It was almost dark now and with the sun gone, the air felt cool and dangerous. A light wind whistled through the paths and trails on the mountainside and though the weather was not bad, it made listening for danger very difficult unless they sought shelter from the wind. It was almost a full moon and the light reflecting from the pale disc provided some relief from the darkness and danger on the trail.
Synne and Jonas had been climbing the ever-steeper path for almost an hour before they stopped. Sounds of battle and the occasional blast from the power weapon had become fainter though they had no idea what had happened to the group in the cave. Jonas stopped for a moment, leaning against one of the many hard, jagged rocks as he got his breath back.
“Do you think they’ll keep chasing us?” asked Jonas between forced breaths.
Synne said nothing, she just stood there as she listened very carefully for sounds of the Raiders.
“The train hasn’t moved away and can you hear that sound?”
Jonas could hear nothing over his pounding heart and his heavy breathing. He did his best to calm down and breathe more slowly. As he did so, he could hear what sounded like shouting and it was coming from below.
“Damn!” he swore.
“Yeah, they are still coming,” said Synne.
She looked up the path and examined their options. The trail wound its zig-zag route along the side of the low mountain and continued on until it disappeared about half a mile further up. Near the top of the mountain, on one of the slightly lower peaks was a dark silhouette of something that looked manmade.
“What is that?” asked Synne.
Jonas looked at the shape but looked unimpressed.
“No idea, looks like rocks to me, why?”
“Hmm, from here it looks a little like a ruin, maybe we can hide there from them and the weather. Once it is fully dark they’ll never find us without trackers and dogs,” she said confidently.
“Rocks, ruins, same thing,” said Jonas, as he winced from the pain of the bolt still stuck in his body.
“Let’s go, no point sitting here just to be caught. If we don’t reach that cover soon we’ll be stuck on a rocky path with no chance of seeing where we’re going. Want to fall off a cliff?” she asked rhetorically.
“Look!” whispered Jonas as he pointed down the path.
Synne turned around to see the red and yellow flickers of approaching flaming torches.
“Come on!” she said as quietly and urgently as she could.
Synne was first along the trail and Jonas, though still in pain, found the simple motivation of not dying by the hands of the Raiders or from falling off the cliff, to be strong. They moved at just the right time because the moment Jonas vanished behind the bend the first of the Raiders appeared. First one man then a trickle as more followed him. Every man carried a burning torch that provided variable illumination and created bizarre patterns of light and shadow on the rocks.
The two kept moving as fast as they could but the light was fading fast, and by the time they reached the peak of the lowest hill almost another hour had passed. They were, by now both really starting to feel the strain of their escape. As they moved to the next steep section, Jonas ducked back and signalled over the Synne. She jumped to the left side of the track and nearly stumbled over a hidden rock. As she regained her balance she looked over to Jonas and then back up the path.
“A stupid question I know but what are we going to do, assuming we escape? I can’t imagine there is much to eat or drink up there!” said Jonas as he pointed upwards.
Synne helped him over an especially large rock and looked up to where he had been pointing.
“Maybe. Right now we just need to escape, finding food and water is a problem for another day. If they catch us we’re screwed!”
The two clambered over a large number of rocks where it looked like part of the cliff face above them must have broken up and partially blocked their trail. It was hard to work out where the path continued as the darkness and shadows created by what little light remained created a jagged mess. Synne heard something and the two dropped to their knees. She lifted her finger to her mouth but in the light Jonas couldn’t see her gesture.
As they stayed still, a crunch of footsteps and then the sound of a few rolling stones indicated something or somebody was nearby and slightly ahead of them. The sound became closer and then it stopped just a few feet from them. Synne did her best to keep quiet but she was sure her pounding heart could be heard from a mile away. The tension of knowing somebody was near, and that Synne was unarmed and vulnerable, she quickly gave in. Leaping out from her cover, she jumped ahead to strike but whoever was there heard her move and easily avoided Synne’s clumsy assault. She lost her footing and fell, landing hard on her left side on the rocks. Jonas leapt out to help but in the noise of the fall, the stranger had vanished off to the side and into the darkness. Jonas looked about but try as he might he could not see the person, only hear them moving further and further away. The sound suggested whoever they were, they were heading back down the mountain though perhaps on a slightly different path. He crept forward, being as careful as he could to reach Synne who was still on the ground.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
A dark shape moved below him and for just a second he panicked, thinking it might be their attackers or some even worse spectre his imagination had conjured up in the blackness. The shape groaned in discomfort.
“Yeah, I’ll live, just grazed my side on the rocks. Where did she go?”
“She, how do you know?”
“I caught her silhouette as she ran past, that was no man!” she said with a groan and pulled herself up into a seated position.
The two waited for a moment as they caught their breath though both were listening carefully for any sign of approaching danger. A low murmur came from down the mountain that quickly turned to loud voices.
“It’s them!” whispered Synne.
She lifted herself up and grabbed Jonas’ arm, pulling him over the rocks and back to their upward path. It turned and wound on an impossible path until they reached a broken ledge that arced around a cliff face and then disappeared. The ledge was a good couple of feet wide and though it looked treacherous, the blackness of the rock and night air was able to hide the true terror of the fall. Synne didn’t even pause and was across it in a flash. Jonas took a deep breath and ran it, making the short distance almost as quickly as she did and grabbed hold of the first rock he could reach.
Synne however was standing out in the open and looking up the path that wound above and behind the cliffs. Jonas, though still holding onto the rock couldn’t see whatever it was that had caught her attention.
“What is it?” asked Jonas with a tone of concern in his voice.
“The ruins, they start around the corner. There’s something weird though.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jonas.
“Well, for a start there are lights up there.”
Jonas pushed away from the rock and looked up to the path. Synne was right, several hundred feet up the path was a faint flicker of orange light. From where they stood, it looked like there was an open fire.
“What are we going to do?” asked Jonas.
From behind them at the far end of the lower trail a man appeared, he was almost invisible against the rocks and appeared to be on his own. As he approached, Jonas and Synne pulled back into the shadows and watched him. The man carried a weapon in his left hand whilst his right ran along the cliff wall. He was nimble and easily moved along the ledge. He was lightly equipped, presumably a scout as nobody followed him. As he approached, Synne readied herself to attack. She was still in hiding but had a perfect few of the path and the massive fall to the other side. The path was only five or six feet wide at this point and she would have to be careful to not lose her footing and tumble over the edge.
Jonas made to move but Synne pushed out her arm and held him back, she wanted to wait until the scout was directly ahead.
“Wait,” she whispered.
The man appeared in almost complete silence as he moved carefully along the path and stopped for a moment. Whether it was because he had heard something or he was just being careful Synne had no idea. Without even considering what kind of weapons or armour he might have, she jumped ahead and barged into the man. Taken completely by surprise he lost his footing and stumbled, and would have crashed to the ground if Synne hadn’t kept on pushing. With all the strength she could muster, she forced him off the ledge. He slipped and then fell but with excellent timing and speed he managed to grab her leg and dragged her to the edge. Jonas rushed forward and grabbed hold of her, making sure she didn’t follow him into the blackness. She dropped to the ground, her legs and lower body dangling over the edge whilst the scout hung onto to her leg.
“Get him off!” she shrieked as the pain of the fall and the weight on her leg started to tell.
“I’m trying, I can’t pull you both back up,” said Jonas, as he tried desperately to stop her sliding any further. Synne release one hand, grabbing the thick roots lying along the path as she tried to get any kind of hold.
“Kick him, kick him!” shouted Jonas.
Synne, now with one arm entwined in the roots and the other grasping Jonas started to kick. At first, it was just wild and then she felt an impact as her foot struck the man’s arm. Feeling success, she slammed her foot in again and again, until with a jarring shake he slipped off. She looked down to see him flailing and shouting as he disappeared into the gloom below.
“Get me out of here!”
With a combination of pulling from Jonas and tugging and wiggling from Synne, she planted herself back on the path and simply lay there.
“Are you okay, Synne?”
She lay their gasping for a few seconds, saying nothing as she sucked in the cold air. A sound from below caught both of their attention and they looked back to spot a faint glow of orange making its way along the path, perhaps only a minute or two away from the ledge.
“Come on, give us a break!” muttered Jonas.
Synne lifted herself up, wiping the dirt and dust off as best she could.
“Which way?” asked Jonas.
“Up!” she said, and in seconds they were lurching up the slippery path and towards the dull light. As they reached the top, the path veered off to the left but the path was covered in broken rocks and slippery to move along. Directly in front of them was a wall of about four feet in height. It was broken and damaged in places but was definitely man made.
“Over the wall!” barked Synne, as she grabbed the top and pulled herself over the low wall and dropped inside the ruins. The sounds from their pursuers, was getting louder, and they couldn’t be far away. There were a number of torches spread around the perimeter casting hard shadows into the flat interior. The middle of the area was clear of any obstructions, almost like a small yard or training area, but soft on the ground. She wasn’t completely certain but it did feel like sand, though she couldn’t for a moment work out how it had got there. She turned around as Jonas appeared, still groaning from the pain of the bolt in his shoulder and starting to pull himself up and over the wall. Synne grabbed his arm to help when she spotted the lights in the distance.
“They’re here!” she cried.
With a mighty tug, she pulled Jonas in and they collapsed into a heap with Synne lying across Jonas’s chest. He coughed and she rolled off to the dusty ground.
“Yeah, thanks for that!” he said with some hint of humour.
Synne stood up, though making sure she didn’t stand up straight and exposed their position. She looked around the ruins for signs of life. Jonas sat up and looked about.
“There must be somebody here, those torches won’t just light themselves you know,” he said suspiciously.
The sound of the approaching Raiders was becoming louder and they could now only be a minute away, maybe less. As well as the sounds of their movement, there was also the sound of them talking and shouting orders, they were doing nothing to hide their approach. Even more menacing though was the sound their metal equipment made as it bumped and rattled as they moved past the rocks and bushes.
“We need weapons, they are nearly here,” said Jonas.
Synne was already looking but so far had found nothing more menacing than a short branch, a worthy enough weapon for training perhaps, but hardly something that she could use to hold off a group of hardened Raiders. Jonas tried to find something but before he could, the first two Raiders were over the wall and on them. The first man tried to tackle Synne, probably assuming she could be easily handled due to being a woman and therefore unused to violence.
“Big mistake!” groaned Synne, as she neatly stepped to the side and struck the passing man hard on the back of the head. He dropped to the ground just inches from Jonas who followed up by kicking the man repeatedly in the head.
More men climbed the wall until there were four Raiders stood in a line. They all carried vicious looking swords and one carried a mace. It was a simple metal ball attached to a sturdy wooden handle. Synne had seen them in training, knowing that the weapon would crush anything it hit, including flesh and bone. Jonas grabbed the sword from the unconscious Raider and stood next to Synne, waiting for the inevitable battle. As they waited, the last three men climbed the wall and stood next to their comrades. Between then they dragged a woman whose chains were already cutting into her arms, she must have been the woman that had been on the path. They now faced seven raiders, all whom looked angry and evil. Synne lifted the branch to her shoulder, waiting to strike whilst Jonas held the curved sword out and to the side, just as he had been taught by Ulric many months ago.
The group of Raiders split up, two standing still with the woman in chains whilst the rest moved around the sides until they had the two escapees surrounded. One, presumably the leader of this pack, stepped forward, his mace at the ready and a sly sneer across his face.
“Give up, now!” he growled.
“Never!” shouted Synne.
“You shouldn’t be with the warriors,” said the man as he paced first to the left and then to the right. “We have other uses for a woman with your kind of energy,” he laughed as he looked up and down at her.
Jonas made to move forward, but was stopped by Synne who pushed her left arm out and stopped him.
A howl like that of a fury blasted through the ruins and the torches flickered out into darkness. Before either Synne or Jonas could move, a shape hurled itself passed them and proceeded to dash around the group. The Raiders started to shout and a mixture of metal on metal and screams echoed in the mountain. Whatever or whoever it was the Raiders seemed terrified. With the torches gone, Synne’s eyes started to grow accustomed to the light. She stepped back with Jonas and felt a hand grabbing her. Turning around she spotted the evil man, still holding his mace. Without a second’s hesitation, she jammed her fist into the man’s face and then smashed him repeatedly with her branch. The man staggered back in pain but quickly righted himself and grabbed her arm and tore the branch from her hands.
“Leave her!” came a booming voice.
The stranger moved out of the shadows but somehow the little remaining light from the two torches of the Raiders only cast the faintest of details on the man. He was tall, at least six and a half feet and very well built. He was easily the build of the Raider and in his right hand carried a thick wooden staff that stood a head taller than him. With one end on the ground, he held it vertically and simply faced off against the leader of the Raiders.
The sounds of the battle had already stopped and it looked like just Jonas, Synne, the Raider and the stranger were all that remained. The massive Raider dropped the chains of his prisoner and lifted his heavy looking mace up, ready to strike.
“Leave now or join the rest!” ordered the man with the staff.
The Raider started to laugh, his hoarse voice echoing through the mountainside.
“Leave? I’ll leave when I have all your heads!” he barked and then rushed forward.
The stranger brought down his staff and struck a low blow that started near the ground and cut up to strike the Raider in the flank. The power of the blow was deceptive and it knocked him a good distance away before he could regain his balance.
“Nice move, old man, want to try that again?” he said with much scorn.
He moved forward but this time was far more cautious. He circled around the stranger, looking for a chance to strike but none came. He made several out of distance slashes with the mace to try drawing the stranger out but he simply ignored them and brought his staff up to his shoulder.
“Who are you? Why do you defy us?” demanded the Raider.
The stranger said nothing but simply brought down the tip of the staff as though it were a mighty staff to the man’s head. Sensing the attack the Raider quickly lifted his mace and grasped the head with his left hand so he could parry the attack with all his strength. It was to no avail though as it was a mere feint. As the Raider put all of his energy into protecting his left side the stranger redirected the staff and delivered an almighty strike to the Raider’s right temple. With a horrifying cracking sound, the Raiders skull cracked and he fell. He was dead before his body even hit the dirt.
“My name, Raider, is Thrax and this,” he extended both hands out to his side, “is my home!”
Satisfied that the man was dead he turned back to the three new arrivals. He bent down and lifted up one of the still burning torches which until recently had been carried by the Raiders. With the light showing him fully they could see the man. He had the look of a warrior about him though his attire suggested those days were long gone. His arms and head were bare but he wore a thick, tight fitting garment around his torso that looked almost like body armour but was flexible. His arms were tattooed and on his right cheek he wore a tattoo of one of the great Houses, though Synne didn’t recognise it.
“Now, you know my name, why not tell me yours?” he asked.