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Chapter 6

The Tambar yielded a fair catch, enough to fill all the men to bursting. Although Sodan protested the rough ride in the wagon had not tired him, he soon retired. The others quickly followed suit. Within a short time after eating Storm and Ralt were the only two still awake. Storm had assigned himself first watch but Ralt was under no such compulsion.

He looked over at the wizard who was staring pensively into the fire, wishing he would leave him alone. “You should get some sleep,” he said finally. “Tomorrow will be a long day.”

Ralt smiled briefly. “I’m not tired. Driving a wagon doesn’t take much effort, you know.” He craned his head back to look up at the stars. “Besides, it’s rather pretty. Its been so long since I was a kid I’d forgotten how bright the stars are when you get away from the city lights.”

Surprised into continuing the conversation with his unwelcome companion, Storm asked, “Where were you raised you could see the stars at night?”

“A little village called Crendal, just under a hundred leagues north of Zered. My people were ranchers; raised sheep and cattle mostly. I used to sit up at night with our herds and try to count the stars.” Ralt laughed softly. “I kept losing my place. Couldn’t remember if I’d counted this star or that one.”

Storm stared at him. Ralt certainly wasn’t like any wizard he’d ever heard of! “But . . . why would a rancher want to study the Blac . . . uh, study magic?”

Ralt glanced at him mischievously. “The ‘Black Arts’ you started to say?”

Embarrassed without quite knowing why, Storm nodded.

The wizard smiled, enjoying his embarrassment. “Accident mostly. My mother died giving birth to me and my father blamed me for it. He told me a thousand times if it weren’t for me she’d still be alive. So, my grandfather’s brother, my great uncle” – he jerked a thumb at the wagon where Sodan was sleeping – “invited me to come work for him when I turned ten, but I didn’t know how to read or write, so he hired a wizard to tutor me. Gerald and I spent a lot of time together and, well, one thing led to another. Pretty soon I was a full-blown apprentice.” He shrugged. "My eldest brother inherited everything from my father and Krista was Sodan’s obvious choice to take over when he died, so, I really didn’t have anything else to do.” He shrugged again. “Like I said, accident mostly.”

Storm’s mind whirled with astonishment. Wizards were evil fiends, bent on taking over the world; everyone knew that. But Ralt made magic sound like it was just another job, a way to make a living, like being a merchant or something. He said as much to his strange companion.

Ralt nodded agreement. “In a way that’s just what it is – a job. I’ve heard of one magician down south who uses magic to freeze huge tanks of water into ice. They say he makes a very good living as an ice merchant, especially during the summer.”

Storm abandoned the struggle to contain his surprise and anger. “If magic is just a job what about all those evil murderers who’ve been terrorizing people in the north all these years? Was that just a job too?”

“Of course not,” Ralt retorted gently. “Magicians, wizards, sorcerers; whatever you want to call us, are just people like anyone else. Some are good, some are bad. Some of us are extremely skilled while others are as clumsy as can be. Now and then someone comes along who is thoroughly rotten, evil to the core.” He grinned wickedly. “Just like some warlords are evil; raiding defenseless villages, raping and killing just for the fun of it. Surely you must have encountered some of them during your travels.”

Storm nodded reluctantly. He’d not only encountered some of them, he’d fought them as well. One, in particular, Krekor, had been the meanest, most twisted man he’d ever met. Pillage was too kind a word to describe the destruction he and his men visited on the villages they destroyed. “But at least they fought with honest steel,” he managed finally.

“Really? All the time?” Ralt’s voice was pregnant with feeling.

Even as he spoke Storm remembered a stake-lined pit that had claimed a number of his men. The stakes had been smeared with dung, causing festering wounds, oozing pus, and infection. Two of his men had begged him to kill them to end their pain. He’d done as they asked, sick to his stomach. He shrugged angrily. “OK. So they didn’t always use steel. But at least they didn’t use foul sorcery that gives a man no chance to fight back!”

“Is that your only objection?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

A predator’s smile crossed Ralt’s face and Storm was suddenly wary. “What about you? You did pretty good against me the day we met. You dodged one of my spells and spoiled another. If Durin hadn’t stopped it, you’d have gotten me.” Ralt’s smile broadened. “If that’s not fighting back I don’t know what is.” He rose and brushed himself off as Storm sat gaping at him. “Well, I’d better get some sleep. As you pointed out, tomorrow is going to be a long day.” He climbed into the wagon pulling the flaps shut behind him before Storm could think of a suitable reply.

He sat by the fire scowling fiercely, tugging on his beard. Blast that wizard! His silver tongue was almost as potent as his magic. He twisted everything around until it was inside out. He could make a fish believe it had wings.

He needed something to distract him.

He jumped up to walk his rounds about the camp. It was so small it took him less than a minute and to his chagrin, there was nothing amiss, nothing to occupy him. Grumbling under his breath he returned to the fire. He sat brooding for a long time before finally concluding it would be wise to ignore the wizard as best he could. The man was infernally devious, and far too quick to be trusted. It was a poor victory but he salvaged from it what he could. He woke the next guard, rolled up in his blanket and was soon fast asleep.

* * * * *

A thunder of hooves jerked him awake the next morning. He surged to his feet, flinging his blankets aside, sword already in hand. The sun was beginning to rise, illuminating a squat figure on horseback. He heard a deep rumble of laughter as the figure sawed back on the reins, thudding to a halt beside Storm.

“Ho, Barbarian! Right glad I am to see you too!” Durin shouted joyfully, eyeing Storm’s blade askance. “Is it the custom of your people to greet their friends thus?”

Storm slammed his sword into its sheath. “Is it the custom of your people to come charging into camp without warning like a herd of wild buffalo?”

The dwarf roared laughter as he tumbled down off his horse. “Makes for a grand wake-up call doesn’t it?”

Storm plopped back down on his blankets. He stared sourly at the bright-eyed dwarf. “I thought you supposed to be in Zered,” he yawned hugely, “minding the store or whatever.”

“So did I!”

Sodan climbed down out of the wagon, followed by a sleepy Ralt. “Explain yourself,” the old man snapped, striding forward.

Durin stared back unflinchingly, arm akimbo. “Meredith finally got your letter about Krista. She arrived yesterday afternoon. So, I left her in charge and came to join you.”

Several of the guards, all awake now, snickered at the dwarf’s words. Storm thought he heard one of them mutter something which sounded like ‘dragon lady’. “Who is Meredith?” he demanded.

Sodan sat down slowly. “My youngest sister, half-sister actually, Meredith Finn. She’s, ah, difficult you might say.” Behind him, Ralt rolled his eyes helplessly then disappeared back into the wagon. The old man fixed a beady eye on Durin. “Left her in charge or abandoned her? Tell me the truth.”

Thomas, tousled from sleep, leaned back against one of the horses. “This ought to be interesting,” he yawned.

Durin spread his hands innocently. “Why, when I heard Meredith had entered the city I –”

“Trembled in fear?” Thomas interjected.

“– wrote her a letter explaining the situation,” the dwarf continued firmly. “Then I gathered my few belongings, saddled a horse, and rode to join you.”

“Snuck out like a thief in the night,” Thomas translated sweetly. The men snickered while Durin glared daggers at the lanky archer.

Sodan saw the question in Storm’s eyes. “Thomas has the truth of it, I’ll warrant,” he sighed. “My sister really can be quite difficult. The men call her ‘the Dragon Lady’ I believe.”

Storm nodded sympathetically. “I know the type.” He turned to regard the dwarf speculatively. Durin was dressed in heavy trousers and high boots. A shirt of mail fell almost to his knees and an iron cap covered his head. A tremendous war axe hung at his side to complete the picture. He looked every inch the rugged, mountain dwarf he was supposed to be. If he was half the fighter he appeared, then his presence, whatever the reason, was a welcome addition to the party. But one thing had to be addressed immediately. He turned back to Sodan. “You hired me to lead this journey because Durin couldn’t come. His appearance is welcome but our contract still stands. I command.”

Sodan was caught off guard. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted. “This has all been rather sudden.”

“I’m perfectly willing to take Storm’s orders,” Durin said. “After all, he’s been doing this kind of thing for years. And, in the event of an emergency, there must be no doubt who is in charge. People get killed otherwise.”

Storm nodded his thanks but kept his eyes on Sodan. It belatedly occurred to him this was the perfect opportunity to back out of an unhealthy assignment. A glance at Ralt re-emerging from the wagon stiffened his resolve. No wizard, rancher or not, was going to show more courage than he did. He clamped his lips shut and waited for Sodan’s answer.

The old man’s gaze flickered back and forth between them thoughtfully. Abruptly he came to a decision. “Storm leads,” he said, looking around at the men. They all nodded silently.

Wondering if he’d made the right decision or not, Storm rose to his feet. “In that case, we’re wasting time. We break camp and ride at once. Durin will assign flankers. Thomas will ride point.”

The men scrambled to obey.

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