When the gods are insulted
Their wrath knows no limits.
-From the Book of St. Albans–
Strapped in the saddle of Cedric we rode through the lowering clouds filled with snow and ice pellets, sliding in and out of the dark clouds repeatedly as we tried to hide our approach from any prying eyes who might be searching for us. Below me a couple of hundred feet were fifteen long serpent’s necked fire-breathers, their bat wings stretched out full, riding the cold currents of the night silently. Strapped to their saddles were fifteen dragon warriors from as many different clans, wrapped in heavy furs and woolen cloaks to keep the biting cold off their reptilian features. In their hands were heavy framed powerful crossbows. Stubby but deadly quarrels sat notched and ready for action in each.
They flew three triangular formations of five Beasties each, one behind the other. The standard attack formation dragon riders of every clan were taught to from the moment they first saddles such behemoths as a youth. They would be the terror which would come out of the darkness and bring fire and destruction into the midst of the First Clan. They would, if at all possible, refrain from any aerial duels offered by rising Hartooth fire-breathers or by the few the Malawei may have sent to reinforce their allies. Their task was to ravage the First Clan’s camp. To torch and burn both the camp structure and any group of Hartooth warriors foolish enough to be caught in the open. Thirteen fire-breathers were a terrifying weapon to hurl at any foe. Long had the First Clan used such terror in striking at the hearts of their enemies and searing from their souls the will to resist. In truth, it was the use of their Winged Beasties as such a weapon more than their legendary piked infantry–as ferocious and deadly as they were–which won them the battlefield time and time again. Tonight Aukmar Hartooth and his kinsmen would experience the shock and terror hurled upon them of the kind of weapon his ancestors had so effectively created a thousand years earlier.
If any First Clansman and his Winged Beastie took to the air to defend the camp it would be up to myself riding stout hearted Cedric and the nine other Great Wings riding in formation behind me to blunt the blow. Lavartine and Avalar riders, individuals who wished to join our cause, flew with me this night. They came from the two kingdoms which bordered on the east and on the west the lands of the Malawei. Ostensibly they came as individuals without official approval from their liege lords. But tacitly the kings of both countries knew what was at stake in the lands of the Malawei. If the Hartooth swept through the Malawei and swallowed them complete into their fold they would, when warm weather arrived, turn their attention toward the west. Toward the Avalar.
The Avalar were almost certainly doomed if the First Clan was not destroyed and all of the Malawei decided to ally themselves with the Hartooth. The lands of the Avalar were filled with iron and silver mines. Wealth the First Clan needed to continue waging war against all across the base of the Shield Wall. Their ultimate goal was to invade the high country itself, to swam into the narrow high mountain valleys found in the High Kanris and bring fire and destruction to humanity.
West of the Avalars–west of the Dragon barony of the Bruinii–lay a wide path up into the High Kanris. A pass wide enough for armies to march through without the hindrance of natural terrain limiting an army’s need to maneuver. It was toward this goal the Hartooth ultimately aimed to acquire. With this natural corridor up into the high country dragon prophecy would finally be complete. War would come to the last bastions of humanity. War of total destruction.
Aukman Hartooth and his kinsmen had to be defeated. Defeated long before they threatened the human kingdoms which protected the route leading up into the Kanris. His destruction–the defeat of a Hartooth army for the first time in recorded history–would start tonight if the gods willed it.
Twisting in the saddle I gazed behind me. Sweeping through the bottom edge of the clouds in the darkness I had to see my comrades auras with my Inner Eye. Normal vision was useless on such a dark night. But with the gift all of an Inner Eye I saw the bright auras glowing of bird and man as well as dragon and fire-breather below me. Each individual aura distinct yet related to their species. Within the auras of each I saw grim determination radiating from their souls. They were prepared to fight. Prepared to die if fate so willed it.
Below the hilly forests swept past us. I recognized the terrain. We were almost onto the camp. A moment later I felt the disquieting sensation of my Inner Eye and Netherworld magic draining from me. This told me the Hahnoor nuns assigned to protect the Hartooth prince were diligent in their duties. Magic would not be a weapon used this night. It would be the traditional weapons of sword, bow, and withering fire which would claim the lives of many.
A flash of light to my right and then the image of the city of Malagna in flames caught our attention. Most of the city was intact from the fighting withdrawal the Mauk paladin and his followers had endured hours earlier. But a corner of the city burned intensely and threatened to spread. I suspected Aukmar Hartooth had sent a large number of his troops to Malagna to keep the city from being destroyed. If true this was a fortuitous event. We would not face the full strength of the enemy when we attacked.
The attack came suddenly and without warning. Two Winged Beasties–large fire-breathers belonging to the First Clan–dropped out of the clouds above us just as we flew over the Hartooth camp. Coming down upon us in a steep attacking dive, blue white flames scorched the heavens as both aimed their deadly fury and Cedric and I. Cedric, the magnificent creature he was, reacted instinctively. He turned underneath the dive of the two Beasties. The giant creature rolled over onto one wing, throwing me violently to one side in the saddle, and we slipped into the gap between the two billowing tongues of flame aimed us. On either side of me I felt the withering heat of Dragon’s breath. We slid between the searing pillars of heat and destruction with only inches to spare.
Undaunted, Cedric turned violently in the other direction, his wings stroking the frozen winds mightily, and we rolled into the midst of one of the plunging fire-breathers. He selected the one lagging slightly behind the other. Huge talons powerful and deadly reached out into the darkness and slammed into the rib cage of the doomed Beastie. The fire-breather roared in pain and anger, its serpentine neck twisting around and its long, angular head turning to eye us. Try it did to summon up another flaming torch. But it had not recovered from moments before. The hot breath of a dragon needed moments between blasts to regenerate.
It tried to twist its way free from Cedric’s grip. Violently it turned one direction to the other. But Cedric, once his talons had sunk in, rarely released its hold. Down toward the camp below we plunged in this deadly fugue. One creature trying to escape. The other gripping its victim even more tightly. The rider twisted in his saddle and tried to bring his crossbow up to fire a bolt at me. But he was too slow. In the violent movement of his mount trying to break away, plus the cumbersome heaviness of his weapon, the dragon rider could not bring his weapon to bare. My short horn bow sang twice and two arrows rain true and straight. Deep into the Dragon’s chest they buried.
To my left I heard a voice shout in triumph. Turning I saw the grinning face of Gawaith sitting on his sturdy Great Wing, bow in hand, but pounding the air with a triumphant fist as the second fire-breather began its death plunge. I nodded, pleased, and gave the signal for the youth to climb for altitude. The fight had just begun. Our greatest advantage in riding a Great Wing was the ability to attain great height. If our feathered mounts could attack from above the advantage was with us. Cedric, releasing his dead prey, took the lead. Together our two birds began climbing for altitude.
An aerial battle between Great Wings and Winged Beasties is a terrible spectacle to behold. Terrible yet grimly fascinating. The deadly ballet of twisting bodies of scaled Dragon and feathered Great Wing is an unforgettable opera to witness. Interspersed in the melee between dragon and bird long columns of flame reach out and try to incinerate an unlucky foe. Startling it is when the flames come–even more so if the fight, like this one, fought in night black and frigid.
From below ever Hartooth fire-breather available were rising up to meet the challenge. Most of them wore the trappings of the First Clan. But a few Beasties wore the trappings of the Malawei. Their numbers were slightly more than ours when combined. The dark night soon was a canvas of aerial war and creatures, both feathered and scaled, began spiraling down in their death throes.
Cedric and I attacked a second Hartooth creature. The fight was short and vicious. Our opponents were skilled and deadly. Through the skies we twisted and turned, each trying to attain the advantage. Seconds rolled by but neither could attack. Through this dance I sent arrows toward the rider of the fire-breather as he launched crossbow bolts toward me. Neither of us could find our mark. But just as the fire-breather turned suddenly and in the wrong direction, giving Cedric an opportunity to attack, the giant creature folded its long leathery wings back and dived. Rider and fire-breather fell from the skies like a lead weight hurled from the throne of the gods. Mystified, I looked down to see what had caused a skilled dragon warrior to disengage from combat.
Four Winged Beasties who fought with us had disengaged themselves from the melee and rolled into a ground-attack formation. Wing tip to wing tip the four giant creatures went into a shallow dive toward the camp. Sailing over the camp not more than twenty feet above ground each scaled Beastie let loose its hot breath. White flame belched out into the night. Soaring over the long rows of stout log cabins which housed groups of warriors, the breath of the Beasties set fire to dozens of them before they had to break off their attack and flee from the scene.
But two more of our allies where searing the camp with death and destruction. One sent up in the flames the three buildings which stored the grain and food supplies of the First Clan. With crackling fury each of these targets lifted flames high into the air. The second creature actually landed on the ground and began hurling flame toward groups of warriors as they dashed to one conflagration or the next in efforts to save whatever the could. On the Beasties’ back its rider seemed very deadly with the use of his crossbow.
I glanced hurriedly to my right and left, and then behind and above me to see how the aerial duel was shaping up. Flames mixed with deadly arrows and flashing crossbow bolts filled the air. Bodies of feathered Great Wings and scaled Beasties were falling from the heavens. The fight would not last much longer. Our force would have to retire soon. But before we withdrew, and while chaos and confusion reigned, I had to drop to the ground and find the Hahnoor novice, Morika.
It was as if Cedric read my thoughts. Rolling onto its back, making me fight and grit my teeth and use all my strength to not be ripped from the stout leather straps binding me to the saddle, the giant bird folded its wings back and dropped its beak toward the burning carnage below. Downward we hurled at a furious pace only to come out of the dive just feet above the ground. Cedric threw out its large wings, cupping them to catch as much air as possible, his talons hitting the ground almost at the same time. Throwing the straps holding me into the saddle from me I leapt to the ground, Helshvingar in hand, and looked desperately to the right and left.
Around me dragons were hurling flames in all directions. More than half of the camp was a roaring inferno. Dozens of charred, twisted figures of dead First Clansmen littered the ground where they had died from dragon’s breath. Warriors were shouting, officers were trying to organize a defense, creatures dead continued to plunge from the heavens and crash into groups of warriors or into buildings randomly. Chaos ruled. Confusion reigned.
In the distance I heard blaring horns. Clansmen who had rushed to Malagna to fight the fires were returning. I had only moments left to find Morika. But where to look? Where would the Hahnoor nuns reside in a time of crisis?
Two red and black clad clansman came out of the night, swords over their heads, and charged straight at me. Steel met steel and although they were competent swordsmen they were no match for me. Both went down in seconds never to rise again. But their screams and the clash of arms had attracted others. Four more warriors came running toward me through the smoke and flames ready to do battle.
Grandfather! Do not move!
The voice of Ursala! Speaking to me as if from a far distance. But her voice in my head clear and genuine! How?
She is here. She will lead you to Morika. But do not move until she has formed!
Who, child? Who?
Morisha. She has returned.
Behind me I heard an animal snarl. A deep, frightening sound of an animal I had no knowledge of. It sounded like that of a giant beast. But I did not move. I did not turn to see what might be behind me.
She has changed herself into a Mohar, grandfather. A creature only we Dragons know. It is something from out of our nightmares. Wait until she is in front of you and beckons you to follow her.
What leapt over me and landed hunched over like a giant ape is impossible to describe. It was brown–furred–but without a face. It had arms long and rippling with muscles. It had hands like that of a human but with long curved talons. It stood upright like an ape and it towered over me by a good three or four feet. And it was vicious.
It tore into the group of clansman running toward me with a fury I had never before encountered. It ripped and clawed its way through the group as if they were toys. Bodies flew through the air. Blood covered the ground. It lifted its faceless head, now smeared with a mask dragon blood, and howled like a wolf into the night. And then it turned and stared at me for a second or two before it began loping off toward a large wooden structure in the middle of the camp.
Follow her, grandfather! Follow her!
I followed the Mohar.
Around me a number of buildings began to collapse and crash in upon themselves. Sparks and balls of white flames shot into the air each time one did. Fire-breathers, dead along with their riders, continued to rain down from above. Several crashed through the roofs of the few surviving buildings. With a splintering roar they too disintegrated into a broken maze of timbers and splinters.
The monster in front of me ripped the wide double doors of the building from their frames and threw them to one side. It bent down and started to enter but staggered and lurched to one side as if it had been hit with a tremendous force. Straightening itself it tried to enter the building again. Again it slammed into an invisible force strong enough to make it back away. But the Mohar–the essence of evil of Morisha’s dark soul– snarled and roared and fury. Long white canine fangs bit savagely into the air as it leaped again for the gapping hole in the building. Again it hit the invisible force which kept it at bay. But this time I too felt its presence. The force slamming into my mind was like that of a sledge hammer crashing into my skull. My legs buckled. My vision blurred. My head pounded with excruciating pain.
Grandfather! Don’t let the nuns see you! Seek Morika inside but let the Mohar face the nuns alone!
What force are these nuns bringing against the monster?
It is the Ting’ii. A torture devised by the nuns to extract information out of witches and wizards deepest recesses of their minds. The nuns are combining their powers to keep the Mohar at bay. It will take all their strength to keep it away from them. But if they see you one of them will attack you! You cannot let that happen, grandfather! You cannot be seen by them!
I staggered to one side and slipped into the shadows filling the gaps between two buildings. Instantly the staggering pain of the Hahnoor torture ceased. Pausing for a moment to regain my strength I kept deep in the shadows while behind the howling fury of the Mohar confronting the three nuns filled the air.
Moving swiftly I circled behind the long building and found another set of doors. Slipping through on I entered a long room filled with carpets and luxuries. Tall candelabra, each containing twelve thick white candles, were scattered throughout the room and filling it with a seductive warm glow. From the walls hung long curtains of black satin tapestries decorated with fantastic scenery of some ancient swamp. Eyeing the tapestries I knew what this building was. A temple of Hahnoor. The residence of the Hahnoor nuns.
As if to verify my thoughts a set of tapestries were savagely swept aside and three Hartooth clansmen entered the room with two of them gripping the arms of a young dragon female between them. She was dressed in a long black satin robe and covering the lower half of her face was a semi-transparent black veil. She stood just to the shoulders of the two clansman who gripped her. She was struggling with her captors and every time she moved the veil would fly around and revealing momentarily her face.
She was—beautiful! Her skin barely rippled with the typical pebble skin of a dragon. It was almost smooth. Almost human. The black and red pattern of skin color which marked the typical Hartooth clansman was present. But faded almost into nothingness. And despite the long black robes I saw the suggestive curves of a woman. Not a dragon female. But a human. A beautiful voluptuous woman. Yet it was her eyes which struck me the most damning of all. They were not dragon eyes. They were large, almond shaped–and brown. Brown eyes! The eyes of a human!
Her eyes turned and looked straight into mine for the first time and from deep within me vague memories began to stir. Strange, powerful memories yet ill defined. But memories containing the emotional tailings of fondness. Of caring. Of . . . . of . . .
Two of the warriors shouted angrily when the caught sight of me and attacked immediately. I met them with Helshvingar and fought them for a few seconds before felling both. With blood dripping from the curved steel in my hand I turned to face the third still gripping Morkia. But there was no need to fight. With one arm released by a captor Morika’s hand found a long dagger deep within her robes. With a sudden move of swift intent she buried the long blade deep into the warrior’s throat. He staggered back, stunned, gripping his neck with both hands and then fell backwards dead before he crashed to the floor.
“Morika!” I shouted, throwing a hand up and toward her and beckoning for her to hurry to me. “Come! We must leave this place before the prince returns!”
She did not hesitate. Taking my hand we turned and ran though the door and out into the night. Yet too late! For as we ran out of the building we ran straight into a half circle of Hartooth warriors–more than a hundred of them– which had surrounded the temple as if anticipating our hurried exit at any moment! And in the middle of the empty circle stood Aukmar Hartooth. He stood in his finery of red and black silk and exquisite chain mail with sword in hand and a smirk of supreme confidence on his lips.
“Well, monk. Here you are! As foretold by the witches who serve me. Here to rescue the lovely Morika. Here to thwart the plans of the Hartooth! No, my gallant but foolish monk. No. The truth is you are here to die. To die from my hand. You and this traitorous witch you think so lovely. As prophecy has foretold. As your destiny was written long ago.”
Pressed against my back and hip was the warmth and softness of Morika’s body. She gripped my arm with both of hers as we faced Aukmar Hartooth and his personal bodyguard defiantly. Her presence beside me somehow gave me strength. Gave me a sense of confidence. Facing the very large Dragon prince I felt no fear. I felt reckless.
“Hartooth, surely you’ve learned by now that Dragon prophecy has proven itself to be less than accurate. Prophecy which should have died long ago. I am still here, warrior. I am still alive and armed with a sword. Indeed prophecy may say one of us will die tonight. But who will that be? Come, test your skills against mine. Let us see what destiny exactly holds for us!”
Rage filled the Hartooth prince’s face as he screamed and leapt at me with sword raised to slice me in half. Aukmar Hartooth was the most powerfully Dragon warrior I had ever encountered. Larger and stronger even to Ankor Mauk. He was also blinding fast. Speed, strength, and agility he had in abundance. His blade swept across the night air in an effort to cut me in half. But it met nothing but empty air. I had no intention of confronting him head on immediately. His strength was far greater than man. Best for him to grunt and slash the wind and expend energy on trying to cut down a mirage. In time I would strike. In time I would draw blood.
On he came, his body flying through the air, his face contorted in a dragon’s mask of murderous intent. But each time his sword reached out to administer a killing it found nothing to bite into. Stepping back from one sweeping blow I began laughing. Laughing mockingly at the creature in front of me.
“You have strength, Aukmar Hartooth! You have speed. You have all it takes to be a great swordsman. But one thing you lack, my friend. One ability that escapes you and because of that it may soon cost you your life!”
“Die, Bretan!” the warrior howled and slashed at my head with a whistling blow.
It was a mistake. The mistake I had been waiting for. Ducking under the blow Helshvingar flicked outward like a viper’s tongue deadly and sure. The bronze colored blade of ancient lore cut through fine silk. Cut through exquisite chain mail. Bit deep into dragon flesh all the way down to the bone of a rib.
The dragon prince roared in pain as he whirled to face me. His face was contorted in burning fury. The long slash in his finely meshed chain mail gaped open and blood–his blood– flowed freely from it. Yet he was only scratched. It was not a killing blow. He would feel the pain for weeks. He would know what a true wound felt like. He would be better prepared to face me the next time we might. Of that I was confident in.
But this fight was over. It was time to leave. It was time to make our escape, Morika and I, on the back of mighty Cedric. Stepping back from the prince I pressed to my lips to a narrow piece of wood and blew into it with all my strength. No sound was heard by Dragon. But I knew Cedric, and two other mighty Great Wings, heard it.
Smiling at the wounded prince I lifted the hilt of my sword to my face and saluted the powerful dragon.
“Until we meet again, my prince!”
From out of the night the giant black form of Cedric dropped like a stone to the ground in the gap that separated me from the Hartooth warrior. With a screeching challenge my giant friend roared his challenge to any Dragon who wished to attack him. At the same time, on either side of my giant friend, the heavy frames of two other Great Wings arrived. In the saddles of each were the blond maned, laughing faces of Gawaith and Gawain. In their hands were the deadly horn bows.
The blond waifs wasted little time. Bowstrings sang and arrows flew from their hands at a furious pace! Arrows straight and true found their marks as clansmen screamed in agony from a death blows. Running to one side I grabbed Morika by an arm and we raced toward waiting Cedric.
“Kill them! Kill them all!” Aukmar Hartooth screamed furiously.
Dragon warriors started to obey. Several began running toward me. One even had a crossbow in his hands and was lifting up to shoot. But splendid Morika, seeing that my back was turned and I was unaware of what was happening, removed the threat. Lifting her free hand up she pointed it at the warrior and twisted her hand closely slowly. The dragon pitched backward, dropped his weapon with a clatter, and grabbed his throat. I heard the creature’s grunt and turning I witnessed for the first time Morika’s power.
Before our eyes the hapless Dragon became a twisting, contorting mass of flesh which aged and then withered into a dried hulk of a long dead mummified corpse! Her act of sucking the life out of a warrior was enough. Hartooth warriors–fierce in battle and mindless to most pain–nevertheless knew the horrible powers a nun from Hahnoor possessed! Seeing before their eyes the skill and deadliness of her power the warriors of the prince’s personal bodyguard turned and ran fleeing for their lives.
I threw Morika into the saddle and joined her. Strapping her tightly to me I shouted for Cedric to fly. With a powerful leap my old friend jumped into the night and began stroking the cold air with his powerful wings. Looking back and downward I was pleased to see Gawaith and Gawain following. But below, standing in the midst of the growing conflagration of what once had been his invincible camp of thirty thousand, stood Aukmar Hartooth. He stood, bleeding and wounded, but with defiance and rage on his face and a fist stuck high over his head. And he was screaming. Screaming as we fled into the night.
“Run, Bretan! Run you may this night! But your destiny is written! You will die from the bite of my sword! Run, human! Run from me while you can! But I will find you! I will find you and kill you! This is my promise to you and to all of my gods! I will kill you!”
Into the night we fled. Into the darkness we disappeared leaving behind us a fiery hell and a chaotic wintery wonderland of death and destruction. In the distance the fires consuming Malagna seemed to have grown. Behind us fire and destruction filled the night. Grimly I checked the skies above and behind us to make sure no enemies lurked in the heavens. Satisfied all was clear I turned and gave the signal to form a line behind me to my blond waifs. Their mounts slid into line immediately. Satisfied, I told Cedric to enter the clouds and climb. Through the cold ice and snow we ascended. But moments later we burst out through the top of the clouds, all three birds, and found ourselves bathed in bright full moonlight. A dazzling portrait of icy beauty!
Unmalleable and absolute. Our destinies set long before we were born. The Fates weaving the tapestries of our lives with a thread that never broke nor could amended. And faintly, far away, the mocking laughter of cruel gods. Gods who knew not compassion nor mercy. Gods who thrived on strife and mayhem. Cruelty and fear.
Ah, Pilgrim. Perhaps my destiny and fate was a tapestry I could not rip asunder and began anew. Perhaps this dream of uniting human and dragon in a cause that would change our world–change it into something completely new and beautiful–was an impossible illusion! Perhaps I would die long before this illusion evaporated and disappeared forever from the hearts of those who believed it possible. But was it not better to strive for this illusion–this promise of a new beginning–even though it might ultimately fail?
Better to dream for a better world, Pilgrim. Dream and die in the effort to make this dream become a reality than to remain in a world filled with nothing but pain and terror. Better to keep Hope alive for as long as you could before taking the eventual journey into the immortal lands of the Netherworld.
Better to dream and to hope. For sometimes–sometimes–dreams come true.
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