite of horse and chew thoroughly. I reluctantly tear off a piece of steaming meat and bite into it. The taste is rich, satisfying, and immediately energizes me. Emulating you, I chew and chew the bite until it is nothing more than a fine mush in my mouth, and swallow. “At least it is cooked well,” I say. You look at me and chew a handful of seeds. It is intensely quiet. I look around at the other tables. Everyone is chewing, chewing, chewing, entirely focused on their meal. I look back to the plate. I take one of the seeds and turn it over in the palm of my hand. I haven’t seen this sort before. I bite into it; it is softer than I imagined. I chew, chew, swallow, and drink more water.
We go on for what feels like hours until finally we have eaten everything on our plate. The food sits comfortably in my stomach. Someone stands up at the opposite end of the dining square; I recognize them as Geoia, the one who spoke at the waterfall. “Thank you, everyone, for being here… Now—” he is dim in the torchlight, but I can see him looking at me, into my eyes, “would you like to say anything?”
I feel my face turn crimson. I stand up from my chair and wave to the crowd. “Thank you for the food. I feel much better now.” Everyone is smiling at me, as if expecting me to continue, but I have nothing more to say. I vaguely wave my thanks to the group and sit back down.
“What shall we call you?” asks Geoia. I start to rise from my chair again, but he motions for me to remain seated.
“My name is Corrie.”
“Very well,” says Geoia. “Isthmy, if you would show Corrie into the trees…”
“Certainly,” you say, but before the words leave your mouth the group has risen from their chairs, dispersed in every which direction and disappeared up the thick tree trunks surrounding us, as if being pulled away by some invisible line… and now it is just you and me amongst the empty, torchlit tables and chairs.
“It is simple,” you say, ignoring my expression. “Follow me.” Compared to the ease with which I have just witnessed your people move, like they were nothing more than smoke gliding effortlessly up and into the night, to stand up and shuffle to one of the massive trees feels sluggish, heavy.
“Can you do that—” I stammer, “what they—?”
“Yes. And you can, too.” You put your hand on the trunk and motion for me to do the same.
I touch my hand to the rugged bark. You put your hand on my back between my shoulder blades, and suddenly I feel very loose, like my whole body might fold into your hand, and I realize you are holding me from falling backward, for I have become weightless… You pull me forward, and I fall into your arms. You pull me close to you, and in your warm embrace I begin to cry… I have never felt a love like this before. I am exhausted, confused, stranger to a foreign land, but none of that matters anymore. I raise my face to yours, moving to kiss your lips… You put your fingers gently to my mouth to stop me. “That will not be necessary,” you say. Then you begin scaling up the tree like the others, and I am behind you, rising away from the soft glow of torchlight, into the darkness above…