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Chapter 23

Having a new goal re-energized them. Thomas and Durin immediately set to work building a travois for Krista and the gold. Since he would be traveling alone, they decided to build a sling between the two horses to hold a fire pot. If he was attacked by wolves or other winter carnivores, he could set fire to his arrows to drive them off. Oily strips of cloth wound around the shafts just behind the head would ensure the arrows were easy to light. They also decided to rig torch scones on the travois itself to further deter any animals he might encounter.

Storm and Lorelei began an inventory of their winter equipment while Ralt turned his magical Art to tracing their enemies’ path. They soon realized their supplies were wholly inadequate for a cross-country trek through the snowy mountains.

“Everything we’ve got was purchased with the wagon and horses in mind,” Storm grumbled. “There’s nothing here to help us on foot.”

“It would take us all day just to cover a few leagues,” Lorelei agreed after assessing their meager supplies. “We need more winter equipment, starting with boots and working our way up from there. The people back in Breckinridge probably won’t sell any of their horses but what about snowshoes and skis and such? Do they have that kind of thing?”

Storm tugged on his beard. “I don’t know. I’ve never been through here this late in the year. But they’re a mountain community. I can’t imagine them not having winter equipment for the mountains.” He was pleased she understood as quickly as he did their reasons for not selling any of their horses. It was one more indication of how alike they were. “Around here they probably learn to ski as soon as they start walking.”

“Got it!” Ralt exclaimed. “He went straight over the top of that mountaintop there.” He pointed at a craggy peak just north of them. “About seventy leagues or so, maybe less.”

“Seventy leagues?” Storm grunted as he pulled out the captured map and spread it in the snow. “Here’s Breckinridge. We’re about eight leagues west of that, right about here, I guess.” His gloved finger traced their path on the map. He ran it north up the map until he reached a peak, seventy leagues, away; the map referred to it as Mount Coldfire. Lorelei leaned over his shoulder to see. Crossed shovels and pickaxes indicated several mines in the area.

“Mount Coldfire? What’s that?” she asked, her warm breath tickling his ear.

He shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it. I’ve been through Ingold a number of times but we always stayed on the main road.”

She leaned down further, pressing her breasts firmly against his shoulder. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing at a spot near the base of the mountain. “A village?”

“Looks like it,” he replied. “But there’s no name so it’s probably a mining camp that’s only used part-time.” He was very conscious of the warm mounds pressing against him through their clothes. It was very distracting.

“During the summer I’ll bet,” she murmured, leaning even harder against him. “If it’s deserted the rest of the year it’d be a perfect spot for a gang of cutthroats.”

He cleared his throat nervously. The only women he’d known since coming to Gaia were whores who tried to entice him – always failing as the memory of Lydia seared his conscience. A warrior-woman of the Biqah was something different, completely outside his experience. Was she trying to send him some kind of message? And why now of all times? She’d said something about a dream when they started drinking last night; did it have anything to do with her current actions? “Yeah,” he managed, trying to sound indifferent to her presence. “If they pulled back into those mines it’d be a devil of a fight trying to get them out again.”

“Let’s tackle one problem at a time,” Ralt said.

Storm looked up to see the wizard giving him a very strange look. It took him a moment to realize where Ralt’s gaze was directed. He was staring fixedly at the mounds of Lorelei’s breasts flattened on his shoulder. He found himself blushing. He rubbed his forehead to cover his confusion. “Like what?”

“Like how we’re going to get over those cliffs.” Ralt pointed at the soaring crags to the north. The line of jagged cliff faces was virtually unbroken as far as they could see in either direction. Storm stood up, glad for a chance to get some distance from Lorelei, yet oddly disappointed at the same time.

“We’ll have to go around,” she said, with what sounded like a note of disappointment in her voice at the loss of contact between them.

Storm was surprised. Go around? What kind of? . . . oh. He shook his head. “You’re thinking like a flat lander, not a mountaineer. We’ll have to buy ropes and pitons in Breckinridge.”

She was confused. “Ropes and what?”

“Pitons. They’re small, steel spikes with eye holes in the end that open and close. You hammer them into the cliff face and use them to climb,” he explained. “You thread the rope through the eye –”

“Whoa! Hold it! You want us to climb that?” Her eyes were wide in disbelief. Ralt was giving him the same look; a look clearly indicating he was out of his mind.

He grinned widely at them. “Of course. I’ve done it before. It’s not nearly as hard as you think.” He neglected to mention it had been forty years since the last time he did any serious climbing in Tibet in the Alps – with an experienced guide doing all the hard work; there was no need to alarm them any more than necessary. He’d learned a lot in those few short weeks. He was sure it would come back to him. “You’ll see,” he said confidently. Ralt and Lorelei swapped dubious stares. Neither of them looked particularly convinced. “You’ll see,” he repeated, wishing he was as sure as he sounded. He calmed his doubts by reminding himself it could take weeks to find a way around the imposing cliffs; weeks during which more snow was certain to fall, making travel even harder than it already promised to be. He had no desire to spend the rest of the winter tramping around in circles trying to find their way through the mountains. The straight path was the shortest and by God, that’s how they were going to go.

Before they could put up any more arguments he stomped away to see how Durin and Thomas were progressing with the travois.

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