Roland of the High Crags (5)

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One act of mercy lifts from the heart three acts of regret, child.
If you believe.
If you strive to live the Bretan Way– and if you believe God is merciful.
One gesture of kindness dispensed to those who have never experienced kindness,
Brings God and his Infinite bliss closer to you

-From the book of St. Albans-

wixardI awoke from a deep slumber.  I knew it had been a deep sleep for every muscle and every joint in my body ached with a throbbing pain.  But the pain was bearable.  What was not was the unrelenting desire to eat gnawing at me.  I was famished.  The moment I opened my eyes I became aware of a strong aroma of onions being cooked in a pan filled with a juicy slab of meat.  A wonderful aroma so real and so fresh my mouth watered and my stomach seemed to be doing somersaults.

Onions and herbs and fresh meat were being fried in a giant iron pan over a blazing fire; an unmistakable pleasure one never forgets after experiencing it for the first time.  With the smell wafting across the room I opened my eyes and looked up into the rough wooden beams and thatched roof of a large peasant’s hut.

Feeling very weak, nevertheless, the corners of my mouth pulled back in a grin as I took a deep breath.  I knew where we were.  I knew we were far from the searching eyes of our enemies. It was safe for me to rest for a few moments more.   Cedric, the wonderfully intelligent partner of mine, knew where safety would be found in our flight from Odar’s Lair. He had unerringly flown here without any prompting.

The hut was lit with the soft light of several dozen candles and with the light from the blazing fireplace. From where somewhere behind me I head the pleasant noise of a man humming to himself.  The smile on my lips widened.  I recognized the voice and wanted to greet him.  But I was far too weak to speak.  I closed my eyes and fell back to sleep.

I must have dozed off for the next time I gazed up into the thatched roof of the hut the soft light of candles had been replaced by a grayish late afternoon light. The crash of thunder and the prattle of harsh rain rattled the hut. On a roughly hewn wooden stool beside my bed, sat a very old man with a long gray beard.  His hair fell well past his shoulders.  It was well groomed and almost glowed in the soft light filling the hut’s interior.  He was dressed in the plain clothing of a forest dweller; just simple home-spun cotton shirt and rough leather pants.  The man’s brown eyes were bright and cheerful, with many laugh lines around their edges. What little face was visible through the beard showed a dark healthy tan.  Seeing that I was awake he grunted and lifted his head up to look at someone apparently not too far away.

“Woman, this wild man we knew long ago has returned to the living.  No worse for wear, I might add.”

It was a deep voice filled with power and vitality.  Just hearing the man’s voice made me smile in pleasure.  I knew the ancient one.  I knew who he was talking to.  And I was genuinely happy to see them.

“Roland?” the familiar voice of the old man’s wife chortled from behind my head, “You awake?  Good!  I suspect you have been a very mischievous child of late. Father and I wish to hear all about it.”

Brogan Runyan and his wife Tomasa.  Two people who had been in my life for as long as I could remember.  Surrogate parents; mentors, even my teachers, the two ancient people who lived their daily lives in the deep forest a dozen leagues higher up in the mountain range called the Tantors;  a set of peaks and crags some two days hard ride by Great Wings from Odar’s Lair.

“The children?  The birds?” I stammered, just remembering my chargers and beginning to panic.

Brogan’s powerful hand settled onto my shoulder and pushed me back into the plain sheets.  There was a smile on his lips as he shook his head gently.  I found myself relaxing again.  All was safe.

“They sleep for the moment, boy.  These twins of yours, they have the energy of ten men.  And this Dragon child, Roland.  She is a delight!  You have much to tell us, I know.  I feel it may be a tale we may not want to hear.  The life-force around us is astir with misgivings.  Much has happened of late.”

“Bah, you old fool!” the man’s wife chortled, coming into view with a round, beaming face of a woman still very beautiful after all these years.  Kicking a wooden stool over to the bed, she sat down beside her husband, a soup bowl in her hands, and lifted a wooden spoon up filled with chunks of garden vegetables and chunks of white Thakk meat.

“Here, you will eat this now, Roland of the High Crags,  and not make a face at it or I will thrash you with this very spoon!” she said in a mocking voice of severity, but breaking into a beaming smile just as soon as the words left her lips.

It was Thakk Peasant Soup, and as a child living in this hunt, how I hated to eat all of its many vegetables.  But the hot fluids, the crunch of the vegetables, and the delicious meat I now weakly consumed tasted like the nectar of the gods.  In my weakened state, I could feel the hot broth sliding down my throat. It spread its soothing warmth throughout every fiber of my being.  With each spoonful, I felt strength returning to me and I realized I was ravishingly hungry.

“Laddie,” the elder began, lifting a suspicious eyebrow and with a sparkle in his ancient eyes, “I suspect you conjured up one whopping piece of wizardry to be this hungry.  Come out with it; tell us everything.  We’ve been waiting for three days for you to open your eyes.”

“Three days!” I whispered, pushing the last spoon of soup away then struggling to arise. “It can’t be.  We must leave.  We must be on our way.”

Rough hands pulled me up to a sitting position on the bed.  A heavy blanket the woman slid across my shoulders. But there was no getting out of bed.  The effort to just sit up almost made my collapse into the sheets in sheer exhaustion.

“You will be going nowhere for the next week, my fine young friend,” Tomasa informed me in her stern motherly tone. “Weather has set in for a while, anyway.  You need your strength to return and the children in the next room cannot ride through the storms in their condition.  So here you all will stay until the storms have passed.”

Brogan’s rumbling chuckle made me smile.  Hearing Tomasa’s soft but commanding voice and feeling the old man’s presence again was an elixir for my soul.  I was feeling my body begin to recharge again.  I felt as if I no longer had the weight of the world sitting on my shoulders.

“Father,” I said, strong enough to open only one eye and look at the old man. “The world as we know it is about to be cast into the fires of a new forge.  What will emerge cannot be foreseen.”

The old man, the greatest of the living Bretan wizards, found his ancient briar pipe and began packing it slowly with tobacco. There was a thoughtful look on dark craggy face as he lit the pipe.

“A change you say?  Well then, perhaps the wife and I will be forced to buy new clothes.  But let me hear your tale, son before I pack a week’s provisions and walk to King’s Island to shop.”

There was a deep, long rumble of thunder that sounded as if the deluge was increasing in its downpour.  It was the time of the year for these kinds of storms.  They rolled down from the peaks above, covering entire valleys and usually lasting a week or more of pounding rain before blowing away.  To travel in the saddle of a Great Wing or Winged Beastie was close to impossible. To trek through the winding forest and mountain trails in the tempest was unthinkable.  Mountain streams would turn into raging rivers and there was always the threat of mudslides cascading down from mountains, wiping out the tenuous paths so painstakingly carved into them by the few peasants who lived in this valley.

We would be safe here for at least a week.  But it was time we could ill afford to lose.  In order to get my charges to safety, we had to travel many leagues yet. The longer we tarried the more we gave the Hartooth opportunities to find us.  A sigh escaped my lips.  There was nothing to do but, in a still very weak voice, tell the whole story to the two people I loved the most in the world.

*****

I awoke again surprised at the realization I had fallen asleep.  The house was mostly dark except for the dim light of one single candle I knew Tomasa would have burning in the middle of a stone table in the center of the hut.  Wizards in the Kanris are not fond of the dark.  Even old and incredibly skilled wizards like Bagan and Tomasa.  My eyes adjusted and the soft light of the candle burning was assuring to me.  Outside the rain continued to pound on the thatch roof.

But here in this comfortably soft bed, it was safe, warm and dry.  But frowning it felt somehow constricted as well.  I could not move one arm without feeling something soft and warm rub against it.  Turning my head I found the sleeping form of Ursala laying atop my arm the covers of the bed almost hiding her completely from view.  In her mouth was the thumb of her right hand and on her face was the look of a child sleeping completely oblivious to the world. A surge of emotion welled up within me, an emotion I was not familiar with.  It felt strangely pleasurable.  Smiling, I used my free hand to pull the covers up on her just a little more and then I rolled around to face her. The warmth of her tiny body felt good and I fell asleep again with her still sleeping on my right arm and smiling at whatever it was which made me want to smile.

*****

How long I slept I do not know. But when I awoke child was not in bed with me and the sounds of a household alive and awake filled my ears.  Throwing the blankets off me I rolled slowly out of bed.  Cautiously I rose to my feet for the first time in days.  Surprisingly, I found myself feeling quite strong and refreshed.

“Good,” Tomasa smiled, looking over her shoulder at me as she continued working preparing some kind of bread. “Right on time, I might add.  You should never make fun of my Thakk Soup, Roland.  Medicine is medicine.  But it does not have to taste like brackish water.”

I grinned, nodded, and walked over to her to grip her shoulders with both hands as I kissed her on to top of her lovely head.  Tomasa Runyan, Queen of the Bretan wizards, was almost two hundred years old.   But much of her youth’s beauty remained.

“Thank you, my son.” she replied, patting my hand with a hand covered in cake flour. “I will always accept such gestures of affection anytime from you.  Now, if you are wondering where everyone may be I will tell you.  There is a break between storms at the moment. Father has taken the children out and they are fishing in one of the bigger ponds.  A big pan of fish and some fresh bread sounds delicious for tonight’s meal.  Don’t you think?”

It was amazing to think this elder woman who held her beauty with amazing grace was once as powerful a wizard as her craggy-faced, bearded husband had been in his prime.  Both professed to no longer delve into the powers of magic and wizardry.  I had, however, my suspicions.  A wizard never truly gives up their talents. The woman I have always looked upon as being my adoptive mother still could conjure up a trick or two.  Another reason why I wished to stop here for a short time as we fled into the High Kanris.  Her counsel would be invaluable to me.

“I feel your concern, my son, for the child you protect.  And your concerns for the twins are no less,” she said softly, half turning with sparkling eyes to look up at me as she continued making her bread. “Peering into the future is always so cloudy. So murky and unclear.  Even the child, as powerful as her gifts are, does not see the future with the clarity you think she does.  Remember that, Roland.  No matter how powerful the magic is, magic cannot predict the distant future.  There are too many variables, too many minds, and computations, too many threads of the past and the potential future which make such endeavors useless.”

“Yet I would wish for some guidance, mother, as to what to do next.  The evil that is lifting its ugly head is powerful. But it is only one of my concerns.  I have others.  And one that gives me great concern.”

She smiled sadly, nodding her head as if she already knew my words.

“There are humans, many humans, within the mountains who are quite willing to take the baron’s gold and do the baron’s bidding.  Remember what St. Albans said; From within come the worst fears. Yes. We must be aware of our human enemies more so than our dragon ones.”

I grinned in appreciation as I looked at her.  The woman’s mind was as clear and as astute as ever.  If I remained silent I knew she would voice ideas which might turn out to be quite useful.

“This Clan Mauk warrior, this Captain of Baron Anktooth’s bodyguards.  Do you think he will raise an army?”

“I know not,” I answered, half turning to listen as the first rumble of the next approaching downpour rattled across the forested valley. “The wealth the Hartooth controls is unbelievable.  Warriors by the thousands are flocking to his banners every day.  The mailed fist he used before the walls of Odar’s Lair was beyond comparison.  For all I know, the city has fallen and the dragon clans control the valley.”

She frowned and shook her head as continuing to knead the bread dough.  Her facial expression changed as she worked, showing great concern and worry.  Her face told me everything.  Olaf still lived and Odar’s Lair yet resisted the baron’s forces.

“Dragon strength continues to grow before the Second Wall in the valley.  Yet strangely there has been a decline in the number of fire-breathers. Why this has taken place concerns father and I greatly.  It cannot be a good sign, we fear.

We have sent word to several kingdoms, asking old friends in many noble houses to send help to King Olaf.  Some squadrons of Great Wings have descended into the valley to augment the king’s forces.  The Second Wall holds, for the moment, but the situation is desperate.”

“Beasties flee from the battle?”

“They did not flee,” Tomasa answered, shaking her head and frowning, “Our sources tell us they were withdrawn.  Close to a thousand Beasties pulled from above the skies of the valley and sent elsewhere.”

I found myself frowning as well.  What dark subterfuge did this portend?  Had Dragonkind found a new way to enter the High Kanris?  An unknown, and therefore unguarded, a path into the high country?  Such a prospect frightened me the most as it frightened all who lived in these wonderfully rugged and forested peaks.

“Father and I agree; there are three key elements which must be done before we can confront the Hartooth, “mother began with a resolution in her voice I found comforting. “First, you must continue on your mission.  Take the child to wherever you feel will be the safest for her and recruit warriors to come to her aid.  You know the kingdoms, my son, and the noble houses which control them.  No kingdom will officially come to the aide of a dragon clan, no matter how noble the deed may be.  For over a thousand years humans have fought a dragon. We here in the Kanris have fought to keep this tiny toehold of safety devoid of the dragon’s touch.  So expect no great assistance from within the high country.”

She threw the dough into pans and then took the pans and moved across the cobblestoned floor of the comfortable hut, flooring her husband had put into hovel years ago to replace the straw and packed clay floors most peasant huts were built on.  She slid the pans into a small stone kiln built into the side of the large fireplace which dominated almost one entire wall of the hut.  In seconds the smell of fresh bread filled my nostrils and my mouth watered instantly.

“As to a human army, my son, you are the perfect choice to find and recruit.

Your knowledge of the mountain kingdoms, your reputation as a warrior, your proven loyalty, all are the ingredients to bring hundreds to your call.”

“Hundreds willing to fight for such a cause does not make an army,  mother.”

“Aye. But it is a beginning, Roland.  Begin with small accomplishments and build for greater ones. Your reputation as warrior is known among the dragon baronies.  A combined force could be built with you at the head and with the tiny princess as its rallying point.”

I was perplexed somewhat, and it must have shone in my face, for Tomasa, gazing up at me, smiled and shook her head.

“I know what troubles you,  Roland.  How is it that the dragon knows more of you as a wizard than your own kind.  The answer to that I know not.  But they know more of the few of us who walk in the quiet places than our own do.  Dragons are afraid of wizards, my son.  Much as they are, deep in their hearts, afraid of Pearl Princesses who have the powers to read minds and see vaguely into the future.”

“So the child is in danger from dragons as well as humans.”

“Aye, sadly,” nodded the graying beauty in front of me, her eyes clouding with for tiny Ursala…  “Pearl Princesses have, in the past, been the ones to profoundly affect Dragonkind.  There has always been a price to pay whenever one comes into this world.”

I nodded.  I knew it was so.  Which made me desire to protect the child swell even stronger in my heart.

“But how do I meld a force of humans and dragons together that will fight as one?  It has never been done before.  Not, at least, on the scale we will need to confront our enemies.  And in building this army, how do I protect the child at the same time?”

She began drying her hands with the apron around her waist just as I heard the cries of a dragon child laughing in glee, along with the hollering of two young boys fill the air just outside the hut.  We both smiled as we heard the happiness in their voices.  We both smiled sadly for we knew such carefree thoughts would soon be gone and may not return for a long, long time.

“Ah,” sighed the woman and shaking her head as she turned to look at me, “this world constantly filled with war is not kind to the innocent, my son.  That is why we of the brother and sisterhood were created.  We are the ones who are supposed to protect the innocent and the weak.”

“We are so few,” I said almost in a whisper. “And our numbers grow smaller with each passing year.  Especially so since the Dark Terror almost destroyed all of us two years ago.”

The Dark Terror was a span of two years where terror and hysteria gripped the hearts and souls of the peasantry in the high country.  The fear of the dragon’s Dark Magic slipping into the High Kanris like some plague was, in itself, a vicious and murderous plague.  It made insane almost every human in their lust to find and destroy wizardry.  The witch hunts, the hundreds burned at the stake or drawn and quartered, were like a black malaise which made sane minds go senseless with fear and terror.  Wizardry in the High Kanris was systematically hunted down with the intent to be eradicated from memory.  That any of us survived was miraculous.

“Yes, the Dark Terror,” mother mused, her voice trailing as if she was in deep thought. “Your father and I have always suspected an outside force, some evil of powerful dimensions was the source for this insanity.  I wonder now if perhaps the Hartooth were involved.  And what a wonderfully diabolical plan, mind you!  Destroy as many, if not all, human wizards and would not their ride to conquest be easier?  Humph!   That is the third task I mentioned earlier; finding this power within the high country who aids our enemies.  We must destroy it before the tide turns against us.  That is the chore father and I have decided to accomplish.  We will come out of retirement.

The first two tasks belong to you, my son, and only to you.  Protect the child and build an army.  No other can accomplish these tasks.  The third quest belongs to your father and me.  We are the ones who will dispose of this evil.  Be assured of that!”

The door to the house burst open and four figures stood in the doorway just as the rain began pouring outside.  All four of them were caked in mud from their heads to their toes, with the princess being the muddiest of all.  They all were laughing hysterically, including the princess, their smiles cracking the dried mud which coated their faces.  In the hands of the old man was a mass of large mountain trout.  In the boys hands were two tiny fish barely large enough to fit in a man’s palm.  In the tiny hands of the child was the largest trout I had ever seen.  Half as large as the child itself, it was almost more than she could carry.

“Woman! We four are home from the fields and we bring supper with us!” Bagan yelled, holding up the string of fishing with a flair.

“See, grandfather?  See what I caught?” Ursala yelled in glee, running across the cobblestones half carrying, half dragging the giant fish with her.  “I caught it!  With my own line!”

“See this wooden spoon!” yelled Tomasa yet smiling as he raised the big spoon over her head threateningly and began shaking it, “I will crack all of your heads if you get my kitchen splattered with mud!  Now off with you, outside and take those filthy clothes off and put some fresh ones on!  And you, dear husband.  Clean those fish so I might prepare them for tonight’s meal.  Now, dear husband!  Before I throw something at you!”

I began laughing at the spectacle before me as I bent to one knee in order to look at Ursala’s big fish.  She too was laughing and she lifted the fish up for a moment and then dropped to the floor in order to free her hands, which she then threw around my neck.  And then, like the child she was, she kissed me with her muddy face on my check and giggled in glee as I returned the kiss.  Mud and all.

*****

A week to the day the rains stopped and the skies cleared.  The boys and I saddled our birds, and to my surprise, the large pack-bird I had last seen far behind us in our escape from the city, was with us with the entire provisions intact.  Lifting the many leather bags up to tie them down again on the pack bird’s back another surprise awaited me.  Gold coins, freshly minted and fully weighted, filled four heavy bags.  A king’s ransom.   I turned and looked at the nephews of Olaf for an explanation.

Sheepishly both shrugged and hemmed and hawed and then Gawain took it on himself to explain.

“My lord, our uncle knew you would not take money.  So he swore us to secrecy until we were well away from danger.  He knows the hardships he has placed upon you with our presence.  He knows you must fight the dragon with an army.  So he insisted on providing the funds you will need to build such a force.”

“And sire,” Gawaith quickly threw in, his face blushing, “ he bade us to tell you that, if more gold was needed, we are to approach his cousin, King Alfred of Belliphon with your needs.  The king owes a long-standing debt to our uncle and he will not refuse whatever you ask.”

I lifted a suspicious eyebrow at the two of them as I pulled tight the straps of Cedric’s  saddle.  I said nothing and let the two stewed for a moment in front of me.  I turned to look at them both, putting hands on my hips in the process.

“Hmmm, is this to happen every time?”  I asked in a dubious voice.

“What, sire?” Gawain stammered, color draining from his handsome face as he quickly glanced at his brother and then back at me.

“Have we angered you, sire?” the other chimed in, his color draining as well as he gulped in fear.

“This,” I said, waving a hand from one to the other and sounding very severe. “This ritual if one speaks, the other must say something too.   Are we to put up with this for as long as we are together?”

Both burst into wide grins at the same time. Color flushed back into their complexions and relief in their eyes.  They were not in trouble and now recognized the playful mocking.  Glancing at each other their grins widened.  Turning to look at me again both heads went up and down in the affirmative.

“Yes, sire.  We have done this way since birth!”

“And probably will continue after we die . . . uh, maybe.”

Lifting my head I laughed.  Laughed long and with much pleasure at the way the two answered.  Turning, I threw up a grinning Ursala into the saddle and helped strap her down tightly before I climbed on myself.  The boys hurried to their mounts and strapped themselves in. After waving to the old couple we leapt into the skies and turned west.

West by north.  Deep into the wildest regions of the High Kanris.  To a place I knew long since forgotten by the living. A place so ancient the single stone keep and its surrounding heavy stone walls were covered in tough mountain lichen in tenacious carpets of light green.  There we would find safety.  There, in a sliver of mountains which actually were not a part of the High Kanris, would be a place where an army of Winged Beasties and Great Wings might come into being.  There, in a valley called The Edge of the World, we would find sanctuary.

The Edge of the World.

A forbidding place.  Held by many, both man and dragon, to be haunted and filled with evil spirits.  The mountains protecting it were far smaller than the shield wall of the Kanris where, at its base, the range jutted far into the northern steppes like a misshapen, crooked finger.  Our sanctuary . . . and only three months away if we rode our birds mercilessly.  Longer in duration if those who hunted for us forced us to divert from our path and compelled us to take a more tortuous, but safer, route.

I wished to enter the valley called The Edge of the World long before the first major winter’s storms made traveling almost impossible for man or beast.  Yet I knew we would not. Somewhere between here and The Edge of the World I had to find shelter for the child and the twins.  A place far from those who, even now, were fervently searching the high country with grim desires to destroy us all.

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