Prologue & Chapter 1
The Daemon awoke in a vortex of fire.
Lord Harold carried Tarsus, the weapon of legend. Lady Hathaway stood at the side of her Liege. She reached into her satchel and withdrew a large, shimmering ruby. Harold took the jewel and placed it in the base of Tarsus. The ancient longsword became covered in a crimson nimbus which trailed behind the would-be daemon slayer and his mistress.
“We have found you at last, Gor!” Lord Harold declared. “The residents of the Fae Realm have rejected your agenda of tyranny. This is your last chance to leave our world in peace.”
“I see you, Paladins. You are foolish to have ventured this far into my domain. I know not how you evaded my guardians and sentinels. They will be duly punished for their failure. I reject your peace offering and will destroy you, now. Your deaths will be an example to all mortals who seek to meddle with magical forces beyond their ken.”
“Don't be so sure, Gor.” the Lady Hathaway intoned. “As you can see my husband bears Tarsus, the sword of the ancient Dweomers. It is now charged with the ruby talisman of the Ashgar Wilds. Thus we oppose you and will not be turned by your idle threats.”
Lady Hathaway drew an Elven bow from her travel pack and placed an enchanted arrow on the sinewy string. She drew the bolt back and loosed the projectile at the Daemon. Her shot hit the fiery beast squarely in the chest.
The arrowhead had been magically charged by the Wood Elves of the Ashgar Forest. They were longtime enemies of Gor and his legions and had gone at great lengths to arm the Liege Lady with a potent weapon.
The entry point spewed green light from several cracks in the glowing Daemon's boiling hide. Gor was startled and knocked back by the impact of the shot. The Daemon clutched the shaft of the arrow and the green light spread into his massive hand and forearm. He gasped in surprise at the force and strength of the enhanced assault. It took Gor a moment to focus on the infection and drive out the spreading, green magic from his red and black flesh.
Harold did not wait for the Daemon to heal himself fully. He wielded Tarsus over his head then brought the blade down in a forceful blow to Gor's midsection. Again the beast was startled but clearly would restore himself in a matter of moments.
“Ah, I commend you two,” Gor hissed. “You have powerful friends to carry such weapons in this era. Alas, their efforts are in vain for I, too, have grown in strength since the War of the Ancients. Your precious forest will soon be mine along with the settlements you claim to protect. Feel my wrath, now, and know that you shall be the last of your line to confront me.”
The angry Daemon swung his smoldering, clawed hands in a rending attack at the Paladins, compromising their elaborate armor and scorching their flesh in stripes of sizzling tissue. The pair of Lieges groaned in pain.
In an act of desperation Lord Harold rushed Gor with Tarsus held before him. The flaming sword ran through the Daemon's chest left of center. Harold stepped back from the speared Daemon, certain that his target would fall.
Gor looked down at the hilt of Tarsus.
“Ah, what an eye-catching gem that is. It has been ages since I saw it last. You two must have searched far and wide to retrieve it. It's previous owner was quite attached to it, as I'm sure you learned.”
Lord Harold staggered under the duress of his injury, as did Lady Hathaway. She drew a polished dagger from her belt in preparation for a final maneuver.
“The magic of Tarsus is within you, Gor! Your daemonic flesh is now bonded with a Dweomer spirit.”
“That is good. Now we are relatives of a sort. Perhaps I will take this jewel as a trophy.”
Gor gripped the handle of Tarsus with both hands and pulled the hefty blade from his chest. Flame and sulfur gushed from the wound but the Daemon was not concerned by this. He gripped the ruby at the base and pulled the gem free. Gor took a moment to ogle the enchanted artifact then thrust it into the opening in his chest.
“No, Gor!” yelled Lord Harold.
The Paladins moved to stop the beast from metastasizing the ruby but it was too late. Lady Hathaway rushed the Daemon and wielded her dagger. This she thrust at Gor, generating lancing blows to his arms and torso. Lord Harold joined the fray, pummeling the massive humanoid with his gauntlets and boots.
“Enough!” bellowed Gor. “I am weary of the folly of you mortals. Crystalix!”
Before the pair of Paladins could act further they were encased in a giant, carbon crystal summoned by the Daemon. Gor chuckled in a deep, bass laugh.
“Ah, that is a better trophy. I will keep you two as a message to any would-be meddlers. Your struggle is over, now. It is only a matter of time until I have drained the life-force of you aspiring Paladins. I will watch and wait. I am truly bonded with the magic of the Fae Realm. It will be but a smattering of years before I make my move on your pesky kindred.
The hulking Daemon hoisted the massive crystal containing his trapped prisoners and set its angular, geometric base to hover on a jet of fire next to his throne.
The Autumn wind gusted through the forest. Dweomer Village bustled with the projects of the day. Each member of the settlement rushed to complete necessary tasks ahead of the first snowfall. These jobs included the gathering of grain and preservation of game captured in the deep trails of the Ashgar Wilds.
Hedrick awoke in his bed in his uncle's workshop. The jingling of wind chimes and creaking of mobile weather vanes permeated the sunlit room. The aging Dweomer had stepped in as a caretaker of the youngster when Hedrick's parents vanished seven years before.
“Hedrick, are you awake? I need your help with a project, here.”
“Yes, Uncle Ram.”
The Dweomer, now twenty summers old, rose from his bed and washed his face and hands in a basin nearby. He approached his uncle and gazed at the scattered pieces of his so-called project.
The workshop table was covered with spindly, iron wires and metal frames.
“What is it?” asked the younger Dweomer.
“It is going to be a wind harness. It will use these alternately aligned magnets to spin on opposing axes to generate small streams of lightning just like the storm clouds. I have attached several wires to the perimeter of this glass crystal. Please turn this crank and watch what happens.”
Hedrick did as his uncle asked and began to turn the crank. In a matter of seconds the filaments around the glass sparked and glowed, then suddenly, began to burn, breaking from their tethers and dropping the glass to the surface of the workshop table.
“It doesn't look like that was supposed to happen, Uncle.”
“No, that's fine, Hedrick. I just wanted you to see the energy you produced. The wind harness will turn a larger crank and hopefully I'll find a filament that will glow without burning soon. Then we will have the light of ten candles to work on projects after sundown.”
The music of the wind chimes changed in key and the weather vane atop the bungalow turned with the shifting wind. The air grew chilled and thunder rumbled in the distance. The two Dweomers looked to the windows and the sky beyond. Dark storm clouds coalesced on the horizon.
“A storm is coming,” said Ram. “Hedrick, help me to close up shop for today. The windows must be battened down for I don't want my material to rust prematurely.”
“Sure, Uncle,” answered the youthful Dweomer.
Hedrick grabbed a lengthy pole with a hook on the end. He used the tool to lower and lock the glass panes in the conical house. Then he went outside to secure the shutters.
The atmosphere of Dweomer Village had changed significantly. Vendors hurried to close their businesses ahead of the storm. Children picked up their toys and hustled to their parents indoors. One farmer used a net to collect loose chickens and geese that had been released to forage earlier that morning.
Hedrick was finishing his task when he had an eerie feeling that he was being watched.
“Excuse me,” hissed a scratchy voice. “Can you direct me to shelter? I'm new in this area and am unfamiliar with these roads.”
Hedrick closed the last pair of shutters and turned to address the person who was speaking. It was a tall Dweomer dressed in green, with a dark, gray cowl and tunic. The newcomer lowered his hood, revealing a middle-aged Dweomer with green eyes and a ruddy complexion.
“My name is Xander. I hearken from the southern forests of Ashgar, as you may have guessed.”
“Yes,” answered Hedrick. “You possess the features of the Southern Dweomers. What brings you to our village in the north?”
“I am a collector of sorts,” the mysterious traveler replied. “I am seeking a rare amulet. It was a talisman used by my people for centuries but it was stolen in recent years. Have you noticed any unusual magical activity in this area?”
“No,” Hedrick answered. “But I am relatively young and have been busy hunting and helping my uncle. You should speak with him. He is well-versed in history and the commerce following the end of the War of the Ancients.
“In addition he may be able to find a place for you to rest tonight. This village is small and does not have a boarding house or inn. There is clearly a storm brewing on the horizon and there is not much time before the Autumn rain is upon us. Come with me, Xander. I will introduce you to my uncle, Ram.”
Hedrick led Xander up the short flight of steps to the deck of the sometime tinker of Dweomer Village. He turned the handle of the front door and held it open so that Xander could enter.
“Greetings, Uncle,” Hedrick intoned. “We have a guest from the south. His name is Xander and has need of shelter for the evening.”
Ram looked up from his counter top and rose to meet the visitor. They exchanged pleasantries and shook hands.
“Welcome to my humble residence, Xander,” Ram offered. “There isn't much room here amid my projects and experiments but I think we can accommodate you.”
“Thank you, kind tinker,” said the southerner. “I will do my best to stay out of the way and compensate you for your generosity.”
“That won't be necessary,” Ram replied.
Before the tinker was able to elaborate the stranger sauntered over to the work counter and eyed the bric-a-brac with curiosity and interest.
“I see you are a dabbler in metallurgy and static charges.”
Xander picked up the angular, glass crystal used in Ram's earlier experiment. The visitor held the prism to his eye and turned to face Hedrick.
“A rare trinket this is...Where, if you don't mind my asking, did you find it?”
“I made it myself,” answered Ram. “Along with being something of the unofficial tinker of Dweomer Village I am also a glass blower. This crystal is part of an illumination project of mine to find a lasting source of light, brighter than candles and smaller than torches and firebrands.”
“That is quite a curiosity, Ram. You clearly are a good role-model for this young Dweomer. I wish you the utmost success in your endeavors. I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before much of the Ashgar Forest becomes aware of the fruits of your research.”
I'm not so sure about this Xander, thought Hedrick. Apart from the storm these are trying times. Word has spread of hostile entities adrift in the greater forest. I don't suppose that this strange visitor is directly related to them but the disappearance of known travelers and minstrels in recent weeks does not raise my trust of unrecognized visitors...especially such inquisitive ones. I'll keep my eye on him with the intention of determining what his underlying motives may ultimately be.
Hedrick returned the gaze of the mysterious visitor as he stared through Ram's crystal. The young Dweomer moved casually through the workshop and made a conscious effort to conceal his growing suspicion.
The storm blustered and showered on Dweomer Village.
“Ah, the rainy season is here at last, my friends!” Ram declared. “It appears you secured our living quarters none too soon, nephew.”
“Come, Xander. Let me offer you some of my tea. It is good for the soul.”
“Alas, I have traveled far this day and am overcome with fatigue. With your permission I will retire for the evening.”
The red-haired Dweomer yawned and stretched as he drew his travel cloak tightly about his shoulders.
“By all means, rest yourself, my southern guest. You must conserve your strength for your quest for your mysterious amulet is bound to be long and arduous.”
Ram beckoned to Hedrick.
“Nephew, guide Xander to sleeping quarters in the loft above. There it is warm and dry.”
Hedrick did as his uncle asked and lowered the folding staircase that was used to access the second floor of the workshop. He led the green-cloaked traveler to an auxiliary storage room and lit a candelabra that stood on a nearby table. The young Dweomer unfurled a woven, straw mat on the plank wood floor and covered it with a clean horse blanket.
“Ah, thank you, Hedrick,” the weary fellow intoned. “These lodgings are more than sufficient.”
The southerner hastily lay on the mat and covered himself with the blanket. Xander closed his eyes and soon drifted into a troubled slumber.
Hedrick left the sleeping Dweomer and returned downstairs so that he might help Ram make the final adjustments in the process of closing up shop for the night. In a matter of moments the pair of aspiring tinkers had their experiments stored away and they curled up on their respective cots next to the flaring embers of the hearth fire.
The thunder boomed repeatedly over Dweomer Village and bolts of lightning pierced the darkness.
Hedrick dreamed out of space and time. His thoughts were incoherent and obscure. Shadows and mist surrounded him as he rested. He tried to call out to his uncle for aid but found himself mute.
Ram's nephew awoke in a cold sweat. He opened his eyes and sat up, breathing heavily. Although unable to say why Hedrick sensed something was wrong. The embers of the hearth fire had gone cold and the only visible lights in the shop were the thin rays of candlelight that shone through the cracks of the loft far above.
Suddenly a loud crash permeated the room and the entrance door was shattered under a barrage of blows. Lightning flashed once more and, as the report of the following thunder shook the building, Hedrick saw the silhouettes of a number of troglodytes as they strode forcefully into the workshop.
“Run, uncle!” Hedrick yelled. “We are under attack!”
The flexible Dweomer rolled off of his cot and reached to a nearby toolbox. He grabbed a hammer, designed for breaking stones, and tried to hide amid a stack of storage barrels next to the defunct hearth.
Hedrick was shaken by the sound of breaking vials and bludgeoned instruments. He told himself to stay silent, however, afraid of being spotted by the reptilian humanoids.
The troglodytes huffed and grunted among themselves as they sniffed the damp air with suspicion.
“Keep searching, mates,” bellowed an invader. “The amulet must be here.”
“Yes, Thornfoot,” replied another. “I clearly watched the southerner exit the forest road which leads to this scrawny village.”
Hedrick's body trembled with fear, not just for his own well-being but for that of his uncle and the visitor above. The young Dweomer's palms were slick with sweat and it was the best he could do to hold the hammer in a sloppy grip.
The brigands kicked over several more crates and Hedrick was sure that he would soon be found. He took a deep breath and steeled himself for a final, life-or-death struggle.
An eerie light filled the room. All the humanoids present turned to the source. Ram stood wearing a miner's hat with an ignited candle on top. He lowered his head and lit the fuse of the matchlock on a large, experimental blunderbuss.
“Welcome to my house!”
Before the troglodytes could react Ram fired his weapon at the nearest invader. A loud explosion shook the workshop and the targeted adversary was punctured with high-velocity shot. The force of the impact threw the would-be thief out the broken doorway from which he had emerged and he slid, lifeless in the mud outside.
Three of the reptilian humanoids remained, however, and they uttered a blood-curdling battle cry as they wielded their swords and axes overhead.
Hedrick seized the moment and rose from his hiding place to contend with the nearest opponent. He clutched his hammer firmly and struck the troglodyte's jaw as hard as he could. The marauder spun and fell to the floor, never to rise again.
“You have done wrong by these gentle Dweomers,” a southern voice twanged. “They have given me their hospitality and hence are under my protection.”
Xander appeared at the top of the folding stairway. Before he pulled the lever which extended the steps downward he enchanted a magical sorcery.
The red-haired Dweomer gestured at the troglodytes with his hands and unleashed a scorching ball of flame. The missile struck an invader and burst into a twisting conflagration, quickly burning the hostile humanoid into a smoldering carcass.
Witnessing the compromised intentions of his cohorts, the last brigand turned to flee. He was not quick enough, though, and his skull was split by the swinging butt of Ram's smoking blunderbuss.
Xander succeeded in descending the stairs from the adjoining loft and he gripped Ram by the shoulders in congratulation.
“Well done, my friend tinker! You have more tricks up your sleeve than one may suspect!
“Good job, young Hedrick! Your warning awoke me from a rest that I may otherwise never have broken in this lifetime. You have proven your courage this night in more than one fashion and I am in your debt.”
“That was horrible,” Hedrick cried.
The Dweomer was clearly traumatized by the violent entry of his home.
“What's going on? Who are you, Xander? What is this amulet that you and these lizards are so desperate to find?”
“Those are things that I would also like to know, Xander,” said Ram.
The tinker eyed the southern visitor with frustration and curiosity.
“There aren't many magical adepts in these parts. Someone with resources such as yours must have good reason to be here, in our modest village. I believe you owe us an explanation.”
“Yes, you both are correct. I am a secretive traveler. My reticence is justified, though, if you will hear me out. I fear, however, for the safety of the Dweomers of this village. I didn't expect the troglodytes had followed me this quickly or were willing to assert such desperate measures to get what they seek. Before we discuss the amulet in question further let us rouse the residents of this settlement and build a bonfire at the center of town. It will enhance the safety of us all.
“This was merely a scouting party. The troglodytes do not move in idle groups and will soon be here in full force. I wouldn't be surprised to know that they watch this village from the woods beyond as I speak.”
“Very well, Xander,” Ram replied. “For the security of the Dweomers we will do as you ask. But mark my words. After the bonfire is built I demand a hearty explanation from you.”
“Certainly, staunch tinker,” said Xander. “Let us be on our way. We have much to do in little time.”
The trio of defenders of Dweomer Village set themselves to the task at hand. They opened picket and wicker gates and pounded on doors until the residents within were awakened and emerged. Farmers collected what pitchforks, hatchets and scythes were available and distributed them among the able-bodied Dweomers as a roaring bonfire was built at the town's center.
Xander addressed the now alert population in the drizzling rain as elderly Dweomers tended to the children close to the tall flames.
“My fellow Dweomers, I regret to inform you that this way of life has been terminated. You are no longer safe here, on the outskirts of Ashgar Forest. The troglodytes and, I fear what else, are on the move to a degree not seen since the War of the Ancients. They seek many things, not the least of which being fortune and power. I apologize for not standing before you as I do now sooner. I did not realize that I was being followed so closely in my quest.
“I am looking for an amulet. It is a ruby enchanted with an aged Dweomer spirit. I suspect it was used by nobles from this region some years ago. They reportedly embarked on a mission to stop the assertion of a great evil. Many things malevolent to the tranquility of the Fae Realm survived the ancient war. Rumor has described the emergence of an immortal Daemon, Gor. Perhaps you have heard of him...perhaps not.”
Xander took a moment to pause and gaze into the arching flames of the massive fire.
“I have knowledge of that Daemon!” Ram yelled.
The tinker stood up among the seated villagers and addressed the cloaked southerner.
“The nobles you speak of were Hedrick's parents. They placed the young Dweomer under my tutelage when they departed on their journey to destroy the tyrant, Gor. He has sought to usurp the magical energy of these woods for several generations. He was among many entities who benefitted from the power vacuum generated at the close of the ancient war.”
Hedrick was stunned. He remembered his parents had left under mysterious guises when he was young. They had been close with Ram but neither they nor his uncle had disclosed much information as to the nature of their disappearance.
“I suspect that Lord Harold and Lady Hathaway fell to ill magic in their mission to eliminate Gor and retrieve the talisman of the Ashgar Forest,” Ram added.
“That is unfortunate, Ram,” Xander replied. “It is clear that Gor, the Daemon, is intent on conquering this realm for his own wiles. We Dweomers must adjust to this impending peril.
“Listen to me, good people. It is no longer safe here. The troglodytes are abounding and are soon to be here in greater numbers. This village is lying in the wake of an agenda of evil. All of you must pack what belongings you can carry and depart from this settlement despite the storm.
“I'm sorry but the welfare of you and your children demands the highest priority. We must seek shelter and protection. I recommend Lord Aquiline's castle. He is an honorable noble and will take heed to the desperate nature of your predicament. There are soldiers there, too, and they will prepare themselves for a siege in the event of a troglodyte invasion.
“What say you, brave people?”
An elderly, bearded Dweomer, dressed in flowing, brown robes rose from the group and walked over to stand next to Xander.
“I am Archon,” he growled. “I am the seer of Dweomer Village and have dreamed of this night on several occasions. I agree with your assessment of our situation, southerner.
“We are truly no longer secure in this neck of the Ashgar Forest. We will hearken your counsel and journey to Lord Aquiline's stronghold. We residents of Dweomer Village will find sanctuary there and legitimate arms with which to defend ourselves.
“My people, let us make the necessary preparations for our exodus expeditiously. We leave Dweomer Village tonight!”
The Dweomers grumbled and sighed in agreement. They were reluctant to leave their home of so many years but none of them wanted to linger and repeat the violent experience at Ram's workshop earlier that evening.
Xander's meeting was over. Hedrick hastened to help his fellow villagers to pack their horses and load their wagons. Women and children wept, not knowing what would become of them. Dogs and goats howled and bleated, respectively, as they were tethered to their owners' mounts. Cattle lowed and bellowed as they were pulled from their stables but not to pasture.
Archon directed the people of his settlement to form a ring around the bonfire. Their wagons were loaded and the Dweomers stared out at their homes with teary eyes. No one knew if or when they would see their community again.
“Onward, my friends!” cried the seer. “We will take the forest road. Light the torches. If the troglodytes attack we will defend ourselves.”
Hedrick sat next to Ram on the tinker's wagon. What devices and experiments that weren't destroyed by the marauders were stored away in barrels and crates next to staples and water skins.
Xander rode a dappled mare next to Archon. The two wizards chatted tersely among themselves as the convoy uncurled from around the fire. The entourage moved in a steady queue into the thick trees of the Ashgar Forest.
The branches and canopy of the pines and oaks formed eerie, writhing shapes in the flickering light of the travelers' torches.
Archon, in expectation of a bottleneck at Lord Aquiline's castle, sent a vanguard to the noble's stronghold. They brought word of the events that had taken place in Ram's laboratory and the decision of the villagers to venture to his domicile upon Xander's information.
The Dweomers traveled through the night. The rain subsided but the lightning and thunder remained. The cries of owls and ravens reverberated through the underbrush, verifying the untamed spirit of the wilderness.
Lord Aquiline was an active and outgoing noble. Upon the arrival of Archon's vanguard and the message of the villagers the knight responded immediately. The mustached, middle-aged Lord ordered a garrison to accompany him to the forest road so that he might meet and protect the traveling convoy as soon as possible.
By dawn the Dweomers reached the outskirts of Aquiline's land. The Ashgar Forest dwindled in size and magnitude. The moon shone through the dissipating clouds and the thunder and lightning grew sporadic and distant.
“Hedrick, tell me what you see,” Ram queried. “Your eyes are younger than mine and are keen.”
“ We have left the forest primeval, uncle. This brush land belongs to Lord Aquiline. There is no sign of troglodytes in our midst. If all goes well we will be in the bosom of Aquiline's protection in a matter of hours.”
“Oh, good, nephew. Thank you for painting a picture for me,” answered the tinker of Dweomer Village.
Lord Aquiline and his people were not Dweomers. They were Portogans. These settlers were taller and more muscular than the forest folk. The Portogans didn't have pointed ears and slanted eyes like Hedrick and Ram. They were accustomed to trade with a variety of races and cities throughout the Fae Realm.
It was not uncommon for Lord Aquiline to employ his considerable military resources to protect outlying villages and spice caravans. The land was at times bereft with hostiles ranging from intrusive troglodytes to bullying goblin-men.
Lord Aquiline rode his Clydesdale warhorse at the head of his garrison. He was a firm yet compassionate leader and was held in good reputation among the Portogans. He indulged his vanity only so far as to grow out his auburn mustache. This he wore in two, long pleats which hung down past his angular chin. Aquiline had dark eyes and he kept his curled locks groomed with scented oil as was the custom of his culture.
A pair of knights carried standards at the side of their leader. The cloth banners were purple and bore the likenesses of dueling unicorns, the mythological mascots of the Portogans. All of Aquiline's soldiers wore chain mail which glistened in the early morning light. The armor covered their torsos and arms to extend in folds over their booted legs. The steeds of the knights trotted in a fancy, staggered gait which was an indication of the discipline and training of horse and rider alike.
Lord Aquiline spied the entourage of Dweomers as it continued to emerge in a serpentine queue from the Ashgar Forest. The leader of the Portogans was energized to see Archon's message come to fruition. He spurred his mount into a gallop and rode to the head of the convoy of evacuees. Archon and Xander raised their hands to greet the arrival of the noble knight.
“Salutations, Aquiline,” declared Archon. “I take it that you received my request. How fare things for the Portogans?”
“Quite well, Archon,” answered the curly-haired Lord. “I understand the Dweomers have run into a bit of trouble in the Ashgar Forest.”
The brown-cloaked wizard leaned over on his horse and took the knight in a chivalric embrace. Aquiline also exchanged pleasantries with Xander.
“Yes, that is the truth, my friend. The troglodytes are on a rampage of some kind and attacked some of my villagers last night. They claimed to be seeking a magical artifact. It is an amulet, if I understand correctly,” Archon said.
“Indeed, it is the talisman of the Ashgar Forest,” interjected Xander. “I seek it as well, upon the counsel of my guild of mages, The Hand.”
“That is impressive, southerner,” answered Aquiline. “It must be a powerful object to be sought by so many. Secrets are fleeting in these parts. I advise you to be cautious in your quest. Many magical forces are not meant to be coerced by mortal designs.”
“I agree, Lord Aquiline,” replied the green-cloaked mage. “Unfortunately the amulet vanished some years ago in an undertaking to destroy a hostile Daemon, Gor, who acquired power from the internecine conflicts of the War of the Ancients.
“Gor cannot be left with the Ashgar talisman,” Xander continued. “He is reckless and evil and would do nought but harness the energy of the Dweomer spirit it contains for conquest and tyranny. Chaos has already come to these peace-loving Dweomers. I suspect that Gor holds a personal grudge against their race. Two Dweomer nobles attempted to use the amulet to destroy him. They must have fallen victim to his insatiable ire and, now, both their whereabouts and that of the amulet they bore are enigma.”
Hedrick and Ram reached the cluster of mounted riders at the head of the traveling group.
“Harold and Hathaway were my parents. As Xander says, they sought to defeat Gor but must have been thwarted. I miss them dearly and am grateful to my uncle, Ram, for taking me under his wing in their absence.
“Please, Lord Aquiline, something must be done to stop Gor and his minions.”
“Easy, young Dweomer,” chuckled the Portogan Lord. “I have quite a bit of responsibility on my hands, as you can see. Your people are in imminent need of food, shelter and protection. Please allow me to tend to their needs before engaging on your magical quest.”
“I am in your debt, Aquiline,” Archon intoned. “The position of my people in the forest was untenable. It is true that we are at your disposal for none of us know when the marauding lizards may again attempt to assail us.”
“Very well,” replied Lord Aquiline. “Let's keep this convoy moving.
“Follow us, good Dweomers! You are guests of the Portogans until such time as we get to the bottom of the dilemma at hand. You will find sustenance and safety in the courtyard of my modest stronghold. Onward, my friends!”
Lord Aquiline turned his garrison to follow the forest road back to the castle. Ram and the other travelers urged their horses and livestock along the earthen path. They reached Aquiline's fortress by midday.
All of the Dweomers were drained both physically and emotionally by the sudden escape from their village. They parked their wagons in the sizable courtyard marketplace of the fortress. They tethered their animals where they could and lounged haphazardly in the shade of a well-manicured grove of apple trees. They ate dried food and drank water from the communal fountain. Dweomer and Portogan children played on the cobblestones as the adults chatted in worried tones.
Archon spoke in depth with Lord Aquiline and his court. He returned to the quadrant of the stronghold to check on the welfare of the apprehensive forest folk. The brown-cloaked mage paused to speak with Ram and Hedrick as he made his rounds.
“Ram, Hedrick, it is good to see you. There is going to be a meeting tonight in Lord Aquiline's dining hall. You are both invited. The Portogans are intrigued by the events that have taken place of late. They await your story and perspective on the troglodyte attack. I must be on my way but look forward to seeing you with Aquiline tonight.”
Despite the tragedy of the evacuation of his home Hedrick fought hard to conceal his excitement over his upcoming meeting with the Portogans. He had an adventurous, inquisitive soul and enjoyed seeing new faces and making friends.
“Don your best jerkin, Hedrick,” said Ram. “You want to make a good impression on Lord Aquiline's court. I'm sure that all eyes will be on you for your story of our struggle.”
“Yes, uncle,” Hedrick responded.
The young Dweomer opened his travel chest and put on his finest leather attire. In a matter of hours he headed into the castle proper.
Aquiline's castle was an architectural marvel. Stone-cutters and masons had labored for decades to assemble the ornate, Gothic towers and ramparts. Falcons and pigeons populated an elaborate aviary that was used to send messages and correspondence to the farthest reaches of the Fae Realm.
A bell tower notified the surrounding countryside of important events and times to initiate and complete the seasonal harvests. At the front of the castle keep was a massive clock, the mechanical workings of which Ram had found captivating. The tinker, upon the permission of the official timekeeper, made quick sketches of the assemblage of gears, weights, springs and pulleys that kept the giant timepiece functioning.
The guards let Hedrick pass through the broad doors of the keep and the Dweomer marched up the steps to the dining hall. The spacious chamber was filled with lively male and female Portogans. Large cuts of meat sizzled on spits as they rotated over the roaring, central brazier. Jesters and minstrels entertained the audience as they dined on Lord Aquiline's sumptuous board of fair.
The chamber was decorated with ancient tapestries which Hedrick ogled with fascination. The vaulted ceiling above was a testament to the constructive mastery of its builders.
This is the most sophisticated architecture I've seen, thought Ram's nephew. I wonder if there are similar castles in the other cities of the world.
“Oyez, oyez!” cried a herald. “Please welcome your Lord Aquiline and the Lady Rosalia!”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and rose to their feet to applaud the entrance of their leader and his wife.
“Thank all of you!” bellowed Aquiline, who had traded his chain mail for a fashionable jacket and breeches.
“Please, enjoy yourselves and be seated. I must confer with our new guests.”
The Lord and Lady, who was quite beautiful and had flowing, dark hair, sat at the middle dining table next to Archon and Xander.
Aquiline caught Hedrick's eye and gestured for him to approach. The Lord shook the Dweomer's hand robustly and introduced him to the Lady of the castle.
“Hedrick, meet my wife, Rosalia.”
The Dweomer took the pretty Portogan Lady's hand and genuflected briefly. He was nervous in such company and his cheeks flared an uncomfortable red.
“Hello, Hedrick,” said Rosalia. “I've heard much about you. We look forward to listening to your account of the troglodyte attack on Dweomer Village.”
“I'm honored, my Lady,” Hedrick replied.
He took a seat at the table next to Xander.
“If you please, Xander,” Aquiline asked. “Reiterate your knowledge of the Ashgar talisman for my court. All of us are interested in the security of the Fae Realm.”
“By all means, Lord Aquiline,” answered the southern mage.
The green-cloaked Dweomer stood by the now dwindling cook fire and cleared his throat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, with your permission I will disclose the details of an unfortunate series of events that has taken place relatively recently, since the close of the War of the Ancients, in fact.
“It has come to the understanding of The Hand, my guild, that the arcane entity, the Daemon, Gor, has plotted to drain the spiritual reserves of the Ashgar Forest. He is malicious and hostile and, I fear, is now directing the troglodyte hordes to pillage on his behalf...”
A gut-wrenching boom shook the foundation of Lord Aquiline's castle. The people in attendance gasped and shrieked in fear. The Lord, Lady and others rose to their feet. Soldiers and knights drew their swords and stepped forward to protect their leader.
“Aquiline, what is going on?”
Rosalia embraced her husband with apprehension.
“Rargh! Xander, you fool!”
A guttural, disembodied voice echoed over the dining hall.
“The amulet is mine! You will not take my prize from me nor stop my acquisition of the Fae Realm!”
A giant, translucent, Daemonic image appeared before the crowd. It was Gor. His eyes were devoid of irises and his horned head turned to stare at the southerner.
“You will pay for your folly. My troglodytes are upon you, now. Surrender or die. I will not tolerate the loss of the Dweomer spirit within me. It affords me vision and power, neither of which will I divest to you.”
The Portogan Lord drew his sword and pointed it at the shimmering illusion.
“We will not surrender, Gor!” yelled Lord Aquiline. “You have a fight on your hands!”
“As you wish, stubborn Portogan. You will not live to regret your insolence. My troglodytes, kill them!”
The wavering likeness of the Daemon vanished, leaving the residents and visitors to the castle alone in the dining hall. An anxious guard hustled into the hushed chamber and addressed Lord Aquiline.
“My Lord, the troglodytes have massed outside the city walls. They are joined by a battalion of goblin-men. They have owl-bears and displacer beasts in their number. An assault on our Portogan settlement has commenced. What are you orders?”
“Alert the knights and subordinate troops. Prepare this castle for an all-out siege. We will not tread softly into the coming night.
“Fire the braziers and put the oil into place. Arm the bolt throwers and catapults. Set a rotating watch of marksmen on the ramparts. Have them loose their arrows at any assailants that venture within range. This stronghold has learned much from the War of the Ancients and will not surrender to a handful of lizards and carnivores.”
“Yes, Sir,” answered the guard.
He saluted his commander and turned to convey the orders to the proper channels.
Lady Rosalia gripped her husband's arm and spoke to him.
“Aquiline, you must hasten to the aviary. There you can send word of our predicament to the neighboring cities of the Fae Realm via carrier pigeon. There are Portogan ships on the coast nearby. They will assuredly send troops to our aid if they learn of this engagement.”
“Your counsel if sound, beloved,” Aquiline responded. “I will go to the aviary at once. I will write to Captain Jairo, requesting support from his forces at sea. In turn I will petition Avalon and Obelix. Those cities have long proven allies of the Portogans and will certainly send reinforcements when they learn of this impending siege.
“Take care, my wife,” the Lord cautioned. “I would have you stay clear of harm's reach. Await me in our bedchamber under armed guard. I know you are an able fencer but would not sacrifice your martial talents to this petty skirmish at any cost. Keep a watchful eye on our young children and sing them a song for me. This foolishness will be over soon, I'm sure.”
“So be it,” answered Lady Rosalia.
The Lord of the Portogan castle returned his wife's grasp and gave her a quick kiss. The two nobles parted, both accompanied by soldiers with swords drawn and shields at the ready.
* * * * *
Hedrick was astounded by the events that had taken place in the dining hall.
I am impressed by Lord Aquiline's cool leadership in this time of crisis, he thought. I must get a glimpse of the troglodyte forces. Archon and Xander are busy making battle plans. Uncle Ram is tending to the welfare of the Dweomer villagers in the courtyard below. I guess its up to me to assess the resources of the enemy. As Uncle Ram said, I have keen eyesight.
The youthful Dweomer had been given a chain mail tunic by Lord Aquiline. He had also made a gift of a fine, Portogan short-sword. This the assistant tinker kept in a leather scabbard hung from his belt. In addition Hedrick donned a pair of ox-hide gauntlets and a steel helmet. Perhaps due to the shock of the previous night's attack he was unsure that the various defenders of the castle would succeed in their efforts to repel the reptilian invaders and their cohorts.
The sun hung low and crimson in the horizon beyond Lord Aquiline's stronghold. Hedrick glanced at the dark outlines of the Gothic towers as pigeons and falcons flew to and from the high structure of the aviary.
The castle bells tolled repeatedly, announcing the impending nightfall as well as petitioning support from outlying settlements.
Portogan soldiers lit rows of sconces along the ramparts so that their archers and captains could follow the movements of the enemy once the sun had set.
Hedrick found an observation point in an archer's tower at one of the many corners of the military edifice. He crouched in the topmost stockroom and looked out through a narrow window. The opening was just wide enough to shoot arrows from a longbow or bolts from a crossbow. The young Dweomer adult had neither of these but was satisfied to watch and wait until the battle began.
As soon as twilight was upon them a band of goblin-men rode horses to the front of the troglodyte horde surrounding the fortress. They carried blazing torches and lifted hollow sheep's horns to their lips. The swarthy, fanged humanoids blew a united tone of attack.
As before the troglodytes called out a nerve-wracking battle cry as they stormed the stronghold. Several battalions had prepared siege ladders and scaffolding to scale the walls. Other forces had tied an oak trunk to rock-laden wagons to function as a battering ram. This they pushed from three sides and drove repeatedly against the lowered portcullis.
It was then that Lord Aquiline, dressed in full military regalia, gave the order to empty the cauldrons of boiling oil from above. Cascades of hot liquid fell from crucial points around the castle perimeter. Numerous troglodytes and goblin-men were smitten by the defensive tactic. They screamed in pain and scrambled to shirk their steaming armor and scalding helmets.
Hedrick heard a rally of cheers from the Portogan soldiers atop the besieged fortress. Many of their startled opponents fled from the heat of the boiling oil and returned to the fold of the troglodyte horde.
The outcome of the conflict at the portcullis was not so one-sided. The aggressive agents of Gor drove their battering ram into the bolted, iron grid relentlessly. A dozen of the armed invaders fell to the arrows of Lord Aquiline's marksmen but still they pushed on.
Other marauders took the opportunity to hoist their ladders and scaffolding against the walls. Knights and soldiers of various ranks hurried to topple what structures they could but the majority of them allowed scores of reptilian humanoids to scale their objective. A tense melee ensued on the ramparts.
Hedrick drew his sword.
I must help my friends. It is no use dallying here.
The Dweomer ran from his viewpoint in the stockroom and quickly descended a flight of stairs to the nearest rampart.
A thundering crash echoed over the battle.
“The gate is compromised! Protect the courtyard! Our Dweomer cousins need help!” hollered Lord Aquiline.
Before he could enter the fray atop the wall Hedrick was chilled by the commander's warning. He looked down, into the quadrant, and saw a spearhead of elite troglodyte militia rush into the crowded network of wagons and tents left by his people.
Suddenly Ram, Xander and Archon emerged from a stable at the opposite end of the sometime marketplace. They were accompanied by a motley band of Dweomers and Portogans intent on protecting their lives and property.
Ram had again armed himself with his experimental blunderbuss. This he fired directly at the charging mass, dropping three of the brigands with spreading shot.
Xander again uttered his practiced spell, gesturing with his hands.
His flaming missile struck its mark, this time blowing the troglodyte to bits of pulp.
Archon was incensed by both the loss of his village and this new attack on his people. He enchanted a magic of his own device.
A pair of wyverns appeared over the shoulders of the aged seer. They screeched with rage and spat a series of acrid flames at the intruders.
I've seen enough, thought Hedrick.
The Dweomer wielded his sword over his head and unleashed a war cry of his own.
“For my parents!”
He ran the nearest reptilian through and parried the blade of a second. Hedrick then sidestepped and stabbed the invader a fearsome cut through the left shoulder. As the troglodyte fell Hedrick turned to contend with a third.
Lord Aquiline spotted the courageous Dweomer from a neighboring battlement.
“I want five of you reserves to go to that fighter. He is under my protection.”
The Portogan soldiers did as ordered and drew their swords. They rushed into the melee.
Ram swung his expended blunderbuss like a club. There was no time to reload the cumbersome weapon. He knocked several troglodytes and goblin-men lifeless.
Xander maintained his volley of fireballs.
Archon's wyverns flapped their membranous wings as they hovered over the brown-cloaked mage's shoulders. The young dragons continued to bombard what enemy forces that lingered in the courtyard with blasts of acrid flame.
On the ramparts the fight intensified. Hedrick teamed up with Aquiline's reserve. They hewed at the marauders wholeheartedly and vanquished those that had scaled the wall at that location.
“The tide is turning, my friends!” offered Lord Aquiline. “Let us double our efforts and free this castle of this accursed siege once and for all!”
“Yes, Lord!” replied the fighters.
They did as their leader commanded and entered the fight with renewed vigor.
Rosalia meditated in her bedchamber within the castle keep. She
paused to address her two, young children, a boy and girl.
“I hope all fares well for your father.”
The yells and sounds of intense conflict reverberated through the hallway outside the locked door.
Rosalia spoke to Marta, her lady-in-waiting.
“Marta, please take the children into the antechamber and bar the door. Do not come out until I give word that it is safe.”
“Yes, my Lady,” answered the trusted servant.
She did as her friend asked.
“Come on, kids. Let us play in the antechamber for a while.”
Lady Rosalia rose to her feet as the raucous noise of battle grew louder and seemingly more desperate. She tied her hair in a hasty braid at her back and opened the armoir. Aquiline's spouse took out her fencing uniform and put it on. She drew her foil from where it hung on hooks at the back of the large cabinet.
Voices passed through the door to the bedchamber, as did the sound of footfalls and swords being pulled from their scabbards.
“Protect Lady Rosalia at all costs. To arms, men! Go back, foul lizards!”
Rosalia trembled with concern as the clash of steel upon steel seemed to emanate from just outside the bedchamber. Her worry increased as she heard groans of pain and then silence. Guttural mutterings next resonated through the door. Lady Rosalia clutched her foil in a practiced stance.
At once a series of blows pounded on the sealed portal. The sturdy oak began to chip and shatter in a flurry of splinters as someone or something hacked at it from the opposite side. In a thundering cacophony the door was ripped apart. Troglodyte hands reached in and pulled the defunct wood free of the hinges.
A pair of snarling, reptilian invaders leaped into Rosalia's bedchamber with swords drawn and bloody. Before the Lady of the castle was able to contend with them the air was filled with the scent of ozone and sulfur.
A feline displacer beast materialized in the middle of the room. It had slavering fangs and clawed at the fencer in a series of strikes.
Rosalia was startled, more surprised than scared, and quickly regained her composure.
Nothing comes between me and my children, she thought.
She targeted the creature at the nape of the neck and thrust in her glinting foil. The displacer beast howled in agony and fell dead to the side of the chamber. A pool of green blood formed on the rug under the carcass.
“Surrender or die, Portogan woman,” yelled one of the troglodytes.
The reptilian humanoid lunged at Rosalia with his sword. This she parried easily and rendered a counter with her weapon, piercing her adversary deep through the midriff.
The remaining troglodyte opted against a direct confrontation and made a mad dash for the door to the antechamber. This course of action angered the protective mother and she coldly ran the brigand through from behind. The invader passed away nearly instantly.
Lady Rosalia trotted to the compromised door and scanned the hallway in both directions. No one was to be seen other than three, dead Portogan guards who had fallen at their posts. The noble woman reentered her bedchamber and yelled to her lady-in-waiting.
“Marta, open the door. We must seek Aquiline. Our guards have been killed.”
After a moment the attendant slid the bar free and opened the portal. She stepped into the room with the two, small children at her side. Marta gasped at the unsightly cadavers and deceased displacer beast.
“What has happened, my Lady? What is that thing?”
“Never mind, Marta. We must be on our way. Come on, kids.”
Rosalia led her charges down the hall with her bloody foil in hand. They headed to Lord Aquiline's station on the ramparts.
* * * * *
Hedrick saw that the siege of the Portogan castle had reached a turning point.
Swordsmen and lancers finished off what troglodytes remained. At the ruptured portcullis they fought a trio of snapping owl-bears with spears and crossbows.
Those lizard soldiers and goblin-men that lived recognized that things were not going as they'd planned. The vast majority of them turned tail and fled to the comparative safety of the Ashgar Forest.
“We are victorious!” yelled Hedrick. “Congratulations, Lord Aquiline!”
“Thank you, brave Dweomer. You fought well this night. You have our gratitude.”
“It was nothing,” Hedrick smiled.
The mustached Lord grabbed him in a hearty embrace.
The Portogans and Dweomers cheered throughout the castle. The Lord met with his wife and children and hugged each of them. They descended from the ramparts and greeted Ram, Xander and Archon. The Dweomer evacuees were shaken by the violent experience but were unharmed.
Archon addressed the group. His wyverns had vanished at the end of the siege.
“Lord Aquiline and the rest of you, we must not sit on our laurels. The Daemon, Gor, has proven to be a formidable adversary and a nuisance to we Dweomers. He cannot be permitted to keep the talisman of the Ashgar Forest.
“What's more his demise, by any means, will benefit us all. The troglodytes and fell beasts which we vanquished here, tonight, are bound to return. They are bloodthirsty and reckless.
“I move that we assemble a traveling party set on locating Gor, wherever he may be, and retrieving the ruby amulet from him, living or dead.”
“That is more easily said than done, Archon,” replied Lord Aquiline. “As you mentioned, Gor's whereabouts are unknown and if we do find him he is virtually immortal. It will be no easy task to eliminate him from the Fae Realm permanently.”
“I have my suspicions,” said Xander. “My guild, The Hand, is more resourceful than you may know. We have agents deployed in many cities, with watchful eyes and open ears. There is bound to be intelligence in regard to the movements of such a conspicuous entity as Gor since the close of the War of the Ancients.
“Let me venture to the clandestine headquarters of my guild in the southern city of Obelix. I will confer with Roland, my superior. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he has clues to Gor's whereabouts.”
“That would be wise, Xander,” said Lord Aquiline. “I would accompany you, personally, but regret that I must attend to the tactical defense of my people...”
“I will go, Aquiline,” interjected Rosalia. “I will represent the Portogans on your behalf.”
“No, my love. Your place is here, with our children,” replied the Portogan.
“That is as I would have it, my Lord. Marta will take care of our heirs. My skills will be needed on this quest. I can fend for myself, as you know.”
“Of course. It is just that I'll miss you, I suppose,” said Aquiline.
“As I you, Aquiline. This must be done, however, and I'm sure our family will be reunited soon.”
Rosalia gave her husband a kiss.
“So be it,” answered the worried Lord. “You have my blessing. Speak with this Roland in my stead. He will help us if he is able.”
“Lord Aquiline, I have a favor to ask of you,” Archon stated.
“Yes, friend wizard,” the Lord answered.
Protect my Dweomers in my absence. My abilities will be needed in this endeavor if it is to succeed.”
“As will mine,” said Ram. “I have many tools and devices. Perhaps we will use them to extract the amulet from Gor's body, that is, once he is located and subdued.”
“Very well, Archon and Ram,” responded Aquiline. “You will be much needed on this mission. Take what supplies and horses you need. I will send Rosalia with an elite garrison of Portogan knights. They will be hand-picked, I assure you.”
He glanced at Rosalia with a protective expression.
“Get some rest, tonight. You all should conserve your energy while you can. None of us know what challenges this adventure holds in store for you.”
The members of the traveling party took Lord Aquiline up on his word and rested in spots throughout the castle under the light of the moon and stars. The sounds of ravens and toads filled the air.