Lorelei woke to find Storm pawing through the crysmeir armor he’d inherited from Klah and Menewa. “What are you doing?”
“I was hoping to find some crysmeir that fit me,” he replied tersely. “It would be another indication to the tribe that I honor Biqah ways.”
“Wear Menewa’s armor,” she said, rising from their blankets.
“Its doesn’t fit,” he growled in frustration. “I’m bigger across the chest than he was.”
She smiled. “It’s adjustable.”
He paused. “It is?”
She caressed his cheek. “Not many people outside the Biqah know it but we construct our armor to be able to take extra links or remove them. Here, I’ll show you.” She dug through the pile of armor until she found a heavy sank that clinked with the sound of crysmeir. She pawed through it until she found what she was looking for. “Come here, it’s easy.”
She spent the better part of the morning showing him how to add and remove links until the fit was just right. She also told him more about the armor itself. “We make it from the needles of the keth plant.”
He shook his head. “Never heard of it.”
“Well, that’s what we call it. In the Old Tongue, the name is Zakuketh, but we shortened it to just keth. You’d call it stick brier.”
“Stick brier? It’s a weed!” he exclaimed in surprise. “Painful one too,” he added, rubbing his arms in memory. Stick brier was covered with thousands of tiny needles, so thin and translucent they were almost invisible. They stung like crazy. He’d tripped and fallen into a patch of stick brier as a kid and it had taken several days to get all the little needles out of his arms and chest. Stick brier was the northern name for it. The rest of Gaia knew it as needle grass. It didn’t look anything like grass but the name was definitely appropriate.
“Looks like you’ve had a run-in with it,” she laughed, seeing his expression.
“Yeah.” He gave her the short version of his long ago encounter with it.
She blew him a sympathetic kiss. “Most people have the same reaction,” she smiled. “No one likes it. But sometime back in the Second Age our people figured out if you boil the needles with the right amount of salt, then strain it through a fine cloth, when it cools it crystallizes into this transparent material as strong as steel but light as a feather.”
“If you pour it into a mold, it will form according to whatever shape the mold is. Once it’s completely cooled, you take the crysmeir out of of the mold and there you are. It’s still a little pliable at that stage so you can shape it and smooth off the rough edges, impress some designs in it if you like. Then set it out in the sun for several days to cure. After that,” she shrugged “the only thing you can do is break it. If you can,” she smiled.
Storm was fascinated by the simplicity of it. “I’ve seen crysmeir in a lot of different colors. How do you do that?”
“Put some dye in it and mix it up right before you pour it in the mold. Some people don’t stir up the dye when they put it in though,” she added. “When it comes out of the mold it has all these swirls of color running through it. It’s beautiful.”
“Those needles are tiny,” Storm said. “How long does it take to collect enough of them for shirt of chain like that?” He gestured at armor she was adjusting.
“A long time,” she admitted. “But the needles are only good for a couple of days after you collect them so you have to have the whole tribe go out all at once. Everybody works together, wearing heavy leather gloves to strip the needles off the keth. For this armor right here,” she held up his chain, “it probably took about eight minas of needles.”
He translated that in his head to ten pounds. “That’s a lot of needles and a lot of work for one set of chain,” he returned thoughtfully, even more impressed than before now he knew the amount of labor that had gone into its creation.
She rose up and gave him the chain. “Try it now.”
He pulled it on and tugged it into place. He walked around swinging his arms back and forth, then up and down. He gave her a look of appreciation. “It fits like a glove.” He grabbed her suddenly.
She squealed in surprise, then swayed against him. “Yes?”
He lowered his head until his lips just touched hers.. “You, my dear, are the perfect woman for me. Love me all night, fix my armor in the morning, and fight beside me in the afternoon. What more could anyone ask?”
She laughed low in her throat, kissed him lightly, then spun out of his arms to snatch up her clothes. “Go on, get out of here before I drag you back to our blankets.”
He sketched a salute. “Yes, Ma’am!”
He waited outside for her to dress. Passing tribesmen took note of his armor and weapons. They knew it meant he was prepared to put forth his claim to the chieftainship and defend it against any challengers. Whispers quickly spread through the camp. By the time Lorelei emerged, also armed and armored, the tribe was gathering in the clearing where he’d fought Menewa. He marched through the swelling crowd, Lorelei close by his side, looking neither right nor left.
The sun had come up on a clear, cloudless sky. The sights and sounds and smells of springtime were all around; birds called merrily to each other as they flitted between the trees, squirrels chased each other across the ground and around the trunks, leaping from branch to branch with suicidal carelessness, the air was filled with the scent of a thousand flowers, and the early morning air had just enough crispness in it to get the blood pumping. In every way possible it was a perfect spring day. Or, as the Biqah were prone to say, it was good day to die.
It was high noon when once more he climbed to the top of the rock mound, pulling Lorelei with him onto the flattened top.
Lorelei ran her eyes over the assembled tribe, Minninnewah and Namida alike. Menewa had never been defeated in battle or in any contest of strength or skill, so who among the tribal warriors would be brave enough to challenge the man who bested him so easily? Under any other circumstances, only a warrior from the Minninnewah could challenge him, but when Menewa killed Klah and claimed everything that was his, it forced the two halves of the tribe into direct leadership conflict for the first time since the tribe had split along religious lines. The Abeytu might – might – have accepted Menewa as the chieftain of both halves, he at least was a known quantity who was highly respected by both sides. Storm, however, was neither.
Nonetheless, the prospect of challenging the man who beat Menewa was enough to give any warrior cause to hesitate. Menewa’s death forever removed him from any consideration as the ‘man of might’ from the prophecy, leaving the very real possibility Storm was the one. The prospect of challenging him was daunting, to say the least. But now, anyone from either half of the tribe could raise a challenge if they felt so inclined, thus doubling the potential number of adversaries Storm would have to face. She once told them her tribe numbered several thousand. Looking at them now, she realized just how many it was.
Storm was thinking about those numbers too. The bright morning sun made it easy to pick out the men from the women, the boys from the men, and the oldsters from the mature warriors. It still left him facing close to a thousand possible adversaries. He squared his shoulders and lifted his head.
“I am Storm, born of Elder Earth, Ghibbore of the Lord of Light, adopted son of the Bear Clan, man of might from the prophecy, blood-brother to Crowsotarri, husband to Lorelei the Child of Heaven, and the only one to ever defeat Menewa in single combat! He killed Klah and claimed everything that was his, including chieftainship of the Minninnewah. I killed Menewa and claimed everything that was his, including chieftainship of the Namida.” He paused and looked around. His chest swelled as he took a deep breath. “I now claim chieftainship of all the Abeytu, Minninnewah and Namida alike!” His voice rang out across the length and breadth of the meadow.
Even though they’d been expecting it, it still caused a stir when they finally heard him make his claim. They shifted uneasily, looking at each other but no one moved. The chirping of the birds was very loud in the silence that followed his ringing proclamation.
“I will be father to you all,” he declared when no one stepped forward. “Grant me the hand of kinship and be my children.”
A tall slender man wearing Namida colors shook his fist. “You worship a false god! You will never be father to me!”
Storm drew his sword with a flourish. “Do you challenge?”
Someone on the Minninnewah side called out, “Better be careful, Dadgayadoh. You can’t win this one with a throw of the dice.” Laughter rippled through the crowd.
The tall man flushed. “I’m not challenging, but neither will I stay if you make this man our chief.”
“Dadgayadoh is right. I won’t stay either,” a woman on the Namida side called. She pointed at Storm. “He makes big claims with no proof.”
“He healed Hania’s leg,” Enapay snapped. “That’s proof.” A confused babble broke out at his words.
Storm felt a swell of gratitude for Enapay’s support. His hard work on the burial detail had brought him at least one friend. He let the squabbling continue for a minute then drew his other sword and brought them together with a ringing clash.
“Silence!” The crowd quieted and turned to him.
“I claim chieftainship of the Abeytu. Does anyone challenge?”
A blinding flash of rainbow-colored light erupted behind the gathered tribe. A 12-foot figure, more handsome than any man who ever lived, in green robes, with long flowing pale white hair and sparkling blue eyes stood before them.
Gaagii’s excited voice rang out across the meadow and all the Namida fell to their knees in an instant. The Minninnewah didn’t bend the knee but they fell back in fear and dismay at the sight of the towering figure. Even Hania was trembling.
Adrammelech fixed his burning gaze on Storm and Lorelei. “The pretender and the adulterous slut,” he sneered. He paused. “I CHALLENGE!”
Everything Storm had learned about the gods of Gaia flashed through his mind in a single instant, his ability to attack any magical creature, his Ghibbore power to heal or harm, his one flesh sharing of power with Lorelei, and over and above it all, God’s relentless hand on his life; it all flashed through his mind like chain lightning and he knew in that instant what he had to do. He leapt off the mound and strode toward the monster in front of him. “I accept!” he roared, his voice tiny in comparison to Adrammelech’s. “Single combat to the death!”
Lorelei screamed in terror. “Storm! No!”
Adrammelech bellowed laughter. “Done!”
Lorelei’s despairing scream split the air as tribesmen shrank back from the madman who was challenging a god.
Storm broke into the open space between the Abeytu and Adrammelech. It was finally time to test if his growing suspicions about the gods of Gaia were correct. If he was wrong the price would be his life, but if he was right the world would never be the same. He halted, feet spread apart, his arms held up in the air with a sword in either fist. “I grant the right of first strike!”
Adrammelech’s eyes narrowed. The right of first strike was a time-honored insult among the barbarian clans of the Rampart mountains and among many of the Biqah as well. By granting the right of first strike a man was essentially saying his enemy was too weak and puny to be considered a worthy opponent unless he had the chance to strike first. It was the most demeaning insult one man could give to another.
Lorelei, running to catch up to Storm, slowed, remembering their last encounter with Adrammelech and his refusal to attack Storm directly, instead ordering his men to attack in his place.
Adrammelech laughed harshly. “I have no need to sully my hands with the likes of you.” He turned to the Namida and pointed at Storm. “Kill him!”
The Minninnewah gasped in outrage. Single combat had been specified and agreed to. Ordering someone else to kill Storm was a breech of everything the Biqah held sacred. Even many of the Namida were on their feet in protest. Three of them though, were more enthralled by their deity than the rest and turned to attack Storm. All three slammed to a halt, staring at the arrows in their chests in amazement. Then, they crumpled and fell.
Storm glanced over his shoulder at Lorelei, standing with a fourth arrow in her bow. “Single combat means single combat,” she yelled at them. “Remember how I beat Menewa in the archery contest! I still have that power.” She bared her teeth in a ferocious smile like an angry she-wolf. “I will slay any who move.”
They froze in place, torn between their anger at Adrammelech’s breaking of tradition, their desire to obey him, and their remembrance of her deadly aim.
Storm took advantage of their momentary indecision to recapture the moment. Lorelei’s scream of fear had pierced him to his heart but now she seemed to be backing him up. As he turned his attention back to his enemy his eyes flickered over the Minninnewah, marking those who held bow and arrows.
He took three giant steps toward Adrammelech then struck his former pose again. “Take your first strike, coward!”