After a cold breakfast, they were on their way again. Sodan volunteered to drive the wagon so Ralt lazed back beside his uncle, studying an arcane book or simply eyeballing the scenery as the mood took him.
There was much to be seen. The Plains of Aroon were a hundred leagues wide at their narrowest point, nearly five hundred at their widest. North and south they ran for almost twelve hundred. Every conceivable variety of animal and plant life thronged the prairie. Vast herds moved slowly about, cropping the verdant grasses and shrubs. Late blooming flowers scented the air. Over the creaking of the wagon wheels, they could hear the lazy hum of insects and chirping birds.
Morning slowly gave way to midday and Sodan finally retired from the heat, giving the reins over to Ralt.
Cutting through the trail dust Durin moved over to ride by Storm. “Ye speak in military terms and we ride war fashion,” he said bluntly.
Storm glanced at him. “You object?”
“No. But I wonder at your reasons. Are you expecting trouble so soon?”
“I always expect trouble. That way I’m never disappointed.”
Durin nodded then moved away with a quiet smile.
The hills behind them sank slowly out of view until they disappeared in the tall grass. It was as though they rode through an ocean made of brown instead of blue. Their days quickly settled into a routine. Thomas would scout ahead with his heavy bow to provide them with an abundance of fresh meat as the days blended into one another. One was much like the last. Ride from dawn ’till dusk, pitch camp, eat, set the watches and sleep, then do it all over again the next day. Each morning the sky was clear and cloudless, only a haze of dust hung in the still air. The herds of buffalo grew in size until they blackened the land for leagues in every direction. Once they saw a long-fanged prairie cat, distant cousin to the smaller mountain lions the men were familiar with. The nights grew progressively cooler, heralding an early winter. More than one man predicted there would be snow in the passes of the Ridge Mountains before they reached Robling.
Their journey was so dull and boring Storm was surprised one night to find himself springing out of his blankets from a dead sleep, sword in hand. He checked himself abruptly, searching the camp for whatever had woken him. A quick glance confirmed all was well, so why were his nerves taut with a sense of impending danger? He stepped away from his blankets, listening closely. For as long as he could remember he’d been able to feel danger approaching while other men laughed uncaringly, secure in their false safety. His strange sense had never let him down; he didn’t believe it would now either.
Overhead, the moon lit up the ground with pale light, trailed by the dozens, if not hundreds of tiny dots known as the Pebbles, debris torn away from it during the Chaos Wars.
In the pale ghostly light, the night was still.
The usual chirping of insects and croaking of frogs was absent. Alarmed, he spun around searching the horizon for the danger he was now certain was approaching. Then he saw it. A dark blot obscured the stars to the south. Flashes of light flickered fitfully beneath it.
Ogden, the heavy-set guard on duty, moved to join him. “It’s only a storm, Captain. Been going for about an hour now.”
“A lightning storm,” Storm corrected him. “A lightning storm over a plain of grass, dry from the summer’s heat, ready to burn.”
“Ye fear a prairie fire?” rumbled a voice behind him.
He turned to find Durin and Thomas approaching. “Not the fire so much as the herds fleeing it. Even a well-made palisade is not always proof against their panic. And we don’t even have that much shelter.”
“The Captain is right,” the usually jocular Thomas added seriously, his accent suddenly missing. “I was raised on these plains. The only way to survive a stampede is to get out of its way – if you can.”
The dwarf shook his head. “Ye don’t even know the storm has started a fire, let alone a stampede.”
“Wrong,” Storm and Thomas said in unison.
Thomas continued, “A storm that size” – he gestured at the almost continuous flashes of lightning – “is guaranteed to start a fire, which in turn will start a stampede. Count on it.”
“Yes,” Storm agreed. “But in which direction?”
“No way to tell Captain, but I’d feel a lot better if we were moving. If it comes our way we won’t have much time to get out its path.”
“You’re right. Durin, get the men up and mounted. We ride at once.”
The dwarf shrugged but turned to his task without comment. His voice was a smaller echo of the distant thunder as he readied the men. For all they were city folk, they were well-trained Storm admitted to himself. After the first few grumbles, they responded with quick discipline. Even Ralt lent a hand saddling the horses. Soon they were moving through the darkness, the dying campfire a lonely beacon in the night.
Fearful of unseen holes or sudden drops in the dark, they rode cautiously. Still more fearful of a stampede, Storm urged them to greater speed, ignoring their protests. Long minutes dragged past until a sudden shout from Thomas brought them to a halt.
To the south, on their left, an orange glow lit up the clouds from beneath. It grew quickly as they watched. Thomas slid off his horse and stretched his length in the grass, one ear pressed to the ground. He rose a moment later, his face grim.
“It comes,” he said tersely as he swung back into his saddle.
“How far?” Storm asked him.
“Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. We’re directly in its path, and it’s wide – very wide.”
Storm cursed. If Thomas was right the stampede was practically on top of them already. “Alright then; ride for your lives! All of you! Ride!”
The men needed no urging. One glance at the growing fire coupled with the memory of the teeming herds filling the plains told them they stood at death’s door. Speed was their only hope before it slammed shut on them. They kicked their horses into a gallop.
Storm knew he would always remember their frantic ride through the inky darkness as a nightmare. They whipped through the tall grass at speeds that were foolhardy even in the full light of day. The darkness turned it into a suicidal rush through the night which could end in an instant of shattered flesh and bone at the slightest misstep. The wagon bounced and shimmied like a living thing as Ralt fought the reins, all the while urging the horses to greater and greater speed. The wind of their passage brought tears to their eyes and blurred their vision until they were truly blind, but they only spurred their horses harder. And prayed.
Their prayers went unheard.
With a sudden whinny of pain, the horse in front of Storm went down with a sickening crunch of bones. Specter swerved to the right, almost spilling him out of the saddle. His stride faltered for a moment, then strengthened again. One of the men, anonymous in the dark, started to rein in his horse.
“No!” Storm thundered. “Leave him! He’s already dead!”
The guard grimaced, then spurred his mount. Storm lashed Specter, wondering if his words were true. It didn’t matter he thought angrily; if they stopped they’d all be killed. He offered up a wordless prayer for the fallen guard then bent even lower over Specter’s neck.
The flashes of lightning were closer now, the electric blue flashes outlined them eerily in the night. The growing fire in the south cast flickering shadows across the land. Like some hideous army from Hell they appeared, the wind whipping their cloaks behind them. In the distance, the dim roar of the stampede began to make itself heard – a sound out of time – further heightening the unreality of the scene.
They hurtled through the night in a bone-shaking race with death. The noise grew until their savage shouts at the horses were drowned by the thundering hooves of countless, fear maddened buffalo.
Storm risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the vast herd, almost upon them. Then in the still growing light from the fire, he saw open prairie. Bellowing over the earthshaking noise he hauled savagely on Specter’s reins, hoping the rest of them heard him.
Pounding hard on his heels they raced for safety beyond the edge of the stampede. Every second brought them closer to open ground, every second brought the stampede closer to killing them. Storm could make out individual animals now. He fought against the urge to close his eyes. This is gonna be close!
Then . . .
. . . the stampede was behind them, racing away, north, into the night.
“Yeah!” he shouted, pumping his fist exultantly. “We made it!”
The men took up his shout, yelling in relief at their brush with death. They quickly slowed the horses to a trot, not wishing to tempt fate anymore this night. They kept riding for another ten minutes before Storm felt they were far enough west from the mighty stampede to risk stopping. Finally, he called a halt and ordered the men to sound off.
Thomas was sagging in his saddle in relief. “Who did we lose?” Storm queried him.
Storm shook his head. “I can’t place him.” Odd colors floated at the edge of his vision. He blinked to clear his eyes.
“The right flanker, Cap’em. Scar on his cheek.” With the danger passed, his hick accent suddenly reappeared.
Oh yes. Now he remembered. Noisy, talkative sort of fellow. Well, he was a lot quieter now. “Assign Ogden to his position. How is the wagon?”
“Boldric and Durin are looking it over. We’ll know in a few minutes.”
Storm dismounted, patting Specter’s sweaty flank. The ground shook beneath his feet from the power of the stampede’s thundering hooves. He grinned at Ralt who was slumped back in his seat, “Quite a ride, eh wizard?”
“One I’d just as soon not repeat if it’s OK with you,” he replied wearily.
Storm laughed. A close call with death always left him feeling invigorated, more alive than ever. He spotted Boldric climbing out from under the wagon. “How’s it look?”
The burly guard shrugged, brushing himself off. “Looks alright to me but Durin’s eyes are better in the dark than mine. Let’s wait and see what he says.”
Storm felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find Ralt behind him. “What?”
“The wagon may be alright, but Sodan isn’t. That was a pretty rough ride for a man his age. He looks like death warmed over.”
“Blast it!” Storm muttered. “I was afraid something like this would happen. He’s too old for this kind of thing. He should have stayed home.”
The wizard nodded agreement. “Still, it’s Krista he cares about and we’re getting paid to bring him along.”
Storm heaved a sigh, “Alright. See what you can do for him.”
Ralt opened his mouth to reply but Storm cut him off, “Never mind. Just do what you can.”
The corners of Ralt’s mouth pulled down, “Right. I’ll explain things later.”
Storm was already tired of the conversation. “You do that.”