After a whole day of rest he’d promised Lorelei, four long days of slogging through the mountains in the increasingly deep snow had brought them three-quarters of the way to their destination, Storm reflected with satisfaction as he crouched beside the fire eating breakfast. Without the snowshoes, they wouldn’t have made even a fraction of the distance. The miserable things were awkward as all get out, forcing a spread-legged, uncomfortable gait which left his thighs sore and aching. Still, he had to admit he was starting to get used to them.
He glanced up the incline before them. In the early morning gloom, he could barely make out the top, beyond which Durin had reported was a long valley after scouting it out the previous night. According to the dwarf it headed in the general direction of their destination which should be only a few leagues on the other side of the peak. From there it was all downhill.
Climbing through the mountains reminded him of his second childhood growing up in the Rampart Mountains with the Bear Clan, hearing stories about the jungle land at the top of the world, Adelaide. Heated by pools of lava deep underground, left over from the Chaos Wars, it was said to be a land of perpetual heat, steam, and mist. He shifted a little closer to the fire. He could use some of that heat right about now. Along with the snow came frigid winter temperatures.
He looked around.
His small band had fallen into an easy routine. Ralt, by common assent the best cook, had taken over preparing the meals. He also set the wards each night to let them all get a full night’s sleep. Durin had an uncanny knack for finding the best camping spots, even better than Storm, probably the result of his heritage as a mountain dwarf. He also helped lay the wood for the fire with Ralt and Storm taking turns starting it then the dwarf would clean up after they ate. Lorelei’s bow provided meat for Ralt’s pot. Even in the cold, snowy mountains, there was an abundance of rabbits and other small game which inevitably failed to avoid her sharp eye and deadly bow. Storm’s job was the easiest of all – he simply led them toward their goal.
Durin finished his tea then turned to knock the ashes out of his morning pipe. “We’re about three quarters there by me figuring,” he grunted as he stood to kick snow into the fire. An angry hiss of steam exploded up into the frigid air.
Storm jerked his head away from the smoke with a slight cough. “Yeah. I was just thinking the same thing.” He tossed the dregs of his tea onto the fire. Standing he went over to help Lorelei roll up their blankets, brushing the snow off them with each forward roll. Her dogged insistence on sleeping with him had by now become commonplace. “How steep is the valley up there?” he asked over his shoulder as they worked.
Weak sunlight was struggling to break through the perpetual, winter clouds. “Not bad at this end,” Durin rumbled as he finished putting out the fire. “The valley walls aren’t bad either, but it all gets steeper the further it goes.”
Storm nodded absently as he held the bedroll while Lorelei tied the straps around it. “Could you see all the way to the other end with those dwarven eyes of yours?” He stood up to shove the blankets into his pack. His greater strength let him carry the combined weight easier than Lorelei could.
Durin shook his head. “Nope,” he answered shortly, slinging on his own backpack. “Too far.”
Storm shrugged. Oh well, he thought, they’d find out soon enough what was at the other end of it. He stood up, shifting his backpack to center its weight high on his shoulders. “Everyone ready?” It was more of a formality than anything else, he could see they were. “Lets’ go then.”
Turning he led them away from the little camp, striking a trail toward the top of the small hill before them. He followed the tracks Durin had made the night before. Shortly they crested the rise and he saw the valley the dwarf had reported.
Just below them, it turned sharply to the east, plunging over what looked like a cliff. Ice clung to the rocks, indicating a river, frozen until next spring. Straight ahead to the north, the valley was wide and shallow. The course of the river was discernible under the snow, twisting back and forth across the valley floor. As Durin had promised, the rise in the valley was very slight, almost imperceptible at times. The hills on either side were equally easy, barely rising a hundred feet above the riverbed. Further on though, he could see it began to change, the hills rising sharply to join the craggy mountains, the valley floor becoming narrower and steeper. He glanced aside at his companions with a twisted grin.
“Easy in the morning, harder as nightfall approaches,” he chuckled.
“When we’re already tired from hiking all day,” Ralt added dryly.
“Only for weak-kneed half-elves,” Durin snorted derisively, going for the obvious opening.
Lorelei giggled. The ongoing, semi-feud between Durin and Ralt delighted her to no end, and she never ceased to be amused by it.
The magician turned a baleful look on Durin. “You’ve got the morals of a toad,” he muttered, “and one day you’re going to wake up that way too.”
Storm shook his head with a laugh and headed down toward the valley. Lorelei trailed behind him, listening as Ralt and Durin continued hurling insults at each other.
The morning proceeded smoothly, interrupted only twice by sudden snow flurries which reduced visibility sharply, but provided no other danger. The smooth, nearly flat valley let them proceed faster than they had since scaling the cliff. They made such good progress noon found them nearly four leagues from their camp, prompting Storm to decree they should eat on the move. None of them were tired from the easy walk and he was reluctant to sacrifice any time to stop for lunch. The further they could get during the daylight, the better. The valley was obviously long enough they weren’t going to traverse its length in one day. He wanted to face the more rugged end of it tomorrow with a full day of light ahead of them.
By mid-afternoon they began climbing again as the valley narrowed sharply, turning slightly to the northwest. Jagged rocks began appearing, their sharp edges clutching at their snowshoes, threatening to rip the leather webbing. More often they were forced to tread directly on the frozen river, slipping on the ice which Durin assured them went all the way down. Stunted pine trees crowded close to the river, slapping them in the face as they passed, or dumping a load of snow on them from their upper branches. Frozen rapids that were almost waterfalls forced them to detour from the riverbed, scrambling through the tightly packed brush around the river.
Breasting one such pile of rocks, Storm caught sight of the far end of the valley. It was still a couple of leagues away. While it was certainly steeper than what they were climbing over, it didn’t look as rough. Before that though, it looked pretty bad. Huge jumbles of boulders were scattered everywhere, the sides of the valley were nearly perpendicular, and snowy overhangs high overhead carried the threat of an avalanche. He called a halt while he surveyed it carefully, wondering if perhaps they should strike to one side or the other and make their way along the top of the ridges instead of trusting to the valley floor.
Durin spat in the snow. “Looks pretty rugged,” he muttered. “Straight ahead or to the side, it’s going be hard either way.” His thoughts obviously mirrored Storm’s.
Storm nodded slowly, his eyes lingering on the distant mountaintop at the upper end of the valley, feeling a growing sense of unease the longer he looked at it. There was nothing there to trigger any danger signals; it was merely a craggy, weathered, snow-covered ridge like any one of a thousand others in these mountains. So why was his stomach screwing itself up against his spine the longer he stood there?
“There’s something else bothering me,” he finally told his companions.
Ralt looked up. “Your sense of danger?” he asked quietly.
Storm nodded, suddenly feeling exposed on top of the boulders they’d just climbed. They were perfectly silhouetted against the sky behind them to anyone looking down from the distance peak. “Let’s get over in those trees,” he said abruptly, gesturing at a small grove of the ever-present stunted pines.
His friends didn’t waste time questioning him. As one they moved over to the sheltering cover of the trees, crouching down behind them unbidden.
“Where’s the trouble?” Lorelei asked, her bow already in hand with an arrow knocked.
Storm carefully pulled back the branches of the tree in front of him, trying not to shake any snow loose. “That peak at the end of the valley,” he said, pointing at it. “Someone’s up there waiting for us.” Surveying the valley directly beneath the peak, he added grimly, “It’s a perfect ambush.”
Durin, as experienced in combat as either Storm or Lorelei, grunted sharply. “Aye, lad. An excellent place for an ambush indeed. Can ye tell how many are waiting?”
Storm shook his head. “No, but it’s a lot.” His sense of danger was fairly screaming at him now. “Believe it.” His eyes narrowed abruptly at a faint swirl of color, barely visible, that briefly appeared. “There’s someone using magic up there too.”
Ralt saw it too and mumbled something too low for the rest of them to hear. Louder he added, “The Leader knows we’re coming, so he set a trap for us.”
Storm eased the branches back into place then turned to sit down in the snow cross-legged. His companions followed suit, leaning back against their backpacks. “Yeah. Well, at least it tells us we’re on the right track.”
“It’s a good sign,” Lorelei agreed, “if we can survive it.”
Durin nodded with a deep sigh. “Aye, lass. That’s the trick.” He cast a sharp look at Storm. “Ye said ‘lots’ were up there, and one using magic. Can ye tell us anything else about them?”
Storm shook his head. “There’s something else up there I’ve never felt before, but I can’t tell what it is.” Since accepting his fate as a Ghibbore, his sense of danger seemed to have grown sharper, more acute, but he still wasn’t adept at understanding all it told him.
“What about going around them?” Ralt asked quietly, hooking a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the steep ridges surrounding the valley. “If we could slip past without being seen, they might wind up waiting for weeks. We could have Krista’s soul box and be long gone before they ever knew what was up.”
The rest of them exchanged questioning glances. Storm didn’t like running from a fight, but maybe Ralt had a point. Uphill, against unknown, but certainly superior odds, wasn’t his idea of a good plan. And anyone left behind would be one less enemy they’d have to face when they got to Mount Coldfire.
Lorelei pushed her hood back. “Sounds good to me,” she conceded.
Durin grunted his assent as well. “Better odds that way, ’tho it galls me to leave live enemies at me back.”
Storm suffered a sudden inspiration. “What if we didn’t?” he asked with a crooked grin.
“Uh oh,” Ralt grumbled. “Now what have you got in mind?”
Storm slapped him jovially on the back. “Invisibility,” he grinned widely. “Just like you did back at the farm. We hike along the other side of the ridge until we’re past them, then you make us all invisible and we hit them from behind.”
A toothy grin split Durin’s face. “That’s more like it,” he rumbled, hefting his axe eagerly. “It’s time we split a few skulls.” Lorelei’s face was also showing ready battle-lust.
Ralt groaned feelingly. “I knew I should have gone to Robling with Thomas.” He raised his head. “Have you forgotten the invisibility ends the moment you attack someone?”
They all chuckled at him.
“The element of surprise is all we need, lad,” Durin assured him. “Once we’re inside, attacking them in the middle of the night . . .”
“Without any warning,” Lorelei interjected impishly.
Durin nodded at her and continued without pause, “. . . we’ll have the advantage. We’ll cut ’em down like the dogs they are.”
“And you’ll keep the wizard off our backs while we do it,” Storm added with a chuckle.
The corners of Ralt’s mouth jerked sharply down. “You do realize don’t you I’ve never actually gone one-on-one with another wizard before?”
Lorelei shrugged nonchalantly. “There’s a first time for everything.” If she was worried by the prospect she didn’t show it.
“Yeah? And what if he kills me?” Ralt retorted acidly.
“Then you’ll die well in battle with friends by your side,” Durin told him. “What better fate could a man ask?”
Storm let his smile, born of battle-lust, fade somewhat. “We all die sooner or later,” he said gently, realizing Ralt needed more than a few platitudes to make him feel better. “Few of us get to choose the time and manner of it. But if die we must, then why not do it fighting for a noble cause? It’s better than waiting until we’re old and toothless, soiling ourselves and too weak to clean up the mess.”
Ralt sighed heavily. “Dying won’t help Krista.”
“Then we’ll do our best not to die,” Storm answered him promptly. “But fleeing from battle won’t help her either. What if they track us and catch us by surprise in the middle of the night?”
“Aye,” Durin agreed somberly. “I’d rather attack than defend any day.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to run,” Ralt retorted hotly. “I’ve just never done this kind of thing before. It takes some getting used to.”
Lorelei laughed merrily then stopped when she saw the hurt in his face. She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “If it’s any consolation, we all had to face this the first time. Don’t worry. Once it starts you’ll do fine. Believe me.”
The wizard gestured helplessly. “Alright. I’ll do the best I can.”
“More we cannot ask,” Durin told him. He clapped him on the shoulder as he rose to his feet.