The shadows were lengthening when they stopped again so Durin could pass the pitons back up to Storm. “It’ll be dark soon, lad,” he called up. “Ye best start looking for a place to spend the night.”
“I have been looking,” he admitted. “This cliff is as bare as a banker’s promise. It looks like we’re going to be hanging out in the wind tonight. Sorry, folks.” About thirty feet up he saw a section of the cliff face crisscrossed with cracks. There he would at least be able to set the pitons so they wouldn’t be sleeping directly above one another. The last thing he wanted was for one of them to sleep-walkout of their bag during the night and come crashing down on those beneath them. He pointed at it. “Looks like that’s where we spend the night.”
Lorelei went pale. “I can’t sleep on the side of a cliff!” she gasped as she saw he was serious. “I’ll fall!”
Storm reminded himself to be gentle with her. She’d been raised on flat open grasslands. The biggest hills she’d ever seen were gentle rolling ones a toddler could climb. This kind of terrain was completely alien to everything she knew. To him too, he admitted, but he didn’t want to tell her that. “Don’t worry. You’ll be as safe as you are now.” He hurried on before she could point out they weren’t safe. “I’ll set lots of extra pitons,” he assured her. “You won’t fall.”
He saw she wasn’t convinced but there was nothing more he could do about it. He hammered in another piton and heaved himself up. They had less than an hour before sunset and setting up sleeping positions for them was going to be a time-consuming task. He had to hurry.
When he reached the area he was aiming for he began crabbing sideways, hammering in pitons every foot or so. At each site where a sleeping bag would be hung he placed extras. Even though he moved as fast as he could it was still almost full dark by the time he was finished. He ordered them to light their lanterns and hang them from pitons he’d set with that purpose in mind.
Working by lantern light he had each of them pass up the hammocks that would support their sleeping bags. He strung them carefully, making sure the ropes were attached to both the inside and the outside of each one. When he unrolled a sleeping bag in each one it was almost like the hanging beds sailors used in the T’thalian navy. Out of concern for Lorelei’s peace of mind, he hung their hammocks head-to-head, so close they were nearly touching.
More pitons were hammered into the cliff to support their packs during the night. They ate a cold dinner then gingerly climbed into their makeshift beds. Durin appeared unconcerned with the tricky maneuver, as indeed he had been throughout the day. Ralt was tight-lipped and silent until he finally slid all the way into his bag where he let out a huge sigh of relief, but Lorelei was white-faced and trembling by the time Storm finally got her into her bag. Without thinking he leaned over and kissed her tenderly.
“You’re doing fine,” he told her softly, stroking her hair and face. “You’re doing fine.”
She clutched him desperately. “Don’t leave me,” she pleaded.
“I’m not. My bag is right here. I’ll be right next to you all night.” He tried to pull away but she wouldn’t let him.
She kissed him urgently. “Hold me!”
“Lorelei . . .”
With a sigh, he checked to make sure his belt ropes were securely fastened then wound both arms around her in a giant bear hug. She threw her arms around his neck then burst into great, wracking sobs. “I’m sorry,” she cried into his chest. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I thought I could . . . I thought I’d get used to it . . . but it’s so high and . . .” She couldn’t go on. Her whole body was shaking like a leaf.
Storm realized suddenly she wasn’t just scared, she was terrified. He cursed himself for an idiot. He’d seen this before; brave men who wouldn’t think twice about charging into a lion’s den would go to pieces if they looked out a second story window. Someone once told him there was actually a word for it; this fear of heights, but he couldn’t remember what it was. Now, he saw Lorelei had it. She’d been trying to fight it all day, trying to hide it, and he hadn’t seen it, hadn’t known it until just now. Oh my God! What have I done?
“I let you down,” she sobbed hysterically. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
He held her tighter. “No, Lorelei. You didn’t let anyone down. Just the opposite, you’ve done great. I can’t imagine what today must have been like for you, it must have been horrible. And you didn’t let anyone know. You hid it so well I didn’t have the slightest idea until just now. I could kick myself.”
She pushed his head back until she could look him in the eye. Her face was streaked with tears. “Kick yourself for what?” she sniffled.
“For dragging you up here like this. If I’d known, if I’d had any hint –”
“We would have come anyway,” she finished firmly. “You were right; going around would have taken way too long. It might have taken us weeks or even months. Who knows what that monster is doing to Krista’s soul? If we don’t stop him soon we may never be able to.” She shook her head. “This was the only way,” she said tearfully. “And if that means it’s hard on me, then it’s hard on me.” She wiped fitfully at her face, brushing away the streaks the tears left behind. “I’ll just have to live with it.”
Storm couldn’t believe it. She was willing to go on in spite of her terror. Where others would have been stopped dead in their tracks, she was willing to forge ahead even though she knew the price it would exact from her. She hadn’t even bothered to mention it until now. His estimation of her, already unusually high for knowing her such a short time took another giant leap upwards. He shook his head in stunned admiration. What a woman this was!
He leaned down and kissed her, very deliberately. He took his time about it, exploring her lips until they opened under his gentle assault and their tongues intertwined. Her taste was cool and clean, carrying a memory of the open steppes of her homeland. Her fingers slid through his hair, pulling him closer. Their kiss gradually took on a greater urgency. When he pulled back she moaned in loss.
“Wow!” he whispered. “I wish it was us headed for Robling instead of Thomas. These hammocks just aren’t built for more than one person.”
She laughed a low throaty chuckle.
“Too bad you didn’t try this yesterday in the hotel in Breckinridge. I would have said yes.”
He groaned at the possibility he’d unknowingly missed. “Woman, I think you would have said yes from the first day we met,” he growled against her neck.
She nibbled on his ear. “I just can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
“You’ve made it pretty clear,” he replied. “I don’t know why.”
She pushed him back to stare into his eyes again. “Are you kidding? There’s not a Biqah woman in her right mind who wouldn’t want you. Big, strong, muscles in all the right places. You’re gorgeous!”
He peered at her closely in the dim light from the lantern. Gorgeous? Did she call him gorgeous? “Isn’t that what men are supposed to say to women?”
She giggled at his wounded expression. “Women can say it too, you big dummy. And even if we can’t, I’m saying it – you’re gorgeous.” The mirth drained out of her face. “You’re also kind and gentle when I need it. You’re honest and honorable, maybe even noble. You fight like a demon–”
“Better than a demon,” he corrected her. “I cut off its head remember.”
“Better than a demon,” she agreed. “I was about to say ’ and you’re modest about it’ but I guess I’m going to have to drop that one.”
She patted his face with a smile. “Get in your sleeping bag. I’m OK now.”
He examined her closely, all levity gone. “Are you sure? I can stay like this a little longer if you need me.”
“Storm, you’re practically hanging upside-down from the waist. Get in your sleeping bag before all the blood runs to your head.” She pushed him away. “Go on, get in bed.”
He nodded. He pulled himself upright then had to wait for a moment as a wave of dizziness swept over him. He climbed cautiously over her to his sleeping bag and levered himself halfway into it in a sitting position. Once he was sure he was safely in he reached up and blew out the lantern.
It wasn’t until he had his sleeping bag buttoned up he realized how cold he’d been getting. The breeze was light, but on the exposed side of a cliff in the middle of winter, there was nowhere to hide from it. The wind chill had been gradually freezing him. The tight confines of the sleeping bag soon warmed up from his body heat. He was able to relax for the first time that day. Just as he was falling asleep he felt Lorelei’s head moving, barely an inch from his.
“Storm? Can you hold my hand?” Her voice was tremulous in the dark.
“Sure.” He squirmed around until he was lying on his side. This way he was able to reach over his head to clasp her hand and still be comfortable. “Better?”