Insurmountable odds, in the eyes of a true warrior,
is like a sparkling diamond
reflecting its bright lure
Into his determined eyes.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
The tricksters were at it again. If it was not one set of twins playing a trick on one of the other twins, or both at once, then it was merely the reversal of the culprits. This time, as Ankor and Alvis and I watched, it was Gawain and Gawaith, with Hakim’s assistance, committing an act of tomfoolery on the sleeping Bellus.
The three of us watched as Gawain delicately lifted up the larger of the Zhintii brothers’ hand and deposited in into a stone bowl of freshly thawed cold water. Only hours earlier we ate and drank in a small feast, each of us climbing into our bedding feeling stuffed and content. Now, with all of us up and awake except for Bellus, we grinned in anticipation as Gawain backed way and Hakim stepped forward and swiftly tied knots into the strings of his brother’s leather trousers. Bellus slept like the dead on most occasions and often roused himself from his deep slumbers to find an appropriately secluded place to relieve himself. But his brother’s ability to tie intricate knots tightly would impede Bellus’ efforts. And the bowl of ice cold water his right hand now lay in was sure to stir the Dragon to his feet with an overwhelming urgency.
On my lap sat the giggling Ursala, both hands clamped around her tiny mouth to muffle the noise of her laughter, her eyes wide with anticipation. She was, like our older pranksters, learning to be quite the prankster herself. So when Bellus, in a sudden snort and convulsive jerk of his body suddenly came awake and hurriedly climbed to his feet, while at the same time reaching down to untie himself, Ursala could not contain herself any longer. Her peels of laughter rang out and she kept rocking herself back and forth on my lap in glee.
Bellus, needing to relieve himself immediately, found he could not untie the knots. He bellowed in rage and began hopping around like a rabbit in an effort to shake himself free of his trousers. Glaring at the three conspirators he cursed them all and swore there would be sweet vengeance. But the more he cursed the more frustrated he became in his efforts. Finally, in a fit of desperation, he whipped out a dagger strapped to his side and began hurriedly cutting the strings in the trousers as he ran to the cave opening.
From outside the cave we could hear a bellowing Bellus exclaiming loud insults to his brother and his two fellow conspirators. But the three lying on their backs in the snow were laughing too hard to take heed. Ursala, laughing just as hard, did not pay any heed as well.
On the face of the old Niscian was a wide grin and from underneath his shaggy eyebrows his eyes glistened in mirth. Glancing at the Dragon beside me I thought I saw the corners of the warrior’s lips almost twist into a grin. The stoic Mauk rarely showed emotion.
To witness an almost visibly grin in the presence of others was a remarkable display coming from Ankor.
Ursala jumped down from my lap and leapt into the middle of the three youths lying on the cave floor. All three broke out into a contest of tickling each other and the laughter continued on. Eventually, the scowling form of Bellus reentered the cave and glared down at the four rolling around. And then he too leapt onto the mass of flesh, almost knocking the wind out of his brother when he landed on top of Hakim’s back.
In the end the laughter became more subdued and we three elders turned our attention to other things.
“We agree on the plan?” I asked, looking at one and then at the other.
“Yes,” grunted the paladin. “I will return to Malagna and find those who would ride with us on such short notice. In two days time we will rendezvous with you at the northern bridge spanning the Lavis river.”
“I and the two Zhintii imps will remain here and protect the child,” Fairhands said, smiling, yet looking worried. “Let us hope this plan of yours does not come back to haunt us, Bretan.”
I nodded in agreement. All plans had unintended consequences. I too hoped all would go as planned and nothing dangerously unforeseen would rise up to greet us.
“I will take Gawain and Gawaith with me to Lavern Hill. There I will try to find a few Great Wing riders who might dare to ride with a lowly Malus Apostate such as I.”
The Niscian monk frowned and shook his head warningly. I knew what he was going to say.
“You will not disguise yourself, Roland? You will calmly ride into the capitol of the Kriss and announce your presence to one and all? What of the Bretan monks at the monastery? They will be compelled to hunt you mercilessly.”
“True. But I do not plan to stay long. Only a few hours at most. There is a particular person I wish to see. Perhaps he will not be blinded by religious dogma. We do not have much time, old friend, if we wish to rescue your hostages. Moving four hundred captives across the Lavis river and down the back trails in the dead of winter will be a slow and arduous task. We have perhaps six or seven days before the Rogarian slavers trek across the lands of the Lavartines and enter the Kingdom of the Kris. I’m sure that’s where they are headed. To Oslon and the entrance into The Passage of Many Tears.”
A few weeks back it was down the treacherous path of the Passage of Many Tears the Niscian monk, along with Usala and the twins, descended from out of the high country. I stayed behind to confront of the Prefect of the Rogarian Order, a vile corpulent cleric by the name of Claudius Decidius. I wished to pluck from the Rogarian religion the every essence of their fanaticism. It had been a foolish gesture. I failed in removing head of the Rogarian Order from this world and only escaped in a most remarkably fashion.
Motioning to Gawain and Gawaith to mount their birds we left in a flurry of wings and billowing snow. Rising swiftly into the cold air our birds turned toward the east and to the lands of a people called the Lavartines.
One does not ride a Great Wing in the cold of winter for long. No amount of wrapping one’s self in a heavy cloak or furs will deny the frigid air from seeping into your bones and joints and making you numb and lethargic in the process. In a world filed with enemies one cannot afford to become lethargic.
To our right rose the towering magnificence of the shield wall. The gray light of the early morning played across the rugged facing of the wall, making one think of an impregnable fortress. For generations it had been just that. An impregnable fortress. Yet I wondered. Was it one today? Had it ever faced the combined might of the Hartooth and their allies on such a grand scale? Would the High Kanris be assaulted, its inhabitants put to the sword, as Dragon prophecy foretold? Was it my destiny to be a major participant in the fall of Mankind?
I shook myself out of such gloomy thoughts and concentrated on riding Cedric and staying alert. Twice we had to descend into the forest and build fires to thaw our nearly frozen bodies and consume warm sustenance. But by nightfall, as I had planned, we saw the dark winding ribbon of the Lavis river and the walled city of Lavern Hill.
The lads and I landed on the flat landing pad of a common aviary in the southwest corner of the city. A tower situated close to the fortress keep of the royal family. Adjacent to the aviary was a pleasant little inn I was very familiar with. As a monk from the near by St. Albans monastery I spent as much time as I could in this inn. Here I learned much about the world outside of the monastic walls. Travelers from near and far who came to Lavern Hill wished to stay at this inn. The food was good, the stout ales and rums were plentiful, and the rooms clean and having comfortable beds. It was here where we would hide ourselves for the next few hours.
I sent Gawain down to find us rooms as Gawaith and I stripped the saddles from our birds and rubbed them down with large soft brooms. Great Wings loved the massaging and it had been a long time since Cedric or any of the other birds had had such a vigorous rub down. After an hour Gawain returned and we adjourned to our rooms sight unseen. Lavern Hill was a Bretan city to its core. The ruling family, from old King Gustaf all the way down to his last subject, were devout followers of the Bretan Way. Thus, in this city, I would find both old friends who knew me well and foes as fierce as any fanatic. Being labeled a Malus Apostate, an act which suggested I had become a traitor to my religion, would turn friends into merciless and unyielding opponents.
One such cherished friend, a cousin to King Gustaf and a devout follower of the Bretan Way, I wished to approach. He was a respected officer in the king’s army, a swordsman of some skill and well versed in the art of riding Great Wings. If I could persuade him to join our cause, and in turn perhaps willing to persuade a few others to join him, a strong link in the chain I was trying to forge to strangle the Hartooth might be within reach. On the other hand finding Brandeis Lavine and discovering he believed those who accused me as a traitor would jeopardize everything.
A dilemma I had to wrestle with.
A decision filled with dangers. Yet one which had to be made.
But ultimately a decision I had few options to consider. Either I faced the danger of betrayal and actively sought out recruits to join our cause, or I withdrew myself and the child from any form of resistance against those who wished to destroy us. In the predicament I found myself in I knew there was no safe route to take. I lived in a dangerous world. My warrior monk’s training kept my constantly flirting with my mortality. Betrayal on this world was as common as the very winds. What other choice had I?
For several hours we kept ourselves cloistered from the others in the inn and allowed the night to and grow deeper in its gloom. From a window in our rooms I viewed the city, using my Inner Eye, to reach out and feel the souls of its inhabitants. I felt a general unease, a heightened since of tension, permeating the city. It was as if everyone was waiting from some terrible event to happen. Or perhaps some terrible event had already happened. Needing information I sent Gawain downstairs and Gawaith up the street to different inn and told them to appear as if they were drinking ale and eating a later supper. But their true mission was to find a large group of travelers recently arrived huddling around a table and sharing drinks. There, if they listened and remained unobserved, they might hear useful knowledge.
When the hour glass turned to midnight I left our rooms using the route of the wide window overlooking the city square. Across the small empty square and up a street which rose steeply to the summit of the city’s acropolis was the towering dark mass of King Gustaf’s stone keep. The city itself was mostly composed of buildings built of stout wooden logs. But here and their prosperous burgers had began building in stone. As I moved through the dark unlit streets, unpaved and nothing more than gaps between the buildings of churned about snow, I noted how much the city had changed over the years. Down one wide lane I caught a glimpse of the new stone wall which encased the city tightly and securely. The last time I was in Lavern Hill the outer wall was wooden logs and an encompassing outer moat. But tonight I saw stone walls and heavy battlements. Bright torches lit the upper reaches of the wall and sentries were moving back and forth and actively looking for anything amiss.
Again, the sense of impending dread gripped me as I slid into a dark set of shadows and continued my way to the keep. Contrary to the firm belief peasants have that wizards can read a man’s thoughts, the only thing a good wizard can read are the auras of emotions radiating from a person’s soul. A well trained wizard can see the emotions and deduce that person’s thoughts. But no wizard could read, or hear, another’s thoughts. I knew only one creature who could. And she was nothing more than a very young Dragon princess.
But there was a sense of dread filling the city. A genuine sense of something terribly looming in the near future. Yet I had no idea what might be the source of this dread. But I knew I had to find out.
No one stirred in the snow packed streets. The bright glow of candles illuminated the windows of many homes. Here and there I heard voices singing and people playing an assortment of musical instruments. From several stoutly built logged buildings I caught delightful aromas of various meals being prepared. But only I braved the dark unlit streets and the arctic cold of the night. Moving rapidly but silently down the street I eventually came to the wide gap separating the outer wall of the stone keep from the surrounding residential section of the city. With a swift throw of the wrist I threw my Cloak of Invisibility over me and lifted its hood up and covered my head. And then, not hesitating, I chose the churned up path leading directly to the keep’s main gate and strode directly toward the two sleepy looking guards who were leaning heavily on the shafts of their spears trying to stay awake.
The Cloak of Invisibility hid me from their sight as I walked directly toward them. But they did not hide the footprints I left in the snow as I approached them. If either guard were alert enough to hear the crunch of snow and observe the fresh tracks of boots appearing miraculously one after another before him an alarm might be raised. But I had chosen to enter the keep through the main gate, walking through snow which was already filled with hundreds of footprints. Fortunately luck rode one my shoulders this night. Neither guard was awake enough to hear me walk past them nor see the fresh prints.
Yet another dilemma faced me as I entered the keep’s compound. The keep’s massive oak doors were closed. Guards stood on either side of the door yet they seemed far more alert and awake than the two behind me. How to enter the keep itself and remain unseen? If I entered the keep through the door I would have to remove my boots. I could not leave a trail of wet footprints through the halls of the keep if I wanted to remain unobserved. The thought of needing to flee without my boots on if discovered did not appeal to me. That left only one other method to enter the keep.
Standing in the middle of the compound, the Cloak of Invisibility hiding me from any observant eye, I looked at the massive walls of the keep itself and sought out the windows of the apartments of Brandeis Lavine. Finding them in the northeast corner and three floors up from the keep’s entrance I was not surprised to see the windows of his rooms brightly lit. The king’s cousin was a restless, inquisitive soul and slept very little. Undoubtedly the warrior would be reading a good book setting before a burning fireplace and sipping fine brandy. Or he would be sitting at his writing desk bent over a massive report from one army detachment or another and reading it from the light of a brightly burning candle.
There was no other choice. I scaled the outer wall of the keep. A simple process if one is practiced in such entries. And being a warrior-monk I was well versed in the technique in climbing sheer walls.
Finding a window I pushed it open and slipped into a brightly lit room and closed the window behind me. I had entered Lavine’s private study. The walls were filled with books. A soft and luxuriant red carpet covered the oak flooring. A dozen or more large candles provided the illumination, along with a large fireplace crackling merrily and throwing out welcoming warmth. In front of the fireplace was a heavy built but comfortable leather chair and a sitting table beside it. On the table was an open book. Beside the book was a tall glass and an empty bottle of Malawei brandy.
To my right I head a noise. The sound of a voice humming some ditty to himself. One of the tall double oak doors was open and from within the next room I heard Brandeis Lavine moving about. I heard the clink of a bottle against glass and I smiled. The good Lavartine officer of the king’s guards had run out of his favorite drink while he sat in front of his fireplace reading a good book. He had gone off to acquire another bottle. Smiling, I removed the Cloak of Invisibility and folded it quickly and stuck it back into the leather pouch strapped to my build. And then, holding the sheathed Helshvingar in hand I walked to the large leather chair and sat down.
Brandeis Lavine entered his study completely unaware I was sitting in his chair waiting for him. It was not until he heard the soft rumble of my amused laughter did he realize he was no longer alone.
His reaction was immediate. He jerked violently, as if slapped across the face by an unseen hand, and inadvertently tossed the bottle of brandy he had been carrying in his right hand high into the air. The look on his face was total and absolute shock. He looked about himself wildly to find the source of the laughter, half turning at the same time to raise an alarm. But his eyes caught sight of me as I came out of his chair and caught the flying bottle of brandy with my left hand and placed it gently onto the sitting table.
A look of relief, and then darkening concern, filled his face as he hurried toward me with open arms.
“Roland! You could have given me a heart attack! When will you stop entering my rooms in such fashion!”
We embraced each other fondly and then stepped back to eye each other closely. It had been years since we had seen each other. I chuckled again as I looked upon my friend. For a man of power and considerable wealth, Brandeis Lavine was a sight to behold. He stood before me dressed in a light sleeping gown which ended just above his knees. Over the gown he wore a truly horrendous looking, threadbare and discolored looking ancient robe. It had to be older than the man himself with its elbows almost worn through and the myriad of patches ornamenting it. But the picture of a man dressed for comfort in the privacy of his own home was complete with the thick looking soft house slippers which covered the man’s bare feet. The slippers looked almost as old as the robe. Yet they looked immensely comfortable and about two sizes too large for his feet.
“Ha! You can laugh all you want, monk,” the cousin of a king grunted, waving a hand at me in dismissal as he turned and strode over to a table and found a second glass like the one he used to sip his brandy. “But the older I become the more I appreciate a few hours of comfort and being left alone.”
He poured brandy into the glass and handed it to me before pouring a healthy portion for himself. And then, lifting his glass, he paused and eyed me closely.
“I see a few more scars, a few more gray hairs. But, after all these years, you’re still the Roland I knew twenty years ago. Still the warrior who finds trouble and never backs away. Still the monk who irritates his religious brothers with his insistence the Dragon is not the true evil everyone else believes. And now, by the gods, have you placed yourself in a deep cauldron of Great Wing dung with your latest escapade!”
I nodded and took a sip of the man’s brandy. Dragon brandy. Malaweian brewed and some of the finest to be found anywhere. He noticed me as I stirred the dark liquor in my glass before lifting it to my lips and grinned.
“Oh, very well! I never believed you were a heretic from the beginning. Half the kingdom does not believe it. So sit down and tell me everything. If I must chose a side in this coming fight at least I should hear your version of the events. We surely have heard the versions the Rogarian and Lotharians have repeatedly proclaimed.”
I told him everything, leaving nothing out. I told him of the Anktooth, of the child, of our flight through the High Kanris, of the destruction of the Monastery of a Thousand Candles. Everything.
He listened without making one sound until I had told it all. At the end he sat thoughtfully in his chair for a few moments and then reached for the bottle of brandy and refilled our glasses before speaking.
“We have heard rumors of your actions concerning the Niscians. You reinforced the opinions of many of us who have always believed in you, Roland. But this child. This Fifth Princess. She is a frightening creature. Terrifying to many of us, old friend. How can you be sure she can be used to defy her gods? How can you be sure she is not controlling you now?”
I told him there was no way to know. Only faith he had in me would need to suffice.
Again, those troubling words.