The mountains of Thak-Tharak was no safe place, and in winter less so than usual. They were well known for being the last resting place of several unfortunate travelers and most people would shun the mountain passes and travel along the low land rivers instead. That trip was much longer but almost safe. Nobody wanted to take a chance and risk their lives when they could reach their destination in a far more comfortable way. Up there you risked freezing to death first and foremost, then came the danger of avalanches and rock slides and the area was also well known for being the hunting grounds of less than friendly creatures like orcs and trolls and gnomes and the gods alone knew what else of evil beings.
The winds were howling, a shrill sound that were a harbinger of death to anyone being outdoors. This winter had been a hard one, snow had piled up everywhere and even the old could not remember having seen this much of it before. Some places the buildings were completely covered and some feared that this was the end of the world, that their existence would be brought to an end by an unending winter. The pass leading down from the mountain known as Zhepultras peak was one nobody used, even in summer. Some years ago a rock slide had damaged the road and so the travelers sought the other more easy routes instead.
Yet on this very day a lone figure could be seen struggling its way through the deep snow, a small hairy short legged horse carrying a lone rider. The animal was panting, the snow was packed and hard to move through and the animal was exhausted but the figure on its back was in an even worse state.
Snow was drifting through the air like a dense white veil and the winds were like cold claws, trying to tear away any sign of life. The horse had a thick winter coat and the breed was known to survive even the bitter cold of the mountains but the rider did not fare so well. He was wearing good winter clothes and a huge cloak was wrapped around him, yet he was close to fainting from the cold. He was shivering like a leaf in the wind and could barely hold on to the saddle. He had quit guiding the horse a long time ago, he trusted the animal’s keen instincts and knew that it would try to find a safe place but he feared that it would be too late. The horse was a faithful companion, he felt like the worst person in the world to push it like he had but there was no other way. They would both succumb to the cold soon if they didn’t find any shelter. He was leaning forward, the pain in his hands and feet was almost gone and that scared him more than anything else. He could not die, but he could most certainly loose fingers and toes to frostbite and perhaps even more vital bodyparts too and the idea scared him to the core.
He had been an idiot, and he knew it. Crossing the mountains at this time of the year was sheer madness but he had no other choice the way he saw it. He had to get away from the bay area since there had been no more jobs and people often got aggressive when they started to understand how he made his living, and what he was. It was several decades since he had crossed the mountains this way and he had forgotten a lot, too much even. He had lost his way and only blind luck had allowed him to find a safe way down toward the valley below, and now he was desperately searching for the one small village he knew lay there somewhere. But it too could have changed, it could have been moved or even been abandoned and he bit his teeth together and just prayed that there still were people there.
He had seen no lights so far, not even tracks that revealed activity and it seemed like the area was dead, not even wolves or other mountain dwellers had left any marks in the snow and he feared the worst. The horse needed rest and food and he feared that he would lose consciousness soon. He was so cold he felt like a piece of ice. Even his good clothes could not keep the bitter cold out and to the poor horse it had to be even worse, the animal was covered in snow and ice and it was breathing hard and desperately trying to find its way through the snowdrifts. He had not anticipated anything like this, but like they said, pride comes before the fall. He thought he could cross using only one day but he was very wrong, this was the fourth day and neither of them had eaten anything for the last three days. He had been carrying a sack of food and some oats but it had been lost when the horse lost its footing and skidded down a slope with him on top of it. And so the problems had started.
At first he feared the creatures of the mountains but that fear was quickly dispelled, nothing moved outside in a winter storm, not even trolls. But the cold was an enemy even greater than any giant and he soon realized that he was in deep trouble.
It was going downhill, his eyes were almost frozen shut by the flying snow and ice and he could not feel his hands anymore but he could see that the landscape had somehow changed. The forest and open moor had changed into what had to be meadows and he could see that there had been cattle grazing there during the summer. His hope was rekindled, he tried desperately to stay awake and the horse seemed to sense it too and found its last reserves of strength. His eyes could see light, and it was not the light of distant stars but a flickering weak light that had to be fire.
The horse grunted and started to push forward toward the light, he promised himself that he would reward the little fellow with a very good meal as soon as possible, if they survived that was. The fatigue almost overwhelmed him, he felt dizzy and light headed and was glad he had tied himself to the saddle, just in case. He could go for days without food or water and his endurance was great even compared with that of a dwarf or an ordinary elf but the cold had been sucking the strength out of him like a bleeding wound. And he had been walking a lot too and tried to make a path the weary horse could use.
Some would perhaps have abandoned the animal and tried to find their way on foot but he was not like that, the small horse had no chance there, it would freeze to death or the wolves would find it and it had been a friend to him for a couple of months now. He could have bought himself a better horse of course, he had money but a huge expensive animal would draw attention toward him, and that he tried to avoid. For an ordinary mercenary the small gelding was more than enough and it made his stories more believable. He had not given the horse a name, but he did not feel like he had to, they had each other and that was all he needed.
The horse found something that had to be a road, it was covered by almost five feet of snow just like the surroundings but one could see that it was flat and going somewhere. He fought the drowsy feeling, it was a hard battle but he had to win, this time too. He did not want to suffer injuries from frostbite and the idea of losing limbs terrified him. He had to keep his body in good shape in order to survive or else he would get himself into trouble. His thoughts were slow, almost reluctant like his brain would prefer to shut down. He did not even shiver anymore and it felt so tempting to fall asleep. The snow looked so soft and inviting and he was so very tired. And he did not freeze any more, it was weird. Alarm bells were ringing in his mind and he knew that this was dangerous but he no longer had the strength to fight the exhaustion. He tipped forwards and was hanging along the neck of the horse as it plowed through the snow with determination within its gentle eyes.
The light got closer, it was small and weak but real. It came through a small window and there was a group of buildings there. This was a very small village consisting of farm buildings and small cabins and it could not house that many people. The horse pushed its way through the snowdrifts that had piled up within the gate, there was a low fence around the place but it was almost invisible now. The animal could smell people, it could smell smoke and other horses and it knew that people meant help. He was not dumb and carried his now unconscious rider toward the house where the light was shining. The door was almost covered by the snow too, nobody had left the house for hours and the horse was swaying now. It had drained the last of its strength and stood there with his head close to the ground, flanks heaving and legs wobbly and threatening to give in. The horse lifted its head and whinnied, a sound barely audible over the roar of the wind but he managed to repeat it a few times before his legs gave in and he collapsed on the snow.
There were silence for a few seconds, then the door started to shake and someone pushed it open. A lamp was held up and there was a shadow in the doorway. The horse neighed once more and the figure got busy. “Dhora, girls, by the gods, there is really someone out here. Come and give me a hand.»
The small gelding felt relieved, there were in deed people there and now everything would be fine. He just lay there and allowed the man and the three women to cut his rider free before they carried him inside. A younger man came and helped the animal onto its feet again and gently supported it while leading it into a small stable across the open yard. They were safe, at least for the time being.