The gray stone steps jutted in odd angles, irregularly shaped and sized, and without clear separation from the mountain’s natural features. Were they built in, or carved out? thought Ulrik. It’s just the same to my legs, he supposed. The smell of rotting wood and sod-berries in the humid forest air made his lungs feel heavy and he thought he might rest and share water with his small companion: a Yorkshire Terrier who panted wildly, but nevertheless remained no more than three inches from the boy’s heel.
“We’ve still got a way to go,” said Ulrik, “but there’s no sense in getting there without you, is there, Sir Bill?” He slid the canvas pack from his right shoulder, loosened the drawstring, and crouched, rummaging through its contents. The dog cocked his head and sat, twitching his nub of a tail. Ulrik rolled the leather water pouch through his fingers. “There’s not much here . . . Maybe if we pass a creek I can fill it up. For now, we’ll have to be sensible about it.” He set down a small wooden dish and slowly tipped the pouch to fill it. Sir Bill lapped it all up before Ulrik finished pouring.
“Who are you?” said a voice from higher up the steps. It was stiff and creaking, like the oak branches bending overhead. “What are you doing here?” Ulrik looked up to see the old woman. She was bent low in a permanent bow and clothed in moss covered blankets.
“Oh,” said Ulrik, “I’m just a traveler. I’ve stopped to water my friend here.” Sir Bill gave a short yip.
“No, no, young man, what are you doing this side of the mountain unweighted?” The woman tugged at a vine that hung from her side and ended in a stone the size of a watermelon. She descended a few more steps, turned, and drug the stone down after her—step by step. Ulrik and the dog exchanged raised eyebrows.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean ma’am,” said Ulrik.
“The west wind is blowing, you’re but a small child, and you’re unweighted! Lord, you’ll be blown away for sure.”
“Blown away?” Ulrik looked about the mountain side. “The trees are thick and the steps are held fast, a little wind can’t harm me, can it?”
The old woman’s eyes widened and she tugged at her short locks of dirt colored hair. “Oh, dear, dear, what shall I do? What to do!”
Just then the leaves began to twirl around the steps and the branches of the bushes and trees chattered loudly. Ulrik replaced the pouch and dish in his pack and secured it to his back. “Is the wind really so strong on this mountain?”
“Stronger, boy, stronger, oh! what to do, oh!”
“What should we do? I need to reach the valley beyond, I’ve come so far up already, I must reach the top.”
The woman scratched her chin and glanced around. Her lips fluttered silently as she considered the boy. Her mossy rags began to whip violently in the wind. “What business do you have in the valley?”
The pebbles around Ulrik’s feet slide eastward and dribble from the steps. “The king, ma’am, I’m to see the king!”
“What business with that great fool?”
“He’s my father ma’am . . .”
Ulrik had to shield his eyes for dirt and debris swirled all around him.
“Father . . . Oh, dear . . . Just a boy, and a noble at that! Why, I can’t let you be blown to bits, here . . . But maybe—” The woman worked the knot in the vine at her side.
“What are you doing?” Ulrik shouted over the great noise of the wind. “You’ll be blown away yourself!”
“Quiet now and hurry!” She handed the boy the end of the vine and they both fumbled to secure it around his waist. Sir Bill whined as his claws scrambled for a hold on the steps. Ulrik bent to snatch up the dog and was blown into a sitting position. The old woman stood between him and the ever strengthening blow.
“What about you? You’ll be blow away!” Ulrik felt his body lift from the steps and bob up and down until a stronger blast blew him out like a kite and the vine pulled tight. Ulrik screamed.
The old woman hunkered down, still on her feet; legs spread. “I know how to handle this old wind! He’s not crushed me in ninety years! He won’t start now!” Then all at once, the mountain woman leaped into the air like one would a deep stream, and was flung high over Ulrik and through the trees. Just before she was out of sight, Ulrik thought he heard her call back: “Tell the king what you’ve seen!” Ulrik held Sir Bill in one arm, the vine in the other, and promised himself never to forget this kindness.