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Universe of G-Minor - Ghibbore Title

Chapter 19

“This is very bad indeed,” Durin rumbled, agreeing with Lorelei’s earlier assessment of the situation. Upon arriving back at the farm they’d awoken Ralt and Durin, then spent the rest of the night poring over their captured documents. “We are in grave danger, perhaps the whole kingdom is. A mage who is also a warrior would be a menace not easily stopped if he could be stopped at all.” They were sitting in the middle of the barn with the books and maps Storm and Lorelei brought back. The main map was spread out on the floor with the many books stacked beside it.

Ralt shook his head grimly. “Not possible,” he argued, reaching for another tome. “Magic requires years of study, research, and practice, most of it done indoors, reading by candlelight until all hours of the night. Why do you think powerful wizards are always old graybeards who can barely totter around the room? There’s no time for running around outside swinging a sword or staying in shape. Your studies consume all your time and attention. Except for a Ghibbore,” he added grudgingly with a nod at Storm.

“You’re not old and weak,” Lorelei pointed out.

“I said powerful wizards,” he countered.

“Those lightning bolts you used against the Manticores were powerful enough,” Durin snorted. “Almost ‘near deafened me, they did!”

“So I started young,” Ralt shrugged.

“Well, what if the Leader started young too,” Lorelei quizzed him. “Couldn’t he have mastered what magic he needed before his body became too weak to take up swordplay?”

“Maybe,” he conceded grudgingly after a long pause. “But I don’t believe it.”

Storm had been listening without comment for a time. Ralt’s comment pulled him back into the conversation. “Some things are true whether you believe them or not.”

“Touché,” he grinned ruefully, hearing the well-known phrase used against him. “But I still don’t believe it,” he insisted stubbornly.

“For what it’s worth, neither do I. But – what about this business with the scroll? How could someone use a magical scroll unless they have been trained in magic?”

Ralt’s face fell into a brown study. He rubbed a hand wearily across his eyes. “I don’t know. There are some scrolls made to be used by non-wizards, usually to rescue the person reading the command word or deliver a big, unpleasant surprise to your enemies. What you described sounds like an actual spell though, the creation of a magical object with specific powers. That does require magical training. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“And what about Krista?” Durin wanted to know. “How can he use her to increase his powers? Or his amulet’s powers, or whatever?”

Ralt drummed his fingers on the book in his lap. “That’s a good question. Some enchantments can become more powerful if the right ritual is properly conducted. The formula is fairly rigid though, and nothing I’ve ever heard of uses a person’s soul or their soulless body.” He frowned in thought. “The wizards of the First Age possessed knowledge and powers as yet unmatched in our age. So much was lost in the Chaos Wars we’ve had to rebuild our sorcerous knowledge virtually from scratch. If the scroll this Leader used really was from that distant time, there’s no telling what he might be able to do. Even if he misread the scroll the danger to her is still very real as long as he believes he can use her.”

Storm craned his head out the barn door. The sun was rising and the men were almost finished packing their treasure into the wagon. The remuda of captured horses was standing quietly, already tied together for the trip. It wouldn’t be long before Thomas came in to report they were ready to leave. “You’re right about that. Lorelei and I caught the bandits off guard, asleep in the middle of the night. We won’t be so lucky once we’re back on the road. One good ambush could wipe us all out.”

“Or wound us so bad the next one succeeds,” Durin added darkly.

“Exactly. Which is why I think we should stop in Breckinridge. It’s only a seven or eight leagues up the road. If they can get a message to Roderick, or maybe a local garrison commander, it might even the odds a bit.”

“I’m all for that,” Lorelei agreed enthusiastically. She paused. “Are there any local garrisons?”

Storm grimaced. “There used to be. I don’t know now. Its been nearly four years since the last time I was through here. We’ll just have to hope it’s still there.”

Durin looked up. “Hope in one hand and--”

“Yeah, yeah, we know,” Ralt cut him off.

Storm fought to suppress a grin at Durin’s expression. “So!” he exclaimed, standing up. “Everyone stay on your toes. Have you got any more of your lightning bolts handy?” he asked Ralt as everyone rose to join him.

He nodded. “And a few other things I found in here.” He hefted the dead wizard’s book of spells. “Some real nasty ones,” he smiled like a wolf.

Storm felt a primitive shudder run down his back. I guess I’m not quite as used to wizards as I thought, he told himself. “Fine.” He managed a weak smile. “Let Ogden drive the wagon so you can be ready with – uh, whatever. I’ll take the left flank, Lorelei on the right and you take the rear, Durin. If they get through the men, we’ll be the last line of defense.” He stared hard all around at them, “Don’t let them get past you.”

Thomas stuck his head in the door. “Ready whenever you are, Captain.” Tension at the news of a possible ambush had erased his fake, hick accent as if it had never existed. His face was drawn tight with concern.

They gathered the scattered books and maps then took their positions around the wagon. “You’ve got point, Thomas,” Storm told him. “In seven or eight leagues, you’ll come to a fork in the road. Take the right fork. We’re going to take a little detour.”

“Got it,” he grunted tersely.

The mountains they rode through were still as beautiful and peaceful looking as ever, but now they saw them for the illusion they were. The thick trees and underbrush pressing close to the road could easily hide an entire army waiting to pounce on them without warning. They eyed the dark thickets warily, riding as far away from them as possible. A late, false summer heat dried their throats as they plodded up the dusty road. They rode spread out, far enough apart to foil an enemies’ attempt to ambush them all at once, but not so far apart they couldn’t come to each others aid in case of an attack. Whether Storm had balanced their spread correctly or not was something they’d learn only when it was too late to change it. If he hadn’t, they’d pay for the mistake with their lives.

Time slowed as if to drag them down through sheer inertia. It seemed to take forever from one curve in the road to the next, their nerves drawn tighter than a bowstring in nervousness and tension. In an ambush, all the advantages lay with the attacker; a man could be killed without a chance to defend himself before he even knew he was under attack. Nor was there any chance of them hiding their approach along the road, they were making too much noise to hope for stealth, from the clopping of the horse’s hooves to the creak of the wagon and the jingling of their harnesses, the enemy would hear them coming long before they were in sight. Storm found himself gripping the pommel of his sword so tightly his hand began to hurt. He had to force himself to ease up and wiggle his fingers to restore feeling to them.

Finally though, at long last, Thomas signaled back to them he’d reached the fork in the road. Storm waved acknowledgment and they turned off from the main path. Despite no sleep the night before he was still tense and alert, ‘the last mile is always the worst’ someone had once said, and he believed it. Lorelei, as accustomed to harsh living as him, showed the same attention to road and any possible ambushes. If she felt any tension though, she hid it well.

Within the hour they began encountering houses and outlying farms. Curious farmers, silent and somber, stood in their fields watching them pass. Once, a pretty young girl, her long dress tucked up out harm’s way from the scythe she carried, waved gaily to them. Lorelei waved back but other than that no one approached them or offered any greetings. It was strange, Storm thought to himself. He remembered the people being friendlier than this. He ordered his men to remain on guard as they approached Breckinridge. The houses began appearing closer together, slowly at first, then with increasing frequency until they were riding through the city itself, cobblestone streets echoing beneath their horse’s hooves. Ingold had been peaceful, ‘proof against invasion’ was perhaps a better way of putting it, for so long they’d dispensed with the usual guarded walls that protected most cities on Gaia. Perhaps they’d begun to pay the price for it lately, he thought. It would account for the cautious faces peering at them from doorways and windows without speaking.

They came to the town square, dominated by the main keep, a large, four-story building. Two guards, standing on either side of the entrance to it, glanced nervously at each other as they drew to halt before them. Storm swung down from Specter’s back to approach them in what he hoped was a non-threatening manner. As he was climbing the steps one of the guards suddenly squinted down at him then relaxed with a wide grin. “It’s OK, Ben. Don’t you recognize Storm? He used to be head of security for Wagon Master Rogar.” He tucked his spear in the crook of his arm and came forward to shake Storm’s hand. “Remember me? Kreckin? We tore up that bar in Robling last time you were here, the Broken Staff.”

Storm laughed as it came back to him. It had been a good fight even if it was a bit confusing. Kreckin had cheerfully bashed friend and foe alike. “Yeah, I remember,” he growled happily. “You practically knocked me out with that chair or whatever it was. We were supposed to be on the same side!”

Kreckin shrugged without embarrassment. “Yeah, well, when I get in a fight I kind of go nuts; just clobber anyone in range.”

“Not anymore I hope. You’ve got problems out there.” Storm jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the mountains.

Kreckin’s glad smile died as deep lines etched themselves on his face. “Yeah.” He eyed the remuda of horses Arthur was leading. “It looks like you lost a lot of men.”

“Killed a lot of bandits is more like it.”

The second guard, older and starting to show gray in his beard, joined them. “How many?”

“Too many. Or not enough, depending on how you look at it. We found some very bad news in their hideout. That’s why we’re here,” Storm said grimly. “The Baron needs to see it before we head on for Robling. He’s not going to like it,” he added warningly. Dozens, if not hundreds of tiny holdings and towns dotted Ingold, each commanded by petty nobility, or men with pretensions of nobility. The Baron of Breckinridge, Frayen Smithson, was reputed to be one of the better ones. He’d met him once in passing.

Kreckin cursed under his breath. “Hang on, I’ll fetch him.” He disappeared inside.

He was back in a trice, opening the door for a burly, middle-aged man wearing chain mail with the ease of long practice. Frayen had been one of the King’s guards, knighted by Roderick himself before retiring to become Baron of the Breckinridge. Snapping black eyes fixed themselves on Storm. “Hail and well met,” he grunted. “What’s all this about killing bandits?”

“Hail and well met,” Storm returned. “We were on our way to Robling when we discovered the farm in Oak Flats meadow had been attacked. Everyone is dead.”

“The Mallory place,” one the men muttered quietly. Others nodded grim confirmation.

“We tracked the bandits to their hideout and managed to surprise them,” he continued. “After they were dead we made a discovery which leads us to believe they were part of a larger, organized band that poses a genuine threat to Ingold as a whole.”

Frayen scowled fiercely. “Show me.”

Storm motioned for Ralt to bring out the maps and the journal with its disquieting entries. Frayen’s face gradually hardened as he examined them and listened to Lorelei’s recitation of the dying bandit’s last words. His blunt fingers traced lines on the map, lips moving silently. Finally, he straightened and clasped his hands behind his back, staring off into the distance as they finished their tale, shaking his head briefly as they described Krista’s condition as “the girl who lives in two places.” When they were done he shoved his hand out to Storm. “Thank you. Your companions tell a strange story but the warning in it is timely indeed. We are in your debt. Whatever we have to offer is yours. You’ve earned it a thousand times over today.” He pivoted to Kreckin. “Fetch the scribes. These maps and the pages in this journal must be sent to the King at once.” He turned back to them. “If you will excuse me, I have much work to do.” With a quick bow, he swept up the maps and journal then strode back inside, snapping orders to Kreckin as he went.

Storm frowned. He’d hoped the Baron would turn out some patrols, but how did Frayen propose to get the evidence to Roderick any faster than they could? He hesitated then shrugged it off. It was out of his hands now; they had done what they could. Turning, he asked Ben where they could find a tavern to cut the trail dust. With something like awe on his face he led them across the square then down one of the streets to a large inn, tables set up in front of it in a well-kept garden surrounded by a low, decorative wrought-iron fence. Red, gold-trimmed banners hanging at regular intervals along the front of the building declared it to be the Black Staff Inn. A detailed drawing of a staff of black twisted wood cut through the middle of the stylized letters for the benefit of the illiterate.

The men dismounted wearily, glad for a chance to relax in relative security before hitting the road again. Durin was on hand to help Sodan as the old man struggled out of the wagon. He got him to a table near a chuckling fountain. The men appropriated several nearby tables. Ben hovered nearby, whispering in the waitress’ ear, then later in the owner’s ear when he came out. The pot-bellied owner immediately proclaimed everything was on the house, much to the delight of the men who began calling out lusty orders for beer and sausages.

Surrounded by the elements of civilization, Sodan perked up. Storm watched with amusement as he made a show of ordering his meal, then choosing a wine to go with it. Thomas, struggling to hide a grin, caught his eye and went through a mock parody of Sodan’s mincing movements. Storm smiled in return, leaning back in his chair. A little civilization was a good thing now and then.

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