They were up and moving at first light the next morning. A heavy overcast promised more snow. Durin assured them, from long experience it would come before noon.
“The sooner the better,” Ralt grumbled as he stretched to get the kinks out of his legs and back. “This rock hopping business is for the birds.”
All of them nodded their agreement. None of them were happy about their excruciatingly slow pace. The concealment provided by a storm would let them abandon the infernal ravine and make better time.
Soon they were on their way again. It was the same story as the day before. Their progress was measured in cubits rather than leagues. All of them kept casting anxious glances at the sky, silently willing the storm to hurry up. Then, an hour into their climb, with barely seventy cubits to mark their progress, Ralt slipped and fell.
He let out a startled yell as his feet went out from under him. Durin and Lorelei hauled back on the ropes connecting them. The ropes stretched slightly then stopped his fall. He crashed into the jagged side of a boulder. This time he yelled in pain. When he swung away from the rock, he left a bloody stain behind.
Cursing like a sailor he screamed, clutching at his right leg.
Lorelei felt her feet starting to slip. “Ralt! Pull yourself up on the rock! I can’t hold you much longer!”
Storm had spun around at Ralt’s initial yell. His eyes widened as he took in the situation in a single glance. Throwing caution to the winds he hurriedly probed around him then bounded to an unoccupied rock, then to another. Durin stood as if he was part of the very stone he stood on, but Lorelei’s position was more precarious. In a moment Ralt’s weight would pull her down too. He found two boulders that were reasonably close together and slid down between them, bracing his back against one and his feet against the other. Stretching out one arm he managed to get a hand on the rope between Lorelei and Ralt.
“I’ve got him! Untie yourself,” he bellowed at her.
Lorelei nodded, her fingers flying over the knots. Just as she got them undone her feet slide out from under her. Flailing wildly she managed to fall backward onto the rock instead of down into the pit at her feet, but her head slammed into the unyielding stone as she went down. She let out a half-strangled moan then went limp.
Storm hissed in pain as the rope slide through his fist, slicing his palm open, then clamped down on it with both hands, his muscles bulging with effort. Ralt slammed into the rock again. He screamed in agony over the unmistakable sound of bones breaking.
Storm cursed. “Durin! Can you pull him up? He can’t make it on his own!”
Durin nodded. Grunting he began pulling on the rope, hand over hand, dragging Ralt up the face of the boulder until he collapsed on top of it with a groan. As soon as the tension was off the rope, Storm let go of it, levering himself up onto the boulder Lorelei was laying on.
Ignoring the burning pain in his hand he gently raised her head. His exploring fingers found a bloody gash on the back of her head where it had hit the rock. He shook her gently. “Lorelei? Can you hear me? Wake up. Lorelei?” For ten minutes he tried to wake her up without success, gradually increasing his volume until he was shouting in her ear. He glanced back at Durin with a worried look. Somehow the dwarf had managed to make his way over to Ralt and was examining his leg. Their eyes met.
Durin shook his head grimly. “Broken in three places that I can tell, and maybe a fourth.”
Storm’s heart sank. Blast it! Ralt couldn’t travel with a busted leg and Lorelei was unconscious, maybe in a coma. His shoulders slumped in defeat.
Belker finished his inspection tour of the small outpost. Everything was ready. Derleth had set protective wards on all sides of the tiny fortress for a hundred cubits in every direction in case Storm and his men tried to slip around them in the dark of night. The giants had assembled a small mountain of boulders to rain down on them and the archers had already tested their aim on makeshift targets on the slopes of the ravine below. He’d broken his men into three rotating teams. One team, fully armored and awake, was on duty at all times. Those who were off duty were still required to wear their armor and keep their weapons close at hand, removing the heavy metal only when they were sleeping. Each man wore a whistle around his neck to sound the alarm at the first sign of trouble. Booby traps and deadfalls had been set up at all the entrances to the fort as well as the approaches outside then carefully concealed with snow.
He sighed heavily.
Even against his will, the fiendish bloodstone compelled him to use all his best talents, skills, and abilities in carrying out Niran’s orders. He’d been one of the most skillful commanders in the Royal Army and now all of his knowledge and skill was being used against an innocent man of whom he’d heard nothing but good.
He sighed again.
Storm was as good as dead.
The snow was coming down hard and heavy by the time they finished setting Ralt’s leg. Halfway through the process of pulling his leg straight so the bones would set properly, he passed out from the pain.
“Probably a mercy,” Durin grunted as he snapped Ralt’s staff in two. They’d had to use the broken pieces as a splint on either side of his leg; there was nothing else available.
Storm nodded wordlessly as he wound bandages around the splint, immobilizing the leg. He was too worried about Lorelei to concentrate on what he was doing if he tried to engage in conversation at the same time. She still hadn’t woken up. The longer she was unconscious, the worse the odds were of her ever being able to revive. He’d seen this before when men suffered a sharp blow to the head. If her brain was bruised the chances were she was dying already. He compressed his lips against the stab of pain in his heart. The prospect of Lorelei dead or dying was suddenly more than he could bear to contemplate.
Durin saw his expression and guessed at its cause. He said nothing though. There was nothing to say. Lorelei would either live or she wouldn’t. If she died, Storm would still fight their enemies up ahead, but his heart wouldn’t be in it. Sorrow could sap a man’s strength faster than the gravest wound. He’d miss a parry and be killed. Then he’d be the only one left fighting, and he didn’t try to delude himself he could prevail on his own or even survive. He’d be chopped to pieces, Ralt would freeze to death in the snowy heights, and that would be the end of their quest. The mysterious Leader would be free to do whatever he wanted with Krista’s soul and Sodan’s dream of having her take over for him would die aborning.
Durin cast a glance at Lorelei as he and Storm finished binding Ralt’s leg. Her breathing was getting shallower, harsher. There didn’t seem to be any doubt about it now. She’d hit something vital when her head smashed into the rock and she was dying.
The dwarf swallowed hard. They had failed.