Lenegrin: An Excerpt

From Chapter One

Two sleepless nights had taken their toll on me. Although I still wasn't able to sleep, I stretched out as best I could and lay in a kind of stupor, listening to the turning of the wagon wheels and the occasional bursts of squawking that came from the birds' cage. I wondered if they would live through the journey.

We stopped, I thought for the night, and when I climbed out to feed the animals, it had begun to snow. I was looking forward to the warmth of the fire I hoped would be made, but TaRak didn't even climb down from his seat. He sat sipping from his jug while I worked. There would be no fire, no food. He ordered to me hurry and get back in the wagon. We moved on.

How could he make his way in the dark?

Inside, by the light of the Ancient's lamp, the Mother unwrapped a copper brazier, which she set in the middle of the floor. She instructed her daughter to light it from the flame of the lamp, and after several tries, the coals began to flame and glow. It gave off more smoke than heat, but it seemed to have an encouraging effect on everyone. The Thin Man passed around some more bread. The Mother offered some dried fruit, and I poured some of the water from the jugs into her cup, which we shared. Her poor infant seemed to be suffering the most and lay listlessly as his mother struggled to make him drink.

We trudged along, stopping occasionally for short spells and then moving on. At a few of these pauses I climbed out and helped TaRak, holding his flickering torch while he adjusted the harnesses. I don't know how he had been able to light the torch, or how he kept it burning. The bare ground was covered with new snow, thicker each time we stopped.

The pauses grew longer and the traveling time shorter through the night. I thought about the tremendous endurance of the animals that enabled them to pull us up steep inclines for hours without food or water. By the time morning came, the brazier had burned out and the travelers had fallen asleep, except for me and the Ancient who kept reading by his tiny lamplight.

We finally came out to greet a white landscape. The snow had stopped and the sun was struggling to shine through a veil of icy clouds. The Daughter and the Thin Man were enchanted with the snow. The Mother was somber, concerned about her baby. I remember if the Ancient even came out for air. TaRak didn't speak as I fed and watered the animals. His cap, his blanket, and even his beard were topped with white. I offered to ride with him, but when he said dully, "It don't matter," I went back inside with the others.

Like our plodding pace, time kept dragging slower. Without the warmth of the brazier, the cold became our main concern, and we all huddled down into whatever we could find. The Ancient's Lamp, which never seemed to need refilling, became the focus of my attention. If it didn't provide any real heat, I felt warmer if I stared at it. I thought that it shone with a strange light. I was transfixed by it, and by the exotic smell of its oil.

By the time we stopped in the middle of the day it had started snowing again. The further we had climbed up the mountain, the lower the clouds settled, and they now seemed to hang just over our heads. Nur and Yor looked as tired as I felt, as did TaRak who came inside with us, bringing puddles of melting snow. He ate some dried meat, which he shared even with me. His eyes were glassy and his breath smelled of his drink.

I thought for certain that the weather would keep us from going on, but as soon as TaRak had finished, he pushed us on. The Ancient, rising from his book for the first time in a day, took down his lamp, and we fell into darkness. We continued to move up the mountain, but the wheels turned more slowly, sometimes barely at all. As I sat in the darkness, I could see the animals in my mind, failing then struggling some more.

Suddenly the wagon lurched, twisted, and everything and everyone was thrown toward the back. The Daughter screamed, the birds cried out, and then there was complete silence. The drape across the entrance was thrown back. TaRak appeared, carrying a large loop of rope. He shouted to us to climb out.

The Thin Man went first. He jumped down and in doing so caused the wagon to shift and rock. TaRak tied a coil of the rope to his own waist, and then around the Thin Man. The Daughter went next, climbing down more carefully, and then the Mother, who took her baby with one arm, a bag and her bird cage in the other. TaRak shouted at her. They babbled back and forth until they started pushing at each other, sending the wagon lurching again into a steeper angle. With deliberate and slow steps, the frail old man went next. I slid myself cautiously behind him.

We were at the very edge of a snow-covered cliff. Yor was halfway off the slope, groaning and frantically trying to regain his footing. The wagon teetered dangerously. One wheel hung out over the precipice. TaRak and the Mother continued to shout at each other as he linked us together with the rope. Finally, he yanked the cage and bag from her hand and tossed them both into the invisible depths of the chasm. She pounded TaRak with her fists. He pushed her away and went on linking us all together, the Daughter, the Mother who carried her crying child, then me, with the poor Ancient last.

Yor howled pitifully. All his struggling seemed to be taking him further and further away from the edge. Nur had been pulled into a snow bank and was up to her withers in white. From under his blanket TaRak took a long red-handled knife, the kind the Dreug soldiers carried. Still tied to the rest of us, he positioned himself between the two animals. With a single sweep he cut through the harness. Once loose of the harness that tied him to Nur, Yor had no chance. His huge body fell away from us, and the dying sound of his howl echoed as he plunged through the sea of clouds below.

If TaRak thought that sacrificing his animal would save us, he had been wrong. With Yor's last flailing, the footing of snow began to fall away from the wagon wheels. The wagon sank into the current and started drifting to the edge. TaRak was about to be caught in the swell, pulling us all along with him to frozen death.

With a sudden jerk he twisted and in one deliberate movement sliced through the harness behind Nur. The wagon teetered, then rocked and slipped over the edge, as we backed away to keep from being pulled along in a current of snow.

Nur let out a roar as she wrestled to free herself from the snow bank. Her body was too heavy. I reached over to help. TaRak and I tried to pull her with the loose ends of the harness, but it was obvious we couldn't help. He went over, put his face close to hers for a minute, then yanked at the rope that we were tied to and began to lead us away.

He never looked back, even with Nur's howls and groans filling the icy air. Each of us still had at least a blanket, everyone except the Ancient, whose wool cloak was his only protection. Every once in a while he stumbled, and everyone would stop as I helped him back to his feet. Finally I offered to carry his shoulder sack, which seemed to be weighing him down. He was reluctant to give it up, but finally agreed when TaRak shouted to me to leave it behind. "I wouldn't take no risks for nobody," he screamed from above. "This be on yer own stinkin' head."

The Mother began shouting again at him, each complaining about the other in loud epithets. She carried her baby over her shoulder with the blanket draped over them both, and gave the child a smack every time he cried. It didn't quiet him. The snow, which had stopped, began to fall again. We walked on and on.

The rope behind me went taut suddenly, and I turned to see the Ancient collapse again into the snow. When I went to pull him up he was limp in my arms. TaRak plodded back down to us and lifted the old man's head. The Ancient's eyes were closed, and TaRak pulled back the lids with his thumbs. For one brief moment he seemed moved by the sight of the lifeless face staring back at him. Then he took his knife, cut the rope, and spat into the snow.

The Mother burst into sobs that woke her baby who started screaming. The Thin Man and TaRak shouted at each other, evidently about the child until I took the baby from his hysterical Mother and placed him over my own shoulder. Then we started climbing again in silence, leaving the body of the Ancient to be buried by the falling snow.

Our way grew steeper. The ground under the snow was littered with rocks, and for every ten steps we took, someone fell and we had to stop. The snow now fell in blinding sheets, and if it weren't for the incline, it would have been impossible to know where we were going. The child in my arms grew heavier as we trudged through the deepening snow, by this time up to my knees. The cold stabbed my chest with each breath. I lost feeling in my feet.

TaRak led us further and further up the mountain, sometimes literally taking the rope in his hands to pull us along. Eventually it began growing dark and I wondered how much more I could take. I knew that without shelter it would be impossible to live through the night. I felt myself sinking as deeply into despair as we were into the snow.

I heard someone call out, and through the falling snow I saw what looked like dark mountains looming ahead of us. The clouds seemed to hang even lower as the daylight waned. Step by painful step, we continued to make progress upward.

Then without any warning, the world around us changed. Within five or six strides the ground leveled, and the drifting snow around us grew shallower. The air was suddenly still, and the blizzard drifted into a light flurry. I looked up again, and in the fading light I could see that the mountains ahead of us were in fact enormous trees, framed sharply against the gray sky. We were coming into a grove of these fantastic giants, each one looking as if it would take hundreds of men to circle its circumference. Inside this strange world, it was completely silent except for the strange sound of the wind howling through the foliage somewhere immeasurably far above us.

TaRak wove us into the forest, this way and that, around the immense trunks that were barely visible in the dark. I have no idea how he knew where he was, or how he was able to see where he was taking us, but he kept dragging us along relentlessly.

I couldn't see. The cold air had a faint, sweet smell, and when the wind paused, the only sound was our footsteps. Then we stopped.

I heard movements. TaRak came up to me out of the darkness. He loosened the rope from my waist and pushed me forward until I ran into something hard. My fingers were numb, but I could tell I was pressed against the base of one of the trees. The infant on my shoulder squirmed. He called out for his mother who found us in the darkness and lifted the child back. Together we all inched along until we came to a thick cloth that was draped over a crevice in the tree trunk. TaRak pushed us all inside where it was completely dark and still.

The space was small, but plenty large enough for all of us to stand comfortably, and warm compared to the outside air.

We might be able to survive the night, I thought. But where can we go from here?

Then something so unexpected happened that my mind could barely take it in. Someone, TaRak, banged against the side of our wooden cave. A few minutes later, a portion of the wall swung open, and we stood gaping into the entrance to a warm, brightly-lit world of wonder.