To control ultimate power one must
Posses the gift of restraint;
Otherwise power’s alluring seduction
Will devour the soul.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
I stood on a rocky ledge looking down at the wide torrent called the Lavis river. Even in the dead of winter the river was a frothing band of terrible white water crashing and whirling in fury down between its rocky steep banks. Either side of river were rocky cliffs fifty to one hundred feet high walling in the torrent. In the water itself were rugged slabs of granite, making any thought of trying to cross the angry river by boat dangerously foolish to contemplate.
For miles on end the river stretched to the north. Its entire length was as dangerous and terrifying to behold as it was here standing on this ledge which overlooked the northern road connecting the capital of the Lavartines with the capital to the Dragon Malawei. Crossing the river at its narrowest point was a sturdy looking wooden bridge wide enough to allow wagon traffic to flow in both directions. The river marked the boundary between Lavartine and Malawei lands. Yet there were no wooden observation towers or small permanent encampments of warriors assigned to guard the bridge from intruders. The Malawei and the Lavartines, while not openly admitting it, trusted each other. The northern road linking their capitals was, during the spring and summer months, heavily traveled. Long lines of merchants’ caravans passed over the bridge bringing wealth and good to both parties. This had been going on for years and an unspoken truce had arisen between the Dragon Malawei and the human Lavartines. Commerce had dulled their lusts for battle.
Yet in the winter the road was deserted. Deep snows hid most of the road from view. Fierce arctic winds made it impossible for horse or bipedal creature to survive out in the open for long. The countryside was rugged hills of rock covered with deep forests. Forests filled with wolves and other dangerous creatures who preyed upon the weak and the foolish.
Filled with horrors and terrors.
Yet strikingly beautiful to observe. I found myself, wrapped in cloaks and heavy scarves around my face to protect my flesh from the freezing wind, eyeing the country below me with deep appreciation. Nature, in her rawest elements, was a stunning enchantress to behold. Alluring in her beauty yet amazingly cruel in the way it could treat the living. Neither asking for anyone to understand it nor concerned in the helpless calls of the weak and sick who found themselves trapped by it. Power beyond imagination yet, at times, equally containing a tranquility which could fill a troubled soul with much needed hope.
And I, a warrior-monk, a trained killer if you will, felt as if I understood the soul of nature herself. We were, deep in our dark souls, a matched pair. A thought, mind you pilgrim, which troubled many on many sleepless nights.
The bridge below me was to be our rendezvous where Lavartine Great Wings and those few Dragons who were loyal to Ankor Mauk would unite in one combined force. That force would then seek out and find the Rogarian force herding Niscian refugees back into the high country where they would be sold into slavery. More importantly, it would allow me to confront one of my sworn enemies again, Iaegor of Lincoln. Either I would kill him and remove one thorn from my side, or I would subdue him and wrest from his mind any knowledge he might have of the creature whom I called The Evil from Afar.
Rogarians warred in the High Kanris. Hartooth warred in the plains and hill country below. Both seemed to command riches far beyond their means. At the same time, in the Netherworld, I continually felt the presence of an entity lurking in the background, constantly observing my actions. Interfering and intervening where ever and whenever it suited his needs. A dark force who seemed to be manipulating the minds of millions. Even the time lines of entire planets within the Netherworld itself to achieve some mysterious distant goal in the far future.
Worse still, weeks earlier when the child, myself, and the twins fled out of the high country, this Evil from Afar had captured me and held me in a place of limbo It had talked to me. I had felt the creature’s hot breath on the back of my neck, the scalding hot touch of a hand across my cheek. I was bound by the writs and ankles in bonds I could not break free from. He chided me for being a foolish creature yet seemed pleased that I continued to resist him. He wanted to kill me . . . yet . . . forces unseen in the Netherworld refrained him from doing so. It was as if he was working the twisting currents of Time itself in an unimaginable complex game he wanted to win.
And then he released me back into the Outer Realms. Released me without harming me. He let me go after informing me too many currents in the River of Time compelled him to do so. I never saw the creature. I could not comprehend the game he was playing within the Netherworld. But this I came away convinced. this Evil from Afar was the source of all of our woes. He was the power behind the ravaging Hartooth. He was the force which fueled the warring Rogarians in the high country. He was, I feared, even manipulating the
Dragon’s Dark Lords. Compelling them to exert their divine influence upon their dragon believers to do terrible deeds.
I needed to know who, or what, this Evil from Afar was. I needed to destroy this creature. I felt compelled to bring harmony and a balance into the Outer Realms again. Harmony and balance back into the Netherworld.
How to destroy this creature I knew not. But in order to find out I first needed to know more about this creature. One must know his enemy as well as he knows himself in order to defeat him. I knew nothing about the Evil form Afar. Until I did I would be, to him, nothing more than an interesting amusement to toy with. A plaything to entertain himself while he played the much larger and more obscure ‘game’ as he called it.
Gawaith’s voice behind me brought me out of my silent musings and back into reality. Gawaith and Hakim were my companions today. Gawain and Bellus remained with Alvis Fairhands and Ursala in our caves some miles distant from where we were now. Turning toward the direction the blond, blue eyed youth was pointing, I counted nine tiny specks floating in the bright heavens of a cloudless sky. Unmistakably the specks were Winged Beasties, flying in two four-point diamond formations, one above the other, with a lone fire-breather leading the formation. The standard formation for the Dragon who was hunting his prey in enemy territory.
Hakim’s deep voice rumbled, making me twist my head in a different direction. Six rapidly approaching dots in the sky. Great Wings without a doubt. Two lines of three apiece one above the other. Perfectly maintained and unwavering. The signs of riders who knew their trade and had years of practice in doing it.
“Mount,” I said over my shoulder, turning to step toward Cedric. “We will meet them on the bridge.”
I leapt into the saddle of the war bird and strapped myself in. Today I wore the disguise of Demitrios of Croi again. For both Dragon and Man who came to rescue the Niscian captives I thought it best not to reveal myself just yet. Perhaps several would join our cause and fight along side Roland of the High Crags and the Pearl Princess. Perhaps none would. But for those who did not, and it was later revealed they fought beside a Malus Apostate and made no effort to destroy him, they could possibly be condemned as a heretic and pay the full price in their own blood. Their deaths I did not want on my conscience. So Demetrius of Croi sat in the saddle of a disguised Cedric.
With a flurry of beating wings and billowing snow our steeds settled onto the long middle span of the lengthy bridge. Hakim’s gold and blue fire-breather settled several paces away from our Great Wings and close to the side belonging to the Malawei. Frankly I was surprised our Great Wings and Hakim’s Winged Beastie had flown in such close proximity to each other and had not lashed out viciously in anger at one or the other. Great Wings and Winged Beasties were, by their natures, hostile toward each other. It was a testament to both Hakim in his handling of his fire breather and to the handling Gawaith’s mount that we had ridden so far without incident. Cedric, for his part, did nothing to agitate the fire breather but kept a constant eye on the creature at all times.
The first to arrive was the Mauk and his entourage. All nine fire breathers settled onto the bridge at the far approach toward the Malawei side. I saw Ankor dismount, along with a second Dragon, and turn to trek through the snow to our position. Setting in the saddle of my war bird for a few moments I watched the two approach. The Dragon striding in step with the Mauk paladin was slightly shorter than the Mauk and considerably younger. Dressed in fine chain mail, with a bronze breath plate covering his chest underneath the heavy cloak of a Malaweian rider, the warrior looked as if he was used to commanding warriors and being obeyed. Leaping from the saddle I turned and waited for the Mauk to present himself.
“Greetings, warrior. I bring eight with me this day. Eight, but with one who is known far and wide. Demetrius of Croi, allow me to introduce to you Jaxtra, eldest son of the Baron Juris Malawei. Heir apparent to the Malawei barony.”
The Malaweian nodded his head and stepped forward, his gloved hands to his sides. A visible sign he came in peace.
“Greetings, Demetrius of Croi. Your name has been mentioned often in the presence my mine and my father.”
Calmly said with no fear or concern radiating from his soul. A confident Dragon. An open soul to read with my Inner Eye. A warrior filled with curiosity in both meeting me, and in the possibility of joining ranks with humans in an effort to fight other humans.
I found myself liking the young Dragon almost immediately. I smiled and returned the greeting.
“Welcome, Jaxtra Malawei and to the others, on this cold frigid day so far from home and hearth. I am honored to be in your presence.”
A flicker of a smile touched the Malaweian’s lips. His eyes swept up and down my frame as he took me in as a whole. Apparently what he saw was satisfactory for again the merest suggestion of a smile began to lift the edges of his lips.
“When our distant cousin broached the subject to me and a few others in joining this endeavor I confess I found myself intrigued. Your reputation as a famous general, and an avowed enemy to the Hartooth, are well known. My people may soon be in need of an experienced commander. And anyone who openly defies the First Clan is one whom I hold in high regard.”
Behind us we heard the approaching Great Wings. Turning, we watched the six large birds land on the far Lavartine side. Large birds, each carrying a warrior garbed in the robes of Lavartine riders but exhibiting no standards of clan or royalty. Yet the figure who leapt from his bird’s saddle told me all I needed to know. It was none other than the wily old Brandeis Lavine. As he approached I heard the young Malaweian grunt in surprise.
“My compliments, Demitrius of Croi. Your name brings out the famous of both Dragon and Man.”
The Lavatine kinsman to the king of the his people greeted us all formally but with a smile on his handsome face. Trudging through the heavy snow the warrior grasped my hand with both of his and seemed pleased to see me. He knew me not in this disguise. But seemed well aware of my alternate ego’s reputation.
“So, you are the famous rogue mercenary who is the renowned general. I have heard many examples of your famous exploits. It is an honor to meet you.”
“I am but a humble warrior, ” bowing my head for a moment in accepting the man’s compliments. “But I must say I am surprised as well. I did not expect a king’s general to ride with us this day.”
“Nor the son of a Dragon baron?” Bandeis Lavine grunted, nodded his head toward the Malaweian. “Greetings, Jaxtra Malawei. It is an honor to stand in your presence again.”
“An honor I share, general.”
I eyed both of them casually. Neither friend nor foe, yet showing mutual respect for each other’s position. Good. Without prior emotional barriers to dismantle this first effort to unit human and dragon warriors into a cohesive unit had a better chance of succeeding.
“As to your puzzlement, Demetrius,” the Lavartine warrior continued, grinning mischievously, “the king does not know I am here. Officially.”
“Ah,” I grunted, nodding understandingly and smiling. “But unofficially?”
“Unofficially he sends his greetings to Demitrius of Croi and wishes to be informed of all of his intentions in the joint military exercise you propose.”
“He is aware Dragons of the Malawei will soon enter the lands of the Lavartine in pursuit of Rogarian slavers?”
“He is and he sends his unofficial blessings. As long as our Dragon neighbors withdraw as soon as this small demonstration is over with. The king, mind you, has no love for Rogarian dogma. Even more importantly he cannot tolerate the idea of Niscian refugees being rounded up to be sold in Rogarian slave pens.”
I noticed Jaxtra Malawei nod his head in agreement to the Lavartine’s king official restraints placed upon us. Brandeis Lavine turned and faced the Malaweian, a look of seriousness on the man’s ruggedly handsome face.
“My king hopes the Malaweians in company with the famous general sees the dire threat setting encamped on the northern border of the Malaweian’s lands. The return of the Dragon’s First Clan in such numbers can only be a harbinger of coming terrors. Terrors which might engulf both kingdom and barony in a terrible conflagration if somehow not contained appropriately.”
Jaxtra Malawei eyed the Lavartine general through narrowed eyelids and nodded his head.
“Unfortunately my father does not believe in this threat, general. He believes the Hartooth’s words. He accepts the Hartooth’s gold. He does not believe the First Clan has any animosity toward the Malawei. As hard as I’ve tried I cannot convince him otherwise.”
Brandeis Lavine eyed the young warrior with narrowed eyes. The Dragon’s bluntness was an honest assessment of the Malaweian’s predicament. In effect the son of the Malaweian baron admitted his kinsmen were divided on the issue concerning the Hartooth. Half wised to openly join in the war and invade the High Kanris. They wished to fulfill the dragons’ Dark Lords ancient prophecy of finally being united in one common cause and eradicating the vermin called humanity once and for all.
On the other hand half of the Malaweian Dragonry refused the ancient prophecy and the First Clan’s demands. They neither wished to participate in a war against humanity. Nor did they wish to submit to Hartooth suzerainty. In truth the young prince admitted his people were divided and too weak to resist the Hartooth. No matter what decision his father took it would be the end of the Clan Malawei.
Unless outside forces were found to assist those who wished to contest the First Clan’s arrogance.
“Friends,” I said softly, holding up a hand to intervene politely the discussion going on among them. “Let us first meet our immediate needs before we think of more grand schemes. Let us warm ourselves and our warriors in front of hot fires and plan our moves against Rogarian slavers. And if successful, who knows? Perhaps the gods will smile upon us and send us a miracle or two.”
It did not take much convincing, thanks to the bitter cold numbing us, to get Man and Dragon to a lesser exposed position. Malaweian Dragons and their fire-breathers joined the Lavartines on the Lavartine side of the river and soon we had three roaring infernos blazed into the heavens. A jagged piece of rock several hundred yards long provided a wind break from the growing winds and soon we were all warming ourselves and sharing drink and food among each other in front of the towering flames.
Our hands warmed, our stomachs filled with food, and soon the young Malaweian and the Lavartine waited for me to outline to them what I had in mind.
“Perhaps more than four hundred Niscian refugees have been rounded up by Rogarian slavers and monks. They are being herded to the lower entrance to the Passage of Tears leading up into the High Kanris. If they get into the high country they will be sold as slaves. Selling Niscian refugees into slavery means that the Kingdom of Niscia will never be reborn. The Bretan monk who calls himself Roland of the High Crags has always resisted the Rogarians and their greed. He does not abide with the idea that Niscia is forever gone. It can arise out of its ashes and be reborn. I agree with him. I therefore wish to assist in his efforts to thwart Rogarian plans.
“But there is a secondary goal the Bretan wishes to achieve. There is a Rogarian monk who calls himself Iaegor of Lincoln. He has been a thorn in the Bretan’s sides for years. It also seems to be the Rogarian has information the Bretan seeks. The monk is the leader of the band of slavers. It is my desire to capture this monk alive and present him to the Bretan wizard.”
“I have heard of this monk, general.” the Dragon prince grunted. “I understand he is a warrior-monk, and one of the best, the Rogarians have ever produced. His skills as a swordsman is legendary. He will be a formidable foe to confront.”
“Yes, “ I nodded. “I am aware of that. To capture him alive will be a daunting task. But a task which is within our grasp.”
“What is this information Roland is so interested in? I have never heard him mention this Rogarian’s name before.”
“I cannot say, general.” I said truthfully. “All I know is Roland wishes the man to be captured alive and brought to him. I agreed to his demands. All I can do is try and accomplish them.”
“Is it true the Bretan and the Fifth Princess is somewhere in the north hill country? Rumors are running throughout my people that the child and this defrocked monk are near Malawei and are hiding from their enemies. If the rumors are true the Hartooth will launch an immediate attack on my clan. They will claim we are harboring the thief who stole their baron’s beloved daughter, and the promised Fifth Sister, from the Hartooth and we defy them by not handing the child and the monk over to them.”
I said nothing but gently shrugged my shoulders. The less I spoke of the princess and her whereabouts the more I actually protected the Malawei from Hartooth outrage. From the aura of the young Dragon I saw he too realized this and so did not pursue the matter further.
“What we must first do is find the slavers and their captives. We must know the strength of the enemies we face and then we must plan to counter their strength with the few numbers we have.”
“As to their whereabouts I have some knowledge,” the Lavartine began rubbing his hands vigorously and then holding them to the fire. “They hug the shield wall a dozen miles north and east of Laverne Hill. It appears they have twenty Great Wings and their riders plus forty or so warriors herding their captives along. They move slowly down the trails toward the destination. Too slowly, if you ask me. True, the snows are deep and make the trek difficult. But the move as if they are anticipating an attack. Even inviting attack. To be honest, my king finds their lethargy rather perplexing.”
I frowned. The news sounded ominous. What ruse were the Rogarians trying to accomplish? With only a force of sixty souls herding more than four hundred Niscians to their doom, why would they tarry so in the lands of the Lavartine? The Kingdom of Lavartine, a Bretan strong hold, held no love for Rogaria. Nor for the religion Rogaria espoused. So why invite attack? Unless . . .
“What news of Niscia, general?” I asked quietly. “Is there any Niscian cities still fighting Rogaria?”
Brandeis Lavine gave me a side long glance and then shook his head sadly.
“Their capital has fallen. Only those who escaped the onslaught survived. But few will live through the winter.”
“Where do our enemies strike next?”
Brandeis eyed me for some seconds and shrugged. But his eyes were narrowed and his mind was running through a number of possibilities.
“Does the general have a concern?”
“Send a courier to your king. Ask him to send riders to the east. Toward Oslon and the entrance to the Trail of Tears.”
The Lavartine was going to ask for an explanation. But something in my voice convinced him to remain silent. Turning, he hurried to one of his men and gave quick instructions. In moments rider and bird were lifting into the air and turning to streak toward Lavern Hill.
Ankor Mauk’s face was a mask for grim determination. He said nothing but glanced at me knowingly. Were the Rogarians thinking of expanding their empire below the shield wall? Perhaps absorbing the lands of the Lavartine? Between us our eyes exchanged another unsaid concern.
Were Rogaria and the Hartooth working together in a common cause? Or was our old
nemesis, the Evil from Afar, manipulating each empire separately with the intent on one assisting
the other unknowingly?