A Cold, Hard Look
Jessie stood up, and looked around the small camp. “All right, let’s do it. Do we strike camp first? If something goes wrong, or the Orcs come sooner than you expect, we may need to move fast.”
Bane stood up smoothly in one graceful movement, and looked around the camp with a smile. “I’ll see to the camp, you’d find things more confusing to take apart and pack than you might expect. You just see to settling your things into that pack you had.”
As Jessie turned towards the tent she had been sleeping in, Bane called after her, “And roll up that sleeping sack you’ve been using and strap it to your pack. If we get separated, you might find you’ll be needing it. Don’t let the warmth of this clearing fool you, while you’ve been away, the valley has settled past fall, and the first hard snows are days away.”
Jessie stopped in mid-step and looked out over the heavily forested valley, that lay far below. Now that Bane had mentioned it, the trees had changed leaves and lost them already, all in the span of what still felt like a day’s sleep. What Jessie had felt was an unseasonal morning chill, was really an unseasonally warm day. Damn.
“You know, I hate winter. I always have.”
Bane laughed. “Well, young master Lauchlin MacQuarrie, if all goes well I hope to be traveling with you and well on our way to Caer Doneghal before ever the snows hit this valley. And if we aren’t, I daresay the snow will be the least of our concerns.”
Jessie couldn’t keep from chuckling as she ducked down and crawled into her tent.
The night before, she’d been too tired to do much more than pull her boots off before crawling into the sack, so things were still mostly in the neatly stacked pile that Bane had made, same as she’d found them when waking up for the first time, just the day before. It was the work of only a moment to place things in her pack, and tie them up.
Somewhere along the way, the clothes shed been wearing when… when she’d fallen to the tree had vanished, along with all of the food and preserved herbs she’d intended to use as poultices at need. She still had some clothes, including a few that would serve to help if worn in layers, but nothing really suited for the cold of an early winter in the mountains.
She sat back on her haunches and thought for a moment, timing where they were against how far they had to travel.
“If we don’t start moving soon, or find suitable shelter, this is going to be tricky. The Orcs track well and move fast in deep snow. And I’m just not prepared.”
Looking around the tent one last time, Jessie made sure that everything aside from the sleeping sack was lashed down securely in or on her pack. Fluffing out the sack, she began to fold and roll it up. Surprisingly, for something so soft and warm on the inside, it compressed very well, much better than goose down or wadded wool. She had feared it would be bulky and hard to carry, but in the end, tightly rolled and tied with leather thongs it was barely a hand’s width around, and easily fit in the top of her pack.
Stepping out of the tent, she straightened up and looked around to see what Bane was doing.
Bane was, just at that moment, finishing rolling up the second of the three tents, and strapping it into a tight rolled up cylinder around what must have been the support poles.
Bane looked up as Jessie came out of her tent, and said, “If you’re all set and ready to go, leave your pack over against that brush covered cliff face, and move down the trail a little ways. Take whatever weapon you’d like, but see if you can get an idea of how close the Orc party is to where we’re at.”
Jessie looked around, and identified the bushes in question. Moving over towards them, she peeked behind and saw that, sure enough, the bushes concealed a smooth edged opening, clearly worked with tools, that was just the size for one person to walk further into the mountain, if they were crouched over and didn’t mind close spaces. Or the dark.
She set her pack against the white stone of the cliff wall, and pulled her sword and scabbard free of her pack. Strapping it on, she did a last check of the area, and saw Bane already at work on the third and last tent.
“How long should I be gone, then, Bane?”
Bane looked up for a moment, her blond hair hanging limp in the still air, the hood bunched up around her neck. “Just for a few moments, long enough to see if they’re moving fast or taking their time. They hadn’t been in much of a hurry when I saw them this morning, but the sound of steel against stone can carry far and far this high up. If they’ve heard us striking camp and decided to come on the run, I’d sooner know about it before I’ve taken to cutting into you.”
“As you say. I’ll be right back.”
Jessie stopped at a sudden thought, and drew her sword from the scabbard. Looking along the length of the blade, she checked it, looking carefully for signs of neglect, or worse yet, rust. To her relief, the steel of her sword looked well cared for, and carried a faint sheen of fresh oil.
Bane’s voice carried softly to where she stood, and Jessie turned once more to look at her. “I cared for your gear as best I could, Jessie. All humor aside, I felt it was a point of faith that you would once again be returned to the lands of the whole and hearty. I wanted to be sure you’d find your belongings well cared for when you awoke.”
Jessie felt strangely touched, and nodding her head once, quickly turned away and moved down the trail, so that Bane wouldn’t see the quick tears that sprang to her eyes at such a simple show of consideration.
Moving down the trail, Jessie worked at staying low, following the cliff wall, moving quietly, and taking her time.
She stopped advancing down the trail when she was about 45 yards from the small camp, and eased to the edge, careful not to frame herself in silhouette against the sky. She paused for a long moment, listening for the hint of any sound that indicated travelers.
Hearing nothing, she moved closer to some hardy scrub brush growing on the very edge of the trail, and worked her head carefully into it, just until she could peek down through the branches and spokes and see over the lip of the trail edge.
From the look of the cliff face beneath her, the trail switched back and forth several times, working its way down and, gradually, south along the face, deeper towards the closed southern end of the valley, and far from where Jessie had intended to begin her climb.
Jessie remembered her earlier idea, so long ago now, to try to climb up this side of Torr Baldwin to make her way around and out of the valley, carrying the dead weight of the elf as she went. She remembered vividly how sheer the cliff wall looked, how impenetrable and smooth. And yet, looking down, it was clear to see the lengths of the trail in all it’s winding, switching glory, barely wide enough for one to walk along it, but never quite so narrow to require tools or special caution.
Jessie knew nothing of different types of stone, and less about climbing mountains, but she did know a great deal about how often paths and trails among the mountain heights changed each season. Every year the water ran down the face of the mountains and cliffs, settling into cracks and channels, and every winter the freeze came, and with it the water shifted and moved as it froze, turning small cracks into deep crevices. Sometimes, in the deepest of winter, water so deep that it had never before felt chill froze, and mighty rocks tumbled and fell, removing all traces of trails that had existed for decades, as if they’d never been.
She thought of this, and wondered at the story Bane had told her. This trail was supposed to have been here like this, just like this, and lasted since before Empire fell?
She looked down, paying attention to the white stone. It looked, to her eyes, the same as any other stone. It wasn’t unnaturally smooth, or pretty, or shiny, or in any way out of the ordinary. It was just plain, white stone, with different shades of gray or black or silver speckled here or there.
“So,” she thought, “This is supposed to be the mountain fortress of some great old wizard from long ago? Does that mean this is all hollowed out from within? And if it is. If it is…”
Jessie continued to look down at the cliff wall, the trail, and across the valley of her birth. From here, if she squinted, she could make out, poking from above the dense trees in the distance, the very tips of the tops of the stone towers of Caer MacQuarrie, hazy in the distance.
“What if it’s true? What if Torr Baldwin really is as Bane says, a great mountain fortress? She also said that she believed the bulk of the fortress itself had been closed off, so the Orcs wouldn’t explore further.”
“If that were true, then maybe a careful exploration, knowing there are passages, might discover some trace of a way in.”
“Ah, Dad, how grand it would be to retake this valley from the Orcs with the strength of a fortress of mighty magic and mystery behind me. To be able to fight from a secure, well defended position. And how easy it would be to entice aid from the lowlander Border Lords, when whispers of this mystery reaches their bored ears. With the prospect of a grand adventure such as rediscovering such a wonder lying before them, I’d be fighting off volunteers with a stick!”
After what felt a long time of laying there, her head in a bush, thinking about the future and listening to the sounds of the present, gradually she came used to the background noises of the gentle wind, the birds, the rustling of the branches and her won breathing.
As she did, she heard a faint sound as of boots scuffing and kicking gravel on stone, coming from far down below.
Turning her attention to the southern end of the trail far below, she finally spied the Orc party, and such it did seem to be.
The group was very far below, and traveling slowly in single file along the trail. Frm the look of the thing, they’d started their journey up at first light, and were making no particular haste to travel.
Jessie looked for a long time, trying to make out details, but from her vantage point she was simply too high up and the figures were too tightly bundled to do little more than count heads and confirm they were all Orcs. Indeed, from the pace they set, it looked as though they were intentionally traveling slower than needed up the trail.
She let minutes drift by while she watched, and finally decided that they were traveling slowly not out of fear, but out of some form of respect. There were, every now and again, faint wisps of smoke or vapor coming from metal pots that hung from chains that the slighter of the Orcs carried.
Jessie finally decided that what she saw were aspiring Orc Shaman carrying braziers or censors filled with incense or some other scented smoke, accompanied by the taller, bulkier Orc warrior heroes. If she’d been the kind to wager, she’d have bet there’d be some chanting or such going on too, but too far away for her to hear.
Gently she eased herself back out of the bush, until it was safe to stand up without being seen from below, and made her way back up the trail.
Jessie rounded the trail to find the clearing empty, and Bane standing near the bushes that concealed the mouth of the tunnel.
Bane looked up at her approach with a quizzical glance, and Jessie said, “The Orcs are indeed coming, but they’re still far down the trail. I’d be surprised if they made it here by afternoon tomorrow, at the pace they’re setting.”
Bane nodded, looking relieved. “Good, in truth I was worried. Once we begin, we really cannot afford to be distracted by anything, anything at all.”
Jessie looked around, and noticed how even the firepit looked years neglected and unused. Bane had cleaned up the camp, but it annoyed her she didn’t get to see how the trick was done.
“Well, I don’t mean to distract you, but I thought you’d like to know that from my count, there’s about forty Orcs coming up this trail, and most of them have the look of warriors about them.”
Bane nodded her head, the blond hair moving in a jerky twist, and said, “I expected that, they usually send the new shaman and warriors up from the most dominant Clan in the first trip, and only after they return do the other six Clans send their heroes up as a group.”
Jessie felt herself immensely surprised with how she felt at the news.
“So, it’s true. There is a point beyond which you can’t feel shocked by bad news anymore. How nice.”
Smiling sweetly at Bane, Jessie said, in an admirably calm voice, “Bane, every one of them has already been prepared, yes? So Each and every one of these heroes and would be shaman will be able to pass at will through these wards you’ve spoken of?”
Bane nodded her head up and down cautiously, and looked wary at the tone of voice Jessie was using.
“Can you tell me this much, then. Can you tell me that, when they all get up here tomorrow, you do have a plan for us getting back out of here alive?”
Bane opened her mouth to speak, and Jessie held up a hand, palm out. “Tut! No, please, don’t spoil the surprise by telling me more. Just nod your head, if you will.”
Bane nodded her head quickly up and down once again, and Jessie broke out into a big smile.
“Well then, let’s just leave that bit of joy for later, as a touch of dessert, shall we? In the meantime, I think you were meaning to carve me up like a feast day pheasant, yes? Let’s get on about it before I just jump off the cliff and save the world the effort it’s making.”
Bane smiled a bit uncertain, clearly unused to Jessie’s style of humor. Seeing as how Jessie learned it at her father’s knee, and from all the guards she’d known, Bane’s surprise threw her for a moment, until she remembered that the only humor Bane had seen for three long years had been whatever rough humor the Orcs enjoyed.
Shaking her head at the unfamiliar thought of trying to imagine what an Orc would find amusing, Jessie followed Bane through the bushes, and into the tunnel beyond.
Jessie saw no sign of the packs at first, but Bane clearly knew where she was going, so Jessie followed her swiftly up the gently rising tunnel.
The tunnel itself did not change in shape or direction, continuing on into the mountain straight and true. After only a few moment, however, the tunnel opened up into a small chamber just large enough to house three or four horses, if they could be made to fit down the passage. There was but one exit from this room other than the one they had come in by, and it was in the opposite wall.
The packs were set against the chamber wall next to the opposite tunnel entrance, and the wards themselves were easy to make out in the darkness, for the very air of the passage was possessed of a gentle golden glow, as if a million fireflies had taken up residence within.
The stone floor of the chamber was worked smooth much as the walls were, and all of the same white stone. Lying in the very center of the chamber were a knife, several small fired clay bowls filled with looked like powders of differing colors, and a small stone bowl barely a handspan across filled with some of the burning coals from the fire they’d had outside.
Jessie stepped forward, fascinated, and stared down at the strange knife Bane had set out, clearly visible in the golden glow.
The knife handle was of simple brown wood, unadorned but worn smooth and dark, and the blade was barely as long as the first joint of her middle finger, which was precisely the finger she felt like raising while looking at the knife.
Bane, seeing the direction of her gaze, filled the silence by saying, “Um, that’s my detail knife. It’s a bit long, but it should work well enough.”
Jessie looked back up at Bane, and was gratified to see Bane look embarrassed.
Jessie was delighted to find it easy to keep her voice steady. “A detail knife.”
“Well, yes. I, well, I like to whittle. That’s one of the knives I use for detail work.”
Jessie just stared at Bane, not trusting herself to speak for a long time.
After a very long, uncomfortable silence, Bane said, “Yes, well, it relaxes me. We’d best get started. If you’d remove your shirt and lie down there near the bowls, I’ll fetch your axe.”
Jessie unbuckled her sword and scabbard, focusing on the act of using her hands. She pulled it off and set it against the chamber wall next to her pack, and began removing her shirt.
After a moment, she said, “The axe.”
“What?” asked Bane.
“The axe. It’s the axe. You called it my axe. It’s not. It’s a damned evil thing, and I’ll have no part of it, except to see to it the thing is destroyed.”
Bane stood by the bowls, and nodded in agreement. “I’ll remember that, Jessie. If something were to happen, I’ll see to it. You have my word.”
Jessie hated herself for a moment, for the shortness of her words and tone, but she couldn’t help herself. Knowing now what the axe was, and what it was meant to do, the very idea of touching it filled her with loathing. It was taking everything she had to drive her thoughts anywhere except towards what she was about to do. Thinking about the axe certainly gave her something to get good and mad at, and for that she felt grateful.
She finished removing her shirt, feeling very cold in the still air of the high mountain chamber, and lay down on the still, icy stone. She quickly felt the warmth begin to leech out of her into the stone beneath her shoulder blades.
Bane picked up the ax, and placed it into her waiting palms.
“Remember, hold it with both hands at all times, flat against the stone above your head. Try to keep your stomach muscles tense, and I’ll do my best to make this as quick as possible.”
Bane reached down into a large leather sack, and lifted out the great gold medallion, setting it down beside her.
Reaching again into the sack, she drew out a thick piece of leather, the size of a strong branch.
Holding it out towards Jessie, she asked, “Do you want this? You can bite down on it to help focus on something other than what’s going on.”
Jessie gave it some serious thought for a few moments, then shook her head no. “I’d rather trust in myself for this. It’s a thing that, once begun, you can be sure I’ll have cause not to be wanting to start over again.”
“As you wish.”
Bane knelt down next to Jessie, and settled her hood over her head, tucking the long blond hair within. With the hood up, it was as Jessie had thought, long ago. The only thing visible amidst the black were the golden elven eyes, shining strangely in the golden glow of the wards.
Bane picked up the small detail knife, and said, “Then let’s begin.”
Jessie braced herself, eyes squeezed shut, tensed and shaking, amazed at the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. She felt a sick, hollow ache in her gut, composed of bile and fear.
She felt the first touch of the knife, cold, so cold, and remembered to hold the axe, hold her stomach taut, hold, hold…