After Lorelei finally fell asleep curled up in his arms Storm gently picked her up and carried her to bed, pulling the covers over her. Her head had been laying on his arm for so long he had to windmill it to restore the feeling as he stood up and tiptoed back to the fire to keep from waking her.
He tossed a few logs on the smoldering fire and blew on the embers until they caught. Then he drew out his pipe, cleaned the bowl and reloaded it, then lit it with the first cantrip Ralt had ever taught him, a tiny spell to light fires and pipes, the same one he’d used in the battle at the gates of the temple. An amused smile covered his face at the memory of the enemy soldiers rearing back in alarm when the tips of their noses suddenly caught fire. He was rather proud of himself for coming up with that particular use for it in the heat of battle.
“Mind if I join you?”
Storm glanced over his shoulder, somehow unsurprised to see Ralt approaching him. “Sure,” he nodded. He waved him to the length of log he and Durin had occupied while Lorelei told her story.
Ralt busied himself with his own pipe and soon another trail of smoke wafted up into the night sky beside Storm’s.
The spring night air was cool and crisp, clear as a bell with a nearly full moon casting a bright silvery light over everything. A million million stars twinkled overhead in a cloudless sky, and somewhere off in the distance a coyote howled. Otherwise the night was still and silent.
After a few moments Ralt asked him, “Thinking about Lorelei’s story?”
“Of course,” Storm harrumphed. “What else?”
He leaned forward to prop his elbows on his knees as he stared at the hypnotizing dance of the flames. “Well, I know I don’t look like an old man, but remember, before I came to Gaia, I was old, old and ready to die. I’ve always been more suited to action than reflection, but when I do think, I think like an old man.”
“Yeah, I guess we tend to forget that,” Ralt nodded agreeably. “Especially considering you’re definitely more of an action type than a thinker.” Storm laughed quietly. “So, what is the old man thinking about Lorelei’s story?”
Neither of them noticed her slinking up behind them, her feet stepping so gently there wasn’t even a whisper in the grass to mark her passage. She paused just out of sight to listen.
“I think what she did to Menewa was wrong, but what he did was wrong too.”
Ralt cocked his head questioningly. “I agree, but how so?”
Storm took another puff on his pipe. “My dad used to say anyone can insult you, but what you do about it is your choice, not theirs. Lorelei may have hurt Menewa, but he made all the wrong choices in his responses. ‘Pride goeth before the fall’ the Good Book says, and it sounds like he’s way too proud for his own good.” He blew a smoke ring into the night sky.
Ralt looked askance at him. “The good book?”
“Our holy book is called the Bible,” Storm responded trying to keep it light, “but sometimes we call it the Good Book, mainly because it is, I guess.” He shrugged then changed the subject. “The point is, Menewa’s pride led him down the wrong path. He’s just as guilty for the breakup of their tribe as she is; more I’d say.”
Lorelei was fighting back fresh tears as she listened to the man she loved.
“That’s not what’s bugging me though,” he continued.
Storm scowled at his slender companion. “Don’t give me that ‘oh?’ stuff like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Ralt smiled around his pipe then blew a smoke ring of his own before answering. “Justice versus vengeance?”
“Give the man a gold star,” Storm nodded. He watched Ralt’s smoke ring drift away. “Nice one.” His tone changed. “The Army of Light isn’t about revenge, it’s about justice.”
“Righting the wrongs and setting the captives free,” Ralt agreed, reciting the line that had become their motto.
“Exactly! Lorelei wants me to avenge Crowsotarri but after hearing her story I can’t do that.” Storm sighed. “I can hunt down and capture his killer, bring him to justice to stand trial, but tracking him down to kill him?” He shook his head. “I’m no saint but that avenger of blood stuff is a little too ‘Old Testament’ for my taste.”
Ralt rolled his eyes. “Old testament?”
“The older part of the Bible,” Storm said shortly. “But how do I break the news to her?”
“Just tell her,” Ralt advised. “Hedging the truth causes more problems than it solves.”
“You’re right about that,” Storm concurred. His pipe had gone out so he knocked it on rock by the edge of the fire to empty the bowl. A faint shower of dead embers fluttered down. He glanced up at the sky with a measuring look as he put his pipe away. He’d been up longer than he thought. “The sun will be coming up soon.” He leaned back.
Lorelei’s eyes widened. She turned quickly, dashing back to their tent. She slithered through the flap and made it into her bedroll moments before he came in, pretending to be asleep.
She watched him through slitted eyes as he moved around. As she followed his progress she couldn’t help but compare him to Menewa. Like Ralt, Menewa was far more handsome than Storm could ever hope to be, but Storm had a nobleness of spirit Menewa never possessed, even before the festival. Storm could go off in a berserk rampage – she’d already seen him do it twice – then turn around and display more kindness than any three men combined, something Menewa would never understand.
She considered his words to Ralt, that he was a man of action who thought and had the mind of an old man. Perhaps it accounted for his unusual yet honorable character. Or perhaps it was the other way around, she reflected. She sat up, stretching like a cat, watching his face brighten as he saw her. Whichever it was, she was ready to spend a lifetime unraveling the strange and mysterious riddle that was her husband.
“Good morning,” he smiled. “Feeling better?” Past his shoulder the sky was beginning to brighten.
She decided to take a chance. “Much better after overhearing your conversation with Ralt,” she smiled back.
His mouth twitched in amusement. “Sneak.”
She got up and wound her arms around his neck. “Still love me?”
“Always.” He kissed her then turned her around and pushed her toward the opening. “Now, since you were eavesdropping on our conversation, you already know what I’m planning to tell you and I don’t have to go through it all over again, but . . .” he gave her a wicked grin. “I am hungry. Get out there and feed me, woman. Git!” He swatted her rear end.
She yelped, then giggled. “Yes master,” she quipped sarcastically. She gave a quick pirouette then sashayed out of the tent with an exaggerated wiggle.
But during breakfast Storm did have to go through it all over again, recounting to Durin his inability to seek bloody vengeance on Crowsotarri’s killer, only catch him and bring him to justice. The dwarf understood at once.
“Ye told us the whole tribe is against ye, lass, but surely there must be someone who thinks different. Ain’t there anyone we ken count on ta help us? Anyone at all?” Durin asked her after the dishes were cleaned and put away.
“There might be two,” she nodded. “Klah, father’s childhood friend. I told you he and father rediscovered their old friendship after the war in the tribe broke out. He became father’s closest adviser, he counseled him not to meet with Menewa, and he’s the one who went looking for father when he didn’t come back – and found his body.”
Storm forced himself not to react. A friend of his who’d retired from the Marines and become a police detective once told him if a family member or friend found a murder victim’s body, there was a better than even chance they were the killer. From Lorelei’s voice he could tell she trusted Klah. Mentioning it would only cause problems so for the time being he’d restrain his tongue, but Klah would be on the top of his suspect list until proven otherwise.
She was still talking. “The other is Gaagii, the shaman for the Lord of Light. He’s definitely on my side, but he’s old and weak. I don’t know how much he’ll be able to do for us.”
“He’s the one who made the prophecy, right?” Ralt questioned her.
“That’s right,” she agreed. “I never had the chance to ask him, but I always got the feeling he didn’t think Menewa was the man of might in the prophecy.” She smiled brilliantly at Storm. “And he wasn’t!”
He smiled briefly, still thinking about Klah. “So, only two people out of what . . . several hundred are on our side?”
“Out of several thousand,” she corrected him.
Durin dropped his pipe.
There was stunned silence around the campfire for a moment.
Somewhere in the distance a bird chirped at the morning sun.
“Several thousand?” Ralt sounded like he was strangling.
Durin retrieved his pipe with a grunt. “Ye might have told us that before,” he muttered.
She looked to Storm for support but he was shaking his head. “That’s a really important piece of information we should have been told a long time ago,” he said slowly.
She was stricken. His voice was mild but any reprimand from her husband, no matter how mild, was worse than a public lashing. “I’m . . . I’m sorry,” she managed. “I just didn’t think about it.”
He glanced at his friends; he hated to have this conversation in front of them but there was no help for it. “Lorelei, look at me.” He took her hands. She reluctantly raised her eyes. “I don’t blame you. You didn’t think about it because you’ve known it all your life, its not something you have to think about. But we don’t know anything about the Abeytu tribe and anything you leave out could be the one thing that gets us all killed,” he said seriously, but as kindly as he could. “You’ve got to tell us these things.”
“How can you not know?” she protested. “You and my father were blood brothers.”
He rocked back and forth on his heels. “Yep. He saved some of my men one time, then rode with our caravan for a couple of weeks. We became friends and blood brothers, but I never met anyone else from his tribe until you showed up.”
“Oh.” Her voice was small.
“You and I are married and I still haven’t seen anyone else from your tribe,” he added to defuse the tension.
She smiled at that. “Point taken.” She took a deep breath. “So what should I do? Tell you everything about the Abeytu?”
Ralt sensed the difficulty was passed. He relaxed imperceptibly. “Probably a good idea,” he agreed. “The more we know about them the better.”
She blinked. “Wait. What? Everything? Literally?”
“Or as much as ye ken,” Durin interjected firmly. “Who knows wot might come in handy if we but knew it.”
“That could take forever!” she exclaimed.
Storm winked over her head at his companions. “No, just until we get there in a couple of weeks.”
Her jaw dropped. “You want me to spend two whole weeks talking about my tribe?”
“Ye got any other plans?” Durin asked, playing along.
“But . . . but . . .” she spluttered. “I’ll loose my voice! I’ll turn hoarse!”
Ralt stared owlishly at her. “You’ll turn into a horse? Just from talking about them?” He fought to keep a grin off his face.
“What?” She shook her head in confusion. “I said I’ll turn hoarse, not turn into a horse!”
“Are ye daft, woman?” Durin roared in mock outrage. “Turning or not, yer still talking about a horse!”
“Hunh?” She shook her head. “I said hoarse, not horse.”
“Exactly,” he crowed triumphantly.
“No,” she protested, trying to explain. “I didn’t mean . . .” She paused as she saw them fighting not to smile. She glanced up at Storm and saw him laughing silently at her confusion. “Oh!” she blurted as the truth dawned on her. Disgust replaced the bewilderment in her eyes. “Oh, you, you men!” she exclaimed.
The three of them burst into open laughter at her expression.
“You walked right into that one,” Storm chortled.
“And deserved it ta me way o’thinking,” Durin added, grinning ear-to-ear.
Ralt was laughing too hard to say anything but he nodded agreement as best he could.
She shoved Storm onto his back but he just laughed harder. “Keep laughing mister, you’ll be sleeping on the couch!” She mock threatened.
“Don’t see any couches around here,” he retorted gleefully, “but if we had one you’d be fighting me for it.”
“If you were a gentleman I wouldn’t have to,” she sniffed.
That triggered a fresh round of laughter.
“You do realize you’re talking about Storm, don’t you?” Ralt snickered. “He’s a lot of things but no one ever accused him of being a gentleman.”
Their merriment pealed into the sky as they enjoyed the camaraderie of being back on the road again.