Neither judge nor condemn a stranger
upon first acquaintance, pilgrim.
Judgement must be a string of actions
and deeds to ponder on; not the first
fleeting glimpse of someone you have just
-From the Book of St. Albans-
As the winter deepened the morass of dark suspicions and brooding conspiracies continued to simmer. Malagna was like an iron kettle setting over a blazing fire. Underneath its heavy lid the black liquid of suspicions and hatreds began to froth and bubble. Factions openly fought each other in the dark alleys and narrow streets within the city at night. Every morning one would rise and hear of the number of dead found. Each morning faction leaders would hurry to present themselves to Juris Malawei to exclaim their outrage and demand justice be dispensed in a timely fashion.
Disguised as Demitrius of Croi I made no attempt to conceal myself nor deny that I was an ally to the Mauk paladin. Nor did I deny my opposition to the First Clan’s presence in Malaweian territory. As the dark winter days lengthened and the winter winds grew more fierce our little band of resistance saw a slight growth in its numbers. Those of the baron’s clan who joined us tended to be older, more experienced warriors who had witnessed the First Clan’s arrogance from times past. Most of the new recruits were Malaweian. But a few were Dragons of other clans who happened to be stuck in Malagna for the winter and found themselves alarmed at the growing strength of the Hartooth.
Those who rallied in defense of the Hartooth were the younger generations of the Malawei. Young warriors, dreaming of glory and riches fighting against the human kingdoms of the High Kanris, clamored for their baron to join the First Clan’s crusade. Being young and hot for adventure the young warriors tended to be hot tempered and raucous in their demands. Confrontations between the opposing groups were inevitable. The spilling of blood was equally inevitable. Given the right spark at the right moment and the bloody street encounters had the potential of exploding into an open civil war.
But equally during the winter word came to us from the Kingdom of the Lavartines of our first human recruits joining the cause. Brandeis Lavine, the kinsman of the king of the Lavartines, sent a courier to Malagna with dispatches cunningly hidden in the his boots. Lavine informed us a group of disgruntled Iberian swordsman, a group of warriors who originally had been hired Helgar Longhair, offered their services if half of their wages would be paid up front immediately. Apparently the large numbers of swordsmen Longhair had hired had yet to see any gold. Thousands of Iberian swordsmen languished in the small city of Oslon waiting to see the gold Helgar Longhair promised them. Rogarian gold to pay for mercenary troops. Mercenaries to be used for what purpose no one knew. All one knew for sure was the gold was en route to Oslon. But it had not arrived yet.
News which brightened the eyes of both myself and wily old Mauk as we sat around a table in a private room above the common clatter of the inn below, drinking wine and reading the Lavartine’s dispatches. A grunt erupted from out of the Mauk’s chest and the corners of his lips almost twitched into amusement as he threw the last dispatch down and reached for his wine.
“Are you thinking what I am thinking, monk?”
“About the Iberians not being paid? About the idea of possibly snatching from the claws of the Rogarians almost five thousand swordsmen in one swoop?”
“Warriors, Bretan. We need warriors if we are to face the First Clan by the spring. Five thousand swordsmen would be a start.”
“Yes,” I nodded, rubbing my jaw thoughtfully, “and even better than that. If we could acquire them soon we might have the time to train them in the usage of the pike. Pike men who are also trained swordsmen. An interesting concept, eh?”
The green and yellow skinned Mauk dragon frowned but nodded in agreement. But in his eyes I could seen his concerns.
“I know what you will say, friend. A few months training with the pike will not be enough to stand toe to toe with Hartooth. But it would be a start. They could become the nucleus of the army we need to build.”
“Yes, Iberian swordsmen have some intriguing possibilities. But where do we train them? Who trains them? How do we keep this army safe from Hartooth scrutiny? Can we recruit enough Malawei clansman to join the cause? Do we have time, Bretan? Enough time to train an effective fighting force?”
I felt his concerns. I too had the same. But what other choice had we? We had to begin somewhere in building a fighting force. Iberian swordsmen, even though they be mercenaries, were a commodity I was familiar with. Given the right leadership, given enough gold, given the opportunity to fight a foe they identified as a genuine threat I knew Iberians would rise to the task.
“First we need to lift them from the control of Longhair, my friend. Once that is done and I think Brandeis Lavine and his king might find us a haven where an army could encamp and train with some immunity.”
“So you will go to Oslon?”
“No. We will go to Oslon. We’ll take Gawain and Gawaith with us. The four of us would have a greater chance in convincing the Iberians in changing sides.”
“And the child? Will she be safe while we are gone?”
“Your incorrigible nephews, along with Alvus Fairhands, will suffice. Ursala’s powers are more than a match for any wizard who might stumble onto them. They will be safe until we return.”
“Ha! Controlling those three from mischief will be an impossible task! But before we go, monk, we are to attend a small reception Juris is giving to Aukmar Hartooth tonight. Both you and I have been summoned. Also attending tonight’s festivities will be an Avalarian princess, a Lady Claudia, I believe. I hear she is, far a human, a particularly attractive female. It should be an interesting evening.”
I smiled. The Lady Claudia beautiful? If only the wily old Mauk knew!
The Lady Claudia was indeed beautiful. Tall, statuesque in her form, with blond hair the color of ripen wheat and with eyes of startling blue. As stunning in her looks as she was nevertheless it was her personality which captivated one and all. Even Dragons found it impossible not to hear her siren’s call. She was a vivacious extrovert who radiated a gaiety and warmth which seemed to thaw even the most frozen of personalities. Wherever she appeared she collected a large throng of admirers around her. It was amazing to watch as young and old Dragon warriors found themselves being pulled to her by some unseen force .
She was the youngest daughter to the King of the Avalars, the human kingdom on the western borders of the Malawei. The old king had three daughters. Two were married off to kings and princes in far away kingdoms. Claudia was betrothed to no one. Suitors had come and gone but marriage to a powerful prince had eluded her. Eluded her, if one wanted to believe the rumors, by design. For all of her beauty she had one other trait of equal proportions. She had a mind of her own coupled to a powerful will. She would marry when she was ready. Or not marry at all. It was her decision.
As the Mauk and I stepped up to the entrance dias so we could be formally introduced to the gathering in the grand reception hall, I could see Claudia was already attracting a rather large assortment of human and Dragon admirers. I also noticed a large number of the warriors around her wore the maroon and black of the First Clan.
The gathering was well attended. Although the First Clan’s colors were predominate nevertheless there were a smattering of several different Dragon clan colors as well. There were also a number of dignitaries from various kingdoms attending. Humans and Dragons mixing together in a reception for none other than the son of Baknor Hartooth made me smile. The irony of it all was the fact each and every creature here suspected the worst from the First Clan. Yet they came. Attending a formal reception to officially greet Aukmar Hartooth struck me as humorous. But what made my grin widen was the thought how ill disposed the Hartooth must feel having to put up with so many humans. Aukmar Hartooth must be simmering in rage somewhere in this gathering at the insult!
“Ankor Mauk, the renowned paladin and his guest, Demitrius of Croi!”
The herald’s voice rang out loud and clear. Loud enough for a number of heads to turn, both Dragon and Man, to watch with interest our descent into the gathering. Almost instantly a knot of maroon and black warriors assembled behind the towering Aukmar Hartooth began moving toward us. At the same time I noticed Juris Malawei motion for a few of his clan warriors to follow him as he turned and hurried to intercept us before the Hartooth did. Both knots of warriors arrived at about the same time.
Aukmar Hartooth, son of Baron Baknor Hartooth, stepped in front of the Mauk with an ugly snarl for a smile on his thin lips. The maroon and black Dragon, dressed in shimmering silk of clan colors, but apparently unarmed, nodded his head as his smile widened.
“Greetings, old friend. It is good to see you again.”
“Greetings to you, Aukmar Hartooth. However I can say it is with little warmth I greet you and your clan.”
“Yes, I can understand your situation, paladin. But may I say I admire your tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds? You bring honor to yourself and to your late and lamented clan.”
The Mauk nodded, the corner of his lips almost breaking into a grin, and eyed the younger, larger Hartooth dragon in front of him without the least bit of concern or fear present in his soul.
“Soon I hope you will experience exactly what I feel in being the last of my kind, son of Baknor. If the gods smile upon me I suspect it may be sooner than even you could imagine.”
Behind Aukmar a number of his clansmen stirred angrily and mumbled threats underneath their breath. But a motion of his hand from their master silenced them all. Smiling, Aukman turned his attention toward me.
“So this is the famous mercenary general, Demitrius of Croi. I have heard many different and wonderful tales concerning your wars against Dragon clans. If half of them are even remotely true they would make you a formidable opponent.”
I smiled and said nothing.
“I must say, general, your presence here in Malawei concerns me. One might get the impression you were seeking employment. But that would suggest your employer was anticipating some form of military action. Come to roost among the Avalars have you? Or perhaps you journey farther west to be the hireling of another kingdom?”
“Perhaps the Bruinii seek my services. Or possibly the Malawei. I go where there is a need for men who have talents such as I possess.”
“If it is gold you seek, perhaps a commission in my army would intrigue you.”
“Perhaps,” I nodded, smiling again and looking directly into Aukmar Hartooth’s Dragon eyes. “But I am already a rich man. Wealth is only one of many factors I deliberate on before offering my services. The honesty and conviction of a cause interests me more these days. Tell me, baron. Is that which makes you wage war honorable and just?”
The First Clan’s heir gazed at me studiously for a moment or two and nodded. He started to say something but was cut short when, from out of nowhere, a whirlwind of laughter, exotic perfumes, and brightly colored swirling robes seemed to engulf one and all.
“There you are, general!” the Lady Claudia’s musical voice rang in our ears as she reached out and grabbed one of my arms and one of the Mauk’s. “And you too, you magnificent creature, you! You must come with me to the balcony. The both of you. Why, I have heard all kinds of magnificent stories of your adventures! I must hear them again. But this time coming from each of you personally!”
We were swept away by the bright blond hair and stunning blue, and very seductive, blue eyes. With arms linked she moved us rapidly through the gawking crowd and put distance between us and the tight group of First Clansmen huddled around their frowning leader. Turning to look over her shoulder she saw the maroon and black clansmen starring in her direction. Lifting her head she laughed with such a hypnotic ease I found myself breaking into a smile of amusement while the Mauk looked at me in distress filling his eyes and then down at the Lady Claudia in consternation.
“General, how many times do I have to come to your rescue? Truly, for a man even of your many gifts, you have an uncanny talent of finding trouble!”
I lifted my head and laughed. Laughed and felt pent up pressures churning in my soul release and dissipate completely away. The Lady Claudia always had that effect on me. Squeezing my arm and looking up at me her bright eyes were wonderfully beautiful sapphires to look into. She laughed even more gaily and then lifted up on her toes and kissed me on my cheek.
“Demitrius, it has been so long since I have seen you! So long! Do you not love me as I love you? Ah, you are just like all other silly men. Running around and seeking honorable causes in an idealistic desire to throw your life away. But hurry, we have much to discuss and so little time to do it.”
The Mauk, watching this in silent amazement, looked at me and almost tripped over his feet as we swept through a large door and entered a different room. I glanced at the paladin and shrugged. I had much to explain to him concerning the Lady Claudia. A long and complex tale I knew the Mauk would find most compelling to hear.
We found a portion of the great hall with only a few clansmen standing around idly chatting. Still bubbling with laughter the lady Sophia turned her back toward those who might be watching and looked into my eyes.
“Unwise for the two of you to be here tonight. The baron’s palace is filled with Hartooth and the streets are strewn with Malawei who favor the First Clan’s motives. There are rumors flying that the Bretan monk known as Roland of the High Crags is near by with a young Dragon child by side. The child seems to be very important to the Dragon clans. Very important. Aukmar Hartooth has offered a reward of fifty thousand double-weighed gold coins to anyone who can bring the child to him alive.”
I felt the paladin’s eyes glance in my direction. But he said nothing and returned his attention to the woman. The lady’s face kept smiling and laughing but I could see in her eyes the strains and concerns. Concerns for my well being. I laughed gently and squeezed her arm affectionately.
“What is a princess of the Avalars doing here at a reception for the heir of the First Clan? Are not your people and the Hartooth bitter enemies?”
“I would say more like traditional enemies, general. It has been a very, very long time since any of us have seen a living Hartooth this far north. Father sent me here at the head of a large diplomatic party with the command to negotiate with the Malawei. He wants me to convince our hosts that their interests and well being lies more with the Avalar than with the Hartooth. But I am afraid it is a task doom to failure. As you can see, more than half of the baron’s subjects favor an alliance with the Hartooth. War is surely going to plague the north country come the spring. Perhaps sooner if this city’s unrest increases. A war, I fear, which we will lose if we have to face the First Clan and the Malawei without allies.”
“Harumph!” grunted the green and yellow skinned warrior beside me, twisting his face into a sour expression as he half turned and glanced at his enemies. “The Hartooth will destroy the Malawei first before they turn their attention onto your kinsmen, princess. I—we—the general and I—are trying to convince my kinsmen to defend themselves. But so far all of our words have fallen on deaf ears.”
“Yes. I have heard those rumor as well. The Malawei were distant relatives to a clan called the Anktooth? A clan the Hartooth destroyed recently? Now they come to destroy the Malawei. Are your kinsmen blind to this reality, paladin?”
“They are not blind, my lady. More so resigned to their fate. It is the way the First Clan makes war on others when they march to war. A way as old as Dragonkind itself. My cousin knows his clan stands on the brink of destruction. But he refuses to think defiance and warring against the First Clan can give his people some measure of hope for survival. No clan has ever faced the Hartooth and survived. None believe it is possible to do so.”
“Yet you and the general here seek out the Malawei and others to resist the First Clan. Valiant warriors willing to fight for a lost cause?”
“It does not have to be a lost cause, my lady.” I said, shaking my head. “What has happened in the past is not a guarantor of what might happen in the future. Fates and destinies change with the flow of time. The future is filled with too many variables. It is not as clearly seen, or anticipated, as many might believe.”
“Ah,” smiled the beautiful woman, nodding her head and looking pleased as she gazed at me. “Spoken like a true follower of the Bretan Way. Forever the optimist you are, general! No wonder I fell in love with you the moment I heard you speak the first time! Come, let us dance!”
Ankor Mauk lifted an eyebrow at me in surprise.
“You can dance?”
“Indeed he can, warrior. Indeed he can!” the lady answered for me, waving a hand at the paladin as she escorted me out onto the dance floor.
A small but excellent orchestra began playing a waltz. Both human and Dragon couples began swirling and moving across the dance floor in elegant maneuvers. It comes as a surprise to many who do not know the Dragon that the Dragon enjoys his music and socializing as much as humans do. True, the art of dancing, along with several other finer points of culture—like the appreciation of symphonies and theater—are human traits the Dragon have readily adopted. But they have taken up these traditions with a unique gusto and flavor of their own. In the palace of Baron Juris Malawei music and dancing were forms of entertainment most appreciated and often practiced.
But not all Dragon clans approved. One glance at the clansmen surrounding the Hartooth heir told me of their puritanical disapproval.
“They will be the destruction of my father’s kingdom. Our only hope for survival rests in your hands, general.”
Her eyes swept away from the knotted clansmen surrounding their towering leader and came to stare into my face. There was a look of worry, fear, and . . . hope . . . in her eyes. Hope that the impossible might miraculously occur. A miracle that the First Clan’s poisonous thrust into the north country might be blunted and her father’s kingdom preserved.
“The Lavartines have quietly communicated with us your plans to confront the Hartooth. An army is being built. An army composed of human and Dragon warriors. To be led by you and the Mauk paladin. Is this true?”
“It is a plan I have offered to the Lavartines and to the Malawei. There appears to be some interest from the former but not the later.”
“Our impression was the Lavartines were more than interested. They were quietly funding the effort as well as offering a few warriors.”
“We are in the beginning stages of fermenting our plans. As yet few warriors have committed themselves to our cause.”
“Will the Malawei eventually participate?”
I shrugged silently, holding the lovely woman at arm’s length. The music filled the ground floor of the palace and the many couples moved around us with gay faces and laughter filling our ears. On Claudia’s face was a bright smile. But it was a cruel mask. Her eyes told me she was fearful of what she might hear. Yet desiring to hear whatever I had to say to its final conclusion.
“As spring approaches we hope the baron will change his mind. There are many of his own people who wish to overthrow him and his family and take up the First Clan’s crusade. I am afraid Juris Malawei’s immediate efforts are first to survive the winter and retain his throne. If proof can be found that the Hartooth were involved in plotting his destruction perhaps his attitude might change come the approach of warmer weather.”
For several long moments we danced in silence. Claudia was a marvelous dancer and a consummate beauty. As we danced I found myself enjoying the experience. Rare were the times I found myself this close to a beautiful woman. Her long blond hair, her startling blue eyes, her voluptuous figure thrilled me. Pleasures I had not felt in ages. Yet so ethereal. So fleeting. She danced so exquisitely. She laughed with just the right tone of gaiety in her voice. But her mind was not fixed on the pleasures of the moment. Thoughts far removed from the dance floor filled her mind.
“Father is convinced the Hartooth will attack our kingdom sometime soon. To the west of our borders the Bruinii are massing their strength. They are also hiring mercenaries. Large bands of Dragon mercenaries. The source of this wealth the Bruinii have found mysteriously must be coming from the First Clan’s coffers.”
“The Lavartines face the same dilemma on their eastern borders. Iberian swordsmen by the thousands hired by Rogarian gold. Gold which once was very scarce to the Rogarians.”
Her smile did not live her exquisite lips. But the look in her eyes told me she was alarmed by this news. We danced with strength an vigor, circling the floor in a bubble of laughter and music. But even though the two of us smiled and looked gay neither of us were laughing.
“Coincidence, general? Do you believe in coincidences of this magnitude?”
“Nay, beautiful lady. The Mauk and I travel soon to Oslon to ascertain the dangers more closely.”
“You leave soon?
“On the morrow, my lady. On the morrow.”
“Well then, general,” she said, worry leaving her eyes and her body coming closer to
mine as the orchestra finished one number and immediately plunged into a second. “We still