“How did I let myself get talked into this mess?” Storm cursed as he tightened the straps on Specter’s saddle.
Thomas, leaning against the doorway, grinned at him. “You’re a sucker for a sob story, Cap’em.”
Storm glowered at his lanky second-in-command, “Yeah? So what’s your excuse?”
“I’m a free-booting adventurer Cap’em. I go where the wind blows me.”
“Terrific.” Storm waved him away. “Go bother someone else for a while. I’m busy.”
“Yes Sir, Cap’em.” Thomas sketched a salute and sauntered out.
Storm shook his head. The man was an uncanny archer but other than that he was an irresponsible lunatic. His facade as a stern guardsman was strictly for show. Beneath it was a practical joker who enjoyed shocking people with his irreverent attitudes and comments.
Storm still wasn’t sure he wanted this job but it was a little late to back out now. He should have left the moment he learned the wizard would be coming along and he definitely should have backed out when Ralt started talking about demons. His casual assumption of damnation in the event of failure had shaken Storm more than he cared to admit. “Thrice damned” was a curse so old no one knew where it came from, but the prospect of real actual damnation cast it in a whole new light. Ralt’s willingness to face it for a member of his family made a mockery of Storm’s own bravery. The idea that a thrice dam–, a weakling sorcerer, might have more courage than him stuck in his craw. In the end, it had been that more than anything which made up his mind for him. Oh, he’d argued against it and tried to back out several times but they were halfhearted attempts at best. Deep down, he knew he’d take the job even if Sodan hadn’t offered him such an outrageous price. If he lived to collect it he’d be well off.
If he lived.
That was looking more unlikely every day. He had to lead a bunch of greenhorns through several hundred leagues of the roughest terrain Gaia had to offer. It was a lengthy journey. He’d thought it would be a normal caravan of the type he was used to, with a small army of guards at his command. Even a small caravan could command upwards of 50 to 70 guards. Instead, it was a single wagon carrying the body of the sort of dead girl, twelve mounted soldiers, the wizard, and Sodan.
Storm had judged him to be middle-aged or slightly beyond rather than the one hundred and ninety-four which turned out to be the truth. Most people in Gaia lived 200 years or so, which meant Sodan already had one foot in the grave. A hundred and ninety-four-year-old man riding through the countryside in a wagon with winter just around the corner? Insanity!
If so, it was family that drove him to it. Krista was his granddaughter who he’d raised as his daughter. His love and devotion to her was so great he was willing to risk everything for her. Given his own less than stellar track record on family matters, Storm was willing to give Sodan a pass on it.
Just last night though, they’d received confirmation of not one, but two Manticores up in the Ridge Mountains. Probably a mated pair, which meant they’d be twice as vicious as normal. Manticores were large and heavy, eight full talents of winged fury. If they had young to protect they’d spare no effort in the process, even to the point of suicidal attacks. Like Sodan risking his life for Krista, they’d do anything to protect their young. Anymore of Thomas’ “good news,” Storm reflected and he’d have to hurt somebody, maybe several somebodies.
“Well, Specter, we sure got ourselves into a bad one this time didn’t we?” The big bay whickered reassuringly, nudging his hand for a treat. Storm absently dug out a piece of rock candy for him, lost in thought. He’d spent most of the last few days going over the supply list with Ralt and Thomas. Ralt had marveled over a barbarian who could read and write until Storm sourly reminded him of his years as a guard commander on countless caravans. “With so many men and wagons, you have to be able to read and write just to keep track of everything. No one can memorize that much stuff.”
Ralt nodded agreement. “Of course, of course. I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“Some of your own people might steal you blind if you can’t keep track of your inventory,” Storm continued pedantically. “Or try to pretend they didn’t get paid and come sucking up to you for more money. You’ll go broke in a hurry if you don’t have it written down.” He stopped himself before he said too much.
“Sounds like a chancy way to make a living,” Thomas quipped.
Storm glanced sideways at him. “A man who bets a week’s wages on a single throw of the dice calls caravaning chancy?” Ralt snorted. On this, he and Storm were in perfect agreement. They both detested gambling and regarded as foolish those who indulged in it.
“Those dice were loaded!” Thomas retorted hotly. “If they hadn’t cheated I’d have won. I was on a streak.”
“Spare me,” Storm said quickly, raising a hand. “We’ve already heard the story a hundred times.”
They’d continued on the down the list, adding here, deleting there until Storm was satisfied they hadn’t forgotten anything or taken too much. Three days of work had left them with what he hoped was the right balance.
“Hey, Cap’em! You coming or not?”
The shout jarred him out of his reverie. He waved acknowledgment to Thomas then swung up into the saddle. Specter sidled sideways before settling down, his hooves clattering in the predawn stillness. “Is everyone here?” he asked, looking around.
“They’re all here,” Durin rumbled from his place near the wagon where he was exchanging final partings with Sodan. The short man had turned out to be a Dwarf; a race he’d had heard much about but never met. They were a stout people, doughty fighters who even their enemies respected. If half the tales about them were true he was indeed sorry Durin wouldn’t be coming with them.
Durin grabbed Specter’s reins. “Take care of him,” he said, indicating Sodan, “or I’ll part yer hair with an axe.” Sodan was making the trip against Durin’s advice. He’d been at Sodan’s side so long he’d come to regard the old man as a father. Although his voice was light, his eyes betrayed his concern.
Storm nodded. “I’ll guard him as best I can,” he replied soberly.
Durin searched his eyes for a moment more, then sighed heavily, “Aye. More I cannot ask. Fare thee well.” He swung away, bellowing orders to open the gates.
The gates before the wagon swung ponderously open. He spurred Specter through to take the lead. Behind him whips cracked over the wagon team, there was a flurry of shouted commands, a jingling of harnesses and the little caravan lurched after him into the darkness. The guards, mounted on light war-horses, closed in on the wagon in double file, Thomas bringing up the rear.
If any of them had thought to look back they would have seen Durin, a black shadow in the torchlight, watching them out of sight like some eldritch carving from a forgotten age.
Storm led his small troop through the quiet streets, surprising an occasional early riser. The grinding wagon wheels and clopping hooves echoed eerily back from the buildings on either side of the narrow street like muted thunder. Even the business district was still. Sleepy guards at the city gates grumbled at the early hour but opened the portals soon enough and they passed out of the city to the open road beyond.
Storm inhaled a huge lung full of clean morning air, crisp with the smell of dew-covered fields. Ah, he thought, this is more like it. The past week living in the city had been torture to his soul. In Vaneer there had at least been clean if cold, sea breezes. Here, behind the high city walls, no breath of fresh air could penetrate. Odors hung stale and heavy in the streets for days on end. He felt as though he’d been released from prison. Once again he wondered how anyone could stand to live in such a place.
The small band moved away from the city, quickly falling into their assigned places. Once beyond the fields surrounding the city, outriders, two to a side, were sent out to give early warning of danger. The men grumbled at these measures while still so close to Zered but Storm insisted. Too often he’d seen supposedly safe areas turn into ambushes. With this small a force he was taking no chances. The minuscule size of his forces had also dictated his decision to take single men only. If there were any losses, he didn’t want to leave behind widows and orphans.
At noon they halted at a small inn to eat. One of the guards, Boldric, was an experienced wagon builder. He checked out the wagon while they ate. It was new and heavily loaded. There had been no time for a shake-down trip to check it for potential weaknesses. If it was going to fail, Storm wanted to find out about it now while there was still time to turn back. Boldric pronounced it fit and they were soon back on the road. Storm was pleased to see the outriders taking their place without prompting.
The road was well traveled along this way and they passed various travelers throughout the day. The terrain about them was a gentle series of wooded foothills descending from the mountains. Dappled sunlight, streaming down through the leaves lit the road while flocks of birds, preparing for their fall migration flitted across their path or chattered angrily at them from the safety of the treetops. The Tambar River chuckled alongside the road, wandering off now and then only to return each time. The air was alive with a thousand different sounds. He drank it all in like a sponge.
Toward evening the road turned sharply to the west. Outside Zered, the North Fork of the Tambar had joined the South Fork to begin its rush to the Overdark Ocean some six hundred leagues to the south around the southern tip of the Coast Mountains. There the Overdark mixed its waters with the eastern portion of the Battle Ocean, the Milchamah. It was here the great whales wintered with their young. Ships from the far distant Carrzulman Empire to the west, came here, around the Serpent Peninsula, the bulging tip of which was called the Unknown Land, to hunt the young calves for expensive perfumes that could be made from them and sold in the decadent markets of their ancient land.
T’thalian warships followed the whales each year to protect them from the Carrzulman slaughter. T’thalia and her subject islands depended on the annual whale harvest for food and bitterly opposed the killing of calves for perfume. In recent years warships from Carrzulm had met the T’thalians in those waters in open battle.
T’thalia and Carrzulm were ancient enemies and he quickly left their service when it became clear the skirmishing was escalating toward all-out war once again. In Vaneer there had been dark talk of kindred lost in battle and still darker talk of vengeance. Niran, the Imperial Sword Master, had tried to persuade Storm to stay but he wanted no part of someone else’s fight, particularly one which seemed to reoccur every ten or fifteen years.
The Tambar was low this late in the season and sunset found them well away from the road, safely across the river, and facing the Plains of Aroon. The outriders had brought down several rabbits during the day and Storm ordered them roasted while poles and fishing nets were brought out. He wanted them to live off the land as much as possible to conserve their meager food supplies. One wagon could carry only so much, and Krista’s “coffin” took up a considerable amount of space. All-in-all, Storm was satisfied with their progress and the conduct of the small group of guards under his command. It had been a good day.