Traveling the Tundra was a risky venture at this time of the turn, almost as brutal as traveling it during the winter. Most Elves from the three Vales usually only visited the Northern Vale in the spring and summer months, unless they had a most urgent need. If they did have to make the journey north during the cold months they traveled by way of the Snow Forest south of the Tundra. By that route firewood and game were plentiful all turn long. A journey through the Tundra in the autumn months was somewhat easier than in winter. The snow was not yet piled as deep, nor were the rivers and streams fully frozen over. The dangers lay in the bone numbing cold, for it could be just as cruel in autumn as it was in winter. Also the fierce autumn storms that moved down fast from the north catching travelers unawares on the snowy plain with no shelter.
The two Elves rode from sunup to sundown trying to make as much distance as they could for the days were growing shorter. They made few stops as their golden mounts were strong and hardy. The horses were able to withstand the cold as their coats grew shaggy with the onset of winter. Master Gilriss had loaded their packs with bags of grain and oats to feed the mounts which helped to keep their strength up.
They also fed the horses the frozen heath and lichen they would dig out from under the snow. Not only did they use it as food for the horses but they were able to burn it during the cold nights. They would dig up armfuls of the freeze dried shrub, pile it high and surround it with rocks. Then Glynfiel would give it a small blast of White Magic with her staff setting it ablaze. Once the rocks became too hot to hold they would dump them in their bedrolls to help stay warm through the night. It was only on the coldest and windiest of nights they did this. The wolves most times would curl up beside the two, when not hunting or on watch, and keep them warm much better than any stones could.
The Tundra Wolves proved to be worth their weight in gold as travel companions on the cold Tundra, as if the wolves would have a care for that sort of thing. It did not take long for them to adopt the Elves and horses as part of their pack. During the day one of the wolves would stay with the Elves as they followed the tracks of the others who were running far ahead and out of sight. The wolves who ran ahead would usually split up with one half scouting for the best trail through the snowy plain while the others patrolled for danger and hunted for game. Many times on the trail the barks and howls of Grim Wolves could be heard off in the distance. With the small pack of Tundra Wolves around never once did a pack of the black wolves venture close.
The Saddlebacks were excellent hunters out on the Tundra and would always bring their kills back to the Elves. They would carry back grouse, plump from summer feeding, large snow hairs and mountain goat from the rocky foothills of the Grimfangs. The most favorite thing and a delight to the Elves were the large brown trout the wolves caught in the streams and rivers they crossed. They would always stop early on those days and build a fire with a nice bed of coals to bake the fish in. The wolves would even partake and enjoyed the hot food the Elves would make on those cold nights.
Becoming accepted by the small pack of wolves meant they shared everything together. The nights when there was no fresh game to be had the Elves would dig into their supplies. Master Gilriss had been most generous with a supply of assorted dried meats, apples, nuts and oats for porridge. Even two great skins of strong cloudberry wine had been provided. Most of what they shared with the wolves came from two great sacks the Master had packed for them. One was filled with slabs of reindeer meat and the other full of auroch’s bones. On the lean nights the Elves would dig into those sacks and make sure their pack was fed.
The Elves learned the names of each Saddleback as they made their way through the Tundra. They of course knew Shadowback, the Duke and pack leader. His second in command was the largest male of the little pack and the Elves called him Mid Day Meal. They could not make sense of the image in their minds of the wolf’s chosen name so they picked that for him. Whenever the big wolf ran with them he would always come up close alongside looking for a handout from the Elves when the sun was at its highest in the sky. There seemed to be no end to the appetite of the big wolf and the Elves always made sure they had plenty of food on hand when he walked with them. Of Shadowback’s daughters one was named Birdsite, after his fallen mate, the other was called Whiteclaw because of the white fur on the tips of her paws. The third male of the pack was named Swiftstart as he was always up early, way before the others, and ready to start the day. The last female they called Dragonfisher because of the images showing her prowess at snagging the dangerous fish from the sea. The pack was a close knit little group and the Elves felt very honored to be a part of it.
The Elves also learned the Saddlebacks gave each of them their own names also. They thought of Katyr as Brightlite because of the White Magic burning bright inside him. Glynfiel they pictured as a sword and thought of her as Sharpstik. They gave her that name because of the times they watched as she practiced her motions with the short-sword on her hip.
On one very bright and sunny day they were cutting northward towards the foothills of the Grimfangs to a river crossing the Tundras had scouted out. They generally rode further south of the mountains to avoid tempting any Dread Cats with an easy meal of their horses. As they walked along a small flock of large birds flew overhead, low and fast. As soon as the birds passed the wolves and Glynfiel became on edge and started to move faster through the snow.
“What is the rush Glyn? It’s a small flock of rock ravens, no cause for alarm,” Katyr said. Rock ravens nested on the rocky cliff sides of the Grimfangs and flew out over the Tundra looking for food. They were a huge bird from a much older time and unless the flock was dozens of birds strong they were usually nothing to worry about. The rock ravens were mainly scavengers and these were probably returning from an old kill out on the plain.
“Do you not see it Katyr?” the small Elf said pointing to the highest part of the mountains. “A Fell Wind comes from the top of the world. The Fell Ice attacks the lands to the south!”
Katyr did indeed see it, once he looked. Even at this distance he recognized the dark swirl he had seen on the other side of the gate.
“But how? The White Magic! The Sun shines! How can this be?” he asked slowing his horse almost to a stop.
Glynfiel turned her horse sharply and yelled at Katyr while the wolves barked, “No time for questions! We must ride for the mountains and find some kind of shelter. The Fell Wind comes on you fast and the ice it pushes can cut you to pieces. We must move, NOW!!”
Normally the wolves would run as far as they could and then bury themselves under the snow to escape the wind. However with the Elves and horses along they did not have that option. So Glynfiel put the straps to Katyr’s horse and then to hers as she rode around him. Katyr was surprised and barely stayed in the saddle when his horse was urged to move. White clouds of snow were kicked up high in the air creating rainbows as it fell. The horses ran hard on the heels of the wolves.
Katyr watched as the dark swirl stormed at the top of the mountains. It grew higher and higher in the sky until it finally began to spill down the mountain side. The wind increased with every stride they took towards the Grimfangs and Katyr could feel the sting of ice on his face. Even if they could find a big enough shelter in the rocky foothills Katyr was beginning to doubt they would make it on time.
It seemed as if the horses and wolves were running forever as the sky grew dark and their vision became blocked by blowing snow and ice. Their golden mounts did not tire and kept on course by listening to the faint barks of the Tundras ahead, barely audible to the Elves above the noise of the wind. The big horses moved powerfully and swiftly against the wind with the only thought in their minds to save their riders.
As the darkness of the mountains loomed ever closer the barking of the wolves became louder because the horses were catching up to them. Katyr looked back to check on the pack-horse following behind. He could not see him and realized the big horse was no longer on the other end of the strap he held in his hand. At some point during their mad run to the mountains it must have snapped and Katyr had no idea when or where. He called out the horse’s name, Besh, and looked in vain through the ever deepening gloom of the swirl. He could see no sign of it in the storm. It would be a terrible hardship to lose the faithful pack-horse, not to mention all the supplies he carried. There was nothing he could do about it now as he turned his face into the mane of his mount to hide it from the pelting ice.
It was quite a shock when one minute he felt as if he was being blown out of his saddle and the next all of the air had stopped moving around him. As he tried to get the vision back in his frozen eyes he could hear the soft whinnies of horses and the panting of wolves. The wind still roared above him and he could hear the tinkle of ice falling on rock but none of it was touching him.
“Katyr! Just stay on your horse. You have been blinded by the cold from the Fell Wind. It is only temporary. Put your face back on your horse, he will warm you up. Wait in your saddle while I start a fire,” Glynfiel said as he heard her move about on the ground.
“I lost Besh! I must go and find him!” Katyr said. He attempted, for a second, to dismount but got a stern “Stay!” in his mind from Shadowback. He stopped when he felt the big wolf rub up on his leg.
“You can do nothing until your sight comes back Katyr, now sit still!” In minutes he smelled smoke and could hear the crackling of dry shrub branches on fire. Glynfiel came over and helped him down from his horse. She led him to the fire and sat him down on her bedroll.
“Give it a few minutes with your face towards the fire,” she said. “The blindness will pass soon. Just do not walk around until you can see. You will break an ankle in this place.”
Just as she said in a few minutes he was able to see the fire before him and then the walls of their shelter. The pack had found them a large cleft in the rocks that made up the foothills of the Grimfangs. Thankfully it was wide enough for the horses to walk into. He looked around at the frozen walls sparkling with ice in the firelight. About twenty feet above him he could see a wedge of the sky with the point facing towards the wind rushing over them. A mist of ice and snow sparkled in the firelight as it floated down after bouncing off the walls above.
Katyr rose and started looking around to make sure everyone was accounted for. The wedge widened out under a rock shelf the further back it went. It was perfect cover for the horses who stood munching on dried brush growing up from out of the cracks in the rocks. He could see only four of the wolves as they lay panting around the small fire. He even heard the soft croaks of rock ravens taking shelter in the rocks above, but in the light of the fire he did not see Glynfiel, Shadowback or Mid Day. He turned and went back to the entrance of the wedge to look outside.
There he found Glynfiel leading in the pack-horse. He was covered with crusty ice sticking to his coat and long icicles hanging from his nose. The two missing wolves followed behind, their coats covered in just as much ice as the horse. They had gone back out into the wind storm to find the big horse and guide him to the shelter.
“Thank goodness for your wolf, Katyr!” Glynfiel said. “They found Besh and pulled him in by the broken strap. Some of the supplies were lost I think, but nothing we cannot do without. I hope we still have the bag of bones, these boys deserve a treat!”
The two Elves worked together unsaddling and rubbing down the horses. When they unloaded Besh they discovered the bags of grain and oats he carried were lost to the storm. So the golden mounts and the packhorse had to make do with eating the dried brush all along the walls. Bushels of it had grown and died in cracks that went throughout the rock walls of the wedge. Next they saw to the wolves, checking their paws and muzzles while receiving mild growls. Glynfiel rubbed healing ointment into any of the small cuts they found from the ice. The wolves were bedded down with each working on a large bone they noisily cracked while the two Elves looked about their new shelter.
While they explored Glynfiel answered Katyr’s questions about the Fell Wind and how it could breach the mountain tops. She had seen it once before while on a trip during the summer months to the Northern Vale. She had just been selected as a Battle Mage from the House of Mage Lore and assigned to travel with the High Mage Belador in the company of fifty Elves. They were halfway between the Snow Forest and the Grimfangs out upon the Tundra when the swirl came down from the mountain tops. They could only find shelter in a high stand of shrub willows and many were injured when the wind came.
From Belador she learned from time to time the Fell Ice would test a section of the boundary of White Magic which went all around the top of the world. He said the attacks could happen several times in one turn, or it could be a hundred turns between attacks, one never knew. The High Mage said the Fell Ice sent its terrible wind to wreak havoc on the warm lands in the south. He also told that some believed the Ice was sending probes into the south lands to see if the time was ripe to once again attack the world. Glynfiel said of that theory the High Mage was unsure.
As Katyr watched Glynfiel’s sorrow deepen talking about her old mentor he looked about for something to change the subject. “Look Glyn, someone’s been here before,” he said excitedly pointing down to an old ring of stones. He reached down and felt through the ice covered middle of the circle, “Many times before perhaps. This is ash and it goes down deep!”
Close to the ring of stones they found firewood stacked in the cracks of the rock wall. This night they broke their rule of not using firewood from other travelers if they could not replace it. As the temperature kept dropping they built up a fire warm enough that they could take off their heavy cloaks. They then sat on their bedrolls and ate a meal of dried venison and Elven bread, as they were too tired to make anything else. They fell asleep with four of the Tundras lying close about, keeping them warm as the fire died down. The other two wolves were at the cleft’s opening on guard, just in case something else came around looking for shelter.
They ended up staying in the wedge, as they called it, for five days and six nights as the storm raged outside. Katyr learned much from Glynfiel in that time. She taught him all of the minor fighting spells his new staff had within it, but none of the major battle spells. She said he would have to learn how to perform those at the House of Mage Lore. The small Elf claimed he could burn himself out and possibly die if he tried to draw on too much power through the staff without the proper training. She had fair knowledge of the healing properties and other magical spells that could be called upon, but admitted she was much stronger when it came to using the staff as a weapon. She was a Battle Mage after all.
During their time in the wedge Katyr could feel himself almost growing a bond with the staff of Belador. At night as he lay with the staff at his side he could feel things happening far beyond. He started to feel the presence of Black Magic far away in the roots of the mountains. The golden runes on his staff would faintly glow and unformed shapes of blackness would bother his dreams. Try as he might he could not tell the nature of this evil, it was too deep and too far away under the mountains. Glynfiel could not feel it at all even when she sat touching the wall with her staff.
Katyr taught the little Mage everything he knew about hunting and fishing. He showed her how to bait a hook and set the line. With arms around her, he showed her how to pull back a bow and fire arrows into a target he made of brush covered with a blanket. He watched her grimace and wrinkle her small nose as he explained how to gut and clean a kill. These things he had been doing all of his short life with Halamar and Orist and the three were quite skilled as hunters, if he did say so himself.
During their time in the wedge the two Elves talked much more than they ever had the whole time riding here. Katyr became entranced with the little Battle Mage, and caught himself staring at her often. He nor his friends had ever had much exposure to girls except for a few times at the harvest festivals in their dell. He found her beautiful to look at and he loved to sit and just listen to her talk. Her skin had the healthy glow of one who spends much time outside. She wore her curly hair short and the light brown curls were streaked golden by the sun. It bounced over her pointed ears and above her almond shaped eyes of golden brown. Her rich, full lips were always quick to laugh, and she found laughter in much. The only times Katyr felt helpless around her was when she would slip into sadness whenever she thought of her fallen friends and her mentor, the High Mage Belador. All he could do was hold her when those times came upon her. It brought the two even closer together.
The wolves and horses faired fairly well in their little shelter, at least at staying alive. By the second night all of the animals were going a tad bit crazy because of being cooped up in such a small space. The wind was not as ferocious right outside of the wedge so the two Elves set up a rope line and started taking the horses outside several times a day. This helped to calm them quite a bit. The wolves would disappear in pairs from time to time and venture out into the wind. After only a short time they would return looking like wolves of the White Tundra Tribe, with their coats thickly covered in snow and ice.
On the sixth night the howling, screeching wind overhead stopped so suddenly it left the Elves feeling they had both just gone deaf. While the wolves ran for the entrance to check on the storm the two Elves got up from their bedrolls hoping the time had come so they could move on. It was still a couple of hours until dawn but they were too excited at the prospect of finally leaving to sleep anymore. Glynfiel began building up the fire to cook a hot breakfast while Katyr went about the wedge picking up items that had been strewn about. The horses at the back picked up on their rider’s excitement and started stomping and whinnying while the wolves ran back and forth letting the Elves know the weather was clearing. All were eager to be moving as soon as it became light enough outside.
Katyr did not pay any attention to the top of the walls of their little shelter as he walked towards the back gathering up bags and packs of supplies. As the sky began to lighten above and he was getting closer to the horses, he heard them moving restlessly about and making more noise than usual in their little makeshift stall. Before he could make his way back to them the three horses came bursting forth almost running him over as they rushed towards the entrance. He was shocked to see a huge fur covered paw with razor sharp claws swinging through the air, barely missing the last horse. He looked up to see two pin-points of reflected firelight in large bright cat-eyes staring down at him from about twelve feet off the ground.
‘Dread Cat!’ Katyr thought as he quickly felt around his waist for a weapon. He realized he had none with him. His staff, sword and even his hunting knife were lying beside his bedroll close to the entrance of the wedge. As he started to slowly walk backwards it came to him that he was only seeing one of the vicious predators, he knew they always hunted in pairs. Just as he was getting ready to turn himself about and sound the alarm he heard a disturbance coming from behind. Something large and powerful slammed into his back driving the wind from his lungs and choking off the shout he was about to give. He went down hard and fast, face first onto the floor of the cleft. As he fell he heard the ferocious scream of one of the big cats coming from directly above. His world went dark when his head hit a rock on the ground and he knew no more.