“One moment, please,” Alayana Tenebrian said, raising a hand in the direction of the cry from up the slope.
She was looking at the traces on the ground. You couldn’t really call them tracks. They were hardly clear enough.
Someone had camped in this area, and hadn’t cared who would know it. Where they had come from was clear. The number and nature was less so, as was the direction in which they had left. The ground was hard, this high up the valley walls, the vegetation sparse, and someone in the party had really not wanted to be followed.
Tracks indicated that one body had been supported or dragged along, and... nothing else. Obviously, someone must have been shouldering the weight, but apart from a few stray indications that might have been unrelated, nothing along the trail spoke a word about who or what had done so.
There was no whiff of true magic about it, not that her company mage could detect. That left a few possibilities, none of them good. Tracking elves over open ground was just about possible, if one of them was wounded. If they reached the woodlands or recovered sufficiently, it would be impossible.
One of the company that had camped on this spot had been so badly hurt as to walk like a human. The ground was even disturbed where they’d slept. The elves—if that’s what they were—already had a three-day lead. If they knew their way through the mountains, they’d most likely be at the edges of the forest before Tenebrian and her squad caught up.
A company of elves, fleeing the scene of the battle. That was interesting.
She straightened up, looking up slope at where the soldier had called.
“Find something?” she said.
“I’m not sure,” the man said. “Maybe. Perhaps the captain’s eye?”
Tenebrian nodded, then picked her careful way up the hill.
They were as high up on this side of the valley as you could get before you broke out the ropes and pitons. The hills were steep, but they gave way quite sharply to jutting walls of rock. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would have come this way unless they knew how to pick a path between them.
It seemed the soldier and one of his squadmates might have found such a path, or what remained of it. Dirt and stone rubble filled a narrow gap between rocky shoulders, some thirty or more feet high, spilling out and down the slope. Any tracks that might have led into the cleft had been buried, obliterated.
“You said to look for a cave or a path,” the soldier said. “This isn’t a gap anymore, but it looks like a recent collapse to me. Could be a cave or gap behind it? I mean, I don’t much about avalanches, but it doesn’t look like it happened long ago.”
“It doesn’t, you’re right,” the captain said. “Look at how much loose earth there is. Time would wash away what doesn’t become packed in, carrying it away with wind and water.”
She considered. On the one hand, it was so obvious that it could scarcely have been counted on to cover up a path. On the other hand, time and the elements would eventually render it all but invisible. She knew someone had come this way, had camped nearby. She knew they were no longer in the area, and had good reason to believe they were no longer in the valley, as there wasn’t anywhere to hide at this end of it.
“It must be important, what we’re after,” the soldier said.
“It shouldn’t mean a damned thing to anyone but us,” the captain replied. “It’s an heirloom of House Haldane, not valuable in material and of no significance to any outside that house. But little minds have a way of attaching almost supernatural importance to tokens and trophies.”
“People think it’s magic?” the soldier said.
“Quite. It isn’t, of course, but we have to get it back all the same. If it passed this way... if... then we must do the same.”
“We might could climb it?” the soldier said. “Not much slope to it, but plenty of handholds. It would be a sight easier than climbing the mountain and quicker than digging it out. Might not be too stable, but we could go one at a time. Of course, can’t know what’s on the other side. Might be all filled in like this for a ways, might not even go anywhere.”
“Indeed,” Captain Tenebrian said. She craned her neck upwards, trying to see what the mountain looked like above the filled-in gap, to see if she could judge how much of it might have come tumbling down in the recent path.
There was a problem of vantage point, though. She was below, trying to look up past a wall of stone forty, fifty feet high. If she backed up to get a better view, she’d only go down farther. There was no way to get an angle on the mountain without being up on a higher mountain.
And, as the soldier had observed, it would be easier to climb the rubble than to climb the mountain.
A picture, or at least a sketch, was beginning to form in Tenebrian’s mind. A company of elves alights from the battlefield two full days after the the dust settled.
The battle is long over, but one of them is wounded somehow. A skirmish with looters? With other looters, that is. They dare not leave that member behind, dead or alive, or else they surely would have slit its throat.
Their escape route is all planned out, along with a means to cover their tracks.
And if no one had come looking for them until long after the fray, no one would have found a single trace of them.
The odds of anyone finding this one particular spot on the rim of the valley without the trail leading there were vanishingly low. Combing the circumference of the valley would be an enormous undertaking, and it would take but the natural work of a season or two to disguise the rockfall as just another feature of the varied slope.
They hadn’t counted on the wounded member. They hadn’t counted on anyone noticing the theft so soon, not quite a week after the battle. They hadn’t counted on anyone caring much about it, in the midst of an ongoing war.
They hadn’t counted on Captain Alayana Tenebrian.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Figuring out a way to get above the narrow gap and triggering the rockfall had eaten up most of what was left of a day for Whisper and Des. It took another three days to make it through the winding route that was sometimes a pass between mountains and sometimes a path winding up the sides of one.
It was often colder during the day because of the lack of direct sunlight, but warmer at night because of the lack of direct wind. Whisper’s memories and instincts allowed the pair to pace paced their travels so they would not be caught on the side of a mountain as the sun set.
They still slept together, each night. Even with the improved conditions, it still made enough sense to share their warmth and what comfort they had. Des’s injuries continued to improve.
The first time she woke up within the mountains proper, she found that the swelling had receded enough that she could open her eye, and she was overjoyed to find that it was not itself damaged.
“I had no fear it was,” Whisper said.
“Well, it wasn’t your eye, was it?” Des said. She touched the flesh above it gingerly. It was still tender, and would remain so for several more days.
Near the end of the third day, they came around a corner on a narrow path and were rewarded with a sweeping view of a lush evergreen carpet falling away in every direction except behind them.
“The woods,” Whisper said.
“Our new home?” Des asked.
“I for one have no intention of setting up shop as soon as we break the tree line,” Whisper replied. “I would like to lose some altitude, and put some more space between ourselves and the site of a recent battle.”
“Even if someone found our way out of the valley and made it past the blockage, there’s not much chance they’d follow in our footsteps. Some of the paths you took looked less like paths than the ones you didn’t.”
“It is so,” Whisper said. “I am unconcerned with pursuit at this point, and more with the ever-expanding theater of war.”
“I was kind of hoping both sides would have had it a bad enough time of it that they’d have lost their taste for it.”
“My dear Des, the horrors we experienced in the valley were nothing new in the annals of warfare,” Whisper said. “They are simply what war was, what war has always been. If one has a taste for war, one has a taste for horror. Those who prosecute wars would no sooner choke on misery and death than you would choke on air.”
“Yeah, well, you haven’t known me very long, but I’ve managed that a time or two,” Des said.
“Then maybe you should meet our former leaders and endeavor to teach them the trick,” Whisper said. “Do you still intend to stay with me?”
“We’ve been over this. You’re stuck with me.”
“Then let us push on. We have a way to go to reach the trees, but I should think we will be quite a bit more comfortable tonight if we do so.”
“You think we’ll find shelter there?”
“My dear Des, the forest is shelter. I think we shall improve it,” Whisper said, looking skyward. “And I think we shall need it. It is going to rain tonight. Hard.”
“Really? We haven’t had rain in days.”
“We haven’t been on this side of the mountain. There is a reason the forest hugs this side of the chain, and not the leeward side. The water in the air imparts it with a heaviness that cannot climb over the slope, and it dumps the excess here.”
“If you say so. Have I mentioned I don’t know much about mountains?”
“This is why I tell you, so you will know. Most of the rain within the valley originates within the valley. Moisture has a hard time leaving it as it does entering it.”
“Is that why it was so foggy in the mornings?”
“Yes,” Whisper said. “Water wishes to find its level, always. Even when that water is subsumed into the air, still must it find its level. This is how you find water in the wilds: look for the low places.”
“That much was the same in the plains,” Des said. “I know you said you’d teach me how to survive, but I think I’m going to need some more specifics if that’s going to work.”
“Well, I could start describing different varieties of edible plants and mushrooms, and how they differ from their toxic cousins, but I doubt I could do so in such vivid detail as to paint an accurate picture in your mind, nor do I believe you would retain this information presented in the abstract. I will teach you, Des, but I must use what is in front of us. Right now, that’s basic hydrology and climatology.”
“Alright,” Des said. “That stuff, and a fair bit of distance between us and the trees. I guess we should get to it.”
“Do you remember what I told you?”
“The day we left.”
“The day you pulled me out of the mudhole?” Des said. “You said a lot of things.”
“That it’s one foot after the other,” Des said.
“Yes. One foot after the other.”