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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 6

More or less than one wife leads to misery.
Men forget this lesson at their peril.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr

For the next three days the whole city was in an uproar. Storm refused to be cowed by the city guards or the personal guards of the various council members, going out whenever he felt like it, even taking Krista with him to be fitted for her dress as Maid of Honor. All his companions, and three-fourths of her men-at-arms surrounded her on the trip, but the brazen flouting of the warrant had everyone talking.

Speculation ran riot as to whether or not the council would try to enforce their warrant during the wedding. Some said the warrant should be dropped anyway as it was now obvious Krista hadn’t been rendered dimwitted by her now cured illness. Still others opined it should be dropped because Meredith, who instigated it was an outsider, and besides, she was dead. There as many opinions and ideas as there were people to discuss them. It made for lively chatter on the streets.

There was also continuous conjecture on all sides as to whether all the people on Elder Earth were as strong-willed and obstinate as Storm.

The wedding itself was a further source of wild conjecture. The story of his proposal to Lorelei made the rounds before sunset the first day. Almost every woman in town swooned in favor of his declaration of one husband and one wife since polygamy almost always worked against them, and in favor of men. The Lord of Light worshipers were ecstatic to hear about it as well; their monogamous beliefs, which were previously held in low esteem, almost instantly became a proselytizing tool when word got out Elder Earth held the same beliefs. Storm’s explanation of the rings, told and retold, sent many young maidens into raptures of delight, pining for their men to do the same for them.

Lorelei’s wedding dress, and Storm’s tuxedo, were popular topics of conversation as well.

Decidedly less popular, however, was the tale of his over-the-top reaction to Ashima and The Six. The old ways still held sway in much of Gaia, and Zered was no exception, even though it was common knowledge The Six were less than stellar in their character. Having their deities called monsters created anger and resentment among the faithful. The new boldness of the Lord of Light followers only added fuel to the fire.

Lord of Light followers had been increasing in numbers the past 20 or 30 years, creating tensions between the various sects and Storm’s intemperate words were making it worse. Arguments between different worshipers were growing increasingly hot-tempered. Some had even broken into open fighting. No one had pulled a blade yet, but it was only a matter of time.

The evening before the wedding, Storm found himself sitting at a table on a balcony overlooking the city. Lorelei was snuggled up next to him with Ralt and Durin sitting opposite, puffing quietly on their pipes. His spur of the moment decision to give Lorelei a fancy wedding was having repercussions he’d never imagined. And, he mused, that was the first time he’d used the word ‘repercussions’ in a long time too.

His black study was interrupted before he could sink too far into it.

“It’s getting a little crazy out there,” Ralt remarked, gesturing over his shoulder at the city below. “Religious tensions have always been tough, but you’ve really stirred the pot lately.”

“You’re too provincial,” Lorelei replied softly.

Ralt stiffened indignantly. “What?”

She sat up. “I’m sorry, but it’s true. You were born and raised around here, spent your whole life here. Aside from our trek to Robling and Mount Coldfire, I’ll bet you can count on the fingers of one hand how many times you’ve been away from here.” She lifted an eyebrow expectantly at him, waiting for an answer.

“What’s your point?” he scowled, refusing to be drawn.

“I’ve traveled all over the Biqah on errands for my father,” she answered obliquely, “so I’ve seen most of the nations and dozens of different tribes. I’ve been down to Nahor a number of times,” she pronounced it nä-hōre’, “and out west across the Riverlands to Sairaw, the City of the Winds. Then I traveled nearly two thousand leagues getting here to find Storm, and I’ve seen these same problems everywhere I’ve been. The Six compete with each other for worshipers and all, but for some reason, they’re absolutely united against the Lord of Light. Their priests and priestesses go nuts whenever the subject comes up. I don’t know why, but they do. So don’t blame Storm for it. He didn’t do anything.”

Storm listened closely, eyes flicking back and forth between them.

“I know he’s your husband,” Ralt tried to say politely, “but I think you’re going a bit overboard here.”

“Nay, lad, she has the right of it,” Durin interjected.


Durin puffed furiously on his pipe. “In me youth, the gods hated each other’s guts. It’s why the Chaos Wars started; they couldn’t git along. But there was no such thing as the Lord of Light in them days. It wasn’t until I woke up here in the Third Age that I heard of him.” He stared hard at the slender wizard. “That was when you were still young and living with Gerald; Sodan traveled a lot back then. The Six and their blamed priests were always at each other’s throats everywhere we went. It’s only in the last ten years or so they’ve started cooperating, but when they do, its ta fight against the Lord of Light, like the lass says. It’s been gittin’ steadily worse ever since. If Storm here stirred the pot as ye say, ’tis a pot that was already boilin’.”

Ralt had the grace to be chagrined. “Alright,” he conceded, “but calling the gods monsters wasn’t very subtle.”

Storm erupted with mirth. He couldn’t help it. “Remember who you’re talking about,” he laughed.

Echoing laughter burst from all of them, dispelling the tension.

Ralt nearly choked on his drink. “Boy, if that ain’t the truth!” he chortled after he cleared his throat. He sat up. “I’ll only strangle him a little,” he roared in a rough voice, mimicking something Storm had once said in a fit of anger about the king of Ingold.

Durin nearly fell off his seat laughing. “Subtlety ain’t exactly yer strong suit, that’s fer sure,” he snorted between guffaws.

Lorelei wound her arms around Storm’s neck. “But at least he’s honest,” she giggled, trying to defend him with a straight face.

Storm grinned at all of them, willing to be the focus of their entertainment. “At least when I say something, you know I mean it,” he added, with a kiss to Lorelei.

“Aye, lad,” Durin agreed with a lingering chuckle. The mirth died out of his face as he became more serious. “And there lies the problem young Ralt put ‘is finger on.”

Storm felt his smile fade.

“Wit some people, ye can tell at a glance they speak their mind without tryin’ ta lie,” Durin continued in a more somber voice, “with ye being a prime example of the breed. Folks kin tell that about ye, so they knew ye meant what ye said about their gods.”

“You said the pot was already boiling,” Storm countered defensively, feeling the easy mood slipping away.

“That don’t mean ye have to stir it,” he grumbled. “Tomorrow is going to be tricky enough without ye making it worse.”

Storm nodded, “Yeah, I know.” He slumped back in his seat, staring moodily out over the city again. Ralt’s magic kept the balcony warm in the winter air, but the smell of smoke from chimneys all over town filled the air.

The plans for the wedding included a procession from Krista’s house, past the massive palace-like Draven Manor, which Storm thought of as City Hall, over to the temple district where the temple to the Lord of Light sat. Years ago it had been shoe-horned in over the objections of the various priests from The Six, and obviously didn’t fit with the rest, either in style or appearance. They were uniformly dark, covered with pagan engravings of torture, warfare, and bloody sacrifices. By contrast, the temple to the Lord of Light was built of white-washed stone blocks, plain and unadorned, straight and angular where the others were bent, crooked, and twisted.

Krista’s presence, in defiance of the warrant, necessitated a large procession, composed mainly of men-at-arms. None of them really expected the council to try enforcing the warrant; Gerald had been successful in that much at least, getting them to agree to listen to them at the next meeting, but if she went out without a guard, it might be too tempting an opportunity for them to pass up. It was better to be safe than sorry.

But bringing that many soldiers into the temple district created its own set of problems. The priests of The Six might decide they needed to have armed guards of their own to counter them. In fact, it was common knowledge they were already recruiting heavily among their faithful, although what caliber of men would answer the call was an open question. But having so many armed men from different faiths in such close proximity to each other was inherently dangerous. Any mistake could trigger a blood bath. Wars had started over less.

“I suppose,” he said slowly, “the best we can hope for is lots of tension, and suspicious looks traded back and forth.”

Ralt knocked his pipe out on the iron railing. “Or if fighting does start, it doesn’t involve us or the men from the Temple of Light.”

Storm had probably traveled and seen more of Gaia than the rest of them, but aside from his brief stay in Vaneer, the capital of the T’thalian Empire, he’d paid little heed to politics or religion, and while the caravan guards he’d commanded were known for many things, deep theological discussions wasn’t one of them. He found himself wishing he’d paid more attention to such things over the years. “Could they start fighting among themselves and leave us out of it?” he wondered, glancing around.

Lorelei shook her head against his shoulder. “Don’t look at me. Religious fights are part of what led to my father’s murder. I try to stay out of it.”

Storm looked down at her. “But I thought you followed the Lord of Light,” he argued.

“More or less.” She shrugged faintly. “Gotta follow somebody,” she said reasonably, “and the Lord of Light isn’t as bloodthirsty as The Six, what with all their sacrifices and so on.”

Durin saw Storm looking at him and held up a hand defensively. “I already told ye the Chaos Wars started ‘cause the gods couldn’t git along wit each other,” he protested. “I never cared for ‘em then, and I still don’t today. I don’t know much about The Six, and even less about this Lord of Light, ‘cause he’s new.”

Everyone turned their attention to Ralt as the only one left who might answer Storm’s question. He sighed in resignation. “I already said we can hope they leave us out of it.”

“Yeah, but is that a real possibility?” Storm pressed him. “Or is it going to turn into a free-for-all if fighting breaks out?”

Ralt muttered under his breath, then stuck out his hand. “Give me some more tobacco,” he demanded petulantly. Storm silently passed it over, then all of them waited silently while he reloaded his pipe and lit it.

“Alright,” he said finally, “The Six are the last survivors of the hundreds of gods who created Gaia. They hate each other’s guts like Durin said, more than you’d believe, so naturally, their priests and priestesses and followers hate each other too. The thing is, the destruction of the Chaos Wars convinced a lot of people the gods were more trouble than they’re worth, so their cults are actually kinda small, given how much influence they wield. But . . . they’ve been growing the past 30 or 40 years, and when they grow, they bump into each other, and the old feuds start up all over again.”

“Like the Hatfields and McCoys,” Storm nodded.

“Who?” Ralt sighed with the attitude of one who knew he wasn’t going to get an answer.

Storm didn’t disappoint him. “Uh, sorry – long story. Go on.”

“Uh hunh. Anyway . . . they’re united in their hatred of the Lord of Light, but they’ve got grievances among themselves that go back centuries, even before the Chaos Wars, some say all the way back to their days on Elder Earth.” Storm shifted in his seat but didn’t say anything. “As long as we don’t start a fight, and the guards at the Temple of Light don’t either, we’ve got a pretty good chance of staying out it. They really are obsessed with killing each other. No one knows why.”

“Or why they hate the Lord of Light so much?” Lorelei ventured.

“Or that either,” he agreed. “Not that it matters,” he continued. “The Chaos Wars and their aftermath in the Second Age were so terrible and destructive most people don’t want anything to do with any gods, old or new.”

“Most of the Biqah follow Adrammelech,” Lorelei countered.

“The so-called nature god,” Ralt nodded. “But you said yourself, your father was killed because of religious fights, or arguments, or whatever. The Lord of Light has been making inroads in the Biqah, hasn’t he? You follow him, don’t you?”

“Yes to both,” Lorelei said, “but I wouldn’t say I’m a strong follower. Mainly, I just don’t like the bloodthirstiness of The Six.”

Storm was fascinated by the turn the conversation had taken. This was more than he’d learned in all his 24 years on Gaia. “What do you mean so-called nature god?” he asked inquisitively.

Ralt cast an eye on his pipe. “When this goes out, that’s it for the night,” he warned, holding it up.

“Fair enough. So what do you mean, so-called?”

Lorelei sat upright to listen.

Ralt glanced around as if to see if anyone was eavesdropping, then leaned forward conspiratorially, “Most people don’t know this, but as far as anyone has ever been able to determine, all the gods have exactly the same powers!”

Storm and Lorelei traded astonished looks.

“Didn’t keep ’em from destroying the world,” Durin pointed out.

“That’s probably why they destroyed the world,” Ralt argued. “The only powers they’ve ever demonstrated are destructive ones, and they were so evenly matched it’s probably just dumb luck they didn’t actually destroy the whole world for real; lock, stock, and barrel.” He warmed to his subject like an over-eager teacher. “Adrammelech calls himself the god of nature but no one has ever seen him plant or grow – anything.”

Lorelei gave him a hard look. “He must have.”

“Not. One. Single. Thing,” he emphasized.

“Oh, come on,” she protested.

Ralt shook his head. “Nope. Not a single thing. Gerald did some research on it years ago. Over the centuries, people have seen him destroy things, burn people, kill them, tear them apart; all kinds of dreadful things. But not once has anyone ever seen him grow something or create anything that’s alive. And you can bet his priesthood would report it if they had. And . . .” he knocked out his pipe, setting it aside and continuing despite his earlier insistence on stopping when it went out, “. . . I checked this with Gerald since we got back – we went through all his books – and every Ghibbore that’s ever been recorded, knew exactly which god gave them their power and none of them, I repeat, none of them ever had healing powers like Storm here. None of them!” he finished triumphantly.

There was stunned silence on the balcony. In the distance, a dog barked once or twice.

Storm ground his teeth. Why did these things always keep coming back around to him? “None of The Six had anything to do with me!” he half-snarled in frustration.

“Then it must be the Lord of Light,” Ralt said reasonably.

Storm bit his lip, struggling to decide if he should tell them about the Voice he’d heard when he had the vision that led to his healing powers manifesting themselves. It was the one thing about that episode he hadn’t reveled to them. “He hasn’t said anything to me that I know of,” he hedged.

“Perhaps not, but when all the other answers are impossible, the only one left must be it,” Ralt countered.

“What are you, Sherlock Holmes or something?” Storm growled irritably.

He saw the question forming on Ralt’s lips and waved it off before he could ask. “Never mind. Long story.” Ralt clenched his jaw muscles but stayed silent.

He sprang to his feet to pace back and forth. He turned like a wolf. “Why does this keep coming up? I don’t mind being a Ghibbore. I don’t even mind learning a little magic here and there. But why can’t I just live my life fighting bad guys, righting the wrongs, and setting the captives free? What’s wrong with that? Why does it always have to get bogged down in all this god stuff?”

Durin squinted through the smoke from his pipe. “Yer a Ghibbore because of all this god stuff, lad. Ye couldn’t be one without them.”

Lorelei got up and wound her arms around his neck to calm him down. “Fighting the bad guys and all the rest of it is good; there’s nothing wrong with it. But Durin is right. The gods are real and we have to deal with them.” She saw the protest forming on his face and hurried on before he could interrupt. “A lot of people have seen them. I have.”

Storm’s head reared back in surprise. “What!?”

She nodded. “Just once, but I saw Adrammelech when I was ten. He visited a conclave of tribes.” Her face softened. “We can’t get away from the gods here, but I guess it was different on Eld . . . on Earth. From what you’ve said I guess the gods don’t show up there the way they do here.” She pulled him back down to their seat.

“God, not gods,” he corrected absently. “Didn’t show up? Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he laughed harshly. “Not showing up is kind of His strong suit.”

“You once said when your wife died you blamed this one god for it,” Lorelei said softly.

“Not one god, just God,” he corrected her again. “Yeah. She was dying of cancer, slow and drawn out. I asked God to heal her and help her, but all I got was a big fat zero.”

“Heal her?” All of them were puzzled until they remembered a previous conversation along these same lines.

Ralt shook his head firmly. “We’ve been over this before, Storm. The gods don’t heal people. Never.”

It was Storm’s turn to shake his head. “Well, who else would you ask?”

“A wizard,” he returned. “We told you this before. Powerful wizards can make healing potions.”

Storm shook his head. It felt like they were talking past each other. Once again he wished he’d paid more attention over the years when people talked about their gods. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. When Sodan hired me it was because Krista had some disease that only Lamriack could cure. If wizards can make healing potions, why didn’t he take her to one? We could have avoided all that mess.”

Ralt shook his head. “Nope. Healing potions only work on physical wounds, poison, things like that. They can’t do anything for diseases. Only priests of the Lord of Light can cure disease. It’s one of the reasons they’re growing; none of the priests of The Six can cure diseases or heal anything.” He cocked his head, “Does the god on Elder Earth, the one you called the Ancient of Days, does he cure diseases?”

Awkwardness descended on Storm again. “I guess so,” he hedged. “You hear stories all the time from people claiming He cured them of this, that, or the other thing, and there are tons of stories about Him curing people way back when. But He didn’t do squat for Lydia!” Old anger flared in his heart. “I had to watch her waste away until she was just skin and bones before she finally died.” It was his own horror of suffering the same fate that forced him into the Bermuda Triangle searching for a better way to die.

Silence fell at his bitter, heartbroken words.

After a long time, Durin finally stood up. “I haven’t got any answers fer ye, lad, but if even half of what ye say about this one god is true, it sounds like ‘es different than any gods I ever heard of.” He nodded good-night to them and stomped inside.

Lorelei uncoiled herself from his side. “I think it’s time for all of us to get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day no matter what happens.” She seemed unusually subdued.

Storm nodded to Ralt, then followed her to their room. She undressed, slid between the sheets and turned her back to him. He blew out the candle and climbed in beside her. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head in the dark.

“Come on,” he said gently. “I can tell something’s wrong. What is it?”

“I guess it just hit me; you really were married before,” she sniffled. “When you talked about Lydia dying; your voice, your face – I don’t know, it just hit me.” She squirmed around in his arms to face him. “Are you sure you want to marry me tomorrow? If you’re still in love with her . . .”

“Lorelei!” he exclaimed, interrupting her. “Listen to me. Lydia died years ago, on another world, in another life. Yes, I loved her, but she’s gone. You’re the one I love, and we’re already married,” he whispered fiercely. “Tomorrow is the ceremony you should have had in the first place, the day every woman dreams about and deserves; but don’t ever ask if I want to marry you, because we are married.” He put a hand under chin and tilted her head up. “I love you, Lorelei, and tomorrow I want the whole world to know it.”

It must have been the right thing to say; she lit up, her eyes shining in the moonlight coming in the window. “I love you too, Storm. I love you too.”

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