Seen from the glittering shores of the Southlands, Mt. Nanos looks peacefully majestic. But on a wild winter’s night it is far from this. It is a dark and hostile place where dread winds blow, and the route below is fraught with danger.
The mountain marks a watershed between the inland climate which is temperate, and the balmier climes of the Southlands. ‘Temperate’ does not, however, seem the right description in foul-tempered and stormy weather. Even in the best of conditions, the route has its dangers: wolves and bears stalk the woodlands bordering the coach route, and sometimes they are hungry. More hungry still are the robber-bandits who look out for unprotected carriages, hoping for riches and quite unafraid to kill. But most dangerous of all are Koronin’s secret police, which is why we must make the journey in the dead of night.
When we set out toward the high mountain pass, the moon is bright, but clouds are gathering. The children huddle together in their seat, unused to travelling through unfamiliar country by night, and consequently a little afraid. I steel myself for the long journey, blanketed within my winter cloak. The King snores, having drunk a deep draft of Erasmus’ ale to medicine him to a sweet sleep on the journey. I reserve judgement. I have with me my sharpest adamantine blade, and certain magic spells which may prove useful.
The steeply rising path toward the pass is hard going on the horses. Not only do they seem tired, they also seem unnerved. ‘Swift steeds, do not fail us now’ I utter underneath my breath as we proceed. The pass is called ‘Hell’s Pass’ for a number of reasons, none of them good. As we approach the summit, the skies darken, winds whip up and wolves begin to howl. And then the carriage jolts over a rut in the road and almost tips over, waking the children with a start. Only the King remains sleeping.
The children look at me, frozen with fear, and I smile to them reassuringly. I open my cloak so they can nestle beside me, and soon they fall back to sleep so I can settle them back into their own seat. Luckily, the carriage has not been damaged. But the howling of the wolves grows nearer, and the horses are undoubtedly slowing their pace.
Then comes the noise I had hoped not to hear. The sound of another horse’s hooves, unburdened by a carriage, drawing nearer. A highwayman, no doubt. Soon he is close enough that I can hear him curse in a foul tongue and whip his horse, which whinnies in fury so that ours join in in fright. I do not have much time: I utter the spell for a lightning strike, which hits so close to the highwayman’s horse that he rears up, throwing his rider. The highwayman lies on the path behind us, winded. His angry steed bolts away and down the valley. I alight from the carriage to sing the ancient song of ‘Wolfdown,’ which draws the noble yet bloodthirsty creatures out of the woods and straight onto our path. They have no interest in our carriage, fresh bait being already laid out in the road before them. The Highwayman pleads with me for mercy, but I tell him to plead mercy from the wolves, and command the coachman on. With luck we can catch up with the fugitive horse and I will take him with me to the Southlands.
The children do not stir, even through the incident and even through the highwayman’s screams as the wolves begin their feast. Theirs is a deep hypnotic sleep which will wear off as we reach the welcoming shores of the Southlands. As we begin our descent, sure enough, we find the highwayman’s horse taking on water at a wayside brook. I tell the coachman to take care of our precious cargo and I ride post upon the fine and gentle beast, who, being used to a hard master, is glad of my benevolence. The storm clouds blow over and dawn breaks as we descend through thinning woodland. Ahead, I see the glitter of the sea, and I know the worst of the journey is behind us.
Now once again I write to you on this, my crystal screen, from my summer palace in the southlands. Though it is far from summer, here at least I can imagine summer once again, after the great thaw and spring’s awakening. The children play happily in the nursery, and I smile as I look out on the sea, entreating a fair wind and the swift, safe crossing of the rebel fleet.