The mountain wasn’t steep in these places. They’d made it down over the hardest parts, where he’d truly had to climb. He’d puzzled for a minute over the best way to move the girl at the same time, before settling on strapping her to his back with thick rope, tied over his shoulders and around his legs. It had hindered his movements, making him move more slowly and with more care than he’d have liked, but it ensured she wouldn’t fall, which was the main thing.
He kept her slung over his shoulders, taking care to move smoothly, so as not to hurt her. He’d been carried on someone’s shoulders many years before, and had woken up with his ribs on fire from having been bounced up and down for hour after hour on the back of a man with shoulders like watermelons. On that occasion, he’d been little more than a boy, thrown from one of his father’s horses when it had bolted. Whilst another of the Hunt Pack went to track the horse down, Llew, one of his father’s advisors, had carried him back.
The man was freakishly huge. He had a powerful build, but was easily a quarter again as large as anyone he’d ever met. He remembered as a child watching as Llew picked up tweo chieftens who’d been causing trouble by the neck, one in each hand, and held them out as one might hold two squabbling cats. It hadn’t seemed to take any effort at all. Even now, as an old man, he was a sight to behold. His arms were the size of Matthias’ legs. When he’d been older and learning to hunt, he’d got himself in to trouble. He’d attacked a wild boar, and unaware of how thick the animal’s hide was, fallen in to danger pretty quickly. He’d fled back towards the rest of the party, running for his life, and been saved by Llew then. The giant had crouched, grasped the beast as it had lept after him, and wrapped it in his arms. Turning it so its feet faced away, he’d linked his hands around it’s ribs and crushed them inexorably together. The boar had suffocated under the relentless presure.
He thought about the future as he walked. How he’d tell his father. There were two issues, both due to his people’s customs. Firstly, a Life Debt. Any person who had been beaten by an enemy and set free owed them a life debt. It was viewed as a sort of forgiveness; in setting the other person free, you had chosen to overlook the violence they’d intended you. He was duty bound now to not attack those who’d attacked him, unless provoked by them first. More than that though, they could ask a task of him, in payment of the debt. He doubted they were aware of the custom, but the fact that it existed meant he could be bound to exile himself for it. Being in the position of owing a debt to an enemy made for a tricky situation.
The second custom was more obscure, although in this case, possibly the one that would seal his fate. A Warding. A ward laid in care was considered in a similar way as a Life Debt, albeit reversed. The way his people viewed it, a life put in the hands of another was a heavy, and serious mark of trust. The person given the life to care for was honour bound to put that person’s life ahead of their own, to protect and care for them. To die in defense of them if need be. Whomever this girl was, by taking her with him, accepting the task given to him by the Augments, he was now obliged to care for her, to provide for her, and to defend her.
The second suggested banishment. To have a child, worse, quite possibily an Augment as a Ward would surely court suspicion and distrust. It would also weaken his father, having a son with a burden such as the one he now carried.
In any case however, the first demanded it. There was simply no way his father could afford for someone who owed a Life Debt to the Augments to be a member of the caer, much less to occupy a position on the Hunt Pack. To entrust the protection of his people to someone who might let an enemy through the gate would be to invite disaster.
No, he’d have to make his way to the court, to present to his father the sitation as it existed, and then to leave his position as a Hunstman, and the Eldest of the current Duke of the caer. Then he’d leave, go back to his dwelling in the mountains, and wait for the winter to pass, before heading west. Far enough away that he’d be able to find work. Maybe take one of the Underdweller’s flying machines to the Western Lands, work there for a while. The girl would have to come with him. He wondered what she could do. He’d have to find something where he could keep an eye on her, make sure no harm came to her. Physical work, in the fields maybe. Unskilled, simple, out in the open. There was always a need for people who could farm, who could tend flocks and lend a hand at the harvest. He wondered if she could soldier. She didn’t look like the type, but looks could be deceptive. It was a hard life, but the pay was good and it could mean steady work, if he could get patrol placements on another caer’s Hunt Pack.
In any case, it’d have to wait until she awoke. Until he could see what her skills were, and assess the situation properly. As his father had always said, the thing to remember was that whatever the sitation was, you were already in it. Admitting it wouldn’t make it worse, nor would hiding make it better. What was was what was, and it was better to face it, because the consequences of it would come one way or the other. He would talk with his father, and talk with the girl. Hopefully the girl first. He’d like to be able to offer his father some comfort in knowing where he’d be going before he actually left.
It had been a long day. He’d made good progress. Down the worst of the slopes, onto the grassy plains below and almost to the treeline. About a third of the way by his reckoning. Maybe not as much as he’d have liked, but the better terrain would help him make up for lost ground tomorrow. He should be able to make it to the hideaway before the snow hit, unless something happened or he was forced to slow. He wasn’t entirely sure how much he’d be slowed by carrying the weight of the girl on his back, but hopefully it wouldn’t slow him too badly.
He was still surprised how light she was. After a day of carrying her, he was beginning to feel it, but even so, she couldn’t have weighed more than a child. It was disconcerting. He wondered how she could weigh so little. She wasn’t especially big, and certainly wasn’t overweight, but even so. Maybe her bones were made of something different to human ones. Hell, her entire biology could be something completely alien. Having been delivered by Augments, nothing was certain. He’d heard the rumours. He wasn’t willing to rule anything out.
He approached a small grouping of trees on the plain. He turned to look up at the mountain. It seemed to glow at the top where it was white, the last dying light of the sun catching the top. It was so bright at times it was painful to look at. Further down, the greys and browns and darker greens mottled the surface into a patchwork of cold colours. They’d made it down from those areas. It had taken him about a quarter of a day to get this far. Maybe ten miles or so. It’d be another 20 to where he was taking them – a hidden dwelling in a cave. Not a problem on his own in summer. Even in winter, he could do that if he left at sunrise and wanted to be there when the sun set again in the evening.
But with the weight of the girl too? It would hurt, he knew. He had the weather on his side for now; the winds were slow, and would take time to blow the storm he knew was coming over to him. It seemed strange that it was moving so slowly. Still, he wasn’t about to question the predictions of an Underdweller when it came to the weather, nor would he trust to luck. He would have to rise early, while it was still dark, if they were to make it to the cave before the last of the light fell. That meant stopping now, to rest and recover before the next day’s travel.
Carefully, he pulled on the knots binding the girl to him. He sat and eased them off gently, feeling them go slack as her body lay itself down against the ground. Not a murmur of protest, just the same, steady breathing. That wasn’t a good sign, but it didn’t have to be a bad one either. He’d seen people sleep this long before, after a blow to the head, or a more serious wound. Even once after eating something bad. The man had gone into a spasm, before falling into a deep sleep. He’d woken a couple of days later without any idea that anything had happened. Still, best to be careful, just to make sure.
As they’d set off, he’d put a damp rag packed with snow in her mouth, which he topped up regularly. As it melted, it kept the cloth damp, which she sucked at unconsciously. That made sure she wouldn’t dry out, but he couldn’t feed her in this state. Hopefully she’d had a large meal before she’d fallen unconscious. He checked the rag in her mouth. It was still damp, although it wouldn’t be for long. He poured some water from his water skin on to the cloth, wetting it and leaving it in place. She resumed sucking on it gently.
Matthias unpacked the little he’d been able to take. A couple of blankets, which he lay down beside the girl, before rolling her on to them, a small pan, kindling, with a flint and steel, and a small bag of vegetables. He looked at the girl a moment. She looked peaceful. He walked around the base of the trees, picking up small branches, tucking them under one arm. Walking back, he broke them in to pieces, then squatted down and piled them in to a small pile, the kindling under the base. He lit the kindling, poured some of the water in to the pan, and began heating it over the small fire.
He pulled the vegetables from the bag. They were already chopped, ready for the pan. Dropping them in to the boiling water bit by bit, he considered the girl.
Young. Late teens, to early twenties. He limbs are in good shape. Good muscle tone. Used to a physical lifestyle, despite soft skin. He looked at her palms. Smooth skin, no sign of callouses. He clothes were soft. Clean. Well cared for and new on. Hair clean, long, also well cared for. Recently washed. She looks more like someone who lives in the City under the River, than someone who lives as the Augments.
He looked deeper, moving her hair, examining her fingernails, trying to understand every detail.
No dirt under the details or on the skin, beyond that which she’d had from the laying down earlier in the day and just now. No flakes of skin around the base of the hair. No wrinkles, or signs of aging yet. Sweating slightly, slightly oily skin. Breathing slow and regular. She was twitching slightly. Her eyes were moving under her eyelids. Probably dreaming. Reinforced by minor muscle tremors through the body generally. Nothing of much use though.
He rocked on his heels as the water boiled. Picking a small wooden spoon from the pack, leaving it little more than a bag flopped the stone ground, it’s form losing it’s final element of structure. He picked out the vegetables and ate, his body going through the motions as his eyes stayed fixed on the horizon, his mind somewhere else.
Where did you come from? Who are you really?
She didn’t reply. He hadn’t thought she would.