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[personal profile] thulcandran
...for a tale of two travelers, thrown together-- er, well, more chosen for the sake of price and convenience than 'thrown,' per se-- on a fateful pass over a maybe-kinda-sorta-deadly mountain!

This is part one - part two is about halfway finished, and shall be posted tomorrow morningish.

"You don't understand," Virgil said. "He really, really, really doesn't like me."

Tessa surveyed him over the table critically. He was tallish, lean - some wiry muscle, nothing claymore-flavored - sharp-angled all around, close-cropped red hair over grey-blue eyes; a crooked nose, travel-worn clothes, and laugh lines equally spaced with scars across his face. In short, exactly the kind of person you'd picture to match with the sentence, "The guardian of the pass really doesn't like me." She shook her head.

"Look," she told him, pointing to the chart spread out between them. "The Darsun Pass is in deep freeze this time of year, and I'm not risking my neck over shifting glaciers, avalanches, the god of Blizzard Peak, and snow bears - I don't care what the price is. I'm not sticking around until the season ends, and I doubt you are, either. Nobody in their right minds is going to go three months out of their way to the South - in both directions! - so you can forget about that option. It's the Leore Pass or nothing." She downed her drink and glanced back over at him. The guy looked positively morose. "Look, Virgil, I'm not being picky, here. Unless you can ship out in a caravan headed for Kharz - and they're not cheap - you're either stuck here, or stuck without a guard. That's just the truth of it. We'll find a way to slip you through the pass - I'd bet it wouldn't be the first time."

The traveler sighed deeply, finished his own drink, and reached across the table; she grasped his hand, shook, and nodded decisively. "We'll leave in three days, then. I'll need some time to pull together the supplies."

"Alright." He stood, rolling the charts all together, and tying them off with a bit of leather. She watched him leave the inn, his head down, deep in thought. This looked... interesting.

She'd never taken the Leore Pass before - something he hadn't asked. She'd never heard of a vengeful guardian there, which said... something, anyway. Another thing he hadn't asked was how long she'd been in the business (three seasons alone, two years apprentice). He was either heart-stoppingly desperate, or mind-bendingly stupid. Or possibly both, she thought, wandering over to the hearth.

"Heya, Tess." Ali nodded from her seat near the flames, and Tessa sat down across, wondering how much she should say. Ali had been in the business a long time, it was quite possible she knew what her new client had been on about. "What's up?"

She kicked absently at the fire. "How much do you know about the Haori Peaks?"

Frowning, Ali looked over her shoulder before answering. "A fair bit. I've been up that way a couple times; twice over the Leore in both directions, and up to the summit of Darsun more times than I care to count. Why?"

"Well... you ever heard of - hell, or seen - a guardian, watching over Leore?" She grimaced; it sounded so stupid, out loud. "Because I'm starting to wonder if I've just taken a contract with a lunatic."

Ali made a deep 'hm' noise, and sipped her wine. "I've never seen anything up there, no. Never stuck around too long either, though - it's not exactly a hospitable place to spend the night. But... don't discount his tale right off. There's some odd stories about that place. All the peaks have their quirks - you know, Haori is practically honeycombed with those crystals, Rikha has that tribe of icicle-worshipping warriors, and most of the lower range is overrun with ogres as soon as the first snow hits. If I hadn't been damn-near impaled by that scout, two years back, I'd never have believed the stories. But now... well, just don't automatically disbelieve it."

Tessa sighed. "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of. He says he ran into trouble with some kind of a guardian last time he took the pass. Seemed like mortal terror, but whatever's chasing him's got to be worse, since he agreed to take it, in the end."

"Damn, Tessa. Don't get yourself killed out there, hey?" She thought a moment, then added, "And talk to Boris. He's been over Leore more times than I've been down to Kharz. If anybody can tell you if there's any weird shit about that pass, it'd be him."

Nodding, she stood, and grabbed Ali's hand for a moment. "Thanks, mate. I'll see you in the Spring, yeah?"


She found Boris at Jarkhal's the next day, swapping tales while the apprentice shoed his little hill pony. There were other smiths in the small city, but Jarkhal had been a mountaineer once, and anyone who made their living guarding travelers across the harsh surrounding lands made it a point to take their work to his forge. The gnarled old smith grinned at her as she ducked in the door, closing it heavily against the stiff breeze.

"Heard you got yourself a contract, Tess," he called, across the room. Boris turned, raising an eyebrow.

She laughed and nodded at the two of them, crossing the room to the long, low counter. "Yeah, picked up somebody wants to head over Leore before the snows bury us in, here."

Boris whistled, low, and shook his head. "Bad move him, waiting so late," he said, leaning against the counter. "Leore can be tricky if you have to make it down late." He tilted his head at her, his blue eyes twinkling in the firelight. "That why you're here? Ducking the fool's trail?"

"Not... quite." She hesitated for a moment. "You know Leore better than anybody - you ever hear of a guardian, up there somewheres?"

He was silent for a long moment. "What did he tell you?"

Jarkhal watched, his eyes dark. Tessa took a deep breath. "Just - he wasn't welcome, up there. He wanted to take Darsun, but my second run was coming back here that way, just spring, and even on the tail end of a pretty mild winter, we barely made it. I won't touch it, this late into the fall. But he sounded like he'd prefer snow bears and glaciers to Leore."

Boris sighed, and rubbed his eyes a moment. "Yeah," he said, sighing. "I heard tales like that, different places. Used to be a hunter around, maybe ten years back, Tobin; he told me same thing, he wasn't welcome up there. I asked him, he wouldn't say more. Said there were things no man could face twice. No more. So I asked around - there's a village up a ways, Varhil; little place, live off the pastures up past the trees ending. There, they have stories - they live in shadow of Leore, they would know. Old men tell tall tales all over the world, though," and the ghost of a grin passed his face, "So I didn't listen too close. They said same thing - a guardian, watches the pass, never seen until it's too late. Shadows to scare the little ones straight.

"But there was a lady there, made soups from these roots far up the mountain - her sons gathered them when I met her, journey maybe two days up and down both." He paused for a moment, smiling. "Damn good soup, too. We traded, a bowl for some of the incense I had carried over from the far side of the pass. She told me when she was younger, stronger, straighter back, she walked up the mountain herself, gathered the roots to harvest - her sons did okay, they were good boys, but they didn't have the eye of it. She said once, she went farther - up through the boulders, found a path, worn smooth and ancient. Walked it, climbed some, all up, where things stop growing, only rocks and the colors of the sky. She said up there, in the rocks, there was something she heard, singing - speaking, maybe, like the voice of the mountain. Too big to be man, or men, or bear - even too big to be ogre. Too... too sharp, maybe, to be avalanche, or rocks. She was waiting, it was too dark to go down, and she was there for the night, listening to the spirit of the mountain. In the morning it was silent.

"From what she told me, she was looking down on the pass; it's high up there. I looked for the path after that, always, but I never saw it. That was... eight years, maybe. I was up Leore last summer, taking three miners back to Kahi Plains, and I thought I saw something - but it was dusk, and my eyes aren't as strong as they were." He shrugged. "I went to look, but nothing was there."

Tessa shook her head. "That's quite a tale, Boris," she told him. "I can't back out now. But I thank you for the warning; it'll take some thought."

Jarkhal h'med, under his breath. "You ever smuggled a customer across a border, Tess?"

"Nah," she answered. "Snuck past bandits last fall, but everybody's done that."

He shrugged. "That's something. I don't know what this legendary... thing Boris has is capable of, but I've done some underhanded borders in my day. Stay low, travel dark whenever you can, and keep off the roads where there's space for it. The high parts of Leore won't be easy, but I don't doubt there's a way through, somewhere. The old woman's path, maybe. Just keep your eyes out for it."

She nodded to both of them. "Thanks, Jarkhal. Boris. I'll see you on the other side." The wind had picked up, she noticed, stepping back outside. It wouldn't be an easy crossing, this late. Virgil was lucky to have found a guide at all - maybe that was why he'd come to her, she realized. Green on the mountains, she didn't have as much margin to be choosy about her fares; most of the older guards and guides wouldn't have taken the pass at all, this late. Well, it wasn't the end of the world, probably; she'd just have to trust to the luck of the young and the foolish - between the two of them, they had both ends pretty well covered.

The day dawned brisk and sunny - good weather to start, and a waxing quarter moon that night, a good sign. She met Virgil on the outskirts of town, and nodded approval at his gear; he'd taken her suggestions. The journey was a good three weeks of travel, two if they pushed it; he was well outfitted to be coming down the end of the pass as it closed. It'd do them no good to brave Leore if they got caught unprepared in an early blizzard coming down.

Tessa was fitted out - a light mail tunic, tucked out of sight, and a sturdy cloak over her travel shirt and breeches. Heavy boots - they'd be a bit uncomfortable for the ends of the foothills, but there was nothing like them for the steep, winding trails up Leore and the roots of Rikha. For now, she kept the cloak swept back, leaving her short, dark hair open to the morning breeze, and the mace exposed at her hip. She hoped to avoid trouble on the road, but this wouldn't be the first time, nor the last, that a handful of ne'er-do-wells watched a single guard escort someone out of the city, and slipped out in the following hours with a good hunting bow and an alibi. Better to keep them from getting the idea in the first place.

She nodded to him. "You ready?"

He took a deep breath, as if he wasn't quite sure of the answer. "Yeah. Let's get moving."

And they hit the road.
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May 2013


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