Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Wolf Pack. Mountains. The companions meet with cold and danger in the Mountains of Doom.


They walked on for the next couple of days, a growing companionship gradually forming between the disparate members of the group. It was true that they knew little of each other, but none of them felt it was important. What lay in the past of each individual was gone, and what they were now was what was important.

There was still some uneasiness between Asphodel and Carthinal. Carthinal was determined that he was not going to allow any deepening of the feelings he had towards the elf since he was convinced in his own mind that he would bring her nothing but grief. She was a cleric, after all. How could she possibly care for such as he, and so he treated her with some coolness determining not to show her that he cared for her. Anyway, he reasoned, she had given him little reason to be encouraged. She had implied that what had happened on Grillon’s night was just that—something that happened to celebrate the Equinox and Parador’s return to Grillon.

Asphodel in her turn, believing that Grillon’s night had meant nothing particular to Carthinal, was treating him with the same coolness, equally determined not to show him her hurt.

Then at about noon, they reached a place where the road split. One road, a narrower path, continued on the right bank of the Brundella, in a northeasterly direction, while the other road, obviously the main road, crossed the river by a bridge and continued eastwards. There was a stone set at the junction that had an arrow pointing to the north, with the legend: High Pass to Pelimor. The other arrow pointed south, and read: Berandore, Erian and Rindissillaron.

They had not banked on this split in the road, so they stopped to decide the way to go. Several of the group thought they should continue southwards across the bridge since that was the main road, but Asphodel did not join in with their assertions. In fact, her face suggested that she did not wish to travel that way. Basalt ventured to ask her what was wrong, but she did not reply.

Then she said, realisation dawning on her face, ‘I recognise this place. It’s the place from my dream. The man, the scribe, was sitting on that stone.’ She pointed to a large boulder at the base of the signpost. ‘He said....’ here she paused, frowning as she tried to remember... ‘He said: “Here lies a choice. You can take the easy road and go to Berandore and the lands to the east, or you can take the difficult path through the high mountains towards the land of Pelimor. Much rides on your decision. You must choose correctly or you may be too late.”’

Basalt sat down heavily on the stone that Asphodel had indicated that the stranger had been seated on in her dream. ‘How are we supposed to make a decision then,’ he asked. ‘We may just as well toss a coin.’

They all seemed to slump.

‘“If we make the wrong decision, it may be too late.” What does that mean? That the Sword will be gone? That we may never find the valley? Or that something else will happen?’ asked Randa.
Then Thadora’s eyes lit up. She pointed to the left, up the road to the High Pass. ‘That’s the way,’ she exclaimed.

‘How you know?’ queried Davrael. ‘How you so sure?’

‘You remember th’ fortune-teller in Roffley? Yeah? Well, I didn’t tell you what she said, did I? She said some damn weird things that I didn’t really understand, but she told me that th’ easy path were not always th’ correct one. If I chose that, I would live a comfortable life, but that it would, like, be so bad for the world, or somethin’ like that. So we take the difficult path—the High Pass, right?’

‘Hmmph!’ grunted Basalt. ‘Those fortune-tellers are usually charlatans if you ask me. They seem to say what you want to hear. Wouldn’t base my life on what one told me.’

‘He’s right there, Thadora,’ responded Fero ‘but there are some genuine ones,’ he told the dwarf.
‘Maybe yours was one of them,’ he said, turning back to Thadora.

‘I think she were. Genuine, I mean,’ replied the girl. ‘She told me things she shouldn’t have been able to. It so spooked me.’

‘Even if she were genuine, I think she was probably referring to life choices, not an actual physical path,’ Randa said.

‘There’s another thing,’ Thadora spoke quietly. ‘I went back to ’er wagon th’ next day. I wanted ter know ’ow she bloody well knew so much about me. Not to consult ’er again, but ter snoop around an’ see ’ow she operates, like. It was bleedin’ gone. ’Er wagon, that is. Maybe there’s nothin’ real strange about that, but when I asked th’ other Wanderers, they seemed ter know nothin’ ’bout ’er. She’d arrived just afore we went ter see ’er, an’ ’ad gone th’ next mornin’. Almost as if she came specially ter see me. That’s so creepy!’

Then Carthinal spoke. He had been listening to the arguments carefully and had come to a decision. ‘We’ll take the High Pass,’ he said. ‘We have to go one way or the other, and as we have no other clues, we must decide based on what we know. The only help we have is Thadora’s clairvoyant, genuine or false. I think we should eat something before we continue too. It’s nearly the sixth hour and I for one am getting hungry.’

After they had eaten, Asphodel suddenly said, ‘I remember now. The man in my dream also said something along the lines of not taking the easy path. I think he pointed towards the High Pass, and told me of unexpected help along the way too.’

‘Hey, that's what she said an’ all.’ exclaimed Thadora. ‘Th’ bloody fortune-teller, I mean. She said I’d find unexpected help or summat too.’

They decided to take the northerly path. Not all of them were entirely in agreement, but since they had to go one way or another, and they had all come to look on Carthinal as their leader, with perhaps the exception of Randa, they reluctantly went along the road leading to the High Pass. The road, if it could be called such, continued to wind its way through the foothills of the Mountains of Doom. The mountains towered above them and it began to seem that they would never reach them. They had finally crossed the river, which continued in a more northerly direction, whilst the road carried on towards the northeast.

It took them several days walking over these wooded hills before the track began to ascend the mountains proper. They were all carrying wood that they had collected in the forest since in the high mountains no trees would grow and they knew they would need to light fires at night as, although spring was coming in the lowlands, it would still be very cold in the high mountains. Each carried as much wood as they could manage, but Carthinal still worried that it would be insufficient to get them over the pass, not knowing how long it was, nor how high it went.

Soon after leaving the woods, winter seemed to descend on them once more. There were pockets of snow lying in shady patches where the sun had not warmed the ground, and it became noticeably colder. They all donned warm cloaks and pulled them tightly round their bodies to protect themselves from the teeth of the icy wind. There was less and less game the higher they climbed and eventually Carthinal called for rationing of their supplies of dried food. They ate only in the evening, and, having walked all day with gnawing hunger, slept at night to the sound of rumbling stomachs.

‘In ’Ambara, it seemed so cool to run away and join this adventure. Now it just seems cold,’ Thadora remarked to no one in particular. ‘Even sleepin’ in th’ soddin’ sewers sounds good. At least it’d be out of this blasted wind.’

‘Down there in the valley, I felt I never wanted to eat rabbit ever again,’ observed Randa pensively, ‘Now a nice rabbit stew would seem like a king’s banquet.’

‘Sleep,’ put in Asphodel. ‘A nice warm hayloft. Even prickly hay would seem a comfort.’

Carthinal looked at her sharply, but her face was blank and she was not looking in his direction. He shrugged.

‘The desert,’ Fero recollected, ‘Is hot and dry, but it would be preferable to this cold, wet snow,’ as he shook some of the offending stuff from off his boots.

They trudged onward and upward, through the mountains, making only very slow progress. Maybe they would end their lives in these mountains. One day seemed to flow into the next, until it seemed they had never done anything but climb and shiver. Their fires at night did little to warm them. The air seemed so cold that it sucked all the heat from the fire. Basalt even considered if it was possible for a fire to burn with cold flames instead of hot, but he was so cold and exhausted that his mind refused to co-operate with his musings.

They climbed for several days. Carthinal had strapped his staff onto his back, as it was now a hindrance since he required both hands free to climb. Each evening he studied Mabryl’s spell book to see if there was anything to help them. There wasn’t. The path became narrower and narrower until they thought they would be unable to pass. In places it seemed to cling to the side of the mountain, and they had to travel in single file and shuffle along close to the mountainside. Cloud descended from time to time, they became wet with the condensation in it, and the path climbed relentlessly, ever upwards.

‘I can’t go on. Leave me ’ere,’ cried Thadora one morning.

‘Get up and stop whining, girl,’ snapped Carthinal.

Tears welled in her eyes and she turned away, but made no move to rise.

‘Do you make a habit of upsetting women, half-elf?’

Basalt came up and gave Carthinal a push. The mage’s face took on a feral and dangerous look. He looked like the wolf from which the group had taken its name.

‘Don’t push me like that, dwarf.’ he snarled. ‘Don’t ever push me like that again.’

‘You deserve pushing,’ growled the dwarf, not at all deterred by Carthinal’s look. ‘First Asphodel, now Thadora. You’ve twice upset Asphodel. Once when Mabryl died, with your thoughtless comments, and again after Grillon’s night when you ignored her after spending the night with her. Now you’ve no consideration for a young girl not yet sixteen! Look at them, Carthinal. They’re spent. We’ll not make it over the mountains like this.’

Carthinal looked round. Thadora was still sitting wrapped in her blankets, sobbing. Asphodel was slowly and reluctantly folding her blankets, looking pale and drawn. Kimi and Davrael sat, arms around each other, all but propping each other up. Randa was listlessly pulling a comb through her silvery hair, and even Fero was standing slumped against a rock, not even watching Randa comb the hair that so fascinated him.

Carthinal’s anger evaporated as quickly as it had come when he saw his little band.

‘Accept my apologies, Bas,’ he said, ‘You’re right. We can’t keep pushing ourselves. I’m anxious to get over the highest part of these mountains before we run out of fuel and food, but I don’t suppose it’ll help if we die of exhaustion in the process.’

Therefore, he called for a day of rest. Thadora curled back gratefully into her blankets and was quickly asleep again. Carthinal spoke to Asphodel about the food situation and they agreed to have an extra ration that day, even if it meant going hungry later. So they rested and slept for the rest of that day.

During the following night two things happened. Firstly the wood ran out, and then it began to snow. Carthinal and Randa were on watch when the first few flakes fell. It was an hour before dawn, and by the time it arrived, the snow was falling heavily.

‘We should find some shelter if possible,’ said Randa.

‘We’re out of wood, too,’ remarked Fero.

They shook the snow off their bedding and rolled it up into their packs and then with cloaks pulled firmly round them and hoods over their heads, they trudged on.

It was Davrael who first saw the footprint (to Fero’s chagrin, as he felt he had let them down by not noticing it.) It was huge. Much larger that the largest human footprint could possibly have been. It was also the print of a bare foot.

‘What is it? What could possibly have made such a footprint?’ asked Kimi, drawing closer to Davrael. He absently put an arm round her.

‘Yeti,’ responded Fero, hunkering down to look at the print more closely.

‘What’s a Yeti?’ asked Thadora.

‘A large beast of the mountains.’ Fero looked up at her. ‘Few people have seen them, but then few people come so high. They are said to look vaguely human, but are much bigger. Some say nine or ten feet, but that may be an exaggeration.’

‘That print’s big enough for that,’ pointed out Randa.

‘They’re supposed to be covered in long white or grey hair,’ continued Fero as though no one had spoken, ‘And are said to be very savage. It has been said that they’ll eat human, dwarf or elf flesh if they can get it. That may well be true as there’s little enough to eat up here, and the only reports brought back have been distant sightings. No one seems to have seen them close—or at least to have returned with the tale.’ He stood once more, then continued, ‘That print must be quite fresh. It would have been covered in snow else.’

‘Even a blind gnome would be able to tell that,’ mumbled Basalt. He was ignored.

‘We look out then,’ said Davrael. ‘Maybe we take turns for scout ahead.’

‘No!’ Carthinal was adamant. ‘We stick together. In this weather it would be too easy for someone to get lost. In fact, Fero, where’s your rope?’

The snow was continuing to fall, perhaps even harder. It was beginning to become difficult to see the path.

‘Good idea, Carthinal. Everyone slip the rope through your belt so no one can get lost.’

This they did, and then they continued on their way. None of them were happy at the prospect of running into the large, fierce Yeti, and everyone listened and strained their eyes to see any shadows looming through the snowstorm. Eventually, Randa realised that they seemed to have lost the path. At least to her feet it did not seem to be a path they were on.

She called to Carthinal to tell him. It was nearing nightfall, although the day had been so dark it was difficult to tell, so Carthinal called a halt, hoping to retrace their steps if the snow stopped the following day if indeed they had lost the path.

There was no fire that night. They huddled together to try to get some warmth from each other. A watch was set, but it seemed useless in the blizzard as nothing could be seen. Soon, they did fall asleep one by one, even the watch. They all drifted into that pleasant dreamy sleep said to overcome people lost in the snow. They did not hear the soft footsteps approach, nor see the gigantic shadows fall over them.

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