Cornelius pried the left pickaxe out of the rock face, pulled himself up by the right, swung the free axe with a fierce grunt and buried it deep into the rock two feet above the last hole. Without a moment's pause, he wiggled the right pickaxe lose, yanked it free of the rock and repeated the process.
The Jötun had climbed this way for hours, scaling the sheer rock cliff face two feet at a time, grunting and growling his way skyward until the tops of the trees below had faded to a landscape of dotted green. Now the sharp edges on his pickaxes were growing dull. Each swing into the rock took twice the effort it had when he had started. As much as Cornelius hated to admit it, he was getting tired.
As he swung the left axe to draw himself higher, a keening whine from below distracted him. The axe came down crooked, and rather than sinking into the rock, it glanced sideways, knocking a broad chip of stone off the cliff. Cornelius swore under his breath, reached back, and with all his might planted the pickaxe's point into the cliff.
Once it was secure, he gripped the axe handles, pushed himself off the cliff with his knees and looked down. Gristle hung a few feet below, suspended by a makeshift rope harness. The gator dog craned his neck to cast a mournful gaze up at his master. He whined again.
"Shut it, you ungrateful cur," Cornelius growled. "We're almost there."
Gristle whined again, his eyes pleading for sympathy.
"What? You going soft on me, boyo?"
Cornelius leered. "Didn't think so." He released one of the axe handles, reached into a pouch at his side, and pulled out a strip of snake jerky. "Open wide."
He dropped the jerky. The dog wagged his tail and snatched the jerky out of the air, his jaws snapping together with a loud click.
"Good lad," Cornelius said. He grasped the axe handle once again and prepared to pry it free.
He paused and sniffed the air. A cookfire. It was somewhere nearby—somewhere just above him. He smelled vegetables and meat... a stew.
Someone was up there. Had they heard him? Most certainly. He could expect one of two things when he reached the top. Either they had abandoned their fire and run, in which case he could look forward to an easy hot meal, or they were waiting for him, weapons drawn, in which case he'd have to earn his meal by killing them all.
The thought of a meal gave his muscles new strength. He redoubled his effort, swinging the pickaxes with renewed fury, not bothering with stealth. If they were waiting for him, he wanted to give them something to fear. He delivered each swing of the pickaxes with a roar of determination. Slam! Slam! Slam! He saw the top now. Slam! Slam!
"Get ready, boy," Cornelius hissed, an idea forming as they neared the top. His eye met the dog's, a mad glint shared between master and canine. The dog understood it was time for action.
Slam! Cornelius was only three feet from the top. The stone was brittle here. He'd have to trust to luck. He planted the next axe just a few inches from the edge. Slam! Pebbles rained over his face. Cornelius grit his teeth and tested his weight on the axe. It held firm. With his free hand, he untied the rope securing the dog around his waist. Gristle betrayed no fear as Cornelius swung him, first to the left, then to the right in an increasingly wide arc. After four swings, he hefted the rope with all his strength and swung the dog up over the top.
Gristle caught his front paws on the cliff and scrabbled over the edge. He was off in an instant, snarling and snapping. Cornelius yanked himself up on the pickaxe, throwing himself over the cliff's edge. An arrow sailed through the space between his horns.
A lone woman waited for him by the campfire. She'd gotten off a single shot before the dog was on her. Now she dropped her bow and drew a knife to ward off the dog. Gristle growled and lunged. She flicked her knife up, slicing the dog's hard skin just below his ear. Gristle gave a brief howl and reared back but did not retreat.
The woman backed against a boulder, her knife held toward the dog as she sized up the giant before her.
Cornelius grinned. "Hello, lass. Looks like you left your army at home."
"Maybe," she said, standing tall. "Or maybe they're just gathering firewood."
"I don't think so." He scanned the scene. A lone animal stood grazing a few feet from the rock shelf, a reptilian creature that walked on two legs like a great bird. It kept one skittish eye on Gristle as it fed on a clump of grass. Beyond the cliff's edge lay rolling hills of sparse vegetation. Unless someone hid behind the boulder, the woman was alone.
"You heard me coming," Cornelius observed. "And you didn't retreat."
"If it wasn't for your... dog, you'd have an arrow in your forehead the second your face came over the cliff."
"That wouldn't have been very nice."
"It's not a nice world."
Cornelius grunted. He squatted beside the campfire and sniffed at the stew bubbling in a pot on the flames. He stirred it with a wooden spoon and took a taste. "Not bad. Is that rosemary?"
Her free hand clenched and unclenched, her eyes on the dog that grinned up at her with wicked hunger. "I found some growing down the slope to the south," she said.
He took another spoonful. "Mmm. Looks like there's more here than you can eat alone."
"You never know when you might have guests."
He chuckled. "Well, you shouldn't have." He sat cross legged, took the only bowl and scooped himself some stew.
She watched, her lip curling with disgust. "If you're going to eat my food, at least have the courtesy to call off your dog."
"Gristle," Cornelius ordered without looking. "Heal."
The dog left the woman and sat down beside Cornelius. Cornelius picked a piece of meat from his bowl and held it out. Gristle licked it gingerly from between his master's fingers.
The woman watched. She moved towards the fire. When she neared the bow lying in the dirt, Cornelius cleared his throat. He gestured towards the pistol holstered at his hip. "Don't, lass. Just don't."
She looked from the bow to the giant and his pistol. Her shoulders slumped, and she moved on, sitting directly across the fire from the monster.
"This is rabbit, isn't it?" Cornelius asked, taking a big mouthful of stew.
"Ground squirrel. Or something like it. They're huge in these hills."
Cornelius nodded. "Good, good." He took another bite.
"What do you want?"
"To eat your stew."
"And then what?"
"Then I head east."
"And you leave me alone?"
"I'll get some information from you first."
"I don't know much. This isn't the world I know."
Cornelius bellowed a laugh. "Ain't that the truth for all of us."
"So what could I know that would help you."
His bowl empty, he laid it in the dirt and rested the spoon across the top. "I want to know anything you can tell me about the dragon-humping bastard that stole my Ganny."