The Cliff House
by DeAnna Knippling
Ardahl loves his land, even though he’s been crippled in its service and trapped in the Cliff House to work the magic that brings water. But using the magic twists the land so tightly that it must break, sooner or later…
There is something wrong with the valley. The roads, once laid straight from the Hill into the valley, have become sinuous esses of dry, red gravel. The red cliffs, blades of rock standing free in the valley, have bent like ribbons in the wind. Trees spiral like corkscrews until their bark and heartwood shatter. Every breeze kicks up dust devils, the air itself bemused.
It’s dawn. The rose-colored ley puddles against the twists in the valley, no longer able to hold them straight. The cold morning air bites my nose, but it will be hot as an oven by midday.
My godsdaughter Mira walks the dirt road from the Hill toward my cliff. She has blond hair that shines pink under the ley overhead. She carries a heavy basket that towers over her; she grasps it by the straps on her shoulders and leans forward to balance the weight.
The lid of the basket flops free, and a half-dozen loaves of bread tumble forward past her face. She leans further forward to pick up the bread, and more tumble out.
I smile. I’ve grown so used to dirty bread that I would miss the taste if she didn’t drop it.
Mira puts down the basket, picks up the loaves of bread, brushes them off, and returns them to the basket. She snaps off a twig, jams it into the basket lid to hold it shut, and shoulders the basket again.
She takes a few steps and vanishes. I wait. After a few more steps, she emerges from a twist in the land, a hundred yards closer to the cliff.
I can hear her panting under the weight of the basket now, the crunch of her boots on the rock as she climbs the path to the cliff. Finally, she’s directly underneath me.
“Good morning, Ardahl,” she calls up to me.
“Good morning, brightness.” I throw the rope down. She loops it under the basket’s shoulder straps and ties it.
I lift the basket up, hand over hand. I have a pulley attached to the ceiling, but I don’t use it. My arms have become strong over the years. I set the basket aside and toss down the rope. This time, Mira ties the rope under her arms and starts climbing the hand- and footholds up the side of the cliff. I no longer have to lift her; the rope is for my peace of mind only.
As she passes through the ley, she shakes her head a little but keeps climbing. She slides through the cave mouth and into my abode, curling her legs around and under her. The ceiling is low next to the mouth, and she’s finally learned to stop hitting herself in the head as she comes in.
“I’m so sorry, Godsfather. I dropped the bread again.”
“I saw that.”
“I brushed it off.”
“I saw that too.” I push myself backward into the wider part of the cave, pulling the basket along with me. The water skins gurgle.
I have never known a girl with a stronger back, from carrying water to me almost daily. I regret being a burden on her, but even more, I regret teaching her how to carry such heavy burdens.
“Godsfather, I need your help.”
“What is it, brightness?”
“It’s Harken again.” Her newly-married husband, a man I have never met. He sounds like a scoundrel, but what do I know?
We duck and scoot into the main cave, which I have furnished throughout the years as a comfortable nest, one that can be tied down tight in storms or opened up wide in fair weather. Perhaps it smells from my close confinement and inability to wash out the rugs, but I cannot smell it. I can smell newly-baked bread and Mira’s sweat, that is all.
Mira smiles and curls up on a pile of cushions, worn around the edges but embroidered with red and gold thread, stolen from the princessa’s parlor on the Hill. I give her a cup of root tea from the stove and settle back on my own pile of cushions, much plainer and more worn.
“What is it this time?” I ask.
She sips at her tea, wincing back from the heat. “It’s bad.”
I wait for her to burst into tears and confess all, but she only sips at her tea. “Godsfather, can you keep a secret?”
“For you I can,” I say.
“Even from the princessa?”
“As long as it doesn’t involve betraying the land,” I say. I pour myself some tea to clear the taste from my mouth.
“It…what if it does involve betraying the land?” she asks.
“Then perhaps you should not tell me.”
We both sip our tea. I am old. There are many things I do not discuss with anyone but myself or with the princessa. I am used to pretending to be noble to Mira; it keeps me from having to lie to her.