Where stands Man and Dragon,
Wars and rumors of wars will
Constantly be whispered.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
Sixteen Rogarian swordsmen running through deep snow, with swords drawn and at the ready, is a memory not soon forgotten. Encircling me and closing in rapidly I half turned and gazed over my right shoulder. And smiled.
Aye, sixteen swordsmen bent on destroying me is a memory indeed. But the startling appearance of a giant black Great Wing suddenly rising out of the trees with wings powerful and strong and turning in his climb toward the ring of death surrounding me is an even more memorable sight to remember! Cedric, my old and faithful companion and partner in our fight against Evil, extended its vicious talons forward as he suddenly dipped down into a shallow dive.
A Great Wing war bird is a terribly beautiful sight to see. With its giant hooked beak and its three-toed claws strong enough to rip to pieces a flame-throwing Winged Beastie, such a creature is a formidable opponent to face.
So formidable I have seen men, stout warriors brave and true, drop their weapons and flee in mindless terror whenever Great Wings joined the battle. I was not surprised, therefore, when six of the swordsmen running toward me suddenly slide to a halt, their faces filling with horror, and turned and began retreating back through the heavy snow toward the tree line behind them.
Cedric let out his screeching war cry just as his talons closed around my body and jerked me up into the heavens. The remaining ten swordsman slid to a halt in the deep snow, lowering their weapons in amazement as they saw me dangling from Cedric’s talons. The giant bird began climbing rapidly and circling to our right. I laughed, slapped the hardness of one scarred talon, and then waved to the swordsmen below. Plucked from the jaws of sure Death! Again! Saved from destruction by an old and wily creature whom I called a friend and companion. For years this venerable old Great Wing and I had faced countless foes. Faced odds which would have made the faint of heart succumb and fall to their knees to plead for mercy. Always loyal. Always faithful. Never wavering in his alliance to me. As I never wavered in mine toward him.
But the fight was not over. My glee in escaping insurmountable odds expressed too soon.
Two incidents happened, at almost the same time, which demanded my attention. Below, as I watched the milling sixteen warriors, I saw a curtain of arrows explode from out of the nearest tree line encircling the clearing. The aim of the unseen bowmen was deadly and true. All the remaining swordsmen fell into the startling white snow impaled by six or more arrows each.
At the same time, from above us, I heard the familiar screech of attacking Great Wings. Looking up my glee turned to dismay as I saw a number of Great Wings and their riders plummeting out of the skies straight toward us. Twenty Rogarian riders and their Great Wings! Their birds had wings swept back and were in the classic diving form. Hurling toward us at incredible speeds while their riders notched arrows to their short horn bows and prepared to do battle. And I? I was in the grasp of Cedric’s great talons. Not in the saddle, strapped tightly down with bow and arrow in hand to do battle. Both myself and my old friend were vulnerable.
Cedric, holding me in his talons, could not use his extraordinary agility to dart and weave his way through the mass of attacking birds above us. And I, with no bow in hand to defend us, was particularly useless in assisting my friend.
I twisted my body around in Cedric’s grip and looked down. From out of the tree line a long line of bowmen appeared. Bowmen dressed in the simple tan robes of Niscian monks. Each monk had their bows notched with arrows and each were lifting their bows above their heads.
“Cedric! Drop me! Drop me and hurry to camp and bring back help!”
The black and red Huygens-bred war bird did not hesitate. Even though in his rapid climb into the heavens had us some distance above the ground the drop would not be far enough to cause harm. Giant talons released their hold on me and I spread my arms out in a diving position and began dropping. Above me Cedric, now unhampered, became an unbelievable aerial acrobat! Rolling and twisting through the hail of arrows aimed in his direction the black warrior of the air ascended into the clear winter sky like a rocket. In the blinking of an eye he was past our foes and was gone before any Rogarian rider and his beast could come out of their dives and begin a pursuit.
The snow created a soft cushion for my landing. I landed only a few feet away from the Niscian bowman and turned to face them. I knew not what to expect. I, as a Malus Apostate, was still considered a religious abomination to every living human. Because of this I would not have been surprised if all thirty or more bowman turned their weapons toward me. But they did not. Instead they quickly formed a circle around me and a burly looking swordsman, a Niscian warrior-monk whom I greatly admired by the name of Bobar of Faraway, tossed me a horn bow and a quiver of arrows.
The Niscian swordsman was the personal bodyguard to a monk by the name of Constantine Marcellus. This Constantine Marcellus, only a few months past, had been the abbot of a Niscian monastery called The Monastery of a Thousand Candles. The monastery no longer existed, much as the Kingdom of Niscia no longer existed, thanks to the ravages of those who accepted Rogarian gold and obeyed Rogarian orders.
Weeks earlier I tried to save the monastery and the lives of the Niscian monks who resided there. I even took the chance to reveal myself to the abbot and tell him the set of events, the destiny, which had sent me down the road of becoming a Malus Apostate. My efforts were futile. The monastery was destroyed, along with the small mountain city called Karlsberg which nestled on the riverbanks beside the Niscian sacred temples. A great horde of mysterious Great Wing riders descended on city and monastery bringing fire and destruction with them. I fought shoulder to shoulder with the Niscian to defend their monastery and their city. To no avail. Only a few survived and fled into the forests. I was pleased to see the abbot, his swordsman-companion Bobar, and a number of of Niscian monks of the monastery had survived to fight another day.
The hail of deadly arrows from a band of Niscian warrior-monks became too much for the Rogarian riders above us. Niscian bowman are incomparable in their skills and thirty good bowman could defeat a force three times their size with little effort. Birds, wounded with a number of arrows decorating their bodies, twisted around and came out of their dives and hurried off to safety as fast as their wings could take them. In moments the skies above us, and the forest clearing around us, were free of our enemies. And again, I faced the simple Niscian monk and bowed reverently toward him.
“Whenever we meet, Bretan,” the gentle voice of Constantine began, holding a note of amusement in it as he spoke, “you bring uninvited guests. This must be very trying for you.”
Even the dour faced Bobar of Faraway, standing just in front and to one side of his abbot, hand on sheathed sword, smiled slightly. Grinning I nodded and looked around at the band of warriors surrounding me.
“My heart sings with delight in seeing you and a number of your monks have survived, reverend father.”
“Yes,” sighed the small man, his eyes clouding over with a brief wisp of pain before quickly dissolving into glint of hard determination, “a number of us survived. Thanks to your timely warning. But we find ourselves in an unenviable position. Devoid of our home, our homelands under siege by the Imperial armies of Rogaria, we are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness with no destination in mind.”
With my Inner Eye I felt the pain and sense of desolation in the abbot’s heart. And the anger, and a need for revenge aimed at anything Rogarian, burning in the hearts of the monks surrounding me. My soul ached in empathy for them. The Niscians, among all the major and minor religions which littered the High Kanris and Hill country of the north, were as close to the Bretan Way as any. We of the Bretan had always looked upon the Niscian Order as our distant kin and close comrades. Feelings I still harbored within me even though now I was, technically, a detested enemy for them.
The unmistakable roar of a dreaded Winged Beastie filled the air around us with startling clarity, soon followed by the screeching of Great Wings. Startled, we all notched arrows to our bow strings and edged in closer around the Niscian monk. The young abbot was not a warrior-monk. Neither was he a wizard. He was a gifted healer, a gentle man, and a natural leader of men. He was once an abbot of a well known monastery because of his skills as a healer and because of his gentleness. In a world filled with cruelty and war the small man’s gentle ways endeared him to many. Even now I felt the determination in the hearts of each of the Niscian warrior-monk to protect their abbot to the death.
Bursting from above the high tree line to our right a giant black and orange-winged Winged Beastie and his dragon rider emerged amidst a flurry of long tongues of flame. A frantic Hartooth clansman, rider and his mount, were desperately trying to escape from their tormentors. Two other Winged Beasties, creatures and their riders whom I instantly recognized, were twisting and turning their mounts in unison as they ravaged across the skies above us in their efforts to attack the Hartooth rider.
A second Hartooth rider and his fire-breather appeared, like his compatriot, was trying to disengage from a fiercely attacking set of opponents. But this time the clansman’s opponents were riding Great Wings. Two blond mane youths, with bows in hand, strapped to their Great Wings and filling the air with arrows as their birds twisted and turned chasing the Dragon clansman.
“Stay your hands, my friends!” I shouted, lifting a hand up to stop the Niscian bowmen from letting loose a volley of arrows. “I know those who attack the Hartooth! I know them well!”
My heart sang as I watched Gawain and Gawaith expertly dodge and sweep past the angry blasts of fire the Hartooth Great Wing hurled at them. Youths placed under my protection and tutelage by their royal uncle, King Olaf of the Vik, the two no longer were children. Now they were accomplished bowman and expert riders of their steeds. In a heartbeat their opponents, both rider and fire-breather, crashed into the upper branches of the forest close to us with a resounding and furious finality.
The dragon Zhintii brothers, Bellus and Hakim, were equally as deadly. A second after the first Hartooth and his fire-breather crashed into the forest, so did this second set of enemies meet their just rewards. As we watched Zhintii fire-breathers and Vik Great Wings swung around steeply toward us and began climbing for altitude. As they began climbing the black and red mass of my resolute Cedric appeared from out of no where and landed with a powerful sweep of his wings slowing his descent, sending up a cloud of fine powdery snow not more than two yards from where I stood. From out of this cloud of snow the commanding from of the Mauk paladin emerged, scimitar blade exposed and in one hand. With a calm, measured gait, he approached and came a halt beside me. In his eyes were the dark look of a Dragon ready to do battle. I felt the strength of his soul, the determination to win despite facing overwhelming odds. I felt something else as well. Restraint. Calculating restraint. A commodity extremely rare to be found in any creature, either Man or Dragon.
“Do we fight? Or do we negotiate, Bretan. Tell me quickly so I might send the child off to safety.”
I turned and looked toward my feathered compatriot. Climbing down from Cedric’s saddle the tiny form of little Ursala struggled. She leapt into the snow and turned and faced me. Calmly walking through the heavy snow she approached Ankor while myself, Constantine Marcellus and his Niscian monks gazed upon the child in genuine disbelief.
“Come, grandfather. The four of us must hurry if we are to arrive in time,” the child said softly, pleasantly, as he reached up and took my by a hand and began pulling me toward her.
“A journey?” I asked, frowning, “Who will be our companions?”
“You and me, grandfather Ankor, and our friend here.”
We moved directly toward the Niscian abbot. She, dragging me along by the hand, walked straight up to the small man dressed in his plain robes and took him by the hand as well. Neither he nor the protective Bobar of Faraway resisted. Both gazed down at the child, the prophesied Killer of Humanity, in disquieting awe and made no attempt to resist in any way.
But she frowned, let go of my hand, and turned to face the approaching Zhintii twins.
“You will do as I asked?” she said in her child’s voice more severely. “Promise me you will not harm our friends.”
The grinning Zhintii twins, standing now directly behind us with swords drawn and a look of mischievous calculation in their eyes, glanced at the monks around them and shrugged.
“Is it necessary? I mean, couldn’t we participate in a little contest or something? You know, just to pass the time until your return.” Bellus asked innocently
Gawain and Gawaith came strolling up and took positions on either side of the Zhintii. They too had grins on their faces which made me frown. One look at the two sets of twins and it was obvious they had been plotting something.
“No. They are our friends. We must help them if they will let us.”
“Oh, very well.”
I grinned as I watched the four frown in their frustrations. Satisfied with their answer she smiled and took me by the hand again before looking up into the faces of Constantine Marcellus and Ankor Mauk.
“Where are we go . . .”
I heard a crackling snarl of raw energy exploding in my ears. There was a rush of wind
and a sense of vertigo. We had entered the Netherworld!