Snakes, metaphorical and less so.
Chapter 13, Part 2
“Once we get inside, you’ll find out.”
The answer to why it was called the Snake Pass was indeed clear once they were well into the pass. Unlike a high mountain pass mapped along a route of least resistance, the Snake Pass followed a natural defile almost at ground level, but it was never a straight trail. It followed an undulating course like its namesake as it worked through the mountains. Sheer cliffs formed the walls reaching up several hundred feet, with the mountains on either side rising higher still. At its widest point, no more than two wagons could travel side by side, and it sometimes narrowed even further. As the day wore on, however, Marta and Sela were grateful to find that there were occasional side branches. They never reached very far into the mountains and none were even wide enough to accommodate a wagon, but they did make convenient and private places to answer nature’s call.
They rode until early afternoon, and down in the pass the shadows were already gathering.
“Snake Pass indeed,” Sela muttered.
Prince Dolan rode beside the wagon. He raised his voice a bit to be heard over the creaking of the wheels.
“It’s presumed that the pass was created by some great cataclysm in times past, but if so it’s not in anyone’s living memory. Look up there,” Dolan said, pointing ahead to where a giant boulder the size of a house had fallen off the cliffs only to become wedged perhaps thirty feet above the narrow road. “We’ll pass under several of those along the way. I know they’ve been there for centuries, but I always cringe. “
“What happens when a smaller one blocks the pass?”
“Stonecutters and masons are engaged from either side depending on where the block occurs. They break up and take anything that reaches the ground. They gain building materials and the path is kept clear.”
“I suppose one could invade either way through this, given enough time,” Marta said.
Sela looked doubtful. “I wouldn’t think so.”
“Why not?” Prince Dolan asked, though Marta had the feeling that the prince already knew the answer.
“Too easy to defend,” Sela said. “All you’d need on either side would be a few dozen mountaineers with pry bars. You could rain stones all day from the cliffs and never even be within bowshot of anyone unlucky enough to be below you. If that failed, it wouldn’t be difficult to rig stones large enough to block the pass entirely and have them ready to go at need, and then keep harassing anyone either trying to reach the mountaineers or clear the block.”
“I see you have a talent for strategy, Lady Sela. Absolutely right,” Dolan said. “There have been small raids—none in recent history, thankfully—but no more than that. The Snake Pass is only practical in times of peace.”
“It’s just ‘Sela,” Highness,” Sela said. “It was fun pretending to be Lady Sela for a while, I admit, but I’m just Sela.”
Dolan smiled. “I don’t pretend to know a great deal,” he said. “But one thing I do know is that you will never be ‘just Sela.’ Now excuse me, I want to check with our scout.”
Dolan had sent one of their escort ahead as soon as they’d entered the pass. Marta and Sela saw the man return and confer with the lead soldier. Dolan soon joined them. Yet before he could return, Bonetapper glided down the defile and landed on Marta’s shoulder.
“Trouble,” he said. “Someone’s been murdered at…well, I guess it’s some sort of way station about a league ahead. Dolan’s scout found the evidence at about the same time that I did. He’s good—I don’t think most humans would have spotted the signs just riding by.”
“You’re human, underneath those feathers,” Marta pointed out.
“Lately I’m not so sure,” Bonetapper said. “Sometimes I forget. There was a time when I wouldn’t.”
“I thought the Snake Pass was clear of bandits,” Sela said.
“No one mentioned bandits,” Bonetapper said. “Frankly, I don’t think we yet understand what happened, or to whom.”
“You have a nose for death, Bonetapper,” Marta said. “Can you really tell no more than this?”
The raven shrugged his wings. “Possibly. I’ll need to get closer, but under the circumstances it’s probably best if we don’t go there.”
“I’m thinking we may not have a choice.”
((End Part 2))
©2015 Richard Parks
Ambush? Assassination? Or merely bloody-minded banditry?
Some of the above, no doubt, possibly in combination.