The leaves were what first spoke to Bruce Riansson and told him that maybe there was still some hope in life.
He sat on the damp, pungent leaf mould of the clearing just where the squad of soldiers had left him, with all that he now owned in the world: a satchel with enough food for two meals, a small knife and three copper coins. He had been exiled to the wilderness and they had left him three copper coins. It was a mockery of charity.
He wished they had just killed him. He had been sentenced to death, but the king, with a wicked glint in his eyes, had so graciously, so magnanimously commuted his sentence to exile. Now he would die a longer, more painful death than any executioner’s axe could give.
He had been sitting that way for some time when he heard the leaves rustling and whispering above him as the wind played them back and forth restlessly. There were no words in their message, but as he listened, he felt better. He was still alive and he was free now. There was still hope.
Bruce stood up and with a start, noticed a woman looking at him from across the clearing. She had black hair and was wearing a dark red cloak of a style he had never seen before. She smiled at him. “I was wondering when you would stand up. Those leaves are quite persuasive, I see.”
Bruce looked at her warily. “Was it you who made them shake like that?”
“No, that was only the wind,” she said, walking towards him. “But I had a feeling they would have that effect on you. My name is Klista. Remember it, please. And you are?”
“Bruce Riansson,” he said, with a feeling that she already knew.
“How is it that you are sitting out here alone, Bruce Riansson?” Klista asked, putting a hand on her hip. It was a gesture both familiar and imperious.
“I was exiled from Indrake,” he said. “The traitor and former pirate, Sir Denvé, came through our village as he was fleeing capture. I let him stay at my inn.”
“And you knew that it was him?”
“I have never turned away anyone from my inn. I have always considered hospitality to be a matter of humanity, not politics.”
Klista nodded. “That’s a very mature attitude. Very rare indeed, actually. Now, Bruce Riansson, I have a proposition for you. I knew you would be coming here and I was waiting for you. If you wish, you may work for me, work with me even. The work is not what you are used to, but I’m sure you will be suited to it, nevertheless.”
“Who are you?” Bruce asked, his apprehension rising again. “Why would I want to work for you?”
“I have already told you my name,” Klista said. “I did ask you to remember it, you recall. Besides that, think of me as a type of guide. I show secrets to people who need them and who are worthy. Does that not sound intriguing? As for why you should work for me, you are exiled in the wilderness in late summer with almost no supplies.” She gave him a look as if the choice were obvious.
“What would I have to do?” he asked.
“Ah, we’ll get to that in time. First, I have a test for you. I have to be completely sure about you first.” She took a leather bag off her shoulder and rummaged through it. Bruce caught a glimpse of a jumble of strange objects: a purple conch shell, a white tube with blue stars on it, and a key shaped like a spreading tree. Finally, she pulled out a box with a glass window in it and handed it to him.
“This is a compass,” she said and then saw his blank expression. “It has lodestone in it and always points in the same direction. What you have to do is follow the direction of the needle. Several miles away there is a high pass between two mountains. Reach that pass by sunset and look over the other side and you have passed the test.”
“That is all? It sounds too simple.”
“You have not seen the way yet. Remember, you must follow the needle exactly. There will be an easier way up, but do not take it. Sometimes the journey taken is more important than the destination reached. Sometimes the destination depends on the path taken there. Now go and I will see you at sunset.”
Klista walked off briskly. Bruce picked up his pack and looked at the box. The needle pointed into the trees, away from where Klista had gone. He started walking.
At first, the way was easy. There was little underbrush and the ground was level. After half an hour, the ground got steeper and soon the way was choked with brambles that tore at him with thorny claws.
He had just climbed over a pile of rocks when he saw a well-defined trail off to the right. He ignored it and kept fighting his way through the underbrush. The trail crossed his path and for a moment, he was tempted to follow it for a little ways, until he remembered and re-entered the tangle of bushes.
The mountain trail zigzagged back and forth up the slope and by the time Bruce had crossed and re-crossed it four times, he was torn and bleeding in multiple places and his clothes were shredded to rags. Already the light was decreasing, softening to the peaceful glow of dusk. He pressed on.
He crossed the mountain trail for the last time and it disappeared off to the left, going straight and following the ridge of the mountains. Above him were two steep peaks like horns, their summits tinged with red from the approaching sunset. Between them, he saw the high pass, only several hundred feet above him.
The final climb was the worst. He scrambled recklessly up as the sky darkened above him, ignoring the sharp bite of razor-like granite edges cutting into his hands. Finally, he pulled himself up to the pass and looked over.
The valley below him was a mass of trees, like a vast carpet of greenery. Bruce looked farther and in the orange glow of the day’s end, he saw strange structures rising out of the trees. They were like huge blocks of stone, a hundred feet high or more, but he could see the light glinting off rows of windows. It was a vision of some alien city.
“You pass,” Klista said from behind him. He turned quickly.
“How did you get here?”
“I take my own paths,” she said. “What do you think that is?” She pointed to the distant structures.
“I do not know, but it looks like a city of some sort.”
“It is a city, although not one of this world. This is what I wanted to show you, a tiny taste of what is hidden behind real life. The world you were living in yesterday was infinitely smaller than the world you will be living in tomorrow.”
“Is it really over there or is it only a vision?” Bruce asked.
“It is really where it is,” Klista said. “You will find that a word like ‘there’ has very little meaning. If you mean, could you reach it by walking, then yes. You were able to see it by following the compass and you could follow it to the actual place too. But that is a long, hard road and I travel by quicker ones. Now, do you still want to join me?”
“I do not know what I can do, but yes, I am willing,” Bruce said. He offered her the compass, but she shook her head.
“You keep it. It will be very useful to you in the future, I think. This is the not the end of your journey by far, Bruce Riansson: this is only the beginning.”