Victory comes with a price, pilgrim.
But what is victory other than
a costly illusion?
-From the Book of St. Albans-
Softly I knocked on the rough wooden door of a small room found on the ground floor of one of Oslon’s aviary towers. It was a dilapidated old tower of logs and mud wattling rising only three floors above the log walls of the city. But large enough to hold twenty birds and with a few rooms to let for the rider of a Great Wing who cared little of creature comfort. For some riders such accommodations were a princely reward after riding in such bitter cold for weeks on end.
It took some time to find where the Mauk and my two blond maned wards had lodged themselves in the small town. It did not surprise me to find them in the stables of an aviary thanks to the river of gold being so lavishly being thrown away by the Hymius’ men. Yet it was the perfect place to hide. Close to their birds the tower offered an easy escape route for the twins. Where the Mauk housed his Upasha I would soon find out.
No one stirred within the room. Frowning, becoming concerned, for I expected the hardened and always alert Dragon paladin to open the door immediately, I lifted an invisible hand up and rapped again more loudly. Leaning an invisible ear toward the door I had rustling from within and the unmistakable hiss of blades being removed from their sheaths. Stepping to one side as the door was slowly opened I watched as the flaxen haired image of Gawaith stepped out into the hall and peered to his right and left. In his right hand was his sword held with point downward but ready for immediate action. For some seconds he stood in front of the door motionless, his body tall and hardened by weeks of grueling hardships, his muscles like stout ropes. Yet he stood in the hall in silence with his eyes closed and breathing slowly and evenly.
I smiled, nodded, and silently slipped into the room.
Gawaith was using some of my training to extend his sensory net out into the immediate environment around him. He was searching for enemies. As I watched from within the room he brought himself out of his reverie, turned, and walked back into the room slowly. Closing the door behind him he made no effort to sheath his blade.
Gawain, watching, said nothing but moved toward his brother. Silently the two moved to the center of the small room and stood, back to back, swords drawn and ready. One would glance in one direction. His eyes searching all the nooks and dark corners of the room. His brother mimicked his brother’s search in the opposite direction.
They acted silently–knowing each other’s moves without a word needing to be uttered between them. Like a well drilled team. Like the trained warriors they were. Like men.
They were no longer children. In the last few months since our escape from the Vik capitol of Odair’s Landing these children had lost their baby fat. Lost their innocence. Lost their naivete. They had become men. Good strong men. Men who stood with me in my cause. Men who believed in me. Believed in the Bretan Way. Deep within my soul I felt both elation for their manhood . . . and an overwhelming loss. To become one they had to give up innocence and their childhood. I knew what that could mean for me and for them. To become a man meant to take on the hardships and dangers all men had to take on if they followed the way of the sword. Death–the loss of loved ones–the bitter poison of tasting defeat–all were in store for them and waiting to happen.
My eyes watered in quiet grief. I did not wish these two to face those burdens. Yet I knew there was nothing I could do. The Circle of Life marched on. Nothing remained unchanged.
“Master?” Gawaith whispered softly.
I dried my eyes and threw the Cloak of Invincibility from my shoulders. Immediately huge grins of relief flashed across the two men’s faces and they leapt toward me, hugging me firmly in their joy to see me. Stepping back I could see the levels of affection they had for me in their eyes and I felt a warmth within. Yet I was aware of something else. There was no sign of the Mauk. His absence disturbed me greatly.
“Master! Just in time!”
“As always, brother. As always!” Gawain nodded, grinning hugely as he backed away yet kept a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
“Master, the Mauk has been captured by the Rogarians. They threw him into a jail of sorts here in the city. He still wears the disguise you outfitted him in so I doubt the Rogarians know who they truly have in chains.”
“But they intend to execute him tomorrow, along with a second Dragon, as an event prior to the burning of the Bretan family for heresy.” Gawain hurriedly added. “They’re making the executions into to a festival and they’ve ordered all of Oslon to attend!”
“A Grand Inquisitor arrived two days ago, master.” Gawaith said, his eyes filled with concern. “He brought one hundred Rogarian swordsmen with him and a long train of pack animals carrying treasure. Treasure to be handed to the Iberian commander and his men. They know your are coming. They fully expect you to make an attempt to save the family.”
“They say they are going to finally capture and imprison the Malus Apostate, master. How could they know you–we–were coming to Oslon?”
“A well planned Rogarian trap, Gawain. As they have planned and executed before in their efforts to capture me. The Rogarians and I go back a long way, lads. A long way. This is just another of their attempts to silence me. But tell me of the Mauk. How did he get captured and who is this other Dragon?”
“A Mauk warrior,” Gawaith said his look of seriousness clouding his otherwise handsome face. “A young one. One who has seen much abuse of late.”
“We were setting at a table in an inn yesterday staying quiet and drinking quietly. Across the way from us this Mauk clansman sat at a table alone drinking water and eating a sparse meal. You could tell he had not had food for days and was weak from lack of strength.”
“Ankor noticed the young one at once but made no move to contact him,” Gawain put in quickly, using the paladin’s first name for the first time ever. “That is, until two Rogarian swordsmen began badgering the creature incessantly.”
“They were relentless, master.” Gawain agreed, nodding. “They laughed at his poverty. They laughed at the rags he was wearing. They jeered at him and made fun of the Mauk and their demise at the hands of the Hartooth.”
“They were so loud and so obnoxious the inn became silent and watched the two continue their attacks on the lad, master.”
“And the paladin? What did he do?” I asked as I looked in the faces of the two quietly.
“For a long time he did nothing but sat at our table and watched.”
“But I could tell his hand was close to his sword’s hilt, master. “Gawain added. “He was expecting the worse.”
“It came soon enough,” agreed his brother grimly.
“Yes,” Gawain sad, shaking his head. “The Rogarians grew angry because the young Mauk refused to say anything or defend himself. They grew belligerent. They began throwing food and their drinks at him.”
“The young warrior got up from his table and tried to leave. He did not want to confront the Rogarians. But others arrived and joined in on the fun.”
“One of the Rogarians drew his dagger and made a lunge to attack the Mauk. That’s when the fight started.”
“This Mauk took the hand from the Rogarian. Almost broke the warrior’s wrist in the process.”
“He threw the dagger to one side . . .”Gawaith began.
“ . . . and cuffed the swordsman to side in the process. With a blow hard enough to break the man’s jaw.” Gawain added.
“That’s when the man’s comrades jumped onto the Mauk and began beating him.”
“And that’s when the paladin entered the fray.” Gawain added.
“Before he left the table he told us to not intervene in any way. Told us to leave.”
“Of course we didn’t, master! We stayed close and watched everything,” Gawain added, grinning sheepishly.
“The two Mauk soon turned the tide and began to punish the Rogarians. Someone ran for help and more Rogarians arrived. The Mauk were subdued and chained and then led out of the inn.”
“We followed at a safe distance and saw where they imprisoned the two. It’s a large log blockhouse not too far from where the Rogarians are housing a few of their swordsmen. Guards are everywhere. They seem edgy. Jumpy. As if they are expecting something to happen at any moment.”
Yes. As they would. Smiling, I could feel the machinations of a Rogarian Grand Inquisitor in this. And I wondered whom that might be.
“The Grand Inquistor? Who is he?”
The boys hesitated, glanced at each other, and returned their eyes to me. I could see in their eyes that I would know the creature the moment the inquisitor’s name was mentioned. But it mattered little. I thought I knew the name already.
“Iaegor of Lincoln, master,” Gawaith said quietly.
Iaegor of Lincoln. My old enemy. Once a Rogarian warrior-monk. Once . . . and still yet . . . an accomplished Rogarian wizard. Now a dreaded Grand Inquisitor. The most fanatic of priests of the Rogarian faith. The one charged with rooting out heresy and delivering swift and brutal justice when found. And anything Bretan was considered the most heretical of heresies for the Rogarians.
“You were planning a rescue?”
Again they glanced each other quickly before returning their gaze back a me. And grinned uneasily.
“We know what the paladin told us not to do, master,” one began.
“But he is our friend! Our teacher!” the other put in emphatically.
“So we devised a plan to rescue the two from their cells,” Gawaith said. “We think a good plan, too.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“I was to dress as an old wine merchant,” Gaswaith went on cautiously. “We have . . . borrowed for the moment . . . a small cart and a single pack animal to pull it. We have two large barrels of decent wine in the wagon.”
“Drugged, of course, with sleeping powder.”
“I was going to drive the wagon down toward the blockhouse and ask the guards if I could bed down a few yards away from them. I would tell them I had been traveling through the snow and wind all night to get to Oslon before the festivities began later in the day. But I needed a few hours sleep before the first victims were executed.”
“We figured the guards would not be suspecting an old man and his wagon of wine,” Gawian put in quickly. “Gawaith was going to sweeten the request by offering some wine to the guards as payment.”
“You were going to wait until they fell asleep . . .”
“And remove the keys from the warrior in charge and free both Mauk warriors,” Gawaith replied.
A smile played across my lips as I looked into the faces of the two in front of me. All these long weeks of surviving–of the training in swordplay I and the old Niscian monk, Alvis Fairhands had been teaching them–the many times where they watched me transform us all with disguises–all of this these two had been adept and astute students. Forced to improvise on their own they did not hesitate in devising a scheme for rescuing the Mauk paladin. A plan which seemed imminently feasible.
“Very well. We shall attempt this plan. But with a modification are two, if you don’t mind. When were you going to attempt this rescue?”
“An hour before dawn, master.” Gawaith answered.
“Good, just enough time to make the alterations and to get a little rest. In a few hours we will see if we can rescue our wayward friends.”
They grinned in pleasure as I outlined to them what I had in mind. After we went over the plans a few more times we settled down and attempted to get a few moments of rest. Soon I heard the deep breathing of both Gawaith and Gawain as they drifted off into deep sleep. But sleep would not come to me even though my body ached for a little rest. Instead, every time I closed my eyes, I dreamed of dark images and vague specters darting in and out of my consciousness. I caught glimpses of something long and black and sinuous . . . like the form of a glistening ebony viper sliding through tall grass . . .camouflaged yet revealing itself here and there momentarily before disappearing again. I knew where these vague images and lingering feelings of foreboding came from.
The Evil from Afar.
Two years ago this very image of a viperous snake slinking through tall grass had begun this nightmare. While in a monastery this dream came to me in the dead of winter. It was this image which set me off on this long journey I now traveled. The image of a snake–the sensation that someone or something was being hunted and was soon to fall–were premonitions which foretold the arrival of the Hartooth and the destruction of the dragon Anktooth. But they were more than premonitions. More than brooding destiny being revealed to a lowly Bretan warrior-monk while he tried to sleep in his monastic cell.
My mind had tapped into the consciousness of this thing I called The Evil from Afar.
Somewhere far away, somewhere so hidden and so secret no one knew where, a powerful mind was playing with the forces and currents of the Netherworld. Manipulating the River of Time and the destinies of dragon and man for purposes only it could conceive. Manipulated an entire world in a game of power and domination of incredible complexity! So vast, so complex, so staggering in the sheer numbers of creatures it touched, I knew no mortal could possibly be its creator!
Yet my mind touched the dark subconscious of The Evil from Afar. For a long time I knew not if this evil force was aware of my presence within his mind. Eventually I came to realize that most of the time it was aware of my presence. More than that. It purposely reached out to me, sought out my consciousness and pulled me into his dark fleeting thoughts. It was baiting me. Challenging me. Compelling me to stand and confront it.
Strangely it needed me to confront it. It required my challenge and opposition. Whatever this foul creature was planning it knew it could not succeed without first compelling me to enter the fray–to resist and defy it. I could sense its lust and madness. I sensed its desire to destroy me. The overwhelming need to destroy me. But only at the right moment. Only when the currents within the River of Time converged and created the most propitious moment for my demise and not one moment sooner.
But there were times when my mind melded into the subconsciousness of this creature and he was unaware of it. Briefly, just a few seconds at most, a fleeting touch and then it was gone! The viper would suddenly realize he had been seen and he would blend into the high grass and dark shadows and fade away completely!
I felt its presence now in my mind. And sensed it was moving. Moving and irritated at something. At what? I sensed it moving away from me. There was this vague sensation of its irritation toward the raw power of the Netherworld–of its desire to control it more completely yet finding it very difficult to do so.
And then it was gone. The viper disappeared out of my mind in the blinking of an eye. Its departure so sudden and so complete it was like the sting of frigid cold water being thrown into my face unexpectedly. Opening my eyes I glanced at Gawain and Gawaith and then came to my feet and stared around in the darkness of the room. Had it read my mind? Did it know of my plans? Was this a trap within a trap? Wrapped tightly around an even more bewildering trap? How could I unravel this mystery? How could I defeat this powerful . . . thing. It did feel human. It was not dragon. So what was it? How could I defeat something which was not once of flesh and blood? How could my limited wizardry powers even approach the immensity of its power I knew it had.
I knew not. Was this all an elaborate trap? Was my death looming near? Were the deaths of all whom I loved near as well? I did not know. All I knew was I had to play this game. I had to confront this Evil from Afar. I would play and I would not stop until it embraced me with a deadly web of death. Or I would the weapon which send it into the abyss of the Netherworld forever.
The creaking of the two wheels on its wooden axles of the wine cart came to my ears softly as I stood in the darkness. Hidden in my Cloak of Invisibility I watched the disguised Gawaith, now an old Rogarian merchant of advanced years, guide the heavily laden two wheeled cart down the snow packed lane toward the stout wooden blockhouse where the paladin and his young Mauk kinsman lay chained. From across the way, and hidden in the deep shadows of a tall aviary tower, I knew Gawain stood in silence and watched intently his brother’s daring plan beginning to unfold.
A few yards behind me I knew Beletrix and a number of his stout-hearted warriors waited in the darkness. They would play a pivotal role in both freeing the Ankor Mauk and his kinsman as well as, later today, in rescuing those condemned to the stake. But for the latter part of my plan to succeed we first relied on the acting abilities of my fair-haired Gawaith. Gripping Helshvingar firmly I knew all would be lost if the Imperial swordsmen grew suspicious of the wine merchant who came rolling up out of the darkness bearing wine and a willingness to share a portion of it.
Yet all went well. Two swordsmen came out of the darkness and challenged the old man setting in his wagon. I heard an old man’s quivering voice–heard the note of supplication in it–and smiled. Gawaith’s talents as an actor was impressive! The guardsmen eyed the old man closely but made no attempt to search him. They then walked around the wagon and tapped on the two wooden barrels with their swords. I heard one of them laugh. The other turned and sheathed his sword before he walked back to the blockhouse and entered a door. In moments a door opened and a pool of bright yellow light reflected on the snow and ice of the lane. Three guards came strolling out of the building with large tankards in their hands. There were laughing and stretching their tired muscles as they lined up behind one of the wine barrels.
Gawaith, moving as an old man would move who was of advanced age and filled with gout, climbed slowly off the front of the wagon and shuffled back to wagon gate and opened it. Handing a wooden mallet and a spigot to one of the guards he made his apologies for his advanced age and then pointed to one of the barrels. There was some harsh laughter but the guard took the mallet and spigot and soon tapped the barrel. In moments the five guardsmen were drinking deep from their tankards. One nodded, belched contentedly, and walked back into the blockhouse. A few moments later more guards exited. Each eager to drink their share.
Ten minutes later all was silent. The only one standing was the old wine merchant. In the snow were several guardsmen sound asleep. The sleeping potion the lads had used was quite powerful. I knew everyone who tasted the wine would be out in a matter of minutes. And they would be sound in their sleep for hours to come. As would be those who had returned to the blockhouse. Smiling, I threw the cloak off me and turned and made a silent gesture to Beletrix and his men.
From out of the darkness thirty Iberian swordsmen emerged like black wraiths and moved rapidly but silently down the lane and entered the blockhouse. Following, gripping Helshvingar, I entered the blockhouse as well and surveyed the situation.
Beletrix turned toward me and nodded.
“All is well, master. They sleep the sleep of the exhausted. They didn’t even grunt when we disarmed them and dumped them into a basement cellar.”
Gawaith, sans his most of his disguise, and Gawain entered the blockhouse and looked around quickly. I smiled, nodded, and motioned Beletrix to throw the heavy set of jailor’s keys to Gawaith.
“Release our comrades, son. Your plan worked flawlessly.”
The two ran off to find Ankor and his kinsman as I turned to gaze back into the handsome face of the Iberian.
“Is being moved to the front of the biggest inn as we speak. Soon it will be discovered by Hymius and his men. Inside of an hour every one of them will have had their fill. I doubt we well be troubled by any of them for the rest of the day!”
I nodded. So far the plan was moving along at its proper pace. But I refrained from looking pleased. Plans never worked flawlessly. And the more complex a plan was, the more likely something unforseen would happen and severely alter it. It was best to be wary until the entire plan had worked itself through before relaxing. To do otherwise was to court disaster.
“You and your men can hold the blockhouse and yet complete our earlier plans?” I asked, turning back to the Iberian captain.
“Aye, we can hold this for as long as desire, master. I am leaving now to take command of the other detachment. We’ll move the moment the sun reaches its zenith. Once our mission is completed I’ll return with most of the men and be ready to assist you in any way.”
“Good,” I nodded, frowning. “The fight will be fierce. Rogarian swordsmen do not surrender. And I would be not surprised if a few monks will be guarding the gold as well.”
“We will prevail, master. We will prevail.”
I nodded and half turned to see Ankor Mauk enter the room, rubbing his wrists where they had been recently chained, followed by the younger Mauk and then the twins.
“You disturb my sleep, monk. And who in the name of the bloody gods are these men?”
I lifted my head and laughed. Laughed, delighted to see the paladin had not lost his dry sense of humor and that he was well and unharmed.
Some Dragons–like some Men–never admitted defeat even when chained to the walls and
surrounded by their enemies. This was Ankor Mauk. My stalwart companion and sardonic