© 2010, Patrick Hester. All Rights Reserved
The road itself was wider than he thought it would be, easily capable of having six or seven horses ride side by side without bumping or jostling each other. Eli kept his horse as near the middle as he could, keenly aware of the sheer drop awaiting him over the edge. Luckily, Jaycn kept talking, and concentrating on his voice made it easier to ignore the fact that they were climbing higher and higher with every step forward.
“We won’t see much trouble today,” Jaycn said. “I’ve only heard of seeds making it this far over the Wall, never seen it with my own eyes.”
“All right,” he said, trying not to notice how high they were already; the pier below was beginning to fade behind a haze.
“It’s always rough when you’re new. You’ll get caught up really quick. Just do what I say when I say it, don’t mouth off to anyone. Everyone needs everyone here. Don’t make enemies.”
“I hadn’t planned on it,” Eli said. Jaycn grunted.
“I know you have questions. Now is the time to ask them, before it gets crazy. We’ll have time in the Keep, but here it’s just us, a couple of scouts.” Jaycn clicked his tongue and slowed his horse to ride beside Eli. He set the pace at a quick walk, not quite a trot.
“I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do,” Eli offered after a moment. He had other questions he wanted to ask, but somehow, they didn’t seem appropriate and he didn’t want to offend the older man. Jaycn merely nodded.
“It’s difficult to explain here where you can’t see things for yourself. Up top, it’ll be more clear. Essentially, we ride before the patrol. Not out of sight, just a bit ahead. You ever go hiking out in the wilderness?” Eli shook his head ‘no’. “Well, it’s not like that at all. In the wild, you look for a bent bit of grass, maybe a broken branch on a low tree or a bush, indent in the mud – anything that might point to someone or something dangerous coming your way.” Eli nodded; that made sense to him though he couldn’t imagine how you would notice ‘bent grass’, especially from the saddle of a horse.
“Here, you look for anything that isn’t right; it can be a bump in the snow on the road, an acorn in your path, tracks in the snow. You also listen. The top, it’s quiet; deathly so. You hear a creaking, a rustling, maybe the pop of a branch snapping from the cold, that’s the only warning you’re going to get before it all happens. You hear any of that, you sound the alarm, warn the men.”
“What have you seen?” he asked.
“Everything. Too much, sometimes. I keep trying to leave but the island brings me back.”
“I wondered…” Eli didn’t finish. He’d wondered why someone Jaycn’s age would be here, or still be here.
“Why I went beyond my five years?” Jaycn barked a harsh laugh. “I’ve left this place three times. Each time, I tried to forget what I’d seen, what I’d done, but I couldn’t. There’s just something about this island; it gets under your skin, into your head and it won’t let go. So I keep coming back until it’s done with me. I also make better money here than I’ve ever managed out there. Not good at much else.” Jaycn shrugged.
Eli didn’t say anything for a long time. He kept his eyes on the road before him, his hands on the reins of his horse, but something was nagging at him. Jaycn seemed content to ride. When they came to the bend and started up in the opposite direction, he could see the rest of the squad about half way up the first leg.
“Do you have strange dreams?” he finally asked.
“Dreams? Sometimes. I think we all do.”
“Do we ever… go inside? Inside the Wall?”
Jaycn blew out a hard breath. “Yes. Not often, but sometimes we have to go in and clear out the ring. It’s hard work, back breaking and dirty. They usually use it as punishment for anyone breaking the rules or causing trouble. You only have to do it once to toe the line.”
“Have you ever…?”
“Once, yes. I don’t recommend it.”
“What about deeper?”
“Deeper?” Jaycn asked.
“Into the island. Into the forest.”
“No,” Jaycn said emphatically. “Never. No one has that I’ve ever heard of. It would be suicide. Damn trees would shred you.”
Eli nodded but he kept remembering his dream and the ancient temple covered in vines…