The true test of a warrior’s metal
Is never determined in the first passage
-From the Book of St. Albans-
“Rogarians are spending gold as if it was of no value whatsoever,” Brandeis Lavine grunted, turning to glare at me angrily. “They are sending to Oslon Iberian swordsmen. An army of Iberian swordsmen.”
Oslon was the small city just to the east of the Lavartine lands. It sat at the base of the shield wall near the opening of the Trial of Tears. It was at Oslon where our little din of misfits left the high country and entered the northern hill country.
“Are there Imperial Rogarian infantry?”
The Mauk asked the question, pouring three glasses of wine and handing one to the Lavartine and me before he took one himself. We were back in the Lavartine palace in the city of Laverne Hill. Bretan monks found our small entourage of Niscian refugees and relieved us of our burden. Lavine, along with myself, Gawain, Hakim and the Mauk flew back to the Lavartine capital. On our arrival the green and yellow pebble-skinned paladin was received by the king himself. Even among the Lavartines the exploits of the famous Mauk warrior were known.
“No. No Imperial troops. But we hear reports mercenaries from almost every high country stronghold are making their way to Oslon. Our spies tell us the city is packed with hundreds of them. But there is no way to know for sure exactly how many. But few Great Wings. Just a dozen or so. And a group of mercenary riders lead by a Vik outcast calling himself . . .uh . . .what was the name?”
“Helgar Longhair,” I answered, frowning as I glanced at the paladin.
“Yes, that’s the one,” Lavine exclaimed, snapping his fingers and pointing at me excitedly. “It seems you and this Longhair share a rather interesting history. There is a rather nasty red scar running down the side of his handsome face. A scar which makes him look particularly dangerous, if you now what I mean. I take it you were the source behind this gift?”
Months back, in the High Kanris, Helgar Longhair and his men almost captured the child, the twins, the old Niscian warrior-monk, and myself in an elaborate trap. That we escaped seemed impossible. But we did, and in the brawl which led to our escape, Helshvingar left a nasty reminder on the side of the blond Vic’s face. One I was sure he was never going to forget.
“He is related to Olaf, King of the Vic. But he only answers to the master who has the heaviest sack of gold in his hands. Currently that means the Rogarians. It also means he and his men have found our scent and are coming for us.”
“Humph!” grunted the Mauk, shaking his head and staring at his raised glass of wine. “That’s all we need. More trouble.”
“Ha, so true!” Lavine answered, nodding and chuckling. “Roland, if I didn’t know you better, I would swear you are the unluckiest monk ever to be a Bretan. Everyone is after your head. I even heard rumors the Bretan assassin, Master Breen, is looking for you. If he is, my friend, I would say sleep with one eye open and a hand close to your sword. Breen has never failed when given an assignment.”
While I lived at St. Rolla and trained as a wizard this warm, gentle soul was one of my teachers. Full of wisdom and ever ready with a comment or word to lift a someone out of their gloom, I came to look upon this grand old man as one of my best teachers. Odd how what appears to be something good and pure could hide so different of a life from others. Like an evil twin this gently man had a far darker and sinister side to him than anyone would have expected.
Master Breen was a Null Stone. A Null Stone of unparalleled powers. Standing in his presence no wizard, nor any combination of wizards, could summon up their powers from the Netherworld. It was said that even Cloaks of Invisibility would not work properly if one stood too close to the man. But the man was even better at being an assassin. He had a second talent which he shared with me freely. He was a master in the art of disguises. He could transform himself into anyone. Act perfectly the role of the character he took on and never, for one moment, create a suspicion he was not what he portrayed himself to be. From him I leaned almost everything I knew about disguises.
These talents made him the perfect assassin. A Bretan assassin who dedicated his life hunting wizards whom the Bretan Council of Elders feared as being consumed by the Netherworld’s insanity. He was a hunter of wizards, of any religious order, who danced on the edges of this terrible precipice. Or, like me, one who had been formally branded a Malus Apostate.
Our order hid Master Breen from the rest of the world by disguising him as a simple peasant who lived and served the monks at St. Rolla. But within the higher ranks of our faith his reputation was whispered in awe. The Clan Hartooth may have their legendary Shoga assassins. But Master Breen was a unique talent which made him far more deadly.
Ankor Mauk noted my silence over the subject of my teacher and so, in his own gruff way, steered the conversation back toward the Rogarians.
“What is the purpose of hiring so many swordsmen? They plan to attack someone. But who? And why?”
“Ha. Exactly,” nodded Brandeis as he eyed me for a moment and then turned to answer the Mauk. “Thanks to Roland’s warning earlier that is the question which haunts the king and myself. A relatively large Rogarian presence in our kingdom, plus our known animosity toward them and their religion, makes our suspicions grow. The king thinks their imperial troops are stretched too thin to divert any out of the high country and down here. So a contingent of their Great Wings, an experienced and loyal commander, and the hiring of mercenaries is their next best tool for conquest.”
“You expect them to attack here,” the paladin grunted as he lowered his empty glass of wine.
“That would be the obvious conclusion, my friend.” nodded the Lavartine general as he walked over to the dark wood liquor cabinet to reach for a bottle and refill the Dragon’s glass. “But we must be sure. I have spies among the Iberians and within the city to gather whatever news they can. If they learn of a Rogarian plan to assault our kingdom we must act and act decisively. We cannot allow the Rogarian to take control of Oslon. That would mean we would have enemies on our eastern borders and the threat of the Hartooth on our western borders. Bracketed by enemies is not a pleasant thought to contemplate.”
Behind me came a soft rattle of knuckles against the tall wooden door of the study. All three of us turned and stared at the door. It was very late at night in the general’s study, with most of the palace retired for the night. The general had given orders he wished not to be disturbed while we were with him. So this knock at the study’s door made the general frown in displeasure.
“Roland, perhaps you should step into the next room. You wear your disguise well but there might be those within the palace who might suspect you are not what you appear to be.”
“And I, general?” the Dragon growled almost menacingly.
“By all means stay. Your reception by the king himself has undoubtedly spread through out the city. Your absence might come as a surprise.”
The paladin tilted his head in acquiescence as I drifted off through a side room and partially closed the door behind me. Indeed I continued to wear my disguise as Demitrius of Croi. But the general was right. Many in the castle knew how the general and I had been close an dear friends years ago. Now, with the rumors that Roland of the High Crags had returned to these part of the forest in tow with a Dragon Pearl Princess, an intuitive mind seeing how well an unknown stranger who called himself Demitrius of Croi appeared so friendly to the general might have an epiphany. So, standing in an empty room with the door in front of me opened just enough to see who disturbed the general and his guest so late in the evening, I waited to see who might be important enough for a servant to disobey a general’s order.
The general opened the door and faced a visibly shaken young orderly. A quick whisper into the general’s ear and I saw the handsome man jerk his head up and look into a far room. Quietly he nodded and closed the door softly before he turned and looked at Ankor Mauk. He barely had time to say something to the paladin before the orderly returned and knocked on the door again. Brandeis Lavine opened the door and stepped back.
In walked Master Breen.
Tall, tanned, and looking exactly like the person I conversed with years ago when I left St. Rolla. He was dressed in the leather riding apparel and short cape of a simple Great Wing rider but without any weapon on his person. He came in smiling and as he was introduced to the Mauk his smile widened and he bowed formally in greeting as any Bretan devotee would to an honored guest.
Pilgrim, remember this warning; the most effective of assassins is not the assassin who never smiles and looks like the Grim Reaper himself in his dark robes and scowling face. Far from it. The best of assassins are those who can stand in the middle of a small crowd and blend into the masses completely. Or, in the case of Master Breen, be the open and sincere friend with a smile on his face and an affinity for making strangers feel at ease almost immediately. Either one becomes the most effective of assassins. For in each, when they strike, they strike their victims when it is least expected.
Brandeis Lavine’s face was without color as the assassin entered the study. The moment he did his talents as a Null Stone instantly kicked in. With a physical pain I felt my Inner Eye and wizardry powers extinguish like a torch suddenly losing its flame the closer the man came toward me. For a few moments the three stood around and conversed. I saw the general offer Master Breen a glass of wine but the assassin declined respectfully. Too far away to hear what was being said. Impatiently I waited until I saw Master Breen bow to both warriors in front of him and then turn and slip out of the study silently. Both general and the Dragon waited for the study’s door to be completely shut before the general turned and waived a hand toward me. Entering, I saw on the faces of both dreadful looks.
“A week from today a Sacred Circle will be consecrated on a small island called Crow’s Nest in the middle of the Lavis river not too far downstream of the monastery, “ Ankor Mauk grunted in his typical matter of fact bluntness. “You know this place?”
I smiled. It made perfect sense. While I was training to become a wizard at St. Rolla Master Breen and I would make the torturous trip down the Lavis to Crow’s Nest island to fish. It was the perfect setting for a trap. The island was small and mostly barren. Only a few souls could hide themselves on the island and only if they were particularly talented in such matters. But I did not fear a trap. Master Breen said a Sacred Circle would be consecrated. That meant the abbot of St. Rolla would come himself and sprinkle the land with holy water and say the necessary prayers to make the soil sacred. Burning torches, set on ten foot long poles, would encircle the sacred soil and any who entered the Sacred Circle would be immune from all laws and religious edicts which might harm them.
This anointed ground was used to bring two warring parties together to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. Or it was used when religious orders wished to debate a possible source of contention over the interpretation of some religious dogma.
“Breen said the abbot has concluded one could listen to the wind while sitting in repose within the Sacred Cricle. The wind comes and goes as it pleases. The wind can whisper its words without contaminating those who might listen. What is this Bretan mystic foolishness about the wind?” Lavine asked and looking genuinely puzzled.
“I once called myself nothing more than the wind when I tried to warn those at a Niscian monastery of their approaching demise.”
Weeks earlier, deep in the High Kanris, I learned of the approaching destruction of the Niscian monastery where the abbot, Constantine Marcellus, ruled. I warned them by entering their holy grounds even though I knew they would see me only as a Malus Apostate and thus try to destroy me. Fortunately the small abbot commanded his monks to step aside and allow me to speak. And I, in an effort to save those who heard my words by calling myself nothing more than the wind blowing through the trees, warned them.
Being a Malus Apostate can be death even to those who recognized me did not try to kill me. In our religions the one who is branded this is an abomination which has to be rooted out and destroyed. For anyone, of any faith, not to try and end my life meant their condemnation and forfeiture of life. But one cannot kill the wind. The wind can carry messages barely audible to the ear. Messages in the wind so discreet and so faint one could safely assume they heard nothing at all.
Master Breen calling me the wind meant Constantine Marcellus had kept his promise. The Niscian abbot and his followers now resided in the Bretan monastery of St. Rolla. In his own quite way he had convinced the Bretan abbot to create this subterfuge which would allow me to tell my fellow monks my side of the story. I would go. I would meet the representative the Bretan abbot would send to listen to me. I knew who would be waiting for me.
I knew it would be Master Breen.
We returned to our camp in the caverns to a joyful reunion for both sets of brothers and relief from the old Niscian warrior monk. One look into his craggy old face and I could tell something was troubling him. I said nothing but waited for the old man to tell me what troubled him. Ursala leapt into my arms and kissed me on both cheeks and I was pleased. But I saw in her face the tell tale signs of a small child who had not slept well for several days. She was happy to see all of us and jumped into the arms of each to give them a hug and a kiss. But she did not say anything as to why she had not slept well.
We ate, told our tales of adventure, told them all about Rogarians raising an army of Iberian swordsmen, and warmed ourselves around a blazing fire deep within the caverns and far from prying eyes. Eventually the twins found themselves unable to remain awake and drifted off to bed. Ursala, much to my relief, sat wrapped in my arms and immediately drifted off into a deep sleep leaving only Alvis, myself, and Ankor awake. The old warrior, sensing this would be a good time to talk, stirred the fires with a long stick and sat down on his haunches as he began.
“Her sisters have come to her for four days straight. Apparently Ursala’s strength has gown to the point my powers no longer hide her completely from those seeking her presence. Her sisters have caused her much anguish over the last few days. She refuses to talk to me about what they want from her. But she hasn’t slept. She keeps mumbling when she does fall into a fitful sleep and I’ve been worried her mind is loudly proclaiming our whereabouts in the Netherworld. Roland, we must find a second Null Stone. A powerful one. Or we will be found and the Hartooth will reclaim their Fifth Sister.”
The weight of the child in my embrace was light yet deceiving. With each passing week her Netherworld powers grew. She was, from the first moment I met her, as powerful as any wizard I knew and far more powerful than me. Yet she possessed but a fraction of what she would have when she matured to adulthood. With her increase in magic came the terrible possibility she might become what Dragon prophecy said she would be. The creature who would, as the Fifth Princess and evil supreme, be the one to unite all of the dragon clans and become the destroyer of humanity.
I looked down into the sleeping face of the child. And I saw a child. An innocent child. Dragon or not, she was but a young and frail thing; innocent of all wrong doing and not possessing one strand of evil. But how long would this continue? At what age, thanks to her d
Dragon genes, would her soul twist and wither and force her to embrace evil? Had I been a fool to believe I could take the weapon forged by the Dragon’s Dark Lords themselves and guide her down a different path? To be the weapon which would ultimately destroy Dragon prophecy? Destroy the Dark Lords themselves?
Or was her fate inevitable. Had she no choice in the matter. She would become, no matter what I did to counter the evil stalking her, what she was destined to be. Evil incarnate. The destroyer of humanity. The ultimate tool of her terrible gods.
I felt anger welling up in my soul. I felt a rage against gods and their mysterious plans and their unfathomable reasons for what they did. I wanted to rise up. To challenge the gods themselves to battle. I wanted to shake the very heavens with my wrath! Why did they play with we, Dragon and Man, as if we were nothing but things moved around on a gaming board and tossed aside when no longer of use to them? What right had they to dictate to us our lives, or fates, or destinies?
Again that horrible word. That word I had over the last few weeks grown to detest so much. What force, supernatural or not, had the right to weave our futures into a cloth not of our choosing? Why were some destined to be great other to be nothing but forgotten? Why were a few rich and many poor? Why was their a need for the innocent to suffer and the powerful to remain powerful.
I looked into the face of the child again. I saw the child I had grown to love as my own. I saw a soul who could, if given but a chance, become such a boon to both Dragon and Man. And I silently vowed I would do everything in my power to give her that chance. Even if it meant defying every god in the heavens.
“Tomorrow we’ll move to a different set of caverns I know of not too far from here. Tomorrow night I shall try to convince the little one to tell me what her sisters have been tormenting her about. As to finding a second Null Stone, Alvus–it may be difficult. My hopes of recruiting Master Breen to our cause may not happen. Where we might find another with strength enough to mask her mind from others I know not.”
Ankor glanced down at the child and shook his head. The Dragon was a distant relative to the child and had for years been one assigned by his old baron to be her protector whenever she came to visit. He felt affection for her just as much as I did. Perhaps even more. Like me he too would defy any and all to see she had the opportunity to live a life of her own choosing. So when he spoke he spoke with frustration not so much at me as to himself. But his words were startling.
“Too bad we could not find a nun or two from the Abby of Hahnoor to join us. Among
my kind, these nuns are renowned for their ability to curb the powers of a wizard. Not too far
from here, in the camp of Aukmar Hartooth, several such creatures reside. Assigned by the
abbess to protect the life of Clan Hartooth’s first son. What a waste. A terrible waste.”