Cherish the treasure of a true friend.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
“We were traveling to the monastery of St. Rolla when we spied the tracks of Rogarian
swordsmen. They were following a large group of Niscian refugees,” the abbot
explained as we sat around a large far deep in the forest not too far away from where I first
encountered the abbot and his small group of warrior-monks.
On my left sat Gawain and Gawaith with big grins on their faces as they warmed their hands in front of the fire. Beside them were Bellus and Hakim, the blue and sandy brown skinned Zhintii, also with wide grins spread on their reptilian lips. They, like Gawain and Gawaith, were grinning at being present in front of this large group of Niscian monks and listening to our conversations. After a hearty meal and building a large fire to keep us warm during the night the gentle abbot and I began speaking about some incidents from out of our pasts and the many exploits we endured in facing our enemies. Youth, being naturally curious, seem to find the adventures of their elders fascinating. So the four of them sat close to the Mauk and I and absorbed everything we said with avid intensity.
To my right sat the silent and stern form of Ankor Mauk. The green and yellow skinned Dragon, dressed in his fur and chain mail, with the distinctive horns of the Mauk clan decorating his skull, seemed to be a magnet to the young warrior-monks encircling the fire with us. He sat kneeling on his haunches, his sheathed Dragon’s scimitar resting upright between his legs. His dark eyes were on the abbot. He paid no attention to the young monks who, huddling close to the fire to stay warm, openly gawked at the warrior sitting beside me. It was the first time in their lives to have seen a living Dragon. And to be in the presence of a Dragon paladin of Ankor Mauk’s fame was an honor beyond comprehension.
Constantine Marcellus glanced at his young monks and smiled before returning his attention to me. Beside him sat his bodyguard, the warrior-monk Bobar. The swordsman sat relaxed and comfortable as he held in his hand a sharpened stick with the browning form of a Winter’s Hare being grilled over the hot fire. The swordsman kept glancing at Ankor and smiling. I sensed some bond between Dragon and Niscian. I sensed as well the Mauk’s awareness the swordsman was watching him. Neither impressions seemed hostile. On the contrary, the swordsman’s emotional portrait was that of a man showing respect to an honored foe.
“Forgive the rudeness of my wards, paladin,” the abbot’s voice began with a note of humor in it. “They are unduly interested in your presence. The great Mauk paladin, Ankor Mauk, setting around the campfire of a lowly Niscian abbot and his young charges with the equally renowned warrior-wizard known as Roland of the High Crags seems to be too much for them to handle this night.”
The Mauk shrugged and said nothing. But his eyes did turn and fix upon the darkly tanned face of the swordsman.
“We have met somewhere, I am sure of it. But I do not recall the event.”
“Ten years ago,” the swordsman said, smiling in appreciation. “Before I became the abbot’s servant. I came across a lone Mauk rider and his Winged Beastie flying a few miles to the east of a village called Hobis.”
“Ah,” grunted the paladin and nodding as he remember. “Yes. You rode a powerful Great Wing who was gray and black. A memorable fight. I have encountered few who could fly and fight as you exhibited that day. Did my Beastie wound your bird with his breath?”
“Yes. Burnt her right wing severely. So severely she died from infection a few days later.”
There was a look of sadness and regret in the faces of both warriors. But no hate. Just memories and a mutual respect for each other’s skill.
“Your arrow in my shoulder came close to throwing me into Death’s embrace as well, Niscian,” grunted the paladin, a hand coming up to rub the shoulder where there had been a wound. “I fought a high fever for six days. The wound became infected. I was delirious for quite some time. I hid in the forest outside the village and tried to attend to my wounds. If it wasn’t for a Bretan monk who happened to find my camp and nurse me back to health I would have died.”
The eyes of all turned to gaze at me. Shrugging, I explained.
“The abbot at St. Rolla sent me to Hobis to investigate a rumor of a possible Dragon attack soon to be launched against the village. The rumor was false. But I did find a wounded Mauk warrior. A few herbs boiled in some hot tea brought the fever down. A few poultices
cleared the wound’s infections. I made sure the warrior would survive before I left him. I thought the warrior had no idea who healed him.”
Eyes turned to stare at Ankor. The warrior almost grinned and picked up a stick to stir the fire before replying.
“I didn’t know it was you, Bretan. But I knew it was one of your kind.”
“How?” the abbot asked, intrigued at the discussion.
“The poultices. Large bags of herbs and plants wrapped up in cloth and lying discarded around my campsite. The cloth was of an odd yellow in color. The color of a Bretan warrior-monk.”
Smiling, I nodded. I had ripped the saffron yellow colored livery into a dozen pieces to make the poultices. Most Bretan warrior-monks wore the light cotton cloth over their chain mail and leather riding outfits while they rode their Great Wings. In my haste to leave the wounded warrior before he regained his senses and recognized me I forgot to dispose of the used poultices properly.
The young monks, listening to the story, stared at the Mauk, Bobar, and myself in amazement. Collectively from their souls I felt a sense of awe and wonder as they stared at us. The collective group, only a few left from the now destroyed Monastery of a Thousand Candles, had but just finished their warrior-monk training. None had stepped out from behind the protective environs of their sacred soil and officially entered the Outer Realms to begin their journeys serving the needs of their flock and confronting those who wished to do harm. Yet I sensed their eagerness to begin. I felt their burning desire to wreck havoc upon those who had destroyed their monastery. I had no doubts in the next coming weeks and months their desires would be fulfilled a thousand times over.
“The night grows late. Our journey to St. Rolla through this heavy snow will be a test of endurance. We all should get some sleep.”
“Yet before we turn in, Constantine, I must ask a favor,” I said, turning my attention to the abbot and with a tone of seriousness in my voice.”
“Gladly will I grant it if it is within my power,” the small Niscian answered, smiling and nodding. “Ask, so that I and my comrades might be able to assist you.”
“I must speak with my Bretan brethren at St. Rolla. Speak to Master Breen most of all.”
There was a dubious grunt from the dour faced Mauk to my right as he turned his attention to the face of the abbot. The young warrior-monks, sensing a change of emotions in our conversations, eagerly looked at their abbot as well.
For his part Constantine Marcellus kept the smile on his face. But the smile seemed to be somewhat strained, and the casual camaraderie had changed perceptibly as we sat in front of the fire. Sighing, the abbot stretched out his hands toward the fire preposterous absorb some heat in the bitter cold and hesitated a moment or two before answering.
“Your name is forbidden to be mentioned by any Bretan, Roland. As a Malus Apostate even to utter your name is an abomination. I struggle on the prospect of mentioning you when we arrive. Any who associate with an Apostate is considered unclean. If I admitted we helped you in any way I might be throwing the lives of myself and my fellow monks away needlessly.
And then there is Master Breen himself. We Niscians are keenly aware of the master’s talents. You must know, my friend, he will be an implacable enemy to you now that you have been so cruelly branded.”
The young monks looked puzzled at the reference to Master Breen. They did not know the Bretan had among them a very skilled assassin. As assassin trained in the art of stealth and in killing silently and quickly those whom the Bretan felt were beyond redemption. A Malus Apostate such as I would be exactly the kind of target a Bretan assassin would hunt. The thought of conversing with my old monastic teacher and friend, now my sworn enemy, seemed ludicrous to consider. Convincing him to join our cause insanely preposterous.
“I understand the difficulties, abbot,” I nodded. “But I must try. His other talents, when blended with those of Alvis Fairhands, would guarantee the child’s safety from those who use the Netherworld to search for her.”
The prelate frowned and nodded. For a few moment he gazed at me thoughtfully, as if making a decision, withdrew his open palms from the fire and cleared his throat.
“One cannot be condemned if one speaks of a soft breeze bearing unwanted thoughts, wizard. It was a gentle breeze who tried to warn of us of our monastery’s imminent doom. Too late to save our beloved home. But, thankfully, giving us enough time to save a large segment of those who lived there. Perhaps if I speak of the wind and mention no names our friend might be willing to listen?”
I smiled and nodded. Constantine, a look of sadness on his face, nodded as well and then came to his feet. His young monks rose instantly as well. Without uttering a word he turned and moved through the snow over to where a large space been cleared. There were heavy robes and a small tent pitched on the hard ground. Climbing into the tent he threw the flaps closed. Bobar, waiting for his master to retire completely, turned and faced the young warrior-monks. He pointed to two and nodded. The two quickly disappeared into the night without making a sound. To the others he nodded again and they quickly retired to their bedding surrounding their abbot’s small tent. Turning again, Bobar faced us.
“We will guard the night diligently. Our fires will be maintained through the night. Sleep, friends. Take the child and wrap here in warm blankets and sleep knowing you are among allies.”
He turned, without waiting for a response, and walked off into the darkness. Both the Dragon and I watched the usually stoic Niscian swordsman fade into the darkness. The Mauk grunted approvingly.
“A good man, as you humans would say. A great warrior as well. Now, tell me what talents this Master Breen possesses so dearly you are willing to risk your life to acquire.”
Quietly I told him. Master Breen’s talent as a powerful Null Stone, along with Alvis Fairhands’ same talent, would be more than enough to lay a blanket of silence across the entrances leading into the Netherworld. Their combined efforts would block Ursala’s mind from broadcasting our whereabouts. We would disappear into the night and not be found. We could gather our strength, collect our forces and eventually return and confront our enemies prepared and ready to do battle.
The Mauk looked down at the pile of blankets and robes lying at my feet. The child slept in deep contentment knowing both I and Ankor Mauk were by her side. The flickering light of the fire bathed the small bundle in front of me with a soft light. So buried in bedding was she nothing could be seen of her little body. The night was bitter cold. Clouds hid the stars from view and a deep silence gripped the forest. Yet I felt content. Even happy. We were among friends and allies. And the green and yellow skinned Mauk paladin sat beside me.
I felt safe. I felt that, for the first time in weeks, I could relax my diligence and concern for the child’s safety for just a moment or two and get some rest myself. I should have known better.