Moonrise on Jupiter

A Glimpse into the Thoughts & Imaginings of Vibeke Hiatt

The Forgotten King – Chapter 5, Part 1

Confused and nervous, they watched as Ian grew smaller and smaller, ascending the hill he had descended not long before. “Do you think there may be more men on the other side of that hill?” Helen whispered.

Neil both shrugged and shook his head, his gaze fixed on the opposite end of the valley. “Were there men with him before?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. I thought I saw someone else, but it was only a shadow in the trees. Neil, I’m sorry for that.” Helen nodded her head towards the clearing, where rain was still falling heavily from the low-lying, dark clouds, blurring the scene before them. Neil laughed, looking a little less serious.

“What, the trap? It caught me, too, so there’s nothing to apologize for. You got us out of it, anyway, so if there really was something to apologize for, you’ve already made up for it.”

Helen smiled to herself at the compliment, but tried not to let Neil see her expression. “I meant I was sorry for saying the wrong things.”

Abruptly, the rain in the valley stopped, and the clouds split apart, drifting idly, exposing the rich blue of the sky. The sunlight came down warmly, just as it had done before. Aside from what they remembered and the moisture coating the valley below, it was almost as though nothing unusual had happened in the first place.

“You don’t need the sound of my voice to reassure you,” Neil said kindly—but not quite warmly—starting to walk further into the trees. “I’m not going to leave you if I can help it. And if anyone tries to take me away, I’ll make enough noise to keep you from wondering.”

Helen tried not to doubt his words. In her mind, it was hard not to admit that she was afraid his indifference to Zaric would make him choose to go with Ian, if another opportunity came. It troubled her that Neil didn’t seem to sense the danger like she did.

The forest floor was dry and packed, preventing them from leaving footprints and allowing them to move easily. It wouldn’t be too difficult for them to make progress before anyone tried to follow them. The dreaded sound of horses didn’t come, but Helen still focused her attention on the sounds around them, in anticipation. Soon, though, Neil began to slow down, and she looked up in surprise and confusion. Not far ahead of them, the trees ended and, a few yards beyond that, the wall of a cliff rose up. At the top of the cliff was another portion of the forest, which helped make the cliff invisible from the valley. Helen stepped forward, hoping, but not expecting, to see that it was only a large rock, and instead found that it stretched farther than she could see from north to south.

“Maybe we can climb a tree and jump to the top of the cliff,” Neil suggested.

“If you think the treetops will support our weight,” Helen said, “then I think that’s a great idea. Otherwise, I think we’ll just have to keep walking and hope to find a pass through this. We are trying to go north, so that may be the way we’re meant to go. This could just be a really big sign that this is the wrong way.”

“I just hope this isn’t giving someone a chance to catch up with us,” Neil said. “It makes me feel too vulnerable.” He fell in line with Helen as she started walking northward.

Helen put out her hand, running her fingertips along the face of the rock. It was smoother than she had anticipated, more like finished marble than weathered stone, with not many jagged edges. Neil stayed next to her, helping her to keep a steady pace. Yet he stopped at every tree that grew closer to the cliff than the rest, trying to find one they could climb to get to the top of the cliff. But, the lowest branches were all above their reach.

At least an hour had passed when Helen’s hand suddenly slid away from the cliff. She looked up to see a narrow pass in the rock and she stood still. “Here it is,” she said, beaming with the knowledge that she had been right.

The pass was cut so cleanly into the cliff, they couldn’t see it until they were standing directly in front of it. Ahead of them, it reached up too far to see the end, appearing to climb up into the sky. The floor of the pass rose up jaggedly, littered with tufts of grass and smoothly cut stones. Helen realized they must have once been carefully cut steps, but time and erosion had crumbled them until it was hard to see that they were man-made. The contrast of the smooth cliff and broken steps amazed Helen. She stepped onto the path without hesitation, but Neil put his hand on her arm to hold her back.

“We don’t have time to explore, Helen,” he said with pointed force. “Let’s keep moving.”

“I am moving. A staircase cut in the mountain must lead somewhere.”

“Does it lead to the right place? Are you sure it’s safe?” he asked.

“Are you sure it’s not?” she replied, freeing herself and continuing on. “A path of some kind is better than none, and it looks forgotten. Who else do you think will use it?”

Reluctantly, Neil followed, unable to argue against Helen’s logic.

They couldn’t tell how long the staircase was. It was only wide enough for them to walk side by side, with Neil staying a step behind Helen. Unlike the forest, there weren’t many trees to protect them from the heat of the sun. The sparse trees at the tops of the cliffs cast very small shadows on the path below, offering very little shelter. Helen wondered at first how they had managed to not see this seam in the mountain from the valley below, but Ian had been enough of a distraction to prevent them from noticing much. They stopped every few minutes to rest from the exertion of climbing the steep slope, leaning against the walls of rock and sipping sparing amounts of water from their pouches. The fruit they had taken from the manor was very refreshing, making them wish they had tried to fill their bags a little more.

“What if we don’t reach the top before the sun sets?” Neil asked during one of these breaks.

“We’ll keep walking,” Helen said, smiling reassuringly. “Hope for a moon tonight.”

“We still don’t know what might meet us at the top,” Neil retorted.

Exhaustion began to press on them much faster than they had ever suffered before.  Helen felt like the walls of the mountain were narrowing, but she only had to hold out her arms to know that this was only her imagination. The realization of this, though, only made it worse. If the pathway did narrow as they reached the top, and they found that this staircase led to nothing at all, they would have to climb back down with the knowledge that they had wasted all of that time. Her tired mind began to think that Neil could be right. It was absurd to think that someone would build a path that led nowhere, but she didn’t know this land, and it was very possible that the people who had once lived here had built the staircase as a trap. Her next fear was that, even if the staircase had been built for a particular reason that reason might no longer exist. So much of the land from Zaric’s reign had changed.

And the sun was getting hotter. Helen reached back and took Neil’s hand to steady herself.

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