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Universe of G-Minor - Ghibbore Title

Chapter 38

Storm and Durin spent the rest of the day toiling up the steep sides of the ravine with Lorelei and Ralt strapped to their respective backs. The heavy snowfall sheltered them from the prying eyes the barbarian knew were watching, but it also hindered their progress, becoming progressively deeper as the day wore on. Under the weight of two people, their snowshoes broke and gave way, plunging them knee-deep into the snow. Every step up the mountain became a struggle to lift their feet clear of the snow. They slipped as often as they made headway, and more than a few times they stumbled and fell, sliding wildly back down the mountain until they could bring themselves to a stop. After checking their charges to be sure they were still alive, they had to painfully retrace their steps each time.

It was well after dark when they finally reached the crest. Intending to find shelter on the leeward side below, they were dismayed to find themselves standing atop a sheer cliff. Durin shook his head glumly. “We’ll find nothing down there.” He rubbed a tired hand over his face and beard, the first time Storm could remember the sturdy dwarf showing any sign of fatigue.

He turned away and tried to peer through the dark up ahead, straining to see where the cliff came to an end and turned into a slope, as surely it must. Unable to penetrate the swirling snow he shrugged in tired resignation. His legs were burning with strain, every step was an effort, but they couldn’t stop here. “We have to keep going until we find something,” he muttered wearily in a defeated tone. “We’ll freeze to death if we stay here.” To say nothing of Lorelei and Ralt, he thought, but he didn’t say it.

Durin heard his unspoken thought easily enough. It was on both their minds. “Aye, lad.” He shifted Ralt’s unconscious form to a more comfortable position on his back. “Shall I lead? Me eyes see better in the dark than yers.” Without waiting for an answer he plunged ahead. The snow was far too deep for him to lift his legs over it, so he simply plowed through it like a ship through the water, forcing a ridge of icy snow up on either side of him. Storm followed close behind, marveling at Durin’s indefatigable strength.

They were on top of the ridge, but it was still slanting upwards toward the distant peak. Now and then the angle would level off, only to resume its upward climb almost immediately. With the sunset, the already frigid air had become bitterly cold. Exposed as they were on top of the ridge, there was no respite from the freezing winds that blew unremittingly. Against the combination, their heavy furs offered scant protection. The cold seeped in even over their exertions, biting into their fingers and toes. Storm pulled his hood down farther over his face but his cheeks and nose were already numb.

Before long he could barely feel his feet. His hands were so cold it took all his effort just to unclench his fingers grasping the straps that kept Lorelei tied across his back and re-position them. Durin, barely visible a few feet ahead of him, wasn’t in much better shape. Soon they began to stumble as the chill crept into their arms and legs. Their muscles felt heavy and leaden, they had to force them to move by an act of sheer will. Storm soon found himself shambling along in a daze, barely aware he was walking at all. His mind began to wander as his strength drained away from him. He shook his head violently to stay awake and on his feet. He tried to recall old marching songs he’d used on numerous marches to keep his men moving briskly along, but his mind wouldn’t work. His brain felt like it was filled with cold porridge, thick and unresponsive.

Durin stumbled in front of him and zombie-like, Storm kept going until he tripped over him, sprawling in the snow beside him. The slowly extricated themselves from the tangle and continued up the ridge, never guessing how near they came to falling over the edge of the cliff at their feet. Aching muscles, bruised and battered, protested every step. Rest, they cried out, let us rest. Lay down and sleep, just for a few minutes.

Storm knew the perils of that course though. A few minutes would quickly turn into an eternity of death if they gave in to that seductive siren call. How many people, even in his own clan of hardened warriors, had sat down to rest “just for a moment” only to never get up again? He shook his head again, fighting off the deadly drowsiness that was threatening to pull him under. They had to keep moving. Stopping meant death in this icy fastness. Even as he fought against it, he could feel a strange warmth stealing over him. It was a lie, of course, he was slowly freezing to death, but his jangled nerves interpreted it as warmth, a forewarning if they didn’t find shelter soon they’d die.

Lorelei’s weight on his back felt like the weight of the world, draining him further, reducing his ground covering strides to those of a tottering old man. He was bent nearly double under her limp form. He didn’t even know if she was still alive. The wind whipping through his hood overshadowed the sounds of her breathing. When her dangling arms slapped against his face she felt cold as death. His mind wandered even further away and he barely heard Durin’s shout of alarm as the dwarf slipped and fell toward the cliff. He was still trying to register the noise and what it meant when he stepped on the same loose stone, stumbled and fell, following Durin down toward certain death.

A moment later the breath was knocked out of him when he plunged through deep snow and his chest slammed into an unyielding rock. The shock and pain snapped him out of his daze. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees to look around.

He was on a ledge, about forty feet below the ridge line, looking down a steep slope. The cliff had ended and they hadn’t even noticed! A low exclamation made him turn around.

Durin was standing before the opening of a small cave, Ralt crumpled in the snow beside him. An overhang, covered with snow and ice closed off the upper part of the opening. It appeared to be about five feet high and maybe somewhat wider. Framed by the snow all around it, it appeared to be a blank, empty socket in the side of the mountain. Storm shrugged Lorelei off his shoulders to the ground and staggered over to Durin, drawing his swords as he moved. Any cave in the mountains was certain to be inhabited. Durin was already holding his axe.

He leaned in, sniffing deeply. “Bear,” he rumbled. “Fur, meat and shelter – ours fer the taking, me lad.” He grinned crookedly, knowing full well in their current condition their odds of surviving the fight were slim.

Storm forced a laugh. “Death behind and death before us. Take your pick.” It was a false choice. If they didn’t get out of the snow they’d be dead long before morning. Taking over the cave was their only hope. “We need light to see by,” he muttered, dropping his pack to fumble through it for a torch. Durin nodded. The dwarf could see as well in the dark as in the day, but he was in no shape to fight the slumbering beast within by himself. He set himself to watch the cave while Storm worked.

Storm had to force himself to remember what Ralt had taught him. Taking a deep breath he cleared his mind and pushed on the weave. Amazingly fire leaped out immediately. The torch had been soaked in heavy oil and despite the wind, the flame held. He shook his head; he’d half-expected it had been Ralt who’d lit the practice twigs, that it wouldn’t work without the wizard helping him. Taking another torch in his hand he stepped cautiously into the cave with Durin close behind him.

His nostrils were assaulted at once by the pungent musk of the sleeping bear. The flickering flames revealed a short, low tunnel that lead into a larger chamber after a few yards. Storm immediately lit the second torch, throwing more light into the lair. A sudden whuff told him the bear was waking up. Blindly he pitched one of the torches at a moving shape in the darkness, charging after it with a wild yell.

He burst into the main part of the cave, taking it in at a glance as he pulled his sword. It was small, maybe twelve feet deep by about twice as wide, but high enough he could stand upright. A rough pile of twigs and assorted debris took up much of the floor. To his left was a smaller pile composed of shattered bones and bits of fur from animals the bear had killed and dragged back to its lair. The bear, huge and white, was rearing up from the central pile where it slept, roaring in rage and pain at the burning torch that had landed on it. He cut to the left at once, knowing Durin would take the right. If they could outflank the beast they stood a chance.

The bear swiped at him with a paw the size of a dinner plate. He ducked, waving the torch wildly. It snarled at the flame then bellowed with sudden pain. Storm grinned. Durin had just delivered the first blow. He tossed the torch onto the bear’s bed hoping to set it on fire and whipped out his second sword. Without pausing he launched himself at the mound of fur and muscles, slashing with both swords. He felt one of them connect, then the bear turned – fast!, too fast – and backhanded him across the cave. He smashed into the far wall. He gritted his teeth against the pain and struggled back to his feet.

Durin was fighting hard, ducking and weaving to stay out of the bear’s reach but it had him backed into a corner. Even as Storm watched it grabbed him up with a massive paw. Durin lashed out with his axe but the bear knocked it out of his grasp, his numbed fingers unable to retain their grip. The bear opened its mouth to bite Durin’s head off.

Storm charged its unprotected back, sinking both swords halfway to their hilts in its massive back. It roared with rage, dropping Durin as it turned to deal with this new enemy. The motion yanked the swords out of Storm’s hands and suddenly he was defenseless. Cursing he dove out of the way but his sluggish muscles didn’t respond fast enough and the bear caught his right leg with a crushing grip. He yelled in pain, scrabbling at the floor for purchase. Abruptly he was free as the bear bellowed again, turning back toward Durin, whose wicked axe was now drenched with blood.

Storm forced his injured leg to move, pushing off the floor to grab for his swords still embedded in the bear’s back. He got a hand on each sword but couldn’t pull them out. The bear staggered back as the blades moved inside it, then squealed in pain and fear as it stepped on one of the burning torches. It staggered back again, slamming Storm into the cave wall with its own weight. Storm gritted his teeth against the red haze of pain, then pushed hard on the swords, trying to embed them even deeper instead of pulling them out, hoping against hope to hit a vital spot.

The bear coughed in sudden agony and a rush of blood foamed out of its back. It lurched forward, no longer attacking but trying to run from the horrible pain inflicted on it. Hanging on to his swords, Storm was pulled forward with it, struggling now to pull one of them out. Both of them abruptly came free at the same time and he fell to the floor under the bear’s legs. He spotted Durin, standing in the low tunnel, swinging his axe back and forth in glittering arcs, leaving a trail of blood behind with each swing. The bear’s roaring was constant now. It dropped down to all fours to rush at Durin with its fangs. Storm saw his chance and stabbed upwards with both swords in a double thrust, ripping through the soft underbelly. He rolled away as a mountain of intestines spilled out on the floor. The bear’s roaring was replaced by a deep moan of pain. It lurched forward one step, then two, only to be met by Durin’s axe splitting its skull in two. It dropped heavily to the floor of the cave, quivered once or twice and was still.

For a long moment, there wasn’t any noise but the sound of heavy breathing as the two warriors gasped and panted.

Storm forced himself up on one knee, grimacing at the shooting pain in his right leg. The bear’s claws had sunk deep into the thigh muscles. Any deeper and it would have crushed the bone. He clamped a hand over the bloody wound to staunch the flow. He glanced at Durin who was nursing a torn arm, “We’ve got to get Ralt and Lorelei inside before they freeze to death, and our packs too.” Durin nodded wordlessly, turning toward the entrance of the cave. Storm gave his attention over to the pile of debris in the cave that was finally beginning to smolder from the torch. Painfully pulling stick and twigs toward the small flame he managed to get a halfway respectable fire burning. Durin returned, dragging Ralt behind him. He dumped the wizard unceremoniously beside the fire then went back for Lorelei.

Storm scrabbled over to Ralt and began digging through his backpack. He needed bandages to stop the bleeding in his leg or their victory over the bear would be short-lived. He found them by the light of the growing fire and began winding them tightly over his wounds. Durin came back in with Lorelei, laying her down somewhat more gently than he had Ralt, then turned back yet again to retrieve their own backpacks. Storm finished tying off the bandages on his leg then turned his attention to Durin’s arm when the dwarf returned for the last time.

The arm was in worse shape than his leg. He suspected the bone was broken. He bandaged it as best he could, hoping he was wrong. Exhaustion was quickly overtaking both of them but there was still more to be done. Wordlessly they broke out blankets from the packs, bundling up Ralt and Lorelei, then putting them as close to the fire as possible. During the process, they were able to determine that both of them were still alive, although Lorelei’s breathing seemed to be shallower than before. Storm bit his lip but there was nothing he could do about it. Catching Durin’s eye they put their shoulders to the body of the bear, shoving it partially into the tunnel, thereby blocking out some of the freezing cold and clearing some space in the cave. Finished with their housekeeping they collapsed beside the fire, chewing wearily on cold rations.

Durin glanced over at their unconscious companions. “If Ralt makes it till morning I’m thinking he’ll be alright.” He paused then added, “I don’t think Lorelei will make it that far though. Hitting her head like that . . .” He trailed off with a shrug. “Sorry, lad.”

Storm thought he was too tired and weak to care, but Durin’s words sent an unexpected shock of sorrow through him. His heart lurched in his chest at the thought of Lorelei dead. The memory of the few kisses they’d shared stabbed him. Never had he felt such passion and promise in a mere kiss, but her lips had told him much of what she felt and would give when they found the time. He laughed bitterly, ignoring Durin’s quizzical look. Found time? They had no time now. They were out of time, completely and forever. His hands balled into fists as he pulled himself over to her, his leg dragging uselessly behind him. If they were in a city he could have taken her to a shop that sold healing potions, paid to have her healed, or threatened the shopkeeper with death if he was penniless. In a large enough city, there would be potion shops aplenty, but out here, in the howling wilderness though, there was nothing he could do – nothing! He gritted his teeth as his stomach churned helplessly.

He caught Durin watching him sadly. “Look at the great warrior,” he muttered between clenched teeth. “I thought I could right the wrongs of the world, but I can’t even get us through the mountains without killing us all.” He pounded his fists on the stone floor beneath him.

“T’wasn’t your fault, lad. Ralt slipped and pulled Lorelei down with him. It was an accident, nothing more,” Durin told him, knowing his words wouldn’t help even as he said them. He struggled to find a comfortable position for his arm. “Perhaps in the morning things won’t look quite so bad. Maybe she’ll wake up.”

Storm laughed harshly. “You know as well as I do she won’t last until morning. You said it yourself just a few minutes ago.” He lowered his forehead to Lorelei’s shoulder, hiding his torment. Is this what you had in mind, he asked himself? Nothing seemed to be working the way he’d thought it would. Instead of heroes, they were well on their way to becoming nameless corpses in some godforsaken cave; Lorelei would be dead by morning, Ralt couldn’t walk, and he doubted if he and Durin were even fit to travel, let alone fight the enemies up ahead of them. Black depression rolled over him in endless waves of despair. I’ve failed, he thought miserably. I’ve failed, utterly and completely.

Then exhaustion, both physical and emotional caught up with him. He sank into the blackness of unending sleep.

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