The Skadivers' Tale

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Raustorn

RAUSTORN

The Company had once again been able to take advantage of the hospitality of the Xeltic Priests. The evening meal was being enjoyed by most, but the Skadivers wished again to linger in the baths for a time before joining them. As Sam and Genie relaxed in the waters, Sam was wondering if Hazgorn and Vyrna were also playing in the baths somewhere in their cavern.

“What are you thinking, Sammy?” Genie asked as she lay back on the warm, wet stone.

“I was just wondering about our dragons,” Sam replied and gazed at his ring.

“We have dragons.” She giggled. Playfully, she teased Sam. “Okay, so do these rings mean we’re married now?”

“Nice try, my lady.” He looked again at his ring.

Genie noticed how he was looking at it, and she put hers next to his. “Well, these are supposed to be filled with ‘Old Magic’. Let’s see if you have any dragon blood in you.” She thought about Sam kissing her and concentrated. Sam just looked at her.

“Really?” he asked. He kissed her.

“It worked?” she asked amazedly.

“You don’t need a ring to make me kiss you, and I don’t have to be a mind-reader either.”

“Okay, but let’s try something. I’ll think about Vyrna and see if I can feel anything. You think about Hazgorn and see what happens,” she suggested.

“Sure, I’ll play along.” And they began to think about their dragons. Nothing was really happening, but when Genie reached over and took Sam’s hand, they both suddenly began to get glimpses of something.

“Hazgorn,” Sam whispered.

“Samuel?” came the reply.

“Definitely weird,” Sam said. “Did you get anything? Because I just did. Think about Vyrna and talk to her.”

“Vyrna,” Genie whispered, trying to imitate Sam.

“Genevieve,” came her reply.

“Are you all right?” Genie continued.

“Yes. How…?”

“My ring. Is this bad? We were just playing,” Genie replied.

“We are playing too. See you on the morrow.”

Genie laughed. “I think we interrupted them.”

“Interrupted them?” Sam queried.

Genie brought her gleaming wet body to bear on Sam. “Yes, interrupted them.” She kissed him hard, and Sam knew they would not be going to evening meal very soon.

Hannegelt and Kemann were awakened before dawn and the leaders summoned for a meeting with the High Priest. It was hard for them to pry themselves out of the comfortable beds, but the reality of their situation drove them forward to Dyreon’s chambers without delay. Gensonn was already there and talking with his Master.

“Your fathers have passed the Dalyr tribesmen. This day will bring them to the Point, where they will attempt to take the ferry across to Styric Isle. Should they accomplish the crossing, they can make Styric’s Hold by the end of the second day hence,” Dyreon divined. “More likely, they will stay away from the Hold until the pre-dawn hour, to rest their men for the final battle.”

“That would give us plenty of time to make the flight,” Hannegelt observed.

“Yes, but there are forces on Styric Isle that must be avoided. Should Styric divine their presence, he would send these forces to meet them. If that were to occur, they will fail.”

“Unless we can capture his focus,” Kemann suggested.

“Two dozen dragons could do that,” Hannegelt said.

We cannot see dragons with our divinations,” the High Priest stated. “The Xeltics believe Styric cannot see them either. A different offensive move might be required. Should you attack one of Styric’s puppet Holds, you may well catch his eye.”

“What lies between Olden and Styric Isle?” Hannegelt thought out loud.

“Raustorn,” Kemann said.

“A very strong Hold, indeed,” Dyreon commented.

“If we depart at once, we can reach Raustorn Hold in seven, perhaps eight hours,” Kemann said.

“In daylight. That would give us little advantage. Dragons or no, they have skilled archers who could stand against us. The darkness would take away their targets,” Hannegelt reasoned.

“Taking a Skadiver tack?” Kemann asked.

“Perhaps,” Hannegelt. “If we were to get to Raustorn and set down on the Black Ridge on the north side of the Hold, we could rest and wait for darkness to mount an attack.”

“Gensonn can keep watch on your fathers’ progress as you go,” the High Priest stated.

“As you wish, High Priest,” Gensonn nodded.

“So, you may take morning meal with us and depart at your leisure,” Dyreon said, basically dismissing them. “But, a word of advice to you—you have with you the Skadivers. They have little knowledge of Hordann, but they have much knowledge about things that could be very useful to you. Listen to their counsel, as you have joined this New Sky Hold, it seems.”

The riders were given the opportunity to get their gear in order and take on new food and drink. Sam’s makeshift paracord harnesses had been replaced with leather straps and buckles made by Olden Tradesfolk during the night. There had been about a half of an hour for fitting the new rigs when the dragons had come up from the caves. When they came up, the dragons also drank more of the spring water in the courtyard pools. They said the water had a different taste to the water in their caverns, and found it to their liking.

Sam apologized to Hazgorn about having ‘interrupted’ him the night before, and explained that he and Genie had just been playing around with the rings to see if they could do anything. Hazgorn was not angry about the interruption, but he expressed concern that Samuel and Genie had been ‘playing’ with the Old Magic. That having been said, he went on to discuss what this new ability to communicate afforded them. It could have its advantages, but the power of Ingebriggt’s rings was something of which to be very wary. The dragon made it clear that they are extending a lot of trust at this point. It was agreed (between the four of them) to keep this ability quiet, because if the others started to ‘play’ with the rings’ power, it could lead to a dark path. However, Hazgorn agreed to explore this ability further on the upcoming flight.

Nearly two hours after daybreak, the Air Force was on its way south. The leisurely pace was good for sight-seeing, and an hour into the flight, they were passing over the Ruins of North Terea. The name struck a chord with Sam as he remembered having fought the man from Terea near Enverra. That man had come from South Terea, which was still a Styric stronghold city that they would hopefully avoid.

The ruins of the city were much as the Company would have expected, based on the description. Decaying roads and structures of stone, which had crumbled, and an assortment of vegetation taking back the land near the sea, was all there was to be seen on the fly-over.

North Terea had been built on the coast of Terea Bay, and its southwestern counterpart was on the northeastern end of Armored Isle. Their course to Raustorn Hold would thankfully take them east of that city before reaching the northern end of Raustorn Isle. But first they would have to make the crossing of Terean Bay at Shallow Pass.

The flight was three hours old before they cleared the land and soared out over the sea. Much to the surprise of the riders, the dragons came down from their previous cruising altitude to only a hundred feet above the waves. Some of the dragons began diving at the water and coming up with fish in their claws. They would then toss them in front of themselves and catch them in their mouths, swallowing them whole. The acrobatics of the maneuver made their riders happy to have upgraded their harnesses to stout leather.

“We haven’t had our morning meal,” Hazgorn explained to Sam.

It had probably not occurred to any of the Company that the dragons had not eaten since they left their bluffs. So the next few miles were all about the fish. When at last, all of the dragons had eaten their fill, they began to ascend back to their regular altitude.

Sam found himself looking at clouds again, but Rent was still eluding him. He looked back over the formation of dragons and riders, admiring the grandeur.

“Quite an Armada, we have here!” he half-shouted over to Genie.

“The Dragon Armada!” she called back. “Let’s hope it’s more successful than the Spanish one!”

“Point taken! Have you tried the thing?”

“We’ve been doing it for hours! It’s great!” she replied.

“They’ve been doing it for hours,” he said aloud to Hazgorn. “I’ve been looking at clouds, and they have been talking through the ring for hours.”

“Females,” Hazgorn commented. “Perhaps we should practice this ‘Ringspeak’, Samuel.”

So, for the rest of the time over the water, Sam and Hazgorn explored one of the beneficial powers of the ring. It became easier to make the connection for Sam after a bit of practice. Like any activity, such as throwing darts, skill comes with practice. Before long, Sam could make this connection without hardly even trying, and the conversations were very pleasant. He came to understand that he had much in common with his dragon. The hardest part of that to comprehend for Sam was that it involved a dragon. His Earthly origin, with the obvious lack of dragons (which were thought to be purely fictitious), this relationship was a hard concept to embrace—even for someone as open-minded as Sam. Surely, he would learn to see beyond this ‘barrier’. But, Sam also considered that this was not unlike any new friendship; forgetting the whole dragon aspect of the thing, new friendships must navigate around many likes and dislikes, agreements and disagreements, willingness to empathize, but most of all, honesty. Sam and Hazgorn both were appreciating the honesty they were holding to with each other. True, Sam was a little more reluctant to say that he disagreed with Hazgorn, than Hazgorn was with he, but the truth of opinions and viewpoints were always to win out.

The north shore of Raustorn Isle was getting close, and the dragons once again began a descent. They seemed to be going for one last fish dinner before the whole of Raustorn Isle. With fish in tow, the dragons lighted down on the beach in a secluded quay to eat and rest. They had been flying for nearly five hours straight, and the riders felt like they needed a break too.

The Company relaxed together for a time and ate well before Hannegelt stood to make an announcement.

“My friends, Kemann and I have discussed this at length, and we have decided to ask the Son of Sky Hold to lead the assault on Raustorn Hold,” he announced.

There was a general buzz of small discussion, but most agreed that this was a clever idea. Sam and Genie were a little taken aback at this.

“I thank you for your confidence, and I shall try to do my best, but I am not trained in the ways of war,” Sam admitted. “My first battle was on the wall of Gilden Hold.”

“Where your insights proved very accurate,” Kemann stated.

All eyes were on Sam. “I have said that I will do my best.”

Dannhelm caught eye contact with him. “You shall do very well. I know.”

The group sat quietly for a moment, and then slapped their hands on their knees, because they had no cups or table to rap them on.

“Okay,” Sam said, and several of the Company looked confused at this word, “we’ll continue with the plan to make for the ridge above Raustorn Hold. We can look over the place and wait until after dark to make a move. Maybe we can think of something cool.” There was a momentary lull; Sam had noticed on multiple occasions this same ‘lull’. Whenever he used strange vernacular from Sky Hold, the disconnect actually froze these Hordannfolk for a moment. They, after all, did listen to words closely and held to them.

Again, the Company was confused by his words, but they said nothing out of respect. His actions since landing at Gilden Hold had indeed earned their respect, but to Sam, he was always just trying to do his best and make a difference.

There were two and a half hours of flying time to the ridge, and Sam tried not to worry. Once they got there, he knew he would have to make some kind of a plan. Hopefully it would be a plan that didn’t get any of them hurt—or worse. He had said that he lacked military training, and that was true. Part of that kind of leadership training would have included dealing with the responsibility the leader had towards the men under his command. Without a doubt, trained leaders feel terrible about losing men, but they are also trained to view them as tools and numbers (to a limited extent) and keep relationships limited. Failure to do so could debilitate a leader when the losses come and render him less effective. Sam, however, was not trained in this manner. He was, in fact, just the opposite, coming into a leadership role amongst people who had become his friends. Either his feelings for his comrades would inspire him to make the best choices, or they could become his downfall should bad fortune attend. He would once again be taunting Chance on his way to reveal his Destiny, as Hordannfolk would say. Hazgorn had little wisdom to impart in their private discussions during the flight, but he was very supportive, and tried to ease Sam’s mind. Sam could tell that the dragon was holding back, that he had a lot to say, but for some reason would not.

Genie and Vyrna continued their dialog, and most certainly talked about this new responsibility. Genie inherently trusted Sam, but she also knew that he usually did better when she was at hand to help fill in the gaps in his plans. Vyrna recognized this viewpoint, and tried to express her respect for her new friends’ relationship. Dragons, on the whole, on Hordann, don’t really do much. Ambitions are few among Dragonkind, but then they are peaceful animals. The fact that Sam and Genie were actively pursuing personal and career goals, and now, apparently, involved in this war, was very intriguing to Vyrna. She was familiar with the concept of partnership, as with her mate, but the kind of interaction required to actively participate in such a variety of activities was beyond her ken. It didn’t mean that she was not open to learn, however. Dragons do spend a large portion of their time devoted to intellectualizing many things. Given some more time, Vyrna would understand.

The dragons kept low, traversing the island. Thick forest covered most of the island’s interior, and the riders learned not to look down as they passed closely to the tree tops. If they did, their eyes would begin to hurt, leading to nausea, motion sickness. It was better if they kept their focus forward. The leagues passed below them quickly, and they were delighted to not be trudging along the forest floor with no breeze in their faces. Before long, the target ridge was in sight. Hazgorn’s sharp eyes had picked a landing site long before Sam could see any details of the rise.

They landed about an hour before dusk and kept to the tree line, for the most part, so as not to be seen by any outlying patrols. There was plenty of time to rest, but Sam and Hannegelt were anxious to peer over the ridge at Raustorn Hold. Kemann came up behind them and settled in beside them as they lay prone to surveille.

The Hold was certainly there, and not unlike other Holds in Hordann, it was built on a rise. A main difference was that the Hold’s walls extended down to a narrow strait, where its many ships were moored. The Hold itself was huge, perhaps the largest in Hordann.

“That is a big Hold,” Sam observed.

“The good thing is that we do not have to take it, but merely attack it to attract Styric’s attention,” Kemann remarked.

“With the dragons, that should be an easy task,” Hannegelt said. “Should they simply fly through and set it ablaze with Dragonflame.”

Sam thought about it for a few moments. “No,” he said at last.

“No?” Hannegelt asked.

“You told me that Raustorn uses long bows. The dragons would have to fly low in order to use their Dragonflame, and that would put them easily in range of long bows. I won’t risk dragon lives to make things easier for us,” Sam explained. “There has got to be a better way.” He continued to look around the cityscape when a smell wafted to his nose. It reminded him of exhaust on the roads while he rode his motorcycle through traffic. Looking closer, he could see some blackish smoke rising from several buildings in the distance. “What is that smoke?”

“We sit upon the Black Ridge. It is believed that the black in this stone yields an oil that Raustorn squeezes from the rock. They burn it for their industries,” Kemann stated.

“Coal oil, or its Hordann equivalent,” Sam muttered. “Interesting.” He rolled over and looked at the sky in the waning daylight, thinking.

“What is it, Samuel?” Hannegelt queried.

“Well, there must be a place down there where they keep that oil. If we could hit that, it would really be a big bang for the buck.”

Hannegelt and Kemann froze up for a moment, then looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Yet another expression that was beyond their understanding.

“Hordann technology is not very advanced. Nothing personal, guys. That oil is flammable, so we blow it up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Styric himself could see the glow in the sky from that.”

“How do we do this?” Hannegelt asked.

“Well, first we’ll need better eyes.” He closed his eyes and, with Ring Talk, asked Hazgorn to come up to the ridge with them, and to keep low.

In a few moments, the stealthy dragon approached and crouched with the three men. Once again, Hannegelt and Kemann were at a loss as to how Sam was doing whatever it was he was doing.

Sam did not explain that he had called Hazgorn using Ringspeak. The dragon peered into the distance for several minutes.

“I believe what you seek is there,” he said out loud, pointing a claw to a large building with a tall conical roof. “The tall pointed one near the wall on this side.”

“Nearest the mountain. Makes sense,” Sam said.

“What sense?” Kemann asked.

“Well, if they dig the stone out of the mountain, they bring it in the back gate and process it close by. For one thing, it’s easier, being close, but also the process probably stinks, so they keep it away from the main part of the Hold. And they know it’s flammable, so they would try to keep that away from where a lot of them live, just for safety’s sake. I mean, they know how to make the oil, so they can’t be stupid.”

“That is good reasoning, Skadiver,” Kemann said. “We know little of these things.”

“How do you know nothing of this? This is an industry here on your planet?”

“We have never been to Raustorn, and this industry of which you speak is new to us,” Hannegelt explained.

“Well, I think a couple of us need to get in there,” Sam said. “How do we do that?”

“The layout of this Hold suggest that they mainly depend on this north wall to defend this direction, and that the main points of active defense would come from the east and west points on the strait, the Midisle Pass,” Hannegelt observed.

“If we caught their attention, say at that farthest point to the east, maybe Hazgorn could fly us to the top of the wall behind that tower and drop us off,” Sam suggested. “Kemann, any chance you could conjure up something that far away?”

“That is distant,” he answered with uncertainty.

“Could you do it from flight?” Hazgorn asked.

“I do not know how good it would be, but perhaps good enough,” the young Wizard replied.

“Looking ahead to Styric’s Hold, there are some other things to consider. Yes, our goal here is to divert his attention from Lord Gildenhanna. There is a chance that Styric still does not know we are coming,” Sam was thinking out loud.

“The Xeltic Priests do not believe Styric can divine anything about Dragonkind,” Kemann reported.

“Good to know,” Sam continued. “If that is the case, I think our plan here to blow the place up might be enough to catch his attention. If it just looks like an accident, and not an attack—especially not an attack from us on Dragonwing—then we might still have the element of surprise when we get to his Hold.”

“So, what are you suggesting?” Hannegelt asked.

“If you fly out to do this illusion, Kemann, make it look like something natural, and do it from the darkness out over the water so Hazhe is not seen. Fly way over to the east to come back up here to the ridge. If it works, Hazgorn can go west away from the wall to return here before all of the fireworks begin. The Raustorn folk will hopefully go down to the docks to see what has happened while we set off the oil reservoir.”

“And how do you return, Samuel?” Hazgorn asked.

“We run, of course. Anything else?” Sam asked. “Okay, we’ll try it. I’m going to need Dextmann to go with me. Hazgorn, any objections to carrying him with us to the wall?”

The dragon gave a quick burst of air through his nostrils, which was a sign of reluctance. “As you wish, Samuel, if that is what needs to be done.”

“Thank you. I’ll go talk to him. Kemann, you go talk to Hazhe and see if he’s game.”

“And as for me,” Hannegelt asked, feeling left out.

“You are the Company leader,” Sam said. “We can’t risk you down there. You could go with Kemann if you want to. Keep him out of trouble.”

Hannegelt wasn’t happy about his part in this plan, but they had reached an accord. They came down from the ridge to the rest of the Company. Sam laid out his plan, and he and Dextmann began to get ready. After hearing his version of the plan, Genie was concerned.

Sam was taking off his cloak so he could move more freely. Genie came to him.

“So, you have to go do this, huh?” she said with an unhappy lilt.

“Well, yeah, but I’ll have a good ninth-level thief with me.”

She shook her head and picked up a black stone. Pouring a little water on it, she began to rub it with her thumb. She stepped up to Sam and began applying some dark camouflage smudges on his face.

“Can’t do a show without makeup,” she said and continued to smudge him up. She then took some and rubbed it over the ‘X’ on his mail shirt so that it wouldn’t gleam. Dextmann came over and saw what she was doing, and liked the idea. He began to do the same.

Darkness had fallen, and the plan was set. Kemann and Hannegelt took off to make the wide swing around the Hold to the south. A few minutes later, Hazgorn carried the two riders down from the ridge, and they disappeared into the night. Immediately, Genie got with Beamann and asked that they go with her. She was determined to follow on foot down to the edge of the forest near the wall where Sam was headed, and she wanted the rest of the Company to arm themselves to aid in Sam and Dextmann’s retreat from the Hold. She also asked Vyrna to keep watch over the ridge just in case. She had seen enough movies to know that something always goes awry in these types of plans. As usual, Sam had devised a decent plan ‘A’, but had failed to have a contingency plan ‘B’.

Gliding down from the ridge, Sam and Dextmann saw the Wizard’s illusion at the docks. It was a fire on a ship approaching the docks. Kemann had created an entire ship aflame with men screaming and jumping overboard. There was an explosion on it a minute later, and the ship began to sink. The deception was good, and working perfectly, as many of the Hold folk could be seen running in the direction of the distressed ship.

Hazgorn swooped down and latched on to the outer wall just behind the tower, and Sam and Dextmann climbed up his neck to grab the top of the wall to scramble over. The dragon sprang from the side of the wall, and with a mighty flap of his wings was away into the darkness.

“So far, so good,” Sam said. “Let’s get down there.”

The tower had a window on the wall side, and they looked in. The place was dark, and that made sense. If the only light to be had was flame, then no work could continue after dark in a place that was full of flammables. That didn’t necessarily mean that there were no guards, however, so they stealthily climbed into the window and dropped a few feet onto a catwalk. Then they listened for a minute to see if they could detect any company. But it was dark, and even if their eyes adjusted, there was no way to see anything. An experienced thief, Dextmann had planned ahead. He reached into his pouch and pulled a small stone out. He threw it to the far side of the tower, and it echoed as it hit various metal and stone things before landing on the floor.

Immediately there was the sound of slow footsteps on stone down below. Sam knew at that moment that his plan was not going to be as easy as he had hoped. The footsteps he could hear were likely a man, who moved slowly and carefully, like a blind man in a familiar place. There was a rattling in the dark, and a small green glow grew down below, behind the silhouette of a large holding tank structure.

“Glowflies,” Dextmann whispered very low. Sam assumed that glowflies were like lightning bugs, and that this guy had a ‘lantern’ full of them, and he agitated them to get them to illuminate. The bugs gave out just enough light for the two cat burglars to get their bearings. Assuming that this guard would have spoken to another guard by this point, Sam figured him to be alone. The glow moved around the central tank structure and came into view to Sam’s left. He and Dextmann hugged the wall to stay in the shadows. Sam figured the height above the guard to be about twenty feet. On Earth, he might never attempt such a stunt, but here on Hordann, he thought he might have a shot at not breaking his ankles. He knew better than to land on the guard, because that could put his body into any number of awkward positions for landing. His best bet was to come down just behind the man and recover enough to fight before the man could react.

He pointed to the right, and indicated that Dextmann should go that way. As soon as the guard heard the movement in that direction, Sam would jump down and take him out. That was the plan. Sam pulled out his flashlight, and Dextmann began to move right. As hoped the guard spotted Dextmann and called out. Sam lit his flashlight to see his landing point and jumped down. The light caught the guard’s attention very quickly, and before Sam landed, he was right there with weapon drawn, ready to strike.

Sam’s landing was not too bad, but he could not keep his feet under him. He fell to the side of the tank as the guard’s sword arced where his head should have been. Sam flashed the light into the guard’s eyes and blinded him as the sword began a more accurate swing back, but Sam stepped forward into the man’s arm to avoid the blade. Without hesitation, Sam set his left leg back and landed a powerful blow to the guard’s solar plexus. The sword dropped to the floor as the man doubled over, gasping for air. Sam’s knee came up to meet the man’s head and he toppled over backward.

“Ouch,” Sam said, rubbing his knee as Dextmann came into the light from behind the man.

“Very good, Skadiver,” Dextmann said as he slid his dagger into the guard’s throat. “And now?”

“Let’s check out this tank.”

Using the flashlight, they walked around the structure. The technology was better than Sam had expected. He had hoped for a wooden barrel structure that they could chop a hole into, but there was no chopping this tank. It was like a steel tank from a refinery on Earth. In the movies, the spies always had some plastic explosives with timers to do this sort of demolition, but Sam had a boot knife, a flashlight and a cigarette lighter.

On the far side of the tank, the street side of the tower, he found a large spigot. It was probably for filling barrels to send out on ships or to the Hold folk.

“Okay, there is that,” Sam said, “Now, let’s look to see what else we can find.” They went into a couple of side rooms to scavenge. In the second room, they found several trash bins, in which were two clay bottles, probably from ale or wine. “Perfect,” Sam said, taking them and handing them to Dextmann. He returned to the dead guard and cut some of the man’s shirt sleeves to make rags. Dextmann was very curious as to what he was doing, having little experience with this sort of wizardry.

Sam cracked open the spigot very slightly and began filling the two clay bottles. “If this isn’t kerosene, I don’t know what is,” he commented. He then stuffed the cloth into the tops, leaving a length hanging out. “Molotov Cocktails,” he explained, but that was lost on the thief. After the bottles were filled, Sam opened the spigot all the way, and the clear oil began to pour out at a tremendous rate. “Time to go.”

He and Dextmann ran back up the stairs to the window, where Sam lit the fabric and tossed the bottle over the tank. The flames sprang up immediately. He was hoping that the metal tank would be stout enough to not blow up immediately, so they could get out safely. They climbed out the window without delay, and had to drop down the wall on the back side of the Hold. They ran off to the edge of the woods, and turned to see the flames growing higher in the window they had come through. Sam was expecting a Hollywood fireball, but all he got was flames. The tower was totally engulfed, and the woods they were in were now well-lit, so they figured that they had better make a hasty retreat. They were maybe fifty yards into the woods when Dextmann, leading the way, stopped abruptly and got low. Sam turned around to look at the flames again. When he turned to look back up the slope, he saw Dextmann being held by a large Raustorn soldier with three others coming for him.

“We do not take kindly to strangers with fire trying to burn down our Hold,” the leader said in a harsh accent.

The soldiers were just laying hands on Sam, when he got his explosion. They were all knocked to the ground, and Sam began to fight with the one nearest him. Dextmann squirmed, but could not break the hold the soldiers had on him. Sam’s boot knife had found hold in his opponent’s side, and the two fell over into the bushes. Another was there in a moment with sword in hand.

“That is enough from you,” he said grimly, but he did not get the chance to make his point. An arrow point protruded from his chest from the arrow entering his back. Sam had just enough time to recognize it as one of his own special arrow points before the man toppled over. The other soldiers were felled as deftly, leaving Dextmann standing by himself. Sam wiped his knife off and stood up. They seemed to be alone in the woods again.

“Thank, Genie,” he called.

“I want my arrow back,” she called back from the darkness.

“At your service,” Sam said, and he retrieved her arrow and cleaned it for her.

The Company emerged from their hiding places to begin making the hike back up to the top of the ridge.

Dannhelm came up to Sam and interrupted his moment with Genie. “Skadiver,” he said.

“Dannhelm,” Sam replied.

“There is another of your kind nearby.”

“My kind? What does that mean?”

“I sense him the way I sense you, who came through Rent,” Dannhelm said quietly.

“You mean from Earth? Or, uh, Sky Hold?”

“I do not know, but he is not of Styric’s mind. That I can tell. He is in the Raustorn gaol, just west of the tower you just destroyed.”

“No, Sam,” Genie said. He looked at her, reading his mind.

“Can we really just leave him in jail here? He might know something that can help us.”

She sighed. “Okay, what’s the plan?”

“I don’t have one yet. Everyone, come over here.”

The Company members that had come down from the ridge gathered around quietly to hear the situation. Sam was asking for ideas.

Beamann stepped up. “We have five Raustorn soldier’s garb. That could get us in.”

“That could get us killed,” Dextmann added.

“Right now, we have an advantage, because all hell’s breaking loose with the fire,” Sam stated. “So, if we put on the Raustorn armor, several of us could get into the jail and spring this guy.”

“Why do we need to do that?” Gensonn asked.

“Samuel thinks this man might have answers about Rent,” Dannhelm explained.

“We need to think about our greater mission,” Gensonn answered. “We have given the diversion for Lord Gildenhanna without revealing the dragons. We should get out while still undiscovered.”

“I agree with you,” Sam said, “but…I don’t know who this guy is, or what he knows. When I saw the tank in the tower, I knew something was wrong. It should have been some large wooden cask, but it was more advanced, like something from Earth technology. I think they are keeping this guy prisoner and making him teach them how to make things. He could know all kinds of things about weapons and war. So, let’s say we defeat Styric and get things back to normal. That would be great, but Raustorn could become very powerful using his knowledge, and become as great a threat to you.”

“The Skadiver was named leader of this assault,” Beamann pointed out. “If he wishes to free this man, then we should do it.”

Gennson was not happy about this folly. Begrudgingly, he said, “At your service.”

“And I am at yours,” Sam responded. He looked at the group before him. “Bowmann, Beamann, Johamann, Dannhelm and I will go in…”

“I will go,” Axemann interrupted.

“Are moors common in Raustorn?” Sam asked.

“No,” he answered.

“Then maybe you should stay with the others.”

“You could take him in as a prisoner,” Genie suggested. Sam looked at her while the possibilities ran through his head.

“That’s as good a plan as any,” he said. “Let’s get into our disguises before the fires settle down.”

They returned to the fallen soldiers and stripped off as much as they would need to look right. There was now a hole in the wall near the explosion, and they went to see if it was passable as a way in. As they peeked into a crumbled opening, they could see all manner of Holdfolk running around and trying to get the numerous blazes under control. Sam and Dannhelm led the way in followed by the others guarding the ‘prisoner’.

Dannhelm was able to guide the patrol around all the immediate activity and they passed unnoticed onto a dark side street. They went maybe a hundred yards before turning onto a larger street that was illuminated by oil lamps. At the corner to their right stood the jail.

“Let’s hope the guards are helping with the fire,” Sam said quietly as they approached the entrance.

There was no sentry outside the jail or in, and the front room they entered contained an empty bench along the wall next to the heavy door that would lead into the bowels of the jail. It was locked.

“There is a guard opposite,” Dannhelm divined. “Knock thrice.”

Sam knocked, and a small, speakeasy grill opened. A dirty face looked at him through the bars.

“What?” was all the guard said.

Sam had heard the Raustorn accent when he was confronted by the soldiers whose armor they all now wore, and he had thought it sounded a little Scottish. “Open up. We got a prisoner for ye,” Sam grumbled in the awkward dialect.

The man’s eye moved over to see Axemann standing in the middle of the soldiers. “A moor.”

“Aye, and a big one. He had a hand in the fire. Open up,” Sam commanded.

The door bolt echoed through the hall as the guard threw it back. It swung in, and the guard stepped aside to let them pass.

“I hate moors,” he said, and spit on Axemann.

The group stopped and Axemann turned to the stout little guard.

“I have given you no cause to hate me, but since you wish to, let me give you a reason,” Axemann said as he quickly grabbed the man by the throat and snapped his neck. The body slumped to the floor, but the look of fear and surprise did not leave the man’s face in death.

“Keys,” Sam said, and Bowmann pulled them from the dead man’s belt. “Which cell, Dannhelm?”

“Farther on,” Dannhelm answered. The group closed the door behind them and secured the bolt before venturing down the cell block. Axemann collected the dead guard and carried him along. They passed six doors before Dannhelm stopped at the seventh. “Here.”

Bowmann fumbled through several keys before finding the right one. The prisoner inside was alert to the sound and stood ready for whatever.

“Hi,” he said. His clothes were not new, but neither were they filthy rags as one might expect on a prisoner in such a place. His hair was long, as was his beard.

“You from Earth?” Sam asked.

“Yeah. Who are you?”

“I’m Sam. From New Orleans.”

“Now, there’s a town. How’d you get here?”

“Story time later. You want to get out of here?”

“Does the Pope wear a funny hat?”

“Let’s go then. Can you walk okay?”

“Heck yeah.”

Axemann deposited the dead guard in the cell. They locked the door behind them and made for the exit with their newest Company member.

Outside, the Hold folk were still plenty busy putting out fires in buildings all around the demolished tower, whose flames had only just begun to subside, the river of fire flowing down the street from it was still going, but the flow had nearly stopped. The small party of saboteurs was able to move through the mayhem fairly easily, although several heads turned to look at Axemann. They kept up the charade of him being a prisoner, along with the man they had just liberated, and passed through the hole in the city wall, back to the forest.

It only took a minute to reach the rest of the Company, where they sat in hiding to wait. They immediately began to walk back up to the ridge. Sam stopped short when he heard a bow string twang. He turned to see Bowmann, in the rear, catching up having just dispatched a curious soldier that had followed them through the wall. He knew it would now be only a matter of time before that man was missed and discovered dead outside the wall with a Gilden Hold arrow sticking out of him. The blame for the fire would then come to the Company, and the hunt for them would be on in earnest.

Such insight is only unfortunate when it comes too late. The man’s compatriot followed him only moments later and surmised the story. As the Company hurried up the ridge, they could hear the shouts not far below them, mustering men and arms for the pursuit. One thing naturally leads to another, and Sam knew then that laying low up on the ridge for the night with the dragons was not going to be possible with an angry group of Raustorn militia on their tail. He also knew they would be armed with their long bows, and that meant getting out of range was questionable at best.

Ideally, Sam’s plan was to just blow the tank and be gone. Keeping themselves unrevealed would have been good. That was no longer an option. Keeping the dragons unrevealed had also been a goal. Also, perhaps, no longer an option. Sam could now see that if they ran uphill as quickly as they could, they would have only a slight chance of escaping the posse with their long bows, and they would also be exhausted the day of the assault on Styric Hold. With that driving his choice, Sam caught up with Genie.

“Take my hand,” he told her. “We have to call the dragons down. At this distance, I don’t think I can make contact by myself. We’re not going to make it without help.”

“Okay,” she agreed, “and tell them we have a new rider.”

Using Ringspeak, Sam called to Hazgorn and quickly explained the situation. Hazgorn looked down the ridge and could easily see the line of torches moving uphill behind Sam and the others. He bugled for the other dragons to meet the challenge.

Hannegelt and Kemann had rejoined them on the ridge some time before, and had been champing at the bit for information or, at least, something to do. And then, here it had come. Hannegelt decided in a moment that their stay on the ridge was over. They should swoop down and pick up the Company, and then get the Xelt out of Raustorn in a hurry.

Hazgorn and Kondyr growled to each other a plan, and Kondyr got the message out to all of the rider-less dragons. He also got a volunteer for the new rider. The remaining Company up on the ridge got themselves together and mounted up.

Coming up the rise, Sam got the message to try to get to some clear area for pick up. That was fine, except standing around in a clear area, in the ambient fire light from the nearby blazes, was a good way to get showered by arrows. He let Hazgorn know that, but the dragon let him know that it was all under control.

There was a clearing of sorts ahead of the group, but it was more of an outcropping of large stones with little cover. If they were to stand on that and wait, they would be excellent targets for ambitious archers. As they reached the stones, they could sense the movement above them of dragons, swooping down. But the dragons did not stop for them, but passed over toward the torches.

Sam immediately thought that they had been missed, but realized that this first wave of fliers was going after the posse. Naturally, Sam expected more flames in the night as the dragons lit up the Raustorn force. He watched them swoop, and as they were moving quickly, silhouetted against the flames of the city below, he could see them dropping something. The flames of the torches were being extinguished, and he could hear people yelling.

The other dragons came around to the Company from downhill and perched in small numbers on the stones while their riders mounted them. They took off from there back up to the ridge. Sam and the new guy were the last, when Hazgorn and Baline lighted upon the stones.

“This is Baline,” Hazgorn said in introduction.

“This is…” Sam started, “Actually, I don’t know your name.”

“They talk. Naturally, they talk. I mean why wouldn’t they?” he said, slightly dementedly.

“Of course we talk. And yes, why wouldn’t we?” Baline said.

“What is your name? And be polite. These dragons are friends of mine,” Sam chided.

“Eric. Eric McCarty,” he answered. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Would you like a ride, Eric Eric McCarty?” Baline asked.

“I would thank you kindly,” he replied.

“Hang on tight,” Sam said. “I’ll try to make you a temporary harness when we get up to the top.”

“Absolutely I’ll hang on tight.”

The last two dragons took off on their way to join the others. Eric could not even open his eyes until Baline slowed to touch down up on the ridge. He was quick to get off, and Sam caught his attention, so he could see him bow to Hazgorn and thank him for the ride. Although he was still rattled from the unexpected event, he pulled himself together enough to do the same for Baline. She smirked as he walked away with rubbery legs. She was glad to have had a rider after two days of watching her friends carry people and wondering what it would be like. As it turned out, she had rather enjoyed it.

The entire Company was back together again and had a brief meeting to discuss their next course of action. They knew they should not remain on the ridge for long, as the next group of Raustorn forces would likely be coming soon. Dawn was still three hours or more away, and the Company had not slept at all. Gensonn reported that, through divination, he could see that Lord Gildenhanna’s army was likely to reach Styric Hold by the evening of this new day. Kemann consulted his map, and estimated the flight time for the Company would be about six, maybe seven hours. That left about five hours for rest, but they would need to find another location for that.

Dragonkind do not like flying at night. That point was made clear, but they would do what was necessary. The plan was made to fly for two hours to the southwest point of South Raustorn Isle and try to make a stop there at dawn, when they could see to land. The dragons could eat and all rest there for several hours before making the crossing to Styric Isle to attempt to meet Lord Gildenhanna’s army.

Sam introduced Eric to everybody, and the Company took a few minutes to eat. Eric took to the rations quickly and explained that he had not had any food for two days. The Raustorn prison was not very attentive to its guests.

“Where are you from?” Genie asked him.

“County Cork, Ireland,” he replied. “And yourselves?”

“I’m from Michigan, and Sam is from Colorado. We went to college together in Iowa.”

“I don’t know much about the States,” he admitted.

“How long have you been in Hordann,” Sam asked.

“Near about fifty years,” Eric responded.

The Company gawked at him; he appeared to be in his early thirties, despite his long beard.

“Fifty years?” Kemann asked in amazement.

“That equates to about ten Earth years,” Sam stated. “There’s a time thing.”

“A time thing?” Eric asked.

“Well, yeah, as best I can figure looking at my watch. Didn’t you notice it on yours?”

“I never wore a watch.”

Genie could not help but wonder about him. “Haven’t you noticed you don’t look seventy years old?”

“There’s been a complete lack of mirrors in my hotel suite. I imagine I look like Ben Gunn on Treasure Island.”

“Point taken,” Genie replied. “Well, we’ve been here for a couple of weeks.”

“A couple of weeks?” Eric asked, and he looked around at the Company and the dragons. “Looks like you’ve made out better with making friends than I did. When I dropped in here and started jumping around like a flea, they all thought I was pretty cool. Had a little chat with the Lord of this place about his mountain of coal, and taught them a thing or two. They jumped on that, but when I decided to travel about and see some of this world, they locked me up and made me work for ’em.”

“Those were your designs on those reservoir tanks,” Sam said.

“Aye, not too shabby either, were they?”

“No, they looked good. Don’t hold it against me that I blew them up.”

“Those shites didn’t deserve ’em anyway. I gave them indoor plumbing, and they still locked me up like a criminal.”

“You said you could jump around like a flea?” Genie asked.

“Used to. After about a year, though, I was just like everyone else,” Eric said sadly.

“We think it’s a gravity thing,” she added.

“You guys like your ‘things’,” Eric said with a grin. “You got your time thing, and now a gravity thing. But you’re right; this place has got some things.” He motioned at the dragons. “What about that then?”

“The dragons? They’re friends of ours,” Genie said with a wink.

“Sam, I think you got a good one here. A bit of mischief in her eyes,” Eric said pointing at Genie.

“So, how did you get to Hordann?” Sam asked. He had been itching to ask about his Rent experience to see if he could shine some light on the conundrum. It had been, after all, a primary reason Sam had risked a lot to rescue him.

“I don’t rightly know. One minute I’m happily driving in the mountains, taking my time in the fog. The next minute my car is falling through the clear sky. Figured at first I had driven off the edge, but then I landed in the Mid-Isle Pass just outside Raustorn Hold. Lucky I hit the water.”

“Fog,” Sam said. “Rent is what it’s called.”

“I’ve heard them talk about that, whatever it is. A cloud?” Eric asked.

“It looks like a cloud, but it’s some sort of inter-dimensional passage. From Earth to Hordann,” Sam explained.

“The dragons call it the Empty Cloud,” Genie said. “We fell through it too.”

“But we were sky-diving, so the landing wasn’t bad,” Sam added.

“Except for the landing in the middle of a battle thing,” Genie mentioned.

“Again with your ‘things’,” Eric said.

Hannegelt had made his way over to them and caught the tail end of the conversation.

“We best get on our way,” he said. “If you’re ready, of course.”

“Yes, but let me tie up a harness for Eric,” Sam replied. He went into his pack and pulled out the same paracord length that he had used for riding Haszgorn. “This should work. Let’s go find Baline.”

He and Eric found her, and Sam fashioned the harness around her.

“It was very kind of you to volunteer to carry Eric, Baline,” Genie said coming up to them.

She hissed a laugh, or maybe more of a giggle. “I like his hair. And his speech is queer.”

“He came through the Empty Cloud too, but a long time ago. Actually, he comes from an island about the same size as yours, where everybody talks like that,” Genie explained.

“All done here,” Sam said, tugging at the harness.

“How do I look?” Baline asked.

“You look marvelous, darling,” Eric said with a wink. “Now, where are we going?”

“We have to go find a place to rest for a couple of hours, and then we go to fight the bad guy,” Sam said.

“The bad guy? Do you mean Styric?” Eric asked.

“That’s the one.”

“I’ve heard he’s a powerful shite, and mean. Didn’t know I’d signed up for that.”

“Tell me about it,” Sam said. “But he may be guarding the way home for us.”

“What, back to Ireland?”

“Well, Earth—we hope, anyway.”

“If that’s the case, I’m in,” Eric said with a hopeful smile.

Hannegelt had been very anxious to get underway, and he was relieved when he saw the last of the Company mounting up. Kondyr was also ready to go, and he gave a muted bugle to the squadron. The force of the wind from so many wings caused a great deal of dust and leaves to rise in the air, and the last of the dragons to take off were almost blind between the darkness and the dust.

As the dragons lifted the riders higher in the sky, they could see the fires still burning in the distance down below at Raustorn Hold. Hopefully, the mayhem was enough to distract Styric from focusing on his own island for a little while and ease the passing of Lord Gildenhanna’s army. Into the darkness the dragons flew using the stars to navigate their way southwest to the shores of South Raustorn Isle, where they might be able to rest for a while before the big push on to Styric Hold.

Night flying is an eerie thing. On one hand, it is exhilarating to be on a dragon’s back with the air rushing by in its coolness, but on the other, aside from the sound of the wind, there is no sound. The dragons are not mechanical, so their movements are fluid and silent. The real danger to the Company at this particular time was of being lulled to sleep by the repetitive, easy movement with the darkness all around them, especially after a very long and stressful day. Genie looked down at Terry, who lay asleep on her lap, and envied her being able to sleep. She was fighting her heavy eyelids just like everyone else in the Company.

Well, everyone except Kemann and Gensonn. They stayed vigilant. Kemann was trying to divine a way to get to Styric (if it came to that), while Gensonn kept his divining eye on Gildenhanna. Neither one was able to get a handle on their targets, however. Whether they were just too weary, or because they were flying on dragons, they didn’t know why they were having troubles suddenly. They could try more once the flight was over.

Everyone, including the dragons, was happy to see a glimmer of the sea over the mountains in the distance. That would mean they needed to locate a landing spot soon, as the plan was to stop at the shore. Ten minutes more and they were swooping down to a pristine beach bordered by tall trees. After the commotion of a couple of dozen dragons landing, all was quiet again except the small waves breaking on the sands. The dawn was just breaking as the dragons made their way to the trees to nestle in together. Quietly, the Company met briefly to confer and agree that they would try to sleep for five hours and meet again just before midday.

Although everyone was very tired, they found it hard to actually get to sleep. Sam and Genie spread their cloaks out on the sand behind a little dune on the outskirts and lay back together to look at the stars. Terry was right there with them.

“She’s quite the pet,” Sam said, watching Genie stroke her lightly.

“Yeah, she’s very sweet,” Genie added. “So…”

“So? You always start something big when you start with ‘so’. What’s on your mind?”

“Well,” she hesitated, “I’m late.”

“Late? Late for what?”

“You know…Late.”

“Oh, you mean you’re…late.” The meaning began to sink in for Sam. “How late?”

“I probably should have started the day we got on that bush plane.”

“So, about three or four days?”

“That was over two weeks ago.” She stopped. “Oh, the time thing.”

“And with the stress we’ve been under, it’s no wonder you’re late.”

“Okay, but what if I am?”

“What? Pregnant?” Sam asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“Hmm. Then we really need to get back to Earth.”

“Why?”

“You’d be pregnant for nearly four Hordann years here, and the kid won’t even look like he’s ten years old until he’s like fifty,” Sam explained.

“Pregnant for four years. We have to get home,” Genie said with the realization that Sam had brought about.

“But let’s be fair about this. If you are pregnant, I’m really happy. We’ll get married back on Earth,” Sam said with resolve.

“We’ll get married here first,” Genie countered. “Just imagine how cool a wedding would be here.”

“Pretty cool, I imagine,” Sam agreed, “but if we can’t get this Styric jerk out of the way, we may never know.”

“Kiss me,” Genie sighed.

“At your service,” Sam whispered as he leaned on an elbow to lower his lips to hers.

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