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Chapter 30

Storm was surprised at how comfortable the hammocks were, even though they were hanging from the side of a cliff. When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was to stay in bed longer. Getting up was a fool’s errand. He wanted to stay right here.

Duty got the better of him though and he poked his head out. He found himself looking five hundred feet straight down. Watch that first step, he thought, it’s a doozy. He turned his head the other way to see they still probably had another three hundred feet to go.

Maybe more.

He turned to see how Lorelei was doing and found her watching him. She was turned to face the cliff, her back to the immense drop beneath them.


She squeezed his hand with a smile.

“Good morning yourself.”

“Did you get any sleep last night?”

Her smile faltered. “A little,” she hedged.

In other words, none at all, he thought. He scooted forward enough to kiss her lightly. “We’ll stop for the day when we get to the top. How does that sound?”

He was rewarded with a dazzling smile. “It sounds heavenly.”

“Good. Well up and at ’em. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we’ll get there.”

Her smiled faded as she went pale at the thought of continuing the climb but she nodded bravely. He pulled his hand from her clasp so he could sit up then carefully eased himself out of his bag. Once he was on his feet again, more or less, he did some cautious bending and stretching exercises to get the kinks out. Glancing past Lorelei he saw Ralt copying his movements. Beyond, Durin was simply going about the business of rolling up his sleeping bag before retrieving his hammock.

“I’d give my left arm to have one of those flying spells Gerald talks about,” Ralt groused good-naturedly as he wind-milled an arm made stiff from sleeping on it. “There’s got to be a better way than this.”

“Why do you think they were invented in the first place?” Durin snorted. “Soft, out of shape Humans got tired of climbing so they came up with a way around it.”

“Oh yeah? Well in case you’ve forgotten, I’m a quarter elven and I’m not out of shape!”

“My sympathies for your corrupted blood,” the dwarf shot back wickedly.

They continued sparring gently as they went about eating breakfast and preparing for the remainder of their ascent. Lorelei tried to smile once or twice at their repartee but it was obvious her heart wasn’t in it. Storm wanted to thank them for their efforts though; they were doubtlessly aware of her fear and trying their best to take her mind off it with their barbed remarks.

As soon as the pitons were collected he set off scaling the rest of the cliff. He had a moment of anxiety when he noticed the third piton was warped almost to the point of breaking. The constant pounding into the hard rock then being pulled out again was starting to take its toll on the hard metal. All of the pitons were scratched and bent. After that, he gave each one a very close inspection before using it. All in all, he discovered nine of them were so badly damaged as to be unusable. He surreptitiously stuffed them in his pocket, hoping Lorelei didn’t notice what he was doing.

It worried him though. It meant they were down to forty-one usable pitons and still nearly three hundred feet to go. The remaining pitons would be used more frequently, increasing the wear and tear on them. At their first stop to shuffle them back up the line, he saw the same concern reflected in Durin’s eyes as he counted them. The dwarf quickly displayed a broken one before palming it so Lorelei wouldn’t see. Storm gave a silent nod, acknowledging his unspoken message.

Forty pitons left.

He turned back to hammer in the next one. It broke under the first blow.

He glanced down to see if Lorelei had heard the ringing snap but she was staring fixedly at the cliff face before her. Perhaps the sound of the hammer had obscured it. He quickly set another one and hammered it into place before she could notice his observation of her.


During the next stage of their ascent, two others bent under the force of his blows and had to be discarded. When Durin passed them back up the line, three more stayed with him.


This time Ralt gave him a quizzical look as he handed them up the line. He signaled him silently to keep quiet and the wizard nodded grimly.

Fifteen were embedded in the cliff at any given time for them to stand on or hold on to, which meant he only had nineteen to pound in before having to stop again. It was no longer merely a matter of trying to keep from panicking Lorelei. He was getting seriously concerned they would run out of them before they made it to the top. Free climbing was something he hadn’t planned on and frankly had never done. He began casting about for any route which might prove climbable if they had to resort to that option.

To his dismay, he realized the top portion of the cliff was even less inviting than the portion they’d traversed so far. Suitable places to set the pitons were becoming harder to find and those he could locate were further apart. He was worried he’d get them into a spot where they couldn’t go on and would have to back down before going up again.

On their next stop, they were down to twenty-eight pitons with a hundred feet yet to go. He called a halt to eat lunch.

While they ate he wracked his brain for some way to speak to Durin without Lorelei hearing them. Nothing presented itself though. He put away the remnants of his meal then took the reins in his teeth. “Got any ideas, Durin?”

The dwarf had already been scanning the cliff intently. He shook his head. “This route looks like it’s as good as it gets. You might try placing them further apart.”

He gritted his teeth.

“I already thought of that. But will you be able to pull them out like that?”

Durin shrugged. “I’ll have to use a longer rope and hang down while I get them then pull myself back up. It’ll take longer.”

“And put more strain on the one you’re hanging from,” Storm added, finishing his unspoken thought.

“Have you got a better idea?”

Ralt and Lorelei listened silently to this exchange. Neither of them volunteered any suggestions. This was Storm and Durin’s job. They were just along for the ride.

“Well, yeah. But I don’t think you’re going to like it.” That was an understatement. He didn’t like it himself, and it was his idea. “We could bring the three of you all up together so you’ve got one piton to stand on and another to hold on to. That’d leave me twenty-two. I think I could make it to the top by really stretching them out then anchor the rope for the rest of you to climb up.” He saw a quiver go through Lorelei at his words but she said nothing.

Durin’s eyes crinkled with concern as he scanned the remaining distance. “Twenty-two pitons for seventy cubits? You’d have to put them three or four cubits apart. That means you’d be standing on the top of one with nothing to anchor you while you hammer in the next one. If any of them break you’d be in trouble.”

“We’re already in trouble. They’re not going to last the way we’re going,” Storm told him grimly. He hated saying it in front of Lorelei but there was no help for it.

Durin grimaced. “Aye.” He ran his eyes over the cliff above them. “Yer probably going to want to angle a bit to the left. It looks better that way.”

Storm took it as an agreement to his plan. Setting to work he positioned them as close together on the cliff as possible until each of them was holding onto the piton the person above was standing on. Next, he took off his pack to give himself more freedom of movement then hung it from the piton he was holding onto. Lastly, Durin passed him the spare main line which he hung over his shoulder.

Lorelei reached up to touch his calf. He looked down. “Yes?”

“Promise me you won’t die.”

He looked up at the sheer face above him. It was a daunting expanse. He looked down to meet her eyes. “I promise to try,” he said.

She bit her lip with a nod.

Pulling himself up he scrabbled against the cliff for handholds. A round knob that was barely there was the only thing in reach. Grasping it tightly he wedged the tip of a piton into a minute crack nearly even with his head. He grunted with effort, making sure it would stay in place when he let go of it to grab his hammer. He hit it quickly three times in succession, wedging it in place. Moving slowly, he unhooked his safety line from the piton below his waist then secured it to the new one. After that, he threaded the main line through it as well.

He let out a sigh of relief. One down, twenty one to go.

Slowly pulling himself up he used the crampons strapped to his boots for the first time since they’d started their ascent, wedging the spikes into any crack or crevice he could find. It was easier than he thought it would be. As he passed the piton he unhooked his safety line from it and continued to free climb.

He actually made it twenty feet before he had to stop and set another piton.

Once his safety line was secure he paused to rest a minute while he examined the cliff. Durin was right, the area to his left looked slightly more passable than the rest of it. From his new position, he could even see a horizontal crack several inches wide, running some thirty feet up the cliff at a sharp angle. He could stuff one hand in it to anchor himself. It would be a . . . what had the guide called it? He cudgeled his brain trying to remember.

A stuff . . . no, a wedge hold?

That was it.

A wedge hold.

He could use the thin crack as a wedge hold. According to the guide, it was actually one of the better holds you could find. Well, it looked like he was going to get a chance to test that assertion.

The next piton snapped the moment he hit it. A shard of flying metal grazed his face, drawing blood. He jerked his head back then froze as he felt himself starting to slip. He swayed for a moment before regaining his balance.

He paused a little longer to still the pounding of his heart. If he fell there were over thirty feet of slack in the main line between him and Lorelei. The rope itself would stretch another five, which meant thirty-five feet or more before he reached the end of the line and swung back into the cliff. Assuming he didn’t break a rib when the rope jerked him to a stop; assuming he didn’t pull Lorelei off her perch and drag her down with him.

Taking a deep breath he tried again, determined this time not to flinch no matter what happened.

He broke three more pitons crabbing sideways across the cliff to the crack.

With his left hand securely wedged into it, he turned to look back at his companions. They were watching him intently. Ralt gave him a thumb’s up. “You’re doing good,” he called.

“Where are you going?” Durin rumbled across the distance separating them.

“You can’t see it from there but there’s a crack here,” Storm called back. “It’s wide enough for me to wedge my hand into and it goes for nearly twenty cubits,” he said, converting the distance from feet into cubits for their benefit.

“Aye. Good thinking, lad.”

Storm nodded before turning back to his climb. Between his crampons and the wedge hold provided by the crack, he scaled the short distance in less than a minute.

Halfway there he thought, pausing to survey his options.

After that, he was able to place several more pitons in rapid succession. His progress was so good he was beginning to think he had it made. Then, twenty feet from the top, he ran into an absolutely blank sheet of rock without so much as the tiniest crack or handhold to be seen anywhere.

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