If Krista was surprised, she hid it well. “Rise,” she said as if it was normal. With the battle, and presumably her succession to Sodan now decided, her voice had become warm and soothing. “Durin?”
The dwarf stepped forward. “My Lady?”
“I understand you’ve pledged yourself to Ghibbore Storm’s cause. Correct?” She waved a hand at Storm.
Her words caused an immediate stir among the men. Naming Storm as a Ghibbore, one of a group of semi-legendary heroes and natural-born wizards, was a bombshell none had been expecting. It also had the added effect of taking their attention off Meredith’s body laying beside her on the floor. Storm found himself the center of attention as the guards stared at him in fascination, whispering among themselves. Ralt took advantage of it to surreptitiously drop a cloak over the body, further hiding it from view.
Durin hid a smile. “Aye, Lady. That I have.”
She had also pledged herself to Storm’s cause back in the mountain kingdom of Ingold before they’d decided to return to Zered, but she declined to mention it. “I’ll hold no one against their will,” she said smoothly, “but before I release you, I would ask one boon of you.”
“Name it,” he agreed.
She gestured for Thomas to approach. “I would ask you to confirm Thomas Keener, former Sergeant of the Guard, as your replacement as Captain of the Guard.” Thomas sobered at her words. Storm was watching the guard’s faces and saw the light dawning on them as they recalled that Durin was still technically their commanding officer.
“Aye lass, that I will,” Durin grinned. “Uh, My Lady,” he corrected.
Krista laughed softly. “You’ve known me since the day I was born. You can call me whatever you want.”
He nodded, then turned to Thomas. “Sergeant!”
Thomas snapped to attention. “Sir!”
“My Lady Krista of the Fairhand has promoted you to Captain of the Guard. Will you take command, Sir?”
Thomas nodded stiffly. “I hereby relieve you of command, Captain Durin Sir.” Thomas had also pledged himself to Storm, but again, none of them were of a mind to mention it.
“I am relieved, Captain Thomas Sir,” Durin finished the brief ritual. He stepped away from Krista and Thomas took his place at her right hand.
She smiled briefly at him then addressed the room. “Meredith took advantage of Papa’s absence with lies and subterfuge; she was very clever at such things so I’ll hold none of you responsible for your actions so long as they are never repeated. Is that understood?” Although Sodan was Krista’s grandfather, she’d always called him Papa.
Eager nods answered her from around the room.
One of Meredith’s guards raised a cautious hand. “What about us, Milady?”
Storm cocked an interested eye at her. This was a good test of her ability to command and lead. He was curious to see what she did with it.
She hesitated, clearly unsure of herself. After a moment she turned to Thomas. “Captain? What would you recommend?”
Storm felt a surge of relief. Even if Thomas gave her bad advice, the very fact she was asking demonstrated she understood the first lesson of leadership; never be afraid to seek council from able advisers. No one could know everything; those who pretended they did invariably made disastrous mistakes. He was glad to know she wasn’t in that class.
Thomas shrugged indifferently. “They did only what any man-at-arms would do; follow their Lord or Lady, to protect and defend them. Any wrong was done by Meredith, not them. I say give them leave to go or stay as they please.”
Storm exchanged an approving glance with Ralt and Durin. Thomas might be a wild-at-heart gambler but his sudden, new responsibility seemed to have cured him in a hurry. Of course there was no telling what might happen a few months down the road when he’d had a chance to settle into his new role, but the initial signs were encouraging. He spoke up to confirm Thomas’ opinion. “I’ve commanded many men over my years guarding caravans throughout Gaia and Thomas’ words carry much wisdom. I agree with him; hold them blameless, My Lady.” The relief on the faces of Meredith’s men was clear. The words of a Ghibbore obviously carried much weight among the general population, a fact he filed away for future reference.
Krista nodded. “Thank you, Captain. And thank you as well, Ghibbore.” She turned to the men. “Bury your Lady in whatever way seems best to you. Afterwards you’re free to leave or stay as one of my men.”
More of Sodan’s servants and guards had drifted into the room, one at a time as word spread throughout the house that Meredith had fallen. Krista’s words caused an approving murmur to run through the growing crowd. The two nodded their thanks at her, picked up Meredith’s body and carried her out. The crowd parted to let them through. A few sneers could be heard, but for the most part they remained silent.
Storm suppressed a satisfied smile. Take Meredith out of the equation and instantly everything changed, he thought. Evil quickly collapsed when pressure was applied at the right pressure point.
The atmosphere in the room lighted considerably once they were gone.
Krista sat down in the chair Meredith had occupied, gesturing for the crowd to draw close. “Now, would someone please tell me what’s been going on while I was away? What changes did Meredith try to make around here? Tell me everything.” Her trail clothes put her more on their level than Meredith’s flowing gowns and gems. They closed around her eagerly.
Storm drew his companions aside as a growing hubbub broke out with everyone talking at once. “Looks like she’s got everything well in hand,” he chuckled. “She doesn’t need us any more. And . . . it appears her part in the Army of Light will be here rather than on the road.” Since they had agreed to fight the forces of darkness wherever they were, Lorelei had suggested they call themselves the Army of Light, a suggestion they’d immediately agreed to.
She nodded agreement. “But we don’t have to leave until tomorrow morning. Until then it would be nice to have a real bed for the night,” she purred at her husband.
“You don’t say,” he grinned in anticipation.
“Uh, we may be needed for a day or two longer,” Ralt cautioned them.
Lorelei shot him a quizzical look. “Why?”
“Seth told us Meredith swore out a warrant for Krista based on competency,” Ralt reminded her. “That means, at a minimum, Draven and the Council of Lords is involved. We can’t leave until we’re sure she’s been cleared. Once the news spreads that Meredith is dead it won’t be hard, but I’d like to be sure.” His concern for his younger cousin was evident in his eyes.
“Who’s Draven?” she asked.
Storm wanted to know too. He’d spent all his previous brief time in the city in Sodan’s estate preparing for the trip. He hadn’t had time to get to know the town in any detail, beyond what he already knew from his days in the caravans.
Ralt leaned on his staff. “Count Reginald Draven is the hereditary ruler of Zered,” he began slowly. “On paper anyway. His family was driven out of Zoar by pirate raiders before Thal One-Eye unified them into the T’thalian Empire 500 years ago.”
Storm was familiar with the tiny harbor of Zoar just 50 leagues east of Zered. The eastern shores of Gaia, where they met the Overdark Oceans, were shallow to the point where a man of average height could walk nearly half a league into the icy cold water before it reached his chin. Zoar was one of the few places along the coast to boast an actual harbor deep enough for ocean going vessels, but even that, like its name, was small, so cramped only a handful of ships could dock at a time. It had been overrun and destroyed numerous times by ocean raiders and low level warfare over the centuries. Zoar had been rebuilt each time but only to serve as a seaport for the larger city of Zered.
“Draven’s ancestors settled here on the banks of the Tambar River,” Ralt continued, “and gradually became a sort of minor nobility over the years. The Council of Lords is composed of the heads of all the wealthy merchants and nobles here in town. They rotate on and off the Council on a set schedule so none of them is seated for more than 2 years at a time. Sodan used to sit on the Council about, what? . . . once every three or four years?” he asked Durin.
The dwarf shrugged. “Something like that,” he rumbled.
“If the Council issued a warrant for Krista’s arrest, only the Council can lift it,” Ralt concluded.
“What if Draven issued the warrant?” Storm asked.
Ralt see-sawed his hand. “His father was a bit dim and Draven is headstrong and somewhat empty upstairs as well. But, he never does anything without the Council. Technically he’s in charge, but the Council is the real power around here. Mainly, he just goes hunting.”
“So if we get the Council to change their minds, Krista is home free,” Lorelei concluded.
“That’s about the size of it,” Ralt agreed.
“What do we know about the Council?” Storm asked. “Who on it should we approach first about this?”
Ralt shook his head. “Beats me. Gerald probably knows. He was on the council too. I think he still is.” Gerald was the wizard-for-hire who’d tutored him in the magical arts.
Lorelei glanced quickly at Storm to see how he was taking the news they had to deal with another wizard besides Ralt. His birth and upbringing on Elder Earth, then his years spent with the barbarian Bear Clan, had instilled a deep revulsion in him toward wizards. He’d instinctively tried to kill Ralt the first time they met and it was only the result of a long, arduous journey fighting side-by-side that changed his mind about wizards; that and being a Ghibbore, with the ability to see and cast magic without the years of study normally required. But did his change of heart include all wizards, or just Ralt?
He saw the question in her eyes and shook his head with a smile. “Relax,” he told her. “I’m fine.”
Ralt and Durin had been eyeing him as well.
“Hey! I’m fine,” he protested in a wounded tone.
Krista saved him from further interrogation by his friends. “I know you’re anxious to get back to your father’s grave,” she told Lorelei, “but could you stay in town for a few days?” She gestured at the crowd of servants and guards. “They tell me Meredith made a real stink about my state of mind because of my illness. I’m going to need all the help I can find getting the Council to rescind it’s warrant for my arrest. I might even need help staying out of prison.” Fear lurked behind her eyes.
Lorelei glanced at her husband but she knew his answer before she looked. Storm was already nodding imperceptibly and her heart swelled with pride at the unforced benevolence of the man she’d bound herself to. “Of course we’ll stay,” she smiled brightly. Then a mischievous look crossed her face. “For a price,” she added teasingly.
Krista lifted one eyebrow. “Yes?” she asked slowly, enjoying the game.
“A steaming hot bath and a soft bed; the softest one you’ve got,” Lorelei told her.
“Whew!” Krista exclaimed in exaggerated relief. “For a minute there I thought you were going to want food!” she giggled.
Lorelei tickled her playfully. “Oh! If you want us to actually do something, that’s where the food comes in.”
The two women laughed gaily while the men could only shrug helplessly at each other.