The next day, we found ourselves entering an area of wooded hills much like my home forest. The mountains were closer when we were able to top a ridge and see them. Pel knew the way, but I took over the job of leading us along. I knew how to move without being easily seen, and I kept the others close.
We traveled for three more days, stopping only to eat and sleep. The hills grew taller, and I had to find passes for us to walk through. Finally, late in the day, we crested another pass, and Pel pointed to the west. “There. His house lies in those woods above the river.”
The river was a league away, and the ground dropped away at our feet. We picked our way down the hillside, sliding in loose rock as we moved along. The barren ground gave way to dense woods, and I led the way around the heavier brush, while finding game trails to walk along.
Finally, we came to the river. It was no gentle course; this one raced through rocks and boulders, and was fit to sweep away anyone unwary enough to attempt a crossing. I turned to Pel. “Is there a bridge nearby? We will die if we try to cross here.”
She shook her head. “No. The nearest bridge is at a town at least ten leagues away.” She pointed upriver.
Vall stood for a moment, looking at the river, and then she turned to me. “I think I know a way for us to cross.” She set her backpack down on a rock, and found her spell book. She flipped a few pages. “Aha! I thought so!”
“What is it?” I asked.
“A spell that will let us all fly, sort of.”
“That’s not too encouraging,” Ket put in, glancing nervously at the river.
“We can float,” Vall explained. “We can jump from one rock to the next, but go much further each time than on our own. We have to hold hands. If you let go, you will fall.”
“How long does it last?” I looked across to the other bank, trying to pick out the safest route.
“Not long,” Vall replied. “I don’t understand the term for how long, but I think it’s not a lot of time.”
I nodded. “Let’s try it.”
Vall began to read, while the three of us made sure our belongings were tied tightly. A red glow suffused her hands and arms, and she reached for my hand. “Follow me, and jump when I say.”
I took her hand, and Pel took my other hand in turn. Ket grasped Pel’s other hand. “Go,” I said.
Vall walked toward the river, stepping from one rock to the next. “Jump!” she called, and we all leapt forward. We all rose into the air like smoke, and Pel’s hand began to slip.
“Hold on!” I yelled at her over the roar of the water. “You will drown if you let go!”
We touched down on another set of rocks at least twenty paces away from where we started. Given that, we had another three jumps to reach the other bank. “Jump!” Vall called again, and once again we flew over the white water. Our next landing was on a broad rock in the middle of the river.
“This one will be harder,” Vall called. “We need to run and jump to make it across to the next rock. It’s small, so watch your step when you come down.” She watched us until we nodded. “Now, run!” We ran the three paces across the rock. “Jump!”
Vall touched down on top of a rock, and she stooped down to catch herself with her free hand. I landed on a steeply sloped rock, and thumped down hard on my side, taking Pel down with me. She landed on the other side of the same rock, and I grunted in pain as my hand came down hard on the top. I squeezed tightly to keep my grip on the Halfling girl, and she screamed as Ket landed in the water.
“Ket! Aaah! Hold on!” She screamed again as her mate’s body weight bore on one arm, while her own weight was on the other arm I was holding. She rolled onto her back as Ket was swept downstream, and her elbow twisted painfully.
I scrabbled for a foothold on the rock, and then Vall jumped on top of the rock, landing astraddle of it. She helped haul me up, and I yanked Pel and Ket up by Pel’s arm. Pel screamed again as her arms were cruelly twisted, but she held on. Finally, we were all perched on the rock, clinging to the steep sides.
“We have to hurry,” Vall said urgently. “We wait, and we will be stuck here.” She turned and jumped lightly to the next rock. “Come on!”
I turned to Pel. “Jump!”
“I can’t,” she yelled back. “It’s too far!”
“Vall, can you catch them?” I called across to Vall.
“What?” Pel turned to me as I reached for her.
“Hold still,” I told her as I grasped her around the waist. “I’m going to throw you to Vall.” Without waiting for a response, I lifted her, put one hand at the base of her spine, and heaved her at Vall. Pel squawked in alarm as she sailed across to Vall. She was ready, and grabbed at Pel as she landed heavily on her feet. The Halfling sunk to her hands and knees, but she crawled across the rock to get clear.
Ket stepped up beside me. “I’m ready.”
I nodded, lifted him, and threw him to Vall. He landed neatly on his feet, and went to kneel beside Pel. Now, it was my turn. I stepped back as far as I could, took two running steps, and leapt across. The toes of my front foot touched down on the rock, but my back foot snagged on the lip. I staggered for an instant, and then I began to fall.
Vall reached for me, grabbing me by my arm and hand. Using her spell’s power, she jumped backward, hauling me upright as if I were one of the halflings. She held my hand and turned to the others. “One more jump. It’s not as far.”
Once more, we held hands, ran across the rock, and floated across the last part of the river to the shore. The moment we handed, the glow faded from Vall’s hands. “That was close,” she breathed as she braced her hands on her thighs.
Once we had recovered, I looked toward the woods Pel had pointed out. The hillside was steep, but we could climb it. I brought out my bow, and nocked an arrow. Ket drew his sword, and we started upward with me leading the way. The grassy hillside gave way to trees, and I weaved my way through the underbrush.
We came to a small clearing with a large, wide rock jutting from the upper side. “There it is,” Pel said, walking past me into the, for her, chest high grass.
“Where?” I looked around in puzzlement. The rock face was taller than me, and it was ten paces across.
Pel walked up to the rock near its center, and reached out to touch the surface. She felt around with her right hand, and placed her fingers and palm on it. She did the same with her left hand, and then she spoke. “Grandfather, this is Pel.”
Nothing happened for a moment, and then a section of the rock next to Pel slid inward with a low grinding noise. It stopped, and Pel stepped up to push it. It began to move, and she looked back at us in annoyance. “Don’t just stand there, come help me!”
We half ran up the hill, and, placing our hands on the rock, pushed it further inward. The doorway revealed a passageway cut into the solid rock, leading to the right, and then turning to lead deeper into the mountain. “It’s tall enough for me,” I noted in some surprise.
Pel smiled up at me. “Grandpa had big people friends, too.” She pointed to the hallway. “Come on, we need to close the door again.” We stepped out of the way, and she pushed the door closed by herself.
“Had? I thought you just spoke to him.” Vall said.
Pel shook her head. “He showed me how to open the door before he died. It’s magic.” She pointed down the hallway. “Just like the lights down there.” We all looked at the turn in the hallway, and we could see a white glow, like moonlight. She walked down the hallway a few steps, and then turned to look at us. “Are you coming?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned on her heel and walked onward.
“Yes,” I answered as I hurried to catch up with her. Vall stayed at my side, and Ket trotted up to walk beside Pel. “This is your grandfather’s house?” I asked.
“It is one of his houses,” Pel explained as she turned the corner. “He had several, actually. I don’t even really know, but it seemed like ten or more.”
We turned the corner, and the passageway led us further from the door. I noticed that the walls went from rough-hewn stone to a strangely smooth surface. I put out my hand and touched it, and it was smooth, like polished wood, or even glass. Overhead, light came from rectangular places in the ceiling, set like boards into the stone. The passageway turned three times, right, left, and then left again, and then we came to what looked to be an iron door.
A sharp tone startled us, and Vall brought out her talisman. The whole face of it was brightly lit with rows of odd symbols, and my mate shook her head in wonderment. “The spell,” she said quickly. “Here, hold this.” She thrust the talisman into my hands, and pulled out her spellbook.