Whisper of the Wilding Woods: Chapter 11
Oaths are sworn. Mountains are crossed.
Four hours into their ascent to the pass, Kaeleth was convinced Aline was wishing he and the entire family line that brought him into this world had never been born. Or perhaps she was inventing slow and painful methods of torture with which to punish him for dragging her into this hellish place. Kaeleth had spent his entire life following his father through rugged terrain, and the way was difficult enough even for him. Small rocks at the edge of the meadows had given way to an endless field of scree and choss punctuated by boulders that had required them to use their hands in order to clamber over. As the slope steepened, they were forced to choose between continuous climbing over massive and difficult-to-navigate blocks of stone, and trudging across smaller loose rock that gave way beneath the feet, sliding into the tops of their boots and causing them to lose a foot of distance for every two they climbed. The sun shone fierce in a cloudless sky, but the wind was cold and unrelenting. There had been no sight of stream nor patch of summer snow from which they might melt in their mouths for water. There was only the promise of endless rock doing its best to turn them away.
Huddled now in the lee side of one of the larger blocks so they might catch their breath, Kaeleth missed the traumatized and sullen girl he’d hauled bodily through the forest. He missed the terrified girl he’d cajoled up the cliff face. He especially missed the kind and eager-to-learn girl with whom he’d spent a pleasant day resting and preparing for this climb from the safety of the cave shelter. None of these demure and grateful versions of his companion were with him now. There was only Aline, eyes as hards as the rock upon which they sat, jaw as firmly set as the mountains that loomed above them.
“There should be a small stream from the ice melt somewhere nearby,” he said. “At least I hope so.”
Aline spoke her first words since before the sun had risen, though they dripped with the icy chill of night. “You don’t know where we’re going?”
“I’ve never been over the pass before. Before I was born, my father did it just to see if he could. He told me there were springs somewhere in the rocks, but he didn’t draw me a map or anything.”
The hardness in Aline’s features faltered, then redoubled. “Why are you only telling me this now? I was under the impression you’d done this before.”
“Why would I have? Our village is far below. We have no trade with the lands on the far side of the mountains. Only brigands and desperate fools would attempt to cross the pass. Even in summer.”
Aline let out a sharp laugh that made Kaeleth wince. “And which are we? Brigands or fools?”
“We’re certainly not brigands,” Kaeleth said, eager to return to the venomous silence that had followed them up the mountainside.
There was nothing else to say, so neither spoke. By silent agreement, they rose to their feet and resumed their trek. After another miserable hour, the shifting rocks gave way to the solid stone of the mountain itself. The way was not half as steep as the cliff face they’d scaled days earlier, but climbing still required careful concentration. Each foot placement had to be made deliberately. It was a long way to tumble with nothing but sharp rocks to stop them should one of them slip and fall. The weight on their backs didn’t make it any easier for them. Kaeleth had taken on the larger share of the burden of skins and furs, and if he stood too straight to ease his aching back, he felt his balance shift dangerously toward pulling him off the slope. Bent forward, eyes ever roving to find the next hand or foothold, he toiled on, wondering what he had done to so anger the gods that they had chosen to single out and torment him. From down in the meadows, the climb hadn’t looked so difficult. Now it was approaching midday, and they hadn’t gained even half the distance to the saddle that marked the pass between towering peaks.
The sparkle of sunlight on water caught his eye. Blinking back sweat that pooled at the corners of his eyes, he squinted against the sun and was relieved to finally see a trickle of water flowing down the mountainside. It was little more than a thin sheet that must have come from the melting snow caps above, but after scrambling over to it, he and Aline were able to bring their lips to it and drink. Seated beside the run-off and staring back down toward the meadows from whence they’d come, Aline ran her hand through the water and then wiped it across her brow. She looked a little less angry now, at least. Far from pleased, but less like she might choose to punt Kaeleth off the mountainside at the first opportunity.
“The pass is our best hope of escape,” he reminded her. “I never promised it would be easy.”
Aline’s shoulders sagged. “I know. It’s just that I’m so weary of running. It’s exhausting not knowing what to do or where to go.”
“At least we know that if those men chasing us had back-up, they haven’t made it to the meadows.” Kaeleth swept his hand out across the wide vista sprawled below them. The meadow flowers were even more wondrous from this vantage point. “Should anyone follow, we’ll see them from miles away.”
Aline nodded grimly. “Be honest with me; will we reach the pass today? We’ve been climbing for hours and it seems no nearer than it was this morning.”
Kaeleth looked upwards. “We’ll make the pass. Though we won’t have nearly enough light to descend before nightfall.”
“Then I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to rest here a little longer.” Aline lay back, using her bundle of furs as a cushion. She turned her head and stared intently at Kaeleth. “I need to believe we’ll survive this ordeal. promise me we won’t die on this goddess-forsaken mountain, and I’ll walk until my legs give way.”
The girl had no idea what she was asking. The wilderness offered no promises—Kaeleth had learned as much almost as soon as he could walk. The forest and the mountains cared nothing for the men who trespassed on their ancient sanctity. Better to ask the gods for a promise of success than to beg mercy from lands as wild and remote as these.
“I promise I’ll do everything in my power to ensure your safety,” was all Kaeleth could offer honestly. “Upon the memory of my father and all he taught me to believe, I swear it.”
“What was your father’s name?”
It hurt to think of it, let alone say it. “Faelan.”
Aline sat up straight. Her countenance changed. Became stern and imposing. Regal, Kaeleth thought before dismissing the notion as absurd. Still, he wilted a little beneath her stare.
“You are bound to me now, Kaeleth dae Faelan,” she said with great solemnity. “I shall hold you to this oath until it is fulfilled or until you draw your dying breath in service to me.”
His first urge was to laugh, but he stifled it and remained silent. Kaeleth didn’t quite understand why, but a calmness had begun to settle over him. Surely this girl was teasing him as a way of coping with her own fear, but it felt somehow more serious than that. Absurd as it was for the son of a hunter to pledge himself in service of a merchant girl, the notion filled him with purpose. He had thought of little but survival since the death of his father. Thought rarely beyond the obstacles that lay directly in his path. This had been driven by necessity, but perched on the side of a mountain so high above the land below that he could almost see Daurendale and the life that had been torn away from him in an instant, Kaeleth knew he’d been afraid. Of the soldiers, yes, but more than that. In the wakeful moments of night, there was more insidious fear he’d done his best to push away and ignore. The fear of what came next. The terror of not knowing what would happen after they crossed the mountains. The girl would go back to her life and what would Kaeleth be left with? No home. No future. For the first time since leaving his father dead by the cliffside, he glimpsed the possibility of something more.
“If I’m to swear an oath, it must be with blood,” he finally said.
Aline didn’t hesitate in presenting her palm. “Then let it be so.”
Using the tip of his knife, Kaeleth cut a small slice into the soft cradle of Aline’s palm, then did the same on his own. He clasped hands with her and stared directly into her eyes. He didn’t know the proper words of a blood oath, they being such rare and private occurrences, but he wagered she didn’t know any better than he.
“I pledge myself in your service, lady. I bind myself to you in blood and honor for as long as you will have me as your sworn man. So long as I live, I will protect you. On this, I swear.”
Aline didn’t allow him to release her grasp. “And I too swear an oath to you; that I will reward your sacrifice as faithfully as you have given it. I will never intentionally place you in harm’s way, Kaeleth. We are bonded now by blood, by duty, and by honor.”
With that, she released his hand. Kaeleth looked down at his palm where their blood had smeared into a blossom of red that reminded him of the Cindra’s Kiss flower Aline had worn in her hair. There was old magic in blood oaths, he knew that much for certain. Kaeleth would never have stood idly by and watched any innocent person come to harm, and he had several times now put himself in the path of danger to aid this girl in particular, yet this was something else entirely. He still didn’t know what would happen when they came to Ardvig on the far side of the mountain, or where Aline’s path would lead after that. What he did know, though he hadn’t been quite so ardently certain of it only moments earlier, was that his fate was tied to this girl. The gods had thrown them together, and Kaeleth wasn’t one to ignore such omens.
Invigorated by the oath, Kaeleth suggested they continue on. He’d cut strips from the hem of his old trousers in order to bind the cuts on their hands, and though sweat soon seeped beneath the bandage and he frequently had to use his hand to grab rough rocky edges, the wound didn't itch or ache. It tingled a little, but was largely numb. As though Cindra herself had blessed it.
At least, it didn’t ache for a short while. By midday, Kaeleth was cursing himself for slicing his palm open while in the middle of the wilderness. He’d given himself a similar injury in the past while sharpening a knife, and even in the comfort of his own home, it had been a constant torment. The worst of it had faded once it had scabbed over, but it had hindered his ability to hold a bow or completely close his hand without pain. Elation from the oath swearing faded with each toiling step up the mountain, making way for annoyance and self-reproach. What the hell had been thinking? There was no future for him by Aline’s side. His life was in the forest, not wasting away indoors, sweeping the floor of her father’s shop or whatever menial task they might deem him worthy of. He still didn’t even know who her father was. For all Kaeleth knew, he could find himself mucking out stables or emptying chamber pots.
He resolved to get answers before the day was out, but the endless climb sapped his will to do more than grunt the few times communication was required. They stopped to slurp meltwater when they found it, chewing silently on their foraged supplies before returning to their silent ascent. This went on all day, until eventually, they reached a plateau between peaks that was barely as long and scarcely half as the little cottage he’d set aflame before fleeing with Aline.
Kaeleth surveyed the land behind them. “The sun will be gone before the hour is out. We’ll have to spend the night here.”
He turned and saw that Aline had sunk to the ground and was attempting to untie the straps securing her furs to her back. She muttered something Kaeleth didn’t understand, her words garbled and foreign. For the first time, he remembered that she’d been traveling when her carriage had been ambushed and that he didn't know where she had been going or where she had been coming from. So busy had he been imagining what terrible work her father might set him to doing, that he’d never stopped to think about where this work might take place. How far away from his homeland would his oath take him?
“Let me help you,” he said, kneeling by her side.
She seemed as if she might protest, then she let her hands drop and resigned herself to letting Kaeleth pick at the knots. They’d set tight throughout the day, and his fingers were thick and clumsy. It took him several minutes to undo the straps, after which he was so tired he could do nothing more than sit back and lean on his own bundle of furs.
“Is there any food left?” Aline asked hoarsely.
Kaeleth shook his head. “We ate the last of the mushrooms hours ago. A pinch of idrus flowers is all we have until we descend to the meadows on the far side tomorrow. Chewing them will stave off hunger for a while, but since we have so few, I suggest we save them until our hunger is unbearable.”
“At least tomorrow we’ll be going down instead of up. Do you think we’ll reach the bottom by midday? Sooner perhaps?”
“Later. Much later. It’ll take as long to go down as up. The risk of falling is greater, and our hunger will make us even more unsteady. Once we reach the scree slopes, it will be a punishing trial. Walking downhill is easier when the distance is short, but after a thousand downward steps, you’ll wish we were climbing again.”
“Wonderful.” Aline stifled a yawn. “As there’s no food nor water, I should like to go to sleep so as to not allow this day to get any worse.”
Loath as he was to move, Kaeleth agreed. He made his tired fingers undo the knots of his own straps, then laid the deer skin out in a small nook between two fins of rock that gave them at least some relief from the persistent wind whistling through the small pass. No sooner had they pulled the furs over themselves, than Kaeleth fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The gods didn't allow him to sleep long. A violent shudder woke him, and he panicked when he couldn’t immediately open his eyes. It was only after rubbing them that he realized his lashes had frozen shut. There was no moon by which to see, but Kaeleth could feel the rime on his face. Snow flurries stung his cheeks, and a quick exploration with his hands revealed an inch of wet snow covering the ground and their furs.
“What’s happening?” Aline asked sleepily. “It’s so cold.”
Unable to even see the girl though she was right next to him, Kaeleth wiped the snow from his hand onto his tunic, then reached out to where he believed her face to be. His fingers found her hair, which was crusted in a layer of icy snow. Fortunately, she had buried her face beneath the furs, protecting her from the worst of the falling snow.
Kaeleth ducked beneath the furs himself, rolling to face Aline. Her gentle breath warmed his face. “Another storm has found us. There’s snow.”
“Snow?” The furs shifted when she peeked out to check for herself. “It’s too dark to see anything, but I feel it in my hair and on my face,” she said once she’d ducked beneath cover again. “Will we be safe here?”
“Safe as we can be.” Kaeleth blew on his hands to warm them, then rubbed them over his chapped cheeks and forehead.
“I’m so cold. I don’t think I can sleep again,” Aline said.
“Nor I.” Kaeleth reached out hesitantly beneath the furs. He laid his hand on what he believed to be Aline’s elbow, then inched himself forward until their bodies were touching. Aline shifted herself downwards, burying her face into the crook of his neck. Best as he could without dislodging the furs layered above them, Kaeleth adjusted their spare cloak so that it better covered the two of them. Even huddling so close, he couldn’t seem to warm up. His teeth chattered if he didn't clench them tight, and he felt Aline trembling beneath his arm. He slid his other arm beneath her neck and pulled her more tightly against him. The snow in his hair melted a little, running down his neck and chilling him further. Aline’s own hair was in his face, and he smoothed it down to keep it from tickling his lips and nose.
“Please don’t stop,” she murmured.
Though his arm ached and his fingers had grown too numb to even feel the softness of her hair, Kaeleth continued to stroke her head. Gradually, her shivering abated and her breathing settled into a slow and steady rhythm. Sleep continued to elude him, however. Moving carefully so as not to wake Aline, Kaeleth shifted his hand from her head, sliding it beneath her cloak to rest on her waist where it was warmer. She stirred a little, then stilled. Kaeleth’s fingers began to ache as the numbness faded, then burned as if aflame before finally recovering enough sensation for him to feel the roughness of her tunic and the slope of her hip. Having given more than a passing thought to what it would be like to lie with a woman, Kaeleth was overwhelmed by how much better the reality of it was. It filled him with an inner warmth that was more than the simple sharing of heat from body and breath. As he lay unsleeping, periodically reaching above their heads to sweep snow clear of the small opening he’d left in the furs so they didn't suffocate, he could think of nothing other than what it would be like to kiss her when she woke.
The night was long, and Kaeleth did little more than fade in and out of the hazy twilight between wakefulness and sleep. After a time he realized the muted sounds of the storm had ceased, and when he brushed snow from the edge of the furs, pale sunlight streamed into the opening. Though part of him wanted to stay beneath the furs with Aline forever, he knew they had to rise. The snow would only make the descent more treacherous. Worse, it would have frozen what little water they might otherwise have found.
After brushing away more snow, Kaeleth peeled back the furs enough that he could look around without having to wrestle his other arm out from under Aline. The furs had grown heavy, and now he saw why. Nearly a foot of freshly fallen snow had buried them while they’d slept. Had Kaeleth not been awake to clear a breathing hole, they would never have woken to see the dawn.
“Is it morning?” Aline asked, squinting against the wan light.
He looked down into her eyes and his determination to kiss her evaporated. It wasn’t that he no longer wanted to. Quite the opposite. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Her were lips so inviting that the sight of them was enough to rob Kaeleth of his ability to speak. So smitten was he, that he could do nothing but stare at her without speaking or moving. Fear like nothing he had ever known took hold of him, shaking him to his very core.
It was Aline who broke the spell by sitting up. Cold air rushed in to fill the void she’d left. “Goddess,” she said in a hushed voice. “There’s so much snow.”
“Too much,” Kaeleth managed to say through chapped lips. “We should get going while it’s still firm. As the sun rises, the snow will become soft and unstable. We want to be as far down the mountain as we can get before that happens.”
What he didn't say was that if the storm had deposited snow in the wrong way, there was a possibility huge slabs of it could cut loose and sweep them to their death. And if they waited too long, the meltwater would make the steeper sections impossibly slick. Since they couldn’t wait for conditions to stabilize, they had no choice but to descend immediately.
“We have to leave the furs,” he said. “They’ll only slow us down.”
The anticipated protest never came. Aline nodded grimly, then stood up and took a few cautious steps through the snow. Kaeleth did likewise, grimacing at the aching stiffness that had settled into his bones during the night. He had no need to piss, which was concerning enough in its own right.
“Eat small mouthfuls of snow when you’re thirsty,” he said. “But not too much at once else it chills you from the inside out.”
If they’d had wood, they could have made a fire and melted all the water they needed. Eating snow was a shortcut to freezing to death. The danger of dying from lack of water while it was all around them was very real, especially with how hard they’d worked and how little they had managed to drink the day before. Kaeleth’s throat and head ached from the lack of it. His thoughts were slow and unreliable. Simply standing and shuffling around the level ground of the pass made him dizzy.
Aline stopped short after only a few paces, sinking to her knees and retching into the snow. Saliva dripped from her mouth while she heaved and shook.
“Aline!” Kaeleth shouted, rushing to her side. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Nothing,” she said without looking up. “Everything. I don’t know. My head aches and my insides feel wrong. I can’t breathe properly. It’s as though someone is standing on my chest.”
Kaeleth wracked his memory, trying to recall if any of the mushrooms she’d collected had been poisonous. He didn't believe he’d missed anything. The girl was a quick study and not, as near as he could tell, prone to making the same mistake twice. They’d eaten and drunk all the same things, so it didn't seem likely it was anything she’d consumed that was causing her such distress. The ailments she described were not dissimilar from those that plagued him. His guts felt fine, but it wasn’t easy to draw a full breath. He too had the sensation of weight on his chest, though not so intense as what Aline had described.
“Height sickness,” he said when the answer finally dawned on him. He gazed out over the meadows and forest. The trees looked like moss from this distance. “My father described it to me once. Pernicious vapors that cling to high places, hidden from sight. We must have breathed too much of it.”
“How can I make it stop?” she moaned. “My skull aches so fiercely I can scarcely see.”
“Hold on to me,” Kaeleth said, helping her to her feet. “We have to go down to escape the vapors. Quickly as we can manage, okay?”
They hobbled through the shin-deep snow until the pass opened up again. The ground fell away steeply here, the rocky slope now a smooth expanse of white. Praying it would hold beneath their feet, Kaeleth guided Aline down, stomping his heels in with each step to give himself purchase. Aline had become too feeble to do as much, so Kaeleth was forced to walk sideways, using his body to prevent Aline from slipping and sliding away from him. All things considered, it was far quicker than having to face the rock and climb down backwards, blindly searching out toeholds. It did nothing for the fear in the pit of his stomach, though. With each step, he worried the snow would shift and give way. The farther they descended from the pass, the more certain he became that the entire slope above them would cut free and smash into them before entombing them where they would not be discovered until the spring thaw washed their corpses into the meadows and eventually one of the rivers below. If they were discovered at all. Kaeleth didn't know if the hunters of Ardvig ever ventured this near the mountains.
All too soon, the light of the rising sun warmed the snow and made it too soft to hold a step. Their descent became a series of barely-controlled slides, often with the two of them sitting on their bums and digging their heels in to slow down. Kaeleth stopped every so often to feed Aline a bit of snow, but they were both soon wet and shivering, each mouthful of snow bringing them that much closer to the risk of freezing to death.
“I don’t think I like mountains,” Aline said during one such stop. “There are too many ways to die here.”
By Kaeleth’s best estimate, they’d covered nearly half the distance from the pass to the flatter ground of the meadows below. The snow had fallen thick on this side of the mountains, a light dusting of it covering even the wildflowers.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. His own head ached less, and breathing had become easier aside from the sustained effort of supporting Aline.
“Better,” she said with a weak smile. “Far from well, and thirstier than I’d ever imagined possible, but my belly no longer seems intent on murdering me, and the weight on my chest is much reduced.”
“We still have far to go, but we’re moving swiftly. Can you continue?”
“I should like very much to curl up here and never move again, but I gave my oath to protect you as you have protected me, Kaeleth dae Faelan. Someone must ensure you get off this Goddess-damned mountain, and since there doesn’t appear to be anyone else to take up the mantle, I suppose it falls to me.”
Kaeleth experienced a pang of concern that Aline had become delirious, but this lasted only until she laughed and flicked snow at his chest. Lip cracking and bleeding anew, he smiled and shook his head. What a ridiculous situation. Their luck only ever seemed to go from bad to worse. He knew Aline believed them safe once they reached the snow-free edge of the meadows and the forest beyond, but it that was far from true. The weather had shifted for the worse. Without the furs they’d left behind, it would be still cold enough to kill in the forest. If another storm rolled in or if they couldn’t find enough dry wood with which to light a fire, they’d die before the day was out.
“Look there,” he said, pointing into the far distance. “By the lake. It’s Ardvig.”
“Your eyes are keener than mine. I see the lake, but no town. Will we reach it tonight?”
“Three days walk if all goes well,” he estimated, assuming minimal resistance in fishing or hunting for food. After what they’d endured crossing the pass, mushrooms, berries, and grasses wouldn’t sustain them for such a long walk. “Perhaps four.”
“Four days,” Aline repeated, her smile fading, yet not disappearing altogether. “It won’t be so bad. It’s peaceful sleeping next to a fire and the air is fresh and clean. It’s almost worth lying in the dirt and not being able to bathe when I like.”
“There are rivers and streams aplenty; you can bathe three times a day if you want. You’ll just have to learn to endure the cold water.”
“That does not appeal one whit.” She let out a small sigh, then said, “Shall we continue? The day is wasting while we prattle on.”
She held her hand out, and Kaeleth frowned at how cold her skin was. He contemplated cutting strips from the spare cloak to fashion hand wraps, but it would take too long and the cloak would be too valuable in the nights to come. They continued their descent, sometimes walking clumsy sliding steps, sometimes sitting and letting the slope do the work for them. It wasn’t yet midday when they reached a place where the angle lessened, but blocks of rock too large to be covered with snow made it cumbersome to walk quickly. Once again they had to use both hands and legs to climb, this time lowering themselves from ledge to ledge, Kaeleth’s injured palm aching all the while.