The fanatic has a fevered brow, pilgrim.
His mind cannot cope
when confronting unexpected surprises.
-From the book of St. Albans-
Cold were the hours I stood wrapped in the Cloak of Invisibility standing on the execution’s gallows. Unseen and alone I stood waiting for the weak sun to rise in the east and for the gathering of the city’s crowds to witness the first executions of the day. The wind, bitter cold and filled with the threat of snow, swirled around me. In the wind I heard voices whispering. Voices far away. Voices indistinct. Voices not from the Netherworld since the cloak wrapped around me hid me from the Netherworld and from all wizardry itself. No, these voices came form souls who still clung to the Outer Realms and refused to journey toward the River of Time. I felt the emotions radiating from these voices. Fear. Dread. Resignation. Bitterness for deeds long past. I could feel their desire to seek justice. To right terrible wrongs. And, being Bretan, I felt compelled to help them. To lift from their tortured souls the grief which kept here in this world. But there were too many. Too many. A task no human could fulfill in a thousand years.
I pushed the voices from my mind and concentrated on remaining awake and alert. Somewhere within the city I knew wizards and warriors waited for my arrival. They anticipated I would reveal myself in some form in an effort to save the innocents from being executed. They planned elaborate traps to capture me. But for every trap there is a measured defense. For every devious plan there is a counter. I planned to spring one upon the Rogarians this day they would never forget.
Oslon was slow to awaken. The sun rose and painted the towering shield wall of the Kanris with an opaque light of many colorful hues in the distance. The sky became a pale blue as light slowly turned night into day. Like sullen malcontents the people of Oslon would dart from one building to the next wrapped in heavy cloaks. Their heads and eyes hidden from view. Not one soul entered the area where the executor’s stand stood nor even glanced in that direction. All knew what was to transpire today in the name of Rogarian Order. None who were natives of this small frontier city felt they could resist Rogarian might. None dared to protest. None offered a word of hope. Of hope that perhaps a miracle might happen. Where there is no faith there is no hope. And no faith resided in the hearts of these people. They would be herded into the square and forced to watch as innocents were burned at the stake. Innocents whom they knew as friends and relatives. They would be helpless.
In their helplessness I could feel their rage.
Twice I saw Rogarian swordsmen of rank march to the guardhouse where Beletrix and his men ensconced themselves with Ankor Mauk and the twins. None exited. A slow smile spread across my lips. If I knew the Mauk . . . along with Beletrix and his kinsmen . . . these Rogarian officials would be rudely greeted and even more rudely mishandled as they were thrown behind bars along with their comrades.
A half hour before high noon two old peasants arrived at the executioner’s stand with large brooms and began sweeping the steps clear of snow. They ascended onto the platform and began their laborious task. It was easy to step around the two as they worked in silence. Finally, when the snow was cleared, the two stood up and looked at each other and then at the heavy framed platform itself and frowned. One of the old men shook his head in disgust and half-glanced toward the large, roughly hewn, log building with the Grand Inquisitor of the Rogarian Order and his entourage resided at the moment.
“I tell you, Veno, they will pay for this cruelty. Somehow . . someway . . .the Bretan will take his revenge!”
“Bah, you old fool,” the second old man hissed, waving a hand at him in contemptuous dismissal. “Why believe in something that does not exist? There are no Bretan. There are no gods. Just power. Power and gold and ruthless people who must have it.”
The old man who spoke first turned and looked directly at me. I knew he could not see me. The Cloak of Invisibility was wrapped tightly around me. He was gazing at the residence of the Grand Inquisitor. Gazing at the large building with eyes of burning fury. Eyes filled with hate. Eyes I will never forget.
Ten minutes later I head shouting. Voices . . Imperial Rogarian voices . . rising into the frigid cold of midday demanding the citizens of Oslon come out of their homes and hovels and gather in the town’s square. I heard doors being kicked open. I heard women screaming and men protesting. People began to appear. In ones and twos, growing into small groups, the people of Oslon began to fill the areas around the executioner’s stand. In their faces were either the emotions of abject despair or burning rage. As the square filled I saw the imperial purple of Rogaria taking up positions in all the streets that emptied into the square with swords drawn and wearing armor.
But I saw others in the crowd as well. Here and there, in ones and twos, I recognized the faces of sturdy, hard faced men behind cloaked hoods. Beletrix’s men, wearing heavy cloaks to hide their swords underneath, populated the crowd in large numbers. They kept their heads down and remained passive as they stood in the crowd waiting. I nodded, a smile again playing across my lips. All was ready. The trap to trap those who thought themselves too clever to be defied was set. All that now remained to happen was the arrival of the prisoners and the appearance of the Grand Inquisitor himself.
First came the prisoners.
The green and yellow skinned Mauk, both Ankor and the younger one, dragging chains which hung from their legs and arms, marched in single file from the blockhouse to the executioner’s stand surrounded by six purple clad Rogarian swordsman. Both held their heads down and did not look at the silent crowd hoovering near. The eyes of the crowd, dark and sullen, were transfixed on the two dragon warriors and no one paid attention to the six swordsmen who surrounded them as they approached the wooden platform.
Behind them came a tall figure dressed in heavy robes of black and wearing a peaked black hood over his head. He carried upraised in both hands a huge axe setting atop a large wooden shaft. He walked alone and all eyes followed the executioner as he moved slowly up the stairs and took a position to one side of the platform. Next came, dragging heavy chains wrapped around their ankles and wrists, Jubal and his wife and children. Jubal himself was a stout looking man with a shaggy mop of startling brown hair covering his head. He marched at the head of his family with his head held up and his eyes dancing with anger and fury. Jubal’s wife was a petite creature with blond hair and pale skin. I could tell she was very ill and in need of a monk’s herbs to ease her pains. The children, five of them, ranged for approximately twelve down to four. They, like their parents, were dressed in rags which hung from their emaciated bodies. The winter’s cold would soon claim them with its deathly grip. But the burning fires of the executioner’s stake would be a more grim end to their miserable lives.
Blind fury engulfed me! The sight of the Jubal and his family being led in chains to their imminent deaths, the ill mother and children shivering in both fear and from the freezing cold, their eyes filled with resignation and despair, ignited an anger in me which threatened to consume my warrior’s soul in a raging inferno. Rogarain arrogance was going to kill innocent victims. They were to die in the fires of absolution for wrongs which they had not committed! Their deaths were a ruse to lure me into a trap. To capture me. Their deaths mattered little to Iaegor of Lincoln. They were but the heretical followers of the Bretan to be dispensed with casually as far as he was concerned. Fury burned with the heat of a thousand suns in me. It threatened to break my control . . . to strike out in rage and bloody revenge at any and all who claimed Rogarian loyalty.
Aye, it is a weakness I have, pilgrim! At times I am consumed with this madness for revenge. My soul rages at such injustices and sometimes it gripes me with a fury I cannot control. It grips me with a madness that, after its fury had spent it itself out seeking bloody revenge, leaves me wallowing in seas of deep remorse and regret. For when this madness takes command I become the bloody weapon which lays low all who stand before me. I fear this madness. I force myself to control it. Yet there are times it bursts from its chains of bondage and overpowers all reason.
But I fought to keep this rage contained. I knew this was part of their plan. They knew at times I swept away the training of a Bretan warrior-monk and allowed the madness to overwhelm me. I could not allow the madness to engulf me. I had to strike and strike with fierce resolve. But I had to keep my mind clear and my instincts alert.
Blind fury is the weakest link in a warrior-monk’s armor, pilgrim. A shrewd opponent will always attack there. Always.
But not this day.
Prisoners and their imperial swordsmen who escorted them mounted the executioner’s stand. Silently the guardsmen lashed Jubal and his family to their stakes, removing their chains in the process. The two Mauk they were forced to kneel, their chains slipped through iron rungs bolted to planking of the stand. When this was accomplished the swordsmen marched down the narrow stairs of the executioner’s stand and surrounded the tall structure in a ring of Imperial purple.
Next came a herald dressed in the Imperial robes of the Rogarian Court. In a loud and distinct voice all could hear he parted the sea of humanity with the words, “Make way! Make way for His Highness, the Grand Inquisitor Iaegor of Lincoln!” Twice his voice rang out the traditional ritual as Imperial swordsmen pushed their way through the crowd and carved a wide path clear for Iaegor and his entourage.
My old enemy came into view surrounded by Rogarian warrior-monks known for their skills with the sword. Four of them surrounded the Grand Inquisitor as they marched forward toward the tall stand I inhabited in silently invisibility. In front and directly behind Iaegor and his body guard were more Imperial swordsmen. The swordsmen looked grim as they strode in front of and behind the Rogarian prelate. They were expecting trouble as their eyes swept across the many faces of the villagers surrounding them.
My eyes played across the approaching Rogarians and I smiled. A gap of some distance could be seen between the last two warrior-monks trailing Iaegor and the rear contingent of Imperial swordsmen. An unusually wide gap which made little sense for such security-conscience minded warriors in charge of protecting a Grand Inquisitor. Unusual . . . unless it was filled with warrior-monks who had wrapped themselves in Cloaks of Invisibility and followed the Grand Inquisitor in silence.
It was a typical Rogarian ploy. A trap within a trap within a trap. Iaegor anticipated I would leap out from behind my Cloak of Invisibility at some point soon and attempt to rescue the condemned. Undoubtedly the wily prelate and once warrior-monk and wizard of the Rogarian Sect anticipated I would not come alone. He had planned for such contingencies. He believed the thirty or more purple clad swordsmen surrounding the crowds’ outer fringe plus the eighteen swordsmen and warrior-monks visibly surrounding him would be adequate enough. But just in case . . . just in case . . . warrior-monks wearing Cloaks of Invisibility moved directly behind Iaegor and waited for the right moment to make their presence known.
I knew not how many warrior-monks hid from me. But it did not matter. My faith in Beletrix and his men was absolute. When the time came to reveal myself I knew Beletrix and his Iberian swordsmen would enter the fray immediately. Enter the fray and make the hunted become the hunter.
A trap within a trap within a trap. The Rogarians believed they were the masters of such complexities. It was my desire to foil them with tactics of their own design. My goal was not just to defeat Iaegor and rescue Jubal and his family for their fiery deaths. My goal was to make a formal announcement–to make a declaration. From this day forward I officially warred against Imperial Rogaria! I would declare them my enemies and I would use whatever means necessary to defeat their Imperial ardor!
The Rogarian herald mounted the steps to the executioner’ stand and blew himself up to his full impressive sight. His voice rang out into the cold noon air like that of a trumpet.
“The Rogarian Grand Inquisitor, Iaegor of Lincoln, will address the crowd! Kneel before his imperial highness and beg for his forgiveness all ye who do not worship the Imperial Order!”
The herald stepped back, bowing in deep formality as the white-robed Grand Inquisitor stepped to the edge of the platform and looked out over the sea of kneeling Oslonians. All knelt on one knee, their heads bowed. Only the Imperial purple worn by the swordsmen stood. Their backs faced the tall stand. Their eyes watched the crowd with narrowed, suspicious eyes. In the cold air one could feel the icy tension of trouble brewing. Of trouble about to erupt violently like an angry volcano at any moment.
Iaegor, with a long, twisted black brier wooden staff in one hand and dressed in the white silk of a Grand Inquisitor, stared out over the crowd for some moments before he spoke. But when he spoke his deep voice seemed like the voice of doom itself with its eloquent yet powerful sound.
“I come here, gentle folk of Oslon, not wishing to condemn those who worship the True God. I do not cherish the thought of sending heretics to their deaths. But I must. I must in order to end this heresy called The Bretan Way. There is only one True God and He is a demanding one! Sin fills this world, people! Sin and heresy are everywhere. It infiltrates into the hearts of the Cleansed and the Wicked. It must be rooted out! It must be destroyed. It must . . . “
From some place in the crowd in front of the white robed cleric rose a commotion. A murmur ran through the crowd. I saw several turning and reaching out to grab a figure who was rising to his feet. The brother of Jubal launched himself upward, lifting a raised fist in the air and shaking it in the direction of the Grand Inquisitor! He tore away from the reaching hands of those who were trying to pull him back and began making his way toward the tall stand, shouting in the process.
“Monster! Murderer! You kill innocent victims for the pleasure of it! You Rogarian filth! I spit upon the Rogarian Order! I call YOU a heretic, Rogarian! I . . . “
From behind the crowd Imperial purple swordsmen moved to push their way through the crowd and grab the madman. They threw people to one side roughly, using the pommels of this swords and the flat of their blades to clear a path. Suddenly the crowd exploded! As if every Oslonian was animated by the same anger, dozens of unarmed citizens rose to their feet and attacked the swordsmen! A great roar went up and the entire crowd lunged forward toward the executioner’s stand!
It was at this moment I threw the Cloak of Invisibility from me and leapt toward the humble Jubal and his family. With Helshvingar’s sharp edge I severed the ropes that bound them to their stakes just as the black-hooded executioner turned with his pole-axe to face me. Purple clad swordsmen leapt toward me with swords drawn. But to their amazement the two Mauk prisoners chained to the planking discarded their chains and leapt up and toward them! With practiced ease Ankor Mauk took the sword from one of Rogarian warriors and then hurled the stunned creature bodily into the mass of his comrades. The younger Mauk warrior armed himself in the same fashion
I disarmed the executioner who tried to cleave me in half with his weapon and then booted him viciously through the wooden railings of the tall stand. He fell screaming in terror to the crowd below and was engulfed in a mass of outraged Oslonians.
The six purple swordsman who had escorted the two Mauk prisoners to the stand turned and threw off the royal purple of Rogarian to reveal themselves as Iberian swordsmen. Beletrix and his men came thundering up the wooden steps swords drawn and fighting like madmen. In the crowd below hundreds of Beletrix’s men discarded their cloaks they wore to hide themselves and their weapons and launched a coordinated attack at the Rogarian swordsmen surrounding the outer fringe of the crowd.
The roar of battle filled the cold air and rose to the very heavens! Swords flew and blood flowed. For several minutes the fighting was hot and heavy. Rogarian swordsmen and warrior-monks fought to the very end. They fell one after another in a ring around the white robed Iaegor. But in the end the sheer numbers of the Oslonians and Beletrix’s men overwhelmed the Rogarians. In the end only Iaegor stood surrounded by the red dripping blades of his enemies. With an arrogance I found incredible he gazed upon his captors for some moments and then turned his eyes toward me. He expected death to come swiftly. I smiled knowing he would be disappointed.
Nodding to the Mauk and Beletrix I watched the two lay hands on the Grand Inquisitor and clap him in the very chains they had worn only moments before. Turning I gazed out over the now stunned and disbelieving crowd and knew what I had to do. Leaping to a portion of the railing left intact I faced the crowd and raised Helshvingar over my head.
“People of Oslon! Hear me! I am the one called Roland of the High Crags. I am the one branded by both Dragon and Man as the Malus Apostate–the one in league with Dragon treachery. But I am Bretan! I have always been Bretan! As a Bretan I have waged war against all forms of Evil! I have defended the weak. Protect the poor. Healed the sick. I have faced the Evil that both Dragon and Man have brought into this world and have not flinched from it. I am Bretan even though my brethren have cast me out of their fold! I will always be Bretan!”
The crowd visibly moved backward when I said I was the Malus Apostate. I saw several men cross themselves in an effort to ward off any evil. I saw women faint. But in the faces of many more I saw something else. I saw anger. I saw rage. I saw a hunger for vengeance. But vengeance and rage not aimed toward me. No, pilgrim. In the faces of these peasants and stout burgers I saw a hunger for just retribution aimed toward Imperial Rogaria. And this hatred for . . this lust for revenge . . . was palatable to one and all.
My voice rang out over the crowd.
“But I come here not to defend myself nor my actions! I come not to deny my fate nor plead for mercy. I come to issue a warning! I come to warn you of how dark prophecy has arrived intent on destroying you. But the Dragon is not the only enemy who comes to fulfill the prophecies of their evil gods. Imperial armies of Rogaria wage war on the weak and the innocent in the High Kanris. They dream of conquest and domination! They have shown their terrible war masks toward all who do not worship as they do. They come to dominate you!”
The crowd erupted in a noise of clamorous outrage. Fists pumped in the air and those who had taken weapons from the Rogarian fallen lifted them in the air angrily as well. All eyes were upon me. I felt the collected emotions of the entire city focused on their hatred for Rogaria. It was a powerful sensation. A terrible power to hold and manipulate. And I held it in the palm of my hand to shape and mold as I wished.
“As a warrior-monk I wage war against the dark gods of ancient Dragon prophecy. I wage war against Rogarian hegemony and domination. I stand here in defiance against both the gods of Man and of Dragon if these gods mean to subjugate the weak and the innocent into a merciless religious slavery! Neither Man nor Dragon should bow their heads to those who wish to chain them in the cruel shackles of servitude. Neither Man nor Dragon was meant to be the chattel for petty noblemen or powerful lords. Man and Dragon were made to be equals. To stand in the sun as equals–equals in both the Evil they have done in the past and in the Good yet residing in their hearts!”
Dozens in the crowd lifted a hand and shouted “Yes!” An electrical charge swept across the faces of many and in the blinking of an eye I saw the faces of converts! Hundreds of them! I saw the first glimmers of Hope. . . an emotion never before truly felt in their meager lives . . . stir in their souls. I saw excitement. I saw fear. I saw doubt.
My voice rang out over the crowd with the power of a zealot in it. With the power of conviction.
“Ancient gods of dubious honor should not dictate to us! Destiny is not a plaything only reserved for the gods to manipulate. Destiny is constantly rewritten. Fate is never decided by a god’s decree alone. We decide our fate! We decide to cower like frightened sheep before cruel masters. Or we decide to rise up. To demand Justice. To demand freedom!”
More shouts of affirmation rose into the frigid air. The crowd moved like a living entity toward me hungry to hear more. And like the fool I was I gave them what they needed to hear.
“It is time to change our world. It is time to change our destinies. Gold, or the lack of it, should never enslave a people. Cruelty and hatred should never dominate our lives. It is time for us to build a world where peace and honor can thrive. Where children can grow up to become whatever they wish to be. We must build a world where death and destruction are events rare to one’s memory–not the daily rituals we all must endure constantly. But to build this new world we must confront Man, Dragon, and even the immortal gods themselves! We must stand and fight as one! All of us–priest and peasant, merchant and warrior. All must take up arms and defeat those who believe it is their right to enslave us. Join our cause! Fight with the Dragon princess and I to change this world! Together let us rise up and become what we should be! Let us be free!”
The crowd answered in a roar of approval never before heard in this world! The noise was deafening! I saw in the faces of Iberians swordsmen stunned disbelief. Their eyes watched me with a kind of awe painted in them. As I jumped down onto the platform’s decking I faced Beletrix. He grabbed my hand and pressed it against his cheek as tears ran down his face.
“I have never before such words! I follow you, Bretan. I follow you until I fall either in battle or from old age. Command me!”
Startled by such emotions I stammered a bit and then told the warrior to gather up the Grand Inquisitor and whatever Imperial troops yet remained alive and escort them back to the mouth of the Trail of Tears.
Iaegor said nothing but looked at me with the smoldering eyes of a sworn enemy as he was led away. I had words I wanted to say to him but others came up to touch me and cheer. It was as if I had become a god to them. Adulation was in the eyes of all who pressed toward me. Finally the press against me by so many threatened to collapse the executioner’s stand. I was saved when the dour faced Ankor Mauk turned and ordered Beletrix to send everyone away. The young Iberian swordsman nodded and quickly cleared the area.
As I waited for stand to clear, flanked by the elder Mauk on one side and the younger Mauk on the other, I glanced at the younger green and yellow skinned warrior and saw him staring at me with dark reptilian eyes.
“Master, your words have a ring of truth in them. But do you believe them? Is such a world you describe possible?”
“I do, warrior.” I answered, nodding.
“And this idea called freedom? This is possible for Dragon ownership as well as that for Man?”
The elder Mauk turned and looked curiously at the younger warrior. The young Mauk paid no attention to the older warrior but kept his eyes . . . his unsettling eyes . . . upon me.
“Yes, warrior. Freedom is a universal gift offered to Dragon and Man. It is naturally given to one and all. “
”This freedom comes from your god? From this Shin’zhin?”
“It is a natural gift, warrior. No one god dispenses freedom out like a sack of gold. No one religion controls this gift. It is like the air itself. All who breath should be free. Man or Dragon. Dragon or beast. It does not matter.”
Ankor moved closer and positioned himself slightly in front of me. I could feel his stout Dragon’s heart clearly. He had grown wary . . . troubled . . . as he eyed his young kinsman in front of him.
“Powerful words, Roland of the High Crags. Powerful and dangerous. It offers a measure of hope to those who have never known hope. At the same time it threatens the very existence of the old ways. The old gods.”
Ankor’s hand reached for his sword. But the younger warrior lifted a hand, palm up, and aimed it toward the older warrior. As if a mighty hand of a divine lord itself had reached down and took hold of the old warrior in a terrible grip of strength the Mauk froze into a motionless statue!
That was when I realized this young Mauk was not a kinsman of the old warrior. He was actually the creature I had been warned about! She was the priestess of Hanoor! She stood, disguised as a male warrior of the Mauk, controlling Ankor Mauk as if he was but a child’s doll with her mental powers. And I found out she controlled mine as well! I too had become incapable of moving my arms or hands in any way!
“You are a dangerous adversary, Roland of the High Crags. Dangerous but fascinating. I see why the gods are disturbed by your presence in this world. You have a power with words which can move the hearts of all who hear them. A power perhaps even more awesome than Netherworld magic.”
The disguised priestess glanced to her left and frowned momentarily before returning her gaze to me. I thought I saw the movement of a dark figure moving rapidly toward me. The approaching figure disturbed the priestess. But she turned to look at me with a strange smile on her disguised face.
“We shall talk again of this thing called freedom, warrior. Of destiny and fate as well. You swim in dangerous waters, human. Dangerous waters indeed.”
And then, in the blinking of an eye . . . she was gone!