“The mountains are nigh treacherous this time of year, mum,” Gareth called out over the screeching wind. “Keep your sights on your horse’s footing, for the way shall grow dangerous.”
His scraggly furs may have protected his aged body, but his face was beet red and weatherworn, and a scar worked its way through his blind left eye, making him a hard figure to miss. Lady Elizabeta Penzant nodded her regal head, tucking her fair features deeper behind the warm stole wrapped around her face.
Behind her, the three men accompanying her—sell-swords, all—clung meekly to the backs of their horses as they trekked through the frozen incline of rocks and snow, their faces obscured by clinging bits of ice on their brows. She gave a small frown and continued forward, looking out over the frostbitten vale stretching below them like a leagues-long blanket of pale trees, tendrils of icy rivers, and the occasional tufts of smoke marking villages.
As promised, the road ahead of them grew steep, and the horses slipped. Still, they made it up the trail and into the shallow embrace of a natural recess in the rock, which safeguarded them—at least for the moment—from the bitter wind off the mountain pass.
“How much further?” asked Rubin, as he and the other guards, Dev and Franz, rubbed their horses down and fed them from sacks of oat.
Elizabeta looked to her wizened guide expectantly. She had last made this climb in the early summer of the year, and could not rightly recall the passage. Gareth shrugged and pointed to the summit of the mountain.
“If we keep heading for the village, we’d likely be there just past nightfall—it’s no more than another four hours, maybe five if the weather keeps at it. There is a waypoint between here and the top in about two hours though,” he announced.
Dev and Rubin exchanged nervous glances, and Franz scowled. Elizabeta knew she couldn’t afford to have any disagreements with the soldiers, and likely would have to acquiesce to their requests to stay at the waypoint. It was obvious they were tired and weary, and it wouldn’t do to have her men or the horses die of exposure. When they asked to rest overnight at the waypoint, Elizabeta dipped her head and agreed, a stiff smile planted on her face. They continued on their way.
She was as nervous as any of them about going further up the mountain, but time was not on her side. The more ill she became, the more she knew that the tribe at the summit held her only opportunity for salvation. As eager as she was to get there and speak with their shaman, she was hesitant to put much stock into the legend the mystic had spoken of.
She and Gareth had attempted the pass earlier in the year, when the way forward was not so dangerous, but the shaman had refused to see her. Instead, she had been sent away, only to return at his signal. And now, after waiting at the deep well of the mountain for months, living out of a tiny inn and wondering if she would succumb to the sickness inside of her, he had finally sent for her.
It was obvious that her mettle was being tested, but even as tests went, she felt this was cruel. Her time in this mortal coil was limited at best, despite her youthful age of twenty and three. When she’d started coughing haggardly, her physicians had advised her on all sorts of medicine and herbal remedies for three months, but couldn’t diagnose an illness.
Unable to find anything outwardly wrong with her, she’d consulted her mystic, Indra, who suggested that perhaps it was something deeper, and she had immediately suggested the name of a renowned doctor from her hometown, Dr. Carroll. Elizabeta at once agreed to meet with him, and after they’d dispensed with pleasantries, he’d confirmed her worst fears: a diagnosis of consumption. It was a devastating conclusion, and she’d refused to accept it at first. She begged him to reconsider the verdict; after all, it was only an unsightly cough!
But soon after, she began coughing up blood.
She tried to speak with doctors, but they would tell her nothing. Months of bloodletting and the draining of bad humors had only left her feeling weaker than ever. As her illness consumed her, she was forced to face a grim awareness: that of her own mortality. The thought did not sit well, she had decided. Neither fate nor gods would put her down. She begged Indra to consort with the physic world, and the woman had reluctantly agreed. She remembered the way the mystic had stared deep into the crystal ball, demanding knowledge from her spiritual guides and the powers of the universe. She’d worked and communed until a sweat broke on her brow, and only then was she able to reveal the information the spirits had bestowed upon her.
Indra’s spirits had told her of the village at the top of the mountain, where no sickness had ever touched. Though skeptical at first, Elizabeta had sought a guide to bring her, and thus she and Gareth had become fellows just over five months prior. He was not only her first choice; he was the only choice. None other than he had been to the mountaintop and back. Now, Elizabeta simply prayed he would lead them to safety once more.
She must reach the shaman who would lead her to the cure.
They reached the waypoint with barely any light to spare, and quickly set to building their camp in the safe enclosure of the trees protecting them from snow and wind. Soon, they were warming themselves over a roaring fire and eating a meal of soft cheese, salted meats, hard tack, and watered ale. The soldiers relaxed once they’d settled in, and Dev and Rubin traded amicable stories while Franz sharpened his knife, a sour look on his face. Every so often, he’d look to the top of the mountain with a glare and then sigh. Wearily, the soldiers retired to their tents, and Gareth and Elizabeta remained, quietly regarding the flames.
“I never thought you’d return,” Gareth told her once the other men were gone. “In fact, I had considered that you had submitted to your illness when I heard nothing more from you.”
“Nonsense,” Elizabeta said indignantly. “I am not one to go quietly into oblivion. Death will have to come and collect me himself, and even then I shall go down fighting.”
Gareth chuckled at that, refilling her glass. “Aye, but Death may come and collect you right off this very mountain. The way ahead only gets more severe, and the villagers at the summit will offer no help.”
Elizabeta shook her head and drank more of the thin ale. She was taken suddenly by a coughing fit, her throat raw and lungs burning as she covered her mouth with her kerchief and waited for the worst of it to pass. When she looked up, Gareth’s concerned face brought a weak chuckle to her.
“Don’t get your hopes up, dear Gareth,” she said with a smile. “You’ll not get full pay for only bringing me halfway up the mountain, so you should hope that Death does not come to claim me just yet.” She looked down into her kerchief and folded the edges over the spot of blood before tucking it back into her pocket.
“Aye, m’lady, I’d never dream it.” His eyes sparkled hard as he took another swig of ale.