The boy stared into the fog-choked ravine. Wan light pricked through the clouds in places, glossing the old hard ice and drawing rainbows in the haze. Meltwater trickled around his goat-hide boots to fall in thin rivulets from the ledge. And from the depths, an echo…
Cobrin son of Dernyel twitched and glared up the path as his friend’s shout rang off the walls. From the jutting shelf ahead, Lerien waved vigorously. Together they were two specks against the slick chasm path, one fair-haired and one dark, both small but experienced. These were their mountains.
Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Cob slipped gloved fingers free from their grip on the wall and shimmied further along the ledge. “You shouldn’t yell so loud,” he hissed at his friend as he drew near. “You’ll call an avalanche.”
“Will not,” Lerien scoffed. Crosslegged on the rock, he sat awaiting the other boy’s advance with amusement. His hood was off and his white muffler lay unwound across his shoulders, exposing face and throat to the early spring elements. The slimmer of the two, red-cheeked and rumpled, he was the darling of the village in the valley cleft, and his eyes caught the light like slick grey stone, gleaming with mischief. “No avalanches dare,” he said. “Come on, you’re too cursed careful. You’re not gonna fall.”
“I might,” Cob mumbled into his scarf.
“You wanna turn around an’ go back home? It’s okay.”
The faux consideration made Cob bristle, and he hauled himself onto the shelf with a grunt. He was sturdier and a tiny bit taller, dark where Lerien was bright. Slow and quiet and conscientious except when needled by his friend. His best friend; his only friend. “No, let’s go,” he huffed, gaining his feet and edging around the seated boy.
Lerien stuck a leg out to bar his way. “Hoi, my adventure, I go first!”
“You take forever.”
“That’s ’cause it’s dangerous. We’re not s’posed to be out here at all.”
Lerien’s face crinkled in wounded disappointment, and Cob sighed. It was a familiar look. “Fine,” the blond boy said. “If you don’t want to see the firebird–”
“You’ve been whining since we set out.”
“I’m not whinin’, I just…” Cob’s gaze drifted to the ravine again, with its shimmery play of light and shadow. Something felt wrong about this.
“Go on, go tuck yourself under your mommy’s skirts again.”
“Shut up, Leri. We’re goin’, aren’t we?”
“Well, me first,” huffed the blond boy. “You don’t even know the way.”
Cob squinted ahead, to where the cliff curved out of sight toward a faint steady thunder. “Over the waterfall, you said.”
“But you don’t know it the way I do,” Lerien insisted and brushed past Cob, hooking his fingers into the rough wall and swinging out. He clung to the stone like a lizard, moving easily despite the bulk of his coat. Cob sighed and the chilly air turned his breath to steam.
“We should wait ’til summer. That’s what my da’d say,” the darker boy mumbled, lowering himself carefully to the ledge. His boots slid on the icy stone for a heart-stopping moment before finding traction.
“We don’t have that kinda time,” Lerien said. He had already started, and the gap between them was growing swiftly as usual.
“I don’t even think it’s real,” Cob muttered.
His friend glanced back. “It is.”
“On your life it is?”
“I think you’re makin’ it up.”
“I swore, didn’t I?” Lerien said, and gave Cob a dire look before shuffling on.
Cob bit his lip and paused on the ledge. He wanted to believe it. They had been together as long as he could remember, up and down the mountains and in and out of the caves that riddled its damp innards. In the bramble yards and narrow places and blinding icicle gardens, and in constant trouble with Cob’s stern father. But through the dull rumble of the unseen waterfall, he thought he heard voices in the distance. Maybe Lerien’s village friends lying in wait for them–for him, the credulous mountain kid. The cave-dweller, isolated with his hermit parents in the cliffs. He wondered how many he would have to fight.
Or– A chill ran through him. What if the stories were right? What if it was the mountain spirits, whispering from the cliff’s cracks? Had the mist been so high before, cloaking the path and cutting off the rest of the world?
He squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself steady. Jus’ my imagination. Nothing there.
“Come on!” Lerien called. With a sigh, Cob turned his face back to the cliff and opened his eyes.
Two black hands reached out from the stone.
He jerked back wildly, a yelp of terror springing from his throat. Boots slipped, hands lost their purchase, and–
(This was the beginning of book 1 circa 2009, about three drafts ago. I removed it because I decided not to start with a dream sequence. The dream is currently thumbnailed later in the text.)