“What’s wrong?” Durin called.
“I’ve run into a dead end,” Storm snarled down at him. “There’s no cracks, no crevices, no handholds, no nothing! I’m stuck.” He kept running his eyes over the expanse before him, hoping for something to prove him wrong.
“Can’t you come back down and try a different route?” Ralt yelled over the distance between them.
Storm clenched his teeth in frustration. “No. I broke four of the pitons getting this far. If I reuse them again, more of them will break. We’ll be stranded.” He hated saying it in front of Lorelei. This had to be her worst nightmare come true. He cast a look down at her. She was rigid, white as a ghost, staring at the cliff face in front of her. He glared at the rock ahead of him. Twenty feet! Twenty lousy feet! If it was horizontal he could clear it with a running broad jump.
He glanced down at Ralt. “Yeah?”
The part-elven wizard took out his hammer and waved it at him, axe blade first. “What about chopping holes in the rock with this? Would that work?”
Storm stared at his own tool with interest. Would it? The axe end was meant for ice, not rock. Still, what could it hurt? If it didn’t work he’d be no worse off than he was now. “I don’t know,” he shouted down. “Let me give it a try.” Suiting actions to words he turned and slammed his axe against the rock in a mighty blow. Stone chips sprayed his face. He grunted and swung again. More chips flew through the air. Only a tiny scratch rewarded his efforts.
Leaning back to give himself greater swinging room, he pounded at the rock face with a flurry of powerful strokes. Ten minutes later all he had to show for it was a small depression a quarter inch deep. The blade on his axe was starting to curl under from the force of his blows. He shook his head in disgust. “No good,” he shouted down. “All I’m doing is ruining the blade!”
Durin grinned up at him. “Maybe you should try mine,” he called, holding up his great war axe.
Storm shrugged. The mystical axe probably would do the trick if not for one problem. “I can’t come down to get it and you can’t come up!” he bellowed. “I’ll have to lower a rope.”
Durin shook his head. “Its name is Fenris Fang! Call it to you when I throw it!”
“What?” Lorelei overcame her fear of heights long enough to stare at Durin in shock. “Are you nuts?”
“Me father said I was,” he laughed wildly. He bellowed something in his ancient tongue then launched the mighty axe at the barbarian’s head.
Storm flinched despite himself. Muttering a long unused prayer, he thrust out his hand toward the glittering axe hurtling toward him. “Fenris Fang! To me!”
The heavy handle smacked into his outstretched hand with a meaty Thwack! He swore violently at the painful tingling in his hand. Durin bellowed laughter on the cliff below.
“Not so gentle on those human hands of yours is it?”
“Warn me next time you try something like that you half-sized excuse for a runt!” Storm snarled at him. “You almost tore my hand off!”
Durin only roared louder with laughter. “Have at it,” he called over his mirth. “Show that rock who is boss!”
Muttering imprecations about weird dwarven humor, Storm wiggled his fingers to work some life back into them then slammed the axe against the cliff. It buried itself to the hilt in the hard rock as though it was no more than soft butter. He stared at it in shock. “Holy mackerel,” he muttered, using a long-forgotten phrase. He tugged experimentally at it, pulling it free with ease.
Do I please you, Ghibbore Storm?
He nearly dropped it in shock.
“What?” he gasped.
Do I please you?
Durin’s axe was talking to him! It was alive! The Biqah Shamans told stories about such enchanted weapons; mystical devices created by the eldritch powers. Such weapons often carried their own doom with them, driving anyone who wielded them insane if they were not protected in some way from their power. Weapons like this were prized above a whole room full of gold! They were feared nearly as much.
And Durin was carrying it?
What manner of dwarf had he been in the ancient times before the Chaos Wars? He’d said his father, Drangor, was King of Thangadrim. Had he been next in line? Shokirin, he’d named his people, a race Storm had never heard of. What was their place at Thangadrim? The First One’s, he’d called them. How had they come there, and come to possess such a mighty weapon so it could be given to Durin?
Once more he tried and failed, to suppress a superstitious shudder. Had Durin’s people really lived there?
Yes, they did, Lord Storm.
Storm became aware his friends below were yelling at him to get his attention. He waved down at them. How long had he been frozen there with surprise? He shook his head to clear it. A living axe was all well and fine, but it wouldn’t do anyone any good if he died on the face of some stupid piece of rock. He could be surprised and stupefied later. Right now he needed to climb.
Reaching up he jammed his left hand into the deep cut made by Fenris Fang then pulled himself up. He swung it again then pried it loose. Gripping the great axe in his teeth, he stuck his right hand in the new cut, pulling himself up again. He traded hands in the wedge hold then made a new cut. Worry about talking axes later, he told himself then had to laugh at his own blasé attitude.
Cut by cut he inched his way up the final ascent. Pulling himself over the top he rolled onto his back for a second to catch his breath. Standing on level ground felt strange after two days struggling up the cliff. He shrugged off the rope around his shoulder, tying it around the first tree he came to. Going back to the edge of the cliff he tossed the free end down to his friends. Ralt and Durin immediately began tying it to Lorelei’s climbing belt.
“Try to walk up the cliff while I pull,” he shouted down to her.
She nodded, her face a pale oval in the afternoon gloom.
Sitting down he braced his feet against a half-buried rock and began pulling her up. It went faster than he expected, but by the time her face appeared over the lip of the cliff he was trembling from exertion.
Lorelei didn’t give him time to untie her. Sobbing with relief she flung herself against his chest. He lifted leaden arms to wrap them around her as tight as he could. For a long time, he laid there in the snow holding her while she got it out of her system. He stroked her hair, whispering in her ear it was over, they’d made it to the top; everything was all right.
Finally, she pushed away from him, wiping at her eyes. “Gods, I hate being weak like that! It’s so humiliating.”
Storm shook his head. “Don’t be. I’ve seen strong men who –”
She cut him off. “I know, I know. A lot of my people are afraid of heights. My father had it especially bad. But it still feels weak." She untied herself angrily. “You’ll have to drop the rope down to them. I can’t.”
He nodded silently. Padding over the cliff he threw the rope down to Durin and Ralt. The dwarf craned his head up at him. “Is yer first born here yet? Learning to swing a sword is he? Never mind yer two friends freezing their rear ends off on a cliff in the middle of winter, never mind I loaned ye me axe to finish the climb, never mind –”
Storm grinned, listening to him rant and rave. At least Durin could always be counted on to be the same, no matter what. “Hail and well met to you too, son of Drangor!” he shouted merrily, interrupting his tirade. “Would you like to finish your speech down there or up here?” he laughed, bouncing the rope on the dwarf’s head.
“Up there, you over-sized brainless oaf!” Durin snarled. He grabbed the wildly gyrating rope and began hauling himself up it by main strength. In less than a minute he was standing before Storm.
He slammed his fists into his hips. “Where’s me axe?” he bellowed.
Lorelei had recovered enough composure to laugh along with Storm. “Oh, somewhere around here,” she quipped, waving at the deep snow around them. “You’ll probably find it sometime this spring.”
“Fenris Fang! To me!” the dwarf roared, ignoring her. The great axe smacked into his outstretched hand a moment later. He examined it closely for nicks or scratches. Satisfied it had suffered no damage from Storm’s brief possession, he dropped it into his belt holder. “Let’s get the wizard up here and make camp,” he snorted. Storm exchanged quick grins with Lorelei then turned to help Durin pull Ralt to the top.