The Walker Was, Book One by Jett Farrell-Vega (Fantasy-Adventure)
A cold breeze blasted across Ardra’s neck as she clung to the cliff-side. A thousand feet of razor-edged boulders loomed beneath her. One false move would mean death, not from a long flight through the wind but from a bone-shattering tumble against every rock on the way down the jagged slope.
She planted her face against the granite, feeling the icy touch of the mountain close as a lover. Fear was a luxury far too costly for the high crags of the world, for a single moment of panic could cause a fatal mistake. Nothing existed but the next foothold. She tested each carefully, minding the weight of the tools on her back and the mid-sized pickaxe in her hand as she scrambled a little higher.
Her eyes traced subtle changes in the color and consistency of the rock. Careful of her balance, she reached behind a boulder and examined the gravel that came out. She could read the mountain’s secrets in every handful, and the gravel said to press on higher. Stretching out, she swung to another series of holds.
She heard a crackle before the stones disappeared from underneath her feet. She slammed her pick into the wall, hanging on with all her strength. For a moment, her legs dangled above empty air.
Fear would kill her quicker than the mountain. The mountain just wanted to test her mettle.
Carefully, she pressed her toe into a tight crack and shifted her weight to the next lichen-dusted boulder that appeared trustworthy.
She wrenched the pick free and continued upwards until she reached a wide shelf. Heaving her body over the edge, she rolled onto her back and gathered her breath, allowing one moment to recognize how close she’d come to disaster. She wiped sweat from her forehead, freed her arms from her pack, and set to work examining the mountainside.
Ardra knew the spot the moment she saw it, a wide streak of red like fire coral bubbling out of the stone. It looked like a long scar that meandered from the shelf to another high cliff above.
She tossed her hood back to let the breeze cool her head, tapping the chunky iron-stained vein with her pick and listening. She felt along the wall and closed her eyes.
This was the spot.
She pulled out the small purse of gem shards she’d discovered in the talus below– sherry-hued Solari Ice, pale blue Winterstone, and deep violet Queen’s Tears.
These hills should’ve been teeming with jewel-seekers, but fortunately, this wasn’t the Allied Realms. Here in the Westlynds, few men ever travelled more than a day’s walk from home, let alone into treacherous high country. The foothills of The Toehold didn’t suffer amateurs on its deadly trails. The area’s peculiar name was a cheeky nod to the impassable mountain range that rose in the east– The Grip. Massive knuckle-shaped peaks blocked all view of the great blue Crannog in the north and the tumultuous Maelstrom Sea to the south.
The decisive barrier between the civilized world and the untamed west…
She was eager to start digging, but her muscles groaned from the climb and her attention stole to the horizon. Far below, boulder fields gave way to thick conifers, a carpet of endless green broken only by a few outcroppings of basalt and a long lake blue as saphirrine. Beyond that, wildflowers spattered across wide pastures, and the farms of Ralston tamed the earth into tidy furlongs like patches on a marm’s quilt.
Northwest, plumes of smoke rose from the ovens of Beldane, the largest town on the tradesman’s loop– a bustling city of merchants, skillworkers, and hardy folk who thought themselves very cosmopolitan despite their rural trappings. Though its artisans could be charming, Ardra didn’t care for their insatiable love of gossip. Her arrival three years previous had given them plenty. After selling a few purses of uncut stones, the townsfolk took to calling her the Baimaiden, an old term for a female tunnel-miner, harkening back to the days of the failed delving of The Kings’ Road under The Grip.
The epitaph didn’t bother her much. She was a private person who preferred to be left alone, but she didn’t care for the other name urchins and hags murmured when she walked down the street…
The Scarred Woman.
She continued exploring the shelf. A short walk along the wall, she found a narrow passage between massive boulders. She followed it some ways to a wide open basin that descended back below treeline. She’d need to survey this whole area, but her gut told her she could find a suitable place to camp in the event of deadly weather.
It was as lovely a digger’s claim as she’d seen in years. The forests in this area teemed with game. Mountain runoff would help keep her waterskin full until winter. The basin offered a potential source for both food and firewood.
She returned to the shelf, admiring the view one last time. So long as winter held off, this was home. She absently ran her thumb along the jagged scar that ran from her forehead, across her cheek to her jaw.
She retrieved her pick and made the first strike. The stone sang as the iron dug into the wall, whispering of hidden hollows filled with wonders only The Maker had ever seen.
No more Sarcian shadows. No more stalkers in the night dogging her steps. No more freezing beneath towering cliffs while she fended off nightmares of The Void. She’d finally run so far that her past was behind her.
Shame she couldn’t remember most of it.