"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
Something shrill yet melodious woke Cornell from his sleep. Automatically his hand reached for his sword, secure by his side. The handle felt cold under his grip, a reliable cold. Next he sat up and looked around.
He was still in the lush suite at the governor’s residence. Memories flooded him, of the past afternoon, how Governor Derisham had invited him to stay, the incident with the songdwarf. The supposedly mad songdwarf.
“Halla?” he muttered.
“Over here, shield bearer, by the side of the bed.”
Shaking the cobwebs of sleep from his head, Cornell swung his legs out, gave himself a good spin so he landed on his feet, snatching the buckler up and sliding it onto his arm in the same movement, standing a heartbeat later fully armed in the dim twilight of his quarters, facing the door. He was fully clothed, had chosen to put his travel clothes back on for the night.
Only when he was ready for any kind of attack, did he pause to listen to the noise that had woken him. It came from outside the door, increasing and decreasing in volume every few moments, as if it were moving up and down the corridor.
“It’s the acharadh,” Phindar’s voice exclaimed from the shield.
He was right, Cornell realized. The acharadh woman, and she was singing. Singing so loud he didn’t have to strain his ears to understand the words.
have bared their blades,
search for yer hide in the shades -
do ye dare?
ye in wrath roar,
yer talons unsheath’d,
ye on yer wings soar,
yer maw with fangs teeth’d,
ye ready for the battle, for the war?
Dragon Crimson, beware!
yer foes are near,
for their cries ye hear,
“For ye, the beasts’ king!”
Nev, the accountant’s soul in the shield, grumbled, “Wish she’d shut up. Say, haven’t I heard some of that before?”
“Ridiculous,” Phindar replied. “It’s a ditty the acharadh has made up. Some of those rhymes are awful.”
Outside, her song picked up from the start, undulating with more urgency, scratching at Cornell’s nerves. But not enough that he hadn’t paid attention to the words. “The Dragon Crimson,” he whispered.
“Shield bearer?” Halla asked quietly.
Cornell looked down at the shield in surprise as if he had forgotten about it. “What?” he muttered, and before he could say any more, Nev’s baffled voice cried out, “By the gods of home, you’re right! That’s the king, the Dragon Crimson. And the rest, it’s… it’s –“
“Taken from the Dragonrider Corps’ anthem,” Cornell growled. Some of the lines, anyway – “Dragon, do ye dare?”, it was a line he had heard his father sing often, with fervor and little attention to the tune. “Are you ready for the battle, for the war?” That was the correct line from the anthem, always sung at each gathering, always before going into combat.
Much of the rest was unknown to him – probably as Phindar had said, the songdwarf had made it up on her own, quickly by the uneven sound of it.
Could this be a coincidence? Could the words have just suited her song, maybe some she had heard before, without knowing what they meant?
A sense of urgency flowed through him, making his heart pound, fire rushing through his veins. As if he was about to go into battle. As if there was danger waiting for him outside the door, danger that he would be fighting.
The song subsided.
“Is that window open back there?” Nev asked from the shield. “Maybe the shield bearer could throw us out to –“
“I’m going out there,” Cornell interrupted him and started for the door.
“No way!” Nev cried, but the accountant’s words made no difference. Cornell had to find out what was going on. At the very least – if there was no danger, if this was all some mad coincidence – it would appear strange that he stayed in his room during this cacophony which must have roused every one in this wing. There must be dozens of people out there already, complaining about the dwarf.
He opened the door, muscles tense behind the shield, ready to throw the buckler towards any danger, safe in the knowledge that the elfwood would block it.
No danger awaited him as he stepped into the corridor. Torches blazed in niches five feet apart from each other, dousing the corridor in bright albeit flickering light. Only the songdwarf was in the corridor, an eyebrow raised in her gray face as she watched the Cayaborean exit and take stock of the situation. There was no trace of the fever in her face, at best a few drops of sweat collected on her brow.
“You were right, Halla,” Cornell conceded under his breath. He raised his chin, looking straight at the acharadh – but didn’t lower his guard. There was still that sense of alarm flowing through him, warning him not to trust anyone, urging him to stay ready. “You wanted to speak to me?” he asked the songdwarf.
The female nodded calmly.
Behind her Cornell noticed three men in the garb of imperial guards, lying unconscious on the floor. Curved swords were in front of their outstretched hands, dropped when they fell to the ground.
Cornell pursed his lips. “Magic,” he said in a low voice, then asked the acharadh, “Was that the purpose of your song? It was a magical spell?”
The acharadh smiled. It seemed as if a gray sea was moving, not the rocky expanse one expected from ordinary dwarves. “All true music is magic, Cayaborean. In the beginning, there was only the true song. What you know today as music is but a paltry shadow of the original form.”
“If that ‘original form’ is anything like your wailing before,” Nev grumbled from the shield, “I’ll take the non-magical every day, thank you.”
The acharadh ignored the voice from the shield, apparently fully aware of the souls trapped in the buckler. “I am Melawdis, daughter of Ri’tham, and you are in danger, dragonrider.”
“By whom? Derisham?” Cornell asked matter-of-factly.
Melawdis cast a glance at the three guards behind her. “Obviously. I will lead you out of the Residence, then you are on your own. Leave Atnas as quickly as you can and do not return.” She didn’t wait for any answer from Cornell. Instead she turned around and started walking briskly past the bodies of the guards.
Cornell was very willing to ignore any answers, pushed by the sense of dread around him – but Halla was not as troubled. “Begging your pardon, Madam Songdwarf – stop, shield bearer, please – but why would you be helping us?”
The acharadh stopped, looked straight at the buckler, then raised her eyes towards Cornell’s face. The Cayaborean felt strangely torn. A small voice in the back of his mind told him that Halla had raised a valid concern, that he didn’t know the motivations of the songdwarf. On the other hand, he knew that he had to leave. Melawdis must be right, there was danger, and he had to escape it.
Now wait a minute! I do not run from danger! “Your spell affected me!” he shouted at the songdwarf.
Melawdis smiled affectionately. “You noticed? What a pleasant surprise. I have underestimated you, Lord Dragon Rider.”
“Which leaves Halla’s question unanswered,” Cornell said harshly.
The acharadh shrugged. “I help you because you are an innocent in danger,” she suggested, grinning broadly.
An answer wasn’t necessary, Cornell felt and made a sour face.
“Very well,” Melawdis nodded. “The reason is that I want you out of the way. Derisham is focused on you, and that makes him unpredictable. Is that good enough?”
What are your plans, songdwarf? Cornell wondered, fighting down the urge to start running past her, out of the Residence, out of Atnas. “It will have to do. Unless you want to countermand, Halla.”
A smile from the acharadh showed that she understood the meaning of the last words. Cornell didn’t trust his reasoning – and since Halla appeared unaffected, he’d rather rely on her judgment. Despite her recent odd behavior, she was still a warrior through and through, and she had a good head on her shoulders. Figuratively speaking, of course.
“You won’t reveal your intents for Derisham, I suppose,” Halla said, waited for a reaction from the acharadh. When none came – except for a slight widening of her smile -, she told Cornell, “It is as much as we can get, shield bearer. I will watch for any trouble, in case she wishes to betray us.”
“Good,” Cornell nodded and tightened the grip around his sword. “You heard her, Melawdis. Try something, and you will find out how sharp a blade can be.”
“And don’t sing!” Nev wailed from the shield. Neither Cornell nor Halla told him to shut up. Even though the accountant’s reasons were wrong, the intent was right. The acharadh’s songs were magical spells. Cornell decided that the moment she would raise her voice in song, he would cut her down.
Now was that her own spell that made him think this, or was it his natural decision?
He didn’t care. “Lead on, songdwarf.”
“I think,” Barandas said carefully, “we should just go back to the tavern and wait for Cornell there. Don’t you agree?”
“You stay, wizard,” Gabe growled, the voice issuing from deep in his throat, as he raised bwyell a few meaningful inches. The pesky spell-caster had tried the barbarian’s patience far too much already, and he wasn’t about to let the sniveling coward get away this easily.
“Oh, really? Have you taken a good look at that fortress up there? What do you want to do? Storm in there and get us all killed?”
Gabe didn’t bother to look at the wizard. Instead his gaze turned towards the place ahead of them, which Barandas had called a fortress. An apt description, that much Gabe agreed with. The Governor’s Residence might have looked like a peaceful and luxurious place before (not that he had seen it), but now there were guards all around it, walking up and down with swords drawn. Torches blazed inside, lit all the windows, incidentally showing the archers on both the ramparts halfway up the building and on top.
“But, Master Wizard,” Flink asked, “can’t your magic help us inside? You know, the sir is in there, and he may be in trouble. We’ve got to help him, and I really think that you should help us.”
Gabe chuckled. “He will help us, Flink, rely on that.”
“And why would I?”
Uppity little bastard, Gabe thought. I should just cut you down right now and save Cornell all the hassle of telling me to. “Because,” he said sweetly, “you have either the choice of dying at the hands of the Tonomai, or bwyell’s.”
“Uh-huh,” the wizard muttered.
Flink piped up, “Why would bwyell want to hurt Master Wizard, Gabe?”
“Shut up,” Barandas groaned. “All right, you bloody savage, if you put it that way, I’ll help.” ‘If I can’t let you get killed first and then run away,’ Gabe finished the wizard’s sentence in his mind. He’d gotten to know Barandas rather well in the past few weeks, unfortunately, and he knew he would have to watch the wizard closely.
Ah, well, that was part of the joy of fighting, wasn’t it? After all, would Cornell complain if Gabe told him that the wizard had tried to run away and there had only been one way to stop him? “What if he had been caught by the Tonomai and tortured?” Gabe might ask the Cayaborean, to follow up right away with the assertion, “I was merciful. A quick slash of bwyell, that was all he felt. He did not suffer as he would have in the Tonomai torturer’s paws.”
“Gabe?” Flink said carefully.
“Shut up!” Barandas snarled. “So, savage, do you have a plan? There’s got to be some kind of back entrance.”
Gabe smiled. At least the wizard was showing a bit of fighting spirit here. (Not that he expected it to last very long once actual combat started.) “You have that blinding light spell, don’t you?”
“Gabe!” Flink insisted, only to be ignored by the others.
Barandas said, “If you mean the one I used at the warehouse, yes, I can try it again. But it won’t work as well here. Back there, it was in a confined space where it affected all the Tonomai. Those archers up there will only be blinded for a moment, and before we can run over to the entrance, they’ll be ready to shoot at us again.”
In other words, it’s useless. Gabe grimaced, then said, “I’ll have to take care of the archers somehow. Flink, you’ve got my bow in your knapsack. Give it to me.”
“A bow?” Barandas exclaimed. “What bloody good will that do? What do you think you are? An elf or something?”
Gabe frowned suddenly. Flink hadn’t answered. Now what was wrong with his little friend? He always chattered on, and now he didn’t reply when he was asked.
At first Gabe was happy when he heard the alreu’s voice an instant later. Then he realized what Flink was saying, “Hello there! Say, are you imperial warriors? Goodness gracious, you really look like fighters every army would be happy to have. Gabe, don’t you agree? They really look like warriors.”
Gabe had been in the process of looking back towards the alreu. Now his head suddenly froze – incidentally looking straight at Barandas. The wizard’s face had grown slack suddenly, also understanding the words. “Your axe?” Barandas muttered.
“Your fireballs?” Gabe responded tersely.
Then both men nodded at the same time – and whirled around. Gabe leaped forward, one hand swinging his axe, the other brutally slamming Flink to the ground. A patrol of six Tonomai was in the alley behind them, drawing their swords and ready for the fight. The barbarian yelled his booming war cry, “For honor and glory!”, just as the heat of a fireball whisked past him, incinerating one of the Tonomai.
The next moment bwyell bit into a Tonomai chest, while Gabe’s boot shot up and pushed another Tonomai back, never caring that the sword sliced open his pants and took a nip from his skin.
“Ryelneyd!” Gabe shouted, pulled bwyell from the cleaved flesh and assaulted the next warrior.
A second fireball rushed by him, but the barbarian hardly noticed. Combat had begun!
Cornell was sure that his friends were back at the tavern, sitting around the open fireplace and drinking ale, chatting and laughing. No doubt about that at all. They were having a fine time – while he was stuck in a tiny shaft cutting through the Governor’s Residence, hot air all but suffocating him, while dragging the buckler behind him and having to look at the songdwarf’s behind, moving all too quickly through this fornicating shaft.
“Hurry up!” Melawdis whispered. “We don’t have all the time in the world.”
The Cayaborean growled as his only response. Didn’t she realize that he was much bigger than her? He nearly didn’t fit into this heating shaft, let alone move quickly through it. Oh, sure he realized that this was a neat exit, not having to fight through a barricade of Tonomai guards.
All things considered, though, Cornell would have gladly taken his chance with those imperials.
“Look,” Nev muttered, “she’s right. Move faster, big proud warrior! I don’t want to spend the rest of eternity in this awful –“
“Quiet!” Phindar shouted back, only to be rewarded by an angry hiss from Melawdis. “You be quiet also, enchanted soul,” the songdwarf added in a low voice.
This is great, Cornell thought grimly. Not only is it hot, but now the songdwarf is starting to argue with the shield. He pushed himself further along the shaft, doing his best to keep up with the acharadh. The walls were ridged, and bit by bit the ridges started to cut deeper into his hands. Add to that the heat, driving the sweat out of his pores. Every few moments he had to wipe it from his eyes. At least he didn’t feel any strain, not even after having shoved his body through the tiny shaft for half an hour, sometimes at sharp angles upwards. The advantages of having a good constitution, of course.
It seemed like another eternity had passed when Melawdis suddenly stopped and gestured for Cornell to do the same. The Cayaborean happily obliged, wiped more sweat from his forehead, then looked around to see what had made her halt.
There was a grid right beside the dwarf, opening into a room of the Residence. Melawdis moved away from it, careful not to make any noise. Sounds were coming from the room. Voices. One of them, Cornell realized, belonged to Derisham. He was speaking in the Tonomai tongue, sounding agitated. What was he saying?
The dwarf had to understand him – she obviously spoke their language. But he didn’t want to ask her to translate for him. Not least of all because he didn’t trust her.
“Shield bearer?” Phindar asked from the shield in a low voice that barely carried to Cornell’s ear.
Of course! The merchant spoke Tonomai! He could translate. The only question is, Do you trust him? It was an annoying question. But he had to find out more about Derisham, and in the circumstances, Phindar was more likely to be honest. “Go ahead,” he whispered to the buckler.
Melawdis watched them uncomfortably, always looking through the grid into the room beyond, to see whether somebody heard their words. Cornell didn’t like the thought of being discovered in this heating shaft. Its walls were of stone, there was no way he could quickly exit – and who knew whether the Tonomai might not just pour hot oil down the shaft? Seems like this wasn’t such a good idea to begin with.
Before he could pursue the thought further, Phindar started to translate, “Derisham says that somebody stole his property, and that someone will pay. He’s ordered all the roads leading out of the area closed. Everybody trying to leave will be searched and then incarcerated for the time being. Now… I don’t quite understand…” The priest paused, making a clucking sound. Derisham was still speaking, going on about something in a loud voice. Clearly he was speaking to somebody else, but that other person didn’t answer. The governor didn’t give him or her much chance for that, either.
“Phindar?” Cornell muttered low-key.
“Pardon me, shield bearer,” the priest answered. “That doesn’t make much sense. I could swear he’s saying that an egg was stolen from him. Why would anyone care about an egg?”
Apparently, Cornell realized and shook his head frustratedly, the priest didn’t speak the local language that well, after all. How much of the other translation was correct? Perhaps it’s just the one word.
“Ho, now,” Phindar whistled softly, “that is interesting.”
it was. Cornell had no idea what the governor had just said, but he’d
seen Melawdis cringe – ever so slightly, but he’d seen it. “Phindar,
what is interesting?” To be exact, what had made the songdwarf cringe?
bearer, the governor thinks that you are connected to the thieves of
the… the egg. He thinks so because the acharadh screamed ‘Dragon!’
when you came into the reception room.” What
does a dragon have to do with this?
Cornell wondered, listening intently to Phindar continuing, “Yes,
that’s… Derisham said that was his primary reason for keeping the
songdwarf with him, to use her perception. ‘Even though she’s mad, she
sees more than mortal eyes can see.’”
she did. Cornell frowned at her. Melawdis showed no more signs of comfort,
rather she looked challenging at the Cayaborean, as if she was daring him
to question her reasons. Luckily for her, they were stuck in this tunnel,
and there was no way he could do so appropriately. Not without alarming
she tells Derisham that you’re involved in this affair. Then she comes
and gets you out. Guilt? He
couldn’t rule out that possibility – although he didn’t believe it
for a moment. This dwarf had planned it all along. So
what? You’re getting out!
with Derisham’s troops on my trail.
didn’t seem as if there was much he could do at this point. Seething,
Cornell settled down as comfortably as he could in the narrow shaft and
waited for the people in the room to leave so he and Melawdis could
continue on their way out.
next installment will go online in three weeks!
Look for it around April 5 2002!