As Storm and Lorelei mounted into the air they looked down and spotted the dwarves marching out of Far Point with Durin and Ralt bringing up the rear. They waved but no one looked up to return the gesture as they flew overhead. They were on two trails now, each one different; he and Lorelei to find Crowsotarri’s murderer, Durin and Ralt to install Durin as King of the Dwarves.
With an aerial mount under him, Storm reverted to his earthling past and turned northwest across the mountains. Their path would take them past Mount Wainsford where the frost giants lived but he was confident they could fly high enough to avoid any missiles the monsters tried to launch at them. The blanket of warm air a pegasus generated in flight kept them warm even in the thin mountain air, so to his military way of thinking, all things considered, it was the quickest and most sensible path to follow.
Once past the mountains of Ingold, they would enter the Dales, the rolling hill country sandwiched between Ingold and the Shimmerwood where the elves held power. Due north of the Shimmerwood and just a little to the west of it, was the part of the Rampart Mountains where he’d grown up with the Bear Clan in his youth.
They were heading west though. Once they reached North Gate, the northern-most city of Ingold, they’d follow the Cliff Road to Namak Lake. From there they would turn north toward the Abeytu.
He was planning to skirt the vast trade city of Nahor at the southern tip of Namak Lake though. There were too many temples in that seething fleshpot, too many desperadoes willing to do anything to make some fast money, too many assassins looking for their next payday. The bounty hunters this morning in Far Point had convinced him approaching any city was a bad idea right now. Going to Nahor was just asking for trouble.
Lorelei followed him without question. As she flew in silence, wondering how Durin was holding up under the suspicion of his fellow dwarves, she found herself reflecting that this was the first time she’d actually been alone with Storm for any length of time. Always before, Durin and Ralt had been around, then later, Thomas and Krista, then her whole household with all the servants.
This sudden, unexpected chance to have Storm all to herself put a glad song in her heart in spite of the way it had come about.
He nudged his mount closer to hers. “What are you so happy and smiling about?” He had to raise his voice to be heard over the rush of wind.
She hadn’t been aware she was smiling. “I just realized this is the first time we’ve ever been alone with each other.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “I thought about that too.”
She laughed. “What ever are you thinking about, husband of mine?”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure you know exactly what I’m thinking about, wife.”
She stuck her tongue out at him but he just grinned.
They’d already flown above the snow line and the ground below was white. It wouldn’t melt until later in the spring. The snow at the highest elevations wouldn’t melt at all.
He gestured at the glistening snow below their boots. “How much does it snow in the winter in the Biqah? I’ve only been through there in the summer.”
“Some,” she allowed, “but not much. When it does, it usually melts within a day or two.”
“What about this time of year?” he pressed. “Is it muddy like Aroon?”
She seesawed a hand in the air. “Some places yes, some places no. The Abeytu spend most of our time along the Wolfhead River and the surrounding valley. It doesn’t get all that swampy but the river rises in the spring from the runoff from the Ramparts.”
Storm nodded. He knew that much. He’d been through part of the Biqah in early summer when the rivers were still high. The real swamp was the Bitstsah, south of Nahor. It stretched for hundreds of miles and was home to giants, trolls, and more mosquitoes than he’d ever dreamed of in his worst nightmares. He’d been through the edge of it once and hated it with every fiber of his being. It was worse than the Florida Everglades.
Their pegasi were flying hard, climbing to stay above the ground as the mountains continued their march into the sky. Storm looked around. The trees were starting to thin out the higher they went. Lorelei noticed it too but didn’t understand it the way he did.
“Something is wrong with the trees up here,” she said. “They’re dying out or something.”
He grinned. Typical flatlander, he thought. He shook his head. “That’s normal in the mountains. When you get too high the trees can’t grow. Back on Earth there was this resort called Timberline Lodge that was built right on the edge of where the trees stopped growing.”
She frowned. “Who would build a resort that high up in the mountains?”
“It’s for skiing.”
Her face cleared. “I’ve heard of that! Do people really do that?”
He nodded. “I tried it a few times. It’s fun but it takes a lot of practice. I spent most of my time falling down. My stupid skis kept sliding out from under me.” He grimaced at the memory of his early attempts at skiing. His rear end hurt with remembered pain from landing on his wallet too many times.
Her laughter pealed across the sky.
“My great Ghibbore warrior, felled by a couple of sticks of polished wood.”
He was willing to be the butt of her amusement. “I’ll show you some sticks,” he threatened with an evil grin.
She shied away from him in pretended fear. “Oh no. Help. Someone save me.”
A bellowing roar from the ground cut short their mirth.
Their pegasi skittered sideways in the air at the sudden noise. Storm and Lorelei grabbed hastily for the reins.
“What was that?”
Storm followed Lorelei’s finger and saw a frost giant less than 200 feet below, shaking his fist at them.
The Zamzummin, the Terrible Ones in the Old Tongue, were the mountain giants, the frost giants. Their skin was albino white as was their hair. Their eyes were a pale icy blue. Adapted to the bitter cold of their mountain homes, they wore little more than a loin cloth made of bear skin. Twenty feet tall, they kept polar bears for pets and were known for torturing people before eating them.
The giant below turned and pried a boulder the size of a love seat out of the frozen ground. Storm’s eyes widened. He wasn’t really going to throw something that big was he?
Lorelei yelped in fear as the huge boulder hurtled up at them as if launched from a catapult. They banked apart frantically, just in time to let the massive projectile pass between them.
Storm clinched his jaws. The giant’s accuracy was terrifying. “Fly!” he yelled at Lorelei while spurring his mount. She nodded but their pegasi were already going as fast as they could.
He glanced down.
The giant was running after them, roaring in anger.
His widened. The monster was catching up!
He looked around frantically. The ground before them was still going up, forcing their pegasi to spend as much effort climbing as flying forward.
A scream from Lorelei, coupled with his sense of danger, warned him just in time to avoid a smaller, but no less dangerous boulder that came speeding toward them from the galloping giant on the ground. It arced away and crashed through a small stand of trees. Splinters flew like hail as the trees snapped like toothpicks.
Lorelei was familiar with running battles and knew a lost one when she saw it. “This isn’t working,” she called across the sky.
“Use your bow,” he ordered her.
She nodded, then did something he wouldn’t have believed if he hadn’t watched her do it with his own eyes. She dropped the reins and placed her hands on the pommel of the saddle. She straightened her arms, lifting her upper body at the same time as she threw her legs out in a side split. She spun around on the palms of her hands and sat back down in the saddle facing backwards.
His jaw dropped.
He’d known she was limber and fit, but that was an Olympic-level feat of gymnastics.
He put his surprise aside as she began loosing arrows at the running giant. The monster bellowed anger at their stinging bite but never slowed down.
Storm clenched his teeth. It looked like it was time to use some of the battle magic Ralt had taught him. He pointed a finger at the giant and forced himself to focus. There was soundless flash then a dozen tiny arrows of light streaked out, each with a faint ripping sound like an angry buzz saw. They dove unerringly down to hit the giant all over his chest and stomach.
He stumbled and bellowed in fresh pain. Faster than Storm would have thought possible he ripped a stone the size of a beach ball out of the ground and hurled it at him. Storm ducked but part of it caught his shoulder, shattering bones and throwing him out of the saddle.
Lorelei screamed as he dangled in midair, hanging on to the saddle horn by one hand, a red haze of pain fogging his vision. His pegasus lurched to one side from his off balance weight, fighting to maintain altitude.
Storm saw the giant pausing to pry another boulder out of the snow covered ground. He couldn’t take another shot from one of those things but he couldn’t maneuver like this either. Distantly he heard Lorelei screaming imprecations at the monster as she circled it, firing arrow after arrow at it.
Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to concentrate on his healing power. It was hard to think with the pegasus’ wings buffeting him as he hung by its side. Finally, he felt power flowing into his shoulder. The pain eased at once as his broken shoulder was mended almost instantly.
Relief was immediately followed by a sense of oncoming danger as the giant hurled another boulder into the sky. His pegasus banked unexpectedly to avoid it and his fingers slipped. Before he could catch himself, he fell, hurtling toward the ground far below.