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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 57

Storm woke before sunrise. Lorelei’s passion, fueled by her return to the Abeytu and the culmination of her quest to see justice done for her father, had kept him awake the better part of the night. Even now he felt a stirring that called him to take her again. He was chagrined to realize that Lydia, his wife on Earth, had never aroused such a strong desire in him. He loved her and was still angry about the way she died, but there was no disputing Lorelei was better suited for him than Lydia had ever been. He felt guilty, as if he was betraying her memory but he couldn’t help it.

“Somebody’s up.” Lorelei’s voice had a soft giggle in it.

“Hush, woman.”

“Yes, master. Of course, master. Anything you say, master.”

He rolled his eyes at her sarcasm. He sighed, then grabbed her wrists and rolled over on top of her. “I can’t believe how lucky I am to have a woman like you.”

Her eyes softened and she kissed him lightly. “And I, you.”

He propped himself up on one elbow and brushed her hair out of her face. “You know, this ‘one flesh’ thing has ramifications I’d never imagined.”

She arched an eyebrow. “It did come in handy last night, didn’t it?” When he began to tire, she was able to use his power to ‘heal’ him of his exhaustion so he could continue. Later, when she began to tire, he did the same for her. They went back and forth several times in that manner.

He chuckled and kissed her again, then frowned thoughtfully. “I wonder what else we can do with it?” He sat up.

Understanding from his actions their night of passion was done, she sat up as well. “We may find out sooner than you know. When you claimed all that belonged to Klah and Menewa, the tribe saw that as claiming their positions as well. According to tradition, you’re chief of both halves of the tribe.” He nodded. The Clans had the same kind of traditions. “No one mentioned it yesterday because they were shocked and caught off guard, but today you’re going to be challenged for it.”

He stood up. “I know. Let’s bathe in the river and get dressed before the fun starts.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Fun?” She shook her head but got up with him.

Within the hour they bathed, dressed, and ate. By the time the rest of the tribe was up and about, Storm was standing on a mound of boulders next to the meadow where he and Menewa had fought. Klah and Menewa’s bodies lay on the ground before him, wrapped in deer skins. Crowsotarri’s body lay beside them.

Lorelei frowned at the bodies. “What are they here for?”

He gave her a twisted grin. “To help start the fun.”

She was immediately suspicious. His idea of fun was more barbarian than not, despite his continual protests of only being adopted. “Storm,” she began warningly.

He quickly held up a placating hand. “I’m not going to hurt anyone.”

She gave him a disbelieving look.

“Well, I won’t if they don’t push me,” he qualified.

She heard voices in the distance calling to the tribe. Turning, she saw people pointing at them and heading their way. Her heart quailed inside her. Whatever he was up to, it was too late to change his mind now. If he was going to claim leadership over the tribe, he was in for a rude shock. Although technically he he could put forth a claim by right of conquest, he was an outsider and the tribe had spent the last two years thinking of her as an outcast worthy of death on sight, regardless of their outward acceptance of her yesterday. Her presence wouldn’t help his case and would probably damage it if anything. She looked back at him and he was holding out his hand to help her up to stand beside him. She sighed with regret and allowed him to help her up.

“This is not wise,” she whispered to him as the first Abeytu reached them.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered back. “It’s not what you think.”

She was puzzled. If he wasn’t trying to claim the place of chieftain, then what was he doing?

Storm waved his arms for the assembling tribesmen to gather close around. They complied, moving in closer as more arrived until they were standing shoulder to shoulder all around. He lifted his voice to carry over the crowd. “We are not like the soft people in Nahor. They have no sense of honor or respect for tradition.”

Lorelei saw a few heads nodding here and there. He was making points all of them could agree with but there was nothing new here. Of course, the Biqah respected tradition, it was like saying the sun was bright. Where was he going with this?

“We respect our dead and honor them, regardless of the differences we had with them. We do not sully their memory with the problems of the living.”

More heads nodded.

Lorelei was completely lost now. What was he doing?

He waved at the bodies before him. “Two chieftains died yesterday and a third was pulled from his grave to gain power from his flesh.” It was the barbarian way of putting it, the old tradition of eating an enemy to acquire his strength and courage, but the Biqah easily understood the reference. It was also a way to delicately skirt around the fact it was Klah who did the eating. Tribesmen weren’t supposed to eat each other, only enemies. “They must be buried with all the honor and respect due to them,” he continued. “What say the shamans and tribal elders?”

Lorelei turned to examine him with a critical eye, for the moment putting aside the fact she loved him. Bringing up a burial for the three men was an inspired move but pulling the shamans and elders into it by asking for their opinion was pure genius. It took the focus off of him and put it on revered men the tribe had known and respected for years on end. Once again she found herself wondering, who was this man she’d married?

His question generated a buzz throughout the assembled tribe. They parted to make way for the elders and shamans as they came forward.

Hania, by virtue of his newly healed leg made it to the front before the rest of them. “This man is right,” he said, avoiding using Storm’s name or giving him any title that would distract from the direction he was leading them. “We do not throw aside tradition as the city dwellers in Nahor are prone to do. Our honored dead must be buried according to our ways.”

The elders added their voices to his as they came forward one at a time. By the time Gaagii made his way to the front, bringing up the rear of the parade of elders, there was nothing left for him to do but agree with them. Leading from behind again, Lorelei noted acidly.

Storm nodded his thanks to the shamans and elders gathered before him. “I thank the tribal elders and shamans for their wise council. Will they take charge of the arrangements so we may bury our dead this afternoon at the setting of the sun?”

Lorelei arched an eyebrow. The Biqah often timed their burials to the setting of the sun, seeing it as symbolic of the ending of the life of those who had died. It wasn’t required but it lent an additional air of solemnity to the occasion. The timing of the burial also postponed by another day the reckoning that was coming over the leadership of the tribe.

Storm immediately jumped down to ensure everyone was paying attention to the elders. Lorelei followed him as he wended his way through the crowd. He deflected every question thrown at him by directing the tribesmen to the elders. They finally made it out of the crowd, walking away from the growing hubbub.

Lorelei tilted her head at him. “Where did you get an idea like that?” She gestured over her shoulder.

He grinned widely. “OCS.”

She was startled. “That school for officers you told me about?”

“That’s the one.”

She was puzzled. “I don’t understand. Why would a school of officers train you for something like that? It doesn’t make sense.”

He shrugged. “Well, maybe not that exactly,” he allowed, “but it did train us on what to do after a battle or war is over. You have to win the hearts and minds of the enemy if you want to turn them into friends. You do it by deflection, one step at a time, get them distracted by some side issue, then another and another, whenever possible using their own traditions and ideas as if they were your own.”

She frowned. “You mean you don’t esteem those ideas?”

He laughed. “Of course I do. Well, except for the eating people part, but the principle is, you have to honor what people respect if you want them to be your friends.” He held open the flap to their tent for her then followed her in.

She swung around to confront him. “Alright, so you want them to be friends, but I thought you were going to claim the chieftain’s place.”

“I am but before I do that I want at least some of them on my side. Honoring the ways of the Biqah is the first step in that direction. Besides, I believe in many of those ways myself, and Durin once said I’m a prime example of the kind of people you know at a glance are speaking their mind.” He gave her a twisted little grin while mulling over in his heart the whys and wherefores of his desire to be chief. He did, but why?

Lorelei remembered the conversation the four of them had had on the balcony the night before she and Storm were married in the Temple in Zered. “He didn’t mean it as a compliment,” she reminded him.

Storm was indifferent. “Regardless. The point is, people can tell when I’m speaking from my heart. The dead should be buried before we get down and dirty with tribal politics. If I can do that and demonstrate my respect for Biqah traditions at the same time, I’ll kill two birds with one stone.”

Lorelei had never heard that saying before but she understood right away what it meant. “Alright,” she conceded. “What else did that OCS teach you about situations like this?”

He shook his head. “Nothing specific, just generalities. One thing they pounded into our heads though was that religious differences never end well. Half the tribe follows Adrammelech and the other half follows the Lord of Light. No matter who becomes the chief, those difference aren’t going to go away.”

Outside the tent they heard the sound of men talking and the clank of tools. He stuck his head out and saw a group of men carrying shovels heading for the Bridge of the Gods. He hurried to the stack of tools he’d inherited from Klah and Menewa. He pulled out an old shovel. “Stay here,” he told her. “Men always bond best over shared labor. I’m going to go help them dig the graves.”

* * * * *

Storm’s attempt to befriend the men was only partially successful. Enapay, a warrior of the Minninnewah, was the only one who opened up to him. The rest, equally divided between the Minninnewah and the Namida, who followed Adrammelech, ignored him as much as possible. The only other exception was Keme. Although technically he was a member of the Namida, his secret wizardry tilted his sympathies toward Storm and Lorelei. Occasionally, he ventured to discuss banal subjects such as the weather that couldn’t be construed as making common cause with an enemy.

Still, as they trudged back to the camp, Storm couldn’t complain. His instructors at OCS had continually emphasized a good leader had to lead by example. He shouldn’t ask his men to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. The warriors from both parts of the tribe had seen him work side-by-side with them all day in the hot sun. Whether they would suffer him to be their chief was irrelevant, they would know he didn’t eschew hard work.

The mindless repetitious labor of digging the graves had let his mind wander, freeing him to consider his reasons for wanting the chieftainship of the tribe. He would be good at it, there was no doubt about that, he was a natural-born leader and he’d been in positions of leadership all his life on Earth and here on Gaia. He could do the job, no questions asked. But why did he want it so much? It was almost an instinctive reaction, one which surprised him with its intensity.

Part of it was Lorelei, of course. The Abeytu tribe was her family and her home just as the Bear Clan was his, but all joking about being adopted aside, they were a little too rough around the edges for him. The Biqah tribes were more civilized than the barbarians of the Rampart Mountains. In many respects they were similar to the American Indian tribes he’d known on Earth, but there were many feudal aspects to them as well. They would have been quite at home in medieval Europe but they weren’t tied down to any one city like the people in Zered, Robling, or Nahor. They were free to go wherever the wind blew them. It was a lifestyle he understood well from his days as an “old hippie” on Earth or with the caravans on Gaia. If Lydia had lived, she would never have roamed the world with him, she was the stay at home type who hated camping and roughing it. Lorelei, on the other hand, was born to a people who were given to roaming. She loved it and didn’t mind saying so. As chief of the Abeytu, he could have all the roaming he ever wanted and a wife who enjoyed it at his side. That was about as close to heaven as anything he could imagine.

The other part of it though was his grudging acknowledgment God had His hand on his life. He still wasn’t sure why or for what purpose but there was a nagging feeling that leading the Abeytu was part of it, over and above his natural longing for command. He and Ralt had made ‘righting the wrongs and setting the captive free’ their unofficial motto. It was even part of why they’d begun calling themselves the Army of Light. Could the Abeytu become part of that army if he led them? Could they help find Thangadrim and restore Durin to the throne? Being the chief of a Biqah tribe was more than just politics, although there was that too, but the chief was mainly seen as the father of the tribe. The tribe was your family and the chief was your father. He’d enjoyed being a father on Earth although his career in the Marines forced him to be gone more than he was home. If he became chief of the Abeytu, he could take his family with him instead of leaving them behind.

His thoughts tumbled through his mind more or less at random, jumping from one to another. He didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, and standing with Lorelei beside him as the shamans performed the burial rituals by the light of the setting sun, he only knew one thing for sure – he was going to be chieftain of the Abeytu come hell or high water.

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