Two hours later, Harduk stood at the edge of the stream. His belly was full, and his thirst was assuaged. What meat he hadn't eaten immediately, he had stuffed into a crude bag fashioned from the boar's hide.
Though occupied by one last task, Harduk remained wary. He listened to bird calls and slight movements in the trees. He looked back over his shoulder, at the fallen tree where he had made his meal, then across the stream to the trees on the far side. Upstream, the water was cold and clear, the flat stretch where he stood fed by a small waterfall made up of short, regular steps. Downstream, the water was warmer and faintly golden, though the current carried that away quickly enough.
Turning his head, Harduk looked again at the waterfalls. That series of steps seemed very regular -- almost too regular. As if...
Yanking his loincloth back into place, he followed the stream to the base of the falls. He was not imagining things. Either someone had cut steps into the streambed, or the water was following the course of some ancient stairway. He considered, but only for a moment: strange as they were, the steps were both a sign of civilization, and a path to higher ground. Mounting the stairs, he began to climb.
Tucked away in its narrow cleft, the water stair hid the rest of the island from him, but also kept him out of sight. Harduk considered that a fair trade. The way was slippery and irregular, worn by the steady passage of water, but Harduk's steps were swift and sure.
The ascent seemed to take hours, and indeed it was hours later that he began to hear voices over the constant trickle of running water. He slowed. Voices should mean people, but in his experience that wasn't always the case. Ahead, he could see a break in the steps: perhaps it was only another landing, but it seemed he had finally reached the top of this mountain. Harduk mounted the remaining steps as swiftly and silently as a tiger. Crouching just below the top, Harduk carefully raised his head above the edge.
He had half-expected to find himself looking at the city whose inhabitants had built these ancient stairs. And that was so, after a fashion. But...
"By the Grim King," he breathed. "What deviltry is this?"