Great deeds happen only
If one is willing to accept
-From the Book of St. Albans-
A great disturbance in the River of Time. Its source centered somewhere around me and the Abbes of Hahnoor. Morisha, the supreme nun of the abbey, would be in any other endeavor a dangerous and diabolical enemy. As, I knew, she may very well may be even now as I planned to pluck from the hands of Aukmar Hartooth a nun by the name of Morika. What cunning and treacherous scheme the abbess may have set for me I could only surmise. That one did indeed exist, ready to spring the trapdoor shut and send me to my death, was all too real to me.
Yet I could not discount the possibility that her offer of cooperation in resisting the Evil from Afar was real. Morika, the young niece of Morisha, was a Null Stone of incredible power. Her skills, combined with those of Alvus Fairhands, would mask little Ursala’s thoughts from seeping into the Netherworld. Those who hunted us would not hear her thoughts and she would not tell them where our presence might be. We would not be safe from our hunters. They would still hunt and we would still be forced to hide. Yet our chances survived increased greatly if wizards and warlocks no longer could trail us through the Netherworld’s connection with the child and her ever broadcasting mind.
But even this could be a trap. Should I dare bring the child into contact with a nun from Hahnoor? Not just a nun, but a niece to Morisha–which meant, of course, a distant relative to Ursala as well. Should I take the chance that Morisha’s plans were ultimately to pluck the child from my hands and whisk her off to Hahnoor? To complete the prophecy laid down a thousand years ago by the dragon gods? This was a dread I could not shake from my mind. At some point I knew this would happen. Morisha could not resist acquiring Ursala as her own. Either to complete dragon prophecy or to combine the child’s incredible power with her own was too enticing of a prize to deny. Ursala’s powers, combined power with her own, might be enough to challenge and destroy the Evil from Afar without the need of any assistance from me.
Or this could be a plan from the Unseen Enemy himself? A subtle manipulation of Morisha, Morika and me to find Ursala and destroy her. Morisha may not even be aware she was being used. She may believe her actions and thoughts were her own when, in fact, she was nothing but a tool being expertly wielded by her master.
Schemes within schemes; traps within traps. How could one see the true path? Who could navigate their way through such twisting labyrinths safely? There was no answer. There was no way to see the right path. All one could do is complete the journey to where ever their journey might take them.
Rightly or wrongly we all have our journeys to complete. Where our paths might lead us to cannot be fathomed. Our only recourse was to begin the journey by taking the first step and continuing the journey until we could move no more.
We sat deep in one of the caves where we hid Ursala. A huge cave, deep into the very shield wall of the High Kanris. Massive rock thick and solid created a partial barrier itself in hiding us form the forces searching for us from within and without the Netherworld. All of us, encircling a warm fire burning pleasantly in the middle; myself, the fierce Mauk, the silent and thoughtful old Niscian, the blond twins, the blue and sandy brown Dragon twins of Hakim and Bellus and of course, the pale skinned Pearl Princess.
We all were discussing various plans on how to kidnap the Hahnoor novice from out of the hands of the Hartooth. None–except Ursala–were optimistic such a deed was even possible. All had pointed out the myriad of obstacles which would immediately rear their ugly heads the moment an attempt was made. Yet they, like me, saw the prize of acquiring a Null Stone of exceptional power such as Morika too tempting to see it slip away.
Alvus grunted, shook his head and frowned.
“I say it is a trap. A trap, pure and simple to capture you, Bretan. The abbess is blood relative to the Hartooth. She is the most powerful witch the Hartooth commands. Doubt her I do when it comes to the idea she is willing to give her niece to us in defiance of her kinfolk and her gods.”
“But,” growled the green and yellow skinned Mauk, sitting beside Fairhands, and spreading his hands out in an expressive gesture. “There have always been rumors within the Hartooth about the rebellious nature of Hahnoor. The Hartooth have, for generations, struggled to control these mystics. If that is the case, Morisha’s words could be true. But more to the point–this is a move that offers more than just a powerful Null Stone. It offers us a chance to possibly defeat the Hartooth before they are reinforced with more troops this coming spring.”
Everyone eyed the green and yellow Dragon intently and waited for the warrior to elaborate. I too was curious. Whatever scheme the warrior had envisioned he kept to himself. The Mauk paladin was an experience old warrior and an even more experienced old general. What advantage he had perceived would be subtle yet profound.
“Aukmar Hartooth and his warriors are weakest at this very moment. In the dead of winter Hartooth pike cannot make war. The number of fire-breathers he has brought with him are insignificant. If we can force a confrontation between the Malawei and Aukmar Hartooth we have a slim chance of destroying him long before the spring thaws arrive.”
“How do you propose to create this confrontation?” Fairhands grunted, eyeing the warrior beside him suspiciously. “Many of your kinsmen wish to join the Hartooth. The city of Malagna openly desires the Hartooth to enter and take up residence there!”
The Mauk nodded then turned and looked at me.
“Not all in Malagna desire the Hartooth presence in these lands. A dedicated few, led by the right person, might become the spark that begins the raging inferno. If the inferno erupts it will force my kinsmen to take sides.”
“What do you have in mind?” I asked, anticipating an answer I did not relish to hear.
“We attack the Hartooth camp with whatever fire-breathers and Great Wings we can muster. We drive off their Winged Beasties and set fire to the entire camp. In their rage the Hartooth will storm Malagna. All pretenses of friendship and potential allies will be swept aside. They will attack with a vengeance they are renowned for. The Malawei will have to defend themselves. Either defend themselves or become enslaved.”
“It is a dangerous plan. To fight in the dead of winter in this country means an untold number will die needlessly.”
The Niscian was frowning and shaking his head as he said this. But there was no conviction in his words. They had to be said. In reality the Mauk’s plan was the only one which offered even the slightest of chances for the Malawei to survive.
“How many warriors will follow you?” I asked, looking at the Dragon paladin.
“Of fire-breathers I can count on ten. Plus my own and these two here if they wish to join me,” the Mauk answered and nodding toward his nephews. “ Of warriors who will fight in the city maybe a hundred more. Of those of who may be forced to join our cause after the fighting starts I have no idea.”
I nodded. We would be far outnumbered. Without a doubt we would be forced to flee from Malagna and make our way through the winters snows to the city of Malawei. Journey to Malawei that is, if the old Malaweian baron joined our cause.
“A few Great Wing riders have been dispatched by the Lavartines to Malagna. Recruits, I’m told, who have joined our cause and are eager to fight the Hartooth. Add another ten to your winged assault, old friend,” I said, grimly nodding to the proposal. “ So this will be our plan. When you launch the attack on the Hartooth camp I will slip into the nun’s quarters and seek out Morika. In the confusion I’ll find her and we’ll exit the camp hidden in my Cloak of Invisibility.”
Ursala’s small face lifted up and looked at me intently with concern on her face. She said nothing. But I saw the look in her eyes. The look of fear–the look of someone who had to say something but wished to say it only in private.
Yet when everyone broke up and went to their bedding to sleep a few hours the child did not come to me. She curled herself up in her furs close to me and rolled on her side as she pulled furs over her to stay warm. Curious I lay in my furs waiting for her to roll over and whisper her concerns to me. She never did. As sleep caught up with me I wondered what had caused the child to look so worried.
The next couple of days the Mauk and his nephews quietly worked in preparing for the raid. Riders of fire-breathers had to be secretly contacted. A rendevous point, a place to assemble and train the strike force, had to be found somewhere close to the city and to the Hartooth camp. It fell onto my shoulders to find the ten Great Wing riders and assess their skills and commitment before I led them to the rendevous point.
While assembling the aerial assault it also was fell onto the Mauk’s shoulders to ready those who would be forced to fight within the city. In the midst of all this preparation the city of Malagna was a kettle of bubbling agitation. The clashes in the streets of the city between those who wished to defy the Hartooth and those who wished to join them increased in both frequency of attacks and in their intensity. Troops loyal to old Malawei baron found it difficult to maintain order. The visible presence of the red and black clad Hartooth warriors seemed to increase with each passing hour within the city. With each increment in their numbers the hostilities between the rival factions seemed to increase exponentially.
All came to a head just twelve hours before we launched the assault against the Hartooth camp. Disguised as Demetrius of Croi I was with the Mauk as we drank ale in the Inn of the
Brown Pig surrounded by warriors loyal to the dragon paladin. But our quiet pause in our preparations was interrupted when a messenger arrived from Juris Malawei summoning the two of us to his palace. It was not a request. Outside a large force of Malaweian guards waited to escort us through the dangerous streets of the city.
Our journey to the palace was torturous and filled with large bodies of factious dragons who either shouted insults and threats at the Mauk and myself or cheered and shouted approval at us before leaping at the throats of their opposing kinsmen. Several times the armed escorts surrounding us had to hammer their way through large bands of the city’s populace openly warring against each other.
When we arrived at the palace we were ushered into the baron’s presence without a pause. In the badly lit, dark throne room we found Juris Malawei sitting slumped to one side on his thrown, with his son Jaxtra standing to his right, dressed light armor with a helm underneath one arm. To the baron’s left was a Malaweian warrior equally dressed as if ready for war and with a scowl on his reptilian face. Beside this creature was a tall thin Hartooth warrior encased in armor and the colors of his clan. Behind him was an entourage of several warriors from both clans standing in formation and eyeing us as we approached the throne with open hostility.
“Cousin! These fools here insist I should arrest you and this human and throw you in chains. They claim they have proof you and this creature are the source for the unrest which sweeps through this city and most of my lands. What say you to these allegations?”
“What proof do the offer, cousin? How can you possibly believe what a Hartooth clansman tells you? Their reputation precedes them. Everyone knows what they are.”
“Fine words coming from a Dragon who associates himself with a human who openly wars against his kind,” the Hartooth nobleman answered yet unruffled by the Mauk’s insults. “Baron, if he wars against us, he wars against all of us. You know how devious and treacherous humans are. Why won’t you accept the proof of their guilt we’ve offered you?”
“Show us this proof you offer, Eldeware of Malagna. Let us examine this falsehood together,” the paladin beside me rumbled, folding arms across his chest and glaring at the Malaweian who stood beside the arrogant Hartooth..
Eldware of Malagna once was the head of the noble officially assigned to govern the city. He and his family were the Hartooth’s strongest supporters. The arrogant Maleweian openly questioned almost every decision Juris Malawei made on the throne. It was no stretch of the imagination to consider Eldware of Malagna to be Juris Malawei’s strongest rival for the barony. Now it seemed he had openly cast his fate with the Hartooth.
“Quite impossible,” the Malaweian nobleman exclaimed, shrugging elegantly. “The human and his cohorts are in the baron’s dungeons being worked on as we speak. But they’ve already made their confessions. Prince Jaxtra heard them only moments ago. Isn’t that right, my prince?”
The baron and the rest of us turned our attention the dragon standing beside the throne of his father. The look on the young prince’s face was drawn and tight. Reluctantly, silently, he nodded his head and said nothing else.
“This human,” the green and yellow skilled Mauk rumbled ominously. “Who is he and what did he say?”
“He claims to be a follower of the Bretan,” the Malaweian nobleman began in a bored voice. “The same religion you profess to be a member, is that not right, general? Anyway, the creature says he is a Great Wing rider who was recruited by this monk called Roland of the High Crags. Recruited to ride with a number of Great Wings and fight both the Hartooth and the Malawei once the spring thaws arrive. Proof enough of human treachery, if you ask me.”
From out of the chest of the Mauk came the rumble of laughter. Mocking laughter aimed directly at the Malaweian nobleman and the Hartooth standing beside him.
“Cousin, this is a typical Hartooth trick. How many times have we heard them use this ruse before? It is exactly the ruse they used to declare war on the Anktooth two years ago. They found a dragon clansman and tortured him long enough to break his spirit. They then convinced the creature to confess using words they put into his head. Afterward they killed him. Killed all of the Anktooth.”
The Hartooth clansman smiled savagely and turned with triumph in his eyes to stare at the old baron.
“Did we not warn you he would make this allegation, sire? Your poor kinsman is filled with hate for my clan. His masters were destroyed because they were the ones who declared war on us by infiltrating our lands with spies and revolutionaries. Now he wishes to see your clan destroyed. He and this human plot to overthrow you. To rally many of your foolish subjects to stand against my clan and our peaceful request to traverse through your lands when the warmer months arrive.”
“Sire,” the Malawei nobleman began, his voice carrying a pleading note in it as he turned to the old baron and lifted a hand toward him in supplication. “Can you not see you are in danger as long as this Mauk paladin and his human compatriot are allowed to remain free? You must put them in chains! You must take every precaution needed to protect you and your family in these perilous times! There are forces afoot which none of us may be able to control. And these two creatures are in tune with these forces!”
The tired, bleary eyed old baron lifted his wrinkled, aged face up and stared at his Malaweian kinsmen for some moments and then glared at the elegantly attired Hartooth clansman. He then turned his old eyes toward the Mauk and myself and gazed at us intently. And then, shaking his head and making a soft clucking nose, he slumped back into his throne.
“Leave me. All of you,” he said, lifting a hand and waving everyone to depart. “I have heard enough today. I will make my decision on the morrow. Now leave. Leave. All of you!”
The Hartooth and his Malawei ally bowed and turned. We did as well but a growl from the baron made us pause. Only after the Hartooth have vanished from sight did the old warrior speak.
“I do not know what you and this human plan, cousin. But I do know this. You would never plot to usurp my authority or take this throne from me. Whatever it is you two plan for the Hartooth do it quickly. Their power grows with each passing day. If something is not done soon I will have to abandon Malagna and retreat to Malawei. With the snows as deep as they are it will be a murderous retreat for those still loyal to me. Now go. Leave me to my own thoughts.”
We bowed again and turned to leave. Exiting the throne room we were about to leave to return to the Inn of the Wild Pig with our escorts. But the baron’s son made his presence known and motioned for the escorts to wait for a moment longer.
“I fear for my father,” he said looking at the green and yellow hued Mauk with a face filled with concern. “Aukmar Hartooth has sent representatives to the palace every day demanding we arrest you and the general here. Each time my father has rejected their demands. With each rejection the violence in the city has increased. We are on the verge of a civil war, paladin. I know the Hartooth are behind these deeds. I know they plan for our destruction. If the Malawei begin fighting each other we have no hope to survive the real threat sitting just outside the city. Do you have any plan to counter the Hartooth’s subterfuge?”
The Mauk placed a hand on the young warrior’s shoulder and answered quietly.
“All I can tell you, cousin, is that when the crises comes you must be prepared for some stiff fighting.”
“I do not know, young warrior. I do not know.”
Jaxtra Malawei waited to see if the Mauk would say more. But then turned to me and shook his head.
“The warrior who confessed in our dungeons, general. He confessed only through the skills of a Hartooth torturer applying his skills on the poor creature. The warrior confessed and then died before I had time to question him. Or to order the cessation of his pain. I did not believe his confession then and I do not believe it now.”
There was nothing to more to say. We left the young prince standing in front of the door
leading into the throne room with worry deeply etched into his dragon features.