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Chapter 41

The fool plunges into battle without thought.
The wise man plans before drawing his sword.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr

Storm and his companions lay on their bellies in the snow, peering cautiously over the top of the ridge at the small fortress about two hundred feet away from them. The ridge they were laying on curved and turned sharply where it joined the ridge on the opposite side of the valley, forming a corner, before angling further on up the mountains at a nearly vertical angle. Situated directly on the corner was the fortress, a small wooden palisade constructed of heavy logs on a cut stone base. The outer wall of the fort looked down over a frozen waterfall that dropped a hundred feet to the valley floor below.

From this distance, they could easily see the helmets of the armored guards tramping back and forth on the parapet behind the top of the wall. Durin shook his head in amazement at how close they were. “I’d no idea we’d come so far last night.”

“Me either,” Storm rejoined in a low whisper, scanning the fort and the area around it with a seasoned eye. What he saw gave him little comfort.

The ground on every side of the fort reeked of magic, swirling colors and patterns that reminded him of Ralt’s protective wards. The ice-covered cliff below the fort was impassable; their few remaining pitons would never survive being hammered through ice as well as rock. Besides, the noise would give them away in an instant and they’d be exposed on the cliff face to the archers above with no way to fight back. The valley below was as smooth and barren as a banker’s heart, no cover at all. There was no way to sneak around the fort below the ridge line either. Although it wasn’t a cliff anymore on this side, it was still nearly vertical, making it too risky to attempt. And he’d bet his last knife that it was booby trapped as well. It was what he’d do if he was the commander of a fort like that. He tugged absently at his beard; this wasn’t going to be easy.

A low, rumbling sound made itself heard briefly across the distance. Durin’s eyes widened in recognition. “Horites, cave giants,” he whispered. “Three or four of ’em by the sound.”

Storm cursed under his breath. A cave giant could kill a bear like the one in the cave with a single blow. They could also hurl boulders with deadly accuracy like a catapult. He glanced at Ralt to see how the wizard, virtually untried in battle, was handling all this. His face was drawn in deep lines, but he showed no outward fear. “Has everyone seen enough?” All of them nodded, so he squirmed backward down out of sight.

Once safely back in the cave, he began building a miniature replica of the fort and the surrounding terrain. He also sketched out the location of the magical traps or wards he had seen. Ralt added several he’d missed. When he was finished he added his suspicions about booby traps.

Durin nodded sagely. “Stands ta reason they’d booby-trap the side of the ridge they can’t see from the walls. They’d be foolish not to.”

“And those overlapping wards mean we can’t sneak up on them either,” Lorelei added with a grimace. “If I could get inside, up on that parapet, I could take out half of them with my bow, but from the outside . . .” She shook her head glumly without finishing.

“Once we’re inside there’s a lot we can do,” Storm agreed. “It’s getting inside that’s the problem. The wizard won’t be as much of a threat inside the fort as he would be if we were caught outside.”

“Don’t discount him entirely,” Lorelei interjected sharply. “There’s plenty he can do even in a confined space.”

“I know, I know. But I’m betting he prepared most of his spells to deal with someone outside the fort, not inside it. That’ll limit what he can do once we’re inside,” Storm reasoned. “It’s the giants who worry me the most. I’ve fought them once before, and they don’t die easy.”

“Leave ’em to me, lad. Me people have been killing giants since the world was new,” Durin rumbled. “Our size makes it hard for them to hit us, and we just cut their legs out from under them.” He fondled his axe with an eager glint in his eyes. The light went out of his face and he dropped it with a grunt. “But we still need to get inside first.”

Ralt, silent up until now, shifted. “I might be able to help with that,” he said hesitantly. He abruptly found himself the center of attention.

“Go on,” Storm urged him.

Ralt sighed. “Remember that spell book I took from the bandits outside Breckinridge?” He didn’t wait for their answering nods. “One of the spells in it can be used to set off a protective ward from a distance. It’ll also trigger any booby traps nearby.” They smiled as the implications of that became obvious.

“That would make a nice diversion,” Lorelei muttered in appreciation.

“Yeah,” Storm nodded. He considered it for a minute. “How far away can you trigger one of the wards?”

Ralt shrugged. “I’ve never used this spell before, but probably seventy or seventy-five cubits, maybe more.” He paused then plunged ahead. “But there’s something else I can do too. It has its good points and its bad points though.”

Even after his close association with Ralt over the past four or five weeks, Storm still felt the old suspicion of wizards creeping up on him. “Go on,” he said cautiously, wondering what he was letting them in for.

Ralt looked down. “Some wizards can channel all their magical power into just one spell to increase its power or range. Most can’t do it, but some can. No one knows why,” he shrugged. “But it’s an all or nothing deal. Once you start channeling your power into one spell like that, it’s hard to stop at just half your power or something. You have to go all the way.”

“And you’re one of the ones who can do that?” Lorelei asked quietly, sensing Storm’s unease.

Ralt nodded without looking up. “I’ve only done it a couple of times.”

Storm was struggling to contain his shock. A wizard who could put all his power into one massive, overwhelming spell? He tried to imagine a lightning bolt or fireball like the ones he’d seen Ralt use against the Manticores and the demon, strengthened by added power and his mind boggled. There wasn’t a warrior anywhere in the world who could survive something like that! A whole village could be destroyed by that kind of enhanced spell! He shivered involuntarily.

Ralt quickly picked up on the resurgence of Storm’s superstitious feelings. He added slowly, “I could put all my power into the triggering spell and set off all the wards and booby traps at once. But,” and he was careful to emphasize this, “I wouldn’t have any power left for any other spells after that. Like I said, it’s all or nothing.”

Storm still hadn’t said anything, his face a study of conflicting emotions, so Durin jumped in. “That’d be a diversion alright. All the wards are around the sides and back of the fort,” he said, gesturing at the model Storm had constructed. “The booby traps too probably,” he added. “They’d not be able to tell which direction we’re coming from, and it’d pull them away from the wall over the cliff.”

Lorelei nodded eagerly. “Then we could climb the wall and be inside on the parapet before they figured out what was happening. We could hit them from behind that way.” She glanced aside at Storm to see how he was taking all of this. His face was still thunderous, but he appeared to be calming down.

“It’ll take me several hours of meditation to channel my power correctly,” Ralt informed them. “Should I get started now?” Everyone fell silent, looking wordlessly at Storm for guidance.

Ralt is my friend, Storm told himself sternly. He would never do anything to harm us. I trust him. But it was hard to accept the prospect of going into a battle where so much depended on the slight wizard. He discounted the battle against the Manticores and the demon; those had happened so suddenly there hadn’t been time to coordinate their actions ahead of time or think about it during the fight. Even when he and Lorelei had fought the bandits, Ralt’s assistance had been limited to providing them with a way to sneak up on them. There had been plenty of time to back out if the invisibility hadn’t worked and try something else. Letting Ralt set protective wards around their camps at night didn’t make much difference either, no matter how much he grumbled about waking up dead. He was a light sleeper, and he suspected Lorelei and Durin were as well. Any enemy attacking in the night would have more to worry about than a little shock from Ralt’s wards.

This was different though. Four people, no matter how valiant in arms, couldn’t hope to take a fortress like the one they faced without the aid of magic. Despite his ability to see magic, and, as much as he hated to admit it, perform some magic, he found himself still fighting to overcome his life-long aversion to wizards in particular, and magic in general. I guess I haven’t gotten as used to being around wizards as I thought, he admitted inwardly.

None of which helped him much at the moment. Without Ralt’s magical help the greatest strategist in the world couldn’t come up with a plan to take the fortress using only Storm’s meager forces. Backtracking to try to circumvent it wasn’t a viable option either. Even if they didn’t run into another fortress blocking their path they would lose valuable time, days or weeks looking for a way around it – with the snow getting deeper all the time and their supplies running low. He cursed under his breath. There was no way out except forward. Which in turn meant depending on Ralt’s magic. He cursed again.

With a sinking heart, he turned to his companions, displaying a smile that was little more than a grimace. “Get started on your meditations or whatever,” he told Ralt, trying not to grit his teeth. “We’ll hit them in the middle of the night when they’re sleepiest and least on guard. In the meantime . . .” he rose to his feet ignoring their relieved expressions, “. . . I’m going to have some bear steaks for breakfast then get some rest.” Suiting actions to words he began hacking at the half-frozen carcass to cover his agitation at the unnatural course he’d put them on.

Ralt nodded mutely, turning away to begin studying his new spell. Lorelei appeared at Storm’s side and began silently helping him chop some steaks out of the dead bear’s haunch. She could see Storm struggling with his decision. All she could do was give him tacit support, one warrior to another. It wasn’t much, but the time being it was all she had to offer.

The next few hours were very tense, particularly when Ralt began drawing in the power for his spell. Lorelei and Durin couldn’t see magic the way Storm could, but they could feel the gathering power in the air, like the calm before a storm. It fairly cracked, just beyond their senses, making the hair on the back of their neck stand on end. Comfortably stuffed with bear meat, Durin puffed slowly on his pipe, feigning ignorance of what was happening. Lorelei didn’t even try; she gripped Storm’s hand tightly with hers, watching his jaw clench and his face turn white as the energy surged back and forth in the tiny cave. What he was seeing and sensing was beyond her imagination but its toll on him was obvious. By the time Ralt finished preparing his spell, he was exhausted. He lay down and was asleep in an instant.

Ralt stood up cautiously, moving around to get the blood moving in his legs again from sitting in one position too long. He looked down at the sleeping Storm with sympathetic eyes. “I’m sorry that was so hard on him. With everything that’s happened during the past couple of months I tend to forget his aversion to magic,” he sighed.

“He was able to get over it,” Lorelei said quietly. “Give him credit for that.”

“He got through it,” Ralt corrected her gently, shaking a foot that had gone to sleep, “not over it. I’m not sure he ever will, not all the way.”

Lorelei laid a soft hand on Storm’s shoulder. He felt it in his sleep and grunted without waking up. “You should still give him credit for being able to go along with it though.”

“Oh, I do,” Ralt nodded absently, testing his foot to see if the feeling had come back. “He’s come a long way. The first time we met a couple months ago he tried to kill me the moment he learned I was a wizard.” He smiled at Lorelei’s shocked expression. “You didn’t know that did you?” She shook her head. “Durin can tell you; he nearly had me too. He dodged one of my spells and ruined the other one.”

Durin grunted softly. “He’s telling the truth, lass. If not for me and Sodan interrupting him, and me archers threatening to turn him into a pincushion, he’d have killed Ralt in less time than it takes to tell it.” Lorelei had seen Storm’s fighting prowess and battle speed herself. She could believe it.

“Then he’s changed more than I thought,” she smiled at them. “For someone of his mettle to go from trying to kill a wizard to actively working beside him in just two months is a minor miracle all by itself. Maybe that one god of his really exists after all.”

Durin and Ralt burst into loud guffaws. “Ye may have the right of it lass,” the dwarf chuckled. The tension that had filled the little cave was gone, brushed away by their laughter as if it had never existed.

Lorelei’s answering giggle was cut short by a massive, unladylike yawn. She mumbled something unintelligible around it then said, “It’s not even noon yet and already I feel like I could sleep for hours.”

Durin knocked out his pipe and lay down with his great axe resting comfortably across his chest. “We’ve been going non-stop since the fight wit the demon, lass. Yer worn down, we all are. Why don’t ye get some sleep like Storm there? We’ve got a barn burner of a fight on our hands tonight – I’m going to.” His eyelids closed. Almost immediately he was snoring loudly.

Ralt shook his head in surprise. “How can those two sleep when we could all get killed tonight?” Lorelei was already taking Durin’s advice, stretching out beside Storm, her head on his broad chest. “Don’t tell me you’re going to sleep too?” he sputtered in disbelief.

“Why not?” she muttered drowsily, already half asleep. “We’ve got a warm cave, nothing to do until after midnight and we’ll need to be rested for the battle. Sleeping sounds like a wonderful idea.” Her eyes drifted shut before Ralt could overcome his shock enough to formulate a reasonable answer.

He ran his eyes over his sleeping companions in consternation. Admittedly he was the greenhorn around here, but was this how seasoned veterans behaved before battle, he wondered? He’d always imagined grim warriors huddled around campfires sharpening their weapons, planning strategies or singing loud battle songs while waving bottles of brandy at each other. Somehow the idea of sleeping before battle didn’t quite square with that image. He couldn’t sleep knowing he might get killed later tonight!

He busied himself around the cave for a while, straightening things up. He cut some more steaks out of the bear, laying them out for their evening meal. He soon ran out of things to do though and the comparative warmth of the cave lulled him into drowsy complacency. He sat down with his back against the wall but soon slid down to a recumbent position and was asleep before he could stop himself.

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