Moonlight on the Peaks
The Déchirét Mountains
25 Mallaud, 592 Année de Paix
Captain Henri D’Alagin had served in the Mountain Guard for fifteen years, and he had the scars and calluses to show it. Still, this snowstorm was one of the worst he had ever been in. Fur-lined leather boots struggled to find traction against the smooth, icy ground, and he readjusted his cloak to block the wind which, like a knife, cut deep into his right cheek. Icicles dripped from his beard.
D’Alagin exhaled vigorously and watched his condensed breath blow away into the darkness. The Mountain Guard was a harsh duty, but a necessary and honorable one. D’Alagin’s father had served in it, and his father before him. Generational inheritance seemed to be a common reason for men to join the Guard. After all, there was little reason for anyone else to pursue such a career. The only thing that could bring a person to risk his life and livelihood in such a bleak and dangerous place was Ántou’s commandment.
Two hundred and seventeen, two hundred and sixteen, two hundred and fifteen. He had learned in his second year on the Guard that counting paces in a whiteout blizzard was vital, and he had gotten so good at it that he could count the footfalls in his sleep. Venturing out from camp to search for signs of the Mountain Dwellers, the count had been in the thousands. Now he was nearly home — if the small collection of tents and wagons his company had set up counted as a home. In the Guard, home had more to do with the people you were with than the place where you were.
The wind howled, snowflakes moving horizontally through the frozen air. When a step forward took him directly off the path and onto a steep, rocky slope, D’Alagin realized he was effectively blind. He reoriented himself and continued forward. One hundred and twenty, one hundred and nineteen, one hundred and eighteen.
Time passed, though how much he could not say. In the harshest storms, the lanterns of a campsite might not be visible until a person was nearly on top of them — but at only thirty steps remaining, the Dántaise captain was becoming nervous. Only once in his entire career had he gotten lost; D’Alagin prided himself on his bird-like navigation abilities. He did not aim to bring the count up to two.
Widening his eyes against the biting wind, he stared out into the gloom, struggling to make out a shape or sign of life that seemed familiar. Snowdrifts had changed the landscape since the morning. Enormous piles of thick white flakes blanketed the rough ground and formed false cliffs which loomed like monstrous, shadowy beasts over D’Alagin. The sky swirled.
Three. Two. One. D’Alagin stepped on something that crunched beneath his numb feet. Unsheathing his hand from bundles of fur and wool and fabric, he pushed his fingers beneath the snow layer and picked it up. A burnt stick, a remnant from a fire that had blazed away here only hours earlier. He was not lost. But his men were gone.
Panic rose inside his chest, hot and fierce as a sword drawn straight from the forge. But he quenched it quickly, forcing the emotion down with sheer willpower. On the mountains, rash decisions could kill. He had survived so long; he would not be lost to the elements now.
There were two possibilities as to what had happened in this place. Either, D’Alagin thought, the men had left the campsite for safer ground, or...he chose not to think about the second option. But as the captain explored the abandoned campsite, he began to lose hope. Abandoned tents, food, and weapons all suggested a disorderly departure; while snowfall had erased any traces of movement in the area, ripped fabric and supplies strewn across the ground made his stomach sink. A sense of dread began to set into his heart, and he struggled forward into knee-deep drifts despite the numbing cold that pressed against him.
“Coufait!” he shouted. “Mullier! Bazin!” His voice, raw and harsh, was lost in the wind. D’Alagin felt his strength begin to fail; pins and needles, like venom, ate their way up his skin. “Où est vous?” he whispered. His head spun. But he had to soldier on. For his men. Had to find them. Had to help. D'Alagin tumbled.
The world went black.
Captain Henri D’Alagin awoke to the sound of snow crunching. His limbs ached; his fingers and toes felt nothing at all. As he, with effort, raised his head and squinted against the sun, he realized that he must have crawled his way in half-lucidity to an overhang which had sheltered him from the storm. D’Alagin lay still for a few minutes, watching his breath condense in the fresh morning air, and then slowly stood.
The mountainside had been transformed. Brilliant crystals of snow stretched as far as the eye could see, though he knew that just a few leagues north, hidden behind a range of snow-capped peaks, lay the lush green plains of Martoise. Movement in the corner of his vision drew his attention — mountain goats, clambering across the desolate landscape. D’Alagin wondered vaguely what they ate during the winter, when not a shrub was in sight. He also wondered if his men had survived the storm. Probably not.
He sighed. Every Mountain Guardsman had a patrol that went awry; it was simply a part of the dangerous job. It had happened twice to D’Alagin in the past. This made three. He hoped he would never see a fourth.
A single snowflake fluttered through the air, dislodged from somewhere higher up on the mountain.
Hoisting his pack over his shoulder, the captain cast one final glance over the gleaming slopes and then, taking a deep breath, set off northward. He had a long journey ahead of him.