I woke up feeling very warm and snug for being outside. Why was I wearing a heavy fur blanket? The blanket moved causing me to jump up. As soon as I was up I felt silly. Warph had snuggled tightly against me. Merla, who usually kept her distance when sleeping, was snuggled up on the other side of the giant wolf. At first I missed the little king, but then I realized that he was curled up right on top of the huge predator.
Warph got up with a yawn and stretched. Sirlriend jumped off of his back and started getting breakfast ready. He seemed chipper and ready to go. Merla drug herself up, did her own yawn and stretch, looked at me and smiled.
“How did you sleep?” she asked.
“Actually, good. That is odd. How about you?”
“Better than I have since I left my dog Trolver before our adventure.”
Warph growled. “Don’t compare me to no dog…” Merla winked at me. “I saw that! Just because I’m a wolf doesn’t mean… Hmmm. Anyway, I slept pretty good too, if you were wondering.”
“Of course I care,” Sirlriend said. “And I slept well too. Thank you.” He bowed to the wolf.
For whatever reason we all felt a little silly. I couldn’t figure it out. I looked around the old marsh as I ate my breakfast of venison and dried fruit, watching the dragonflies and thinking about our mood. Were we a little giddy for being the first to ever survive the swamp? Not that we were out yet, but I could tell by the smell that we were close to the edge.
A dragonfly landed on my nose. I was about to brush it off when I realized that it wasn’t a dragonfly. It was a swamp-fairy. I looked around. We were surrounded by them.
“I think I know why we slept so well,” I said.
Merla turned to me and giggled. “She likes you!” She giggled again. “And I think I can see why.”
“Why are you blushing, human?” Warph asked me. Although a wolf, I could see the laughter in his eyes.
“I think the journey is looking up,” Sirlriend said. “You can only go up from here. Ascend to the highest peak and all.”
It was a great metaphor, but I didn’t realize he was being literal until we had been walking for a while.
We soon left the swamp and the ground began to rise. Not too far out of the swamp I could see hills. After lunch we were deep in the hills, still climbing, and I realized we were entering mountainous territory.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Haven’t you studied your geography?” the little king asked. I shook my head. “These mountains are on the border of your country. When we reach the high pass, we will be two days journey from your capital.”
“Two days! Did we take the long way around?” I asked.
“Think. How long did it take you to get from the capital to the camp in Slore?”
“And how long from that camp to the dragon’s cottage?”
“No. We spent three days underground.”
“Three days!” No wonder I was so tired and hungry.
“Yes. So we are actually making pretty good time, if you ask me.”
We trudged on, climbing ever higher.
It was growing dark as the sun sunk behind the mountains. I turned and looked out. The lowlands were still glowing in the sun’s last rays. I could see the swamp stretch out, seeming to go forever. Off to the north I could make out a beige blur, which I knew was the desert. The land darkened and the stars made their shy appearance, then became bold as the sky went form a deep purple to pitch black.
I turned back as Warph entered camp with another deer.
Our sleep was again deep and restful. We woke refreshed by mountain air and full of mirth. I caught the flash of brown wings around the rocks and trees and realized the swamp fairies had given us over to their mountainous kin.
We had a nice breakfast of dried fruit and fresh venison and then headed higher into the mountains, ascending towards the clouds.
We had been following a small river. The path beside it became more and more defined as the valley walls around it became higher. Soon we were on an ancient paved road that followed a small trickle of a stream at the bottom of a steep walled chasm.
We came to a small pool, which I guessed was the source of our stream. The road led around the pool and up to a sheer wall. I puzzled it out, but gave up.
“OK, Merla,” I said, “what do you see up there?”
“There is a great wall across the road. To the right is a mighty fortress. Don’t you see it?” I shook my head. “I know that it blends in with the mountainside, but it is obvious.”
As we approached I began to make out the details of the fortress. I could see windows and towers that had appeared to be crags and fissures from a distance.
“There is nothing we can do but enter,” Sirlriend said.
“I will enter with you, but I am not a house dog. I’m uncivilized. OK?”
“Of course, Warph,” I said. “You’re a wild beast and an independent creature that, uhm, likes to be in a pack.”
“As the leader,” the wolf reminded me. I didn’t point out that he wasn’t leading our little pack.
We stopped just inside of the fortress.
“Lorunce, close your mouth before the flies find it,” Sirlriend said. I glanced at him then back at the surroundings. I’m not sure if I closed my mouth or not.
The interior was as refined as the exterior rough. Everything was made of marble, marble in all colors of the rainbow. Not random colors, but in very tasteful patterns.
There was also the glint of gold, and mosaics made of gems.
But that was only part of it, for the chamber was huge, huge but not empty.
Stairways crisscrossed the space, some like bridges and some in great spirals.
“This way.” The little king led us across the field of marble and forest of stairways until we were in a back corner. A single spiral staircase rose up towards the light.
“Up we go. This should take us to the highest point. Then we take its sister down the other side.”
We went up. And up. And up. We climbed seemingly forever.
“We were in the tunnels for three days,” I said. “Are we going to be climbing these stairs for another three days?”
“Oh stop complaining,” Merla said. “Think of how good of shape you’ll be in when this is all done.”
“Yeah, if I’m not dead.”
Warph sniffed the air. I shrugged and sniffed as well. He was right, this was fresh air.
We rounded a corner and there was the exit.
There were also three big, flaming guys blocking our exit.
“Forps!” Sirlriend said. He shrank back.
“Forps are fictional, make believe,” I said.
“What are those, then?”
I stepped forward. One of the flaming guys threw a spear at me. I ducked. I felt the heat of it as it passed over me. It just missed Merla and Warph and went down the stairs behind us. The spear hit wall quite a distance below us and exploded. A sheet of flame rolled past us, singing my eyebrows. Warph whined, his fur coat smoking.
“What are Forps?” Merla asked. She was also smoldering.
“Fire Demons,” I said. “But don’t worry, they don’t exist.”
Merla stepped forward and pulled out her sword. A blue flame shot from it. The flame was cold and hit me like a blizzard. Warph’s fur stopped smoking in the sudden freeze.
Merla rushed the fiery guys, who could not have been Forps, since Forps weren’t real. They raised their flaming weapons, but her blade of ice sliced through them. It was over in seconds.
“Come on up,” she said. “The fictional demons no longer exist.”
We were on a platform. Although high peaks rose around us, the general feel was that the ground fell away in all directions. We were at the pass. I could see the entrance to the stairs going down the other side just a little way in front of us.
“Look!” Merla pointed at the sky.
At first I didn’t see anything, but then I could make out a small dot. The dot grew larger. It continued to grow. It was an eagle, but an eagle of immense size.
The eagle landed in front of us and looked at Merla.
“I thought I saw the cold flash of the sword Froast.” Merla held up the blue sword. “Yes, that is it. There is a legend that the return of Froast is a sign. Where are you headed, eagle eyed lady?”
“We are returning to our capital, Muttle. From there we plan on raising an army to drive Zurlfed from Slore.”
“I will join your party.”
“Wait a minute,” Warph said. “Don’t we get a say in this?”
The eagle spread its wings, which must have been 18 feet from tip to tip. “My children really enjoy Grizzly Bear for breakfast,” it said. “They’ve never had wolf. It seems too scrawny. But there is always a first time.”
Warph crouched, as if about to pounce. I thought I heard him say, “I bet eagle tastes like chicken.”
“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “I think we can all coexist without anyone snacking on any one else, OK?” I turned towards the eagle. “I’m Lorunce. You met Merla. That there is Sirlriend. And then there is Pack Leader Warph.”
“Pleased to meet you all, even the wolf. I am Soe-Ar, king of the eagles.” He brought his wings back in and did a close approximation of a bow.
“We’re walking, so I don’t know how easy it will be for you to join us, but if you are enemies of our common enemy, you are a friend of ours.”
“You are right that I will not enter this building, but I will meet you outside and will journey with you.”
“Fine. Let’s get started.”
The stairs down went on and on, but since I had felt the height already, it didn’t’ seem as bad as it did on the way up.
As promised, the eagle met us as we exited the fortress.
We travel for about an hour towards the setting sun before stopping for the night. Soe-Ar flew off as we started to set up. He was back in a short time carrying a bull moose.
As we ate Warph whispered to me, “I won’t admit it to the others, but it is nice to not have to be the provider all of the time. I like to hunt and all, but to be waited on isn’t bad.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” I said.
I had noticed that the wolf, always a little closer to me, had drawn even closer after the arrival of the eagle. The eagle had eyes mostly for Merla. I remembered Sirlriend comparing me to a wolf as Merla compared herself to an eagle. Did they know what was coming?
I looked out, away from our campfire. I could feel the presence of the mountain fairies which were still following us. A rabbit, ignoring the two oversized predators, was just at the edge of our circle of light. Merla had called me a rabbit.
I put my hand on Trowr’s hilt. I could feel the power of the sword, but I could also feel my own power and knew that I could handle it.
Sirlriend walked over to the rabbit and turned to me.
“She was wrong, you know. This is me, not you. I am brave in my way, but I prefer to be safe in my underground barrow. Soon we will be at your capital and you will be tested. I think you are almost ready.”
He turned back to the rabbit. The two creatures stared at each other. The little king turned and rejoined our group as the rabbit disappeared from sight.
“We need to get a good night’s rest,” Sirlriend said. “It will be a long day.”
Suddenly tired, I laid down and curled up. I felt the wolf curl around me. Sleep soon came.