Lorelei turned her attention away from Storm for a moment. The archers on the wall by the burning gate had finally spotted her. She ducked as an arrow thudded into the wall beside her. All the light in the courtyard was on their side, hindering them and leaving her in the relative protection of the shadows enveloping the back of the fort. There was no reason to take chances though. She turned her bow toward them.
Ralt found the command word at last. Muttering it to himself he felt the knowledge of the staff’s many powers flood into his mind in a magical surge. Gritting his teeth, knowing he had to kill again, he aimed it through the door of the barracks at the soldiers putting on their armor. Dozens of tiny streaks of light burst out of it, splitting apart as if they had minds of their own to slam into every soldier in the room. Screams of pain rewarded him. Half of them dropped to the floor, dead before they hit the ground. The rest staggered under the deadly impacts. One of them hurled a dagger at him that barely missed, then pulled out his sword and led them in a charge. Ralt blanched and fired again at point-blank range. He lurched back as the bodies slammed into the ground at his feet in a bloody heap. H clenched his teeth to keep from vomiting again then a monstrous roar jerked his eyes skyward. One of the giants had spotted him and was advancing, war club at the ready.
“Blast it!” he shouted, not even aware he’d said it. He leveled the staff at the giant’s chest, unleashing a fireball at far too close a range.
Belker reeled as another fireball went off inside the tiny fort. He couldn’t believe it. Four people, just four people! And they were decimating his entire command! Somehow they’d managed to set off all the wards and booby traps at once, and now they were inside the fort killing his men as if they were infirm sheep. No wonder Niran wanted him to take so many! Not that it had done him much good, he reflected as he watched another soldier crash to the ground under Storm’s spinning blades. The big swordsman was even better than he’d heard. He knew without a doubt none of his men were capable of matching his skill, certainly not with one sword against two. He moved forward to join the dwindling ranks surrounding the man, knowing this was where he would die. Now that the moment was upon him, he found he welcomed it, no matter if his soul was damned or not for the things he’d done. He was tired of the monstrous things Niran had forced him to do, bone tired. He knew the bloodstone still controlling him would force him to fight to the very best of his ability. He also knew it wouldn’t do any good. He smiled at the thought. Let it end here, he thought.
Ralt staggered backward from the blast, his face blistering from the intense heat. He saw the giant falling toward him, its face and chest a charred, bloody ruin. He ran for the stairs, stumbling as the impact shook the ground. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lorelei use her last arrow. She dropped her useless bow then pulled her saber, darting off to her left to race around the parapet toward the remaining archers by the gate. He nodded to himself as he reached the parapet and took off in the opposite direction. We’ll hit them from both sides, he thought grimly.
Durin dropped the remaining giant, grunting with satisfaction. Three down, one to go. The last one had crashed through the barn wall during his initial attack and was still outside the fort somewhere. He headed for the gate.
Storm found himself facing one last soldier. “Surrender!” he snarled, hoping for a prisoner they could interrogate, more than from any reluctance to kill him.
Belker shook his head. “I wish I could, but I can’t,” he said, lunging forward, his sword outstretched in front of him.
Storm slapped the blade aside and launched a whirling riposte that nearly took Belker’s head off. “What do you mean you can’t?” he asked, remembering the dying bandit who’d thanked them for releasing him from the Leader’s power. He activated his Sight.
Belker spun, raising his shield to deflect Storm’s blades, whipping his sword around in an unstoppable stroke to cleave into his chest. But Storm reversed direction on his sword faster than anyone he’d ever seen, stopping his blade easily. “I can’t surrender,” he grunted. “I have to kill you.”
Storm wanted to stop and stare at the complex weave of alien magic covering Belker’s whole body. It was incredibly complex and bizarre. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it but certainly proved Belker was a slave to the mysterious Leader. His heart ached at having to kill such a fine soldier.
Lorelei attacked her opponent, ducking under his sword and coming up right in front of him. He backpedaled furiously, staying just out of range.
Durin paused in his mad charge across the courtyard as he saw an archer preparing to fire at Lorelei. He hurled his axe in a glittering arc across the distance between them, smiling broadly when he saw it bury itself in the man’s chest. He tumbled off the parapet and Durin hurried over to reclaim Fenris Fang. Streaking lights told him that Ralt was finishing off the remaining archers with his captured staff.
Belker was a better swordsman than his men had been, but Storm was gradually wearing him down. He was forced to backpedal time and time again to stay alive. He wanted to throw himself on Storm’s blades but the fiendish bloodstone forced him to fight instead. He stumbled as he was forced to back up yet again and he exulted as he saw Storm’s sword coming up to deliver the killing blow.
Then the world exploded in a thundering roar of burning timbers flying across the courtyard as the last giant slammed in through the gate. Storm recoiled as flaming embers showered him. Belker cursed the giant’s timing as he lurched to his feet to continue his unwanted attack.
A flaming timber, spinning through the air clipped Durin in the forehead, knocking him down with devastating force. He lay stunned on the ground, fighting off encroaching darkness.
Lorelei’s opponent lost his footing as the parapet swayed dangerously when the giant burst in shaking the wall they stood upon. Accustomed to fighting on horseback, she easily maintained her balance, driving her saber through his heart. He fell from the parapet in a spray of blood. She darted forward to confront the giant face to face from her height on the parapet then stopped in dismay when she came to a section that had been torn out during the battle. It was too broad to jump and she was forced to backtrack to the nearest set of stairs.
Ralt was surprised to find himself standing on the parapet on the other side of the gate after his charge at the archers, the only one of the little group that was within striking range of the giant as he finished kicking down the shattered gate. Many of the spells contained in the staff he held were too powerful to use at such close range, but it was a thick, well-seasoned piece of wood. Without stopping to think about it, he stepped forward, putting it into a whirling spin then let it snap out with deadly power right at the base of the giant’s skull. A resounding Crack!, echoed through the courtyard. The giant stopped in his tracks, a stunned look on his face. Then he stiffened and toppled forward like a tree. The ground shook with deep thunder as he hit. A cloud of snow billowed up and away in a miniature snowstorm.
Ralt gaped in amazement at the dead giant. Did I do that?
Storm, watching the giant out of the corner of his eye, was so surprised to see Ralt kill him with one blow he nearly missed a parry. Abruptly aware that he was the only one still fighting an enemy, he re-doubled his efforts. Although he knew Belker wasn’t in control of his actions and felt sorry for him, he couldn’t let such a deadly enemy get away. With a flurry of lightning fast strokes, he penetrated Belker’s defenses. His sword sliced through the links in the man’s armor then on into his heart.
Belker gasped as the death stroke released him from the bloodstone’s power. Blood gushed out his mouth as he mumbled a weak, but heartfelt, “Thank you,” before slipping into darkness.
He found himself floating over the courtyard a moment later, staring in amazement at his body laying on the ground below. Then an irresistible force pulled him away and he found himself rushing away toward a distant, golden light. Relief flooded over him. He wasn’t being held responsible for the crimes he’d been forced to commit after all! He laughed joyfully and raced forward.
Storm shook his head in sorrow at Belker’s final words. He’d been right. The man had been enslaved by the nefarious power that covered him like a spiderweb, forced against his will to fight and die for a cause he didn’t believe in. He closed the man’s eyes and arraigned his limbs to give him some measure of dignity in death, the dignity he’d been robbed of in life. He turned away with a sigh.
“Is everyone alright?” he shouted, looking carefully about the fort in case there were any more soldiers lurking in the shadows.
Lorelei smiled brightly as she walked over to him. “I think we’re all okay.”
“Speak fer yerself, lass,” Durin grumbled, sitting up spread-legged in the snow, rubbing his head. “I’ve got a lump on me noggin the size of an egg. Blast that giant anyway.” Storm knelt to heal Durin’s head.
“I think Ralt already took care of that, literally,” Lorelei giggled merrily, feeling the familiar euphoria of having survived another battle sweep over her.
Storm grinned as he got to his feet, feeling the same rush. Life was never as sweet as just after a life-and-death struggle. “I’ll say he did. Hail and well met, Ralt Giant’s Bane,” he laughed as Ralt came down from the parapet. “I never thought I’d see anyone kill a giant with a single blow!”
Ralt goggled at the name. That couldn’t really be him Storm was talking about, could it? “I never thought I’d kill a giant at all; with a thousand blows, let alone one,” he mumbled, still shocked over his unexpected victory.
“Ye must have hit ’em just right, lad,” Durin told him, getting up to retrieve his axe. “Giants have all the same weak spots we do, they’re just harder to reach.”
Storm roared with merriment as Ralt’s befuddled expression, Lorelei and Durin echoing him. “Alright,” he chuckled, “let’s scout around, see if any of them are still alive. Durin, check the barn and see if any of the horses are still in there. Giant Killer, you see about putting out the fire.” He waved at hand at the still burning wreckage of the main gate. “Lorelei and I will check the barracks and stores.”
Lorelei gave him a slow melting smile that sent a jolt down his spine. He felt a stirring in his groin. It wasn’t unusual for men to want the pleasure of a woman after this kind of battle. Did she feel the same desires welling up in her? His laughter disappeared, replaced by an urgent need for her. He suffered a sudden flash of her lying near death the night before, feeling once again the pain in his chest at the thought of losing her. I won’t lose you tonight, he thought determinedly. From the fires leaping up in her eyes, he suspected she was feeling the same way. With a grunt, he led her toward the open door of the barracks. She followed him silently, so close he could feel her hot breath on his neck.
The barracks was much as Belker had first seen it when he and his men arrived, with the exception that the cots were now laid out in neat rows across the room, blankets strewn haphazardly on the floor, thrown aside when they’d begun their attack. Fires were burning brightly in the four fireplaces, with simpering kettles of stew bubbling over them. Despite the open door, the room was warm and comforting. Storm closed the outer door then strode to the rear of the building where another open door gave onto a second room, the same size as the first, only filled with supplies and two fires warming it. A mountain of clean blankets occupied one corner, a single candle barely flickering beside them. Thinking that unused bedding would be better than cast off blankets of their enemies, he headed over to grab an armful.
Lorelei stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm as he started to bend over. “Don’t you think they would be more useful where they are?” she asked quietly. Her voice had a husky quality in it he’d never heard before. Then he noticed she’d closed and barred the door between the two rooms.
He turned to look directly at her. She met his gaze unflinchingly, the fire in her eyes matching the flames in his. Her lips were slightly parted, her tongue flicking out to wet them. He groaned deep in the back of his throat. He swept her into his arms, crushing her against his chest. Her eyes closed and she tilted her head back for his kiss. Her sweet breath intoxicated him, inflaming his senses. He shoved her up against the wall, “You’re mine,” he growled hungrily. “Mine forever!”
Lorelei shivered in his arms. Her eyes flew up to his with a gasp. “Forever! Yes!”
Storm inhaled sharply, pulling back from her as the implications of their passionate exclamations penetrated. She moaned in disappointment, trying to recapture his lips with hers. He stopped her, pushing her back to arm’s length. “Lorelei!”
She focused on him, confusion and frustration writ large on her face. “What?”
“I love you.”
Her eyes lit up. “I love you,” she purred. “I’ve loved you since that night you hung upside-down on the cliff to take care of me for so long.”
“I’ve probably loved you since then too but I didn’t realize it until I almost lost you yesterday,” he half-whispered, caressing her face gently. “I’m not going to lose you, Lorelei, I’m just not.” He let out a huge breath, gathered his courage and said, “On Earth, we have something similar to a custom the Biqah have – it’s called common law marriage.” Her breath caught in her throat and he hurried on before he lost his nerve. “I’m no saint, but I’ve never lain with any woman who wasn’t my wife, and I don’t want to start now.”
A sultry smile crossed her lips. “I’ve never lain with any man, but I want to start now.”
His answering smile raised her blood pressure sharply, sending zephyrs of anticipation through her body. “Good!” He sank down to one knee, holding her hand. “Lorelei, will you marry me?”
“Yes!” she gasped. “Yes, yes, yes!”
He sprang to his feet, wrapping his arms around her. The words to the short Biqah ritual came back to him, “Woman, be wed and be mine,” he intoned formally.
“Man, be wed and be mine,” she replied as her eyes began to fill.
“My wife now and forever,” he proclaimed proudly.
“My husband now and forever,” she echoed triumphantly.
She threw her arms around his neck as he bent her over backward until she fell on the pile of warm blankets, his weight on top of her, kissing passionately. This time he didn’t pull back.