"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 14 <==/ Chapter 15 / ==> Chapter 16
“It’s too quiet,” Gabe said, leaning against the wall, under the venting grate.
Flink was throwing pebbles of debris onto the table, trying to fill a silver bowl. (The bowl had been buried somewhere deep within his knapsack. A royal emblem was on its side – at least Gabe assumed it to be royal. He couldn’t read the wavy letters curled around the symbol at the center, but it was intricate enough to suit a king. It would have been worth quite a lot, if Flink hadn’t drilled holes into the bowl to string wooden pearls through them. Well, the silver would still net some money.) “If you don’t like it, we can take the gags from these folks,” Flink suggested cheerfully when one pebble hit the bowl. “You know, that one over there had a lot to say when we gave him food.” The alreu pointed at a man who sat on the ground, his gag tightened with a rope.
Gabe rolled his eyes. He’d added the rope, pulled it especially tight. That Tonomai had been screaming – instead of eating, as a good hostage ought to have done. “That’s not what I mean, Flink. The people outside have stopped trying to bargain with us.”
“Oh,” Flink crooked his head and looked at the rubble blocking the entrance. “But you don’t want to let anybody go, do you? Why should they bargain?”
Gabe pushed himself from the wall and took a few steps forward, through two of the chairs. “I want them to be occupied, remember? The soldiers ought to be here, trying to break their governor out of this trap. Who knows where they are now? They might be looking for our friends!”
One of the hostages grunted – sounding suspiciously happy. The guard who had been beating Gabe. The barbarian wondered if he shouldn’t have killed the man when he had the chance. No, there hadn’t been any need. After all, a single blow had felled the Tonomai.
Flink shook his head, then folded his arms before his chest and looked pointedly at the debris. “Well, I can’t collapse any more tunnels from in here, can I? You know, Gabe, if you hadn’t made me collapse this one, I could have done a lot more elsewhere.”
The barbarian closed his eyes and counted slowly from one to five. “Yes, Flink,” he said absent-mindedly, “I should have thought of that.”
“Oh, don’t blame yourself, I mean, it didn’t occur to me, either. One can’t always think of everything, but it sure would be nice now, especially if you want some more noise. But I like quiet, actually, at least occasionally, now and then, you know, Gabe?”
He threw another pebble, this time missing the bowl by a foot. Flink shook his head, looked at this hand and berated it for being so unreliable.
While the alreu was prattling to himself, Gabe frowned, looking at Derisham. The governor was staring back at him. One couldn’t call his stare defiant, more indignated at being in this situation.
Unfortunately, the governor’s subordinates didn’t share that indignation too much. For a while they had been trying to dig through the rubble – until Gabe had threatened to kill the hostages one by one. A threat that he never intended to carry out. There was no honor in killing bound men, after all. Nor was there much honor to be gained from fighting someone who was clearly out of shape and inexperienced at weapons. Of course he hadn’t mentioned any of that to the Tonomai negotiator.
By his count, half an hour had passed since the negotiator had spoken to them last. Either he was planning something very surprising, or he was distracted. Perhaps the soldiers and mercenaries had found out where Vairpole was being hidden?
No. In that case, the negotiator would have presented the innkeeper and Rose right away, trying to exchange them against the hostages.
Gabe shook his head. He couldn’t stand not doing anything. And there simply was no way for him to raise any more trouble! The only way out was through the pile of rubble – but if he tried to remove it, the Tonomai would surely converge enough soldiers that he couldn’t get more than a few steps outside. And the damn venting grate was too small for him! Why, only the alreu could safely slip through –
An idea snaked through the barbarian’s head, finally curling up his lips. “Flink,” he said gently, “do you have a firelighter?”
The alreu rolled his eyes. “Naturally! Goodness gracious, Gabe, I’ve got several! Do you need one? Wait, I’ll just look in my knapsack for a really nice one. One with emeralds perhaps? Like the governor’s?” Flink had already stuck his hand into his knapsack, while Gabe noticed Derisham’s eyes widening and his fingers twitching. He’s wondering when his firelighter went missing. Welcome to Alreuville, where nothing stays where you put it.
“Don’t bother,” Gabe growled. “You’re the one who’ll need it. Get your invisibility sash, climb through that venting shaft and find something flammable. Preferably the opposite wing of the palace, understood?”
“But, Gabe, that’s a bad thing!” Flink protested. “I mean, you don’t just set fire to a building! The tunnels would fill with smoke, and you can’t get out, and the ceilings might collapse, and… Oh.” His eyes went big. “That would be a lot of trouble! And this isn’t a kennel, so the people can get out easily and don’t die necessarily from the smoke, like in a good alreu kennel, so that isn’t that bad a thing, right?”
“Right,” Gabe answered, wondering what Flink was babbling about. One of these days he’d have to learn more about alreus, how they lived and – But, honestly, that day was at least a decade away. “Get going.”
“On my way!” Flink yelled, dropped the sash over his head and vanished. Instants later the grating started to shiver.
Gabe shrugged, walked over and said, “Step aside.” He allowed Flink a few moments, then ripped the grating from the wall.
“Thanks, Gabe, this is a lot faster!” the alreu’s voice sounded – first right beside the barbarian, but the last words were already spoken inside the shaft, along with more babbling afterwards that Gabe couldn’t make out. Not that he wanted to.
“Good luck, little friend,” he whispered, then sat down on a free chair, pulled bwyell from his back and started sharpening the axe. The hostages were watching him with less than enthusiasm.
Barandas frantically grabbed for the wall before he fell down from his second story perch. “What the bloody tides –“ he screamed, staring aghast at his Cayaborean friend vaulting over the window sill and running towards the grass fire surrounding the temple.
Silver-armored lightning flashed through the temple, the crossbow dropping to the floor. Sylasa launched herself through the window, straight after Cornell. Too short, Barandas thought, his thoughts slowing down to a crawl as he watched the Cayaborean approach the flames.
Then amazement took him when Sylasa spun around on the ground, her long legs twirling out to neatly slam into Cornell’s stomach – knocking him off his feet and back towards the temple walls. He screamed in a composite of pain and anger.
“Shut up!” Sylasa yelled, using the recoil of her legs to roll onto her feet.
Cornell didn’t listen. He reared up from the ground, heading for the flames.
She jammed her fist against his chin. Barandas could hear the impact across the distance. Yet Cornell only stopped, swayed for a moment then gazed at the fist questioningly – as did Sylasa.
The Cayaborean slapped her aside, as easily as swatting a fly. Sylasa was thrown a yard back, landed on her back – while he resumed his dash for the fire.
“Cornell!” Barandas yelled, imagining his friend roasting in the fire, covered by flames. Somewhere below he heard the shield souls chime in, crying out for their shield bearer to come to his senses. For naught. Cornell kept running across the burned grass, following the receding, rushing line of flame. And no rain anywhere that could –
Rain?! Bloody tides of magic!
He’d been wondering why he’d learned a spell to conjure up water at the college at Mercurham. His mentor Shearward had done it once, eliciting the cheers of several noble ladies. Barandas, on the other hand, after finally having mastered it never got more than jeers – certainly none of the favors he’d been interested in.
Sylasa rushed up and after Cornell, while Barandas smacked his head against his chest, concentrating and trying to remember the right words. He hadn’t cast the spell in a long time – and after the failed responses, he’d sworn to forget everything about it. Damn you, fool! A couple of short words, and you can’t even remember those?
Wrong! he realized with a rush of adrenaline when the words appeared in his mind, the way they had been written in the book he’d sto-, uh, acquired at the college. Don’t mind that! He jumped up, stretched out his hands wide, his eyes quickly scanning for Cornell – and freezing for an instant.
The Cayaborean had just reached the apple trees – or where the trees had been. Now they were shrouded in yellow and orange, their branches shrivelling and breaking under the assault of the flames. And Cornell was leaping forward to hug the nearest tree, along with its deadly shroud.
Barandas closed his eyes, wasted a heartbeat on a prayer to the gods, then spoke the formula of the ancient words. Come on, magic, don’t fail me now! Too bloody bad about the illusion for the woman’s statue; he wouldn’t have enough power left for that. It didn’t matter. Not now.
A tingle ran through his arms, the sign of magic building. Hurry! he urged himself, forced the magical energy to accumulate faster. His reservoir of thaumaturgical power was nearly depleted, but – yes! There was enough left – and he let go.
Something seemed to rip from his soul in that instant, so overwhelming was the spell. Dizziness caught him, and he plunged forward. No. He didn’t fall. Not physically.
Did I do it? The thought sparked through a sea of dark emptiness inside the wizard, his breath fast and hard. He flashed his eyes open and saw – a misty haze. Dammit! He blinked, cleared his vision, just in time to see the arrows heading for him, sped from the bows of the Tonomai soldiers approaching from the western flank.
Instinct made Barandas duck, while his mind was thinking absently that the fire must have spent itself far too quickly on that side.
Next – a bit belatedly – he realized that both Cornell and Sylasa were outside the temple, without either the shield or the crossbow. Which won’t matter if your spell was a dud.
“Bloody tides!” Barandas muttered, then rolled over to grab the rope he’d attached to the wall and clambered down.
Water suddenly drenched Sylasa’s hair and face. She had no time to wonder where it came from – instead she lashed out and slammed both her arms into Cornell’s side. He was howling, not in pain but joy, despite the flames crackling on his skin, burning the clothes.
Then water enveloped him as well, doused the flames – for the moment. Cornell’s head whirled up, his howl changed to disappointment, followed by surprise when Sylasa kicked her boot into his back. He still held on to the husk of an apple tree, but his grip was weakening. She leaped straight up, whirled her right leg about to smash into his left armpit.
It worked. His left arm snapped back, he yanked his head about to face her. His eyes were mad.
Sylasa landed, instantly twisted her upper body back, arms reaching back – and she shot both of her legs up, straight at his chin. Her hands found purchase on the ground, supported the movement, then her boots connected. The impact threw Cornell’s head back, slammed it into the remains of the tree.
She whirled her legs up over her body, pushed her hands off the ground, coming to a perfect landing – immediately shifting to a battle stance. It proved unnecessary as far as Cornell was concerned. The Cayaborean had collapsed before the apple tree, barely conscious, mumbling incoherently.
About time, you stubborn fool! The thought perished quickly in her mind when she noticed the horses rushing down the western hills.
She fell to the ground, hiding behind the smouldering remains of the apple trees. One had split in twine, its drooping branches providing a preliminary shield. Quickly she scanned the approaching riders through the twigs. They were firing their arrows already – longbows, excellent range, the Tonomai had to stand in their stirrups to handle the bows.
But for now they were only shooting at the temple, hadn’t noticed Cornell and her. Good, she thought. A hundred yards further, and she could pick off the first Tonomai with her crossbow. Her hand slid down to the hook in her armor – yet found only the hook, not the weapon.
Hurriedly she whirled her head about, trying to find where the crossbow was. She had been holding it, hadn’t she? So it had to be nearby… Except, memory dawned on her, that she’d dropped it when Cornell had gone mad.
“Damn dwarf,” the Cayaborean muttered, his first comprehensible words in a while.
Sylasa looked at him. For a moment his eyes were clear, seemed to understand what had happened – then agony seized him all of a sudden, the burned skin and flesh demanding their tribute.
The sound carried across the valley, to the Tonomai warriors. Heads turned, then seven riders detached from the main party, to investigate. The rest continued to assail the temple.
Sylasa closed her eyes for a moment while she drew her sword, testing the weight subconsciously. A deep breath. A second. Cornell was screaming in pain. She spun about, brought the handle of her sword down on the Cayaborean’s forehead. “Sorry,” she muttered. “Thick-headed as you are, this shouldn’t be a permanent damage. I hope.”
At least he was silent.
The Tonomai were close enough that they had seen the movement. Two pointed their longbows at them, but only nocked their arrows. Not a good enough target, right? She would have to stay out of sight as long as she could, then try to surprise them.
It was the only strategy she could think of, and “try” was very much the operative word.
Whatever, she willed her doubts aside and readied herself for combat.
“I really like it here, so stop pulling!” the shield sould Nev cried.
“Shut up, you idiot,” Phindar cut him off. “Go on, wizard!”
In other circumstances, Barandas would have relished this suggestion. Unfortunately, he was pulling with all his strength at the shield, yet the buckler would not dislodge from the stone of the temple. “Dammit, you got in there easily, why can’t you just get out?” he snarled. An errant arrow flew by at that instant, underlining the urgency pointedly.
A few moments had passed since he’d come down from the second floor. The Tonomai only had some two or three hundred yards left until the temple – a matter of a minute at best. “Bloody shield!”
“Pull harder!” Phindar shouted.
Suddenly a new voice came from the shield, tender and female, completely unfamiliar to Barandas. “Halla, please, allow him as you permitted the alreu. He will help the shield bearer.”
A fourth soul?! Barandas gasped involuntarily, retained enough presence of mind to keep pulling. (The proximity of the Tonomai and their arrows was helpful in keeping him focused.) But there’ve always been three people in the buckler! And what was that about the alreu?
His thoughts were cut off abruptly when the shield slipped from the wall without a warning – and Barandas keeled over backwards, the sharp edge of the elfwood rushing towards his neck. He had a sudden vision of his head rolling away from his body, then the shield veered off into a safe angle, landing with the inside on his face. The impact hurt, but considering the alternatives, the wizard didn’t mind at all.
“You may use me, wizard,” Halla Valfrey said coldly, “but only to save lives.”
“Fine!” Barandas coughed, sliding his arm into the straps, while he sat up, carefully avoiding the buckler’s edge. “As if I wanted to get myself killed!”
Halla said, “I hardly care about your life, wizard. It is the shield bearer and the woman I am – What are you doing?!” The last sentence was a sharp hiss, the elfwood quivering. Not that Barandas noticed, for he had just twisted his arm around, so the elfwood was on his back.
The wizard grinned. “Saving the life I care about first,” he shouted as he sprinted across the floor of the ruin towards the sanctuary where the wagon and the horses were waiting for him. Specifically Solania, still saddled and ready to take him out of this bloody trap of a temple!
“Smart idea!” Nev yelled happily. “Far away from here, and –“
Phindar interrupted him harshly, screaming at Barandas, “You can’t do that! The deal was to –“
The arrows were coming closer, finding more holes to fit through. Don’t they ever run out of them? There, the sanctuary, and the tethered horses, skitterishly looking at him and –
Two Tonomai soldiers were entering the sanctuary at the same time as Barandas. They had their swords drawn, grinning at their prey thankfully coming straight towards them. No bows, Barandas thought and shifted tactics immediately, along with the goal he was running to. The wagon – he might use it as a high ground to defend. After all, he had that Rhelfinian sword that Gabe had given him, and – Now you’re a warrior? Splendid news!
“Throw me,” Halla growled, “if you have any wits in your head.”
Oh, great time to be so sensitive, lady! You don’t have a body that can be cut open! Barandas was smart enough to obey her orders while he was thinking. The shield slipped from his arm easily, spun towards the surprised Tonomai – and Barandas watched in frozen amazement as the buckler’s edge danced from one throat to the other before flying back towards the wizard.
Afraid that Halla might take the opportunity for vengeance, he simply ducked. The shield flew over him, straight into the nearest wall. “Wizard,” Halla said, “I could have killed you. Use me to save the shield bearer’s life, otherwise your own will be forfeit. I have ways that you cannot dream about.”
“I can dream about a lot of things,” he snarled back. “You want me to help Cornell? Fine! So do I, but that means I have to stay alive as well, all right?”
“Riding into a hail of arrows is a bad idea, or did you think that this shield could have kept every arrow from hitting you?”
Oh. Good point. “Quit yapping, let go of the stone!” Barandas grabbed the buckler’s straps, yanked at them – and the shield obliged him immediately. Halla said something that he ignored, darting his eyes around the sanctuary, through the various holes in the masonry. The Tonomai had reached the temple. They weren’t peppering it with arrows anymore, dismounting quickly, checking for their opponents.
“I have a surprise for you,” he smiled as he ran to the wagon and leaped into its back.
“The horses aren’t hitched to the wagon,” Halla noted sarcastically. “How are you going to drive off?”
A soldier cried a challenge. It sounded like one, anyway. Barandas couldn’t understand a word. Apparently the majority of the Tonomai were careful not to rush into the temple, lest they get ambushed. Right, by a single wizard and a couple of horses.
He stuck his free hand into his robe, searching his pockets for an item he had been carrying for a day or two. A small disk, with no special markings, especially not scratches or anything denoting old age. The levitation appliance that Sylasa had given him (and which he – odd, wasn’t it? – hadn’t had the opportunity to return).
“Wizard,” Halla warned him, “they are entering the temple.”
“I know,” he barked and pushed the appliance against the side of the crate. He waited half a heartbeat, then withdrew his hand. The disk stayed on the wood, held by a magical coating. “Priest,” Barandas snarled towards the buckler, holding its bronze knob to the disk, “feed it magical power! I don’t have any left, and the damn thing requires it.”
Phindar replied slowly, “Why would –“
“Do it!” Barandas hoped that the cleric was doing just that – he had no way of knowing -, and followed up by muttering the words that would get the levitation appliance to work.
Behind him he heard shuffling noises and growling voices, the Tonomai searching the temple, their swords waiting to cut open a wizard’s robe and flesh. This had better work, or I’m going to have a very unpleasant conversation with Decirius’ messenger of death.
The shield moaned. Phindar’s voice. That’s the disk drawing on his strength! He’s doing it!
Not wasting another moment Barandas squeezed his hands under the crate. Its weight seemed to have vanished, so easily could he lift it – up, and up, until its bottom was above the rim of the wagon. “Halla, where are the most Tonomai?”
“To your right, wizard,” she answered in a neutral tone. Was there a note of satisfaction in there? Satisfaction about a good tactic?
You’ll have time to bask in your smartness later! Barandas told himself, dove under the crate, scrambled to keep the wooden box afloat while pushing it off to the right. “Hey, you Tonomai sons of bitches, over here!” he yelled, then slammed the shield into the wood. “Phindar, translate!”
He didn’t know if that would do any good, and he didn’t care. The crate was hovering at a good height, he was in the right position, tightening his muscles to give the box a good shove – then the priest started shouting words in the Tonomai language, presumably the translation (although he seemed to be adding a few choice words of his own.)
His shouts elicited angry hollering in response – coming indeed mostly from Barandas’ right -, as well as sudden, fast footsteps heading his way. He breathed deep, waited a heartbeat, tried to measure how close the Tonomai yelling was – then he threw himself at the crate as hard as he could.
The crate flew from his fingers. He had to fight to keep his balance, for a precious moment only, waving his hands about. The Tonomai shouts turned from anger to surprise. Barandas jumped onto the seat of the wagon, checked where his horse was – Solania was watching the events excitedly, her ears pricked up all the way -, and Barandas leaped from the wagon to the saddle.
A good jump, for a change. What miracles adrenaline can do for a man, eh? He grabbed the reins with his right hand, tapped his boot into the mare’s flank, making her skitter sideways so the tether was to his left. He bent forward, sliced the tether with the elfwood shield and slammed his feet into Solania with all his strength.
The mare jumped forward, twisted her body around to avoid a wall and headed for the nearest opening. “Good horsey,” Barandas whispered, clinging to her neck, urging her into a gallop.
A Tonomai soldier appeared in the doorway. He had no more than a heartbeat to realize that a horse was speeding towards him, then Solania’s legs smashed him to the ground, her hoofs trampling over his cuirass.
And behind them… Barandas heard the noise of the impact when the crate crashed into the soldiers, the pained screams. That should keep them occupied for a bit. Solania rushed outside of the temple. Where are the other buggers? There must have been more Tonomai than those that had a close encounter with the crate. Right, there. Several were arrayed around the temple, swords rather than their bows at the ready. “Halla, I throw you, and you –“
“No,” the shield maiden replied curtly.
“Bloody tides, I’m going to help Cornell, you can –“
Phindar’s amazed and shocked voice cut him off. “Sweet gods!”
“Look behind you, wizard,” Halla added, her voice slightly trembling.
Trembling? That woman isn’t afraid of anything! At that moment Barandas noticed that none of the soldiers was running towards him to attack him. They were mesmerized by something that happened in the temple, exactly where the crate must have been.
Fear started rising in his chest. Barandas pulled Solania’s reins, ignored her protest, and turned his head.
The crate had smashed into several Tonomai and then a wall, demolishing it. The remains of the second floor – where Barandas had been sitting a few minutes ago – had crumbled to the ground, the debris breaking the crate open. And more than that.
His jaw fell down when he saw that the dragon egg inside had split open. At first he thought that his precious prize had been destroyed. Next he wished that were true.
Red scales wreathed out of the egg shell, still slimy, a massive, sinuous body curving around the stone, and a head reared up, flames dancing on its nostrils. The head was large, three times as long as it was wide, the orange snout half open, moist whiskers drooping over it.
“The dragon has hatched,” Halla announced.
“Bloody tides!” Barandas had never had much interest in studying dragon anatomy, especially not from the inside. He’d seen more than enough. In particular he now knew that a freshly hatched snake dragon was hungry and already knew how to kill. The body of a Tonomai soldier was in its snout, the heavy jaws crushing its bones.
Barandas put his spurs to Solania and drove the horse back into a gallop, away from the temple and the dragon.