The world is filled with countless mysteries.
Like a deep ocean filled with many currents
moving with and against each other.
In the blackness of its depths
Some mysteries will be discovered; others
will always remain unknown.
-From the Book of St Albans-
I awoke with a sudden alertness, a sense of danger filling my soul. Wrapped in a number of furs and blankets, lying close to the fire, with the child by my side, I sensed something was terribly wrong. I turned my head to check little Ursala. Her bundled mass was closely snuggled up against me and rolled up into a tiny ball to keep warm. She lay between me and the burning fire in order to keep warm and away from potential harm.
But there was a problem.
There was no fire.
The dully glowing red embers marked where, only hour earlier, a vibrant blaze roared and crackled, sending light and heat out in a radiant orb around us. But now, lying in the frigid cold of a winter night, the tingling sensation of the cold seeping into my bedding had awakened me. Niscian monks were supposed to take shifts throughout the night and keep the blaze burning strong and vibrantly. There were thirty young monks accompanying their abbot to the Bretan monastery of St. Rolla. Enough well trained and diligent warrior-monks to both stand guard throughout the night and keep the fires burning.
But there was no fire.
Lying at my feet and to one side was the dark from of the slumbering Mauk. A soft jab of one foot into his bedding was enough to awaken him. I felt the warrior suddenly become conscious and alert. In the semi-darkness of the dying fire he slowly turned his head and looked at me. Our eyes met. His eyes told me he was aware of the threat. I nodded and then glanced toward the sleeping form of Constantine Marcellus. Ankor nodded and slowly rolled over, acting as if he was just changing his sleeping position, and turned to face the Niscian abbot as well.
One of us had to warn the Niscian and his faithful body guard, Bobar of Faraway. Gripping the sheathed Helshingvar I threw bedding to one side and rolled to my feet slowly. Turning to the dying embers of the fire I bent down on my haunches and reached for some dried kindling. As I did so I gently nudged the sleeping forms of Gawain and Gawaith. Both came instantly awake but did not make any sudden motions as they laid buried in their bedding.
The heavy forest surrounding us was silent and ominous. Strangely I could feel no pulsating auras from any entity, neither Dragon, Man, nor animal, emanating from the darkness. Since the old Niscian warrior, our Null Stone, was miles away from us leading a small group of refugees to the monastery of St. Albans, I should have felt the presence of many creatures around us. Even in the dead of winter the night is filled with predators hunting their prey. Yet I felt nothing. Nor did I feel the presence of the two or three young monks Bobar of Faraway had assigned to patrol the camp’s perimeter. The absence of auras for a wizard is convincing proof danger is imminent.
Coming to my feet I quietly and slowly circled the now rejuvenated fire and continued to throw more kindling into the growing flames. As I circled the fire I approached the sleeping form of the Niscian swordsman and knelt down again. I glanced at the dark from lying on the ground and saw black eyes reflecting the light of the fire as they stared up at me. Bobar nodded imperceptibly. I came to my feet again and circled the fire again to return to my bedding. As I did the Niscian swordsman threw his bedding to one side and came to his feet. Turning toward the circle of slumbering monks close to the abbot he softly barked out two names. Two Niscian youths rose to their feet immediately and bowed respectfully to their teacher.
The distinct twang a powerful bows singing in the frigid night air came to our ears. Arrows whistled through the night air. There was a short scream of surprise and pain as one of the young monks standing caught an arrow deep into his shoulder as I saw a flash of Rogarian red disappearing behind a tree. But there was no time to come to his aid. All of us, Niscian, Mauk, Zhintii, and my two blond waifs, reacted immediately. Gawain and Gawaith reached for their bows, stringing them in the blinking of an eye, while at the same time leaping toward the now awake Ursala. The Dragon Zhintii, Bellus and Hakim, drew swords and launched themselves toward the blond bowmen, throwing up shields in front of Gawain and Gawaith, protecting both them and the child at the same time.
Constantine Marcellus came to his feet instantly awake gripping a long wooden staff in both hands as ten of his warrior-monks surrounded him in a protective ring while the twenty or so remaining monks disappeared into the forest darkness in search of the attackers. A dozen more arrows came arching out of the darkness around us but were soon followed by the sounds of clashing steel and the screams of wounded men. Warrior-monks had found their quarry. As I watched Bobar of Faraway step in front of the small abbot I turned to the twins guarding the child and pointed to the abbot.
“Stay close to the abbot and his guardians. Do not leave the child for any reason!”
I then glanced at the Mauk paladin, who nodded quickly, and we two plunged into the forest.
An arrow thwacked into the a tree only inches from my head. The speed of the arrow was enough to stagger the tree and send a shower of snow down onto our heads. But we moved swiftly, dodging around this tree or that, never moving in a straight line as we searched for our assailants. The bronze blade of Helsvingar felt good in my right hand I hurried through the darkness. I knew the Mauk was close by with his cold blade drawn and eager to seek the enemy’s blood. With a grim pleasure I realized we made a formidable team. Rarely had two swordsmen such as the Mauk and I fought side by side.
Woe to the enemy who was foolish enough to confront us.
Yet this enemy with his mighty bow was no fool. A second arrow came out of the night and almost caught the paladin full in the chest with its deadly barb. But the Mauk’s reflexes were amazingly fast. He twisted to one side and caught the arrow with his free hand at the same time. Ahead of us a heavy body fled, crashing through the heavy underbrush in the process. The Mauk glanced down at the arrow in his hand, grunted, and then held it up toward me to see.
“It is our old friend the Shoga.”
There was a snap of a twig and the strum of a bowstring being released. We both dived to one side and behind the trunks of large trees. The arrow narrowly missed my head as it smacked into the tree with a loud thud. From the side of my eye I caught the glimpse of a shadow running. Leaping to my feet I hurried after or prey with the Dragon following.
The struggle to run through the snow was hard work. Soon the two of us found ourselves gasping for air. Each exhalation of our breaths sent out clouds of hot steam into the air. The cold winter night, our bodies beginning to sweat from our exertions, the elusiveness of our assassin, all added up to futility. The Shoga had again escaped. There would be no way to find him now. As we both stood side by side, our swords drawn, our chests heaving from our efforts, the Dragon grunted and glared into the night.
“If I did not know better I would almost believe the Shoga was working with those who attacked us.”
I nodded but frowned as well. Shoga assassins worked alone. They were dreaded by both Man and Dragon because of their ability to kill and to escape without ever being seen. They had never been known to assist any human
“Rogarian bowmen attacked the camp. A lone Shoga assassin among them? Or perhaps, using them as a shield to get closer to his quarry. If I was a betting man I would say the Rogarians had no idea a Hartooth assassin was near by.”
“Humph!” grunted the Mauk, but not sounding in the least bit convinced.
I turned to face the massive Mauk and grinned. The frowning face of the Mauk turned to glare at me as he sheathed his curved steel.
“You smile, Bretan, at the most peculiar of times. I see no humor in this situation.”
“Ah, but I do! You must have been a very bad boy making the Hartooth angry. Angry enough to lose one of their precious Shogas this far from home. Especially a Shoga who seems to be a Null Stone.”
“I have, in recent weeks, done my best to antagonize them, “ the Mauk admitted.
“But monk, more arrows came toward you than they to me. I suspect or Shoga assassin is hunting you.”
“Yes, that is a possibility,” I nodded, still grinning. “A real possibility. But still, I like the idea of you being the blunt instrument threatening to destroy Hartooth intrigues. Who knows? Perhaps with your bluntness and my magic we might have a chance in actually succeeding.”
“We shall see,” grunted the paladin as he turned and started trudging through the snow and back toward camp.
The Null Stone had left us. The pulsating auras of the forest’s fauna and flora returned to my Inner Eye. The Mauk’s aura glowed clearly in my mind as well. Outwardly he did not appear as if he enjoyed my sense of humor. But his aura had changed. I saw his soul begin to warm and relax.
Later that night it was decided we would break camp and go our separate ways. Our attackers had been a second band of Imperial Rogarian warriors. A swift conference with the abbot was held and we concluded it was dangerous to remain where we were. More Rogarians might chance upon us. Constantine Marcellus and his entourage would travel on to St. Albans. My little group would return to our hiding place deep in the forest not too far away from the Malaweian capitol of Malawei.
As we bade our farewells the gentle abbot said he would present my case to Master Breen and those of St. Albans willing to listen. He would send word to me if a truce could be arranged. But he made no promises. Nor did I expect any.
Several days passed before Alvis Fairhands rejoined us. He came with his head bowed and with a pained look etched onto his lined weather beaten face. I did not want him to feel thus humbled and ashamed of his actions. Spotting him moving slowly through the forest I walked out to him and wrapped arms around him in a powerful embrace. Taking him by the arm we walked together back to the caves’ opening and to the waiting crowd.
Gawaith, Gawain, and Ursala welcomed him with open arms. Ursala took the old Niscian’s hand and guided him into the caves and sat him down by a blazing fire. The old warriors was almost frozen from his journey. Layers of snow sat like a heavy coat of guilt across his shoulders and the look on the old man’s face as he watched the child flutter about him like a butterfly made my eyes water with emotion. She chatted gaily as she served him roast pig and wild potatoes before sweeping the snow off his frame. Finding a heavy cloak she threw it over his shoulders before bending over and kissing the old man on his cheek.
Bellus and Hakim stood to one side and said nothing as they watched the child try to lift the old man’s spirits. They barely knew the old man and had yet to hear the full story as to why he seemed to have led me into a Rogarian trap. But noting that the rest of us showed no animosity toward him they decided to remain neutral. Neutral yet wary. Dragons, by their nature, find it hard to place trust in anyone and almost impossible to forgive.
Ankor Mauk, on the other hand, grunted and came over to the Niscian and lowered his heavy frame onto a rock beside the old man. Ursala, still chirping away happily like any eight year old child, quickly found a plate of food for her kinsman. Handing him his plate she kissed him on the cheek as well and then turned and started to skip away.
“Where is my food?” I asked, sounding firm, but smiling.
“There’s plenty, grandfather. You can help yourself,” she sang, smiling up at me as she skipped on one foot and then another toward the twins standing in the mouth of the cave and watching us.
Grunting in pleasure I sat down beside the old monk and watched her skip over to where the twins were standing. For some seconds nothing was said. But eventually the old Niscian cleared his throat and broke the silence.
“The Rogarians hold a large group of Niscian refugees in a camp just a few miles away from here. There is no more Niscia, Roland. Rogarian gold and steel have overwhelmed my homeland and annexed in into their empire. Only refugees remain, fleeing their oppressors and looking for a safe haven to hide in.
“That is why I betrayed you. Iaegor of Mons found me. He told me they would release all of the refugees if I brought you to him. I said no. I would not. But he changed my mind. He said he personally would start torturing the women and the children first, one at a time, until I changed my mind.”
“Humph!” grunted the green and yellow reptilian skinned paladin, “You humans have a clan as bad as our Hartooth. Arrogance and cruelty do not belong solely to the Dragon. The world is filled with it.”
I said nothing but continued watching little Ursala and the twins. Gawaith and Bellus were playing some kind of game testing their quickness. One would hold out an open palm. In the palm would be a small rock. The other would try to snatch it away the moment his opponent would open his palm. Gawaith and Bellus would take turns trying to snatch the rock away and so far they seemed to be equally matched. As I watched I saw a lot of grinning, much ribbing back and forth with to each other, and everyone having a pleasant time.
Dragon and human enjoying the company of each other. Enjoying each other as if it was the natural thing to do. No hatreds. No rivalries. No animosities. A small enclave of humans and dragons enjoying the concept of peace with each other.
“How many captives does this Rogarian group have?”
“They say over four hundred. They have been rounding up as many Niscians as they can find and are about to take them back to a small Rogarian city. They’re going to be sold into slavery. All of them.”
“How many Rogarians?” I asked as I continued to watch the youths in front of me.
“I do not know,”sighed Alvus, shaking his head. “They never said.”
“Iaegor of Mons . . .Iaegor of Mons . . .” I whispered to myself, not realizing I was speaking loud enough to be heard.
“Bretan,” the voice of the Mauk rumbled like the growl of a beast to my right, “I do not like the sound of that name. Is he not a powerful wizard and your avowed enemy?”
I nodded, not taking my eyes of the child and her laughing entourage. Four hundred Niscian refugess soon to be sold into slavery. Iaegor of Mons again escaping my wrath. Escaping my wrath and soon to plan for another even more elaborate plan to trap me and my loved ones. Iaegor of Mons. Rogarian wizard and someone who was employed by the Evil from Afar! What might he have to say if I persuaded him to talk about the darkness which surrounded him? Might I find out, at last, who this Evil from Afar might be?
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
But I found myself convinced of one thing. It was time to strike back. Strike the enemy first and let them know a resistance against the machinations of this unseen figure was growing. Growing and willing to fight back whenever the opportunity presented itself!
“Ankor, you have Beastie riders who might follow you in battle back in Malagna? Warriors whom would not balk at rubbing shoulders with someone such as I?”
“Yes,” came the answer firmly and with conviction. “Perhaps twenty or more. What do you have in mind?”
“Roland,” Alvus began, sounding somewhat alarmed, “you cannot save the refugees. It is another trap. Traps within traps, Roland. Iaegor of Mons has a labyrinth for a mind. It twists and turns and doubles back on itself like a den of snakes. I am sure he planted this information in me about the four hundred refugees just to lure you back to him in case his first efforts failed. You cannot go back that way. Our goal is to flee. Flee and take the princess to safety.”
I shook my head no and told him quietly of Ursala taking us into the Netherworld and meeting her grown counterpart. What we did, how we resisted, in trying to save the Malaweians was important. The Clan Malawei would be destroyed. But our efforts might convince others to come to our cause and continue the resistance against the Hartooth. I was positive freeing the refugees from Rogarian bondage was part of our mission.
For some seconds the old Niscian warrior monk said nothing. And then, reluctantly, he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, nodding in the process.
“Very well. If this has to be done, so be it. Our destinies have been written.”
I turned and looked at him. That word again. Destiny. Our destinies have been written.
Did I believe that? Was destiny so predictable?