"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 12 <==/ Chapter 13 / ==> Chapter 14
Stormwind pranced a step sideways, glared down with flaring nostrils at his fallen rider – then neighed in shock and darted away, straight back the way they had come.
Barandas didn’t have much time to observe (or catch the horse) for his own mare was starting to panic, dancing forward, back, left, shaking her back, as if to lose the wizard quickly so she could join the stallion. “Whoa there,” Barandas yelped, pulled the reins close with both hands. Sparks of the starting fireball dissipated into his own hand, leaving black marks, as well as a lot of pain that he willed aside. Staying on the horse, keeping the horse was more important right now.
In the distance he heard an agonized yell. Subconsciously he understood that another imperial had fallen to Sylasa’s quarrels. Stupid enough to check on how far away the warrior woman was, probably.
“Stay!” Barandas ordered his horse, fighting to keep control.
This was taking too long, he knew. Cornell didn’t just fall off his horse, not clutching his heart like that. Barandas needed to look after his friend, needed to –
A pair of hands grasped Solania’s head tightly by the headgear. The frightened mare fought against the grip, pushed and pulled her head, twisted her neck – and the rest of her body, nearly unsettling the wizard. For Barandas only saw those hands. Tanned they were, nearing a bronze color.
Except for the strong greenish tint running through them that seemed to grow stronger while he was watching them.
“You stay and obey your master,” Cornell’s familiar voice was saying, sounding strong and self-confident.
Mystified Barandas finally raised his glance from the greenish hands, up towards a face that held the features of his Cayaborean friend. The face had assumed a green tint as well, making it appear entirely alien. Fortunately his eyes were still the same customary furious hazel color, much though they seemed out of place.
“You…” Barandas whispered, his voice failing him.
Cornell growled and looked over the hill after his horse. “Bloody thing! I paid so much for it, and it just runs off like it’s scared for its life.”
Didn’t he know that he’d turned green? Obviously not, Barandas answered his own question – and another answer hit him like Gabe’s bwyell, just as sharp and painful. The dragon’s heart! It must be turning out green blood, like that of its previous owner. Not only did it increase Cornell’s strength, it was also changing his skin color!
A tiny voice in his mind complained that this was all fine and good. After all, Cornell would find out about the heart all by his lonesome, and none of the others – especially Barandas himself – would have to break their pledge. On the other hand the wizard couldn’t use any of the Cayaborean’s long-familiar rants right now. Better keep this under wraps, he decided, closed his eyes for a second and searched his mind extensively for a suitable spell.
Cornell was staring at him angrily. “What’s the matter with you, Barandas? Have you forgotten how to ride? You could have held Stormwind here, and we could have rescued Sylasa already!”
“It’s my fault?!” Barandas yelled back, not believing the gall of his friend. He almost lost the concentration for the spell, recovered just in time – and realized that this was the only way to keep from worse trouble. “All right, I’m sorry,” he muttered, adding the words of the cantrip.
“You’d better be,” the Cayaborean said, never noticing that a glamor took hold around him, adding a wafer-thin layer of healthy human pink over his green skin. Barandas heaved a sigh of relief. “We’ve got to catch Stormwind now. He’s carrying all my stuff.”
Before the wizard could even consider reaching down so Cornell could join him on Solania, the Cayaborean suddenly broke into a run after the horse. And Barandas gaped. No man could run that fast. Within moments he became a blurry figure vanishing over the crest of the hill, after the horse.
No man with a human heart.
The wizard wiped sweat from his forehead. How long would Cornell believe this to be the effect of the songdwarf’s spell? At some point he would have to question that. Maybe it was about time to part company with the Cayaborean for a while, only until he learned that Cornell had already found out about the heart.
Unfortunately he couldn’t leave now. Cornell wouldn’t take kindly to his abrupt departure.
He wiped his forehead again and resigned to wait for the Cayaborean to reappear.
How could I have been so foolish? Gabe scolded himself. His hands hurt, tied behind his back by a rope chafing on his skin. The knot was just above his wrists, high enough that no twisting of his fingers could get them within reach.
He hadn’t seen the ambush coming. It should have been obvious to a blind man – the two sole guards in the middle of a large hall, standing by a column, paying no heed to what happened around them. Gabe had felt pride over his stealth when not a single noise had issued from his boots as he had stalked closer to them, bwyell ready to strike. Then a cry had sounded from an adjoining corridor, and fourteen other imperials had ganged up on him.
They had appeared to suddenly for Gabe to react. Bwyell hadn’t done more than cut open a single arm, and his fists had given no more than bruises.
Now his treasured axe was on the belt of an imperial officer striding ahead of him, bwyell seeming to plead for Gabe to snatch it and put it to decent use. How he wished he could do exactly that!
“Keep moving,” the officer admonished him, his meantongue garbled by a thick accent.
Gabe suppressed a scowl, lowered his head and walked. At least Flink hadn’t been captured. The barbarian hadn’t noticed the alreu escaping. Before the fight, Flink had been by his side – afterwards, he was gone. For an instant Gabe had been afraid the imperials had murdered the manling. (In which case they would have suffered greatly, bound hands, no bwyell, or under any other condition.) Yet there hadn’t been a body, either.
Alreus, he thought with a vestige of satisfaction. Annoying, but in matters of flight, they were incomparable. Flink was probably outside the palace now, stealing something from unwary merchants to calm his nerves. Go far away, my little friend. Back to civilized lands.
“Through here,” the officer said.
Gabe looked up. A door opened ahead of him, leading into a spartanly furnished room barely large enough to hold the wide, round table with maps and documents spread over it, two benches covered with pillows and several wooden chairs. Inside several men – feeble non-warriors only – stood, one looking very forlorn, and one looking determinedly at the new arrivals.
The latter’s clothes were the most splendid of the bunch, as far as Gabe could tell. One more advantage of Flink’s absence was that the barbarian was spared a torrent of aesthetic and artistic comments on the various vestments.
“I hear you’re looking for me,” the determined man said in nearly flawless meantongue.
“Who’re you?” Gabe responded as he walked inside, followed by the officer and two guards.
The man started sputtering for a moment in frustrated disappointment. His determination returned instantaneously, and he shook his head. “Trying to kill the governor, and you don’t even know what I look like? The knight-errant surely has not taken a fool like you as his steady companion.”
What was the man talking about? Knight-errants belonged to a race of dwarves in Robhovard, and the last knightdwarf Gabe had seen was an innkeeper in the Elfadil Desert, several hundreds of miles north of Atnas.
He was the governor, though. Gabe was disappointed. He’d expected somebody with a bit more steel to him, not the soft and flabby man there. That one probably couldn’t tell a sword from a kitchen knife. Nor was there any honor to be found in besting him.
“So, fool,” Governor Derisham said, “where is my property that you have stolen for the knight-errant?”
“I do not steal,” Gabe replied stolidly.
Derisham glanced quickly at the officer. A moment later a heavy blow with the hilt of a sword hit Gabe’s neck. He’d suffered worse and stayed on his feet. The governor frowned, exchanged a glance with the officer. Then a second blow hit Gabe, with roughly the same effect.
Derisham squinted. “Where is my property? You’re associated with the knight-errant, and I know that he has ordered the theft. Or the acquisition, if you prefer that.”
“Whoever is this knight-errant you’re talking about? I don’t know any dwarves!”
“Dwarves?!” Derisham exclaimed while the officer brought down his hilt on Gabe’s neck again. Absently the barbarian wondered how often these blows would be repeated, and when the officer would give up. “Kerash,” the governor turned to the forlorn-seeming man, “where is your dwarf? I haven’t seen it anywhere all morning.”
“Nor have I, my liege,” the man responded with a distant voice. “I brought her to my room last night, to rest, but when I came to wake her up, Melawdis was gone. I… Forgive me, my liege, somebody must have taken her.”
The governor took a while to answer, pacing up and down in front of Gabe.
The barbarian was suddenly distracted when the knot on his wrist started moving of its own accord. If Gabe hadn’t been sure there was nobody behind him, he would have sworn that fingers seemed to handle the knot.
“The knight-errant,” Derisham mused. “It can only have been he who absconded with the dwarf. He’s realized that the thing’s magic is powerful, and he wants to control the snake dragon through it.”
Kerash said slowly, with a tinge of hope, “That would mean that Melawdis isn’t hurt, right?”
“I don’t give a damn whether the dwarf’s been quartered or slaughtered!” the governor shouted. “Go, tera’qu, find Bentasai and tell him to have the mercenaries search for the dwarf in the city. The knight could be here, after all. You’d better find him,” he added after a slight pause, “because you let the dwarf be stolen.”
The rope around Gabe’s hands loosened. It didn’t fall down, but the knot was untied so much that a child could tear it open all the way. He felt as if somebody had to be behind him, yet he knew that none of the Tonomai were near him. Neither had he heard some other person enter the room, his hearing was keen enough for that.
He had no explanation. There was no need for any, either. He started flexing his hands and get blood flowing into his fingers again, careful not to open the knot, not to draw attention to the rope.
“Yes, my liege,” Kerash said and hurried out of the room, colliding with Gabe in his haste. Damn you! the barbarian yelled when he felt the rope drop from his hands. Quickly he shifted his feet to stand on the cord, slipped his hands a bit further into his sleeves – maybe the imperials would assume the rope was hidden by the sleeves.
Derisham snorted impatiently. “Back to you, fool,” he turned to Gabe, “my property. The dragon egg. Where is it? Or do you wish to be beaten again?”
“That was beating?” Gabe taunted. If he could anger the imperial officer, that might slow the man’s reflexes enough so Gabe could reach bwyell. “I thought you were congratulating me on my stamina. There’s a man down in Ibrollene who beat me so hard I couldn’t walk for two days. Maybe you should go see him and learn –“
The hilt hit his back again, with a bit more force than before. Was that all the imperial had to offer? Gabe grunted, suppressed the pain and grinned. “That’s right, he’d teach you, I’m sure of it.”
“Stop talking about your heathen friends!” the officer yelled – but the better part of his words were swallowed by an enormous earth-shattering sound from the corridor. Well, wall-shattering, to be precise, as Gabe would learn a few instants later. The corridor’s walls crumbled, by some unseen force, the ceiling caved in, and debris fell on the poor souls who had been standing right outside the entrance. Dust clouds welled up.
Gabe noted only the noise and the dust. He whirled about, his hands rushing around his side, one fist connecting with the officer’s chin, the other drawing bwyell from his belt. Instinctively the officer grabbed for his sword, but Gabe’s hand – now supported by the axe’s handle – slammed into his chin. The jaw jammed up into the skull, the officer groaned, then fell backwards.
Bwyell gleamed, hungry as ever. Gabe obliged his axe, sweeping it at the two other guards who hadn’t drawn their swords yet. They never would.
Gabe knelt by one of them and placidly cleaned the blade on the man’s shirt. “Any other takers?” he asked.
“The… Was that an earthquake?” one of the stunned men asked. Derisham was only staring at the mound of rubble blocking the door.
“No, that was me!” a tiny voice yelled – and Gabe was stunned for an instant, too, when half a yard before him Flink appeared out of thin air, shrugging a red sash with black symbols off. “I told you I was good at collapsing shafts!” he proudly told Gabe.
“You… did,” the barbarian said slowly, staring at the sash. “An invisibility appliance? How long have you had that?!”
The alreu shrugged unconcernedly. “About a year or two, I guess. Well, it might be more, I don’t remember. You know, Gabe, I thought I’d exchanged it for a gold pendant a while back. I was thinking of the pendant this morning, but it wasn’t in my knapsack, so I thought, maybe I still have the sash, and what do you know, there it was, right in my –“
Tiredly Gabe put his hand over the alreu’s mouth and looked at Derisham, weighing bwyell in his hand. “I think I have just taken you hostage, governor. What do you offer in exchange for your life?”
Derisham stared emptily at the blade as if he could not possibly imagine his end being connected with the dwarvenmade axe.
Cornell was winded when he returned, yet a smile was firmly implanted on his lips. No surprise there, since he was seated on Stormwind. The horse had resigned itself to its fate, yet a bit of furtiveness remained as if the stallion hoped that its rider would fall off once more.
“What are you afraid of? I’m not going to eat you,” the Cayaborean was muttering.
That’s precisely what the beast’s afraid of, Barandas thought. What would you think if an emperor dragon was riding on your back? “So, you’ve found your horse.”
“Yes, I have,” Cornell barked. “Have you found a good trail to follow?”
Barandas raised an eyebrow and pointed over his shoulder at the dirt road. “That good enough?”
Scattered at infrequent distances along the road lay the bodies of the imperial guards. Not all of them were in sight, but Barandas was rather certain they would find the remaining corpses along the way. As far as those riders were concerned, the wizard didn’t doubt that Sylasa had emerged from the chase without a scratch.
“Then what are you waiting for?!” Cornell shouted and spurred Stormwind on along the road. The horse spared a brief wicker of complaint for Solania. The mare responded with a snort.
Barandas gently stubbed her neck. “Save that for later, will you?” he reprimanded his horse, then gave her his boots to get the mare moving. “I swear you’re getting more like your namesake by the minute!”
He’d lost his crossbow.
It must have slipped when he fell off the horse. Strange how little that mattered to him. Cornell’s heart still ached, but more like after a lot of exertion. Not the way it had pained before. Somehow he knew that he wouldn’t suffer any clouded vision again. Or keel over unconscious. He had no idea where the knowledge came from, only that it was true.
Melawdis’ spellsong still worked its magic within him. He felt better than he could remember feeling. And that was much needed.
Seven Tonomai bugles had answered the call of the unfortunate patrol. Their signals had been different. Phindar had translated them to mean that other patrols or armies were responding and converging.
It didn’t matter. Cornell knew that he would have to stand against Derisham’s soldiers soon.
What mattered was finding Sylasa. About that Barandas had been right. Her trail was easy to follow. They had ridden past the corpse of the last imperial guard half an hour ago, well off the dirt road she had been following in the beginning. The land wasn’t as lush as it was near the road – with the magical watering system that Phindar suspected -, but there was still a lot of shrubbery. The wheels of the wagon had pressed down and uprooted enough to leave visible tracks.
Cornell hadn’t had to dismount to seek for them, he’d been able to ride on as fast as Stormwind could. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was aware that Barandas was still with him. The wizard was doing his best to match his speed. Unhappiness radiated from him. Cornell didn’t care.
Stormwind was galloping fast. The horse was trying to outrun its own rider, unaware of the impossibility. It didn’t matter.
Another bugle sounded in the distance. An eighth party of Tonomai warriors, come to join the battle.
Derisham had sown the seeds of the fight to come. Cornell would make his men reap the harvest.
After he found the egg.
For the first time in hours his determination faltered. He didn’t let up on Stormwind’s reins, didn’t change his posture, but he suddenly realized that something was as wrong as it had been when Melawdis had affected his mind.
Was she still doing that? Subconscious orders radiating through his mind, making him focus on the damned egg rather than the woman he –
Again he caught himself. Was that more messing with his mind? He didn’t have any feelings for Sylasa, did he? It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself feelings for a woman, and Sylasa was so very much unlike him!
More of the songdwarf’s magic, that was all there was to it. It didn’t matter. For the time being, her secret orders – if there were any – agreed with his. He would have to watch out to keep his priorities straight. First Sylasa, then the egg – no, second came Barandas. Stupid wizard had to tag along, hadn’t he? He should have stayed in Atnas with Gabe and Flink where he would have been safer.
It didn’t matter. His goal was near.
Barandas thought they’d never reach Sylasa. The wagon must have been faster than he had imagined. Did she have some magic with her to ensorcel the horses to run quicker than ordinarily? He wouldn’t put it past Sylasa. That woman had more tricks up her sleeves than a Freeport cardshark. And Barandas had rarely managed to catch up with any of them.
Then they came in a valley that was strangely green with grass. After all the patches of dull shrubbery with brown earth beneath them, the bright grass nearly blinded the wizard. He wanted to shield his eyes, although he could barely sate himself seeing this vision of saner places. There was so little grass in the Tonomai Empire, and this was beautiful.
Barandas commonly only cared about beauty when it came in plenty of curves and an inviting smile. No, strike that. The smile wasn’t necessary.
Yet now he felt almost home. A creek gurgled from the hill, its fresh water ready to drink or to bathe. Three apple trees grew along one bend of the creek, willows lent shades in other places. The water flowed downhill, towards the center and lowest point of the valley. And there, Barandas gasped, stood a temple.
Not one devoted to the Tonomai One God, obviously. There would never have been an obviously female and rather scantily clad statue in front of the diminute building, a statue that practically cried out that this was a temple to Alyssa, the goddess of love, in his homeland.
Barandas never wondered about this oddity. For one thing because he had occasionally paid attention in the history lessons at Mercurham, for another because the temple was clearly a ruin. One wall had collapsed, tearing down half the ceiling, its white sandstone scattered on the ground. Any paint had long since peeled off the surface of the remaining walls, one of which seemed to have been gutted by locals who built their own homes from the ready resources. There were no glass panes left in the windows, only a few wooden shutters, most hanging crookedly from rusty hinges.
The temple had been deserted for more than five centuries, he guessed, about the time the One God had begun to govern the souls in this area (by force of a Tonomai invasion). The lush surroundings were clearly the result of a divine blessing from the time the temple was built. Alyssa enjoyed beauty in every form.
Somehow the temple had survived the Tonomai demolition commandos that had destroyed all the “false gods’” places of worship. He didn’t care much for an explanation – boredom was not one of his indulgences -, the temple was here. And so was Sylasa. The wagon was boxed in behind one of the walls, the front end barely showing. The horses must be tethered inside, while the warrior woman herself was surely watching them.
Only then did Barandas become aware that Cornell continued barreling towards the temple at full gallop. He didn’t seem likely to stop until he reached the place – or until Sylasa launched a crossbow quarrel at him, in case she didn’t recognize him.
Since Barandas had a vested interest in Cornell’s continued survival, he shot a bright flare of magical energy at a low angle over the temple – low enough that it could not be seen outside the valley, but very visible to Sylasa – and started urgently waving his arms. “Sylasa, we’re here to help! Honestly!”
He got a quarrel flying straight through his waving arms, timed (he hoped) to miss them.
Behind one of the windows, a silver-armored figure rose, crossbow held pointed to the sky. Sylasa. She didn’t wave or gave any other sign of welcome. Her shooting at him didn’t exactly raise Barandas’ desire to meet her again.
Meet her he did, though, a few minutes later when he brought Solania to a halt inside what had once been the temple’s entrance hall, barely recognizable by the mostly crumbled interior walls and the remains of an altar.
Cornell had already reached the temple, leaped from his horse right in front of Sylasa. When Barandas caught up with him, the Cayaborean was pointing an accusing finger straight at her. “You stole from the governor.”
The wizard slowly dismounted while Sylasa shrugged. “Would you want Derisham to have the dragon egg?”
“That isn’t the point,” Cornell insisted. “Stealing is wrong.”
“Then you should feel right at home in a den of thieves, Cornell of Cayaboré. Is that a dragon rod in your saddlebag, or are you just happy to see me?”
The Cayaborean threw up his hands in frustration, then turned towards Barandas. Oh, no, you’re not looking for an easier target, are you? the wizard had time to think before Cornell growled, “Did you just waste all your magic with that flare, or do you have enough left for a couple of fireballs?” He pointed over the wizard’s shoulder at the grassland around them. “The apple trees and those bushes over there. Set them on fire when I tell you to.”
Huh? That sounded reasonable, Barandas wondered nervously. When was Cornell planning to start shouting?
“Do you have a particular reason to hate plants?” Sylasa asked casually, sauntering up to the Cayaborean. Barandas couldn’t help but look at the way her hips swayed. She noticed, to his regret.
Cornell shook his head. “They burn well. There hasn’t been any rain in several weeks, so the grass should catch fire quick. Maybe it will sustain itself long enough to get a few Tonomai.”
At that point Barandas drew himself forcibly away from Sylasa’s hips and lifted his index finger. “Excuse me, Cornell, but aren’t we in the middle of your proposed fire?”
“There isn’t any grass growing for at least five yards around the temple,” Cornell answered composedly. “I suppose there used to be pavement. The fire won’t reach us.”
“If you say so,” the wizard responded, rather unconvinced. He drew up one side of his lips as he surveyed the grass. Fine, Cornell was right about that part. Yet Barandas remembered grass fires he’d seen. They burned fast, spread fast, and they got out of control quicker than that. Rule of thumb here: Ride faster. Starting one voluntarily and sticking around to see what happens didn’t exactly seem a wise choice.
“I do say so. Get ready – but only when I tell you to!”
“Don’t worry about that,” Barandas assured him. As if he would start the fire before he could explore other options.
A tingle suddenly ran through him when a cold hand touched his cheek, the metal glove drawing tiny circles on his skin. “Don’t waste your few balls on the Tonomai, wizard,” Sylasa said sweetly. “You have so little, after all.”
His heartbeat had quickened so much that one of his veins must be bursting somewhere. She withdrew her hand, and Barandas instinctively checked whether there was any blood on his cheeks. There had been no pain, yet he wanted to make damn sure he was still intact.
He was. For the moment.
“This is going to be fun,” he muttered. “Not.”