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Chapter 62

Ralt opened the window. Daylight was beginning to break. He quickly closed it. “Okay, we’re all agreed, Thomas did the right thing. But Niran knows we’re coming to Robling and he’s still out there somewhere with thousands of men. Shouldn’t we get out of town before he decides to pay us a visit?”

Storm nodded at him. “You’re right.” He fixed Thomas with a stern look. “We’ve got six pegasi hidden in that park in the warehouse district. We’ll give you two of them so you can take Krista back to Zered. The rest of us will head for the Biqah Prairie.” He glanced warmly at Lorelei. “I’ve got a promise to keep.”

“I’m not going back!” Krista protested. “Meredith will stick me in a closet or something until she picks some rich old fat man for me to marry!”

Storm started to swell up in anger at her insubordination, but Lorelei laid a quick hand on his arm. He paused, biting off his words before they formed.

“She’s right, lad,” Durin rumbled, interjecting before Storm could think of anything to say. “Meredith ain’t called the Dragon Lady fer nuthin’ ye know. With Sodan gone, she’ll take over and run the place like it were hers.”

“I thought Sodan left everything to Krista,” Storm said, folding his arms to stare at them.

Thomas laughed shortly, “It doesn’t matter Cap’em. Meredith has been there and Krista ain’t. Besides, much as I hate ta say it, she’s always had a head fer business.”

Sensing that Storm was the power in the room, Krista laid a timid hand on his folded arms. “Papa was the only one who could ever keep her in check, and even he had problems with her,” she appealed to him. “She and I always fight like cats and dogs. If I go back, she really will try to run my whole life.” She glanced at Lorelei for support. “Couldn’t I go with you? Freedom on the road, whatever the hardships, is better than putting up with Meredith.”

Lorelei was nodding imperceptibly at him, but from somewhere he remembered an old saying, steel sharpens steel. He turned to Ralt. “What do you say, brother?” He felt, rather than saw, Lorelei’s pleasure at his request for Ralt’s advice.

Ralt leaned on his staff, his voice slow and thoughtful, “My heart would counsel safety for her.” He frowned. “But I would never condemn anyone to a life serving Meredith’s demands,” he continued. “Each of us,” he indicated Storm’s three companions, “has freely chosen to follow you despite the dangers. You and I are brothers in arms, same with Durin. Lorelei married herself to you and your fate. Why should Krista not have that same freedom to choose? A gilded prison is no less a prison because it is gilded.” He straightened up. “I already told you about her skills last night, so if you would have my advice, brother, I say let her come.”

Krista had a hopeful look as she turned back to Storm, but he wasn’t done yet.

Storm turned to Durin. “And you, brother? What do you say?”

The dwarf tried to appear indifferent but failed. “If a passion fer justice is bravery, she’s got more than all o’ us combined. And I’ve seen her use those knives of hers. Bring’er.”

Storm nodded. He didn’t have to ask what Lorelei thought; he saw it in her face. His deep sigh filled the room. So be it, he thought. He dropped one hand to the hilt of his sword. “We’re the Army of Light,” he proclaimed in ringing tones. “We stand against the darkness wherever it appears, asking no reward besides victory. It’s hard and dangerous, with no promise of ease or comfort. If you join, you obey me without question.” He set his jaw. “What say you?”

She was staring at him as if he’d suddenly been revealed as a king. Her voice quavered slightly as she curtsied, “Thank you for having me, my lord.”

He nodded shortly then shot a hard look at Thomas. “I think I know your answer, but since you left us before we formed the Army of Light it has to be asked; what say you?”

Thomas, soldier that he was, snapped to attention. “I’m with you, Captain. Until victory or death, whichever comes first.” Once again his fake accent was gone as if it never existed.

“Victory or death,” Storm mused thoughtfully. He nodded abruptly, “Those seem to be our only options, don’t they? Alright then, we’ve done what we promised Sodan; Krista is healed, mission accomplished and all that so, let’s get out of here.” He turned, “Ralt?”

The wizard looked up. “Yeah?”

“Do you think you can get the pegasi into the stables without being seen before it gets much later? I don’t like having our things scattered all over town.”

Ralt considered it. “I think I can arrange enough invisibility to cover them all,” he said. He nodded to himself. “I’ll be back before you know it.” He slipped out.

They laid out all the enchanted items Thomas had purchased. Krista exclaimed in delight over the silver belt; made of intertwined links like chain mail, it was too big for her narrow waist but immediately shrank to a perfect fit the moment she fastened it in place. The tiny links were joined to resemble numerous ropes intertwined with each other. Thomas said the merchant at the weapon store, which was hidden in the basement of his house, claimed it would protect her as if she was wearing a full shirt of heavy duty chain mail. If true, it was worth every gold piece he’d spent on it. She was equally delighted with the enchanted knives; they soon disappeared under her dress with no outward indication where they’d gone.

They sent a few more minutes packing everything so they could make a quick getaway once Ralt returned with the pegasi. “We need to get Krista something more than just a summer dress,” Lorelei noted. “It’s winter out there; she’ll freeze in that thing,” she indicated her light gown.

Storm nodded. “The caravans I used to work did business with most of the stores in Robling. There’s a couple of good ones not far from here. We can stop by there before heading out of town.” He filled a small pouch with coins and tossed it to Krista. “Buy what you need,” he told her.

She smiled and tucked it away.

Downstairs an early breakfast was being served in the common room. The sun still hadn’t cleared the horizon yet so they took time to eat before taking Krista shopping. Ralt rejoined them in time to grab a slice of meat between two hunks of bread.

“Our mounts are in the stable,” he told them between huge mouthfuls. “The stable hands didn’t even blink when I brought them in. I guess they’re used to them around here.”

Outside the air was crisp and clean, sunlight glaring off the trampled snow. Clouds on the horizon threatened more before the day was done. On the theory that splitting up was a bad idea, all of them went out together. With their breath frosting up and away from them, they hurried through the streets to the nearest clothing store, but Krista was already shivering by the time they got there. The four men waited in the foyer while Lorelei took Krista back to try on clothes.

Faster than they expected, the two women returned. Krista was now wearing a smaller, and somewhat more stylish, version of Lorelei’s practical horsewoman clothes. They were grinning impishly as they hurried outside.

“What?” Storm asked suspiciously.

“The saleswoman didn’t expect to see all those knives under her dress,” Lorelei explained lightly, “or where they were either!” She and Krista broke into fits of giggles.

Storm cast a jaundiced eye on the other men. “Do we want to know?”

Ralt shook his head firmly. “Not on your life.” Durin rumbled his agreement. Thomas gave a snort to show what he thought of that idea.

The women laughed again. “Come on!” Lorelei quipped. “Let’s get our stuff and get out of here. We’ve got places to go and things to do!”

The men merely shook their heads and followed them out.

Storm knew most of the major streets through town from his time with the caravans; he was hoping to return to the inn as quickly as possible so he avoided the narrower side streets they’d taken going to the dress shop since they were now starting to fill up with early morning traffic. The wider streets offered fewer impediments at this hour.

They were about to cross one of them to cut through a small park when a fanfare of trumpets caught their attention. Turning they saw royal heralds blowing their trumpets, crying out, “Make way for the king! Make way for the king!” Behind them rode several lines of soldiers, armed and armored, pennants blowing in the icy breeze. A huge carriage, dimly visible behind them, was pulled by six giant draft horses. What looked to be more lines of soldiers rode behind that.

Storm and his companions jumped out of the street to make way.

Lorelei eyed the ensemble with distaste. “Does he always bring a parade with him everywhere he goes?”

Storm was puzzled. “No,” he and Durin said together. Storm went on, “Usually he just rides around on a horse with a couple of guards. I’ve never seen this before.”

As the leading trumpeters approached, one of them flicked his gaze over them then did a double take. His eyes widened. Wheeling his horse around he thundered back to the carriage to whisper furiously to whoever was inside.

“Uh oh.” Ralt froze, taking a death grip on his staff.

The rest of them did the same, recognizing trouble brewing when they saw it. They weren’t surprised a few moments later to find the soldiers peeling off to surround them, the ones from the rear cantering swiftly up to join them, shod hooves clattering wildly on the cobblestone street. In a trice, there were mounted soldiers three-deep on all sides.

One of them, apparently an officer, judging from his uniform, leveled his sword at them. “Surrender in the name of the king,” he bellowed, “for high crimes and treason! Surrender or die!”

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