The next morning Thomas assigned two servants to repair the doors Durin smashed on his way into the house then reset the guard schedule. About half of Meredith’s men decided to join them but the rest headed out on their own, scattering to the four winds. Krista’s money came from an impressive stream of revenue brought in by Merks, as the company transported goods from one end of Gaia to the other, so she could offer many times what the stingy Meredith had paid them out of those same funds. Most of the men killed during the fighting had been Meredith’s, but some were Sodan’s, and those who decided to join them more than made up the difference. Thomas gave them new armor and uniforms with the House of Fairhand coat of arms on it, and from that point forward they were no longer Meredith’s men, but Krista’s.
Their pegasi were flown back out of the inner courtyard so they could be properly stabled and taken care of. Although unusual, pegasi weren’t unheard of, and it seemed as if everyone in town wanted a look at them. Some even asked permission to bring their wives and children to see and pet the beautiful animals. Durin snorted at the line that soon developed outside the stables. “We shoulda charged admission,” he grumbled. “Then at least we’da seen a profit from all dis.”
Storm eyed him askance as they followed Ralt through the streets to Gerald’s house. “And here I thought Thomas was the greedy one.”
“It ain’t greedy ta think ahead,” he harrumphed. “The gold we captured from Niran’s bully boys won’t last fer’ever ya know.” During their adventures, they’d fought and defeated a band of Niran’s troops who were posing as highwaymen. They’d recovered a fair amount of gold, silver, and gemstones from their hidden lair.
They stopped to wait for a line of merchant wagons, creaking slowly past. The axles were badly in need of grease. “Given the path our feet are set on, I have a feeling money is going to be the least of our concerns,” Ralt told him sagely, raising his voice over the noise from the wagons.
Durin sighed heavily in acknowledgment. “Aye, lad. Ye may have the right of it.”
“As long as we have a good horse, or pegasus, to ride, the wind in our faces, and a warm fire at night, what more do we need anyway?” Lorelei asked lightly. Given their tribal way of life, the Biqah tended to be indifferent to money.
Storm laughed affectionately at his wife. “Practical as always.”
The last of the wagons rolled out of their way and Ralt resumed leading them on their trek to Gerald’s house. His teacher lived in the older part of town, built when the area around the town was much less civilized. Consequently, there were more stone towers and fortified buildings here. The whole area, called Olde Towne, was surrounded by its own wall, high and forbidding, left over from the early days of Zered’s existence. The heavy iron gates, no longer manned, were left wide open. Considering the rusted condition of the massive hinges as they passed by them, Storm wondered if they could be shut, or even moved for that matter.
Ralt turned to the right as soon as they were through them. He took them down a wide street that once served as the bailey behind the wall, the rough cobblestones on it had been laid down with an eye to fire prevention from enemy attacks. Their boots had hollow sounds as he made a sharp left onto a narrow, crooked street, little more than an alleyway, that ended at a squat, stone tower. A heavy, scarred oaken door was the only entrance. He rapped sharply on it with the end of his staff. A few bits of bright paint, oddly out of place, showed here and there.
There was a long moment of silence, then a thin, reedy voice from the floor above called down. “I’m busy! Go away!”
“I’ll paint your door again if you don’t open up,” Ralt called back. His friends gave him a puzzled look. He favored them with a wink and a rakish grin. “Long story.”
“Ralt!?” The voice cracked with excitement. “You’re back? Stay there! I’ll be right down!” His voice changed abruptly. “And leave my door alone, you young troublemaker! I’m not going through all that again!”
Lorelei gave Ralt with an arch look. “Someday you’re going to have to tell us that story,” she giggled.
“Someday,” he agreed impishly.
There were shuffling noises from inside, then a rattling of bolts and chains. The door swung open to reveal a whipcord thin man in baggy brown pants and too-large white shirt. The sleeves were too long for his arms and he kept having to push them back. He wore sandals which had seen better days and leaned on an intricately carved staff. In contrast to his clothes, his pure white hair and beard were neatly trimmed and kept. A wide grin split his face at the sight of Ralt, and his snapping black eyes lit up with pleasure.
They grabbed each other in a hug, slapping each other on the back.
“Aaah!” Gerald grunted in surprise. “When did you get so strong all the sudden?” He pushed him back to look him over. His eyes lit on Ralt’s staff. “And where’d you get this?” He ran a finger over the carvings on its length, different than those on his staff, but similar in design and function. “My apprentice ain’t no apprentice anymore from the looks of this.” He noticed the rest of them standing there. “Who’re are these two?”
Ralt stepped aside to introduce them. “Everyone, this is Gerald Blackthorn, my teacher and friend.” They nodded. “Gerald, this is Storm of the Bear Clan. He’s our leader and a Ghibbore.”
Gerald’s eyes shot wide. “Ghibbore? Ghibbore, you say?” Something clicked in his memory. “That’s what Rogar wrote to me about! A barbarian with some strange power inside him.” Ralt had once mentioned that letter to Storm. Gerald shoved out his hand. “Pleased to meet you. Very pleased indeed! It’s not every day you get to meet a Ghibbore,” he chuckled.
Somewhat bemused, Storm shook his hand.
Gerald peered sharply at him, then turned to Ralt. “Leader?” he questioned him. “You said he’s your leader? Leader of what? What have you been up to all this time?”
“Give me time,” Ralt returned. “Let me finish.” He indicated Lorelei, “This is Lorelei of the Abeytu Tribe, daughter of their murdered chieftain, Crowsotarri. She and Storm are recently wed.”
Gerald’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “If I remember correctly, Lorelei means Child of Heaven; and you say she’s married to a Ghibbore.” He looked back and forth between them. “How interesting. How very interesting.” He raising an inquiring eyebrow at Ralt. “You’ve some explaining to do.”
Ralt nodded agreement, then went on. “Durin of course you know,” he finished.
Gerald and Durin exchanged nods. “Hail and well met, Master Dwarf. How did Sodan fare on the journey back and forth to Robling?”
“He died at the hands of a demon,” Durin answered shortly.
Gerald’s eyebrows shot up. He shook his head sadly. “I warned him a demon might show up; told him to stay here, but the blamed fool wouldn’t listen.” He shook his head again. “Well, come on inside. I’ll get some tea and cakes, and you can tell me all about it.”
It turned out to be Gerald and Ralt working together setting out food and drink.
Once seated the group took turns telling their tale, beginning with Storm giving a brief overview of his life on Earth, how he’d wound up on Gaia and been raised by the Bear Clan then wandered about, gradually becoming a warrior and caravan guard. Sodan had retained him to take Krista’s body, preserved in a death-like state, to a priest in Robling for healing.
Along the way, it was discovered that Storm was a Ghibbore, one of a group of legendary natural-born wizards and heroes. Overcoming both his Earthly heritage and his barbarian aversion to the “Dark Arts,” he’d begun learning magic from Ralt.
The small caravan had barely avoided being killed by a stampede, then fought their way past a group of Manticores. After each encounter, they’d been forced to rest, first because Sodan’s health was failing then second because some of their men and horses had been wounded. Eventually, they reached the first small settlements of Ingold where they found man-made trouble.
While investigating the ruins of a house ransacked by brigands, they’d encountered Lorelei. She and Storm worked together to track down and kill the raiders but in the process had stumbled onto information leading them to believe the bandits were part of a larger plot to conquer the mountain kingdom of Ingold, the capital of which was Robling, where Krista was being taken for healing.
After warning the mayor of the nearby town of Breckinridge about the scheme, and selling some of the paintings they’d recovered from the erstwhile bandits, they resumed their journey only to be ambushed by a demon from Hell. Everyone except for the four of them and Thomas had been killed before they finally defeated the monster. But they were unable to prevent it from stealing the box containing Krista’s soul, removed from her body by Gerald so she could survive the long trip to Robling. The demon managed to hurl the box up in the air into the waiting hands of Niran, the Imperial Sword Master of the T’thalian Empire, the mastermind behind the plot they’d uncovered, and now calling himself “The Leader.” Niran had flown off on a winged mount before they could stop him.
They’d sent Thomas on to Robling with Krista’s body and the gold captured from the bandits, while the rest of them pursued Niran to Mount Coldfire, an abandoned mining camp, now home to over six thousand spell-enslaved soldiers Niran was assembling together into an army of conquest. Along the way they’d spent two days scaling a cliff with nothing but ropes and pitons, Storm and Lorelei were married, Storm learned he had healing powers, and Durin was revealed as the son of a Dwarven King from the First Age.
After many adventurers they’d recovered Krista’s soul box but Niran eluded them. Fleeing from his dark army of thralls they’d stolen some pegasi from his rooftop paddock and flown off. They made their way to Robling and were reunited with Thomas. Storm used his healing powers to heal Krista, then they had to make another escape when King Roderick was killed by Niran and his men who’d pursued them to the city.
After Storm defeated and killed Niran in single combat, he took a strange bloodstone gem from his headless corpse, an artifact that had given him the power to enslave thousands. They buried it high in the mountains where no one could ever find it, then came back to Zered so Krista could reclaim some of her things, only to discover Meredith was trying to arrest her and claim Sodan’s wealth for herself. The resulting fight ended with Meredith’s death and Krista claiming her inheritance. Storm finished by saying, “Then this morning we came to see you.”
Gerald was fascinated to learn Storm was from Elder Earth. “My boy you simply must tell me everything about Elder Earth! Everything! I have years worth of questions that need to be answered! I don’t even know where to start. What language did you speak? What were your customs like? And what about . . .”
Storm cut him off. “No! I understand you’re curious but I don’t have time for it. We have places to go and things to do,” he said hotly. “And miles to go before we sleep,” he added slowly, remembering an old poem.
Gerald blinked. “What to go before you sleep?”
“Miles,” Storm sighed reluctantly. “They’re a unit of measure, about the same as a league. It was a quote from the last lines of an old poem by a man named Robert Frost.” He saw the old mage’s eager expression and shrugged to himself, why not?
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” he quoted slowly. “I don’t remember the rest of it,” he apologized.
“No, no, no,” Gerald said quickly. “That’s fine, it’s fine. That’s the first poetry from Elder Earth anyone here has ever heard. It’s more than fine, it’s great!” He leaned forward thirstily, “Can’t you tell me more? Please?”
Storm was torn. On the one hand, he could see how much it meant to Gerald, and the rest of them too, to learn more about Earth. But on the other hand, he really didn’t have the time or energy to sit around answering questions. “Can’t you just write your questions down,” he temporized. “Then I can answer them when I’m not busy and send them to you.”
They could see Gerald struggling to contain his disappointment. “Of course,” he smiled tremulously. “That will be fine.”
“Good!” Storm exclaimed quickly to put an end to it. “In that case, we have more pressing problems; like getting this warrant for Krista’s arrest removed or rescinded or whatever. Ralt, said you know people on the council.”
Gerald could tell he’d gotten all he could from Storm on the subject of Elder Earth so he resigned himself to the change in subject – for now. “I’m on the council,” he snorted. “And a more selfish, self-centered group of ignoramuses you’ll never meet in your life. I’ve practically quit going to meetings because all they do is argue, fight, and bicker.” He sighed deeply. “And that’s probably when they issued the warrant for Krista, at one of the meetings I skipped.”
“But issuing the warrant means they can agree on something now and then,” Ralt interjected hopefully.
“Sure, when it benefits them in some way,” Gerald said disdainfully. “Meredith probably promised them something in return, maybe even some way of taking Sodan down a peg or two. He’s the richest man in town, well, he was before he died,” Gerald added quickly, “and they’re all jealous of him.”
None of this was news to Durin. The dwarf nodded his agreement. “Sodan used ta come back from them meetings practically frothing at the mouth about how petty they were. Many a time I had ta listen to him rant ’n rave fer hours after. And he always knew they was ’a scheming behind his back ta git even wit him for one thing or another,” he finished dourly.
“The last time he rotated off the council, he picked me to rotate on to take his spot,” Gerald added, “and he warned me to keep an eye on them, but after a while, I just could not put up with them!” He drained his teacup and sat it down with a clatter.
Lorelei touched his hand gently with hers. She lowered her voice to an intimate register. “But surely you can go to each of them separately before the next meeting and talk to them,” she said. “Can’t you?”
He jerked his hand back. “Don’t bat your eyelashes at me, girl! I’m too old for that to work any more.” He saw her expression and relented somewhat. “Oh, I’ll try of course. I’ve known Krista since the day she was born. I’ll do anything I can for her.” He pulled out a sheaf of papers and flipped through them. “Let’s see . . . it’s ten days until the next meeting so I’ve got plenty of time to talk to them, but don’t hold your breath,” he warned. “They really are mule headed.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “Anything is better than nothing.”
“Will they try anything in the meantime?” Storm asked.
Gerald shook his head in time with Ralt and Durin. “They’re also cowardly. Law enforcement is more of a theory than a practice around here. Sodan’s house has nearly as many men-at-arms as the council does. As long as she’s protected, they can’t touch her. Or they won’t try, which comes to the same thing. But,” he said warningly, “if she goes anywhere by herself, she’s fair game. They’ll arrest her and throw her in the dungeon before you can sneeze. Might makes right,” he concluded.
“No, it doesn’t,” Storm replied hotly. “Right makes right,” he argued.
Gerald lifted an eyebrow at him. “You sound like a Greener,” he noted dryly.
Greeners, named after the green sashes they wore in their meetings, were a new group only about ten or twelve years old who believed in absolute justice for both high and low born. They were as popular with normal folk as they were hated by the elites. Thomas had once let slip Krista was one of them. From what little he knew about them, Storm tended to think Gerald might have a point about him. Ignoring it for now though, he slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up. “Thank you for helping us with Krista.”
The rest rose to their feet with him.
Gerald stood up with them. “Do you mind if I go with you? I’d like to pay my respects to Krista for Sodan’s death. From what you said, it doesn’t sound like she’s had a chance to mourn properly.”
Storm glanced at the others. They all nodded. “Of course you can.”
A quick smile lit his face and he practically bounced out the door before Storm could change his mind. Storm gave Ralt a sidelong look. “Pretty spry for an old man. I thought wizards were supposed to be tottering weaklings?”
“Most, but not all,” Ralt shrugged.
As soon as Storm set foot out the door, Gerald grabbed his arm. “Since we’ve got a few minutes ahead of us before we get there, perhaps you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions about Elder Earth. Just until we get there,” he said quickly.
Behind Gerald’s back, Lorelei was grinning ear-to-ear at him. He rolled his eyes helplessly. “All right, sure. But,” he held up a hand, “after you ask me a question, I get to ask you a question. Deal?”
Gerald laughed with delight. “Deal!”