Life, in this Realm, is but a
Short voyage compared
To the eternity that is the
river called the Netherworld.
-From the Book of St. Bretan-
Oslon was a bustling large town carved out of the rugged hill country and forests. It nestled up near the base of the towering High Kanris shield wall, protecting the mouth of one narrow trails which led up into the high country. It was a large community. The only one of size for some distance around. Even in the depths of a fierce winter people and Dragons flocked to Oslon to trade and to find ways to disperse the dreariness of long months in isolation.
From the air, setting in the saddled of my war bird, I could see rising columns of hundreds of chimneys belching smoke from roaring fires. In the air I could smell the strong aromas of hard winter oak burning and hundreds of meals being prepared. Within the city’s double walls all kinds of creatures hurried from one place to the other in their efforts to find a warm place to protect them from the cold. The air above the city was filled with both Great Wings, with a sprinkling of Winged Beasties, either rising or descending rapidly–the cold so intense no creature wished to be airborne for long. But more of interest to me, as I sat in the saddle of my old friend, was the site of thousands of small roughly hewn log cabins perhaps two miles north of the city’s northern gates. Thousands of them lined up in perfectly arrayed formations, precisely spaced, with roads cutting through the encampment in rigid straight lines. A wall of sturdy longs had been thrown up on three sides of the encampment, with the fourth side the dark rock of the towering shield wall of the High Kanris itself.
The camp of the five thousand Iberian swordsmen.
So it was true–at least partially true, that Iberians were here in force and encamped around Oslon. Perhaps it would come to pass another portion of the intelligence the Mauk and I had gathered was true as well. That these Iberian mercenaries, contracted out to Imperial Rogaria, had yet to be paid for their services and were on the verge of mutiny. If so an opportunity existed here to begin my long sought for dream of building an army. An army to fight both the Hartooth and the Rogarians. An army of Man and Dragon combined which would–in the end–destroy Dragon prophecy and end this madness of constant warfare!
If . . . . if this was not a trap! An elaborate trap created by Imperial Rogaria to lure me here to Oslon and snare me into a trap of such cunning and immensity even a wizard could not extract himself from. Smiling, my eyes turned back to look at the double walls of Oslon. Gazing down at the strong hold I could not be feel every nerve in my body tingling with anticipation. This had to be a trap! An elaborate Rogairan trap, with the lure of hungry and unpaid Iberian swordsmen–five thousand of them–as the lure to bring me here. And they knew. They knew I would come. They knew of my desperation. Of my need to find a way to save the Malawei from destruction. Five thousand swordsmen was a jewel to pluck, a serendipitous orb of divine providence, just waiting for me to alight within the walled town and seek out the commanders of this mercenary body. Once I made contact with the Iberians the trap would snap close with the resounding reverberation of steel and sinew and the unyielding mass of thousands of warriors surrounding me.
It would be sheer folly for Cedric and I to enter Oslon. It was insanity to even think there was a chance to recruit the five thousand to our cause! Outrageous to believe a trap of such magnitude could be entered and yet a way to be found to escape! Only a fool would enter such a trap!. Only a fool–or someone of mental deficiency–would even contemplate such an impossible quest.
Only a fool . . . or a mad Bretan monk.
I made no effort to disguise myself. As I walked through the bitter cold streets I found myself surprised twofold: I was surprised in that my Inner Eye was silent within me. The surge of auras which painted all living forms was absent from my mind and the ever-present background tingling that my wizardry powers were linked to the Netherworld was gone. This absence could only mean one thing. A Null Stone of incredible power was here in Oslon blocking all who possessed wizardry powers from summoning their energies from out of the Netherworld. One very powerful Null Stone–like that of Master Breen. Or perhaps two or more Null Stones, each of impressive talents, working together to suppress the Netherworld. My eyes narrowed as I walked the streets and mingled with the crowds hurrying from one island of warmth to the next, wondering what this unexpected wrinkle met concerning the Rogarian trap I knew lay waiting for me.
The second surprise I encountered was the number of people milling about in the cold winter’s day with looks of anger and hatred clearly visible on their faces. Far more of the city’s populace filled the streets than what would normally be found. Huddled up against lee side walls of several of the more impressively built logged buildings of the city were groups of dour looking peasants, mingled with better clad burgers of the city’s merchant section. They stood shivering in thick knots of men and eyed the city’s square with looks of pure menace. With menace . . . . mingled with many faces filled with obvious fear as well.
Curious, and not having my Inner Eye to read the emotions which would have colored their visible auras, I decided to approach one group standing together like a pack of fanged wolves on the south side of one of the city’s larger inns. As I approached several of the group eyed me suspiciously. But no one made an effort to leave.
“Pilgrims, I’ve just arrived in town on this cold day with the bright sun shining but with little warmth felt. Surprised I am to see so many of your fair citizens standing out here in the cold. Surely a warm inn, a tankard of fine ale, and a roaring hearth would make better company.”
“Aye, stranger,” one of the more bold townsmen nodded, eyeing me openly and with a startling frankness. “I would agree with you. Too bad an inn and a tankard of ale is not available to us who live and work here. The inns are filled with drunken Iberians freshly awash with a year’s back pay riding heavily in their pouches. Or worse! Rogarian imperial guardsmen, sullen and surly, as they watch their mercenary comrades drink every drop of ale to be found. Ordered they have been, these guardsmen, to remain sober and celibate. Ordered by their officers to remain diligent and on guard. By the gods, how I hate Rogarians!”
With these last words the cloaked and hooded burger turned his head and spit just as one of his comrades reached out with a hand and pulled the man back closer to the group.
“Quiet, Rodan! Do you want to join our brethren in the square with your foolish remarks? Better to remain silent when strangers are about. Rogarian gold makes even our relatives less trustworthy. Only the gods know if this man is a Rogarian at heart or some simple Great Wing rider. Better to remain quiet and wonder than to burn at the stake for expressing your true feelings!”
“Bah! What does it matter, Gar. My brother and his wife and child are about to be burnt at the stake in the town square! And for what? For what, I ask you! What crime have they done to be punished so? He’s done nothing. Nothing! Nothing other than admitting he followed the teachings of the Bretan Way! Because of that these Rogarian fanatics who call themselves righteous men are going to burn him and his family at the stake at noon!”
I felt something cold and hard fill my soul. Cold. My soul burning and filled with rage. Half turning I stared down the street toward the town square. My eyes fell freshly constructed wooden structure of a towering wooden platform. Rising from the platform’s floor were three long wooden poles. Piled high around the platform’s base were brush and tree limbs. Fuel to feed the bonfire soon to ignite and consume the three relatives of the angry man in front of me.
“Forgive my cousin, stranger,” the one called Gar began, smiling weakly but with eyes filled with fear. “He is beside himself with grief. Since the arrival of an Imperial Grand Inquisitor our world here in Oslon as been turned upside down. We are but simple folk who wish to harm no one. We follow no particular religion. Most of us worship in the privacy of our own homes and mean not to intrude our faith on those around us.”
I raised a hand up to silence him, yet my eyes lingered on the wooden platform and its three desolate looking poles.
“There is no need to ask forgiveness, pilgrim. Especially from one who follows the same golden path.”
Both Gar and his cousin Rodan sucked in their breath in surprise and stepped closer to me at the same time.
“Now your name comes to me! I thought I recognized you Brother! What are you doing here so openly!” Gar hissed as his comrades stepped in closer and tried to shield me from those who might be curious around us.
“Have you not heard? There is a bounty out for anyone who knows of a Bretan follower and points them out to a Rogarian guardsman! Fifty copper coins is the reward. If Bretan monk is discovered it becomes a Silver Rogarian Eagle! Enough to make anyone here in Oslon a rich man! Hurry, leave this place. Follow us and we will lead you out of here before anyone recognizes you!”
“Nay, not I,” I said, shaking my head and turning to smile upon their faces. “I will not leave and hear the screams of innocent victims behind me and freedom as I flee to save my life. That is not the way of a warrior-monk. That is not my way.”
All of the huddled pack of Bretan followers quickly glanced this way and that and then turned their attentions back to me. In their faces were looks of genuine concern for my safety and well being. But in the face of Rodan I saw the glimmer of . . . hope. Hope that his brother and family might yet be plucked from the roaring flames of Rogarian fanaticism.
“Brother, I thought you were such a fellow the moment I laid eyes on you.” Gar continued, his voice lowered as his eyes swept the city’s street several times before turning back to me. “But what can one warrior do against thousands? This Grand Inquisitor brought with him a caravan of wooden cases filled with gold and silver. Enough to pay every Iberian mercenary his back wages plus another year’s worth of services yet to come. There’s five thousand swordsmen wild with glee at being paid their dues. And they’re willing to follow whatever order their Rogarian paymasters might give them!”
“And do not forget about the three hundred Rogarian Imperial guardsmen who arrived with the caravan,” Rodan grunted, hope beginning to dim in his eyes the moment he said his words.
I would not tolerate hope dying in this man’s eyes. Reaching out I placed a hand on Rodan’s shoulder and gripped it firmly. Enough to make the man wince in pain.
“Put your trust in Shin’zin, pilgrim. Never give up while you still breath. Never.”
Old and honored Bretan sayings. Saying I believed in. Sayings taught to all Bretan followers from the time they were born. Saying I knew this man wanted to believe in. Had to believe in.
“Brothers, “ I said, releasing Rodan from my grip and stepping back. “Go your separate ways. Return to your homes and loved ones. Let god’s peace fill your souls. All will be well. This I promise. All will be well!”
“But how can you . . .” began one of the brethren.
“Come. We shall do as our brother has told us to do,” Rodan grunted, half turning to leave. “May Shin’zin take your hand and guide you through these terrible times, monk.”
I did not watch them leave but turned and made my way down a covey of side streets and dark alleys until I came to a simple home constructed of rough hewn logs and surrounded by a long wall of river stone. Pausing to make sure I was not followed I went through the stone wall’s gate and approached the house cautiously. Twice I knocked on the heavy oak door, paused and counted to six before knocking once more. Another pause to count to six and I knocked three more times softly on the hard oak.
The number six is a sacred number to we Bretan. The number six was, as some of the more ancient Bretan legends hinted, the original number of gods the Supreme Being created first before he created the universe. Three human gods and three Dragon gods. Each created equally. Each endowed with identical powers. Almost immediate each of the six gods began to create lesser gods in their own image. Two lesser immortals created for each of the first six; conceived and brought into existence to be the servants of the first set of gods. But these twelve were not created as equals. Four of the Dragon lesser gods grew restless and sullen when they discovered they had not been given the same powers as the others. They grew petulant. They began to scheme among themselves to find ways in which to acquire the powers their lords had refused to give them.
Shin’zin, one of the minor divine beings of the original three human gods, tried to return harmony and peace back into the heavens. But the four dark lords of the Dragons refused to listen. Eventually they devised a new weapon–a weapon called Death–which gave them the power to destroy those who defied them. They convinced two of their Dragon masters on the notion that they too had been created with not the same powers as their human counter parts had been. War broke out in heaven. Soon afterward war broke out between Man and Dragon here in the Outer Realms. A war that was thousands of years old and still being waged. A war which seemed to have no end. No finality. No conclusion.
An opening for a peep hole slid back in the heavy door of the home and I heard an exclamation of surprise within. The door quickly opened and a hand reached out from within, grabbed my arm, and pulled me into the dark house. Behind me I heard heavy iron bolts being thrown into the place and then I saw the faces of Bosso and his wife Hanna step in close and began looking at me obvious surprise and consternation clearly written on their faces.
“Roland! Are you mad? Don’t you know a Grand Inquisitor of the Rogarian sect is here in Oslon with a hundred or more of the best swordsmen the imperial palace had available? Here! To specifically capture you!”
Bosso was a tall man but as thin as a bone. He had a shock of coal black hair which refused to be combed and shaggy bushes for eyebrows of the same coal black color. A large hooked nose was the man’s prominent feature. Along with huge hands. The hands of a skilled blacksmith. His skill in making fine chain mail was as good as any Dragon’s work. In fact it was rumored that Dragons of the Malawei clan–renowned themselves for their chain mail and armor–partnered with each to exchange secrets and techniques held so dearly to their guilds.
His wife was just the opposite to tall Bosso. She was short, heavy in the mid section, with double chins and an eternal smile on her lovely face. She was noted far and wide for both her pastries and for her joyous disposition. She ran her own bakery here in Oslon and it was never without customers and never without a wide assortment of fine delicacies.
Together the two led the rather large contingent of Bretan believers within Oslon with a grace and generosity which honored our faith and themselves.
“Everyone here in Oslon has been expecting you Roland,” Hanna began, the gentleness she was noted for still to be seen in her eyes, but the smile which seemed forever on her lips clearly missing. “Quietly the brethen have prayed Shin’zin would send you to smite down the Rogarians. But even Shin’zin knows one warrior-monk cannot stand before five thousand and expect to win!”
I smiled and lifted a hand up to stroke her gentle face. And then I reached a hand up and gently squeezed the old armorer’s arm in friendship.
“You do not believe in miracles, my friends?”
“Aye, I believe in miracles,” Bosso began after glancing at his wife, eyes still wide with consternation, as he returned them to gaze upon me. “But this will not be a miracle, brother. This will be a grievous execution. Your execution. The longer you stay here in Oslon the chances of you escaping lessens. I beg you to leave. Do not let this Rogarian prelate and his men capture you and burn you at the stake. We Bretan need you alive!”
“So, you still consider me a Bretan monk and not as this Malus Apostate others have branded me with?”
“Bah, what balderdash!” Hanna chirped, lifting a curled fist up and shaking it in front of her face. “It is said you have gone mad and have taken up with a Dragon witch. A Dragon princess who claims to be the Fifth Sister. She would lead all of her kind in the last great war with humanity and destroy us all.”
I smiled and remained silent. And they, being the astute creatures I knew them to be, realized the truth–or a partial recognition of the truth–almost immediately.
“You have taken up with a Dragon princess!” the both exclaimed at the same time.
I thought both would drop dead before me as all color left their faces. Hanna started to faint but her husband’s giant hand reached out and gripped her firmly to steady her. Both stared at me in disbelief. But neither recoiled from me or made any attempt to denounce me. And for this I was very grateful.
“This witch, as she is called, is but a child of seven. She is the promised Fifth Sister. Indeed, the fifth Pearl Princess prophecy said would come to unit all of Dragonkind. And she has power, my friends. Power originating out of the Netherworld far beyond anything I have ever seen. But she is not evil, Bosso. She refuses to listen to her Dragon gods, Hanna. She has resisted all attempts by her four sisters to darken her thoughts and color them evil.”
“But . . . but . . . she is Dragon!” Bosso stammered, his large eyes blinking as he tried to understand my words. “She is the Fifth Sister! Doesn’t that automatically mean she will become evil?”
I looked into each of their faces for several seconds before answering. I wanted them to hear me–to listen to my words and see the vision I had within me–and to do so without the cloud of any religious convictions coloring their thoughts. But a lifetime of listening, and believing, in the many prophecies and religious dogmas which painted all of Dragonkind as evil would make my task almost impossible. Yet I had to try. I had to begin the efforts in making converts to this new vision of a different world I thought possible!
The journey of a thousand leagues begins with the first step.
An old Bretan saying. A simple saying I have longed believed in. And at this moment, and in this house, with these two Bretan faithful, I decided to take the first step in that long and arduous journey.
“Come, let us sit and have some lunch while you listen to what I have to say. Let me share with you a vision I have had recently. A vision for a new world.”
I began speaking. The hours began to whittle way.
Day became night. Night whittled on into the darkest of hours. Occasionally someone would knock at the door. The rapping of knuckles made the three of us silent. But Bosso would lift himself from his chair at the kitchen table and go to the door. In would come a new face, a fellow Bretan, eager to hear what news might be of the coming fate of those who were condemned to die at the stake. Bosso and Hanna would comfort them with a few kind words, yet telling them that they had heard of no news. And then they would lead the Bretan into the kitchen and introduce them to me. And again I would begin explaining my vision.
How many times a follower of the Bretan came to Bosso and Hanna’s door I did not count. But when the bright fingers of a brilliant dawn began to streak across the black, star filled vault of heaven, I realized the house was filled with eager souls who had succumbed to my words!
The power of words–words backed by deep conviction–was a power I thought only
others possessed. But the night had changed my mind. I too could persuade others to believe in
the impossible. It was a power not to be taken lightly.