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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 1

Learning from defeat requires only survival. Learning from
victory requires something more difficult – humility.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr

Book Cover Two TrailsFrom the saddle of a flying pegasus, 2000 feet in the air, Gaia looked very different than it did from the ground.

Storm had been born and raised on Earth, often called “Elder Earth”, where he lived a full life until he’d found a hidden portal to another world – Gaia. Born in January of 1900, he’d fought in both World Wars, married young and raised seven children. After his wife’s death from cancer, he’d run around the world like an “old hippie” until he was eighty-eight and starting to slow down from age.

Deciding to die with his boots on rather than wasting away in a nursing home, he’d taken a small sailboat out into the Bermuda Triangle during the height of hurricane season, but instead of finding death he’d fallen through an ancient portal to the world of Gaia. Upon his arrival, he’d discovered he was back in the body he’d had when he was just a year old. All his memories were intact, he knew who he was and everything he’d learned, but he was an infant again.

Found, adopted, and raised by the barbarian Bear Clan of the Rampart Mountains, they’d named him for the thunderstorm that was raging when they found him lying naked on an outcropping of rock. Full-grown once again, he was now part and parcel of this new world.

For the most part, he liked it.

For the most part.

The setting sun was just above the horizon at their backs as the city of Zered came into sight. His newly acquired wife, a tall beautiful Biqah horsewoman and archer named Lorelei, let out a whoop of joy at the sight. “Woo Hoo!” she shouted, waving her bow in the air, her soft gray eyes dancing and sparkling with joy.

Storm grinned at her, his blue eyes meeting her gray ones. There was no disguising her unfettered happiness; she wore her heart on her sleeve. His wife was one of the reasons he liked Gaia. “Glad to see it or glad we’re almost ready to go avenge your father?” he shouted across the open sky between them from the back of one pegasus to the other.

The flying horses were another thing he liked about Gaia.

She shook her flowing black hair out of her face. “Yes!”

Her father, Crowsotarri, chieftain of the Abeytu, one of the most influential of the tribes on the great Biqah Prairie, had been murdered under mysterious circumstances as he was returning from a peace meeting. He’d known he was taking a chance attending the meeting and warned Lorelei, if anything to happen to him, she was to seek out Storm of the Bear Clan, who owed him a favor and ask him to avenge his death. Whether or not Crowsotarri had intended for her to fall in love with Storm in the process was anyone’s guess.

Durin, the son of a dwarven king from the First Age, preserved as a statue through thousands of years due to misfired magic, and now re-awoken here in the Third Age, shook his head in a mock scolding. “Yes, what?” His broad shoulders would have been a perfect fit for someone of Storm’s six-foot, two height rather than his own, barely five-foot stature.

“Yes, yes,” she answered gaily. Seeing him about to explode she continued. “But I thought dwarves loved riddles,” she teased over the rush of the wind.

The dwarf bared his teeth at her in mock anger. “Are ye daft, woman? ‘Tis the elvish folk that like such things, not us!” he roared, indicating Ralt with a nod of his head.

Ralt Gaither, a wizard, and brother-in-arms to Storm, easily joined their banter. “Part-elvish, you blockhead,” he called back to Durin. “My mother was only half-elven!” Storm often thought his friend was so handsome he could have easily been a movie star on Earth, and it was the elvish heritage Durin was needling him about that was mainly responsible for his good looks.

“Elvish is elvish,” Durin retorted quickly.

“Look!” Krista exclaimed. “The gates are still open!” Krista, slender and brown-haired, granddaughter of Sodan Fairhand and his choice as heir to his house, fortune, and business empire, pointed below at the city gates where Storm, Durin, and Ralt had set out on the road many weeks before in a quest to find healing for a fatal disease she’d contracted. Their mission succeeded when Storm, gifted with healing powers as part of his new-found status as a Ghibbore, a natural-born wizard and divinely ordained hero, healed her completely with a single touch.

Their success came at a price though. Storm, Durin, and Ralt were the only survivors of the small band that originally set out on their quest. Most of them, including Krista’s grandfather, had been killed by a demon. The only other survivor of the original band was Thomas Keener, the tall lanky Sergeant of the Guard for Sodan, a good-humored archer and itinerant gambler. He’d protected Krista’s body, which was in a kind of suspended animation, while the others chased down and fought an aspiring conqueror to recover a mystical box containing her soul. Lorelei, obeying her father’s command to find Storm, met them the night before the conqueror’s pet demon attacked the tiny group. She and Storm subsequently fell in love and were married in a brief Biqah ceremony.

Storm led them in a downward spiral, bringing his pegasus, whom he thought of as Specter Jr., after his first beloved warhorse, to a smooth, galloping landing then slowing to a walk until he stopped in front of the dumbstruck guards at the city gate, his companions close behind.

“Hail and well met,” he called formally, attempting a pleasant, non-threatening tone. “I’m Storm, formerly of the Bear Clan.” He gestured at Krista. “This is Krista, granddaughter and rightful heir of Sodan the Fairhand, returned to take her rightful place.” She was really only coming back to collect some of her belongings but Storm saw no reason to mention it.

Thomas urged his pegasus up beside her. “Hello, Seth,” he said with the ease of long familiarity to one of the guards. “How’s the wife and kids?”

The guard, pudgy but solidly built, squinted up at him. “Thomas? Hey! It’s Thomas, the Sergeant at Arms for Sodan,” he said to his companions.

Thomas let out a sigh. “Not anymore,” he corrected him. “Sodan died on our quest to get Lady Krista healed.” He emphasized the word lady.

Seth inclined his head respectfully to Krista. “My sympathies on your loss, my lady.” He hesitated, then continued, “Your great Aunt, Sodan’s half-sister, the Lady Meredith, has taken over the operation of your grandfather’s estates and the Merks. She may not be pleased to see you.” Merks was the common name given to the trading company Sodan had founded and run for many years, the Fairhand Mercers Company. “In fact, she’s sworn out a complaint, a warrant against you for being, incom . . . uh, uncom . . . uh,” he stumbled over the unfamiliar words, “unable to run your affairs due to your illness. We’ve been given orders to take you in, for your own protection.”

Storm felt a slow burn start inside him and the rugged planes of his face hardened behind his beard. This was the part of Gaia he didn’t like but he couldn’t blame it on the guards. It was the same everywhere he went, whether Earth or Gaia; people rolled over for evil because it was easier to go along to get along than to stand up and fight. It seemed to happen more often on Gaia though, too often for his taste. His hand dropped to his sword.

Ralt kneed his mount, pushing his way to the front. “Do you remember me?” he asked menacingly as Storm loosened his sword in its sheath and Durin slid his axe out of its holster.

Seth nodded timidly. “Hey, it’s nothing personal . . .”

Ralt didn’t let him finish. “Of course, it’s personal!” His voice cracked like a whip. The guard flinched. “Krista is my cousin,” Ralt continued hotly. “We grew up together, we’ve known each other our whole lives, and now you want to arrest her? It’s very personal. But just out of curiosity, let me ask you something.”

Glad for any excuse to put off fighting the fierce-looking group before him, Seth nodded eagerly. “Sure.”

“How many years have there been stories floating around town about Meredith trying to take over Sodan’s business?” Ralt leaned forward intently. “You’ve heard them haven’t you?”

The guard nodded uncertainly. “Well, yeah. Hasn’t everyone?”

“Then don’t you think it’s a little strange Meredith would suddenly find an excuse to have Krista declared, what?, incompetent?, while both she and Sodan are out of town? Doesn’t that seem a bit suspicious?”

Seth licked his lips nervously, taking in their war-like expressions and ready weapons. He suddenly noticed how the other guards had eased away, leaving him facing Krista’s protectors alone. Lorelei, an obvious Biqah archer, slowly backing out of reach of their spears with an arrow nocked and drawn, didn’t escape his notice either. Storm’s blades, first one, then the other, slid out of their sheathes with a harsh, grating sound, loud in the evening stillness. Thomas took his cue and quickly nocked an arrow of his own, the creak of his bowstring seemed as loud as Storm’s swords. “We’re just doing what we’re told,” he muttered, looking desperately for a way out.

“Doin’ what ye were told by an outsider, ya mean,” Durin rumbled. He stared hard at them. “Me master was born and raised here, but ‘is younger sister were born to a different mother and lives nearly four hundred leagues from here in Sandy Point. Yer doin’ what she tells ya?” Derision dripped from his voice. Sandy Point was a small town far to the north on the coast, sitting on a cold, barren, windswept stretch of beach wedged in between the Overdark Ocean on the east and the low lying Coast Mountains on the west. Its only claim to fame, if it could be called that, was the universal disdain it was held in.

The guards at the city gate were mainly on duty to give early warning of brigands or invaders and ensure none of them snuck in, but being drawn into an internecine feud between members of a wealthy merchant family wasn’t part of their job, warrant or no warrant. The setting sun lent a menacing, flame-like glow to the mounted warriors before them.

Seth slowly backed away, swallowing hard. “It’s no skin off my nose,” he admitted. “Figure it out between yourselves.”

Storm ended the conversation by spurring his mount past the guards as if they didn’t exist. From the corner of his eye, he saw Seth sag in relief at escaping from a life-and-death struggle.

Once past the gates, he put Krista in the middle of their formation. He and Durin road side-by-side in the lead, weapons at the ready. Krista rode behind, flanked by Thomas and Ralt, with Lorelei as rear guard. Satisfied with his arrangements, he quietly asked Durin if Meredith had her own men with her.

“She never goes anywhere wit’out at least fifteen or twenty of ’em,” the dwarf returned sourly. “She’s mean, not stupid.” He pounded his fist on his thigh. “I should’a never have left when she arrived,” he cursed himself. “Tis me fault this happened.”

Sodan had originally put Durin in charge of his business and household while he was gone with the wagon carrying Krista’s body and her soul, but when Meredith showed up the dwarf decided to avoid the “dragon lady” as she was called, and rode out to join Sodan on his quest.

“No!” Storm snapped, “it’s not your fault. First of all, rotten people will find a way to be rotten no matter what we do, and second; we’d have died on that stupid cliff if you hadn’t been there with Fenris Fang.”

During their pursuit of the would-be conqueror, Niran, they’d had to scale a sheer, eight hundred foot high cliff with ropes and pitons, but twenty feet from the top they’d run into an absolutely blank sheet of rock without the slightest crack or crevice to anchor their pitons. Durin’s mighty axe, Fenris Fang, was an artifact made specifically for him during the First Age when his people resided at the legendary fortress of Thangadrim. It was able to cut into solid rock as if it was no more than soft butter. Using the great axe to carve handholds in the cliff was the only way they’d been able to finish their climb.

“Whatever Meredith has done is on her head alone,” Storm concluded firmly.

Durin sighed, shaking his head at himself. “Aye, lad, I suppose yer right. Even Sodan had trouble controlling her. She really was trying to undercut ’em at every turn. Dat’s why he banished her back ta Sandy Point in da first place.”

Storm nodded absently as they turned away from the busy main streets toward the quieter residential parts of town, retracing Storm’s path from the first time he visited Sodan’s house. “Are her men any good or just for show?” he asked, returning to his original line of questioning.

“I ain’t never seen ’em fight, but their armor and weapons show signs of battle,” Durin replied. “I’d say they know their business.”

“Alright. We came here to inform Meredith of her brother’s death and let Krista collect some of her personal belongings, but if she’s trying to arrest Krista or we have to fight our way in, I’ve got an idea that might take them by surprise,” Storm told him. He spent the rest of the ride explaining what he had in mind. By the time they were halfway there, everyone knew what to do.

He sent the rest of the short ride ruminating on his future. During their quest to find a cure for Krista, he and Ralt had adopted the phrase, righting the wrongs and setting the captives free, as their motto. Later, the rest of them adopted it as well. It occurred to him that correcting Meredith’s unjust takeover of Krista’s inheritance fit nicely under that umbrella.

It had already crossed his mind during their confrontation at the gate that evil seemed to raise its head far more often on Gaia than on Earth. It wasn’t everyone, of course. His friends were a testimony to that. Many people here were just as good and decent as the people back on Earth, but here, it was harder for good to triumph over evil.

Darkness was gathering as they reached their destination. Storm suffered a moment of déjà vu remembering the last time he’d reigned in a horse before Sodan’s house; Thomas had been Sergeant of the Guard, keeping him cooling his heels at the door until Ralt had come out to lead him inside where he met Durin. Now all four rode together on the outside trying to get in.

Durin nodded greetings to the guards as they stopped. “Rolf, Harper. Ye been keepin’ da place safe in me absence?”

The two guards, along with another one the dwarf had never seen, nodded back. The new guard quickly turned to pull a thick rope hanging out of the wall. Inside a distant bell could be heard ringing in response to his efforts.

Rolf, tall and gaunt, with thinning hair on top, greeted him with subdued relief. “My lord Durin! Welcome back.” He looked at Ralt and Thomas flanking Krista. “Good to see you two again too.” He pointedly didn’t mention Krista. He also didn’t move to let them pass.

Determined to put the burden on them, Durin acted as if everything was normal. “Good ta be back. Open ’er up so we kin wash da trail dust off ’n us and git something ta drink,” he said in a tone that assumed immediate obedience.

Rolf shuffled his feet but didn’t move. The third guard, looking more like a street thug than a soldier, came up beside him, pulling his sword as he did. “My Lady Meredith has ordered that Krista be detained for her own safety,” he stated arrogantly. “And any who aid her,” he added, eyeing them. From inside they could hear the sound of men shouting and running toward the gate.

Storm could see where this was going without need of any further confirmation. His temper, always volatile and easily aroused by injustice, of which there was plenty on Gaia, started rising within him. He began backing his mount down the street. His companions did the same, following his earlier instructions.

The new guard, thinking they were trying to escape, advanced after them. “Here now!” he called imperiously. “Halt and throw down your weapons!” The other two guards hesitated, torn between their old loyalty to Sodan and the new reality that Meredith was in charge – and was the one paying them.

Storm decided they had enough distance from the wall now. He called over his shoulder, “Wound him or kill him, it’s your choice.” Immediately he heard Thomas’ powerful bow pull and release. An arrow appeared in the man’s right shoulder and he staggered back with a roar of pain.

“A rescue! A rescue!” he shouted, clutching his shoulder.

“Now!” Storm yelled. He spurred his pegasus into a gallop.

The startled guard ducked as their pegasi spread their wings and leapt over him into the air with a sound like rolling thunder in the close confines of the narrow street. They cleared the wall with ease, then the roof of Sodan’s palatial house a heartbeat later. Turning they spiraled back down to land in the spacious inner courtyard which was dotted with decorative shrubs, fountains, and winding paths, barely visible as the last light of day disappeared.

Storm rolled off his pegasus the moment it touched down, both swords at the ready. It was the same courtyard he’d seen through the windows of Sodan’s study where he first learned about Krista and the mission he’d been hired for. He dashed for the door into the house, Durin by his side. The burly dwarf didn’t wait to see if it was unlocked; he simply smashed it open with one shoulder and barreled on through without missing a step.

Storm laughed and ran after him into a sumptuous dining room. In the distance, he could hear sounds of confusion at the front gate. “We’ve got them from behind!” he shouted. He plunged through the door into the hallway beyond and crashed head-on into a running guard. They both staggered from the impact, flailing their arms to keep their balance.

Ralt, right behind him, saw what happened and slid through the door, twirling his staff to deliver a smooth uppercut to the man’s chin. There was a solid twack! of wood on bone, and the guard’s head snapped back against the wall. His eyes lost focus and he collapsed. “A barbarian saved by a wizard,” Ralt chortled with glee. “One for the record books!” He dashed off down the hall before Storm could think of a suitable reply. Growling, he sprang after him.

They barreled around a corner, up a narrow flight of stairs then along a hallway to find themselves on the wide, main balcony overlooking the entryway. Guards below were milling around the doors in confusion. Ralt yelled, “Fire in the hole!” and launched a fireball from his staff straight down at them.

Storm reared back from the blast of fire coming from the main floor. Durin began frantically putting out a minor fire in his beard. “Blast ye lad! Give us some warning a’fore ye do that!” he yelled. Storm didn’t wait for any surviving guards to recover. Ignoring the dying flames flickering on the railing, he vaulted over it. Both swords were spinning and weaving a red trail of death before he even landed. A moment later Durin crashed down on two guards, taking them to the ground beneath his armored weight. Arrows from above feathered the rest. In seconds the room was theirs.

“Is Meredith down there?” Ralt yelled. Durin did a quick scan. “No. Let’s check the reception hall.”

Ralt and Krista ran down the stairs to join them, she had a knife in each hand. She stopped them from going down the hall. “No! We’ll go through the cloakroom. They won’t expect us to come that way!”

Storm hesitated. Despite his earlier visit here, he wasn’t familiar with the layout in Sodan’s mansion. “Is she right?” he asked no one in particular.

Ralt nodded quickly. “It’s barely a passageway pretending to be a closet. Most people don’t even notice it.”

That was enough for him. “Lead on,” he told her.

“This way!” She ran through a side door.

They followed her through two rooms and a short hall into the kitchen. From there she ran past the storeroom to a tiny door. She flung it open and plunged in. Storm had to duck in the tiny passage to keep from hitting his head on the low ceiling. They pushed past a long row of coats, capes, and hats hanging on pegs, then burst through another tiny door into Sodan’s reception hall where he’d once held formal banquets and balls.

It was a huge room, over a hundred feet on each side. A high arched ceiling supported numerous chandeliers; the glass balls in them glowing with magical light – an ostentatious display given the cost of such fixtures. Black and white tiles alternated on the floor, while balconies running along the two side walls held chairs and tables for guests to sit and look out over the entertainment below. The far end of the room had three sets of double doors evenly spaced across its width, while the opposite end sported a low dais upon which a table and several chairs were arranged. Meredith, thin and severe, her hair pulled back tight in a twisted bun, was sitting in the high backed chair at the head of the table, two guards by her side while dozens more were poised before the three sets of doors. Storm took all this in with a single glance.

The little door they’d come out of was just to the left of the dais. Before anyone could yell for Meredith to surrender or do much of anything, Krista had launched two throwing knives at her and was pulling two more. “Die, you evil woman! Die!” she screamed.

Meredith stared in shock at the knives suddenly growing out of her chest. She pawed weakly at them for a moment, then fell out of her chair with an unceremonious thump. Storm felt his eyebrows climb; so much for simply deposing Meredith and sending her home. He wondered what she’d done to create so much venom in Krista’s heart.

The shock of her sudden, unexpected death held the guards transfixed for a moment. That was all Storm needed; he and his friends bounded to take up defensive positions around Krista, escorting her to the head of the table. Meredith’s two bodyguards stumbled away from them, unsure of their course now their Lady was gone.

Durin strode to the front of the dais to confront the rest. “This is Lady Krista, the Named Heir of Sodan the Fairhand!” he bellowed at them. “Ye men know her well. Pledge yer allegiance to her here and now, and I promise naught that has passed before will be held against ye. If ye refuse . . .” He trailed off, hefting his axe in clear warning.

For a moment no one moved. Then, first one, then another, then the rest, dropped their weapons and bent the knee before her. Durin glanced at Meredith’s men. “Well?”

Stunned at the ease with which they’d penetrated Meredith’s defenses, as well as the brutal efficiency of their battle prowess, the two men dropped their weapons from nerveless hands. The sudden loss of their Lady took all the fight out of them and they knelt without a word.

Sensing a moment pregnant with meaning, Storm turned and knelt on one knee before Krista, silently motioning for his companions to follow suit. As if they’d rehearsed it they all knelt with one accord, and Krista Fairhand reclaimed her grandfather’s legacy.

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