The horses’ hooves clomped dully on the ground, setting a broken rhythm. Asher swayed in his saddle, teetering precariously between consciousness and oblivion. He was barely aware of him and Gredir heading south, towards Dead Man’s Pass.
“Remind me again why we’re going through the Pass?” Asher had asked the night before. They were camped out at the base of the Alebourne Mountains, using them as cover. The Plainlands stretched far and wide to the west, tall grasses that swayed in a soft breeze.
Gredir sighed. “It’s the fastest route to Terathen,” he had said. “We can’t risk taking the safer paths through the mountains. It’s time consuming, and time is something that you do not have.”
Asher frowned as he thought back to their many conversations on the matter. Dead Man’s Pass was a wide, barren valley cutting through the Alebourne Mountains. It played a home to many different groups of bandits. No one survived the raids, and those that did were swiftly met with a sword to the heart from Terathenian guards waiting on the other side.
He blinked as the sun suddenly appeared from behind a cloud. He squinted his eyes, blinking furiously as his eyes adjusted to the sudden light. When his vision had cleared, he gasped.
They had arrived at Dead Man’s Pass.
The valley was gray, covered in ash. The dead, gray figures of what had once been trees still stood in place, silent sentinels proving that they had once been strong, beautiful trees. Every so often, white shapes lay against the dark gray. Upon closer inspection, Asher discovered they were bones. He shuddered. Gredir came to a stop, and Asher’s horse stopped beside him.
“Behold,” Gredir said, “Dead Man’s Pass.”
“What happened to it?” Asher asked.
Gredir gave him a sad smile. “Nearly two hundred years ago,” he began, “Dead Man’s Pass was a beautiful, forested valley. Bandits were rising up, forming an army against the current queen, Alannah. Your grandmother. Her armies drove the bandits into the Pass, and Alannah and her dragon set fire to the valley, killing every bandit. Ever since then, no flower or tree or brush has been able to grow. It’s a three day’s journey nonstop from one end to the other, and if you’re not properly supplied, you will die. This is why it is called Dead Man’s Pass.”
Asher nodded. “Shall we begin, then?” he asked.
Gredir frowned. After peering at the sky for a moment, he shook his head. “No,” he replied. “We can’t. The sun will set soon, and it’s not safe at night. I want as much of our travel to be during the day as possible.”
Asher frowned. “You said it would take three days without stopping, correct?” he asked.
“Well, how long will it take if we take a few breaks?”
Gredir was shaking his head before Asher could finish speaking. “To stop in the middle of the Pass,” he said, “is suicide. No, we will rest tonight, and set out in the morning.”
The following morning, Gredir saddled the horses and helped Asher into his saddle. He mounted his own horse beside him, and after assuring himself that Asher would not fall over, they set out.
The sun was barely peeking over the horizon as they began their journey. As it rose higher into the sky, the light of the sun blinded Asher. He shut his eyes and bowed his head, pulling his hood over his face to shield his eyes from the sun. The horses moved at a steady walk, moving much faster than Asher and Gredir would have had they been on foot.
The day wore on, neither of them speaking. As night fell, Asher allowed himself to doze in and out of consciousness, catching as much sleep as he could. Gredir tried, and failed, to get Asher to eat something, and the young prince could barely drink any water. No matter how much he had improved that morning in the tavern, his condition only got worse from there. The magic pushed against Asher’s skin and veins, and he felt as if his insides were constantly on fire. He ran a fever, and though his skin was burning to the touch, he felt as cold as ice.
It was midday on the second day when the horses began tossing their heads nervously. Gredir frowned, then slung his bow off from his shoulders. He rested the deadly weapon across his thighs in the saddle, while taking three arrows and laying them on top of his bow. He scanned the area, his shoulders tense.
Asher frowned as they approached strange mounds in the ash. Just as he was about to say something to Gredir, the mounds rise up, spooking the horses. They neighed and reared, throwing their riders from their backs. Asher cried out as his head struck a rock, and then he slipped into darkness.
“Asher? Asher, wake up, man. Come on, don’t do this to me! We’re halfway there. Wake up!”
Asher groaned as Gredir continued to urge him awake. His eyes fluttered open, staring up at a clear, starry night sky. Gredir hovered over him, his dark eyes wild with worry.
“Are you all right?” Gredir asked as he helped Asher to a sitting position.
“Ugh…” Asher replied. He glanced around, noticing several dead bodies laying in the ash. There was no sign of the horses. “What happened?” Asher asked, turning his attention back to Gredir.
The old Ranger sighed. “Ambush,” he said. “Bandits. They took our horses, and a few stayed back to finish us off. They were too late.”
Asher nodded. That explains the bodies, he thought. “What now?” he asked. “Do we turn back? Find more horses and try again?”
Gredir shook his head. “No,” he said. “We can’t. We’re halfway through, and if we turn back, you won’t survive. No, we have to go on foot from here on.”
Asher nodded and sighed. “Very well, then,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
Gredir helped him to his feet, and they set off again. This time, they moved at a much slower pace without their horses.
The night wore on, and the next day blazed on the two weary travelers. Asher had begun to stumble in the night, and when he collapsed at noon, he couldn’t push himself back to his feet. Gredir slung his bow over his shoulders, hauled Asher to his feet, and slung his arm over his shoulders. Gredir wrapped one arm around Asher’s waist, and they continued to press forward.
The sun set, and the night grew cold. Asher shivered violently against Gredir, his teeth chattering as they trudged through the Pass. The night was at its darkness when Asher’s head dropped and he fell unconscious once more.
He was awakened to a splash of cold water on his face. He jerked upright, spluttering and gasping for breath. He glanced around wildly, searching for Gredir. When he found the Ranger leaning against a tree, he sighed in relief. Then he froze. Tree?
He glanced around, noticing they were in a grove of small trees, in what appeared to be an oasis. There was a small pond beside him, with a stream flowing into the pond from one direction and out the other. The grass beneath him was soft, and when he looked to the west, he saw the distant shape of the mountains far away.
Someone cleared their throat. Asher jerked his head around, noticing for the first time that a stranger was in their midst. She was crouched beside Asher, her dark hair twisted away from her face in a series of intricate braids. Tattoos patterned her face, neck, and arms, and she wore a leather shirt, pants, and boots. A horse was standing behind her, wearing nothing but a bridle.
“Asher?” Gredir asked. “Are you all right?”
Asher cleared his throat, glancing between Gredir and the woman. “Uh… yes, I’m… I’m fine…”
The woman smirked. “He’ll be fine,” she said as she stood. She looked to Gredir and said, “I’ve calmed his magic enough that it won’t drain his energy again for a while. We should reach my village before long.”
Gredir nodded. “Thank you,” he said.
She nodded and bowed her head, pressing a fist to her heart. Then she turned to Asher and said, “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tala, proud warrior and shaman of the honorable clan of Katona. Welcome to Terathen.”