Cole woke up rather numb the following morning. He hurt all over and deep within, but did not pay it much mind. It seemed to have no bearing upon his activity as he worked upon fixing the garden fence, putting great care and workmanship back into it as he had done the first time, and other such lasting repairs where needed. He was thinking in the long term now. Accepting he was going to be here a while longer.
It was slow work but only because he moved slow. He had his pot upon an open fire outside stewing away, an amount of hodgepodge fixings that should last him through tomorrow or so. Occasionally he would give it a stir and pretend he knew what he was doing by checking and tasting it. And periodically, he would stop for a break in the shade to soak his bruised, swollen and blistered feet, giving them some time to dry before wrapping them up for more abuse. All the while his mind ticking along and slowly coming to terms with everything.
It was late in the afternoon when the two familiar horses came galloping up, Cole was sitting on the porch without a chair, finishing a bowl of the bean and smoked meat concoction. He looked to them as he heard the surprised voice.
"COLE?!" Jane cried. The Bucks jumped off their horses and jogged right over to him. They were silent for a good long minute, staring at him. "Where the hell did you go?!" Jane roared.
"Ya fuk'n disappeared!" Marin cried. "Batseye is lose'n its shit since da ud'er night n' all we could find was yer horse before it walked off!"
"We've been searching the whole fucking forest!" Jane cut in. "We came here! We went to Westen! I FUCKING TOLD BAILEY that I lost you again!!! Fuck! He's going to fuck my ass to next month! And here you are!"
Cole just quietly looked up at them from where he was, letting them stand over him and vent. They were furious and rightly so after being worried, and now waiting for an answer as to what his excuse was.
So Cole blinked a bit, he licked his lips and looked unsure as to what to do with the bowl in his hands. "I... um..." He really was unsure what to say. "I... am done."
"You are done?" Jane repeated, his hands upon his hips. "Really?"
Jane's face softened a bit as he realized something was not right. Cole looked very troubled, more than usual he was not looking at them, and Jane thought Cole might cry.
Cole started nodding as he thought about it. "I, am done." He started to fidget with the bowl now. He was shivering. "And you.... this time, you did not lose me. I... I should not have gone, where I did not belong."
"What?" Marin asked as Cole's voice was distant.
"You went into the mists?" Jane asked strongly while looking at Cole. Marin now appeared concerned. "You, followed us into the mists...."
Cole nodded without looking up. "I am responsible, this time for that."
"Cole?" Jane said trying to get a look at him. "What did you see?"
Cole looked off, seeing beyond the post and into a deadly beautiful view laid out before him. But he did not answer.
"Cole?" Marin said, somehow his voice not as garish as normal. "Ya can say what happened. Da mists fuck people up. Ya can talk about it."
They were being so kind to him here, genuinely concerned and sympathetic. Past the gruff and vulgar swearing, they were good men deep down and that fact sunk deep. Cole really could cry, but all of that was spent last night.
He then finally figured out what to do with bowl and set it aside. The two watched as Cole went through great lengths to just stand, needing the heavy posts he sat between for some stability. The rise of the porch put Cole at eye level with them.
He then looked at their worried and expectant faces, they could see he had been through much, and Cole drew a shaky breath. "I know not why you two dare or act unaffected, but I urge you, for the love of those that love and need you, do not go back in there." They looked at each other and at him. Cole then put his eyes to Jane. "Jane. Your wife is due soon with your second child, is she not?"
Jane was caught off guard and struggled to think. "Uh, yeah... six weeks now or abouts."
The look Cole gave him was heartbreaking. "She will need you. Please stop and think of them, and to them what your life is worth. Both of you. Forget about the damned beast. Forget about the meadows. None of it is worth your lives."
The words were too heavy to answer anything to, the men just looked sad and ashamed, looking to each other, and having known each other so long, there was no words shared but an understanding seemed to be met.
"Cole?" Jane finally spoke.
Jane licked his lips some and judged his tone. "What happened?" Cole started to crew on his cheek. "What happened out there?" Cole looked as if he might say but changed his mind, shaking his head and waving it off so Jane pressed more.
"What happened is Reaper was right to be angry," Cole then said.
"Wait– Reaper found ya?" Marin asked.
"No. What I mean to say is, their reasoning. Their... goal maybe." Cole was struggling. "To protect people from the forest. From the mists. People really do not belong out there... Reaper was right to be angry. Knowledge is dangerous, I regret all of this."
The men exchanged more looks. "Alright, Cole," Jane said. "I'm real sorry this happened to you."
"Please give up on the hunt," Cole said with urgency.
"No, yeah, we get that. And if you are out, that doesn't leave us with much choice, does it? Relax."
It was hard to push down the drive Cole had to go after them more about it, the desperation to not see them taken by what he escaped from, he would have gotten on his knees to beg.
"I realize the villages are suffering because of that thing, but..." Cole then had his shoulders taken by Jane.
"It's going to be okay," Jane said. "Let it go."
Cole was unsure but nodded and pulled away as he normally would. "Thank you."
"You just worry about yourself, alright? Someone will eventually get it, be it a ranger or some lazy bastard may actually grow a pair. And with all the chaos in Batseye right now that may actually happen."
A change to the subject. Something Cole's mind needed.
"What is going on in Batseye?" Cole then asked.
There was eye-rolling and groans from the Bucks.
"Cause o' da od'er night, everyone's got d'eir slacks in a bunch," Marin answered. "D'ey found da trap n' blood. Ferdin was found passed-out in da open n' ill. Every liv'n d'ing in da village was awoken n' piss'n itself cause o' d'at roar. Shit... some of Westen came ask'n!"
"Oh no, that is a problem," Cole replied with worry and looked down in thought. "And Mr. Deere is now ill?" Cole asked with concern.
Jane spoke next. "Yeah, apparently he awoke like everyone, but the shock was too much for him. Cause he was out there, he possibly saw something, or just spooked. I didn't get to talk to him yet, but he had a heart-attack. He's alright now! Gammi brought him back from the brink and he's recovering, but real sick."
Cole's tired look started to change with his eyes growing wider. "He had a what?" Jane repeated it was a heart-attack or similar, but that Ferdin was surviving. That did not change the guild that would come. "That is quite unfortunate..."
"Yeah," Marin chimed in again. "But plus side is d'at he may not be sleepwalk'n fer some time." It was a sad truth, but way too soon and he coughed as they looked at him. "Anyway, by da sounds of it, people are make'n a huge fuss d'at somth'n needs ta be done. Plans ta put in a wall like Westen are be'n made."
"But, we saw it knows how to get in," Cole said.
"Yeah, I don't know what they plan to do about that," Jane said. "But do you want to be the one to tell them what we know? That would involve explaining Wednesday."
To explain Wednesday. Cole did not feel well enough properly consider all of that and all the responsibility that would come with it. Their actions put a whole village into terror, and whether the misfortune to Ferdin was avoidable or not, they would likely be held responsible for that also.
"This is why we don't talk about what it is we are doing," Jane added. "We'll be there to help Ferdin. But if you feel like telling the council what happened, leave our names out of it."
"I suppose we should see what comes of this first," Cole then replied.
"Now you're getting it."
"Cole, ya gonna be okay?" Marin asked watching.
Cole forced himself to perk up a bit. "Yes. That... yes." There was yet another exchange of looks between the Bucks. "It has just been a hard few days... I just need to rest."
"Ya sure?" Marin was eyeing him heavily.
"Yes. And thank you. Both, for your concerns."
There was a pause between them all. Cole was trying to center his mind as his energy was faltering, making it hard to keep focused and balance. The friends were studying him and unsure as to what to do even after a month of time spent together.
Jane snapped his fingers. "Hey, I got an idea," he said and got the attention of both of them. "Cole, why don't you come on up tonight, have dinner with us. Ya know, call it a false celebratory, thing."
Cole was raising a brow. "Huh?"
Jane started snapping his fingers more in recall. "Yeah, ya know..."
Something clicked with Marin. "Ah yeah! Yeah! Ya really should join us, Cole."
"Ya know, seeing as you won't be riding with us anymore," Jane continued. "Rosy kept getting on me about it, seeing as she's made a number of meals all these weeks, which she was fine with, but really wanted you to come over again. Meet you all proper like."
"Yeah, Vii also," Marin chimed in and turned to look at Cole with a gesture. "I had mentioned ya were from around Rethool n' had her all eager fer a get ta'ged'er n' finally meet ya."
"I see..." Cole managed to get in.
"Yeah, the plan was to do it when we finally got the damned thing, have a 'one last ride with Cole,' " Jane went on to say. "But seeing as, well, this is it, we might as well do that at least. Ya know, close it out with something fun. For the women..."
"Yeah, d'ey love putt'n d'at stuff on," Marin added. "Vii was talk'n 'bout make'n cucumber cakes, spiced tea, fuck-turd."
"Fuck turd?" Jane repeated. Cole looked just as confused.
"Yeah, d'em rotted eggs," Marin replied. Jane then recognized it.
"Ferrok'tar?" Cole asked to clarify things.
Marin snapped his fingers. "Yeah, d'at crap." Cole had a look that was between offended and interested.
"So, what do you say, Cole? Come on over and lets just enjoy the evening rather than work it," Jane pushed. They then waited for an answer, looking friendly and inviting.
Cole looked as if really weighing it. "I...I am not very hungry tonight."
"Whatever, just hang out and have drinks and sweets. Don't matter, just come."
There was a bit more thought. "I...not tonight," Cole said. He then started to give an excuse as he saw the frowns they had. "I do not feel well enough to travel back down those cliffs at night."
"Na! No need! We got a spare space ya can overnight in," Marin said. "N' I'll kick Becaine on over ta sleep at Jane's so's it's quiet." Jane did not seem so thrilled about that at first but let it rest and went with it.
"Yeah, so it can work out," Jane said. "You can just get your stuff together. If you want, I'll saddle your horse up so you don't have to, and we can just kick it back up there. Easy stuff."
Cole glanced back and forth from them, he was extremely tired looking.
"That is very generous of you. I... I will have to decline the offer," he then said. "Perhaps another time."
"I... I just really want to be alone right now." The one thing the friends did not want to happen. But they knew they pushed enough, any more might break what trust there was. "I do appreciate the offer. Really, I do."
Jane licked his teeth in thought. "Okay then, Cole, we'll get out of your hair. And, sorry for storming up on you. We had a hell of a few days trying to find out if you were dead or what."
"I understand," Cole replied. "That was not intentional... my disappearance. Sorry to have scared you."
"Na, it's fine. Fucking mists. You can blame anything on the mists. 'Oh, my laundry wasn't done because da mists up n' ate it,' " Jane said in a mock female voice, then changed it again for another quote. " 'Oh yeah, 'bout d'at cart, mists came out n' well, ya see.' Or 'Oh sorry, ma! Didn't mean ta make ya think I was dead fer five days, mists caught me! I so wasn't sneaking off with the Gigip's daughter...' works every fucking time."
Cole gave a tired smile and even more tired chuckle. "Thank you. Thank you both."
"Yeah, no problem, Cole," Jane replied. "You sure you don't want to come with us?" he tried one last time.
Cole looked as if he seriously was considering it but again his mind fell upon remaining here.
"Get some good rest, Cole," Marin said. "N' remember, if ya need anyth'n, ya can talk ta people."
"It's true," Jane added. "You can talk to us, or Bailey. Even Zooie. Zooie's dealt with her fair share of crazies." Jane suddenly got backhanded by Marin. "What! It's true!"
Marin growled through his teeth. "Ya dun need ta make 'um feel worse about it!"
Jane was half serious as he looked to Cole. "Oh yeah, and if in case you didn't know, the mists have a tendency to half-baked your brain. So if you find yourself howling at the moon, and naked, you can keep that to yourself."
Cole actually started laughing. It was an odd thing to witness from the stoic man, it was a very tired sounding laugh, and the friends were not sure what to accept: abandonment of reservation or insanity sinking in.
"God forbid!" Cole said. "I do not want to go from the village stranger, to the village stripper..."
"It can get worse!" Jane chimed but Cole seriously doubted that. Cole then got a friendly knock in the shoulder. "You're alright, Cole. And you're going to be alright."
Cole took a deep breath, feeling calmer than he had all day. "Thank you."
The men then started to excuse themselves to give Cole his space. "And seriously though, talk to someone before ya do anything crazy. Okay?" Jane added.
Cole nodded and held a hand up to send them off, being left alone again but feeling drastically better. As long as they stopped hunting the beast, they were safe. But as Cole sat inside and wrote down key things, his fate was still a question within the light all of this. He forced it all back, closing the journal and the thoughts. He would just have to worry about it when he was better and mentally equipped again. Of course there was cries to haunt him that night, setting him back again and forcing him into throws as he tried to drown the sounds out.
Elsewhere, Jane and Marin talked as they rode home, Cole being the center of their conversation.
"Shit... he looked horrible," Jane would often repeat when there was a pause.
"Yeah, I really want'a know what happened ta shake him up d'at bad," Marin replied.
"I'm seriously gonna fuck up those imps if they got to him," Jane growled. "Should have had him tell us what happened."
"Jane, ya saw it as clean as I, he's really screwed up right now."
"Yeah, that's why I decided we should leave. But- ugh! I didn't expect this!"
"Jane, I know ya feel responsible, n' yeah, we shouldn'ta brought him along. Ya were right about d'at at da start."
"Na, you know, at a point I thought I was wrong, he ain't that bad at all. But, shit! It was because we had to keep our heads low, ya know? Didn't want to play that dance."
"Na, I got it after ya wrung my neck," Marin replied. "And now d'is happened."
There was an odd pause of silence for them as mental powers were focused inward, on all that happened and went wrong.
"Nice d'ink'n back d'ere on have'n him come back with us. Ya really pulled d'at our o' yer ass," Marin said.
"Thanks." Jane was distant still. "Rosy kept saying she wanted to meet him better, then it hit me suddenly. You did good yourself. Cucumber cakes... god, when was the last time Vii made those? I'm real sad now cause there's no excuse to have those again!"
"I doubt she could. Northern dishes have lots of fancy ingredients we just don't got here, but I spout out d'ings she kept miss'n in hopes it got Cole a bit homesick, ya know?"
"Brilliant," Jane replied. "Purely brilliant."
"D'anks." Marin looked his friend over, Jane just looking ahead bitterly and chewing his lip raw. "Ey, I d'ink he's gonna be okay, but I am d'ink'n I could go back ta keep an eye on him, just ta make sure."
"I was thinking the same actually," Jane said. "God I'm tired..."
"Same, but I got a bottle o' d'at night juice Vi makes. Go home n' let her know fer me. I'll be hang'n around there."
"Thanks, Marin. I'll come by and find you in the morning." Now feeling able to relax, Jane stopped fighting himself, taking off a mask of strength and actually let the exhaustion show. "Oh, here. Take what food I got left, I'll bring you a stuffed roll tomorrow too."
"Ah thanks! I wasn't sure I'd have enough. I'll see ya in da morn'n, Jane."
* * * * *
The whole next day involving Cole was rather uneventful as he just took his time puttering around, resting and trying to make sense of his shattered mind. Occasionally he felt like he was being watched, or thought he saw something out of place in the surrounding area. But overall, he just minded his own business and troubles. He was doing much better today but there was much weighing on his mind, and now that three days had passed since that frightful night there was some doubts about it all.
It wouldn't be till the following day, Sunday, that Cole saddled Gale up and went for a ride. It felt good to get out onto the road and focus on something outside of himself, keeping balanced and in rhythm to her trotting as they took the road up and around to the lake. He had a mission today, one full of loaded questions, and it was not something he truly wanted to do but knew he needed. If he could find his sword, then the doubt whether the whole event with the cliff would be settled and that, yes, he really did run his way up those cliffs. If not, well... denial was a powerful, human thing.
It was going to take the whole of the day. There was some two miles of beach, shale and wooded land to sift through if his memories to the location served him right, which they likely did not and it would take longer. He packed a lunch and some grain for Gale, he would refill his canteen there at the lake and stare with dread up to the overhang of forest covered cliffs. No, he had to do this. It was not like he planned to ever go back up there.
He took it easy and everything in a roundabout way, enjoying the scenery and sun's warmth through his clothes, as he rode Gale in a relaxed walk along the gravely beach of the lake. He would then need to take her a short bit down along the stream going to Greeny to continue, and train her that the small bridge over it was not going to kill her. Then they could continue on.
Cole hardly explored this portion of the beach because of her issue, though it was a portion of the lake not used by people regularly either, and now deemed unsafe for potential bandit troubles. Cole was hardly thinking of that, nor was he worried despite being armed only with the big knife he kept. And as they made their way along and around the lake, using an old beaten path that was slowly being taken back by nature, the age of this land really showed.
There was signs of human life here in the past, cut stones and foundations worn down by the elements stood out. People once lived here upon the lake but something must have changed. And by the fact there was still remnants of rotted lumber protruding out of foundations, it may have only been a handful of generations past that portions were in use. How much history was lost to this mysterious and enchanted place? Gale continued along at an even pace upon the ease of an old paved stretch, natural hooves clicking along, occasionally diverting to rip up grasses growing through the paving stones.
Eventually the signs of the civilization would become indistinguishable from the wild, the pathway they took was simply a thin, beaten trail at best, having officially left the beach portion of the lake and crested around into the bowl of the cliffs. It was rocky here, closer to the cliffs the larger the stones in piles were, old trees lay as dry-rotted relics intermixed in and Cole knew he was getting closer to the right territory for his search. Stretching his neck, the cliffs were sheer, with emphasize made by the layers of rock going vertical. Little bits of plant life could be seen clinging to crevices but it primarily looked cold and harsh. Cole swallowed and felt weak.
He then stopped Gale and looked around and out over the lake to the different falls. They had traveled about two hours in from the beach and it finally felt right, the sun was behind the cliffs but it was an hour or so before noon.
Cole wore his working boots, better suited for rough terrain and long hours, rather than his riding boots which had torn his feet up during the long walk home. He also was dressed more like his farmhand self with the warn-out slacks and full covering working shirt that breathed. Seeing as the whole stretch was in shadow from the cliffs, Cole wanted to do without his shuetal, but even as he worked up a sweat climbing up through boulders and thick brush, it was quite chilly this way.
Cole left Gale to roam and graze on what she could find while he jumped about and climbed his way around. He combed between the rocks, getting as high as he could to scout the area, and constantly checking his position in relation to the waterfalls. But more often he just paused to admire this place. All five of the falls were flowing, filling the lake with clear water, and keeping everything alive. Flocks of waterbirds glided about peacefully with their young, dragonflies darting about madly for other insects, the patches of wild flowers adding color. It was spring. It had been spring for some time now, but here Cole truly felt it and could appreciate it.
During his search he was finding many things, mostly good flakes of stone for working into grindstones, some cured wood that, at the very least, would prove good for burning if not carving, and some more signs of ancient times. He could not read it but ancient letters seemed to be carved into some stones, many weathered and broken down, some still crisp which made Cole realize they were script. But where did these large stones come from? There was nothing to be seen as far as Cole's sight would allow, and it seemed illogical that anyone would have dumped them here. He ran his fingers over the foreign shapes again. A story he may never learn within his lifetime. He would then pick up some smaller fragments of the whitish stone, a soft and fine texture suitable for finer sharpening.
Searching the wooded areas were vastly harder. He might as well have been a mouse looking for a needle in a haystack. The wildlife here was far less friendly towards him. As birds felt threatened to have such a strange intruder in their secluded world, Cole was getting driven off by the more bold ones and his search made short by threat of pecking. Eventually he and Gale found their way around to the first waterfall and here they would stop for a while.
The south most fall was the lowest formed one as far as Cole knew, spilling forth from the rocks themselves rather than a river high above. This fall was said to never stop flowing, even in winter, and it carved itself a fine basin before flowing out as a broad stream into the lake. Furthermore, there was quite a buildup of minerals upon the rocks here, giving them a sheen or a jagged texture. Long stalactites could be made out around the area from the rich waters, and Cole picked up one small hunk of the stone, looking much like a stony icicle in his hand. It was useless, but intrigue caused him to take it along for now, needing to be careful of overloading Gale at this point.
Once his lunch was eaten there was little excuse to hang around here much longer. There was no sense or way to continue past the waterfall so he and Gale started back. It was maybe four in the afternoon by this point in the day, and the sun dipped down enough to peek around the cliffs, casting warm colors upon the surrounding cliffs and down into the dark waters. Cole walked Gale along the rough terrain, trying to stick to the easiest path possible for her, and although he gave up his search, Cole still scanned the area as they went along.
He felt glad to have not found the sword. It meant that, perhaps he had finally gone mad, but the events that transpired may very well have been false, which was preferred. And he likely should find it and the sheath back where he had them in Batseye. Or, perhaps he dropped it within the forest when he lost his mind.
The sun continued to set and was getting into his eyes after they had cleared around the wooded patch. It may be another hour before the sun actually dipped down below the forest line, plunging the lake and all around it into twilight. He squinted as he lifted his head up to view past the edge of his hood so to see the way they were going. A glint caught his eye.
Cole tried to ignore it. He tried to tell himself to not look. But it happened again, then again, and against his desire to abandon the uncanny, Cole stopped and looked to where the shine came from. He would have to leave Gale and start to make his way through the maze of stone and dead brush. He was tired, he would feel this workout tomorrow as his limbs were already weak, he just wanted to leave things alone. But he needed answers and this was the whole reason why he came.
Cole pulled his shuetal off out of frustration and threw it over the saddle before clambering through brambles and hopping his way up the boulders. "Taashish't," he groaned. Some minutes later Cole picked up a gnarled piece of steel, blade bent at an angle along the edge. Twisted, cracked, hammered and dented all over. He held it up in the warm light and looked it over. There was no salvaging this. He then followed up the length of the crooked sword, eyes casting off towards the tops of the cliffs to see the approximate area it had to of come from, hundreds if not a thousand feet high up. He felt defeated, yet again. He also felt ill.
Cole then walked home, half dragging the useless piece of metal in hand.