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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 21

Why have a king except to be rid of lawless anarchy?
Why have a rebellion except to be rid of a lawless king?
This is irony.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr

Lorelei peered out the window at the setting sun. “Where’s Durin?” she wondered aloud. “It’s over an hour since he left.”

She and Storm had spent most of that hour “on the phone” as he called it, talking to Gerald, Thomas, and Krista through their magic mirrors. Thomas had some training questions that took up a large part of the time, while the rest of the hour had been concerned with a report from a caravan arriving from Ingold that their civil war, far from ending, was spreading and getting worse. Neither Prince Alaric or Prince Jeffery, twin brothers of the late king, could make any headway toward claiming their father’s throne; their forces were too evenly matched and their prolonged fight for succession was tearing Ingold apart.

“Carrzulm has to be rubbing her hands with glee watching all this,” Gerald told them. “If Ingold falls apart, the stopper that’s kept them bottled up all these centuries will be gone and who knows what will happen after that?”

“It’s more than that,” Krista had argued. “Ingold is filthy rich. If Carrzulm takes their wealth, they’ll be able to finance an army to march all up and down Aroon taking every city along the way.”

“Including Zered,” Thomas added unnecessarily.

The idea of Carrzulm, the most corrupt evil empire on Gaia, breaking out of the encircling Cliff Mountains to spread her tentacles beyond was a worrisome one that, once again, had Storm wishing he’d paid more attention to politics during his years with the caravans. Who would, or could, work together to stop them if they broke out and began marching to war? He didn’t know, and now the whole east coast of Gaia might pay the price for his ignorance.

“It’d almost be as if Niran had succeeded in his mad quest after all,” he told them as they were winding up their conversation.

He glanced out the window and was startled at how low the sun was. He frowned. Lorelei was right; where was Durin? He strode across their small room, yanked the door open and banged on the door next to theirs.

A moment later Ralt answered the door trying to stifle a yawn. His tousled hair showed he’d been sleeping. “Is it time for dinner?” he asked, blinking his eyes to clear them.

Storm ignored the question. “Is Durin in there?” Ralt and Durin were sharing a room tonight.

“Nope,” Ralt shook his head. “Why?”

“He’s not back yet and it’s been over an hour now,” he said brusquely.

Ralt woke up fast. A companion disappearing in a strange town was a problem he understood at once. The only possibilities were bad and worse. He gripped his staff and hurried out into the hall. “That can’t be good.”

Storm felt Lorelei close behind him, bow in hand. “Right. Let’s go find him before it gets any later.” His voice was grim.

Both of them nodded and followed him down the stairs out into the gathering dusk. There were a number of people hurrying down the street in the direction where Lorelei had seen the store. Further down the street they could see more people coming toward them, and all of them from both directions were turning on the same side street.

“Is that the street where you saw the store?” Storm asked his wife, already knowing the answer.

Lorelei knocked an arrow. “Yes.”

“Durin got himself into trouble for sure,” Ralt muttered, hefting his staff.

“Then let’s get him out of it,” Storm growled, pulling his sword as he headed down the street with a ground eating stride.

Ralt didn’t – quite – have to run to keep up but it was a near thing. Lorelei, with her long legs and years of living on the Biqah Prairie had no problems keeping pace with her tall husband. The three of them turned the corner, and nearly walked into the back edges of a close packed crowd filling the street from side to side.

“Whoa!” Storm exclaimed, dancing back to keep from running into people. “What in the world?”

“There’s Durin!” Lorelei exclaimed excitedly, pointing at the front of the store she’d seen earlier. He was back-lit from lanterns in the store, standing on a barrel talking earnestly to the crowd with the great black wolf, Fenris Fang, sitting at his side. She waved at him but he didn’t see her in the increasing gloom of the streets.

Storm recalled the second spell Ralt had taught him, that summoned magical fairy lights and send them dancing about. He concentrated for a moment then a spray of tiny lights in every color of the rainbow erupted from his outstretched hand to explode over the crowd like miniature fireworks. Ralt must have had the same idea at the same time; he sent a bolt of lightning ravening into the darkening sky with a deafening thunderclap.

The audience in the street gasped in fear and shock, instinctively ducking and looking around. They focused on Storm and his friends with shouts of outrage.

Lorelei shook her head. “You’re as bad as he is,” she told Ralt sourly.

Ralt and Storm grinned at each other.

“There are me friends,” Durin roared over the crowd. “They kin verify wot I’ve told ye!”

Heads turned back and forth from him to them, then the crowd slowly parted to let them through, closing up tight behind them as they passed, all the while suspicious looks were directed at them. As they neared the front of the crowd they realized the first several ranks were composed of forty or fifty dwarves, both male and female. The female dwarves didn’t have beards of course, their features were definitely feminine, and they were certainly more curvaceous than the men but their diminutive stature made it obvious they were dwarves. Storm decided that with their tight compact bodies, on Earth they could be mistaken for gymnasts or cheerleaders – short ones of course. One of them though stood several inches higher than the rest of the dwarves around her, her long brown hair reaching nearly to her waist.

The dwarven ranks parted grudgingly for them.

“Uh, what is it we’re supposed to verify?” Ralt asked cautiously when they reached Durin. He looked around. “This is quite the gathering you’ve got here.”

“That I am who I say I am, ya dolt!” Durin snapped impatiently. “Even Fenris Fang ain’t enough ta convince ’em.”

“He’s lost his mind,” a blond dwarf called from the crowd. “He want’s us ta believe he’s from the First Age! Dat’s impossible!” A loud mutter of agreement rumbled through the dwarves, echoed somewhat less deeply by the humans behind them.

“As impossible as an elf with wizardly powers?” Ralt ripostéd quickly. He tossed his staff to Storm, catching him by surprise. He barely managed to catch it one handed before Ralt incanted a spell, sending a blast of fire raging up into the sky. The crowd hastily backed away from the blistering heat.

“Since when can one with elven blood do that?” Ralt shouted before they could recover. He didn’t give them a chance to answer. “I’m Ralt Gaither, Giant’s Bane,” he introduced himself using the name Storm had bequeathed him when he slew a giant with a single blow. “My half-elven mother died giving birth to me, then came to visit me when I turned ten, gave me a new name, and said I was chosen to learn magic so one day I could help an ancient king reclaim his throne. THAT’S since when, and Durin, son of Drangor, is that king!” he finished triumphantly.

Storm stared hard at his friend as the crowd reacted with shock and surprise to his words. He eyed him as if he’d never seen him before as he handed him back his staff. “You never told me that before,” he said over the rising noise of the crowd. “And what new name?”

“It never seemed important before,” Ralt shrugged, ignoring his question.

Durin was also examining him with new eyes. “Ye were chosen ta help me?” he asked in disbelief.

“I believe so, yes,” Ralt answered somberly.

Storm’s Ghibbore senses were kicking in hard, telling him in no uncertain terms Ralt spoke the plain, unvarnished truth. But more was needed to convince those before them. He lofted his sword, glowing with power into the air. “I’m Storm, born on Elder Earth, Chosen by the Lord of Light to be a Ghibbore on Gaia!” He dropped his free hand on Durin’s shoulder. “Friend and companion to the King of Thangadrim!”

Lorelei stepped up on Durin’s other side, also dropping a hand on his shoulder. “And I’m Lorelei, a Child of Heaven, wife of Storm and friend to Ralt and Durin. All of us together, including His Majesty, fought and defeated a demon from Hell itself.”

One shock after another rolled over the crowd, not least of which was her reference to Durin as His Majesty. It put his claim in sharp relief. Elder Earth and Ghibbore were words being whispered throughout the gathering as well.

The crowd dissolved in confusion, some now convinced and arguing in support of Durin’s claim, others against. While their impromptu audience quarreled with each other Lorelei quizzed Durin as to how the whole situation had come about.

He explained quickly about his initial meeting in the store, concluding, “But not all of ’em believed me and wanted more more proof, and the longer we fenced wit each other the more people gathered to listen, then they wanted proof and I had ta start all over again.” Frustration was writ large on his features.

The noise was growing as people argued their side louder and louder. Finally an elderly thin pale man in dingy brown robes with weak watery blue eyes clapped his hands over his head with a sound like thunder. It startled the mob into temporary silence.

“My magic tells me they’re being truthful,” he said, indicating the foursome in front of the Bulging Barrel. “And there’s a core of strange power in the big one. I believe them.” His voice was harsh and biting.

“Why should we listen to you, Marah?” a woman shouted from the crowd. “You’re just a bitter old man.”

And with reason enough,” he snapped irritably, “but it doesn’t change the facts.” He lifted his voice to reach the farthermost part of those assembled there. “You know me and you know my magic. They’re telling the truth.” He pointed at the foursome. “All of them.”

A portly middle-aged man, surrounded by six guardsmen, wearing a gold chain of office around his neck which proclaimed him to be the mayor, separated himself from the mass of people in the street to speak up. “Even if they’re telling the truth, so what? How does that have anything to do with Far Point?”

A dark-haired priest wearing the purple tunic of Tartak, with black shoulder embellishments, laughed darkly. “Nothing! Which means it won’t hurt Far Point to banish these evil followers of the so-called Lord of Light,” he sneered. “Kick them out of town tonight, Mayor Lubneir.”

“Shut up, Pünon,” someone shouted from the safety of numbers in the darkened streets. “This ain’t about yer stinkin’ gods.” The acid voice was distinctly dwarven.

“Blasphemy!” Pünon shouted in outrage. “Who said that? Show yourself!” He spun around searching for his target, robes billowing sickly around him to reveal skinny legs and knobby knees.

A roar of raucous jeers answered him from all sides.

“Enough!” the Mayor roared, revealing a full-throated speaker’s voice, trained to carry. His guardsmen lifted their torches high in the air to illuminate him from all sides. “If our dwarfish brethren,” he nodded at the dwarves gathered near Durin’s barrel and elsewhere, “wish to discuss kingship of their kind with Durin, that’s their business. As for the rest of their claims, as I already said, even if they’re true it has nothing to do with us.” He turned to Pünon. “And you, priest, I’ve about had my fill of you and your petty tyranny. Tartak isn’t the only god on Gaia and Far Point isn’t the only town for you to live in.” He fixed a hard eye on him. “Do I make myself understood?”

Pünon flushed hotly as mocking laughter sounded on all sides. He turned and fled.

“Clear the streets,” Lubneir ordered his guards. He raised his voice again. “All of you; the excitement is over. Go home!” The guards immediately began poking and prodding people with the butt end of their spears to start them moving.

He shouldered his way through the dispersing mass of humanity to address Storm and his companions more quietly. “Who are you and what are you doing in my town?” he demanded without preamble.

Lorelei sucked in her breath quietly, hoping her hot-tempered husband would hold his anger in check for once. She needn’t have worried though; Storm understood the mayor’s concern all too well.

“Merely passing travelers,” he answered smoothly as if they were having a drawing room discussion about the weather. “Durin was purchasing supplies and chanced to encounter some of the local dwarves. They introduced themselves and one thing led to another. Nothing more,” he assured him reasonably.

Somewhat mollified, Lubneir nodded grudgingly. “I know how these things can happen,” he conceded, “but I’ll still have to ask you to leave as early as possible tomorrow morning.” He was at least leaving them the option of spending the night before kicking them out.

Storm nodded as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Of course, mister mayor. Thank you for your understanding. We’ll leave at first light and won’t trouble you any further.”

“Uh, maybe you and Lorelei will,” Ralt interrupted, leaving Durin who was still talking with his fellow dwarves, “but Durin and I will be staying for a week or so, maybe going up to their mine.”

“What?” Storm and Lorelei said together. The mayor echoed them.

“Remember what Fenris Fang told us when he first showed us his wolf form?” Ralt asked. “He said every dwarf in the world has Shokirin blood in them now. That means these are Durin’s kin,” he waved at the tight press of dwarves surrounding their friend, “and he’s their rightful king. He has to stay for a while, and while I don’t know why a dwarf would need help from a part-elven wizard to reclaim his throne, the dead don’t bring messages to the living like my mother did unless it’s important.” He spread his hands apologetically. “I have to stay.”

“Uh . . .” Storm and Lorelei exchanged helpless glances.

She laid a gentle hand on Ralt’s shoulder. “Then you have our blessings. We’ll wait a few miles outside the city until you and Durin are finished with your business.”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t know how long this is going to take. Besides, the prophecy about you only specified the man of might. That’s Storm here,” he nodded at him. “There wasn’t anything about wizards or dwarves. Whatever needs to be done in your tribe, Storm is the one to do it.”

The mayor was lost, his head swiveling back and forth between them, a bemused expression on his face.

Durin stumped over to them, a huge bag of supplies slung over his shoulder. “I’ll be spendin’ the night with ye,” he told them, “but in da mornin’ I’m headin’ up da mountain wit me kin,” he nodded over his shoulder at them. “Dey say der’s a test dat will prove whether or not wot I say is true.” His few minutes with the other dwarves had suddenly sharpened his accent.

Storm felt a sense of loss already. “Will we see you again?” he asked them.

“Oh aye,” Durin nodded. “Even if dey believe me ain’t nothin’ kin be done until ‘till Mid-Summer’s Eve or mebbe Mid-Summer’s Eve next year. Me and da elf kin catch up wit ye a’fore then on our flyin’ ponies.”

“Pegasi,” Lorelei corrected softly.

“Whatever,” Ralt countered absently. “The point is, we’ll see each other again; we just don’t know when.”

“And these,” Durin hefted the bag of supplies, “bought fer four will take care of two fer twice as long.”

Storm nodded brusquely. He was sure Durin had bought well. “You have to do what you have to do, but since you’re not leaving until tomorrow, tonight we’ll have a proper send-off at dinner.” He paused. “I’m guessing you’ll be resigning from the Army of Light now you’re a king?”

The mayor’s confusion deepened further.

Durin shook his head emphatically. “Nay, lad. Why would ye say dat?”

“The Army of Light is under my command. A king can’t obey someone else,” Storm argued reasonably.

“He kin obey an emperor,” Durin countered.

Storm gave a bark of laughter. “Nine of us plus a few men-at-arms is hardly an empire.”

“Empires have to start small before they get big,” Ralt smiled indulgently.

Storm shook his head in mock despair. “Have it your way. But if we’re done here,” he indicated the full darkness of night now covering the street where they stood, “let’s eat and host a few to the once and future king of the dwarves,” he proclaimed, adopting the half-remembered title of a long-forgotten book to their current situation.

His friends laughed and started back up the street with him. He stopped and looked back at Lubneir standing there in shock. “Uh, with your permission, mayor?”

“Uh . . .” he waved a hand helplessly in the air. “Sure. Uh, fare thee well.”

“Fare thee well,” Storm answered jovially.

“We’ve given him plenty to think about,” Lorelei mused as they made their way back to the inn.

“Perhaps more than we should have,” Ralt added thoughtfully. “We’ve gotten in the habit of talking openly about things until we forget we’re not around friends and comrades any more. We may not have been very discreet just now. I hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us.”

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