Chapter 4: The Long March

On the morning of the fourth day Virpan spotted signs of habitation. Along the edges of the river appeared screw pumps, irrigation ditches, and small farmer’s huts. They crossed through one field flanked by singed trees and shrubs. Virpan shook her head. Not far from the field they came to the edges of a settlement.

Two clusters of huts stood a few dozen yards apart, centered on stone wells. In the space between them was a surprisingly large market. Around a score of peddlers were accosting passersby from beneath their colorful awnings, shoving wooden pipes and jars of beads at anyone who so much as slowed their pace.

“Let’s check the market,” Avuksik said, clapping his hands together.

“Let’s not,” Virpan said, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him back.

“I’d be more interested in the shrine,” Wukkar said, stepping in the opposite direction.

“Are you two insane?” She demanded. “We need to get away from here. Look, over there, some of Karriv’s Jaguar Warriors.”

A pair of men in black ponchos were stepping through the market, the two acrobatically twirling their clubs as they walked. The crowd parted before them. Virpan turned to leave, only to find that in the few moments she had been looking at the warriors her two idiots had vanished. Grating her teeth in rage, Virpan slinked around the edge of town to try and find them.

Against all her instincts, she strolled into the village crowd, trying to act natural. This proved harder than anticipated, as an old man immediately crashed into her. The impact sent her through a door and onto a blood soaked floor. A mustachioed man with a curved knife yelled at her from behind a deer carcass.

She jumped to her feet, rushing back out into the market in time to spot Avuksik. He was standing a stone’s throw away holding a steaming loaf of bread. An angry young woman was bearing down on him with a rolling pin, a small mob gathering around him.

“Thief!” she cried.

Unsurprised, Virpan ran down the road arriving just as Avuksik had his back against the wall of a nearby hut. She snatched the loaf away from him and shoved it forcefully into the woman’s mitts, sending her toppling over into the mob. Virpan grabbed her idiot’s arm and pulling him through the opening, not stopping until they were at the edge of town. Once there she rounded on her companion.

“Stealing bread!? What were you thinking!?”

“Hey, hey,” Avuksik spat, “It was a misunderstanding. The lady wouldn’t accept my coins. She thought I was cheating her and then, out came the rolling pin.”

“Fine, I won’t kill you,” Virpan sighed, “Where’s Wukkar?”

“Don’t know. He went the other direction.”

“The shrine,” she said, heading up the road.

It meandered through the trees, passing before a few decaying huts on its way to the shrine. One of the huts was home to a troop of Jaguar warriors, around a half dozen men sitting around a smoking fire pit exchanging stories. They quieted as Virpan and Avuksik walked past, a suspicious murmur passing between them. She shivered, trying to keep her eyes from wondering.

She tensed when she heard several of their number rise from around the fire pit and begin walking behind her down the road. Virpan took Avuksik’s hand and held it tight, forcing him to keep pace with her. He stammered but did not speak, apparently taking her gesture the wrong way. With no way to discretely correct his notions, she remained quiet and outwardly calm all the way to the shrine.

The shrine of Valtor was quite dilapidated. The sloping roof had shed many of its tiles, leaving naked patches of rotting wood.  The paint on the front panels had almost completely peeled away, while the doors lay broken on the ground a few feet before the threshold. A dim, flickering light emanated from within. Virpan hoped that this was Wukkar’s work, as she doubted that they could return to this village again.

She pulled Avuksik into the building, the troop of warriors not far behind. She found the interior completely covered in debris, save for a small space around the stone statue of Valtor in the large room’s middle. There, kneeling between a pair of flickering oil lamps, she found her second idiot.

“Wukkar,” she hissed, advancing on him, “get up.”

He turned, opening his mouth to reply. He never uttered a word, his eyes going wide as the troop of Jaguar Warriors entered the ruined shrine. She knew they were fanning out, preparing to trap them. The dry twigs and leaves beneath her feet gave Virpan an idea. She rushed forward, grabbing the twin oil lamps around Wukkar and threw them at the warriors.

A ribbon of flame shot up before them, creating a wall between them and their pursuers. Virpan turned and kicked Wukkar into action, Avuksik already racing towards the windows in the rear of the building. They spilled out into the jungle beyond, Wukkart and Avuksik leaning against nearby trees to catch their breath.

“No time,” Virpan cried, rushing into the foliage. “We have to move now, or we’ll never lose them.”

“Alright,” Avuksik sighed, running after her. “Hey, come on, slowpoke, she’s our only hope.”

“Wait up!” Wukkar cried, trying his best to catch up, “I have the message!”

-#-

Halfway through the sixth day found Virpan and her companions making their way through a maze of watercourses. While walking through the shallow water of one of the narrower creeks, she glanced back at her compatriots. It heartened her that they were at last able to keep pace with her. The tree line was thinning before them, a sign that their trek was nearing its end. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a Jilote bush by the water’s edge. She slowed her pace, stopping before the plant to see if it had any blossoms. A split second later an arrow sailed through her hair, hitting a nearby tree with a sickening thunk.

Instantly her instincts kicked in. She turned to find Wulklar and Avuksik standing behind her. She grabbed them and pulled them into the shrubbery as a hail of arrows landed all around them. Trying to remain calm, Virpan crawled through the bush. The sounds of Wukkar and Avuksik panicking did nothing to ease her mind. They crawled through the undergrowth, nearly disturbing a viper nest, as angry shouts echoed around them.

On the other side of the foliage they fell into a creek, the loud splash giving away their location instantly. Staggering, shocked, they ran for their lives down the creek bed, Avuksik taking the lead. He pulled the spear off his back, checking around for their attackers. Virpan considered pulling out her bow, but decided against it. A chanting began, a frightening rhythmic noise emanating from all around them.

“We’re surrounded!” Avuksik cried, breaking into a sprint.

“Wait!” Virpan called, running after him, “don’t get separated!”

It was too late. Virpan watched as two warriors pounced on Avuksik from the banks of the creek. They dragged his screaming form around a river bend out of sight. A sickening crack was heard and then silence. Virpan and Wukkar exchanged a panicked glance before running in the opposite direction.

As they fled up river, the thought of Avuksik’s fate nearly made Virpan ill. The constant chanting wore on them. At times it seemed to be growing more distant, only to begin catching up minutes later. Before long, their lungs and muscles screamed in protest. Virpan knew they were quickly running out of stamina. She marshaled her willpower to keep going, hoping that Wukkar could match her pace.

Ahead was a bright light in the distance. The tree line broke, and a long rolling field of green grass stretched out before them. The grasses worked their way upwards, and upwards, until melding into a mighty wall of stone. Virpan stopped for a moment, staring at in awe at a huge ridge of Mountains running from one end of the world to the other. After a moment of staring she turned to her winded companion, finding him doubled over in pain.

With no sign of their pursuiers, Virpan decided to steal a short break. She took out her canteen and offered it to Wukkar, who quickly guzzled down its contents. While he caught his breath, she took a good look at the path before them. The grassy hills swept up into piles of boulders. A chilly wind blew down from the peaks, sending a child down her spine. Virpan realized they were going to have to climb them.

The sound of chanting wafted from the trees, forcing them to hurry across the foothills. Several arrows fell nearby. Virpan broke into a run, glancing over her shoulder to track the progress of their pursuers. The warriors were gaining on them, forcing her to pick up the pace again. They were out of range of the arrows, but only just.

“Just a little further!” She urged Wukkar, who nodded breathlessly.

The grass had given way to a field of boulders which they dodged around in their ascent of the hills. The unstable terrain forced Virpan to slow, bringing them in range of arrows. Two more sailed overhead, though neither came close to even hitting the mountainside.

Virpan was heartened, hoping that the warriors were becoming as fatigued at they were. Her hope was shattered when Wukkar cried out in pain. She whipped around, knowing what she was about to see. The boy was shuddering on the ground, an arrow stuck into his thigh.

“Arrgh,” he moaned.

“Wukkar, you have to get up,” she shouted, watching the enemy draw ever closer.

“No, I’ll never make it,” he whimpered, pulling out the scroll. “Deliver the message!” He threw the roll of parchment to her, Virpan nearly fumbling the priceless paper.

Knowing he was right, Virpan stuffed the paper under her tunic and run up the embankment. Even though Virpan had turned away, she knew the moment the warriors reached him.

Alone, she pooled every last once of strength for a final push to escape. But the mountain steepened sharply ahead of her. Before long she was on all fours, clambering across an impossible steep slope. The rocky ground began crumbling beneath her. She lurched towards a boulder protruding from the mountainside. Here she would make her last stand.

She arrived on her plinth, pulling out an arrow. With only four shots, each one would have to count. Perhaps she hadn’t been moving as quickly as she had thought, or perhaps one of the pursuers had made one final push as well, for the moment she turned around one of them was only arms length away.

He let out a guttural yell, throwing his entire towering frame at her. In a single motion she dropped the arrow, drew out her bronze dagger, and slashed the lunging warrior across his chest while ducking backwards. The man toppled down the embankment.

With three arrows, Virpan pulled out her bow and shot the next warrior in the chest. The man fell back, wounded, his partner ducking behind a boulder. Another jumped past him and pulled himself towards her. With her second to last arrow, Virpan hit him in the arm. The man lost his grip and fell down the slope, his flailing starting a small rockslide.

The other warriors came to a stop, several carefully leaning out to get a better vantage on her. Virpan panted, leaning back against the rock face. The rush from moments earlier was subsiding now, leaving her feeling frightened. And very, very cold. Teeth chattering, Virpan knew what going higher meant. But she had no other direction.

Virpan swallowed, and continued up the mountainside. The climb was arduous, her fingers going numb as she ascended into the frigid heights. At last she clambered onto a level plateau. A plateau covered in snow. She shivered, a sharp wind blowing down from between two peaks. Feeling numbness everyone, Virpan made a final push. The sound of pursuit had died away completely, replaced an endless silence.

The silence was everywhere. She put one numb foot in front of the next, her mind starting to swim. Colors flickered in front of her eyes. The world slowly spun in circles around her. Dizzy, Virpan sank to her knees. The colors began to form into images in her mind. Images of Waviwi waiting at her door forever, of her village in flames, of her own corpse being picked clean on the snowfield.

The frigid wind was now the only thing tethering her with reality. Shivering uncontrollably, she fell into the snow, surrendering to the cold. Numb every ware now, Virpan held the letter out in front of her, hoping someone would find it. A shadow approached, an odd crunching noise filling her ears

“Father…”

“Tin Witki Þwisŋit,” said a muffled voice.

“The tongue of the spirits?” she uttered, slipping from the conscious world.

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