Chapter Fifteen

Rolf looked back over his shoulder. He could see neither that crazy girl nor the soldiers who supposedly followed him. Despite the lack of confirmation, he kept trudging ahead as fast as he thought he could sustain. He angled his route more easterly, then once he crossed the frozen river more northeasterly. If the soldiers behind him were any kind of trackers, they’d detect his earlier route and follow it straight back to Silvester’s hermitage. If they were really following.

If that girl wasn’t crazy. Why would someone he didn’t know risk her life to warn him? She seemed sincere, frightened, and cold. Just a thin wisp of a thing, too frail to be out in this cold, even if she were dressed for it, which she wasn’t. Like a half-drowned cat, or—no, like a vixen, just coming of age but her normally thick, fluffy fur soaked and matted by the melting snow. Still, she’d known enough about Will and the sword that she must have been telling the truth. He hoped she made it back to the castle.

Wait! How did she get out to warn him without going out the same gate as the soldiers? He stopped and looked back. Burg Altz was a dark profile among the bare trees.  Perhaps there’s a back way in. Maybe he could get in or Will out that way. Baron Jordanes should know. He didn’t have much to tell the baron. No sign of his family, but since he’d only been across the yard and in the room with the Dragon—even thinking about it, he felt himself buffeted by the overpowering presence of … whatever he was. 

He shivered. Only an hour in that place convinced him he didn’t want to go back. That dungeon. Cold, dark, damp. When they barred the heavy door behind him, he thought his life was over—a complete failure. He hadn’t gotten the sword; he hadn’t seen Will. Except for the sword, he wouldn’t have known that Will was really there. The rats. He never saw any rats, but he believed them. Waiting. Wherever people lived, so did rats. He couldn’t imagine spending a day—or the rest of his life—in that room. And apparently there was a worse dungeon yet. What kind of castle had more than one dungeon?

He looked back again. Still nothing. No, a couple of bundled men trudged through the snow behind him. They could be soldiers. Why else would they heading east? When he approached the castle earlier, he hadn’t seen any tracks heading this direction; all traffic seemed to go downstream or west. 

Rolf was confident he could lose the soldiers. He could outrun them if nothing else. They were heavily cloaked and probably wearing metal mail hauberks. He couldn’t see pole arms or swords, but even if they had daggers two of them would be more than his match. His fingers tightened on his staff. No, he didn’t dare fight them.

Even if he defeated them or outran them too soon, however, they might go back and get a horseman. He’d only seen two horses in the courtyard, but there may have been more. No, it was small. It smelled of horses, but not a lot of them. He trudged through the snow, keeping on a wind-swept ridge to make it easier going and to let the soldiers see him.

What would they do if they caught him? Kill him right there? Drag him back to the dungeon? Neither thought appealed. But if he was going to lose them, where would he go? Silverster’s hermitage was the only shelter he knew of in this area. The Willardhof lambing pens were days away to the north. 

Rolf stopped. Dropping his staff he put his hands on his knees to draw deep breaths. The air was not as cold as in the morning. Still, his breaths made clouds. He looked back toward where the soldiers should be. No sign of them. Of course, it wouldn’t do for them to see him obviously waiting. He didn’t look directly back but he swung his head from side to side as if looking for something. He hoped they’d get the impression he was lost.

Lost. That might work. He could blunder around out here all day—well, the few hours that were left of it. If he stayed away from the hiding place, they’d not know where he came from. But that didn’t answer the problem of where he’d find shelter.

He turned northward, judging by the sun-illuminated overcast off his left shoulder and started off with renewed vigor. Immediately he blundered into a snow-filled hollow. He foundered and struggled before crawling back up the embankment. He lay there a moment, catching his breath. He had an idea. If he could tempt the soldiers into that hollow, he could leave them there. Their heavy armor would make escape difficult.

He beat himself trying to shed some of the snow which now covered him from head to foot. If they saw him so snow-covered, they’d tip to the trap. He stamped eastward. Now that he knew what to look for, the smooth concave field of snow denoting the hollow was obvious. There must be a creek under there somewhere. 

Then Rolf saw what he needed. One of the forest giants—an elm by its shape and bark—had fallen with its top spanning the hollow. The tangle of branches prevented him from walking across on the trunk, but his passage would be masked if he crossed next to it. Once across he could loop back to the west and then set out northward. The trick would be getting positioned before the soldiers saw him crossing without revealing he knew they were following. The dimming light would cover his trail enough that the soldiers should try to cross directly to him on the other side.

Rolf tossed his staff across the hollow. It stuck into the far bank, easily within reach once he’d crossed. He grabbed a limb and tried to keep from falling too deeply into the snow while he worked his way across. Unfortunately, the hollow was more like a ravine here: narrower but deeper. The rough bark bit at his already aching hands. His attempts to walk on the snow failed. He reached for the next limb and missed. His momentum and weight pulled him down. His hand slipped from the first limb, and he dropped into the ravine.

The snow closed in over him. Rolf gasped as he disappeared into the white. He never hit bottom. He just reached a point where the snow packed beneath him enough to stop his descent. He tried to stand, but his feet had nothing to push against. He flailed his arms and legs until he was out of breath—accomplishing nothing. He pushed an open space around his face and breathed heavily. 

Heaven help me. Forget being found by the soldiers. If he didn’t get out of here soon, he’d freeze. In fact, the soldiers might be his best hope.

“Help!” he yelled. “Over here by the tree. Help!”

He listened. Nothing. Not even the sound of the wind or the whisper of the trees. He tried again. Still no response. 

What options did he have? He couldn’t even see his staff. He was so set on deceiving the older men this morning that he’d left without his pouch. He had no fire starter or provisions. He did have the triple-cord around his waist His mother had cleverly braided it into itself to make a compact rope. Perhaps he could loop it over a limb above him and pull himself up.

He unwrapped his hands and blew into them. The knot in the rope had tightened during the day. His fingers would need strength and agility to untie it. His first attempt failed. He blew on his fingers again. This time he was able to loosen the knot. 

Before he unwrapped the rope from his waist, Rolf called for help again. He waited. He wasn’t sure which would be worse: being dragged back to the castle or left here. Getting cold fast. Once he got free, he’d have to go straight to Silvester’s shelter. Then if the Dragon sent trackers tomorrow, his trail would lead them directly to the old men. Maybe he should take his chances with the Dragon again.

He yelled. He listened. He thought he may have heard an answer, but his head ached and his ears were ringing. He cried out again. Something—he couldn’t be sure it was voices—responded. The die was cast now. 

“Over here by the tree. I’m trapped in the snow. Hurry. I’m freezing.”

No answer.

“Help. Can you hear me?”

Rolf waited but heard no answer. He’d have to save himself. He unbraided the rope, knotted one end, and threw it up to the limb he could barely see through the fluffy snow. His first throw looped the end over the limb, but when he gave it more line, the whole rope slipped off and fell back on him. He tried a bigger knot. His next three throws weren’t even close. He stopped to warm his hands. He couldn’t even feel his feet.

His next throw hit the limb but didn’t loop over it. Two more misses. This looked so simple. The limb was a scant three feet above his outstretched hand, but his body shifted each time he threw because he wasn’t standing firmly on the ground. With each attempt he sank slightly deeper. He slumped forward exhausted. No, he couldn’t rest. He’d fall asleep. He looked up. “God, aren’t you supposed to help your people in distress?”

He huffed out a cloud of vapor and hurled the knot upward. To his surprise, it returned on the other side of the limb. He looked at it without comprehension for a moment, then he fed the line up and the knot settled downward. As the rope passed over the limb, however it shifted toward the thinner, more flexible tip. No, no, no. It started to slide of its own weight but caught where an even smaller limb branched. Rolf gave it more line. 

Finally, he could grasp the knot. Pulling gently, he passed more line over the limb. Then he pushed up on both ends and looped the rope back toward a thicker part of the limb. It took three tries to get it to a spot which he hoped would hold his weight. It was better positioned because it was in the notch of another branch. Rolf tested it.

Before he tried to lift himself, he yelled for help. No answer. Rolf tightened the ropes. He eased his weight onto them. So far, so good. He reached higher on the ropes and pulled to lift himself out of the snow.

The limb broke.

Rolf was dumped back into the deep snow. Snow filled his nose and mouth as he sucked a chocked breath. He brushed at his face. His fingers were numb. He needed to rest. No, if he relaxed, he’d sleep. A sleep from which he’d never wake.

Once again, he stood under the limbs, trying to find one big enough to hold his weight, but clear enough to loop the rope over. The limbs tangled above him. He needed room for the knot to go up one side then fall back down on the other.

Lord God, help me, he prayed.

He threw the knot again. It hit something on the way up and fell back. Wait, he thought, I’m going about it all wrong. I’m looking for the smallest workable limb. I should go for a big one. Rolf pushed his way under the trunk and saw that the other side was relatively clear. He threw the knot at one of the major shafts. It bounced off and dropped. His second attempt succeeded. The rope dangled over a stem as big as Rolf’s waist, but now he discovered it was harder to get the rope to feed up so the knot would drop into his hands.

He tried again and again. Finally, in frustration, Rolf jumped upward and grabbed the knot. Why hadn’t he tried that before? Oh, he had. He’d sunk into the snow before.

With the rope around a sturdy branch, Rolf pulled himself clear of the snow and shifted closer to the side. Branches blocked his way up the trunk, so he shinnied downward: back to the bank he’d entered from. He pulled with all his strength, stepped forward, looped the rope lower, then pulled again.

Climbing up the bank took all his strength. He rolled on his back and breathed deeply until the spots before his eyes faded.  So cold, so tired. His hard breathing hurt in his throat. He closed his mouth and eyes and breathed slowly through his nose. Better. 

I’ll just relax for a little while.

No. He had to get up and get moving. Rolf rolled onto his side. He was thoroughly chilled. He stumbled to his feet. He couldn’t feel his toes.

He blinked. It was darker. The sun must have set. He saw and heard nothing. He squinted as he looked back toward Burg Altz. Nothing. He looked across at his staff. Out of reach just twenty feet away.

He clambered around the old tree’s roots and backtracked to where he had first fallen into the creek bed. The snow was hollowed out and thrashed about. Many footprints disturbed the snow. More than he had made. Had the soldiers followed him this far and blundered into the deep without him having to tempt them in? 

What happened to them? Were they who he heard while he was trapped. They must have gotten free and returned to the castle. They were gone, but they’d be back tomorrow.

Rolf estimated where Silvester’s hermitage might be. But he couldn’t go straight there. He needed to backtrack part way to the castle, then turn off where he could mask his departure. Whatever he was going to do, he’d better do it quickly.

It’d be dark soon; he wouldn’t survive the night outside. He started away, then realized he didn’t have his staff. He looked across the gully. The lesser end of the shaft mocked him from the far side.

Rolf sighed. He wasn’t going without it. Unwrapping his cords, he tied one end to a low branch and started up the trunk.

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