We live in a cruel world, Pilgrim.
Often our closet friends
Become our worst enemies;
And our fiercest enemies,
Become are closest, and most trusted, friends.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
In the dead of night I felt the small hand of Ursala touching my shoulder gently. Generally by a camp fire the child would come and snuggle up close to me far warmth. Or she would sleep underneath a protective wing of fierce Cedric. The black and red war bird became a protective guardian of the child. Whenever she came to sleep beside him I could feel his soul glow with an almost fatherly love for the child.
But tonight I felt her gently shaking my shoulder. There was an urgency in her efforts to bring me out of my dreams. Opening one eye I looked up into her pale, almost ghostly, colored face.
“Grandfather,” she whispered softly, lowering her lips close to my ear and speaking so no one else would be disturbed, “Grandfather, are you awake?”
“I am now, child. Why are you not asleep. Something troubles you?”
Something troubled her. I could feel it in her soul. Reaching up with an arm I pulled her down beside me and threw heavy blankets over her shivering body. Her big blue eyes turned and gazed into my face
“Grandfather, I can feel the presence of Ankor Mauk. He is close by, with the Malawei. He is being hunted.”
Five months earlier in the last Anktooth stronghold that was, even then, burning and being overran by the Hartooth, this wily old Dragon found me in the middle of the battle and brought me to Baron Anktooth. There the baron told me to take his granddaughter and whisk her off to safety. From the Clan Mauk, this green and yellow skinned clansman was the baron’s Captain of the Guards, led us to a tower within the castle and showed our way to escape. But before he left us he pulled me to one side and told me his master would not survive the night. The baron was to be handed over to the victorious Hartooth and executed. The old baron knew his fate. Knew he would not see another day. Nevertheless went along with the plan in an effort to buy time for me and the child to escape.
For the child—and the old friend to escape.
The plan was for the child and I to flee into the High Kanris while he, Ankor Mauk, fled southward into the lands of the Dragon. He would rally those who were loyal to the dying Anktooth and I and the child would try to find allies who might fight the Hartooth. At the end of a year we were to join our forces and face the enemy and defeat them in battle. But even then I knew this was an impossible quest. The old Dragon warrior felt it as well. It would be an impossible task. The Hartooth, as a clan, were rich beyond imagination. Unlimited amounts of gold flowed from their coffers. Dragon clans flocked to their banners and Dragon paladins, those individual Dragon warriors who fought to defend all of Dragonkind against human incursions, also hurried to join the Hartooth.
The wily old Mauk here among the Malawei could mean only one thing. No Dragon heeded his call in the southern regions. The southern clans were either loyal to the Hartooth or abstained altogether from entering the fray. His futile search had led him north and into territories where the clans were few and their independence fierce.
“Who hunts him, child? The Malawei?”
“No, grandfather. My half-brother, Aukmar Hartooth. He has sent assassins disguised as Malawei. Even now I feel their presence closing onto my grandfather’s old friend. You must save him. You must help Ankor! Those who wish to hurt him are so very close!”
Tiny hands were pushing me out of the warm covers as I rose and reached for the curved blade of Helshvingar. Throwing the heavy cloak over my shoulders I turned and stared into the face of the child. I felt her desperation. I felt her fear. Not for her but for Ankor Mauk. But there was a subtle coloration in her feelings as well. A tiny thread of fear, a fear for all of us, which she tried to hide.
“Aukmar Hartooth leads the army in the next valley?”
Silently, with her dark blue eyes big and unblinking, she nodded her head. I nodded as well and felt her fear grow with the mention of her half-brother’s name.
Aukmar Hartooth: the only son of Baknar Hartooth.
The heir to the Hartooth lands and titles. At the head of an army of thirty thousand Dragon pike and a few dozen Winged Beasties. So far from the usual hunting grounds was the son of the Hartooth baron it led me to think that something more than just revenge was stirring in the old baron’s mind.
More than just the destruction of the Malawei. More than the death of an old enemy. Something more sinister. More devious. More devious and therefore more threatening to Mankind. The presence of the baron’s son so near changed everything. Now, for reasons I only half understood, I felt compelled to stay and confront this Dragon army. How to accomplish this, and with the use of what force to do so, was yet to be decided.
Nodding silently I roused Alvis Fairhands and the lads and told them of this new threat. For a few moments we discussed what needed to be done to protect the child while I was gone; and, if I never returned, on what to do in the aftermath of my death. Bidding farewell to the lads and to the old Man I bent down and lifted the Dragon princess into my arms and hugged her tightly. Radiating from her soul was a sense of desolation and fear. Strong emotions which almost brought tears to my eyes. Yet she was strong and hid it from the others. Kissing her gently on the cheek I sat her down and left them.
Cedric, being so finely honed in sensing my emotions far and near, waited for me patiently in the darkness. We lifted into the night sky and disappeared into the darkness, as we had so Many times before, and headed toward an imminent threat. Like so Many times before neither of us dwelled on the thought of how the odds seemed so overwhelming stacked against us.
Think not the Dragon is ugly and horrid to look upon, Pilgrim. In truth he is not. There is a menacing grandeur and smooth grace in the way he presents himself to friend and foe alike. They are unique in that their reptilian pebble-skin is multicolored with two separate but complimentary colors. It is these colors which identifies each clan from another. An example would be the Malawei. Their colors are a shade of lime green and silver. How these colors are arranged across the surface of a Dragon’s skin is also unique for each clan and individual. The Malawei’s color scheme are alternating rectangular patches, with each rectangle roughly six inches in length. The arrangement of a Dragon’s horns across his skull is another clan specific identity as well. The Malawei’s horn arrangement is basically simple. Two stunted horns, each about the size of a thumb, adorn their foreheads just above their eyes.
Clan Mauk’s colors are a light green matched with a pale yellow. Their color arrangement are alternating ovals with each oval about the size of an open palm. For horns three of them, each about the size of an upraised finger, run down the top of their skulls in a straight linear fashion.
The hated Hartooth are colored dark wine red and black in a checkerboard fashion. Four dark ivory buttons for horns dot their forehead and encircle the skull.
Yet compelling in the beauty they naturally possess.
Legend has it the Dragon was created as the nemesis to all things human. Humans, before the Dragon, ruled the world and claimed dominion over all things. The Dark Lords, seeing human pride, decided to create a creature to challenge human suzerainty. Two sets of gods ruled the heavens. One set human. The other the Dark Lords. The terrible gods the Dragon bowed down to and acknowledged. The heavens shook and thundered as the Dark Lords and the pantheon of human gods warred with each other. So too, apparently, did this take place on our world. Cruel, relentless, and dedicated in their efforts to become equal to, if not surpass, human achievement the Dragon became an implacable foe.
But they are not the face of evil. Contrary to what many of my kind say and believe about the Dragon, we Bretan look upon the Dragon as just another expression of god’s wondrous diversity. Quietly within our ranks a few of us believe human and Dragon can live and work side by side. Can co-exist in peace. If we could but find the source of this epic hatred which seems to burn with a fierce heat in the Dragon’s heart concerning humans and extinguish it, perhaps it is possible to reap the harvest of Peace for the two of us.
Several clans have achieved a form of mutual respect for humans. On the northern slopes of the High Kanris a number of clans live in a state of permanent cease-fire among human kingdoms. The Malawei, the smallest of the clans, was one of them. Lying directly west of their lands was a human kingdom called The Kingdom of Avalar. For more than three generations the two lived in a grudging peace and developed trade between them. The Malawei’s lands, devoid of any wealth underneath the ground, nevertheless produced an abundance of goods and wine. Several of their vine yards produced highly acclaimed wines much sought after by both Dragon and Man. They also were masters in the forging of weaponry. Procuring the coal and iron ingots from the Avalarians, the Malawei’s master craftsmen hammered and shaped some of the best swords and sets of fine chain mail to be found anywhere. The Avalarians became very successful merchants all across the northern slopes and up into the High Kanris itself in selling their finely wrought goods.
The Kingdom of Avalar was a rich kingdom. Blessed with iron, coal, and silver mines the kingdom prospered and grew. The stables of Avalarian Great Wings, along with their riders, were well respected for their martial skills and verve when facing their enemies. Yet for all their wealth and their renown the Avalarians greatest weakness was their lack of numbers. As a kingdom they could bring to arms only two or three thousand swordsman and but perhaps a hundred Great Wings.
Fortunately the Clan Malawei cared not to expand their territories. They, like the Avalarians, suffered from a lack of numbers. Unlike the average Dragon clan who could boast of putting ten thousand pike men into the field and perhaps as many as a hundred fire-breathing Winged Beasties into the air, the Malawei could not come close to such numbers. Perhaps three thousand pike and close to thirty or forty Winged Beasties were the best the Malawei could produce. Not enough to attack the Kingdom of Avalar and hope for victory. Not enough to take on the idle multitudes of Clan Hartooth encamped only a few dozen miles away from their northern most city of Malagna.
I traveled to Malagna in the hopes of finding the Clan Mauk kinsman to tiny Ursala. I knew not where to find him as Cedric and I flew through the cold night skies heading in the direction of the Malaweian city. But I knew the Malawei allowed no barbarian to enter their territories unless they came through Malagna first. From there all caravans and foreign dignitaries were thoroughly scrutinized and examined before being assigned a detachment of Malaweian guardsmen to escort them to the capitol city of Malawei. If Ankor Mauk was recently arrived among the Malawei he would be found in Malagna.
It took two days to fly from where the Niscian monk, the twins, and little Ursala lay hidden in the Golam Hills to Malagna. It would have been somewhat shorter of a journey if I flew straight away to the city. But I had to take some time to disguise myself so that I might move among the Dragon without being recognized. There were several within the barony would could recognize me straight away. My reputation as a Bretan warrior-monk was known by others. And now, branded among the Dragon as the Human Who Took the Fifth Sister, my need to disguise myself was magnified tenfold.
Over the years while working among the kingdoms of the High Kanris and Hill Country, and becoming known as the master of the Dragon sword called Helshvingar, I was forced to develop a number of disguises. These disguises were necessary for me in order to carry out the work a Bretan monk needed to do among the faithful. In the Hill Country below the shield wall the Bretan Brotherhood was still held with some regard among the religiously faithful. But in the high country the Bretan were considered outlaws. A priesthood of renegade fanatics bent on sacrificing humanity to the Dragon. No one knows how this heresy began. But like some forest fire surging into life in the heat of summer, a fiery pogrom erupted in the High Kanris. Followers of the Bretan Way were hunted down and destroyed. Ancient Bretan monasteries and cathedrals were ravaged and savagely wiped away from memory.
To protect the flock still existing in the high country I disguised myself so that I might travel freely and unhindered.
The curved steel at my side, the ancient scimitar called Helshvingar in an almost-forgotten ancient Dragon dialect was, frankly, another curse which haunted me. Helshvingar in the ancient tongue means “Killer of All Evil.” It is a sword with a long and bloody history. Some would say it carried a curse to it; condemning the sword’s owner to an untimely death. Warriors, both human and Dragon, covet the weapon. Folklore says only the best of swordsmen, one with a pure heart, can possess the odd bronze-colored blade. I have never considered myself a particular gifted swordsman. And certainly, on numerous occasions, my heart has been less than pure.
Yet I can say the blade is mystical. Down either length of the faintly bronze colored steel is an ancient script of an unknown language. Neither a derivative of Dragon nor Man, no one knows what it says. This I can say; in the presence of genuine evil, or when the sword is handed over to a new master, the letters of the ancient script visibly move. Move and writes some different indecipherable saying. This I have seen with my own eyes. Once, a long time ago, when an old Dragon paladin of renown thrust the weapon’s hilt into my hands just before he died and told me I now lived with the curse; and once, while searching in the Netherworld for a spirit, I came across an entity of pure evil, the symbols moved and glowed with a life of their own.
Here in the Outer Realms the blade is a prize much sought after. As its owner I am compelled by tradition to accept every challenge. I care not to count the number of warriors I have had to face. Many, much to my regret and shame, have died in their efforts to take it from me.
Nor can I just give it away. Believe me, I have tried, Pilgrim. It cannot be given away. It must be obtained through a trial by combat. Won in battle. To those warriors I have offered to relinquish it to each have refused. So it remains with me. And will do so until, at long last, I meet that swordsman who is better in his skill than I. Or, more interestingly, until that destiny in which sword and its owner fulfill some ancient chore long ordained has been achieved.
The sword, therefore, was another reason for wearing disguises. Although not as easily identified as the fabled sword it is, nevertheless Helshvingar has an ability to draw swordsman to it like spilt honey draws flies to a picnic.
I disguised myself, and my old friend, in a disguise often used. With Cedric I covered the large swaths of red on his wings and the feathery plume on his head and made them gray. Black and gray are common colors found on many bird and even though my old friend was a very large war bird I was sure he would not be recognized.
With my disguise I reshaped my nose, colored my hair, changed the color of my eyes. No. Not with magic, pilgrim. Magic leaves a signature in the Netherworld which can be easily recognized by a wizard near by. A true disguise of worth requires imagination and the application of techniques anyone can learn. Wizards are well trained in the art of disguising oneself. As, for instance, are assassins. I am constantly aware of the assassin’s art. More so now that I tried to protect the Dragon child.
I became Demitrius of Croi. A simple Great Wing rider from a city which lies almost at the opposite side of the High Kanris. A warrior known for his skills as a mercenary general. Dressed in a half coat of simple chain mail, leather breeches, a nondescript plain brown livery over the mail and a pair of peasant’s boots, I knew I would blend into the crowds of Malagna without anyone taking a second look toward me.
I was wrong.
Malagna is a sprawling mass of stone towers, fortified compounds and massive stone buildings behind a thick walls. The city is shaped as a gigantic square. Where the walls met to form corners, massive square built fortified towers lifted over the battlements. Malaweian clan banners of light green and silver filled the air and fluttered from a hundred different mounts. The Dragon loves to exhibit color and announce their presence to others. Flags, banners, pennants of all shapes and sizes usually is the form the clans take to exhibit this. The Malawei were no different.
My old friend and I landed on one of the large stone towers which was designated as the point where barbarians officially entered the city. Two Malaweian guards met me as I climbed out of the saddle. Both were armed with long pikes in one hand and their shields thrown over of their shoulders. With a bored expression on their faces they expertly searched both myself and Cedric for any contraband and then rudely told me to register myself with a Malaweian clerk sitting at a wide table on the far side of the landing platform. Nodding, I walked to the end of a long line of both Dragon and humans waiting to quietly be processed.
That’s when I saw them. The dark red and black of the Hartooth. Two of them, dressed in silk robes usually associated with high ranking diplomats, idly standing to one side, arms folded across their chests, in quiet conversations with a captain of the city’s palace guards. Neither took any an interest in me. In truth the line I stood in was half filled with humans standing and patiently waiting to be examined. Most were traders and merchants from all over. A few were peasants, even less in number were warriors such as myself. As I passed them I could feel their total contempt for the humans standing close to them. But neither were concerned about my presence.
As the line inched forward and we passed the standing Hartooth a very young warrior of the Clan Zhintii snorted in disgust.
“Humph! Foul is the wind when one stands down wind from a Hartooth!”
“Shhh, brother,” a second Zhintii hissed, half turning to irritably glance at his compatriot behind him, “We agreed to stir up no hostility when we arrived. Our goal is to seek an audience with Ankor Mauk and see if he will bless us. And then we are on our way. We leave this gaggle of blind sheep behind us and let them suffer the consequences of their stupidity.”
“Bah! That’s assuming, brother, that the Malawei still tolerates the presence of paladin among them. His message of Hartooth treachery falls on deaf ears. Sooner or later they will grow tired of his harsh words and banish him from their lands. Sooner or later the Hartooth will demand something be done to silence him!”
“Shhh! Your mouth works well, brother. But your brain seems to be dead! Speak louder, won’t you? Let all of Malagna know of our thoughts about the Hartooth.”
”Bah!” snorted the young Zhintii, tossing a hand of dismissal through the air, “These Malawei are blind. A Hartooth army sits at their doorstep and they believe the Hartooth’s lies Blind, I tell you! Blind and stupid!”
My eyes narrowed. Ankor Mauk had been elevated to the rank of paladin? What an honor! And . . . at the same time . . . what a tragedy! A Dragon warrior became a paladin in one of two ways. Either your reputation as a warrior grew so legendary your clan lifted you into the rarified ranks of acclaim and offered your services to Dragonkind as a whole. Or your renown as a warrior was well know among all and you were the last of your clan.
I knew the route Ankor Mauk’s paladin’s rank came to him. I almost wept in anguish. The Clan Mauk was no more. Wiped out, long with the Anktooth whom the Mauk had been loyal subjects to for generations, when the Hartooth swept across the Anktooth’s lands like a plague.
Ankor Mauk was the last surviving member of his clan. Upon his death the colors of light green and yellow would not grace the skin of any Dragon male or female again. Grief swept over me. The knowledge of an entire clan, two clans, becoming extinct in the blinking of an eye took the breath from me. All these lives. All these histories and cultural oddities which make up a clan.
Lost forever. Never to return.
Somehow I hid my grief. But I stayed close to these two Zhintii as we processed through the long line. Descending the tower’s stairs and entering the bustle crowds of the streets I followed the two a few paces behind them. I wished to sit down with them and gleam more information from them. I wished to find Ankor Mauk and remove him from this city as quickly, and as quietly, as I could.
The crowd in the streets was surprising heavy and surprisingly cosmopolitan. I saw over a hundred different clansmen and perhaps fifty or so different human counterparts trading, talking, or milling about. There were the dark robed merchants from Faarland. Their specialty was in wines and spirits of all kinds. But there were the fur traders of Andalania and the tapestry merchants from the far south High Kanris kingdom of Sofia. Almost all were merchants, drivers, and warriors associated with the many caravans which stopped in Malagna to trade. There were also a number of humans hailing from High Kanris kingdoms and kingdoms of the Northern Slopes. Almost all were Great Wing riders who were, for one reason or another, passing through Malagna and heading somewhere else.
In the crowd I felt the passing souls of warrior-monks. Warrior-monks who were hunting for me and little Ursala. They, like me, were in disguise so it was impossible to lock onto their souls and identify them in the brief moment we crossed paths in the crowd. But they were not searching for me here in Malagna. I could sense from their souls their desire to continue their journey eastward where they thought they might find us.
Smiling grimly I again thought of the impossibility of my hope to train little Ursala in the ways of a Bretan wizard and convince her to use her powers against evil and the Dark Lords. Too many forces were arraigned against us. Too many for either of us to survive much longer. It was only a question of time before are enemies marshaled their resources and descended upon us in overwhelming numbers. Our only hope for survival was to keep moving. To stay in one place too long meant assured destruction.
That was the quandary, Pilgrim.
A few leagues away set an army led by Aukmar Hartooth. The son, like his evil father, was planning something diabolical. Whatever his plans were I knew hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent souls would be destroyed in the process. My soul would not let me mount my old warrrior, Cedric, and pull tiny Ursala up into the saddle with me and lead the others away from here. A great evil was about to befall on someone. I could not walk away from the fight and consign the innocent to their fates.
Ahead of me the Zhintii moved through the crowd and gawked in open amazement at the many merchants. As a clan the Zhintii were like the Malawei. Their lands, far to the west, were barren of any natural resources. They were poor in possessions but rich in tradition. Their warriors had a well founded reputation of being fierce in battle. The riders of their Winged Beasties were absolutely fearless in battle. But, like the Malawei, they were few in numbers and lacking in wealth. So like the Malawei they were beginning the process of learning how to become traders and merchants.
The two ahead of me were not much older than the blond haired, blue- eyed imps Gawain and Gawaith. I could sense from their souls these two aqua blue and sandy brown Zhintii were brothers. Smiling, I sensed their efforts to act like the bumpkin, gawking spectators they were. But I could also sense they were aware of me following them. I was not surprised, therefore, when rounding a corner of a fortified compound and stepping into the open mouth of an ally I found myself confronted by the two. One stood behind me, hand resting on the pommel of his scimitar, loose and relaxed but ready. His brother, slightly taller, stood in front of me in the exact same stance and eyed me with steady eyes and a mask for a face. Both were relaxed yet tense and ready for anything. But neither were looking for a fight.
“Greetings, Zhintii!” I cried, smiling and lifting a hand up to reveal a large silver Rogarian donatus between my fingers, “I apologize to you both if I have disturbed you. But I overheard your conversation as we stood in line to be processed. You mentioned the name of an old friend of mine. I thought I might invite you to sit with me for a while over a tankard of ale and tell me more.”
The crowd around us moved as if this was a commonplace occurrence. In truth it was in Malagna. Dragon and human warriors more or less tolerated each other. But by only the thinnest of restraints. Sudden and violent fights did occur. The reason, therefore, for large detachments of Malaweian guards patrolling the streets. As we stood looking at each other we all became aware of a detachment of guardsmen turning to glare at us menacingly.
“Should we believe him, brother, and accept his invitation?”
“We don’t have to believe him, brother,” the one behind me grunted in a friendly, casual air. “But we could take his ale and drink it. I have been thirsty for quite some time. And hungry. Perhaps we could persuade our Croi peasant to feed us.”
I smiled and, with a little slight of hand trick, procured a second silver Rogarian donatus between my fingers.
“At least we could be entertained by his trickery, brother,” the large one in front of me grunted, nodding and almost smiling.
“Yes. I wonder how many more he could conjure up.”
“I will be more than happy to wine and dine you, good friends. But might I suggest we move along before the friendly constabulary joins us.”
Both turned and glanced at the approaching ten or so Malawei warriors. And, in the same movement, their heads moved and returned to gaze at me.
“Yes, let us wander on, friend. Lead the way and find a tavern of your choice. Mind you, I plan to drink and eat till I grow ill. We haven’t dined in at least three days. Hakim and I are hungry.”
“I am Dimitrius of Croi. I fought with Ankar Mauk in Anktooth,” I said as I turned and began walking.
“Ah! Another survivor of that glorious victory of the Hartooth, brother! Does it not cease to amaze you how many of these lucky fellows we have met in our journey?”
“Aye, Bellus,” nodded the one called Hakim, grinning maliciousl,. “Enough to make an army. How Anktooth fell with such gallant warriors as this one here fighting in the city’s defense is beyond my simple mind.”
I grinned, turned and opened the door to a large inn. The Zhintii brothers, smiling, refused to enter ahead of me. Caution was an ingrained trait bred into the Zhintii. Shrugging and smiling, I stepped into the inn and heard the two follow.
My heart sang! For I knew at this very moment I had two more recruits who would join me and the child in our efforts to confront the Hartooth.