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The Highlands: Part One


by katiesheffield

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The Highlands. It was a stretch of blizzard-infested mountains that stretched away for miles behind the Haunted Woods, before crossing a thin stretch of ocean and joining Terror Mountain. Jordan, a tan Lupe, had been studying their layout on his old, worn map of Neopia every day for thirty-seven days now, ever since his mother, Zinneh, had agreed to let him go on a 'tchais' up there with the Reingar, Neopia's most experienced explorers.

     Hardly anyone had heard of the Reingar. They were a very secretive guild that only opened vacancies to a select few. Jordan's father had been a member. That was the only way the opportunity had been opened to him.

     Now that there were no wars, the Reingar had started trips which they called 'tchais' for the children of members. I say it is a select guild; but not necessarily small, and Jordan felt honored to be chosen to go on a tchais with one of the leaders. Not many pets could boast about that.

     He had almost been too excited to eat breakfast that morning, but somehow managed a bowl of porridge. His mother, Zinneh, dropped him off at the Reingar's base, which was located not far from the start of the Haunted Woods. The plan was, from there, to travel through the Haunted Woods, and then up the Highlands, coming out at last on Terror Mountain, where they would wait for his mother to pick him up again. The whole trip would take, if they were quick, three days.

     As they neared the station that was carefully hidden in the trees, Zinneh took one last look at her son.

     "Be polite." She licked her paw and began to smooth back his unruly fur, but he wriggled out of her grasp.

     "It's fine, mum," he said.

     She smiled. "Alright. Do what your leader tells you. And don't go anywhere you shouldn't."

     "Sure, mum." He hurried to the station with Zinneh close behind.

     Jordan paused to look around the base once he was inside. It was an old wooden cabin, about twenty paces square, with tables and chairs scattered around. There were doors in the walls that led to other parts of the building, mainly bedrooms, and at the back of the room was an old, scratched wooden desk. It was virtually empty except for some old, scarred Wockies sitting around a table drinking coffee, a few shadowy figures lounging around the walls of the building, and a Lenny who looked like he hadn't slept very well last night behind the desk. When he saw them he looked up and gave them a very tired welcome smile.

     Trembling with excitement, Jordan waved his mum away. "I'll be fine!" he hissed. "I'll see you when I get back!"

     She swooped down and gave him a hug. "I'll see you then." She smiled, and pride for her young and very independent son gleamed in her eyes. "You'll do well."

     As soon as she had left the building Jordan approached the desk. The Lenny smiled at him.

     "And who do we have here?"

     "My name's Jordan," he said in his most grown up voice. "I'm booked in for a tchais."

     "Ah... yes..." The Lenny looked through some files. "First timer, eh? Normally I'd send you with Hubert, but, erm, he's not quite feeling up to it today." He glanced at a Tonu who looked like he had been mummified; he was so wrapped up in bandages. "Went on a tchais last week with a couple of Usuls. Hasn't been the same since, poor chap. Anyway... let's see... " He looked through some notes. "I think I'll send you with Danger. He's a good leader." He looked at one of the shadowy strangers leaning against the wall. "OI! Danger! There's a cub to go on a tchais with you!"

     The shadowy stranger pushed off the wall and walked over to them, and Jordan got his first look at his leader. He was a large, scarred Lupe, who had scruffy brown fur, unlike Jordan's sleek tan, and he wore an old cloak that looked like meepits had been gnawing on it. He looked strong and tough, and a scar ran down his face, from the base of his right ear down to his jawbone, but the piercing blue eye it ran over was alert and quick.

     He was nearly twice as tall as Jordan and his eyes flashed as he sized him up. Jordan stood as tall as he could, and tried to look brave.

     "You got a name, kid?" The Lupe's voice was rough, like his looks.

     "Yes, sir. It's Jordan."

     Danger snorted and glanced at the Lenny. "I swear they get smaller every year."

     "Be nice, Danger. It's his first trip. Try not to eat him."

     Danger gave a wolfish grin and turned back to Jordan. "Let's go, kid."

     "Now?" Jordan asked, trembling with excitement.

     "The sooner we start, the sooner we'll finish." The Lupe picked up a small rucksack and headed for the door.

     "Do- do we need to bring food, or anything?" Jordan skipped past the Wockies quickly and caught up with Danger.

     The big Lupe snorted again. "No. We'll be living off the land. The only things in here are for killing our food and cooking our food."

     Jordan decided not to say anything. His guide led him at a quick pace through the Haunted Wood. Jordan could see red eyes glowing through the trees.

     "Don't look at the eyes," Danger said suddenly. "And stick close to me. We don't want anything to eat you. The paperwork last time was murder."

     Jordan stepped a bit closer to Danger. It would take a while for him to work out that when the Lupe grinned lopsidedly like that it meant he had made a joke.

     At noon they stopped for lunch. Danger told him briefly which trees grew edible fruit, and watched as Jordan set forth to look for food.

     The first tree he tried had a Korbat in it.

     "Go-go-go-go-go!" it hissed at him so quickly he could scarcely understand it. "Not-welcome-welcome-welcome-not!"

     Jordan glanced back at Danger, who was watching with an amused grin on his face. Determined to impress his guide, Jordan decided to ignore the Korbat and pick some fruit anyway.

     Unfortunately, pretending you know how to handle something you have no idea about hardly ever works. As Jordan reached for some fruit, the Korbat flew from its upside-down perch and screeched in his face. Shocked, Jordan tumbled backwards and landed in a pile of leaves. Blushing furiously, he scrambled to his feet and looked at Danger, who was laughing. Striding up, the Lupe knocked the Korbat away with a bat of his paw. Jordan's already pink ears turned a deep shade of crimson.

     By early afternoon they had started the climb up the first of the Highland mountains. It was steep and rocky, but Danger didn't slow down, and Jordan didn't complain.

     At last, as the sun was starting to set, Danger stopped walking.

     "We'll camp here for the night," he said, smelling the air. "There's the Kukurai River just over that hill, and plenty of trees for firewood. You can help me get it."

     For the next half hour they scavenged for wood. Jordan was amazed at how much Danger said they needed.

     "It's dry," he explained briefly when asked. "It'll burn quick. And we're still too close to the Haunted Woods to have our fire burn out in the middle of the night."

     When they had collected enough Danger stacked it and lit some twigs he had placed under it. Lying down, he yawned lazily and watched the fire. Jordan sat opposite him.

     "So, kid," Danger said, suddenly and unexpectedly deciding to be social. "One of your parents is a Reingar member?"

     "Um, my dad."

     "Would I know him?"

     "His name was Garinth. He died in the Meridell War."

      "Oh." Danger looked into Jordan's eyes intently, as if to read his mind. "I'm sorry."

     Jordan shrugged. "I was only two weeks old. I don't remember him."

     Danger's eyes never left Jordan's face. "And your ma raised you on her own?"

     Jordan nodded.

     "So you never really had a father." He stood up abruptly. "Looks like I'm gonna have to teach you a few things. We'll start with fishing."

     Jordan stood up too. "Fishing? But we don't have any lines or tackle or-"

     "Of course not. How do you think we Lupes caught fish before those things were invented? C'mon." He set off at a quick trot through the trees. Jordan ran after him.

     They went through a dense patch of forest and came out at the edge of a small river. It was flowing swiftly downhill, fed by the snows that fell further up the Highlands. And it looked freezing.

     Without breaking stride Danger walked into it. Jordan hesitated, and then put in paw in to follow. He drew it out again with a quick gasp. He had never been a big fan of cold water, to the point of never having learnt to swim, and this stream was freezing.

     Danger stopped in the middle of the river. It couldn't have been deep, because the water only came up to his shoulders. He looked back at Jordan. "Well?"

     Jordan was still on the shore. "It's cold!"

     Danger snorted and ignored his protest. "Are you coming or not?" he snapped.

     Jordan desperately wanted to please his leader. Gritting his teeth, he put his right paw into the water. It was very cold, but he didn't take it out. Instead he put his left one in too. Taking another step, he gasped to feel the cold water swirling around his legs, but his mind was focused on one purpose, and slowly but surely he walked into the stream. With every step the freezing water bit a little higher into his body, and by the time he stood at Danger's side in the middle of the stream, it was around his neck. Gasping and shivering, he looked up.

     Danger seemed pleased. "It won't feel so cold once you've been in it a while," he said far more kindly than he had spoken to Jordan before. "Now, let's catch some fish."

 

     Jordan sighed contentedly. The smell of cooked fish still lingered in the air. That had to be one of the best meals he had eaten; mainly because he had caught it. Danger had shown him how to scale and clean the fish, too, and then how to cook it so that even Blandfish tasted nice. The fire was burning well, and his coat had dried quickly. The stars were out, and the forest surrounding them was dark. The only things he could see were whatever happened to be in the circle of light the fire cast.

     Opposite him Danger was lying on the ground, and looked like he was asleep. Jordan could tell he wasn't, though, because whenever there was a sound in the forest his ears would twitch.

     Not wanting to go to sleep just yet, Jordan tried for some stories.

     "Danger?"

     Danger opened his eyes. "Yeah, kid?"

     "I bet lots of exciting things have happened to you in your life." If he had learnt one survival skill from his mother, it was tact.

     Danger snorted. "You want a story, right?"

     Jordan nodded. The big Lupe paused to yawn. "I'm no great storyteller, so if you're hoping for a fairytale, you're gonna be disappointed. I can tell you about some of the places I've been and some of the things I've seen, though."

     Jordan settled down comfortably. "I'm all ears."

     "Well," Danger started thoughtfully, looking up at the stars. "A couple years ago I went for a trip up Terror Mountain. Got caught in a snowstorm, and while looking for some shelter found a hidden cave. Inside there were two Kacheeks who..."

     The night wore on steadily, but Jordan didn't notice. Before coming on this camp he had amused himself with ideas of growing up to own a chocolate factory, but now he realized what he wanted more than anything else was to become a Reingar member, and grow up to be like Danger. It would be more fun than eating chocolate all day.

     "... so now I can use that secret passage to get to the Snowager any time I want."

     "Wow," Jordan breathed. "Will you take me there one day? We could explore all the places you found, and ride down the rapids, and maybe find some undiscovered cave or something... please?"

     "Maybe."

     Jordan frowned. "Whenever my mum says that it means no."

     "Well, I'm not your ma, am I? If I were, I'd be saying it's time to go to sleep, because you'll need all your energy for tomorrow."

To be continued...

 
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