Treachery lives among us on a daily
bases, my child.
Expect it to raise its monstrous head
at any moment,
For surely as the sun will rise and set
so too will the vile sickness called
-From the Book of St. Albans-
A few days after returning to Malagna I was asked by Jaxtra Malawei to meet privately with his father. It was, pilgrim, a memorable encounter. The Malawei baron was known for his indirect cunning and his love for gold. He was a baron who freely traded with both Dragon and human territories but he outwardly expressed his distaste for anything human. Yet the leader of the Malawei was very astute in grabbing any opportunity or benefit which would enrich himself and his clan. Old, quarrelsome, and suspicious of all, nevertheless Juris Malawei was no fool.
The Mauk and the baron were kinsmen. As youths they had spent much time together. From all outward appearance he trusted only two creatures. His son and the Mauk. Accompanied by Jaxtra and the paladin, we were ushered into the presence of the baron.
We found ourselves in the main reception hall of the small castle the baron kept in Malagna. A dozen or so large torches partially lit the long but narrow hall at one end. A blazing fireplace, the size of a full grown Dragon, lit the other half. At this end of the hall sat the old baron in a large carved wooden throne. Strangely the reception hall was empty. Only myself, the Mauk, Jaxtra Malawei, and two Malaweian guards standing behind and on either side of the baron’s throne were present.
The baron eyed me with suspicion and interest as we approached him. Old, far older than I anticipated, I could feel the Dragon’s pains and illnesses within him. I sensed immediately he was very ill and needed treatment immediately. I whispered something into the Mauk’s ear as we approached Juris and the Mauk grunted and nodded.
“So, this is the creature who wars against the Rogarian fantatics. Ha! I have half a mind to like you, creature. Come closer so my old eyes can see you better.”
I stepped away from the side of the Mauk and the baron’s son and moved closer to the old man, lifting a heavy leather bag up in the process.
“Greetings, Baron Malawei. I bring you greetings both from myself but also from the Bretan monk known as Roland of the High Crags.”
“Yes, I have heard you find his preaching of a possible new world where Dragon and human might live in harmony. Balderdash, I say! Dragon and humans cannot live in peace indefinitely. It’s impossible. Humans love war as much as we do. Ah . . but never mind. What’s that in your hands? Gold?”
“More valuable than that, sire,” I answered, kneeling to one knee and setting the leather bag down at the old Dragon’s feet, “Roland heard of your illness and prepared medicines which might lessen the pain. Taken often it could do much more.”
“Ha, poison you say!” the Dragon growled, his eyes narrowing as he leaned forward and stared down at the leather bag, “How am I to know the truth in this matter, eh? Why would this monk wish to cure an old enemy of his?”
“Take the damn medicine and do as the general says, you old fool!” the Mauk’s voice barked behind me, “I’ve known the monk for years. He has never lied to me. As a foe he is as honorable as a warrior can be. When he stood with us fighting the Hartooth he not only fought during the day but played the physician’s role by night. If the monk says it’s medicine then that’s exactly what it is. I trust the monk and the general here. So should you.”
The two guards behind their baron eyed the paladin with disbelief. Even the baron’s son hissed in surprise. Apparently few creatures had ever talked to the baron in that fashion and survived. Yet the Mauk’s blunt talk came naturally. As if he was used to talking to Juris Malawei in this fashion.
Several seconds went by as we waited for the baron to reply. And then, deep within the dragon’s chest, I heard a rumble of laughter.
“Cousin, I see you have never changed. Nor will ever change. Baron or commoner, you speak what you think and care not about its bluntness. Humph! Of late I have had a longing to hear such unhindered bluntness. But fear grips too many hearts and silences too many tongues. No one dares to speak his mind now that the Hartooth have arrived.”
“Did I not tell you this would be the case, Juris? The First Clan is a sickness. Bathed in arrogance and clothed in dark prophecy. They think all lesser creatures should bow before them. They come squealing to you muttering words of friendship and offering gold in exchange for passage through your lands. Yet deep in your heart cousin, you know the truth. They are here to destroy you.”
I turned and gazed at the green and yellow Mauk with surprise and pleasure. It was the longest speech I had ever heard coming from his lips. His voice carried conviction and passion. It was deep and powerful. It had charisma in it which would capture the attention of any warrior who heard him. Nodding in pleasure and returning my gaze back at the baron I knew the time would come when the paladin would have to exhort hundreds of warriors to follow him into battle. His exhortation, I believed, would be magical. He was a natural leader.
“And what do you say, general?” the old baron grunted as he turned his eyes toward me, “My cousin has no love for the First Clan. To be honest, matching my cousin’s blunt tongue, I cannot say I have a great admiration of them either. They’ve come in large numbers and have made a permanent camp south of here. They say they are willing to pay me a fortune in gold in exchange of letting them pass through next spring. More gold they promise if I allow reinforcements to come and go at will.
“My clan is poor, general. Gold is a rare commodity in this land. The Hartooth have not threatened me in any way. They have given me chests full of gold. How can I deny their request or know their true intentions?”
“Sire, you reside here in Malagna with a large troop of loyal warriors for what purpose?”
I began, “Is it not customary for you to remain in Malawei for the winter?”
There was a snort of disgust as the Dragon changed sitting positions on his throne and turned to eye his son momentarily. Jaxtra Malawei stepped to his father’s throne and turned to answer my query.
“We are here to stop a possible civil war, general. Half of this city’s population want to join the First Clan’s crusade. Several noble families are insisting the whole clan take up the Hartooth’s banners. Father wishes to remain neutral. But his neutrality irks the clan’s nobility. We are here in force to persuade those who lean toward the First Clan that we still lead the clan and not they.”
“There are those who are quietly planting the seeds of rebellion among the city’s populace?”
“Yes,” the heir to the Malaweian throne nodded, “Unfortunately there are many. A number of them our own clansman.”
“They are being paid to stir up this turmoil?” I asked looking at the heir and then at the father, “Paid in gold no doubt?”
“I follow your logic, general. You suspect the First Clan is laying the seeds of my destruction by paying agents to spread rebellion within the clan. You may be right, human. But we have no evidence to prove it.”
“But we have this,” I said, pulling from my vest the parchment I took as a prize from the dead Hartooth courier I fought and vanquished weeks back, “The monk encountered a lone Hartooth warrior and his Beastie in the skies not too far from here. They fought and the monk was the victor. Examining the body the monk discovered the warrior was a courier bearing messages from the baron to his son. You will find what is said most interesting.”
The baron eyed me and then glared at the parchment. Stretching out a hand he took the dried leather parchment and unrolled it. I knew it’s contents by heart.
Your father sends greetings and salutations. He wants to inform you
reinforcements will arrive in the spring. Fifteen thousand more
pike and a number of Beasties are en route as we speak.
Until that time make every effort to woo our enemies and make
alliances with possible friends. He also wishes me to inform
you that I will accompany the reinforcements.
I look forward serving under you, sire.
“Who is this Chaladondron?”
“A paladin, cousin. A general who is well versed in handling large armies. He has served the Hartooth for years and is a formidable foe in his own right. That he comes at the head of fifteen thousand more Hartooth infantry and Beasties should change your mind concerning your guests.”
“Hmm, yes. He speaks of wooing their enemies but does not name them. He very well could be speaking of the Lavartines or the Avalars. How am I to know who is his enemy and who is his friend?”
“Bah!” hissed the Mauk in disgust as his serpentine eyes glared at his cousin sitting on the wooden throne, “Surely you cannot be this blind, Juris! You have known Hartooth treachery for years! You know their traditions! Once they wage war on a Dragon clan they wage war on all the clans associated with their enemy.”
“I know their traditions, cousin!” the old baron snapped back, anger flaring his nostrils as he slapped a hand on an armrest, “But I also know I have a barony on the verge of a civil war. I have half of my nobility ready to join the Hartooth banners. I have relatives in my own family plotting to overthrow me!
And I also know this, cousin. The Malawei are not strong enough to stand against the Hartooth alone. Even if we were inclined to do so it would be a suicidal decision on my part. You are asking me to sacrifice my entire clan, Ankor. I cannot . . . I will not . . .make such a decision until I am absolutely sure the Hartooth consider us their enemies!”
The Mauk was about to make a heated reply but stopped when I gently placed a hand on the Dragon’s sword arm. Biting his tongue the green and yellow Mauk glared at me momentarily and then acquiesced.
“Sire, we understand your concerns. We grieve at the dilemma you find yourself in concerning the fate of your clan. If, in some way, we could bring to you conclusive proof the First Clan means to destroy you, would you then take up sword and fight?”
“Aye, I would,” nodded old ruler turning his gaze toward me as he handed the parchment back to me, “But it must be conclusive proof, general. Proof which leaves no doubts as to their intentions. Think you can bring me such proof before the spring thaws?”
I smiled, nodding.
“Long before the spring thaws, baron. Time is precious. To fight the First Clan we must prepare. We must seek out those who will come to our aid. We must build a force which will defeat the Hartooth on a field of battle.”
“Ha!” shouted the weak baron as he rose from his thrown with the aid of his son beside him, “To defeat a First Clan army in battle! That is a feat I would like to witness before I leave the Outer Realms. Find your evidence, general. Find it quickly. I cannot hold off my nobles much longer. If this clan is to have any chance in surviving I may be forced to join the First Clan’s crusade.”
With these words the baron, assisted by his son, turned and departed from the hall, leaving us standing alone in the semi-darkness. When the baron and son were beyond earshot the paladin turned me to and shook his head in disgust.
“Juris is an idiot if he thinks the Hartooth have somehow changed their ways. But how do we prove otherwise, monk? What makes you think there is evidence proving our contention?”
I smiled again and turned to leave.
“Perhaps we can compel the viper to show his true colors.”