"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 11 <==/ Chapter 12 / ==> Chapter 13
Barandas had been toying with the idea of falsifying the results of the magical tracking device. He could have pretended to prime it on Sylasa’s ring, but instead chosen something entirely different. Preferably outside of Atnas. He could have led Cornell on a merry goose chase, preferably away from any imperial swords.
He’d been toying with that idea for about half a heartbeat. Then he’d realized that Cornell would find out about the ruse sooner rather than later – at the very least when they wouldn’t find Sylasa within an acceptable time. Whatever passed for an ‘acceptable time’ in the Cayaborean’s mind. That man was overly focused on getting results. The results he wanted, to be precise.
So they were now riding in the direction that the red globules in the pointer sphere were drifting towards, to the northwest. Sylasa would be there, as would be the dragon egg. He didn’t like to think too much about meeting the warrior woman again, mostly because his imagination kept conjuring up images of her wielding that deadly sword of hers.
Instead Barandas enjoyed riding his mare, Solania. A good horse she was, obeisant, without any complaints – very much unlike her namesake, his ex-… Who could have known that the human Solania could be that quarrelsome? All right, he’d had more than a taste of that before he’d been forced to – do that unspeakable thing with her, the m-word. At least it had been over after only half an eternity of constant arguing and shouting.
Yes, he decided, he really liked the horse Solania much better than the woman Solania. The mare never talked back. Or talked at all.
“Any idea how much longer?” Cornell asked. He was rubbing his chest again, Barandas noted with a tinge of concern. That had been going on for a while now, and it seemed to get more frequent. The wizard hoped dearly that Cornell wasn’t sick. For one thing because the Cayaborean was his friend. For another, because he was counting on Cornell to defend him, from the imperials and Sylasa.
Maybe it was the dragon heart in his chest. Cornell had died battling its previous owner, his own heart utterly destroyed. A songdwarf had (not quite) miraculously appeared, placed the heart in the man’s chest and restored him to life. She’d made each person present pledge to watch over Cornell – and never to reveal the truth to him.
Well, Barandas sure wasn’t first in line to betray that pledge. He knew how easily Cornell could be irritated. Considering that there was an alien organ pumping blood through his veins, Barandas really didn’t want to imagine how furious the Cayaborean would be – particularly at the fool who told him about the heart.
“Well, how much longer?” Cornell repeated.
The wizard blinked, realized that he’d been asked a question, then glanced down at the direction finder. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly. He hadn’t paid too much attention to the speed of the red globs drifting forward, towards Sylasa’s position. That, and knowing how far they had ridden, would have given a measurement of the remaining distance – but, truth be told, Barandas didn’t care much to find out. “We’re getting closer, that’s for certain.”
“Fine,” Cornell muttered, leaned a bit forward and put his spurs to Stormwind’s flanks. The horse quickly sped up, galloped ahead, until the Cayaborean mutteringly tugged on the reins to slow the stallion down again. “Damn you,” Barandas heard as he closed the gap, “why do you have to be so skittish?”
Rider and horse needed a while to agree on the appropriate speed, with Stormwind all the time liable to break into a full gallop as if the horse was trying to get away from imminent danger. Well, that bloody heart again, Barandas thought. It’d better be good for something.
“Shield bearer,” Halla said urgently from the shield, “there’s an imperial patrol ahead, about half a league.”
Cornell and Barandas pulled in unison at their reins, Solania protesting the sudden stop. (All right, so there were certain similarities to the woman Solania.) The wizard squinted ahead, trying to see the imperials. All he saw was the cobblestone road extending through a hilly landscape, with palm trees planted along the road at even distances. The road took a dip out of sight several hundred yards ahead. That was pretty much the only place where that patrol could be. Was the shield able to see through the hill?
He was very busy considering these possibilities, in particular how that could be applied to scouting out houses that contained valuable magical artefacts – and then found himself jerked to the side. He looked down, saw Cornell’s hand on his rein as the Cayaborean pulled his mare off the road. “Hey, I can ride on my own!” Barandas complained. “You could have said something!”
“You could have thought something,” the Cayaborea retorted and pointed off the road, to a small valley cut between two hills. “We’ll go that way. Keep an eye on that pointer of yours, so we don’t stray too far off course.”
“You can bet your shield on that!”
Cornell squinted at him for a moment. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Well,” the wizard shrugged, eyeing the buckler disappointedly. “It was worth a try.”
“Don’t. I know all of them by now.”
So I’ll have to think up some new ones, don’t I? Barandas was smart enough not to mention his thought. Reminding Cornell would only undermine any new attempts.
Besides, why did that Cayaborean do-gooder have to be so attentive? One tiny bet, and he would have been rid of the shield. Barandas, after all, would happily put up with all the annoying voices of the shield souls.
“Ride!” Cornell grunted and waved at the valley.
Barandas rolled his eyes, then did as he was told. Usually that was the best way to placate the Cayaborean, if not the only one.
“Raise trouble,” Gabe repeated thoughtfully Cornell’s order, peering around the corner at the governor’s palace.
“Right, that’s what the sir said,” Flink, peering around Gabe’s legs, agreed. “But you still haven’t told me how we should do that. You know, I’m really not very good at making trouble. Funny thing, though, people always start shouting after I’ve spent only a few moments with them. Well, not always, but –“
“See what I mean?”
“Oh, right,” Flink answered and gazed up the barbarian. “Sorry, Gabe, I should have known. You’re always frowning so much when you’re thinking. Did you know that there’s a new wrinkle in your forehead?”
Gabe sighed. He liked the alreu very much, but sometimes the manling could be so annoying. Next thing he knew, Flink would start noticing the gray hairs on his chest. One never knew what would interest the alreu the next moment. “All right,” he said and knelt down, taking care not to hurt the manling. “You understand that we need to distract the troops from the healer’s house?”
Flink nodded eagerly. “Yes, so poor Master Vairpole can recover. Oh, I hope so much that he’ll be all right again. With Solstice Day tomorrow, nobody should be ill.”
“Exactly. And so we need a diversion. One that’s so big that none of the imperials will look at the healer’s.”
Flink’s eyes grew wide. “You mean, do something bad?”
“Uhm,” Gabe frowned. What was Flink’s definition of ‘bad’, he wondered. After all the fighting that they’d been in together, how did the alreu perceive that? Self-defense? Or… Why are you worrying about that now, fool? “Sort of, yes,” he answered after a moment.
“Oh.” Flink crooked his head. “My mother never liked that. But it sure was distracting, like the time I – inadvertently! – caused that tunnel to collapse. Fortunately there wasn’t anybody in the tunnel, except for me, and anyway, I was only five years old… and I should shut up?”
Gabe couldn’t help but stare open-jawed at the alreu. Was that the first time he’d asked that particular question?
“Should I, or shouldn’t I? Really, Gabe, you’re taking so much time to make up your mind. I mean, not that I really mind, you’re you, and that’s good, and –“
“Yes, goodness gracious, that is good and –“
“I mean, shut up.”
The alreu’s jaws clamped mercifully shut. Gabe rubbed his arm. “What I wanted to say was that we need a big and splashy diversion, one that makes all the patrols in the city converge.”
Flink started opening his mouth but quickly covered it with both hands. Silently, eyes wide for approval, he nodded. But there was a question in his eyes as well. Like what?
Gabe swiveled his head and looked at the governor’s palace. “I think this should do.”
“Can I collapse a shaft? I mean, a tunnel – no, a corridor?”
The barbarian closed his eyes briefly. There went another moment of glory. “We’ll see about that.”
“Great! Let’s go!”
Gabe didn’t need to look at Flink to hold out his hand and stop the manling while his free hand slid bwyell from his back. “Now.”
Large shrubs of brambles were cutting into the hides of horse and rider. Barandas yelled when one of the prickly thorns found his hands, threw them up, and started sucking on one finger with a long gash at the top. “Brambles!” he exclaimed. “One, they should not grow in this climate. Two, why are they so bloody big?”
Cornell would have enjoyed a laugh about now. To his misfortune, the pain in his heart was increasing, and his vision was starting to cloud over. It wasn’t a steady pain, it came in pangs and attacks. In a few moments, he would be able to see clearly again. This had happened several times on their ride already, and he was almost getting accustomed to it.
“Magic,” the voice of Phindar commented from the shield. “There’s a source of ensorceled water nearby that’s affecting the groundwater. The Tonomai have placed it near the main road to supply the palm trees, otherwise they couldn’t grow that well.”
“Bloody tides, what’s that got to do with brambles?”
Phindar chuckled. “An unwanted side effect, I’m sure. Unless… Well, it might be a deterrent to highwaymen.”
From the shield, Halla said, “That is not a bad stratagem. Yet, Phindar, these bushes don’t grow very close to the road, and they are not dense enough. There are several places where one could ambush travellers.”
“True. Perhaps the magical well has not been well maintained.”
“Yes,” Halla agreed slowly, “that would fit in with our appraisal of the governor.”
Cornell rubbed his eyes with the fist of his free hand. The mists before his eyes were drifting away. So was the cloudy feeling in his body, and he realized that he had also been cut by the thorns. “If you don’t mind my cutting in,” he said sharply. “Phindar, the horses are starting to hurt, too. Heal them.” Without waiting for a reply, he shifted the buckler so the bronze knob came to rest on Stormwind’s neck. The stallion twitched when the cold metal touched him, but calmed instantly while Phindar muttered a few words.
A hand reached out towards the buckler, with a bleeding finger foremost. “I’m next,” Barandas demanded.
“Done with Stormwind?” Cornell asked the buckler.
Muffled through the horse’s fur, the Decalleigh priest agreed. The Cayaborean nodded, then leaned over to put the bronze knob on the neck of Barandas’ horse, ignoring the wizard’s arm.
“Hey! What about me?” Barandas complained.
Cornell grinned. “Who got us into this mess?”
“Your girlfriend,” the wizard shot back. “Now let the shield heal me.”
“She is not –“
A shrill sound echoed over the landscape. It screeched through the air, bearing a deep and rough edge to it that sounded completely incongruous with the brightness of the remaining sound.
Both men looked up consternatedly, swiveling their heads to find the source of the noise.
“Shield bearer…” Phindar’s voice came strained through the mare’s fur. Cornell immediately pulled the buckler back, and the priest spoke more clearly, “That’s an imperial bugle signal. Converge and attack, it means.”
“That’s a bugle?” a third voice asked within the shield. Nev, the accountant, had finally regained his voice. Cornell had been starting to hope that the accountant had somehow died. “They should get some lessons from Cayaborean bugles. Ours sound like bugles should.” (All right, Cornell found himself agreeing with Nev on that count. The end of the world might be nigh.)
“The noise carries further,” Phindar explained. “An ordinary –“
“Halla,” interrupted Cornell harshly, “how far can you fly and return?”
It took the shield maiden a moment to answer – probably silencing the other voices -, then she said, “About three quarters of a mile, then flight becomes erratic and hard to control.”
“Good,” Cornell nodded, drawing his shield arm back. “Cut off the thorns of the brambles in our path. I’ll catch you and throw you again, until we’ve cleared the field. Got that?”
“Yes,” was all that Halla could answer, for the instant her voice sounded, Cornell was already swinging his arm forward, the straps on the shield automatically loosening and propelling the buckler forward in its perfect path.
“Ride!” Cornell yelled to Barandas, already putting his spurs into Stormwind’s sides. “The Tonomai have found Sylasa and are calling for reinforcements!”
The Cayaborean paid little attention to the wizard, knowing that he would catch up quickly. Stormwind under him was happy to gallop – the horse had been clamoring for that chance for hours, after all. I’m coming, Sylasa!
Decent construction, Flink thought while he surveyed the white sandstone walls of the corridor around him. Not as good as the tunnels of an alreu kennel, but, really, what can you expect of human builders? They don’t ever use the support of a good mountain or the earth! He wished for a bit more light to come through the windows set high in the walls, so he could find some weak spots. The pillars spread along the corridor were for design, not for support, he’d realized already. Removing them would leave the corridor all too stable – maybe make the walls tremble, but that was as far as it would go.
“Dark kings,” Gabe, walking half a step ahead of the alreu, muttered. “They always forget about self-defense.”
“Excuse me?” Flink asked, tugging on the barbarian’s pants. (What kind of leather was that anyway? Thymbair, Gabe had told him once. Flink didn’t know the creature, and, goodness gracious, as rough as it was – even after being cured! -, he wouldn’t want it anywhere near him.) “Is there a king around?”
Gabe paused, quickly glanced up and down the length of the corridor for any guards, bwyell perfectly matching the motions of the head. Then, finally, after the axe was satisfied that there was no danger nearby, he looked down at the alreu. “I meant the governor,” he explained in a whisper. “He may not be a king, but he acts like them. Sending most of his troops out to find somebody, and meanwhile his palace and all the booty is open for the daring.”
“Should we watch out for them?” Flink asked.
As so often he didn’t understand why Gabe rolled his eyes at that. “No, Flink, we like the daring.”
“Well, then, we should watch out for them,” the alreu insisted. It was so obvious he couldn’t believe the barbarian was missing the point. “The daring could help us!”
Gabe sighed. “All right, you do the watching.”
Flink nodded with satisfaction. He knew he could rely on Gabe. Sometimes it took him a little longer than a good alreu would require, but in the end… Well, one had to remember that Gabe was only human. Nonetheless, Flink was sure that the barbarian would prove the pride of any alreu kennel. Yet… “Uhm, Gabe, how do I recognize the daring?” he asked slowly, wondering what people like that would wear.
“By their deeds shall you know them,” Gabe answered, checking the corridor again with bwyell.
No decent clothes, then, Flink concluded. Probably have no sense of proper clothing, since they’re so focused on being daring. Well, Gabe said that we like them, so I should help them find better attires. “Oh,” he said and refrained from mentioning any of his thoughts. Gabe had never appreciated any of the alreu’s suggestions on better clothes. “By the way, are we going someplace?”
“To the governor.”
“Do you know the way?”
Flink frowned. That was not good. The sir had told them to “raise trouble”, so shouldn’t they be doing some of that instead of sneeking around the palace. Goodness gracious, not that Flink doubted Gabe. The barbarian surely knew how to raise trouble. (The alreu remembered a couple of trashed bars and surprisingly angry customers. Well, Gabe had been happy. And Flink had found so many nice objects to play with and enhance!) On the other hand, the two of them should hurry up, right? “Maybe we could ask someone for the way to the governor,” he proposed. “The guards around the next corner might know.”
“Guards?!” Gabe whirled about, bwyell flying into striking position. “I can’t see any.”
Flink shrugged. “Me, neither, but I hear them talking. My, I wish I knew a bit of their language.”
“Whatever,” Gabe grunted. “We’ll go ask.”
See, Flink told himself. He needs a bit more time, but he finds the right answer all the time! That’s Gabe!
Barandas didn’t need the tracking device to point him to Sylasa. The red globs had concentrated all the way in the top of the sphere, straight towards where they were riding, over the next hill. But the noise of battle coming from beyond its crest was telling enough.
“Hurry!” Cornell yelled.
No, thank you, I’d rather stay here, the wizard thought but obligingly sped Solania onward. It wouldn’t do to stop now, not with the Cayaborean as angry as he was. (A chronic disease, obviously.) Barandas clawed his hands around the reins, as much as he dared without losing his grip, and fueled magical energy into them, to start fireballs. He’d need them – not to mention that he vastly preferred a long-distance weapon over the Rhelfinian sword that Gabe had given him. Mélées didn’t suit the wizard, too much danger of being hurt.
The horses raced over the bushy land, the shrubbery thankfully low enough to avoid all but the wizard’s boots. No pain from there, and the bleeding in his finger had stopped, too. Without the priest’s help, Barandas growled inside. It would have gone much faster if Cornell had permitted Phindar to heal him.
He saw Cornell pulling his crossbow from his saddlebags, putting it across his legs and starting to load it. How did he do that in full gallop?
Well, Barandas didn’t care. It wasn’t a skill he wanted to acquire.
The crest was near, the noise was louder. To his surprise he found himself searching for the familiar and gruesome sounds of Sylasa fighting, no matter that they could not be heard over the shouting.
Their horses topped the hill, finally allowing Barandas to see what was happening. The first thing he saw was their wagon, hurtling along a simple dirt road at full speed, the horses straining to pull it faster. There was Sylasa, straddling the seat of the wagon, one hand on the reins, the other on a crossbow firing quarrel after quarrel back. (Without her having to reload manually? Magical… I have to get a look at that!)
Following the wagon were seven mounted imperial warriors, swords drawn and galloping to close the gap. Their heads were pulled down the chest, so their helmets could deflect the quarrels. Now who had been screaming?
Oh, Barandas realized with a grim smile. Five other imperial warriors were strewn on the road behind their colleagues, telltale crossbow quarrels embedded in various places of their bodies.
All right, he pulled his wits together and raised one hand, guiding Solania with the other. One fireball coming up, he powered the energy into his fingers.
And stopped when he saw Cornell falling in full gallop from his horse, his right hand clutching his chest.