It was over a week before the horses had recovered enough to travel again. Storm was getting worried. The week spent waiting for Sodan to get over his heart attack, and now another week or more waiting for the horses to heal, added to the time they’d spent crossing the Plains of Aroon, was nearly equal to the length of time their entire journey should have taken in the first place. Fall was quickly turning into winter; here in the mountains they’d already had frost on the ground three mornings in a row. Good weather was no longer a sure bet. The higher they climbed, the worse the odds would become and an early snow could strand them all winter if it was heavy enough. Both Durin and Ralt shared his gloomy outlook on things. Several times Storm had found the dwarf standing on a high rock smelling the air with a grim look on his face.
The men, by contrast, were unaccountably cheerful. They laughed and shouted to each other as they broke camp to resume their journey, acting like children on a holiday outing. They gave Ogden some good-natured ribbing about his uselessness because of his broken leg, they did little impromptu jigs and Thomas even tried to sing some barracks diddy until they pelted him with pine cones to stop his caterwauling.
Storm couldn’t believe they were this ignorant about winter travel even this far south. Didn’t they know what could happen? Durin caught sight of his sour expression as he finished kicking out the fire. “What did you expect?” he rumbled. “They’re city folk, born and bred.”
“Not Thomas,” he objected.
Durin sniffed to show what he thought about the irrepressible guardsman. “Never expect good sense from a gambler,” he threw over his shoulder as he stalked away.
Storm couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He swung up into the saddle with a searching glance at the cloudy sky overhead. It didn’t feel like snow but you could never be sure. “Are they ready yet, Thomas?”
“Ready ta go, Cap’em!” he called merrily. “You just give the word and we’ll burn up the road!”
“Move them out then,” he replied. “Flankers take position. Let’s go.”
Despite his misgivings about the men they quickly fell back into their trail routine. Whatever shortcomings they might have, discipline wasn’t one of them. They made good time and by noon they were climbing through a high mountain pass to drop into the shallow valley beyond. The Plains of Aroon vanished as they entered fully into the mountains surrounding Ingold. Although the first pass marked the official border of Ingold they still had another fifty leagues of treacherous, winding road ahead of them before they encountered any villages.
They reached the far end of the small valley then started up another steep incline, once again switch-backing their way up the mountain. At the top of each incline was another valley, or sometimes just a broad meadow leading to yet another slope. Like a series of giant steps, Storm often thought.
Navigating them was old hat, giving him time to reflect on the lessons Ralt had been teaching him throughout their enforced delay.
“Gerald only taught me a little about Ghibbores,” he explained one night as they sat up around the watch fire as had become their custom. Durin lounged nearby, listening intently. “Mainly because they don’t come along very often, like people born with one green eye and one blue eye; it’s rare. So naturally, there’s not much written about them.”
Storm nodded his understanding, “That’s the way it always is.”
Ralt tugged his cloak tighter around him; the nights were getting cooler. “Well, I’ve already told you their power is revealed in their twelfth year or once every twelve years after that. Besides being naturally attuned to the weave of magic their other senses are also enhanced, turned up a notch if you will, including what some would call your ‘sixth’ sense,” He shot a glance at Storm, “something you seem to have.”
“All my life,” he shrugged. He grinned at them. “And its saved my life enough times too!”
Pipe smoke was wreathed around Durin’s head. He waved it away. “Including your life on Elder Earth?”
Storm glanced around quickly to make sure none of the men were awake to hear them. “Of course. I told you I was a soldier in two giant wars. Without it, I’d have been dead a dozen times over on Iwo Jima alone.” He saw their confusion and added, “An island battlefield.”
“Ah.” Ralt let it go even though Storm could see a million questions behind his eyes. “The last thing Gerald mentioned was Ghibbore always seem to have a, I don’t know, a core of magic burning inside them. You certainly do but it’s not like any magic I’ve ever seen before. My detection spell showed that much.”
“What’s it fer?” Durin interjected quizzically. “What do ye do with it?
The wizard shrugged. “Not a clue. Storm is the Ghibbore, why don’t you ask him?” They both looked at him.
He held up his hands defensively. “Hey! Don’t ask me. This is all new to me too you know. Hey, sometimes I’m not even sure I believe it yet.”
He shook his head at the memory. Part of him did believe it but what was he supposed to do about it? Magic, as displayed and performed by Ralt, obviously did exist, but wielding it himself was still a bit much to wrap his head around. He stayed away from those thoughts as much as possible. He didn’t like the theological implications either – yet another subject he avoided as much as possible since Lydia’s death.
They made camp that night in one of the high meadows, shivering as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the warmth of the day vanishing as though someone had just reached out and turned it off. The next morning the men were more subdued as they broke camp – wolves had been heard howling in the night.
Almost immediately they dropped into a deep valley cut by the rushing Toagee River. They reached the bottom without incident and easily forded the river. The deepest spot in the ford was barely two feet deep; a bad sign Storm thought. It meant an early winter for sure. He saw Durin eyeing the water level as well and knew he wasn’t the only one anticipating trouble.
After crossing the river they stopped so the dwarf could check the wagon for damage. Ralt leaned down from his seat while Durin examined the undercarriage. “Is it just my imagination or was that too easy?” His voice was pitched low to keep it from carrying.
Storm cast a quick look over his shoulder at the men. They were too far away to hear. “It was too easy,” he replied quietly in the same voice. “It should have been at least three cubits deep, maybe more.” Trust a rancher to spot the signs of an early winter, he thought, even a part-elven rancher turned wizard.
“I don’t like it.”
“So what’s to like?” Storm snorted. “All we can do is keep going and hope the weather holds.”
“Hoping fer good weather,” Durin grumbled as he rolled out from under the wagon, “is worse than hoping for lucky dice. The wagons’ in good shape,” he added.
It was all he needed to hear. He started them up the other side of the valley, pushing the horses as hard as he dared. He didn’t share Durin’s pessimistic outlook but he knew the odds were against them. They should have already been in Robling by now. Speed was the only way they could beat the weather.
Incredibly, their luck held the rest of the day and the next as well. It was mid-afternoon when they crested a broad plateau called Oak Flats, just seven or eight leagues from the small town of Breckinridge. Once past it, the roads would improve tremendously. Wow, he thought, we just might make it after all.
Then he saw the farm.
The road was winding through the great stands of oak trees which gave the place its name. The trees ended abruptly at the edge of a clear field, plowed in neat furrows. A split rail fence lined the road on either side. Drying corn stalks rustled in the light wind. Beyond the corn, they could see part of the roof of a large building about half a league ahead.
The men gave a loud whoop of delight when they saw it. Farms meant villages nearby, with the promise of a hotel with real beds for a change. Broad grins broke out everywhere.
Storm heard their eager chatter as if from a long way off. The moment he saw the farm he was seized by a deep sense of foreboding. He knew instantly something was wrong, he was looking at a place of death. Island hopping through the Pacific in World War II had taught him to recognize the signs, even without his sixth sense, and they were no different here. Casting a quick glance around revealed nothing out of the ordinary, no obvious ambushes he could find. Nonetheless, he found himself loosening his swords in their scabbards.
“Hey!” Ralt hissed. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “Something’s not right.”
Ralt’s eyes narrowed as he took in Storm’s grim expression. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I don’t make mistakes about these things. Something’s not right,” he repeated firmly. He kept his eyes fixed on the house as it slowly emerged from behind the corn.
Durin noticed their concern. He nudged his horse closer. “What’s wrong?” he rumbled quietly.
The wizard rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. Storm thinks there’s something wrong up there.”
Ralt glanced at the cautious warrior sniffing the breeze by the wagon. “I don’t think he knows. Just – something.”
Storm ignored them. His soldier-warrior instincts now fully aroused, he began noticing little things; the absence of smoke curling up from the chimney, the empty fields which should have been filled with people gathering the last of the corn before winter descended, the lack of sound coming from the farm, no dogs barking, no chickens clucking – nothing at all. In the distance, he could faintly hear chimes tinkling in the wind. It was the only sound in the vast silence.
“Everyone hold it,” he hissed, drawing his great hand-and-a-half sword.
The men glanced back at him in confusion, taking in the dangerous glint in his narrowed eyes and the naked blade gleaming in the watery sunlight.
“Cap’em?” Thomas ventured uncertainly.
“Spread out,” he growled. “Two squads, swordsmen in front, archers to the rear. Ralt, take Ogden’s horse. He and Sodan will stay with the wagon. You and Durin come with me.”
The men merely stared at him in confusion.
“NOW!” he snarled savagely.
They blanched then scurried to obey.
Ralt had not been hesitant though; he handed the reins over to Ogden then mounted his horse bareback. He wheeled it around to Storm’s left. Beneath his breath, he was mouthing arcane syllables and words of Power. Durin also responded instantly, taking up position on Storm’s right, his great, war axe at the ready, glimmering with power.
For a moment Storm debated with himself whether to advance on foot. On horseback they towered above the corn, revealing their presence to anyone who might still be around the farm. That and the clip-clopping of their horse’s hooves would rob them of the element of surprise. It only took him an instant to discard the idea of approaching on foot. His men, city-bred though they were, couldn’t possibly have the knack of slipping quietly through the dry corn stalks without making noise. If they had no chance of approaching unheard then it was best to be mounted; a warrior on horseback had a three-to-one advantage over a man on the ground, even more, if he sat on a trained war-horse like Specter.
“Slow advance. Look sharp for ambushes,” he ordered.
His seriousness had penetrated by now. The men looked warily at the fields to either side of them, finally noting the ominous lack of movement.
They moved forward slowly, faces tense.
The horse’s hooves sounded loud as kettledrums in the still quiet surrounding them. Storm knew it was only an illusion created by their mounting sense of dread, but it was hard to shake the feeling the noise of their approach was echoing back off the mountains around them, alerting the whole world to their presence.
More and more of the farm was revealed as they drew closer. Storm began to see signs of damage. Part of the roof on the main building was gone, the edges black and charred. His gut tightened as they left the protection of the corn and emerged into clear sight of the farm.
They stopped short at the sight before them.