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Chapter 36

Hoping their words had consoled Ralt, they turned to Storm for guidance on their route up the sides of the ridge. No longer thinking only in terms of making the best progress possible, he traced a path up to the ridge top with an eye to avoiding scrutiny by the enemies at the end of the valley. It wasn’t going to be easy, he saw. The stunted pine trees were increasingly few and far between at this elevation, and by the time they reached the top, there would be none at all to cover them. They’d have to use one of the many ravines running down the sides of the ridge for concealment. It would mean deeper snowdrifts to contend with and less room to maneuver in case one of them slipped or fell.

Outlining his concerns to them, he turned and started up the slope, moving slowly and deliberately. At each step he tromped the snow down carefully for his companions to follow in, making sure to limit the length of his strides so all of them could use the path he forged. He had to keep a constant eye on the distant peak, making sure there was always something between them and it. It forced him to pause frequently to survey the slope ahead before committing them to a particular direction.

“A good snowstorm right now would be helpful,” he heard Durin mutter behind him.

He had to agree. The covering flurries would let them make much better time, but right now the weather didn’t seem inclined to cooperate. In fact, the clouds were dissipating. The late afternoon sun was blinding as it glanced off the snow-covered ground beneath them. It also made them easier to spot from a distance. He redoubled his caution.

Ralt, in line behind Durin and ahead of Lorelei, had other things on his mind. Trusting in Storm to get them to the top unobserved he was able to concentrate on which spells to use in the coming battle. He had very few offensive ones at his command. His life with Gerald hadn’t required such powers, and the ones he did have were better suited to outdoor use than inside the confines of a small outpost or fortress. A fireball outside was a very different thing than one cast inside. Casting such a powerful spell in a small room would be as deadly to him and his friends as it would to their enemies. What about his opponent? What unknown spells would he have, and how could he counter something he’d never seen? Trudging slowly up the slope, chewing on his lower lip, he wondered what to do with the spells he had available. He tried not to think about the fact if he survived he’d have human blood on his hands for the first time in his life.

Lorelei saw his mood from the set of his shoulders, but there wasn’t anything she could do for him. Supremely confident of her archery skills, there was nothing she could say to comfort him. He didn’t have the battle experience the rest of them did and there was no way to give it to him. Despite her earlier outward attitude, she was worried he might prove to be the weak link in their attack. Unaware of Ralt’s lip chewing, she did some of her own, wondering if she should broach the subject to Storm later that night in the privacy of their bedroll.

Storm and Durin continued on ahead of them, oblivious to the concerns of their companions. The higher they got, the more often Storm paused, sometimes turning to the mountain dwarf behind him for advice on the best course to take.

“We’d better start angling toward that ravine,” Durin told him during one such stop. “The trees are getting too thin for me liking.”

“I know,” Storm admitted, “but I was hoping to put it off for a little longer. We don’t know what’s under the snow in those ravines.”

“Rocks, with a lot of sinkholes between ’em,” Durin replied, confirming his fears. “Break yer leg as easy as snapping a piece of kindling if ye ain’t careful.”

Storm sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of. Do you think you could spot those sinkholes before we step in them?”

Durin shrugged. “Using a long pole to probe ahead is probably better.”

Storm nodded, accepting the inevitable slowing that would result. “Hey, Ralt! Pass me your staff, would you?”

Ralt looked up in surprise. “Hunh? What for?”

“We’ve got to head over to that ravine for cover, and there might be sinkholes in the snow.”

The wizard nodded his understanding then passed his quarterstaff up. “Try not to break it if you don’t mind. It’s the only weapon I’m any good with.”

Storm suppressed a chuckle. “I’ll just have to teach you to swing a sword then,” he said lightly as he turned back to the trail.

Ralt glowered at his back. “That’ll be the day.”

Storm ignored him as he swung down into the ravine. Almost immediately he was glad he’d taken Durin’s advice. Under the innocent surface of the snow were innumerable boulders crowded together, the spaces between them empty of snow, waiting to catch the unwary traveler who set foot over them. The first time he probed the snow ahead, the staff sank to its full, six foot length. He cursed and tried a different direction. He was rewarded with a dull thunk as the butt end struck stone. Stepping carefully to the spot he’d found he probed again. Around him were empty pockets of air until he found another hidden boulder five feet away.

“We’re going to have to jump to this next one,” he told Durin over his shoulder.

The dwarf answered him with a short grunt.

Storm stretched out one leg in a long step, pushing off a little to make the extra distance. His foot came down hard and nearly slid out from under him. He windmilled his arms frantically for a moment. Lorelei hissed in alarm at his off-balance stance. For a moment she thought surely he’d fall. He managed to get his other foot down next to his first one and crouched, plunging his hands into the shallow snow covering the boulder, grasping at the frozen stone.

He paused to take a deep breath and still the pounding of his heart.

Finally, he stood up cautiously. “This is going to take forever,” he snarled, looking up at the forbidding ravine ahead.

“Better than being seen by them back there,” Durin opined in a gruff voice, which nonetheless held a note of anxiety.

Storm nodded reluctantly. “Alright, but be careful. These blasted rocks are slicker than owl snot.” A round of terse nods answered him and he turned back to make his next step.

Long hours crawled by as they slowly made their torturous way up the treacherous ravine. Again and again, they were forced to turn back when they ran into an air pocket under the snow that was too great to chance leaping across. Each time they had to turn and re-cross pockets they’d already navigated, one at a time until Storm reached a point where he could once more turn back uphill again. Every time they had to jump over one of the hidden pockets one of them slipped or nearly fell, bringing everyone’s heart into their mouths. After the third such incident, they halted to tie themselves together so their companions could pull on the ropes to help them stay upright. Durin wanted to trade places with Lorelei so his greater weight would be at the end of the line instead of the middle. Trying to cross back, when there was only room for one of them at a time on the top of the boulders was simply too great a challenge though and he was forced to give it up.

The sun had already set and the shadows around them were turning purple when Storm reluctantly called a halt. Grimly he concluded that at their present rate they’d be lucky to reach the top by tomorrow evening. The problem right now was to find a place where they could spend the night. Each of them was crouched on top of a separate boulder. The sides of the ravine were too steep to sleep on and the yawning pockets around the boulders couldn’t be trusted.

“Anyone got any ideas?” he asked.

Blank stares and a deafening silence were his only answer.

Finally, Lorelei ventured, “Well, this is probably crazy, but why don’t we string our hammocks between the rocks and sleep in them like we did on the cliff?”

Ralt’s eyes widened in appreciation. “Hey, for a flatlander that’s a pretty good idea.”

She blushed. “Thanks.” Looking at Storm, she asked, “Will it work?”

He shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Hang on a minute. Let me give it a try.” He fumbled around taking off his pack then extracted a piton and hammer. Brushing the snow off the boulder he was crouching on he placed the piton at a likely looking spot then brought the hammer down in a fierce blow. The tortured metal snapped with a ringing retort against the unyielding stone. He jerked his head back as a flying piece of metal grazed his cheek.

He shrugged. “Well, it sounded like a good idea.”

“It still is,” Durin rumbled. He held out Fenris Fang, hilt first. “Try making a cut in the rock with this then wedge the pitons in the cut.”

Storm laughed deep in his chest. Of course! Fenris Fang could slice through anything. He grabbed the great axe and a moment later had a piton firmly wedged in the cut the mystical blade left behind.

Lorelei clapped gleefully. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I was starting to think we were going to have to sit up on these blasted rocks all night long.”

One at a time they each used Fenris Fang to place pitons in the rocks they sat on then stretched their hammocks between them. By the time full darkness was upon them they were safely ensconced in their beds. Additional pitons were set to hang their packs on.

Making a fire was impossible. Even if it had been, Storm wouldn’t have allowed it. The chance their enemies might spot the reflected glare was too great to take. They ate a cold dinner, washed down with half-frozen brandy then fell asleep almost immediately.

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