In the Dark Mind of B.R. Stateham

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Chapter 16

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

The warrior who believes in this falsehood lives

with the edge of a blade at his throat.

-From the Book of St. Albans-

War, in the air against Great Wing and Winged Beastie, is a savage spectacle to behold.

There is no mercy. There is little honor. It is a duel to the death using flailing talons, the blue-white tongues of dragon fire, the powerful beat of feathered wings; the crack from a Beastie’s leather bat shaped wings snapping in the air. There are screams, the roar of Great Wings screeching their war cries and the bellowing of enraged Winged Beasties.

A dance of death.

Massive bodies twisting and turning in the air. And for the dead a harrowing fall from the heavens to the harsh and unyielding earth below.

A macabre symphony of sounds and sensations grim to behold.

Yet, oddly, mesmerizing to experience.

I have rode Cedric many times in aerial battles. Some we have won. Some we were forced to withdraw from. In individual battles I can say we have won more than lost. The skills of a warrior and his mount are paramount in such contests. In individual challenges, as grim and cruel as they have been, yet there have been times when a warrior and his comrade might exhibit some form of honor and mercy toward a weaker opponent. Several times I have withdrawn from combat after severely wounding my foe I had no desire to kill. Those whom I allowed to live always fought with honor and skill.

But no such deeds take place when several opponents entangle themselves with their counterparts. Such is the natural animosity between Great Wing and Winged Beastie. All restraints are thrown aside and a deep blood lust overwhelms theirs senses. A blood lust which rapidly grips the riders as well. The battle becomes elemental savagery. Only the skilled and the fierce have a chance to survive.

So was this battle in the wintry skies just to the north and east of Lavern Hill. With my faithful steed, along with Gawain’s and Hakim’s, it would have given us seventeen riders against twenty. Our seventeenth rider, a Great Wing, had been hurriedly sent to Lavern Hill to warn the king of our suspicions of Rogarian incursions from the east. So we had sixteen against twenty. Unflattering odds at best. But made more so since our enemies expected just such an attack. Our only hope in winning was to use a different set of tactics–tactics not anticipated–which would neutralize superior numbers.

Every rider of Great Wing or Beastie learns to sit strapped in their saddles and scan the heavens above and behind them for a sudden attack. Attack from the sun is the most elemental, and most effective, tactical maneuver used. Spreading a formation of Great Wings or Winged Beasties out so that each rider and his mount is close enough so assistance might be rendered, yet far enough separated so that sudden and violent counter maneuvers might take place, is a second rule. I knew our Rogarian friends would adhere to these rules. I knew they would be flying in a two tiered formation, one above the other, to support each other. The Rogarian religion demands complete and absolute adherence to rules. This strictness of dogma carries over into their military as well. Neither the religious nor militant Rogarian reacts well to change. This too I expected and planned for.

Half of us attacked from in front and below the tier of riders approaching us. This force was our Great Wings. A Great Wing, due to its short wings and powerful muscles, lifts from the ground and climbs into the sky at a much faster rate than the long necked Winged Beastie. A fire-breather’s great advantage is that they can soar for hours high above the ground riding the thermal drafts playing across the contours of the land and never move a muscle. Our fire-breathers would soar above our enemy first and draw their attention. Once the enemy’s attention was drawn above our Great Wings would attack from below.

The night before the attack we flew to a position some distance down the trail the Rogarians were using. At an hour before dawn Ankor, Hakim, and Jaxtra Malawei and his riders took to the skies and began climbing for altitude. Fortunately the dawn revealed a sky filled with a smear of high floating clouds. Perfect to hide fire-breathers from prying eyes if led by a skilled rider. I knew Ankor Mauk was a very skilled and very shrewd rider as well as a master tactician. The Rogarians rose early and threw up their screen of Great Wings as I expected. I and my group waited until the last possible moment to attack. Our attack, I was pleased to see, was given a greater opportunity at succeeding thanks to the wily old Mauk. Just before we mounted our birds and strapped ourselves into our saddles the Mauk and his fire-breathers chose to slip down below the high clouds and reveal themselves. The Rogarian riders and their Great Wings reacted instantly. Their two-tiered formation began to rise higher into the air to meet the attack. No Rogarian thought of looking in front and below them as they began climbing.

Above us the roar of fire-breathers exhaling their fiery tongues of flame came to our ears. Dark masses, both Great Wings and Winged Beasties, began tumbling across the heavens as one rider or another tried to jockey their mounts into the perfect killing position. I would have hung back and watched the struggle for even now it was rare for the numbers of fire-breathers and Great Wings to confront each other in battle. But my attention was attuned to the brown and gray war bird directly above me. Cedric’s powerful wings were closing the distance separating us rapidly as I pulled the bowstring back to my ear and waited for the right shot.

An attack from below is a rare maneuver and calls for rider and mount to be very aware of each other’s needs. A Great Wing coming up from below will actually roll over onto his back, throwing his massive talons straight up and at the belly of the enemy above. But just before this maneuver takes place the Great Wing’s rider tries to eliminate the warrior above by piercing him with a well aimed arrow. It is a difficult maneuver. One which should not be tried by a rider of littler experience. To this I worried about my young blond haired Vic youth riding just behind me and to my right. Gawain was as skilled as any rider I knew. Over the weeks both I and Alvis Fairhands had shown both youths many techniques in the art of war and riding a Great Wing into battle. But this maneuver I knew Gawain had never tried before.

Both Gawain and his twin brother, Gawaith, were handed over to me by their uncle, King Olaf of the Vic. The two represented the last heirs to the Vic thrown if Olaf and his army failed to halt the Hartooth’s attempts to seize one of the main entrances up into the High Kanris. Olaf had been, for almost half a year now, defending his kingdom’s capital from the massive Hartooth armies in front of it laying siege to it. The King of the Vics asked me to flee with his two nephews only hours before the Hartooth siege began and train them to become men. I agreed.

In my original entourage was a seven year old Pearl Princess and two blond haired waif’s whom I had come to look upon as my sons. The thought of seeing harm befall either twin haunted me. Yet there was nothing I could do but train them for the terrible strife which I knew they would have to endure. My fears were almost realized on this day. And it was partially my fault for Gawain’s suddenly being thrown into a fight to save his life.

Gawain’s bird was young and strong. But not completely trained. My old friend, Cedric, and I had fought alongside each other for years. We knew each other’s habits and frailties better than we knew our own. I should have realized Cedric would reach his prey a second or two before Gawain’s bird would reach his. That speck of difference in time was almost enough get my young ward killed. Cedric and I slammed into our climbing prey with the force of a hammer striking a bronze plate. But just before he rolled over into his attack position I let loose my arrow and then gripped the saddle with a free hand just as the giant black and red war bird twisted onto his back with a bone jarring swiftness.

But in our attack we alerted the intended prey of Gawain’s of what was about to happen. The Rogarian rider and his bird were experienced old hands in aerial warfare. Without hesitating the Rogarian’s mount spun on his wing to the right just as Gawain’s bird was about to latch onto his prey with its sharp talons. A second bank to the left violently and suddenly the Rogarian was above and behind Gawain and in the classic killing position few riders and their birds escape from. In just the thump of two heart beats the odds had turned terribly against Gawain!

I caught a glimpse of Gawain’s bird standing on his right wing and trying to turn inside and underneath the Rogarian above and behind him. But I lost sight of him immediately for Cedric and I slammed into the underbelly of our prey with a jarring collision. Talons latched onto each other and suddenly both birds and riders were plummeting downward toward the white covered ground below at an incredible speed.

Our plunge did not last long. Cedric, being the giant he is, and so experienced in battle, is extremely deadly in grappling his enemy. Only a heart beat or two passed before he released his death hold on the Rogarian bird and turned hard to the right to separate us from our dead foes. Powerful wings began beating the cold air and we started climbing as fast as we could. Around us a number of birds and their riders were plunging to their icy graves below. I paid no attention, not caring if they were friend or foe, as I desperately scanned the skies searching from my young ward.

Below me, skimming just above the forest canopy, I caught sight of Gawain’s bird racing and twisting violently to shake off the Rogarian behind him. The Rogarian was using his bow and trying to end the duel with a well aimed arrow. But so far his arrows had missed their mark.

Screaming at Cedric and pointing downward I told my old friend to fly like the wind. The black Huygens-bred war bird rolled over onto his back and tucked his wings close to his body. In seconds we were dropping from out of the heavens as if the gods had thrown giant boulders down from the gates of heaven itself. But it did not take long to see we would not arrive in time to help Gawain. The rider above and behind him was closing the gap. Sooner or later an arrow would find the lad’s beating heart. I screamed in rage knowing I would not save Gawain. Cedric heard my fury and somehow found a way to dive even faster toward the battle below us.

And then, before our eyes, Cedric and I witnessed a miracle. From out of the bottom of a low cloud the startling mass of a gigantic fire-breather appeared. It’s wings, like Cedric’s, were pulled back and it was diving at a tremendous speed. A huge Winged Beastie, one that I recognized. It suddenly flared out its massive expanse of wings and pulled up and out of its dive. A tongue of flame shot out from its open jaws and completely engulfed bird and rider in its fiery fury. I heard a faint scream and then watched as the charred remains of the Rogarian and its mount fell and crash into the upper branches of the forest.

Hakim had saved Gawain’s life! I shouted in glee and sat up just as Cedric pulled out of his dive and raced toward Gawain and his mount. We landed almost together. Leaping from my saddle I raced to the smaller bird. Running to the blond haired young warrior I grabbed him with both hands on his shoulders and shook him violently. Anguish, fear, fatherly concern . . . all these emotions were racing through me. I looked intently to see if possibly an arrow had found its mark. Relived the lad was safe, and even grinning impishly at his near death, I stepped back, gripped my emotions firmly and grinned. When Hakim’s golden Beastie joined I looked at the dragon warrior and nodded toward the creature. He understood the gesture and nodded in return. Walking back to Cedric I leapt into the saddle and told the two youths we had to return to the battle.

But the aerial assault was over. Battles between Great Wings and Winged Beasties usually are decided in a matter of minutes. Even when large numbers of such creatures meet the battle lasts ten minutes or less before one side or the other decides to retreat and fight another day. So too this battle was decided in quickly. Fire-breathers and Great Wings attacking simultaneously, and from two different directions, rattled the nerves of our foes. Of the twenty riders the Rogarians had six fell immediately from the first onslaught against our three casualties. It was the fire-breathers which decided the battle’s outcome. No Rogarian had ever seen Winged Beasties allied with Great Wings in such a contest. As I suspected the novelty of our attack was too much for the Rogarian mind set.

That left the forty or so warriors below. But as it turned out they too had fled when they saw their aerial cover no longer protecting the skies above them. Iaegor of Lincoln was not to be found. True. We could have hunted them down by following their tracks through the deep snow and dark forest. But doing so placed us in a severe disadvantage. Traps and ambushes set by our enemies would have decimated our numbers. Numbers too few to take on such a hunt. Best, therefore, to allow our enemies to flee while we surrounded our Niscian refugees and escorted them to safety.

By the evening of the second day it was decided the Malawei contingent could return to their homelands while the Lavartines and I continued to escort the refugess to St. Rolla. On the morning Jaxtra Malawei and his body guard was to leave the young Dragon found me and grinned in pleasure.

“I enjoyed myself in this little hunt, human. Enjoyed it so much we should hunt again. Human or Dragon. It does not matter. You must come to my father’s court. I am sure he will be most keen in hearing your opinions concerning the Hartooth’s presence in our lands. I would not be surprised if he would take the unprecedented task of offering you a command of Winged Beasties. We live in dangerous times, Demitrius of Croi. With each passing day it seems the dangers increase.”

“Your father does not trust the Hartooth. Does he not believe their words that they are here only to march through your lands as they move toward the lands of the Bruinii?”

“It can be said my father trusts no one. Not even those he considers his friends. Or his kin.”

The Mauk paladin joined us and nodded his agreement.

“The Malawei will find this human adequate in his command abilities. I have faced him too often in combat and have seen first hand how well he commands. If anyone can find a way to lessen the dangers facing you it will be him.”

“Ah,” grunted the young dragon, impressed. “Coming from my father’s renowned cousin is praise indeed. Well then. It is settled. As soon as you can, uncle, bring this human to the palace. We will give him a royal receptions and have a feast to honor him.”

Disguised as the general, Demitrius of Croi, I nodded my head in agreement. As we watched the young Malaweian and his warriors mount their dragons and lift into the air I heard the Mauk beside me grunt.

“My cousin, the baron, sits in an uncomfortable position, Bretan. Large numbers of his subjects wish to join the Hartooth’s cause. Malagna is hotbed for Hartooth support. The Hartooth could march into the city tomorrow and its population would open its gates cheering and welcoming them as their liberators.

His capital, Malawei, is more ambivalent toward the first clan. His troops argue over whom to serve. He will be lucky to have five thousand infantry available to him this spring if the Hartooth decides to war on the Malawei.”

I heard the gloom in the Dragon’s voice. My Inner Eye saw the turmoil of emotions wracking him concerning the fate of his Malaweian cousin. But I also saw the paladin’s determination to save his kinfolk from genocide. A hard, unyielding determination only death itself could blunt. It was this determination of his, this strength which radiated from the dragon’s heart like a hot furnace, which actually made me smile.

“Ah!” he grunted, his dark eyes seeing the smile on my lips. “What devious plans does that mind of your now plot, human. How do you propose to defy the destiny and fate the gods have decreed?”

“We may have five thousand dragon pike men, my friend. Five thousand. Perhaps our efforts to recruit those who would be willing to join us will be equal to the task we have in mind. Let us not worry what the gods have decreed. The gods go about their business and we must go about ours.”

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