The next morning dawned clear and crisp. Zered was far enough south and sat at a low enough elevation to avoid freezing weather in the winter, but it was still cool enough for their breath to frost slightly in the early morning air. Thomas’ men-at-arms wore cloaks pulled tight around them to keep the chill out of their metal chainmail armor.
Ralt drove a great carriage, his staff propped beside him. Gerald rode beside him, his own staff held at the ready. Krista and Lorelei were riding in the carriage with two more men-at-arms, while Durin rode on top, Fenris Fang clutched in his gnarled hands. The great wolf had come billowing out at his command to protect the rear of the carriage. Lorelei and Krista’s dresses, along with Storm’s tuxedo and Ralt’s dress robes were packed away in two chests bound tightly to the luggage rack.
Storm had dispensed with plate mail, choosing instead to wear a shirt of chainmail over his tunic. A great shield with the House of Fairhand coat-of-arms on it hung from his left forearm, and his long bastard sword was clutched in his right fist. He threaded his way through the ranks surrounding the carriage, over to Thomas; their numbers weren’t quite an army, but it was a near thing. The normally laconic bowman was serious and intent.
“Everything ready?” Storm asked him.
“As ready as it’ll ever be.” He gave the orders for the gates to be opened. He brought a raised arm down, “Forward!” He nudged his horse into a slow walk, leading them out to the streets. Storm kept pace by his side, his head on a swivel, searching back and forth for any sign of danger.
The last time he’d taken this ride had been in the pre-dawn stillness of late summer when almost no one was up and about. Today, with news of their wedding spread far and wide, the streets were already filling with crowds anxious to catch a glimpse of the Ghibbore from Elder Earth, and also hoping for a chance to see the now infamous outlaw, Krista. But their eyes widened in alarm at the overt display of force, and they scuttled aside, anxious to avoid giving offense to such a large, well-armed group. Whispers drifted after them as they made their way through the streets.
Thomas had instructed his horsemen to ride ahead and block cross streets as they came to them, not only preventing anyone from obstructing their path, but also to give early warning of any approaching danger. After the procession passed, they would peel off and join the rear. The next set of riders at the forefront would ride ahead to the next cross street, then join them from the rear when their turn came, thus all the men gradually worked their way through the ranks surrounding the carriage as they took turns blockading traffic and searching for adversaries. Storm had seen motorcycle cops on Earth do the same thing with funerals and thought it would be a good tactic to ensure their safe passage through the city. After explaining it to Thomas, the new Captain of the Guard accepted the idea eagerly.
As the Temple District came into sight he nodded to Storm. “Looks like your idea worked,” he commented with a tight smile.
“I just copied what I saw others do,” he demurred, “but I’m glad to hear it.”
“I’ll have to remember it in the future,” Thomas added. “There were times we could have used it to keep from getting caught in crowds.” He looked around at the crowds thronging the streets beyond the phalanx of soldiers. “I’m glad you and Lorelei are having a wedding, but I’ll be glad when it’s over. We need to focus on getting this warrant taken care of.”
Something in his voice made Storm wonder at his motives, as if perhaps there were personal reasons for his concern about Krista’s well being. “And then some wedding bells of your own?” he ventured.
Thomas was startled. “How did yo . . .” He stopped, biting his lips. Shadows crossed his face as they rode through the gate of the Temple of Light. They made him look twice his age, wise and learned. “Keep your voice down!” he whispered urgently with a furtive look at the carriage. “She doesn’t know.”
Storm snorted disparagingly. “Are you kidding? Women always know before men do.”
Thomas blinked uncertainly. “Really?” The wise look was gone.
They pulled to a halt and dismounted, amid the noisy jangling of harnesses and hooves clattering on the stones of the courtyard. “Yep,” Storm grunted. “This is the voice of experience telling you. Don’t ask me how they do it, but they do.”
Krista pushed the carriage door open and stepped out lightly. “And our hearing is better than yours too,” she smirked, giving Thomas a sultry look. “No more floozies on Blue Street for you, Mister,” she told him firmly.
“Uh . . .”
Thomas was at a loss for words.
Lorelei giggled at his stunned expression as she emerged from the carriage. She blew a kiss to Storm, linked arms with Krista, and skipped into the Temple.
Storm clapped Thomas on the back, staggering him. “Your fate is sealed now; so let’s get back to mine,” he laughed.
“Get back to yours, what?” Ralt asked, hopping down from the driver’s seat.
“My fate of being married,” Storm answered, untying the clothing trunks. “Thomas here just found out he has the same fate with Krista.”
Understanding registered on Ralt’s face. “Is that all?” he shrugged. “A blind man could have seen that one coming.” Storm wasn’t so sure but then he hadn’t known Thomas and Krista as long as Ralt had either. Maybe he was right.
They lugged the trunks up the steps with Durin hard on their heels, leaving the semi-stupefied Thomas to deal with placing the guards around the Temple gate. Crowds were already thronging in, pushing and elbowing to get the best view. He was forced to set aside his trepidation about the future to focus on the here and now.
Once inside they were assaulted by the impatient under-priests, hurrying them to get ready. The High Priest, Aram Frye, a heavy set, middle-aged man bustled about importantly, well aware he had the honor of officiating at the marriage of a Ghibbore from Elder Earth, and doing so in front of virtually the whole city. Gerald and another wizard, Alden, who actually looked the part of the proto-typical tottering wizard, had spent all night creating a complicated spell to amplify the voices around the altar so everyone in the Temple and all those gathered around it on the outside, could hear the proceedings as clearly as if they were standing right beside them.
Aram saw them through the thronging assembly and his eyes lit up. He pushed his way through the growing crowd, signaling them to follow him. He led them behind the altar to a side door, through it to a narrow hallway, then pushed open another door into a small changing room. “You can change in here,” he told them. “Then wait until one of the under-priests comes to get you.” He pulled a sheaf of papers out of his robes. “Are these really the vows people take on Elder Earth?” he asked.
“Not Elder Earth,” Storm corrected him wearily, “just Earth. And yeah, they are. I may not have remembered them word-for-word, but it’s pretty close.”
He shook his head in amazement. “I’ve been reading them and re-reading them since you wrote them down for me,” he said, “and I can’t get over how simple they are, but how powerful! It’s amazing. I never would have thought of such a thing. The people of Eld . . . uhm, ‘Earth’ must be geniuses.”
Storm laughed shortly. “I guarantee we’re not. We’re just ordinary folk, no different than you.”
“Then you must be closer to The Truth than we are,” Aram concluded with slow deliberation.
Storm paused. With all the wars and violence on Earth he wasn’t sure how close people there were to any truth, let alone The Truth, as Aram put it. “I don’t know about that,” he muttered cautiously. “People are people no matter where they are.”
Aram gave him a long, searching look. “Perhaps,” he said finally, “but your face is telling a different story.” He left before Storm could think of a suitable reply.
Ralt maintained a respectful silence as they changed, but he did venture how he liked Storm’s tuxedo now he saw him wearing it.
“It’s not dress blues, but it’ll do,” Storm allowed, eyeing himself this way and that in the mirror.
Before Ralt could ask his inevitable question, the door opened and Gerald came in, shutting it behind him. He ran an appreciative eye over Storm’s outfit then plopped down on a chair. “I just had an interesting conversation,” he began without preamble. “A caravan from Nahor came in during the night. One of the bards riding with them heard about the wedding and decided to come to see if he could get some material for a new song or story. We got to talking and when I mentioned the religious tension in town, he started telling me how it’s the same all over; temple sermons are getting really hot-headed lately. He heard a priest of Nergal proclaiming that all other priests should be outlawed and burned at the stake. And priests from other temples are saying the same thing in reverse.”
“That’s nothing new,” Ralt said dismissively. “Priests are always ranting and raving against each other.”
“And, he said in some of the smaller towns along the road, it’s actually happening,” Gerald continued as if he hadn’t heard him. He shook his head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing before.” He shot a hard look at Ralt. “That is new.”
Ralt’s eyebrows arched upward. “Actually happening? You mean towns are really outlawing all religions except the one they like?”
“That’s what he told me,” Gerald nodded. “They had to tiptoe around the subject in several towns along the Cliff Road to keep from getting in trouble.”
The Cliff Mountains were a semi-circular range of mountains that bounded the northern side of the Carrzulman Empire. The southern slopes were almost perpendicular, hence the name, but the northern side, facing the Biqah Prairie were more normal, sloping gradually down to the vast plains of the Biqah. A major trade route wound its way through the foothills of the northern side of mountains, taking its name from them. For nearly nine hundred leagues east to west, numerous towns, cities, and villages dotted the length of the Cliff Road.
Ralt was amazed. “I know they hate each other, but that’s bizarre.” With a quick sideways glance at Storm, he asked, “Did the bard say if any of those towns were ones where the Lord of Light held sway?”
“Funny you should ask,” Gerald commented thoughtfully. “He was emphatic that it was always one of The Six. The Lord of Light didn’t even come up.” He shifted his gaze to Storm. “Did anything like this ever happen on Elder Earth?”
He nodded reluctantly. “Over and over again, I’m afraid.”
“Was it because of the Lord of Light?” Ralt pressed him, “the Ancient of Days, you called him? Or others?”
Storm still felt reluctant to talk about it but he forced himself to answer. They deserved to know the truth. “No. It was always the other religions, the ones that followed false gods, that started the fighting.”
“What false gods did you have on El . . . Earth?” Ralt quizzed him.
Storm was saved from having to answer when the door opened and Aram poked his head in. “I just got word Lorelei is ready,” he announced jovially. “Let’s get you in place so we can get started.”
Relieved at the timely interruption that kept him from having to answer any more questions, Storm jumped to his feet. “Great! I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” He followed the High Priest out before Gerald or Ralt could say anything more. He wanted Lorelei to have a proper wedding ceremony, but his choice of venue had brought up issues he was still uncomfortable with. Now all he wanted to do was get it over with.
Aram stood beside him at the head of the aisle with Ralt at his side. Ralt was wearing deep blue robes, sprinkled with diamond dust to simulate the night sky with an embroidered gold belt around his waist. A tiny, velvet bag dangling from the belt, held their rings.
The room was only slightly larger than the sitting room where he’d first met Sodan, Ralt, and Durin. It was packed wall-to-wall with townspeople. Thomas’ men-at-arms formed a double row down the center of the room, creating a slender aisle for Lorelei and Krista to walk down. Durin commanded another group of men-at-arms holding the crowd back from the altar. Through the open windows, he could see at least three or four thousand people packed into the courtyard, and perhaps more beyond that. It was the most people he’d seen in one place since he’d left Vaneer.
The wedding march began, played almost exactly as Storm had described it to the musicians, and everyone turned to watch Lorelei enter the room. Storm felt his chest tighten at the sight her, and all other thoughts and concerns fled.
She was beautiful in a white gown, overlaid with lace, pearls, and tiny gems. Her hair flowed unbound down her back almost to her waist, brushed until it shone. He knew Krista was somewhere with her because they’d discussed and rehearsed it, but he didn’t notice her; he had eyes only for Lorelei. Her eyes met his and she gave him a brilliant smile as she paced toward him with even, measured steps. His chest swelled with pride as she took his extended arm and they turned to face the High Priest.
“Mine!” he whispered fiercely to her.
Her smile grew even wider. “Always,” she returned in the same voice.
The music died and Aram stepped up. He glanced at the papers in his hand and began.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman . . .”