"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
From here on, downloads will only be listed at the Downloads page!
"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
1 / SECTION 2
The saddle had begun to grow uncomfortable to Cornell’s backside after about an hour. What had that elf been wearing under his chainmail and pants? A pillow, to make riding all day bearable?
He heaved a sigh of relief when he reached a brook running through the landscape, with grass and bushes adorning its banks. The hoofprints were more visible, and by his estimate, Barandas and the elves were no more than twenty minutes ahead of him. Enough time for a short break, he decided and halted the horse. It whickered softly, then dipped its head into the water.
Cornell slipped off the saddle, stretched his legs and looked around. Nobody was in sight. Certainly no enraged elves, out to kill the precious daughter of their patriarch. “Good,” he smiled, then massaged his behind for a moment, groaning as the pain subsided.
“Barandas, you’re going to pay for this,” he muttered while looking over the saddle for a waterskin. He’d occasionally been checking on the possessions of the horse’s former owner, finding little of interest. A large assortment of weapons, the whole lot rather ordinary. Now if there had been a sword made of elfwood, that might have given him cause for cheer. Elfwood swords were rare, harder than diamond and sharp enough to cut through stone. Of course, the elf would have used that instead of the metal blade, but a man could hope, right?
Instead he now located a bottle, underneath a leather bag containing a blowpipe and several darts certain to have been dipped in poison. Cornell unstoppered the bottle, smelled its contents. Water, he supposed. With a sigh, he poured it over a bush. The clear liquid did no harm at all, so it wasn’t acidic. “Better safe than sorry.”
Cornell filled the bottle with safe water from the brook, took a deep draught and rejoiced when the water hit his parched throat.
The horse had finished drinking. It looked at its new owner as if deciding whether to run away or patiently wait for him to resume the ride.
The Cayaborean smiled, drank another swig, then started to put the bottle back to the saddle. He stopped when he noticed the letters engraved on its back. Elventongue, curly and elaborate. Yerixas, son of Klehidryon, Clan of Ta’enisi.
Clan of Ta’enisi? Hadn’t Siaxos claimed that he belonged to the clan of Hexaphie’al?
And there hadn’t been a Yerizas in the list of relatives he’d run down.
Something else suddenly caught Cornell’s interest, on the saddle where he had sat before. The sigil of the baron of Zepol Olyaj. This elf – Yerizas – had been a member of the baron’s death squad, his secret police.
Those henchmen were sworn to the baron’s duty, his bodyguards as well as those who swooped down on any dissenters to his rule. And the baron was very much a human, not a clan patriarch.
All right, the horse might have been stolen. But why would a new owner not use his own water bottle? Or at least replace it with his own quickly.
No, Cornell decided. It didn’t add up. Not when considering the inconsistencies of Siaxos’ and Deimitra’s behavior. The elves had lied.
Which meant they had probably lied to Barandas as well about the spellbook and their plans.
“Damn you, fool,” Cornell muttered, climbed back into the saddle and pushed his spores into the horse’s flanks vigorously, urging it into a gallop.
Deimitra jumped from the horse, whooping joyously as she landed in the lush grass surrounded by a nearly perfect circle of oak trees. She ran to the biggest tree, wrapped her arms around it as far as she could and planted a kiss on the gnarly bark.
Barandas frowned at the display, wondering how a tree could elicit such behavior from her – and not a wizard. His disappointment turned to trepidation when the bark seemed to move under her touch.
“Welcome to our homestead, Master Wizard,” Siaxos said. “You may dismount now.”
“Yes, Barandas, do get down from that horse,” Deimitra seconded, releasing her hold on the tree and smiling at him invitingly. “Sit down here,” she said, patting the bark.
The wizard shook his head. It must have been his imagination, seeing the wood curl. Subconsciously he checked the daggers hidden inside his sleeves, the apparatus that would thrust them forward into his fingers at a sudden jerk of the wrist. This place looked odd, such lush growth during a period without rain. Could the nearby brook provide that much water?
He got down from the horse. Deimitra slid down along the tree, folding her legs under her, and patted a tangle of roots next to her that seemed to form a cradle. “Here, Barandas. You can rest here, and the book… Oh, Siaxos, bring us the book so Barandas can find the spell, won’t you?”
The male elf nodded, turned to the saddlebag. Deimitra waved for the wizard to come to her.
Barandas craned his head to look up. The oak trees formed a roof of leaves over the small clearing, entangled so closely that the sunlight barely pierced it. A shadowy cool was here, filled with the scent of the plants, so calming, so pleasant.
“Barandas, please,” Deimitra repeated. She was starting to sound exasperated, while the wizard was watching the leaves, the patterns they wove, their movement in the breeze, their –
They didn’t move in the wind!
His heart skipped a beat when he realized that the leaves were undulating in waves, convulsing, expanding, like a heart pumping blood through a body. Magic! Only magic could have affected them, yet only clerics could enchant matter and living things.
Clerics – and druids…
He had no time to draw any conclusions. A tiny dart suddenly hit his neck, and Barandas felt a wave of sleepiness wash over him. He slumped down, caught by Siaxos. Through his blurring vision Barandas saw a blowpipe in the elf’s hand, and he heard Deimitra say coldly, “Drag the wizard over here. Conscious or not, the trees will feast on his magic.”
The horse shied back when Cornell tried to make it walk closer to the densely grown copse of oak trees. It neighed, cast a pleading glance at its rider. Cornell stopped pushing the animal further, instead focused his attention on the copse. At first it seemed to be ordinary – although oaks were rare this side of the Seculas mountainchain. A closer look didn’t do much to change his impression of the trees. They seemed like any other gathering of oaks he’d ever come across, especially back home in Cayaboré. Yet Cayaboré’s climate was considerably kinder to oaks.
The horse took a careful step back, waited a moment for its rider to countermand, then trotted further away from the copse.
Cornell pulled the reins in tight, eliciting a protest from the horse – which turned into a relieved whicker when the Cayaborean dismounted. He patted the animal’s neck, led it over to a nearby ash tree and tied the reins to a sturdy branch. The horse wasn’t quite satisfied, with the trees decidedly too close. “Stay,” Cornell muttered as he got his crossbow and sword ready.
Then he walked towards the grove of trees, looking for the nearest entrance. The branches of two oaks were interwoven in a strange way, making them look much like a gate – just wide enough for a horse to pass through. They seemed to move out of rhythm with the wind, but he couldn’t be sure.
A woman laughed in a shrill tone of voice beyond.
Cornell stepped through the gateway.
There was something in his mouth.
Someone was laughing. Not very melodiously. The voice reminded him of his ex-wife. But it couldn’t be Solania. She was still at the academy back at Mercurham. No, this had to be –
His meandering thoughts were cut off by a sudden pain shooting through his chest, emanating from a glowing hot point right at the center. Barandas’ eyes flashed open, took in the sight of the grove. It no longer was as peaceful as it had been before: the light had dimmed, the roof of leaves shutting out the sun, and the trees themselves… The bark was writhing on them, moving, twisting, turning. Flakes were breaking off here and there, tumbling to the ground where blades of grass dived for them, absorbing the bark with crackling sound.
More importantly, there were branches all around him, binding him to the thick stem of an oak, the rough bark wrapped around his neck, his wrists, one branch forcing open his mouth as an effective gag. And another branch, like a tentacle, was writhing on his chest, the tip… the tip burrowing into his flesh?
Barandas couldn’t see it, but the pain told as much.
“Awake, wizard?” a woman asked.
Deimitra stepped into view, changed as well. She must have taken a bath, exchanged her dirty tunic for a long flowing robe as green as the oak leaves. She was beautiful. That thought floated through his mind, undisturbed by the pain, nor by the coldness of her eyes as she observed him.
He tried to speak, but the branch in his mouth was immobile.
Deimitra glanced cursorily at his attempts to remove the branch, then chuckled. “It’s no use, wizard. You cannot cast spells with your hands and mouth bound by the trees. They will drink of your magic to fuel the merger.”
“Hunh?!” The noise was both a question and a sign of Barandas’ struggle against the tree.
“Look up, wizard,” she said and pointed over his head.
His eyes slid up, as far as the hold of the branches allowed, and icy cold flooded through his heart.
There was the book, the precious spell book of Alwouldiss of Daeshael, transfixed by twigs running through its covers, oak leaves fluttering along with the pages, strangely synchronized. The letters were wavering, and the covers – were changing. Ridges were deepening, others appearing, like a rash, making the leather look more like the bark of a tree.
“Who needs the ancients’ Eternal Forest,” Deimitra laughed, “when we can make our own?”
Cornell had barely entered the grove when massive branches swung from nowhere at him. He had just enough time to throw himself to the ground when the branches snapped through the air above his head. A booby trap? He was ready to start crawling onwards, checking for more traps – when the branches suddenly beat down into his back rather than continue on their way.
He fought down the sudden pain, frogleaped forward – only to see the large roots move, dig themselves free, ready for an assault of their own.
Cornell slashed his sword upward. The metal impacted two branches, chipped off pieces. Other branches slammed into him. His right leg went numb – the one that was still hurting from being dragged in the stirrup earlier in the day. Yet for an instant the branches and roots held off their attack, writhing around him – in pain?
He didn’t ask any further questions but rammed his sword up again, let it bite deep into a thick branch. The bark burst open, exposed the lighter wood beyond. Sap went flying like a tiny volcano.
And the branches hesitated again.
Cornell whirled about, grasping the hilt with both hands, chipped at another branch, and another. He fought the branches back as fast as he could, yet he was still lying on the ground. Too much of him was exposed to the roots he felt crawling towards him.
A branch got through his defense, crashing into his midsection, driving the air from his lungs.
Gotta get up! His right leg defied his orders to move, and the first root started entangling his left foot. Cornell rushed up, arced the sword over his head, bumping into several branches on the way before the blade hacked down into the root.
The left foot was free, but the right… He took the time to smash the sword’s butt into his thigh, the pain the first sign of life in his leg again.
Some branches took the opportunity of his exposed back to pummel him. Adrenaline charging through his veins, the Cayaborean shook the hurt off, rolled sideways, over roots that were too slow to react.
His right leg was hurting!
Good. Better than numb. He lopped off a thinner branch with his blade, then planted his fists on the ground in the same motion, pushing himself onto his feet. A branch crashed into his back, propelling him up faster than he had planned. More were rushing towards his head.
Cornell swung his sword around, stabilizing himself – and succeeded in holding off the branches for an instant longer. He stepped sideways, to avoid the approaching roots, twirled his sword about, side-stepped the roots again, realizing that he would not be able to keep this up for long.
He didn’t have to.
Suddenly the branches retracted, swung up and away, clearing the way further inside the grove. There was a clearing inside. For an instant, Cornell saw Barandas entangled in a maze of branches and roots, Deimitra standing next to him – then he saw Siaxos, holding a blowpipe to his mouth, ready to shoot the poisoned dart at Cornell.
Barandas noticed the commotion at the grove’s edge a moment before the elves did. Cornell! About bloody time! His attempts to free his right hand, enough to snap a dagger into his fingers, were going nowhere, and now he decided that he didn’t have to work so hard anymore.
After all, Cornell had finally gotten here, and he would rescue the wizard, right?
Deimitra smiled and motioned to Siaxos. The male elf pulled the blowpipe from his belt, filled it with a dart, and there still wasn’t an angry Cayaborean bursting into the clearing to kill the elves and free his best friend.
tides of magic, don’t be so slow! Barandas’ mind cried. I’m
damn sure this is not a sleeping
Siaxos readied the blowpipe.
The branches cleared away, revealing the bedraggled Cayaborean, blood streaming from plenty of cuts on his face and body.
Siaxos shot the dart.
Barandas resumed his frantic attempts to free his hand.
Time slowed down to a crawl when Cornell saw Siaxos’ cheeks bulge with the breath and relax when the dart got on its way.
He heard the air swoosh with more branches coming at him from behind. Only those in front had stopped attacking him.
His mind claimed to see the tiny dart rush through the air.
Cornell twisted his upper body aside, pain shooting through his hurt mid-section. His chest hit a bevy of branches waiting for the chance to strike at him again.
The dart missed his neck by inches.
The branches shoved him back, the force of trees behind their push.
Then a wail sounded through the grove. It wasn’t human. Cornell had a sudden picture of a dozen trees screaming in pain.
He fell backwards. There weren’t any branches waiting to pummel him. Instead he fell to the soft forest ground, the pain negligible compared to what he had suffered before. His glance slid up, and he saw the elf’s dart embedded in a branch. White lines ran from the point of impact across the bark, cracked and forked like lightning.
The branch drooped down. A moment later it broke off.
The inhuman wail continued when the branch fell on top of Cornell.
Barandas wasn’t paying any more attention to Siaxos and Cornell. For all he knew, the Cayaborean had already gotten himself killed rather than rescue the wizard. That man was really a pot worth of troubles and attitude, but did he ever do much besides accusing Barandas of stealing? Like anything worthwhile, for instance?
The branches holding him trembled, writhing around, loosening their hold. The branch digging into his chest swooped up sharply, releasing him completely.
Never one to question miracles or unexpected gifts, the wizard snapped both his hands sharply up. Daggers slid forward automatically, ready for his fingers to grasp.
“Siaxos!” Deimitra cried. “The wizard is free, he’ll cast a –“
Barandas slid his arms from the vanishing hold of the branches, swung them backwards and loosened the daggers.
Deimitra threw herself to the ground, the blade flying clear over her head. Siaxos was less quick to react. A dagger’s hilt suddenly sprouted in his neck, blood squirted from the wound, and the elf fell.
Barandas jerked his hands down, thrusting the upper two daggers into position. He struggled his legs free, wanted to roll away from the tree – just in case it regained its strength – but his legs were cramped. “Bloody –“
“Die, wizard!” Deimitra yelled, making Barandas look up.
Just in time to see her raise the blowpipe Siaxos had dropped and fill her cheeks with air to send the dart at the wizard.
Cornell rolled up from the ground. Woozy he flailed his arms for a moment, but the dizziness wouldn’t leave his head. Before him was the clearing, he saw the body of the male elf on the ground, and there was the girl. Holding something to her lips.
He didn’t think. He started running and leaped forward a few yards away from her.
Barandas’ breath stopped when a dirty figure shot through the air and tackled Deimitra across the clearing, slamming her body hard into the nearest tree. Cornell? He was still alive?
All right, now that was useful, he allowed himself to think, then pushed against the branches around him as hard as he could, paying enough attention to the scene ahead.
The branches were resisting, starting to move again. Dread filled the wizard, and he hacked at the branches with his daggers, while raining curses on his legs to get over the cramps and start moving.
Ahead, Cornell rolled away from the girl, staggering to his knees, bringing his sword up. Deimitra’s upper body jerked forward, convulsing running across her chest. Her hands rushed to her mouth, her eyes were bulging out.
Barandas frowned, while he hacked the last resisting branch into submission. She was clawing at her neck, as if she had swallowed something bad and –
I think she has swallowed
something bad, the wizard grinned as he freed himself. Poisoned
darts are bad for your health.
Cornell’s breath came ragged. The girl keeled over to her side, her fingers stuck inside her mouth. A line of blood ran from her lips, spread over one of her hands. The wailing of the trees was cut off abruptly when the convulsions of Deimitra’s body stopped.
“Well, you took your bloody time,” the all too familiar voice of the wizard complained. “I could have been killed here, are you aware of that?”
Cornell looked at his blade. The edges were serrated and dulled by chopping at branches. The sword ought to be good enough for chopping off a no-good wizard’s head, though.
“Tides of magic,” Barandas continued, “did that girl have to kill herself? What a waste of good woman – Oh, bloody abysses, the book!”
“What?” Cornell muttered and turned his head tiredly towards the wizard.
Barandas was clambering up the tangle of branches that had held him. They were now as still as a tree ought to be, and the wizard treated them as negligently as if they hadn’t been rather mobile a little earlier. Above him was his target, a clump of twigs, leaves and branches that looked like a natural growth. Inside the growth, though, Cornell saw with a touch of surprise, was what looked like a leather-bound book. Or what had once been a book.
Now it had merged into the oak wood around it, part of it converted to tree’s bark, a few pages still fluttering free. Barandas snatched one, tore it free and stared at it. “Bloody tides!” he yelled and threw the shred away.
It settled next to Cornell. The shred was a mess of wiry lines, only faintly reminiscent of letters, more of the pattern on oak leaves.
“It’s ruined!” Barandas screamed.
Cornell chuckled. All was turning out fine on this day, after all. “Are you going to spend the rest of the day playing a monkey?” he laughed. “Or are you going to agree that this was a daft exercise of futility? You don’t have the book, and you could have been a lot safer if you had left the elves earlier.”
Barandas cast a withering glare at the Cayaborean – then stopped as a frown washed over his face, followed quickly by a bright grin. “A monkey, eh?” he said as he clambered down again. His robe was torn open in the front, a dark bruise in the middle of his chest. Absently Cornell wondered how exactly the wizard had gotten it, but he was distracted when Barandas rushed over to one of the horses and dug in its saddlebags. After a short while, the wizard procured two heavy leather bags, checked their contents, then held them out towards Cornell. “I may be a monkey, but I’m a rich monkey. There’s even more gold in here than I’ve won at the card game. Hah!” He folded his hands before his chest, cradling the two bags. “Barandas the Magnificent never loses!”
“Oh, shut up,” Cornell groaned and settled back against a tree. His body was complaining worse now that the rush of battle was fading. The Cayaborean closed his eyes when he saw Barandas inspecting the remainder of the saddlebags for any other valuables. “Barandas the Magpie will steal anything he sees.”
“Quiet, now,” Barandas said, whooping when he found something good. “We’ll talk your share after we sold all of this stuff. What do you think is the going rate for a second-hand saddle with chainmail armor these days? We’ll probably have to sell it in another province… Did you notice there’s the baron’s seal imprinted on this saddle?”
Cornell closed his eyes and wished fervently for the wizard to go away. Without taking along all of the horses and selling them at the nearest market.
Come to think of it, walking might not be such a terribly bad idea, compared to the company of Barandas.
“Whoa, you look bad,” Barandas said a while later. “You ought to have a healer look after you. Fortunately, you have enough money to pay him, right?”
“Barandas the Magnanimous. Isn’t that out of style for you?”
“Yes, well, I have my good days. And it’s Barandas the Magnificent. Now open your eyes, get up and let’s ride out of here. This place is giving me the creeps.”
Cornell sighed. At their next stop, he’d part company with the wizard. That much was certain.
As usual, things didn’t work out the way he was hoping for.
T H E E N D