by Michael Kingswood
Hot wind blew past Thurim, bringing with it the scent of impending rain overtop the other, more earthy odors that seemed to permeate the grasslands he was traversing. It whipped his cloak around behind him as he peered down from the hilltop where he stood.
The garment was once bright scarlet but now it was closer to burgundy from weeks of dust and grime as he made his trek into the wild. The rest of his clothing was equally soiled, and stiff from accumulated salt deposited by the near constant sweat that his exertions had generated during that time.
The weight of the sword on his belt, or the black lacquered breastplate he wore overtop his tunic, didn’t help with that. But he did not dare leave them behind, though he lose all else on this journey.
As he just about had.
He had long since gone through the last of his food, which was nice since it made his pack light. But he felt it in the pit of his belly now, which was growing steadily more empty, like a growing maw that was opening wide to engulf the entire world. He had managed to keep his waterskin full, though. The many streams and occasional lakes that crisscrossed this endless, rolling prairie made that easy.
Though right then it felt like scant blessing.
Thurim looked over his shoulder, in the direction where the late afternoon sun was seeming to race toward its resting place on the horizon, barely staying ahead of the clouds that appeared to be rushing to catch it and keep it from reaching that haven.
Still no sign of pursuit; no obvious sign anyway. All the same, he could not help feeling certain Basmin was back there, somewhere. Seeking after him, but more than that, after the shrine that Thurim sought.
That they both sought, though only Thurim knew how to get there.
At least, so he hoped.
Thurim faced back to the east, squinting his eyes against the blow of the wind, and scanned the horizon again. It was becoming more difficult by the minute. Already the swiftly darkening clouds in that direction were casting a shadow over the land, so that the rolling hills seemed to merge with the boiling clouds overhead until the horizon was swiftly becoming jumbled, indiscernible in the mix of the elements.
Somewhere in that direction. Somewhere there lay they Shrine of Tulok, where legend stated the ancients had hidden their greatest treasure, the source of the wondrous power that had birthed an age of wealth and prosperity that had never been seen in the world since.
And Thurim meant to claim it, before Basmin did.
The first drops of rainfall splattered onto Thurim’s cheeks, driven by the wind in front of him, and he realized it wasn’t just the growing gloom that was obscuring the terrain ahead. It was the torrential rain that was approaching. Rapidly.
He didn’t waste time looking around for a place of shelter. There would be none, not on these accursed and seemingly eternal plains. He’d seen nothing more than a few isolated trees scattered here and there for a week or more, and only one cluster that might strain to be called a copse.
Just long, thigh-high grass that had been growing yellow in the heat but now might grow green again after the coming deluge.
Not nearly enough to make Thurim even think about trying to stay dry.
Instead, he hunched his shoulders, flipped the cowl of his cloak up and drew the rest of the once proud garment tightly down about his body. Then, head lowered against the now steady downpour, he trudged down the hilltop in the direction of his quest.
The ground was still firm for the first few hundred paces, but soon Thurim’s boots began to sink into the growing mud, making his steps more difficult with each passing moment.
Rivulets of water were now running freely, cutting swaths narrow and deep through the grassy knolls as the rainfall cut into the terrain, digging new furrows into the side of each little hill he passed.
And creating new streams in between them. Streams that were swiftly growing until Thurim thought they would soon become rivers in their own right.
And him caught in the middle of it all. If he wasn’t careful, he would get swept away in the onrush.
This was beyond what he had encountered before. In the forestland of Kadiz, where he had spent most of his youth and the first few years of his manhood, rain was plentiful but the tree growth even in the mountains kept the land mostly stable. It was becoming clear, rapidly, that the grass covering this land was not enough to do the same.
The entire region was going to flood out.
Thurim was beginning to regret departing that last hilltop, as the runoff from the rainfall was approaching ankle-deep now. He chanced a look back, and was surprised to see how far he had come from that little peak. No way he could make it back there now.
He would just have to continue, and get to as high a ground as he could in the land ahead.
The darkened sky flashed, and a few breaths later the rumble of thunder sounded. Thurim’s spirits, already low, lowered further. Lightning and thunder meant this was not some passing rain shower that would speed past and be done. It was going to be a long evening, and a longer night.
The land sloped upward again to Thurim’s right, and he hurried in that direction. At first the climb was relatively easy, the slope shallow. But after a few tens of yards the angle of the hill grew more steep, and Thurim found himself stymied.
He could have easily climbed it on a dry day. But with the downfall continuing, the entire hill was turning to mud, and he found himself sliding with each step so that he barely maintained his position on the hill’s side.
It was difficult to see to the hilltop, as heavy as the rain was now, but it couldn’t be that far. And the water was accumulating all the more the in little valley he had just been in. He had no choice but to make it.
So he began climbing on all fours, more a crawl than anything else. He grabbed at the tufts of grass that were still clinging to the side of the incline, using them for purchase as he pulled himself higher.
Everywhere water ran, and he was soaked to the bone. Covered in mud. The earlier heat of the day had gone, leaving Thurim cool, moving toward chilled, as the deluge continued to bombard him.
But he carried on, crawling truly now, using elbows and knees to dig into the ever more loosely bound-together mud to get that one more foot. One more inch. All the more closer to the top, to be safe from the increasing flood that covered the land beneath and below him.
Thurim lost track of time, could see nothing aside from the mud in front of his face. Feel nothing but the trembling of limbs grown numb from wetness and chill and exertion. He had to move his head to the side to breath, so strong was the flow of water—and mud—from the top of the hill, trying to push him down.
But he couldn’t stop. One glance behind and down showed that.
The light was fading; the sun must have reached the horizon, so dark was it getting. But he could see the torrent flowing between the grass-covered hills below him.
He was not a strong swimmer, and anyway that current was looking strong. There was no respite below, only more difficulty, maybe a swift trip to his death. So he had to go on.
Go on he did. As the light faded and he could see less and less. Feel nothing but cold and the urge to just lie still. For surely he could not stand to go even another foot higher up this god-cursed slope.
He needed to stop. Had to stop…
And then the slope was gone. There was only the downpour of rain atop his prone body and at least something approaching level ground. Thurim could barely lift his head, but he forced himself to take a look about, and was shocked to see, in the all but completely faded light, that he had somehow reached the top of the hill.
Water fell down all around him, flowed down the inclines on either side toward the little valleys on all sides of his perch. But right here, where he was, was stability and at least a smidgeon of calm in this tumult.
No comfort, but that wasn’t needed. Right then, all Thurim needed was a respite; any respite.
He slumped down, resting his forehead on the meat of his left forearm. And drifted away into the deepest sleep he could remember.
When he awoke, sunlight, warm and sweet, was streaming down onto him. The air was damp but warm; on any other day he would have considered the sopping heat an exercise in misery. But now as he pushed himself up onto his knees and looked around, still feeling the deep chill he had experienced during the rainfall in the marrow of his bones, the sauna-like warmth felt like heaven.
He was a mess. Clumps of partially-dried mud fell off him as he moved, and his clothing was one big mess of grime, uniformly brown, almost without exception.
But whatever. He wasn’t going to complain. It could have been much worse.
Thurim inhaled deeply and looked around.
There was barely any grass remaining on his little hill, and the others nearby were the same. As far as he could see, what had been lush grasslands with growing plants to mid-thigh was now stripped bare. Brown sludgy mud and detritus from the deluge was everywhere.
Down in the valleys between the rolling hills, some of the mud still flowed, albeit slowly, carrying with it strands of grass as tightly-packed as logs being floated down-river from a woodcutter’s camp.
He wouldn’t trust the footing down there. Not yet. It looked exactly the kind of muck that a man could get caught up in and find himself stuck in, or worse, sucked down and smothered by.
“Going to have to stay up here for a time,” he said, surprising himself with the sound of his own voice.
He was rested, sure, but he still felt the exertions of the previous night. His arms and legs were sore from use of muscles he hadn’t had cause to use very often before, if at all. His throat felt scratchy, and his head was slightly sore, almost like the first inklings of an upcoming cold. And no wonder, from that chill he’d gotten.
But despite that, his voice sounded strong to his own ears, confident and determined.
And after a moment’s consideration, Thurim decided that was indeed how he felt, physical discomforts aside. Which his mind said was odd, considering how bleak the landscape was, to match the bleakness of the prospects for his quest at this point.
No food, and no prospects toward finding any. No way to proceed forward for who knows how long until the valleys dried up.
And Basmin no doubt still dogging his heels.
Though, Thurim considered if he truly had been, Basmin would have been waylaid by the rainfall just as he had. So there was that.
Thurim’s thoughts turned toward his erstwhile friend, and not for the first time he said a prayer that Basmin would have given up on this petty rivalry, this competition that never had to be.
They had together discovered the texts shedding light on the Shrine’s reality; the proof that it was more than a mere legend. It should have been them working together to uncover its secrets. But Basmin had betrayed Thurim. He had resolved that he alone would be the one to find the Shrine. Find it, and control it. So he had stabbed Thurim in the back, set the local magistrates on him on a trumped up charge.
Or tried to.
Thurim had managed to evade his friend’s duplicity, and fled with the texts, determined to get to the shrine first. It was a source of unbelievable power. Such a thing was not meant to serve the vanity of a single man, but to serve all.
He had to get to the shrine first, or he feared all would be lost.
But that wasn’t going to happen right now. Now, there was nothing for it but to sit and wait for the mud to dry. Which could take days.
With a resigned sigh, Thurim shifted his weight, maneuvering to sit down fully, into the old meditation position his teachers had taught him, back when he was a boy being tutored and readied for a man’s burdens.
It seemed so long ago…
His thoughts were just turning toward those days when he settled fully into the meditation position, his weight coming to rest fully onto his buttocks and the hilltop.
And the ground gave way beneath him.
That was the thought that went through his head in that first instant; but he quickly cast that away, as the sun was still just as bright and he could see.
No, the ground hadn’t given way. The bit of not-fully congealed mud that he had shifted onto had slid, and now he was sliding as well, down the hill toward the slowly-moving mud and grass mix that he had just resolved not to go near.
He was gathering speed. The sludge at the bottom of the hill approaching rapidly.
Frantically, Thurim flung his hands out, digging his fingers into the earth on either side. But it was still mostly wet, and he found he couldn’t get much purchase at all.
He was making his own little river of mud and water and debris as he slid down, and the pool that he now felt certain would lead solely to his death was looming. Thurim cried out, and his hand came down on the pommel of his sword.
He hated to lose it, but given the alternative…
Thurim twisted his body, pulling the sword free, and with all his might plunged the blade into the earth.
His momentum carried him on even as the steel dug deep into the soft earth, and Thurim took hold of the weapon with both hands on its grip.
He swayed there for a long moment, and the blade began slipping. It had only driven in halfway, so a good foot of steel was visible out of the earth. The mud on the downhill side of the weapon began to slip, the blade combined with the weight of Thurim’s body compressing the mud and threatening to drag the weapon out completely.
Then, it stopped its slipping. The blade held firm, and Thurim stopped his downward slide.
He kicked with his feet, digging his toes into the mud to get a bit more purchase and take the strain off his arms, which were already beginning to tremble from holding him up from continuing his slide down the treacherous slope.
There wasn’t much purchase, but there was enough to relax his grip, at least a little bit.
Virtually collapsing against the mud of the hillside, Thurim breathed in and out deeply for a long minute or so. Then he looked down.
The river of mud and grass was only a few feet beneath his feet now. If the sword hadn’t—
But it had. And he didn’t dare to pull it out.
Though he couldn’t just perch here forever, either.
Thurim twisted his body, looking down at the mud river then up at the facing hill on its other side. Quite a lot more close-by than Thurim had at first thought. It looked as though the other hill’s slope, less steep than his own and apparently mostly solid, was only ten feet or so from him.
Too far to jump. But maybe…
Thurim let go of his sword with his left hand and ran it down to the lacquered breastplate he wore. Once finely painted, plain and elegant while also being functional, it was now battered and mud-covered. Resembling nothing so much as a cast-off from a defeated soldier.
Nothing a good cleaning couldn’t cure. But that wan’t going to happen any time soon, and anyway…
He couldn’t make the jump to the other side. And if he landed in that mud river, the weight of the breastplate would only aid in dragging him down.
Thurim hated it, didn’t want to even consider doing it. But there was no choice. It had to go.
He ran his fingers to the clasp that held his cloak around his shoulders, then removed it, stuffing the fabric between his thigh and the mud of the hill so it wouldn’t be lost. Then he got to work on the buckles that held the breastplate snug around his torso, slowly loosening and then undoing them completely.
Moving slowly and carefully, he shrugged his left shoulder, then his right, switching hands on the grip of his sword to keep his position as he slowly got the breastplate off…
And then it was off, sliding down the hill next to him for a foot or two before stopping.
Thankfully, it didn’t slide all the way into the muck. Maybe he’d be able to retrieve it later on.
First things first, though.
His red cloak was a ruin, and he would need to ruin it more.
The sword was mostly stuck into the earth, but a portion of its blade was still accessible, and still sharp.
A few moments of ginger, careful movement later, and Thurim had his cloak cut into thirds, lengthwise. He tied the three strips together, end to end, then tied one end of the makeshift rope around the grip of his sword.
Then, slowly, he began easing himself down the slope toward the mud river, grasping onto the cloak rope to slow his descent and alternating his gaze from the mud river below to the earthbound sword above.
It was only the passage of a few feet. But it seemed to take forever before he felt the soles of his boots sink into that treacherous flow.
Thurim swallowed. Moment of truth.
Though the sword, driven as it was into the earth, had been able to support his weight so far, when he made his way across the mud flow he’d be tugging at a different angle. Would it hold then, as well?
No way to know except to try. One thing was certain; he couldn’t remain where he was.
Thurim pushed himself out from the hillside, keeping his feet perched on the earth just above the mud river, until he was standing upright instead of lying against the slope, like he had been a moment ago.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he turned around, facing the mud river with his back to the slope. Working quickly to coil the rest of his makeshift rope loosely in his grasp, he took a long, deep breath, said a quick prayer.
He jumped as far as he could, straight across the mud river toward the other side.
It would not be far enough, not by half. But it would be better than just stepping in. And with the cloak rope to hang on to…
He splashed into the mud river with more of a slurp than a splash. The cool, slippery muck seemed to grab at him, caressing almost like a lover as it engulfed the lower half of his body and began sucking him further down.
The river was moving, too, and he found himself being drawn, however slowly, downstream, at the same time he was being drawn under.
Pulling strongly at the cloak rope to keep himself up and at least somewhat close to his desired destination, he moved slowly and deliberately, crawling forward through the swirling muck toward the other side.
He fed the cloak rope out as he went. It was difficult going. Very difficult. But it was working, and he was making progress. Just a few feet more…
Then he felt a tug in the cloak rope, and he looked back to see there was no more. He was at the literal end of the rope, and he still had a good three or four feet to go. He couldn’t feel anything remotely like solid ground beneath his feet, nor could his grasping hand as he swept it out toward what passed for the far shore.
Had he misjudged? Was the other bank further than he had thought?
He had known the cloak wouldn’t get him all the way, but it seemed he should have had some sign of surety by now, anyway…
Fear, fear that he had been working very hard not to pay attention to, welled up within him, and Thurim considered that if he let go of the cloak and set out without that anchor to breathable air, he would be slowly and inexorably drawn down. If he didn’t reach the far bank, and quickly…
Fear almost became panic as he considered the horror of sinking beneath the surface. Tasting the mud as it filled his mouth and nostrils.
Suffocating beneath its slimy weight.
Thurim’s belly heaved at the thought and he tasted bile for a second, so strong was the surge of panic that gripped him.
He had to go back. Haul himself out using the cloak rope and get back to safety. Yes, that perch on the side of the hill wasn’t ideal. Far from it. But it was safe, relatively, and he could wait there until the mud river dried up.
It was tempting.
But it was also folly. For one, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to haul himself back through all that mud, even with the cloak rope to assist; hell, it might give way at any time. For another, he would just be trading one relatively quick, though hideous, death for another, slower one.
Because now that he’d experienced this mud river, he doubted it would be dried up enough for him to cross in a week. Certainly not in a day or two. And he was now without gear; his waterskin was still slung around his waist, but it was mud logged now. Who knows if it would be drinkable or not.
Death by suffocation, or death by thirst.
Or a possible chance for life. And the continuance of his quest.
That thought roused him, and he shoved the panic down with all his might.
Then he stretched his free hand forward as far as he could, while inching his fingertips to the end of his cloak rope.
Get as far across as possible before…
He let go, and threw that hand forward, like a man swimming a forward crawl in a pond.
Immediately, he began to sink. His chin touched the mud, his cheeks.
He kicked, trying to drive himself upward, but to no avail.
Desperate, he threw his arms forward again, kicking all the harder.
His mouth went under, and then his nostrils. The mud was up to his eyes…
And his fingertips sank into something almost solid.
Still soft and slimy, but compared with the muck he had been traipsing through, it felt like granite.
Thurim kicked and, forcing himself forward, now he got a full hand into that firmer earth.
Then a second hand. Then his boot got more purchase, and through the fire coming from his lungs Thurim had the presence of mind to chide himself for a fool—leaving his boots on???
He was desperate for a breath, but he dared not open his mouth. He could just barely see; the mud river was just below his eyes now, but he felt he was making progress, faster progress now.
His heart pounded in his ears. Every fiber of his body screamed at him to take a breath.
Then his face was clear fo the mud river, and he did just that, an explosive inhalation that felt like all the pleasures of heaven rolled into one.
He couldn’t stop though. His immediate breath need fulfilled, he pulled himself higher, and higher.
Until, after what seemed like hours, he was clear of the mud river, and he lay there gasping, his entire body shivering from the coolness he had just crawled through, but more from the terror that had so nearly claimed him.
He just laid there, breathing. For a long time.
When Thurim finally pushed himself up onto his feet, it was all he could do to sway there for a moment, a mud-covered apparition that probably would have struck fear into the village boys back home, so far away in a different, wooded, world. He was thoroughly miserable, and completely strengthless.
But something within him told Thurim that he could not afford to rest here.
He couldn’t have said why, but the certainty that he had to continue onward. Now. Filled him.
Almost like a physical force, tugging at his insides.
That was impossible, of course. But it was also real. And Thurim could no more resist it than the rising of the moon and the sun, not the way he was feeling right then.
So he put one trembling foot down in front of the other, and took a halting step forward, and up the slope ahead of him.
It was a more gradual slope than he had come down, as it had appeared from afar. But the way was still slick with mud, the footing treacherous, and he was still exhausted from exertion and fright.
It was slow going.
Gradually, though, the footing became more sure, and his pace improved. After a time, the single slope he was ascending changed, to become more steep to his right and left, while still continuing its shallow climb in the middle directly ahead. It was like he was climbing up through a pass between two hills, which pass was gradually becoming more steep until the slopes to either side were practically sheer, and he was walking up into a canyon, more like a crevasse.
Part of Thurim’s mind rebelled at what he was seeing, what he was doing.
There was no canyon anywhere in the area. No crevasse like this that he was now walking through. The hills of these grasslands were rolling and many, but most were not particularly high and if there had been a formation such as this Thurim would have seen it yesterday or the day before.
Hell, this morning.
Still he was ascending a path, and it was taking him through a crevasse. And he was breathing, his heart was pounding, his mouth was dry from thirst and every muscle in his body was trembling and aching from exertion and fatigue.
So he wasn’t dead.
Maybe he was dreaming?
But he cast that thought from his head as quickly as it came. No dream had ever been this vivid, this real.
No, he was awake, and miserable.
And suddenly filled with awe.
Because the path through the crevasse took a sudden turn to the right, and when he rounded that bend brown mud and dirt gave way to polished white marble underneath his feet. Fluted columns of the same material stood ahead of him, flanking a high archway that looking to have been carved yesterday, it was so smooth and so highly polished.
The sunlight streaming down from almost directly above the crevasse struck the top of the archway, and reflected toward Thurim, every color of the rainbow springing in and out of his vision depending on how he turned his head.
The oppressive heat and humidity that had been plaguing his steps faded as well, becoming dry coolness that seemed to immediately offer comfort. But more than that, a trickling sound from past the archway brought a surge of hope and relief to him.
A fountain. That was the sound of a fountain ahead.
And God, was he thirsty.
Stumbling steps became a shuffling half-run, and Thurim stepped beneath the archway. As he did so, he felt a joy and satisfaction that he had not experienced in a long, long time.
Because as he looked around the marble-paved courtyard past the archway, and at the circular marble fountain at its center, which somehow had water splashing upward from its very center to shoot its sparkling droplets high into the air before plunging back into the pure water in the fountain’s basin, he knew for certain exactly where he was, even if he had no idea how he had actually come there.
It was the Shrine of Tulok. He had found it.
Somehow, some way, he had found it.
And Basmin was nowhere to be seen.
His laughter of joy and triumph echoed for what seemed an eternity.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: