The sun dipped behind the resolute crags of the towering mountain. Like the venomous teeth of a viper, the sun was consumed in all her vermilion splendour. I felt the darkness before it came. It smelt of fear and loneliness of forgotten moments and unchased dreams. Another night fighting the living nightmares, another sleepless marathon I could not fail. Three weeks of such nights had already seem me make my way slowly and painfully along the broken, sharp ridges of Scarred Pass. The days were marked by increasing heat waves and a relentless sun that burned and blinded me. My hands were shredded from the rocks, and my shoes had forsaken me many miles ago, in their place were bandages of my old sweater, hardly any protection. Blisters and oozing sores covered my hands, knees and feet, I hoped that the infection would not take hold. I slept for a few hours each morning, just as the first light trickled over the edges of the horizon, but it was unwise to stay in one place for too long. The Scarred – creatures of these cliffs hunted warm-bloods and would not attack you if you kept moving, but stalked you in the dark hours, eager to pull you down to their dark caves. I could already hear a scuttle here and a rock tremble there as a foot passed over it, the moon had waned to less than a silver thread and the night was as dark as a tomb. Stumbling on, I felt the path begin to rise, winding up and up along the cliff side. I had to hold on and take each painful step carefully – there would be no chance of recovery from such a fall. Feelings of intense weariness blurred my sight and a fever began to attack my body – I think the hopes I had before were empty, infection must have set in. My mind began playing tricks on me and the path became a frightening kaleidoscope of images of my past and terrors from my dreams. There I saw Amy being taken, rough hands lifting her onto a horse’s back and tears streaming down her pale cheeks, shock resonating in her eyes. Then my fears raced to take over, dreams that had tormented me, dreams of Amy dying, of my journey being for nothing. Sometimes I wish it were true that I could just lie down and let it all go, sinking into oblivion beyond the harsh reality of life. But I could not let her down, and with that thought driving me on, I fought, swatting the multi-chromatic visions swirling before me, shouting wordless phrases of defiance that echoed off the canyon walls. It must have been near midnight when I stumbled over something and fell hard on the path, scratching for anything to hang onto as I began to slide off the edge. My grasp began to slip, one by one my fingers slid over the edge and with one final movement, I fell. The colours and nightmares seemed to stretch and dive, retreating to a tiny pinhole and then fading all together into the nameless, careless night. I felt hands grab my arms, but that was impossible – my mind had created comfort for my last moment on the earth. I had failed Amy.
Taste… the first thought was how vile the taste in my mouth was. It tasted like ashes and mud, thick and warm swirling around in my mouth. Before my eyes opened I spat and then froze… what was happening!? I remember falling, but unless this was some dream state between worlds, something had happened. My body felt so weary, but the fever was gone and my mind felt sharper, baulking at the memories of lunacy that had haunted me. A soft whisper met my ears and my eyes flew open. Taking a moment to focus, my sight fell on a face just a few inches from mine. It was feminine and oval in shape and seemed very angular as if instead of round shapes, sharp shapes were part of the formation. Black eyes with silver pupils met my gaze and I shuddered, thinking that was not natural. I struggled back from her touch to my forehead and stared, wondering what and who this person was. Had she somehow saved me? I remembered the feeling of hands catching me and looked at the tall frail creature before me… surely she could not have done this. So this brought me to my next conclusion… there must be more. One thing I could be peaceful about is that at least the Scarred had not found me – whoever and whatever these creatures were, it was better than having your blood drained by soulless fiends. I sat up, my head spinning, but altogether feeling much healthier than before. The female stood and walked to the opening, she passed through the door, but I could still see her shadow. A long wail-like call echoed from the passages sending chills up my spine. Quickly taking in my surroundings I saw I lay on a small pallet and was covered with a rough cover of hessian fabric. The wall on one side was carved to form a bench of sorts and a small lantern flickered on the floor. The female returned and behind her appeared a tall male, with similar strange eyes and sharp, angular features. He stood about a head and a half above her – around 8 feet tall. I pulled myself up straighter and cleared my throat. Just as I was about to speak, the male said something, I did not catch what it was, but he repeated himself, ‘You do not belong here.’
‘I know! I’m sorry to be a bother to you, but there is no other way.’
‘You risk much coming here.’
‘Yes, I must, someone’s life depends upon it.’
Thinking of Amy, my hand found its way to my pocket to finger the keepsake I had of when I had seen her last. I started – it was not there! I began frantically searching the bed, beside it, in my pockets and was brought to an abrupt halt as the male said in a curious voice,
‘Is this what you seek?’
In his hand lay the crimson ribbon that had tied Amy’s hair the day she had left. It had slipped from her golden tresses and flown on the breeze back to where I stood, helpless and scared. It had been my talisman. It was more precious to me than anything else; I felt anger and said in a tone not becoming a guest,
‘That is mine! You have no right to take it!’
Both of the strange people stepped back, shocked by my outburst and the female said in a gentle tone, her accent halting and unsure,
‘You had it in your fist when you fell. It was covered in your blood, we washed it for you – I am sorry to have offended.’
I hung my head in shame and holding up both hands in a sign of repentance said,
‘Forgive me, I overreacted. Please, could I have it back?’
The male leant forward and dropped the ribbon into my hands. I held it against my face and felt a tear trickle down.
A couple of days passed, the female, Timia, nursed me without tiring and the male, Bayk, would come and talk to me, finding out about my past and about the mission I had set. I did not feel fear or restraint and unfolded to him the whole story of how someone so dear to me had been sold to a man far away. She had been no better than a cow purchased at market – she had no choice in the matter, and I was on my way to find her. He would listen patiently, never once stating his mind, somehow knowing that the wounds of the mind were greater than the body. In their own way, each of them healed me. Finally I was ready to continue, and having been promised assistance, I joined the two to meet the rest of their clan for the first time. Washing myself had been wonderful, the water was frigid, but refreshing and the clothing, although far too big was comfortable and strong. Walking though the faintly lit halls below the mountain, I followed Timia. Coming round a corner we made our way through an arch and entered a huge cavern filled with about 50 others of Timia and Bayk’s folk. Passing through the crowd I smiled and nodded, feeling easy with this group that had so kindly found and healed me. But then, just as I thought all was well, I heard something. A sound, a shuffle, and the truth came flooding into my brain… I knew that sound well, it was the sound of the Scarred, the sound that had haunted and hunted me. This was them! They had lured me into their den, and now… now was what the myths spoke of, torture and strange rituals in which the Scarred drank the blood of their prey. My knees buckled and then I raced past Timia and stood against the wall, searching desperately for a way out, the group surrounded me, staring with those strange silver eyes. I shouted,
‘Don’t come any closer!!! Stay back!’
Timia stepped back and her eyes scanned the crowd, looking for Bayk. He appeared from my right and approached me.
‘No! Stay back!’ my shout dropped to a whisper as my heart quailed, ‘please, stay back..’
Bayk stopped a few feet away and said,
“I am sorry we did not tell you who we were… I was afraid of this, that is why I did not. What you have heard of us, is not true. It is lies spread by us to keep hunters and marauders away from our sacred mountains.’
I was unsure, and still stood stiff against the wall and asked,
‘How can I believe you?’
Timia spoke then, ‘We could have just let you fall instead of risk our lives to save you. We could have killed you long before if we wished, but since you entered our domain, we have watched over you. Bayk and I have been your keepers for many miles. There are cliff lions and sand snakes that prey on humans – you have been saved from them countless times without even being aware of it.’
I was flummoxed, ‘So, you were protecting me? Not hunting me?’
Timia nodded and then Bayk spoke up.
‘We have listened and watched you – you are lost and homeless.’
I wanted to deny his words, but they were true… I had nowhere to go and had not even decided where to go after I saved Amy. But Bayk was not done,
‘Timia and I have spoken to our people… we would like to help you. There are passages inside the mountain that lead to the outside, we will take you safely along them. And another thing…’
I watched as Amy came into the barn. She was thin and white as a sheet, bruised on one side of her face and desolation was clear in her eyes. She carried two buckets and slowly lowering herself to sit beside the old jersey cow’s side, she leant her head against the warm flank of the beast. The bonny girl I had known had turned into an old woman in less than a year. I did not want to give her a fright; she looked so frail, so instead, I let the ribbon slowly fall to the ground from where I perched on one of the beams. It drifted and danced on the way down, curling as a draft caressed it, and finally coming to rest on the faded blue fabric covering Amy’s knee. She jumped from fright and then as she wrapped her fingers around the ruby strand, her eyes began searching the barn. I dropped softly onto the hay beside her and with a heart bursting with joy, I hugged her and both our tears fell like summer rain. I showed for her to keep quiet and then taking her hand in mine, I made for the side-door. Amy began crying,
‘He will find me, he will kill us.’
I grasped her shoulders firmly in my hands and said with complete assurance,
‘He will not, we are not alone in the world anymore. We have a family now, they are helping us. Come, we don’t have much time, we must get to the Cliffs before midday.’
Amy stiffened and said between sobs,
“But the Scarred will get us!’
I smiled and said, ‘No, they will take care of us. Now… do you trust me?’
Amy dried her eyes and gave me a courageous smile,
‘Of course I do – you are my sister.’
I smiled back and leading Amy along the shadow of the barn and into the forest where my new friends waited, I suddenly knew in my heart that all was going to be ok. I could bury my red ribbon… I did not need it anymore.