Chapter IV: Eyes in the Blizzard
“How is he? How is he?” Napoly stares at Lil’Tommy with worry in her eyes.
“Not good” Ulm replies, “He couldn’t breathe properly, he was bleeding like a pig and then he passed out. Don’t ask how we got around the patrols!”
“There’s no blood flowing now! We have to rush.”
Napoly, seeing the blood and torment the young man was in, uncovers a hidden stash of courage and fortitude, immediately jumping towards him and tearing the clothing off of his body. She was pale like snow earlier, but now her cheeks are scarlet, fueled by the pumping adrenaline. Yerevan stands a few feet to the side, and he can almost feel the heat waves radiating of her and drying up the humidity on the cavern’s walls.
Back on the surface of the cavern, Dromon is quick to carry a few sturdy-looking logs, and drops them right next to the hole.
“Milly, get me a few more” he says with an anxious voice. With a groan, Milly obliges.
He lays those that are next to him right on top of the hole, placing them in cross-shaped formations, and layering them so that, when one stares directly from above, the view of the cavern is completely blocked. Milly returns with the logs about as he’s halfway through the project.
“Make me some snow chunks.”
A wind, carrying something of a shout, albeit extremely warped, makes Dromon freeze in his spot. He turns his gaze up, towards the edge of the cliff, and the anxiety flares up in his eyes. He opens his mouth, and waits for the wind to blow again. It does so, not a moment later, and the frigid gust causes little ice particles to form in his mouth.
“Go faster Milly, otherwise your head will end up on a pike in Northlight.”
The saboteur glares, then gulps and pick his pace up. Before long, the hole is covered up. Shadowy figures appear beyond the snowy wind. Dromon grabs Milly by the shoulder, and raises his finger above his mouth. Maybe they are nothing but a mirage, a figment of Dromon’s imagination, morphed into the sharper humanoid shape animated by paranoia and cold. There are fables of elemental spirits roaming across the lands, fragments shattered away from Nature’s collective soul. It is said that if someone survives the coming of a blizzard, to the point that he reaches the centre of the phenomenon, the winds drop to a halt and the sky clears overhead.
If the traveler has suffered quite a lot, he can see the clouds whirling around him faster and faster, the shadows being animated into being through the leaking consciousness of his own battered mind. The shadows close in on him, and choke him. The bards claim the experience is painful, and definitely fatal; the elemental gods are not lenient when they detect a mortal trespassing their hearth. The fury eventually subsides, but the traveler is nowhere to be seen; his soul has been devoured by the entity, forever trapped inside the tempest, the thunder and the lightning. When the elements are particularly furious, they say, they take the form of the soul that they devoured, to strike fear into mortal hearts.
At the moment, Dromon was more concerned with the existence of hostile soldiers in the proximity. He knows that if the wind shifts even for an instant, even the slightest sound can travel to faraway ears, disclosing the groups location and exposing them to a more realistic danger. He continues filling the the hole in with a foundation of wood, concealing it with snow. A little while later the camouflage is concealed. Milly lights up his pipe, then turns to look towards the cliff; the figures have are nowhere to be seen.
“Milly. What do you think we should do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we are not equipped to handle enemy soldiers? We already lost Tommy>”
“Oh, don’t say that Dromon, you and I’ve both seen Ulm and Napoly handling the nastiest of wounds!”
“I’ve not seen anyone bringing a man back from the dead.”
Milly did not reply.
“Do you think we will be able to stand against soldiers and this fuckin’ blizzard man? We need to leave as soon as possible.”
“How much do you think we have before the cold envelops us? A day? Maybe more?”
“Hahaha! A day! With this wind! You are a shitty pathfinder man. Three hours at most, in two the chill will start scraping by us. When it hits, we’ll have nowhere to go, we’ll be trapped in the cavern for a week, freezing. And if we don’t die to the cold, we’ll die of starvation.”
“Maybe you’re right Dromon. We should head down, let the captain know.”
The two stand up, and head off towards the entrance, crawling and sliding inside.
Dromon enters the cavern first, and spots Ulm and Napoly picking a fight over what is very clearly a corpse. They have a heated debate over which approach could best tend to Lil’Tommy’s wounds.
“We need to cauterize the wound!” Ulm shakes his powder pouch.
“We need to remove the bullet first! The bleeding has already stopped!” Napoly waves a short knife right next to her head.
What is uncommon though, is that the debate has reached an intensity that Yerevan would have found unacceptable. Has the captain resigned completely? Is he cowering away in a dark crevasse, meditating on his own death, staring into the distance like he did earlier with the doused fire? Dromon walks inside, making his way to the center of the now dark room. He gives his eyes some time to get accustomed to the low light, then turns his head from side to side, in an effort to detect Yerevan. Still, the captain is nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d the captain go?” he asks.
“He said he’d go find Roma, get her back here.”
Indeed, Yerevan is already out, following the footpath to the northern part of the Chiontezzo. Napoly told him that Roma would head north, on the wooded lands near the sea. The climate there was smoother than it was further north, where the freezing wind would pummel the woodlands all the way from the mountain peaks to the feet of the Shark’s Maw; to avoid freezing to death, small and large animals alike seeked shelter near the sea. With the impending blizzard, it would make sense to set a few traps near the shore, then wait for the prey to be caught.
The reason why Yerevan went out after Roma, however, was not merely the gathering of the company. It was that the ease provided by bountiful hunting grounds was outweighed by the risky proximity to Northlight, which sat on the cliff right on the edge of the sea. The soldiers would return to the city, and, unless Roma was astonishingly lucky, they would spot her traps and know that someone was around. Of course, Yerevan had not allowed his mind to venture towards the possible scenarios that could follow something like that. After all, this is the Sisters’ first war, and being held captive could provide the Fonteans with dangerous intelligence on the Unbroken’s location and identity.
The path has not been stepped on. Yerevan spots a few animal tracks, but for the time being at least, no human footsteps. He moves for another half hour, and then he spots the first hare trap. A small wooden cage, with a few colorful, delicious-looking fruit just sitting at the deep end. The hare is meant to walk in, then trigger the trap by means of a stepping across a tight string, that shuts the narrow wood gate behind it, blocking the exit.
Yerevan moves forward. He spots three more traps, one of them actually populated with prey. I’m not going to find her like that. He decides to abandon the trail and look for a vantage point. He spots a short hill, then climbs it. Once on top, he has a good view of the Chiontezzo. The blizzard is coming in fast from the southern reaches, as the wet maritime breeze follows the steep topography of the Shark’s Maw, forcing the water particles to agglomerate into shards of snow and ice. Like an airborne avalanche, the ice clouds will soon sear the landscape, freezing everything as they bleed across the Chiontezzo.
To the south, Northlight seems as still as always. Then, something inside the city rattles. However, there is something afoot with the city. Torchlights move across the towers of the keep. They disperse in all four directions, stopping for moments and then continuing. Quite the commotion. Yerevan tries to discern what is going on for a few minutes. The torches grow in number, at first slowly and then faster and faster. The new flares are all moving towards the central square, where they rest, as if waiting for something. Then, someone starts shouting. Although the tone is extremely familiar to Yerevan, the alien accent and the distance make the words incomprehensible.
The shout is abrupt, like lightning, penetrating the sky like thunder; it sounds as if the it is a drillmaster training soldiers, scaring them into obeying his commands. The commotion subsides as orders as shouted forth from a single coarse voice. Where is that accent from? Yerevan has met with all sorts of Fonteans before, during peacetime; the southerners open their mouths wide, dragging the vowels; the ones in the capital accentuate the final syllable of every word; to the west, the accent approaches that of the Naramarians, clear-cut, stripped of all frivolity. Surely, these soldiers are something different. Mercenaries. That explains a lot: the back-handed counter-ambush, the different equipment, the willingness to conceal the soldiers bright blue uniform.
Not a minute passes, and the familiar sound of gate-opening chains being pulled floods the air. Yerevan only has a direct view to the southern one. He spots soldiers exiting through it, some two hundred in number. They seem to be lacking in discipline when compared to the ambush group, and the formation seems like a poor effort to form double file.
A gunshot explodes somewhere near the eastern front of the bay. Roma. Yerevan turns to look. At first he spots the little cloud of white floating over an gap in the tree line. A moment later, he spots a patch of white moving against the darker logs of the trees. It takes him a moment, but in the end he makes out the white furs from the rest of the snow. Maybe it is a hunter, he reckons, but it is the only clue as to the sword sister’s whereabouts. To make matters more impending, a flow of soldiers are on a collision course with her, scouring the bay for tracks that may reveal the Unbroken’s location. I’ve got to get to her before they do.