“All’s for the best, in the best of all possible worlds,” he thought to himself. “Because if it’s not, I’m fucked…”
Matthias wasn’t having a good day. In fact, looking back over the ten or so minutes that he’d been aware of it, it’d been pretty awful. He’d first realised it wasn’t going to go well when he was woken up to the sound of pots clattering outside his tent. The shouts of men, violent, and screaming. Voices he knew. Voices he’d come in to the mountains with. Angry shouts, mingled with other voices, many times greater, shouting back.
The shouts of voices he didn’t recognise.
Nothing good could possibly come of those sounds. He’d heard them enough. He’d been the one doing the shouting, on both sides, more times than he could remember.
It was some sort of ambush. The men he’d come to this place with weren’t stupid. It was rare to find other Mountaindwellers in this place. It was Claimed and Known, well marked. Only those who were brave or foolish would venture this far into the territory. Still, those people existed, and he’d rather he was armed and ready in case of a fight than the alternative.
These people? They’d taken their time, they’d come armed, and they’d sneaked in. That meant the man on watch was, at best, silenced some way. At worst, dead.
Fortunately, thanks to the cold and a life of experience, he slept in his clothes. Better to smell rank and live than to be clean and dead. Being clothed meant when you had to move fast, you could leave everything behind and you’d stay warm, at least. It meant carrying enough on you that you could survive with nothing else but what you had, if you needed to. You wouldn’t be in the cold and naked. The only thing he’d not been wearing was his sword. He grabbed it and turned swiftly to run outside. Hard to do, bent double to fit out the tent door. Harder still when someone hit him over the head with something metal the moment he got out. A pan probably, the voice in his head told him absently, given the weight of the blow and the noise it had made.
His footing wasn’t good either. There was snow on the ground. Made his feet cold, his balance uncertain. Ice underfoot, forcing him to be more careful than he’d like. Making him slower than he needed to be, and a slow target was easy to hit. Put it all together, and the blow, when it came, hadn’t been too much of a shock. As a result, he’d been ready to move his head with the blow when it came.
Hurt less than it could have though wasn’t the same as didn’t hurt.
He’d slipped and fallen from the blow. A good hit to the head would disorient an opponent, causing their vision to blur, giving you time to plan your next strike. He fell face first, stars swimming in front of his eyes. He sprawled, his hands skidding, feeling the dirt and stones and ice claw at him as he landed awkwardly, wrenching his shoulder.
Icy ground. Slippery. Gravel. Good chance your footing will be bad. Need to get away, get to our feet. Need distance, and a moment to view the fight.
He pushed with his legs and tucked his other arm, rolling to one side to get distance between himself and his attacker and gain momentum to help him stand again. He kept his sword tucked in, minding not to cut himself on it. As he stood, the ground slipped beneath him, leaving him moving off-balance straight towards a tree, and the edge of the cliff. That bit he hadn’t planned.
Hand on the base of the tree, crouch, get stable footing, spare hand on the ground for an anchor. Look around, check footing, prepare to attack.
He managed to slow himself and find his way to his feet again, narrowly avoiding falling off the edge. Good thing the tree had been there. That’d have been a fine way to go. A hard man like him, a known man, who’d fought his way across the mountains and back again, standing too fast like a rookie, to overbalance and fall down the side of a cliff.
He was standing now though. He wished he wasn’t.
The two others he’d come with weren’t there. The man who should have been watched wasn’t around, and the other didn’t seem to be there anymore either. Aside from his own breathing, and the blood rushing in his ears, and the stones falling down the side of the mountain, there was barely any noise at all.
Three of them. That was three too many. He’d hoped it was a band of rogue Underdwellers or maybe Mountaindwellers from another caer, but it wasn’t, that was clear enough. These were something other than men. Augments. The creatures looked human enough, but their skin glowed softly. They reacted strangely when you hit them. Some were so hard the sword would bounce from your hand, making your bones shake. Others could make your muscles bite down hard and your body freeze up if you touched them. He’d even heard rumours of ones which could spit fire or liquids that would melt the armour you wore… He hadn’t seen those though, so he couldn’t say if it was true.
A thousand ways to be hurt. Only two ways to make sure that didn’t happen. Kill them first, or run.
He looked around. There was blood on the ground. Half blind from the snow in his face from the fall, half insensate from the blow to his head, he turned to fight. It wasn’t a good option, he knew, but half way up the mountain, with the possibility of poor weather moving in, he wouldn’t make it away if he fled. The chances of one of the creatures being able to track him, to move faster was too great. Who knew what these ones could do?
Strange, now that he looked around. He was sure from the voices that there’d have been at least seven or eight Augments, but he could only see three. Somehow they’d made it sound like there were far more. Maybe something to do with the rocks. He’d met Mountaindwellers who could make their voice echo over and over again in the valleys. Perhaps this was something similar. Or maybe one of them was simply capable of imitating the noise of a raiding party. No way to tell. It didn’t matter much anyway; this was the situation he was in. Better to accept and deal with it.
He looked down at his sword. It wasn’t much of a weapon to look at, just a long piece of metal, sharp along one end, tapering slowly to a tiny point. It had been well cared for though, the edge kept sharp. It would have to be enough.
He advanced on the trio. They moved back. That unsettled him. A less experienced man would have startled at that, stood and left himself vulnerable. He knew better. He stayed ready to strike.
It’s not like them to hold back when they have the advantage. What’s different that they’d hold back?
He had always prided himself in noticing the details that others missed. He used that now, his eyes moving fast, drinking the world around him.
They had the advantage in numbers and position. One had higher ground, the other two on the same level. He looked for clues to their power. Shorter than he was, with slight builds.
Not built for brute strength.
Heads slightly enlarged, which tended to mean they’d be able to do things normal people couldn’t. Might be anything from fast healing to things that hurt to the touch. Skin was white, which ruled out another set of powers. Short clothes, which meant they were used to the cold.
He looked more, his eyes soaking in every detail. No weapons, they were confident they wouldn’t need them. And the two he’d been with were gone too, which implied they were right. The clothes and skin were clean, which meant they hadn’t been travelling long. Meant they were from somewhere close by. The clothes were smooth, soft. Most Augment made clothing was poor, made of skins or simple cloth. This was beautiful.
They’ve hit Underdwellers recently, taken their clothes. Might mean they have tools taken from the City people too. That could be a serious problem, if they’ve taken City weapons.
The power those who lived in the metal places under the fields was to be respected. After the Forvmai, some had sought refuge in the mountains and wilds, others had been taken to the huge City under the river. The Underdwellers were the children of the ones who’d fled to the deep places. They still knew how the Old Things worked. They could work magic. Tell the weather days in advance, tell if people were lying or telling the truth, they could make armour as light as a cloth shirt, strong enough to take a hit from the strongest sword, and boxes which could fire tiny pebbles hard enough to cut clean through a bear. If the Augments had gotten hold of some of their tools… His odds were short enough anyway. He didn’t particularly want to think about what that would be like.
What else? The shape of their hands, the smooth skin; they weren’t accustomed to physical labour. The snow under their feet wasn’t as compressed so it should be, and their footprints in the snow were shallow. They were lighter than they appeared. Eyes slightly larger than they would be on a human, and they looked like the eyes of a cat. Eyes good for seeing in the dark.
He looked at the snow. The sun was rising behind him. He could feel its warmth in his legs. Looked at the cliff edge. There were rock pools below. Too shallow and too far. No way forward, sideways he was going to get cut off, no matter how fast he ran. Back, or fight.
The Augment at the back moved to one side, laid the hand of one long, slender arm on a shoulder of each of the other two. The other creatures some to it, and it replied, in a chattering language. He didn’t recognise the words, but the message was clear enough. They were discussing something, heatedly. He knew an argument when he saw it.
The creature that had moved first now moved towards him. He noticed the quietness. The still air. There was no noise as it walked. The snow should have crunched underneath. It wasn’t making any sound at all though. Moving with a deliberate, slow elegance, the creature held out its hands, palm up.
Showing it has no weapon? A gesture of peace?
His brain burned through scenarios, trying to make sense of it. He’d avoided their kind as much as possible. Everyone with any sense did. But it meant he didn’t have much to draw on. He urged himself to think faster. The world seemed to slow as thoughts blazed through, finding even more detail.
Small nose, poorly adapted to high altitude. From somewhere cold but not high. From the north then. Not much in the way of fat, but now the creature was closer, he could see it was covered in a soft fur. It was moving deliberately. Still no sign of any weapons, concealed or otherwise. The one sitting had won the argument. Their leader maybe? Possibility of a hierarchical structure.
He gave up on it. All interesting, none of it useful. His mind wasn’t going to get him through this. He focused on the sword in his hand, bent his knees slightly. Felt the tension in his body, observed the aches and sore spots. Noticed the dull throb in his head was passing.
Still the creature approached, then stopped again. With the same careful movement, it knelt and sat, legs crossed, back straight.
He moved slowly, advancing on it. Drew his sword back slightly. The Augment had closed its eyes, sitting completely still. He moved his sword fast, the blade whipping round, flexing with the sudden movement. Brought it slashing across towards the creature’s neck. Stopped at the last moment.
It hadn’t moved. It just sat, eyes closed, breathing slowly.
He lowered the sword. Reversed his grip, and sat down in front of it, far enough away to be safe. He noted the distance, checking he’d judged it correctly. If it moved towards him, he could strike still. Hopefully before the creature killed him first. He watched.
There was almost no noise in the mountains. Normally he liked the quiet. Gave him the space to breathe, to think. He’d been coming here since he was a boy, pushing himself to climb higher, to find the places no-one else knew. He knew the mountains better than any other man. Up here, the wind was little more than a gasp, whispering as it flowed over the cold ground. The soft tinkling of snow melting behind him. All was still. His breathing slowed as he recovered from the sudden exertion.
The creature leaned forward, opening its eyes. Slowly, with great care, drew a stick from a pocket behind it. It held it out. Then it drew on the snow with it, cutting small channels. He watched, trying to see what it was doing. He’d never heard of anything like this.
It continued working slowly, going back over lines of snow occasionally, keeping them crisp. After a time, it seemed to be satisfied. It stood and watched him, seemingly waiting for something. He stood with too, careful to mind his sword as he did. When he was back up again, it walked back to the others. The same slow movement, even when it walked.
He moved to where it had sat. The Augments moved too, staying where he could see them. Making sure he knew they were staying in plain sight. He looked down at what it had written.
Protect the girl. We can keep her safe no longer. She is yours to care for.
He didn’t understand. What girl? He looked up to try to ask them. There was no sign anyone had ever been there. Three sets of footprints led away, then simply stopped. He walked warily to where they ended, not understanding. He stood for a moment, thinking what to do. Before he could come to a decision, he was forced to move back as the air in front of him came to life, shimmering like the air over the ground on a hot day. There was an explosion of light and noise, blinding him a moment. His hand flew to his sword, ready to defend himself. He froze, relying on his hearing while his eyes recovered. Nothing. No sound. After a couple of minutes, he opened his eyes again. Everything was blurred and strange, but he could still make it out. At his feet lay the body of a young woman. There was no sign of where she’d come from. She was asleep, or something like it, clothed in trousers and a jerkin made from a soft, white cloth he didn’t recognise. That plus his muddy vision made it hard to see where her body lay against the snow.
He poked her with the toe of his shoe. She didn’t move. He nudged her harder. No response.
He bent to examine her. Her skin was warm to the touch, but didn’t feel like a fever. Didn’t feel like there were any broken bones, Strong pulse.
No injuries at first glance. No cuts or bruises. Breathing was slow and regular. Seemingly healthy, but doesn’t rouse when moved.
He thought about his options. Seemed like there were three. One where he took her, two where he didn’t.
Simplest solution: she died. No more problem. Something made him think the Augments wouldn’t take too kindly to that though. And if they held him responsible… Not a good line of thinking. There was also the possibility, not altogether unlikely, that somehow they’d see if he did.
Option two, he could simply leave her. They might think he hadn’t understood the message. He couldn’t shift the feeling that that wouldn’t work out well either. To find him, here? When he was as alone as he ever got? It seemed unlikely they would be wandering around the mountains looking for just anyone.
They were looking for me, specifically. Therefore, the message is meant for me, specifically.
They wouldn’t believe he hadn’t understood. So they’d likely come after him. Which only left doing so they had requested.
With great care, he lifted her over one shoulder. She weighed less than he’d expected. Like one of them.
He didn’t much like where that train of thought led either.
He walked to the edge of the cliffs. Looked down. A long drop. One slip of his footing and they’d both end up here for weeks. Food for the birds. Whatever this was, it couldn’t be good. Surprises tended to mean trouble. Surprises involving Augments doubly so. Couldn’t see as he had any other options though. Better to accept and deal with it. He walked over to the tent with the girl still slung over his back, grabbed his small pack and buckled his sword to his side with his spare hand. If he made good time, and the extra weight didn’t slow him too much, he might make it back in two days. Three at the most. He looked at the sky. The clouds in the distance looked like snow. He had to make it back before they hit, whatever happened.
He turned and started down the mountainside.