"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 13 <==/ Chapter 14 / ==> Chapter 15
“Nice fortress you’ve got here,” Cornell said, resting his elbows on the debris of a fallen in wall of the temple. His eyes scanned the hills around the valley for any sign of approaching Tonomai.
“Thanks,” Sylasa answered. She was seated on the remains of a pillar, a crossbow in her lap. It wasn’t an ordinary crossbow, but had a strange attachment on top, right where the quarrel was laid in and pulled back. You couldn’t do that with this crossbow; instead you filled the quarrels into the rectangular attachment. In some magical manner the attachment would automatically load and wind a new bolt when the previous was fired. He would have called that ingenious if he didn’t know similar weapons from home. “I wanted to add a moat, but the workmen have balked,” she added with a sly grin.
Cornell couldn’t help but join. “You just can’t get reliable work anymore, can you?”
“Well, they built a good watchtower, so I shouldn’t fault them for that. Expensive though they are.” She lifted her crossbow, sighted along it, then pulled the trigger once. A metallic click sounded from the weapon, a heartbeat later the top of a quarrel appeared in sight. Sylasa nodded to herself, attached the crossbow to a hook on her armor’s side. Cornell would have sworn it hadn’t been there before. She got up and looked up the remains of one of the walls that still reached up to what had been the second story. “Anything, wizard?”
Barandas was perched on a piece of floor sticking out from the wall, high enough that he could peer over the crest. One leg was dangling down, the other securely on the piece that still had a mosaic embedded. A slight breeze tugged at his robe, billowing it up here and there. “Nothing. You’ve still got time to complain about your imaginary workers. Madam Castle Owner.”
Cornell threw a pebble of debris at the wizard. “When you get down here, we’ll have a talk about your manners!”
“That should be interesting,” Barandas fired the pebble back. “Lessons in etiquette from Mr. Do what I say or else.”
“I ought to come up there and give you a very fast ride to the bottom!”
“Exactly,” the wizard shrugged. “A ruffian like you wouldn’t last ten minutes in good hihg-born company.”
Cornell didn’t answer, and Barandas grinned as if he had scored a point. In a way, he had – but the joke was on him. As if Barandas knew much about nobility! How far would his jaw drop if he ever discovered that Cornell was an aristocrat? An interesting question. It might almost be worth testing it.
One of the horses neighed. Cornell shrugged and checked quickly that they were secure in what had once been the inner sanctum of the temple. Curious that this was the only part of the building completely untouched by any vandals stealing building resources. Apart from the female statue outside, that was. He’d noticed a second pedestal right next to it, one that presumably had borne an equally obvious male counterpart. The Tonomai hadn’t had a problem tearing that one down.
Suddenly Sylasa was next to him. He felt his heartbeat quicken involuntarily. “They’re afraid of women,” she scoffed in a light voice.
“Not what I heard,” Cornell said and remembered the stories about Tonomai and their many wifes. He hadn’t corroborated any of those stories during his stay in the Empire, but hadn’t looked for any proof, either.
Sylasa chuckled. “That’s not what I mean. They fear that the beauty of women distracts them from their holy cause. Curious in a religion that worships a female as harbinger of their faith.”
From the shield, a male voice cleared its throat (or whatever passed for it with a disembodied soul), then Phindar said, “Religions often aren’t as clean as we would like them to be.”
“Really,” Cornell said drily. “Aren’t you supposed to be a priest?”
Sylasa cocked an eyebrow and gazed at the shield strangely.
Unperturbed, Phindar answered, “I am, I believe in the gods, but that is beside the point. Religions as we know them are made by men. Deities rarely bother to get the facts straight as long as they are worshipped properly.” Sylasa smiled wrily. Odd, Cornell thought. Was she blushing a tiny bit? “As far as the Tonomai are concerned, there are several base religions that have merged into today’s faith. Their holy book, the beiqua, has been re-written many times, to adjust to the existant beliefs of conquered peoples. See, the empire is ruled by a woman, and all clerics are female. That is the heritage of the Rivervalley faith, the first that the One God challenged and replaced. The biggest conquest was the land of Acheen, a few years later. There women were usually locked away and had no place in the world, aside from cooking and rearing children. Acheen’s heritage formed many of the traditions of the current Tonomai.”
“That is not belief, that is a people’s tradition,” Sylasa interjected.
“True,” Phindar said. “Yet it was based on the belief in Acheen’s old gods. It was deeply rooted, so much so that the Acheen would never have accepted the Tonomai faith if it changed their view of women completely. The One God himself has never contradicted this, so I suppose he is satisfied with the conditions. And the rewriting of his holy book.”
“What kind of priest are you?” Sylasa suddenly changed course.
Phindar was clearly set for a lengthy discussion of the Tonomai faith. (Cornell had suffered from enough to know the set-up.) Now he had to pause, then said, “I am beholden to Decalleigh, the God of Healing.”
The warrior woman made a noise in her throat. “You should have taken up with Darawk. As enamored as you are of dusty old facts.”
“I take that as a compliment,” Phindar replied, earning a soft smile from Sylasa. “Yet I never felt a calling to the God of Knowledge.”
“A pity. He doesn’t usually overlook people like you.”
The chit-chat had gone on long enough, Cornell now decided. “As interesting as your discussion may be,” he said drily, “it doesn’t concern us now. We ought to focus on defending this place.”
“Quite the opposite,” Sylasa broke into a smile. “The priest has given us a tool I hadn’t thought about. Why didn’t any Tonomai settle here? The magic surrounding the temple has made the valley lush and fertile. Tearing down the temple probably wouldn’t destroy that.”
“So?” Cornell rolled his eyes. Why was she starting down that road now? Wasn’t it bad enough that Phindar would come up with sophisticated comments like that?
Sylasa tapped on the shield. “You, priest. Explain.”
“Why, gladly, my lady,” the priest-merchant said. “Tonomai are wary of magic. Whatever isn’t created by their priestesses is likely to be the work of demons. That, by the way, is how they perceive our gods, mere demons who pretend to the status of deities. Now this temple it combines both the demons and feminity, in a very obvious form. Throw in magic, and you have one of the most evil places the Tonomai can imagine. To even set foot in here would be a feat of daring.”
From his perch above them, Barandas commented sarcastically, “They didn’t have a problem dismantling part of the temple.”
Cornell was surprised that the wizard was listening. Wasn’t he usually the first to turn away from any discussion that didn’t involve his favorite topics? Oh. Right, magic. That did explain a bit.
Phindar chuckled. “I suppose those weren’t the most faithful of Tonomai. This area once worshipped the same gods as we did. After being conquered by the followers of the One God, I wouldn’t be surprised if there still was secret worship at the temple for a while. Later generations abandanoned that, yet they didn’t really think of this place as completely evil.”
“If some of those are around,” Cornell muttered, “all your fine talking won’t do us any good. They won’t have any problem coming here.”
“I think they will have,” Phindar answered quickly. “Consider how deserted the area around here is. It could be that the locals stay as far away from here as possible, that their current faith has over the centuries eradicated all the memories of their former, uh, heathendom.”
Sylasa snorted in disgust. “Who are the heathens here?” she muttered under her breath, then said loudly, “It means they won’t enjoy fighting here. You, wizard! Can you limn the statue with colored lights?”
On his perch Barandas shrugged. “I can, but that might cut me down one fireball.”
“Will you still have enough to start the fire?” Cornell asked sourly.
“Probably,” the wizard shrugged again. “I can come up with something nice and frightening for the folks who can’t appreciate the good things in life.”
Cornell had a vision of something very lurid that was going to happen. He wondered how offended Sylasa might be by whatever the wizard cooked up, and whether he would have to restrain her from killing Barandas. Only hurting him, why, that might not be such a bad idea. The wizard could use a reminder that the world wasn’t made to order for him alone.
“Keep the fireballs ready, use the illusion after the fire. Understood?” the Cayaborean barked.
“No problem.” Barandas leaned back to peer outside, a wide grin implanted on his lips. Oh, yes, that would be an interesting show. Cornell doubted that Barandas would limit himself to only limning the female statue. What do you know? He might be turning into an actual wizard who can do things. He shook the thought of, then touched Sylasa lightly on her arm. “You’ve picked a pretty darn good place for this. Accident?”
She smiled, raised her hand and intertwirled her fingers with his. “Of course not. I like to be prepared. My brother is rather good at finding out things, even in places where Darawk should not be.”
He frowned. “Your brother is a Darawk priest?”
Sylasa giggled. “He’s certainly part of the clergy,” she answered.
So there’s more to your brother than just being a priest, Cornell concluded. What is he? A bishop?
He didn’t have more time to ponder about her brother and any possible implications when Barandas threw a pebble straight at his head. “Hey, lovebirds, they’re coming!”
We’ll have a long talk about the “lovebirds” remark, the Cayaborean resolved while he looked out to see the first of the Tonomai soldiers crest the hills. Later.
Gabe’s hostages were securely bound to the chairs. Flink had tied the knots – wearing his invisibility sash again -, but the barbarian had checked each to see if they were all right. Naturally Flink had never used the same kind of knot twice. Gabe suspected that the intricacy of each knot signified a ranking system, especially since those around the governor’s hands and feet were as big as a normal man’s fist and about as convoluted as one could imagine.
“Where are you, Flink?” the barbarian growled.
“Over here,” the alreu’s voice responded from the pile of rubble in the entrance. There was a tiny slit left at the very top, beneath the bent frame of the door. “Excuse me, nice people outside, could we have some food? And coffee? I’m starving!”
Gabe shook his head. The alreu hadn’t quite understood the situation. To him this was some sort of extravagant inn with room service. He’d been going on about the lack of provisions for a while now. At least, he shrugged, the Tonomai didn’t complain. The gags in their mouths probably helped.
The air was still fresh, after the hours that they had spent cooped up in their involuntary prison. There was a venting grate in the wall. It might pose a problem, of course, if the Tonomai ever remembered it. Not a big problem, though. He’d checked the size of the venting shaft. A man of ordinary size might be able to squeeze through it, but exiting from the vent and launching a surprise attack would be difficult.
Unless the rubble was removed suddenly from the doorway, Gabe could simply stand by the venting grate and cut down anybody stupid enough to try this route.
It was still worth to keep an eye on.
A voice came from outside, laced with a Tonomai accent, “Release the prisoners and you will have all the food you want.”
Gabe chuckled. Typical. The men outside only heard Flink jabber on about starving, and they’re thinking the hostage takers are on the verge of collapse.
The alreu dropped the sash and carefully folded it into his knapsack, while looking pleadingly at Gabe. “Haven’t we caused enough trouble? I mean, the tunnel is collapsed, there’s the governor. Can we eat now?”
“Oh, Gabe,” Flink groaned. “I really am hungry. I haven’t eaten any more than that dried meat when we broke camp last night. Oh, my, would I like some of the pastries at the tavern now. And coffee!”
Gabe slammed bwyell against the venting grate. The noise echoed through the shaft clearly, not muffled by anyone sneaking through it. “Don’t you have something in your backpack?”
“You haven’t looked, have you?”
“Well…” Flink drew the word out and rolled his eyes. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t.”
Gabe pointed at the knapsack. “Then do it now. Who knows what you might find?”
Eagerness returning to the alreu, he pulled the knapsack from his back, opened the flap then cast a happy glance at the barbarian. “Well, I surely don’t know! This will be fun!”
A short while later Flink was happily munching on cupcakes from The Crimson Talon that had mysteriously found their way into his knapsack, along with several other delicacies from the kitchen. He’d also found several amphora with wine from Ibrollene. An excellent vintage and rather old. How long had the amphora been in the alreu’s knapsack? A couple of years, he supposed. Not that it was important. With the food that Flink had discovered, they could last for days in here.
The governor was also eating, a piece of double-baked bread. One hand had been untied, the gag removed, and he was under Gabe’s constant attention. When he was done, he’d be bound again, and Gabe would give the next hostage a chance to eat and drink.
“Are you ready to give up?” the voice from outside shouted. “We have lunch ready for you!”
Flink quickly clambered to the top of the pile of rubble. “Why, thank you! Can you keep it warm for later? I haven’t even searched the lower part of my knapsack yet, and I might have a side of beef in there someplace. You know, one of those that are magically kept fresh? And cooked, I might add. It’s very good, as I remember. Or have I already eaten that? Gabe, do you recall?”
The barbarian shook his head and grinned at Derisham. The governor did not seem very happy. He’d stopped chewing, looked from the alreu to the barbarian. “Not a word, please,” Gabe warned him to keep silent.
Derisham lowered his head and bit into his bread.
Gabe had all the time in the world. With the governor in here, he didn’t doubt for a second that all the soldiers remaining in town were now concerned only with Derisham’s fate. Exactly what he’d wanted. Now Cornell could do his part.
A hail of arrows was flying towards the Alyssa temple, the first messengers of the arriving Tonomai soldiers. A party of seven had come over the hill first, on the western part of the valley. Twenty more appeared heartbeats later in a ravine cutting through the northern flank. They had their bows drawn, feet firmly pressed into their stirrups so they could fire their arrows quickly.
“Halla, get ready,” Cornell muttered to the buckler on his arm. He was crouching behind one of the empty windows of the temple, his head raised just enough over the rim that he could see the Tonomai coming from the north. The arrows were flying over his skull, some coming close enough to stir his hair. None came closer, fortunately.
“As always, shield bearer,” the shield soul answered calmly. “I have targeted the first three riders. Wait until they have reached the plain, on the height of the creek’s bend, then throw me.”
“Got it,” Cornell nodded and cast a quick glance around. Sylasa was behind a pillar, sighting her crossbow along a stretched out arm at the first party of Tonomai. Her face was still as she waited for the soldiers to come into range. On the remainder of the second floor, Barandas was doing his best not to show any part of him to the enemy – but his hands were clawed, ready to form and launch a fireball. “Barandas!” Cornell shouted. “Don’t you dare fire your load before I tell you to!”
“Yeah,” the wizard groaned, not moving an inch, “that’s what my ex-wife used to tell me.”
Ex-wife? Cornell couldn’t help it, his head shot up at that remark – and an arrow flashed right before his nose, ripping a piece of skin off. The Cayaborean dropped back instantly, rubbed his nose.
Sylasa chuckled heartily. “You’d better watch out, or I won’t be able to find out if you can hold back any better than the wizard.”
Now what does she mean – Cornell didn’t have any time to finish that sentence for Halla growled, “Now, shield bearer!”, and he reacted instinctively, whirling himself up, swinging his arm already – a heartbeat later the buckler slipped from his arm, spinning wildly across the grassy plain. Its elfwood gleamed darkly, a twisting shadow, topped by the bronze knob.
The Tonomai noticed the shield, some paused in firing their arrows, staring at the object flying towards them. Others realized that Cornell was a rather tempting target and ignored the shield. They fired their arrows, the projectiles rushing past the spinning shield.
Cornell ducked, in time for the metal tips to impact on crumbling stone rather than his flesh.
There were screams from outside, some in pain, some in outrage. “Good aim,” Sylasa commented drily. He spared her only a fast glance, to see that she was starting to loose her quarrels from the crossbow, her arm shifting around minutely to acquire new targets.
Then Cornell held his arm over the window sill, hoping that the Tonomai would be too busy with the onslaught of crossbow quarrels – and an elfwood shield cutting through them. Then the time for hope was over when the buckler slid onto his arm and tore the limb back by its force. Cornell spun with the buckler, rolled on the floor, muttered, “Another flight?”
“Go!” Halla screamed – and the Cayaborean leapt from the ground again, still whirling about himself, barely noticing when the right moment came to let go. The buckler helped.
Again the elfwood spun free. All in all, less than a minute had passed since he’d first thrown it. Two Tonomai had fallen from their horses, their cuirasses sliced open. Another had stopped his gallop, held his bleeding arm. The remaining seventeen were still rushing towards the temple. (Subconsciously he noted that Sylasa’s crossbow had decimated the other group of soldiers.)
But Cornell was checking to see how close they were to the grove of apple trees. A few steps more of the lead horses to the trees. Without thinking he stretched out his arm when he saw a dark, round shadow head his way. A voice was yelling in meantongue, complaining about all the motion. Nev, the accountant in the buckler, Cornell knew – then caught the shield, dropped to the ground and shouted up to Barandas, “Fireballs, now!”
“Coming right up,” the wizard replied, not one bit as certain as his words sounded. Instead, Cornell noted angrily, Barandas carefully peered over the mortar and brick before him, to see if any arrows were looking for him. The Tonomai hadn’t noticed him yet. Almost a pity, Cornell thought, then growled, “Fire!”
Barandas didn’t answer. He shook himself, then plunged his arms up over the wall – and two glistening balls of flame streamed away from his hands, towards the grove of apple trees.
“Shield bearer,” Halla said from the shield, as unperturbed as if they were bartering for the price of a saddle, “throw me again. The fire will not harm me.”
A gurgling sound followed right after, much as if somebody’s mouth was shut by a quick hand. Nev, again, Cornell assumed. “Of course,” he grinned, and started swinging his arm again.
This time, though, when the shield flew away, he watched its flight. And the flames erupting where the apples had stood, flaking off to the ground, lighting the grass, and sending ripples of smoke and fire out into the peaceful valley.
The Tonomai halted their assault, fired a few arrows at the temple – Cornell ducked hurriedly behind cover – but their eyes turned towards the fire. It was burning fast, spreading quickly, incinerating the first bushes.
One soldier keeled back from his horse, a crossbow quarrel in his throat.
Another was silenced by the sharp edge of the elfwood buckler, which deflected off the falling body towards its next target, guided in its flight by Halla Valfrey.
The survivors realized that staying around in the vicinity of the grass fire, the quarrels and the shield was not healthy. They turned and galloped away from the flames as fast as they could.
On his perch on the second floor Barandas whooped. “Yeah, get going, you fools! And don’t come back!”
“Shut up,” Sylasa hissed. “They will be back when the fire dies down.”
Barandas snorted. “I know! Allow me a tiny moment of joy, all right?”
Sylasa didn’t answer. She loosened another bolt at the fleeing Tonomai, the quarrel barely missing one of the riders.
At least Cornell thought she did that. There seemed to be a haze between him and her, wavering around the buildings. Everywhere except for the fire. The flames dancing and crackling, consuming the grass, running, spreading, leaping. So beautiful. So peaceful. His heart jolted into a quicker pace, watching the conflagration. Warmth and pleasure surrounded the temple, the cold stone.
The buckler came back. Halla shouted his name, targeting where his arm would be if he raised it.
His arm stayed down.
The shield spun past him, barely drifting aside to avoid harming him – then the elfwood slammed into the mortar of the nearest pillar, embedding itself a full foot’s length.
“Cornell, what in the gods’ names are you doing?” Barandas yelled. “We need that shield! Can’t you hear that bloody bugle?”
Fire. The flames of home. So inviting.
“They’re gathering behind the western hills,” Sylasa said, miles away from Cornell.
Much closer, so invigoratingly close, were the flames. What was he doing here in the temple, away from the fire? He had to go there! He had to feel the caress of their sweet warmth!
Cornell jumped over the window sill and ran towards the fire, to bask in its flaming embrace.
Read on in Chapter Fifteen!