The next morning was bright and warm, too bright considering how tender their eyes were. Both women were so sore from the previous day’s climb they strained to get their gear on. Their discomfort was so grievous all they could really do was walk.
“Have you ever been this far?” Ludyrr looked over her shoulder, speaking quietly.
Elynir had been looking out at the scattered clouds that were still below them. Soon, they would be in the cloud layer. “No, never.”
“We should be coming to a trading post soon. It isn’t very large, only wide enough for a handful of sellers to set their things down without the wind blowing them away. I don’t expect anyone to be there, but at least it will tell us we’re halfway to the next village. That is the farthest I’ve ever been.”
“My clan did all of its trading in our village.” Elynir said.
“There is another up-climb past the next village. We could try to use it to climb down to the next level, unless you want to walk around this great stump forever.”
Elynir glanced out at the clouds. She hoped she’d have a better idea of how much further they would have to travel once they were past the clouds. From their present altitude, she could see only a vast, vague region of white, brown and gray, and no true details. “If we climb down, we’d have to leave our extra items behind.”
“We could take a chance like the sellers.”
“Take a chance to fall on a missed handhold, because of the extra weight shifting about? If anything, we should have a vote with the others.”
“It doesn’t happen that often.” Ludyrr said. “Besides, sellers are reckless. They tend to take as much as they can carry. There are six of us. We could space ourselves out and pass the packs down from one pair of hands to the next. We’ll use the ledges to set things on, and move lower on the up-climb and pass the packs down again. Three or four times should be enough, except I don’t think Ibagghi and Afiruk will want to help.”
“Judging from how hesitant they were to take weapons, they might not want to use the up-climb at all.”
Ludyrr grunted when she heard that.
They found the trading nook. The others had left small piles of waste on the ground, still fresh. Elynir and Ludyrr added their own, their droppings small because of how little they’d put into their bellies since waking from sleep.
They found their four fellow Sleepers at the next village. It was built into a hollow wood knot, with three layers of dwellings carved into its sides and a large area of ground in the middle. A small soldier guarded the entire village, looking lazy or unprofessional, slouching with sword and shield held too low, looking bored. The soldier, of course, was little Afiruk. Perhaps she was asleep, as she gave a start when she felt the tip of Ludyrr’s wooden spear poke at her arse.
“Aahh!” Afiruk yelped. “Why did you do that? I thought some animal bit me!”
Ludyrr laughed, as Elynir said, “Keep your voice low.”
“Endieve said we could talk while we’re in the village.” Afiruk replied. “Because god will expect to hear voices in a village. I’ve been waiting for you two, to make sure you don’t pass us by and keep going.”
“Where did you sleep?” Elynir asked.
“At the trading post. We would have kept going if we’d known a village was so near. It was dreadful cold out in the open air.”
Elynir scanned across the bottom floor of homes, and up at the openings of the higher ones. “Why have you stopped here?”
“Water.” Afiruk said. “Endieve said our legs will start to cramp up if we don’t drink any. The others are in those homes you see, looking for supplies. Did you see any dragons?”
“More than you can count.” Elynir answered.
Ludyrr began recounting their climb to the plateau, speaking as if it had been a great adventure. Good, as it gave Elynir time to think. Endieve had a good head on her shoulders; she was in the right, if they didn’t drink water soon, they would be feeling the harsh effects of it in no time. She interrupted the taller woman’s grand tale, “Afiruk, where have the others set their gear down?”
“There, in that second house. The first house had a stink to it. The others are up on the third floor scavenging, working their way down.” With eager eyes, she looked back at Ludyrr. “Tell me more of how you saw those dragons!”
Elynir went into the second home. It was only a tiny cave, really, with a crooked round entrance and space enough for only two people. The two small beds and a few shelves were carved into the wood. The packs filled the beds, and their weapons were set beside them, so Elynir set her things in the empty spot in back. It felt good to take the extra weight off.
She stepped back out, taking in the size of the village, thinking it somewhat smaller than hers. At an estimate, a hundred people could live here. Her village had four levels to it, enough for a hundred twenty or thirty residents. She wondered why the old women had not taken them to their village proper after waking, shuddering a bit when she thought the putrid rot could have reached it.
If they were lucky, this village would have a well. Before she rejoined the other two, as she wasn’t in the mood to listen to Ludyrr’s boasting, she peered into the first home. She recognized the stink Afiruk referred to. Someone had died there long ago. That could be another reason why the old women had not taken them into the village. The scent of the dead might catch onto the living, and god would smell the Sleepers as they walked down the mountain, would recognize them because of their death scent.
“We tried to infuse manna into the moonstones last night, but they would not fill.” Afiruk said, as Elynir returned. “Endieve thinks the gems are too spent. We must find new ones.”
“Of course they are spent.” Ludyrr replied. “They kept us alive for god knows how long. Do you remember the old women saying they didn’t have enough for a seventh Sleeper?”
Elynir interrupted again. “Ludyrr, are you strong enough to climb to the third floor?”
The tall woman looked over, finding the holds carved into the wood first, glancing at Elynir second. The answer was clear in her face, but she didn’t want to voice it because, Elynir felt, it would show her weakness to a golden girl.
“I’m very tired.” Elynir said, putting the weakness on herself. “I really think we need this entire day to rest after our climb. What say we explore this first floor while the others explore the higher ones?”
“We will explore the first floor,” Ludyrr agreed. “If you’re that tired.”
What a stupid, arrogant woman, Elynir decided. “Afiruk, will you go and find Endieve? Tell her we have arrived. Tell her we will explore,” She scanned the first floor again. “Opposite the end where we’ve set our gear. That’s where we’ll begin.”
Afiruk did not question her; only nodded and walked to a shorter up-climb. She set her arms on the ground and showed some agility, at least, in pulling her body up the wall.
Elynir walked across the open space, where the villagers once gathered and socialized or traded with each other, and into the last house at the opposite end. Where they held their dances and other celebrations. The homes on the first floor were usually reserved for the elders who could no longer climb safely, and also for village leaders. Their openings always faced the open area. Houses on the second floor and above had large windows facing out and doorways facing in. They were places of defense, with passages carved into the wood leading from one to the other. Archers would shoot arrows from the windows, and warriors would stand at the ends of the passages and prevent attackers from using the up-climb to get in.
The first home was empty save for an old, moth-eaten coat and a pair of shoes rotted through. The second and third homes had the lingering smell of old death, but Elynir braved past that and found the same: a few old clothes not worth carrying anywhere, a belt with no buckle, a single boot missing its mate, items like that. She walked out, ready to head into the fourth home.
“I already checked that one.” Ludyrr said, from before the doorway of the fifth.
Elynir went in anyway. She found nothing useful.
“I said I checked it.” Ludyrr waited for her outside the door.
“Have you heard the saying: two pairs of eyes are better than one? Listen, this behavior of yours needs to stop. You don’t have to prove that you’re better than I am every single time. Can you just accept that the past is over for us, and help me so all of us can survive together?”
This time, Ludyrr did not merely huff. She snorted and plodded away.