That night, they were glad of the extra warm clothing they had brought with them. Even with a roaring campfire, the wind, blowing from the north, had a bone chilling aspect. They awoke early, shivering, and after a quick bite from their rations, they began the long trek toward the Gap of Despair. It was easy country, open grassland with a gentle ascent. The grass was brittle with frost and crunched underfoot. The four walked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. How is Simon getting on? I wish I had gone with him. Jhamed will look after him. But what can he do against a witch? What could I do against her?
By midday, the frost had disappeared and the spring sun was quite strong. Manfred began to struggle with the pace. I’m too old for all of this. After a brief stop for lunch beside a small mountain brook, where they refilled their water bottles, the three younger companions redistributed the packs so that Manfred didn’t have to carry anything. They pushed on, Manfred using his staff as a walking aid. By mid-afternoon, the grassland had given way to rocky foothills with sparse spiny plants and loose rocks that caused frequent trips and slips. The going became slow and Manfred began to wonder whether he had made the right choice. We could have been in Fang by now, on horseback all the way, settling down to a cold beer and a warm meal before sleeping in a soft bed. I must be crazy.
Gamying seemed to sense his thoughts. “Don’t worry old man; we will reap the benefits with the easier climb through the Gap of Despair. The path from Fang would be impassable with so much snow around.”
They spent an uncomfortable night, sheltering behind a few rocks as best they could. There was insufficient fuel for a fire and they had to survive on water and cold rations again. They huddled together for warmth. Manfred opened his mind to read the thoughts of the others. They are worried about Simon, about securing the Sword. Gamying worries what we might find in Tamarlan. Aglaral is concerned about his family. He has a cute baby boy. I cannot read Kris. It is as if he guards his mind. That is unusual for a human.
Next morning they set off again at first light. Gamying was now leading, as he was most familiar with the mountains. “We must make the foot of the Ice Stair before nightfall. There is a hut there and there should be food and fuel for a fire. Then we will only have to spend one more night in the mountains. Tomorrow we shall rest in the mountain halls of Dia son of Din son of Dane and taste dwarven hospitality.”
It was a tough climb. The snow got thicker the higher they climbed, while the air got thinner. They were on a clear path now, the winter route from the south to Devil’s Mouth, usually used only on the rare occasions when the more direct route to Fang was blocked by snow. This year, the Fang path had been closed since Late Autumn. The path to the east of Mount Despair always got less snow than the path on the west side. In addition, snow that built up on the Ice Stair would often avalanche down the western path and block it. The two paths met at the Ice Stair, which was essentially a huge staircase cut into the permafrost. It ran up the side of Mount Fang, arriving at the top of the Fang Glacier. From there it was an easy climb up to the entrance to Devil’s Mouth, over deep packed snow in both summer and winter. Below the Ice Stair, there would usually be fields of loose rocks with abundant wild flowers in spring and summer. It seemed that there would be few wild flowers this spring season.
Gamying encouraged a quick pace, anxious to reach the hut at the base of the Ice Stair before dark. Manfred had a feeling that they weren’t alone and remembered Dawit’s description of fell creatures and wolves. He shivered, and not just from the bone-chilling cold wind. As they climbed higher, the amount of snow increased until they were struggling to force a path through the frozen drifts. They stopped around midday, exhausted and hungry. They ate a miserable meal from their cold rations. Gamying spoke for them all. “We have travelled less than a third of the distance to the Ice Stair and already more than half of the day is past. I fear for our lives if we have to spend another night outside. And not just from the cold. Have you noticed that we are being watched?”
Manfred sighed. “I had hoped that we could make the journey in secret, without awakening their interest in us. I also hoped that it was the fears of an old man leading to paranoia, but if you have noticed it too...” His voice trailed off into a long silence.
“What is it? What are you talking about?” Kris asked. “I haven’t noticed anything except the bitter cold.”
“They are there,” Aglaral stated. “I have felt them all day. I think they discovered us last night. We were lucky they did not attack us as we slept with no fire. We cannot be so lax again. We must take turns to stand guard and we need fire at all costs. It is fire that they fear the most.”
“How do you know so much about them?” Gamying asked.
“I make it my business to know my enemies. The library at Wizards’ Keep contains much important knowledge.”
“I’ll wager that wizards know even more. Will you please tell me what you are talking about?” Kris pleaded.
“They are wargs,” said Manfred. There is a pack on our trail. They are not ordinary wolves, I’m afraid. They are much bigger and more powerful. They have the power of language and communicate with each other and their lycanthrope. They are supernatural creatures. I fear Weylyn’s involvement here. Well, I have little choice now. I didn’t want to draw attention to us. But it seems needs must. Let us move on. It’s unlikely they will attack in daylight. Does anyone have a rope?”
Aglaral produced a rope from his pack and the four travellers secured themselves tightly together, Manfred in the front and Gamying bringing up the rear. “Secure your clothes and cover your faces,” Manfred ordered. He removed his staff from inside his cloak and held it before him. He spoke strange words in a language that none of the others understood. His staff burned blue, then orange, and finally red. The very mountains seemed to rumble as a strange wind began to roar. The wind seemed to emanate from just behind them. As it passed them, it seemed no more than a cool breeze that gently propelled them forward. As it passed Manfred’s staff, it seemed to take on new energy and become a hot tornado that cut a swathe through the snow blocking their way. They shielded their eyes from the swirling mix of snow, water and steam as they quickly moved forward, seemingly walking on air. I might as well have erected a large neon sign, saying Manfred is here.
They didn’t stop until they made the hut at the base of the Ice Stair. It was close to dark. The hut was built from grey stone, without windows. It had a chimney and a doorway, which had contained a sturdy oak door. The door was now broken and splintered. The hut was empty, a cold rock floor with a few wooden benches. The cupboard doors were smashed and the cupboards were empty. The beds had been destroyed. The walls were covered with obscene graffiti, drawn with something particularly obnoxious. As well as the foul obscenities, there were many symbols scrawled on the walls. They looked like an A in a circle, with the bar of the letter extended to form a diameter. The room smelt putrid, like a battleground latrine.
Manfred collapsed on the floor, totally spent from his exertions. “I must sleep, I cannot help you now. Build a fire. Defend the hut.” May the Balance preserve us; I am too exhausted to do it.
The silence was suddenly filled with raucous howling. Gamying, Aglaral and Kris needed little more motivation to do as Manfred had urged. “It would appear that since we have made our presence known, the wargs have chosen to do the same. Let us hope their fear of Manfred keeps them at bay for a while,” Gamying said.
The three men quickly gathered wood from the shattered door, cupboards and furniture. They soon had a small fire burning close to the doorway. “We must be careful to make sure we have enough fuel to last all night,” Aglaral said.
They made Manfred as comfortable as they could and the three men huddled around the small fire wrapped in all of their clothing. The hut kept the cold wind mostly at bay, which was some consolation for the disgusting smell of urine and faeces, which constantly assailed their nostrils. They collected snow and ice and made tea on the fire. It was the first warm food or drink they had taken since leaving the Impenetrable Forest. The terror of the forest seemed mild compared to what they now faced. All of them would gladly have gone back into those trees rather than face the howling wargs.