Heroes should be admired from a distance.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Frayen gestured as the chairs in front of his desk. “Please, have seat.” They sat quietly. “You are the strangest quartet I’ve ever seen,” he sighed finally. “Any one of you alone would be remarkable, but four of you together?” He shook his head. “You’re not the same people I met last time. You look the same, but you don’t.”
Storm glanced at his companions, reflecting how they’d had their own discussions along those very lines. It had certainly crossed his own thoughts more than once.
When Frayen saw none them were going to be more forthcoming, he sighed again. “Very well, then, keep your secrets.” He paused while uniformed orderlies brought in cups of mulled wine. When they were gone he continued, “Since you won’t talk any more about yourselves, perhaps you’ll talk about Ingold. You said it was in trouble.” He looked at Storm.
Storm turned to Durin. “Have you got those maps you took from Niran’s table?”
“Papers and maps,” the dwarf corrected him. He pulled them out and laid them in front of Frayen.
The Baron examined them briefly. “The same as the last batch you brought me,” he said flatly. “A bit more detailed perhaps.” He stared hard at them. “Who is Niran?”
“Niran is the man building an army based at Mount Coldfire,” Storm told him. “For the last three years he’s been using some kind of ancient magic to enslave thousands of people, here and in T’thalia; six thousand so far – that we know of.”
“Coldfire, eh?” The Baron smiled faintly. “Would that be where Master Ralt earned his title of Giant’s Bane?”
Storm nodded ruefully. “We had to go there, and Roderick would never have given me permission no matter what I said or did.” He paused to gauge Frayen’s reaction to their lawbreaking.
He eased his concern at once. “The King is old and set in his ways, even a bit senile maybe. What’s done is done. Go on. You were talking about thousands of people.”
“Not just people,” Durin said roughly. “Giants, goblins, and wizards too. And some of them are willing recruits, lured by the promise of power and wealth.” He drained his goblet.
“Don’t forget the demon,” Ralt interjected. “He can use his ancient magic to summon demons too.”
Frayen was clearly on familiar ground now. “Thousands. Giants. Demons. Wizards. You’re talking about an invading army, just like that first set of documents you brought me.” They all nodded. He smiled confidently. “Carrzulm has tried this kind of thing before, with even worse monsters, and we’ve stopped them every time.”
“He’s not working for Carrzulm,” Lorelei corrected him. “He’s in it for himself, and we think he’s trying to take over T’thalia too.”
“Warlord type, hunh?” Frayen seemed amused. “He’s spread himself too thin in that case.”
“That ancient magic he’s using is an artifact,” Ralt told him. “It’s dangerous.”
“So is a man with a sword,” Frayen countered. “But I wouldn’t have a panic attack over it.”
Storm felt his temper starting to rise. Frayen said Roderick was set in his ways, but he seemed to be suffering the same illness. “Niran is a man with a sword,” he said flatly. “He’s the Imperial Sword Master of the T’thalian Empire, with unlimited access to the entire royal court. He could take over the whole palace and no one would ever know the difference. He might already be in charge of the empire by now. His magic lets him travel instantly from one place to another so he can run two operations hundreds of leagues apart without any trouble at all until he decides to bring them together.”
“That’s all well and good,” Frayen smiled indulgently, “but T’thalian warships aren’t likely to attack Ingold any time soon. And moving an army through these mountains isn’t easy either, as Carrzulm has so often discovered to their sorrow.” He held up his hands as they started to protest. “You’re all powerful fighters; heroes maybe, I can see that. There are only four of you though, so six thousand probably looks like a lot. But rest assured, it isn’t. It’s only six battalions, and Ingold has dozens, including three mounted battalions of heavy cavalry. Believe me, this Niran fellow doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of conquering us.”
“That’s it then?” Ralt asked in disbelief. “You’re just going to ignore what we told you?”
“Of course not,” Frayen said jovially. “I’ll send it all on to Robling just like the other information you brought me. This Niran is a danger to outlying cities and villages like us so the King will want to do something about it. Now we know where he is, it should be easy to stop him.”
Storm’s face felt frozen. He put his half-finished wine on the edge of the desk. “In that case, we have business of our own to finish for Sodan. We’ll be leaving at first light tomorrow morning.” He stood up. His friends stood with him. “On our pegasi.” His voice brooked no argument.
If Frayen was surprised by the abrupt change in tone he gave no sign of it. “Spoils of war,” he agreed readily. “No one begrudges you that. If you feel inclined to sell them, I’ll give you a fair price.”
“Thank you but no. We’ll keep them for now,” Lorelei put in, sensing Storm’s growing anger. “Thank you for your time, Lord Baron.” She sketched a brief curtsy then left, pulling Storm with her. Durin clumped alongside her, with Ralt bringing up the rear. She hurried them along, eager to get out and away from the keep before Storm vented his fury. They were nearly back to the inn before he let it loose.
“That idiot!” he snarled. “That fat, sausage-chewing wino! He thinks Roderick is set in his ways? He oughta look in the mirror when he says that! Can you believe that garbage he was shoveling in there?”
Ralt rolled his eyes at Durin and Lorelei. He invoked a minor spell and slammed the butt of his staff on the ground with a sound like thunder cracking overhead. The ground shook beneath them. Frightened birds took to the sky, sheep bleated and dogs throughout town started barking. It startled Storm into momentary silence. Ralt stepped right up, toe-to-toe with him. “Hey! What’d I tell you about this barbarian rage stuff? Hunh? Knock it off! So the guy’s an idiot. So what? Let it go!”
Storm stared at him for a moment, anger warring with the common sense of Ralt’s words. A grin began twisting his lips. He tried to fight it but the more he did, the more he lost control. His face worked like rubber until he gave up and burst out laughing. “Alright,” he managed between guffaws, “you got me again.”
“But look who’s drawing attention now,” Lorelei huffed in exasperation at Ralt. Windows and doors were popping open everywhere in response to the thunderous noise from his staff. She grabbed their arms, pulling them toward the inn. “Come on,” she urged them. “Let’s get inside before you two bring the whole town down on us.”
“Mebbe a wee bit late fer that,” Durin ventured, but he hurried after her nonetheless.
Dinner that night was a strange affair. The innkeeper, Pritcher, gleefully said he’d never seen so many customers at one time in all his life. The great room was filled to overflowing, with townspeople crammed cheek by jowl next to each other at the long tables that stretched the length of the room. Smaller tables around the sides of the room were equally jam-packed. It quickly became obvious Storm and his friends were the cause of it all. They had a corner table near the roaring fire at the end of the room opposite the bar. Despite the crowds, the tables on either side of them were barren and empty. Everyone kept glancing at them then leaning over to whisper to each other, with yet more sidelong looks directed their way. An impromptu band of locals held forth in the opposite corner, leading the town folk in the occasional ragged song but mainly just playing loud and off-key. It raised the noise level to a dull roar.
“Has this ever happened to any of you?” Ralt nearly had to shout to make himself heard.
They all shook their heads.
“I seen it ’appen ta others in me youth,” Durin semi-shouted, raising his own voice. “A famous hero here and there, a supposed dragon slayer or some such.”
“It’s kind of silly,” Lorelei yelled back. “What do they think we’re going to do? We’re just eating dinner.” She stabbed a fresh piece of meat off the platter in the center of the table.
Storm lowered his mug with an enormous belch. Ralt made a show of waving his hand in front of his face. “Whew!” Storm laughed and took another swig.
“Enjoy it while you can,” he roared above the noise. “I doubt we’ll get such a reception in Robling.”
“Why not?” Ralt wanted to know.
“Because Roderick really is set in his ways. I don’t think he’s going to be as forgiving about us going to Mount Coldfire as Frayen is,” he returned sourly.
Lorelei frowned at him. “But you were planning on telling Roderick what we did when we got there,” she objected.
“Yeah, but that was me telling him in person like we did with Frayen,” Storm answered. “But I’ll bet anything you like Frayen already sent Roderick another message. Reading about something in a report from a third party is totally different from hearing it firsthand from someone who was actually there so I’ve changed my mind,” he bent over, beckoning them in. They leaned close to listen, “we’re not going to bother with Roderick at all. We’ll just fetch Lamriack to heal Krista then bail outta there. Of course, we may have to fight to keep from getting arrested the moment we hit town no matter what we do.” Past his friends he could see the whole tavern watching them so intently the noise dropped to almost nothing. He sat up abruptly.
Durin turned to scowl at the people watching them. They flinched, then hurriedly turned away and the noise resumed.
Ralt shook his head at it. “Sheesh!” He tore off a hunk of bread from the loaf on the table. “You really think Roderick will have us arrested?” He dipped it in the drippings on his plate and took a huge bite.
“Hard to say,” Storm temporized. “I’ve been hearing rumors he’s losing his marbles lately. What have you or Sodan heard, Durin?”
The dwarf shook his head. “Pretty much the same; one rumor says Roderick is fine but stubborn, others say he’s gittin senile and can’t remember things. Who knows?”
Ralt swallowed his bread. “That’s not the worst part. His oldest boys, Alaric and Jeffery, are fraternal twins so they both have equal rights to the throne, but he refuses to name either one of them as heir. He’s been playing them against each other for years. Naturally, its created all kinds of intrigue at court. Plus, Jeffery is said to follow the Lord of Light while Alaric clings to the old gods, so in addition to their sibling rivalry and political differences they’ve got religious disputes as well. There’s been a great deal of speculation Roderick’s death will trigger a civil war since neither of them will back down or support the others’ claim to the throne.” He wiped another piece of bread across his plate to pick up the last of the juice from the meat. “It’s a mess,” he mumbled around it, licking his fingers.
Lorelei sighed. “I hate to say it, but it sounds a lot like what happened to my father. People are fighting for power and position wherever you turn in the world.” She waved her empty mug for another beer.
The waitress, a middle-aged woman with a kind face, came rushing over to get her mug. “Anyone else need a refill, dearies?”
They all did so she grabbed their mugs and hurried off.
“What happened to your father?” Ralt asked her.
She burped lightly. “Oops.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you about it when we’re done with Krista.” She paused. “If you’re still with us?” The question was evident in her voice.
The waitress plunked their full mugs down. “Here you go, dearies. Anything else I can get you?” She pushed a stray lock of graying hair out of her face.
Lorelei smiled at her. “No thanks. Here.” She plucked a coin out of Storm’s pouch and gave it to her.
She palmed it quickly before the golden gleam could be seen by anyone. A single gold coin, or crown, could buy ten days room and board at most inns – it was a princely tip. “Why thank you, sweetie! If you need anything else, just wave. I’ll be here in a jiffy.” She darted off.
“So,” she asked, turning back to Ralt, “will you be?”
“Yep,” he answered without hesitation. “I’m in it to the end.”
She looked at Durin. He nodded sharply. “Aye, lass. We’re a team, a family even, the beginnings of our own army against the forces of darkness.”
Storm’s ears perked up at his comment. “An army? That’s a little pretentious, don’t you think?”
Durin laughed. “I’m the son of a king, lad. I’m nuthin if not pretentious.”
“Yeah, still, I like it. Besides,” he grinned, “I’m a bit pretentious myself.”
Ralt eyed him sarcastically over the rim of his mug, “No kidding.”
“Look who’s talking,” Storm retorted with a grin.
“Hey,” Lorelei interjected, slurring her words a bit, “if we’re fighting the forces of darkness, that’d make us an Army of Light. Is that pretentious enough for you?”
They laughed loudly, causing a stir in the room around them.
Storm banged his mug on the table. “I like it!” he declared. “From now on that’s who we are, the Army of Light!”
They exchanged looks then shrugged and nodded at each other.
Throwing caution to the winds he whipped out his sword and pointed it at the ceiling. His companions surged to their feet with him. A staff, a bow, and an axe joined his sword over their heads.
“THE ARMY OF LIGHT!!”