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The Walls of Westguard

Chapter 1 The Wall

Raskelf was a dozen miles away along the winding curves of the valley but half that distance the way that Harad had walked, taking the straight route over the hills with his long, gangling limbs carrying him swiftly on the narrow paths. The high ridgeline ended in a treeless, west-facing hillside that looked down on the valley as it curled in from the north. On the other side was the great saddle of bare rock at the top of which was the pass between Raskelf valley and the Wall.

Harad made his way down the hillside towards the stream that fed Raskelf. Here it was little more than a dark narrow band of tall marsh grasses and he picked his way through it until he reached the foot of the steep climb. There was a path of sorts making its way up the slope and he hesitated, looking around him, as if the maker of the path might suddenly appear to challenge him, but valley was still empty and the deserted path turned back and forth above him, the slope too steep to follow a straight line. It was littered with loose rock-falls and scree-slopes, slippery with moisture from a fine mist that clung to the rocks and mirrored the dark clouds above.

Harad was blowing hard by the time he reached the top and the remaining breath was knocked out of him by the icy wind that roared across it. There was snow on the ground and icy pools smoothed the fractured rocks. He shivered, and wrapped his jacket tight around him. He walked on over the crest of the pass to where the ground began to fall away and he saw the Wall before him. Even though he knew what to expect, the sight was as impressive as the day his father had brought him here when he was ten years old. That time he had been told to go no further.

“That is the Cloud-Wall, Harad. It protects us, and we honour it, but we do not go near it. You must not go beyond this ridge and you must not cross into the valley of the Wall.”

“Did someone make it? What’s on the other side?” The younger Harad had asked, in breathless awe.

“The Cloud-Wall has always been there, always. It marks the end of the world. There is no other side.”

Jared’s words had been very clear, and Harad had not been this way since that day four years before. He heard his father’s words again as he crouched down on his haunches and gazed down into the valley, curly brown hair squashed down under a knitted hat and his round face screwed up to keep the wind out of his eyes. A few hundred paces away, the clouds from the sky came down to earth as a solid wall of dense grey fog, almost black where it approached the ground. The Wall passed from earth to sky: impenetrable and massive, from the jagged crags of Askrigg rearing in the north to Raskelf Fell in the south, horizon to horizon, always changing but never broken.

“Sorry, Pa.” Harad spoke his words into the wind and then stood up and passed over the ridge to begin the descent into the forbidden valley. His step quickened as the ridge fell away and the valley floor approached. The floor of the valley was dark, with the sky low overhead and the Wall itself blocking what little brightness came from the west. Harad moved closer, shivering, torn between fear of the Marshalls somehow discovering him and thoughts of whispered tales of a fair valley beyond the Wall. Villagers sometimes talked in quiet huddles of a land without Marshalls or God-Kings, a land of light and brightness. Harad did not believe their tales of a land where flower-strewn meadows covered gentle hills and waterfalls tumbled into deep pools full of clear water, shining bright with golden treasure beneath, but he did look up at the grey skies above him and wonder about the light. Other tales, more believable, told of those who had tried to cross the Wall only to disappear forever, or to emerge, disorientated and broken, many hours later.

Harad’s walk slowed as he neared the Wall. The grass was long and wet but patchy with damp earth and straggly weeds poking through the gaps; both grass and weeds turned pale near the Wall and then they failed altogether, leaving only naked black soil. He stepped onto the soft black earth, untouched and unnatural, his heart hammering in his chest. Nothing happened, but silence enveloped him: there was no birdsong and even the sound of the wind faded away. He moved forwards, gradually closer, until, with trembling fingers, he reached out into the mist of the Wall itself. The cold struck him like a blow, touching it was like sinking arms into an icy river and like the river it moved, tugging and dragging. It really was very cold and Harad shivered again, moisture condensing on his face and dripping down his nose. His arms disappeared from view and then his body was wrapped in swirling tendrils of cloud. The mist was thicker than any fog that crept along the river valley to Raskelf and he could neither see nor hear anything in front of him. The mist pressed its cold hands around him, drawing him inwards. He began to take a second step forwards but then his nose dripped again and the water tickled as it ran over his lips. He remembered where he was and with a great effort stopped his leg and pulled his foot towards him. His leg did not want to move that way and when he finally got it back on the ground and tried to step backwards his body felt stuck, like a fly caught on the surface of a pond. He leaned back and pushed with his legs. Slowly, slowly, he managed half a step and then another until after a last tug of resistance, the Wall seemed to release him and he found himself back on the dead earth.

For a long time he stood there, gazing into the darkening mist. Eventually he stepped back onto the dank grass and the spell was broken. He turned and ran, away from the Wall and onto the steep trail out of the valley. He only stopped running when he could breathe no more, even then he forced his legs to keep moving until he was high enough to feel the dry cold of the world’s wind rather than the dank iciness of the valley of the Cloud-Wall. Only then he turned for a final view of the Wall and its masses of dark, swirling mist roiling endlessly in the dark valley.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” a soft voice behind him made Harad jump. He swung around to see the grinning face of Torok standing a few paces higher up than him, by the side of a massive rock that leaned over the edge of the path.

“Good afternoon, Torok,” Harad replied warily. Torok was a hunter, a few years older than Harad and no friend of his.

“You look tired. It must be a hard climb.”

“I got lost, looking for mushrooms….” Harad held up his string gathering bag, sadly empty.

“So that’s why you had to go and hug the Wall? Looking for lunch?”

“Look, I’ve done no harm…”

“And I’m sure that’s how Jared will see it” Torok smiled his thin smile. “I’ll be sure to let your people know you’re coming, they’ll be worried with you out so late!” With that Torok was gone, striding hard up towards the ridge, his mocking laughter seeming to hang in the air.

“Torok! Torok, wait!” Harad called forlornly after the departing hunter. Torok was lean and strong and used to moving fast, by the time Harad had scrambled up to the top of the ridge Torok was already most of the way down, running lithely along the path, expertly riding the scree on the steeper parts where rock slides covered the way.

Harad sat down on the path and put his head in his hands. His father would be furious! Jared was not a man with much imagination: he took rules very seriously. Harad had broken one of the God-King’s laws, and Jared might think that too serious to deal with himself. He’d call a village meeting, maybe even get in a Marshall from Hellaby! What had Torok been doing out so far? If only it had been someone else, anyone else! Harad’s eyes bored into the back of the already distant hunter.

“Damn him” Harad muttered, staring angrily. Torok leapt onto another sheet of scree and skidded smoothly down, he took another leap and he seemed to freeze in the air for a moment…Harad hung in the air above dark masses of smooth, dark water. The water rose and fell in great breath-like swells and nearby, waves crashed endlessly on unseen rocks. Spray surrounded him, the grey swell licked at his boots and his head was filled with the impersonal roar of limitless power. Angrily, Harad shook his head. He had no time for this! He willed himself to return to the world …and his vision returned. He was back on the ridge, looking down the steep hillside. Harad watched in amazement as the scree all about Torok at first darkened wetly and then began to move. At first the mountainside lifted and buckled, then fissured, throwing debris into the air. Then a great slab of mountainside a hundred strides across began to move, sliding downslope and carrying the narrow path, and Torok, with it. The hunter teetered frantically trying to balance but lost the battle and fell, to be carried away helplessly on a wet slick of boulders, shale and mud. The sound of tumbling rocks reached Harad a few moments later and continued echoing around him after the slide had stopped in a cloud of dirty brown dirt and grey rock-dust.

Harad got to his feet and ran down the steep slope to where Torok had disappeared. He reached the edge of the slide and stopped, reluctant to climb onto rock that had only moments before been alive with movement. The rock was damp everywhere but where it had erupted there was running water, spilling off the rocks in little trilling waterfalls to gather in clear pools. As Harad watched the water seeped away, disappearing back into the earth. He climbed carefully onto a large rock at the edge of the landslide. It felt solid enough and so he ventured further out onto the slide, heading for the path where it emerged from under the rubble a hundred strides away. Half-way across he saw movement downslope from him. Torok had somehow managed to stay near the surface of the slide and had already dug himself out. He stood up slowly on his left leg alone and winced when he tried to put weight on the right leg as well. He glared accusingly at Harad as he picked his way towards him through the rocks.

“Are you all right?” Harad gasped as he drew closer.

“I’m alive, no thanks to you. How did you do that?” Torok snarled.

“I didn’t do anything!” Harad protested.

“I’ve seen you, with all your little tricks. By the Wall, you’ve gone too far this time! If Jared doesn’t call a Marshall then I will!”

Harad stepped back, stunned. He knew Torok as a secretive man, the kind who watched but did not gossip – he preferred secrets to confidences. He stared at Torok and at the blood pooling beneath the damaged leg and a decision crystallised in his mind.

“Can you walk?”

“Obviously not but I’ll manage” Torok spat.

“I’ll send someone for you. Stay on the path.”

Harad backed hurriedly away, regained the path and then turned and ran for home.

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