Show mercy to those who,
In their pain and suffering, strike
out blindly at those who
Mean no harm.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
A fresh layer of dazzling white snow crunched under our boots as we made our way through the forest. The first light of dawn filled the air and revealed a forest encased in a thick blankets of winter with heavy patches of fog rising like arboreal ghosts from out of the ground. The air was bitter cold and absolutely still. Dark shadows within the trees created menacing havens for Evil to lurk, and ominously, the forest was as silent as a long lost tomb of a forgotten king.
Into this deadly stillness the Niscian and I entered. With drawn swords and eyes searching for any possible traps the two of us sought the starving and cold refugees.
Every nerve within me tingled with anticipation. I doubted not this was some kind of trap. The Evil from Afar, that entity who seemed to always know of my whereabouts and who seemed to be manipulating the entire world in some kind of maleficent dirge, felt uncommonly near. For weeks I had the feeling this creature was searching for me–desired to find and destroy me and Ursala and rid from him any spurious quality which might upset his plans. Yet destroying me only as it fit in with his Grand Schemes. Even he felt the constraints which originated from within the Netherworld. This Evil had succumbed to its powers. He was, like a puppet-master working the strings and controls of a manikin, manipulating the fates of an entire planet. Yet powerful as he was he had his limitations. He controlled almost unlimited power. But he was not a god. He was not All Powerful. Not yet.
Aye, I have told you, pilgrim, within the Netherworld the power is a seductive mistress. It makes you think, once you have succumbed to its charms, you can control Time and Destiny itself. Not only the time-lines and destines of your soul. But control and manipulate those of others. Of an entire world. Even a universe. This manipulating entity whom I called the Evil from Afar teetered on the edges of insanity. It believed it could control millions of souls. It was the source behind the sudden rise of the Clan Hartooth. It was the source of the war between Man and Dragon. It wished to eliminate me and of little Ursala as soon as our time-lines decreed our deaths would, in some fashion, further along his nefarious plans.
But this creature, neither human nor Dragon, was not divine. Although he exhibited god-like powers in the way he manipulated Man and Dragon to do his bidding, he was not immortal. Nor infallible. Not even god is capable of completely controlling the Netherworld. And so I lived, and the princess lived, in spite of the evil creature’s manipulations.
But in this still and silent forest, and in spite of standing so close to a Null Stone, the hairs on the back of my neck tingled. I felt a rising sense of anticipation. I knew we were walking into a trap. I knew we were surrounded by enemies. I knew the Niscian refugees were being used as bait to drag us into the snare.
And I didn’t care.
I confess to you, pilgrim . . . I am a sinner. Though monk and trained to follow the Bretan Way, nevertheless there are times I succumb to my baser instincts. There are times the anger in me, the anger I feel in seeing others abused and harmed without good cause, almost overwhelms me with a burning rage. It will be, I am sure, my ultimate downfall. As a monk I am trained to control my fears. I have been trained to rein in my baser instincts. To design and mold the power of these instincts and use them as fuel to fight my foes more intelligently. But not today.
Today, this instant, I wished to be confronted by my enemies directly. I wished to battle against impossible odds. I wanted to use sword in hand against those who wished to harm me and those whom I cherished. I knew my wish would soon to be granted. It came when the old Niscian warrior-monk and I entered a large circular clearing deep in the forest and found perhaps forty or so desperate looking Niscian refugees tightly compacted into a ball of suffering humanity. Tired, hungry, bereft of warm clothing to protect them from the harsh cold, they huddled together to keep warm. Steam rose from the mass of human flesh and many within the group shivered violently. None looked as if they would survive the next day. All were starving and emaciated. Many were suffering terrible wounds which needed immediate medical attention.
Not one Niscian said a word as we entered the clearing. Like sheep being led to a slaughter the mass of humanity stared meekly at us with dull eyes. Neither I nor Fairhands moved. We both knew the trap would spring soon enough. Indeed, the moment we were some distance into the clearing, I saw forms moving deep in the depths of the snow laden trees. Turning to face the tree line I was not surprised to see the deep purple uniforms of Imperial Rogarian swordsmen ring the outer reaches of the clearing. Each swordsman had his straight blade drawn and held to one side in the classic attack mode. I counted twenty swordsmen. Twenty. Each man an accomplished warrior and skilled swordsman. Each burning within their hearts a zealot’s desire to cut down the Bretan Maleus Apostate.
Yet they made no move toward us. They stood, waiting, their eyes unblinking as they held my gaze, their faces grim and determined to achieve their just rewards when the bloody business was complete.
“Well, well, well. We meet again, Apostate. As I assured you we would.”
The voice was dry, filled with sardonic confidence and arrogance, and amused at the same time. Smiling, recognizing the voice, I half turned and watched the creature the voice belonged to drift out from behind a massive snow-packed tree. He was a creature tall and thin, his skin the complexion almost as white as the snows surrounding us, but with eyes as black as the blackness of infinity and dangerously hypnotic to stare into.
Iaegor of Lincoln. The most powerful of all the Rogarian wizards. The zealot was as deadly as they came in his skills as a warrior-monk. But his skills as a wizard truly made him dangerous.
“Yes, brother. This Bretan abomination has a destiny which cannot be denied,” a second voice, from behind me, filled the still frigid air. “It is his destiny to die by our hands. Slowly. Painfully.”
I turned and gazed into the smiling face of a second Rogarian wizard. Vamont of Mons. Short, stocky, with brown hair falling to his shoulders, he too was an accomplished warrior-monk and wizard. But far from being on the same playing field as his grim looking companion. Together the two had hunted the princess and I for months. Twice we faced each other in some form of combat. Twice they believing I was to breath my last remaining breaths in spasms of agony. Twice they were denied their revenge.
The smile on my lips did not disappear. Prudence said the odds for my survival in the next few minutes were infinitesimally small. But I felt just the opposite. I felt euphoric. I felt the blood rushing through my veins. I felt the dryness in my mouth. I felt the comforting weight of Helshvingar in my hand. And I felt the lust–the overwhelming desire to do battle gripping my soul.
“You do me honor, gentlemen, in bringing twenty swordsmen plus yourselves to participate in my funeral. But I must offer you my humble apologies. Your well laid plans will, again, fall into ruins.”
“Oh, we have brought more than that, Apostate. Far more than that.”
“We have brought enough wizardry to make sure you die tonight,” a third voice to my right spoke up.
“And it will be a pleasure to see the Fires of Hell consume your heretical soul into eternity!” a fourth voice to my left answered.
To my right stood the Lotharian wizard, Absolom of Krefan. Not quite as gaunt as Iaegor of Lincoln, nor as pale, nevertheless the Lotharian monk-wizard was as equal in his zealotry for his religion as Iaegor was for his. And just as powerful with his magic. Wearing the simple robes of a plain Lotharian friar and with only a long wooden staff as weapon, Absolom of Krefan gave the appearance of being a harmless peasant friar. The truth was far different. Like Iaegor of Lincoln this Lotharian wizard delighted in the cruelty he could inflict onto those his religion considered unworthy.
To my left stood the Lotharian warrior-wizard Philos of Wordstaat. Dressed in light mail, wearing at his side the iron straight-sword of a Lotharian swordsman, his eyes peering from behind the distinct Dorian bronze helmet so preferred by Lotharian warriors, this wizard was renowned for his skills on the battlefield more than in his skills as a wizard. But he too was as powerful a wizard as could be found within the Lotharian Brotherhood.
The smile on my lips widened. My heart was pounding. I could sense the lust to do battle filling my soul. Twenty skilled Rogarian swordsman and four accomplished wizards surrounded me.
“Go, Niscian. Take this pitiful spectacle of your followers from here as I promised,” Iaegor muttered, nodding toward Alvis Fairhands with a quick glance before returning his attention to me.
I too turned and gazed into the face of the old monk. On the old man’s face was a look of deep shame. His eyes would not meet mine. Betrayed! Led into this trap by a man whom I had trusted and admired for more than twenty years! This man who had fought by my side in so many battles, in whom I saved from the hangman’s gallows only a few weeks earlier, turned and tried to lift his head to look at me but could not find the strength to do so. Only a weak voice, filled with contrition, lifted into the cold in a hoarse whisper.
“I could not deny their demands, Roland. They came to me the other night while I hunted a deer for the evening meal. Iaegor and Vamot captured me and threatened to kill me. Death I would have accepted gladly. I am too old to fight anymore, my friend. Too old and too weak. But they did not want to kill me. They told me they had twenty of my countrymen as prisoners. They said they were going to burn each one at the stake, one at a time, as heretics.
But they could go free. I could lead them to safety, if I brought you to them. That’s why I was filled with despair when you returned from Malagna with the Mauk paladin. Torn between my loyalty for you and your cause. Torn between not wishing to see innocent victims so horrible slain. I . . . I had not choice, my son. No choice.”
I nodded silently and only stared at the wretched figure of the old man. My Inner Eye could not see into his soul. But there was no need to. The image before me, withering in his grief and shame, told the entire story. I felt no anger. I felt no rage at being betrayed. I could never look upon this Niscian mentor with any emotion except one. Love. The love a son has for his father.
The old man meant that much to me.
Reaching out with a hand I gently touched the old man’s cheek and wiped away a large track of tears flowing like a river from his eyes.
“There is no shame in this, father. You had to do what was necessary in order to save the innocent. Is that not what our vows tell us we must do? Go. Go and lead them to safety. Take them to the St. Rolla.”
“But . . . .!”
“No,” I whispered, shaking my head gently and smiling, “ have faith in those who have always had faith in you. All will be well, father. All will be well.”
The old man’s eyes shot up and stared into my. He looked at me silently for a few seconds and eventually nodded. A grin almost shot across his crag lined, weather beaten old face. But he caught himself quickly and again painted the picture of an old man in deep grief onto his visage. Turning, he quickly scuttled away from me and motioned the twenty or so Niscian countrymen standing in the middle of the circle to follow him.
From behind me rose the cackle of a sardonic laugh from the lips of Vamot. I half turned and faced the long haired, large nosed creature and said nothing.
“How touching. You do not slay the man who has brought you here to your doom. Like a Judas goat leading his kind to slaughter. Truly you surprise me, Apostate. If it had been I who was betrayed I would have killed him instantly.”
I said nothing. Gripping sword I waited for the first attack. No wizardry display of power would erupt until Alvis Fairhands had moved some distance away from this clearing. His Null Stone powers were strong enough to diffuse the powers of five wizards combined. Until distance separated him from us no magic would be created. But that did not mean some form of attack would not be hurled toward me. Five skilled warrior-monks who were battle-tested long before they became wizards stood facing me. Each one would be a formidable opponent. But there were also twenty skilled Imperial Rogerian swordsmen surrounding me. Each were hardened veterans of the incessant wars the Imperial throne was waging against its enemies. The first attack did not disappoint me. It came as I anticipated it would.
“Let us see just how good you are, warrior.”
With these words the ghostly pale framed Iaegor shot out his right hand with a boney, twisted finger pointing directly at me. There were shouts from men in four different directions and four swordsmen leaped from the rank of encirclement and began racing toward me through the heavy snows.
Imperial Rogarian swordsmen wearing coats of heavy chain mail underneath their dark blue imperial garb. I almost laughed in pleasure. Underneath their mail was a heavy coat of thick cotton padding to protect the skin from chafing underneath the iron mail. Running, therefore, was an endeavor which drained the warrior of strength. Running through a carpet of snow as deep as one ankle’s makes it even more draining.
The four swordsmen did not reach me at the same time. One, more agile and eager, plowed through the snow first and came charging at me with a scream on his lips and his gleaming iron blade riding high in the air for a vicious downward killing stroke. I planted myself firmly and waited for the blow to fall. When it did I twisted my body to one side, allowing the descending blade to fall harmlessly through nothingness. But with my free hand I opened it into a flat blade, bringing up swiftly and savagely the edge of it knifing into the young warrior’s throat. The impetuousness of his lunge, the force of my blow into such a delicate piece of anatomy, were enough to drop the warrior face-first into the snow. Dropping his sword and clutching his neck in pain he twisted in agony at me feet. But I was not finished with him. It had not been a killing blow. I had to either kill him, or debilitate him in such fashion, to keep him from regaining his strength and attack me again. With Helshvingar I swept the point of the blade across the left thigh of the warrior’s leg. The bronze colored blade of the Dragon scimitar cut through the tough iron chain mail as if it were nothing but a fig leaf. It bit deep into the man’s thigh all the way down to the bone. The startling glow of bright red blood spurted out and stained the white carpet of virgin snow.
He would live. He would remember this encounter with a Bretan warrior-monk. He would have a terrible scar on his leg and perhaps have a slight limp in his walk. But he would live. With a foot I lifted the warrior’s blade from out of the snow and sent it sailing some yards away from his hand as I turned to face the remaining three swordsmen.
They were older men, more experienced in combat. Their attack was coordinated. Their blades came flying from three different directions. I ducked one, side-stepped the second, and rolled to one side into the snow to escape the third. Coming to my feet I barely had time to deflect a blow with my weapon. The sharp ring of steel against steel filled the forest clearing as the four of us danced a deadly fugue around each other. Fierce were they attacks and determined in their will to destroy me. Time and time again I felt the tug of a sword’s point pulling at the simple yellow colored surcoat I wore covering my chain mail. But that was as close as the came to finding their target.
For three minutes I danced and turned and rolled and blunted their attacks. Swords sparkling in the late afternoon air, the furious din of a steel ringing in the coldness, and the grunts and grimacing of men exerting all their strength as they pressed on in their attack, created a cacophony of noise. And in the end leading up to their defeat. As anticipated. Their fury was so intense they did not pace themselves. Their lust to spill my blood onto the now churned and ravaged carpet of snow compelled them to expend every ounce of strength they had into their attack. No man can fight so blindly and so intently for long. A man’s strength is finite. It drains over time. When it is gone it makes the warrior commit mistakes. Mistakes which can be costly.
The second warrior fell to Helshvingar with a sudden stroke of the blade across an exposed arm. Again the strange bronze blade sliced through iron mail and human flesh as if they were water. Muscles were severed and spurts of amazingly dark red blood shot across the whiteness of the snow in a fanning motion. There was a scream of pain as the swordsman staggered back, dropping his sword and reaching from his bleeding arm.
Again, the warrior would live. The wound severe enough to make the swordsman withdraw from the contest. His arm would heal. He would live to fight again. But not today. Not in this fight.
The remaining two pressed on their attack. By now their breaths with coming hard and furiously. Hot condensation shot out into the frigid cold every time they exhaled. Their blows were falling still with blinding speed. But they no longer had the power as they had in the first few moments of the attack. They were opening themselves to counter-strokes.
The third swordsman I removed from the fray with a sudden kick of my right foot into the man’s left leg just above the kneecap. There was a loud snap like that of a tree branch creaking, a howl of pain, and the man crashed into the snow withering in pain from a broken leg. The fourth warrior went down a half second later. A lunge with his sword at my chest, too deep of a strike before recovering, and the warrior found himself momentarily off balance. It was but the flash of my open hand, again in the hard edge of a sword, in a chopping blow to the man’s neck in the back of his head which dropped him into the snow unconscious.
The snow around mean was streaked with streams and blotches of red. Rogarian swordsmen, some conscious and some not, lay at my feet. And I, with my ancient weapon in hand, turned and faced the gaunt ascetic Iaegor defiantly.
“Excellent! Excellent! So you are skilled in the use of your sword against ordinary swordsmen!”
The wizard’s words were filled with genuine admiration. There was a narrow smile on the gaunt man’s face. But he lifted a hand up in a gesture telling me another attack was imminent.
“But what that of an attack from a warrior-monk known for his swordplay? And a second warrior-monk known for the use of his staff?”
I smiled, nodding. And, in nodding toward the wizard, complimented the Rogarian wizard. I understood his plans. He was using the same ruse on me as I had with the four swordsman. Slowly, methodically, he was wearing me down physically by forcing me to defend myself against multiple opponents. And when the null effect of Alvis Fairhands’s powers finally receded the combined powers of five wizards would overwhelm me.
There is a cost, both in psychic powers and physically, whenever a wizard hurls the power of the Netherworld around. There is a quid pro quo whenever energy is released. Swordplay against multiple opponents taxed the body and the mind. If these separate attacks continued my strength would be depleted. I would have little chance to withstand the onslaught of five wizards, much less the remaining sixteen swordsmen surrounding me.
Pointing a finger at me again the emaciated monk shouted “Hai!” loudly and then folded arms across his chest with a pleased look on his cruel face.
I expected the two Lotharian wizards to leap at me. I was partially correct. Absolom of Kerfan, gripping his staff with both hands, leapt toward me. From behind came a shout from Vamot of Mons. Lotharian and and Rogarian warrior-monks and wizards fighting as team to destroy a Bretan Apostate!
Vamot of Mons I had faced before in combat. I knew his skills. Formidable as they were he knew, as I knew, his skills alone would not defeat me. But the addition of the fighting skills of Absolom’s staff work tipped the scales more toward an even measure. I had never faced the Lotharian. Yet I knew his reputation with the staff. He had defeated several renowned swordsmen and it was said he was very fast. Between blade and staff I would have to very quick on my feet. I would have to do the unexpected in order to even the odds against two such foes. I chose to be the attacker.
Two powerful steps toward the Rogarian wizard and I leapt into the air with a war cry on my lips and sword raised high over my head for a powerful vertical slicing blow. Vamot, assured he and his ally would find me but a meek lamb waiting for slaughter, hesitated in surprise when he saw my sudden move But he recovered quickly, bringing his straight-sword up in the defensive position I thought he might with my intended attack. I saw his move, began yelling harder and flicking the movement of my sword arm to mimic the initial motion of the overhead blow. But I did not deliver the intended stroke. Instead, I rolled my body into a tight knot and twisted in the air. I felt the Rogarian blade slice through the air close to my head. But Rogarian iron cut through the cold winter air and nothing else.
I landed in the snow, rolling quickly to my feet, and at the same time sweeping Helshivingar laterally across my right and just above the snow itself. The ancient blade bit into flesh. Vamot’s scream of agony pierced through the cold air. Coming to my feet I saw blood spurting from the wizard’s open wound and he clasping both hands onto an almost severed leg as he fell into the snow.
Five wizards had now been reduced to four. And four came quickly to three in the blinking of an eye.
The staff-wielding Absolom, angered at my swift demise of his ally, made a terrible mistake. Leaping forward to aid Vamot he over extended himself and his footing in the hard snow. A boot slipped in the snow, momentarily throwing him off balance. Helshvingar struck with brutal effect. The bronze-colored blade bit into the heavy hackwood of the wizard’s staff just between where his hands gripped it. The blade slide through the normally incredibly tough wood with ease. There was a loud snap and Absolom’s staff of six feet of seasoned hard wood now were two semi-staffs and worthless as a weapon.
The Lotharian wizard staggered back, his eyes wide with shock as he stared at the remains of his once prized weapon. I backed up two steps, sword raised and aimed at the wizard in case anger replaced shock and he decided to launch an attack I did not wait long. Absolom’s face was an open book to read. Shock, in the blinking of an eye, turned to rage. A scream erupted from his lips as he threw up his right hand, the palm extended toward me, and flexed his arm in my direction. I felt the crackling sensation of the air becoming charged with an immense electrical fields and I realized Alvis Fairhands’ power no longer subdued the magician’s hand.
“Absolom, not yet! Not yet!” Iaegor of Lincoln shouted as he took a half step toward the Lotharian wizard.
A beam of pure energy, blue-white in intensity and as thick as a man’s waist, shot out from Absolom’s right hand. The power of the blow was impressive. The color of the beam telling me there were few wizard’s in this world who could withstand such a blow. To stand directly in front of it and throw up a psychic shield to take on the full force of the blow would quickly drain any wizard’s mental reserves. I had no intention of falling into that trap. Throwing the hand holding Helshvingar behind me I threw up my left arm, hand held up with its outer edge aimed toward the magician.
The Lotharian’s powerful beam hit the invisible shield I created in front of me, the roaring of its crackling power surrounding me and blocking out all other sounds and sensations. It was powerful enough to make me stagger back a step or two before I regained my footing But the shield did not try to absorb the blow. A capable wizard, practiced and assured in his skills, can fold and shape his shield into a multitude of different forms. Some can absorb the energies hurled at it entirely. Some repel the blow back to its origination. Or some can shape the shield in a way where the blow is directed toward different targets. I chose this option.
The beam of energy, as hot as the surface of a sun, curved around the invisible shield like a drop of rain water following the curve of a stone railing. As it sheared past me it seemed to gain energy and intensity. And then, amazingly, the beam shot off to my left and toward the Lotharian wizard, Philos of Wordstaat! There was a partial scream of terror and a thunderous explosion. The energy beam ceased abruptly and both Absolom and I staggered back a few steps from the cessation.
I glanced to my left. Where Philos of Wordstaat had stood was devoid of any human. Only the blackened, charred remains of a dozen tree stumps cut into the forest marked the spot. Smoke, black and thick, rolled toward the frozen heavens as I heard the raging howl of Iaegor rise into the air.
“Fool! You Lotharian idiot! You played right into his hands! Bah! Guardsmen! Attack the infidel and kill him!”
I glanced at the Lotharian standing in front of me. His body had sank to one knee into the snow. Hunched over, head down, the wizard was on the verge of passing out from his expenditures of psychic energy. It would take hours for him to recover enough to just stand. And days before he would be able to summon up the powers of the Netherworld again. Dismissing him as any potential threat I turned my attention to the mass of Rogarian swordsmen running toward me.
“Die, you Bretan abomination! Die and dwell for eternity into the dark pits of the Netherworld!” Iaegor screamed as he threw the arm of the wounded Vamot over his shoulder to support his comrade and shoved the exhausted Absolom away from me. There was the sound of a ‘whoof’ and I knew my arch-villian had whisked the remaining wizards away to safety.
All that now faced me were but sixteen Rogarian swordsman. Sixteen angry, experienced, determined swordsmen intent on cutting me to pieces.