They were approaching Breckinridge. A city guard, possibly Kreckin, had spotted them and called out.
Storm waved in reply, astonished at their speed. It was barely mid-day. Had they covered eight leagues already? He must have set a punishing pace without realizing it, nor did he remember them stopping anywhere along the way. He and Lorelei were inured to such hardships from long years of practice of course, and Durin simply plowed through the snow without looking left or right. What about Ralt though? How was he holding up? He gave a guilty start as he remembered Ralt’s remark about wizards barely being able to totter around the room from lack of exercise. He snuck a quick peek at him.
Amazingly, Ralt seemed no more exhausted than the rest of them. It must be his elven heritage, Storm thought. Maybe it gives him some hidden reserve of strength to call upon. Whatever the source of his stamina, it was nice to know he wasn’t a weak link in their party.
It turned out the guard who spotted them wasn’t Kreckin but that worthy showed up before they were fully past the outskirts of town. He looked them over grimly. “What happened?”
Storm had already decided against mentioning anything about demons. The people here were decent enough, but if they learned they’d been attacked by a demon they might take it as a bad sign, a portent of evil things to come and deny them entrance to the city. “They ambushed us,” he growled. In a way, it was the truth. “We managed to beat them off but the price was high. We’re all who are left.”
“What about the girl who lives in two places?” Kreckin asked worriedly. “You said the Leader wanted to use her to increase his power. Did they get her?”
“Yeah. We came that close to stopping him,” Storm held up his thumb and forefinger with only a tiny gap between them, “but it wasn’t enough. He took off into the mountains. We think he may have been headed for someplace called Mount Coldfire. Ever heard of it?”
Kreckin fell into step with them. “Yeah. An old mining camp. There’s about a zillion of them up there. It used to be one of the better gold mining spots in the kingdom until the murdering giants showed up and killed everyone.” He shook his head sadly. “Even the army doesn’t go there anymore.”
The four of them stopped in dismay.
Lorelei was wide-eyed. “Did you say, giants?”
Kreckin nodded, not understanding their reaction. “Yeah, cave giants. About thirty or forty of them. But don’t worry. They never come this way.” He resumed walking. The four friends exchanged uneasy glances as they reluctantly followed him. They hadn’t counted on this!
Durin was the first to recover. “Don’t worry,” he rumbled. “My people have been fighting giants for ages. I can show you a few tricks to whittle them down to size.”
Kreckin’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What are you talking about?” He looked from one of them to another. Realization dawned on him and his jaw dropped. “Wait a moment! You’re not planning on going up there. Are you?”
“We have to,” Storm said flatly in a tone that brooked no argument.
Kreckin tried anyway.
“You can’t go up there. After the giants took over, Roderick destroyed all the roads leading in and forbade anyone to go there on pain of death for fear they’d rouse them to attack the rest of the kingdom. It’s against the law to even talk about going there.”
Storm started a slow burn inside. This was precisely the kind of weak-kneed simpering he detested about ‘civilization’, the same kind of attitude that led Chamberlain to appease Hitler. Instead of rousing their wrath against an encroaching evil they tried to placate it by leaving it to fester and grow. Fearful of being maimed or killed or even discomforted, they turned their back on evil, tolerated its presence in the vain hope it would go away on its own. Timid as sheep, they were ruled by fear. At least the Bear Clan never tolerated such things; they would have raised the war banners and driven the giants out no matter the cost. He took a deep breath, “We are not subject to –”
“Of course, of course,” Ralt hurried to interrupt him. “We didn’t know. I guess we’ll have to ask Roderick’s permission to go up there.”
Storm swelled up to deliver an angry blast at the wizard.
“We’ll have to discuss it in private,” Ralt continued quickly without giving him a chance. “We’ll need some rooms where we can rest and recuperate from our battle with the bandits. None of us are thinking very clearly at the moment. Please forgive us.” He threw a stern look at Storm, warning him to hold his temper.
The tall swordsman curled his lip in disdain. What was Ralt doing? Giving in? Does he really think I’m going to beg leave from Roderick for anything? He stewed in wrathful silence the rest of the way to the Black Staff Inn where they’d had lunch only two days before, ignoring Lorelei’s attempts to talk to him. In the common room of the inn, he glowered at everyone while the rest haggled for the price of their room. He followed them upstairs, his great fists clenching and unclenching. The moment the door closed he turned on the wizard like a wolf.
“What in blazes do you think you’re doing?” he thundered. “You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to ask permission from Roderick! I’m going up there and that’s all there is to it! I could care less about his stupid laws!”
“Keep your voice down!” Ralt hissed. “Of course we’re going up there. But you don’t have to tell the whole kingdom about it!”
Storm eyed him suspiciously, all thoughts of friendship long gone. “Liar!”
Ralt clenched his fists at the unfair accusation. “I made a promise to Sodan the same as you did. I’m going to keep it. If it means we have to blindside these idiots then that’s what we’ll do. We’ll get the equipment we need, let them think we’re going to Robling to get Roderick’s authorization then cut north the moment we’re out of sight. But if they think we’re going there on our own they’ll try to stop us, arrest us, throw us in prison. They sure won’t sell us any of the gear we need.” He talked fast, never giving him a chance to interrupt. “These are good people, Storm. They have homes and families to consider, laws to obey because they’ve consented to obey them. They stay here because they want to stay here. If they found out we’re going to Mount Coldfire they’d have to stop us or die trying. They’re innocent. Do you really want to slaughter innocent people who’ve never done you any harm, who only want to live in peace?”
Storm’s anger died as quickly as it had flared up, Ralt’s words burning in his mind, good people and innocent. As much as he would have liked to deny it, he knew in his heart it was true. The four of them were warriors, fighting for what was good and right perhaps, but warriors all the same. The people here were nothing like that. For all their pettiness they were still innocent of bloodshed and violence. No, he didn’t want to slaughter them to fulfill his promise to Sodan. It was another mark of how far he’d strayed from the path. He turned away in shame.
Lorelei laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “My father once spoke around the council fires of my people just as Ralt does. It led to his betrayal and death but I believe he was right. I would not dishonor his memory by betraying what he died for.”
Durin tossed his fiery axe on one of the beds with a heavy sigh. “Tis only the truth, lad. Doing the right thing has never been easy. Take it from one who knows. We cannot abandon Krista’s soul and we cannot war against these people for protecting their hearth and home as best they know how. We must mislead these people for their own safety and for the sake of our consciences.”
Storm’s head drooped. They were right. The Leader, whoever he was, was a threat to all of Ingold but the battle over Krista was one these people had no part in. They didn’t have a dog in this fight, as the saying went. He nodded, “You’re right. Ralt, my apologies. That was uncalled for.”
Tension leaked out of the room. Ralt waved it off. “It happens,” he said dismissively. “If I had a copper for every time I’ve shot my mouth off without thinking…” He trailed away, leaving the rest unsaid.
Lorelei gave Storm a wicked look. “But, since everyone has already heard your ranting and raving out there, we can use it to our advantage.”
Everyone perked up.
Storm eyed her suspiciously. He didn’t like the glint in her eyes. Years married to Lydia had taught him when women got that look it always spelled trouble. “Oh yeah? How?”
She grinned like the Cheshire Cat, “Easy. Come tomorrow morning, I’ll show you.”