The Skadivers' Tale

All Rights Reserved ©

Hordann: the Reception

HORDANN: THE RECEPTION

Still a thousand feet up, or so, Sam and Genie could see the people on the ground a little more clearly. They were running away from around the castle, some leaving what they carried, pointing upwards, screaming and shouting.

By the time the two sky-divers turned into the wind to land their squares, the ground was clear of people, which is to say, live people, for the ground was sparsely littered with dead ones. Sam, the heavier, landed first. Flaring his chute just above the ground to almost a dead stop, he touched down. It was a little harder than usual because of the extra weight of the backpack on his front side. Genie was right behind him and actually went down on her knees, also because of her pack’s weight.

“Not bad,” Sam told her. “You okay?”

“I think so,” she answered.

So, Sam immediately turned to the problem at hand. He unclipped his capos to release the canopy and fumbled to get the backpack off. Genie did the same and came over to him for some help. They didn’t know what was going on, but best to be prepared. As soon as the backpacks were off and they were out of the parachute harnesses, Sam opened his pack to get out the bow.

“Yeah, you better get your bow out too, Genie,” he said with a little urgency.

“Any idea where we are?” she asked as she fumbled to get inside of her pack.

“Middle Earth for all I know,” he answered with a glance.

It only took a few moments to get the bow assembled, but it would take longer for the arrows. He noticed that only a few yards away, there were several arrows sticking out of the ground. He collected a couple and saw another fletching above a short bush. He went to get that one too, but discovered it was stuck inside of a dead body. At first taken aback, the surreal image sobered him. What was going on? Some kind of a crazy Society for Creative Anachronism event? This guy was really dead, and he was dressed like a medieval soldier. There were also two swords, one in each hand. Sam moved in for a closer look. He decided to leave the arrow, but he collected the swords. They had been well used, chipped, dull and gray with strictly utilitarian hilts.

Returning to Genie, he gave her one of the swords, and she looked at him, puzzled as he used the blade to cut into the jumpsuit at his side to wear the sword. Genie stuck hers in the ground in front of her.

“I think we have company,” she said, indicating a column of people coming from the castle gate.

“Have an arrow,” Sam said, handing her one. He took her bow and stuck one end between his feet to string it for her.

“So, do we have a plan?” Genie asked.

“No,” he answered, “would be the short answer.” He handed her the bow, and they knocked arrows.

All they could do was to stand their ground and take whatever came. The slight breeze caught their hair. One moment of quiet before…whatever. The two stood tall and proud, poised, side by side.

The column of castle folk approached them calmly and split around the leaders. In moments, they had been effectively surrounded. When places had been taken, all was as quiet as the grass between them. There was no movement in any of them except what the breeze provided.

Sam lowered his bow, and Genie, sensing his thoughts also lowered hers. There were just so many of them that any kind of fight would be senseless, and better to give a strong, but friendly, air to these people. After a long moment, the kingly man who had led the people stepped forward and spoke very loudly and resonantly. “What do you seek at Gilden Hold?” the man asked.

There was a pause as Sam felt a little on-the-spot. Like walking out on stage without having his lines down. So, he answered with the only logical, and truthful, thing he could say, “Freindship.”

With the one word reply from these strangers from the sky, the entire circle of people seemed to ease and mutter among themselves. Genie took the moment to confer with Sam. “Is that an English accent?”

“Sort of,” muttered Sam, “but it’s odd. Sure wish I knew what the heck was going on.” And Genie agreed with a glance.

The castle folk quieted again as the leader, and another, approached the center of the circle. Genie stepped a little closer to Sam as she watched the men studying her. They stopped several yards away.

“I am Lord Gildenhanna of Gilden Hold,” the old gentleman said.

At this the other man stepped forward and put his hand on his sword, his expression hard. “If you seek friendship, why carry you Raustorn swords?” he challenged.

“Silence,” Lord Gildenhanna commanded with a quiet intensity. “My son, Hannegelt,” he said apologetically. “Please forgive him.”

“Of course,” Sam answered, “but we are new in this land and took up these swords, because we did not know your intentions. Your son does you credit, my lord. What are your intentions?”

“You are strangers, indeed,” the lord said, “and it is never our ‘intention’ to turn away strangers who seek friendship--particularly when they have turned back our enemies from our gate. Tell me, what manner of man are you who flies down from the sky on dragon wing?”

Sam and Genie looked at each other. “We are sky-divers, my lord,” Genie answered. The crowd began to murmur again. They were also puzzled by the new word, and that a woman should so brazenly speak to their lord. It was not their custom for a woman to speak before a man in a formal conversation such as this.

Lord Gildenhanna, too, was affected by this, and as a result, must have misunderstood her. “Welcome to Gilden Hold, Skadivers!” he announced, mispronouncing ‘sky divers’.

Sam stepped forward, a little amused at their miscomprehension of sky diving, and did a late eighteenth century bow. “I am Samuel, first son of the Sky Hold, at your service.” He was attempting to use some of their own titles and phrases so that they could relate better. “And this is my warrior woman, the Lady Genevieve, Amazon of Sky Hold,” he announced, almost making Genie laugh as she curtsied before the lord.

“Also at your service, my lord,” she said as lady-like as she could muster. She smiled at Sam, who winked.

There was an awkward moment, and the crowd made hushed comments to each other. The Lord and his son exchanged a cautious look.

“Will you come with us into Gilden Hold, Son of Sky Hold?” the lord asked.

“We would be honored, my lord,” replied Sam. “Permit us to gather our gear.”

“We shall attend to that, Son of Sky Hold,” one of the men said.

“Thank you, friend,” Genie said.

The four of them turned toward the castle and began to walk, and as they did, the circle of people opened for them to pass and then gathered the Skadivers’ gear for them. The gear was something of a marvel to these people, the fabric of the canopies, the shroud lines, the nylon backpacks. A very odd place, this Sky Hold.

Things seemed more at ease as they walked, and Sam and Genie were greatly relieved. “Sam, do you feel kind of light-headed here?” Genie asked quietly as they went.

“Not light-headed, but lighter,” Sam said. “Did you feel like we hung under canopy for a really long time too? And we should have landed much harder with the backpacks. Something’s weird.”

“You think?” she retorted, as they approached the castle.

With the lord and his son in the lead, and the Skadivers just behind them, they continued to walk through the battle lines before the walls. The ground was littered with the bodies of soldiers who had been cut down by archers from the parapets. Suddenly, as they passed closely to one of the fallen soldiers, he jumped up and rushed toward Lord Gildenhanna. The crowd of people behind them shouted, and before he could even think, Sam pulled his sword and leapt towards the man, slashing his sword arm. Gildenhanna was right there as well, burying his sword in the man’s chest.

“Okay, that was sick,” Sam said.

“Sam…” Genie gasped.

Everyone had stopped. Lord Gildenhanna stared at Sam.

“My thanks, Son of Sky Hold,” he said. “Proof of friendship gladly taken.”

“I did say I was at your service, my lord,” Sam said humbly, still shaking slightly from the horror.

The procession into the castle resumed and they could hear the people murmuring behind them.

“What did you just do?” Genie asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Just did it.”

“Do you know how far you jumped at that guy?” she asked with widened eyes.

“No.”

“You jumped like ten feet from standing still.”

“Really? Wow. Well, I told you I felt lighter here for some reason,” Sam stated. “Must be the adrenaline. Because…how could there be less gravity, right?” Sam pondered some physics questions as they passed under the arched entrance to Gilden Hold castle.

The castle itself was very impressive, magnificent in stature. The blocks which made up the outer wall were all about eight feet square and three feet thick, made of gray granite-like stone flecked with reddish flecks and thin gold veins. The gate was sixteen feet wide and high, and the wall was about twenty-eight feet tall. The actual gate was really two gates, the outer was solid metal, which Sam took to be steel with inlaid bronze, and the inner was a pattern of interwoven spring steel slats, three inches wide and a quarter of an inch thick each. It looked like it could take a battering for days and still remain. Plus, if the outer gate was broken through, it would be in the way, blocking easy access to try to break through the inner gate. Yes, impressive.

“We extend our gratitude for having discouraged our attackers and aiding Gilden Hold in its time of siege, but I fear it will be a short reprieve,” the old lord said, not breaking pace.

“It’s all in the timing,” Sam said. “Maybe we can discuss this and other matters that may extend the reprieve,” he suggested, really just trying to get the opportunity to find out more about these strange new surroundings. He really didn’t think he would have any kind of advice for a King, or whatever. What were he and Genie, really, just a couple of theatre people.

“Perhaps after the evening meal, Samuel,” the lord replied.

“As you wish,” Sam said. The mention of dinner greatly pleased Genie and him. They smiled at each other, knowing themselves to be lucky—under the circumstances, which at this point were still a little nebulous.

Lord Gildenhanna was an older man in his late fifties, as Sam guessed, looking at him. His hair was still yellow, except for the silver around his temples and streaking his beard. His steel gray eyes had touches of amber and were set gently on his stern, but kind, face. He was a strong man and tall, although Sam was taller than he. He was, in fact, about as tall as Genie. Genie noticed that only a couple of the men at hand were as tall as Sam, and he was only a touch over six feet. She considered how huge they must look in their ‘Skadiver’ jumpsuits and giggled to herself.

Hannegelt was very interested in the bows Sam and Genie carried. “You must let me fletch the straws with your bows, Skadivers, for I have never seen any like those which you wear.”

Sam surmised that he meant ‘shoot the targets’ and was delighted. “Of course, you may, but I assure you they shoot as any other. And by the way, the Lady Genevieve is better than I.”

Hannegelt looked at Genie and raised an eyebrow. Genie just smiled.

Hannegelt was just about Sam’s height, taller than his father and a little wider in the shoulders. He had the look of a captain of the infantry. His arms were meaty and his face was stern from twenty-three years of growing up under great expectations. He did, however, like things a little less formal than his father would like. Sam thought Hannegelt must resemble his mother, because his hair and eyes were not his father’s. No, he had a flowing deep red hair, very rich and alive; his eyes were alert and open wide all the time, displaying a rich, smoldering blue-green color.

“I expect my Wizard will wish to speak with you at length after sup,” announced Lord Gildenhanna. “When word reached him of your appearance in the sky, he closed himself in the Records Room, and I could not see him for counsel. He did, however, get word to me to see to it that you get here quickly. I confess that I have no idea as to his inklings, but who knows the thoughts of a Wizard such as Dorsea?”

“A wizard?” Genie asked, glancing at Sam. In that one look, she shared all of her thoughts with Sam, and he answered her back in a moment of eye contact. This was a little technique the two had developed in their acting exercises at school. Or maybe it was just that they had a real bond, and the familiarity made their looks very readable to each other. In this instance, they communicated to each other a certain degree of skepticism coupled with the realization that since they were here on what was possibly another planet (?), that anything was possible.

“So, who is at war, Lord?” Sam asked innocently.

“Most of Hordann by now, I should think,” the lord said sadly.

“Where is Hordann?” Genie asked.

“Hordann is our world,” he answered, and he seemed a little confused that they did not know the name of the world. Where was this ‘Sky Hold’?

Lord Gildenhanna looked to Hannegelt, who continued, “That was a Raustorn army whom you saw, but their leader is the real enemy, Styric. He controls Raustorn directly (and other shires of Hordann), manipulating them with his were-sorcery.”

“Styric,” Sam repeated. “What’s his deal?”

“Revenge,” Lord Gildenhanna stated gravely. “A revenge that should not have had the chance for occurrence from the start—if we had executed him rather than merely banishing him to a distant island.”

“Okay, so why was he banished?” Sam was trying to hamster away as much information as he could to try to make some sense of this ‘Hordann’. In all fairness, he and Genie should be in Alaska right now trying to find the cabin. That thing about ‘plans’ again.

“Although we had no proof,” smiled the lord bitterly, “I knew Styric to be responsible for my father, Gilden’s, death.”

“Ah,” muttered Sam, glancing at Genie, who agreed with his interjection as meaning the ‘good guys’. They were glad that if they were to make friends with one side, that it was with the good guys.

They reached the steps to the main hall and silently ascended to the doors, which opened for them. They entered into a large, ornate hall. Pale stone columns held up a vaulted ceiling, and it looked almost cathedral-like. In the middle of the hall was a great table of dark wood. There were friezes carved on the walls that depicted scenes from the history of Hordann, which included battles of the kingdom with Kledes, and slaves, sorcerers, and dragons. At the far end, was a circle of stone benches that curved into a raised area where mounted a carved throne surrounded by thick furs.

Immediately, squires attended the lord of the castle and relieved him of his armor. Ladies in simple, flowing dresses of purple carried trays with wine and fruit.

Sam and Genie had just received a goblet and some odd-looking fruit when Gildenhanna commanded, “Hannegelt, arm your men and go back out. Gather anything of value from the field before the Raustorn return.”

“Yes, Sire,” Hannegelt answered, turned, and departed.

“He’s a good man,” he said, watching him go. “He should make Gilden a great leader. Now then, show the Skadivers two to their chambers so that they may repose before the evening meal.”

And so, just like that, they were dismissed. As they were being escorted out the side of the hall, they saw young, thin boy of sixteen running into the hall. He entered the circle of stone and stopped before the lord and bowed.

“Yes, what is it, Kemann?” Gildenhanna asked with a frown.

“Master Dorsea requires the two from Sky Hold, Sire.” The news of Sam and Genie must been have raced to the Wizard.

“Does he?” asked Gildenhanna. “He’s not been properly introduced yet, but he requires them? You tell your Master that he may dine with us within the hour, if he wishes.”

“But, Sire, my Master requires…” the boy started.

“Go and tell your Master what his master requires!” the old man barked sharply. The boy cringed and began to run off. He stopped short and turned back, quickly bowing.

“Yes, my Lord,” he said and ran out.

Sam and Genie had watched the exchange and came back into the hall. Gildenhanna laughed.

“That boy, Kemann, is all the time caught between two bickering old men, but he seems to bear up. The old Wizard and I have been together since kinderhood. We have always been the best of friends because of our mutual Destiny—and beliefs—but the means by which we get there…Let’s just say the old Wizard and I travel on different highways of thought.”

“What manner, may I ask, of Wizard is Dorsea?” Genie inquired. Both Sam and Gildenhanna looked quickly at her because she had finally broken her long silence. The lord seemed surprised at her speech, but was not as shocked as he had been previously. He responded slowly, looking at her intently.

“The background is quite deep and complicated. I do not know what your knowledge or legends of us are in Sky Hold.”

“They are virtually none, Sir,” Genie said quietly, “Only as a possibility of the existence of another world.” The words rang sharply in her own ears, and she, unsure, glanced at Sam, who stood silent.

“Briefly, then, during the Aldaic Age, my forefathers were in another land far out across the ocean. Songs tell of the meeting of Lord Thorngelt and the indebted Sorcerer. They became close friends and allies, bonded together with ceremony and magic. That was the beginning. Now, each Wizard has an apprentice of his own blood, and the apprentice becomes the Sorcerer for the next Lord. Dorsea is my Wizard, given to me centuries ago by Thorngelt, but given me now through friendship.” He paused for a moment. “Dorsea is the descendent of Ingebriggt himself, as is all the magic on Hordann. His arts are strong and useful, emanating from the Jaederon. That is entirely enough for now, for I am weary.”

Sam and Genie were just trying to take it all in. They were entreated to leave by a purple lady, who led them out of the hall and up a stone stair to the next level. Down an echoing corridor, the purple lady stopped next to a wooden door and opened it. “Please,” was all she said.

“Thank you,” Genie smiled. The two went inside. The purple lady shut the door behind them, and they were alone.

“I see they had our bags brought up,” Sam said, walking over to the gear and neatly piled parachutes. “Let’s get out of these things.” He took off his bow and leaned it on the wall, as Genie did. Then they unzipped the jumpsuits, took off their boots and got back down to only their traveling clothes. Sam flopped down on the bed of furs. Genie fell in beside him, but got up immediately to retrieve their wine from the table. They sipped and sat back.

“Good stuff,” Sam commented, looking into the cup.

“Furs,” Genie said. “This is like one of those themed resorts we could never afford.”

“I have a question for you. Did we accidently drop like a lot of acid before we got in that Cessna?”

“I know, right? There’s no way any of this is real,” Genie agreed.

“Okay, now, just for argument’s sake, let’s say this is real. What are we going to do?”

“Well, for now, we should just treat this as some bizarre show we got cast in. You know, play a part, improvise. Try to do some good, I guess.”

“Yeah, I mean, what else can we do? We wanted an adventure,” Sam said plainly.

“This wasn’t in the brochures.”

At dinner, Sam and Genie were seated near the head of the table near Lord Gildenhanna and Hannegelt. They had been served strange fruits from orchards within the walls and meats put up in the local stores. The wine they drank, they learned, was gutsenberry, which grew on the hillsides all around the castle hold. It was a medium sweet wine that was not too strong—unless a lot of it was consumed.

Just before a sweet at the end of the meal was served, the doors to the hall opened and a tall, thin man in rich robes entered, followed closely by Kemann. He walked behind Gildenhanna’s seat and stood. Gildenhanna could feel the Wizard’s eyes burning a hole in his pate.

“Would you care to dine with us, Dorsea?” he asked.

“Why?” he asked loudly and powerfully. “Why must you keep me always bound by your silly laws and manners, old man?” His staff began to glow and flames engulfed the ceiling. “I do not make idle requests. Much hangs in the balance, and you sit and talk small and eat, while I require to speak with these Skadivers.”

“No matter how powerful you may be, Wizard, you will abide by the Hold’s decorum,” the lord commanded. The flames ceased. “This is Dorsea, Wizard, Descendant of the original Sorcerer of the Jaerderon, and my best friend. You welcome to our Hold, Skadivers, Samuel, Son of Sky Hold and the Lady Genevieve, Amazon of Sky Hold.”

Dorsea bowed slightly. “Welcome; I am at your service.”

Sam and Genie got up and also bowed. “As we are at yours.”

And as quickly as that, Dorsea smiled, and his gray beard parted. He snapped his fingers. “Excellent. Come with me.” He turned and walked toward the door and over his shoulder spoke, “Kemann, see to it their pudding and wine follow them to my chamber. Skadivers?”

Sam and Genie felt compelled to follow at once. They bowed to the lord and trotted behind, catching up as he left the hall. He walked at a furious pace, and stepped into a door not far from the hall. The passage sloped down and wound around until, finally, it came to an open chamber. Actually, more of a cavern with tables, bookcases, and a lot of curious décor.

Dorsea took a seat behind a table cluttered with parchments. “You may sit,” he said indicating two backless stools with fur pads. They sat. “Sky Hold,” he smirked. “Amusing. You are from Earth.”

Sam and Genie looked at each other. “Yes,” Sam said simply.

“You are not the first to come to Hordann,” the Wizard stated. “In fact, all of the men of Hordann have descended from earth folk. In another age even before the advent of Ingebriggt and the Jaederon. Tell me, how did you happen to come here.”

“We were sky diving, which is to say, we jumped out of a plane, a flying machine, from very high in the sky. And there was this cloud. We fell into it and passed through some kind of dark, weightless tunnel before we came to your sky above Gilden Hold,” Sam explained.

“Rent,” Dorsea said.

“Rent?” Genie asked.

“Yes, Rent is its name,” Dorsea said. “A tear in the fabric of things that became a passage from earth to Hordann.”

“Rent is a worm hole? Ironic,” Genie said.

“I do not know what that is,” Dorsea looked puzzled as he was trying to understand the meaning of new, strange words. “Rent was the passage through which many men were sent. Personally, I believe that a man of some power on earth had control over it, and made his enemies disappear. Whether he knew where they were going, or if they died, I don’t know what he might have known.”

Kemann entered at that moment, followed by a purple lady with wine and pudding. Kemann took his place, standing beside Dorsea, and the lady tried to set the tray down, but there were too many parchments on the table. Genie leaned forward and slid a couple of them out of the way for her. The purple lady set it down and smiled at her. Dorsea was frowning, however.

“Please go,” he said to her. “Lady Genevieve, please don’t handle the ancient documents.

“I can see you are a scholar, Master Wizard,” Sam said, “but I don’t suppose your ancient documents might mention how we could get back?”

“An interesting question, Samuel,” Dorsea said, leaning back. “A complicated question with a very complicated theory for an answer. I have spent the last several hours in divination. I began the moment you appeared in our sky on Dragonwing.”

“Parachutes,” Genie interrupted, “they’re called parachutes.”

“Yes, I see,” he acknowledged in a way that she decided had meant not to interrupt again. “I have foreseen that we may have to help each other to discover the answer. The war, you see, is between you and the answer you seek. There is an exit Rent, or so it is believed, but it is in Styric’s hold.”

“Styric, the bad guy, right?” Sam asked.

“Yes, very bad. He is, in fact not a guy, but a powerful Were-Wizard. He is mounting the war on us. As it stands, we may be defeated, but now you…” he trailed off and looked at Kemann.

“You,” said Kemann. “We have foreseen you helping us gain victory.”

“We aren’t soldiers, Sam,” Genie interjected.

“But you have already drawn Raustorn blood, before the gates,” Kemann reminded him.

“Yeah, but I don’t know…” Sam considered. “You mentioned that the exit Rent is just theoretical? So, we don’t even know it exists? And if it exists, does it even work?”

“No sooner than you earth people get here that you wish to return,” Dorsea said, shaking his head.

“There are others?” Genie asked.

“No longer alive; it was centuries ago,” Dorsea explained. “There were two, from a land they called Scotland, or so the Dowster scroll tells. They had been high in the mountains on earth—in the clouds. What they thought was just a mountain mist was Rent. It consumed them, and they fell to Hordann. They described their passage through much the same as you have said.”

“Didn’t they fall?” Sam intervened.

“They did,” said the Wizard, “but Rent was unusually low that day, and their fall was short, into the Doranstean Tidal Swamp. Records say that they also tried to return. It is presumed that they simply lived out their days on Hordann after departing from the Xeltic Priests in search of the exit Rent, for there the narrative ended.”

“It is also possible that they found the exit Rent,” Kemann added.

“Well, my dear,” Sam said to Genie, “we are in very peculiar predicament.” Things were beginning to make some sense to Sam, although ‘sense’ might be too strong a word for it. “So, let’s say they did find it and passed through to try to get back to Earth. First, if Rent is some sort of inter-dimensional anomaly, there is no way to know what is at the other end—or when, for that matter. But, let’s also say that the exit does simply go back to Earth. Well, it’s a cloud. It could be anywhere over the Earth, and at any altitude. If those Scotsmen jumped in there, they more than likely fell to their deaths.”

“We at least have our chutes,” Genie reminded him.

“True, but we would still have to figure out a way to see what is on the other side of the exit.”

“I might be able to see beyond and tell you if we can get to it,” Kemann interjected.

“Still,” Sam said pensively, “pretty risky.”

Dorsea had sat silently for a time, but now needed to force the issue. “If you wish to get to the exit Rent, you must fight. If you wish to remain in Hordann, you must fight. If you choose not to fight, Styric will be the victor, and you will neither leave nor live,” he stated as a matter of fact.

“That certainly narrows our options,” Sam said, looking at Genie.

“What do we have to do?” Genie asked.

Dorsea studied them for a few moments. “Lord Gildenhanna and I have much to discuss. Tomorrow, you can acclimate to Gilden Hold. But for now, I should like to know as much as you can tell me about Earth.”

“Well, that’s a pretty tall order,” Sam said. “We’ll talk as long as this wine holds out. Deal?”

Dorsea’s eyes squinted at him, trying to guess the meaning. “Yes. Deal.”

“I don’t really know where to start,” Sam began. “What is the last thing you know about Earth? Give me a time frame.”

“The last parchment from the earliest times describes, coincidentally, a war.”

“You’ll have to be more specific. There have been a lot of wars,” Genie put in.

“There were men such as you have seen here in Hordann,” Kemann said. “They were travelling a great distance to battle Saracens, I believe.”

“The Crusades?” Sam asked amazedly. “You have been here for a thousand years?”

“We have been here for much longer than that. More like five thousand years,” Kemann informed them.

Five thousand years? That didn’t add up to Sam, but he fumbled with his history to begin an answer. “Okay, then. Crusades.” Sam had to think a bit. “The Crusades were a religious war. I don’t think anyone won. I mean, how can anyone win a religious war? It’s kind of an oxymoron. After that, there were the dark ages, where the church kept the poor people from really knowing anything for a couple of hundred years. But the common people got some rights from the nobles when they signed the Magna Carter.”

“There was a plague,” Genie added. “Millions of people died.”

“A plague?” Kemann asked.

“A disease, a sickness,” Sam said. “Nobody studied much about medicine until the Renaissance, which came a little later. Many great minds delved into the sciences and arts. Our world started to become the world we know at that time. Since then, so much has happened. Of course, still so many wars, and military technology never stopped growing, but we also invented so many machines. You guys probably use water power, right?”

“We do,” Kemann replied.

“But then came steam power, from heating water and using the compressed steam to drive machines. And gas-powered machines—from a fuel that comes out of the earth. And electricity.”

“Electricity?” Dorsea asked.

“Yeah, that’s a little tricky to explain,” Sam said.

“It’s like lightning,” Genie stated. “Do you have lightning here on Hordann?”

“Loud flashes of light from the clouds during storms?” Sam added.

“Thunderdent,” Kemann said, releasing an illusion of it from his fingers. Sam and Genie almost dropped their pudding.

“Exactly. Well, that’s electricity. It’s just we figured out how to make it so people could use it,” Sam went on. “Anyway, we made machines to move us around on land, water—even underwater—and to fly in the air. Heck, even out into space. We landed men on the moon!”

“Does Hordann have a moon?” Genie asked.

“Ah, the celestial orb near earth,” Dorsea said to Kemann. “No, we have no moon.”

“Too bad,” Genie said.

“No doubt, much of this was accomplished by Wizards on earth,” Kemann said.

“Not exactly,” Sam replied. “We don’t have any actual Wizards on earth. Just some smart people who figure stuff out, like Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park.” Sam downed the last of his wine. “Well, Master Wizard, the wine is done, and a deal is a deal.”

Dorsea raised an eyebrow and spoke a word. Sam’s empty cup suddenly got heavy, and he almost dropped it. Sam looked at the full cup and then at Dorsea.

“Hey, that’s cheating!” Sam exclaimed.

“A deal is a deal, Son of Sky Hold,” the old Wizard said with a wry grin. “Now draw me a picture of how this ‘steam’ power works.” And with a motion of his finger, a blank parchment and a quill moved in front of Sam.

“You have actual magic here on Hordann, though,” Genie said, “And how is that possible?”

“You have no magic?” Kemann asked amazedly.

“Well, we have magicians, but they are just clever entertainers. It’s not real magic,” Sam explained. “How does Hordann come to have magic?”

“There is no explanation of that,” Dorsea stated. “The Ingebriggt was presumed, by the Xeltic Priests, to have come from Earth. They also believe he is tied to Rent, which they theorize was created in some magical event that caused the Incongruity. But, it is the bloodline of the Jaederon that powers the Wizards of Hordann. How it began, with the Ingebriggt, is a mystery.” He looked into Sam’s eyes. “You are not drawing, Samuel.”

“All right,” he said and began sketching, “But after this, we need to go to bed.”

“What time is it, Sammy?” Genie asked.

Sam looked at his watch. “2:45,” he answered.

“In the morning?” Genie wondered.

He looked again at his watch. “No. It’s still yesterday.”

“We jumped just before noon. How can it be 2:45 when we’ve been here all day?”

“Good question,” he said as he turned the parchment toward Dorsea. Kemann looked keenly over his shoulder. “So this is a tank of water that’s being heated really hot. The steam pushes out through this little pipe and comes out to push a turbine. It’s like a water wheel, but gets turned by the high pressure steam. So like water power, you hook up simple machines to the spinning drive shaft to convert the energy of the steam into work. The boiler tank needs to be pretty sturdy, though, or you know—boom.”

“Boom?” Kemann asked. The two Wizards poured over the sketch.

“An explosion,” Genie translated. “Okay, Sam, I’m beat.”

“Okay, Gentlemen,” Sam said standing. “It’s been a pleasure, but I can hear the furs calling me.”

“I hear nothing,” Kemann said, listening intently with a magical gaze.

“It’s an expression. We are going to bed,” Genie said, leading Sam up the pathway out. “Good night.”

Dorsea and Kemann continued studying the parchment. “There is much we can learn from these Skadivers, my son, but I fear that may soon fall to you,” the old Wizard slowly said.

Morning came all too soon, with the light streaming through the window. Sam stirred. One of his eyes peaked open, and he groaned.

“What is it?” Genie asked, half awake and eyes closed.

“Morning,” Sam stated simply. “Wow, we really are here.”

Genie’s eyes sprang open, and she sat up, laughing. “We are here,” she repeated, “It’s great!”

“What?” Sam said groggily with a slight hangover.

“We wanted to get away, didn’t we? Well, we couldn’t get much more away than here.”

“Yeah, I guess we did. And after our entrance yesterday, we shouldn’t have to worry about too much.”

“We are, after all, Skadivers from Sky Hold,” she mocked. “Honestly, where did you come up with that?

“I don’t know. I’m an idiot.”

“You are, true. But so am I. I forgot to ask about a chamber pot. Do you think we have one?”

“We can only hope.”

After sorting out certain difficulties, the two climbed back into the furs and snuggled away the morning chill. After an hour, or so, however, it was time to get up and face the day. Had they really had enough wine last night to agree to traipse off to fight a Were-Wizard. What the heck was a Were-Wizard?

They put on their jumpsuits so that they would be recognizable and went down to find the kitchen, hoping for breakfast. Kitchens aren’t really hard to find if one uses one’s nose. The smells of cooking drifted through the castle, and before long, they found themselves at the door to the kitchen. There was a lot of commotion by numerous cooks and servant, pots and pans clinking, orders being barked across the space. All of this stopped as the Skadivers entered. All eyes were on them, and Hannegelt appeared from the far side of the room. He moved to them calmly while nibbling a little something before breakfast would be served.

“Good morrow, Skadivers,” Hannegelt said cheerfully. “Looking for something to eat?”

“Yes,” Genie replied, “actually really hungry.”

“I’m surprised to see you awake, for I was certain the old Wizard would keep you through the night with his questions.”

“He would like to have,” Sam said, “but it was a long day, yesterday.”

A stout lady wearing an apron approached them. Her gray hair was pulled back except for two curls, which hung in her eyes, having lost their lodgings behind her ears. “Well,” she said, “and what do they eat in Sky Hold?”

“Helda is our kitchen chief,” Hannegelt said as introduction.

She noticed the half a strip of bacon in his hand and whacked his knuckles with a wooden spoon. “You want to eat in the kitchen, you cook and clean in the kitchen,” she said firmly. Genie laughed out loud, drawing a glance and a wink from Helda. “You raise them from Kinder, and they think they can break the very rules you taught them.”

Hannegelt smirked as he rubbed his knuckle while continuing to eat the bacon. But Helda shoved them all out of the kitchen and directed them to the main hall. Hold folk would often eat together in times of siege, or at least in shifts. They met Kemann on the way there. He was happy now to meet the two Skadivers without being under the thumb of the old Wizard—especially not with the turmoil of the previous day.

Kemann and Hannegelt were best friends, but two completely different people. Genie thought they looked funny together, one twenty-three and large, the other a scant seventeen and very slight. But Kemann was very intelligent and well-educated for his age. His paler skin, in comparison to Hannegelt’s showed the amount of studies he had accomplished in his short life, whereas Hannegelt was more muscular and tanned from outdoor work and training.

Stopping inside the door to the main hall, the four surveyed the room. The children who had been running between the tables halted their play at seeing the Skadivers, who had just yesterday glided out of the sky on dragonwing. The children moved towards their seats, since they were now in the presence of Prince Hannegelt, who led the way to their places at the table.

They sat, and Genie ate one of the pommes on the table. In a look, Sam asked for a piece, which she tossed him. Juices dripped down his chin as he took a big bite.

“Kemann tells me you came through Rent,” Hannegelt said. “That must be quite the tale to tell.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Sam replied, wiping his chin. “I don’t suppose there is any coffee?”

“Coffee?” asked Hannegelt. “What is coffee?”

“That’s what I figured,” Sam muttered.

“It’s a hot drink,” Genie said. “Made from roasted beans. Wakes you up.”

“No,” Kemann said. “No doubt there are many things you will not find here, to which you are accustomed.” He reached a cup from the table and muttered a word. Instantly, it was filled with hot water. He handed it to Sam.

“Thanks, Kemann,” Sam said. “I’ll be right back.” Sam jaunted back to his room and dug out his backpacking stove and espresso maker. He pulled out one of his packets of coffee and carried the items back to the main hall. When he got back down there, the hall had filled with folk, and they were all standing. He paused at the door to see Lord Gildenhanna and Dorsea enter and take their seats. Everyone then took their seats, and Sam decided he could go to his.

Genie gave him a sideways look as he set the gear down on the table between them, and saw that many of the people around them were also looking. The breakfast fare was carried in and distributed onto the tables, and attention was now turned toward the food. The hall became noisy with chatter and clinking of tableware.

“Good morrow, Skadivers,” Lord Gildenhanna spoke as he began eating. “I hope you find our morning meal to your liking.”

“It is good,” Genie replied. “We are grateful for your hospitality.”

“What, uh, is that?” he asked, looking at the stove.

“Coffee, I assume,” said Kemann. “A hot drink made of roasted beans.”

“Show us how it works,” the lord requested.

So, Sam filled the tiny espresso maker and set it on the stove. The hall had become quiet, and now all attention was once again on him. He turned on the gas and pulled out a lighter. As he lit it, there was a gasp from the crowd. They had often seen the Wizard conjure fire, but were amazed at seeing this from the strangers. The stove whooshed as it lit and the blue flame began to heat the coffee.

“It takes a minute,” he said. People continued with their eating, but kept an eye on him. He took the moment to reach some bacon and bread from a nearby tray. Soon the little device gurgled and sputtered into the tiny cup, and he turned off the stove. “Coffee,” he announced. There was a slight applause, but then attention turned once again to breakfast.

“Interesting,” Kemann remarked. “May I taste it?”

Sam passed the tiny cup to the young Wizard. He sipped it and his face went sour.

“Yeah, it’s kind of an acquired taste,” Sam told him.

“No doubt a strong potion,” Kemann remarked, handing it back to Sam, who sipped it, savoring.

The breakfast was good, and Sam and Genie ate ravenously. That was not unusual, but somehow, Sam felt as though he had an appetite that came from working out. Like his metabolism had been increased. He didn’t think about it too long, however, but just took an extra helping of the strange new foods that were of Hordann. Even the bacon, which was similar to Earth bacon, was different. He wondered what actual animal it might have come from, but did not ask the question for fear of the answer.

When the morning meal was finished, Lord Gildenhanna rose. “Our Wizard tells me that the Raustorn army has dispersed for a time. No doubt, they will re-group and return before long. But today, we may be at ease, aside from the Hold’s normal preparations. Hannegelt and Kemann will take the Skadivers on a tour of our home until the evening meal. My Wizard and I have much to consider and are not to be disturbed.”

Dorsea stood up and looked at Kemann. There was a ‘whoosh’, and the old Wizard disappeared. Sam and Genie’s jaws dropped.

“We call that blinking,” Hannegelt whispered to them, “but the Wizards have some fancy name for it.”

“Damn his manners!” Gildenhanna spat. “I shall take my leave of you, but first,” he said looking at the Skadivers, “do you sing in Sky Hold? For I greatly desire a song.”

“Yes, Lord,” Sam said, “we sing.” He turned to Genie. “Nothing like being put on the spot.”

They conferred for a moment, and decided on ‘Greensleeves’, since it was really the only medieval song they knew by heart. Actually, they had sung it numerous times for their camping gatherings with the Society for Creative Anachronism that they had been involved with in college.

A man with a stringed instrument came up to the table and stood behind them. As they started to sing, he listened. They harmonized as sweetly as they could remember, and when they had made it through the first verse, the man strummed chords gently along with them. The song had been wildly popular in medieval times, and its haunting tune pulled deeply at the folk present at the table.

When they finished, they could see that Gildenhanna had teared up a little, but everyone was silent. “Thank you. Beautiful,” he said. “And now, I must join my Wizard, and so beg your leave.”

He turned and walked towards his chambers. When he had gone, the folk at the table, still silent, began to rap their cups on the table gently.

“That is for you,” Hannegelt leaned in to tell the Skadivers, who face the folk and bowed humbly.

“We should go, Hann,” Kemann said. “We have many things to do.” He turned to Sam and Genie. “We will first visit the armorer for a fitting. Do you need to get anything before we go?”

“A fitting?” Genie asked. “I need to go back to the room first. I’ll be back shortly.” And just like that she bounded out of the hall.

The three guys sat back down. “Women,” Hannegelt said.

“I guess that’s something our two worlds have in common,” Sam said. He raised a cup. “And vive les differences, as they say.”

Genie made her way down before long, and the four set out to explore the Hold. All of the Hold-folk were going about their businesses, and they would pause as the Skadivers passed and acknowledged them in a variety of friendly ways. To a certain extent, the sights were pretty much what Sam and Genie expected to see, but the reality of it all inspired a feeling of awe in the two. It was one thing to see a movie featuring such scenery and locations, but to be there in a real place—and not to view it on a two-dimensional screen—was, in fact, awesome. The sounds, the air, the smells. Awesome.

There were people moving goods, food, and livestock. Artisans worked in open air shops making fabrics, dying, hammering out metal forms using small forges and anvils. There were coopers and wheelwrights, and carpenters, all to be seen from the well-worn dirt streets that wound around in the ‘downtown’ district as the four strolled along.

As they approached the armorer, the smell of the forges was great. The shop was smoky and noisy as the smiths worked at a furious pace. When they walked up to the entrance, the work stopped, and all eyes were upon them. It was a different sort of staring, however. It was as though they were being sized up, literally. The old man with a crazy gray mop of hair came to them.

“Good morrow, Smithy,” Hannegelt said. “Can you make us some clothes?”

“Clothes?” Smithy sniped. “You’d do well to give a little respect to these old clothes,” he said as he rapped on the front of Hannegelt’s mail shirt with a funny little hammer.

“You know I do, Sir. Now, have you started working on our guests’ attire?”

He looked over at Sam and Genie. “We have, but it is good you are here so we may measure you properly. Welcome to my shop, Skadivers. Come this way.” He turned and went to a table covered in measuring tools and patterns.

“Thank you, good sir,” Genie replied.

“Take your suit off, Son of Sky Hold, if you will,” requested Smithy, and Sam unzipped his jumpsuit and undid the Velcro sleeve. Smithy’s eyes got big. “Very strange closures,” he marveled.

Sam got out of the jumpsuit, and it was immediately taken by Smithy who looked at the zipper very intently. He called over his apprentice. “Thornside!” And the young man was there in a heartbeat. “Examine this closure and make a parchment.” The apprentice scooped up Sam’s jumpsuit, and was off. “Now, then,” he said to Sam, “Let’s get making.”

He pulled up a tailor’s measure, and a younger apprentice appeared with a chalkboard and began writing measurements down as they were taken, Smithy mumbling numbers and stretching the tape all over Sam’s body.

“Very good,” he said at last. He looked a little unsure as he turned to Genie. “We have never made armor for a lady before.” The young apprentice giggled, and Smithy gave him some eye daggers.

He looked back to Genie, and she was already unzipping her jumpsuit. She pulled it down to her waist, and the entire shop seemed to screech to a halt. Standing there half naked, with her operatic fencing cups gleaming in contrast to her smooth skin, she smiled.

“Are you going to measure her with the tape, or memorize her figure?” Hannegelt said after several awkward moments.

“Ah, yes,” Smithy said as he went very gingerly around her figure with the tape and spoke some numbers to the boy. “And now, I don’t…know…”

“You may have never armored them before, but surely you have ‘handled’ challenges like these before,” Genie said impishly. The entire shop burst into laughter as the old Smithy blushed. He swallowed hard and began measuring around the fencing cups, calling numbers as he went. Sam looked over the shoulder of the boy, who had been drawing Genie and adding the numbers to it.

“I think the boy really captured you, Genie,” Sam said as he took the chalk board and showed her the sketch that only a young boy could make of a half-naked Amazon straight out of a dream.

Then the boy blushed. “It’s the numbers that’s important, Sir,” he said sheepishly.

“Indeed,” Sam agreed.

“I have some gambesons for you to wear, if it pleases you,” Smithy told them.

“So long as they don’t clash with my jeans,” Genie said with a smile. He, of course, was confused, but had the garments brought out.

They put them on; Sam’s fit nicely, but Genie couldn’t button up very far before the gambeson became too tight to fit around her bust. The result was stunning actually, as far as Sam was concerned. She looked like a sexy ad from a fashion magazine.

“It’s a little snug,” Genie commented.

“I will have a new one for you tomorrow, my Lady,” Smithy apologized. “May I keep your suits here for a time?”

“Sure,” Sam said, “whatever you need—and thanks.”

“It is an honor, Sir,” he said.

“If you are done with us, then, Smithy…” Hannegelt prodded. “We have more to see. Shall we go?”

The group continued the tour. Sampling some of the fare at several booths, they were amazed at the diversity of the dishes of the Hold-folk. At length, they came to the weapons maker’s shop. There were bows and arrows, swords, spears, pikes, flails and maces, knives and shields.

“This is your kind of shop,” Genie told Sam.

“Perhaps you would like to try our Gilden Hold bows,” Hannegelt suggested. “There are straws to fletch just through the shop.”

“Sure,” Sam said, eyeing the fine wooden recurves hung on the wall.

“Shopkeep!” Hannegelt called. A furry man with massive limbs came out from behind a curtain.

“Good morrow, Prince Hannegelt,” he said. “And Skadivers? To what do I owe this honor?”

“We should like to try some of your fine bows, Sir.”

“Pick whichever you please. I shall bring quivers to the straws,” he said politely.

It didn’t take Sam long to find a rich, dark wooden bow, and Genie chose a green one. Hannegelt and Kemann just took bows at random and led the way out back, where the Shopkeeper waited.

The targets were about forty yards away. Hannegelt was first to start fletching. He was good, as one would expect of a fighting prince, who had been trained since boyhood. Kemann was not so good; his first couple of arrows went into the ground just in front of the straw bales. Both were anxious to see the Skadivers loose. Sam let a couple go, but not very well. He hit the target, but definitely needed to get used to the new bow. Genie’s first hit the edge of the bale, but her next five were deadly accurate in the center of the bale. Hannegelt stepped back.

“Lady Genevieve,” he remarked, “you have great skills. Never have I seen a woman fletch as you.”

“It’s just luck,” she said, knowing that it would irritate Sam.

“Don’t believe it,” Sam threw in.

They continued to shoot for a while, retrieving their arrows several times. Sam did eventually dial in his aim with the new bow, but the first impressions had been made.

“Maybe you are suited more to the sword, Samuel,” Hannegelt said playfully. “Care for a little workout?”

“I’m game,” he answered.

They put the bows back inside and found several stylish wooden blades for practice. Genie hung back with Kemann while Sam and Hannegelt squared off.

“Half-speed?” suggested Hannegelt.

“Okay,” Sam said. Hannegelt looked confused. “Okay. It means ‘yes’.”

“Oh. Okay.”

They played back and forth, noting each other’s form and clacking the wooden practice swords in a relaxed rhythm for several minutes.

“Full speed, light contact?” asked Sam.

“Okay,” replied Hannegelt with a smile.

Sam let Hannegelt attack first, which didn’t take much goading. Hannegelt was a real fighter. He had fought with a sword for his life many times, and many of those recently. He was not the type of fighter to hang back and let the fight come to him. But Sam knew he could learn a lot by playing defensively for a while and parried and blocked Hannegelt time and again.

Hannegelt eased and stepped back. “You are good, Samuel. Very fast,” he said.

“I don’t like to die,” Sam replied.

“That is a good philosophy, Skadiver,” Kemann joked.

“Again?” Hannegelt asked.

“Okay,” Sam responded.

Again the two squared off, but this time Sam sprang forward. Hannegelt blocked the incoming slash, but could not keep his balance as Sam came in so far. He looked down to see Sam’s wooden sword poised against his chest. Kemann gasped, for he knew Hannegelt to be one of the best swordsmen in Gilden Hold.

“Where did you learn that?” Hannegelt asked.

“Hamlet,” Sam said, and Genie cracked up.

“We need to get back to the main hall,” Kemann announced. “Master Dorsea…”

He did not know why Dorsea needed them, but the four companions started making their way back.

“Kemann,” Genie began, “you can communicate with Dorsea in your head?”

“Over short distances, but I’m working at increasing the span,” he answered.

“And that ‘blinking’ thing he did—can you do that?” she asked.

“Yes, but again, only short distances. He is much older and more experienced than I.”

Sam thought about that for a moment. “I’ll bet that could come in handy in a fight.”

“A good Wizard should not have to fight,” he said. “But it looks as though a fight may be at hand. That is why we have been summoned.”

“The Raustorn army is returned?” Hannegelt asked.

“That is what we see,” he replied with his mind in two places at once. He peeled off from the group to go to Dorsea in his chambers as they neared the hall.

The three entered the main hall, and it was full of folk rushing about trying to get things organized for another attack on the walls. Lord Gildenhanna was standing in front of his throne, and his squires were putting his armor on him. He saw the three and beckoned them to him.

“Ah, Hannegelt,” he began, “it is our belief that the attack will come at dusk. They look to make darkness their ally. Make ready the fires for the wall.”

“Yes, my lord,” Hannegelt replied.

“So,” Sam interrupted, “they want to be in the dark. Is that right?”

“As I have said,” the lord replied sharply.

“And you are going to put fires at the top of the walls?”

“As we have always done.”

“So the enemies are coming out of relative darkness, and you are lighting yourselves?”

Lord Gildenhanna was just about to unload on Sam, when Hannegelt’s hand grabbed the old lord’s arm. “What are you suggesting, Son of Sky Hold?”

“We had to study lighting in school, and it seems to me, if you put the fires out there, say a hundred yards out, thenthe enemy would be lit, and we would be in relative darkness,” Sam explained.

Hannegelt looked at his father. It was so simple. Put the light on the enemy. “Father?”

Lord Gildenhanna thought for a moment. “Clever. Turn the darkness to our advantage. We have but little time to manage it. Can it be done?”

“I shall do it, My Lord,” Hannegelt said and rushed out.

Gildenhanna looked at Sam. “Have you considered whether you will fight?”

“It seems we have little choice, My Lord,” Sam replied.

“Get our Skadivers dressed for the occasion,” he said to his squires. “And proper swords as well. We shall keep our eyes on you two Sky-Holdfolk.”

“Thank you, Sir, we shall be in our chambers,” Sam said. They felt as though they had been dismissed, so they walked toward the door.

“You hungry?” Genie asked. She had been very quiet through all of this. Sam wondered why.

“Yes. How about you? You okay?”

“I have a headache. Maybe I just need to eat.”

“I have a headache too. Not bad, but it’s there,” Sam told her. “I am hungry, but this doesn’t feel like that kind of headache. It might be like Dorsea said last night--that we would have to acclimate to Hordann.”

“Maybe,” she said.

They caught a purple lady on their way out and asked for some food to be brought to them in their room. She seemed preoccupied with other tasks, but said that she would see to it.

Up in the room, the pair sacked out for a few minutes.

“Are we really going to fight?” Genie asked quietly.

“I guess we have to.”

“Kill people?”

“Well, I know it’s awful, but let’s try to stick to the rule of only killing people who are trying to kill us,” Sam said.

“I’ll do what I can.”

They had just eaten their snack when there was a knock at the door. The squires were there with some generic mail shirts and helmets, which they quickly handed to Sam and departed.

“I’m sure they have a lot to do,” he said as he handed Genie the smaller of the two mail shirts.

There wasn’t much they could do for the next couple of hours, so they lay back to try to catch a nap, but neither of them were successful. The anticipation of their first battle weighed heavily on them both. The idea of the nap evaporated at the sound of distant drums. It was beginning to get dark, and they knew the time was close.

They helped each other into the heavy mail, shaking to settle the fabric onto their gambesons. Genie handed Sam a helmet. He looked into her eyes. Seldom had he seen such a serious look on her lovely face.

“I’d feel better about this if you stayed here,” he said sincerely. “I understand how you feel. I don’t want to kill anybody either.”

“If you go, I go,” she said firmly. “You said it yourself that we don’t have much choice but to fight.”

“Yeah, but if we lose…”

“We die. Whatever we do, it will be together, Sam.”

It was certainly a romantic notion, and a brave one too, but he really did wish she would stay behind. He was also bewildered somewhat by her sudden surge of courage, and he was proud of her. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the camping headlight and his flashlight. “Here,” he said, “let me put this on your helmet. The light might blind someone at close range and give you an edge.” He put it on the helmet and then put the helmet on her. “Not going to make the fashion rags with this outfit.”

She didn’t even giggle, which was not like her. She kissed him, picked up her quiver and bow. The drums continued outside the walls. “Let’s go,” was all she said. Sam gathered his weapons as well, and the two warriors of Sky Hold stepped out of their room and onto a path from which they might never return.

As they passed through the main hall to go out into the courtyard, they noticed that the drums were louder outside. A squire ran up to them with swords. Again, as soon as they changed hands, the squire ran off. They took the time to buckle on the belts, which held the scabbards. Sam drew his sword and did a couple of moves with it to see how it handled. Genie did the same. They crossed swords with one another.

“All for one,” Genie said.

“And one for all,” Sam added. “Go get ’em, D’Artagnan.”

Daylight was failing as they crossed the courtyard. Hannegelt spotted them from his place above the gate. The drums beyond began to quicken their cadence.

“Skadivers!” he called down, “Come, stand with me near the tower!” He pointed to a corner to their left.

They found their way to the stair and heard a couple of arrows, shot from a distance fall onto the stones of the courtyard below, and they quickened their pace. When they reached Hannegelt, he told them that the fires had been built, but they were waiting to light them for the right time. Sam had the feeling that the time was near.

Atop the wall, it was dark except for several candles that burned at broad intervals along its length. The wall itself was a long curved structure that terminated on both ends at a steep drop off behind the Hold’s rear walls.

Sam and Genie were getting to their places and met Hannegelt at the east tower, where the wall jutted out. From this location, they would be able to view the main force trying to take the gate. They could also see the field before the Hold.

Several torches could be seen in the distance entering the field and Hannegelt sounded a horn as the signal to light the fires. Archers lit the flaming arrows with the candles and let them fly. They hit the wood piles that formed a semi-circle spotted across the field, and the flames began to illuminate the approaching horde. Sam figured that they must have used some kind of fuel oil on them to get them to ignite.

“Those are fine arrows you have, Skadivers,” Hannegelt noticed. “Best use the Hold’s supply though to cut through these minions. We have an abundance.”

“Great,” Sam said, since he really didn’t want to lose his expensive equipment.

Immediately, Hannegelt began his work. Letting arrows fly at targets approaching from the distance. Sam observed him for a while to see his methods and then joined in.

To Sam’s amusement, he saw several of the attackers take hold of some of the burning branches from the outlying fires as though they had been given a gift, to possibly throw into the Hold to try to set it afire. But that only made them all the more visible to the archers on the wall.

Standing by his opening at the top of the wall, Sam knocked an arrow. Slowly, he peeked around the corner and spotted a reptile-looking man covered in dark green scales, who was wielding a javelin. He jumped into the opening and quickly aimed. He released the arrow. The creature was in the process of throwing the spear when the arrow pierced his leather armor that he wore over his chest. The spear flailed in motion to the ground, and the reptile fell to his knees, clutching the arrow with long sharp claws covered with his own blood. His momentum landed him on his face, causing the arrow to break deep within his chest cavity.

Sam stood and watched in amazement. An arrow swished by his ear, and he dropped down behind the wall. He looked over at Genie, who was just sitting by her opening, frozen.

“I just killed some kind of lizard man!” Sam yelled frantically over to her, but she remained staring vacantly into space. “Come on, Genie, most of them aren’t even human.” She did not react. Sam knocked another arrow and peered out again. Instantly, he saw a group about sixty yards out carrying a ladder. He jumped into the gap with the bow drawn back the length of the arrow.

The leader, carrying the front of the ladder fell sharply, causing the entire group to stumble and fall as the tip of the ladder dug into the turf next to the writhing man with the fletching of Sam’s arrow protruding from his mid-section, a look of cold fear on his face. Sam ducked back to cover, and did not see the volley of arrows, that followed his, cut down the rest of the ladder party.

“Good shot!” shouted Hannegelt. “I was waiting for the same man to get a little closer.” Sam smiled, glad that Hannegelt had seen. Genie still sat quiet. Sam went back to work, as did Hannegelt.

Out of the corner of her eye, Genie saw the man next to her, and closest to the tower, get hit with an arrow in the eye. He screamed and fell backwards into the courtyard. Sam was too busy to notice, but Genie sat, horrified, with her bow loaded, numb in her grip.

There was a ‘clink’ of metal in the newly vacant slot next to Genie. No one but her noticed the grappling hook find its purchase and begin to take weight. She stood up and went to look. As she peeked into the opening, a large, sinewy arm swung around and knocked her back against the tower wall. Out of the unguarded hole leapt a seven foot barbarian with a battleaxe. Genie, stunned, did not look like a threat to him. He had seen that she was a woman, and scoffed to himself that they were fighting women. If he could get the gate open, he might return to take her, or so he thought in that moment. So, he turned towards Sam, the next man on the wall. He sprang with axe held high.

Sam was hit from behind by the hurling body, which knocked him against the stone opening. The twitching body settled limply onto Sam’s legs. He looked back to see Genie just staring at him with an empty bow still poised. He looked at the barbarian and saw her arrow sticking through the man’s neck. He looked back at her to see her drop the bow. Then, he saw why. Another barbarian was climbing through the opening by her. He struggled to move to her, but there was a massive dead guy on his legs. He could only watch as she pulled out her sword as he was raising his mace to bash her. Her headlamp shone in his eyes, and he swung, missing her. He was not able to bring the weapon back to bear on her before she lunged forward and slashed the barbarian’s throat. He dropped the mace and grabbed his gurgling neck, dropping to his knees before toppling over.

Sam freed himself and rushed over to her. He saw the grappling hook swaying. He jumped back to get the battleaxe of the first barbarian and quickly returned to sever the chain from the hook. He heard several muffled thuds and turned his attention to Genie. He took her in his arms, and she wept.

“Here comes the great rush!” shouted Hannegelt.

Sam gripped Genie by the shoulders and looked deeply through her tears. “You are awesome. But look, they were trying to kill us. You saved me. You did great, but there’s more to do. They’re coming for the gate now. Take up your bow. I know it sucks, but it’s necessary.”

“I’m all right,” she said slowly, sniffling.

“Come on!” yelled Hannegelt.

Sam and Genie gathered themselves and took their places. The ground in front of the Hold was teeming with attackers. They had organized themselves in groups of three and spread the groups out around the wall. The individual groups of three would fire one arrow at a time at the archers on the wall. Standing in a tight line, the front man would shoot. His arrow released, he would fall back to allow the next to shoot. In this way, they rotated to keep a continuous stream of arrows going through the Hold’s openings and also keep smaller as targets themselves. Their object was to protect the storming warrior bands surrounding the enormous battering ram.

On the wall, the sound of bowstrings twanging filled the gaps between the screams from below and the rhythmic pounding of the ram on the outer gate. The arrows coming up through the archers’ openings were peppering the courtyard behind them and making it extremely difficult to return fire.

Sam got an idea. He hefted the dead barbarian up into his opening and put his helmet on him. Then, he turned on his flashlight and set it on the stone to light up the body. He gave the groups of attackers near him a target to shoot, while he went over to the vacant slot nearer to Genie. “Turn off your head lamp,” Sam told Genie. The archer groups took the bait and began shooting at the lighted body, while Sam and Genie cut them down, one after another.

When the groups nearest to them were vanquished, they turned their attentions to the men with the battering ram. They were running low on arrows, but the youngsters of the Hold brought full baskets of them, as was their job. It was a fairly long shot for them, but their vantage point was good. They loosed so many arrows, that their arms were getting shaky, but their effort was rewarded. They had weakened the side of the battering ram force enough that it no longer was able to carry the ram evenly enough to get the power needed to damage the gate. Eventually, the ram swayed and fell over onto the dwindling carriers on that side.

Genie sat down, leaning back against the stones. Sam noticed this and sat down with her. They sat in silence and listened to the screams, the yells, the twanging of bows. Soon, the noises diminished. The attackers were retreating. Sam saw Hannegelt arch an arrow high in the sky and looked out to watch it as planted itself into the back of a man, who lurched, falling to the field next to one of the dying fires, which still burned enough to show the field filled with the fallen.

Hannegelt strolled over to the Skadivers. He looked at the barbarian Sam had propped up, now riddled with arrows. He picked up Sam’s flashlight and looked at it curiously.

“Nicely done, Son of Sky Hold,” he said, and he shined the light on the second barbarian that Genie had slain. “You?” he asked Sam.

“Genie,” Sam replied.

Hannegelt’s eyebrow arched in amazement. “Also nicely done, my lady.” The flashlight shone on the grappling hook, still seated in the corner of the opening. “We can be thankful for our fortress, and also for the simplicity of thought that our enemies refer to as strategy. Albeit, they did throw a couple of new tricks our way,” he said. “But we have your sorcery now to add to our arsenal, it seems.” Hannegelt handed him the flashlight.

“Yeah,” Sam replied shortly. Slowly, the two Skadivers gathered their weapons, including the barbarian axe.

“I could use a drink,” Genie said wearily.

“And well-deserved,” Hannegelt said, “The wine will be plentiful in the Great Hall.”

When the three of them reached the bottom of the stairs coming down from the wall, Hannegelt saw his fallen comrade, who had been next to Genie. He knelt down. “Eversmann,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said. “A friend?”

“Yes.” He looked at Sam. “Many a great friendship is forged in the fires of battle, and many a great friend is lost in them.”

He called several of the Hold-folk over, and had them take his friend’s body to his family. He turned to go with them. To the Skadivers he said, “I shall join you in the Great Hall shortly, and we shall drink to his memory.” With that, he led the way for his fallen friend.

The courtyard was busy with youngsters gathering arrows and Hold-folk putting things back to normal. Sam and Genie crossed through en route to the Great Hall. No doubt by morning, the inside of the Hold would be tidy once more, and attentions would turn to clearing the field in front of the wall.

In the Great Hall, food and drink was laid out on the table. There were a number of men-folk already there and, not standing on ceremony, were already eating and drinking. The Skadivers took their seats and also partook. After a long while, they were just about ready to retire, when Hannegelt entered with Kemann. They approached and took their seats across the table from Sam and Genie.

“Hann tells me that you fought well,” Kemann said. But he got no response. “May I see the stick of light you carry, Samuel?”

Sam knew he meant the flashlight, so he pulled it out and tossed it across the table. “Flashlight,” he said. “Press the button on the end.”

He did, and it turned on. He waved the beam around in the Great Hall, and all of the people there stopped their conversations and watched. It was a powerful, compact light, and it was exceptionally bright. Kemann shined it on the walls and columns. He shined it in the face of one of the men at the end of the table, who squinted and covered his eyes. “Impressive,” he said and switched it off. He switched it back on and, with his magic, floated it above the table, leaving it suspended between them and shining down on the table. He then floated it back to Sam, who took it and switched it off.

“Also impressive,” Genie said, referring to Kemann’s magic.

Hannegelt picked up his cup and stood. “My friends,” he announced, “we raise our cups to Gilden Hold, to Lord Gildenhanna, to our new friends from Sky Hold, and to the memory of our fallen friends. Eversmann, be at peace.”

The toast was made, the drink was drunk, and the cups rapped gently on the table. Hannegelt and Kemann took their leave of the company. Sam and Genie did not linger either, but made their way to their room, where they retired for the night.

They did sleep, but not good sleep, as their dreams were filled with images of the battle, the killings. Normal people don’t kill anyone. Sure, soldiers do, but it changes them too. The taking of a life changes a person. Soldiers know at the start what may be required, and they accept it—or they don’t. Sam and Genie were not soldiers, no, they were theatre people. They dealt with death in show after show, and the drama of it, but that was theatre. No one really died. No one was really killed. But this was no show, and the reality of it did not sit easily upon them. They understood it, but that didn’t really help much.

The next morning, they were still fairly disturbed by it all. Daylight helped, as did breakfast. The Great Hall was a contrast, however, to their somber feelings. All the Hold-folk were in good spirits. It had been a great victory, the night before, and it was hoped by many that it had achieved a week or two of quiet. Neither Lord Gildenhanna nor Dorsea were to be found in the Great Hall, but Kemann came through and found the Skadivers.

He informed them that the Lord and his Wizard were still in chambers having some great discussion, and that Prince Hannegelt was seeing to the clean-up and setting patrols to go out for the gathering of supplies and scouting. Sam did not want to be rude, but he had questions.

“We saw Lord Gildenhanna don armor yesterday, but we did not see him on the battlements,” Sam said to Kemann.

“Yes, that is true,” the young Wizard replied. “The armor is customary—in case the worst should occur. As for Master Dorsea, and I as well, we Wizards do not really do much in a battle. It is the common belief that we are too valuable to be risked. Valuable meaning rare. The Jaederon blood line is very narrow. We have, in the past, set illusions to deter our enemies, but once those illusions have been seen a time or two, they lose the power to frighten away all but the lowest of beings. I should not wish to say we take no part in the battles. We do many things. For instance, the magic which strengthens the gates. That comes from our spells. And we have the sight to see things, which may turn a battle.”
“You can see the future?” Genie asked.

“One might say so, although the truth of it is a different kind of vision. The future is a very fragile thing. We may see a future event, but then something changes, and the event cannot unfold the way it had been foreseen. It was how we knew of the attack yesterday eve. Does that make sense?”

“As much as anything else,” Sam said.

“I sense you are disturbed, Samuel,” Kemann noted. His eyes got a distant gaze.

“Well, there is a lot that we are having to get used to. Can’t say we like some of it.”

“Killing,” Kemann divined.

“Yeah.”

“It is a terrible thing, I agree. Worse is that it is meaningless.”

“Meaningless?” Genie asked.

“Yes, in the sense that without Styric bending their minds, we would not have to kill them. Have they no warlords like Styric on Earth?”

“Oh, not Wizards, but men of power who start huge wars, and convince men to fight them,” Sam answered. “Okay, so Dorsea and you don’t come to the battles. You stay in your chambers and weave spells and have visions?”

“One might say that.”

“That explains the Wizards, but what about the Lord?” Sam asked. “Where was he?”

“Resting,” Kemann said.

“Resting?” Genie asked. “Is he ill?”

“No, you don’t understand. A Wizard and his Lord have a connection. It is a sharing of strengths. Master Dorsea draws strength from Lord Gildenhanna, as do I from Prince Hannegelt. If I were to perform a major magical act that requires great energy, Hannegelt would weaken. In a battle, that could be deadly. We have to be very particular what magic we perform and when.”

“That’s quite a connection,” Genie remarked. “I guess it helps that you are good friends.”

“Without the friendship, Lady Genevieve, there can be no connection,” Kemann replied.

“Well, that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?” Sam commented. There was pause in the conversation. “So, about Styric. You called him a Were-Wizard, and he seems to be pretty powerful. What’s that about? Is he also in your Jaederon bloodline?”

Kemann looked a little uncomfortable with the question. “He is.”

“And does he also have a lord?” Sam continued.

“He does not,” Kemann answered. “It is because he is half Were-folk. This is not really my tale to tell, Son of Sky Hold.”

“Interesting. But you can’t just leave it at that, Kemann,” Sam goaded, but Kemann remained silent.

“Who are the Were-folk?” Genie asked, trying to sound innocent.

“Ages ago, at the beginning of Hordann, the magic was unrefined. Wild, one might say. Legends tell of storms of magic that darkened the skies. Thunderdents, great winds, sky ice. At that time, there were only small villages of people spread out across the lands. One of these villages was hit with such a storm. It is said that these folk were more primitive, dressing in animal hide, living in caverns. The wild magic of the storm transformed them into bestial forms of men, and left them with residual magic powers of their own.” Kemann looked at Sam. “You killed one.”

Sam thought back to the night before. “That lizard guy? How did you know about that?”

“I am a Wizard; I was ‘watching’. You should know that killing a Were-folk has marked you.”

“Marked me?” Sam questioned.

“I have told you that they have some powers. That all Were-folk who see you will know that you slew one of their own,” Kemann explained.

“So Styric will know,” Genie extrapolated.

“He already knows,” he stated plainly.

“Terrific,” Sam said sarcastically. “All right, change of subject. What are we doing today?”

“That would be up to you, Samuel. What would you like to do?”

“Well, since the biggest, baddest Were-Wizard in Hordann already has a vendetta against me, maybe we should do some training,” Sam suggested. “Could someone show me how to fight someone carrying a battleax? That guy last night would have killed me if Genie hadn’t been there.”

“Yes, there is someone at the armory you should meet. But against Styric, I would think you would want to know how to defend yourselves against his magic.”

“And who do you know who could instruct us on that?” Genie asked.

“Me, of course,” Kemann said indignantly.

“Duh,” Genie added.

“What does this mean, ‘duh’?”

“Don’t you speak Sarcasm? It means, ‘of course, idiot’” Sam said.

“Where do you want to start, then?”

“The armory,” Sam answered.

“Duh,” Kemann noted.

“Very good, Kemann,” Genie added.

They got themselves together, and it was mid-morning by the time they made their way over to the armory. It was a stone building, unlike the other ‘shops’ they had visited the day before. It was traditionally guarded by a single man in full battle array. He nodded at Kemann, and the three of them passed through the heavy doorway.

Inside, there were racks of weapons of all sorts, swords, spears, axes, bows, shields, and some that were unfamiliar to the Skadivers. A burly man stepped forward to greet them.

“Good morrow, young Kemann…and Skadivers,” he said, taken aback slightly.

“Klench,” Kemann said, “this is Samuel, Son of Sky Hold and Lady Genevieve, Amazon of Sky Hold.”

“A great honor,” he said with a bow. “I am at your service.”

“The honor is ours, and we are also at your service,” Sam said in reply.

There was a pause as Klench bowed slightly. “How may I be of service?” he asked.

“The Skadivers would like to have a weapons lesson.”

“Indeed,” Klench marveled. He turned and called to another room, “Beamann!”

A stout man with a short gray beard came out of a side room. “Yes, Klench?” Immediately, he recognized the Skadivers and bowed.

“The Skadivers would like to have a weapons lesson. Would you oblige?” Klench asked.

“At your service,” he said.

“And we at yours, Sir,” Genie replied. He bowed slightly once again.

“What manner of lesson do you require of me?”

“Let’s start with the axe and go from there,” Sam suggested.

“As you wish. This way.” He led them to a sparring room where weapons were tested and tried. They took up weapons, and began to walk through traditional forms and techniques. He was a good teacher, slow, methodical and patient. Sam and Genie were good students too, and after an hour, or so, with the axe, Beamann began to give them a primer on other weapons that they might normally have to defend against. It was well into the afternoon before hunger became an issue, and they decided to take their leave of the armory and Beamann’s tutelage.

They were on their way back to the Great Hall, when they passed by the armorer’s shop. Smithy hailed them to come in. He had finished their actual gambesons and was anxious to replace the temporary ones that they had been wearing.

These were nice. Rich royal blue fabric to not only be padding for armor, but also stylish enough to wear by themselves, they had full sleeves and a mandarin collar, slim toggles of silver for closures, and silver trim and stitching. There was also a silver ‘X’ embroidered over the heart on each garment. Genie remarked to Sam that the designers must have seen the ‘X’ on their Brand X jumpsuits and interpreted it as their crest. And so, now, it was.

They fit beautifully, and they thanked Smithy sincerely. He simply told them to come back the next afternoon and rushed them out. He was a busy man apparently. Most of the Hold-folk were it seemed. Hard-working, always busy—it was refreshing.

This time they were determined to get back to the Great Hall for some food. They were greeted by passing Hold-folk, who admired their new attire.

“Everyone here is so nice,” Genie remarked.

“You did fly in on dragon wing,” Kemann told them, “And stories of your cleverness and fortitude upon the battlements have spread.”

They reached the Great Hall and went in to find Hannegelt waiting for them. Kemann had ‘told’ him they were coming, and coming hungry.

“I know you are hungry, but eat sparingly,” he told them as they sat. “We feast tonight, as is our custom the eve after a battle.”

“A feast sounds good to me,” Sam said, “but we have to eat something now.”

“You look very regal in your new gambesons; the Lord will be pleased.”

“We like them a lot,” Genie replied.

“You have taken lesson with Beamann, I hear,” Hannegelt said. “Good man. He trained me.”

“It shows,” Sam said. “I watched you a lot last night. We’ve never been in a battle before, and seeing how you handled yourself helped a lot.”

Hannegelt looked at Kemann, and they turned slowly back to the Skadivers, who were sharing a piece of some kind of cheese. “You had never been in a battle?”

“No,” Genie replied.

“Last night was your first battle?”

“Yes,” Sam admitted.

“That explains your remorse,” Kemann said.

“Look, you guys basically told us we had to fight, so we did. What’s so surprising about that?” Sam said. “No, we never killed anybody before last night. Naturally, we are a little freaked out about it.”

“Freaked out?” Kemann asked.

“Unsettled. Disquieted. Disturbed. Emotional,” Genie translated. “Yes, freaked out.”

“Forgive me,” Hannegelt said, “but with your skills, we took you for seasoned fighters.”

“We are just actors,” Genie admitted. “Sometimes we have played people who fight.”

“You are players?” Kemann asked.

“Yes,” Sam said. “And ‘all the world’s a stage, and we are but poor players’…”

“I can only imagine what the real soldiers of Sky Hold must be like,” Hannegelt mused.

“They are all heroes,” Genie said, considering the difficulty of the new roles she and Sam had assumed.

After some quiet time in their room, the time for the ‘feast’ was getting close. They cleaned up, got dressed, and headed once again to the Great Hall. Apparently, they had guessed the time correctly. The table was mostly full, and as they crossed to their places, many heads turned to look at them in their new attire. Cups began to gently rap on the table, as Sam and Genie humbly took their seats.

No sooner than they had sat, did Lord Gildenhanna and Dorsea enter, and all rose. Upon their arrival at their seats, all then returned to sitting, and the feast began. Everyone had a half of some chicken-like fowl, which had been roasted over a wood fire, a tuber similar to a yam, and lots of gutsenberry wine. This was a traditional meal after a successful battle such as they had participated in the night before.

Everyone ate hungrily, and there was very little conversation during the meal. Sam actually preferred it that way; he could never understand why people insisted on talking during meals. When the eating was done, Gildenhanna toasted the victory, to which, the cups rapped on the table, and that was that.

Dorsea ‘blinked’ out, and Gildenhanna left the gathering, instructing that Hannegelt, Kemann, and the Skadivers bring wine to chambers. That meant a meeting.

The Lord’s private chambers had two massive carved doors that opened into a foyer. From there, they stepped down into a sunken ‘den’ with very high ceilings supported by gold arches. The stone fireplace glowed warmly and was surrounded by ‘couches’ covered with soft furs. The room was lit by several candles and decorated by knick-knacks of antiquity.

The group was invited to sit. Gildenhanna took a place next to the mantle and stood.

“I am told, Skadivers, that you were masterful last night,” he said. “The Sky Hold on Earth must be very powerful.”

“Thank you, Lord Gildenhanna,” Sam replied. He didn’t want to again have to mention that had been their first battle. It didn’t really count that Sam had once played an Indian in a movie about Custer. Actually, he played the leader of a Sioux scouting party and was the third to be shot off of his horse, galloping wildly through Custer’s camp. Stunt man stuff. The real thing was much scarier.

“The time has come to act,” the Lord announced. “We have sat back now for too long and allowed Styric to gain too many puppets by means of his Were-sorcery. His power increases each day. True, that we are relatively safe here, but not forever.” He paused. “Therefore, it is our intention to make an assault upon Styric himself. I wish you to join the party, and in truth, you must if you are to find the answers you seek.”

Sam was just looking to Genie, when he thought about Dorsea. It was a strange feeling, and in that instant Dorsea appeared. A weird thing, this ‘blinking’, where the thought precedes the arrival.

“And will you go?” the Wizard asked them point blank.

“Yes,” Genie answered, taking Sam’s hand. She knew it could be their only chance of getting home. Whatever else would happen, she had no idea—she just knew they had to try.

“You heard the lady,” Sam added.

“Good,” he said, turning on his heels. He conjured a glowing map on the wall above the fireplace. It showed the islands of Hordann, surrounded by seas. A light shown on Gilden Hold, and as he spoke of their routes, a glowing line would grow to the destinations. “You will go due east to Mt. Enverra, about thirty leagues. You will determine if Styric has any control there yet. If so, move on quickly; if not, make your allies while you may, and take on one or two company members to perhaps act as guides to your next destination. Due east again, Olden, seventy leagues over the Sanguin Mountain Ridge on the edge of the wasteland.”

“Hannegelt and Kemann know the tales of the Xeltic priests of Olden,” said Gildenhanna. “We have received only a mystic message that they can and will help us against Styric. They have watched him and know his of his plot to rule all of Hordann. Perhaps that is why they sent us this message.”

“They are our brothers, are they not, Father?” Hannegelt interjected.

“Yes, they are, Son,” replied the Lord warmly, “and that is why we are turning to them for whatever help they may provide.”

“Why have you waited for so long to move against Styric?” Sam inquired. The group fell silent. By the looks on faces around the room, it was apparent that the subject was not a new one, and that many hours had been spent in debate.

“Because Styric is no fool,” Dorsea said at last. “One must be very careful in dealing with a Were-Wizard. Jaederon damn him.”

“Exactly,” agreed the Lord. “So, you must be exceedingly careful on you quest.”

The Wizard continued, “Then you must go north by northeast twenty-seven leagues to the northern mouth of Unknown Pass to meet your vessel at that point.” The luminescent map sketched the path to the Unknown Isle at the northern tip of Gilden Island. “The ship will sail to Styric Isle in secret. Far to the east around the Raustorn Islands, then southward, veer west enough to approach the triangular island, just south, on the long side of its eastern shore. Once there, Kemann, you must divine your own plan.”

The room was silent. Everyone felt the danger and chance of this mission, but all knew that there was little chance for Hordann if they didn’t try.

“So, that’s how we get there,” Sam said. “Did I miss something? How are we supposed to defeat this Were-Wizard?”

“We must defeat him,” Gildenhanna said gravely.

“You are coming with us, Father?”

“No. We must go a different way.”

“Styric will be watching us,” Dorsea said.

“But you will be there?”

“Yes.”

Sam shook his head. “Let me get this straight. We walk 130 leagues to catch a boat that will sail us half way around Hordann, we then divine a way of infiltrating Styric’s Hold. And you will just be there?”

“Yes,” Dorsea answered.

“Okay,” Sam said. “Just wanted to make sure I understood. When do we leave?”

“Two days hence, at this hour,” Gildenhanna replied. “If there are no attacks that evening. Until then, eat, rest, and continue to learn our ways.”

“Yea, enough for tonight,” Dorsea concluded. And with a nod, he bade them leave.

On their way back to the hall, Genie remarked that Kemann had been strangely quiet during the meeting. She learned that it was actually one of his tests, and that the next night, Dorsea would have him recount the entire discussion verbatim.

But the hour was getting late, and the young companions parted ways until the morrow.

Sam had spent time in the early morning making coffee, going through supplies that they would take with them, figuring out what to leave behind, and talking this quest through with Genie.

“It isn’t much of a plan,” he told her.

“You made that clear at the meeting, Sam.”

“This is serious, though. Who makes a plan that loose? There are so many things that could go wrong. And how are we supposed to get there at the same time as they get there?” he ranted.

“Magic?”

“Oh, please. Magic may well be, but this is going to take a miracle.”

“Yeah, and our ‘plan’ to get to Alaska? How’s that working out? Any time you make a plan, it’s like the Wizards divining the future. Kemann was quick to tell us how fragile it is. One thing doesn’t go according to ‘plan’, and it’s a whole new ballgame.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. The whole thing is my fault,” Sam admitted.

“It’s not your fault, Sam. It’s nobody’s fault. It just is. All we can do is go with it, you know, improvise.”

“I know. It’s just frustrating.”

“Well, let’s go eat and go beat on something,” Genie suggested.

“That’s a plan I can go with.”

So, they got dressed and went down for breakfast. For the first time since their arrival, they were left relatively on their own. None of the usual crowd was to be seen. So, after a good meal, they went out to see if Beamann was at the armory.

As it happened, he was not there, and so, again, they were on their own. But, they had each other. So, Genie suggested that they warm up a little by going over some of the previous lesson. After they had started to work up a good sweat, and since they were still alone in the training area, Sam wanted to test their agility. He had been curious about it since the incident outside the walls just after their arrival in Hordann, when Genie told him how far he had jumped, but didn’t really want to explore it with a lot of other people around.

“Genie,” he started, “put your mace down.” She walked over to its rack and put it away. “Now, jump.”

“Jump?”

“Yeah, jump. How high can you jump?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. She was under an arch by the racks.

“Can you touch the arch?” Sam asked. The arch was twice as high as she was tall, and Sam thought that would be a good gauge.

She stooped down and sprang straight up, and although she didn’t touch it, she only fell short of it by a foot. She landed like Supergirl, and looked up at Sam.

“Wow!” Sam exclaimed. “Try again.”

With more resolve, she looked up at the arch and really tried. Her leap took her hands up to the top of the keystone, and she grabbed it with her fingertips. She dangled there for a couple of seconds before dropping to land as before.

“Okay, that’s impressive,” Sam said.

“You try,” Genie suggested, and he came over to her. Looking up, he sprang up and reached the same mark, but failed to hold on to it. He landed awkwardly.

“I guess this might take some getting used to,” he said, shaking it off. And before he could say anything, Genie had broken into a trot towards the bow rack by the archers’ range. Sam watched as she hurdled it, turned and came back over it in the same manner, returning to him.

“You’re right,” she said, “it could take some getting used to.” She grinned.

“Show-off,” Sam replied.

They played with various leaps and twists over the next half hour and were unaware, toward the end of their workout, that Beamann had come in and was watching from the shadows inside the armory door. He strolled out with a mug of something and stood in the morning sun.

“Good morrow, Skadivers,” he said calmly. He startled Sam and Genie, who looked like they had been caught doing something. “Don’t stop on my account.”

“Good morrow, Master Beamann,” Genie said.

“I now begin to understand how you were able to move so well at yesterday’s lesson,” he remarked.

“We didn’t really know we could,” Sam admitted.

“That may be, but, now we should learn how to turn your agility into advantage.” He put his mug down. “Let us start with defensive.”

He was inspired by their capabilities and proceeded to put the Skadivers through a rigorous session that involved general coordination, many types of attacks, and defensive maneuvers. For Beamann, it was a kind of dream-come-true; this training was the sort a good teacher fantasizes about, working out impossible moves as he lay in slumber, but in the waking reality that the lesson could never be taught. But now, with these Sky-Holdfolk, he was having the time of his life.

And Sam and Genie were learning so much, so fast, that they could scarcely fathom what was happening. But they knew they were having fun. The frustrations of the previous night were long forgotten as they leapt around like gymnasts with swords. Learning to sight landings, use surroundings, and coordinate attacks from mid-air was exhilarating.

A crowd of Holdfolk had gathered to watch from the shadows and were in awe of what they were seeing. It didn’t take long before the word had spread of the fighting styles of Sky Hold. Kemann and Hannegelt weaved through the crowd and watched for a few minutes toward the end of the workout.

Sam saw them during a pause, and beckoned them to come out and join in. Hannegelt came out quickly. “We had no idea you could move like that,” he said.

“We didn’t either,” Sam said, breathing hard. “Kemann, come join us.”

Kemann approached, and Sam stepped over to Beamann. “Master Beamann, we could use a break, but could you work with Kemann on using his ‘blinking’ for fighting?”

Beamann’s eyes got big as he considered. “Aye.”

Kemann also was taken aback by the idea, but Genie pushed his shoulder toward the old teacher.

“Take a wooden sword,” Beamann told him. “Now, Samuel, approach him, weapon up.” He did, and just moved Kemann’s sword away easily. “You may actually have to defend yourself, Master Kemann.” Beamann said.

Sam backed away and approached again, but this time Kemann parried Sam’s sword away.

“Better,” Beamann said. “Now after you parry a blow, try to hit. Like this.” He turned to Sam and lunged. Sam parried and struck back. “Now, you practice that. Just that.”

After several minutes of fundamental parry/riposte practice, and they had developed a little speed, Beamann told him to ‘blink’ after the parry and appear behind Sam. So, Sam thrust as before, and Kemann parried and ‘blinked’. It was very disorienting for Sam, and he awkwardly caught himself falling forward. He also had a thought in his head of Kemann. It was the ‘telegraphing’ of the Wizard which precedes his appearance; Sam had felt it before when Dorsea had appeared on previous occasions. It only took a moment, but when Sam caught himself and turned, Kemann was standing over him with the sword poised.

“That was amazing!” Genie exclaimed.

“Very good, Master Kemann,” Beamann praised. “Again.”

The practice went on for another few minutes and Kemann got better with his timing and ‘aim’. Sam, however, was learning about the ‘telegraphing’—how it felt, the timing of it, and even beginning to feel where the appearance would happen. Even with Kemann blinking in quick succession to different areas of attack, Sam was eventually able to hold his own against the vanishing Wizard. He would have to remember to do this often with Kemann—it might come in handy if and when he came face to face with Styric.

But Kemann’s effort had begun to take a toll on Hannegelt’s strength, and it was decided that the lesson should be concluded in favor of a well-deserved break and some lunch. So, thanking Beamann for his expertise and time, the group made their way through the spectators back to the Great Hall.

Just after they had enjoyed their lunch, the young apprentice from the armorer came to get them. Smithy had sent him to get them to come to the shop to try on some things. With all the things they had been doing with Beamann, they had forgotten their soft appointment with the armorer. So, they finished off the cups of wine and followed the young man back to the shop.

Smithy was nibbling a little lunch himself when the group arrived. He quickly put down his sandwich-looking fare and wiped his hands.

“Skadivers,” he said, getting to his feet, “come in, come in.”

“Sorry we are late,” Genie said.

“No, no, no,” Smithy replied. “Now, in the back with you. Ladies first, if you please.” He put his arm around her and shuffled her off and to the waiting ladies at the door to the back. Since none of the men in the group had wives, they did not quite know what to do with themselves while the women went off in a fitting room. Experienced husbands know to just take a seat somewhere or browse around for a while, because the women will eventually emerge, just not quickly. So, they just stood around awkwardly, waiting.

Eventually, Genie did emerge from the back. Sam’s jaw dropped when he saw her. Smithy had created a stunning look, and she wore it exceedingly well. The mail shirt was not exactly mail, but an armor of very small, linked hexagonal plates that matched her curves perfectly. It was midnight blue with a matte metallic finish. On the chest was their ‘X’ crest in brushed nickel, not that this metal was nickel, but that was the color. The same color links finished the sleeves, neck and bottom trim. Her pants were a mtching utilitarian fabric that tucked into black suede knee-high moccasin type boots that had the plate-work on them covering her knees, down the shins and to her toes. The awesome form-fitting suit was framed by a lush cloak of midnight blue on one side and the silvery on the inside.

“How do I look?” Genie asked, striking a pose.

“Eleven,” Sam answered. Hannegelt and Kemann looked confused by the numerical answer.

“Your turn, Son of Sky Hold,” Smithy informed him, and Sam jumped at the chance to see what was in store for him. He disappeared into the back.

“Smithy, thank you so much,” Genie said, “These are beautiful.”

“And I thank you, Lady Genevieve,” Smithy replied. “May I?” He motioned to her side.

“Of course.” She said, lifting her left arm.

“See here, Prince Hannegelt.”

Hannegelt leaned in as Smithy pulled up on the zipper. “What on Hordann is that?” Hannegelt asked.

“The Skadivers call it a zipper,” he explained. “A marvelous closure fashioned as the ones on their garments. These are a little heftier than those of Sky Hold, but as these are the first we have made, I felt they should be larger. No doubt we can refine them with some practice.” He zipped it up and down several times to show them how they worked.

“Much better than having to be laced in,” Hannegelt observed.

It wasn’t long before Sam slipped through the curtains wearing an identical suit.

“Oh, yes!” He shouted. “I love this! What is this metal?”

“You have a keen eye, Son of Sky Hold,” Smithy said. “It is called Brahm. Fairly rare without deep mining, light but very strong. It can be difficult to work with if you don’t have the right tools and methods.”

“Brahm,” Sam repeated. “Very cool.”

The Hordann folk appeared confused by this description. “Meaning nice,” Genie interjected. “How did you make these in just a couple of days, Smithy?”

There was a slightly uncomfortable pause, and Smithy’s face faded to a more sullen look.

“The suits were mostly constructed before your appearance,” he said. “They were meant for others, but we were told to tailor them for you in their stead. Naturally, we had to do quite a bit to fit you and decorate them as yours, but I have good apprentices.”

Sam and Genie wondered about whom the suits had been intended, and how disappointed they must have been to learn that they had been given to newcomers. That made them even more appreciative.

“Well, we are in their debt as well as yours, Smithy,” Genie said. “We hope we will wear them with honor and do them justice.”

“The honor is ours, Lady Genevieve,” Smithy replied, and the entire group of apprentices on hand to see the event bowed. “Wear them well, and fare thee well. Prince Hannegelt will escort you back to the armory. Now, I believe we still have the gauntlets to complete by tomorrow!” he barked, and the apprentices immediately went back to their work stations.

The group seemed to have been dismissed, so they quit the armorer’s shop and walked to the armory once again. And once again, the Holdfolk they passed stopped and admired the Skadivers’ new attire. Sam and Genie could not help but feel a little self-conscious as they went. Sam noticed now that the suits were almost silent with their motion. He looked a little closer at their construction and saw that areas that would have rubbed metal to metal were padded with suede strips. Their boots also made no sound on the street. “Smart,” he thought.

At the armory, Klench and Beamann were waiting for them, and there were also a number of others gathered.

“Something’s up,” Genie whispered to Sam.

“Welcome, Son and Amazon of Sky Hold,” Klench said in a stately manner.

“Master Klench, Beamann,” Sam acknowledged.

Two apprentices stepped forward and removed the cloaks from the Skadivers, unclasping the silver fastener forming an ‘X’ at their throat. Black leather belts were brought out and fitted onto Sam and Genie’s waists. Each had hardware to accept a scabbard. Their practice swords were slipped into them. Next the apprentices lifted the left arms of the two and fitted their forearms with slatted plates of padded metal, which wrapped around to create a ‘buckler’ and fletching arm guard in one. Then the cloaks were put back upon their shoulders.

“Your new suits are very fine, indeed,” Klench began, “but incomplete. We could not allow you to go on quest without proper helms.” He winked at Hannegelt. Two of the apprentices came out from behind the counter carrying two covered shapes and stood next to Klench and Beamann, who reached and uncovered them.

The helmets were very old, but they had been cleaned up and decorated to match the new suits. Not unlike their skydiving helmets, but perhaps a little less bulky, they were trimmed with the same mail as their shirts, though finer. This mail hung down to their shoulders, but did not touch. On the top of each of the dark-bluish helms was a gray dragon with wings spread wide over the dome and reaching ear to ear. The dragon’s body was a solid plate, and the wings, a heavy screen that could be seen through. The wings became a visor when pivoted down and locked by sliding the dragon’s head. The motion of the visor coming up and down actually emulated dragon flight. All very intricately done.

Hannegelt stepped forward. “These helms were worn by our forefathers in the Kledic Wars. They were victorious then, and our hope is that we will be victorious now.”

The helmets were placed on the Skadivers ceremoniously.

“They look like the old ones,” Kemann commented.

“I believe that was the intent,” Klench said.

“We are overwhelmed by your generosity,” Genie said.

“Lady Genevieve speaks truly,” Sam added. “But if we could impose upon you, Master Beamann, for one more lesson. Our new suits are certainly great gifts of not only beauty and function, but of weight. I fear we need more of your instruction to learn to move well in them.”

“I am at your service,” Beamann replied.

The suits and helmets did add weight, but not as much as Sam had figured they would. They were made of Hordann metal, which was as hard as iron, but much lighter. He was hoping they would not lose much of their newly-gained agility, but he also knew it would be diminished.

Actually, Sam was beginning to pull a theory together about the Hordann gravity as compared to Earth. The Earth was a fairly dense, molten-ferrous core planet. If Hordann’s core was basically this Brahm, a lighter metal, that could explain the decrease in gravity. Well, that was one theory. It could also be that Hordann was smaller than Earth, but somehow, he didn’t believe that. The days seemed longer in Hordann. That could mean that this planet was larger than Earth—or merely that the rotation was slower. Whatever the facts were, Sam could not be certain, but he did like to consider the possibilities.

The one thing that he did know was that the gravity was lower on Hordann. He thought it good that if they had to go on this quest, that it was good to do it sooner rather than later. Just as astronauts begin to atrophy in space on extended missions, he and Genie would begin to acclimate to their new environment similarly. It would be better to have the edge.

And one way to avoid the atrophy was to work out. Beamann accommodated them in this. He had them jumping and moving in all manner of ways. Sam discovered he did not care much for all this activity wearing the cloak. More than once it snagged or got stepped on, causing him to lose balance. Genie had learned to deal with it though by adding its manipulation into the movements. That finesse might take Sam a little longer.

As expected, though, the suits, helmets, and weapons added enough weight to affect their agility. Genie could no longer jump up to the top of the keystone in the archway, but she could still slap it. Sam was likewise hindered, but he was still able to move well above his Earth capabilities. He could definitely feel the extra effort needed with the new ensemble.

They were weary, with the tough morning workout, and this second workout with the additional weight, they thought it best to conclude the activity for the day. Satisfied with their results, the Skadivers suggested that they all return to the Great Hall. Sam felt that they should learn more about the quest that they were about to undertake.

So, after some refreshments in the Great Hall, the four companions were led by Kemann to Dorsea’s chambers. He dug out parchment maps and laid them out for study, explaining various terrains, inhabitants and other challenges they might face. The holes in the plan and this sketchy information still troubled Sam, but still, he appreciated knowing more than what was told in the briefing previously with the old Wizard. He was impressed with Kemann. Surely, he was young, but he also spoke with an authority beyond his years.

Hannegelt chimed in with bits of information about some of the people and places he knew about from travels with his father. He also added bits and pieces from legends and lore. Much of this had a ring of familiarity to it, Sam thought, but he knew not to judge it by anything he knew from Earth. There was so much that was different in Hordann, from the gravity to the existence of magic. Were-folk, as an example—how could he relate to anything like that except from his knowledge of monster movies? In fact, with the talk of legends and lore, he felt as though they were caught up in a Harryhausen flick based on ‘Dungeons and Dragons’.

Kemann gave the Skadivers one of the parchment maps with as detailed an overview of Hordann as could be had, and the four of them left the dark chambers to go to the evening meal. They were early to the Great Hall, so Sam and Genie disappeared to their room to get out of the mail shirts, ditch the helmets, and clean up a bit.

Genie was the first to unzip. “Can you believe Smithy made these zippers?” she asked wriggling out of the mail.

“These guys have some skills; that’s for sure,” Sam answered, as he too got out of his mail shirt.

“Okay, so these guys think we’re cool, you know, because we came in on ‘Dragonwing’ and can hop around like crazies, but don’t you think it’s weird? Look at this stuff they made us. Have you seen anyone else wearing anything this fine?”

“Well, just Gildenhanna really,” Sam thought out loud.

“Exactly.”

“What? You don’t think these were being made for Gildenhanna and Dorsea, do you?”

“That is what I’m thinking,” Genie said. “Why would we get their new armor?”

“It does seem a little strange.”

“I mean, come on, Sam, we’re actors; we’re used to people treating us like dirt. But here we are getting like royal treatment? It doesn’t add up—not that I’m complaining, mind you—it just doesn’t add up.”

Sam thought for a moment. “Yeah, they have kind of cast us in big roles. There has got to be some stuff they just aren’t telling us.”

“They don’t trust us?”

“We are beyond being regular strangers. I wouldn’t know how far to trust us either. But I don’t get the feeling that it’s a trust issue,” Sam considered. “In my opinion, they’re keeping stuff from Hannegelt and Kemann too.”

“So you think we are all going off on this quest, and none of us know the whole story?”

“Not necessarily. Just because they may be keeping something from Kemann doesn’t mean he doesn’t know. I’ll bet he at least has an idea of what’s going on. Why don’t you ask him if you get a chance?”

“Me ask him?” Genie asked, looking up from scrubbing her face over the basin.

“Yeah, use some of those womanly wiles,” Sam smirked.

She threw the wet washcloth and caught Sam right in the kisser.

Genie did look for a chance to talk privately with Kemann later that evening, but the opportunity never presented itself. The dinner had been good, and as usual, the wine plentiful. She found herself missing chocolate. She thought that surely there must be a Hordann equivalent to chocolate. It was hard to imagine a world without it, and yet here was one. But that wasn’t quite true. She had chocolate in her backpack supplies for the Alaska trip. An idea popped into her head.

“Kemann,” she started, “we have a confection in Sky Hold called chocolate. I was wondering if there was anything like it on Hordann.”

The fellowship carrying on around their corner of the table took an interest whenever Genie spoke.

“Can you describe it?” the young Wizard asked.

“Not really,” she answered. “But I could give you some, and then you would know.”

“Surely, my Lady.”

“Come with me,” said, standing. He stood as well. She gave Sam a quick glance, and he knew what she was doing. He watched them leave the Great Hall.

On their way to the room, Genie decided to be blunt. “Chocolate is a really wonderful sweet food, but I really just wanted to ask you something.”

“Oh?”

“Sam and I are worried that there is something going on that nobody is telling us.”

“You have been told much the same as I,” Kemann countered.

“Kemann, you and I both know how smart you are. You know whether anybody has told you or not.”

“So, there is no chocolate?” he asked.

“We are going to get the chocolate,” she said impatiently as she opened the door to their chamber.

They stepped in, and she went straight to her backpack and dug out a chocolate bar. She waved it at him. “Sam and I think that our suits were supposed to be made for Gildenhanna and Dorsea. True?”

“True,” answered the Wizard.

“Why would they just give them to two strangers?”

“They like you?” Kemann said evasively.

“That is not the way to get chocolate.”

“In all fairness, I don’t even know if I will like it.”

Genie saw the logic in this and broke off a piece for him to taste, which he did.

“Just let it melt in your mouth. Like it?”

A strange look came to Kemann’s face as the chocolate melted onto his tongue. “It’s wonderful. And in answer to your first question, I do not believe there is an equivalent on Hordann.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Genie sighed as she nibbled a piece. She offered him another, and he took it. “So, about what’s going on here…?”

“Your suits were meant for them as you say. When you arrived in the sky, my Master began a deep divination about you. When he came out of it, he went straight to Lord Gildenhanna.”

“And…?” she asked holding out another piece. He took it and popped it into his mouth. She couldn’t really put her finger on it, but she thought she could see something change about him.

“And, then there was this plan—for the quest. Hann and I had as many questions as you, but they were not quick to answer. I…” he trailed off.

“Kemann, are you all right? What is it?”

“I am seeing…” he droned. “They go a different path…a dangerous path. And they will confront Styric. They knew then that they would not need the new armor.”

“Why not?”

“Because they will die.”

“Styric will kill them? Then, why are they going?”

“Styric will not kill them, but they will all three die,” the young Wizard divined. He looked down at the half of a chocolate bar that Genie held. “What is in this chocolate?”

She turned the bar over and read the ingredients—well, the ones she could pronounce.

“There must be something about it,” Kemann said, “as I have never had such a deep divination—and so quickly.”

“And this is the future you are seeing?”

“Yes, but the future is a fragile thing. Their path, as ours is fat with dangers. We should get back.”

“Here, Kemann,” she said offering him the rest of the chocolate bar wrapped up, “take this. You might need it more than me.”

Kemann was silent on the way back down to the Great Hall. When they got there, Dorsea looked at him very closely and decided that the evening gathering was over.

He took Kemann off into the night, and Gildenhanna pulled Hannegelt away to chamber. That was all fine with Sam and Genie, as it had been a tiring day, and they could use an evening together before the start of the quest the next evening. They did not know when they would be able to enjoy an actual bed for a while, and they should take advantage of their last night in the comfort of Gilden Hold.

They chose to sleep in the next day. It was mid-morning before they made an appearance in the Great Hall, and there were very few folk about. A purple lady agreed to bring them some food in their chamber, so they retreated once more back to the room.

Sam and Genie tackled the chore of sorting through their backpacks and deciding what to carry on the quest, and what could be left behind. By the time they were done, they had pared much from the load. They would take the sleeping bags, spare undergarments, stove, coffee, flashlights, first aid kits, water purifier, and some food. Genie also took some feminine products, as any prepared woman of her age would. She also decided to take the chocolate. She had told Sam about the effect it had on Kemann and thought that it might be wise to have a supply of it. Sam suggested that she give one of the bars to Dorsea. He might need a boost (if that’s how it worked) on the difficult part of the journey he was about to take.

It was just after noon when they had finished packing, and they went back down to the Great Hall. There were many there eating, and so the Skadivers ate a little with them, but soon left to seek out Hannegelt and Kemann. They went first to Dorsea’s chambers and found him there with Kemann.

The two were obviously busy in a cloistered discussion but stopped as the Skadivers entered. Sam and Genie knew they were interrupting, so they only offered the gift of the chocolate bar to the old Wizard and took their leave. They figured Kemann would explain the gift.

It also stood to reason that Hannegelt would be busy with his father, so they gave up on the idea of pursuing him. Instead, they wandered over to the armorer. Smithy had told them about the gauntlets being worked on, and they hoped, perhaps they were done.

The old armorer smiled in relief as the two entered his shop.

“Ah, Skadivers,” he said warmly. “Come.”

They stepped up to the counter, and he brought out two pairs of gauntlets. Very finely worked plate, such as was on the back of their helmets, had been stitched onto a very supple black leather gloves. When the fingers were together, the metal made a solid cover, but the rest of the glove would leave the hand free to move with dexterity.

Smithy watched intently as they pulled the gauntlets onto their hands. The fit was outstanding, and the comfort unmatched. He smiled as they seated the fingers and tested the bend and grip.

“You are truly a master, Smithy,” Sam said. “Your gifts to us may save our lives many times over before the end.”

“That must be determined by Destiny,” he said, and the words rang sharply in Sam’s ears. “We believe there is a difference between Destiny and Chance. Your armor is only protection from Chance, but to Destiny, the armor is only decorative.”

“Well, as decoration, they are lovely. And as for protection against Chance, formidable. How can we thank you enough?” Genie responded.

“You have learned and used our Greeting of Friends, have you not?” he asked, looking into the Skadivers’ eyes. “You used it with me when first we met.”

“At your service?” Genie asked.

“And I at yours,” Smithy finished. “Well, now, it is not simply a customary greeting.”

“Then what is it?” Sam asked.

Smithy’s casual demeanor hardened. “Take the words for what they mean, Son of Sky Hold. It is a meaningful contract between friends. That said, we in my shop have been at your service,” he said seriously and gripped the two by their gauntlets, “and now, you must be at ours.”

“And how can we be of service, Smithy?” Sam asked.

“The fate of Hordann may be in these hands. Kill Styric. Survive the quest,” he replied with a face of stone as he released his grip. “Then you will have been of service.” His face softened to a merry little smile. “Now, go, and remember: We have been of service to you the best way we know. We expect no less of you.”

“We will try to not disappoint,” Sam replied. “Until we meet again.” Sam extended he hand. Smithy took it and winked.

“May the span be short,” he said. “My lady.”

“Farewell, Smithy,” Genie replied.

The two left the armorer a little dazed. “A contract between friends,” Sam said.

“It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? I mean, back home, everybody uses the usual greetings. They may be meaningful, but nobody pays attention to the actual words. They don’t take them to heart. In Hordann, they do.”

“I guess we’ll have to pay closer attention to what we say here,” Sam noted.

They decided to make one more stop to say their farewells at the armory. The guard nodded as they passed inside. Klench was not there, but they could hear sounds coming from the training area. Observing from the shadows, they saw Beamann working with a tall black man wielding an axe. Beamann held a pike and was directing the man to move the axe in various ways to either hit or avoid the end of the pike. The movement was very fast and seemed almost choreographed. Suddenly, Beamann reached down and pinned the large man’s foot as he was stepping forward, and caused him to tumble forward. He looked up to see the pike at his throat.

“Mind the footwork, Axemann,” Beamann said flatly. He noticed the Skadivers watching. “An axe of size, or a flail or mace will cause you to lose balance quickly if the feet don’t follow. The feet show you the movement of the weapon,” he told them as he helped Axemann up. “This is Axemann. He will be joining us on our quest.” He misread the looks on the Skadivers’ faces. “He is a moor.”

“We can see that, Master Beamann,” Sam said. “We just weren’t aware of any others in our party. And you just said ’joining us’. Does that mean you are also coming?”

“You didn’t think you were going alone, did you?” Beamann laughed. “I may be old, but I’m sound.”

Sam and Genie approached from the shadows. “Samuel, Son of Sky Hold, and Lady Genevieve, Amazon of Sky Hold, at your service.”

“And I at yours,” Axemann said.

“Glad to hear it, Axemann,” Sam added.

“We stopped in to take our leave of you,” Genie said, “but it appears that won’t be necessary.”

“How many others are coming with us?” Sam asked.

“The company will be ten, as I am told.”

“That’s a good number,” Sam commented.

“We were also looking for Master Klench to offer farewells,” Genie said.

“We will not see him before the ceremony at dusk,” Beamann replied. “We will raise our cups then. For now, however, we all have things to do. Until this eve.”

With little else to do, Sam and Genie returned to their room and relaxed as best they could. They were understandably anxious, and they tried several things to calm themselves. At last, lying still in the quiet afternoon, they fell asleep.

A knocking at their door roused Genie first. She elbowed Sam, and he woke with a start. He noticed first that the afternoon light was fading, and feared they were late. It was a purple lady knocking. They were, in fact, late, and she was there to collect them for the evening meal and ceremony. Sam apologized and told her they would be down very soon.

They hurriedly dressed and pulled on the new vestments, including cloaks and helmets. Assuming this might be some kind of formal thing, they wanted to make a good showing. The purple lady was still waiting in the hallway, and escorted them down to the Great Hall as she had been instructed. When they got there, the hall was packed. It looked like all of Gilden Hold had come. Only two seats remained empty. Sam and Genie looked at each other with an ‘oops’ in their eyes, but tried to cross to the table with a little dignity as all eyes were upon them. As they sat, the purple lady took their helmets for them at a motion from Hannegelt.

The Great Hall was quiet. Lord Gildenhanna stood. “My friends,” he began in a voice that resounded in the space, “the time has come at last. We will, this eve, take our leave of you. We will say farewell to Gilden Hold and pray that you will continue to be good stewards. No doubt, the enemies will return and test your strength. You must, for a time, stand alone against them. We must go our ways and try to redeem ourselves for past mistakes. We all know now that Styric should have been vanquished years ago when the opportunity was new. We let him live out of kindness, and he has answered in hatred. This hatred has made him far more powerful than we could have divined. We now stand on the brink of annihilation, but still, we have hope. Some of us may never return, but let this not diminish your hope, for that is the thread which binds us. Our friendship is the fabric of our garments, but hope is the thread that holds us together. Without it, we would be naked in the wilderness.” There was a rapping of cups on the table. “Let us eat together one last time and enjoy the fellowship in the Great Hall.”

He sat down, and everyone began to eat, but the mood was somber. The meal was not unlike others they had enjoyed since their arrival in the Hold. Genie noted that there may have been more carbohydrates served, however, and guessed that was so that the departing companies could ‘carb up’ for the first night’s travel.

The purple ladies came around, once the eating had nearly ended, to fill the cups afresh with wine. Sam had been trying not to partake of too much of the sweet potable, because he didn’t particularly want to start the march off with a buzz. Not that the buzz would be bad, but coming down off of it on the trail would not be much fun. He did guess correctly that the pouring of this particular cup was to signify the beginning of the ceremony they had heard about.

Lord Gildenhanna signaled the start. “Will Prince Hannegelt’s party please rise.”

Sam and Genie stood and watched as the others of their ten came to their feet. Dorsea locked eyes with each one, and then began muttering some incantation. There was a feeling that came to the ten in an easy and gradual way, a feeling of wellness. Sam noticed that a couple of his aches had eased. He figured this was the equivalent of ‘blessing’ the Company.

When Dorsea was finished, Lord Gildenhanna swayed a little, having been tapped of some of his strength through the spell. But he recovered enough to motion to Smithy and his apprentice. They came out carrying two swords and stood beside the Lord.

“We have waited to take up this course perhaps longer than was wise. The task ahead of us is not to our liking, and therefore, we have procrastinated. But then a sign came to us several days ago.” He looked at Sam and Genie. “New friends. If ever there was a sign of hope, it was the making of new friends. We are convinced that Destiny has brought the Skadivers to us at this time. How sad are these times that require us to send our new friends out to help us in this terrible endeavor. As such, we have provided them with new armor and clothes, which, we hope, will keep them safe on the journey. They took up swords that belonged to no one to help defend our Hold, and in so doing, they have proven themselves worthy of owning their swords. We now present you, Samuel, Son of Sky Hold, with your own Gilden Brahm blade.”

Smithy held the blade horizontally out to Sam, and Sam accepted it with a bow.

“And to you, Lady Genevieve, Amazon of Sky Hold, we present you with your own Gilden Brahm blade.”

The apprentice handed the other blade to Smithy who made the presentation to Genie, who also bowed. Gildenhanna raised his cup, and all followed suit. “The Skadivers of Sky Hold! May you find Destiny to be a kind friend in the days to come!”

All drank to that, but before they could rap their cups, Sam raised his cup again. “To the Company!” he called and pulled his sword out over the table. “All for one!”

Quickly, Genie picked up her cue and pulled hers to cross Sam’s. “And one for all!” How could they go wrong with Dumas?

The Great Hall was slightly stunned, but the others of the Company also pulled their swords and crossed them with the Skadivers. Sam repeated the call, “All for one!”

The entire hall enthusiastically shouted the response. “And one for all!” The sound reverberated in the space for a few seconds. Some dust came filtering down from the rafters. Then the cups began to rap the tables.

When the arc of the moment had passed, Hannegelt looked to the Company. “Get your things to the courtyard. We leave within the hour.”

And just like that, the party was over. Sam helped Genie clip the scabbard onto her belt, and they went upstairs to get ready. When they got to their room, they had a chance to really look at their new blades. The hilts were the same in design, although made to fit different hands, silver, and made in the fashion of a dragon’s head as the pommel twisting into its wings for the cross guards. The blades were of Brahm and basically silver, although the tempering of the metal had given them a faint gold hue. They were double-sided, like a hefty rapier, and balanced to perfection. The Skadivers’ ‘X’ had been engraved at the base of each blade just above the maker’s mark. Each was a work of art and a mighty gift.

After admiring them for a couple of minutes, they fitted their boot knives into their new boots, double-checked the packs, strapped them on, and left the comfort of their room behind.

There is a certain feeling one gets when closing a door, whether physical or symbolic, to a place to which one might never return. These feelings hit Sam and Genie as the wooden door closed behind them. Although they had only been there a few days, a lot had happened to them there, and they would miss it.

Their purple lady was waiting for them in the hallway. She assured them she would look after their room for them in their absence. She also asked them if there was anything she could get them for the journey. Sam asked her if she knew what a wine skin was, and she did. He asked if she would fill a few for them, and she smiled and hustled off.

The Skadivers were the first to arrive in the courtyard. They didn’t really know where in the courtyard they were supposed to be, so it was a little awkward. And it was fairly dark. There was a torch burning near the gate, and they decided that was the spot. There was nobody in the light of the torch, so they hung back near the steps of the Great Hall.

Axemann, the moor, and four men entered the courtyard from the right. He was dressed all in black—black cloak, black mail, black helm. The other men wore dark green cloaks and gray mail, all alike. Sam took them for proper soldiers, and Axemann the ‘Sergeant’.

At the same time, from the left, Beamann strolled in and greeted them. His cloak was deep gray and his mail matched it. They noticed the Skadivers at the steps and moved towards them.

Before they reached the steps, Hannegelt came out of the Great Hall and stepped out to Sam and Genie. His mail was golden, his cloak ebony.

“Kemann is on his way,” he said, and as he said it, the young Wizard blinked in next to him.

All of the men had packs under their cloaks except Kemann, who was dressed in rich brown travelling clothes and cloak. He carried with him only a soft leather bag like that of a Postman.

They were all present, and Lord Gildenhanna came out of the Great Hall to the top of the steps. He was just about to speak, when the Purple Lady burst through the doors with eight big wine skins. She nearly ran into her Lord and swerved to the side, stopped, and looked at him. He seemed slightly irritated at the interruption.

“Those are for me,” Sam said, trying to keep her from getting into trouble.

Hannegelt smiled as he counted the skins. “Eight wine skins, Samuel? Two would be enough for any man. But you aren’t just any man, are you?” The Company started to chuckle. “But eight?”

Sam looked at the Purple lady. “Son of Sky Hold asked for a few,” she explained.

“I did, but I thought that meant maybe three,” Sam said.

Lord Gildenhanna started to laugh. “Maybe in Sky Hold, but in Hordann, a few means eight.” He turned to the girl. “Well done, Hildabrin. Now give the Skadiver his wine.”

She wobbled down the steps, and Sam took one in each hand. He must have looked puzzled, because the entire group began to laugh, including Hildabrin. As usual, Genie came to his rescue, and hooked one on each side of his pack. But Hildabrin still held six. The Company joined in on the fun and quickly relieved the girl of the others and hung them about Sam’s neck.

The Company stepped back, and still laughing, Hannegelt winked and asked, “Okay, Samuel, ready to go?”

“Very funny, Hann,” Sam said. Hannegelt stepped forward and relieved Sam of the burdens, passing them out to other members of the Company.

“Now, then,” Gildenhanna interrupted the merriment, “Fare you well, my friends. May Chance not take you from Destiny’s path. With each other keep to your service, but with others, leave the ways of Gilden Hold behind. We live as the heart dictates, but the enemy serves only hate. If you do not understand that, we are doomed to failure. My son,” he continued as he came down the steps to him. He leaned in close to the Prince’s ear. “Return home not as Prince, as you are now, but as Lord Hannegelt.”

“At your service, Father,” Hann whispered back. And with a last look, he turned and led the Company away, out of the gates of Gilden Hold, and into the dark wilderness beyond. At the edge of the woods, he stopped and stepped aside for Beamann to lead.

“As you know, we go east, and we must move quickly this night,” he told the group as they passed him. He drank in a last look at his home and brought up the rear of the march.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.