THE RETURN

Prologue

Secrets

 

            Two men and a woman stood on a rocky spur of land. Behind them, a jagged wall of rock rose forty feet over their heads to a peaked cliff. Grass and heather sprouted along the top in full summer bloom. The long stalks swayed slowly as a gentle breeze whispered through them, filling the air with a sweet fragrance.

            Water from the river formed a little bay at the inlet of the cliffs. Calmly, it lapped against the edge of the stone, inches from the feet of the three.

            Unbeknownst to those gathered, a second woman had arrived. She remained atop the cliff, concealed from the sight of those below. Her body was thin, and her hair long and dark. The white clothing she wore was ruffled slightly by the same wind stirring the golden grass. The woman made no attempt to see the three figures at the bottom of the cliff. It was enough for her to wait and listen to the words they spoke, echoing off the rocks.

            One of the two men shifted his squinty eyes skyward in a nervous manner. He was bald, save for a thick ring of light brown hair, which crowned his head.

            “You’re certain no one followed you here?” he asked, turning to the second man.

            “Of course I wasn’t followed,” the second man answered. “Stop being so paranoid.” He had a deep voice, which suited his large body. Anyone who looked at him could see that this person was built for battle. Stout legs supported a thick torso and a great, barrel chest from which extended a pair of well-muscled arms. Standing beside his two smaller comrades, he made them look like children, especially the other man, whose head was disproportionately large for his gangly body.

            “Good,” the first man replied with a curt nod before turning his attention to the woman. “Why have you called us here?” he wondered suspiciously.

            The woman was lovely, with a gentle face and bright, green eyes. Her answer came haltingly, as she chose her words with great care. “I am concerned- about my sister.”

            “Aren’t we all?” the deep-voiced man laughed. It was a jolly sound, emanating from the soles of his feet.

            “Quit that!” snapped the balding man, instinctively glancing up once more. However, there was nothing for him to see except the clear blue sky cut off by the top of the cliff.

            “It’s not so much that I’m concerned for her,” the woman rushed on, hastily explaining.             “But, I am concerned about what she might do.”

            “We’re all worried about that,” the balding man muttered.

            “I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and believe my suspicions are unfounded, but due to- I mean, when I discovered the actions of her past, I- I- well, it does not give me much hope for the future.

            “I’d like to believe that she is sorry for what has happened and the part she played in it. I’m certain what she has done weighs on her far more heavily than she will admit. However, she keeps talking about going back to the mountain one more time, even though I thought everything there was completed. We set up The Hall of Memories so that when future generations find it, they can see the past. However, she kept hinting that there was more she planned to do.

            “I do not know what she intends, but whatever secret she is keeping fills me with dread. She talks continually about how the generations to come must be preserved, no matter the cost.”

            Even the deep-voiced man lost his smile as he heard the woman’s serious tone. “These strange ideas are things we are coming to know only too well. But it still doesn’t explain why you have called us here,” he replied searchingly.

            “To give you something,” the woman told them, her face clearing.

            Both men leaned toward her unconsciously as she drew a long, cylindrical object from the pack she carried.

            The balding man took it from her. “What is it?” he asked, squinting at what he now held in his hands.

            “It’s a map,” the woman whispered.

            “What?” asked the deep-voiced man, as he tried to get a better look.

            “It’s a map to a place many days' journey from here. A place of shelter, that could still be reached even now. Just in case…”

            The balding man nodded, understanding what the woman was saying even though her words failed.

            “Just in case?” the deep-voiced man wondered.

            “In case my sister does something- reprehensible,” the woman explained. “Keep it hidden. I pray it will not be needed.”

            The two men nodded, both studying the piece of parchment.

            Soon after, the three dispersed, not all at once, but one at a time.

            The woman was the last to leave. She carefully climbed the pile of broken stones, which formed a natural staircase, leading up to the apex of the cliff. Both men were out of sight by the time she reached the top, where the land leveled off into a wide, sweeping plain. The lush fields were dotted here and there by clumps of bushes and trees.

            The woman paused for a moment, bending over slightly while panting from the exertion of the climb. A shadow fell across her. Instantly, she straightened and found herself standing face to face with the second woman, who was slightly taller.

            “So it has come to this, dear, little sister,” the woman who had listened from her place of concealment, whispered. Terror crossed the face of the younger sister as the other woman put her hands on her shoulders and shoved her backward.

            She teetered for a moment on the edge of the sky and land, and then fell backward, a sharp cry of terror emanating from her lips. She was too close to the cliff to hope of landing in the water of the small bay.

            The woman in white looked down to where her younger sister’s body lay broken and mangled on the rocky spur below.

            “I am so very sorry,” she whispered.

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