The wind is a force unseen but ever present.
We feel it, we sense it, we live with it.
But we cannot control it.
So to are the forces which control our destinies;
We sense them, we know they are there,
But we cannot control them.
. . . Or can we?
-From the Book of St. Albans-
We did not go directly to the Inn of the Brown Pig. Following Hakim we took the indirect path through a nearby alley and the scaled the walls of an empty building compound before emerging into the dark pit of an alley. A stoutly built wall of stone ran parallel with the alley. From within I felt the collective presence of those who occupied the inn. I also felt the pulsating rhythm of pain. Immense pain.
“We must be quick, human.” Hakim whispered softly into my ear. “The Hartooth have spies watching this inn day and night. They’ve offered a thousand gold coins to anyone who can capture or kill the Mauk paladin. Half of Malagna itches to collect the reward while the other half rallies in support of the Mauk.”
“As I’ve said before,” Bellus grunted sarcastically in the night. “The Malawei are idiots. They can’t see the hammer which will knock down their walls patiently waiting for the right moment to begin. The fools.”
“Come,” Hakim whispered, turning to head down to the left’s total darkness.
I caught him by his arm and pulled him close.
“Not that way, warrior. The presence of others near by will hear us. Find a different route into the compound.”
In the darkness I felt more than saw the hulking figure of Hakim standing close beside me. Within him I felt the emotional conflicts tugging at his conscience. Doubts, wariness, confusion; and then complete and total commitment. Silently he stood for a moment or two in thought and then turned and headed into the darkness in the opposite direction.
“Bretan monks are supposed to have acute senses,” Bellus grunted humorously as he followed behind me. “But I did not know they could see the unseen.”
I smiled and said nothing. My Inner Eye felt the presence of several Malaweian spies very close to us in the alley. In fact the inn and its entire compound was encircled with the souls who those who favored the Hartooth. But I worried not about being discovered. The flow of immense pain radiating form out of the compound made me concerned. I ached as well with the creature within. The wounds of a fire-breather’s hot breath are severe and painful beyond description.
I felt the presence of Ankor Mauk’s magnificent Winged Beastie, Upasha. The fire-breather’s soul was filled with a suffocating blanket of pain from her wounds. She was also weak and starving and very near to falling into the inescapable descent into oblivion if her wounds were not soon attended to.
I reached out and caught Hakim by his arm and stopped him in his tracks. Bellus, sensing me halting in the darkness, paused as well and then stepped closer to hear what was the cause of this change of plans.
“Both of you enter the inn together and find the paladin. Tell him an old friend attends the wounds of his beloved fire-breather. Tell him this friend is in need of as much honey and cod liver oil, along with freshly laundered clean bandages. Have them brought to the stalls of his beast. Tell him there is no time to waste in this manner!”
“Human, I would not go near that old beast if I were you,” Bellus hissed anxiously yet keeping extremely quiet in the process. “She is grievously wounded and is not expected to live much longer. She has no patience for anyone except for that of the paladin. She would just as soon torch you into black cinders as to look at you.”
“If her wounds attended to properly, and immediately, she will survive. But we cannot dally around. I need those ingredients and I need them as fast as you can gather them.”
Hakim, silently thoughtful as always, listened to my words in the darkness and grunted in agreement.
“Come, brother. We must hurry.”
“But how does the human enter the compound without being seen?” Bellus protested.
“He is a Bretan monk. If our father’s tales are true then they must all be like ghosts. They can appear and disappear whenever they please. He will find a way. Now hurry, brother, and let us do as we were told.”
Bellus grunted and I felt the two disappear into the night. Alone in the darkness I sensed the presence of the compound wall beside me and, on the opposite side, the rough stone wall of a building. Reaching out with a hand I felt the coarse stone of the compound’s walls. Taking a step in the opposite direction my hand confirmed the rough stone walls of the building opposite the compound. Smiling, I knew I had found my entrance. With a sudden rush of strength I bounded four steps down the alley and then jumped as high as I could, kicking out my left foot into the darkness in the process. Perhaps four feet up on the inn’s compound wall my foot touched stone. I immediately heaved myself as hard as I could in mid air across the space of the alley, extending my right foot. With a second powerful kick off the building opposite the compound wall I hurled myself into the darkness and felt my body sail over the lip of the wall itself.
I landed in total blackness onto the carpet of thick grass. I sensed trees and flower beds and a pond filled with fish. The compound was a garden, a rather large garden, secluded from the inn’s clientele and from the prying eyes of the public. In front of me I felt the inn’s rolling dynamo of emotions and psychic strength. Behind me I felt the pain. The pain and the grim determination to endure the misery left to her in the Outer Realms.
Turning I moved through the darkness to the stone structure which served as an aviary for Winged Beasties. It was four floors high and made of heavy stone and timbers. I felt the presence of only one fire-breather. Upasha’s was on the ground floor. The doors and wooden shutters to her ground floor stalls were thrown open and I caught the strong aroma of her almost immediately. I also caught the aroma of burnt flesh.
I felt her become aware of my approach and sensed her tensing up angrily. Her pain was almost numbing in its intensity. Intense enough to require all her strength to keep from lashing out at anything or anyone who attempted to disturb her. But she paused, confused, and waited. I could sense her emotions. She recognized my smell. While fighting alongside the Anktooth months back I came to know Upasha. Several times I attended to some minor wounds she had acquired in her aerial combats against the Hartooth. Like all Winged Beasties she had little tolerance when it came being around humans. But over our year’s fight against our enemy she grew to know me. Grew to appreciate my medical skills.
“Old friend, it is I. The Healer, as you call me. I sense your pain. If you allow me to approach I may be able to ease your woes and heal the wounds.”
Winged Beasties are cagey, cunning creatures. Every bit as intelligent as the feathered Great Wings we humans ride in the High Kanris. I have dwelled on the strengths and weaknesses of both. Each is the perfect match against the other if confronted in aerial combat. Each as loyal to their riders as their riders are loyal to them. From Upasha’s beating heart I felt the strong will to live yet the resignation to accept whatever her destiny might be. There was no fear of death in her psyche. Fear is a concept a Winged Beastie is hardly aware of. Little in this world would make a Winged Beastie fearful. Not even a flock of Great Wings descending onto a lone Winged Beastie would make a fire-breather fear for its survival. They are, in their own right, magnificent creatures to both fear and admire. I was determined to make sure this creature lived to fight another day.
From her soul I felt a lessening of her irritation and a relaxation of her pain. She indicated to me I could enter her domain and approach her. Quickly I entered the ground floor stalls and hurriedly shut the doors and shutters, sealing the stalls from any spy who might be perched high on a roof tip near to the compound to see us. After closing the doors and shutters I found several torches and lit them with a flint and steel. Filling the stall with the flickering light of several torches I turned and gazed onto the massive hulk of the wounded fire-breather.
She was a huge beast. Huge and beautiful. Her long barrel shaped body was a dark emerald green in color. The dark scales glistened in the light of the burning torches in a way to suggest unlimited depth to the color. Her long, leathery skinned bat wings were a startling canary yellow. Her head, half the size of my body, was a rectangular mass of bone and leather armor with two massive black orbs for eyes set deep into sockets ridged with protective bone. Her eyes were alive and glistening and looking intently at me with a particularly arresting attention. Smiling, I nodded and stepped closer to her, reaching up with a hand to rub the boney ridges above her eyes.
“You know me but you do not recognize me, eh? Ah. It is a disguise, old friend. I hide my true appearance from those who hunt me. But it is truly the monk you knew months back and I wish to ease your suffering.”
She snorted loudly, sending up a small cloud of dust from the straw covered wooden floors of the stall, and nodded her head. Stepping close to where her right wing attached to her long body I closely examined the wound. It was a festered, darkened mass of burnt flesh, and in danger of becoming terminal if not attended to immediately. Frowning, knowing what had to be done, I stepped back and turned to face her.
“Others come with ingredients to make poultices and salves which will begin to heal the flesh. But first we must drain the infection. To do that I must open it with the blade of my dagger.”
She eyed me closely and then eyed the long blade of iron I held in my right hand. To drain the wound would mean an even heavier layer of pain would descend onto her already aggrieved soul. But she did not hesitate. With her boney snout she nudged me gently toward her wound. I felt her brace herself for the procedure. I patted her gently on her long, serpentine neck and then quickly found an empty wooden bucket and placed it down where I thought the infection would drain. And then, taking a deep breath, I made the incision and quickly stepped back.
The emerald fire-breather’s soul screamed in agony, almost flooring me from her psychic scream. But she made no move to retaliate against me nor did she shirk away from the blade. Like an avalanche the infection poured out of her wound and began filling the bucket. Reaching out with a hand I laid it one the massive creature soothingly and remained close. As I did I became aware of Dragons standing behind me. Turning I looked upon the awe-struck faces of Bellus and Hakim and the dour, frowning face of Ankor Mauk standing between them. The two Zhintii were loaded down with large bowls and pots of the ingredients I requested while at their feet were piles of freshly cut white bedding for bandages.
From the brothers I felt the sense of complete amazement. They had never before seen a human so close to a fire-breather. Nor had they ever seen someone, either human or Dragon, use a drawn blade against a fire-breather and live much longer afterwards. Their estimation of my worth increased tenfold with what they witnessed. Smiling, I nodded and stepped away from the ailing beast.
“So,” the deep voce of the Mauk paladin, his voice sounding like the rumble of boulders beginning to slide down the slope of a mountain. “It is true. You live.”
From the paladin’s soul I felt the surge of disbelief crashing into his consciousness like the waves of a storm tossed sea crashing onto the rocks of a rugged coastline. Disbelief and relief. Intense relief. Ankor Mauk could not believe I lived. But seeing me with his own eyes was the key his soul needed to suddenly, and almost miraculously, allow hope to enter his soul again.
“I live, paladin. As does the princess. We both are well and safe. As we hope you are as well.”
The paladin nodded. I found myself mildly startled at seeing the Mauk warrior again and realizing just how large the creature was. The last five months after the fall of Anktooth had been hard for him. Hard. But not beyond his endurance. He looked like a well forged blade of steel long use to combat. Dressed in a half coat of chain mail around his shoulders and leather pants, with the ever-present Dragon scimitar strapped around his waist, he looked worn but far from being worn out. Over his half coat of chain mail was a cotton livery with the green and yellow colors of the Clan Mauk. He made no effort to hide his identity. A paladin, much like a warrior-monk, did not hide from his foes if it did not serve a greater purpose.
Grunting, he nodded and stepped into the large stall and almost smiled.
“At first, when my nephew came and told me you were here, I thought it was a trap. But then Hakim began rattling off the ingredients you wanted. That’s when I knew it was you.”
Nodding I motioned the two Zhintii to hurry in and deposit honey and oil on a rough wooden table close to Upasha’s stall. Taking one pot of honey I took several dried leaves of herbs from a leather pouch tied to my belt and rubbed them between the palms of my hands until they turned into a fine powder. The powder I deposited into the honey and stirred vigorously. Satisfied the power was well blended into the honey I poured a large measure of the oil into the honey before turning to face the fire-breather.
She knew my intentions and made no effort to resist when I poured the concoction down her throat. The moment the last drop was consumed I took a second pot of honey, and with my hands, began smearing the heavy fluid all over the seared and blacked scales of the fire-breather. After this I took fresh bandages and covered the wound as best as I could before drenching the bandages with a healthy dose of more oil.
“You’ll sleep for a few hours, old girl,” I said softly to the beast as I stepped back from my bandaging. “When you awake much of the pain will be gone. I will return and mix you a second batch of what you just drank. Inside of a week you will be feeling almost like new again.”
Turning, I took a few of the bandages and began wiping my hands. Glancing at the paladin I noticed the Mauk was looking at his fire-breather with concern in his eyes. The Zhintii, standing behind the Mauk, eyed the three of us in utter silence.
“She will recover, paladin. In a few days most of the pain will be gone. In a month, maybe two, she will be able to fly again. But we’ll have to keep changing the bandages and forcing her to eat more than she has of late. A nasty wound she has. A wonder how the fire-breather who did this did not wound you as well.”
The paladin nodded grimly as he continued to look worriedly at his old partner. Quietly he walked over to the beast and ran a hand across the boney ridge of one eye gently.
“Two Harktooth fire-breathers attacked us a week ago as we rode in the night for Malagna. Both of us were exhausted. We had been riding at night, hiding in the daylight hours from our pursuers, hoping to reach this city before the onslaught. The Hartooth attacked directly out of the moon light. Caught us completely off guard.”
Bellus glanced toward his brother and Hakim stared at his uncle. Turning, the Mauk saw the odd look in Hakim’s eyes and, again, that odd twisting of the lips which represented the Mauk’s way of smiling flashed spontaneously.
“Yes, even Upasha and I can be surprised occasionally, nephew. We are not god-like in our powers.”
It was then I felt the pain the Mauk was effectively hiding from all of us. A deep burn in his right thigh. Frowning, I glanced at the Zhitii, and then back to the paladin. The proud warrior would never admit he was wounded. And certainly not in front of his Zhintii nephews.
“I did not know the Mauk were related to the Zhintii,” I said casually, reaching for some honey with one hand and the bag of herbs with the other.
“As a clan we are not,” the large bone warrior grunted, glancing at me and narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Years back, after the death of my first wife, I took a Zhintii as a mate. These waifs are the sons of her youngest brother.”
“A Mauk taking a clan woman not of formal kinship? I have never heard of this, paladin. You surprise me.”
Tradition among the Dragon insisted males select their mates from the ranks of the various clans related to the primary clan. The Anktooth had been the primary clan, with the Mauk and Malawei directly related to them. Undoubtedly Ankor Mauk’s first wife was either Mauk, Malawei, or Anktooth. Knowing the paladin’s high rank among the Anktooth, I suspected she had been one herself. But marrying a female from a clan with no maternal or paternal affiliation to his clan was something almost taboo among the Dragon.
“I surprise myself sometimes, Bretan,” grunted the big warrior and frowning. “But you should have known Nania when she lived. A woman to match any warrior’s skills.”
Hakim and Bellus nodded in agreement. Apparently they knew their kinswoman and her powers. I smiled and turned to face the two Zhintii.
“Your uncle and I must talk in private. The two of you should go out and reconnoiter the grounds. Spies are every where around us.”
Hakim nodded and glanced at the paladin. The Mauk nodded silently. In seconds only I, the Mauk, and the now deeply sleeping Upasha occupied the stall.
“How deep is the wound?” I asked, picking up a poultice I prepared.
“Deep enough. Fortunately my shield caught most of the blast. But it flared out when it hit the shield and I was burned in the process.”
I nodded and stepped toward the paladin. Ankor Mauk frowned with distaste not wanting to reveal the wound to me or to anyone. But he knew of my skills as a physician. He had often seen me work on the wounded and sick while in Anktooth. He made no protest and removed his leather breeches so that I could administer a healing poltice to his wound.
As I worked quickly to mix the ingredients and then to clean the wound properly before applying the medicine laden bandage we continuing our conversation as I worked.
“The princess sent me, warrior. She feels the presence of assassins near you. Assassins disguised as Malawei. I came to persuade you to join us. Come, with your nephews, with me back to our encampment.”
“I cannot leave Malagna, warrior. They face a dire threat and I will not abandon them in their hour of need.”
Sighing, I stepped back and watched as the Dragon dressed himself again. I expected his answer to be what it was. Secretly I wished him to answer in the way he did. I did not want to leave Malagna either. Somehow, someway, there had to be a way to defeat the Hartooth. A victory over the invincible First Clan would bring recruits to our cause. It would light the first dim flame of hope to those in the High Kanris and its environs in the knowledge that perhaps dragon prophecy could be deflected. It might begin the process of convincing the Bretan brethren my apparent traitorous acts was not what others said it was.
So I too was determined to remain at the side of the Mauk paladin and help him in his efforts to fight his enemies.
“How do you plan to do that, warrior? I have not been in the city long. But already I have noticed most the city favors the Hartooth cause and wishes to join them. I sense few are eager to confront the First Clan in a clash of arms.”
The green and yellow warrior grumbled to himself irritably and then shook his head in disgust. Turning to face me his shoulders moved up a barely discernable shrug and his face was a mask of frustration.
“I have no plan as of yet, monk. I cannot convince my kinsmen, Jurius, the Hartooth are vipers who cannot be trusted. They came bearing an emperor’s ransom in gold and presented it to the old fool. More gold than he, or any Malaweian, have ever seen in their lives. They cannot see past the glitter of its beauty. It is a mask hiding the First Clan’s true intentions. The Hartooth are waiting for reinforcements. When they arrive it is their plan to destroy the Malawei and absorb the survivors into the Hartooth clan.”
Juris Malawei was the clan’s baron. He was reputed to once have been a Dragon whose strength was unmatched by any human or Dragon. It was said he could lift a Winged Beastie above his head without the aid of others. Shrewd, daring, a charismatic leader, he became the clan’s ruler early in his youth and often warred against the human kingdoms which resided on his east and west borders. Yet he had been the one who initiated the clan’s move to open trading routes with the very same kingdoms. It was said gold and wealth were luxuries which captivated his soul. Perhaps so. But no one could say his clan had suffered.
I looked at the green and yellow warrior and smiled knowingly. I could feel the creature’s frustrations. For days he had been trying to warn Juris of his clan’s impending doom. But apparently the old baron would not listen.
“I have a few warriors who have heard my words and have come to look upon the Hartooth with suspicion. But they number maybe fifty or sixty at most. The rest, I’m afraid, are all too eager to take the First Clan’s gold and assist them in any way they can.”
“You describe a recipe for disaster, Ankor. Thirty thousand warriors have built their winter encampment only a few miles from Malagna. All the signs indicate they intend to spend the winter there and take up campaigning in the summer.”
“My spies among the First Clan indicate they are to be reinforced before the hard winter storms set in. My hope is that they are wrong. With winter almost upon us I’ve the time to rally more to the cause and defend the Malaweians from certain destruction.”
I smiled and shook my head from side to side slowly. The Mauk caught the look in my face and painted a silent question on his grizzled, reptilian face.
“They already have enough to slaughter the Malawei, my friend. Yet they do not. They prepare to stay in an encampment away from the city when, in all truth, they could take this city and encamp here. Why? Why the delay?”
A frown cut across the paladin’s face. He nodded in agreement yet said nothing. Ankor Mauk was a taciturn creature who said little but listened to everything and everyone around him with great intensity. He wisely remained silent while I continued on with my thought.
“More is afoot than meets the eye, my friend. If we are to defeat this enemy we must first find out their true intentions.”