The leagues passed swiftly beneath them. Sooner than they would have believed possible they shot past the cliffs they’d spent so much time climbing and found the road just beyond. From there it was only a few minutes following the road until they saw Breckinridge laying in darkness except for a few, dim lights around the center of town.
They’d become comfortable flying but the prospect of landing aroused their anxieties enough for Lorelei to rediscover her fear of heights. “Just let the pegasus do the work,” Ralt advised. “They’ve been doing this all their lives.” They nodded but it was still a terrifying sight to watch the ground rushing up at them way too fast, then suddenly, they were down, hooves clattering noisily on cobblestones as they slowed to a trot then a walk.
“Whew!” Storm huffed. “That’s going to take some getting used to.” He looked over at Lorelei. “How’re you doing?”
She smiled tremulously. “I’ll live, but you may have to go a little slow when we get to our room.”
He reached over to squeeze her hand. “We’ve got the rest of our lives.”
It was the right thing to say. She sat up in the saddle, clasping his hand and tossed her hair back. A smile eased the tension in her face. “Are you sure you’re really a barbarian?” she teased.
“Adopted,” he reminded her with a smile.
Windows began popping open at the late night noises their winged horses were making in the narrow, cobbled streets. Grumbles arose from several of them. One man stuck his head out from a second story window, started to say something then withdrew with a startled look on his face. They rode into the town square, unchanged since the last time they’d been here, except for piles of dirty snow here and there. Two guards, bundled up against the cold, stood in their usual places under a number of brightly lit lanterns. A brazier beside them held a small fire for warmth. Ralt dropped back to let Storm take the lead once more.
He pulled up in front of the guards. “Hail and well met,” he grunted as he dismounted. Both of them looked familiar but he couldn’t remember their names. “Is the inn still open this late to rent us some rooms?”
The guards exchanged a look. “I thought you were on your way to Robling to beat up the King,” one of them ventured.
Storm let a tired grin surface. “Yeah well, we got a little side-tracked.”
“And came back with six pegasi?” the other muttered in amazement. “That musta been some side track.”
Storm turned to look. Sure enough, the two riderless pegasi were still with them. He thought for sure they’d have taken off on their own by now. “Long story,” he rejoined. “Is the inn still open? We’re dead tired.”
They shook their heads. “It’s after midnight. Pritcher probably won’t open the doors for anyone.” The first one took a step forward. “But he might if I did the talking. He’s my uncle,” he volunteered.
“Great!” Storm stuck his hand out. “And you’re . . . ?”
“Hul,” the man answered, shaking his hand. “Come on, I’ll show you the way.” He turned to his companion, “Don’t drink it all while I’m gone.” A wine bottle propped in the snow seemed to be the center of his comment.
“Yeah, yeah,” the man replied.
Hul led them to the same tavern they’d gone to the first time they’d stopped in Breckinridge. They had also rented rooms there during their second visit. The fountain where Sodan had enjoyed his last civilized meal was shut off. All that was left was a frozen puddle of water in the bottom covered with leaves. Snow, partially melted and refrozen, crunched under their feet. Their guide banged on the door. “Hey! Uncle Pritcher! You got some customers out here!”
Hul’s prediction that family relationships could answer doors in the middle of the night proved true. A light went on in an upstairs window, followed a few moments later by footsteps, the sound of a wooden bar being removed, then the door creaked open a wedge. The middle-aged innkeeper peered out, his hair disheveled. “What the devil is going on out here?”
“Hey, Unc,” Hul said cheerfully, “remember that barbarian and his friends who stayed here a week or so ago? They’re back,” he declared with a jovial wave at them. “They need some rooms.”
Pritcher opened the door a bit wider and saw Storm. “Did you beat up the King already?”
Storm’s companions snickered behind him. He rolled his eyes. “No, we didn’t make it there yet. We’ve been fighting . . . uh . . . more bandits,” he temporized, not wanting to reveal where they’d really been and who their enemy actually was.
Hul’s attitude underwent a sudden change. “Bandits? Where?” he snapped.
Storm gave him a tired look but before he could speak, Lorelei vaulted off her pegasus. “Enough! I’m tired, hungry, and dirty,” she said icily. “I want food, a bath, and a bed and I want them now!” She imperiously shoved her way past the startled innkeeper, leaving the reins in his hand as if he were no more than a servant.
Durin roared laughter as he rolled off his own mount. “Aye, lad! My lady has the right of it. We’ll answer yer questions in the mornin’.” He slapped the reins into Pritcher’s hand. “Unsaddle ’em and feed ’em and give ’em a good rubdown, mind ye. They’ve been flyin’ a long time.” He vanished into the inn.
Storm shrugged and followed suit, Ralt hard on his heels. “That’s one way to avoid questions,” he whispered to him as they went in. Ralt nodded wearily. Now that rest was near at hand, exhaustion was finally catching up. Taking a hint from Lorelei’s behavior, Storm reverted to his angry barbarian persona, banging on the bar and snarling threats. Utterly cowed by their warlike appearance – not to mention the blood stains on their clothes – the poor innkeeper scurried to wake up the cook and stable hand. In fairly short order, given the lateness of the hour, they were gulping down steaming bowls of thick, meaty stew washed down with foaming mugs of beer.
Storm collared Pritcher, by the simple expedient of grabbing him by the collar, and demanded three rooms, one each for Durin and Ralt, and one for him and Lorelei. “My wife and I want the best you’ve got,” he snarled roughly, tossing a handful of gold coins at him.
“Wife? When did . . .” Pritcher trailed off at the thunderous look on Storm’s face. “Of course, of course!” He squeaked, his eyes going wide with delight at the small fortune Storm was pouring into his hand. “Right away, my lord, right away!” He ran off, clutching the coins tightly in his fist.
“And don’t forget the baths!” Lorelei called after him impishly.
Ralt caught Storm’s sleeve. “Hey. Before we forget, what exactly are we going to tell them in the morning? We went to Mount Coldfire without Roderick’s permission. Technically we broke the law.”
Lorelei shook her head. “I don’t think there’s any technically about it. We broke it all to pieces.”
“Stick with Storm’s first story,” Durin rumbled. “Tis true anyway.”
Storm nodded. “We can tell them about climbing the cliffs, then we ran into more of the bandits like the first ones. We’ve been fighting them ever since and we managed to capture the pegasi from them and come back.”
Durin grinned wolfishly. “See? Tis true anyway.”
They all shared a quiet laugh.
“Alright,” Ralt agreed. “And if they want to know more we can say that’s for Roderick’s ears alone, which . . . is still true anyway,” he finished with a nod at Durin.
“Yer catchin on lad. We’ll make a sell-sword outta ya, yet,” the dwarf chortled.
Storm slapped his legs and stood up. “In that case, it’s time for bed.” He scooped Lorelei up in his arms. She squealed in surprise then wrapped her arms around his neck. As he strode out of the room she wiggled her fingers over his shoulder at Ralt and Durin.