@Peregrine It was the kind of beautiful summer that made a person feel like nothing bad could happen. For all appearances, the world was perfect within Kirilia; the fields produced bumper crops, the wells were full of water, the streams teemed with fish, and game ran wild and plentiful through the woods that bordered the mountains. Nevertheless, it was high summer when the rumours of barbarian armies marching from the north began to be whispered in the countryside. Rumours soon proved to be well-supported facts, and as the leaves changed at the end of summer, there was a tension over the land as smoke rose from the North - army camps or arson, no one was sure. Farmers were awaiting the first frost when the King proposed that the population should flee Kirilia and escape over the mountains. Many refused to leave; soldiers forced some from their homes, but some hid in caves, bunkers, ruins, and remained rooted even as their towns and villages emptied. Some left with wagon-loads of possessions, which gradually dwindled as speed became of the essence; snow was flurrying down from the heavens when the first refugees - the Royal parties among them - arrived at the Mountain Pass. It was called a Pass, but really it wasn't much more traversable than any other part of the sheer rock faces; there was a thin, needle's-eye of a valley, but it was subject to rockslides, wild beasts, and most nerve-wracking of all - the Spirits of the Mountain. Kirilia's covenant with the mountain was so old that opinions greatly varied as to whether the mountain itself was sentient, or home to a race of nymphs or fairies, or whether a tribe of powerful shamans lived there, or whether a spell had been set up long ago by mages now passed. They all generally seemed to agree on the principle of the arrangement though; Kirilia didn't bother the mountain, and the mountains didn't bother Kirilia. But times were different now; danger pressed ever closer from the north, dark magic scorched the Northern borders and pressed towards the heart of the nation; Kirilia had no where else to run. Prayers were offered, priests and mayors and the King himself declared in mighty voices to the mountain that no harm would come to it, and all people were put to a solemn oath not to hunt any beast or tear down any tree upon the mountain's face. All this was for naught. The next wave of refugees arrived the day after the first attempt to a camp of weeping and despair. Their first attempt at crossing was led by a group of representatives of the churches of the nation, followed by the common peoples, women, children, all carrying symbols of piece and with faces upturned in reverence. Yet even as their feet stepped upon the rocky ground, a great multitude of spirits emerged from the rocks, trees, and streams, and converged like a typhoon of power upon the refugees; a whirlwind of dust and leaf and bone and blood and screams echoed off of the cliffs, and not so much as a hair remained to bury. When the dust settled, the spirits of the mountain stood en mass in the gap, all just as variable as they were inhuman. A few resembled fauns or centaurs; seeming to be half animal and half person, sporting horns, ears, tails, paws, feathers, wings. Some were small, and others appeared as giants, some were colourful and vibrant like rainbows with eyes, and others were pale as the ashen face of death. They spoke without moving their mouths, a great number of voices speaking as one in the minds of the Kirilians. They addressed the present leader of Kirilia, and reminded him of the covenants of old; that these mountains be regarded as sacred; that the game residing there not be hunted, the plants not be cut, the water left free of dam and well. This contract had been violated; even then the horse and wagon and boot of many hundred refugees trampled the grass and flower at the foot of the mountains. Still their plight was desperate, and life, even impure, disrespectful human life, must be sacred here. Kirilia would be allowed to pass through, unharmed; provided they touch no plant, hunt no game, and drink no water from the mountains. And also provided that they leave behind two Kirilians - two being the number of balance; light and dark, earth and sky, life and death - to have their life energy drained and their souls sacrificed, that it might be used to repair the unavoidable damage done to the mountain, and to mark the distinction of the wrongs already suffered against it. The King, who was a just and peaceable man, would have denied the situation outright, had it not been for the scouts from behind who ran into the camp at the dusk hour of the selfsame day - Gyor's armies marched across Kirilia's heartland, there was no where else to go. The King could either sacrifice two people, or his entire nation. A proclamation was issued from the King's Tent that this contract - heard in the mind by all present in the camp, and presently repeated to the stragglers who arrived soon after - be carried out only by two understanding volunteers. Those who would volunteer should present themselves at the forefront of the camp in the open space before the mountain by daybreak of the next day. It was a proposition that weighed heavily in everyone's minds, and not least in the mind of Ermintrude as she lay shivering under her fur. The bearskin she pulled around her shoulders as she sat upright was one of the few remaining things from her father's estate; the wool nightdress that she straightened around her tired legs was borrowed from another refugee whose name she didn't know. Her mother lay curled up on the other side of the canvas tent, facing the wall. Face the wall was most of what Lady Gareth did lately - that and cry or shake. She'd gone quiet the day she and Ermin returned to the main estate from their "Ladies Get Away" in the country to find the house completely looted and her husband's body in the hallway with a crossbow bolt between his eyes. Lady Gareth fainted, Ermin ran for the guards. Tearing her eyes away from her mother, Ermin watched the flap of their tent wave in the wind. Moonlight fell in through the opening between the flaps and she stared out at the night and thinking about how little was left. She stood up, her long, brown hair fell in a braid to her hips, but broken and tangled wisps had fallen out from tossing and turning, and she had to push them out of her tired eyes. She looked down at her mother's sleeping form and saw that her eyes were open, but she didn't move when Ermin walked out of the tent and started making her way to the forefront of the camp.