“Javan may have a point,” Ralt commented as they made their way through the crowd and out of the store. “I don’t think you realize how what kind of effect you’re having on people.”
“Or,” Storm paused to let the door close behind them, “maybe I do realize it and I’m using it.” He gave his friend a wolfish grin.
Ralt’s head twitched in surprise. He studied him closely. “What are you up to?”
“Remember when Lorelei had us use my angry barbarian act to convince everyone in Breckinridge we going to Robling when we were really going to Mount Coldfire instead?”
King Roderick had forbidden anyone to go to Mount Coldfire and the only way the people in Breckinridge would sell them any mountaineering equipment was if they thought they were going cross country to see Roderick for permission. Storm had already thrown a fit in public so Lorelei suggested they use it to convince everyone he wanted to give Roderick a piece of his mind, up close and personal, and going cross country was faster than sticking to the winding mountain roads. “Worked like a charm, too,” the wizard chuckled. “So what are we up to this time?”
“Everyone keeps saying how much Greeners and Lord of Light worshipers have in common, and if they start getting the impression the two of them are similar to people on Earth, maybe word will get around and we’ll start getting some real law and order and justice around here for a change.” Storm gave a self-satisfied laugh. “Especially when it’s true.”
Ralt’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “And the fact you’re a Ghibbore and from Earth just makes it much easier to convince them.”
Storm gave him a self-satisified wink. “That’s the idea.” He paused on a street corner to look around. “You’re from here. Where’s a good clothing store?”
“Hmp! You can find a jewelry store but not a clothing store?” Ralt snorted. “There’s a barbarian for you.”
“Clothing stores? Bah! Who needs ’em? We just kill something and wear it,” Storm retorted sarcastically in his best barbarian voice. “But don’t tell the Sierra Club I said that,” he added more normally.
Storm was starting to enjoy being able to talk openly about Earth for a change. He’d kept it secret for so long it was a relief to let it out. “Lead us to a store and I’ll tell you on the way.”
“This way,” Ralt said, indicating the street ahead.
It only took them ten minutes to reach the store but by the time they arrived, the part-elven wizard had already decided there were just as many crazy people on Elder Earth as there were on Gaia. There were animal worshipers on Gaia, but these Sierra Club types Storm was describing sounded like raving lunatics. “Those people should be in a madhouse.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, brother,” Storm agreed heartily, “you’re preaching to the choir.” He pushed open the door to the shop Ralt had led them to. A blast of warm air met them as they walked in.
Ralt saw the surprise on Storm’s face. “Omar was a wizard in his younger days but hated all the reading and studying so he gave it up. But he still remembers a few spells to keep the place cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Makes his store real popular,” he whispered. “Saves on firewood too.”
“Just another job, eh?” Storm remarked with a twinkle in his eye. Ralt grinned. When they first met, Storm thought all wizards were evil Hell-spawn intent on taking over the world. When he told him about some of the more mundane uses for magic Storm had erupted that he made magic sound like it was just another job.
As they entered several people were whispering to a portly, middle-aged man with a bald pate. Upon hearing what they said, he perked up and rushed over to greet them bowing and scraping. “Greetings, greetings! I’m Omar Taylor. My father owned this shop, and his father before him, and his father before him. If it needs to be sown, cut, trimmed, taken in, or altered, you’ve come to the right place.” He said it lightning fast in the rote way people adopt after having said the same thing day in and day out for years on end. “What can a lowly shopkeeper such as myself do for a Lordly Ghibbore from Elder Earth?”
Storm despised what he referred to as boot lickers and Omar qualified as a prime example of the craven breed. He kept his face pleasant though. “I’m getting married in a traditional Earth, ah . . . er . . . Elder Earth wedding, and for that, I need some traditional Elder Earth men’s clothing.”
Omar’s simpering smile faltered. “I – I don’t know what kind of clothing they wear,” he stuttered.
“As you may have heard, I’m from Elder Earth,” – Omar nodded eagerly – “and if you can make it from my description, I can tell you what it looks like.”
Omar wrung his hands desperately. “I can’t promise, My Lord, but I swear by Ashima I’ll do my best!”
Storm felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Before he knew it his sword was in his hand, the tip pricking the skin of Omar’s neck, directly under his chin. He froze, white as a sheet. Deathly silence dropped over the whole store.
Storm’s eyes narrowed menacingly. “You swear by who?” he grated dangerously.
“My Lord . . . I’ll swear by whatever god you like,” he whispered. “Or none. It’s all the same to me,” he swallowed.
Growing up in the Bear Clan, he’d learned from his adoptive parents there were many gods on Gaia. Originally there had been six hundred and sixty six of them. During the Chaos Wars, all them were killed except for six survivors; known collectively as, The Six. They were Succoth-benoth, Nergal, Ashima, Adrammelech, Nibhaz, and Tartak. He’d always rebelled against listening to the stories about them, but the sudden surge of anger he felt this time surprised even him.
“The Six aren’t gods; they’re monsters,” Storm said slowly, biting off his words. “Never swear by any of them ever again.” In the dead silence of the store, his voice sounded louder than it was. “Understand?”
Omar nodded wordlessly, eyes as big as saucers.
He eased back, straightening up from his battle crouch. He slid his sword back in its sheath, metal grating in the stillness. A sigh of relief went around the room. He glanced at Ralt; the slim wizard hadn’t moved a muscle during the whole thing.
Ralt saw the question in his eyes and shrugged. “Sounds like a good idea for everyone actually.” He raked his gaze over the store. “Spread the word,” he suggested with deceptive mildness.
Heads nodded around the store as if they were all on strings.
Storm found it amusing. “You’d be good as the Godfather,” he remarked lightly. “Long story,” he added quickly before Ralt could ask anything.
He turned back to Omar. Dropping a ‘friendly’ hand on his shoulder, he leaned close. “Thanks for being so understanding. On Elder Earth, people who worship creatures like The Six are burned at the stake. Well, we don’t do that anymore, but we used to. A lot.” Omar blanched, his breathing short and ragged. “So I guess I have a bit of a reaction whenever I hear names like that, you know?” The man clearly didn’t have a clue what he was talking about but he nodded anyway. Storm straightened up, releasing him. “So, if you can make what I describe, and get it done in two days, I’ll not only forgive your little transgression, I’ll pay you double to boot. How’s that sound?”
“That sou . . .” Omar paused to cough and clear his throat. “That sounds good, My Lord. Very good.” His voice came out as a squeak.
Storm winked surreptitiously at Ralt then launched into an explanation of what a tuxedo looked like. Omar led them to a cluttered workroom in the back of the store and began sketching quickly on a sheet of parchment. When he finally had something to Storm’s satisfaction he proceeded to measure him from top to bottom. Then he scuttled out to find suitable material.
Ralt took advantage of their temporary solitude. “Your reaction to Ashima’s name seemed a bit instinctive shall we say. Where’d that come from? Do you really burn people at the stake for that?”
Storm shook his head. “I don’t know. Something inside me rebelled the moment he said it. I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. I don’t know why.”
“So people on Earth know about Ashima?”
“Hunh? Oh!” Storm shook his head, “No, not really. Well, not that I know of anyway. I’ve grown up here on Gaia hearing about The Six, but today, I don’t know, for some reason it really raised my hackles.”
“What about burning people at the stake? I know it happens here sometimes, but I didn’t know you did it on Earth too.”
“Oh, that.” Storm waved it off. “It’s been centuries since we did that kind of stuff. I just said it to throw a scare into him.”
“Sure, because a sword at the throat isn’t scary enough,” Ralt remarked sarcastically.
Storm had the grace to be embarrassed. “Alright, so I over-reacted a bit. But hey, it helps with my plan.”
Ralt’s reply was cut short by Omar’s return, staggering under an armload of bolts of fabric. He cleared the worktable in the middle of the room and dumped them on it. A small, wizened old man followed him in. “This is Beor Schuchert,” Omar introduced him. “He’s a shoemaker. I don’t have anything like what you want, but he can make any kind of shoes.”
Storm spent the next hour doing an imitation of a statue as Omar draped different kinds of fabric over him, measuring, marking and cutting while Beor filled a flat tray with wet plaster for him to stand in and make molds of his feet.
Dress shoes were fairly standard, but Storm’s needed to be custom made. While he was at it he asked Beor if he could make some new leather boots for him since his old ones were getting worn out. Beor was delighted, then delighted again when Ralt added a request for new boots for himself as well. Soon he was standing barefoot in a tray of plaster alongside Storm.
Eventually, the two craftsmen were done with them. Both promised to have everything ready in time for the wedding.
When Storm and Ralt emerged out of the back room into the main store, they found it crowded with curious gawkers, eager for a chance to see the Ghibbore from Elder Earth. When they got to the front of the store though, a glance through the window showed a group of soldiers waiting outside, watching the door, armed and armored for battle.
They sighed in unison.
Storm glanced at Ralt. He nodded. “I’m with you.”
“Good deal.” He strode outside, sword in hand. Activating his magical sight he scanned the soldiers for any magical weapons. He didn’t find any but did see Ralt lowering his staff into firing position, covering it with a dancing, bluish glow of power. With his Sight activated he could see how Ralt did it and decided to give it a try on his sword. A moment’s concentration was all it took. His sword started glowing too.
The waiting soldiers stirred uneasily at the sight.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Ralt had to fight to keep a smile off his face. Sotto voce, he asked, “Evil wizard?”
“Oh, shut up,” Storm returned in the same voice. His former aversion to wizards and all things magical had become something of a running joke between them. He looked around for the leader and found him right away; a gruff man, middle-aged, but stout. “What’s the meaning of this?” he called, keeping his back to the store.
“Councilman Jashub wishes to speak to you right away,” the man said in a tone of command. His men drew their swords.
Storm stared hard at him over the tip of his own sword. “Is that so?” He didn’t move.
The soldiers shuffled and whispered to each other. The commander quieted them with a quick gesture. “You have aided a known criminal, Krista Fairhand. My Lord Jashub requires you to give an account.”
Storm’s voice was uncompromising. “I give nothing at the point of a sword.”
The leader drew his own sword. “We have you outnumbered,” he pointed out.
“You face a powerful wizard and a Ghibbore from Elder Earth,” Storm replied, drawing his second blade. It began glowing as well.
The soldiers behind the leader were starting to look worried.
“I’d listen to him, if I were you,” Ralt advised gently, in a voice that carried the hint of steel under velvet. “This is longer than he normally waits before the killing starts.”
Some of the soldiers looked to be on the verge of panic. Ordinary thieves and miscreants were one thing, but a Ghibbore backed by a wizard was something else. The leader bit his lip. “I have orders,” he said grimly, showing more mettle than his men.
Storm gave Ralt a sidelong glance. “Sleep spell?”
He slammed his blades together with a ringing crash. “I give nothing at the point of a sword! Last chance!”
The hapless leader, caught between his orders and his fear, crouched in preparation for battle, his men reluctantly following his example.
“Now!” Storm yelled.
Ralt’s staff flashed and three-quarters of the soldiers slumped to the ground. The rest stumbled as if a weight had been dropped on them. Storm sprang forward, lashing out with the pommels of his swords to knock them out, Ralt hard on his heels, spinning his staff to good effect. The platoon leader, staggering and shaking his head to clear it, was no match for Storm’s double sword attack. His sword fell from nerveless hands then two swords and a staff, all glowing with power, were at his throat. He froze in place.
“I yield,” he croaked.
“Smart man,” Storm nodded. “What’s your name?”
“Alright, Hadley. You go tell – what was his name again?”
“Third councilman Jashub.”
“You go tell Jashub I’m a Ghibbore, adopted barbarian, and career soldier from Elder Earth; I don’t like being threatened! If he wants to talk, he can come see me and ask politely. Who knows; I might even say yes.”
Ralt snorted derisively.
“Hey, I might,” Stormed protested in a wounded tone. “I’m not that stubborn.”
Ralt snorted again.
He let it go, satisfied Hadley had seen their little by-play. “Your men should wake up in a couple of hours. Until then, run along and tell Jashub what I said.” He stepped back and sheathed his swords. Ralt backed away with him, grounding his staff to lean on it. The glow faded from their weapons. Hadley eased away from them without trying to retrieve his own.
He stopped short.
The lighthearted attitude from his banter with Ralt vanished. “I never let enemies live a second time.” His eyes and voice were ice cold.
Hadley nodded slowly. “I’ll remember.”
They turned away, striding up the street without a backward glance.
“You’re playing a dangerous game,” Ralt remarked conversationally as he matched paces with him. “Jashub is used to getting his way. He’s not going to take this sitting down.”
“Do you think he’s going to launch an attack to get Krista or me?” Storm asked.
Ralt shook his head, “No, probably not, but you just ensured he’s never going to vote to rescind the warrant on her.”
“Maybe,” Storm shrugged, “but I don’t like being threatened. If that makes it harder on us, so be it. Besides,” his voice changed suddenly, “if enough people come to the wedding, they may side with us and he might not have any choice. There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” he grinned.
Ralt sighed wearily. “Another one of your Earth sayings?”
“Sometimes I think I liked you better when you were just a barbarian.”