Zered was a fair sized city, typical for this part of Gaia, perched on a low cliff overlooking the Tambar River where it tumbled out of the mountains in an icy flood. Fields of corn and wheat surrounded the city, coming right up to the cut block, granite walls. A well-traveled road cut through the fields. Following it he came to the city gates. Guards posted there eyed him curiously but made no move to stop him. Lone barbarians were rare this far south and were usually regarded as curiosities rather than threats. Besides, the last ten years made him appear more the sell-sword than the barbarian.
Inside he was assaulted by the hustle and bustle of the city. He stared openly at the sights, ignoring people who stared at him in return. After the quiet solitude of the mountains, the city seemed to ring with noise. Vendors cried their wares to anyone who came near while children played and shouted underfoot. Spicy odors wafted through the streets from the open doors of shops and inns. Musicians played on street corners, hoping to impress passersby with their talent, and perhaps earn a few coins. Carts and wagons, piled high with a thousand bundles and crates blocked the way while their drivers hurled colorful oaths at each other in particular, and the populace in general. Gaudy colors ran riot as if each person sought to out dress the next. Bemused, Storm shook his head. City living had never had any appeal for him. Why would anyone choose to live in one, he wondered?
Nudging Specter out of the traffic he reined in at the side of the street to examine the map he’d been given, trying to match the confusion around him to the scratching on the parchment.
Before leaving Vaneer he’d made known his intention of heading west. He’d been contacted by a man who worked for a merchant named Sodan, who lived in Zered and was sending a small caravan to Ingold on private and likely, dangerous business. His reputation must have proceeded him for he’d been offered the position at once. He’d been given the map, a letter of introduction, and instructions if he could be at Sodan’s by the middle of the month his place on the caravan was assured.
Following the map, he soon left the business district and found himself wending his way through the wealthier neighborhoods. His presence here was regarded with suspicion for he obviously didn’t belong. A curving street ended at a large, ornate building. Guards in heavy plate armor regarded him darkly as he approached. He swung down out of the saddle to put them at ease. One of the guards, a tall, dark-haired man, advanced to meet him.
A gauntleted hand barred his path. “What’s your business?”
Storm stopped. “I was told I could find employment on a caravan going to Ingold,” he said. “Ryman gave me this map and letter of introduction,” he added, holding them up.
The guard held out his hand. “Let me see them.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Thomas Keener, Sergeant of the Guard. Hand them over!” he snapped.
Storm hesitated, then passed the papers over with a shrug.
Thomas studied them intently for a minute, hazel eyes moving quickly. “Looks alright,” he finally conceded, “but I want to check it out first. Gregory! Keep an eye on him. The rest of you too.” He disappeared into the building.
A man of indeterminate age, most likely Gregory, moved forward to take Thomas’ place but said nothing. None of the others seemed disposed to talk, and Storm was never one to engage in mindless chatter, so they simply stood there looking at each other in the morning sun.
He was already beginning to sweat as the sun climbed the sky and he wondered at the guards in their bulky armor. How did they stand it in the afternoon heat? If Sodan wanted him to wear plate armor the deal was off. He’d rather fight a dragon than climb into one of those clanking sweat boxes. He’d worn heavy armor a time or two in the past and hated it with a passion.
After twenty minutes or so the door opened abruptly and Thomas came out, followed by an unusually handsome man in brown robes who spoke in a pleasant tenor.
“My uncle wishes to speak to you at once. Please come with me,” he said. “Thomas will stable your horse for you.”
Storm nodded, more at ease now. He gave Specter’s reins to the lanky sergeant. “Don’t try to ride him,” he warned. “He’ll tear your throat out.”
“I know the type,” Thomas smiled ruefully.
Storm smiled back, liking the tall guard in spite of his earlier manner. He turned and followed the robed man into the house as Thomas led Specter away. Once inside he examined his guide more closely. He was of medium height, perhaps in his mid-thirties with brown hair and eyes. His hair was well kept though somewhat long. In contrast to most men of the day, his face was hairless, making his features look strangely thin. Above his eyes, his thin eyebrows were arched just enough to be noticeable. The richly appointed foyer in which they stood was well lighted and Storm saw lines of care worn on the man’s face.
“This way,” he said, indicating a flight of stairs. “Sodan has heard much about you from Rogar and is most anxious to meet you.”
Storm nodded absently. Rogar had been one of the better caravan leaders he’d worked for, hard but fair. His recommendation was a pleasure.
They topped the stairs and turned down a wide hallway.
“I, by the way,” the man continued, “am Ralt Gaither, Sodan’s nephew and wizard.”
Storm slammed to a halt in sudden shock. A wizard!?
Revulsion swept through him as ingrained reflexes against the Dark Arts had his sword in his hand almost before he was aware of it. Ralt must have heard or sensed something amiss, for he leapt aside a moment before Storm’s blade swept down on the place where he’d been standing. Angrily he incanted, his hands making strange passes through the air.
Storm sensed power hurdling toward him and bellowed as he threw himself aside. He wasn’t fast enough and part of it caught his leg. It went numb beneath him, refusing to work, sending him crashing into the wall. He heaved himself upright to continue the fight, lurching forward to behead his enemy with a single stroke of his sword but Ralt evaded him easily. The wizard began chanting another spell. Snarling defiance Storm hurled his sword at him in a flat spin, forcing Ralt to duck. The wizard’s concentration on his spell was lost along with the spell itself. Storm whipped out his short sword with a savage laugh. Feeling began to return to his leg as his incredible recuperative powers went to work. Brandishing the sword he crouched to spring.
The deep voice boomed in the hallway, startling him. He froze, searching for the source.
Behind the wizard a large set of double doors at the end of the hallway stood open, framing a short, impossibly wide man. Beside him was an elderly man dressed in expensive robes.
Ralt glanced over his shoulder at the short man in evident relief. “Durin! Get out here! This idiot is trying to kill me!”
Durin rumbled laughter through his beard, “Small wonder. He’s a northern barbarian.”
Ralt was outraged. “And that excuses murder?” he hissed.
Durin shook his block-like head as he and the old man came down the hall. “Of course not. But those evil wizards, magicians, and sorcerers who, now and then we’ve been unable to kill but only drive out of the land, usually go north. Those workers of the Black Arts are the only ones Storm and his kind have ever known. Put yourself in his position,” he advised. “With a history like that, is it any wonder he attacked you?”
Ralt scowled down at him, not entirely convinced. “How sad; my deepest sympathies and all that. But what if he’d succeeded in killing me before you got here? You didn’t see how fast he is!”
“Rogar did not lie then,” the old man murmured.
Durin glanced up at him. “As I tried to tell you,” he rumbled.
The old man dropped a hand on Durin’s shoulder. “Stand easy old friend. I seldom fail to heed your advice as you well know.”
Durin nodded and started to speak but Storm had had enough. “What is all this?” he demanded, straightening up from his fighting stance.
“A thousand pardons,” the old man exclaimed. “I’m Sodan, called the Fairhand, master of this establishment. Durin here is my chief adviser, and Captain of the Guard. My nephew Ralt, well, you’ve already, umm, met.” Durin and Ralt bowed formally.
Storm ignored the wizard. “What were you saying about driving all the wizards to the north?” he asked Durin.
Durin shrugged shoulders that were more appropriate for someone Storms size. “Not all of them; just the bad ones.”
“What other kind is there?” Storm snorted in disgust.
Ralt bristled at the insult but Durin ignored him. “Good or evil is in the man, not the magic. Magic is nothing more than a tool, like a plow or a sword.” He bent down. “Speaking of which,” he straightened, “here’s yours. Better put it away,” he advised as he handed it over.
Sodan and Ralt tensed as Storm held both swords for a moment, then let out their breath as he slid them into their scabbards with a scrap of metal on metal.
“Well!” Sodan said brightly, clapping his hands together, “now that that’s all settled, shall we retire to my study to finish this conversation in more comfortable surroundings? And you men can return to your posts,” he added, nodding to someone behind Storm.
Storm turned. Behind him were more than a dozen men lowering powerful crossbows. Hmm, he thought, odd these city dwellers might be, but the guards certainly knew their business. He had no idea how long they’d been there, and he hadn’t heard them approach. Impressive. He made a mental note not to underestimate Sodan’s men.