Treachery is a bitter wine
Sipped by confused souls filled with blinding pain.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
She came running to the Mauk with beaming elation written all over her child’s face and
joy filling her heart. Leaping into the paladin’s arms she threw her tiny arms around his neck
and began smothering the crusty old Mauk with a barrage of kisses. From both souls I felt the
stout bonds of loyalty and love emanating from each.
The child was filled with joy. Small, even petite for a Dragon child of seven or eight, Ursala was unique in a number of ways. But perhaps the most visible of her differences was the soft pearl white color of her skin. Unlike any other clansman she was monochromatic in color. The pear whiteness was not marred by a second color. All clansmen, both male and female, were graced with two colors to adorn their reptilian skins. But not a Pearl Princess. Her appearance alone would make her unique among her kind. Unique and honored to the point of almost being worshiped as a goddess. Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. To a Dragon clansman there is nothing more beautiful and alluring as a Pearl Princess. In the presence of a Pearl Princess most clansmen were powerless to resist.
Ankor Mauk, the grizzled old warrior of a hundred battles and countless wars; the crusty old curmudgeon who rarely, if ever, showed any outward emotions, succumbed to the child’s irresistible joy. Powerful arms engulfed the tiny child’s body and held her gently to him. A thin smile spread across the man’s tight lips and the dragon’s overall hard shell seemed to visibly melt and become softer to behold. The Zhintii nephews stared in amazement at the transformation. Even Alvis Fairhands, my old Niscian mentor and colleague, seemed a bit taken back at seeing the Mauk’s transformation.
“All is well?” he asked, glancing at me before turning to continue watching the reunion of child and warrior.
“For the moment, all is well,” I nodded .
“And these two?” he asked, glancing at the Zhintii.
“Nephews to the paladin”
Fairhands grunted and frowned and started to say something. But I intervened.
“A long story, old friend. I will tell you later how they are related. Suffice to say the Mauk before us is a creature who sometimes defies accepted traditions.”
The blond twins, Gawaith and Gawain, found themselves drawn to the Zhintii brothers. Human twins, and nephews to the King of the Vik, drawn like moths to the flame toward the sons of a Dragon baron. As I knew they would. The question was how would they react when seeing each other for the first time? Would friendships blossom? Or would implacable enemies be made?
I found myself quietly surprised as I watched the bothers size each other up. Surprise in the fact the blond haired, blue eye Vic had grown into manhood before my very eyes and I had not fully recognized it until now. Gawain and Gawaith squared off facing the Zhintii and each were as tall, and as filled out in the chest and arms, as the older Zhintii. Both sets of twins, I was convinced, shared the same sardonic and casual strain of insolence toward the world in general.
If the four bonded to each other they would become a formidable force to reckon with. If they grew to be enemies what fragile accord there was keeping this ad hoc band together in a common cause would be severely challenged. Forcing me to banish one group or the other. Something I wished not to occur. Our cause in fighting the Hartooth needed every ally and benefactor we could find.
As I watched I began to relax. Smiles began to explode on the faces of each set of brothers. Heads nodded as if agreeing to something and soon they began to move as a group off toward the ice encased mountain stream some yards away from where we stood.
“We’re going to catch our evening meal, master!” Gawain shouted, lifting a hand and waving toward me.
“A feast! We’ll feast tonight and tell outrageous lies and tall tales!” Gawaith shouted.
If one brother spoke the other had to speak as well. I smiled. All was well.
Feast we did. The cold valley dressed in the full regalia of a white winter nevertheless provided abundant game. We built a huge fire to warm us from the night’s frigid air. Deer, fish, wild root bulbs, an assortment of nuts filled our bellies and made us feel satisfied. And of course, watching the deliriously happy Ursala dancing and prattling round the tolerant Mauk warrior made us all even more content. The child had the knack of bringing the best out of all of us. Her gaiety, her innocence, her bubbling personality acted like magnets to bring from out of our souls the warmth and humanity each of us possessed but carefully guarded. Emotions, in this world, which usually are buried and encased behind defensive walls of stone and mortar long before we reach adulthood.
I sat by the fire and watched the Mauk and the child become reacquainted with each other. The green and yellow skinned paladin, perhaps one of the most deadly warriors I had ever faced in combat, let go of his impenetrable emotional armor and allowed tiny Ursala’s tidal waves of love and warmth wash over him like a spring shower. As I watched I saw an entirely different creature materialize before my eyes. I saw a creature more human than Dragon. I saw warmth, tenderness, a propensity to laugh and tell funny stories; I saw gentleness. Compassion. Love.
And not just from the Mauk. The aqua blue and light brown Zhintii became captives of the child’s antics as well. They, like their uncle, reacted in the same fashion. As I watched I saw how the world, our world, could become. Instead of war and hatred and suspicions, instead of religious intolerance and mystic prophecies of doom and destruction for one race or the other; all of that could be set aside. Forgotten. Consigned to the past. From out of the ashes of the old could something new and different arise. A New World filled with Hope and Dignity for all. Where Dragon and Man could live in Peace and Harmony.
The words rolled across my consciousness like boulders rolling down and crashing into the sides of rocky cliffs. Peace. Harmony. Words I knew their meaning. But few were the instances where I actually had felt it among my kind. So filled with violence and suspicion in my world, and so use to fighting on a daily basis in order to survive, the very uttering of these words seemed alien to me. Yet on this night I could see what joys Peace and Harmony could bring all living creatures in the face of a tiny child. I could feel the auras of those around me filled with the very essence of Harmony. Man. Dragon. All sharing the same experience and all glad they were here sharing it with the others.
A shadow crossed before me on the snow covered ground and I heard the heavy sigh of the old Niscian monk as he stepped over the log I was sitting on and joined me in.
“It is good to see the child laugh again, Bretan.”
Our eyes followed the antics of tiny Ursala as she danced around the large form of the Mauk paladin. Both sets to twins sat close to the Mauk clapping their hands gaily and laughing as well. The green and yellow paladin sat leaning up against a felled log with a tankard of warmed ale in one hand and a smile pulling at the edges of his lips.
“It is good to hear them laugh, Alvis. Even better to see the old warrior yonder with a smile on his lips. I doubt he has experienced mirth and a sense of security for quite some time.”
“Aye,” the white haired, old, but still quite dangerous Niscian warrior-monk and Null Stone agreed, nodding. “When he arrived with you I saw in his face the look of a disillusioned warrior. The look that said all he believed in was gone forever and yet he would continue that fight of conviction until the very end. That hopeless fight of an ideal unattainable.”
I turned to look at the old monk beside. In the bright light of the roaring fire I saw weather beaten, craggy face of the old warrior-monk. A face filled with life. But filled with grief and torment as well. I could not feel the aura of his soul with my Inner Eye for he was a consummate Null Stone. No wizard, no matter how powerful, could see a Null Stone’s soul. But it was not necessary to read his soul. The grief and the torment was clearly painted on the old man’s face.
“What troubles you, old friend. Surrounded by laughter and a child’s delight you sit here with me as if you were a condemned criminal only moments away form the hangman’s gallows.”
Alvis Fairhands smiled weakly, dropped his gaze to the ground in front of him, and sighed heavily. In his hands was a dirk, a long and thin bladed knife which looked almost as old as the warrior-monk. Idly playing with it he spoke softly, answering my question, the whisper of his voice filled with pain.
“I have been a monk for forty years. Like you I was found as a wayward child and taken into the fold and raised to be a warrior-monk. I have faced countless enemies, fought more battles than I can even remember. Bled from wounds unlimited. I never questioned my beliefs. I never ceased in believing the god-giving sanctity in what I did. I knew what end I would have. It did not matter. I stood within Shin’zin’s divine grace.”
“You, and your brothers, do stand in the light of Shin’zin’s grace. Of all the religions which practice their teachings the Niscian and the Bretan have followed Shin’zin’s teachings almost to the letter.”
The old man nodded silently, staring down at the old and scarred iron blade of the dirk in his hands. As I sat waited for the renowned warrior-monk to speak I found myself acutely aware of the antiquity of the old man. And the amazement a warrior-monk of his age had survived for so long. It is not in our destines to live so long. It is inevitable for warrior-monks, of any sect, to live a short and violent life. Defending the faithful from the ravages and evils of the world is a harrowing and dangerous game. Monks such as Alvis and I were not supposed to survive.
“I am not so sure Shin’zin cares anymore. I always believed our god would protect the faithful from those who wished to destroy us. I was confident in that belief. Resolute in my convictions. No matter what terrible things I might face, or be forced to do in the name of my brethren, I could sleep at night knowing Shin’zin loved us.”
The pain returned to the old man’s face. Pain filled his soul. Pain strong enough to make me hurt as well. I waited, not wishing to hurry the old man in any way, and hoped he would tell me what had happened to suddenly test his faith.
“God has turned his back to us, Roland. This dream of yours in destroying Dragon prophecy and creating a world where Man and Dragon could live as equals, as friends, even as allies, is a noble dream. A dream I would like to see in my life time. But does our god wish this? Does he want to see the old order destroyed and your New World created?”
A squeak of glee escaped from Ursala and we both turned to stare at the scene of gaiety and love before us. As I watched the tiny Pearl Princess leaping into the open arms of the laughing Gawain and Gawaith, and then watched Bellus and Hakim leap onto the blond haired brothers and child for a little rough-house play, I found myself asking why would god not wish for this? The god of the Niscians and the Bretan believed all living creatures were basically his children. Being his children meant all living creatures were intrinsically Good. Dragonkind was intrinsically good. Mankind was intrinsically good. If given the right teachings and the right shepherding why could we not live in peace?
But, as both Bretan and Niscian believed, both Man and Dragon had within them the seeds of their own destruction. No creature’s soul is completely good or completely evil. Both exists within our souls. Whichever smoldering coal, like the dying embers of a fire, is stirred into a burning beacon will decide the outcome. Goodness will dominate if Goodness is constantly attended to. Evil will reign if nothing but Evil is fed.
“What has happened to bring this torment on to you, old friend? “
The old man beside me remained silent for a few moments and gazed at the blade in his hand before looking up and latching his eyes onto the form of the Dragon princess.
“The twins found a group of ragged souls braving the cold and coming storms on the trail hugging the shield wall. They descended through the wall by following the Trail of Ragged Peaks. Half starved, half frozen, many suffering from frostbite, the little group is fleeing for their lives.”
To the west, in the lands of the Kingdom of Avalar, a narrow gap cut into the rugged wall of the Shield Wall. It was called the Trail of the Ragged Peaks because it cut its way treacherously through a series of mountain valleys with towering crags looming over it. In the winter time it was almost impossible to traverse because constant blizzards and terrible gale-like winds howled and screamed incessantly within its domains. To even attempt a descent on this trail meant one was very foolish. Or very desperate.
“Niscians, Roland. From the small village of Callows. My ancestral home. Now gone. Put to the sword and torch by a ravaging Rogarian army. They were the only survivors. No more than twenty at most. Most of them women and children. They huddle like a pack of starving dogs freezing to death only a few miles from us. The Kingdom of Niscia is being destroyed by the armies of Imperial Rogaria. Almost the whole kingdom has been overrun. They say it is but a matter of a few days and Niscia will no longer exist.”
The pain welled up in the old man’s face and huge tears filled his eyes and began running down his cheeks. I could not read his soul but I nevertheless felt the pain. Niscia, the home of the Niscian Brotherhood, was one of the first human kingdoms established in the High Kanris. In the center of the High Kanris was a long, wide, meandering valley filled with rich land and flowing rivers. A number of large and small kingdoms claimed portions of the valley as their own. The Kingdom of Niscia was at the far northern end of the valley. Just to the south of them were the lands of the Kingdom of Rogaria. Imperial Rogaria.
Five major religions reigned in the high country and the surrounding hill country at the base of the Shield Wall. The Bretan, the Rogarian, the Niscian, the Gregorian and the Lotharian religious orders all had, for hundreds of years, basically lived in harmony with each other as we all attended to the needs of our worshipers. Three of the five religious orders believed, in one form or another, of the existence of called Shin’zin. Really, the difference in the way the Niscians viewed god and the way we Bretans viewed god were, truly, minuscule in nature. That’s why Niscians and Bretan have, in the past, been so closely allied with each other.
The Rogarians and the Gregorians take their religion very differently. The Gregorians believed in not one god but three. Three female goddesses who ruled the lives of all living creatures and who habitually intervened in the lives of their followers. Yet for all their meddling, mostly good intentioned meddling, the three goddesses of the Gregorians believed in the basic precepts as we Bretan believed; honesty, the sanctity of Life. Mercy. Compassion. The commitment to face Evil.
Not so the Rogarians.
The Rogarian god was a deity of absolutes. A demanding god who relishes in his fiery rhetoric and filled with vengeance. A hundred years ago the old god of the Rogarians changed. He became a god of wrath filled with revenge in his heart. He became a god who decreed Evil, as incarnated in the form of the Dragon, had somehow infiltrated into the High Kanris and threatened humanity’s very existence. This mysterious revelation swept through the Rogarian devoted. With this messianic transformation the Rogarian sect turned into a mass of hardened, bitter enemies of both the Dragon and anyone who were not followers of their god.
Their wrath immediately turned toward those who followed the Bretan Way. Accused of being a heretical religion, filled with witches and warlocks who served the dark lords of the Dragon, the Bretan became the hunted prey. Bretan churches and cathedrals were sacked, looted, and burned to the ground. Bretan followers were accused of witchcraft and dealt with in a multitude of harsh and cruel measures. Large mobs of Rogarian faithful ravaged villages and towns as they marched through the high country searching for anything which reminded them of the Bretan. Rogarian warrior-monks hunted the Bretan clergy and put them to the sword. Rogarian wizards tried to do the same to the few of us within the Bretan who were their peers. Being a faith whose followers far out numbered those of the Bretan meant it did not take long to almost stamp out the Bretan within among the glistening white peaks of the High Kanris.
The pogroms devastated the High Kanris. Rogarian power, both in the secular and religious spheres of influence, increased and strengthened its hold in the high country. But not so in the hill country. Enclaves of Bretan faithful remained and openly resisted the growing influence of Rogarian hegemony. Kingdoms who claimed loyalty to the Bretan defied the kingdoms swayed by the power of Rogaria. Here, at the base of the shield wall, the Bretan faithful could find refuge.
Gently placing a hand on the grieving Niscian monk I made a quick decision.
“Come, old friend. Let us mount our birds and find these refugees. We will escort them to St. Rolla where my brothers will accept them and protect them. We may not be able to save Niscia from destruction. But we surely can save as many of your countryman as we can through this winter.”
The look of tearful gratitude the old Niscian gave me is forever burned into my memory.