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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Eighteen - The Perilous Mountains)

Colin Frayn
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The longer the group stayed in Lanwyn, the less they wanted to leave its comfortable walls, and venture northwards towards the seemingly impenetrable mountains beyond. Those dark grey peaks dominated the horizon, jutting awkwardly into the skyline behind the great lake of Thrynn. The rich waters of the lake supported the townsfolk with a plentiful supply of fish, as well as providing the easiest way to trade across to the elven settlements to the west, and the smaller farming communities to the north and east.

Lanwyn stood as a symbol in that land for survival against the odds. Though the weather in early spring was mild, the depths of winter brought with them a bitingly cold breeze, flowing directly from the snow-capped mountains and the icy plains to the north. Beyond the mountains, little was known. Very few humans had travelled that far. Indeed, few had even reached the mountains themselves, their danger being legendary amongst those who had wisely stayed behind as successive trading parties ventured northwards, but never returned.

Life in Lanwyn was surprisingly cheerful, despite the obvious perils of living in such a place. Daily worries seemed to barely phase the local folk, whose eyes had seen far worse in their time, almost every single one. There was barely a month passing without incident in those parts. Tarok spent quite some time in the library, reading up about the history of the region, and studying poorly detailed maps of the peaks. His research unearthed numerous accounts of battles and conflicts, which had been raging in this place since the very beginning of human civilisation, and probably before.

On public display near the front of the simple, but spacious library, was a record of the recent agricultural problems in the surrounding regions. Deaths were marked alongside the varying quotas and produce records. Two farm workers were slaughtered by an orc raiding party just a week ago, and twelve days before that, an entire farm was razed to the ground by attackers from the hills. Evidence suggested trolls had been the culprits. Though the creatures preferred life in the rocky surroundings of the mountains, they ventured occasionally southwards in search of easy prey. Tarok carefully closed the book, and wandered back out of the library's magnificent wooden gates, towards the surprisingly bright midday sunlight reflecting from the damp cobbled streets.

The rain of the previous day had finally subsided. Now the clouds had parted for a short while, allowing the warming rays of sunlight to pierce through onto the crowds going about their daily business in the busy town streets. Three days had passed now since the group arrived in Lanwyn, and Tarok's studies were beginning to draw to a close. The four had arranged to meet up in the town square at lunchtime in order to check one last time that the correct preparations were being made, and to assign tasks for the remainder of their last few days of comfort. They were to leave Lanwyn in two days' time, bright and early in the morning.

The light would hold out for nine or ten hours at most as they were walking, allowing them to make no more than three-quarters of their journey through the increasingly poor tracks leading to the mountains. A dozen miles before the climb began, the paths all petered out, leaving the group to fend for themselves through the rocky, treacherous slopes and towards the mountain paths. These trade routes had been built by the dwarfs many years since, though they were not in the greatest state of repair, having been abandoned some time ago thanks to a series of vicious and bloody attacks. However, this was the only route the group could take, and they knew that they just had to follow this one path and they would surely arrive at the dwarf stronghold before too long. At least that was the plan.

Tarok entered the vibrant city square, taking a seat at a park bench as a multitude of colourful merchants wandered past, tending to their wares and proffering a bewildering variety of foods, fabrics and clothing. Doragon walked up from amongst the stalls, clutching a small loaf of freshly baked bread. "Tarok, my friend. All is well I assume?"

The wizard nodded. "I would say so, yes; I'm almost finished in the library. What about you?"

Doragon smiled, "Oh well, nothing much. I thought I'd check out the local cuisine. It's been a while since I last had such a choice. After all, much as we appreciate it, your magic food does get a little … well …"

"Tedious?" Carek had approached silently from behind Doragon's back, and gave the halfling quite a shock.

Doragon nodded. "Well, I wouldn't have used that word, but yes."

Tarok laughed. "My friend, you should have tasted my earlier attempts. I assure you they were even less pleasant. I'm sure Carek can offer you a few anecdotes."

Carek smiled. One of the great problems with wizardry, especially when teaching yourself, was that trial and error tended to produce rather unpredictable results at a predictably high frequency. Tarok's first few magical loaves of bread were revolting at best, but downright poisonous at worst.

Tarok turned to his half-elven friend. "So then, what have you managed to discover?" Carek ripped off a corner from Doragon's loaf of bread and took a bite. He raised his eyebrows. "Not bad. I could get used to this." He chewed carefully for a few moments, and then turned back to the wizard. "Well, I've found a few bits of weaponry that I needed. I grabbed a new quiver of crossbow bolts for Athena, and another two dozen arrows for me." Carek displayed the substantial array of weaponry slung over his shoulder. "I also managed to get hold of a pair of proper oil lamps, and a supply of fuel. I reckon we'll probably need those at night, especially in the mountains."

Tarok nodded. "Good thinking. And what of Athena? Has anyone seen her since this morning?"

Doragon nodded his head. "She went off to see the mayor. I believe she was trying to find us a military escort for the journey to the mountains. I think she was planning to pull in a few old family favours courtesy of her brother. She might be a bit late, I suppose."

Doragon took a seat next to Tarok, and Carek joined him. Together, they tucked into the rapidly disappearing loaf of bread and a generous slab of cheese that Doragon had also managed to purchase amongst the fantastic array of market produce. It was an appetising, if simple meal. It was almost half an hour later before Athena arrived in the market square, a wide smile clearly justifying her tardiness.

"And where do you think you've been?" joked Doragon. "You've missed lunch!"

Athena laughed. "Fortunately not - I just ate a fine meal at the town hall. It appears that my brother is rather more highly favoured here than I had been led to believe. I've managed to twist quite a few arms this morning. We now have an escort for the first day's journey."

Tarok smiled broadly, "Excellent work! How many men?"

"Four. They all seemed fairly proficient, and they're well versed in local geography so they should be able to help us find the mountain path without a problem."

Carek offered her a drink of water from his wine skin.

"No thanks, I've already had more than my fair share today. It seems that the merchants bring in some of the finest wines and spirits from the south on their journeys. Tax here is remarkably lenient, but the mayor certainly appreciates a bottle or two from time to time. Just to keep him on the right side, you understand."

Tarok understood very well. He could really appreciate a good glass of wine right now - he hadn't tasted any since before he left Tarnadon many months ago. He could probably discover how to create it using his magic, but wasn't particularly keen on the learning process. A good bottle of wine was perhaps one of those things that magic should leave well alone.

The rest of the day's tasks were clear. Athena and Doragon returned to the Town Hall in order to prepare the guards for the journey ahead. Tarok continued his studies, and Carek took the time to rest and gather some last minute supplies. The day passed swiftly, and before long, the group found themselves back at their inn, drinking a tankard of fine ale before they returned to their beds for their penultimate night of comfort.

The night and following day both passed swiftly, with the final preparations being made at a leisurely pace, and arrangements for the following morning gradually taking shape. Tarok finished his studies, and finally got a chance to meet the lively, plump town mayor. Clearly, his leniency had earned him a great deal of comfort, as his residence was carpeted in finest rugs from the southern lands. The walls held portraits of anonymous local heroes, and the dining room seemed well stocked with a variety of local produce. He himself was a middle-aged man in his late forties, his hairline receding in a most comic fashion, which left him with one large tuft of unkempt hair at either side of his head. He was not a tall man, and his waistline looked like it had benefited from a life of distinct overindulgence.

"So then," he began, "you're the four mad folk wanting to cross the mountains?" His voice was loud, but not forceful. He ended this last phrase with a hearty laugh, probably fuelled with a glass or two of his finest cellar stock.

Tarok replied, "That was our plan, yes. I hear you have generously arranged for an escort to accompany us for the first stage."

"Yes indeed. Young Athena managed to convince me that this expedition of yours could well help to fuel better relations with the dwarfs, so I figured it was certainly worth a try." The people of Lanwyn evidently needed all the help they could get.

"Of course," he continued, "the guards won't be following you into the mountains. They're not completely mad." He laughed aloud once more, slapping Carek briskly on the back. The half-elf stepped to one side, slightly taken aback.

"Well, I hope you'll join me for one last meal before you leave, won't you?" The four friends looked at each other. They couldn't refuse that sort of offer.

Tarok replied, "We'd be delighted. Shall we say two hours after nightfall?"

The mayor nodded. "That, I imagine, would be just perfect."

The group left the Town hall, and wandered back through the streets and off on their various errands once more. They returned later on that night, their tasks completed, for one of the greatest feasts they had eaten for quite some time. Athena learned about the exploits of her brother, whose bravery had saved the lives of a large number of townsfolk. The mayor's gratitude was certainly quite clear. They left late that night, their bellies quite full and prepared for the journey ahead. That would be their last night in comfort. It was quite clear from some of the mayor's more drunken remarks that he didn't really expect to see the four adventurers alive again. Many had tried to contact the dwarfs over the years, and few had met with any success. On the contrary, a large number had met with mysterious, and mostly unknown deaths.

They slept uneasily that night. Partly because they were nervous about the journey ahead, but also because they were excited about what rewards it might bring.

The day came finally when the group had decided to leave for the mountains. The trek, they thought, would take almost two days and then an unknown distance through the rocky paths to the dwarf caves. They left the inn, which had been such a friendly home for the previous few nights, and assembled together with their guard escort at the town gates. The mayor was there, looking slightly dishevelled, clearly suffering from the previous night's excesses. Carek had wisely stayed away from the alcohol, but his three friends were not quite so strong willed. Remarkably, Tarok seemed not to be suffering at all. His magical powers seemed to have a great number of remarkable uses.

There was no crowd there to wave them off, just a small contingent from the mayor's office. The four adventurers looked quite a comic sight, their backpacks heavily laden for the journey ahead. They had thought to bring several warm blankets and finely sewn sleeping bags knowing that they would be spending several nights outside in the cold northerly wind. The guards had just brought minimal back packs, together with some equipment for making a shelter for the night. They had clearly done this kind of thing before.

Carek lead the way out of Lanwyn, through the streets towards the north of the city. They left the town gates behind, setting off along the long track to the northern mountains. As they walked away from the town, the fields opened out into a broad expanse of farmland, dotted with the occasional small wooded grove.

The guards were all in their early thirties, having served in the military for a number of years. To have survived for so long was quite an achievement, and these were truly skilled mercenaries. One of them struck up a conversation with Tarok about the route that they were to take, and some of the legends of the place. "I've lived in Lanwyn most of my life," he began, "but for a while, I lived up nearer the mountains in a small farming village. There were only ten or so people living there, but we formed quite a cosy little community, the last outpost before the peaks, you see." Tarok nodded, intrigued to hear about the soldier's tale.

"So will we be passing near there on our route?" enquired the wizard. The guard shook his head, "Oh no. No, I'm afraid we won't. You see it doesn't exist any more."

Tarok frowned. "Farming not profitable enough?"

The guard shook his head once more, "Oh no, not at all. In fact, we made quite a tidy living up there. No, it was the trolls that forced us to leave. They made a habit of killing livestock all the time, and the occasional villager too. It was then that we decided that enough was enough, and we all moved back to the town."

Tarok whistled, "Sounds nasty. Tell me about the trolls."

"Well, there's not much to tell," began the soldier, "Except that you really don't want to get too near them. Seven or eight feet tall, teeth like nails, claws like razor blades. I saw one of my fellow farmers killed in seconds. It was all we could do to fend them off with spears and arrows. In the end, we just let the sheep out, and ran for our lives while the creature slowly killed our livestock. They move frighteningly quickly, and hide in the shadows. You'd be surprised how well a creature of that size can conceal itself. After a few attacks, most of the villagers began to fear even venturing outside after dark."

Tarok raised his eyebrows, "Nasty business."

The soldier nodded, "Sure was. And you know the worst thing about trolls?"

Tarok shook his head, "No - tell me."

"You can't kill them!"

Tarok frowned, "What do you mean? Surely, they must die somehow! Nothing's immortal!"

"Well," continued the guard, "our blades didn't seem to stop it. One of my friends managed to cut a great gash in the beast's side with a halberd, and the damn thing just healed right up. The only way to kill them, so they say, is with fire. That's about the only thing that will finish them off once and for all. We heard that from one of the old sages in Lanwyn. They sure seem to hate it. We took to brandishing burning torches near them after a while and they backed off, but it never kept them away for long. Take my advice - if you see one of them, turn and run or you'll never know what hit you."

Tarok thanked the soldier for his advice. Of course, with his magical abilities, Tarok had a number of weapons at his disposal that the guard could not have expected. If the information the guard had told him was correct, then Tarok would be the only one who could harm the creatures; his friends' blades would do nothing. He began to think through his growing arsenal of spells and tried to work out a strategy to deal with these creatures. This would truly be a test of his magical abilities.

The first day went by quickly with little event. The mountains loomed closer and closer, and began to tower over the small group of adventurers as they neared the feet of the great peaks. They set up camp near a small group of trees, and Tarok impressed the guards with his magical tricks, conjuring up a small flame enough to light the campfire. The guards seemed well trained, and managed to create quite a substantial shelter in just a couple of hours. It wasn't quite the luxury that they had been used to for the previous few nights, but it was certainly a welcome retreat from the night, and from the thin drizzle that had begun to rain down upon them just as darkness fell.

That night, Doragon had nightmares of the tall peaks toppling over on top of him and trying to swallow him up, and of mysterious shadows lurking behind boulders, waiting to pounce. The mountains contained many dangers, but he had three powerful friends to protect him. He hoped that it would be enough. All four adventurers had the same thoughts that night, knowing that the next time they slept would be among the rocks of the mountains themselves.

All too soon, the morning came and it was time to leave their escort and set off alone along the rapidly narrowing, rocky mountain path.

The four adventurers bade farewell to the guards, thanking them for their advice and information. The guards were glad to return to the comfort of Lanwyn, and certainly didn't envy the task of the brave band of friends who were just beginning the last, but most treacherous leg of their epic journey into the unknown. However, they admired the courage and bravery shown by the four strangers, and wished them all best of luck for the journey ahead.

Tarok began to lead the way carefully through the fields towards the foothills of the mountains. He was becoming uneasy as the clouds loomed ominously overhead, growing darker by the minute and casting the land into a murky shadow. Moreover, the path soon vanished, leaving them only with a rough bearing from the guards and the promise of a mysterious track leading right into the heart of the mountains. Before long, they found themselves out of view of the now familiar fields whose comfortable bounds they had so reluctantly left behind.

As they reached the foot of the mountains, a narrow path began to weave its way towards the twisted peaks. This was the famed mountain path, its route allegedly leading straight to the dwarven settlement which lay somewhere beyond. The path sloped gently upwards, soon becoming steeper as the grass faded away, to be replaced by sharp rocks and fallen boulders. Every so often along the route was a bone, or a piece of rusted armour or weaponry from some poor unfortunate adventurer who had fallen foul of the many dangers which lay scattered along the way. Soon enough, the whole group was beginning to share Tarok's worried thoughts, though all were outwardly confident, sure in their own skills.

Carek remained confident. He had met many dangers in his lifetime, and none had yet managed to get the better of him. With his fighting skills, Athena's blade and Tarok's magic, they were a fine fighting bunch. Doragon was becoming handy with his short sword too, after many months of hard training. The halfling was keen to practise his new skills against some real opposition. In the mountains, there was certainly no shortage of that. There were fierce trolls, colossal dragons and menacing giants. These last two were rare, but deadly. Perhaps worst of all were the foul creations of necromantic magic whose presence in the mountains Tarok had discovered in his readings back in Lanwyn. There were all sorts of unearthly creatures whose mere presence tainted the mountains with unchallenged evil. Most were animated by the foul sorcery of the orcs and their kindred, but some were more powerful than that, being filled with their own seditious powers. There were many more terrible creatures lurking in the rocky peaks - ready to pounce upon the weary and unprepared.

Doragon managed to put his fears aside for a while, and began to think about the journey ahead. He was definitely looking forward to meeting the dwarfs. Finally, he would be literally able to speak face-to-face with someone. He had spent so long now in the company of humans and elves that he was beginning to feel quite inferior. Halflings are slightly smaller than dwarfs and much less stout, but they do both share the same interest of mining, and respect for order in society. Meeting them for the first time was certainly an interesting prospect. He wasn't too sure how the dwarfs would welcome him, perhaps with more than a little suspicion. He had heard about their peculiar, clandestine ways, but soon enough he was going to discover them first hand.

The path twisted further up into the rocky cliffs, and began to fade slightly through lack of maintenance. Every so often, one of the group would spot an eagle or a falcon swooping in the skies. Presumably preying on some of the less dangerous denizens of this strange and inhospitable land. They pressed on upwards, eager to find somewhere safe to rest for the night before the darkness began to fall.

As he turned a corner, Doragon heard a noise up ahead. Carek stopped dead, and Doragon scouted along the path, crouching behind boulders. The halfling waved his friends forward, calling back that there was a small group of goblins fifty yards further along. Creeping cautiously around the corner, they saw the creatures huddled up beside the road, chattering to themselves. Maybe they were lying in wait for the adventurers as they wandered along the narrow mountain path. Carek smiled, and whispered under his breath, "This should be a fair test!"

The group spun round the corner and charged forward. Tarok stood back, saving his powers for the more dangerous monsters that they would surely encounter later. After an initial volley of arrows, Athena and Carek made short work of the first three creatures. Doragon and Athena raced in and killed the two who were left with skilful sword thrusts. They even surprised themselves with their efficiency. As Doragon finished off the last, he looked further down the path and saw another green mass blocking the way ahead. This one was different. This was no goblin. The halfling stepped back in shock, and then began to pace backwards, his heart pounding. He held out his sword at arm's length, his hand shaking nervously. The beast began to run forwards, clearly sensing an easy meal.

Tarok ushered his friends out of the way, preparing a suitable spell. Athena kept her sword drawn and ready, sizing up her foe. Carek drew his bow, and notched an arrow in preparation. Tarok had no doubt about it, from the descriptions that he had read. The dark green skin and fiery, red eyes could only have belonged to one creature. He called back, "Keep your distance: it's a troll! Mind those claws!" Tarok stepped to the front of the group, and bought them some time by casting three magical darts towards the beast. It reeled back in pain, but soon charged forward again as juices oozed from its skin and began to heal the wounds. Tarok stepped back a few paces, and then called back to the rest of the group.

"The creature can regenerate damage, though I didn't know about magical wounds. I hope the rest of my advice was accurate. Leave this one to me." The troll was now charging towards the group. Tarok quickly cast another spell, creating a small arrow, hovering above his palm. The troll was just a dozen yards away and closing quickly.

With a click of his fingers, Tarok caused the arrow to burst into a roaring flame, glowing white-hot, then shooting off towards the beast. The fiery projectile struck the creature heavily in the chest with a painful thud. The troll roared in pain, staggered for a moment, then charged forwards once more, towards the retreating wizard. Tarok stepped back, and called for the others to assist him. Athena fired a crossbow bolt at the creature, which the wizard ignited as it flew. The troll seemed injured, but charged on relentlessly. Carek joined in with a volley of arrows. The troll staggered backwards, but soon enough it had removed the missiles from its flesh, and roared a bloodthirsty battle cry.

The troll charged forward to attack. Tarok stepped to the back as he prepared another spell. Doragon, who looked to be the weakest, was the first target. The halfling dodged out of the way, as the troll's bloodstained claws narrowly missed his exposed neck. Doragon quickly scurried up a nearby boulder and drew his short sword, ready to attack. The troll turned to Athena, and lashed out with its claws once more, managing to hit her on the arm as she stepped to one side. Athena attacked back, slashing the creature heavily on the side. Before it could regenerate the damage, Carek dived into the melee with his spear. The creature seemed to feel the pain, and struck back at Carek, hurling the half-elf several feet backwards onto the hard ground. Doragon jumped off his raised platform and down towards the battle below, plunging his short sword into the creature's back, and then rolling to one side.

Athena lifted her sword above her head, and brought a crushing blow down onto the creature's shoulder, slicing its arm cleanly off. The troll's rubbery skin covered the wound quickly, ceasing the flow of blood. The creature took several furious blows at Athena, but missed with all of them, off-balanced by the warrior's skilful attack. Carek prepared to strike but suddenly found himself flat on his face. As he peered downwards, he saw the troll's severed limb grabbing firmly onto his ankle. It seemed almost alive, tugging firmly on the half-elf's leg. Carek stabbed furiously with his spear and the mysterious hand released its grip. He took a step back, and then charged forward, kicking it straight off the cliff side. Smiling, he turned around towards the wounded beast. That would keep it quiet for a while.

Tarok decided to lend a hand and cast another spell now that the troll was weakened. The magician lunged forward and managed to grab the beast on the wrist. He quickly allowed the magical energy to surge through his body and into that of his opponent. Suddenly, the creature grew more clumsy and off balance, seemingly losing its previous ferocity and stumbling to the floor. Before it could regenerate, Tarok lit a flask of oil and hurled it towards the beast, the liquid bursting into a bright inferno as the container shattered open. The flames burned fiercely for a minute or so as the troll thrashed about trying to extinguish them. Carek and Athena joined in, slicing viciously at the creature's flailing limbs. After a minute, the considerably charred remains of the troll collapsed in a pitiful mess on the path. Carek kicked the fried body off the side of the cliff, and the group gathered their weapons and equipment, ready to set off once more along the twisting mountain path.

Tarok wandered over to the edge of the cliff, watching the burned corpse crashing down into the valley below. "Well," he began, "that wasn't too difficult, was it?" Athena was bandaging her arm and looked up towards the wizard, shaking her head.

"Well let's just say I'd rather not fight too many of them," she added. "Especially not without your magic."

Their second night of their journey was looming nearer, and no one really wanted to rest in the mountains, where bright eyes pierced every shadow and the sounds of strange monsters could be heard around every darkened corner. Doragon shuddered as it was gradually getting colder, and the mountains seemed to him to be the most inhospitable place imaginable. He didn't at all want to camp in the midst of goblins, orcs and trolls, and he wasn't alone in that opinion. The mere thought of all the disturbing ways they could be killed was enough to stop any of them from sleeping. They had no firewood, so Tarok resorted to using his magic to conjure up some fuel for a fire. They wrapped up carefully in their sleeping bags, covered in a number of thick woollen blankets. They sheltered down in a hollow between two large boulders whose sides offered a welcome protection from the bitterly cold wind.

No one slept well that night. The mountains were a foreign place, with all the sinister sounds and smells to go with it. Even Carek slept only lightly, woken by the strong wind whistling past their improvised shelter, and the sound of trolls in the distance, foraging for food amongst the rocks and boulders. He had a terrible feeling that one of them might stray towards the group, drawn by the light of their campfire. A night time fight could have been disastrous, with no warning nor any chance to prepare. Doragon lay awake too, shaking at even the tiniest noise nearby. Tarok probably slept worst of all. He was the only one who had read about the mountains, so knew better than any of his friends what terrible dangers they contained.

The night passed slowly, with most of the four friends managing to grab at least an hour or two of sleep. The morning sun came not one moment too soon, bringing a little much-needed security to the hearts of the four shivering travellers. The night had passed, but they still had a long trek remaining if they were to find the dwarven town before evening.

They packed their bags, ate the remains of the food that they had brought with them and set off once more along the crude mountain track. Just a few hundred yards further along lay the freshly killed corpse of a mountain goat, crudely dismembered. Doragon thought he had imagined those terrible sounds during the night, but evidently they had been quite real. The trolls had been hunting dangerously nearby, concealed by the darkness. Fortunately it looked like they had already eaten their fill, or the group could have been next.

Wearily, they trekked along the path for most of the morning, climbing steadily upwards and occasionally dipping back down towards the valley floor. The route was a gruelling one, especially with their backpacks still laden with dragon scales. Doragon was feeling the strain, his shorter legs finding it difficult to keep up with his taller companions.

"Quite how these dwarfs live in this accursed place, I have no idea," he began. "And to think that we are distant relatives! I find that very difficult to believe."

They had all been wondering that for quite some time. Tarok had researched the subject whilst in Lanwyn, but had found little of relevance. Why did the dwarfs leave the plains to live in the mountains? Why would anyone choose to remain in such an inhospitable place? The answer, he supposed, was minerals. The mountains were full of a great wealth in iron ore. Maybe even gold too. That would certainly be an adequate compensation. The dwarven armour was far finer than any human smith could ever have created, and it was well known that dwarven craftsmen were of the very highest quality.

The group ate lunch at the head of a great valley, weaving gracefully through the heart of the mountain range. Several hundred feet below ran a narrow river, leaping and dancing over a myriad waterfalls and rapids. Scree-lined slopes rose precipitously upwards to the path, whose route seemed to lead along the mountain side as far as any of the group could see. The view was magnificent, but Doragon was not particularly fond of heights, staying well away from the edge and barely daring to look. Quite what had possessed him to join this lunatic expedition he would never know, but one thing was for sure - his diary would sell like none other in the insulated halfling community. In fact, this particular adventure would impress even the humans. That opened up a completely new market for his literary talents.

After lunch, they wandered for several hours along the side of the great valley, occasionally navigating rock falls and the odd rotting carcass. Fortunately, there were no further human remains, though that was probably because the trolls had finished them off many months ago. The green-skinned hunters were still around. Doragon and Carek could hear them in the distance, chattering to each other and scrambling over the rocks. They even saw a pair of them darting up the side of one of the mountains ahead. The group kept a low profile until the creatures had disappeared from view, then ventured out again more cautiously. They were so tired; another fight could easily have been fatal.

As the group turned a corner, they noticed a faint glow in the distance, over towards the other side of a deep ravine. Tarok led the way forwards, lighting one of the oil lanterns as the sun began to dip behind the peaks beyond. As they continued towards the source of the light, they noticed that the path was getting very gradually wider, which certainly looked extremely promising. The group's waning energies began to return and they walked off at an increased pace, eager to reach the warmth of the dwarven caves before nightfall. One night out amongst the trolls had been quite enough to last a lifetime. Thanks to the perilous footpath, they had already faced more than enough danger for one day.

As they approached the edge of the ravine, the group noticed a long rope bridge leading across it and over to the other side. Doragon had never been particularly fond of heights, but this was a complete nightmare! "Don't worry," said Tarok, "It's bound to be safe. After all, the dwarfs must use it all the time. Come on, hold onto the ropes, and you'll be fine." Doragon gulped and smiled a fake smile. Tarok was keen to test his theory so stepped out onto the first rung. It creaked slightly, but held firm. He stepped once more, then again. Before long, he was half way across, and he turned to enjoy the spectacular view back down the valley to the south. He continued over, followed shortly after by Carek and Athena, both trying desperately not to look down.

Doragon stepped out onto the first rung. It creaked. He stepped off it again. This was not going to be easy. It was all very well saying these things, but actually doing them was another story. Dwarven craftsmanship may well have been the best in the land, but that didn't help the poor halfling. What I this wasn't a dwarven bridge? What if this route had been abandoned for years? He started talking to himself, taking his mind off the immediate peril. "Come on Doragon. You're a proud halfling. Don't be afraid. Remember that these dwarfs are just your distant cousins. If they can do it, so can you." He began to mutter aloud. "Even the humans managed it, and they're a lot heavier than you are."

Doragon placed one foot onto the bridge again, and then timidly his other foot. He grabbed onto the rope and looked straight ahead. He again stepped out very cautiously, and again, and again. The other three were already at the other side and were looking back to check that he was doing all right. He stepped out once more, and then got into a rhythm. "Just think what your friends back home would say if they could see you now," he thought. They would probably pass out from fear.

After what seemed like hours, Doragon eventually found himself in the middle. The bridge sagged slightly under his small weight, and swayed gently in the breeze. He weighed up his options; forward to the group, back to the other side, or down. The third didn't appeal to him much and the second seemed futile, so he set off forwards again.

As he was beginning to feel slightly more confident, he felt a stronger breeze on his cheeks like the beginning of a storm. The wind had been still only a few seconds ago. He cautiously looked over his left shoulder in the direction from where the wind was coming and immediately saw the source. The huge black form of a storm dragon was approaching down the ravine, heading straight for the bridge. It was barely two hundred yards away and closing rapidly. This was no baby either but an adult with a wingspan of at least ninety feet. Doragon grabbed tightly hold of the rope and held on with all his strength. Athena yelled out for him to hold on.

Doragon briefly opened his eyes again to see the huge dark monster almost upon him. He shut them again quickly and braced himself. The others could only shout, and watch on helplessly as the great winged creature swept by.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 18 - The Perilous Mountains © Colin Frayn

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