44. Chapter 43
Once the sun had set and the first stars were lighting in the inky blue black overhead I left my hiding place and cautiously made my way downhill through the snowy forest towards the track and the river. I trod as lightly as I could, but my boots crunched loudly with every step on the night frosted snow, or so it seemed to me. I feared the noise would betray me, so went slowly and cautiously, straining to hear any corresponding footsteps of a sentry or hunter, but for a while nothing else disturbed the silence. Then distant voices began to reach my ears, and I became aware of an orange flicker that played amongst the tree trunks ahead as I drew closer to the river. Somewhere not far away the Hillmen had made a camp and lit several large fires, on which meat was roasting. The scent of it was a torment to me, and I soon realised that the resulting illumination might make it difficult for me to approach and pass them, as the valley narrowed and steepened close to. I approached as near to them as I dared, and even at that distance I could see that there would be little hope of passing by unseen, even with the sentries distracted and paying little attention.
I sat for a little while in an agony of indecision, and then reluctantly began to retrace my steps, heading back up the hillside amongst the dead towards the shoulder which led into the next valley. Among the snow rimed rocks at the top I paused and caught my breath at the beauty of the moonlit landscape stretching out and away in all directions. My eye was drawn north, towards the familiar shadowy bulk of the Ettenmoors. I knew that somewhere below those heights at this very moment another hearty fire would be burning in the hearth of the Great Hall of the Keep in Northford, and I would have given anything at that moment to be standing in front of it with a flagon of ale in hand and in the company of my own. Ten leagues… in normal country that would be no more than two days easy march. With a little good fortune finding my way through the maze of valleys I could perhaps make it in three, for once I reached the point where the streams and rivers began to drain northward instead of west it would simply be a matter of following the water down to the Hoarwell. I knew many of those vales already, and although there was a danger that I might meet an orc band up there even this early in the year, they might equally be friends that I encountered. The other road seemed suddenly much more hazardous now I had been forced to turn back. At first I had planned to try and follow the second valley for a while and skirt the camp of the Hill men, but I had no idea if they communicated further down, whether a way could be found between the two if not, and whether that valley too was inhabited in its lower reaches. For to be caught anywhere on that journey would mean certain death, the anger and hatred of the people in the villages we had passed through that had been picked clean by previous foraging patrols was plain to see. And at that journey's end I would be throwing myself once more on the mercy of Berthedir and Belegon - that final thought was enough to make my mind up for me. I allowed myself a small meal of stale bread from my meagre stores and gathering up my courage crawled past the yawning gulf I had previously tumbled into and started to clamber cautiously down the steep tree clad ramp.
At first the journey went well, the moon lit my way sufficiently and the going was not difficult. I headed up the valley which I judged would take me in more or less the right direction until I found my way blocked by a steep scree slope framed by more tall cliffs. It looked like it might be climbable but I decided to wait for daylight, as clouds had begun to blow across the moon and I kept finding myself temporarily immersed in complete darkness. So I made myself as comfortable as possible and dozed fitfully for a few hours with cold and hunger gnawing at me.
Dawn brought a stiffening breeze and the blue skies of the previous days had given way to a grey overcast. I roused myself wearily, allowed myself another small piece of bread, and set off up the snow covered rocks. It took me much longer than I expected, and I was very tired when I finally reached the top. Beyond lay another vale much like the one I had just left, and it swung off to the east so I would soon need to try and find another weakness and cross into the one beyond. The cloud had dropped onto the Ettenmoors and obscured the mountains, so I had only a general idea of which direction to head in now. Up on the ridge the wind was bitterly cold and tugged at my cloak, so I did not tarry there, and soon found my way down and into the relative shelter of the trees, but already doubts were growing in my mind as to the wisdom of my choice. The next climb was exhausting, and it was well past midday before I topped the ridge and collapsed wearily under a gnarled pine that clung desperately to the rocks there. If anything the sky was growing darker and the cloud dropping, the Ettenmoors were no longer visible and this meant I no longer had any clear idea of the direction I was taking. I knew that all I could do was to keep sighting onto something recognisable and try and maintain my heading that way. I ate the last of my bread and set off again, having to stay on the ridge for a while until I could start to descend. I was aiming for a particular piece of cliff with a cluster of trees part way up half a league or so away. The valley I was now entering disappeared round a shoulder beyond it, with any luck it would keep going the way I wanted and I would be spared another climb and descent that day for my strength was beginning to desert me, and I knew it. Even the relatively easy marches along through the forest were becoming taxing, and I frequently had to stop. My head began to pound again and I felt sick and dizzy.
I glimpsed what looked like my next target through breaks in the treetops every now and again but I was making painfully slow progress. I topped out on a hillock which would give me a better view only to find everything in the distance had been obscured by a grey veil. I did not comprehend what was happening for a moment, but then the air around me was suddenly thick with heavy snowflakes and the grey veil closed in around me too, blotting out all but the closest details of my surroundings. I pulled up my hood and sank to my knees, stifling a sob, and cursed my ill fortune. I had spent enough time in the wild to learn the ways of the weather well and I knew that this was no passing shower, heavy falls would not be uncommon in this land even late on in the season. I would be robbed of my ability to judge direction and find my way, and with every hour that passed it would become more and more difficult to make any headway. I realised with a cold stab of certainty that I was probably going to die as a result, and it seemed wrong and unfair to me after everything else I had lived through. Wretched and weary as I was I decided to keep going a little longer, and I yelled my defiance to the snow and empty woods for all the good it did. I loosened my sword belt and cast it aside, for it was no more than an encumbrance now.
The next few hours are hazy in my memory, my entire world became composed of nothing more than endless snow and pine trees, but I know that I began to stumble and fall with increasing regularity in the ever deepening snow and it took me longer and longer to get up each time. The final time I crested the top of a bank, lost my footing and slid to the bottom on my face. I no longer had the strength to move, and felt curiously peaceful. I just wanted to fall asleep and leave all my cares and pain behind, and as my mind began to drift I thought I could hear a dog barking, which was curious but of no great moment.