Even from their height, the smell of spring was in the air Storm reflected as their pegasi turned north by northwest toward the tiny Ingoldian outpost of Far Point. The spring rains had arrived with a vengeance, turning the formerly dusty Plains of Aroon into something just shy of an inland ocean. Mud and mosquitoes abounded everywhere. Old buffalo droppings, now soaked and water logged had quickly become very pungent, to say the least.
Getting out of Zered unscathed had been simplicity itself, they simply rode their pegasi up out of bow range and flew away. Storm had to assume sharp eyes had noted the direction of their flight though and were taking steps to send word ahead of them by magic. Gerald’s mirrors, safely tucked away in their saddlebags, weren’t the only magical way news could be spread on Gaia. He had no doubt there would “wanted posters” of them in every town they stopped in along the way.
In the meantime, he was determined to enjoy the journey while he could.
The changing of the seasons had also brought forth an explosion of color in every shade of the rainbow as a million million flowers threw up their petals over every square inch of ground. Grasses and sedges shot skyward, bushes and trees turned green with leaves overnight, vines and runners snaked over the ground in every direction while berries, still green and hard, grew in wild profusion.
Chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, hedge hogs, possums, badgers, skunks, deer, foxes, rabbits, and more were shedding their winter coats, appearing virtually out of nowhere as they emerged from their hidden dens and holes in the ground, looking by turns shaggy and unkempt or covered in newly sleek coats. The mighty herds of buffalo were shedding their winter coats too, rubbing against rocks and trees until they were black with clumped hair.
Four days into the month of Adrei, the skies were already filled with massive flocks of birds of every type and sort, from tiny starlings to giant eagles whose ten foot wingspan cast a shadow of death on any quarry foolish enough to be out in the open when they appeared. The chattering and chirping filled the skies and the branches of every tree and bush.
At the night the croaking of frogs splashing in their muddy ponds filled the air. Insects buzzed and hummed incessantly day and night.
“Spring has sprung,” Storm called across the sky to his friends.
“Dat sayin’ was already old when I was young,” Durin riposted across thirty yards of open sky.
“Ha! When were you ever young?” Ralt shot at him.
Lorelei laughed as they swung into their well-rehearsed exchange of taunts and barbs. Their insults flew as fast as the leagues disappeared beneath them. By the time they ran out of friendly abuse the sun was disappearing to the west. Lorelei, gradually overcoming her fear of heights enough to scan the ground far below, spotted a small knoll with an old circle of fire blacken rocks near the summit, evidence of previous travelers and their campfires. They spiraled down to a landing on the sides of the tiny hill.
They were attacked by mosquitoes as soon as they were down, but Lorelei’s face and hand lotion, made according to an ancient Biqah recipe, protected them as well as anything Storm had ever seen. A few got through but for the most part they were spared being used as a landing field by the swarming insects.
Storm eyed the muddy ground with trepidation. Trolls were fond of swamps and right now the Plains of Aroon had practically been turned into an endless swamp by the torrential rains of the past few weeks.
Lorelei saw his expression. “What horrible fate are you worrying about now?” she teased.
He gestured at the muddy ground around them. “Trolls.”
Her smile disappeared.
Ralt and Durin paused in the midst of setting up their tents. “Trolls like their home swampy year round,” the wizard argued. “This,” he waved his hand around them, “is only temporary.”
“Don’t bet yer life on it,” Durin sniffed. “They ken dig tunnels and let ’em flood during da spring ta live in the rest of the year. They could be out der.”
“That would explain how we got attacked by them years ago crossing these plains in the summer when I was with Rogar,” Storm said thoughtfully. “They just appeared right in the middle of our camp one night with no warning. We lost a lot of good men that night,” he mused.
Most of the great Biqah Prairie was too far north for swamp trolls but too far south of the Ramparts for mountain trolls so Lorelei had no experience with them. “What do we do then?” she asked.
“Make sure we’re on hard rocky ground,” Durin said pragmatically. “Trolls are strong but they’re not built fer mining. They ken only dig through dirt and such.”
Ralt surveyed their campsite. “I’d say we nailed it then, or Lorelei did. I’ll put up the wards to keep out any that come up elsewhere.”
Everyone fell to and soon their camp was set up and protected. Their mounts were watered and turned loose to graze. Ralt, by far the best cook, prepared slabs of fish Durin bought in the market before they left, seasoned with onions and herbs. He threw potatoes in a small clay pot, covered it, then set it on the fire to cook. He served them with sour cream and some semi-melted butter. They uncorked a bottle of Sodan’s best wine, donated by Krista and Thomas, and settled back with full bellies.
For a while the four of them sat in companionable silence. The fire burned cheerfully, throwing out dancing light as the evening drew close around them. Storm found himself wondering at Lorelei’s attitude since they’d left Zered. She was obviously as happy to be out of the city as he was, but not once had she mentioned her father or expressed any pleasure they were finally on the way to avenging his murder. He wondered at it.
She saw him watching her. “What?”
He shook his head. “I was just thinking how much I love you.”
She smiled brightly, then a shadow passed over her face. “Say that again after we get to my tribe,” she said quietly. Now they were finally facing the prospect of returning to her homeland, all her old feelings were coming to the fore again.
He cocked his head. “Why?” Maybe he wouldn’t have to wonder much longer.
“There was much bitterness in the days leading up to my father’s death. We all said and did things to be ashamed of. I was especially harsh with Menewa.” She pronounced it me-knee-wah. “He was convinced he was the mighty man from the prophecy who would marry me but I laughed at him at the worst possible time.” She was shamefaced. “It hurt his pride more than you know.”
Storm was alternately sympathetic and jealous. It took a lot for a man to work up the courage to propose, if that’s what he did, and laughter was the absolute worst way a woman, especially a beautiful woman, could answer him. Wounded pride was how deadly enemies were created, so he felt a measure of sympathy for this Menewa, whoever he was.
But the idea that any man had proposed to his wife also aroused a jealous anger in him which surprised him with its intensity. “It’s easy for beautiful women to hurt men without intending to do so,” he forced himself to say. “It sounds like you have some serious apologizing to do when you see him.”
She shook her head. “It’s not that simple. He’s the one who led the move to banish me from the tribe, and got them to threaten to kill me on sight if I ever returned.”
He forced himself to breath for a moment to calm the surge of anger that welled up inside him. Ralt and Durin were frozen in place, staring at her.
“No offense lass, but it seems ta me ye may have done a bit more than laugh at ‘im,” Durin rumbled slowly.
“Banishment on pain of death – from the whole tribe, no less – is a bit extreme,” Ralt agreed somberly. “What crime could you have committed to earn such a punishment?”
Her face twisted in sorrow and grief as she shook her head. “I didn’t commit a crime,” she sniffled, “at least, not the way you’re thinking. But it would have been easier if I had. What I did was worse, much worse.”
Storm bit his lip. Only someone carrying a heavy burden of guilt would say such a thing. Apparently there was more to his wife than he knew. We marry strangers, he’d once heard someone say, and now he was finding out just how true it was. “You said Crowsotarri wanted me to avenge his death, but you never told us anything more than that, never told us the whole story. Now it sounds like there’s more to it than we thought.”
She nodded miserably, unable to meet his eyes.
“Then we need to hear it,” he said gently, but firmly. “Walking into an unknown situation is bad enough when it’s unavoidable but this sounds like we’re walking into a hostile one. We’ve already got a price on our heads from two different temples. I don’t want any more surprises. We need to know what we’re getting ourselves into.”
“Aye,” Durin agreed. “We’ll help ye wit yer father lass, never fear. But Storm is right, we need ta know wot we’re facing.” Ralt added wordless agreement.
Lorelei lifted her head with an effort. Fear and guilt were stamped on her features. “I know,” she whispered, “and I’ve been trying to avoid having to tell you this as long as I could. But please, don’t hate me when you hear it,” she pleaded miserably. “I couldn’t stand to lose you,” she said desperately to Storm.
“You won’t,” he assured her.
“But you don’t know what I did!” she protested wildly.
“You’re right,” he agreed, “I don’t know. But I do know I love you no matter what. Remember our wedding vows; ‘for better or for worse.’ We say them because we mean them.”
Tears spilled over and ran down her cheeks. “I hope you still mean them after you hear what I did.” She dabbed at her tears then sat up, squaring her shoulders like a condemned man facing a firing squad. “This is the story of my shame . . .”