Lorelei woke to the smell of bacon. Her eyes shot open. Storm was standing beside the bed in a gray robe, holding an enormous tray loaded with more food than the two of them could eat in a week. He grinned hugely at her. “Breakfast in bed is served, my lady!”
“Hmm. I could get used to this,” she exclaimed. She sat up as he set the tray over her legs with a grand flourish. It was laden with steaming piles of eggs, a mountain of sizzling bacon, a pitcher of hot tea, rolls, a giant lump of fresh butter, sausage, a huge bowl of hot porridge, and a selection of fruit grown in Ingold’s famous greenhouses. “Wow! Are we having company for breakfast? There’s enough here for a whole army!”
Storm plopped down beside her. He snagged a roll and began slathering butter on it. He took a huge bite. “Nope,” he mumbled around it. “To the victors go the spoils. Or something like that.” He finished the roll with another gigantic bite.
She slapped his hand playfully when he reached for another. “Let me get some!” She began filling her plate. For the next few minutes, they were too busy eating to do much more than smile at one another. As the empty pit in her stomach began to fill she noticed the angle of the thin sunlight struggling in through the window. She drained her cup then started pouring more tea. “What time is it?” She inclined her head at the window.
“A little after midday,” he mumbled around a mouthful of bacon.
He swallowed. “Well, what did you expect? It was getting close to sunrise by the time we finally got to sleep.”
The hot bath had been delightful, and they’d done more than just bathe. Then their passion had flared repeatedly as they sought the bed covers. “We were up all night?” she wondered in surprise. Then she sighed in satisfaction, “Oh well, it was worth it.”
He kissed her lightly. “Glad you think so. But . . .” He sat up. “It means we’ll have to stay here another night. Baron Frayen insists on hearing more about the bandits before letting us leave for Robling. Ralt and Durin have been putting him off, saying he has to ask me.”
Lorelei waxed philosophical. “You can’t blame him. It’s happening right on his doorstep,” she pointed out.
“I’m not blaming him,” Storm objected, “but we did break the law. I was hoping to get away without having to bring it up. Frayen is a reasonable man, but he’s also responsible for enforcing the King’s rule. If he tries to arrest us . . .” He trailed off.
Lorelei worried her lip pensively. Storm wasn’t actually a barbarian by birth, but like most men, his normal inclinations leaned in that direction. He was also stubborn and headstrong with a deep sense of right-and-wrong. If Frayen tried to arrest them and Storm decided not to allow it, a lot of blood would be shed. “Then we have everything packed and ready to go in case we have to make a quick escape,” she urged him.
Storm nodded. “I met Ralt downstairs when I got breakfast. He and Durin already came to the same conclusion. They’re getting things ready as quietly as possible.” It was nice when your brothers-in-arms could anticipate your needs and be prepared for them.
Lorelei moved the tray, now seriously depleted, aside. “Well, at least we had one night in comfort,” she said, winding her arms around him. She stopped and sniffed delicately. The scent of their lovemaking was all over them. “Uh, is there any way we can get a bath first?”
“Way ahead of you,” he said, removing her arms and getting up. He pulled a folding partition aside to reveal an enormous tub of water on wheels, steam gently rising into the air.
She laughed with delight. “You wonderful man you,” she clapped. He dropped his robe to the floor, picked her up and stepped into the tub. He settled into the water with her in his lap. She ran her fingers through his hair. “You know, the two of us being in here together probably isn’t the best idea. We might get . . . distracted,” she breathed in his ear.
He grinned. “I’ll chance it.”
It was mid-afternoon by the time they finally came down from their room. Durin and Ralt were sitting at a table by the window. Outwardly they looked comfortable, but their hands rested tightly on their weapons. Two mugs of beer sat on the table before them, untouched. The reason was immediately obvious. A whole platoon of armed soldiers stood around the room, covering all the exits. The tension in the room rose instantly as Storm and Lorelei came down the stairs.
Kreckin stepped forward, his face tense, all the former friendliness long gone. “The Baron wants to see you. We’ve been instructed to bring you to him right away.” Two soldiers closed in behind them.
Their clothes and armor had been cleaned and washed during the night. Storm’s two swords sat in their sheaths at his hips along with his usual assortment of knives and bracers. Lorelei was also outfitted for war. His eyes narrowed dangerously as he took in the situation, assessing it not as a room but as a battlefield. He stared hard at Kreckin. “Is that so?”
Kreckin swallowed hard. He knew he stood on the knife edge of a life-and-death fight. His soldiers around the room shifted nervously, sensing the same thing. “Storm, be reasonable,” he said in a softer tone of voice. “Those pegasi out back belong to the Ingoldian Army. They’ve been missing for nearly two years. We’ve been attacked since you left and another farm has been destroyed. You told Baron Frayen it’s more than just bandits out there, and now he’s seen it for himself. We got a whole town here to protect. We gotta know what’s going on.”
“We didn’t steal them,” Storm grated, his hand settling slowly on the pommel of his sword.
“Ain’t no one saying you did,” Kreckin agreed readily. “Hey, Frayen will probably let ya keep them. But Storm, come on, something ain’t right out there,” he pleaded, wanting desperately to avoid a fight.
Storm felt Lorelei’s hand on his arm but he ignored it. Cooperation was one thing, but being forced grated on every nerve he had. “Send them away,” he nodded at the soldiers, “and we’ll go willingly. But if they stay . . . none of you will leave this room alive.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Ralt and Durin shifting in their seats, ready to spring into action. Behind him, he could feel Lorelei tensing as well.
Kreckin sucked in his breath.
For a long moment, there was dead silence.
Kreckin licked his lips. “Do you give me your word?”
Storm shook his head. “I give nothing at the point of a sword. Send them away.”
The tension in the room was palpable as Kreckin considered his options. Storm’s resolute expression combined with the obvious willingness of his companions to back him up spelled death for many, if not all of them. Storm’s prowess with a sword was well known; he could only guess the other three were equally versed in the art of war.
Abruptly he came to a decision. “Report back to your posts,” he snapped.
The soldiers’ relief was clearly visible. Some of them sagged as men given a reprieve from the hangman’s noose. They left quickly.
Storm gave them a minute to leave then let his hand fall away from his blade. He looked at Kreckin without apology. “No offense, but I don’t take orders. Understand?” His tone was uncompromising.
Kreckin nodded, “Sure thing.”
Storm relaxed. “Alright then, let’s go see the Baron.” He could see in Kreckin’s eyes he hadn’t been sure until right then whether he’d actually go with him or not. “Lead on,” he said with a wave of his hand. Ralt and Durin rose to join them as they followed him out the door.
The wizard said quietly, “Just so I know for future reference, how much of that was real and how much was just for show?”
Storm cast him a sidelong glance. “All of it was real.”
Ralt nodded reluctantly. “I was afraid of that.”
“You want out?”
“Nope. I said I’d follow you and I meant it,” Ralt answered decisively. “I just like to know what the price is. And now I do . . . brother.”
They all grinned at him. Durin clapped him on the back. “I’d say the transformation is done. Yer a glory hunting sell-sword fer sure, now!”
Ralt arched his back where Durin’s hand left a sting. “Gee, thanks,” he replied sarcastically.
The walk to the keep was a short one. A handful of soldiers stood outside. One of them raised a hand to stop them as they started to follow Kreckin inside. “Gotta check your weapons at the door.”
Four sets of gimlet eyes froze him in his tracks. Kreckin waved him back. “Stand down, they’re with me.”
“Uh, sure. Yes sir,” the unfortunate soldier stuttered.
They passed him without a second look. Inside, the building was comfortable but utilitarian. It reminded Storm of every military building he’d ever seen; battered old furniture, plaques on the wall commemorating past heroes and battles, faded tapestries and rugs worn threadbare. Even the long curtains on the windows had seen better days. Currently, they were tied back to admit the weak winter sunlight. Kreckin led them upstairs to an immense office whose bleak decorations reflected the rest of the building. A fire crackled at each end of the long room. The Baron’s desk, battered and scarred, sat before one of them, his back to it for warmth. He glanced up as they entered, taking in their weapons. One of the soldiers from the inn was standing at attention in front of him.
He flicked his eyes at the soldier, “Dismissed, private.”
“Sir, yes sir!” the man barked. He bolted from the room.
“Well, since you were so kind as to see me, I suppose formal introductions are in order,” he said sarcastically. He stood up. “Baron Frayen Smithson, late of the King’s personal body guard, Knight of the Realm of Ingold; Mayor, Baron and protector of Breckinridge and all its inhabitants,” he intoned formally.
Storm felt a tinge of admiration for the man. Four dangerously armed people had just come into his office, people who, for all he knew, might be there to kill him as part of a plot to take over the kingdom and yet he was refusing to bend or give in to fear, instead covering it, and perhaps stalling, by invoking strict formalities. If Frayen wanted to play that game, he’d go along with it – for now. He bowed slightly, “Storm, born of Elder Earth, adopted son of the Bear Clan, Ghibbore, and husband to Lorelei Abeytu of the Biqah.”
Frayen’s eyes went wide. “Ghibbore? Elder Earth?” Kreckin was equally startled, edging away from him to get a better look.
Storm nodded sympathetically. “It’s only recently I discovered I’m Ghibbore, and my marriage to Lorelei is even more recent still. The rest I have always known, but never spoken of openly to any but my companions until this day.”
Frayen recovered well, Storm had to give him that. “Bold claims, but what proof do you have?”
“Ghibbore or Elder Earth?” he asked.
“Either one,” Frayen answered.
Storm thought for a moment then quickly recited the Pledge of Allegiance in English, a language completely unknown on Gaia. “That was one of the more common tongues on Earth,” he told him.
Frayen struggled to keep his composure. The language Storm had just used was obviously alien to this world. He sat back on the edge of his desk to ease his trembling knees. “Ah,” he stopped to clear his throat. “Alright. I guess that’s pretty clear.” He shook his head. “I’ve heard about people from there coming here now and then, but I’ve never met any. There are so many questions . . .”
Storm held up a quick hand to stop him. “I understand and sympathize but today is not the time for them.” He saw the man’s disappointed expression. “I’ll make it up to you but Gaia is my home now, and Ingold is in trouble.”
He took it well, Storm had to give him that. He stood up again. “Very well, finish your introductions and we’ll get down to business.” It was obvious by now he no longer felt he was in any danger from them.
Storm admired Frayen’s strength of character. He’d learned more about the man in a few short minutes than in all the years before. He tugged Lorelei to the front. “My bride and new wife, the lady Lorelei Abeytu of the Biqah, so named because she is a Child of Heaven, daughter of the great Chieftain Crowsotarri.”
Frayen looked puzzled, “Child of Heaven?”
“A prophecy was spoken at my birth,” she said softly, “that I would need great power for one day I would meet one who would lead me into many battles against great evil.” She intertwined her fingers with Storm’s. “My husband is that one.”
“I . . . see.” His tone indicated he didn’t. “You’re . . . an interesting pair.”
Storm didn’t give him a chance to ponder it. He motioned at Ralt.
The wizard stepped forward, grounding his staff with a resounding thud. “I am Ralt Gaither of Crendal, nephew to the late Sodan of Zered, part-elven wizard, demon fighter, and Giant’s Bane.”
Frayen chuckled. “I guess you would have to fight like a demon to kill a giant, if you actually did,” he finished.
“He did kill a giant,” Storm interjected, defending his friend. “With one blow. I saw it with my own eyes.” Frayen rocked back in surprise. “And he doesn’t just fight like a demon, although he does that too, he fought an actual demon from Hell itself.” He heard a strangling noise to the side and saw Kreckin staring at them with bulging eyes.
Frayen wasn’t doing much better.
“He didn’t do it alone,” Lorelei hurried to add. “We all fought the demon, but we’d have been dead without Ralt’s magic.”
Frayen sat down on the edge of the desk again. He waved a hand aimlessly in the air. “And you, master dwarf, are you some great hero too?” he asked Durin.
The dwarf stepped forward with a chuckle. “Durin of the Shokirin, son of Drangor the Mighty, Third King of Thangadrim, wielder of Fenris Fang, greatest weapon of the First Age,” he proclaimed in a ringing voice. Smoke boiled out of the axe, coalescing into the huge wolf.
Frayen stared in shock.
Durin elbowed Fenris Fang, “Say something, ya mangy mutt!”
The wolf dropped its head obediently. “Hail and well met, Baron Frayen.” He turned to Storm, “And it is good to see you again as well, Lord Storm.”
A thud caught everyone’s attention. They turned to see Kreckin unconscious on the floor.
Frayen assayed a faint laugh, “Wish I could join him.” In spite of his obvious amazement, he still managed to retain his senses. “Lord Storm?” he questioned the wolf.
Fenris Fang managed to look satisfied with himself without ever changing expression. “His power is as easy for me to see as the sun is for you.”
“And can you tell if he’s from Elder Earth?” the Baron pressed, taking advantage of the opportunity.
“I can smell it all over him,” the wolf replied smugly.
“Alright, enough wit da questions,” Durin snapped. “Git back in yer place, mutt!”
“At once, Sire,” Fenris Fang replied smoothly. He turned to smoke and vanished back into the great axe on Durin’s hip.
Frayen walked slowly around his desk to seat himself carefully like an old man. Storm took the opportunity to kneel by Kreckin. Touching one finger to his cheek he used just enough healing power to wake him up.
He sat up with a start. “Where’s the wolf?”
“Long gone,” Storm said, helping him up. “You alright?”
“Yeah, I feel great,” Kreckin answered. “What you’d do anyway? That felt weird. Good, but weird.”
Storm waved it off. “Long story.”
Kreckin started to say more but Frayen cut him off. “Why don’t you have the cook send up some drinks for us. Dismissed, Sergeant.” Kreckin clamped his mouth shut with an effort. He nodded and hurried out.