Rogue and Rover: Part Six
Kanrik's arm muscles burned as they scaled the top of a cliff so steep that they'd had to use their full climbing kit. Hannah grinned impishly at him from her seat, dangling her legs over the edge above him. "Come on, slowpoke!"
He merely glared at her – he had no extra breath to spare on returning insults, and he was certain he'd find something to make fun of her for later. He pulled himself over the edge of the cliff and reached for the water-bottle to take a deep drink. Hannah said, "And that was barely more than a staircase – if you take so long to climb that, we'll be old and grey before we reach the old fortress."
He sneered at her, since there was nothing else he could do without a loss of dignity. Then he looked over her shoulder at the map. "Is there any point in taking off the climbing harness?"
She shook her head. "No. Too many sheer cliffs in this area."
Kanrik nodded. "And we need to be able to get up or down them quickly if Whitestones folk are on our tails. Though they'll catch your tail before they catch mine."
She sniffed with a faux air of elegance. "In your dreams."
The sun was westering, and Kanrik knew that they'd have to start keeping an eye on possible shelter for the night sooner rather than later. But they weren't yet as far from Whitestones as he would have liked – and darkness would hamper those knights, who knew this territory, less than it would Hannah and him. He asked, "Anything on that map look like a place to stay the night?"
She shook her head. "There's not enough detail to tell, but we actually saved quite a bit of time by not cutting north again to stay the night at Grigr's Lodge. We might be able to reach the old fortress tonight, if luck and the weather hold.
He sighed. "Well, now that you went and said that we're good as doomed."
Hannah smiled. "Let's keep moving, Mr. Grumpy."
They followed the ledge at the top of the cliff they'd just scaled – another cliff rose above them, just as sheer. Hannah said, "Did you know that they say the terrain's so rough over here because of the same cataclysm that originally hid Tyrannia?"
He nodded. She forged ahead, looking for unstable ice and other dangers. Her lesser weight was less likely to send her tumbling down the slope should she encounter a treacherous place in the path. He followed close behind – Snowbeasts often ranged here, and handling those fell more into his area of expertise.
And then they heard the sound of the horn, drifting over the snows.
Hannah looked up, and her night-blue eyes widened. "Oh, sweet Fyora."
Kanrik knew exactly how she felt. "Whitestones."
"We'd better move faster."
"Exactly." He looked around. "We need to get somewhere less exposed. It doesn't matter whether they're above, below, or behind us – they'll be able to see us here."
Hannah broke into a quick jog – a full run in terrain like this was foolish bordering on absolutely insane. Her tail whipped around as she used it to steady herself. Kanrik drew his hood closer to his face as he followed – the spray of snow kicked up by her feet stung his muzzle.
The horn sang out again – the Whitestones folk were definitely behind them, and getting closer. There had been some wind today, but not enough to fully obliterate footprints, and there was no way to hide signs of passage among clean snow. They would be on their trail. He said, "Hannah, we need to climb again. We climb faster than they do, and we need to regain a lead. I don't fancy my chances if they've got a patrol."
Hannah asked without slowing, "Fighting fair or not fighting fair?"
He scoffed. "Who fights fair?"
She laughed, then said, "Let's go down. Up will be too slow, and we'll be sitting Mallards."
Kanrik sighed. "Down. The same ledge we just climbed."
"If you wanted to sit on your tail, you could have stayed back in Happy Valley."
"And miss the breathtaking excitement?"
Hannah simply slid herself over the edge and started climbing down, nimble as a Mynci. The slope was more gradual here than it had been earlier. Kanrik tramped around a bit, in the hopes of obscuring whether they had gone up or down the rock faces, then followed.
Hannah did break into a run when they got to the ground, and Kanrik quickly caught up to her – at the foot of the cliff, there was enough flat ground for them to run side-by-side. She said, "I think I prefer trap-dodging. At least those aren't taking anything personally."
Another horn-call, slightly farther this time, but still certainly on their trail. Kanrik commented, "They are taking it personally, aren't they? All we took was two dinners!"
Hannah continued, "We didn't even pocket the silverware!"
Kanrik looked behind them. "We've got to think of some way to lose them. We won't be able to outrun them – not in the long-term. At the very least, they could sit around outside the fortress until we left again."
Hannah looked at the map. "If only there were wind."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "If wishes..."
She snapped, "No, don't quote some stupid saying at me. Think of an idea."
Kanrik took out his spyglass and looked around. South, in their intended direction, he saw something dark against the snow. He handed the glass to Hannah. "What's that?"
She squinted. "It looks like a signpost. Let's make for it – it might give us an idea, and it's in the right direction. If nothing else, we can try to get to the fortress ahead of them, barricade the door behind us, and hope there's another exit."
He replied, "Great plan. Right up there with 'let's weather the storm at Castle Whitestones and just hope no one recognizes us.'"
Her tail flicked out at him – he dodged quickly.
Once they'd crossed several more hills – with the horn continuing to sound at intervals behind them – Kanrik lifted the spyglass again. He looked at the signpost – there was no writing on it, but rather several amulets made of glass, feathers, and bits of Snowbeast fur. He stopped in his tracks. "Hannah, that's a frost-witch boundary marker!"
Hannah stopped as well. "Should we change course?"
There was a shout behind them. "Whitestones! For Whitestones and for glory!"
Kanrik said, "If we go into the frost-witch's territory, she might not find us before we've crossed through. Even if she does, we still might not make her angry, and she might just let us go without incident. If we don't, the heavily armed knights behind us will catch us, and they're certain to be angry."
Hannah nodded. "A possible bad situation versus a certain bad situation. Forward, then."
Kanrik muttered, "And next time you ask me on an adventure with you I'm going to laugh. Sit and laugh."
She grinned at him. "Oh, no, you won't. You'll jump right in, just like you did this time."
He had to smile rather ruefully back. "You're probably right about that."
They struggled their way through the snow toward the post, and reached it not a moment too soon – when Kanrik turned with the spyglass to look behind, he could see the black dots of Whitestones knights on the cliff they'd just left. Hannah was looking ahead – they saw no signs of the frost-witch among the mountainsides ahead of them, or of anyone besides themselves. He took a deep drink of water, then passed the canteen to Hannah as he said, "We need to keep moving. I doubt they'll follow us into a frost-witch's domain, but given how our luck's been holding..."
Hannah nodded as she drank gratefully.
They continued on – there was no marked difference in the terrain before and after the frost-witch's boundary-marker, but Hannah kept very close to Kanrik instead of running ahead, and they both looked around carefully, going a little slower. Kanrik reached into his pocket and took out one of the charms he carried meant to protect him from some magic, and passed it to Hannah. She took it, gripping his hand for a second as she did. "Thanks, Kanrik."
He said, "Be looking at that map. If this goes badly too, we're running as quickly as we can toward the fortress. And we've got no more than two or three hours of daylight left."
She squinted at the map. "We've made good time. Good weather and running for our lives helped. We just might be able to do it."
They worked their way down a shorter cliff and into a narrow defile. But they hadn't gone far before a creaky old voice asked, "Would you two young trespassers be so kind as to tell me why on Neopia there are Whitestones knights with hunting-horns on the borders of my land?"
The voice came from above. Kanrik drew his sword and put himself between Hannah and the voice – the witch – in the same instant.
Above them, on the edge of the little ravine, was a little grey Aisha who, discounting her ears, would be even shorter than Hannah. She wore black robes trimmed in fur, and her white hair was worn long and rather ragged down her back. She would have been pale anyway, but her face was covered in white makeup with strange black designs over the top. She carried a staff, and positively dripped with amulets and other magical charms, several of which looked rather valuable. She chuckled. "Oh, I'm not going to turn you into Snowbunnies... yet."
Hannah looked around Kanrik. "We mean no trouble to you, ma'am. The knights were chasing us, and the only way to lose them was to cross your borders."
The witch raised an eyebrow. "You thought me less dangerous than the knights?"
Kanrik said quickly, "Not less dangerous, per se. Just less likely to be dangerous to us at this moment."
She nodded. "Very well, then. Climb out of that wretched ravine. It's not every day the Master Thief and the savior of the Bori wander into my domain."
Kanrik looked at Hannah, and could tell that she felt the same way he did. The frost-witch had them over a barrel, and since even treasure came second to getting back to Happy Valley with their skins intact, they had best follow.
He gave Hannah a boost – that was all she needed to get back onto solid ground – and then scrambled up after her as best he could, with a certain loss of dignity in the process. The witch cackled outright at him, and he bit his tongue to keep from saying anything. He wasn't sure whether or not he could banter with the old crone the way he could with Hannah, and offending her was too big of a risk.
Kanrik and Hannah followed the witch as she walked further into her little realm, and the Gelert hoped all the while that this wasn't a grave mistake.
Of course, he had to admit as he did so that it wouldn't be the first one of this little jaunt.
And most likely not the last either.
To be continued...