The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Three
 

Chapter One

 

Chapter Two

CHAPTER THREE

 

THE PASS

    Brydon awoke tired and foul-tempered the next morning.  He and Toryn did not speak.  No doubt the Redolian already berated himself for not having stolen away in the night.  Not that he’d had much chance.  Every time Toryn had so much as twitched, Brydon had snapped awake, gripping his dagger-hilt in a sweat-soaked fist.  What had seemed a noble gesture at the time had turned into a nightmare of taut nerves and sleeplessness.

    After breakfast they climbed, reaching areas where patches of snow gathered in the shadows as if cowering from the sunlight.  Water trickled across the road and ice rimmed the edges of the rivulets.  The sky remained cloudless and though the sun’s warmth was welcome, Brydon considered it a mixed blessing since it would also cause snow to melt from the higher peaks.  The mountains on their right were high, jagged, and nearly impassible, cutting Redol off completely from the road that edged its southern border.

    The trees thinned and the grass all but disappeared, giving way to sturdy evergreen shrubs dotted with wildflowers.  The ground sloped away on their left and eventually became a steep, snow-covered cliff.

    The sun was high when the road disappeared.  A waterfall cascaded from the mountainside; the water had eaten away at the road and created a yawning, steep-sided chasm fully twenty feet across and thirty deep.

    Brydon swore softly as they examined the canyon.  Toryn said nothing; he merely watched Brydon through expressionless green eyes.  Brydon could practically hear Toryn’s amused thoughts:  Well, that’s it, then.  Backtrack and take your chances with Akarska.  I’ll just make my way back to Redol where I can gather reinforcements and hunt you down, now that I know the direction you’re headed.

    Brydon set his jaw and studied the problem.  The nearest tree grew on the other side of the gap, close enough to hit with a rope, but Brydon had no grappling hook.  He could tie the rope to an arrow and sink it into the tree, but he doubted that even a firmly embedded arrow would hold the weight of a man.  He studied the cliff face carefully and at last nodded to Toryn.

    “I think we can cross if we climb up there.”  He pointed to a spot a short distance up the hillside.  “We can jump across the water using those two boulders.  It looks like a fairly easy leap.  And the descent on the other side does not look too hard.”  The cliff wall was steep, but not sheer, and littered with large boulders and shrubs.

    Toryn shook his head.  “I’m not risking my life because an idiot Falaran wants to cross a stream.  If you want to try it, go ahead.  I wouldn’t mind watching you plummet down there.”  He pointed to where the water plunged out from the broken roadway and crashed onto the jagged boulders below.  “It would save me the trouble of killing you.”

    Brydon grinned without humor.  “Actually, you get to go first.  If you don’t make it I’ll admit it was foolish, turn around and seek an alternate route.”

    Toryn’s face flamed.  Brydon rationalized that if it was Adona’s will that Toryn fall, it would take one problem out of his hands.  After all, he could not escort the damned Redolian all the way to—

    A particularly vile curse from Toryn severed his train of thought.  The Redolian stalked to the cliff face and from there scrambled to the top of the nearest boulder.  He climbed the first eight feet with the agility of a cat and Brydon watched in amazement.  He carefully took out a dagger and balanced it to throw, in case Toryn decided to start lobbing rocks down on his head.  Toryn paused once and looked down as if considering that very thing.  There followed a tense moment in which Brydon wondered whether he could dodge a missile and then send the knife whizzing at the Redolian.  He did not have perfect aim with a dagger.  Then again, if he could dodge out of reach, it would take but a moment to string his bow...

    Toryn must have come to the same conclusion.  He continued climbing until he reached the point where the water surged between two large boulders that had a short gap between them.

    Brydon put away his knife and started to climb.  He wasn’t about to let Toryn cross safely while he followed at his leisure.  He would be like a bug clinging to the wall while Toryn happily threw stone after stone at him.

    He climbed—no easy feat with a full backpack, a bow, quiver, and two swords strapped to his body.  He paused to watch as Toryn tested the boulder and then stepped easily across the gap, using every available handhold for additional stability.  Toryn started down the other side and Brydon hoisted himself to the top of the large boulder on his side of the stream.  It did not seem nearly as large now that he stood on it.  He paused a moment to catch his breath and spared a glance at Toryn.  The Redolian clung to the opposite wall, not moving.  Was he taking a breather?  Brydon hoped so.  He gripped an overhanging bush tightly and stood at the edge of the gap.  He looked at the swiftly flowing water and the space between suddenly seemed like an infinitely huge breach.

    He took a deep breath and stepped across, straddling the stream for only a moment before he gripped the rock wall and looked for the safest way down.  As he stepped down to a lichen-encrusted rock, he felt the large boulder shift slightly.  His heart jumped immediately to his throat and he froze, wondering if he had imagined the movement. Rather than hesitate to see if it happened again, he launched himself downward, gripping the outcroppings of rock wall so tightly he drew blood from his fingertips.  The climb down was not as steep, although one portion was far more dangerous.  What had looked like an area of flat ground was actually loose rock and shale, which yanked his feet out from under him when he stepped on it.  Now he knew why Toryn had been clinging to the wall.

    Brydon crossed slowly, gripping the same handholds Toryn must have used and set his feet down gently, as though he trod on eggshells.  During the nerve-wracking exercise, he tried not to wonder at Toryn’s position.  One prod from a long stick and Brydon would plummet into the raging cataract.

    His arms ached from the exertion, but Brydon finally reached a solid outcropping of rock and threw himself upon the stone gratefully.  He muttered a brief prayer of thanks and held the rocks like a lover for a moment before he climbed to the top and peered over the edge.  Toryn sat on a boulder beneath him; he looked up at Brydon wearily.

    “I came down here to get something to throw at you.  But I was too tired to climb back up.”  Brydon nodded, understanding.  His own arms trembled and his fingers were slick with blood.  He levered himself over the outcropping and dropped down next to Toryn, grateful for the patch of snow that somewhat cushioned his landing.

    Toryn stood and picked his way back to the road.  Brydon followed.  The descent was much simpler than the climb had been as the boulders were widely spaced to create accessible passage.

    When they reached the road, Brydon said brightly, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.”

    Toryn glared at him.

    While they examined their damaged fingers, a loud, horrendous scraping sound startled them.  The rasping screech turned into a rumble, followed by a thunderous crack, the sound of something very large plummeting down the chasm and a splash.

 

They hurried back to the ravine.  They stood well back from the edge and stared at the empty space where the largest boulder had rested.  It had broken free and taken a big portion of the cliff wall with it.  Where the crossable gap had been was now a breach of twelve feet or more.

 

    “It seems we’re not going back that way,” Toryn said tightly.  “You had better hope there is nothing even more unpleasant ahead.”

    “Let’s get moving,” Brydon said.  Toryn turned and stalked down the icy road without another word.

    Two hours later, they stood at the edge of a snowy field that stretched out of sight.  The road was completely covered by drifts of snow, though its path could be traced by following the slope of the hillside where it met the road.  Brydon sensed Toryn’s intense scrutiny, but thankfully the Redolian made no comment.

    Brydon sighed. “I don’t have the equipment for us to spend the night in a snow bank.  It will be cold enough sleeping here, even with a fire.  We’ll start across at first light and hope to reach the end of it before nightfall.”  He kept his fears to himself.  He knew Toryn was likely worrying, as well, about the depth of the snow, the potential pitfalls concealed by the thick whiteness, the possibility of frostbite, the chance of losing the road altogether...

    They both scoured the roadside for as much wood as possible and stacked their findings in a semi-sheltered alcove that would reflect some of the fire’s light and heat.  Brydon blew on his fingers before he started the fire.  Already, it was cold.  Thank Adona there was no wind or they would likely freeze to death.

    When the fire blazed, Brydon dug in his pack and handed Toryn a shirt of thick wool.  When the Redolian made no move to take it, Brydon snapped, “I will not watch you freeze while I have the means to keep you alive.  Put it on.”

    Toryn snatched the shirt and obediently pulled it over his head before huddling again under the leather cloak.  Brydon wrapped himself in his own warm cloak.  The sun would not set for at least an hour, but they ate for lack of something better to do.  The dried boar meat was salty and tough.

    “Will you renew your promise of last night?” Brydon asked.  Toryn grimaced as he tore off a bit of the meat.

    “Where would I go?” he snapped.

    “You won’t try to kill me in my sleep?”

    “I won’t need to,” Toryn said venomously.  “Because we are both going to die, out there, tomorrow.”  He flung a hand out, indicating the snowfield, though it lay around the bend from their contrived shelter.

    “I think you are overreacting,” Brydon said, rather surprised at Toryn’s pessimism.

    “We have no equipment for crossing leagues of snowdrifts,” Toryn said.  “And neither of us is properly dressed.  I don’t relish frostbite.”

    “I’ve crossed this pass before,” Brydon assured him.  “The summit isn’t far.  We should be free of the snow by tomorrow evening.”

    Toryn chewed his meat in silence and then ignored Brydon by curling up to sleep.  Brydon built up the fire and scrounged even more wood in hopes that the heat would last most of the night.  Though he was tired, he prodded at the fire long into the night before dropping off to sleep.

 

Brydon woke well before dawn, cold and stiff.  The embers of the fire still glowed, so he added more wood and blew the coals into flame.  Toryn huddled under the cloak like a curled-up kitten.  Brydon walked to the snow bank and filled a pot with snow.  The brief exercise got his blood flowing a bit and he hurried back to the fire to melt the snow for some hot tea.

 

    Toryn sat with hands stretched over the flames.  Brydon did not bother to ask how the Redolian was feeling, especially after he met Toryn’s sour glare.  Instead, he brewed some peppermint tea and made it extra strong.  He possessed only one cup, so he let Toryn drink first.  The Redolian held the metal cup in both hands to warm them.  His breath fogged the air and mingled with the steam from the tea.

    Brydon’s morning prayer was heartfelt.  “Adona, giver of life and breath, fire and water, I give thanks for Your protection and ask Your guidance on this day.  Grant us strength and wisdom and provide us safe passage if it be Your will.  I pledge myself to Your service.  So be it.”

    Runoff from the previous day’s warmth had frozen on the ground.  Brydon had no doubt there would be a thin sheet of ice covering the snowfield, which would make for even more difficult walking.  He wanted to get moving, so he cut up the last of his cheese and gave half to Toryn along with a handful of dried berries and a piece of cold meat.

    After gulping a steaming cupful of tea, he tossed the dregs and returned everything to his pack before tugging the cumbersome thing onto his back.  His load was more awkward with the addition of his quiver of arrows.  Normally worn upon his back, he had modified the quiver to ride just behind his right hip, strapped to his waist like a sword belt.  His sword rested upon his left hip, as usual, which left Toryn’s sword.  He had finally wedged it into the pack, scabbard and all, with the point sticking upward.  Though it put the load somewhat off-balance, it was easier to carry that way than to have the weight of two swords dragging about his hips.  He thought about chucking it, but assumed the Redolian would lose all control and strangle him to death if he tried.

    His bow remained clutched in his hand.  It made a decent walking stick that way and, in addition, he could easily string it if danger threatened.  He staggered slightly as he shifted his shoulders to distribute the weight.

    “Would you like me to carry something?”  Toryn offered sweetly.  “My sword, perhaps?”

    “I can manage.”  Before they left the campsite, Brydon rubbed a finger across a piece of charred wood and smeared a stripe of soot beneath each of his eyes.

    “Do it,” Brydon advised.  “The sun will be out today.  This will prevent snow-blindness.”  Toryn, skeptical or not, followed suit and they started off.

    The sky was barely tinted by dawn when they took their first crunching steps onto the snow.  It was crusted with ice, as expected.  The snow was deep in many places where the wind had piled it against the cliff.  They moved slowly in those areas.  Brydon had no compunction about letting Toryn break the trail.  Even with that help, his legs burned with exertion.

    They paused to rest often.  Brydon knew that a man could starve for air in the higher altitudes.  Luckily, they had no difficulty sticking to the road.  The cliff that bordered it had become an even steeper grade.  Snow piled high at the base of it and stacked upon the road.

    They trudged until midday.  Brydon wondered time and again why he hadn’t thought to bring gloves on his journey as he transferred the bow stave from hand to hand while warming the free hand beneath his cloak.  Toryn tucked both hands beneath his armpits to keep them out of the icy air.  The sun glared off the snow, but did little to warm the two men.  Thankfully, the wind was still.

    An ominous rumbling sound from above brought them both to a halt.  Toryn looked at Brydon with something akin to panic in his eyes.  The unusual roar grew louder.  Brydon heard Toryn swear and then the avalanche was upon them.

    The next few moments were an endless white blur to Brydon.  He felt himself swept along as though with the tide of a raging river, tumbled and tossed.  The bow stave ripped from his hand and his pack felt like it would tear from his back.  He opened his mouth to cry out and snow rushed in, suffocating him.

    The ride seemed to last forever and left him choking and gasping upon the snow, buried from the waist down.  After he swiped the snow from his eyes, he saw that his head was uncomfortably close to the trunk of a tree.  He glanced around, coughing up melted snow, to find himself surrounded by pines.  He thanked Adona he had not been smashed into one.

    Powdery snow coated him from head to toe and the chill seeped into his bones.  He quickly set about digging himself out of the white mass, although he could barely move due to the twisted angle of his pack.  As soon as he got the edge of his cloak free, he used it to partially protect his stiff hands from the snow as he excavated and struggled to liberate his legs.

    At last he shakily stood up and looked around.  He had come to rest in a stand of trees.  The hillside he had traveled was a broad expanse of churned snow from the road an untold distance above.  His rattled brain finally registered a panicked speculation of Toryn’s welfare and he scanned the snow around him.  He quickly shrugged off the cumbersome pack and scrambled back up the hillside.  His eyes roved from side to side seeking any sign of the Redolian.

    He trudged back and forth for long minutes, but spotted only the wooden tip of his bow stave protruding from the whiteness.  He jerked it free to find it miraculously unbroken.  A sick feeling washed over him as he realized the Redolian could be trapped beneath the snow anywhere along the path of the avalanche.  He clutched his bow in both hands and forced himself not to panic.  Running about on the face of the hillside screaming Toryn’s name would do neither of them any good.  For the merest instant, he thought about leaving the Redolian buried, but an unbidden image of Toryn suffocating, entombed in snow, made him shudder.

    He took a long steadying breath and let it out slowly.  “Concentrate,” he muttered.  “He’s got to be here somewhere.”

    With eyes still half-lidded he began to walk, zigzagging across the hillside in a pattern that would have looked drunken to any observer.  At last he halted and shoved his bow stave into the snow.  Three-quarters of the shaft disappeared into the snow and then he could push it no further.  He left the bow stave as a marker and hurried back to his pack where he dug out his cooking pot.  He rushed back to the spot and began to dig.  As he burrowed, he muttered an intermittent prayer.  The exertion kept him relatively warm as he scraped and tossed snow in a frenzied manner.  Relief almost overwhelmed him when he uncovered a patch of the dark gray sweater Toryn wore.  The sight energized him and he dug tirelessly until he could scrape the snow from Toryn’s face.  The Redolian’s face was tinted a sickly shade of blue.  Using every bit of strength he possessed, Brydon  dragged the limp Redolian out of his would-be grave.

    Brydon quickly breathed his own air into the Redolian’s mouth, using several deep breaths and pinching Toryn’s nose to keep the air from escaping.  He had been taught the technique years before and had once watched a Healer revive a drowned child using the same method.

    After what seemed an eternity, Toryn drew a raspy breath and Brydon breathed a quick prayer of relief.  He unbuckled the leather cloak from around Toryn’s neck.  He needed to get them off the snow bank as quickly as possible and build a heat source.

    Brydon wedged the bow stave into his sword belt and then grasped the edges of the leather cloak.  It made a fine sled and he towed Toryn’s unconscious form down to where the pack lay.  Brydon shoved everything that he had dislodged back into place and retied the straps.  It was not until then that he noticed Toryn’s sword was gone—lost in the tumbling ride down the mountainside.  Brydon scanned for it for briefly, and then gave up and set the pack atop Toryn’s legs.  It was easier to pull both Toryn and the pack together.  He started through the trees, dragging his burden behind him.


    It was slow going.  Brydon’s numb hands kept slipping from the cloak.  The trees grew more numerous as they descended and thick outcroppings of brush appeared, although the snow remained deep.  Eventually Brydon came to a steep drop-off surrounded by tall pines and large rocks.  The descent was about eight feet and he wasn’t sure how to get Toryn down.  Brydon could descend by simply sliding down the snowy bank, but Toryn would not be able to stop himself from hitting the boulders below.

    After a fruitless search for an easier way down, he finally pulled his rope out of the pack.  He wrapped Toryn in the cloak, shroud like, and tied it off with the rope.  Toryn stirred when he felt his arms being bound to his sides.

    “What...?” he rasped.

    “Lie still,” Brydon ordered.  “You’ll be warm and dry soon.”  I hope.

    Toryn’s eyes fluttered shut, though whether he had heard Brydon at all was debatable.

    After he passed the rope around a tree, Brydon lowered Toryn down the embankment.  He slid the pack down after the Redolian and tossed his bow stave after.  He looked for the gentlest incline and pushed himself off, sliding down the hill on his back and feeling none of the exhilaration such a feat had brought him as a child; he was simply too tired.  A jutting stone bruised his thigh but he reached the bottom in a cloud of powdery snow.  He slapped at the caked-on whiteness on his backside and looked around.  A possible shelter had been hidden by the overhang.

    He scrambled over a few snow-topped boulders until he stood before the jagged cleft of rock.  It looked as if a huge slab of stone had broken free from the mountain and come to rest against this hillside, leaving a gap that was a natural lean-to.  Brydon shouldered his way inside.  The narrow opening hid a surprisingly large interior hollowed out by runoff from above.  A steady stream of water poured down the rock wall to collect in a small pool before it trickled out of the shelter via a similar, much more impassable, opening opposite of where Brydon had entered.  The space was large enough—barely—for two men to sit.  Brydon returned to Toryn and levered him into the shelter with some effort.  He made a hollow on the pebbled floor near the pool, gathered some wood, and quickly built a fire.  His watertight bag of oil-soaked fire-starters rags proved their worth by igniting the damp wood.

    Brydon steeled himself and pulled off Toryn’s icy, damp clothing.  The Redolian roused and tried to push Brydon away.

    “You’ll freeze unless you put some dry clothes on,” Brydon snapped.  Toryn blinked at him for a moment and seemed to regain his senses.  He awkwardly undressed and then wrapped himself gratefully in the wool cloak and huddled close to the smoky fire, shivering.

    Brydon took off his own clothes and winced when his ice-cold hands touched the few remaining warm parts of his body.  He donned a clean pair of breeches—his only other pair, actually.  When he’d packed he had not expected to get soaked in an avalanche and subsequent trek down a mountainside.  He put on a dry wool shirt and thanked Adona that he had brought along a couple of those.  He wedged sticks into cracks in the walls and hung their wet clothing up to dry before he sat down and pressed his bare feet and stiff hands in front of the flames.  He knew he would have to go back out soon and replenish their wood supply—the two dead branches he had dragged close to the entrance would not last long.  He just hoped his feet would warm up a bit first.  From the position of the sun, he judged it about an hour before dusk.

    He looked at Toryn and grinned.  “I should have known you would wake up as soon as I built a fire.”

    The Redolian did not take his gaze from the crackling flames.  “I think I was awake a few times,” Toryn said.  “I remember the sky and treetops moving above me.  I thought I was dead.”  He looked at Brydon, his green eyes haunted.  “I think I was dead.  I was buried in snow.  I couldn’t move and then...  I couldn’t breathe.”  He looked away and coughed as though the memory brought back a reflexive response.  “You pulled me out, didn’t you?  How did you find me?”

    “I probed the snow with my bow stave until it hit something solid,” Brydon replied semi-truthfully.  “Luckily, it was you.”

    There was a long silence and then Toryn said, grudgingly, “I suppose you saved my life.”

    Brydon nodded, but said nothing.  He knew it was a bitter pill for the Redolian to swallow.  Toryn grimaced.  “Of course, it was your fault I was buried by the avalanche in the first place,” he rationalized and looked at Brydon hotly, as though daring him to contradict.

    Brydon smirked at him.  “But if you had not decided to go Falaran-hunting, you would not have been forced to accompany me and,” he stressed the word as Toryn began to interrupt, “if Eryka had not chosen me for this Quest I would not have met you at all; and if my father had not been such a fine sword smith we would not have lived near enough to the palace that the girl would even know of me; and if not for my mother, my father would never have taken up a hammer in order to better himself.  So I suppose we can lay the blame for the entire predicament on my poor mother’s shoulders.”

    Toryn listened to him in stony silence and then snapped, “I assume that is your flowery Falaran way of suggesting I take responsibility for my own fate?”

    Brydon shrugged, but he had to grin.  He had thought of all Redolians as barbaric heathens living in grass huts and sitting around bonfires worshipping strange gods, discussing nothing but ways in which to torment Falarans.  He was surprised at Toryn.  Not only was he intelligent, but he was also a man of honor, as evidenced by his adherence to the vow he had made.  The only barbaric thing about Toryn seemed to be his braided hair.

    Toryn glared.  “As much as it pains me to suggest it... in fairness to you for dragging my carcass out of a snow bank, regardless of how it got there…”  Toryn buried his face in the blanket for a moment.  He cursed a few times and the wool muffled his choice oaths.  Finally, he raised his head even though he did not look at Brydon.

    Toryn sighed.  “Since I owe you my life, I will not try to kill you.  I will not track you down, nor will I aid others in doing so.  You are free to continue your journey with no hindrance from me.  I will, of course, hope you fall prey to wild beasts, brigands, falling rocks, lightning, or anything else that might slay you through no fault of mine.”

    “Thank you,” Brydon said.  He managed to contain most of the sarcasm, though he could hardly slight Toryn’s bitterness under the circumstances.

    Toryn continued, “As I have no further designs upon you, will you allow me to return to Redol?”

    Brydon shrugged.  “Yes, but not until we have traveled a bit farther.”  Toryn’s emerald eyes jerked to his and Brydon grinned wryly.  “You may have vowed not to kill me, but all you need to do is go back to Redol and casually mention that the pass is uncrossable.  Your countrymen will know immediately which way I have gone.  I do not need bloodthirsty Redolians dogging my trail.”

    “How do you know they are not lying in wait for you already?” Toryn growled.

    “I was hoping you would grow to like me enough to warn me of any such arrangement,” Brydon suggested.

    “Not bloody likely!”  Toryn huffed and Brydon had to laugh.  His fingers and toes were beginning to thaw, bringing on the unwelcome burning sensation of renewed circulation.  He set some more wood on the fire and wished he could warm his backside at the same time as his front.

    Toryn looked terrible and Brydon was certain he did not look much better.  The soot under Toryn’s eyes was smudged across his face on one side and partially washed off on the other.  His braid had loosened and one strand of long, black hair had come free and hung listlessly beside his cheek.  The bandage Brydon had wrapped around his head the previous day was long gone.  A raw spot dotted with blood marred the side of Toryn’s chin, evidence of contact with ice or possibly a rock.

    “How do you feel?” Brydon asked.

    “Better than I would expect after riding an avalanche and being buried alive,” Toryn admitted.  “Nothing is broken.  I don’t think I’ll ever warm up, though.”

    Brydon nodded in agreement.  He tugged his wet boots back on and went to gather more wood.  When he returned, Toryn was asleep. 


Chapter Four

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