Marc H. Wyman & Chris Bogues
“You want me to fight a woman?!”
Boragger, the burly, seven feet tall
chief bodyguard, laughed. “Yes, Nych, and I’m looking forward to
seeing you grovel at her feet.”
The man addressed as Nych jerked back
in disgust. A proper reaction for a man garbed in leather cured from the
hide of the giant thymbair, wearing a long shirt tied in the waist by a
dark strap and simple leggings below. His boots still bore the grizzled
fur of the thymbair, much too warm for the hot city of Chazevo. An amulet
to the war god of Keshmire hang around his chest, beautifully crafted from
bronze. His face, though, looked considerably less barbarian, being of a
noble cut, with a prominent nose below bright, gray eyes. His hair was
long and blond – and yet, if one looked closely at the roots, dark brown
traces were visible.
Nobody at the court of the merchant
Ceravin Tangrain had questioned Nych’s barbarian origin ever since the
man appeared well over two months ago. Cornell of Cayaboré was proud of
his disguise as a warrior from the steppes of the distant south – the
land of Robhovard -, of the tribe of Ryelneyd, down to the behavior and
idiosyncrasies typical of this people. Long enough had he traveled with a
friend from that very tribe to know that even a person familiar with the
Ryelneyd could not find fault with him.
will never happen,” he now said haughtily, drawing his sword from its
sheath. Beautiful steel, the bastard sword glinted in the light of the
afternoon sunlight breaking through the glass windows of the forehall.
smile was Boragger’s only reply while he heaved his massive body, also
weighed down by a thick, dark vest of armor, to the elfwood doors leading
into Tangrain’s main hall. The chief guard smashed his hand against the
door. Moments later, the valves swiveled open, silently moving in their
greased grooves and opened to an opulent sight.
windows were set in the walls, yet plentiful light streamed from magical
tubular lamps at the roof. Rich carpets on the floor, gobelins
interchanging with oil paintings on the walls. In a square near the
entrance, boards of light wood were placed over the carpet – a fighting
arena which Tangrain rarely bothered to remove. The sides of the arena
were lined by men wearing the same dark vests as Boragger. Their faces
ranged from the swarthiness of the Elfadil sandmen to the light skin tones
of the Albinavian humans. Some were not quite human, either. Pale blue
skin, slightly pointed ears denoted elves, and the nasty curvature of
their mouths proved it beyond a doubt.
were stands holding some of the treasures Tangrain had amassed, and some
that he was dealing in. Jewels of all kinds, arrayed on silk, next to the
wares from Modayre, the source of the merchant’s wealth – and also the
reason why Cornell had been sent to Chazevo.
barbarian, though, would never let his gaze rest long on the unassuming
weaponry and tools, he knew, and looked ahead to the far end of the hall.
Two golden statues stood tall enough to scrape at the roof; one depicting
a bearded, scholarly man bearing a scroll in one hand and a pen in the
other, the other statue showing a striking woman in a flowing robe, her
long hair surrounding her head like a corona. Darawk, the god of
knowledge; Alyssa, the goddess of love. Between the statues, Tangrain sat
on a wide chair before a large table. He was a small man, lean enough to
be called haggard, a nervous twitch in his eyes that never vanished. He
was unremarkably dressed, might have disappeared in any – well to do –
crowd in Chazevo, which was exactly the way the merchant liked to appear.
The man next to him might have worn dark, unprepossessing clothes as well,
yet this person would never vanish in a crowd. Unless the crowd was made
up of full-blooded elves, with blue, almost purplish skin and eyes of a
color bordering on white. Cornell hadn’t seen this man before, but
unfortunately he had no time to ponder the elf’s presence further.
it,” Boragger growled. “The lady is waiting.”
she was. Cornell had met her a few times before, and as before he
couldn’t help his heart missing a beat when he saw Sylasa in front of
the statue of Alyssa. The warrior woman was from Ibrollene, five and a
half feet tall. She wore silvery chain armor so intricately forged that
the chains seemed to flow into one another, comforting her ample curves,
and moving as easily as silk with every motion. Magic, the Cayaborean
supposed. Well, against a strong and skilled fighter such as he, it would
at best level the playing field.
and Cornell walked into the center of the arena. At a sign of
Tangrain’s, Sylasa nodded and sauntered over to them, her hips moving in
a most pleasing way. It took all of Cornell’s effort not to be caught by
the hypnotic sway – though Boragger, for one, felt no inhibition of the
kind. And Sylasa seemed not to be bothered by this attention. Her eyes
were firmly trained on Cornell, bearing a sparkling challenge.
pretty boy,” she said, “ready to prove yourself a man?”
erupted from the guards. Sylasa basked in the mirth, smiling ever so
sweetly – yet the Cayaborean warrior suddenly knew that the woman used
the display only as a disguise to put her enemy at ease.
grinned and bowed to her. “Show him what he’s made of, lady.” The
grin quickly vanished, replaced by a grim look to Cornell. “Drop the
sword, you won’t be using it. Wouldn’t want to damage the goods. Not
such sweet ones,” Sylasa purred, flashing a disconcerting glance at
Cornell. Then, one of the elves threw her a quarterstaff which she caught
in a swift motion and whirled once about her body, all sweetness wiped
from her face.
Cornell suppressed a curse as he handed his sword to Boragger and looked
about to receive a staff himself. His first mistake, he quickly realized,
as Sylasa’s quarterstaff jabbed towards his chest.
instinctively ducked, jammed his – empty – shield arm forward – and
found that Sylasa was standing a lot further away than a swordfighting foe
would. Instead of pushing her away with a shield, her staff crashed into
his back, knocking the air from his lungs. Cornell was stunned for a
moment, just enough to get his feet swiped from under him by another blow.
backward, he fell on his behind – and on a second quarterstaff. Sylasa
came at him again, just as Cornell twisted sideways, pressed close to the
ground. Her staff missed him by inches, she had to take a sudden leap not
to stumble over him. At that point Cornell grabbed the staff and heaved it
upward, slamming it into Sylasa’s midsection.
groaned, but Cornell knew that much of the blow’s force was cushioned by
her armor. And he had no intention to let himself be bested by a woman! So
he jabbed the staff sideways at her legs. She fell, just as he had done
his surprise, Sylasa rolled off on her back – and used the roll’s
momentum to bring up her own quarterstaff, firing a stinging blow at his
thigh. Again Cornell needed a moment to get his bearings, then he swung
his staff for a forceful attack.
staff was blocked firmly, then Sylasa launched a counter-attack which
Cornell parried just as firmly. For a few moments they exchanged blows
coolly, blocking easily. He was getting a feel back for the quarterstaff,
began to remember the lessons of his youth seeping into his bones. Despite
the aches in his body, he smiled. “Let’s see who’s in charge around
here, lady,” he gasped – then he jumped sideways, avoiding her blow,
and planted the end of the quarterstaff into the ground.
own force carried him into the air, his legs swirled out and connected
with her chest solidly. Sylasa was knocked back, her grip on the staff
loosened for a moment. Just what Cornell needed! He landed on his feet,
followed the motion through with his arms and hammered the quarterstaff
into the warrior woman. Elation surged through him, as he kicked the staff
from her hands.
lay on her back, staring at him in astonishment.
had an urge to help her gallantly back up, but he remembered his guise as
a barbarian. Therefore he planted his boot on her stomach and yelled
impatiently at Boragger, “Is that it? That girl is no match for a true
frowned when all he saw around him were faces grinning in anticipation.
pretty boy?” Sylasa whispered from the ground – and the next thing
Cornell knew was that his groin imploded under her knee.
Cayaborean stumbled a step back, held on to his quarterstaff with the last
remnants of rational thought. It did him little good since Sylasa had
whirled up from the ground at twice the speed she had shown before. A
hurricane of quarterstaff blows landed on him, expertly placed to keep him
balanced and ready to receive the next strike.
had he been fresh and unimpeded by the pain, he would have had a hard time
matching Sylasa’s fleetness. Now, he could only accept the barrage and
suffer through the pain.
Sylasa stopped. Cornell wavered for a moment, then he dropped to the
floor, expecting a final blow to put him into unconsciousness. Instead she
rolled him over with her boot so that he looked up at her. Other than the
triumphant pose he had assumed brief moments earlier, Sylasa held the tip
of her quarterstaff against his throat, clear warning not to try any
tricks of his own.
the boss, pretty boy?” she asked, a sweet, honest smile painted on her
yield,” he muttered.
went out from the guards around them, a few jeers directed at the
“barbarian” – but they were shortcut by a sudden flash of light that
raced like a wave through the main hall!
quarterstaff vanished from Cornell’s throat, and instead he suddenly
felt Sylasa grasping his arms and hauling him up with amazing strength. He
blinked, felt his staff pressed into his hands, then he saw that all faces
– and incidentally numerous weapons – were directed at the entrance,
just as a second ring of light washed over them.
door had been closed, now the valves were slowly moving open. Two men
entered. One was in his late fifties, to be sure, judging by the
salt-and-pepper hair and beard, wearing the tan jacket of a Darawk scholar
over a maroon robe. The other man was much younger, about the same age as
Cornell’s twenty-five years. He wore a journeyman’s clothes; leather
breeches, shirt and a brightly embroidered vest. His hair was short
cropped black, his face was narrow and managed to look at the same time
openly friendly as it maintained a weasely quality.
the face made Cornell’s heart skip again – but certainly not because
of joy. “Barandas,” he whispered and hoped fervently that his oldest
friend would not look in his direction.
you, my boy,” the Darawk scholar now said to Barandas, then called out
to Tangrain, “Playing your games again, Ceravin? You do know that there
are other forms of entertainment available in Chazevo?”
guards relaxed, Boragger shrugged, annoyed, and turned away from the
entrance, having ascertained that there was no danger, after all. Cornell
knew differently, but the danger to him was quite unique. So he took a
step sideways, hoping to lose himself among the faces of the other guards
when he suddenly felt Sylasa’s hand on his arm. “Stay ready, pretty
boy,” she whispered. “The young one is a wizard. Never trust a
sure he is, but a lousy one,
Cornell nearly answered. Instead he hefted the quarterstaff closer and
moved back to her side, feeling oddly elated. She had just beaten him,
hadn’t she? The pain all over his body was proof enough to him, and yet
she told him to…
that point Barandas’ gaze fell onto the two solitary figures in the
arena, and a merry smile spread over his face as he opened his mouth to
greet his friend.
he hollered and sprinted toward the stunned Barandas, whirling his
quarterstaff into a striking position.
it, you fool!” Boragger cried – and a lightning bolt suddenly scorched
the ground right before Cornell. Startled and shocked, Cornell stumbled
over his own feet and fell forward, wondering when Barandas had graduated
beyond light shows.
hadn’t, as Cornell realized a few moments later. Boragger stood at the
side of the arena, pointing a massive metal object at him, a long rod of
some two feet, attached by skeleton-like fingers of dark metal to a casing
around Boragger’s right arm, tendrils leading into his hand. Markings
cobwebbed the gleaming, dark surface; odd, intricate, arcane, snaking up
to the front – shaped as a gaping dragon maw, the beginning glimmer of
fire smoldering in the back of its throat.
dragon rod. The mystic weapon from Modayre.
Tangrain did have one of them, just as Cornell’s superiors in Cayaboré
had assumed. Despite his situation, a slight smile sneaked onto his lips.
forgive this mishap, honored sage,” Tangrain called over from his chair
– or rather, a few feet in front of it, since he had jumped up and now
was slowly returning to his seat. “Just a… young fool who has no
knowledge of the civilized world.”
was too irritated to say a word. The scholar next to him just sighed,
unperturbed, and began to walk forward. “Dear Ceravin, the level of your civilization is still being questioned by the learned. Here,
young fellow, get up,” the scholar said and held out his hand to
Cornell. Remembering his guise, the “barbarian” stared up in mistrust.
“Oh, don’t worry, I am no wizard. My name is Demercur Ylvain, beholden
to the Lord of Knowledge Darawk. And my young friend poses no danger to
you, either, believe me. Tell me, what is your name?”
Cornell growled, cautiously taking Ylvain’s hand. “Nych of the
to make your acquaintance, Nych. Ryelneyd, you said? Fascinating. Tell me,
is Zechyll still chief?”
Cornell blinked, shook his head in surprise. A priest of Darawk! The Divine Seeker of Knowledge… It’s a trap! He
suspects… Fortunately, though, this was a trap he knew how to avoid.
“I beg your pardon, honored sage, but you must be mistaken. Zechyll is
head of the Araysal, Vetora leads
raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Then I ask for your forgiveness. My
memory must be failing me.”
Cornell thought, and fish have taken to flying like birds.
priest waved Barandas on, then he continued his walk towards Tangrain at
the far end of the hall. As the wizard passed Cornell, he shot the friend
a bewildered glance. Cornell shook his head slightly, imperceptible to any
but the closest persons.
did not realize that Sylasa had moved near him as well.
sage,” Tangrain greeted Ylvain, leaning forward with a blankly polite
expression on his face, “to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
scholar chuckled. “Well do you know that it won’t be a pleasure. My
young friend here informs me that you have received a very special gift
from your masters in Modayre.”
are not my masters,” Tangrain protested casually.
shook his head. “Oh, Ceravin, mincing words won’t get you anywhere
with me. I thought you had learned that lesson by now, hard won though it
would be for you. Now, as so many times before, I remind you that you have
dedicated yourself to the worship of the great Darawk, wherefore it should
be your sacred duty to hand over said gift to my order for proper study.
Afterwards, the object shall be returned to you unharmed.” The
scholar’s smirk never vanished, nor did his words sound enfused with any
holy duty – or any expectation of easy success. Cornell thought that
these two must have been playing this game for quite a while.
reaction proved the assumption for he languidly shifted in his chair. “I
have also promised my service to the lovely Alyssa. Would you, honored
sage, also expect me to hand over each and every one of my servants to the
priests and priestesses of the Goddess for, ahhh, inspection?”
to Cornell, Sylasa chuckled. So did some of the guards in the hall – and
Barandas. Then again, the Cayaborean would expect nothing else from the
wizard. His mind was happily at home in the gutter whenever he wasn’t
hunting money or powerful magical objects.
might explain his presence here, he realized and wondered what this
“gift” was that Ylvain had mentioned. He wondered if it might be a
dragon rod – and whether he might have a better chance to “acquire”
it in Darawk’s sacred academy.
Ylvain shrugged, “is a matter you had better take up with the Goddess.
My own association with Alyssa consists of no more than the occasional
prayer for strength, whenever my wife demands I overcome my age.” Again
Sylasa chuckled, this time notably satisfied. The priest was fortunately
far enough in front not to hear and so continued, “Ceravin, you still
have not replied to my request. Will you grant me lease of that object?”
raised his hands, and Cornell noted with interest the blueish color of his
fingertips. A sign of elven descent? That could, possibly, explain how the
merchant had managed to gather so many elves in his troop of bodyguards.
sage, I fear that you know the answer clearly. My station in life, rich
though it must seem to you, is one that depends on my trade. What do you
think, my fellow merchants would say if they learned that I just gave away
one of the objects I put on sale? They would say, ‘Tangrain, he has
become infirm in the mind. Let us no longer respect our agreements with
him for he will not notice.’ Would you have me suffer because of your
me, Ceravin,” Ylvain answered after suppressing a noise that sounded
suspiciously like laughter. “Never would I dream of imposing such
trouble upon you. Yet this seems hardly the proper way to follow in your
service to Darawk. The land of Modayre, though near in riding days, is
more distant to us in the mind than the land of the furrag in the far
south. To attain knowledge about Modayre and its magnificent trading goods
is of supreme importance to the order of Darawk.”
sunk back in his chair, shaking his head. “Let us cut this discussion
short. Much as I enjoy it, there are matters pressing on my time. Perhaps
we might be able to come to a… symbolic
payment for the time of lease, provided that time does not interfere with
any sale. Now,” he sat up straight again, rubbed his hands together,
“which item were you referring to.”
Ceravin,” Ylvain chided him, “you know exactly what I am talking
about. The silver gauntlet, five gemstones inset at the roots of the
fingers. Surely –“
did you know about it?!”
in the hall came to a sudden standstill as the voice of Tangrain roared
out, bordering on the hysterical. Boragger instinctively swung his dragon
rod about, aiming it at the scholar. Ylvain himself gave no sign of being
disturbed. Quite different was Barandas’ reaction who seemed to shrink
as he took a step back.
me, Ylvain!” Tangrain demanded and sprang from his chair. “Who told
this boy about the gauntlet?! Or did he scry on my home? How did he breach
question should be, Who did he bribe? Cornell corrected and wished he
held his sword instead of a quarterstaff.
noted how Barandas had retreated and stepped in front of the wizard.
“There is no need for this,” he said calmly. “The boy is in my
employ and therefore had the resources of the academy at his disposal. Do
not worry about any abusal. Rather tell me what price you demand.”
price?” Tangrain cried, his face red from anger. “After your magic
wielder peered in… No, Ylvain, there’ll be no deal! The gauntlet is
not for sale, and it’ll never be! Leave my hall, scholar, leave my home
– and don’t you ever presume to invade it without invitation again! Am
how quick you are to lose your manners. Very well, we shall leave.”
Ylvain bowed graciously, then turned and headed out the hall, trailed by a
disconcerted Barandas whose eyes kept shifting about for any possible
you, barbarian,” Tangrain hollered moments later to Cornell, “get out
of my sight as well! I shall pay no witless fool who cannot hold his
What?! Cornell’s mind thundered. The merchant of all
people had to accuse him of
being ruled by anger? “Master Tangrain, I will –“
up, Nych, and get out!” Boragger shouted and raised his dragon rod to
underline the words of his master.
fury burned in Cornell’s eyes. He was so close to a dragon rod, and now
he was sent away just because of – Barandas?! Yet there was no
circumventing the convincing power of the weapon, so he nodded. Boragger
nodded to one of the elves who held out Cornell’s sword. The Cayaborean
took it, raised his head high and walked out. No member of the Ryelneyd
tribe would walk out meekly and humbled – and neither would Cornell have
without his disguise.
his way out he walked by Sylasa who watched him with quiet interest. No
sweet smile was playing on her lips, but the sparkle in her eyes only
served to strengthen her allure.
he thought to himself, not all is lost yet. Proudly he smiled at her.
“Remember the name of Nych of Ryelneyd, my lady. His might will bring
greater fame than the trader Tangrain could hope for!”
only raised an eyebrow, turned away and went over to the statue where she
had stood before.
his own powers of conviction were hardly a match for those of the dragon
rod. Grim thoughts filled Cornell’s head as he left the main hall and
later the home of Ceravin Tangrain, the merchant of Modayrean goods.
home was in the wealthiest section of Chazevo – Sestercion -, close to
the ocean but far away from the smelly harbor with its seedier
inhabitants. No house was built less than twenty yards apart, each
towering to a staggering three stories at least. The roads were wide
avenues, paved with marble polished to perfection and blessed by priests
so that horses or carts could not scratch the surface and blemish their
appearance. Statues of former rulers of Chazevo dotted the sides of the
road, some in front of shrines devoted to one of the many deities
worshipped in the city. All the shrines were beautifully maintained, which
was no wonder since gods were as much given to vanity as the people they
had created in their image. A god well pleased with its worshippers was
more likely to grant a prayer after all.
Cornell had no eyes for that beauty as he stormed onto the avenue, his
pack of belongings on his back. Fury and anger filled him. Two months of
hard work ruined in less than an hour. Defeat at Sylasa’s hands would
have set him back a little, but not much. It had been a set-up, of course,
since few people could be as expert at quarterstaffs as the woman warrior
was. Boragger had wanted to put some humility into the cocky barbarian,
establish his own superiority. Very well. Cornell could hardly fault him
for that – he had put a great deal of work into that very appearance.
he was right where he started. All right, so he now knew there was indeed
at least one dragon rod in Tangrain’s home. His superiors wanted one to
be brought back to Cayaboré, to be studied so that hopefully they could
reproduce the weapon and use it in the war against Ibrollene that everyone
what was he to do? Steal it?
not a thief,” he grumbled.
what are you, young man?”
looked up startled and found himself staring into the soft eyes of
Demercur Ylvain. The scholar was standing behind him, his arms folded
before his chest. Barandas was a step behind, spreading his arms wide, as
if asking what he was supposed to do.
continued, “Are you in trouble with the dragon riders?”
beg your pardon?” Cornell muttered.
seeing that your home is Cayaboré, I was wondering why you would need to
take on the disguise of a man of the Ryelneyd,” Ylvain explained easily.
Behind him, Barandas eyes widened and he hastily shook his head. I didn’t tell him! “The best I could think of was that you do
not wish the dragon riders of your homeland to know where you are. They
have eyes and ears in many nations, and they are well known to apprehend
criminals even in the furthest recesses. ‘There is no escape from a
rider,’ I believe their motto is. So, young man, is that the answer?”
Cornell spurted. “No rider is hunting me!” Which was quite true; after
all, at home his own dragon rider uniform was waiting for him as well as
his own dragon, Tempest. “And why do you claim that I am a Cayaborean?
Do you think that I was in the wrong about great Vetora, leader of my
people? That the Araysal Zechyll is chief?!”
smile spread over Ylvain’s face, growing into a laugh that made his
beard quiver as if hornets buzzed in there. “Surely not, young man,”
he said when his laughter subsided. “You passed that test very well.
Nonetheless your inflection and your tone are quite wrong, not to mention
that the amulet you wear is an imitation.”
Cornell’s eyes fell to the bronze amulet around his chest. A master
smith serving the dragon rider corps had crafted it, working from exact
descriptions a spy in the south had delivered.
scholar laughed anew. “Oh, it is a masterful work indeed, boy. That is
the point, though! None of the barbarian tribes possess the skills to work
metal in this way. So, please do not insult me by pretending to be a
Ryelneyd, I would much rather learn what your goals are. If you do not
intend to hide from the riders, then why the pretense, and why at
Tangrain’s home? That is, if you are not a thief?”
shrugged. “Begging your pardon, honored sage,” he said in the polite
tone of his homeland, “but this is nothing to concern you. Your sudden
appearance has cost me much already, so I am not required to give up on
this secret, am I?”
eyes of Barandas had by now contracted to slits, his lips pressed close
together. You’ll have to tell me,
his mien demanded clearly.
true, although I wonder why you reacted so ferociously to the appearance
of young Barandas…” His voice trailed off and he glanced at the
wizard. As Cornell had thought many times earlier, Barandas must have
possessed the second sight for scant seconds before the scholar swiveled
his head, the wizard’s face changed to blank emptiness. “Well, there
is no answer now. Yet, young man from Cayaboré, I am a scholar of Darawk
and always in search for answers. If you are not willing to tell me right
away, then perhaps I can uncover the secret over time.
appears,” he said after a very brief pause, “that you have no shelter
for the night. Unless you mean to leave Chazevo right away, I would gladly
offer you a meal and a bed at the academy. The price would be that you
allow me to speak with you and learn about your intentions from what you
say – or do not say.”
is a very gracious offer,” Cornell nodded, noting Barandas’ face
lighting up. It was also sure to be better than one of the dingy inns in
the harbor district Cornell would have had to choose otherwise,
considering the paltry amount of coins in his possession. There was also
no danger whatsoever to his person. An academy of Darawk’s was warded by
clerical blessings and magic that would inhibit any act of violence. Which
also meant that it was the safest place for Ylvain to discuss with Cornell
– should he prove to be a criminal despite his words. He smiled. “An
offer that I will gladly accept, honored sage. Accepting your offer, I
would be disrespectful if I did not reveal my true name. It is Cornell of
met then, Cornell of Cayaboré,” Ylvain said and clasped the warrior’s
hand. “Let us be off then. The day is not yet that old, and much
learning can still be done!”