It is the unseen forces which forge and
hammer the malleable contents
of our souls
In ways we cannot fathom.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
Fighting erupted in the city streets a few hours after our return from the palace. Not the sporadic clashes of groups attacking other groups in a brief but violent melee that soon dissolved into thin air. No–this was open warfare between Malaweians who either supported the Hartooth or opposed them. Those who supported the First Clan far outnumbered those who opposed them. Crowds surged out into the streets and threw up barricades. Entire sections of the city were quickly converted into fortified zones. The clash of arms and the blaring of the distinctive dragon war horns filled the cold night air as those loyal to the Mauk rallied around the inn he now used as his headquarters. It became obvious to both of us his plan to raid the Hartooth camp was now effectively scuttled since now he and several hundred Malaweians surrounded and trapped in the two or three city blocks radiating outward from the Inn of the Brown Pig. It was as if forces unseen had gathered together to thwart our efforts. As if the Evil From Afar knew our every thought.
As if it knew I planned to kidnap a Hahnoor nun from the clutches of the Hartooth.
I suspected the escalation in violence and confrontation between pro and anti-Hartooth forces came not from the camp of Aukmar Harooth. I was convinced the prince of the Hartooth considered his forces too small to assure victory in the dead of winter against the Malawei. He waited for spring–and for reinforcements–before he would make a move. The prince, seeing this inexplicable change of events not of his doing, undoubtedly felt a quite unease and a sense of vulnerability as he sat in his camp. Rare was the time a Hartooth leader felt vulnerable. Now was the time to implement the Mauk’s plan for an aerial assault. But how to strike when both the Mauk and myself were trapped here in the city?
“We must assault a gate and evacuate the city, monk. Malagna no longer is loyal to my cousin. The city is lost. If we can storm a gate and capture it a few of us might survive. But we must do this as soon as possible. With each hour’s passage Eldeware of Malagna and his forces grow stronger while Juris and his throne grows weaker.”
“What of the baron? Is your cousin safe in his palace? Will he survive the night?”
“I cannot say,” the Mauk shrugged. “His soldiers desert him in droves. His own personal bodyguard has succumbed to Hartooth bribery. The longer he stays in Malagna the weaker he becomes. Yet there is nothing I can do for him.”
Forces unseen weaving their desperate patterns around us. The currents within the River of Time twisting and turning in ways no mortal soul could anticipate. Were the being manipulated by my arch enemy, this unseen dark force I was only vaguely aware of? Or was he too blind in his self assurance and his power to truly understand the unpredictability of the River of Time?
The situation was desperate. Something had to be done. Those who followed the Mauk within the city had to find a way out of this trap. The royal family of the Malawei had to be rescued. These desperate situations called for desperate measures.
“Very well,” I nodded, pulling the Mauk to one side as we stood in the inn crowded with loyal warriors. “The western gate is the closest one from here. At midnight attack down the main street leading to it. Warn your people moments before they storm the streets to prepare themselves for a series of large explosions. When the first explosion happens that will be your cue to launch the assault. Expect the first one about a quarter to midnight.”
“Where will you be when the assault begins?”
“I will be in the gate tower waiting for you.”
I nodded to him and then slipped out of the inn’s door and into the night. Throwing the Cloak of Invisibility on me I climbed over the inn’s back wall and slipped into the alley way running down the wall’s length. Moments later I scaled a wall of a large warehouse and began leaping from rooftop to rooftop toward the palace of Juris Malawei.
I was not surprised to the squat but powerful looking palace of the Malaweian baron filled with troops loyal to Eldeware of Malagna. Nowhere was there a warrior wearing the royal colors of the baron’s personal seal. As I made my way through the crowded courtyard of the palace I feared the worst for the old baron and his gallant son.
I found Juris Malawei setting on his throne and surrounded by the warriors of his rival. In front of him stood Jaxtra Malawei and, surprisingly, Eldeware of Malagna. Sprinkled in here and there among the many warriors loyal to Eldeware were the red and black liveries of the Hartooth. Yet none of the First Clan warriors cast themselves in a prominent role that was currently happening. This too surprised me. Entering the throne room and slid around a number of warriors and got as close as I could to the throne and to the old baron.
I found myself listening in on a heated argument. An argument between father and son.
“Father! You must listen to reason! All is lost unless you reconsider! Malagna is no longer ours. Malawei threatens to revolt as well! If we do not bow to the First Clan’s demands our clan will no longer exist!”
“Bah!” hissed the old man, coming to his feet and lifting a fist up to shake into the face of Eldeware angrily. “You ask me to accept the word of a First Clan prince that our clan will be allowed to exist if I recant my reluctance to join their cause? You ask me to accept this oaf, this Cretan, to be the leader of our clansmen when they march off to war? How can you ask me these things, my son? You of all Dragons! You have been the one these last few weeks urging me to listen to Ankor Mauk! To resist the Hartooth!”
“Yes, father. I did. But it is too late. A flight of Bruinii fire-breathers are about to arrive and come the spring more Hartooth will join the prince. If we do not officially join them their forces will be too strong to resist. If we resist in any way that will be the excuse for them to destroy us all.”
“Baron, I would suggest you listen to these words of wisdom. I am afraid he speaks the truth,” Eldeware’s arrogant and bored voice spoke up beside the young Jaxtra. “The vast majority of the clan already resides in the Hartooth fold. You must face reality, Juris. You have no other choice.”
The old Malaweian baron turned and faced his clansman and rival with a mask of hatred and defiance painted on it as he took a step downward toward the younger warrior. Fury coarse through the old warrior’s veins. Yet he contained it. Controlled it.
“While I live, Eldeware, I will never bow to Hartooth sovereignty. Never. Your faith in their promises is foolish. There has never been a nobleman born among the Hartooth who has kept their word. Remember who they are! They destroy all who have raised a hand against them down to the third level of kinship! The Malawei were directly related to the Anktooth! They destroyed our cousins and they plan to destroy us no matter what kind of promise they may give you!”
“Father! It is certain you will not live through the night if you do not abdicate the throne and allow another sit in it. I plead with you father. I beg you to step down and save not only yourself but our clan from possible destruction!”
Juris Malawei stepped back and turned to face his son. On his dry, cracked lips was a smirk of derision and contempt. Lifting a hand a long, boney finger stretched out and pointed to Eldeware accusingly.
“You ask me to relinquish my throne and allow this traitor to ascend to it? You wish me to live in shame in the false knowledge Aukmar Hartooth will keep his word and not destroy our kinsmen? Jaxtra! Even if only ten of us survive the coming battles the Malawei will continue to exist! We will rebuild! We will grow in strength and defiance. But more importantly, my son, we will retain our honor!”
“I do not have designs for your throne, kinsman.” the smooth voice of the warrior standing beside Jaxtra Malawei retorted, a smile playing across the lips of the nobleman. “I have been promised a much greater reward if our efforts become fruitful tonight. Far greater than anything you could ever offer, Juris.”
“Eh, what say you? Then who, pray tell, wishes to claim my throne and dispose of me as he see’s fit?”
A silence fell on the entire lot as they stood around the throne and the old baron. Eyes turned and looked at the one Maleweian who had to answer. And answer he did in a voice not much louder than a hoarse whisper.
“I am, father. I am the one required to take your seat and save our clan. Either me–or our clan is surely doomed to destruction.”
It was as if an invisible hand slapped the old baron hard across the face. Surprise, anger, pain, betrayal–all swept across the old Dragon’s as he staggered back and up to his wooden throne. But in a blinking of an eye all was swept away. Replaced by a scowl of fury and anger of unsurpassed power. From his belt the old baron pulled a long dagger and leapt straight toward his son. Jaxtra leapt as well toward his father, catching the old man in mid air. There was a short, brief struggle for the knife and then . . .
Juris Malawei, baron of the Malawei Clan, staggered back and upward toward his throne clutching his own dagger with both hands. The long blade buried deep in the old warrior’s chest as the distinctively colored blood of the dragon was rapidly staining the front portion of the chain mail and livery he wore. Two steps backward the old barpm took, his eyes staring at his son with a look of sheer surprise in them. Only two steps and then staggering to his left Juris Malawei crashed onto the steps of the throne dias never to rise again.
It was over in a sudden act of rashness and deadly violence. The death of a proud, defiant nobleman. The rise of a treacherous son with the blood of his father coating his hands and the throne of the Malawei. All in the matter of a few seconds. Incredulous–hardly able to believe what I had just witnessed–I found it difficult to breath. I could only stand helplessly, hidden beneath the Cloak of Invisibility, and stare at the new baron of the Malawei.
It was Eldeware who broke the stunned silence. Turning to face Jaxtra Malawei the older dragon bowed respectfully. Straightened up he stared at the young baron with a look of triumph painted on his smirking face.
“Your actions have saved our bothers and sister, our mothers and fathers, baron. You had to do what you had to do in order to assure our clan’s survival. There was no other choice you could make, Jaxtra. The prince has given his word. With the removal of your father and you taking his place, as well as becoming an ally to the Hartooth, the Malawei will join the ranks of our victorious host! Hail, Jaxtra Malawei! Baron of the Clan Malawei!”
The warriors in the room lifted their right fists up, the traditional salute of a dragon to their liege lord, and echoed Eldeware’s last words.
“Hail, Jaxtra Malawei! Baron of the Clan Malawei!”
Even the few red and black clad Hartooth warriors lifted their fists and saluted the new baron. Jaxtra stared around him, noting all the salute given to him loudly and enthusiastically, and remained silent for a moment. But something in him–something dark and evil–began filling his soul. A hardness. A heartlessness . . . a dark power to control and command began radiating from his heart. Nodding he stepped over the dead form of his father lying on the dias and approached the throne.
Wracked with pain and despair I could not stay any longer. Silently I left the bloody throne room and quickly made me way out of the palace. Much had to be done in a few short hours. Fighting and withdrawing from the city those who wished to fight the Hartooth had to now take precedence. Yet I could not shake the despair and desolation from my mind at what had just taken place.
Had Jaxtra Malawei’s actions saved the Clan Malawei? Or only postponed its doom.