I woke with the sun the following morning, my eyes locking on the skeletal finger in front of me. I stared at the pile for several minutes, the worn bones almost pulling at my vision, demanding me to acknowledge their message. I reached out and paused, swallowing hard at the thought of the strange powers awake in the forest at night and wondering if one of them was trying to lead me astray.
Finally, I shook my head, breaking the trance and letting out a shuddering breath. I tugged an old, worn leather pouch from my belt and swept the bones into it, moving the few pennies I had into my neck pouch. I’d do what I’d been planning on doing from the start. Head to high ground and see if anything looked familiar, or at least promising. I’d worry about the strange collection of bones only if I had to.
I shrugged my cloak into place and picked up the heavy saber, climbing stiffly to the point of the ridge. The day was brightening quickly and the forest spread out below and around me, expansive and seemingly endless. I scanned the view in every direction, seeing only one thing that gave me hope. Far across the forest was a large bluff, the tallest I could see. It was a long walk, seven or eight leagues without food or water, but with luck it was the high bluff marking one side of Haftan’s pass. I hefted the heavy saber in my arms and blinked, realizing with a start the bluff was the same direction the bones had been pointing.
I slid slowly off the ridge, moving toward the bluff, keeping an eye on my goal through the gaps in the leaves. I walked at a relaxed pace, trying to conserve energy and watching the forest around me, looking for anything that might be edible. I gave up fairly quickly. The ground through the forest was largely bare. The great trees blocked too much of the light to let the smaller plants bloom into respectable underbrush.
Near mid-afternoon I stumbled to a stop at the base of the bluff, shaking from hunger and exertion and aching with the need for water. Slumping against a tree, my legs gave out and I slid to the ground to rest. I lay still for several minutes, barely conscious as my mind became slowly aware of a hard rock in my side. My whine and protests fell through the empty air. I shifted sideways, but it kept moving with me. I grunted and twisted further, sneering in disgust as I realized it was the pouch on my belt.
The bag opened as I yanked it free. “I made it to your damned mountain.” I spat.
My arms trembled and I coughed, my sweat coated fingers dropping the bag and spilling the bones across the ground. I cursed and grabbed the pouch from the ground, stopping suddenly and staring at the forest floor. The bones had fallen into a long straight line, pointing along the base of the bluff. I blinked and pushed myself up with a grunt, stumbling forward slowly, picking up each scattered bone and slipping them back into the pouch.
I picked up the final bone and paused, straining my senses, praying it wasn’t a trap and taking a few more hesitant steps forward, ready to run at the first hint of trouble. The steady breeze died for a moment, the waving trees growing silent long enough for me to hear the musical splashing notes of gentle water trickling. I lunged through the trees, stumbling to my knees on the far side of a bush, skidding to a stop a few feet away from a small spring. The water broke quickly from a crack below the rock face, coursing casually down to a small, muddy pool. I dove headlong onto the grass, plunging my face into the water and drinking deeply.
I wiped my face and saw blood. My face must’ve been covered since they’d broken my nose. I splashed water on my face and scrubbed, every movement bringing more blood. My hands were covered and the small pool ran dirty red. The momentary relief I’d found at the spring crumbled under the weight of the living nightmare I was trapped in. My arms fell limp and I heard myself sob as I let go.
I was ravenously hungry when I woke, my stomach aching in its emptiness. I splashed water on my face and scrubbed hard, making certain the blood was gone before filling my belly with all the water I could drink. It was bracing cold and burned my throat as it went down but I’d never been happier for a drink. The water calmed my stomach and I began slowly searching the surrounding trees and bushes, looking for nuts or berries, but the closest I came were the bare branches of a small bush, picked clean by the local wildlife.
I scowled and shook my head, fighting off the urge to cry as I started climbing the tall bluff. I worked my way up and around the face of the hill, following game trails and stopping often to search for food or any sign of the beaten road leading into Haftan’s pass.
One of the trails led me past another set of bare bushes and I stopped, searching the surrounding area and walking directly into a ripe blackberry bush. I fell to my knees, ravenous beyond measure, my hands ripping the berries from their perch. I ate until my stomach no longer ached and more, giggling aloud at the taste and filling the pockets of my dress until they were bulging. I picked through the berries for nearly an hour, laughing randomly at my good fortune before rising again and heading uphill.
It was a long climb without civilized trails. I followed game trails where they appeared, constantly moving upward and across the face of the hill. Near mid-day I stumbled out of a stand of trees onto a stolen point overlooking the overgrown cut of the road leading into Haftan’s pass. I hit my knees, relief washing over me. Whatever else was happening, I at least knew where I was. I shook my head, smiling. The pockets of my dress were empty and I was starving again, but I stood easily, working my way off the ridge and up the worn road into the pass as quickly and quietly as I could.