"Call of the Dragon, Pt I" Cornell #1
"Call of the Dragon, Pt II" Cornell #2
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
Chapter 10 <==/ Chapter 11 / ==> Chapter 12 (forthcoming on June 28 2002)
“What has this world come down to that you can’t even trust a cutthroat anymore?” Sylasa muttered while she unrolled the magiscribe parchment before her. She was on the seat of the wagon, on a tiny dirt road leading northwestward out of Atnas. Shrubbery grew around her in sparse clumps, rarely less than six feet apart. She had a good view of the road ahead, cover was getting even harder to find than it was here. At least there was a grove of trees close to the road, merging into the slope of a hill that kept her from sight behind her.
She hadn’t noticed anyone the past two hours, driving at a breakneck speed along this road which was a good ways off from the main thoroughfares – and badly maintained at that. She’d had to slow down several times, lest her horses fall down and get injured. Too often for her taste.
There are problems, she scribbled on the parchment. The magic sent it off to its twin in her brother’s hands; being who he was, her brother would notice the message immediately.
moments passed before finely executed letters appeared beneath hers. The
Yes, she answered, he betrayed me. I got the egg, but now the governor is after me. I need help.
This time it took her brother a bit longer before he replied, You know that I have problems with the One God. I can’t just go in there and retrieve you.
Figure out something, brother of mine!
What about your boyfriend? He’s nearby.
Sylasa stared at the letters, then struck them out with furious lines and added, He is not my boyfriend! I don’t want him –
Her brother wrote nearly over her own words, You’re alone, sister of mine! He’s available, just take him. Not even you can’t stand against a Tonomai army all by yourself!
How dared he? she wondered distractedly. Cornell was a nice man, but he wasn’t… Would he help her at all? Righteous as he was?
Ask him, her brother wrote. We both know that he has become more than human, don’t we? The emperor dragon’s heart increases his strength enormously. And let’s not forget the subconscious emanations from the heart that strike fear in animals – and opponents. Your boyfriend’s a good asset in a fight.
Why did her brother have to make excellent points like that? You Darawk followers are all too knowledgeable. All right, she scribbled back, but you’d better think hard and long how you can help me, brother of mine. And Cornell is not my boyfriend!
A few moments passed, then an answer appeared, Sure he isn’t. Ha-ha-ha. (I hate these text-only messages.) Take good care, sister of mine.
will, foolish brother of mine. She smiled suddenly, then wrote, Besides,
shouldn’t you honor the wonder of magiscribe more? They are the great
god Darawk’s invention, after all.
Very funny, he replied, and she took great pleasure that these letters weren’t nearly as neat as all his others above. Now go bring me the egg, will you? He followed up with the quill symbol of the Darawk priesthood, to end the conversation.
Sylasa growled low in her throat, then stowed both magiscribe sheet and pen back in the metal tube, returned the tube between her breasts, and stood up on the wagon seat. There still was no sign of any pursuers, as far as she could tell, with the hillside blocking her view as well. “Damn you, brother of mine,” she muttered, turned around, took out her sword and smashed it onto the crate with the dragon’s egg. “And damn you as well, Cornell of Cayaboré. You’d better take note of this!”
Sticking to dark alleys, Cornell and his companions had made it safely to the Tonomai healer’s home, without running into any patrols. He was grateful for Rose guiding them; without her, he could never have navigated the maze of narrow pathways taking sudden turns and curves, rarely going straight ahead. Especially since there weren’t as many imperial patrols about as there had been the previous nights. Mercenaries – like those in The Crimson Talon – had clearly been pressed into service (or paid?). Cornell couldn’t tell which of the armed, brawny men were working for the governor, so he’d rather avoid all of them.
No unnecessary bloodshed, he reminded himself. He’d been getting sloppy with that lately.
Now, fortunately, they had reached Relehim’s home, and Cornell frowned when he saw that the door had been replaced by a simple curtain. Tonomai carpentry! The Cayaborean had only slammed the door, and it had fallen from its hinges!
“Whatever,” he grumbled as he quickly scanned the surroundings for any imperials or mercs in the vicinity.
“Let’s get inside,” Barandas urged, carefully stubbing Gabe in the back. The barbarian was carrying the still unconscious Vairpole in his arms, but he took the time to cast a menacing glare at the wizard. Barandas rolled his eyes, prodded the large man once more.
Cornell nodded to him. In the meantime Rose had already slipped through the curtain, calling for the healer in a low voice. Gabe, Barandas and Flink followed. The alreu paused for a moment to inspect the curtain, feel the cloth, and his mouth opened for a comment – then Barandas grabbed the tiny creature and dragged it inside.
The morning sun was starting to come in. Birds were greeting it with cheerful song, and the citizens of Atnas were roused from their sleep. Cornell could hear all too many noises from the surrounding buildings, shook his head, then ducked inside the healer’s home.
A few moments later he saw that Relehim hadn’t been open for business yet. Rather than wear the tattered ancient robes, he was dressed in a clean, white suite that reminded Cornell of the irasagot that Derisham had made the Cayaborean wear at the reception. His face was also clean, but clay pots were posted by the way to his private rooms, containing a moist mixture that looked suspiciously like the mélange of dirt that had been on Relehim’s face at Cornell’s last visit. The Cayaborean also had to revise his judgment of how old the healer was – now, without the make-up, he was clearly in his late forties, not by far as antique as he had appeared before.
Rose was talking to the healer in the Tonomai tongue, her voice apparently shifting an octave lower to accommodate the rough sounds of that language, and the healer shook his head, while he was waving Gabe on to his office. Relehim responded to Rose, sounding more distracted than anything else. He patted her on the shoulder, then followed Gabe.
“Is he going to take care of your father?” Cornell muttered.
The girl didn’t look at him when she answered, “Of course. Master Relehim…” She sighed and turned around. “Lord Cornell, what is going on? We’ve never had problems in Atnas, I’ve spent all my life here, and now…” Her voice trailed off.
Cornell forced a calming smile onto his lips. “It will all get better, trust me.”
“But, my Lord, my father, if he –“
“I said,” Cornell interrupted her, “it will get better. I will take care of that.”
She squinted at him, torn between the taught loyalty to a nobleman and her own fears. “Do ye pledge yerself t’that?” she asked, falling back into the Northerton dialect.
Was she trying to play him, reminding him of their common home? And a noble’s duty to the commoners? No, probably not, he decided after a brief moment. Yet duty was duty. “You have my word on that, young Rose.”
She nodded quietly, then shook her head suddenly and darted down the corridor to the office.
Barandas sidled up to the Cayaborean and muttered, “Aren’t you overdoing it? We ought to look after ourselves, not some innkeeper and his daughter.”
“Shut up,” Cornell grumbled. “If you had a shred of decency within yourself, I’d explain –“
Pain suddenly shot through him, straight from his heart, spreading through his entire body instantaneously. He doubled over, his hands clawing for his heart. Why didn’t anybody help him? He was all alone, cooped up in a dark and strange place, cold and –
The pain was gone.
He raised his head, looked straight into the face of the wizard. “You aren’t about to die, are you?” Barandas asked casually. “I don’t have any resurrection appliances with me, remember?”
Cornell shoved the wizard out of his way and walked towards the office, cursing inwardly. The shield on his arm was silent. It’d better be, unless Phindar admitted what was wrong with his heart. Cornell would give him ample chance to answer. With a nice fire burning in the vicinity, as a reminder.
“He will live,” Relehim sighed and wiped his forehead. Beads of sweat had gathered there in the last few minutes, while the healer’d been bent over the prone body of the innkeeper, pouring potions over him, massaging a salve into the wound in his head, and chanting a low song.
Rose lowered her head. “Thank you, Master Relehim. May the One God bless you.”
The healer shook his head. “He’d better reserve his blessing for you, child, and for your father.” Relehim glared at Cornell. “Foreign sir, Vairpole must not be moved for a day at least. Bringing him here has made his injuries worse. But I have heard that the imperial guards are looking for all foreigners, such as yourself. And my good friend here.”
“I know,” Cornell grumbled.
“Do you then have an idea how to resolve this matter? Your ulamquiri will not help you against the might of the Empire.”
Again with the ulamquiri, that silly idea of a dragon’s heart embedded in the Cayaborean’s chest! What, did Relehim think he could scam money out of him now? Or was he just keeping up the pretense, to stay (or regain) Cornell’s favor?
The thoughts died when he became aware of Rose’s pleading gaze. Yes, he had pledged his word to her, hadn’t he? “I don’t know yet,” he answered truthfully. “A distraction, perhaps… Gabe?”
“Yes?” the barbarian answered. He was standing behind Rose, keeping a safe distance as if he was afraid to touch the girl. Yet it was clear from her poise that she was relying on his calm strength behind her, adding fuel to the fire of her plea.
“We need to make the patrols think of any place but this one, as long as Vairpole has to stay here. A day, you said, healer?”
The Tonomai raised an eyebrow. “Yes, but preferably more than that. The potions need to distribute through his body and reach every part. Only then can the restoration begin.”
“Barandas?” Cornell fired the question at the wizard.
The spell-caster jerked upright, surprised by being involved so suddenly. For a tiny instant Cornell thought that his hand flashed down from somewhere, but the motion was over so fast he barely noticed. Barandas shrugged, his eyes (suspiciously) innocent, “Uhm, that sounds about right. Healing potions were never my favorite, you see?”
“Fine,” Cornell cut him off, turned back to Gabe. “Take bwyell and Flink. The two – three of you should raise enough trouble to keep the imperials and mercs in Atnas busy. I’ll go after the dragon egg. Barandas, you’re with me.”
“Why?!” the wizard protested. “The imperial army is going to be close to that egg – and Sylasa! I’m really not going to be much –“
Cornell leaned forward and flashed a smile at his friend. “You could also accompany bwyell. I’m sure you’d feel safer with the axe.”
Gabe felt the need to test the weight of bwyell at this point, the blade gleaming in its sharp splendor. Cornell’s smile intensified, enough for the wizard to groan and give a fast nod. “I’ll be rid of the alreu,” he muttered.
A step behind him, Flink looked up with mournful eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry about that, Master Wizard. I’ll make sure to spend more time with you when this is over! Rest assured of that!”
Barandas grimaced and cast a pleading glance at Cornell, half raising his hands as if crying for help.
Instead of that, the Cayaborean nodded to the alreu, “Right, Flink, and don’t you forget that. It’s bad enough that Master Wizard will have to be separated from you for that long. You really have to make it up.”
“Goodness gracious, I will, sir!” Flink eagerly and quickly nodded, patting the wizard’s leg reassuringly.
“Can we go now?” Barandas asked, ignoring the alreu on his leg.
Cornell looked at the Tonomai healer and Rose. “We’ll do all we can to resolve this matter. Don’t leave your home, and, healer, you shouldn’t accept any patients today.”
Relehim shook his head. “No, foreign sir, that would raise too much suspicion. But nobody will see Vairpole. Rose will help me with this.” He frowned, then added, “Good luck to you, foreign sir. May your ulamquiri help you.”
A groan issued from the buckler on Cornell’s arm, quickly silenced by an angry hiss. First Phindar, then Halla? the Cayaborean wondered. There’d be time for that later, he decided, then waved Barandas outside of the office. “Gabe?”
“In a moment,” the barbarian answered.
Good enough for Cornell. “Get on it,” he said, then walked towards the corridor, pushing the wizard ahead of him.
The moment the Cayaborean left, Gabe suddenly felt himself assaulted by Rose as she plunged herself against his chest, slung her arms around him and cried, muffled by the thick fur of his coat, “Take good care of yourself, will you?”
“Of course he will!” Flink piped. “Bwyell and me are always by his side so he just can’t be hurt. He’s Gabe, after all!”
The barbarian frowned at the alreu, while he was carefully patting Rose on the back, a weak smile on his lips. He didn’t want to push her away, not when she was needing all the comfort she could get, yet comfort wasn’t exactly what he was feeling at the moment. “I will do what I have to,” he said, with a tinge of huskiness to his voice.
“Please do,” the girl whispered and looked up at him, all the foot’s length that she was shorter, smiling softly. “I don’t want you to be hurt,” she added, one hand snaking up his back towards his neck.
His face grew hot, and as gently as he could, the barbarian disentangled himself from her. “That will not happen,” he said, grabbed Flink’s shoulder – and let go immediately when the alreu yelped in sudden pain. His little friend was still hurt, he remembered and felt as if the pain were in his own shoulder. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the alreu babbled, “I’m fine, it’s just you, and you would never do nothing bad to me, I know that, so –“
“Let’s go do what the sir told us!” Flink immediately shifted gear, without any problems as his eyes lit up. “Say, how do we distract the patrols? Do we have any fireworks? I’ve seen some great ones! Some that look like a flock of birds, you know? Goodness gracious, I’m sure they were magical, but…”
The alreu was rambling on, but neither Gabe nor anybody else listened to him. The barbarian reached out his hand to cautiously touch Rose’s cheek. Of course the girl had to misinterpret the gesture, he realized when she smiled contentedly and crooked her head to rest on his. Gabe waited a brief moment before retracting his fingers, then nodded at her and Relehim. “Be careful. I will be back.”
“Yes,” Rose answered dreamily, then her gaze fell on her father’s prone body and her shoulders fell forward. “Please don’t you get hurt as well.”
“Not in this world,” Gabe said, prodded Flink – mindfully avoiding the injured shoulder -, then left as quickly as his dignity allowed him.
“I hope we can use it,” Cornell told Barandas when they were outside Relehim’s home, the curtain rustling behind them.
The wizard’s eyes were wide when he asked, “What ‘it’ are you talking about? There are so many ‘it’s in the world.”
“Innocence doesn’t suit you,” Cornell growled and pointed at the wizard’s robe, at about the place where he’d seen his hand flash to in the healer’s office. “You’ve stolen something. ‘It’ had better be good for our task.”
“That depends. Is our task keeping our hides intact and unpierced by any sharp objects, or is it finding your girlfriend as well as a great number of those sharp objects?”
“She is not my girlfriend,” the Cayaborean muttered, “and you know my answer.”
Barandas shrugged. From his pocket he produced a brass rod about half a foot long, with two globules at each end. One of the spheres was solid brass, with slight elevations that looked like markings in the language of magic. The other consisted of four brass spirals, containing a glass ball with a blue and a red liquid inside. Both formed globs within each other, drifting around with each movement of the rod.
“What is it?” Cornell asked calmly.
“A tracking device,” Barandas shrugged. “From Kraznyczar, if you can believe it. I had one in the Wizard’s College at Mercurham. You’ve got to prime it for something, or somebody, and the red globs will point you straight towards your destination. Now,” he smiled slily, “you wouldn’t happen to have something of Sylasa’s with you? A lock of her beautiful auburn hair, perhaps?”
The wizard’s smile deepened when Cornell cast him a deadly glance. “Do you?”
“No, I don’t! She is not my girlfriend, remember that, by the tides of magic!”
“Uhm,” Barandas frowned and crooked his head, “isn’t that my line?”
Exasperated, Cornell threw up his hands and wondered if the world would feel better if he knocked his head repeatedly against the nearest wall. At least the pain might distract him from the wizard. Worth a try, he thought, then breathed a sigh of relief when Gabe and Flink exited the house – the barbarian surprised to see the other two still here.
Cornell didn’t give him much time to ponder on that but stretched out one hand towards the alreu. “Flink, you’ve spent some time with Sylasa, haven’t you?”
“Well, yes, sir, the lady has been very nice to me, like she –“
“What have you stolen from her?” the Cayaborean interrupted before the alreu could keep babbling until noon.
“Goodness gracious, I do not steal, sir!” Flink said indignantly. “Stealing is bad, isn’t it? That’s what –“
“What have you acquired from her?” Barandas broke in, earning himself mild gratitude from Cornell. Well, the wizard would know the language of thieves better than an upstanding dragonrider like he could.
This phrasing actually worked. Flink grimaced, lost in thought for a moment, then dug in his vest and took out a sliver of stone, rectangular, with a poorly crafted image of the god Deswellyn on the front. Suddenly the cheer vanished from Flink’s face as he gazed at the sliver. “Goodness gracious, that’s Maedel’s icon. She gave it to me when I was seven, the dear –“ Surprisingly enough, he cut himself off, returned the stone icon to his vest and took his time in making sure it was secure. Cornell breathed deeply, tried his best to control himself, and said composure paid off when Flink’s fingers finally came up with a silver ring. “This,” he beamed and held out the ring, “this belongs to your lady, sir.”
“She wore a ring?” Cornell couldn’t help but stammer.
“Why, yes, sir, didn’t you notice? I know, it looks so much like her armor, but she’s always worn it, and I’m really sorry that she didn’t pay better attention to it. I thought that it had better be painted a different color, so you can see its beauty right away, so it won’t be so difficult to detect it, and –“
His voice was cut off abruptly when Barandas snatched the ring from the alreu’s fingers and pushed it against the glass sphere of the rod. Flink’s head whirled about, ready to let go a torrent of complaints, but both Cornell and Gabe hurried to put their hands before the alreu’s mouth. As soon as they realized what they were doing, they grinned apologetically at each other. Cornell grunted, then withdrew his hand and pointed it straight at Barandas. “Is that enough?”
“Oh, plenty,” the wizard grinned. He muttered a few words in the magical tongue, then the globs of red in the sphere started to separate from the blue, drifting in a particular direction, though not very distinctly. “That ought to do,” Barandas nodded as he started to drop the ring in his pocket.
Cornell held out his palm towards him.
The wizard noticed just before the ring would have vanished inside his robe, grimaced, then dropped it into the open hand. “Do you have to be so attentive?”
“You can still accompany bwyell,” Cornell suggested.
“No, thanks. Can we go get ourselves killed a gentler way now?”
“After you,” Cornell smiled. He waved good-bye to Gabe and Flink, then he set out to find Sylasa. And the dragon egg.
next installment will go online in three weeks!
Look for it around June 28 2002!