Vaughn Gallant and his younger brother, Rhys, were in Holbeck, Essear when the Indasian army laid siege to the city during the Second Utopian War. Their commander, Nehemiah Johnston, had been holding out for reinforcements from the closest Essearean regiment, but the Indasians had brought in the big artillery, and there was no more waiting to be had. They'd started out with two hundred soldiers, but by the time Johnston called Vaughn and Rhys into his tent, they were down to a little more than fifty.
Vaughn and Rhys stood at attention, waiting for their commander to speak.
"How familiar are you with the terrain here?"
"The mountains?" Vaughn asked for clarification.
"Reasonably familiar. If you need men to carry a message through the mountains, we can do it."
"Are you volunteering, Gallant?"
"Do you need a volunteer?"
"I need two volunteers. It seems there will be no help coming from the east, so I need to get a message to Jerónimo Barreto in Madaii."
"We can take your message," Rhys said at once.
"You know the way?"
Rhys nodded. "I've been there many times."
"The quickest way is through the Northern Pass. Have you ever been through there?"
Rhys' eyes opened wide.
Vaughn spoke up. "I've been through there twice, but not during the winter. I'll need a guide."
"Are you both willing to risk it? I can trust no one else to carry this message to Barreto."
"If my brother's willing, then so am I," Rhys said with an air of finality.
"Alright," Johnston said. He turned back to his desk and picked up a note. It was sealed with wax and with the seal of the Arconian military on it. He handed the message to Vaughn. "Get what food and supplies you need. I'll send the guide to your tent."
"Very good," Vaughn said, taking the message.
Johnston didn't let go immediately. "Make sure you give this to no one but Barreto. It's for his eyes only."
"Yes, sir." Vaughn tucked the message into his coat, gave Johnston the customary salute, then he and Rhys turned and exited the tent.
"Do you think we can make it through the Pass at this time of year?" Rhys asked when they got far enough away that the commander wouldn't hear them.
"It will depend on how well his guide knows the territory. Whatever happens, I plan to see that I get it to Madaii."
"I'm with you, Brother," Rhys said.
"Good. Gear up and meet me in my tent."
They parted, and each man went to his own tent. Vaughn shared his tent with another man of equal rank, while Rhys shared a tent with several other common soldiers. They each packed only what they knew they needed and could carry, then they met in Vaughn's tent.
Another man was talking to Vaughn when Rhys arrived. They were going over a map.
"This will be the most dangerous part of the trip. You'll need good strong ropes and iron hooks to hold you. You'll have to climb down, and it's a sheer drop if you should fall, so take every precaution."
"I'm always prepared," Vaughn said. "Which is why you're here."
"And your brother?"
Rhys cleared his throat and stepped forward. "What about me?"
"Can you climb?"
"I can climb as well as Vaughn."
"Better, actually," Vaughn said, giving his brother a small smile.
"Good, you'll have to. And there's no telling what dangers from nature we'll meet up there. Most bears are hibernating right now, but there's one kind that will be out and about."
"Yes, the Northern White Bear. I know, and I'll be prepared for that eventuality."
"Anything else we can expect?" Rhys asked.
"Snow and ice, and lots of it. The nights will be extremely cold, so make sure you dress warm. Wear layers. The farther up the mountains we go, the colder it will get, but once we get over the top and start heading down the other side, it will start to get warmer again."
"We weren't born yesterday," Rhys said with a frown.
The guide, Sean Griffiths, ignored Rhys' protestation. "Make sure you're well armed. We could meet more than wild animals out there."
"We'll be prepared," Vaughn said before his brother could say anything further. "When and where do you want to meet?"
"At Johnston's tent in ten minutes."
"We'll be there."
Vaughn opened the tent flap for Griffiths, and when he let it fall again, he turned to Rhys. "You'll need to have patience with this man if you want him to work with us."
"He's treating us like children, Vaughn. What do you expect me to do?"
"I expect you to keep your mouth shut. Let him talk. He's the expert."
"Fine, whatever. But he'd better stay out of my face and off my back, or I won't be responsible for what happens."
"Grow up, Rhys," Vaughn ordered. "You don't like something he says or does, you bring your concerns to me. You don't take matters into your own hands. Do you understand?"
Rhys growled. "I understand."
"Good. Let's get moving."
They went to the armory tent and gathered up a few weapons they would need. Knives, swords, bows and arrows, a war axe, a blade sharpener, a lance. They would be well armed, and what they carried was relatively light.
They went to saddle their horses, and they loaded their equipment onto their mounts. Soon, they met up with Griffiths in Commander Johnston's tent. Minutes after that, they set out on their journey.
Indasian Army Camp, Outside the Walls of Holbeck, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
Commander Ravi Dhibar watched as three men left Holbeck's main gate. He was certain the Essearean commander was sending them to get help.
"Chabert!" he called out.
A moment later, a man appeared at attention by his side. "Yes, sir."
"I have a job for you and one more man."
"What do you need?"
Dhibar pointed toward the men in the distance. "See those men?"
"I suspect they are going for help. Take them out before they carry out that mission. I don't care how you do it, just do it."
"I have just the man. We'll head out at once."
"Very good. If you're successful, I'll see that you get promoted."
"Yes, sir!" Charles De Saint-Chabert said, giving Dhibar a salute. "Commander."
"God speed, Chabert."
True to his word, Charles and his young companion, Cyrus Payne, formerly from Arcona, set out to stop the enemy from carrying out their mission.
Somewhere In the Indun Mountains, East of the Northern Pass, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
"So, Rhys, how is it with you and Tatiana?" Vaughn asked as they gave their horses their lead.
"Ah, Vaughn, do you have any idea what it's like to win the heart of a woman so fair? She is everything to me. She makes me want to do great things with my life."
"So, I take it things are well between you," Vaughn said, smiling.
"Couldn't be better. And her uncle has approved it!"
"Commander Baretto has approved it? Really?"
"And what of Cyrus Payne?"
"What of him?" Rhys asked, then he spat.
"Wasn't he her suitor before?"
"He was, but he abused her. A woman like Tatiana should not be manhandled by the man she loves. He took no care with her. He handled her roughly. He spoke down to her. He tried to control her, but she didn't like it."
"And you treat her better?"
"Of course I do, Brother!"
Vaughn laughed. "I know you do, Rhys. You're the perfect gentleman with the ladies."
"There's only one lady for me, and her name is Tatiana Alcantara."
"I can see you love her very much. I'm happy for you, Rhys."
"When will you find a good woman, I wonder?"
"I don't know. I'm not really looking. I'm currently married to the military."
"You're a good soldier, Vaughn, but you need a woman, too."
"I'll find one when I'm ready. Right now, I have other concerns."
"You've never known the tender touch of a woman, have you?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" Vaughn asked, feigning embarrassment.
"Oh, come now, Brother. You have never loved a woman, have you? You can be honest with me."
"I loved a lady once. It didn't work out. And I refuse to talk about it. I would much rather hear about your lady."
"Oh, Brother, I could talk about her for hours. Are you sure you wish me to continue?" Rhys laughed.
"Please, oblige me. In matters of love, I currently must live vicariously through you."
"All right, then," Rhys said, and he continued to tell Vaughn about the virtues of his lady love until it was time to stop to eat and rest the horses.
"It grows late," Griffiths said. "We should tether the horses and build camp."
"If you think it's best," Vaughn said.
"We'll get an early start in the morning."
They tethered and fed the horses, and set up their tents. Rhys built a fire, and Vaughn boiled some snow for quava. They shared some dried meat and bread and told stories to kill some time, then they turned in for the night.
Griffiths took the first watch. Two hours later, he woke Rhys so he could take over. Vaughn took the final watch.
With great stealth, Charles De Saint-Chabert and Cyrus Payne slipped into the camp of their enemies.
Cyrus drew his knife, but Charles stopped him. He leaned in close to his young companion. "No. You'll wake the others."
Cyrus slipped his knife back, then followed Charles to the horses. There, they released the beasts and quietly led them away from camp. Once they were far enough away, they released them.
"If nothing else, we've slowed them down a bit," Charles said. "We'll continue following them. If they continue to be a problem, we'll take more drastic measures."
"When it gets to that point, I want the younger one."
"What have you got against him?" Charles asked.
Charles shrugged and walked away, back toward their own camp.
Cyrus followed, murderous thoughts on his mind.
When Rhys went to feed the horses, he found them gone. He went to the others.
"The horses! They're gone!"
"They can't be. We tethered them," Vaughn said, following Rhys to where they'd left their steeds. There, they found no horses, but a lot of horse prints in the snow. They also found the footprints of two men.
"How do you know it's two men?" Rhys asked.
"The tread on these is deeper and the overall prints are wider and longer, while these others are a little smaller, and the treads are more shallow."
"I concur," Griffiths said. "I think it's safe to say that we're being followed. The Indasians must have seen us leave, and they sent two men to stop you."
"We won't let them. We must get this message to Barreto no matter what the cost."
"Right," Rhys agreed. "At least we know they're out there. We can be prepared."
"Take only what's absolutely necessary," Vaughn said. "We'll have to travel very light."
"All right," Griffiths said. "I'll fix the grub, and we'll head out as soon as we're done eating."
With that, he tromped back to their camp and set to work.
Somewhere In the Indun Mountains, East of the Northern Pass, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
The next couple of days were uneventful. The brothers and their guide kept watch for trouble as they continued on their way. They saw no signs of their pursuers. Nevertheless, they kept their guard up, and on the third morning, when Vaughn rose from his slumber, he found Griffiths leaning against a tree, his throat slashed.
"What happened?" Rhys asked when he came upon Vaughn inspecting the dead body.
"It seems our pursuers are still out there and more serious than we first thought."
"What do you want to do?"
"There's only one thing we can do, and that's get the message to Barreto."
Rhys looked out over the distant horizon. "We'll need to be more vigilant."
"Yes, we will," Vaughn said. He stood and put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I know you have it in you to finish it. If I should fall, you'll have to—"
"Don't say it, Brother. Don't even imply it. We're both going to make it. You hear me?"
"Yes, but in case something happens, I need you to promise you'll—"
"I promise, all right? Let us talk no more about it. We don't want to tempt the Fates."
"Pack up. We need to move out."
They gathered their things, keeping their chosen weapons where they could easily draw them if trouble were to arrive, and they moved onward.
Northern Pass, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
The Northern Pass grew larger the further they traveled until they stood at the foot of it.
"Are you sure we can cross it?" Rhys asked.
"We have to."
Most of it was an expansive cliff many meters wide. At either end were steep, forested areas. They had rope and iron hooks, but both men doubted their abilities to climb the cliff. That left the steep forest.
"It will be a tough climb, but we can manage it. We only need to work together," Vaughn said.
Rhys laughed, despite his nervousness. "Good thing I like you, Brother, or working together would be impossible."
"Are you ready?"
"I'm about as ready as I'll ever be. Let's get on with it. The sooner we reach the top, the sooner we'll be finished."
Neither man mentioned the fact that they would also have to make it down the other side. That was a given. For now, they put all their focus on reaching the summit of the Pass.
Using their ropes and their iron hooks, they scaled the forested south side with a great deal of effort. They used the trees as anchors and pulled themselves up with the ropes, which they wrapped through the hooks. Hand over hand, foot over foot, they made their way up the Pass. Their efforts went slowly, and they took a break for sleep and food about halfway up, but by the following day at noon, they finally reached the top.
Neither man saw the giant, hairy stranger watching them. His amber eyes held both curiosity and fear. He'd seen humans before, but he'd rarely interacted with them. They spoke a language other than his own. He knew some basic words and phrases, but he'd never been able to shake his people's superstitions about these people.
He'd heard the stories about what had happened between the humans of the lower lands and his own people, but he chose to reserve judgment for himself. He didn't want to assume that all humans were evil and out to destroy his people. But he didn't have a good enough grasp of their language to communicate with them, either.
So he spent his time observing them to see if he could figure out what they were all about. Hopefully, he'd learn enough to interact with them soon.
As Rhys stood looking down the way they'd come, he spotted movement at around the area where they'd stopped for the night. He pointed. "Look! There! Could those be the men pursuing us?"
Vaughn watched and nodded. "They could very well be. With any luck, they'll fall and save us the trouble of having to fight them."
"We could put an end to them now," Rhys said, pulling an arrow from the quiver at his back and fitting it to his bow.
Vaughn put a hand up to stop him. "No, let them come. If we're to fight them, let it be a fair fight."
"But we can put an end to them now!" Rhys protested.
"No, we're not murderers. If we have to kill them in self-defense, so be it. We will not slaughter them like helpless animals on the side of the mountain."
"Very well," Rhys said, frowning. "We'll do it your way, but I don't like it. Our chances are better if we end them now."
"I understand how you feel, Rhys, but I'm no murderer. And neither are you."
"No, but they are. Surely, they mean to kill us like they killed Griffiths."
"Yes, but we'll be ready for them. Come, let us start down the other side."
They crossed the top of the pass and looked down at the drop before them. It was much the same as what they'd just climbed. They would scale it, but in reverse.
"All right, we do just as before," Vaughn said. "The only difference is that we'll be descending. Be careful not to go too fast. You don't want to lose control of your rope."
"Right," Rhys said as he attached his rope to the first tree. "Last one to the bottom is a rotten dragon's egg."
He disappeared over the edge, and Vaughn hurried to tie his rope, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Northern Pass, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
Charles De Saint-Chabert and Cyrus Payne reached the pinnacle of the Pass several hours later. As they readied to descend the other side, Payne pointed off toward the northwest. "Storm!"
De Saint-Chabert studied the horizon. "It looks to be a bad one. We must hurry lest we lose them."
"It's moving in fast!" Payne argued. "We should make camp and wait it out."
"Our mission is clear. Stop them at all cost. We move out now."
Payne grumbled, but he obeyed the orders of his superior. He turned his mind to how it would feel to choke the life out of Rhys Gallant with his bare hands. To watch the life drain from the man who had stolen Tatiana Alcantara from him would be the ultimate satisfaction—short of winning her heart back from the brute. Thoughts of revenge kept him moving as the storm moved closer and closer.
Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
As the stranger continued to watch, he sniffed the air. The storm was drawing ever nearer. He would need to alert the others in the area to the plight of the men he currently watched.
Secure in the knowledge that the humans couldn't see him, he threw his head back and howled. The sound carried on the breeze, and he knew the other natives would hear him and understand. Not only his own folk, but the Little People, as well.
Rhys' eyes opened wide. "What was that?"
"I don't know. Whatever it was, it didn't sound very inviting. We'd better find shelter."
Vaughn moved off and Rhys followed closely.
The winds picked up and fat flurries began to fall, alerting them to the storm that was moving in. They'd reached the bottom of the Pass and were now making their way west through the Indun Mountains. There was nowhere to take shelter at the moment, so they pressed onward, toward the forest ahead.
"The border between Essear and Madaii is about twenty miles ahead," Vaughn told his brother. "The forest lay about three miles ahead. We must reach the forest if we're to find shelter."
"We must hurry," Rhys said, glancing toward the northwest. "It's moving in fast."
"Agreed, but we can only move as fast as our legs will carry us."
The snow was rather shallow where they walked, as others had recently tramped through the area, so travel went quickly. Not quickly enough to find shelter before the storm hit, however, and soon, the brothers were caught in a whiteout.
They tied a rope between them so they would stay together, and they attempted to continue in a straight line, but eventually, they veered a little toward the north.
And this was when they heard a sound on the wind, as if an otherworldly being was calling out an alarm through a great horn. Then they heard a deep rumbling, and things grew exponentially stranger.
"Avalanche!" Vaughn cried.
Rhys just stood rooted to the spot. He'd seen something small up on the mountain. Whatever it was, it was moving fast. It kept ahead of the snow and ice that was crashing down, and he was transfixed by it.
Vaughn grabbed hold of his brother. "Come on, Rhys! We have to move. Now!"
Rhys pointed. "What is that?"
Vaughn followed his brother's gaze and spotted the object. It had moved closer, and it appeared to be a small creature of some kind. He stepped forward, trying to get a better view. As he did so, he thought he noticed a certain detail.
"A— beard?" He murmured.
"What?" Rhys asked.
"I think it's a dwarf." Vaughn launched himself into action again. "We can't do anything for him. We have to find shelter now."
The brothers frantically searched for anything they could use as a shelter from the snow and ice quickly rumbling toward them. When Vaughn spotted a dark spot about 75 feet ahead, he urged his brother toward it.
Rhys slipped and fell.
The avalanche line was about three hundred feet above them.
Vaughn hauled his brother to his feet and pushed him forward. There was no need for words as the brothers desperately ran for the cave.
The avalanche line was about two-hundred feet above them.
Vaughn glanced up. He could make out the creature. It was now riding the avalanche! He resisted the urge to stop and stare, and he pushed himself harder.
"Run!" He cried. "Run!"
Together, the brothers barreled onward.
45 feet from the cave.
The avalanche line was about one-hundred feet above them.
"We're not going to make it!" Rhys cried, even as he pushed himself harder.
"Move!" Vaughn cried out again. He glanced up, and he knew his brother was right, but he forced himself to put every ounce of strength he had into running toward the cave.
40 feet from the cave.
The avalanche line was fifty feet above them.
They weren't going to make it. That much was clear.
Vaughn tackled his brother and covered him as the snow and ice first reached them. For several moments, the rumble was deafening as snow and ice covered them, building up several feet as the avalanche continued to dump more of its contents further down the mountainside.