Clouds gathered throughout the evening and by the time night fell it was raining. A grey blanket washed through the sky, covering everything in a curtain of fine mist. Streams ran down the Hills of Ranico and swept through the gentle valleys leading away from Wrioth and into the north.
Fog descended on the land again, and the rain continued deep into the night. Constant waterdrops beat down on the trees. The heavy pit-patter on the leaves kept Rantil and the others awake. But, underneath the sheltered roots of a brambala tree, they managed to light a fire, so at least they were warm.
Putoko used his dagger to carve into the soft centre of several fresh kana pods, whilst Kantou prepared a blend of herbs and roots that she'd collected throughout the day. Ranico Hills lied on the boundaries of Zi'ran Forest, where the trees were ancient and the plants that layered the floor were rare. She boiled her ingredients together in a small cooking pot, hovering over the fire. Rain gushed down the sides of the tree, but beneath the tough, arched roots, they were kept dry. Kantou offered out the thick broth, urging them to drink.
"It will help you relax," she said. "It will help you sleep."
Its warm, soothing taste did much more than that. With the Kana pods eaten, and their beds made, they were fast asleep within the hour.
Morning came, and as Kantou assured, they woke feeling refreshed and invigorated.
The storm had faded away into a light drizzle that drifted through the trees. Everything dripped with the purity of the water, making the world glisten in the sun that was quickly rising over the horizon. Rantil ducked under the low roots of the brambala tree and stepped out onto the sward of vivid green grass. Through the open toes of his leather sandals, he could feel the freshness of the water on his skin. Kantou took a step beside him; her feet, as always, were bare.
"Time to get moving," Putoko said, pulling his satchel over his neck. It was slightly larger than the others, but only because Yaneria insisted on packing it herself. He walked for a moment away with Rantil, before asking, "How did you sleep?"
Rantil glanced back over to Lakor, filling his canteen from one of the nearby streams, surrounded by blooming flowers, and then to Kantou, staring through the canopy and into the sky. Turning back to Putoko, he smiled. "Better than I have for a long while."
They left the Brambala tree behind and continued on their trek.
For most of the day, the rain stayed at bay, but suddenly just as night was falling, the skies opened again and a torrent of water gushed from above. They rushed under the cover of the trees, where they agreed to camp for the night. Lakor quickly helped Kantou fasten the huge, leafy branches together over their heads, to try and stave off the rain.
"It's not the Salatar Season yet," Putoko grumbled, wringing out the bottom of his robes yet another time. "That's meant to be the season of monsoons. And that's not for a while yet. This is the Sucatti Season," he cursed the darkening sky; "give us back the sun!"
Although Rantil felt the same, his body was sodden through, he was determined to keep his moral high. Strangely, he had never been happier. "It's only a bit of rain," he laughed. "Water never hurt anyone."
Kantou laughed slightly, and joined them under the roof they'd managed to create. It was leaky, but better than nothing.
"What's so funny?" Rantil asked, as Kantou came to sit beside him.
She brushed her hand through her wet hair. "That's a story for another time," she replied.
For another five days, the sun barely shone through the thick surface of clouds that obscured the sky. But, on the afternoon of the sixth day, light broke through and made the Forest of Zi'ran glisten with a sparkle of shimmering life.
Lakor sighed. "That's what I like about rain
" he muttered dreamily.
"What?" Putoko asked.
"I don't know," he replied. "Everything feels so refreshed afterwards. It washes everything away and leaves the world
Putoko laughed. Lakor said the words a little too prophetically; it didn't suit him. "Of course," he chuckled.
They followed the winding path between the tall slender trees of the forest. It was, and always had been, one of the most beautiful places on Truaine. The Forest of Zi'ran blossomed and bloomed in the Sucatti season. At the base of the many ura trees that grew wild and tall, were the delicate ural flowers. They flooded the ground and washed the forest floor with a purple-blue haze.
Lakor was taken in by the beauty of the forest, so much so that he scuffed his foot against the sharp edge of a fallen log. They stopped as the path took them through a glade, where the sun was shining through retreating clouds and warmed their faces. Lakor rested down on a small boulder, surrounded by ural flowers and a few puddles, and brought his ankle into the light. There was only a small scratch, but it was deep enough to make it bleed.
"It doesn't hurt too much," he said, as Rantil looked closer.
Lakor winced. "Okay, so it hurts a little."
Rantil frowned, but then smiled. "Have either of you got any bandages?" he asked of Putoko and Kantou.
"Hold on," Putoko said. "Let me have a look."
He dove into his bag and rummaged around inside. Near the bottom, beneath his blanket, was a small coil of woven cloth.
"Here you go," he said, handing it over.
"Thanks," Rantil said as he took it.
Pleased that he was able to help, Putoko felt a sense of satisfaction. But when he turned back to his bag, and tried to push everything back inside, his smile vanished.
Rantil finished wrapping Lakor's ankle and turned back. "What's wrong?"
A small broach rested at the very bottom. Putoko lifted it into the light. The faded metal coiled around in a flower shaped pattern, and wove together like thatching.
"Yaneria must have put it in there before we left," he smiled. "It's brought us luck. She always said, 'Nothing bad will ever happen if we have it.'"
Rantil moved closer. "I don't remember it."
"It was our mother's. She died a year or so after you left. Yaneria thought nothing of it at first, and left it in a drawer at home. But after the Sett took our harvest for the fourth year running, we became desperate. She wore it every day, hoping that our luck would change."
"And did it?" Lakor asked.
"The year after
the harvest was plentiful
more than enough in fact. The Sett gave us little trouble. They took what they needed
and left." He laughed softly to himself. "All because of this broach. She's worn it every day since."
Only hobbling a little, Lakor came to their side. "Not any more she's not," he joked.
The life drained from Putoko's face, and he looked up abruptly. "Yes, that's right
" He tightened up his fist, and anger surged through his mind. "How could she have been so stupid?!"
"What? What's wrong?" Rantil asked quickly.
"Don't you see?" Putoko replied, flustered, and unsure of what to do. "If she doesn't have this broach, she's not safe!" He turned to Rantil suddenly. "What if the Settian Guard go to Wrestek, they'll never be ready in time!"
"But you said the Sett wouldn't arrive for at least another two seasons?" Rantil recalled.
"But what if they do?!"
"Just calm down!"
"Who knows what could happen, and without this
" he lifted up the broach.
In his mind, he was certain his sister was in danger. In a single second, he played through a dozen nightmares in his head, each more horrific than the last. A solitary thought stole any other questions he had in his mind. Was Yaneria safe?
Even the surrounding beauty seemed to be tainted by Putoko's anxiety. Darkness washed over the forest. "I have to go back!" he announced.
"What?" Rantil muttered meekly.
Putoko turned, and began to hurry along the path, back the way they came. "I have to go back!" he repeated. "I've got to save her!"
"But," Rantil stuttered. "You can't go!"
"I have to!"
Rantil stuttered, and then shouted. "Putoko, wait!"
"Yaneria's in danger!"
"No she's not!"
Putoko stopped in his tracks.
Something snapped in his mind. Something changed inside him. He wasn't going to let Rantil tell him what to do anymore.
"Why are you so sure Wrestek isn't safe any longer?" Rantil muttered. "Nothing's changed. You said it yourself, the Settian Guard never come this early." He paused. "All of this, because of an old broach?"
For a few seconds, Putoko just glared at him. They stood in silence.
"You've been away so long, you've forgotten about us," he said eventually. "You don't care anymore
"I've always cared about Wrestek."
"Just not enough to visit
" he sneered.
"My father'd just died, surely you remember why I had to leave
"I?! What about us? While you've been running from your father
we've been through the toughest years of our lives! You never came back."
"I wanted to!"
Putoko held out his hands, and invited him to answer. "Then why didn't you?"
He stuttered. "Things were
Putoko shook his head. "So why come back now?"
"It's my home
"It hasn't been for the last fifteen years. You can't call Wrestek your home anymore, you're nothing but an outsider now
"What's happened to you
?" Rantil whispered.
"I'm finally seeing you for what you really are
all those years I thought you were my friend
but you're nothing like I remember you. You're a coward, and a liar."
Abruptly, Rantil ran forwards. With a single swipe of his fist, he punched Putoko in the jaw. Pain swept through his mind; he recoiled in shock and dropped Yaneria's broach to the ground. It splashed into a small puddle along the side of the path, and disappeared into the muddy water.
"Rantil!" cried Lakor in shock. Before now, he had never known his friend to be violent.
Putoko rubbed the back of his hand across his bloody mouth. "Why did you come back, Rantil?"
He breathed deeply. "I wanted to see you again. I thought you were my friend
"But you abandoned us. You left us to the mercy of the Settian Guard. Or had you forgotten that?"
"Please, Putoko," Lakor urged. "Enough!"
"Keep out of it Lakor, this doesn't concern you!" he scolded.
"Leave him alone!"
"You don't care about us; you've got new friends
Yaneria could be in danger, and you don't care
You're not the friend I remember. Living in Siale has made you selfish, and naïve to what is going on in the world around you. I'm leaving. Don't expect me to follow you blindly anymore
Putoko shook his head in distain, and began to walk back along the path.
"Then why did you come?"
Putoko didn't turn back.
"Don't turn your back on me!" Rantil shouted.
"Oh no," Putoko replied, "maybe you should never have turned your back on me
Through the ensuing silence, a very faint ringing drifted through the forest. It rang so purely through their thoughts that it cleansed their minds, filling it with sweet music. The song wavered, like it was singing out to them.
With the anger in his mind ebbing away, Putoko turned back. "What is that?"
Lakor and Kantou stared at Rantil.
A light shone through the thickly woven strands of his pocket. It pulsed gently with the undulation of the song, and it enticed Putoko to walk back towards the group. Rantil slid his hand into his robes, and pulled out the Naouten Horez.
Between the joins and ingrains of wood, the light sept from the heart of the box. It was as though the light was alive, and it could see into their minds. As Rantil lifted it higher, the light drifted behind like an afterimage of something that was more powerful than anything they'd ever seen.
"What is that?" Putoko asked.
"The Naouten Horez
Shieef gave it to me," Rantil explained.
"What does it do?" Putoko continued.
"She said we could use it to get through the shield."
"A shield of the mind, from what Shieef said," Rantil recalled. "She said many travellers had come across it, but none go through."
"They find reasons to turn back, like running out of water, food, or forgetting something or wanting to
" Rantil began, but then stopped.
Without needing to continue, he realised why Putoko had been so adamant that he was going to return to Wrestek. The shield had burrowed into his mind, and used his fear of losing Yaneria to drive him away. Rantil glanced over to him, but he quickly looked to the floor to avoid his gaze, like he was ashamed of what he'd said.
The Naouten Horez began to hum louder, and gently lifted from Rantil's hands. It floated high into the air above the glade and into the sky. It spun around as it rose higher, until it snapped into place, and pointed directly along the path they had been walking.
The song suddenly stopped, and the oozing light collapsed back in on the box. It gathered its power, and in an explosion of might, a beam of white energy erupted from its tip. It pulsed and throbbed through the air, until it struck the side of the invisible shield.
Like it had been infected by a deadly poison, the shield began to spark and fizz as the disease quickly spread over its surface. With each passing beat of the Naouten Horez, the light grew brighter, and the shield weakened to its power.
The infection exploded into a violent gust of wind when it touched the floor. Its surface crackled with an almost invisible light, but waves of orange and purple assured them it was there.
Rantil looked up, just as the beam from the small red box pierced the side of the shield.
A tear slithered through the surface, and created an opening along the path. The bright white edges of the crevice buzzed and shifted continuously until it was wide enough for them to pass through.
The Naouten Horez dropped from the sky, but slowed enough for Rantil to pluck it from the air. He shoved it back into his pocket, and turned to the others. "Come on!" he shouted over the drone of the shield. "We don't know how long it'll stay open."
Kantou was the first to step through, followed by Lakor.
Rantil gestured to Putoko, though he hesitated. He beckoned again, and eventually ran, and passed to the other side.
Rantil strode through, and immediately the wound in the shield sealed shut.
It was gone.
"Well," Lakor started, to break the silence, "that was different."
Kantou shrugged and glanced at him. "It's sort of normal for me," she remarked.
"Really? What else have you seen?"
Their conversation continued as they moved away. Rantil was about to follow after them when Putoko spoke out.
"I didn't mean what I said you know," he stuttered. "I shouldn't have said
"You were under the influence of the shield. You don't need to apologise."
"But I want to," he said. "The shield couldn't have made me say what I did. Maybe, on some level, I think it's true. You were gone a long time
Rantil sighed. "I'm so sorry Putoko. With everything that happened between my father and I, I wanted to forget about Wrestek. And then things became complicated with She, and the Sett
I never meant to leave you." He paused. "If I'd known what was going on, I would never have
"What's done is done," Putoko said. "It's all in the past now." He smiled.
"So, we're still friends?"
He rubbed his jaw. "As long as you don't punch me again
" he joked.
They laughed together, followed on after Kantou and Lakor, and continued through the Forest of Zi'ran. They could just make out the Mountains on the horizon through the trees. It was a world not seen for thousands of years.
On the other side of the shield, Yaneria's broach sat half submerged in a pool of dirty rainwater. It had been forgotten.
If anything, Putoko needed it now more than ever.