Tip fled along the mountain track, her feet surefooted on the rocky ground. The sound of her boots against the path made a syncopated rhythm with her rapid breathing. They wouldn’t catch her! She was at least 90% certain.
At a place where the path began to switchback, she took a shortcut by scrambling up the steep mountain face, clinging to undergrowth and grabbing the odd thin tree to aid her passage. The ascent made a bit more noise than she’d liked, but the men pursuing her were making more than enough racket to cover her climb. She could hear them panting and swearing along the track a few metres down. There were at least 10 or 12 of them. Big burly brutes. Some of them were guards from the warehouse she’d been attempting to loot, but some were wardens. They must have been patrolling very nearby to have been brought into the chase so quickly. With the way things had been in Grevick recently, they were probably itching for a prisoner to persecute.
Hauling herself onto the next level of the path, Tip rested for a few seconds, then took a deep breath and resumed her flight. She was maybe 85% certain they wouldn’t catch her. Admittedly, it was going to be tricky to lose them on this path, since it only went in one direction. With sheer cliff faces on either side, there wasn’t much scope for deviating from the path either. But Tip was sure she’d think of a clever plan to evade them. She always did.
Make that 75% sure.
She was beginning to concede to herself, in the furthest recesses of her mind, that perhaps she should have listened to Kerrick. He’d tried his hardest to dissuade her from her madcap plan of hitting the warehouses on the far side of the settlement. Everyone knew it was only ready shipments of armour and spare tools and equipment that were kept there, but Tip had been certain she’d be able to find something useful. With food in their isolated mining colony being so scarce in these winter months, she hoped to find anything that could potentially be edible. Marit, the old lady who ran the orphanage where Tip resided, was a whizz at cooking up stews made with old leather and bits of tree bark. They’d done it last winter and had survived. However, things were much much worse this year. They were only a month into the coldest season and the younger children already had that pinched look that precluded the lethargy and suffering of starvation. Tip was determined not to let things go that far.
She made it up two more switchbacks. Her legs were burning and she was beginning to feel lightheaded. She was strong, but she’d already been on half rations for weeks. The men behind weren’t getting any closer but eventually she was going to run out of path and then what would happen? To make things worse, the light was fading. It made things harder for the men chasing her, but also made it harder to be certain of her footing on this steep path.
She rounded the last switchback and pushed her aching muscles into yet another burst of speed as she pelted along the subsequent straight section of path. She needed to be out of sight by the time her pursuers cleared the switchbacks. If she could just make it to the end of this section, her chances were surely no less that 65% of-
The path ended abruptly. With a gasp, Tip threw herself to the side and scrabbled for purchase on the loose scree. She slid down onto the path and crouched there, panting, her eyes wide in shock. In front of her were very last few centimetres of the path. Past that, a landslide had taken out the track. The path simply turned into a very steep slope of loose stones that would surely have become a very painful avalanche, had she hesitated just a second longer in throwing herself backwards. The mountain had very nearly done her pursuers’ job for them.
Her pursuers! Tip scrambled to her feet. This was the end of the path. There was no way anyone was getting past this point without ropes and picks and a whole team of people, none of which she currently had to hand. She needed a different way to escape.
She forced her trembling body into stillness and listened carefully. The sounds of pursuit were distant. The men were surely still several switchbacks down. They had probably slowed their pace, hampered by the growing dusk and secure in the knowledge that there was only one path up the mountain.
Tip hurried back to the section of path was was directly above the penultimate switchback. If she could time it right, she’d wait for the last of the men to pass below, slide down the mountainside, land on the path just behind them and take off again, this time downhill. If she was really lucky, she’d do those last two things silently, and the men would never even know they’d lost their quarry until they reached the landslide, by which time she’d be halfway back to the settlement.
It was a desperate plan, but it was the best she had to work with under these desperate circumstances. Tip estimated she had only a 50% chance of pulling it off, but she was feeling lucky. If fate smiled on her, the guards would want to run downhill in the dark even less than they’d wanted to run uphill and she’d have an easy escape.
They were passing below her right now, grumbling and swearing. Tip overheard more than one threat of bodily mutilation they intended to carry out on this would-be thief once they caught “him”.
Good, they hadn’t positively identified her then. One of Kerrick’s main concerns had been the potential for bringing trouble down on Marit and the rest of the kids if she were caught. Of course, that was all immaterial now, because she wan’t going to be caught.
She judged the time to be right, and lowered herself off the path, holding onto a clump of sturdy mountain grass to stop herself slipping right down the deathly steep mountainside. She felt around with her free hand until she could grab another clump slightly lower down, then allowed the weight of her body to slide down until she was hanging from that clump, and so on.
Trouble came with the 5th clump. Its roots didn’t run deep enough, and as soon as she’d trusted it with her weight, the roots gave, the clump came free in her hand and she was sliding down the mountainside, taking what sounded like several thousand pebbles with her. It was loud. Shouts echoed along the path informing her the men had heard the racket. Tip cursed and attempted to grab at passing plants, but they were already above the tree line and there wasn’t anything substantial enough to stop her.
And then the ground dropped out from under her, and instead of sliding down the mountain, she fell into the mountain, sliding down what seemed like an endless dark, dank chute into the depths of the rock. Tip heard herself shrieking and wailing…
And then she was at the bottom, deposited, panting, onto hard, unyielding rock in a massive room under the mountain.
Light came from somewhere. A soft green glow that illuminated the cavern. The ceiling was covered in rippling patterns. Tip realised they came from the giant underground lake that occupied most of the space. By now, the last echoes of her scream had died away and were replaced by the soft plashing of water on the sandy beach at the edge of the lake.
Tip heaved a huge shaky breath and got slowly to her feet. She turned to look back at the tunnel down which she’d just slid so unexpectedly. From this angle it looked like a gentle slope. It definitely looked climbable. With any luck, she wasn’t trapped down here.
What’s more, she was alive. The fall hadn’t killed her. She couldn’t hear the men following her down the chute. They had probably heard her scream and assumed she’d fallen down the mountain. Either way, they weren’t chasing her any longer.
With those important facts established, Tip turned again to inspect the cave where she’d landed further. The light in the cave seemed to be coming from under the water. She went closer to the water to see if she could see exactly what was emitting the greenish glow.
But as she neared the lake’s edge, her attention was caught by several long objects lined up just out of reach of the water.
Tip’s heart leapt. She looked at the water again. Calm and clear. She could see right to the bottom. It was deep. Definitely deep enough to launch a boat onto.
On the other side of the cave were several dark sections in the wall, which Tip now realised were passages. The water flowed smoothly through the openings. It was a flooded cave system, and here, right next to her were the means to navigate it. This was huge!
Tip’s first impulse was to grab a boat and drag it into the water, but something stopped her.
It was partly her sense of responsibility. They were waiting for her back at the orphanage. She’d failed to find anything for them to eat, but by this point, they were probably worried she’d been captured or worse. She owed it to Marit, Kerrik and the others to go back and show them she was still alive.
And then she’d come back, with Kerrick, Valerian and Sol, and they’d take a boat, launch it, and see where it led them!
Tip estimated a 75% chance that the waterways would lead them somewhere where they’d be able to scrounge food for the kids. It was a very good chance indeed.
- Graz, Austria
I write fantasy and humorous tales with a twist of magic. I'm currently working on a full-length manuscript but somehow I'm never satisfied with a single project so my smaller works get posted here. If you like what you read, the completed stories are also available to download as ebooks from my website: victoriakellywrites.com
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