The two of them were in pursuit for the rest of the afternoon. Evening came, bathing the mountainside in a pink glow, the trees and boulders casting long shadows, creating deep dark places. Following the path, they climbed higher and higher, sometimes passing precarious drop offs, and steep switchback sections. It all left Roger out of breath and panting. They hadn’t seen any sign of Ari or her pursuers.
Sunset came sooner than either of them expected.
“This is taking forever,” Hannah complained.
“Stop whining. This was your idea,” Roger replied between labored breaths. He leaned heavily on his walking stick.
“Yeah… I just thought… I dunno. That it would go faster.”
“Keep on a little longer. We’ll have to stop when it gets too dark anyway.”
The two struggled onward as fast as they could. The temperature was dropping as the sun went down, and the air had become thin and dry. They had climbed above the treeline, and all that grew was a scrubby grass that swayed with every gust of wind.
The trail was leading them along another set of switchbacks that had been carved into a fractured wall of stone. To one side was the reassuring mass of the rock face, and on the other a drop to the lower trail, far below. Hannah came abruptly to a halt.
“The trail’s broken,” she said.
Roger peeked around her and saw that a large slab of stone that had been supporting the trail had slipped down and away, taking the path along with it.
“What are we supposed to do about that?” he asked.
“I guess we have to climb over it,” Hannah replied.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Roger stared dumbfounded, then pounded his walking stick repeatedly against the ground. He let out an indistinct moaning sound that ended in a whimper.
“Done with your little tantrum?” Hannah asked. He couldn’t tell if she was laughing at him or not.
“No,” Roger said, wiping his eyes, “Let’s go.”
Hannah walked over to the edge, and looked up the wall. Reaching, she grabbed hold of a knobbly bit of rock and heaved herself up.
“Ah, this isn’t so hard actually,” she said down to Roger, “Plenty of places to grab on.” She pulled herself up a little higher. “Oh, I can see the edge of the next switchback up there. I’ll just climb up to that.”
Roger walked up to the rock, grabbed on with one hand. He reached up to grab on with his other hand, but his walking stick was there.
“What should I do with my stick?” he called up to Hannah.
“Just leave it,” she called back, “You’re not an old man that needs a cane.”
“But what if I need to defend myself?”
“Do you really think it would help?” she grunted as she climbed.
Being honest with himself, Roger knew that in his hands no weapon would really help. He set his staff down on the trail, feeling slightly apprehensive leaving it behind. He grabbed on to the rock face, and hauled himself up.
It wasn’t a difficult climb. Like Hannah had said, there were many handholds, and in the turnshoes his toes could easily find purchase. After a few minutes he climbed the twenty feet or so that separated the levels of switchbacks. Hannah was waiting at the top to help pull him up, and he sat with his back to the cliff.
“I did it,” he said, disbelieving, “I actually did it and didn’t die!”
“Good job,” Hannah said, giving him a pat on the head. The gesture made Roger feel a bit juvenile, but he honestly enjoyed the praise.
“Let’s keep going!” he said. He was suddenly feeling revitalized and energetic.
They walked to the top of the switchback. As they reached the top the rock wall fell away behind them, and they saw that they were standing on the mountain’s spine, the saddle that Ari had pointed out earlier. The sun was about to finish setting in the west and its warm light cast huge shadows across the land. In front of them, the whole world already lay in the shadow of the mountain. Large fluffy clouds floated lazily by, closer than Roger had ever seen, illuminated by the pink glow of the sunset.
Looking south, the mountain range continued as far as Roger could see, continuing in one long ridge broken up by pyramid shaped peaks. Long arms ran down on either side, creating nestled valleys between them, and lower peaks popped up here and there. The trail continued down the other side into one of these little valleys between the mountain ridges. To the north, a cliff face ran along the side of the path, and behind that rose a dominating mountain.
The top of the saddle was about one hundred feet across. Crossing it, they noticed that there was some kind of old stone structure nestled into the rocks of the cliff. It had long been abandoned, and parts of it were tumbling down. Its dark doors and narrow slit windows stared at them as they passed.
“I wonder what that’s all about,” Roger said, pointing.
“Who knows?” Hannah replied, “I kind of want to check it out.”
“But what about Ari? Also, what if there’s something unpleasant in there?”
“Don’t be a chicken. There’s obviously nobody there, and this will be fast. If we haven’t caught up by now a couple minutes won’t hurt.” She trotted across the short yellow grass toward the old building.
“Hannah, wait!” Roger chased after her.
Hannah paused briefly at the door of the building peeking across the threshold into the darkness.
“Just like I thought,” she said as Roger caught up to her, “Just a bunch of old dusty stuff. Nobody’s stopped by here in ages. I’m going in.”
She ducked inside, and Roger followed nervously after her. The fading daylight just barely illuminated the space. There was a thick layer of dust on a stone floor, and small plants had started popping up through the cracks. There were a few pieces of derelict furniture, and wall hangings that seemed more functional than aesthetic. At the back of the room a doorway led to a staircase that wound upward. Of course Hannah ran up them.
“I have to see it all before the sun sets!” she explained as she disappeared up the stairs.
Roger climbed up the stairs, and at the top was another room, very similar to the one below, except that this one had a few beds with small wooden lockers set next to them. Hannah was rummaging through one of them.
“Now that just feels invasive,” Roger said.
“Everything’s covered in dust. I promise you, nobody cares about this stuff.” She pulled something out, “Ah! This might actually be useful.” She held up a leather bag, stiff and caked with dust. Standing, she threw the leather strap over her shoulder. “It’s not bad, I think. I like the design on it,” she said as she wiped dust out of the details with her thumb.
“It looks like it’s going to fall apart,” Roger said.
Roger tried scrounging a bit himself. There were a couple other lockers, but they were open and their contents rendered useless by years of neglect. In the back corner of the room he found a closed box that had somehow been protected from the elements over the years. He tried to lift the lid, but the old hinges resisted. He tried again, and after much prying, was rewarded when it opened with a loud squeak.
The air inside the box had a distinct, sharp scent that reminded Roger of cedar. Looking in, he saw stacks of immaculately folded clothes. Shuffling things around a little bit, he discovered a long knife tucked into a scabbard that showed some moderate decay. He pulled it out of the chest and stood up, trying to remove it from the scabbard. It slid easily out and glinted dully in the fading sunlight.
“What’ve you found there?” Hannah asked, coming up beside him.
He wordlessly held the knife up for her to see. It was somewhere around a foot long, sharp on both edges, and had a small cross guard above its grip. The blade had a few dark pits on its surface, but for the most part was completely clean and sound.
“Ha, lucky! I wish I’d been the one to find it,” Hannah said.
Roger tucked the dagger back into its scabbard, which had attachments for suspending it from a belt. He attached the dagger and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool.”
“Well I think this was a successful pit stop,” Hannah said after they had descended the stairs and gone back outside, “We got a weapon and a way to carry stuff. Both useful for a couple pilgrims, eh?” She gave Roger a playful nudge.
Roger looked out to the east. The sun had set, and only the glow of its passing remained on the horizon. The world was draped in shadow, but out in the sea of darkness tiny lights glimmered, the homes of the many peasants and their lords, lit by hearth and candle.
“Look down there,” Hannah said. She was pointing down the west side of the mountains toward a spot much closer to where they stood. Not far below, nestled between the arms of the mountains, a grove of trees was being illuminated from within.
“A campfire?” Roger asked.
“That’s exactly what I thought. It could be Ari.”
“Or it could be the thugs.”
“Or it could be both.”
They both considered in silence for a moment before Hannah stated, “I’m going.”