Roland of the High Crags (3)
The True Wizard must enter this terrible Realm called The Netherworld. He must confront his fears; his many lives of the past, and those of the future. For it is the only way to truly understand thy foe.
From the book of St. Albans-
We arrived at Odar’s Lair in the early hours just before dawn. We hid ourselves during the day, choosing this hour to arrive, knowing the least number of curious eyes would see the hooded child at my side. Of course we were challenged by Great Wings and their riders. One does not approach a great city without being challenged. Especially so if a great city such as this lies strategically at the mouth of the High Kanris itself. Warriors wearing the livery of royal house demanded to know our purpose in the city. Night or day, in the fiercest of storms or in the coldest of nights, Great Wings and their riders cover the skies above Odar’s Lair in a blanket of protection.
Keeping the princess close to me, and making sure she remained hidden underneath the heavy hooded cloak, I sent a servant off with news I had to deliver to King Olaf immediately. Yet even as I stood on the wind swept tower I could not help but feel as if eyes were closely watching our every move.
Olaf’s palace was a white marble cube five floors tall with four massive marble rectangular turrets at each of the four corners. The southwest turret was the royal aviaries where the private flocks of Olaf’s royal family were kept, while the other three were used to house the palace guards. It was, as were all the buildings in the city, designed to be both a fortress in time of war and yet beautiful at the same time. Beautiful statuary, carved by master artisans, lined the gardened pathways. Above each door one would find the flowery script of Vik inscriptions. They were old Vik folk sayings—homilies blessing the building itself and all those who occupied it. The palatial complex of manicured gardens, reflective ponds and small outbuildings, sat on a rugged acropolis in the center of the city. The city, and the palace in the bright lit in the moonlight, took the child’s breath away when she saw it for the first time.
We were ushered into a small but lavish set of private rooms the king usually allowed me to occupy whenever I visited. Guards were posted in front of the doors, at my request, to further protect our privacy. Removing the cloak from the child I knelt down and smiled into her face.
“For the moment we are safe, little princess. But we cannot tarry here too long. We must leave as soon as we can.”
“I’m very sleepy, grandfather. May I go to bed now?”
“Not yet. We first must see the king before sleeping tonight.”
“I am so tried,” she sighed, her eyelids so heavy. “They are not ready, you know. They know nothing of grandfather’s troubles.”
I folded her into my arms and stood up. She laid her head on my shoulder and was almost asleep as I walked to the closed glass doors which led out onto the palace balcony. The balcony was high in one portion of the city’s royal palace. Below the balcony’s railings was a panoramic view of the city glowing in the soft light of the bright moon. Staring down at the sleeping city I knew the child’s words rang true. The people of Vik were completely unaware of what was about to come.
“The man you do not like, the man with the long yellow hair? He is already here. He is somewhere close by and he does not sleep well. He is having very bad dreams.”
Helgar Longhair in Odar’s Lair? What of Baron Anktooth and those he was trying to whisk away through the catacombs? What of Dagan Horak?
“You know when others are near you?”
“Yes,” she mumbled almost asleep.
“You can hear their thoughts and know what they dream?”
“Yes, grandfather. Please stop talking and let me sleep.”
I smiled and held the child in my arms as she slept. I started to lay her down on a huge round bed afresh with sparkling chocolate brown satin sheets and hundreds of pillows. It had been days since either one of us had slept in a bed. The bed was large and inviting. Every bone and muscle in my body ached for as good night’s sleep in such a luxury. Four days had passed since the fall of the Anktooth. Exhaustion was calling me to close my eyes and rest. I felt very tempted to lie down beside the child and sleep. But a soft knock on the large oak doors of the rooms made me pause. One of the king’s personal attendants hurriedly opened a door and informed me Olaf would see me now.
I entered the small receiving room where Olaf awaited me with a few of his trusted lieutenants, the child’s head lying on my shoulder, her tiny body completely relaxed as she slept in my arms. Bowing my head as best as I could toward the king I noticed all were looking more at the tiny figure in my arms than at me.
“What’s this? You bring us a gift in the middle of the night?” Olaf, looking as if he had dressed hurriedly after arising from a deep sleep, rumbled pleasantly as he lifted an eyebrow in curiosity. “I thank you, Roland. But surely this could have kept until the morrow.”
“The only gift I bring you, my king, is terrible news. The Anktooth have been overrun and destroyed. The entire barony is aflame and the City of Ank burns. I came to warn you. The Hartooth sweep across the land like a plague of locust. As soon as they consolidate their hold on the lands of the Ankthooth they plan to come here.”
The humored congeniality in Olaf’s smiling face disappeared and a look of war replaced it as he turned to look at one of the mailed warriors standing just behind him.
“Daggar, send a uhlan of our best bowmen eastward immediately and check this out. Magdar, awake Count Bujold and Count Viratis. Tell them to hurry to the palace. And reinforce the First Wall with three additional companies of bowmen!”
He turned and nodded at me before walking to where a large round table sat in the middle of the room littered with rolls upon rolls of maps.
“Now tell me, Bretan, what have you seen and what do you carry in your arms?”
“Four days ago the hordes of the Hartooth overcame the defenses of the city. Baron Anktooth was forced to flee, but before he did, he entrusted his grand child to my care.”
“This is a dragon child? The grandchild of the Anktooth?” Olaf grunted, pointing to the slumbering bundle in my arms with a sheathed dagger.
“More than just his grand child, my lord,” I answered, carefully pulling down the hood which hid her pearl white complexion view prying eyes. “She is a Pearl Princess and the daughter of Baron Hartooth.”
One of Olaf’s remaining aides sucked in his breath in disbelief. Another began to unsheathe his sword. But a hand from the king halted the movement. Olaf, for his part, stared for some moments at the child and then looked into my eyes with genuine mystery clearly visible on his face.
“Surely you realize what you do is madness. A dragon princess here in the High Kanris? A Pearl Princes of the First Clan no less, being protected by a religious outlaw? The Bretan are hounded and hunted through out the high country. Only a few havens remain for your brethren to find refuge. But a Bretan warrior-monk protecting a Pearl Princess? There will be no place anywhere in the high country where you and the child might find seclusion and safety. Worse, those who wish to destroy completely the Bretan will now have an even more compelling reason to do so. No Bretan follower will be safe! Even here, in my own kingdom, it will be impossible to shield you for long. ”
“I ask no favors, Olaf. We leave just as soon as the child awakens. But I made a promise to the child’s grandfather. I will protect her while the Clan Anktooth tries to find allies among the dragon baronies. The Hartooth are marching to war. But this time they bring fire and sword to both human and dragons. As he attacked the Anktooth he also attacked others. All have fallen before his armies. He grows in power and he is determined to complete what his ancestors pledged to do centuries ago. He plans to unify all of Dragonkind. And then he plans to destroy Mankind.”
I told him all I knew. I told him of the year’s siege of the Anktooth and the final days before the fall of Ank. I told him about Dagan Horak and the human, Helga Longhair. When I mentioned the human mercenary I saw a momentary reaction flush across the regal visage. But what I did not tell him was the power of prescience the child possessed. I saw little need to tell him everything. He was a nobleman with more troubles than he wished to face. To burden him further with the news the Pearl Princess could see into a man’s mind and possibly foretell the future would be more than a mere mortal could handle.
“So, my cousin actually fought in a losing cause, did he?” the bearded king rumbled as he scowled down at a map lying on the table. “Are you sure he did not betray the Clan Anktooth in the process?”
I opened my mouth to inform the king of his cousin’s presence in the city, but I felt the soft tug of a child’s hand on my tunic. It was a gesture only I was privy to. But it was enough. I said nothing as I patted the child on the back tenderly with a free hand.
“God’s blood!” the king exclaimed, throwing a sheathed dagger angrily onto the map table as he turned to stride away. “I knew of the Hartooth and their siege of the Anktooth! I knew of your presence there to aid the dragon baron. A move mind you, a move which made few friends here in the city. But I did not know my cousin’s company of Great Wings were there. Nor did I know the Hartooth was marching against other dragons!
“Tell me, why did I not know the entire story? Where were my spies among the dragon baronies? And where in Blue Hades is Count Viratis and Count Bujold!”
The last sentence was a bellow of rage he vented at the top of his lungs. Loud enough to stir my supposedly sleeping Ursala. She did stir in my arms but she was not asleep. I was about to say something when a door to the ante room was quickly opened and a servant came running in and hurriedly knelt to one knee in front of Olaf.
“My lord! Count Bujold has just arrived in the palace. But we cannot find Count Viratis! His palace is empty!”
“Empty? What do you mean empty?”
“Empty, sire! No count nor his family, and no one to be found in the palace whatsoever! Gone, sire. They are all gone!”
“Sire!” a second voice shouted, a different servant with panic in his face as he came running into the room. “Beacon fires from the First Wall have been observed! Winged Beasties by the hundreds have been seen! And in the distance are reports of an approaching dragon army!”
“A dragon army? But how did we not . . .” said the gray bearded face of a small, but powerfully built, warrior dressed the colors of the House of Bujold as he entered into the presence of the king.
The blue eyed, blond king looked first at the arriving count, and then at his aides, and turned and looked at me.
“Viratis! He was in charge of gathering information on our enemies as well as being in charge of the realm’s diplomatic needs. He has betrayed us!”
“Sire, Viratis changed the guard’s unit which manned the First Wall’s gate keep! If he has betrayed us it could mean warriors loyal to him will hand the gate over to the enemy!” Count Bujold shouted as he turned and began running for the door. “I will rouse the First King’s Lancers and send them immediately!”
And it came to pass that only days after the Barony of Anktooth fell the Kingdom of Vik found itself under siege. Count Viratis indeed had betrayed his king and people, and for an incredible amount of gold, arranged to have the gate-keep of the First Wall opened and inviting to the 1,000 Winged Beasties and their riders who stormed it that first night. By dawn of the second day, 60,000 dragon pike and swordsmen flooded into the farm country between the First and Second Wall. And in the skies overhead 2,000 Winged Beasties and their riders soared over the lands challenging any and all Great Wings to battle.
By mid day of the third day, after more enemy’s infantry arrived, along with 500 more Wing Beasties, the king of the Vik found me and pulled me to one side, a look of grim finality on his usually handsome face.
“Old friend, the hour grows worse for my kingdom. I have received word the Hartooth are using Winged Beasties to fly in even more infantry each day. We are already out numbered two to one and the odds increase against us with each passing hour.”
“What of the other kingdoms?” I asked, thinking help would be coming soon from the kingdoms higher up in the Kanris. “Can we hold until they arrive?”
“They have not the numbers we need to counter such a force, my friend. I have sent word to the Kingdom of Valois and the Kingdom of the Ming. But even if they sent all they had, maybe a thousand Great Wings might arrive. It will be days before help of that magnitude arrives. Our spies high up in the mountains above us have seen an unending cloud of fire-breathers winging their way toward us. By the week’s end the Hartooth will be able to throw up as many as 5,000 beasts against my eight hundred Great Wings.”
It was impossible to believe. In a thousand years no dragon had ever launched such a massive assault on any human or dragon kingdom. The largest army I had ever heard, or seen assembled, was the one the Hartooth threw against Baron Anktooth. That alone, I knew, would require the yearly supply of gold an entire kingdom might produce. But an army of 60,000 infantry and as many as 5,000 Winged Beasties? From where was the First Clan finding such wealth?
“Roland, you must take the Pearl Princess out of the city this hour while I have enough Great Wings to command. I can cover your escape. Take her high into the mountains where no Winged Beastie can fly. Save yourself and the child.”
“I cannot abandon you and your people,” I said quietly, sensing the rightness in the king’s words but reluctant to flee from this fight, “It was you and your city which brought succor to any Bretan who came into your domain. You gave us sanctuary. I cannot leave you in now in the hour of your need.”
The king smiled and laid a mailed hand on my shoulder fondly. We had been friends for years. Long before he became a king we knew each other. As youth we hunted the wild Thakk higher up in the crags and sang lusty songs over stout ale at night in many of the city’s infamous taverns. To know I would leave him while he stood in such a perilous need made my soul weep in grief.
“You must, Roland. The child may be the key as Baron Anktooth suggests. Her living presence might rally dragon baronies against Hartooth. But it will take more than just a few dragons to defeat them. It will take both dragon and humans to complete such a task. And there is where you become so vital to this cause. You know dragon ways far more than any mortal I am aware of. You know what makes the human heart work. The child alone cannot raise the army needed to stand and defy our enemies. The combination of the two of you, as allies, will be the formula needed to accomplish that goal.
“The decision has been made. No arguments. This afternoon, just as the first bell after lunch rings, I will launch an aerial assault on the dragon camp. As we lift off you and the princess will arise on your Cedric. But when we turn to head to the enemy’s position, you and the two riders who will be attached to your little troupe will turn toward the mouth of the Four Passes. We will cover your escape. Fly high and fly fast and don’t look back, my friend! Don’t look back!”
He did not wait for me to protest further. He left me alone and to my own council. Deeply concerned for my old friend I made my way to the top most level of the palace aviary and looked toward the east. The view of the entire valley was before me, sweeping out for almost its entire length, and what I saw was appalling to behold. The valley tilted upward in elevation as one entered the valley from the foothills below. It was the widest at the lowest elevation and narrowed considerably until it ran into the rocky facing of the mountains itself. The Four Passes were literately four different mountain valleys joined together not far from the walls of Odar’s Lair. This end of the valley was not more than two leagues in width, so the forest covered walls of the Kanris lifted straight up into the sky on either side of the city. Rugged rock and steep forests covered the mountains, with peaks so high no winged fire-breathing monster would be able to fly over them. Once anyone fleeing from the dragon entered the Kanris no dragon would be able to follow.
But escape I was not thinking as I gazed out over the city and the valley in front of me. In the distance I could see great flocks of Winged Beasties, in layers stacked one atop the other, darkening the distant horizon. Again, like the year’s siege of Anktooth, black smoke in a dozen or more rising columns smeared the horizon with a grisly statement. Squinting and throwing a hand up to shield my eyes from the glaring sun I thought I could see dark masses of dragon infantry, with a thousand banners of the First Clan’s colors, marching in formations toward the city. I saw hundreds of Great Wings, more of the great war birds than I had ever seen concentrated in one area, floating almost motionlessly in the skies above the valley. They sailed over the Second Wall, moving back and forth lazily, in dozens of diamond formations of four birds to a diamond. On each of the birds were Vic bowmen. Bowmen who had trained all their lives to fight Dragon riders and their fire-breathers.
Looking down at the city and at the city’s massive grey stone walls I was impressed with the number of Vik axe and swordsmen, along with more bowmen, who stood waiting. Vik war-axes against dragon pike men. Vik bowmen, using the double-curved wood and horn bow so familiar to humans, so shunned by Dragonkind, pitted against the equally deadly but slower firing dragon crossbows. I found myself wondering. Even with the odds so against them, did the Vik have a chance to hold the Hartooth at bay until help arrived? For a thousand years humans faced insurmountable numbers of dragons and survived. What were the odds in this coming fight? If Olaf and his people could hold out for two months or more, might not the other mountain kingdoms send enough forces to defeat the Hartooth? Could the Kingdom of Vik survive the next two months?
Another thought crossed my mind. Just how large were the Hartooth armies? And more importantly, where and how did the First Clan find and acquire so much gold? Did gold in the amounts needed for thousands of warriors come by natural means? Or, as I found myself somewhat hesitant to think about, was dragon wizardry being used? Augh! Dragon wizardry was the stuff of myths and legends. Much like the myths and legends of the wizardry used by the Bretan Brotherhood and other brotherhoods of wizards which supposedly roamed the Kanris. Unlike human kingdoms here in the Kanris who, for reasons yet to be fully understood, turned against the arts of wizards and magic, Dragonkind revered theirs. If there be dragon wizards, who among them had the power to conjure up tons upon tons of gold?
“Ahump, Master Roland?”
I turned and found myself facing the mirror image of two exact countenances. Both were blue eyed with golden manes. Both were barely old enough to pull a bow in battle or ride their first Great Wing. Neither was old enough to experience the tug of the razor across their faces for the first time. And both had the familiar resemblance of a much younger King Olaf. I smiled as I recognized them immediately. Gawain and Gawaith, the sons of the Olaf’s only sister and the only males left in Olaf Vicsson’s royal family.
“My lord Roland, the king asks that you prepare yourself and the child as quickly as possible.” Gawain . . . or was it Gawaith. . . said, smiling at me at the same exact moment his brother did.
“And he bade us to give you this, my lord,” the other . .. Gawaith or Gawain? . . .uttered.
It was a sealed royal envelope addressed in Olaf’s handwriting to me. I noticed both lads were dressed in chain mail and the royal livery of the Vik. The royal colors worn when riding war birds into battle. I smiled and opened the envelope.
My oldest friend,
Before you stand my nephews, Gawain and Gawaith. I know you, my old
friend. You have already surmised what request I am about to ask from you.
The coming fight looms just ahead for my people and I have dire fears
of its outcome. I may not be able to save them from destruction.
But I can save these two young ruffians. As you know, I and my wife
are childless. The heir to my thrown comes from my sister’s side of
the family; from these two untested but invincible young nephews of
I ask you to take them with you. I ask you to be their teacher. Show
them how to survive in this cruel world; guide them and instruct them on
how to be both warrior and poet. Both healer and leader of men.
Do not shield them from dangers, for in the next few months that
will be an impossible task. But do teach them to become much
like you. I tell you truly, my Roland. I have never met a finer warrior,
nor a more true friend than the one I find in you. If you could but
teach my nephews to be half the man you are, I would know they
will become the best of men.
Do this for me, dear Roland, in remembrance of me . . .
Tears fell from my eyes, and I found myself fighting to keep from openly weeping. It took me a moment or two to speak, not wanting to do so if my voice failed, when I looked up and into their bright and eager faces.
“You are aware of whom we ride to protect? Of the hardships and dangers we will face?”
Both grinned and nodded. I smiled. Their eagerness was like a fresh breath of air blowing the gloom and despair from my soul. I sent them off to mount their war birds. But when they disappeared from view I again turned and looked out over the city and valley. And this time I did shed tears. I would never again see the grinning face of my old friend. Nor would I take pleasure in walking the winding narrow streets of this old city and enjoy listening to the banter of its happy people.
I could not see the future as the dragon claimed all Pearl Princesses could clearly see. But I could feel the growing despair within me. The Old World was changing. Changing into something new and different. Such change demanded a terrible price to be paid.
A price paid in blood.