Alone in the Stone Mountains
The morning had dawned with a strong wind, but was quickly followed by a sudden stillness and a heavy cold mist, but as the morning passed the mist gave way to a dark and threatening sky that Jessie had come to know only too well. A hard cold rain was on the way, and Jessie had naught but her woolens for traveling garments, and no inclination to sit and wait the rain out in the hut she had lately shared with Fergus. She swung the package she had dug up from off her shoulder, and resting for a moment under a tree, she pulled the rough oiled cloth wrappings off. Within was a tightly rolled bundle of strangely stiff cloth. Unfolding the bundle carefully, she found tucked within an inner pocket a stiff cream colored-parchment, whose surface was much scraped and reused. The words in which it was written were wholly unfamiliar to Jessie, some kind of language of symbols instead of proper script. The parchment had been folded in a square packet around a heavy metallic coin that better deserved the title of medallion. It seemed to be deeply scored with writing overlaying whatever had once been the original design. The coin had been rudely pierced near one edge, and a rawhide thong had been threaded through it to serve as a makeshift necklace. What drew her attention the most was what the cloth bundle turned out to be, a heavy woolen cloak with a deep hood, all dyed a very dark gray, the color of the very storm clouds that were building overhead. The wool was of a kind she had never seen before, heavily carded but with a great deal of oil in the weave, promising excellent protection from the rain that was sure to come.
The single thing about the cloak that struck her as odd was the unusual stiffness of the woolen cloth when she tried to snap it out to air it. Holding the cloak at rest in her hands, it felt quite limp and soft, but when she snapped it out firmly, it definitely seemed to stiffen and become heavier under her grasp, as though she had swung a wooden board or plank. But strange or no, Jessie wasn’t about to lose faith in Fergus now, and he had said that his gift would shield her from the rain, and the storm chose that very moment to break. Quickly donning the cloak, she fastened the heavy green enameled steel clasp, and drew the deep hood down over her leather cap. She shouldered her small pack, and without a single backward glance began her journey away from the only home she had ever known, in search of a man she had never met, in the distant fortress of Caer Doneghal.
Jessie had spent her entire life living within the confines of the valley, her world view shaped by the massive mountains called Orc Fell to the East, and the mighty tower of black stone that rose above the clouds to the West called Torr Baldwin. Between these two forbidding monuments to nature and their surrounding rocky cairns and impassible cliff walls lay the beautiful valley found and claimed by Jessie’s granther, Donalt. Though getting a straight story out of her granther was nigh to impossible, the version he had told most often had been an unlikely tale involving an attractive Elven lass that wore flowing cloths of white linen, and a dream that showed him the valley and swore that it was his to claim.
At any rate, Jessie’s’ granther had traveled alone, deep past the normally safe boundaries guarded by the Keeps of the Border Lords, and far into the lands the Orcs claimed for their lowland herds. He literally stumbled across a stone-choked pass that led southeast, deeper into the seemingly solid rock of the foothills of the Orc Fell, and on through to the other side, where he found a valley filled with wild game, old growth oaks, and the finest black soil he had seen in all his scouting years.
Old Donalt had been a wild man in his youth, a firebrand ready to take on any and all comers, and eager to take a gamble that a lesser man would choke on, especially if it led to a reputation or a new scar to boast of. He made it back from the valley alive, burning with the desire to claim that fine valley as his own. He gathered together bordermen that wanted to make a name for themselves, and weren’t afraid of the MacQuarrie reputation; men that knew the MacQuarries were famous for getting into fierce battles at insane odds, but also possessed of an impressive record for getting back out of them again somehow, usually smelling like a rose.
Donalt wasn’t driven by greed for land, however. While his father was a Baron, and Donalt himself first in line to succeed him come the time of his fathers’ passing, Baron MacQuarrie was a hale and vibrant man in the prime of his life, and the day of Lord Donalt MacQuarrie advancing to his seat seemed decades yet to come. And a key part of the law and tradition of the Border Lords said that no man may marry a woman against the wishes of a Lady’s parents, no matter how the Lady in question might feel, unless the prospective husband be a Baron, Earl or Duke. Lord Donalt MacQuarrie had many virtues, but patience was never one of them. When Lady Sarah MacCormack confessed at a formal dinner ball that she shared his love, and would consent to be his wife, both knew that the only way this side of hell the two would share vows would be upon Donalt MacQuarries’ ascendance. To that end, when Donalts’ newly formed expedition to seize and hold the valley left Caer Brenghul, the keep of Baron MacQuarrie, fifteen stonewrights and skilled masons, 5 blacksmiths, two skilled cooks and over a hundred peasant families hopeful for land of their own traveled with the supply wagons. In addition, along with the peasants, tradesmen and the supply wagons traveled a lovely young lady, Lady Sarah MacCormack, quite without her parents’ permission or knowledge. By the time Earl MacCormack learned his beloved daughter was not, in fact, vacationing in Caer Brentwood with her governess, Donalt’s expedition had already passed the Eastern Frontier Border and was deep into Orc territory.
For some reason neither Donalt nor Sarah could ever understand, old Earl MacCormack had never forgiven either of them.
The valley was as beautiful in early spring as Donalt had described, and the fighting through the frontier had been light in getting there, but there was clear sign that this was a favored wintering refuge for more than one Orc Clan. Though Donalt had been wise enough to bring everything he might need in way of tools, plus a sink or two, and though the nearby Cliffs provided all the stone a man could hope for, and the makings of quicklime as well, still the snow was howling down the vale before the first true stone fortifications were raised to protect the new community. The borderlanders were hard pressed to hold their wooden palisades against the first of the ever-increasing Orc raids. What had been a fearsome force of over three hundred borderlander reavers was soon whittled down to just under a hundred and fifty, and their prospects looked ever bleaker.
The few Orc survivors taken during the raids had made it clear the valley was considered sacred, a place where the spirits had walked for a time clad in flesh, and all hunting was strictly forbidden. According to the Orcs, a Clan could shelter in the valley only in the bleakest of winter need, and even then, they could not hunt, but instead foraged from the tubers that grew wild along the valley walls. The valley belonged to no one Clan, but was instead the sacred ground of all the Orc Clans of the mountains and low land Tribes. They would never willingly give up the valley to human rule.
Granther never spoke of the winter that followed. His tales of the founding of Caer MacQuarrie always ended with a stern admonition to always care for and respect the men that fought with and fought for the MacQuarries, for the loyalty of a borderlander is a sacred trust, and that without them there would be no Caer MacQuarrie, and no Jessie either! From that day to this, the Valley of Bitter Winds had been the home of the children of Donalt and Sarah MacQuarrie, and their children’s children as well.
The impression the young MacQuarrie children carried with them after Granthers’ tales was that during that long winter the men of the MacQuarrie Guard had driven back the Orc foes until the Orcs finally gave up in defeat, and that there could be no finer thing than to be a warrior of the MacQuarrie Guard. There was a lot of imagined bravery and daring deeds, and thoughts of peasant folk kidnapped by the vile Orcs and rescued by dashing MacQuarrie men at arms. Jessie straightaway knew that someday she too would wear the red and black baldric of the MacQuarrie Guard. By the time Jessie grew old enough to learn that a woman’s place in the Keep would never put her in the Guard, she was far too stubborn and bull-headed to leave her dream to die.
However, dwelling on the past doesn’t get the sheep sheared, as Fergus might have said. The thing Jessie had to focus on now was getting herself out of the Valley past the Orcs that patrolled the low passes to north or south.
Thinking about the Orc patrols brought back the anger she kept trying to deny existed. A sudden swelling urge to draw sword and hack at the first thing to get in her way burst upon her, and for a moment it was all she could do to draw in deep, shuddering breaths and will the adrenaline to fade. No, Fergus knew her too well. She would do her family’s memory no service by dying alone and forgotten with them, no matter how many Orcs she took with her. And whatever else these Orcs may be, they were too damn organized and active to be regular Orcs of one of the lowland Tribes. The lowlanders were all of them greenskins, and while they fought well and had the strength of a bull, they hated horses and stubbornly refused to build a cavalry no matter how many times the Border Lords’ forces overran them in the charge.
But these Orcs were clearly of a new Tribe or Clan Jessie had never heard tell of before. Their skin was gray instead of green, was the first obvious thing about them, but the heart remembers when the mind forgets. The weapons she saw them wield in her nightmares, as they hacked her father and brother to pieces, were made of forged steel, but in designs she had never seen wielded by human hands or forged at human hearths. They were not tools of straight lines and simple angles but curves and twisted hooks and barbs. Instead of rough skins for garments, they wore dyed cloth and boiled leather, with steel plates woven to hang at joint or shoulder. The work was different from each to the other, and crudely maintained, but it was still armor that looked ruggedly effective, as proved by the images her heart relentlessly threw up on the wall of her mind. The proud MacQuarrie Guard stood and faced the Orc invaders on the walls of the Keep, only to die as the plates and leather turned their slashing blows, leaving them open for the bludgeoning swings of the viciously barbed and hooked clubs, axes and maces. The images of the maces rising, falling, and then rising again, but this time rinsed all in red, bright red…
With a harsh cry, Jessie jerked herself out of her brief reverie, swearing at herself with sudden loathing. Time enough to grieve when her current duty was finished, and that wouldn’t be until she was safely out of the Valley.
Still, the one lesson to hold fast was that the gray Orcs were making regular patrols, and clearly had posts set up both ends of the valley, likely to watch for signs of a human return. With no other conventional way into or out of the valley, the Orcs must be feeling pretty secure, but unless Jessie were to try to ease past the Orcs at the posts that surely were on their toes, that only left two directions to get out of the valley and away to Caer Doneghal to sound the alarm. Either to the east into the Orc Fells or to the west, around the spire of Torr Baldwin. The west might seem the obvious choice, but to Jessie’s certain knowledge, no Orc had ever penetrated the jagged cliff walls to launch an attack from that direction, and if there is one thing a determined Orc will do, it’s find a way where you thought there was none, to slit your throat from behind. On the other hand, Orcs had been coming down the mountains of the Orc Fells by one pass or another for three generations now, and there was no way the Orcs would think to guard them all. Just get a few miles upcountry, deeper into the Orc highlands, skirt a few unsuspecting patrols and then turn north and come down well past the valley mouth, and on to Caer Doneghal.
Jessie shivered as she recognized the sudden eager anticipation that rose within her heart at the thought of the Orc Fell passes. There were Orc villages up there, she knew. In her father’s time the Guard had raided up there to bring back a small herd of cattle that had been taken by the Orcs, and they brought back word of how close the Orcs were living, and how crude were their palisades and village defenses. Jessie suddenly realized that she couldn’t trust herself to make a rational choice about this. She tried to think clearly, and make a decision based on fact and sound strategy, but her heart wanted nothing but revenge, and it seemed devilishly capable of guiding her thoughts unawares. There was only one hope for it, and that was to strike out in the one direction she knew would have no Orcs to tempt her heart… and her sword. She must try to find a way out over the cliff wall to the West.