Barbegazi Cave, Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
Vaughn lost track of how long he lay there covering Rhys. Had he blacked out? He couldn't say. All he knew was that some indeterminable amount of time had passed before he began to hear the sound of picks and axes chipping away at the snow and ice.
Hope grew within him, and he tried to cry out, only to get a mouthful of snow.
He relaxed and trusted that whoever was out there would dig him and Rhys free before they suffocated or died of exposure. His fingers and toes were numb, and the rest of him felt frozen to the bone. He had serious doubts that he'd survive, but he told himself otherwise.
"We'll make it." He murmured. "We've survived worse."
Finally, light broke through, and a hand reached down. Fingers ran over the back of Vaughn's head, then Vaughn heard a whoop and words he couldn't understand.
The sound of picks and axes surrounded him again until the weight upon his back lightened up enough for him to move. He gathered what little strength he had left and shoved himself into a seated position.
Snow and ice fell away as he sat up and squinted at his surroundings. What he saw made him pause, as three short stout men in white fur coats and hats and with beards trailing to their large, hairy feet stood leaning upon digging tools, their beady, black little eyes all staring at him.
He didn't dare to move for fear they'd attack him with those nasty looking tools, and so he spoke two words, instead.
The oldest of the three little men broke into a smile. "Shucks! 'Tis nothing! 'N' what're ye doing here in the midst of a snow drive?"
"Snow drive?" Vaughn asked. "Oh, you mean the avalanche?"
The little man nodded, his eyes twinkling with merriment.
"We didn't know there would be an avalanche. We're on a dangerous mission, made all the more dangerous by your snow drive."
"'N' yer friend? Do he survive, 's well?"
Vaughn reached down and gently shook his brother. "Rhys? Rhys, it's all right. We've been saved."
There was a grumble as Rhys moved slightly. Vaughn moved away a little, and Rhys sat up. He shook the snow and ice from his hair, then stopped when he saw the three little men. "Of all the—" He glanced at Vaughn. "What are they?"
"I was about to get to that," Vaughn said. He turned back to the oldest of the three little bearded men. "Who are you? Do you live nearby? Do you know where we can find shelter?"
The little man smiled. "Me be Nodrick Icehelm, and these be me sons, Glimoki and Deggun." He turned slightly and pointed up toward the cave, its entrance now covered with snow and ice. "We abide up there."
Vaughn and Rhys glanced at each other, then Vaughn continued. "We were trying to get to that cave when the avalanche hit."
"That be our home, 'n' ye're welcome to stay the night if ye'll help us clear the snow away."
"How are you feeling, Rhys?" Vaughn asked. "Think you've got it in you to help?"
"I can manage," Rhys said, brushing snow off of himself.
"You've got yourself a deal, Nodrick Icehelm," Vaughn said.
Nodrick handed Vaughn a pick, and one of the others handed Rhys a shovel, then they led the way up to where the cave's entrance had been buried. The humans and the small creatures worked side by side for over an hour until the entrance was finally cleared, then Nodrick gathered up the tools and set them inside.
"Come in! Come in! There be food 'n' fresh water 'n' a warm wood fire inside. Ye've worked hard 'n' deserve to share in our bounty. Come!"
He motioned for them to follow him, and his sons took up the rear. They went down one corridor, then another, until at last, they came to a great cavern. In the center was a wood fire, and two females worked near it.
"Befrana! Wahilda! Come 'n' meet our guests."
Vaughn guessed that these two were Nodrick's wife and daughter, but he couldn't be sure of which was which until Nodrick told him.
"This be me wife, Befrana," the little man said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She was as chubby as he, and her hair was equally as white, but longer. The only way he would have known she was a female was the absence of a beard. They all wore white fur coats, and he wondered if they slept in them, as well. "Befrana, meet—me didn't catch yer name, Mr.—"
"Vaughn Gallant. Call me Vaughn. And this is my brother, Rhys."
Befrana held out her hand. "We're right pleased to meet ye," she said, giving him a little curtsy. At least he thought it was a curtsy. It was hard to tell.
"Pleased to meet you too, Mrs. Icehelm," Vaughn said.
"Befrana, please, Vaughn."
"Very well, Befrana."
She held her hand out to Rhys, and he took it gently, giving her a bow. "It is an honor, Befrana."
Befrana giggled like a schoolgirl, and Nodrick pulled the other woman close. "Meet me daughter, Wahilda. Wahilda, these be Vaughn and Rhys Gallant."
She repeated her mother's actions, first extending a hand to Vaughn, then to Rhys.
Rhys repeated his bow. "It is good to meet you, Wahilda," he said.
Her fair face turned red as a beet, and she cast her gaze downward. "Likewise, Mr. Rhys."
"Call me Rhys. All my friends do," he said, giving her a warm smile.
"All right, Rhys."
Nodrick whispered something to his wife, and she nodded.
"Supper be ready. Please, seat yerselves by the fire," he said.
Vaughn and Rhys did as the little man bid, and soon, stone plates full of meat and root vegetables were brought to them, along with tankards of something like ale. The others joined them, and the group got to know each other better.
"We've never met anyone like you," Vaughn said. "What do you call your race?"
"Yes, your people. What do you call yourselves."
Nodrick scratched his head and mumbled something about having gone over this already. He pointed to himself and spoke more slowly. "Me be Nodrick Icehelm."
Vaughn shook his head. "No, I don't mean your names. I mean your people as a whole. What are you known as?"
Understanding dawned in the little man's eyes. "Ah, we be the Barbegazi of Niw Mountain."
"Barbegazi. Are you related to the dwarfs? Or the gnomes, perhaps?"
"What be dwarfs? What be gnomes? Me not know these names."
"They could be your distant cousins many times removed."
"Me 'n' me people, we know naught of these creatures ye mention. If ye must compare barbegazi to any people, yer guess of bhakul would be more true."
Glimoki and Deggun spoke up in unison. "Sasquatch!"
"Sasquatch?" Vaughn and Rhys looked at each other, then back at the young barbegazi men. "Explain?"
Glimoki began. "Giants. Taller than ye, even—"
Deggun continued. "Hairy, too! More hair than anyone in this cave!"
"I don't understand," Vaughn said.
Nodrick smiled. "These bhakul, they be tall like ye, but hairy like bear. Their hair be white or brown or grey. They talk as ye and me, but have their own language, their own religion, their own culture."
"Have you ever met these bhakul?" Rhys asked.
"No, but me see them sometimes. Not often, mind, but sometimes when me be out and about on the hunt." He began to laugh. "But we could never be mistaken for bhakul. They be much greater than we. They be much taller. They stand out against the snow. Well...except the white ones."
"Yes, I suppose they would," Vaughn said, smiling.
"They not well fed," Befrana said with a frown. "It appears that ye suffer the same affliction. Eat up, friends! Let it ne'er be said that Befrana Icehelm sends her guests away hungry!"
Vaughn and Rhys returned their focus to the food. They found it very much to their liking, and like the smaller, chubbier men in the room, they went back for seconds and thirds.
"Ye will eat no more?" Befrana asked of Rhys when he finally set his plate aside.
"I cannot," he said, rubbing his belly. "It is delicious, but I haven't the appetite your men do. I do not mean to offend you."
"Ye will eat more in the morning, aye? To break yer fast. Maybe yer appetite will have grown by then."
She smiled at him, letting him know that she wasn't offended, then she gathered up his dishes and Vaughn's.
Nodrick settled himself between the brothers, a pipe full of rich tobacco in hand. He lit it, then began puffing on it as he leaned back on one elbow. He pointed the pipe toward his daughter. "Tell me, Vaughn. Is me Wahilda not the most beautiful woman ye have e'er set eyes upon?"
"She is very beautiful," Vaughn said. Though the young woman wasn't his type, he could see why young barbegazi men could be smitten with her. She had a grace and charm which belied her short, sturdy stature. Her voice was soft and melodic and could easily mesmerize others.
"As happens, we be seeking out a mate fer her. I believe ye would be a fine match fer me daughter. What do ye say to that?"
"I say—" Vaughn began, suddenly nervous. He glanced at Rhys, who was silently laughing, his face covered with his hands as he feigned exhaustion. "I say I would be honored if I weren't already engaged to another."
"Oh, that be too bad," Nodrick said, frowning. In the next moment, his expression brightened, and he turned to Rhys. "And what of ye? Ye're a fine, strapping lad. Won't ye take me Wahilda's hand in marriage?"
"I'm sorry, Nodrick. We're on our way to Santiado, Madaii. There, my lady love awaits me. I plan to marry her as soon as possible, for I can't stand to be apart from her for any amount of time."
"If I weren't already in love, I would seriously consider it, Nodrick. Really, I would. As I'm sure Vaughn would, as well. But we have already found love elsewhere, and there's no changing the heart once it's decided who it loves."
"Me suppose ye're right. Where will me find a husband for me sweet Wahilda? She deserves the very best!"
"Yes, she does." Vaughn agreed. "Maybe we can help you, once our mission is through."
"If ye do that, we will be in yer debt forever, me good man. The other barbegazi are beginning to talk."
"Well, we can't have that, now, can we?" Rhys said, smiling as he draped an arm around the small man's shoulders. "I know some dwarfs over in Gaelgaret who would kill to marry a woman like your Wahilda. I might not get back that way for a few months to come, but when I do, I'll put in a good word. Maybe I'll find her a good dwarf husband. What do you say to that?"
"Me don't know," Nodrick said thoughtfully, his eyes on his daughter. "Tell me 'bout these dwarf people. Be they good, hardworking, honest folk?"
"They are some of the best. A little taller than your people, and instead of white hair, they usually have red or brown or yellow hair."
"But could their men make me Wahilda happy?"
"I've no doubt that some of them could, yes. They're robust. They love life. They never pass up a good meal or a tankard of ale. They sing and dance and tell stories 'round the fire. They work hard and play harder. They love life with every ounce of strength they have in them."
"They sound like me kind of people," Nodrick said with a twinkle in his eye. "If ye can find me Wahilda a mate among these—distant cousins of ours, me would be eternally grateful."
"I shall endeavor to try," Rhys said. "It is never good for one so young to be lonely."
"Truer words have ne'er been spoken. Me thank ye, Rhys Gallant. Ye give this father hope."
They talked for a bit longer, and after three more mugs of ale each, Vaughn and Rhys began to grow sleepy.
Befrana and Wahilda made them beds by the fire, and the barbegazi all made their beds nearby. Soon, they all slept soundly.
Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Essear Winter, 1312 AE
As Befrana had promised, Vaughn and Rhys had plenty to eat the following morning. And when the brothers set out for the next leg of their journey, their new friends made sure they carried some extra stew and bread and ale with them. Not enough to weigh them down and make travel difficult, but enough to keep them from going hungry.
For the next several days, they had plenty to eat. They hunted small game, and when they caught nothing, they would settle down with stew and bread and ale, and it satisfied them. They slept well because of this.
Eventually, they came to a sheer a drop, and they had to stop. As Vaughn studied the chasm before them, he realized that there used to be a bridge crossing this great divide.
He pointed down beneath them. "See those vines? They are not vines, but ropes. There used to be a bridge here. For some reason, it has been cut down."
"You don't suppose our pursuers did it, do you?" Rhys asked.
"I don't think so, but we can't rule it out. We'll have to find another way across. Keep your eyes open. They could be lying in wait to ambush us."
First, they traveled north along the edge of the chasm. The divide grew wider the farther they traveled, so they turned back toward the south. This way eventually grew to be only about thirty feet wide at one section. Here, Vaughn decided that they should try to chop down a tree along its edge.
They had one axe between them, so they took turns so as to conserve their energy. It was winter, so the tree was very hard and difficult to cut down, but eventually, cut it down they did, and it fell across the chasm, giving them a natural bridge on which to cross.
As they went, they hacked off the tree's limbs that hindered their passage. Soon, they reached the other end. By then, the sun was dropping fast, so they made camp and settled in for the night. They ate the last of their stew and bread and drank the last of the ale the barbegazi had given them.
Vaughn took the first watch, then he woke Rhys so he could relieve him. Halfway through, he was awakened by his brother's cry. He jumped up to find that Rhys was fighting another young man. This man looked familiar.
"This is for Tatiana!" The young man shouted, and he ran at Rhys.
Rhys barely had enough time to bring his sword up and deflect the blow when the other man turned and ran at him again. He wasn't so lucky this time, as his enemy's blade sliced into the side of his torso. Blood soaked his shirt, but he kept fighting.
Vaughn ran to help, but as he did, Rhys ran the other man through with his own blade, killing him almost immediately.
When Vaughn reached his brother, Rhys fell to his knees. He began to fall forward, and Vaughn caught and held Rhys to him.
"It's okay, Little Brother. I'm here."
Vaughn smoothed the dark hair back from his brother's forehead. The full moon illuminated the perspiration on Rhys' face making it look like glitter. Vaughn wiped it away with the back of his hand.
"Hang in there, Rhys. Don't give up."
"Yes you can. Stay with me, Rhys. You have promises to keep. We have a mission to fulfill."
"Vaughn, I—" Rhys began, then he coughed. Blood came up and ran down the side of his face and into the snow.
Vaughn laid a hand on the side of his brother's face. "Don't leave me out here alone, Rhys. Do you hear me? Don't leave me out here!"
Rhys reached up and gripped Vaughn's shoulder. "I'm—sorry—"
Vaughn wept openly now. His brother was dying, and all he could do was watch.
"I love you, brother. And I'm proud of you. I'll never forget you."
"Tell Tatiana I—"
"I'll tell her you love her. I promise."
"Find what?" Vaughn asked, confused.
"Find Wahilda—" Rhys' breathing became shallow. He shuddered, then lay still.
"What are you trying to tell me, Rhys? Please, clarify!" Vaughn cried, shaking his brother lightly. "Rhys, what is it you want from me?"
Rhys didn't respond as his lifeless eyes stared, unseeing, up at the moon.
Vaughn held his brother so tight that, had he been alive, he would have suffocated. Silently, he wept for a long time, and when he'd finally cried all the tears he had to shed, he laid his brother's body in the snow.
He went back to camp to get the shovel, but then he remembered that some Madaiians didn't bury their dead in the ground. He went in search of good sturdy tree limbs and vines he could use, and he built a frame on which he could lay his brother's body. Then he wrapped Rhys in his blankets and tied him to the frame. This he hefted it into a tall, strong oak tree and fastened it securely to two thick branches. Once done, he said a prayer over Rhys' body and climbed back down.
He stayed in camp for the next two days. In his grief, he forgot about the mission he and his brother had been on. All he could think about was his brother and how lost he'd be without him.
Finally, on the third day, he remembered the mission, and he forced himself to continue on, despite his grief.
Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Madaii Winter, 1312 AE
Light snow fell all around Vaughn as he made his way through the snow, but he barely noticed. His focus was on putting one foot in front of the other. He had to reach Santiado. He needed to get help.
Because he was so focused on the ground before him, he didn't see Charles De Saint-Chabert's approach until it was almost too late. He heard the whisper of a blade being drawn, and he glanced up.
He got his own sword out just in time to avoid being skewered, but the tip of the blade sliced through the front of his coat.
Another swing of his opponent's sword, and this time, he blocked easily. He struck out several times, driving Chabert back several yards.
"You won't stop me," he said at last during a break in the fighting.
"Overconfidence will be your undoing." Chabert spat.
"You're from Gaelgaret?" Vaughn asked.
"That I am."
Chabert attacked again.
Vaughn dodged the blow, then struck out with the flat of his blade, knocking his opponent into the snow. He waited, allowing Chabert to regain his footing.
"Why do you fight with the Indasian army? Your country is an ally to Essear."
"I shan't explain myself to you, a lonely foot soldier," Chabert said, moving in with another strike that nicked the back of Vaughn's hand, drawing blood.
Vaughn ignored the sting and switched his sword to the other hand. "You're a fool. A traitor to your own people."
"You know nothing about me."
"I know you're a fool and a traitor, and that is enough."
Vaughn struck out, and Chabert blocked, then came back with a counter strike.
Their swords locked, and Vaughn snarled at the Gaelgaren soldier. "We will win this war, but you will not live to see it. You will die this day."
"It matters not what happens to me." Chabert snarled back. "Give me the message and I may yet allow you to walk away from this fight."
"Then die like the dog you are."
Chabert struck out. Vaughn blocked, then countered.
"You are on the losing side, Traitor. I look forward to killing you."
"You may kill me, but others will take my place. You will never be rid of us. We are like an infection you can't see. We'll take you down before you know what's happening."
"What are you talking about?"
"That's for me to know and for you to find out."
Vaughn found an opening and took it, slicing Chabert's gut open with one sweep of his blade. In the next moment, he was kneeling over his opponent, holding him by his coat collar. "What are you talking about?" he cried.
"This war—isn't about land. It's about much—more. It has—been orchestrated by—men of great—power and—influence."
"What do you mean?" Vaughn asked. "What men?"
"Invisible men. Boogeymen. You'll never—see them coming. They—will wipe you out before—before you can—do anything about it—and they'll do it—as subtly as—a soft breeze."
Vaughn tightened his grip around Chabert's collar. "Who are they? Why are they doing this?"
Chabert smiled, blood dribbling from his mouth. He said nothing more as his eyes rolled back and he went still.
Vaughn practically slammed the man back to the ground. He wiped his blade on Chabert's coat, then stood to his feet and sheathed it. He searched the body of his opponent, but found nothing to support the man's claims. He chalked it up to intimidation. His opponent was trying to trick him.
He went and gathered up his belongings and continued on his way.
Santiado, Madaii Winter, 1312 AE
Sleet and freezing rain mixed in with the snow as Vaughn approached the main gate to the city of Santiado. The city was as quiet as death, and when he stepped past the barrier, he saw why.
The bodies of dead soldiers littered the ground around him. It appeared there had been more than just a battle. It had been a massacre. Some soldiers had been killed before they'd been able to draw their weapons, which meant they hadn't had much warning before the enemy had struck.
Vaughn walked farther into the city. He began to find the bodies of murdered civilians, as well. Women and children, mutilated and bloody, lay in the streets where they'd been cut down, some tortured for no apparent reason.
He sank to his knees, the reality of what had happened hitting him hard. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think clearly. All he could do was kneel and vomit as he imagined the carnage as it had happened.
He threw his head back and roared as much from pain as anger. Had the enemy still been lurking about, they could have cut him down on the spot. But they had departed long ago, evidenced by flies and maggots that had already begun to consume the bodies of the innocent victims of this senseless slaughter.
He searched the city for any sign of life. Nothing and no one had been spared. Even the horses and dogs had been killed.
Chabert's words came back to haunt him now: "This war isn't about land. It's about much more. It has been orchestrated by men of great power and influence...Invisible men. Boogeymen. You'll never see them coming. They will wipe you out before you can do anything about it, and they'll do it as subtly as a soft breeze."
Vaughn looked around one last time. His enemy had been right. The people of Santiado had not seen this coming. They'd been cut down with no warning. Slaughtered like pigs.
He rose to his feet. A new determination took hold as he strode toward the main gate. He would move on to the next town, then the next until he found one untouched by the enemy. He would tell them what had happened here in Santiado, and he would bring back an army to wipe the Indasians from Essearean lands.
Then he would turn his attention toward those orchestrating this senseless war. He would find out who they were. He would gather evidence of their existence, their purpose, their means and methods. And he would bring them down once and for all. For his brother, for his fellow soldiers, for the innocent victims of Santiado, he would put an end to the tyranny.