Storm was glad to be moving again. Too much time to sit and think was bad for the soul. He now understood the old saying better than ever. He still had too much time to think during the uneventful trek across the plains but at least morning and night were consumed with the ritual of setting up camp then taking it down again. It was a welcome reprieve from his dark, brooding thoughts. There wasn’t any magic on Earth. It had taken him years to accept it might exist on Gaia, even after meeting a wagon driver in Sairaw who’d found a magic vest that let him fly. The idea he was a wizard with the power to cast magic spells, or had the potential to be one, was a bit more than he could handle at the moment.
They’d been moving at a brisk pace, two-thirds of the way across the plains when the stampede hit them. Three more days of rapid travel brought them to the foothills of the Ridge Mountains. It took the better part of the day to find the alleged road leading to Robling. It was getting worse every year, which Storm found strange since Ingold was literally rolling in gold from the countless mines dotting it. Why such a wealthy kingdom let its roads degenerate into such a sad state was beyond him. King Roderick really must be losing his mind like the rumors said.
The following morning they were climbing into the foothills, leaving the Plains of Aroon behind. The scenery gradually changed from tall grass and rich soil to granite outcroppings and swaying evergreens. Storm was enjoying the fresh scent of pine when Thomas came charging back down the road from his position as point man.
“Cap’em! Hey, Cap’em! We got trouble!”
“What kind of trouble?”
His black mood vanished in an instant. Time for wizards and magic later; this was more like it! “Where?”
Durin had stopped them when Thomas came galloping back. Now all of them gathered close to listen to his breathless report. “I’d just gotten past that outcropping up there,” he spewed rapidly, pointing back up the trail, “when I stopped to take a leak. I found a bunch of animal bones in a clump of bushes. They can’t be more than a couple weeks old and several of ’em had spikes in the skulls just like you told us about.”
Storm nodded. Manticores had iron-like spikes in their tails they could fire like crossbow quarrels. They packed nearly as much force too. “Go on.”
“That’s it. As soon as I saw ’em I high-tailed it back here.”
“Alright.” He stroked his short beard while he considered what to do. The foothills they were in rose quickly out of the plains, soon giving way to the main body of the Ridge Mountains. The Ridges were an old range, weathered and treacherous. They were undercut by streams and underground rivers, creating a labyrinth of grottoes and caves which sometimes stretched for leagues. It was exactly the kind of place Manticores loved. In fact, the Ridges were lousy with them. He couldn’t remember a caravan that had gone through them without being hit at least once. But those were caravans which had enough manpower to reduce the Manticores to the level of a nuisance rather than a genuine threat. With this small of a band, he couldn’t afford to take chances. Then too, Manticores generally preferred the middle elevations. If they were hunting this far down the mountain it was because they had young to feed. Visitors would not be appreciated in what they regarded as their family territory.
“It’s time to break out the armor,” he told them. Groans sounded from all sides. “I know it’s hot, I don’t like it either but I’d rather sweat than die. Those spikes can punch through mail like a hot knife through butter. Full plate is the only thing that stands a chance of stopping them, so armor up and don’t be all day about it. Oh yeah, another thing, if I catch anyone riding with his visor up, I’ll personally skin them alive. Understood?” He glared at them fiercely.
Subdued nods answered him. They tethered their horses and began digging out the heavy, plate mail armor bundled in the wagon. Getting into full plate wasn’t like putting on a shirt of chain. It took two men to dress a third, so they teamed up, helping each other with the various pieces and connectors. The only ones not suiting up were Ralt and Sodan.
The old man was still weak from his heart attack. He probably couldn’t stand up under the weight of the heavy armor anyway. 90 minas, which Storm translated to over 100 pounds, of encasing metal was a bit too much to expect a man of his age to handle.
Ralt was unarmored for a different reason. Apparently, steel interfered in some way with the casting of spells. He could wear some steel armor, equal to a certain percentage of his body weight but not enough to do any good against Manticores. His protection would have to come from his Art. He assured Storm he had several spells specifically designed to protect him from bolts, arrows and other non-magical missiles. Sodan, on the other hand, would stay in the wagon underneath a large shield brought along with exactly that purpose in mind.
Finally satisfied everyone, including the horses, were either armored or protected as best they could be, he ordered them to move out. “Remember,” he warned, “those monsters can dive at us from any angle. Keep your heads up and your eyes open. And they fire those spikes in volleys, so don’t bunch up; stay spread out.”
Thomas took the lead again, his longbow held at the ready. The rest of them either had a longbow or crossbow depending on their taste. Durin, an indifferent archer at best, stayed near the wagon to protect Sodan, his war axe clasped tightly in case of a ground attack. Storm had briefly considered a bow, then discarded it in favor of a brace of short spears. His father’s childhood training had taught him to bring down a hawk in mid-air with a single cast. Manticores were just a bit bigger, he thought with grim amusement. All in all, he felt they were reasonably well prepared for, whatever might happen.
They wound their way up the mountain at a slower pace than before, keeping a tense lookout. Every flying object was a potential threat until it resolved itself into an eagle or hawk or some such. As they climbed into the heavily wooded mountains they redoubled their caution. Manticores were intelligent enough to wait in ambush in the thick undergrowth around them. Suspicious bushes and rocky overhangs had to be carefully investigated before passing them. Time and again they hurled spears and small boulders into likely hiding places, bracing themselves for a life and death struggle. Each time they let out a sigh of relief as their efforts went unrewarded. Tension began to take its toll, and sunset found them exhausted for the first time on their trip.
Storm found a defensible site alongside a quiet stream and decided to make an early camp. After talking it over with Durin, he ordered all the guards to stand watches by twos. The rest of them would sleep sitting up in their armor. It was uncomfortable perhaps, but Manticores had been known to attack at night. Once the battle was joined there would be no time to don the heavy armor, and fighting Manticores without it was suicidal at best.
Once again he found himself sitting by the fire with Ralt as the men settled down for the night. Was it chance, or something more, that led him to spend so much time with the wizard? He turned it over in his head as they smoked their pipes in companionable silence. He was trying to decide how to broach the subject when Durin shifted in his sleep, causing his axe to reflect firelight into his eyes. There was another mystery, one he felt more comfortable talking about. “Have you noticed Durin’s axe?” he said quietly so as not to disturb the men. On both sides of each blade was a stylized etching of a snarling wolf head, but that wasn’t what he was talking about.
Ralt nodded around his pipe. “Hurts to look at it it’s so powerful.”
Storm had to agree. He had gradually learned to turn his new talent on and off at will, but until then he’d been forced to shade his eyes every time Durin brought the great axe into view. “Where’d he get it?”
“I don’t know.” Ralt puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “He’s had it as long as I can remember but he usually keeps it in his quarters. This is the first time I’ve seen him carry it.”
“Nope. He’s been with Sodan for years and this is the first time anyone has seen him carry it like this. It makes me wonder.”
“Well,” he hesitated. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but Durin means ‘Great One’ in the Old Tongue. It’s a name usually reserved for royalty.”
Storm almost dropped his pipe. “Royalty?” He stared at the sleeping dwarf through slitted eyes. “You mean he’s a king? A dwarven king?”
“Or a prince. I think so. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him. That axe, that wolf axe, is certainly fit for a king though.”
Storm considered it in silence for a moment, puffing slowly on his pipe. “So what’s a royal dwarf doing hanging around with a merchant from Zered?” he said finally.
“I said ‘usually’,” Ralt replied. “He may not be royal at all.”
Storm shook his head without thinking. “No. He’s royal, he’s a king.”
“How do you know?” Ralt asked carefully, looking askance at him.
Storm’s brow furrowed in confusion at the simple question. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder until Ralt put it into words. “I don’t know how. I just – “He waved his hands vaguely, searching for the right way to put it. “I just know.”
“Naw,” Storm shook his head. “I’ve always been able to tell things about people. I don’t have any control over it, it comes and goes, but when it happens, it’s always right.”
“I’ve heard of people like that,” Ralt replied quietly. He tamped the tobacco down in his pipe bowl. “Never met one before now though.” He blew a smoke ring up over the fire. “Can I ask you a question?”
“What?” he asked warily.
“Why do you spend so much time with me? I thought you hated wizards.”
Storm started as Ralt asked the very question that had been on his mind earlier. “I do. You’re a bunch of twisted, evil –” He stopped himself in mid-sentence. “Sorry. That was just, habit talking. The truth is, I don’t know why. In fact, I was wondering the same thing earlier, but I didn’t know how to bring it up.”
Ralt smiled faintly. “As with everything else, just do it.”
“And to blazes with the consequences?”
“Something like that.”
“You don’t talk much like a wizard.”
“You don’t talk much like a barbarian.”
They stared at each other in surprise as they said it at the same time. Finally, Storm started to chuckle. A moment later Ralt joined him. Their merry peals of laughter echoed through the cool night air, free and unrestrained.