Ever since their local Weronti guide had stayed behind at the entrance to the canyon – the Mouth of Terror, as he called it – Bru, Niethi and Poeli had been following the river upstream on their own. They’d not been surprised when Galbon had refused to go further – after all they’d come to his world to explore the dreaded ‘Place of Fear’, and if possible disarm it of its terror.
This was a dry world, and in its hottest season the high-land rivers were the low-land people’s only reliable source of water, and yet they wouldn’t touch this one. They neither drank it, washed in it, gave it to their herds and flocks, nor irrigated their crops with it.
‘It’s the water of fear,’ they said. ‘We cannot use it,’ and more than that they wouldn’t, or couldn’t explain.
Fortunately the ban on the use of the water didn’t apply to the streams or tributary rivers which ran into it from either side.
‘They don’t come from the frozen place,’ Galbon explained. ‘Their water is safe, but it’s a long way to come for it, and it often fails in the dry season. But the water isn’t our real problem, we want to be free of our fear. If you can give us peace we will indeed praise the Great Powers.’
Poeli looked at the pale man, whose distress was clear to see in his washed-out grey eyes, and asked, ‘You say it comes from the frozen place, yet this is a hot world, surely there can’t be ice here.’
‘Frozen, yes, but not cold. Hard, solid – or at least so the stories say,’ Galbon replied reluctantly, running his fingers through his short ash-blonde hair in desperation. Even talking about it was upsetting him. ‘I cannot tell you more, it is long since anyone ventured into the Mouth of Terror. Too many who went in did not return, and those who did wandered in their wits and cried out in fear night after night until at last, worn out by horrors they couldn’t explain, they faded away and died. And now no one will go.’
He looked at them one by one with a troubled yet hopeful expression. ‘These Great Powers of which you speak, can they truly help us? It seems beyond my thought that anything could. . .’ he paused before continuing in a rush, ‘I do not want your lives on my heart. Are you sure, truly sure they can keep you safe?’
Bru laid a hand on his shoulder and gripped it firmly. ‘The Great Powers brought us here to help you, and they’ll give us the strength and wisdom to do it. Wait patiently at the meeting place, and we will return. Your trust and hope are important, so keep your spirits strong, and soon you’ll have cause to rejoice.’
So the three men had entered the canyon to follow the river to its source and discover the reason for the fear with which it was infected. That had been five days ago, and since then the travelling had been slow and difficult as the canyon walls had grown steadily taller and drawn ever closer and the scattered boulders had become more frequent, often blocking the way so that they had to climb over them. Soon it might become impossible to go further and not touch or step into the water.
And indeed this very morning they had come to a sharp twisting right hand bend in the canyon where it turned back on itself, and to their dismay the water swirled against the rock walls on either side.
‘I wonder if there used to be a way past this,’ Niethi murmured, shaking his head in puzzlement. ‘They wouldn’t have tried to wade through the water.’
‘Perhaps there were boulders which the spring storms have dislodged,’ Bru suggested. ‘But the question for us is how we’re going to get past. Should we obey their ban, or risk the water? It isn’t deep right under the cliff wall – I can see a natural shelf there – but if we want to go further we’re going to get wet.’
‘I don’t see any choice,’ Poeli said, ‘and this is where we’ve been led.’
‘Yes, it is, but can’t you feel a pull, an attraction?’ Niethi asked. ‘I feel as if something wonderful lies at the source of the river, and I must find it, no matter what the risks.’
The other two looked at him in surprise. ‘How strong is it?’ Bru demanded.
‘Oh, it’s nothing I can’t ignore, but it’s there, and perhaps it would draw the Weronti through the water whatever their fears.’
‘You may be right. But if it’s strong enough for you to feel, we must ask for help before we venture any further,’ and they turned back to the shingle beach where they’d spent the night, and taking each others’ hands they stood in silence while they opened their spirits to the Great Powers who had carried them to this world. Slowly a warm Light shone on them, and music surged through the canyon. When it fell silent and the Light faded they loosened their grip and with Bru leading the way, returned to the river’s edge and waded round the bend in the canyon.
To their surprise they found themselves in a narrow defile partly roofed by massive blocks of stone which had fallen from higher up the cliffs and jammed about five or six men’s height above their heads; and only a hundred paces further on was a second sharp corner like the first, only this turned left so the canyon was once more heading towards the centre of the high lands, and from beyond that corner a strange light shone into the defile.
When they’d negotiated the second bend they stepped up onto a wide shore covered in a blue-white sand, and into light of a very different kind from that of the Powers. Shading their eyes against its harshness they stared in astonishment at what lay before them.
The canyon’s impassable cliffs opened out into a vast circular valley, like a flat bottomed bowl, the centre of which held a shallow lake fed by one or two waterfalls which could be seen descending in silver ribbons from the plateau rim high above. The natural heat of this world was magnified here, and reflected up into their faces from the sand-like material on which they stood. Around the lake grew a forest which filled the rest of the valley floor, the branches of the outer trees pressing up against the cliff walls. But this forest wasn’t green, no breeze moved its leaves, indeed not even the strongest wind could bend them, because it was made entirely of a hard crystalline material which reflected the sunlight in a blaze of colours.
It ought to have been beautiful, but it wasn’t; the crystal trees had none of the delicacy which words might suggest, they were big and heavy and the colours had a wrongness about them which was disturbing. Then, as if he’d been struck Bru staggered back, almost falling into the water. Niethi, who’d been about to move past him towards the trees, stopped, caught his arm and steadied him.
‘I felt desperation and terror,’ Bru explained after spending a moment shielding his mind. As a Sensitive he could feel the emotions of those around him, but, ‘I’ve never Sensed anything like this before. I’ll double my guards.’
‘Poeli, can you feel it?’ Niethi asked.
‘Only as a vague anxiety. Perhaps it isn’t tuned to non-Sensitives. But I can hear music, and it isn’t pleasant.’ He pulled a face. ‘It keeps changing keys and tones in a way which is quite upsetting. If it’s meant to be attractive it’s failing badly. What about you?’
‘I don’t like the colours, the light is far too bright and I can’t hear the music, but I’m still attracted to something beyond the forest. I’ll be alright if I keep close to you. Perhaps you should block your ears Poeli if the music’s too awful. We can always use finger signs.’
While Poeli tore some wool from his blanket and stuffed it into his ears, Niethi turned to Bru, ‘Where do we go from here?’ he asked, finger signing his question for Poeli’s benefit.
‘There must be a path into the forest if Weronti have gone through it in the past,’ Bru said. ‘Let’s start a search at the nearer cliff. It’s got to be on this side of the river, you can’t get into the valley from the other side.’
It took them some time, but eventually they spotted a narrow gap between the crystal columns which wasn’t entirely blocked by branches. They might have to stoop a little but it should be possible to follow what appeared to be a trodden path in the fine blue-white grains which covered the floor of the bowl. Bru went in first and asked Poeli to bring up the rear, saying, ‘This way Niethi can’t go off on his own. We must tell each other if we sense anything as we go; and before you ask, I’m alright for the moment, the emotions aren’t too strong, but they’re difficult to deflect because of their strangeness. Like the colours and the music they feel all wrong, at any rate they’re unnatural to me.’
The path didn’t run straight, but wound left and right through the forest, so that there was never a clear view either ahead or behind, and it was especially tiring on their eyes which smarted from the harshness of the light. So after a couple of hours they rested and pulled food and water from their packs, and in particular the strengthening Everlasting Berries from the world of Draakoa. ‘We could ease our eyes for a while,’ Niethi said when they’d eaten. ‘Try putting your scarf over them,’ and, taking his from his pack, he demonstrated what he meant.
‘That is better,’ Poeli agreed. ‘I was beginning to get a headache,’ and he relaxed against the nearest crystal column. Half an hour later Bru said, ‘We should be moving on. We don’t want to be stuck in here when night falls.’ A second later he reached over and pulled out one of Poeli’s earplugs exclaiming, ‘Niethi’s gone!’
. . . . . . to be continued