You cannot hide from your fears.
You cannot run away from those who are
dreaming and plotting to
do you harm.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
We all sat around in a circle with Ursala in the middle and fully commanding our complete attention as she waited for Hakim and Bellus to sit down between the Mauk and the twins. Ursala had asked for this. She wanted to speak to all of us. She said it was vitally important. So important I should summon Ankor Mauk and his nephews back from Malagna to join us.
The voice coming out of the child was Ursala’s. But not the child we knew. The Ursala I was hearing was the one we had met a few weeks earlier in the Netherworld. The adult Ursala, the one who had shown us there were other possibilities in which our war against the Hartooth and the Evil from Afar might play out. Outside of the caverns a fierce winter storm was blowing vast amounts of snow across the landscape. The howl of the wind, the biting cold, made all of us sit close to the fire blazing away near by. Even our birds and fire-breathers took refuge in the set of caverns adjoining ours. No living creature would have lasted very long if they found themselves trapped out in the open. But here in the cave we were safe, warm, and dry.
Ursala asking to talk to all of us was new. Ursala sounding like an adult and not the child somehow disturbed us and made us feel very uncomfortable. I observed in each of the faces around me their concerns. But none broke the silence as we waited for the child-adult to speak.
“Grandfathers, this creature we call the Evil from Afar is very disturbed. The River of Time is shifting. New currents entering the stream. New currents that are disturbing all his plans. He fears grandfather Roland will succeed in his mission to save the Malawei.”
The paladin lifted an eyebrow suspiciously and glanced in my direction. Alvus Fairhands frowned, narrowed his eyes, and gazed more intently at the child. Bellus and Hakim glanced at their uncle and then back at the child while Gawain and Gawaith, for some reason, lit up their handsome faces with wide, pleased grins.
I remained silent and waited for Ursala to continue.
“When we arrived here a few days ago the Evil from Afar had manipulated the currents in the River of Time to achieve the outcome he wanted. He wanted the Malawei destroyed. He wanted the human kingdom to the west of the Malawei lands destroyed. He wanted the Dragon Bruinii to become allies with the Hartooth. Much work and deft handling of the currents had to take place for all this to happen.
But then you, grandfather Roland, when you heard my brother, Aukmar Hartooth was leading the Hartooth army near by, you decided it was time to stand and fight. Grandfather Mauk was already here and willing to die in his efforts to save his distant kin. His presence alone did not bother the Evil from Afar. But the combination of you two, and the unanticipated willingness of the Kingdom of the Lavartines to assist you indirectly in your efforts, has greatly unraveled much of the work the Evil from Afar has woven. This has angered him. Angered him and forced him into a position of possibly seeing his plans evaporate before his very eyes.”
“So,” growled the Mauk, sounding almost pleased. “We can defeat the Hartooth and save the Malawei?”
“Perhaps,” the child answered in her mature voice. “Perhaps not. What once was assured to take place a few days ago has now drastically altered. The future has become confusing to behold. The Evil from Afar may win this encounter but it is no longer a certainty. And may become even more uncertain if I step forward and openly assist you in your defiance toward my brother.”
I said it firmly. I said it in a fashion which left no doubt my convictions. With an inflection in the voice which would allow no appeal.
“We will not expose you to more dangers than we already face. To reveal you to the Malawei, or the Lavartines, or to anyone, would do nothing but summon every wizard in the High Kanris to us.”
“But grandfather, if I could use just a little of my power, if I could inspire and convince those who waiver between resisting the Hartooth or joining them we could raise the army you need to defeat my brother.”
“We would perish in the process, “ I answered firmly. “Ursala the adult, hear me!
Within the Netherworld you see things we do not. You enter the child’s body and speak to us as an adult who sees an opportunity to lift victory out of certain defeat. But the child before me is not ready to defend herself. Her mastery of her skills is far from complete. The child needs time to learn to control and bend the powers of the Netherworld to her will. That will take years to do. Years she will not have if she comes out from hiding and confronts her enemies.”
I saw a flash of irritation and anger flash across the child’s pearl white face. Anger and irritation, I wondered, coming from the child or from the Ursala within the Netherworld?
“Hear me, the two of you,” I growled, becoming irritated as well. “Too many lives, too many hopes and dreams of a better world, have been placed into our care. For better or for worse hundreds of souls have decided to join our cause. Given time those hundreds can turn into thousands. But all will be for naught, all those who have joined us, Dragon and Man, will be swept away by an evil seeking his revenge if we move too soon.
“This is a perfect example of the dangers we face. The Ursala inside the Netherworld sees the currents in the River of Time possibly twisting around to give us an advantage. But that is a false hope. Until the child becomes the adult she cannot fulfill the demands placed upon her here in the Outer Realms!”
“But grandfather . . .”the child began pleadingly.
“The answer is no,” I growled in a voice of absolution. “I will not lead those who love you, and those who seek freedom and peace, to their destruction. Perhaps we can save the Malawei. Perhaps not. Only time will tell.”
I rose from my sitting position, gripping Helshvingar in my left hand, and left the circle. As I did I heard the child turn to Ankor Mauk.
“Grandfather . . .”
“No, child. I will not, ” the green and yellow reptilian growled, his voice filled with sadness as he spoke. “The Bretan is correct. I will not try to convince him otherwise. We must do what we can with the Malawei. But the goal we seek is still far, far away. I am sorry child.”
He too rose up and followed me back into a different part of the cavern. As did the others. For a long time the child watched each, Man and Dragon, rise up and walk away. On her face was a face filled with frustration and anger and resignation. Tears welled in her eyes. But she said nothing as Bellus, the last to leave, came to his feet and walked away. With his departure she sobbed once, turned, and ran to her bedding and threw herself underneath a heavy cloak and began crying.
In the faces of all those around me were expressions of sadness and dejection. We all hurt as we stood in silence and listened to the child sob. A few moments of this silent fellowship of guilt and finally one of us spoke.
“By the gods’ glory that was hard to do, master.” Gawaith whispered, turning to look back at the hidden form of the child in her bedding.
“But we had to, brother,” Gawain said softly, and hurting as equally as his brother. “The master knows what he speaks.”
“Yes,” grunted Fairhands, his face set in grim determination as he stared down at the cavern’s stone floor. “Move too soon and we are all wiped out. The odds are against us already in seeing the child grow to up and become a woman. Sooner or later our enemies will find us in numbers we will not be able to overcome. Unless we keep moving. Keep changing our hiding places. Never dallying too long in one place.”
“For the moment we are safe here,” I said, hearing the Niscian’s words and understanding his true meaning.
He feared our prolonged stay in the lands of the Malawei was a mistake. Our efforts to save the Malawei a meaningless gesture. He might have possibly been correct on both counts. But we were here. We were going to try and save the Malawei. Succeed or fail, or efforts trying to save the Malawei would have resonance and reverberations in the River of Time.
“Humph,” grunted the scowling Mauk as he turned and glanced at the sobbing mass of bedding behind him and then back to me. “What will come, will come. We do what we must do to live in peace with our conscience. What results our decisions make rests with the gods.”
I smiled. The Mauk’s logic was simple and straightforward and honest. We all had to live, ultimately, with our conscience. Shame and guilt were terrible companions to live with within in one’s soul.
A few days later I mounted faithful Cedric and we flew to the island called the Crow’s Nest. The island itself was a mass of boulders and jagged rocks set in the middle of the Lavis river, in the midst of frothing and roaring white water. Even in the deepest of winters this portion of the Lavis never freeze. The water, falling steeply from out of the towering High Kanris, sweeps down and between the rocky banks of the river in a terrible fury. Mists constantly filled the air in the ravine created by the river, and in the middle of the winter this moving mist coated the entire island in sheets of thick clear ice.
As a young lad training in the arts of wizardry at St. Rolla, Master Breen and I would come to this island to fish. The waters trailing the island formed a natural pool of calm and in this pool one could catch big trout and fat catfish. In the summers Master Breen and I would come to fish and relax. And to listen. Always to listen. The Bretan servant who was neither warrior nor monk. Nevertheless he was one of the wisest men I knew. We would lounge on a rock after catching a big fish and cooking it over a fire eating and talking philosophy, or whatever subject the master wished to converse. Whatever subject was selected the wisdom and knowledge I listened to I absorbed with gratitude.
But now I returned knowing I was the hunted and the master was the hunter. Eventually, if I could not convince him to join us, we would meet as foes. His skills as an assassin was legendary. His skill was a swordsman was equally legendary. I doubted if I would survive the confrontation.
As Cedric and I approached the river and the island from our high advantage I saw the plain white canvas of a sturdy warrior’s campaign tent illuminated from within by the flickering light of a brightly burning campfire. The tent was within the sacred circle. Surrounding the tent were tall wooden shafts of hackberry arranged in a perfect circle. On each wooden shaft a brightly burning torch glowed in the twilight. I knew who I would find sitting cross legged and patiently waiting within the tent. The landscape below us was a white monotone of virgin snow. Above us the heavens were without clouds. The cold of the growing twilight’s air was biting and the fires below inviting. Cedric, sensing I wished to land close to the silhouetted tent on the island, spread his wings and began circling the river, his large beaked head looking down to find the right spot to alight.
Because of the high walls of the river gorge the process of landing a Great Wing becomes a challenge. The gorge catches and channels the wind and mists. Sometimes momentarily hiding the island from view. But always making invisible whirlpools and eddies which can catch a winged creature dangerously by surprise. For several moments Cedric circled the island, descending slightly in the process with each orbit, waiting for the right moment. It came when he noticed the mist suddenly whipped to one side and began to spiral upward out of the gorge itself. We plummeted downward in a dive, the big war bird throwing his wings out, twisting and braking with powerful strokes as he brought us down into an amazingly gentle landing.
Leaping from his saddle I told my old friend to stay as I turned and faced the circling poles holding their flickering lanterns. Wrapped in heavy cloaks, a hood hiding my face and head, my hands sunk deep into the sleeves of the outer cloak, I made my way over a cleared path cut deep into the snow toward the tent. The wind was bitter. The chill of the ever constant mist touching the exposed flesh feeling like the sharp edge of a knife. In front of me and silhouetted within the tent I saw the figure of Master Breen. As I approached I had the mental image of an old philosopher waiting form me as he sat by the fire in serenity. But I knew this was an illusion. Peace and serenity he would nourish only for as long as he sat within the sacred circle. The moment he stepped out of the illuminated circle we would be deadly foes.
In the midst of this wild country I felt incredibly alone. Alone and almost helpless. The task of raising and training Ursala was like a massive boulder setting between my shoulders. The weight was terrible to carry and with each passing day the weight seemed to increase. As a warrior monk I was infinitely aware of facing overwhelming odds. I was accustomed to facing overwhelming odds alone. I knew how loneliness weighed upon the soul. Yet the emptiness I felt now threatened to overwhelm me.
“Enter, honored wizard. In here, for the time being, you will be safe.”
Carefully I stepped into the circle. The master set near the fire, his legs crossed and pulled up close to him, his hands resting on his thighs and clearly visible. Kneeling, I sat on the bare cold grown and crossed my legs in the same fashion. The master watched me closely with a thin smile on his gray lips. He seemed not in the least bit worried in facing a condemned Malus Apostate. Withdrawing my hands from within the cloak’s sleeves I mimicked the master’s every gesture. There were rules, a set of rituals, one had to follow while inhabiting a sacred circle. I knew the formalities well. They were taught to me by the man who sat in front of me years before.
“I bring you greetings from our venerable abbot, Gregori. He has asked me to convey to you his joy in that you still live in these trying times. Yet he voices his lamentations over the circumstances which has brought you here. Allow me to add my own sentiments, wizard. My heart is heavy with the knowledge your choices have sent you down the path fraught with danger.”
“It is a path uncharted, master. A path which splits and turns and hides itself in the mists of the future. But this path and its journey does not necessarily have to end in tragedy.”
“Ah,” the old, yet not old, assassin grunted, a sad smile on his thin lips as his dark eyes played across my face. “The very reason I sit with you in on this sacred ground. Our abbot has heard many stories concerning your journey with the child. He has heard many praise your efforts in saving them from both Dragon and Man who wished to destroy them. Those who survived the fires consuming the Monastery of a Thousand Candles have been the loudest in their praise.
“But others, my son . . . others have painted a black portrait of a wizard who has fallen into the Netherworld’s abyss. They speak of evil powers and the manipulation of your soul for dark purposes. They hint of some far off evil presence controlling you and the child. A presence who is using you both as tools for some yet unknown goal. Our abbot has not necessarily been swayed by those who have labeled you Malus Apostate. But you have befriended a Pearl Princess. You’ve become her protector and guardian. You’ve agreed to teach our Bretan Way in the arts of wizardry to the very one promised to destroy humanity in Dragon prophecy. Understand our abbot finds himself gravely concerned.”
“Yet willing to consider the reasons why I chose to do what I have done. I am thankful the abbot is one who listens to his own mind in times of crises.”
The master tilted his head slightly to one side and smiled. It was a small gesture, a minute gesture of acquiescence. But one filled with a thousand different interpretations. From the master’s lips I heard the concerns of St. Rolla’s abbot. But I wondered what the man in front of me truly felt. Could there possibly be an ally in the waiting within this man’s soul? Or was there the implacable foe I so feared coiled and waiting to strike at the first opportune time? At the moment I did not know.
“I am here to listen, Roland. I am to listen to your story in its fullest interpretation and carry it back to Gregori. He has given me a lists of questions to ask you. But I am not to reveal them until first I have heard your words. What you say and its truthfulness, or the lack of it, will determine our destinies. Speak, my son. From the beginning to now. Leave not even the tiniest trivia out of your tale. Your soul hangs in judgment.”
And so I did. I told him everything and leaving nothing out in my telling. I began the tale starting two or more years back when I first felt the stirring of the sinister Evil From Afar. I told him of standing alongside the Clan Anktooth and facing the overwhelming might of the Hartooth. I spoke in detail the request the old Anktooh baron, the child’s maternal grandfather, asked me to do. I described the child; noted to him the flash of insight of taking the Dragon’s most terrifying weapon and possible turning it against them. I spoke of taking the child and fleeing into the high country. I spoke of those who chased us. I spoke of the many confrontations with those who wished to destroy us. I spoke of the horrors of watching the Niscian Monastery of a Thousand Candles being destroyed. I spoke of the raging fury which gripped me during that time. I described the lust to exact severe revenge on those who committed such an atrocity.
I spoke for hours. I revealed my soul to the master. At the end, when the candles illuminating the tent were all but consumed, when the fire between us barely flicked a stunted life, the master spoke.
“Do you believe she is still this innocent child?’
“You believe you will be able to train her in our ways and turn her against her ancestral master?”
“I cannot say,” I said, smiling sadly and shaking my head. “When she matures into a teenager and then into adulthood there is that possibility she will embrace her Dragon destiny.”
Dark eyes watched me carefully for some seconds before I heard the man grunt and continue.
“Your plan is to destroy the Dragon? To remove the dagger held at the throat of all Mankind?”
“It is not. My goal is to destroy Dragon prophecy. My hopes are to lift the Dragon up to the point they can defy their gods. To insist a change be made in their lives. To make a demand that this incessant war between Man and Dragon cease and that peace will have the chance to flourish in the hearts of all of us.”
“Do you plan to defy our gods as well?”
The question I dreaded the most. The question I struggled with often. For to defy the Dragon gods meant, for some, to defy one human god or another. Several religious sects found among us demanded the destruction of the Dragon. Even claimed destiny eventually professed it to be a certainty.
I realized my answer to this question could possibly mean the difference of persuading my Bretan brethren in joining or cause or seeing it reject me completely and accept fully the Malus Apostate condemnation I now carried on my shoulders like a heavy weight.
“Yes. I plan to defy any god who insists an entire species must be destroyed in order to reach some vague religious harmony. The god we worship does not insist upon this. Those who worship a god who does must be wrong. The god we worship cannot be so fickle as to say one thing to one group of worshipers and something else to a different set of the faithful.”
“Roland, you tread on dangerous ground with this form of heresy. Even among the Bretan there are those who believe our god looks upon the Dragon with disapproval.”
“He looks upon evil with disapproval, master. You have spoken many times to me on how we carry god’s command to face evil and defeat it in all its forms. Yet I have never heard you say the Dragon were basically evil. Evil is not only the face of the Dragon. Evil fills the hearts of many humans as well. If we are condemned to destroy the one because they are evil, are we not condemned to destroy ourselves as well?”
The master’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully and for some moments he remained motionless. And then, with a grunt, he reached for some firewood stacked near and tossed into the glowing embers of the fire between us. Taking a thin tree branch lying by his side he began stirring the embers around to revive the fire. It did not take long for the flames to again fill the tent with light and warmth.
“Your dream of standing with the Dragon as an equal and as friend. An admirable goal. An attractive goal, my son. A dream I must confess I have secretly wished for as well. But Roland, we face the danger of falling into a deep abyss with such dreams. Our hopes for a cessation of this endless feud may be nothing more than wishful thinking. The birth of a new world where peace reigns and where Dragon and Man are equals may very well be a device this Evil from Afar is using to blind us. In short, my son, it may be that what destiny has woven cannot be altered. Worse. The more we try to unravel the weave the stronger the weave will become and more terrible the fate of those who try to alter it.”
I heard the bitterness in the master’s voice. My heart ached to hear it. In his face I read the tell-tale signs of many such battles. How many times had this man defied destiny and fate? How many times had he failed in changing destiny’s outcome? If the master had failed in his struggles to do what I envisioned why did I feel compelled to take up the same task and continue to the battle?
Why does man rebel against the decrees of the gods? Why do we constantly get thwarted, even condemned and severely punished, every time we defy the gods? We suffer greatly. We cry out into the darkness. We beg forgiveness. We promise to change our ways. Only to, generations later, rebel again. What do the gods have to fear from mortals such as we? Fear us so much they contemplate extinction of one race or the other in their efforts to keep us under their thumbs.
Most of us tremble in the darkness because we know we are condemned.
Anger and resentment flared up suddenly in my soul. Like a strike of lightning in a dry forest the fires erupted with a fierce heat. Why should any entity, divine or not, condemn and lay waste the innocent and the weak? What right had the divine to make such terrible decisions? If the divine was compassionate, as many of our religions on this world professed, how could they be so quick to crave the extinction of an entire nation? Or an entire species?
Not this time.
Not as long as I lived.
My goal was to protect the innocent and the weak from evil. If the innocent and weak were either Dragon or Man it did not matter. My vows, my training, my entire being demanded I must protect them.
Coming to my feet I bowed respectfully to the master. Master Breen eyed me with sadness in his eyes so heavy I thought tears would come to mine. In a soft voice in the dim light he spoke.
“I will relay all that was said this night to our abbot. What he will make of this I cannot say. But be warned, good friend. The next time we meet it may be as enemies where one must die and one must survive. Yet I tell you I will say prayers to our god that such a fate never happens.”
I nodded, smiling sadly, and said nothing as I left the tent.