AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Daidam and Milas looked around curiously at their surroundings. Coyote had led them away from the butte and deep into the forest where the thick tree trunks were so close together it was difficult to see more than a few paces in any direction. Yet, Coyote unerringly weaved between the trees even though there was no discernable path to follow in the dark shadows.
“Where do you take us?” Daidam asked.
“Where did you ask?” Coyote responded.
“We asked for more apples.”
“And apples you shall have.”
“But the distance walked has been long and no apples found.”
“Can you not smell them?” Coyote asked.
“I smell much that is unfamiliar to me.” Milas told Daidam after sniffing the air. “How are we to know what of these smells is from apples?”
Daidam shook her head. “I judge we have been led a great distance for naught.”
Coyote huffed. “You judge wrong. The distance has not been far.”
“But what of the apples? What smell is of them?” Milas asked.
“Have you not tasted them?” Coyote asked.
“Did the sweet juice not flavor your tongue?”
“Yet, you did not smell the apple’s scent?”
Milas imagined holding one of the round apples to her lips. She smiled. She had noticed a pleasant scent when she bit into it. “I did. It is a sweet fragrance unlike any known in Alasdair.” She sniffed the air again. “But I do not detect it again.”
“That is strange,” Coyote told her. “For the orchard is upon us,” he said as the woods abruptly ended and they walked back out into sunlight.
Daidam and Milas stopped and stared. They were standing at the edge of a large clearing surrounded by forest. It was square in shape with each side approximately one hundred paces long. Unlike the woodland of large, thick trunk trees that grew to great distances above their heads, the clearing was full of trees with delicate trunks that grew no more than what Daidam stood before dividing into smaller branches which divided again, each new set being smaller than the last. The trees, in neat rows and spaced an equal distance from the others, were covered in bright green leaves. And apples- so many sweet red apples hung from the trees that the slender branches drooped under their weight.
“Why are the apples not gathered?” Daidam asked, pulling one free of its branch. The ground beneath the orchard was covered with apples that had fallen off the trees when the stems could no longer hold them.
“For what purpose?” Coyote asked as he stretched out in the shade of the tree.
“To protect,” Milas answered. “To do otherwise can only bring harm to the Realm.”
“Which Realm? Airhini? Food is everywhere. There is no need to do such.”
“The Realm of Arhdahl.”
“Is food not everywhere?”
“No. It is difficult to grow and what is grown must be protected,” Daidam said as she reached for another apple.
“Protect food? I hear your words but I do not understand,” Coyote told them. “We have no purpose for doing such. As I told, food is everywhere in Airhini.”
“Then why plant the orchard?” Daidam asked before taking a bite from the apple. She took time to notice the sweet smell of the juices that were released, some trickling down her chin. “Why plant what you already have?” she asked, wiping her chin clean with the back of her hand.
“Have you not answered your own question?” Coyote chuckled at the two questioning looks he received. “You need shelter for the eve.” He stood. “Go to the end of the orchard and wait for me.”
“Where are you to be?”
“You have apples to eat. It is time for my eve meal.”
When Coyote trotted back toward the spot where they had walked out of the forest, Daidam and Milas turned and walked in the opposite direction. As they approached the far side of the orchard, they were surprised to see two small huts emerge from behind the apple trees.
“They are odd,” Milas said as she walked toward one of the huts. The structures were round in shape with walls of wood posts. The bottoms of the posts were buried in the ground while the tops supported bundles of long stalks bound together to form a peaked roof. At the front of each hut, a space had been cut to create a doorway. Next to it a smaller opening had been cut into the wall. She ducked her head as she entered the hut. “Daidam, come see. It is like the room in my family’s quarters.”
Daidam stepped inside. The sun’s last rays of the day were shining through the opening, bathing the interior in a soft golden glow. On her right was a sleeping cot and to her left, a table with a pair of chairs tucked neatly underneath. In the center of the hut, a depression had been scooped out of the dirt floor; blackened bits and pieces of wood could be seen resting at the bottom of the hole suggesting its use. She looked up to see that the bundles of stalks did not fully cover the hut; clearly visible was an opening sufficient for smoke to escape.
“It is soft,” Milas said as she examined the cot. Unlike the stone sleeping racks she was used to, the cot had a frame of wood with unusual fibers stretching from one side of the frame to the other. The fibers were not rigid but flexed when she sat on them.
“How does one sit here?” Daidam was bent over beside the table, studying the lack of distance between it and the chairs.
Milas rose off the cot to join Daidam. She placed the toe of her boot against a chair leg and gave it a nudge. The dry wood squawked as it scraped a hand’s width away from the table.
Daidam jerked upright, shocked by the movement. “They move?” She tentatively gripped the back of the chair and gave it a hesitant tug. When it shifted position, she yanked her hand away as if it had been burned. Milas laughed as the dropped chair toppled over. “Why do you laugh?”
“This is not Alasdair, Daidam,” Milas said as she reached down and righted the chair. “It is not carved from rock. Sit.” Daidam did as she was told. Then she placed her elbow on the table and leaned her head against her hand. Milas pulled the other chair free and sat down. “Why do you look so?” she asked her scowling companion.
“The eve I found you in the forbidden zone you spoke of the Abyss—”
“Arhini,” Milas gently corrected.
“Arhini. You spoke of a blanket of trees.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You have seen the forest. We have walked in it for much of the day. Do you still not believe?”
“I believe. But why?”
“Why must our homes be carved from stone?” Daidam stood then picked up the chair and carried it across the room where she set it down and sat again. “Why can we not move a chair?” She stood and carried the chair back to the table.
“It is the way of the Realm.”
Daidam again placed her elbows on the table and dropped her chin into her cupped hands. “Is it? We have trees in Arhdahl. Why do we not to use them?” she asked quietly then answered her own question just as quietly. “If we ask, the Council would answer that they are to be used only for the fires that cook our food. To use them for other purposes would deplete the few that remain.” Daidam sucked on her lower lip then turned to look out the opening in the hut’s wall. In the fading light, she could see the orchard with its many trees full of the nourishing apples. Beyond the orchard and hidden in the eve’s darkness, she knew there to be an unending forest. She turned back to find Milas quietly studying her. “Do they speak true?”
“A question asked may yield more than one answer.” Daidam and Milas turned to find Coyote sitting in the doorway. Neither had noticed the return of their escort.
“To answer true is to answer once,” Daidam objected.
“How are you called?” Coyote asked.
“How am I to call you?”
Daidam considered the question but could think of no other answer than the one she had already provided.
“Two-legged,” Milas furnished.
Coyote nodded. “Aye. And are not both answers true?”
“Aye,” Milas concurred.
“But my name is Daidam,” she said forcefully.
Coyote smiled. “Ah, but that was not the question.” Daidam looked at Milas who was nodding in understanding. “Seek your answers wisely, young Daidam,” he said then walked to the back of the hut and curled into a ball against the base of the wall. “The eve is upon. It is time for sleep.”
Milas stood and walked to the cot where she settled on her side and waited for Daidam to join her, there being only the one cot in the room. When Daidam lay down beside her, Milas snuggled against her and was soon taken over by sleep. It was much later before Daidam finally relented and forced confusing thoughts from her mind.
Milas woke to find she was alone in the hut. She swung her legs off the cot and stood then took a few moments to stretch her tired muscles before going outside in search of the others. After leaving the hut, she walked toward the orchard but it didn’t take her long to see that no one was among the apple trees. She turned around and saw Daidam carrying something out from the second hut.
“Good morn,” Daidam greeted Milas as she walked up. “Did you rest well?”
“Aye. Did you not?”
Daidam smiled. “I wake early. A habit my mother did not greet with pleasure.”
Milas grinned. “My mother was discontent of my habit to sleep too long. Where is Coyote?”
“I know not. He was gone when I woke.”
“What are those?” Milas asked of the objects Daidam held.
Daidam passed one to Milas. “A pouch of some sort. I found many inside.”
Milas examined the item. It was as long as her arm was from elbow to fingertips with a pocket just as deep and wide. A strap was sewn into the top of each end of the pocket. It was a simple design not unlike the ones used in Arhdahl to carry items when traveling from one fortress to another. Yet it was different. “The material is unknown to me.”
“Aye. It is thick… strong…” Daidam said as she gave her pouch a good tug. “Not like any in Arhdahl…” She paused, concentrating on a long forgotten memory. “Except one...”
“You have seen thus before?”
“It was many summers past. I was helping Instructor gather the study scrolls after lessons had ended when Thoralf entered.”
“Mother? What did she say?”
“I know not. Their words were soft and not directed to me.”
“Instructor went to the shelves where the scrolls are kept. From the top shelf, placed so none could see, he pulled a pouch. The material seemed like this.”
“What did it carry?”
“I know not. Its shape was not the same- the pocket was covered by a flap tied to keep hidden that held inside. He gave the pouch to Thoralf.”
“What did Mother do?”
“She carried the pouch to where I stood. She said it held tales from an ancient time, tales that one day I would learn of their truth. Thoralf warned me not to betray what I had seen to any, least the Council hear and be displeased.”
“I do not understand. Are we not taught the ancient stories of Arhdahl in our lessons?”
“Are not the stories true?”
“Instructor speaks truth.”
“Then why would Council show displeasure for speaking of them?”
“I know only of the warning on Thoralf’s lips.”
Milas nervously fingered the thick material in her hands. “What do you think was inside?”
Daidam carefully considered the question. “I know not,” she finally said.
Ah, young Daidam, Coyote thought, sitting on his haunches just inside the shadowy forest behind the huts. You do not take lessons easily. It was not asked what you knew but what you thought.
“Come,” Daidam told Milas. “We should fill the pouches with apples. We know not when Coyote will return and choose to continue our journey.”
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