Trust not your emotions alone, for they can be deceiving.
Nor do not solely rely on logic
To save you from a fate unseen.
To view the world with only one vision
is a deadly trap.
The True Believer must have both in order to survive.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
“What do you need from me this night?”
Sitting across from Brandeis Lavine I told him of my latest encounter with the Rogarian wizard, Iaegor of Lincoln and his Niscian captives and my plans to rescue them. I told him I needed Great Wing riders who were willing to defy authorities. I told him it was time to begin building the army needed to defy the Hartooth and possibly save the Malawei from almost assured destruction.
“Thirty thousand Hartooth pike are in winter camp just north of Malagna. Another fifteen thousand are to join them in the spring. The goal is to destroy the Malawei and the adjoining Kingdom of the Avalars. They want the silver and iron mines of the Avalars and to establish a base in the north country for further excursions to the west. If we wait too long to repulse the Hartooth from our lands it will be too late. We must act before the spring thaws bring the reinforcements promised. We must unite Lavartines, Malaweian, Avalars, and hopefully the Dragon Bruinii to the west in a united cause. Otherwise all is lost.”
From east to west respective lands resided. In the east was the Kingdom of the Lavartines. West of the Lavartines was the Dragon Barony of the Malawei. West of that the human Kingdom of the Avalars. And west of that the Dragon Barony of the Bruinii. If each contributed men and riders of Winged Beasties and Great Wings in a united effort we might thwart the plans of the Hartooth.
For a barony or kingdom or resist individually meant certain destruction. No one kingdom or barony could put forward the numbers needed to defy the Hartooth. No help would come from the kingdoms found in the high country. Rogarian expansion saw to that. Every kingdom in the high country needed to retain their warriors to protect them from Rogarian greed.
But to unite Dragon and Man into one common cause had never been done before on the scale needed to save the Malawei. In the eyes of the man before me I could see he too thought the same thoughts as I. The logic, yet the impossibility, of it to transpire.
“As to your efforts to rescue the Niscian refugees I believe I might be able to find ten, maybe fifteen, riders willing to assist. As to your other plan, Roland, I must say it is a magnificent idea but one doomed to a still birth from the start. My cousin, the king, would never agree to such a plan. While we respect the Malawei and are actively trading with them there will be no sentiment in favor to send the army out to their aid. I am sure the Avalars will say the same. And the Bruinii are as fickle as any Dragon clan known when it comes in assisting a clan as weak as the Malawei. I would not trust the word of a Bruinii for a moment. You should not either.”
“But if we do not unite in a common cause the Hartooth will sweep across barony and kingdom like a summer’s forest fire. If we strike before their numbers grow we have a chance. If we wait your kingdom may be destroyed. As will everyone else in this part of the north country.”
The Lavartine nobleman looked into my eyes with a sadness etched in his face. He saw the logic my words and agreed with me. But he also knew his kinsmen. He knew his king. He knew the mood of his people. The Lavartines would not lift a hand to help. Not officially.
“The only aid I can personally give you in your grand scheme, Roland, is to offer a certain amount of gold to find and hire those willing to fight. Perhaps I could spread around the news among my people of your intentions. Individuals might join you and your cause, old friend. Individuals with vision and a spirit of adventure might find this idea of fighting alongside a Dragon curiously appealing. You might be able to raise a force in this fashion. I might even be able to persuade the king to indirectly fund your recruiting efforts and turn a blind eye to those who might join you. More than that I cannot promise.”
I smiled and nodding, coming to my feet. The nobleman’s willingness to help me was, frankly, more than I could genuinely have expected. I knew the handing of the Lavartine arms into my hands would fall on deaf ears. Old hatreds and old memories stood in the way of seeing the future. Events would have to take place which might change the minds of many. Perhaps my request in the near future might find a more receptive ear. Assuming, of course, the Lavartines, Malawei, Avalars, and Bruinii yet existed.
“Very well, old friend. I cannot ask for more. In two days have those whom you think will be loyal to our cause join us at the agreed upon spot. I will contact you soon concerning where an army of recruits might congregate and begin their training.”
“Go in the knowledge and grace Shin’zhin gives to those who walk the path of justice, old friend.”
An old Bretan saying one said to a fellow Bretan when they separated company.
“And in that knowledge and grace be as others who seek the same,” was the answering response.
We embraced each other again. Brandeis stepped back, smiled, and told me to wait while he went into the next room to acquire a bottle of brandy for me. I said nothing and watched him leave the room. The moment he disappeared I threw the Cloak of Invisibility over me and left the same way I entered.
I sat beside a burning fire with Ursala on my lap. Alvis Fairhands sat opposite of me as he worked on finishing a plate of freshly grilled fish. Bellus and Hakim sat flanking the Niscian while Gawain and Gawaith sat on either side of me. We had just finished our evening meal and were sitting quietly by the fire and absorbing the comforting heat. Outside a snow storm howled and groaned, dumping more snow into this wintry wonderland. The wind’s roar had an especially foreboding wail to it which made me ill at ease. Ursala, humming a tune to herself as she played with the hilt of Helshvingar, seemed unconcerned about the prophecies which predicted all of the Five Princesses would eventually feel the mortal bite of the Dragon blade.
Hakim and Bellus knew the prophecies. They knew of the many legends which revolved around the curved blade I possessed and they watched the child sitting on my lap with amazement written on their faces. I watched them as they continued to stare at Ursala and waited for the child to eventually look up and see their interest in her playing with the sword.
“What?” she blurted out a few moments later, looking first at Hakim and then at Bellus. “Oh. I know. The sword.”
Gawain and Gawaith, accustomed at seeing Ursala playing with the sheathed blade, said nothing but kept grinning as they watched the Zhintii sink deeper into confusion. It was Hakim who summoned up enough courage to ask the question.
“Uh, princess. Are you not afraid of Helshvingar? Of what it might . . .uh . . . do to you in the future?”
She giggled, squirmed in my lap, and used both hands to lift sword and its wooden sheath up and lay across our laps.
“Nope. Not in the least. Grandfather’s blade will not hurt me. Grandfather will not allow it.”
“But . . .but,” stammered Bellus, staring down at the concealed blade as if it was a deadly snake lying across Ursala’s legs. “It is said the blade was hammered into existence by a group of the old gods in a last desperate attempt to defeat the Dark Lords. He who possesses The Killer of All Evil is said to be invincible.”
“Are you invincible, grandfather?” the imp asked innocently and grinning mischievously at the same time.
“It is more of a curse, young Dragon, than a weapon of invincibility,” growled the Niscian as he sat his now empty dish to one side and stared through the fire at the curved blade. “Its owner is condemned to serve a cruel master. The hypnotic power of the blade draws those who wish to own it to their doom. In the end all who have possessed it fall in combat to someone younger . . . faster. Determined they are to wrest it from the dead hand of its previous owner. Much as it happened to you, Roland, so many years ago.”
I said nothing as I wrapped my arms around the child. She giggled again and snuggled up closer to me. I heard her humming to herself again. But she was listening to our conversation and she, like the rest, was waiting for me to say something.
“The difference, in my case, is that I did not seek out the one who owned it. Nor did I know such a weapon existed. The weapon and its owner came to me. The fight which ensued was forced upon me.”
Quietly I told him how I acquired The Killer of All Evil. Long ago . . .an eternity! . . .I was once a raw and untested warrior-monk only recently sent among our brothers in the Outer Realms. The Outer Realms, that part of this world away from the inner peace and tranquility found in monastic life, was the destiny for all who trained such as I. We had to enter the Outer Realms in order to serve the faithful who needed our aid. Evil permeates the world and must be confronted. Warrior-monks of all the religious orders are bound to defend those who are defenseless. And so it was for me, so many years ago, as I sat in the small inn found in a hamlet called Daggan’s Hole not too far from where we now sat gathered around the fire this night.
A furious thunderstorm shook and rattled the inn and the rain pounded on the walls as I sat alone at a table. I had traveled far to come to Daggan’s Hole. I was drying in front of a blazing fireplace and seeking only the comfort of my thoughts and nothing else. In the inn that night were only two others who had braved the storm’s fury for a glass of wine or a tankard of ale. They did not take notice of me. Buried in their own thoughts we in the inn kept to ourselves and listened to the storm’s fury. I did not seek a confrontation nor wished to witness one. But it seemed destiny had other plans.
The inn’s door opened and in walked a Marouth dragon. Tall and powerful and carrying the wooden scabbard and sheathed blade of Helshvingar in his right hand he glanced at me and then walked to the bar and asked for a tankard of hot rum. I did not know this Dragon. I had no idea he was the famed paladin, Magar of the Marouth. But in truth it would not have changed the outcome. I did not seek a fight. But my vows would not allow me to decline a confrontation with a Dragon, any Dragon, if forced upon me.
The Marouth seemed determined to draw his blade and challenge me. Words were exchanged. And then the blue and sandy brown colored Dragon drew his sword and leapt at me. I, a young Bretan monk, had with me the straight blade of a Bretan sword. Freshly given to me by my monastery’s abbot. It was my first weapon and one I still cherish greatly. It was an old blade. But the steel was flexible and keen of edge. Unadorned yet serviceable it fit my hand comfortably. I came to my feet, sword unsheathed, and met the charging warrior straight away.
We fought. Steel rang against steel. Tables and chairs were kicked to one side. The fight was hard and swift. We exchanged fifty-six strokes with our blades. A long fight indeed. But on the fifty-seventh stroke the Marouth dropped his guard for only a split second. Time enough for my blade to find the Dragon’s heart. He staggered back a few steps and slammed into the bar. Sinking to his knees I thought I saw the warrior smile. A smile of relief and serenity. And then he did a remarkable thing. He handed me his sword. I took it from his hand and glanced at the blade. My eyes feasted onto the odd bronze color of the steel, the strange bluish hewed Dragon script running down its length. And . . . I saw the script move. Move! As if it was rewriting something.
I became the owner of Helshvingar. I inherited the curse Magar the Marouth gladly gave away with his life.
“But master,” Hakim began, much to my irritation. I was now ‘master’ to the two Zhintii. It was not a title I cherished, “did you say the color of the blade was bronze and the script of blue?”
“I see an old and honored Dragon’s blade of incredible age. A blade carrying legends. But I do not see the color of bronze. Nor any color in the script.”
“Nor I,” said Bellus.
“Nor we,” the two Vik wraiths agreed.
Surprised, truly, I looked into the faces of each. Even the old Niscian silently nodded in agreement. None saw the blade in the same fashion as I. They saw the plain curved steel of an ordinary Dragon’s scimitar. With my eyes I saw an alien, magical, entity. A blade and a weapon which would, if I but knew the right charms, do what its name implied. The Killer of All Evil. But in all these years I carried the blade with me I thought all saw the same odd color and the same unknown language written on its side.
In all these years as my trusted comrade even the blade itself had deceived me.
“Grandfather, it is really very simple to explain,” Ursala laughed, seeing the look of surprise in my eyes. “Your sword is more than just a sword. It can only properly be used by a chosen few. Only those who see what you see can keep the blade. Only those who see what you see may be given the secrets revealing its true power.”
“True power?” Bellus grunted, surprised. “Helshvingar has more power than it has already shown?”
“Oh my, yes!” giggled the princess reaching over and picking up the sheathed blade with both hands. “My sisters tell me this is a weapon which could destroy everything we know. If the secret enchantments and the second piece of the sword was ever found, a power would be unleashed which could not be stopped. Nothing could stand in its way. Everything would be destroyed. That’s why my sisters, and the Dark Lords, fear it so much.”
The twins and the old Niscian exchanged looks, their faces etched in sketches of awe and dread. What power did the sword possess? What did the princess mean when she said the sword’s power unleashed could destroy everything? All five remained silent for a while, deep in their own thoughts, and then turned and looked at the child sitting in my lap.
“Do you really want to hear something odd,” Ursala began, smiling as she handled the sheathed blade in her hands. “Grandfather has owned the weapon, in his other lifetimes, many times. But many of those lives he could only wield the blade. He did not have the gift of seeing its true power as he has now. Curiously, in those lives he could see the bronze blade, he never found the keys to unlock its powers.”
“Did he . . . did he . . . destroy your sisters?” asked Hakim in a whisper.
“. . . and you?” Gawain blurted out, growing pale the moment he finished.
“In some, yes. In some, no,” the child replied matter of fact child’s voice.
In the Netherworld, in all the other dimensions and universes which stretched out into infinity, this sword and I had often met. In all those lives where I had the power to see the bronze life emanating from it I had never found the true secrets of the blade’s power.
And now? Would I finally be given its true meaning? What would I do with such power? What did Ursala mean when she said the power was so vast it could destroy everything?
Ah . . .another thought crossed my mind. A thought which gripped with like an ice cold vice of hardened steel pressing down upon my chest.
“Ursala, you said others have owned the blade. Did some of these others have the power to see its true nature?”
“Certainly, grandfather,” the child nodded, her attention still glued to the hilt of the sheathed blade. “Several have been able to see it.”
“Did any of the others ever find the keys to unlock its powers?”
There came no answer. Ursala played with the hidden blade for a few moments and then laid to one side and jumped off my lap. Everyone sitting around the crackling fire watched her intently. On her pearl white face I saw the determined look of a small child who was going to remain silent. Ursala was not going to give us an answer. All she did was jump up beside me, throw her arms around my neck and pull me down so she could peck me on the cheek with her lips. And then she scampered off into the dark toward where Cedric and the rest of our birds had settled in for the night.
“I believe, Bretan, we were given an answer to your last question,” Fairhands grunted thoughtfully, his eyes turning to lock in on mine.
“Huh?” Gawain grunted, looking surprised as he looked at everyone hurriedly. “Did I miss something?”
“ Brother, are you as dense as you sometimes act?” Gawaith snapped, shaking his head irritably.
“Uh . . .I’m confused as well,” Bellus mumbled, looking perplexed as he turned to stare at Hakim. “What answer did she give?”
“Silence, you idiot,” Hakim sighed, shaking his head and grinning. “Silence! The question was asked. But no formal answer was given. That in itself suggests an answer. And the answer is yes. Yes! Some owner of the blade in times past found the secrets to unlock its powers!”
“And did he?” Gawain whispered, turning to look at me with a look suggesting he really didn’t want to hear the answer.
“If the child told us the truth, apparently not,” the Niscian grunted and he turned to stare into the fire. “We are here, alive, and hunted by the many. Our world is still here around us. Obviously whoever it was who discovered the sword’s secrets decided not to unleash them.”
The twins gazed at the hardened, creased face of Alvus Fairhands for a long time in silence. In their faces I could see them struggling with their own thoughts. As I struggled with mine. A weapon which could destroy everything. All that we knew. All that was around us. All that we loved.
In the blink of an eye . . . destroyed. So complete in its destruction not even a memory would remain intact. As terrifying as that thought filled my mind, a different one demanded its presence to be known. Who was the warrior who found the secrets of unlocking Helshvingar’s powers? How did he find them?
What compelled him to refrain from using such god-like power?