"There," our old guide pointed north to the far mountain. "You can just see the tower's top. The fortress faces the wasteland, watching for intruders, be they man or beast. Always watching..." He fell silent and gazed out into the white waste. "That way nothing gets by," he said, half to himself.
We waited. I for one had no desire to know what tragedy he remembered--not now, not here. For somehow get by we must.
He shook off the memory and pointed lower down the mountain. "But there be our way and our only hope--the old back road. Look, just beyond this near ridge, where the mountain meets the plain. See it, snaking up the mountainside."
Eyes widened and mouths opened briefly in spite of the cold. Yes, we saw it.
"Dangerous in better days, now in disrepair--never used, rarely watched. They think it impassable, but I been that way before. A hard road, but can be done."
We regained our composure. He had led us this far and had gained our trust. We needed it now.
"First problem--that lone hill to the east. Eyes there can see us coming. We'll keep this ridge between us and them, long as we can, then camp at a place I know. Then two hours before dawn we cross the open country and start up the first dogleg."
I couldn't help myself. "What? In the dark?"
"The dark be a difficult foe, but around that mountain be..." He hesitated, choosing his words carefully, "be worse... much worse." --Again, that far-away gaze, a brief outward sign of an inner struggle that worsened as we approached the fortress.
"Trust me. The dark is dumb and bears us no malice. A struggle with ice and stone and dark we can survive."