Read The Towers Of the Sunset Online

Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.

The Towers Of the Sunset (7 page)

XIII

CRESLIN HAS NOT memorized the road as well as he would have liked, but there are two likely points where his plan might work, provided he can reach the skis and the pack undetected.

He rides, as any valued consort would, in the middle of his entourage, behind six fore guards who trail the outriders by nearly a kay, and before the rear guard. There are no sleighs or wagons, for neither are used by the guards of Westwind, only the battle ponies or the skis.

For Creslin, the ponies offer no answer. He is but an average rider for the guards. On skis, with the slight chance of winds at his call, and if the conditions are right…

He clamps his lips as Heldra rides up beside him.

“You ride silently, Lord Creslin.”

It is the first time she has ever addressed him as “Lord,” and he ponders the meaning before answering. “I suppose it is a time of reflection. I had hoped to ski the winter field trails.”

“Not everything happens as planned. Not even the winds control their own course, for all their powers.”

Creslin does not start at the veiled reference to the way the winds behave around him. Despite his care, some rumors have always surrounded him, and his thoughtless behavior on the night of his betrothal announcement scarcely helped quell them.

Still, he has two other small advantages: sheer nerve, and his long hours of practice with the skis on open slopes. His night sight may help later, but not in the afternoon, which is the earliest they will reach a point where he can flee.

He does not respond further to Heldra’s presence, and after a time she rides ahead to check with the fore guards. As he rides, he visualizes that point where the road runs exposed along the ridge line between the Roof of the World and the shield range. There the wind always blows. Over long winters and too-short summers, it has driven the snow on the north side into ice covered with hardpack, covered in turn with shifting, drifting, and treacherous powder that flows downward for kays into the top of the forest below. The grade is not particularly steep, not for the Westhorns, but there has never been a reason to ski a slope that leads only northward into the winds. The guards do nothing without reason.

“You do not seem pleased to be the consort of the sister of the most powerful ruler in the west.” Heldra’s voice rises to surmount the whistle of the wind as she drops back again to accompany him.

Thin, dry flakes stream across the raised stone that leads from the Roof of the World back to the shield peaks. To the west of the shield peaks lie the warmer lands of Sarronnyn, Suthya, and Delapra.

“Should I be?”

“Does the
Marshall have any choice? A dozen guards have tried to find a way to you.” Her smile is brittle. “Sooner or later one of them would have succeeded. What would the
Marshall do with an heir, particularly if anything happen to Llyse? How would the easterners have viewed it?”

Creslin has lost the logic. Instead, he considers how many nights he has spent alone, wondering if Fiera had been one of those guards. How likely was it that a virgin such as he would provide a guard with a child? “That has to be an excuse,” he says curtly. “No one can threaten the
Marshall.”

“Does it really matter?” responds Heldra dryly.

She has a point, he realizes. But he says nothing more, and in time Heldra rides ahead once more to check the fore guards.

The sky remains filled with the shifting, dull-gray clouds of winter, and the wind has begun to pick up as they reach the long drop from the plateau that is the Roof of the World toward the ridge that will connect it to the shield peaks. There is no connection between that plateau and the barrier mountains that comprise the eastern half of the Westhorns, only the canyons and the howling winds.

Creslin slows the battle pony slightly so that, in the descent, the pack ponies, those with the emergency skis, will close the gap. He also reaches out for the winds, catching a fragment, twisting it through his hair momentarily to ensure that he can before releasing the energy.

Now he must ride and wait, ride and wait, and hope.

The sky darkens, then lightens, as the guards and the consort they guard near the ridge that bridges the gap between the Regent of Westwind and the softer rulers of the lower world.

The consort begins to lift those energies he can control to pull loose snow from the north side of the ridge until even Heldra can scarce see her hand before her face. Then he reaches out for his pack, pulls it clear and onto his back.

His pony is barely ahead of the left-hand pack animal as he leans back. The skis are too tightly bound to wrench free. He drops lightly from his mount and slaps it on the flank, then slashes with his knife to free the skis, still walking quickly to keep up with the pack beast.

His own mount stops, and he dodges to get around the beast, grasping the reins with one hand and threading them over the arm that holds the knife. The arrangement works, even as the blowing snow screens him. At least both ponies are moving, and no one has noticed his actions. Not yet.

The first ski hangs loose. He leaves it hanging and works on the second until it too is loose. He pulls both skis free, almost sliding on the slippery stone underfoot, tottering for a second while trying to match steps with the pack pony and keep the wind whipping the snow.

“Where’s the consort?” bellows Heldra. Creslin looses his pony’s reins, knowing the beast will stop and the rear guards will run into the empty-saddled animal. Then he clambers up on the low stone wall on the right side of the road and begins to tighten the thongs around his boots, first on the left ski, then on the right. As he tightens, he wills the wind to gust around him. “He’s fallen off his mount!”

“Find him!”

“Can’t see shit in this wind…”

“…the hell are you?”

With the second ski as tight as he can make it, he yanks the heavy gloves from his belt and over his nearly numb fingers, then eases his weight off the stone and onto the skis, pushing away sharply so that he does not sink immediately into the deep powder.

“Captain! He’s off the road! The skis are missing!” Creslin wobbles, the powder piling to his knees before his desperate weight shift and downward momentum bring the ski tips upward. He is moving, the wind tearing at his face, his eyes, his body-reaching even through the heavy parka.

He totters at a scraping on the right ski but leans left and back, slowly forcing his track at an angle to the slope. Heading straight downhill would be a death sentence, even for him.

Scccttttccchhh…

Once more he corrects, leaning into the hill, hoping he can maintain his balance at least until he is out of easy range of the guards. With only a few pair of skis left to them, he has a chance-more of a chance now, in the kind of terrain he knows-than in the intrigues of court life of the west.

Rrrrrr… scttttt…

A mass of rocks appears out of the lighter curtain of snow ahead, and he begins a sweeping turn, the only kind he dares.

The wood vibrates under his boots; the thongs bite through the heavy boot leather; but he stays on the skis through the turn and into the narrow, snow-filled bowl downhill.

Behind him stretch the twin tracks of his skis, arching down the snow that cover the rock and ice beneath, not that he can afford to look back. Instead, he concentrates on the powdered surface ahead: untouched, virgin like him, but with hidden depths he would rather not find at the moment.

Also like him, he reflects with a grim smile, nearly frozen in place by the wind, for he still flies downhill too fast to control the air that slashes at his waterproofed and underquilted leathers and unprotected face.

Frumppp…

As he lurches, flying, he tucks the short skis as close to his body as possible and rolls into a .ball, flailing…

When he comes to rest, his buttocks are smarting and one ankle is twisted sharply. Snow is wedged in improbable parts of his body, and his torso is lower than his legs.

Slowly he twists around, levering the skis over himself and to the downhill, even though he cannot see. Cold snow is packed against his bare back where the quilted leathers and wool undershirt have ridden up.

His footing semi-secure, Creslin wipes the snow from his face, studies the area around him. He has rolled nearly a kay downhill, stopped at last by a raised snow hummock through which poke a few thin branches of elder bushes.

He pauses, wiping both the instant ice-sweat and snow from his forehead. Above the silver eyebrows, a single lock of silver hair falls across the unlined forehead from under the hood of his leather and quilted parka.

His body, still too soft for what he is putting it through, let alone what must follow, rests on the threshed snow he has carried downhill with him.

Less than a hundred cubits downhill, the evergreen forests begin. He takes a deep breath and checks his pack, relieved that it has clung to him. So has the short sword in its shoulder harness. Creslin struggles upright, ridding himself of the clinging snow, distinctly less powdery and dry than on the slopes where he began his wild descent.

His ankle is sore, but not tender to the touch. He eases himself onto the skis and makes his way down toward the forest, careful stride after careful stride, knowing that he must keep moving to outdistance the determined guards who follow him as though their lives depend upon it.

His skis swirl the powder like the wind. As he passes, the air congeals behind him, and the winterseed beneath the frost line draws deeper into the thin, stone-hard soil. He pushes onward until he is nearly a kay into the forest, panting with every sliding stride.

After a time, he stops to concentrate, and the wind rises behind him. On the slopes above, the snow re-forms into an unbroken expanse, almost as pristine as before a fleeing consort crashed through it. His breath continues to rasp through his lungs like an ice saw, for brushing the winds across his tracks is more effort than physically moving himself.

He rests, leaning against a dark-trunked fir whose branches do not spread until far above his head, trying to breathe deeply and evenly through his nose rather than gasping for breath, remembering the damage that air will do to his lungs with too much deep mouth-breathing.

He cannot rest long, and he begins his strides once more even as the shadows of the twilight increase, even as he looks for a place of shelter and some way to conceal his tracks. While he can see in the depths of the looming snow-lit night, his legs ache, and his jaw is sore from the effort of keeping it closed so as to protect his lungs.

In time, Creslin locates another clump of elder bushes, and, after removing the near-frozen thongs that hold boots to skis, he uses one ski to dig down into the natural hollow beneath a frozen overhang. Between the oil cloth, the winter quilt, and the protected space, he will be warm enough. Not comfortable, but warm enough to survive.

As he pads the hollow where he will sleep with mostly dry needles over the fir sprigs he has carefully placed, a shadow flickers in the comers of his eye. Barely, just barely, he does not jump. Instead, he moves his head slowly around to view the pair of spruces where the figure might lurk. The trees stand perhaps ten cubits from his hollowedout den.

Between the branches of the low, bluish-needled trees there is a distance of less than two cubits, an expanse untouched even by hare prints. Behind the spruces, the wind gusts shuffle and reshuffle the white powder that has already covered most of the lines left by Creslin’s skis.

Unmoving, he watches, his left hand ready to pull the sword from the scabbard set on the pack by his feet. The wind reshuffles the fine ice dust again, moaning without tone in the darkness that has dropped on the high forest.

Creslin sinks into a lower profile within his hollow, drawing pack and sword within, still watching the silence.

Wooooooooo…

He ignores the bird of prey, wriggling only his toes to warm them within his still-dry boots.

Click…

A frozen limb, or a pine cone, drops against a tree trunk.

Wooooooo…

The shadow is back, although it appears from nowhere.

Creslin sucks in his breath silently, for the shadowy figure wears no parka, stands on the powdered snow crust without making a track, and stares across the space between them. She wears but thin trousers and a high-necked and long-sleeved blouse. She is clearly female. Her eyes burn.

Creslin stares back, but says nothing.

Then the shadow is gone as if it had never been. Creslin shivers, for he has never seen the woman before, nor one like her. Yet she hunts him. Of that he is certain.

Although he is not cold, he draws his parka around him. The morning will be early, and he has hundreds of kays upon hundreds of kays to go before he can escape the regent of Westwind and the Marshall of the Roof of the World. And that is just the beginning.

But first, he must escape. If he can ever escape. He purses his lips, studies the two spruces for a last time before leaning back into his den, fully out of the wind. Wooooooo… Click…

XIV

EVEN BEFORE DAWN, Creslin wakes stiff, but pleased that no shadows await him, female or otherwise.

Moving slowly in air so cold and still that the crystals of his breath fall like snow upon his parka sleeves, the would-have-been consort wriggles his toes to ensure they are still functional before he extracts the small packet of battle rations from his pack, chewing the dried-apple slices first. Each small bite is a chore for his dry mouth.

He moistens his lips with a thin trickle of water from the melt bottle carried in his trousers. When he is finished, he scoops more snow into the bottle and replaces it, then nibbles on a piece of hard cheese from his pack. The remaining dried fruit and cheese he repacks.

Silent is the high forest, except for the faintest whisper of branches and breeze stirring the dry powder snow that lies on the heavier whiteness.

Creslin must also meet other needs, and before too long, despite the chill such necessities will entail.

The night winds have swept clear his tracks, or enough that it would take far more guards than accompanied him to find him. With that thought he proceeds, beginning with physical necessities, then with packing, and covering his shelter. Standing on the skis, he brushes away as much as he can of his traces, trusting to the snows and winds to do the rest.

His pace is measured; he takes even, long-sliding stride upon long-sliding stride. Before the cloud-shrouded sun has lifted dawn into gray day, he has covered another three kays or more through the high forest that falls and rises, falls and rises, as he heads toward the northeast and the eastern barrier peaks of the Westhorns.

The dry whisper of wind through fir branches, loose snow sifting down from the trees, and the faint scraping of his skis: the sole sounds he hears as his legs drive him onward.

No roads, no trails, mark the northeast route he takes, and it is for this reason he takes it, knowing that where lies a surface uncovered by snow, or by a road, there the guards would find him.

Food? He has enough for an eight-day, in battle rations. Water? He has melted snow with body heat and drunk it before, in the winter training of the years before his mother declared such training unseemly.

Slide, lift, slide… cubit after cubit, until it is time to rest. Then slide, lift, slide… slide, lift, slide.

The gusts from the north rise with the day and rattle loose another frozen cone. Underneath the forest giants-spruces so enormous that his arm span would not circle even a third of the smaller trunks-the snow is uneven, the light muted.

Creslin concentrates on following ridge lines, on holding toward the north, using the pyramidal peak in the distance as a guide when there are breaks in the trees sufficient to see the barrier peaks.

Slide, lift…

Frummmp…

The cold powder sifts inside his parka, chilling his neck while relieving the heat of his exertion. He struggles to right himself in the waist-deep depression into which he has plowed. At first he slides in even more deeply, until he is engulfed nearly chest-deep by the heavy powder. A fir limb offers hope, and he pulls on it gently, trying to lever himself upward. The limb breaks, and more snow sifts against his chest, no longer even half-welcome in its chill.

With a sigh, Creslin begins the slow process of easing himself out of the deeps, realizing that no quick pullouts are possible. Inching the skis-now bearing stones’ worth of snow above their tips-sideways, he pauses, takes a deep breath. Again he inches the unseen skis toward his right, until finally he can feel the frozen ground against his leg and hip.

Once more, he rests. Then he grasps the narrow trunk of the spruce sapling. It bends but does not break as he draws his boots and skis out of the deeper snow.

In time, his wool-lined leather trousers damp from snow and pressure, he lies draped on more solid snow, his breath rasping as the wind rises and icy flakes drift through the high branches and down upon his woolen cap and dampened soul.

He sips from the narrow bottle that he soon refills with snow and places in the special trouser pocket, gnaws upon hard, half-frozen cheese, and takes a deep breath.

“Onward, Creslin, you noble idiot…”

Noon, or its approximation, and dusk fall too close together. In the growing dimness, despite ever more frequent rests, Creslin’s legs ache continually. He falls frequently, even on the gentle downhills.

The barrier mountains look to be no closer, and the wind continues to rise, driving harder and thicker whiteness into Creslin’s face.

Slide, lift, slide…

Is that a shadow behind the tall fir? Or behind the slender spruce?

Slide, lift, slide…

Frummmmppp…

“Enough… is… enough.”

Creslin sits upon the snow, untwining the leather thongs, knowing that he cannot get back on the skis.

Twenty cubits downhill, through nearly waist-deep snow and the falling white curtain, he finds a fallen trunk. It will have to do.

In time, with frozen needles, the crushed branches beneath the trunk, and the striker in his belt pouch, he manages a small fire to warm himself as he prepares another hollow, one which, when lined with small branches and ample needles, may prove warmer than the last. He forces himself to eat and drink, and then not to sleep immediately, but to carve small branches with the knife and feed the small fire that helps warm him against wind and snow.

The snow hides the shadows; the flakes fall so furiously that no traces of a trail can survive.

Creslin wonders, not for the first time, whether he will either.

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