Ichabod Brooks takes another sip of whiskey as the cluster of oxen and carts come into view. The small collection sits a quarter mile away from the base of Galaces Mountain, an enchanted rope preventing them from getting any closer. The blue-eyed adventurer adjusts the dark red cloak to make his ebony longbow more accessible, but he knows the weapon will be covered again before he needs it. Ichabod does not have to wonder why he is getting nervous even though it will be his fourth time up the mountain. While not the longest climb, Galaces is infamous for its unique creatures, shifting winds, and what many believe to be a primal intelligence deep within the very stone. There are usually only two reasons to challenge the mountain, which are poaching and to say you reached the cloud-covered peak. In his youth, Ichabod made the climb simply to see if he could do it, but every other time, including today, has been for a very special job.
A faint sparkle catches the veteran’s attention and he carefully reaches into a thorn bush to claim the dark purple object. Ichabod winces at the pokes to his knuckles as he gently frees the beautiful feather. It is as long as his hand and wider than two fingers, telling him that it came from an adolescent Starwind Eagle. It has been a decade since his last trip to Galaces and he was unable to see the magnificent birds due to a storm. He had hoped to gather enough feathers to make a cloak for his wife, but nature had foiled his anniversary plans and forced him to return to her empty-handed. Letting the mesmerizing plumage float back into the bush, Ichabod decides that he will not settle for anything less than the feather of an adult. He refuses to return home in failure, especially since it is for his son and he has already spent the last month telling the child bedtime stories about the Starwind Eagles.
The twang of a lute string snaps the dark-skinned man out of his thoughts and he scowls at his unwanted companion. He considers breaking the bard’s lute, but knows it would only lead to the Elven woman warbling an ear-wrenching tune. Ichabod chuckles when he remembers his wife saying that elves are natural singers. For a brief moment, he considers bringing his tagalong home after he conquers Galaces Mountain again. He shudders since he would not put it passed his wife to invite the white-haired bard to stay for a few days and then have to leave on a sudden job. It would not be the first time she has turned one of his playful pranks against him, which is one of the reasons they are still happily married. The glimmer of a smile sprouts on Ichabod’s face, which the bard mistakes as approval and causes her to add her voice to the song. It is a horrific noise that the leather armored adventurer is sure would be considered a war crime if ever used on a battlefield.
“Is this any way to greet an old friend?” a dwarf in dark gray chainmail asks before plugging his ears with his dark red beard. Wanting the bard to stop, the mountaineer marches over and puts a hand over the young woman’s mouth. “Are you supposed to use her as bait? I did hear there’s a hobgoblin pack that moved in a few months ago. You know how those drooling scavengers love elf flesh.”
“Sorry about that, Dex. She latched on at my last stop and I haven’t been able to shake her off,” Ichabod replies, shaking his guide’s hand. He rubs his own black and white beard at the sight of how his friend shows no sign of graying. “I have to give this one credit for tenacity, but this is where we part ways. Galaces Mountain is not a place to go unless you have experience, an excellent guide, and common sense. So far, I don’t see you having any of those things and I’m not going to babysit.”
“I must go. That’s the only way I can write about your newest adventure,” the bard insists, unwittingly proving Ichabod right. She crosses her arms and meets the icy stare of the dwarf, who she considers leaving out of her tale. “Being the first to speak of your climb will help my reputation. I promise not to cause any trouble and pull my own weight. Elves are graceful and agile, which makes us perfect companions for whatever it is you’re doing. Besides, Galaces Mountain doesn’t look like that bad a climb. The stories must be nothing more than colorful exaggerations.”
Ichabod puts on a pair of white-palmed gloves and slips a blue band on his finger, a charge going through his body to enhance his lungs. “I suddenly relate very well to this mountain. Take a look at the empty space between us and Galaces. You’ll see why this place has earned a reputation.”
The bard puts her lute over her shoulder and walks to the yellow rope, which sparks with a mild magic. At first, she is unsure of what she is supposed to pay attention to among the shrubs and fallen rocks. It takes the elf a few minutes to recognize weather worn bones sticking out from under a boulder. The limbs are splayed since the climber plummeted with the rough stone pressed against his back and the landing embedded him in the ground. Knowing what to look for, the bard realizes that there are at least ten old corpses hidden by the mountain’s litter. The bard spots the fresh body of a yellow-skinned creature sitting behind a shrub, the armored creature crumpled from landing butt first after its fall. She is about to ask a question when a small pain runs up her arm and she collapses into a magical slumber.
“Guess that’s more humane than knocking her on the head,” Dex mentions while Ichabod carries the young woman to the dwarf’s cart. He shields his eyes as he stares at the churning clouds that have been trapped around the peak. “Looks like the eagles captured a storm beneath their nest this year. Means the winds are going to be brutal and the tunnels are infested with horned spiders and revelers. Not going to be an easy trip. Sure, you don’t want someone else to take this contract?”
“I’d love to hand this off to someone else, but Chef Zyrk always insists that I take the job. I have no injuries, diseases, or family events, so I’m here,” Ichabod replies, sheathing his sleep-inducing shortsword. As an afterthought, he grabs a horse blanket and tosses it over the bard to hide her from view. “The Starwind Eagles lay eggs every ten years and now is the time to get to them. Wait any longer and the mountain will be crawling with hunters. A youngster wouldn’t know that or have you as a guide.”
The dwarf grins as he lifts the rope and gestures for his friend to lead the way. “They also don’t have your wife making deals that you can’t say no to. She mentioned that you’re getting three times the usual pay because this baby is going to be prepared for Duke Solomon’s wedding. Personally, I’m looking forward to your wife’s cooking after this. Surprised your gut isn’t huge considering that woman can make a pot roast even the gods would praise. Did you happen to bring some of her dishes for the road?”
“I can cook too, you know.”
“You can bake, Ichabod. Not the same as cooking in my book.”
“So you don’t want the cookies I brought.”
“Oatmeal and cranberry?”
“With a touch of cinnamon.”
Dex wipes some drool from his mouth and pats his large belly, which is more muscle than fat. “This is why I love working you, old friend. Your wife packs our meals, you bring me treats, and I have a bottle of my family’s mead. Almost like a picnic, but with the prospect of suffering a horrible death. That was oddly poetic. Maybe I should stop climbing mountains and become a bard.”
Even knowing his grinning friend is joking, Ichabod scowls and shrugs his longbow off his shoulder. Whatever he is about to say is cut off by an echoing scream and the bouncing of a boulder. The pair look up to see if they are in danger, their legs already tense and ready to leap out of the way. A flailing body is heading for a spot to their right, so the adventurers move in the opposite direction to be safe. Having seen this happen before, neither man is disturbed by the sight of the boulder unnaturally ricocheting and hitting the terrified climber’s legs. The stone continues to spin until a few feet before impact when it drives its victim headfirst into the solid ground.
“Galaces seems temperamental today,” Ichabod mutters as he follows Dex to the opening of a rocky path. Looking at the roiling clouds, he tightens the clasp of his warming cloak and prepares himself for a trying climb. “I’m not happy to see you either, old girl. Let’s try to be a little nicer to each other this time.”