"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 8 <==/ Chapter 9 / ==> Chapter 10 (forthcoming)
By now, the room in the catacombs reeked of male sweat, enough to make Sylasa start to gag. Oh, she liked the musky, heavy smell of a man’s sweat on certain occasions. This wasn’t one of them.
Tarum sat next to her in the crowded room, twelve of his bandits close enough that she could touch each one of them if she stretched out her arms. At times in the past, that would have been a perfect setting, she mused grimly. One that some ordinary girls dreamed of. Sylasa wasn’t ordinary, and she didn’t appreciate this situation one bit. It also didn’t suit her fancy too much that this had once been a burial chamber, before Tarum and his group had cleared the mummified corpses out and robbed the jewels they had been buried with.
At least she’d had the pleasure of watching the men grunt and strain their muscles when they lifted the crate with the dragon’s egg down into the catacombs, carrying it through the narrow tunnels – some doubling as sewer channels. Their smell was barely noticeable now. Unfortunately that was because the bandits’ smell was overpowering the refuse’s odor.
“It won’t be long, my lovely,” Tarum assured her, as he had done several times before during the night.
Sylasa didn’t reply. She didn’t even bother to smile coyly at him, to promise something she had less and less interest in giving. At first she had been somewhat intrigued by him – the rogueish air he put on, the ease with which he commanded his men, and, yes, also his build. Then she had met Cornell again.
Odd, wasn’t it? That one such as she could so be swayed by the Cayaborean. He wasn’t that special – though decently looking, Cornell would be hard pressed to win any contests. Not with that annoyed sneer he wore constantly.
Sylasa smiled suddenly. The image of Cornell at a male beauty contest was so irresistibly ridiculous, to imagine how he would strut around, decrying the idiocy of the whole affair and probably wind up beating up some of the other contestants. And when he’d be thrown out, he would declare derisibly that they couldn’t stand the truth.
“You have joy?” Tarum asked, his hand on her leg, sliding slowly up her thigh.
She raised an eyebrow at him, locked glances with his for a second then looked pointedly at the others. Tarum shrugged, stopped the motion of his hand but let it rest on her thigh. Inwardly, Sylasa sighed. “I am looking forward to the spoils of our little business,” she said in a low voice.
“So am I,” Tarum grinned – reconsidered after a brief moment, the grin changing to a suave smile. Too slow, Sylasa thought. Your airs might fool a young maiden, but not me.
Something tingled on her bosom. She frowned for a moment, then reached for her chest and touched the silver armor in a specific fashion. Around her, the attention of the bandits – including Tarum, of course – was raised considerably, and it amplified when the armor split magically down several inches. There had been no seam before, a perfect silver plate, which now was now cleaved and showed her undershirt, darkened by her own sweat.
Perhaps some of the men were mystified by the way her armor opened. She doubted it, and she cared less about it when she reached inside her breast plate and removed the leather tube that had rested between her ample breasts. The armor closed automatically, causing a collective sigh of disappointment. She didn’t need to understand the Tonomai language to know what the men whispered.
Tarum cleared his throat. “A message from the buyer?” he asked casually – with more than an undertone of a victory that had seemed so close but was snatched away at the last moment.
“Yes,” Sylasa commented while she opened the tube and withdrew the enchanted page rolled up inside. At first sight, it seemed to be an ordinary sheet of parchment. But some of the letters on its front hadn’t been there when Sylasa had secured the page within her suit. Those new words had been written on a different sheet of parchment, linked to this by the divine blessing of magiscribe, and that same blessing had copied the words, in their exact form onto this.
It was one of the god Darawk’s better ideas, Sylasa had to admit while she scanned the message.
Tarum asked, “Is he at the meeting point yet? We can get there within two days, as soon as Derisham’s patrols stop being this pesky. The possessions you left in my care, they should reach Qu’rel by tomorrow night.”
She pulled a pencil from the leather tube, sketched a reply on the parchment – knowing that it would appear instantly on the linked page -, then rolled up her own sheet and returned it to the tube before looking up to Tarum. “My brother is reliable. He will be at our rendezvous point.”
His grip suddenly tightened for a moment on her leg, then relaxed quickly. “Your… brother? You hadn’t mentioned that the buyer is related to you, my lovely.”
Sylasa shook her head. “Does it matter? He is a priest who is willing to pay a hefty price for the egg. Enough to be worth your while.”
“Of course,” Tarum nodded quickly, and his eyes narrowed appreciatively when Sylasa put the tube back inside her armor. “It’s just that I’m a little surprised,” he continued after a brief pause. “I wouldn’t have thought that a brother of yours would be a worshipper of the southern gods. Particularly not this boring Darawk.”
“Oh, he is very fond of Darawk,” Sylasa grinned and didn’t care that Tarum couldn’t possibly get the joke. “Sometimes it seems he loves Darawk more than he loves me.”
“Well, he is only your brother.” Tarum breathed a bit more heavily, pushed his hand up a little further up her thigh – and stopped when her grin suddenly disappeared, replaced by the neutral expression she had worn before. The bandit sighed, withdrew his hand and slid down the wall a bit further, resigned to wait a little longer.
Only my brother? Sylasa thought and chuckled inwardly, without any of her mirth showing outside. You do not know him, clearly.
“… and you don’t even have your wand with you, Gabe!”
Flink’s voice had woken Cornell from a dream. He barely remembered the contents of the dream, something about flying. Much like his memories from riding Tempest, his horse dragon, back home in Cayaboré. But strangely it had seemed as if he had been the dragon. Fortunately the vestiges of the dream scattered quickly into the early lights of dawn as he sat up and saw the alreu pacing nervously up and down, chattering endlessly as usual. Automatically, Cornell checked where the others were. Barandas was rolled up in his blanket – obviously awake since he was pressing his hands on both his ears to shut out the alreu’s noise -, while Gabe sat on his saddle, munching on a strip of dried beef as he patiently listened to Flink. The shield was next to Cornell, the bronze knob to the ground and the straps upside, so he could easily grasp it.
“Goodness gracious,” Flink continued, “how are Egap and Yelof going to find us now? Solstice Day is tomorrow! We have to show them where we are, and that we’re expecting them. I mean, really, Gabe, how could you forget to take the wand along? You know how important it is!”
“Flink, please,” Gabe said slowly and held up his hand, barely slowing the alreu down. “I’ll carve another one. It won’t have the rubies, but –“
“Without the gems, Egap and Yelof won’t know that we’ve been calling them before!” Flink exclaimed, then suddenly caught himself and with a touch of fear said, “Or, they might think that we don’t care about them anymore, that we don’t think they are worth such precious jewels! Gabe, we…”
The alreu prattled on. Cornell sighed, got up and walked over to his horse. Stormwind was eating some bushels of grass and snorted in satisfaction when the Cayaborean patted its side before leaning over and opening his saddlebag. After a bit of searching, he pulled out the wand and threw it with an annoyed, “Here, catch!” to Gabe.
Flink stared at the flying wand landing safely in the barbarian’s thick hams, then whooped with joy. “Oh, thank you, sir! Thank you! Of course you remembered the wand! Sir, that’s wonderful! Now we can tell Yelof and Egap that we still care, and where they can find us, and –“
“Flink!” Gabe muttered, then held out the wand. “You know how to do this?” The alreu nodded eagerly, was about to start into a lengthy recitation of the proper ritual and the prayers, but the barbarian cut him off with a smile and said, “Then get going! We’ve got to make up for last night – I didn’t get around to do things right.”
“Oh, no!” Flink cried, snatched the wand and started running while he yelled, “Don’t worry, Gabe, don’t worry, sir, don’t worry, Master Wizard, I’ll take care of this! We’ll have a wonderful Solstice Day, you’ll see!”
“Good riddance,” Barandas growled from within his blanket, rolling himself in tighter for a bit more of sleep.
Cornell calmly put on his boots, walked over to the wizard and placed one foot in Barandas’ back. “If you don’t get up now, I’ll make you,” he announced in a sweet voice.
The wizard pushed his head out of the blanket, glared at Cornell angrily, then muttered something inaudible and started extricating himself from his blanket. While he was busy, Gabe nodded to Cornell and said, “I want to thank you as well for remembering the wand. Could it be,” he smiled warmly, “that you are starting to reconsider Solstice Day?”
“Not a chance in all the abysses,” the Cayaborean answered. “Vairpole pushed it onto me when I came back to the tavern. Besides, I knew that you’d never stop talking about the stupid wand.”
The barbarian’s smile never wavered. Cornell suppressed a curse. Clearly he should have thrown the wand away as soon as he left the tavern. Now Gabe was convinced that Cornell secretly loved Solstice Day, and tomorrow would be a dreadful day. He’d never hear the end of it all!
“The tavern?” Barandas interjected, wrapping his robe around himself and closing it with a simple yet elegant brooch. “Hah! And Gabe thought it’d be guarded.”
“It was,” Cornell said. Gabe cast a triumphant gaze the wizard’s way, while the Cayaborean continued, “Halla and I took care of them. That’s when we found out that the imperial soldiers were chasing a group of foreigners all through the city. Vairpole was a pile of nerves – as was your dear Rose, Gabe.” The barbarian’s grin fell suddenly, replaced by a reddish shadow creeping over his craggy face as he started to protest. Cornell ignored him. “Anyways, you were the most likely suspects in this chase, so I got the horses and went on to find you. What did you do get yourself into this mess? Couldn’t you have waited a little bit, so we wouldn’t have had an entire city on our trail? Now they think for sure that we stole Derisham’s dragon’s egg.”
He shook his head and proceeded to fold his blanket. When he was stowing it by the side of his blanket, he slowly became aware of the silence around him, and that neither of his friends had offered any comment at all. Now he looked up and saw that both of them were standing next to him, Barandas fidgeting while Gabe seemed the customary tower of patience – except that he was surprisingly interested in the scrawny trees growing to one side of their campsite.
“What?” Cornell asked suspiciously. “That dragon’s egg was the city governor’s pride and joy. Any thief would have had to know a lot about where it’s stored, how it’s guarded. You couldn’t just steal it on the fly. Or could you?” The last was directed straight at Barandas. Grimly Cornell wondered what the wizard had come up with this time. The egg was supposed to be magical, so yes, it was a likely target of Barandas’ thieving nature, but it also was very dangerous. He wouldn’t have expected his friend to venture on something like this without at least some preparation.
“Well?” he insisted.
“I’ve gotta pack,” Barandas retorted and knelt down to take care of his blanket. Before his knees had fully reached the ground, Cornell had grabbed his lapels and pulled him up. And up. Until the wizard was dangling in the air, his toes a goodly feet above the ground. Yes, I rather like the effects of Melawdis’ spell, Cornell decided as he watched Barandas’ frightened face. “Uh, Cornell, would you mind putting me down again?” the wizard said hurriedly.
“Would you mind telling me what is going on?”
Gabe interjected gleefully, “He stole that egg.”
“And you killed some of the guards after us!” Barandas snarled.
Cornell’s head whipped around to look closely at the barbarian. Gabe’s glee had vaporized, but there was no sign of shame. Probably because he didn’t know about the theft before. He followed Barandas, then got him out of the mess. Oh, I know you all too well, Gabe! “Where is it?”
“The egg?” Gabe blinked.
“What else? You stole the egg of a snake dragon from the city governor, Derisham’s minions are hunting us because of it. Of course I want to know where you put it!”
“We didn’t put it anywhere,” Gabe said, with some of his cockiness returning.
Barandas made a soft noise, attracting Cornell’s attention once again. “Spit it out.”
The wizard grimaced as if he’d drunk a whole bottle of vinegar. “She took it with her. Booted me out of the wagon – our own wagon, and then she took off.”
“Who is she?” Cornell asked dangerously. Another of Barandas’ quick acquaintances – completely untrustworthy and only out for her own benefits? If that would turn out to be the case, the wizard had some trouble coming!
Unfortunately, Barandas answered, “Sylasa. Your ladyfriend had the whole thing mapped out, she got me into the heist – and then she just dumped me! Damn her!”
A moment later, Barandas was dumped again. This time when Cornell’s hands went limp and he whirled around to saddle his horse. The wizard landed on his behind, cried out more from shock than pain, then got slowly to his feet and rubbed his backside. “It wasn’t my fault, you know. She’s your –“
“Shut up!” Cornell growled, with enough fury layered into his voice for the wizard to obey. The Cayaborean swung himself into his saddle, Stormwind protesting softly that he hadn’t finished eating, then Cornell told Gabe, “Fetch Flink. We’re leaving right away. She must have left tracks we can follow.”
“Tracks? Follow?” Barandas repeated exasperatedly. “Cornell, you’re not thinking of going after that woman? She’s more trouble than she’s worth, believe me, I can – Okaaaay, I get it.” Cornell was still staring at the wizard when he finally got moving and started to saddle his own horse. What was it with this fool? Didn’t he realize that Sylasa was in over her head? Even if she had anticipated that the governor would close down all the roads, chances were she had underestimated how fast he’d react. And so what? Cornell had to help her! To make sure that she got out safe.
Not to mention take a look of his own at the dragon’s egg. He couldn’t afford the chance that the snake dragon fell into Derisham’s hands and was trained to lead an army. One day, that army might turn on Cayaboré. Better to destroy the egg right away.
Yes, that was it. His duty as a dragon rider demanded of him that he find the egg. And Sylasa.
Ten minutes later they were riding away from their campsite when another thought hit Cornell, and he halted Stormwind abruptly. “Our wagon?” he repeated Barandas’ words. The wagon that had contained their loot of the last weeks? “Barandas, we will talk!” he screamed, and he could see from the way Barandas cringed on his horse that he was thinking whether he should gallop away or face the Cayaborean’s wrath.
To his great fortune, Barandas decided to stay. If he’d tried to run away, Cornell would have been a lot less lenient.
Not that the difference would matter much to Barandas.
Torches were still blazing in the Residence, although the sun was slowly creeping over the horizon. But it was late in coming, of course. In summer, the day would have broken more than an hour ago, and that irked Governor Derisham to no end as he paced up and down berating his advisors. “Search everywhere, I told you! Everywhere! Every house, every cellar – also the catacombs. I want full patrols down there!”
“My liege,” one of the advisors – a spindly man named Bentasai – said carefully, “the forces are spread thin already. If we are to block the roads, there are –“
“I don’t care about excuses! That’s not how you win an empire!” Derisham fired back, not caring that everyone in shouting range would hear his last words. A month ago, he would have been more careful. By the One God, even two days ago! Now it didn’t matter anymore. All his advisors knew what he was trying to accomplish, and if his servants hadn’t found out as well, they weren’t half as smart and devious as he thought them to be. (He also liked them that way. A devious man is more liable to be bought, Derisham always said.) “If you have to, hire mercenaries. The kafeserai are full of them!”
“But paying the –“
“Bentasai, take it from the imperial coffers,” Derisham snarled, then relented a bit and wiped his forehead. “Whichever way this is going to turn, I doubt that we will be paying the taxes to the Empress any time soon. Or be accused of withholding them.” No, the Empress will probably realize that her taxes are gone only after my head has gone up on a spike.
There really were only two possible futures he could see. One was that he recovered the egg in time before the dragon hatched – then none of his plans would be altered, and within a short while, he would be in the capitol of Dagba, undisputed ruler over all of Tonomat. (Except that he probably would have to install an official Empress, descended in some way from one or the other dynasty of past rulers. Marrying her, he would take the position of vizier, as would his sons, until they would have enough power to re-write their holy book, the beiqua, to allow for male rulers.)
The other option was that the knight-errant from Cayaboré would take the egg straight to the Empress, tell her of Derisham’s treason, and bring the Empire’s wrath down on the Governor. Knight-errants! He had always marveled at their exploits in the books he had read as a boy, and even more so at the occasional report from a southern trader.
A knight-errant was always honest, always did what was right. And appearing at this very time, that had alarmed Derisham. Maybe the Empress herself had sent him – perhaps she was the lady of his favor. A knight-errant never held to a flag, except that of his lady. And Empress Vesheyl was still a beautiful woman, even though she was past her thirties. She had thrilled many a courtier – why not a knight-errant who would see her as an exotic prize?
I am betrayed by the hero of my young days, he thought grimly. Like so much else from his youth, this dream was also being shattered before his eyes.
“Dragon!” a voice whispered from a divan.
Derisham’s head whirled around, sought for the source of the disturbance – and saw that the mad dwarf was still on the divan, her head in Kerash’s lap. Kerash was stroking her face gently, as she seemed to be in another of her seizures. “Dragon!” she repeated urgently, raising a weak hand northward.
A feverdream? Or a portent? “Kerash, what does she mean?” the governor growled.
The tera’qu – a judge installed by the Empress herself, but fortunately without any fealty to her – shook his head. “I am uncertain, my liege. It could be that she senses the egg. Or perhaps the foreigner?”
“Whatever – Bentasai! Send a message to the nearest troops, they are to search all the northern roads! But do not ignore my other orders, see to it that this city is turned upside down. Kerash, keep an eye on the dwarf and tell me if there is more.”
Both the tera’qu and his advisor nodded, the latter hurrying out of the room – and almost collided with two guards dragging a man in rags behind them, his face swollen from a harsh beating. Derisham recoiled at the smell from the stranger, as if that person had been swimming in the sewers.
The sewers? Which were connected to the catacombs?
“Explain yourself,” he told the guards with much less force than he would have moments earlier.
“My liege,” the left guard said, “we found this man by the entrance. He demanded to see you. When he persisted after a while, I thought that you might wish to hear his words. He claims to know where the stolen crate is.”
Derisham frowned. “Then I will permit him to speak.”
The guard nodded, hauled the man forward. He could barely stand on his own feet – which suited the guard rather well since he didn’t need to force him to his knees. The ragged man’s head dangled forward, he had barely enough strength to lift it to look at the governor. “In the sewers. I know where, lord. I know where it will be taken.”
“Do you? Why should I trust you?”
“My chest,” the man wheezed. Derisham waved at the right guard who immediately leaned forward and tore the threadbare shirt open. On the skin beneath was a tattoed jackal, elaborate work that the governor had seen several times before, on the chests of other hoodlums. He knew what it meant.
“Give him water, so he can speak clearly,” Derisham told the guards. Now, knight-errant, we will see where you are hiding!
Read on in Chapter Ten!