Terrible is the power
of a mob’s rage.
–From the Book of St. Albans–
Oslon felt the upheaval and rage of a Genie let out of its bottle. The festering rage of Rogarian arrogance and cruelty kept forcibly contained through fear and intimidation at last burst open like a raging mountain flood washing away earthen dams and sweeping away giant swaths of forests. Whatever was Rogarian in Oslon was attacked and pillage. Crowds, shouting and out of control, with burning torches in their hands, ravaged and burnt to the ground Rogarian shrines, the main residence of the Rogarian priests, and even individual homes of Rogarian followers. Back and forth through the mud and snow packed streets of the town they rambled. Nothing Rogarian was spared. The ugly conflagrations of brightly lit homes being consumed hungrily by towering flames threatened to sweep its fiery clutches over all of Oslon.
What few Iberian swordsmen standing who where loyal to the imperial purple were attacked with overwhelming numbers. Most were soundly beaten, stripped of their weapons, and physically thrown out of the town with nothing to wear but their flimsy undergarments. The bitter cold and driving snow would soon claim their souls if none came to their rescue. To these hapless souls, and to a few of the families who worshiped the Rogarian faith, I and a few of my comrades rescued from the mob’s terror. We herded them out of the stout walls of the town to safety and gave them what little we had of food and warm clothes.
Aye, I fight the Rogarian madness and the evils that come with it. I wish to defeat and destroy those who wish to enslave millions with their religious zealotry. But I would not . . . could not . . . abide standing to one side and seeing mob rule destroy hundreds of innocent lives.
By dawn columns of black smoke stood motionless in the cold air over Oslon. The mob was gone; its fury spent after hours upon hours of rampaging destruction. Only the bodies of the slain and the smoldering ruins marked the flood tide of the night past. Standing, the Mauk and I, on the gallows in the middle of the town, with the blond twins Gawaith and Gawain setting on the wooden steps leading up to the gallows’ platform, we gazed out and over the smoking scenes of destruction. Each of us knew the stark realities of our actions. Through last night’s rampage we had witnessed the birth of a terrible monster.
War with Imperial Rogaria.
Most of the Imperial swordsmen had escaped the carnage. They, with their loyal Iberian swordsmen, occupied the Iberian camp north of the town. In the raw and bitterly cold air of the morning hours of dawn we could hear the ring of axes and the crashing of trees as hundreds of them worked at felling trees. They were turning the Iberian camp into a permanent one. Soon there would be a fortified Imperial Rogarian camp hugging the shield wall close by and withing striking distance to Oslon. A camp fortified and designed to expand in size. Those within Oslo who were loyal to Rogaria would flee to this new site. Mercenaries far and wide, seeking Rogarian gold, would find their way there as well. Come spring hundreds for Rogarian Imperial swordsmen would march down the narrow Trail of Tears which began in the ragged slash cut from the shield wall only a few miles from Oslon. The trail was too narrow to allow many warriors to traverse at once. It was simply impossible for large numbers to travel during the winter months. Fierce storms and mountains of snow filled the trail during the winter. But come warmer weather and after the snows melted warriors would descend from the high country above and join their ranks.
The inhabitants of Oslon would have to fight off Imperial purple if they wished to survive. But this was a large town unused to fielding armies into the field to wage war. Its citizens were burghers and merchants, farmers and woodsmen. Not warriors. Nor did the city have a source of income which could be used to hire warriors. When the fighting came it would be farmers and merchants, woodsmen and simple peasants facing trained swordsmen and hired mercenaries. It was a recipe for disaster. Worse. . . fiery slaughter from the rampaging hordes of religious zealots.
“They must be trained,” the green and yellow warrior standing beside me grunted.
“Yes,” I nodded.
We eyed the exhausted, slumbering city, our nostrils filled with the smells of burnt wood, heavy smoke, and death. Smoke, the color of white linen wrappings for the dead, partially hid several buildings from view. An ominous and dark thought to ponder.
“Their enemy will come soon after the flood season. They must be ready.”
“These people need you now as much as the Malawei need you. Perhaps even more.”
I heard the note of concern in the warrior’s words. I sensed his aura and its conflicting emotions. I nodded, turned, and laid a hand on his powerful shoulder.
“Promises I have made, warrior; promises I will keep. I have vowed I would stand with you in your efforts to save you kinsmen. I have vowed to confront the First Clan in the lands of the Malawei. I will not renege on those promises.”
“But what will be the fate of Oslon? How will they face their enemies?”
“The people of Oslon are strong. They are a tough lot well used to pain and hardship. Give them a leader, give them a glimmer of hope, and they will fight like a trapped lioness defending her litter.”
“Beletrix,” the Mauk grunted, nodding.
“Beletrix,” I nodded, smiling. “And others. The Lavartines will not stand idly by and allow Oslon to be retaken. They will send reinforcements. Come, we have many plans to make before we leave and return to the Malawei.”
Rousing the slumbering twins I sent each to find a group of Oslon citizens I knew would soon lead the city in their coming times of peril. While they rounded up the small group the Mauk and I descended the gallows’ steps and made our way through the quiet streets and dark shadows toward the gate and the road which led out to the Iberian camp. No one stirred. The streets glittered like diamonds with a fresh but thin layer of snow. As we moved I could glance down the street and see the gate open and unguarded. I frowned and started to make a comment to the warrior but I hesitated in my step, the quick sensation of darkness sweeping away the senses of my Inner Eye almost staggering me.
A hand settled onto the hilt of Helshvingar and I half turned and glanced quickly to my left and right. Beside me I heard the hiss of the Mauk’s sword slid from its sheath and felt his close presence at my back as he faced the opposite direction I faced–a defensive posture two swordsmen took when possibly facing an overwhelming force.
“Monk?” came the quiet voice of the warrior.
“Null stone. Very powerful. Nearby and approaching.”
“The Betan assassin?”
“No. Someone entirely different. Dragon, I think.”
She came walking toward me from out of the logs of the city’s wall itself. As if she opened a door from her private chamber and stepped through. Dressed in some shimmering light green cloth which made me think of flames and heat. A hood covered her head and one hand seemed to hold the gown close to her. But I recognized her immediately. It was the creature who had disguised herself as a Mauk warrior. The creature whom Master Breen had warned me about.
She moved with a sensual grace across the carpet of fresh snow making no tracks in the process. There was something about her hand—something about the dark shape of her face–which reminded me of human. She was Dragon. Yet she moved like a human. Like a human female trained in the arts of dancer. Like a courtesan long used to her powers in enticing men to her will.
“Greetings, Roland. Greetings, Ankor Mauk. Pleased am I that you two survived the night.”
Her voice had a hypnotic quality to it–a trait I knew the nuns of Hahnoor were trained to possess. The way she moved, the way her voice played across my ears, all elaborate tools used to control and bend the will of most, if not all, male Dragons. Yet surprised I was at how I too seemed to be affected. She was Dragon. Yet she had the sensual aura of human. A very attractive human.
“You may sheath your weapons tonight, warriors. I come not to harm you. I come to make you an offer. An offer yo will find hard to refuse.”
The Mauk grunted in disgust. Hand gripping the blade of his curved sword he stood to my right and glared at the nun with open hostility.
She laughed, her voice light and musical to hear, genuinely amused at the Mauk’s reaction. Her eyes—decidedly human to observe–played across the Mauk’s glaring mask.
“Warrior, you came to my rescue when warriors of the Rogarian colors began to abuse me. Neither asked for, nor needed, was your gallantry. But gallantry it was in your willingness to cast your fate along with that of a simple warrior of your clan. I felt your hatred for Rogaria. Felt the hatred for any creature who would so willingly bully and threaten someone with their power and arrogance. A most unusual emotion, warrior, coming from a Dagon And most refreshing I might add.”
The weak light of the dawn seemed to grow colder, the light fading in its luminescence, as we watched her move close and step away from the Mauk and turn her eyes toward me. Again I was impressed with the humanness she exhibited in her moves. The eroticism in the way she moved her body. For some reason I got the impression this creature was more, far more, than just a simple nun from Hahnoor.
“Roland, the wise one; Roland the brave,” she began, a hand reaching out and gently caressing my cheek. “Ever the cautious one. Ever the one who looks for traps within traps. You wonder, do you not, what trap I weave for you now? What trap this thing you call the Evil from Afar weaves for us all? Ah! The ultimate question, is it not? Who and what this Evil is and what it wishes to accomplish.”
“You, of all creatures, should know that answer,” I responded, her fingers gentle against my cheek sending bolts of hot electricity down my spine.
“Sadly, I do not. Whatever this thing is who tries to control the River of Time and all its currents keeps itself hidden from my prying eyes. I sense it. I sometimes partially hear its thoughts. But I cannot find it. I cannot recognize it.”
She removed her hand from my check and continued to circle around us. Her shimmering green gown subtly changing shades of green as she moved. I found myself becoming almost hypnotized by her voice. I found my inner strength weakening. Dragon though she may be her allure was rapidly wearing away my resolve. Incredibly I found her to be stunningly attractive. A revelation I found disturbing to contemplate.
“You mentioned something about an offer, witch.” the Mauk growled, turning and facing her as she continued to circle us. “Tell us what this may be and then begone. Leave us in peace.”
“Leave in peace, how so do I wish I could leave in peace and dread not what might happen next. But before I return to Hahnoor creatures human and Dragon must journey into the Netherworld and never return. Time indeed grows short. I must hurry to my next appointment before the sun rises to mid day. Listen, Roland. Listen to my offer and take it as I offer it.
I too war against this Evil from Afar. I know not who are what it is. I do not trust it. I might even fear it. So in this regards, dear Roland, our paths cross as potential allies. What I do know is it wishes to destroy those whom I hold dear simply because their deaths will twist the currents in the River of Time and give it some form of advantage. I will not allow this to happen. I propose to counter his moves. To kill those who are about to kill for him. Even more, to give to you the one additional source you seek which will hide you and little Ursala from his scrutiny.”
The Mauk grunted in surprise, the tip of his sword lowering for the first time. Laughter filled the night softly as she moved one step closer and touched my check again.
“Roland, my love, we both know the River of Time is too complex of a mistress, too demanding for any one creature alone to command. It is the source of madness. Any creature who even tries obviously has succumbed to its enticing illusions. This evil’s manipulations threatens us all. Threatens Dragonkind as much as mankind. It must be destroyed. And we–you and I, along with Ursala–can destroy it. But only if we work together. Only if we coordinate our efforts.”
“What price to pay for this cooperation?” I asked, turning my cheek away from her touch. “And when will this demand come?”
“In due time, my love. In due time. Perhaps its demand will not be as severe as you dread. But for now, warrior . . . for now let me offer you a gift. In the camp of Aukmar Hartooth, residing in his quarters surrounded by his warriors, is a relative of mine by the name of Morika. She is a novice in the Nunnery of Hahnoor. She has not taken the final vows to become one and wishes not to. Yet her powers as a Null Stone are unsurpassed. She is more a captive than the slaves who attend to the Hartooth’s heir. Rescue her. Remove her from the presence of the First Clan and carry her to safety. Use her talents to mask your thoughts and moves from the creature who wishes to control us.”
“Why do you not rescue her yourself, abbess? You have power greater than I.”
Morisha, Abbess of Hahnoor. The most powerful nun of all; the mistress of Hahnoor. A creature rumored to have the skills in witchcraft and wizardry equal to any five wizards known whether dragon or man. Powers that would almost rival one of the Five Sisters.
Again her musical laughter rang softly in my ears. And this time the creature stepped in closer to me and brushed her soft lips across my cheek.
“Clever human, faster you recognized me than the time before,” she whispered in my ear soft enough for only me to hear before stepping back. “Yes, I do have the power to rescue her. But I cannot do so in such a direct fashion. I must go at it indirectly. Yet in a way, I will use my power to assist you. As we speak two assassins from the baron’s own journey to his son’s encampment with orders to silence her permanently. Baron Baknar Hartooth has grown suspicious of Morika’s loyalties. His suspicions possibly include me as well. He intends to remove Morika from this world and replace her with a nun he trusts implicitly. This sister of my order travels with the assassins. A very powerful witch in her own right. I plan to destroy all three in such a way that will confuse the baron. But, in a measure to counter any possible contingencies, it falls upon you to physically pluck my niece from out of the iron grip of Aukmar Hartooth It is request I do not make lightly, warrior. I have no fondness for humanity. But in you I place some trust. Will you do this for me? Will you rescue my niece from death assured?”
Somewhere behind us a door banged open and a dog began barking. A soft but frigid breeze began to play across my face. The breeze ruffled the edges of the abbess’ hood as she turned her head and glanced off into the darkness. For a heartbeat or two she stared into the night, her long and curvaceous frame as frozen in time. But she eventually turned her head and dark eyes stared out from underneath the hood again toward me.
“Traps within traps, abbess.” I began, a smile playing across my lips. “To bait a trap one must use bait which is irresistible. You know of my need for a Null Stone. And lo! One is available! All I have to do is enter the camp of my enemies and rescue her.”
“Yes, my dear. I will not deny that it is a risk fraught with dangers. But from me this is not trap. It is a straight forward offer. Your enemy is my enemy, human. In at least this one endeavor we are allies.”
In the distance another dog began barking and the green robed abbess stepped back nervously. I could tell she was agitated. As I would be if I knew a skilled assassin like Master Breen, hidden behind the folds of a Cloak of Invisibility, might be near and approaching unseen and unheard.
“I will do this deed for you, abbess. I will rescue Marika from her captors. And, if she is willing, she may join my party and assist me in keeping those who wish to harm the princess at bay. But I warn you as well. If you use Marika in an attempt to bring Ursala into the fold of the Hahnoor, to become the tool of Dark Lord prophecies, I will know and Helshvingar will be my answer.”
“Agreed, my lovely Roland. I come to you transparent and without motives hidden. You will find in Morika a powerful ally. Save her, warrior. Save my lovely niece and I will be deeply in your debt.”
The abbess slid back into the shadows near the log wall and, like smoke blowing away from a stiff breeze, simply disappeared. No sooner had she vanished than we heard someone throwing off a heavy cloak behind us. Turning, half expecting it, we were not surprised to see the tall and emotionless Master Breen standing, sword drawn, staring at the spot where Morisha had vanished into.
“You heard?” I asked softly, knowing the answer.
“I did,” the assassin nodded, turning to fix his dark eyes on me. “You walk a dangerous path, my son. Our brothers debate on what to do with you. A few consider your cause noble and wish to join you. Many more consider you the most dangerous wizard ever to have lived. Now the Abbess of Hahnoor herself has traveled all this way to offer you a pact. Are her words honorable? Or does she weave a plan of her own? If the child is taken to the Abby of Hahnoor your noble cause is lost. Humanity may be lost. The dangers of your plan failing may be too great to accept, Roland.”
“But to do nothing guarantees the Dark Lords’ prophecy will be fulfilled,” growled the green and yellow Mauk angrily. “Something must be done to end this strangle hold which grips your kind and mine with an iron hand!”
“The child may have to forfeit her life, Dragon.” the assassin’s voice answered in the night coldly and emotionlessly.
The Mauk and I stared at the dark figure of the master assassin in silence. But in me I felt anger growing. Anger and rage. For a thousand years the Dark Lords of the Dragon had been the bane of all of humanity. They laughed in delight at the misery they inflicted on us all. The gloated in the their desire to kill any who stood in their way. In their divine insanity they howled in delight at the thought of wiping away all that was human.
Enough, I say! Enough of this madness! Why should both of our kind be the playthings to gods who had no honor. No compassion. No mercy. It was time to make a stand. To defy the gods themselves! To shout into the night our defiance and vow to end this torturous nightmare once and for all! Either we succeeded and destroyed this Evil. Or we died valiantly trying to destroy Evil. Either way, no longer would we be minions in the paws of the demented.
“No,” I said passionately. “Over and over we have played this game, master. Like a nightmare that will never end the Netherworld reshuffles the deck of cards continuously and we play this game into infinity. Millions die. Millions more suffer needlessly. I say we end this game. I say we do something which hasn’t been done before. We break the power of Dragon prophecy We break it by taking the one weapon the Dark Lords need to fulfil their prophecies and use it against them.”
For a long span of time both Dragon and assassin stared at me in silence. The eyes of Master Breen were black wells of fathomless darkness. Nothing could be read in them. He stood, sword in hand but blade angled downward and away and gazed at me with the stillness of death itself. Yet his gaze was like a weight on my soul pressing me down. He had been master and teacher to me. And friend. I trusted him more than I trusted any other man. If there was anyone whom I prayed would join our cause it was this man. Yet his unwavering gaze gave no indication of his thoughts. There would be no use in asking. Seemingly after an eternity the assassin nodded his head and stepped back, sheathing is sword before gripping the edges of his cloak.
“I leave you now. Leave to return to the monastery to make my report. May Shin’zhin guide you in the Path of Light, my son.”
And, with the flick of his wrist . . . . he was gone.
For some seconds both the green and yellow skinned Dragon and I stood in the darkness and remained silent. Both of us felt the weight of recent events–of a feeling of impending doom perhaps–weighing down upon our shoulders. A sense of something large and complex unraveling before me gripped me. Destiny? Fate? The lives of thousands? All woven together an a tapestry complex. A tapestry which, somewhere hidden and unseen, the first threads of approaching tragedy were beginning to spread.
Destiny. Fate. Freedom. Only words if nothing was done to give them a meaning. Only dreams if nothing was done to change and create them.
Beside me the fierce warrior grunted and turned to stare at me. Tall, powerful, relentless–Ankor Mauk would never waiver. He would never hesitate if he believed in something or someone. He believed as I did in knowing Ursala was not evil. He also believed, as I did, that Destiny and Fate no longer were the sole play things of the gods.
“What next, monk? What do you have in that strange, devious mind of yours which will irritate our enemies and enrage the heavens?”
A grim smile played across my lips. I turned and gazed at him in the growing twilight. Irritate our enemies and enrage the heavens. Nodding I slapped the warrior on his forearm fondly and turned to walk through the gate and toward the camp of Beletrix and his men.
“Come! We have much to do. We still live, warrior We still live! Let us be grateful for that!”
Yet, even then, the deep and hidden currents in the River of Time were stirring restlessly.
The Tapestry of Life was beginning to unravel and twist into a new weave. To change . . . .