Rogue and Rover: Part Seven
Kanrik had expected that the tiny frost-witch would slow them down. But she walked icy ridges and steep slopes as quickly and easily as though they were paved streets, and after a whole day of hard terrain it was Kanrik and Hannah who were panting as they tried to keep up.
The old woman said cheerfully, "They don't make young people like they used to, do they, if you tire so easily. Quickly, quickly! Now where are you bound?"
Hannah said, "Nyamin Pass." It wasn't even a lie – the fortress was in that pass.
She cackled. "Castle Astith, then. You don't aim small, do you? Of course, two such esteemed personages wouldn't."
They merely looked at each other – Hannah's blue eyes were wide. Kanrik knew exactly how she felt. He didn't like the fact that this little frost-witch – a veritable hermit – knew so much. And while she seemed like a harmless old eccentric, Kanrik was certain that she could be incredibly dangerous if provoked. Frost-witches could control the very ice and snow of their domains, and had massive powers of illusion. Outside of their chosen territories, they weren't especially formidable... but they weren't outside this witch's territory. They'd waltzed right in.
Hannah said carefully, "Ma'am, I don't mean any offense... but where are you leading us?"
The witch smiled cheerily. "Oh, don't ma'am me. I go by Hemanta."
Hannah frowned. "That's Old Bori. It means 'black ice.'"
Kanrik didn't know any Old Bori, but he knew what black ice was – clear and smooth, nearly invisible unless you were keeping a close eye out for it. Treacherous ice.
Hemanta cackled again. "Little cleverboots, aren't you? And as for where, I'm taking you to where my territory meets the Nyamin cleft, of course."
Kanrik asked, "And what do you want in return for that... service?"
She shot them a wide grin that was anything but innocent. "I get to sit back and see whether you survive the guardians inside Astith and the knights on your tails. Much more entertaining that way than if I merely let them catch you there."
So Hannah and he were filling the roles of an acting troupe. Wonderful.
Hannah asked, "Do you know anything about the guardians within... Astith? The parchment I found just said that there were some."
Hemanta shrugged. "I have my demesne, my white cliffs, my ice-covered river, my evergreen trees. I have no need to seek danger within the old fortress. It's far more fun to watch you brave the dangers, and see if the bold troupe of knights currently stomping like spoiled children at my border-post will actually find the courage to follow."
Currently stomping. Hemanta was able to use her magic to see the borders of her realm, while simultaneously keeping up a punishing pace over bad terrain and holding a conversation. Kanrik was officially a little scared of this Aisha that he could probably pick up and throw one-handed.
Hemanta continued, "Pay for your passage with a tale, then. Tell me just how the folk of Howling Peak took offense at you."
Hannah looked as relieved as Kanrik felt – a tale was an easy enough price to pay, and the Usul launched into the full tale of their journey so far and what had led them to Whitestones. All she left out were the actual names of Rahm and Dea, as the suspicious little Korbat had requested. Kanrik cut in once or twice, but he left the story to Hannah – he liked listening as much as the witch did. But he kept his ears alert. He still heard the echoes now and then of the Whitestones hunting-horn amid the peaks, and he didn't trust Hemanta not to lead them straight into an ambush if it amused her to do so.
The sun was already sinking behind the peaks as they reached the mouth of the Nyamin Pass. Hemanta said cheerfully, "There's a marking-stone near where the old stair was – of course, the stair's mostly gone, but such a bold rogue and rover should have no trouble with the climb. Now I'm certain some of my potions are boiling over, so good luck with the guardians!"
The witch didn't walk away – the snow swirled up around her, and she was gone.
Hannah said, "She was quite nice... which actually really scares me."
Kanrik nodded. "Seconded. Now let's find that marking-stone and get up the cliff before we lose daylight."
The marking-stone was easy enough to find – it was on the northern side of the pass, and easily twice as tall as Kanrik. Hannah squinted at it. "The runes are mostly worn away, but I can read 'Castle Astith.' That's what Hemanta called the old fortress."
The cliff above them looked like any other, but Kanrik could tell that there was a wide ledge above them – most likely that was where the fortress door would be. The shadows among the ice and snow were dark and strange in the dim reddish light of the remnants of sunset.
Hannah shuddered. "Kanrik, I've never been one to get the creeps easily, but..."
Kanrik nodded. "Believe me, I agree." Shadows inside buildings or in city streets were one thing. Shadows in the harsh mountain wilderness were another thing entirely, especially when the hunting calls of Snowbeasts were a regular feature of the landscape. He crouched to get the climbing gear in order. "Tell a story. Something to keep both of us from imagining ghouls and Snowbeasts in every shadow."
It wasn't one of her own adventures that Hannah started recounting as they fastened ropes and hooks and began working their way up the rock. It was a fanciful story of lost pirate treasure that she'd likely learned as a child on Krawk Island. She was able to keep spinning the tale as they climbed – while most of the old steps were gone, enough remained to provide convenient hand- and footholds, and they scaled the wall of the pass as quickly as the daylight died in the west.
When they reached the top, Hannah lit their lanterns. Kanrik raised his high, to examine the rock face in front of them. "This has to be it. Look at how smooth it is right here. It was quarried."
Hannah drew out the old parchment once more, lips moving as she squinted at the runes in the faint light. "Look for symbols on the wall somewhere. That'll be the spot where the door is. Don't actually touch them."
Kanrik walked up close to the wall, and found the symbols – subtle, and in the pattern of the rock nearly invisible until you were close. Hannah continued, "It's a magic lock – you have to touch the right ones in the right order. Otherwise all the snow from the top of the fortress gets dumped on your head."
Kanrik winced. "Please tell me that the order's in that parchment. In fact, you get over here and do this, while I stand back."
She grinned at him. "Would I have brought us here if we were just going to get avalanched before even getting inside?"
He mimicked her voice as he said, "Oh, we can wait out the storm in Whitestones. No one will recognize you."
She stuck her snub Usul nose in the air and walked up to the symbols in the wall. "Mountain... river... mountain... pinecone... star... sword... river... mountain... feather... star... sword."
Kanrik muttered, "One complicated lock." There was no way anyone was getting in by chance – which was exactly the point. All the wars of the kingdom days were the stuff of legend, and this outlying fortress would have needed to be prepared to hold off armies. He looked up the wall – there were no windows or arrow-slits anywhere that he could see.
There was a groaning and shrieking of stone, and the section of wall that had borne the runes swung open. Kanrik looked up at the face of the fortress with a new appreciation – he hadn't seen the door at all, and it took quite a lot of skill to make a door that even a career thief couldn't find. Perhaps the windows were merely shut, and could be opened from the inside. He was glad that he wasn't trying to raid this place back in its prime... it would make Whitestones look like a Kiko Lake summer camp.
Hannah asked, "Ready to go in?"
He nodded. "Ready."
And they walked into Castle Astith.
At their entrance, lights flickered on to reveal the entrance hall – Kanrik drew his sword as his heart skipped several beats. Next to him, Hannah squeaked and jumped.
Then Kanrik looked around, and realized that the light – a chilling, cheerless blue-green – came from sconces in the walls, and that it was so muted because the glass was heavily coated in dust. "Magic. It must be triggered to people."
Hannah laughed nervously. "We're both on edge today."
He pointed out, "We've run for our lives, kept company with a witch I'm none too sure is sane, and now we're in an ancient fortress with magic like none I've ever seen."
Hannah nodded. "That's true. The Lost Desert and Faerieland are soaked in magic, but you can still see doors, and I've never seen lights that just come on."
Kanrik added, "Though, on edge or no, that noise that just came out of your mouth made you sound about five years old."
She smiled a little. "Thanks ever so much. Should we make camp here? If there are going to be more traps and the like, better to face them after a night's sleep."
He nodded, and Hannah walked to a wall and slid into a sitting position. She discarded her coat and started to get out food as Kanrik looked around. It was no warmer here than it was outside, and they needed a fire, but there had been no opportunity to collect wood today.
Fortunately there were several benches in the hall – severe and plain, like the stone of the room itself, but dry and brittle with age. It was easy for Kanrik to break them down for wood, and in little time at all they had a bright bonfire in the dim and dusty hall. He shed his own outerwear and sat down, and Hannah rested her head on his shoulder as they ate food from their packs. It was the first time all day that Kanrik had felt warm, and away from the snow his clothes were beginning to dry, though their coats and his cloak were still surrounded by a puddle. It was all he could do when he had finished eating to wrap himself in his blanket before he went straight to sleep.
The fire had burned lower, though it was still warm and bright, when he awoke. On the other side of the fire, Hannah almost tripped over her own tail in her haste to get to her feet.
Then he heard the noise that had woken them – heavy footsteps echoing in Castle Astith's empty halls. He threw himself to his feet as quickly as Hannah had, grabbing for his sword and his dagger as he did so. He said, "Hannah, keep back."
She nodded, but kept her own dagger in hand.
The footsteps came closer and closer – they were apparently headed straight toward the door at the top of the stairs at the end of the hall that would lead farther into the castle. Kanrik set down his sword for a second to grab his coat and cape – as he did, Hannah started packing. This was a treasure-hunt, not a life-or-death affair – if something too frightening was coming for them, they would leave.
And then, from right outside the gate, they heard the unmistakable sound of a Whitestones hunting horn. Kanrik said, "They came straight here! Either they knew where it was or that cursed witch gave us away!"
Hannah said, voice quivering slightly, "You know, next time we go on an adventure together, let's take a group of thieves to some tourist trap on Mystery Island."
Kanrik said, "Here's the plan. I'll fight whatever comes through that door. You get around it, go up those stairs. We can't go out the main entrance with the knights there – we'll have to find another way out. And then I'll be right beside you on the boat to Mystery Island and stupid tourists."
And then the footsteps stopped.
Kanrik looked up at the knight that had appeared at the top of the stairs. Something was strange about him, or the way the light caught his massive form...
Kanrik barely had time to realize that the knight was made entirely of ice before he charged.
To be continued...