Midmorning lit a clear sky above the floor of the canyon. A strange calm hung over the narrow band of sweeping fields and apple groves. The river padded calmly down the center of the gorge, mimicking its twists and turns for as far as it wandered. With all of this spread out before Dareth’s eyes, the low rumble of a tremor, buried deep in the earth, hardly made him take notice.
The young man huddled against the wind in his knee-length, leather jerkin and glanced up at the rim of the canyon. Even a small tremor could start rocks raining down on his head. The three cows he pushed along the seldom-used track skittered further away from the danger.
“Too close,” he thought to himself. “If mother knew I was using this track…”
It was much faster this way. The other trail lay further toward the center of the canyon, safely away from falling stones, but it meandered through fields of high grass, wandering around thickets and brambles. Dareth much preferred the faster route. It was not as dangerous as all that. No one had been injured up there for as long as he had been alive. That was not so strange, as he was the only one who traveled this path with any regularity and that only when he felt certain his mother wouldn’t find out.
Nothing significant fell from above. A fine dusting of sand and gravel cascaded down along the perimeter of the mighty wall. It landed harmlessly at the cliff’s base, adding to eons of earth piled up in a steep slope against the weathered rock. Most of the time that was all the tremors brought on, and yet the villagers stayed clear.
“Nothing to worry about.” He spoke the words to bolster his own confidence.
As he moved to push the cattle on their way, Dareth’s eye picked out a large wooden post that grew up out of the sandy slope about a hundred yards away. The wood was plain and cracked from weather and age. Dareth did not need to stand in front of it now to see the names scratched into its surface, the only decoration this memorial marker bore. He had looked upon it enough times. He had stood before it, tracing the symbols that signified his father’s name, only one of twenty three names scrawled over the wind-worn surface. Looking at that grim reminder of a past catastrophe, it was easy to see why no one frequented this pathway any longer. The rock slide that had killed Dareth’s father and so many others took place before his birth. He knew little of the accident or of his father. His mother always grew silent on the subject whenever he broached it, and it was never brought up by anyone else. The other villagers seemed content leaving such things in the past.
Another low rumble echoed from far off and from deep down. This time a fist sized stone accompanied the rain of dust. It thunked into the sand and rolled down to rest a few feet from Dareth’s leather moccasin. This time the young man heeded the warning. Waving his staff, he drove the beasts off of the path. They trampled the shrubs at the trails edge and waded off into the grass that littered the hillside. The stiff breeze that blew constantly through the canyon whipped Dareth’s dark hair back from his face. He was thin, perhaps even frail looking, though one would never think it seeing the boundless energy that poured from his wiry limbs. Perhaps he was smaller than others of seventeen years, but his spirit made up for such deficiencies.
“We’ll just have to move faster going this way,” he said to the cattle as if they had voiced argument over their new path.
His eyes wandered again to the canyon’s rim but his face displayed more awe than fear. He often used the path’s convenience as an excuse. In truth the place drew him simply by the sheer power of its presence, by the mystery of what lay above, beyond those endless, impassable cliff walls. Yes, tremors happened all the time and stones fell all the time too, but as long as one were careful…
A cow bellowed as another tremor set the landscape in motion. This time Dareth felt it deep in his groin. Genuine alarm touched his face. The shift and rattle of rocks echoed down from above, though nothing fell but another thick haze of dust.
“Haya.” Dareth waved the cows in the direction of the river. It twisted and gurgled nearly a mile off but he only needed to get far enough inland to avoid being crushed. It would take several more minutes to reach the new cattle route, even if the beasts decided to cooperate. At least that path was sure to be in the clear. The last thing Dareth wanted to do was to prove his mother right by going and getting himself killed.
He saw the break in the high grasses that signified the trail. At that same moment, a voice echoed off the rocks from behind him. He looked back in confusion. Who could be coming from that direction? No one ever came that way. He had tried many times to convince Kadnee to accompany him on his secret travels but she always renewed her promise to go the next time whenever he asked her. Besides, this voice lacked Kadnee’s sweet lilt. This voice held authority. This voice held ire. It was Daesha’s angry call that reverberated like one of those tremors over the canyon floor.
“Mother?” Dareth craned his neck and then saw her marching into the wind, her simple, tan dress plastered against her form.
“I’m sorry,” he called. “I was just heading away…”
“I’ve told you so many times, Dareth!” Her voice covered the distance easily.
Dareth turned back to head in her direction but she waved him off.
“You just stay put. I’m coming. You’re not a man yet, Dareth, not by the rules of the village. And as long as you’re not then you’ll still do what I say.”
He sighed and dropped his head, mostly to hide a grin. This was not a new litany, and it was about as far as she ever really went toward scolding him. It wasn’t much, but among the docile people of the village, it gave his beautiful mother a reputation of being fiery. No surprise to anyone that Dareth had turned out the way he did, reckless, inquisitive.
He suppressed another smile. He had no time to worry about what the others thought of him. Kadnee thought well enough of him at least. Still, he marveled that no one shared his curiosity. How could they stare up at the vast, blue ceiling that stretched from wall to wall and not wonder what lay beyond. The problem was that they never did stare up. Their eyes were always firmly aimed at the ground and that made no sense. The birds went beyond the canyon walls all the time. He saw them. So there must be something out there, but he alone seemed to care much about it.
As Daesha approached, Dareth expected to hear a small torrent of words to accompany those he had already endured. But all words and thoughts ceased in an instant when the next shake hit the canyon floor. No far off tremor this time, but instead a full-throated roar.
“No,” Dareth began to cry out. But before the word could leave his lips, a powerful force smacked him to the ground. Tremors happened often, but shakes, never, not like this.
A shudder that began in the earth raced through Dareth’s body. A grinding from beneath the surface mixed with the discordant crunch of stone hitting stone high above. He managed to get to his knees and peer through a growing veil of dust. It was difficult to pierce the haze but finally he glimpsed his mother a short distance away, rising from where she had fallen. Daesha raced away from the danger at her back. Her eyes bulged in terror but she kept them locked on her son.
Before he realized it, Dareth was on his feet, racing toward her. He didn’t think about what he could do to help if he reached her. The earth pitched back and forth and sent him staggering along until the groaning from below erupted like a clap of thunder.
The ground before Daesha tore in half. The part where she stood bucked and sent her sprawling. She tumbled and screamed, landing in a heap only inches from the four foot wide rent that opened up in the grassy earth. Dust and rock sprayed into the air, while a thick, reddish haze belched up out of the crack. The shake knocked Dareth into the grass again. He sprawled on his face, still more than thirty feet away from where his mother now lay. He tried to rise twice without success as the bucking ground refused to let him go.
Then, almost as suddenly as it had begun, the shake ended. The earth quieted its rumbling, leaving only the cracking sound of falling rocks, then even that subsided into the sliding rattle of pebbles.
Dareth regained his feet and staggered toward the ugly sinkhole that now marred the waving grassland. His mother lay motionless at its brink on the other side. The opening stretched for at least a hundred yards and Dareth picked his way carefully along its length looking for somewhere to cross over it. Steam rose from the churned soil that filled the bottom of the gap. He was hesitant to traverse it, but soon found a place where he could leap across without trouble.
“Mother,” Dareth cried, rushing to her when he reached the other side.
He knelt down next to her still form. She lay on her side with one arm hanging out over the edge of the crack. Dareth turned her toward him and brushed her tangled, black hair out of her face. He stared into the hole. It was not deep, but it was filled with the debris that had so recently been the surface of the field. Had it been any closer, Daesha would be buried at the bottom.
“Mother?” Dareth looked into her face but her eyes were closed. A number of scrapes and bruises covered her body. Dust and gravel fell away from her hair as Dareth turned her cheek toward him. He put his ear to her mouth and felt her breath touch his cheek.
“Open your eyes.” The young man’s voice rose in pitch. She was alive but she would not respond.
“You’ll be alright. Please be alright.”
Dareth grabbed her hand between his own and rubbed it hard, suddenly she tossed her head to the side and he looked up, hope starting on his face. But Daesha still did not open her eyes. She moaned and seemed to say something that Dareth could not make out.
“What? What is it, mother? Are you alright?”
Dareth made a quick decision. Taking hold of her arm, he pulled Daesha up and slung her over his shoulder. He was not big, but he was strong and she was no larger than he. Rising to his feet, he staggered along the opening in the ground. He had to travel quite a distance before he managed to cross back to the other side where the cattle had regrouped after the shake and now grazed over the grass as if nothing had happened. As carefully as he could, Dareth laid his mother over the back of one of the animals. The beast complained at first, but Dareth was insistent and soon it grudgingly allowed the burden.
With that he snatched up his fallen stick and waved it at the cattle, driving them toward the river and the village that lay near its banks. She was not dead, Dareth knew. In fact, if he didn’t know any better, he would almost have said that she was sleeping peacefully. He couldn’t be sure what he should do, but he knew that the village medicine man, Lorvin, would probably have the answers.
~~~ | ~~~
Kadnee carried a bucket in each hand. Both were so filled with river water that they sloshed their contents over her leather moccasins as she walked. She had few advantages, being the daughter of the medicine man. Getting out of mundane, daily chores was not one of them. She grumbled over her wet shoes as she reached the basin outside of Lorvin’s hut. She poured the remaining contents of her buckets into the basin and sighed. There would be at least two more trips before the basin was full. She turned to retrace her steps, then her father’s voice stopped her from within the hut.
“Kadnee?” the medicine man called.
Lorvin brushed aside the curtain hanging across the door of the big hut. He occupied the largest of the grass and wattle structures in the village, though it was no more spectacular than any of the others. Its size was strictly utilitarian. As the leader of the village, Lorvin held council in his hut. Therefore it needed to accommodate all of the elder members of the village comfortably.
“Are you nearly done with that, Kadnee?”
“Not yet, father.”
Lorvin frowned and rubbed his thick belly. “There are still a number of things to be done this afternoon. I suppose you’re thinking only of traipsing off somewhere with that young man.” Lorvin let his jowls droop at mention of Dareth.
“Some of these things could keep till tomorrow. We were thinking of heading up the canyon a little way this afternoon,” she admitted.
Lorvin huffed and shook his head. “You’re going to find yourself in trouble one of these days, following him around on his wild jaunts.”
“Is that what you call them?” Kadnee smiled despite her father’s reddening face. Then she gave him one of those looks that only worked for a daughter on her father.
Lorvin wrinkled his brow, but waved a hand in dismissal as he turned back toward the hut.
“At the least you could finish filling the basin. And watch you don’t get yourself hurt.”
“I will, father. Dareth wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”
Lorvin didn’t hear the last of her words. He had already disappeared back inside the hut. Kadnee smiled at her small victory. She picked up her buckets and turned back toward the river. As she did, she felt another familiar rumble in the ground beneath her. She hardly slackened her pace. Such tremors were nothing strange. There had been several of them on her way up from the river on this last trip. But what came next, there was nothing normal about that.
Without warning, the ground beneath Kadnee heaved, knocking her to her knees. Her buckets went flying and she grabbed at the grass as the only thing she could find for support. A rumbling grew up out of the ground stronger than any she had ever experienced in her life.
“Kadnee.” Lorvin staggered out of the hut along with three of the village elders. All of them fell to their knees as the earth threatened to toss them about like leaves in the wind. It would not let them up for several moments, during which time little could be heard over the din of the quake.
“Kadnee, are you alright?” She caught the words faintly.
The girl was terrified. But before she could formulate a response, the shaking subsided and everything became still again. She peered, through settling dust, at her father and the others. Lorvin kicked aside a patch of wattle, fallen from over the door. He slowly rose and brushed the dust from his jerkin. His broad chest rose and fell in a frantic rhythm.
“I’m right here, father.” She sat up and waved to him. “I’m alright.”
Lorvin hurried over and helped her to her feet. He inspected her carefully to make sure she was not injured, then he turned back to the others.
“Go and check on everyone. Make sure no one is hurt.”
Kadnee caught her breath and sat down in the grass again, not quite sure yet of her own feet.
“I’ve never felt a shake like that,” she said.
“There has not been one like that since before you were born.”
“Do you think it’s over?”
Lorvin didn’t answer right away. He looked about him for a moment as if expecting something else.
“I think it is. There will probably be a few more tremors now, but nothing that we’re not used to. Come, will you be able to help check on everyone?” Lorvin turned to go. “Perhaps you should start with your friend, Dareth. No trip down the canyon today after all.”
Kadnee frowned and kicked at the dirt with her toe. Her father never wasted time with trifles. Now that the worst shake of her life was over, it was time to get back to business. She headed toward the opposite end of the village where the earth began to slope gently toward the distant canyon wall. Around her, familiar faces stood talking together in low tones or inspecting their homes for damage. Worry quickened her steps. She knew Dareth was out wrangling stray cattle. She had no doubt he would be up near the cliff face and that was a dangerous place to be even with the usual shakes that rattled the canyon floor, to say nothing about the violent tremor that had just occurred.
Kadnee picked her way through the village. There was little within it that could sustain damage. She had barely made it outside of its perimeter when she caught sight of Dareth moving down the hill toward her. She clapped with joy at the sight of him driving the cows ahead. She bounded out to meet him with a smile on her face, but when she got close enough to make out his own sharp features, the smile died on her lips. Dareth’s eyes held consternation and fear.
“Dareth,” She called out as she continued to approach. “Can you believe that shake? Is everything alright?” Then she saw the figure draped over the back of the lead animal.
“Oh no.” Kadnee rushed forward. “Daesha. What happened?”
Dareth’s face was streaked with tears. He pushed the beasts along relentlessly.
“I was up near the cliff when the shake hit,” he said. “She knew she’d find me there. She came after me. I’ve got to get her to your father.
“Come, I know where to find him.”
~~~ | ~~~
Dareth struggled to get his mother through the door of Lorvin’s hut while Kadnee ran to fetch her father. He laid her down on a straw mat in the corner and covered her with a thick blanket.
Just as he finished getting her settled down, Lorvin pulled the curtain aside. The medicine man crossed quickly to the prostrate form and knelt down beside her. He placed a hand on her forehead and inspected her arms and the bruise on her cheek.
“How did this happen?” Lorvin asked. “Where was she?”
Dareth stared at the bare earth of the hut, unable to look the man in the face.
“I was bringing the stray cattle back toward the river. I took the path near the cliff face. she came after me.”
Lorvin did not respond to this admission. The silence spoke much louder of his disapproval than words would have done. Dareth was saved from whatever he might have eventually said as Kadnee rushed in at that moment, breaking Lorvin’s glare.
“Is she going to be alright? Can you help her, father?”
“Shh.” Lorvin turned away from Dareth and fell to a closer inspection of his patient. “Get me that basin from the table over there.” He pointed to the other side of the room.
Dareth moved to comply immediately. He placed the basin and a cloth next to his mother. Lorvin soaked the cloth in the cool water and wiped the dust from Daesha’s face. He continued to bathe her arms and legs, wiping away dirt and blood from the numerous scratches, prodding gently at her flesh. After several minutes he looked up at Dareth. His eyes showed confusion.
“You should both go. There is nothing you can do to help right now, but stay close. I will come and get you if I need you or if there is any change.”
“I want to stay,” Dareth said.
“I can understand that, Dareth. You can remain right outside if you like, but for now, I want you to leave me with her. Kadnee,” Lorvin waved his daughter toward the doorway. “Keep Dareth company outside please.”
Kadnee took Dareth’s hand and he grudgingly followed her out of the hut. They sat down on a stone bench near the central fire pit. Dareth stared at the ground for a long time. He could feel Kadnee’s eyes on him and he knew that she wanted to speak. But he also knew that she would not do so as long as his tears kept him from facing her.
When he had managed to gain control of himself, he glanced at her and shook his head. “She has told me so many times, and I never listen.”
“It isn’t your fault, Dareth,” Kadnee said. “You couldn’t know that a shake like that was going to hit.”
“It doesn’t matter. Even small shakes are dangerous up there. I’m always looking for trouble. Why can’t I just keep safe like everyone else?”
“Because it isn’t you. You’re different, Dareth. You’ve talked about what it might be like up there on the top for so long that you even have me wondering. Nobody else seems to care much, but you can’t help it.”
“It was the scariest thing I ever saw.” Dareth looked back at the wall of the canyon. “A hole opened up in the ground. She nearly fell into it.”
Dareth nodded. “A giant hole. Part of the ground just fell in on itself. Dust and red smoke flew into the air, and when it cleared away, there she was, lying right at the edge. She was almost swallowed up.”
“But she didn’t fall in.” Kadnee insisted. She’s with my father and I’m sure that he will be able to heal her.”
“I hope so,” he said. “I really hope so.”
They sat there without speaking for a long time. To Dareth it seemed like forever. But eventually Lorvin emerged from the hut. At sight of the man, Dareth leapt up and rushed forward.
“Is she alright?”
The look on Lorvin’s face was difficult to read. Dareth could see nothing positive in it, but neither did the man appear as if all was lost. More than anything, his expression still held mostly confusion.
“I don’t quite understand,” Lorvin said. “Her injuries seem to be minor. She has a bruise on her cheek but it is nothing that should cause her to be unconscious like this. What was she struck with?”
“I don’t know,” Dareth replied. “I mean, there were rocks and debris falling from the cliff, but it was the hole that opened up in the ground that caused her to fall.”
“Yes. During the shake a crack opened up in the ground. I was knocked down and there was so much dust and this red smoke. I couldn’t really tell….”
“What are you saying?” Lorvin snapped, startling Dareth.
“I could not see what was happening. There was just too much going on.”
“But what is it you said about the dust and the smoke? Red smoke?”
“Yes,” Dareth said. “I think so.”
Lorvin stroked his chin. He cast his eyes toward the ground. Dareth was not sure if he should continue with his narration or not, so he simply waited for some cue from the man. Without another word Lorvin turned and stalked back into the hut, leaving Kadnee and Dareth alone again.
“What do you suppose that was all about,” Kadnee asked.
Dareth shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“My father is hardly a mysterious man, but that smoke thing really seemed to throw him.”
They sat again for a long time. People passed by now and again, looking toward the medicine man’s hut with genuine concern. It was clear that news of Daesha’s plight had circulated around the village. Several offered words of comfort to Dareth, but most scooted away quickly. It was no secret to him that most people in the village found him odd.
Another hour crawled away before Lorvin emerged the second time. The first thing he did was send someone to retrieve the village elders, then he approached Dareth and Kadnee.
Dareth looked up expectantly, hoping the man would have some answers this time.
Lorvin thought for a moment before he spoke, choosing his words carefully. “She is not in danger of dying, at least not now.”
“So she will be alright?” Kadnee asked.
“That I don’t know. Her body is fine. She has a few injuries but they are not serious. It is her mind that is sick.”
“What do you mean?” Dareth asked.
“The red smoke. It can make your mind sick.”
“But you can fix it,” Kadnee said. “Can’t you?”
“I’m afraid I cannot. I don’t understand it. I have never seen this. I only know of the smoke because your great-grandfather told me of it, Kadnee. That was long ago and I hardly even remember it. I do know that she could remain this way or, if she does wake, she could end up with a mind sick that will never go away. No matter what, it will not be good.”
“No,” Dareth shouted. “You must be able to do something. You are the medicine man. You need to make her better.”
“I can’t do it, Dareth. I can bandage wounds. I can birth a child, cool a fever or ease the pain of a burn. But this, I have no experience with. No one in the village does.”
“Then what do we do?” Kadnee asked.
Lorvin scratched his head and looked intently at Dareth.
“There is one thing.”
“What?” Dareth asked. “What is it?”
Dareth stared at the medicine man in confusion. “The hermit? You mean the madman that lives down the canyon? What about him?”
“Yes, he’s crazy, it’s true. But he knows things. He may know what to do.”
Dareth did not wait long enough to hear anything else that Lorvin might have to say. He turned and bolted for the edge of the village.
“Dareth,” Kadnee shouted after him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to find him.”
“But he’s never come to the village before.”
“Just stay with my mother. One way or another I’ll get the hermit down here. I promise that”