Roland of the High Crags (4)
If Evil has no pity and shows no mercy,
Then you, the believer,
should be magnanimous as well as merciful.
If Evil is cruel and unjust,
Then you, child,
should be the one to demand justice and exhibit gentleness
-From the book of St. Albans-
As Olaf’s warriors and Great Wings gathered for the assault I turned and looked at my own magnificent beast. Cedric was a black beauty who hailed from the rugged Huygens Range in the far west of the Kanris. Years ago I stumbled into the Huygens and found this creature. Often, it is said, a natural bond can exist between a wild Great Wing and a human. This was the case with Cedric. Our first serendipitous meeting forged a life-long friendship. He was not a bird I rode in servitude. Our relationship was more like a partnership.
Bretan monks, as I have said, are taught to sense the emotions of others. Over the years our relationship has grown. The beast knows he can come and go as he wishes. He is free to choose. Fortune has smiled down on me in that, in all these years fighting the dragon and evil, the black warbird has chosen to stand with me in every battle I fought.
But as I turned and looked at the gathering clouds of war in the distance I knew this day would have us face almost impossible odds.
“We have been together for years, my friend. Faced many dangers,” I said in a soft voice as I stood scratching the black feathers of Cedric. “But today we must fly as if we were young again. We must fly as swiftly as never before. Only speed will save the young princess this day. What say you, my old friend. Can we do it?”
Cedric’s dark hawk eyes stared at me for a heartbeat or two before softly nudging me with his dark orange-yellow hooked beak. The soft push of the beak against me etched a grin on my lips. My great steed understood exactly what was needed. Around me the Great Wings of Gawaith and Gawain, smaller birds still young in their maturation, along with a third Great Wing, milled about along with sixty other great war birds which were to rise from the palace battlements at the appropriate time. The third Great Wing was an older bird trained to be a carrier bird. Strapped tightly on her back was a heavy looking set of leather bags which were to be our provisions on our journey.
On the roof tops of every tower in the city more birds were being prepared as warriors checked their weapons and their leather in preparation for the coming flight. Great attention was given to the leather of their birds, along with the bird itself, by the more experienced warriors. There was tense electricity in the air all too familiar to me. There was a dryness of the mouth and a clamminess in one’s hands. Tell-tale signs that a battle was about to commence. Looking at Gawaith and Gawain, already strapped tightly in the saddles of their steeds, I could see they were trying desperately to be as brave and confident as those around us. But they were just children. In truth not that much older than the Pearl Princess. They had no idea what was about to happen.
The child I carefully strapped into the saddle we would share. I decided to have her sit in front of me where, when the time came, I could further protect her with one of the infamous lozenge-shaped dragon scaled shields I had removed from a foe years earlier. I planned not to wield my bow but to protect the child and rely on Cedric’s great speed. Yet I had a bad feeling my careful plans were already unraveling. In the east a gray mist and low dark clouds promised a heavy rain was near at hand. In the grayness were a vast number of brightly colored Winged Beasties. It was a sight not seen before by human eyes. So many fire-breathers with their incredibly large leathery wings and sinuous necked viper’s heads careening through the sky in a boiling mass of rainbow colors. Each fire-breather’s scaled hide was a unique combination of colors. Winged Beasties came in various shades of blues, greens, yellows and browns. Whatever their body colors were their enormous leather covered wings would be a different color altogether. So one would see a dark blue Beastie with blood red wings. The most famous Beastie among Dragonkind was an untamed fire-breather they called Uuhirt . . . Wild Heart in translation. It was said the male monster was sixteen strides long with a triple horned tail and colored a bright orange with brilliant green wings.
On the ground a Winged Beastie could be ten strides long. A stride was perhaps three feet in length so a fire-breather could be more than thirty feet in length. When young they were a foul tempered, vicious animal which required an incredibly resolute mind and nerves of steel to dominate. When they reached maturity, and after working with their dragon master over years of warfare and hardships, there was no creature on the planet more cunning. Nor one more fearless and determined in battle. An old dragon rider, with his old Winged Beastie as his partner, make a formidable set of foes. Blend an army of experienced riders and beasts together, no mean feat in itself since fire-breathers were renowned for their desire to be alone, and an unprepared enemy would find they confronting an implacable foe.
There seemed to be thousands of Winged Beasties riding the winds above the valley. They seemed to drifting back and forth over that portion of the valley they already controlled as if they were waiting for something. As if they knew what was about to happen. Narrowing my eyes I wondered if perhaps they did know I had the princess with me and we were about to flee. Seeing them milling about, and strangely not using their superior numbers to press the attack onto the Vik, I felt uneasy. Something was amiss. The dragon’s actions were out of character. Instinctively I turned to gaze at the child and frowned.
It was as if she knew I was troubled, for she threw the hood of her cloak from her head and looked at me with eyes filled with pain. It has been said that dragons do not shed tears for they cannot cry. I am here as witness to testify that dragons do cry. Her eyes were filled with tears and they ran freely down her pearl white pebble skinned cheeks.
“What is wrong child. You feel ill?”
“Grandfather, I am filled with pain. Many will die today. So many. I hear all their voices in my head and it hurts so much. And I hear other voices too. Other’s thoughts sitting close by who wish dead.”
I glanced at the many around us. Many were openly staring in wonder at the visage of the young princess. They had never before seen a dragon child, much less a legendary Pearl Princess. Even as they prepared their mounts for the coming flight they kept glancing at the child with wonder and suspicion in their eyes. Yet two warriors hurriedly averted their eyes the moment they saw me glance in their direction. Older warriors, hardened veterans, riding war birds of much skill and experience. Frowning, I patted the child on her leg and walked over to stand between the birds Gawain and Gawaith controlled. Both blond mane imps grinned in pleasure as they leaned down to hear my words.
“We have much to concern ourselves today, lads. But not just from the dragon. There may be an attempt on the princess’ life from our own kind.”
Gawain and Gawaith glanced at each other, smile no longer on their faces, color draining from their complexions. Since the time they took their first toddler’s steps they had a bow in their hands and were excellent archers. As the nephews of King Olaf I knew their training in weapons would have been the best. They had been trained to fight the dragon. They were prepared to ride into battle and kill for the first time. But the idea of killing one of their own kind was a far different fate they had never considered.
“Master, are you sure?” one said.
“Point them out to us, sire. We will make sure no harm comes to the princess,” the other chimed in instantly.
I smiled. They were indeed the nephews of Olaf! Still smiling, I shook my head and half turned to look at the others around us.
“I know not who, lads. But when we lift off I want you to fly your mounts just above and on either side of mine. Keep your head and eyes roving the skies! And be prepared for the attack to come from Great Wings or fire-breathers.”
They both nodded and reached for their bows at the same time. I nodded and moved back to my Great Wing and quickly mounted. Firmly gripping the dragon shield in one hand I slid it across the body of the child. She was whimpering in pain, a sound which tore at the strings of my heart, as she leaned her small body back to rest against mine.
At the appointed hour, just as a number of church bells began to ring throughout the city, the birds of Odar’s Lair leapt into the growing dark overcast in one mass of plumage and beating wings. The sight of almost eight hundred Great Wings filling the skies in unison made the town’s citizens lift up a hearty roar cheer. From roof tops and walls hundreds of folks within the city cheered and waved us on. The sight of so many trained Great Wings and their riders leaping into the skies brought a desperately needed ray of hope to the city and into the hearts of the many riders and birds as well.
I looked up to my right and left and grinned somewhat to see the birds of the twins gaining altitude precisely in the formation I asked them to be in. Through the first thin layer of the lowering clouds we flew in perfect unison. Great Wings, much like their fire-breathing counterparts, come in a number of different colors. Brown and tan are the predominant colors. But the full range of the rainbow can be found in their plumage. Many birds come splotched and streaked with two or more additional colors. My own bird was as black as ink on most of its body. But here and there were streaks of red. Each bird had their own unique markings. I found myself turning to look at two black beauties with matching yellow markings across the wings which suggested they might have been hatchlings from the same brood. They belonged to the warriors who aroused my suspicions a few moments earlier. They were riding in the perfect attack position just a few strides above my head. One swift turn and they would be down upon us in a heart beat.
Angrily I tore my eyes from the black steeds and looked down the valley and at the host of Winged Beasties. They rode the winds in perfect contentment, unconcerned at the large host of Great Wings bearing down on them. This was not the typical dragon reaction when Great Wings met Fire-breathers. One could not allow the other to fly in the same sky unchallenged. It was as if nature herself took a hand in making both beasts so despise the other. War bird and Fire-breather naturally sought each other out to engage in a fight to the death. To do otherwise was unnatural in either beast. I therefore found myself astounded to see the great host of Winged Beasties not straining every muscle fiber in their bodies in an effort to rush through the heavens and plunge into the midst of the smaller pack of Great Wings.
And then, almost too late, I realized why things were not what they appeared to be. It was a trap! We were riding into a trap! I looked up high above our heads at the thick mass of dark clouds and realized at any moment hundreds of Fire-breathers would be plunging straight at us, their bat wings swept back to attain more speed, with their riders leaning far forward and lying almost prone on the necks of their beasts in an effort to lessen the wind resistance of their plunging steeds. We had to leave now, without hesitating, and without worrying about the black Great Wings above us if we were to escape this day unscathed. Above and behind me, Gawain and Gawaith were riding their steeds and diligently moving heads around to peer at the potential enemies above and behind them. They would not be aware of my sudden wheeling the Cedric to my left to begin the swift dash for the entrance to the Four Passes.
“Grandfather, hurry! They come!” the child screamed, sitting up in the saddle and turning to look at me with the eyes of a terrified child.
“Child, can you hear the thoughts of our two young wards, Gawain and Gawaith?” I yelled back over the sound of beating wings. “Yes? Then tell them to look down and follow us!”
I gripped the child firmly and pulled her close to me, raising the heavy shield to protect her and barked a command toward the back of my bird’s bright red plumed head. Immediately the giant war bird turned on a thought and pivoted on her left wing, the sudden change of direction so immediate and so violent that, if we had not been strapped into the high back saddle used for just such riding, both the child and myself would have been hurled into space. But firmly were we strapped in and tightly did I hold onto the child. Cedric straightened out into level flight and lifted his beaked head up and let out a screech, his own war cry I was so familiar with whenever fire-breathers were close by, and began stroking the wind with his powerful wings.
Above us I caught a terrifying glimpse of fire-breathers, hundreds of them, coming out the clouds in a deluge of reptilian monsters, their riders unleashing a black cloud of crossbow bolts at the massed plumage of Great Wings below them. Gripping the child firmly and leaning far forward, I was using my body to protect the child. I slid the oddly shaped dragon’s shield over my body just as twenty crossbow bolts slammed into the shield all at the same time! Twisting somewhat in my prone position to look back at our pursuers, I was not surprised to see four great monsters pulling out of their plunging dives, their great leathery wings trying to catch enough air to change their direction and continue the pursuit.
Looking back toward the city I counted three cream colored Great Wings, each with different markings, racing toward us as fast as wings could take them. Behind them were the two black plumed war birds I had noted earlier, and behind all of these were the smaller mounts of Gawain and Gawaith flying for all their worth in their efforts to catch up. But it was what was above us and behind them all which drew my fullest attention. Two great fire-breathers, one a chocolate brown with tan wings and the other a light blue with almost pale yellow wings, were diving with great speed at a steep angle not toward the child and I but toward the narrow gap entrance of the Four Passes. They were hurling through the dark clouds at great speed and it was apparent they could reach the gap before we could.
“Fly, old warrior, fly!” I screamed over the whistling wind and the beating of mighty wings. “Hold nothing back, Cedric!”
Turning again and looking back at our pursuers I looked for the nephews of Olaf and hoped they still lived. To my joyous surprise my eyes saw a fantastic aerial battle raging off in the distance! The black war birds, whom I thought might be our assassins, caught up with the cream colored Great Wings who were in hot pursuit after us and dived recklessly into their midst, their riders’ bows spitting out whistling death! The birds Gawain and Gawaith rode plunged into the battle as well. In just the throb of one heart beat a mass of multicolored plumage twisted and darted about in a vicious aerial battle.
And just as suddenly as it began it ended. Two cream-colored Great Wings began slowly dropping toward the earth below, both bird and riders lifeless, their souls already journeying over the Great Divide. The third cream colored bird twisted to one side and plunged into a cloud and disappeared in the blinking of an eye.
The twin black war birds swung around and began racing back toward Odar’s Lair, their riders waving farewell to Gawain and Gawaith just before disappearing into the growing mist. The blond twins waved a return salute before their birds lunged forward and began racing toward us. I threw a gloved fist into the air and gave out a joyous yell! But then my attention turned to the hurtling monsters above us. Watching them closely I tried to estimate who would arrive first. But I realized it did not matter. I was not just protecting the female dragon child; I also had been entrusted with the care and protection of King Olaf’s nephews. Cedric might reach the gap before the Winged Beasties arrived to block it, but they would, in their fury, surely take their wrath out on the youngsters behind me.
I yelled for my old friend to slow down. The Great Wing reacted immediately. His short but powerful wings stretched out and remained motionless and we slowed precipitously. He began riding the afternoon currents, gulping in great amounts of air in the process to regain his strength. In a matter of seconds Gawain and Gawaith’s birds slid into formation on either side of me, the eyes of the boys wide with surprise as they stared at me in disbelief. Above us the two great flying monsters flashed over our heads and turned steeply in different directions and barred our path into the gap leading to the passes.
Believe not a fire-breather is slow, nor can turn in mid-air with almost the same adroitness as with a Great Wing. In a sprint of four furlongs or less a Winged Beastie will beat a Great Wing. An experienced fire-breather will compensate for a war bird’s turning prowess by using his experience to anticipate the Great Wing’s next move. But more importantly, never forget what man fears the most from Winged Beasties. The searing heat and long flaming tongues of fire a fire-breather hurls at his foes are images straight out of nightmares. The heat is that of an erupting volcano and the tongues of flame can reach out for more than ten strides to its target. And if a Beastie’s flame fully hits there is nothing made by man nor dragon’s hand which can withstand it.
Nothing. Except magic.
Powerful wizards have been known to build invisible shields around their persons and withstand the mightiest attacks of a Beastie’s fiery wrath. But there were limitations. All magic has limitations. To withstand the great heat and flame taxes a wizard’s mind greatly. Magic as practiced by the great mountain wizards within the Kanris is mentally and physically exhausting. The greater the magic the greater the exhaustion. No wizard I was familiar with had ever faced two Winged Beasties at once. I was confident, even though I had never attempted it before, in creating the Invisible Shield incantation. But how strong would my magic be and how long could I keep projecting it? If I shaped the shield in a certain configuration the flames of the two fire-breathers would hit and deflect almost directly back to the sources from whence they came. To be consumed by their own wrath would be too much for even monsters to accept. They would hurl themselves to either side, momentarily opening the way into the gap and the Four Passes. The route of our escape was arduous and dangerous. We would immediately fly as high as many birds ever attempt into the rarified air of the high country. No Winged Beastie would follow.
I bent forward and touched my cheek to the child’s cheek and spoke softly.
“You know what we must do?”
“Yes, grandfather.” she replied quickly, her voice filled with fear.
“You are afraid?”
“Yes, grandfather. Very much so!”
“Ha! So am I, child! So am I!” I laughed, squeezing her gently with the arm I had wrapped around her waist. “But hang on, little princess. Cling to me as tightly as you can!”
To ride war birds into battle requires riders to immediately recognize a certain number of hand commands a flight leader, or uhlan commander, will give his fellow riders. I gave the twins the command to ‘attack in-line formation.’ Without hesitation they wheeled their birds around and took up the desired positions directly behind Cedric. Once there I sat up and faced the waiting fire-breathers and their riders and closed my eyes and took a deep breath. In a loud voice I gave forth the incantation;
By the powers of the olden gods, I call for the use of Wueden’s Great Shield
so that, in his holy name, I may wield
A mighty blow against the foes of darkness and light!
Ahhh, if the incantation works, and the power is given, there is this indescribable electric surge through a wizard’s body! And I felt it! Power surged through me with a hot fury, concentrating in the fingertips of my right hand. Lifting the hand I aimed it toward the waiting Beasties. Without waiting for a command, Cedric folded his wings back and lowered his head. Like a stone we dropped in altitude, gaining a massive amount of speed. With a quick adjustment of his wings and tail feathers the wily old war bird lifted his head and we were hurtling toward our foes with a ferocious velocity! The two fire-breathers reacted immediately. They lunged forward, each winged dragon extending its long snake-scaled necks and sliding the strange transparent second eyelids over their eyes to protect them for their own flames. At the same time we all saw them swell their girths as they sucked in a deep amount air. With a thunderous blast they exhaled blue and white jets of flame straight toward us!
The physical blow of the combined flames hitting the Invisible Shield almost ripped me out of the saddle. It was a stunning blow. I felt the unbelievable white heat in front of us begin to wear away the magic. But I clenched teeth together and concentrated on maintaining the shield’s shape. The roar of the dragon’s breath and the heat of his flames filled the air around us. I began to physically shake from the effort on maintaining the incantation. I knew not how long I could hold it. The breath of the dragons were incredibly hot. Their breath blew onto the unseen shield with the strength of a raging mountain storm. And then suddenly there was nothing! Silence filled the sky around us and I could not feel the close presence of the dragon. Surprised, I opened my eyes and looked in front of us. The giant boulders which marked the narrow gap and entrance to the passes swept pass. Confused, I turned and looked toward our rear. Behind the trailing Gawaith’s bird I saw one of the Winged Beasties, seared a charcoal black from his own flames, slam into one of the many boulders below us and then lifelessly ricochet off several others as it fell to the earth below.
The other Beastie and its rider were not to be seen. Relieved, I turned in my saddle and relaxed, and was immediately hit by a wall of pure and complete exhaustion! Slumping forward , unable to catch myself, I felt the hands of a tiny Dragon child grip me.
“Grandfather!” she screamed as she held on and pushed me back into a sitting position, “You’re hurt!”
I tried to grin, but even that was too much energy to expend. With eyelids which felt like lead weights I tried to stay awake long enough to explain. But the overwhelming desire to sleep was claiming my very mind. I tried to speak but could not find the strength to do so. Yet just before I pitched forward into blackness, I heard her tiny voice far in the back of my dulled brain.
“Sleep, grandfather, sleep. All is well.”