The mountain roared. And blew dust and rubble at our backs like a stone-breathing dragon.
We were still in its throat and riding fast. The tunnel had not collapsed immediately in our wake, but when it had it crashed with a vengeance.
In the dark, the dust was no extra impediment to vision. We rode blind anyway, trusting to our horses’ instincts and their animal fear. They barely had breath to spare to whinny their protests. I shut my eyes many a time and coughed as the gritty cloud blasted past me.
We galloped on until the mountain’s rage subsided. The breath of that stone dragon breaking eventually into a few dying rumbles. Rock and earth and dust all settled. As did our pace. Shinvar slowed her steed first and I took my cue from her.
Tremors continued in my ears for a short time as our journey carried us up a steadily shallowing gradient.
Once my ears had cleared of residual sound, I listened, past the clip-clop of hooves and the creaking of saddle leather. But there was nothing behind us.
Perhaps our Orkan pursuers had yet to meet the rockfall. Perhaps they had already run into it and backtracked into the mines. Perhaps we had ridden on far enough by now that we could not hear their digging efforts. It mattered not – and I nodded, satisfied at the thought. They would be a good half-day clearing the route, assuming they went to the trouble and labour.
By which time – well, I had no idea where we might be, but surely beyond these passages and further enough across the mountains, out in the open, that such sluggish-brained creatures would not pick up our trail.
“What will they do now, do you suppose?” I asked, my voice bold in the wake of the cave-in we had provoked.
“Depends on their mission. Most likely, they were in place to guard against exactly what we’re doing. To stop anyone reaching the Elves. In which case, they’ve failed. They won’t want to report that to their chieftain. They might,” added Shinvar, thinking aloud, “return to their hole, lie in wait for anyone else, pretend nobody got through. Whatever they do, they needn’t concern us any more.”
“Somehow, I do not take that to mean we are free to relax.”
Once again, I heard Shinvar’s smile in her words. “No, indeed.” It was warmly wry this time. “We’ll have to pick up our pace and then some when we’re outside. Moreover, if we secure help, if we manage to recruit allies, we’ll have to return the long way round.”
I glanced aft, as though I had any chance to discern the blockage in the tunnel. “I had not thought of that,” I said. And immediately regretted my honesty. Once again, I managed to appear the slow-witted fool.
Whether that or the sobering prospect of a longer journey to rescue the town silenced me, I do not know. Either way, I went back to following Shinvar in quiet, emptied of conversation for the time being.
Our horses counted time and distance with the crude tick and tock of their hooves. Dark after dark dragged by. Until, just as the gloom seemed carved of solid rock, a sleepy kind of light peered in from ahead. Shinvar kicked for a little acceleration and we trotted towards the tunnel mouth.
We burst forth into clean mountain air. A cool, windless blast in the face, I drank it in, down to my lungs. Filling up on it like some camel finally free to water at an oasis after a long desert trek.
We had emerged into a bowl, walled in by escarpments, but with wheeling blue above and patches of green under hoof it felt in that moment like open plain. We did not pause to enjoy our freedom, but rather rode into it. The horses welcomed the chance to run. We covered the ground swiftly, making directly across the bowl to a narrow cleft which threaded through into a long and broadening valley. At a gallop we drew a protracted curve, veering left and riding up the valley wall. Where the soaring ridges had drawn a cape of green about their shoulders to guard against the cold.
The Mantle Forests awaited, as Shinvar had predicted.
As with the Elves, I had heard talk of these forests and known of their presence here. On clearer, brighter days their verdure was visible as a hazy, pale green, collaring much of the Ursine range. This close, their greens were richer, of course, although many of the trees higher up-slope were dusted with frost.
We dived headlong into their midst, necessarily slowed by the press of trunks and undergrowth. Shinvar forged fearlessly ahead, cutting a path where there was none.
While I had traded my mild claustrophobia and fears of the dark for suspicions of whatever might hide among the trees.
[To Be Continued…]