Roland Of The High Crags (2): Evil Arises
Innocence may mask the face of Evil. Only the True Heart Will be able to love the one and resist the other.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
The jagged peaks of the High Kanris mountains rise from the plains and forests into the sky with little warning. A steep shield wall of hard stone suddenly appear in the distance as one ride’s across the rolling plains. The wall soars five thousand feet vertically into the odd blue-white colored sky.
No matter how many times I leave the Kanris and return, catching the first glimpse of the rugged towering face of the wall and observing the snow-capped peaks glistening in the sun always takes the breath from me.
Behind the shield wall are the Kanris mountains. Actually, a series of mountain ranges which twist and turn like a din of snakes make up the Kanris. I have traveled far and wide in this world and have seen much. From the swamps of the Southern Hemisphere, the fabled ancestral home of King Dragons and Wing Beasties, to the fabled Garanges mountains of the Far North, I have laid eyes upon many wonders. In the Garanges, it is said the gods live in splendid solitude after winning their war against man and deciding to withdraw from worldly concerns. Legends say that just before they withdrew, still smattering from the rude abuse they had received from their young and arrogant creation, the gods decided to punish man for his insolence by creating their eternal tormentor and nemesis. So from the fevered and unhealthy swamps of the Southern Hemisphere they breathed life into dragon forms called King Dragons. To ride the skies and terrorize land dwellers they gave Dragonkind Winged Beasties.
Yes, I have seen the lonely and haunting beauty of the Garanges. And I can find myself believing the stories about gods living in their cloud-filled heights. But pilgrim, there is nothing like the breathtaking rugged beauty, or the magnificent panorama of snow-capped
Spartan splendor as one finds in the High Kanris. To ride a Great Wing freely through the steep-walled valleys and underneath towering spires rising to the heavens is to know a bliss of sublime elegance. Strapped tightly in the saddle of their Great Wing as it rides on the buffeting winds and updrafts found in among and below the peaks, one can see for leagues across mountainous ranges so rugged and so inaccessible much of it has yet to be explored. Many of its valleys are still carpeted in ancient forests with leafy canopies in myriad shades of green and gold. There are mountain streams filled with a type of trout as long as a man’s longest stride. On a clear bright day where no clouds mar the blue heavens, one can, in the distance, see small specks of wild Great Wings, in a rainbow splash of colors, rising and falling and whirling around as they hunt or simply wing from one rocky perch to another.
It was into these beautiful peaks and rugged valleys, as the legends go, that the god Shu’zhin guided the last survivors of man to safety from the onslaught of King Dragons and Winged Beasties. It was this god, this outcaste from the pantheon of eternal gods, who first took wet clay and formed an image of himself and breathed the Breath of Life into it. This First Man became our ancestors, and like his creator, man became the curious seeker, the constant questioner, which the older and wiser gods found to be so much of a nuisance.
Shu’zhin, called the Seeker, was an outcast from the Immortals because of his constant searching for forbidden knowledge. It was Shu’zhin, as my child hood teachers and masters oft told me as a young boy, who defied the older gods. They wished to see Mankind destroyed. But after the Great Onslaught Shu’zhin lead the few hardy survivors up into the High Kanris. Here, hidden deep into almost impassable crevices and narrow mountain trails, man found refuge from the plains surrounding the Kanris and from the hordes of King Dragons. It was here, in the High Kanris, where Shu’zhin angered the gods even more by creating the feathered opposite to the scaled hide and bat winged creature called a Winged Beastie. It was here where he took a Ferril Hawk, a small bird from the Ferril mountains, and used it as the basic shape to mold a Great Wing.
From the Ferril Hawk Shu’zhin gave it the sharp hooked beak from another in the hawk family. Expanding it and making incredibly powerful it is a weapon used with devastating effectiveness by a Great Wing. Razor sharp talons from the dreaded Mountain Kral, an enormous eagle which rides the powerful currents in all of the mountainous regions, were also transplanted into this new creature. He gave it the ability to twist and turn in flight and the ability to fly almost as high as the highest of mountain peaks found in any range on the planet.
But more importantly, he gave it an implacable dislike for Winged Beasties. Great Wings can out turn into and climb higher than Winged Beasties. Short, powerful wings, give the Great Wing the power to burst into short dashes of unbelievable speed. Their heavier mass gives them the ability to fold their wings back and roll into a dive and plummet from the heavens like a stone.
That is not to say the serpent necked monster is, in any way, inferior to that of a Great Wing. A Winged Beastie, riding on its enormous bat-shaped wings, can ride the winds of the forest or the mountains for hours on end, soaring across the landscape with a terrible grandeur so frightening, yet so hypnotic, to behold. Because they are lightly built and have these enormous wings they can remain aloft far longer than any Great Wing. Therefore they can cover far more territory than a war bird.
The front paws of the scaled fire-breather are equipped with talons as razor-sharp as those found on a warbird. They can rip to shreds in the blinking of an eye any creature that is unfortunate to be caught by one. And never forget the Beasties’ most terrible weapon. The breath of fire. Tongues of blue-white flame bellow out from their mouths in a terrible fury. The fire can travel for more than thirty feet in a searing torch so hot even iron weapons melt if exposed too long.
Put all their abilities together into the body of an old, experienced fire-breather—a creature, by the way, every bit as intelligent and intuitive as a Great Wing—and you have a formidable opponent never to be taken lightly. Add an old and experienced dragon rider to the set and you have a combination of foes who, as a collective species, have known martial success for over two thousand years.
Yet Winged Beasties find it difficult to fly in the High Kanris. Much of the higher regions of the Kanris they cannot sail to at all. King Dragons equally find the mountains unsettling. To King Dragons evil spirits and evil gods live among the rocky peaks and wind swept crevices. They have good reason to feel this way. Only twice since man left the plains below and ascended into the mountains have dragons attempted to breach the shield wall and invade. Each time they tried they were met with a stunning defeat. A defeat inflicted upon them by a foe many times their inferior in numbers. So telling in each defeat the few survivors who escaped returned to their clans with incredible stories of mayhem and carnage.
In the upper regions of the valley leading into the High Kanris the Kingdom of the Vik resided. In the lower regions of the valley, where the valley opened out into the sweeping grasslands below the shield wall, one could find the lands of the Anktooth.
Now the House of Anktooth was no more and the lands which belonged to that ancient clan belonged to Hartooth. There, consolidating his power and licking his wounds, Baron Hartooth’s army was regaining strength for the next assault.
The Great Rift Valley was one of only four major entrances in which dragon and Winged Beasties could ascend into the heights. The other three entrances were hundreds of leagues away, with one being another rift valley which opened out onto the Black Tharassian Sea. The Hogar Marches lay to the north a good 700 leagues, and in those 700 leagues there were no less than ten King Dragon baronies standing in the Hartooth’s path. To the south lay the winding narrow gorge called The Spirit Way. It actually was a very steep crack in the shield wall which ran for leagues into the Kanris. Each side of the gorge is sheer rock walls perpendicular to the gorges’ floor. Raging down from the mountain was a massive river of incredibly power and fury, fed by a monstrous waterfall which towered over the river by more than a thousand feet.
The Spirit Way was called that because of the ever constant spray from the falls which danced and whirled around eerily and because of the roar of the falling water. The noise was deafening, the moving mist thick and clammy, and the winding path carved out of one wall of the gorge so narrow a human warrior barely could traverse it. Just wide enough for someone to slowly and carefully ascend up the gouge. Yet one wrong move on the slippery moss covered rocks and the hapless would fall for a long time before he met his death on the rocks below. It would have been an almost impossible task for a dragon on foot to ascend. And for an army of dragons the task was unthinkable. But even that path was guarded. The people who called The Spirit Way their own are said to be magicians and elves. They were neither human nor dragon but a separate race altogether and they practiced the arts of dark magic. It was oft said that those who entered this strange gorge never emerged from it again. But often the mangled and torn bodies of the dead would be glimpsed in the vicious white water rapids down river some leagues from the opening. Not even humans venture into the territory of the Merrkhians.
Of the four entrances into the High Kanris I was sure the very last choice the Hartooth would select would be The Spirit Way. Dragons were even more superstitious than humans. The idea of entering The Spirit Way and facing all the black magic would be the only thing which would terrify a dragon heart.
What had to be done, and done quickly, was to warn the Kingdom of Vik of their approaching hour of despair. King Olaf and his people I knew well. Big men, with long locks of gold or black hair; their women were astonishing beauties and their men were incredibly gifted with both physical strength and artistic talent. They guarded the Great Rift Valley for a thousand years, knew well the Clan Anktooth and the Clan Hartooth, and felt confident in their strength. Their favorite weapons were huge two-handed broadswords and a battle-axe half the size of a man. Wielded by someone skilled, either could eviscerate dragon or Winged Beastie if they ventured too close.
The upper end of the valley was guarded by two massive stone keeps as the first line of defense, each housing fifty Great Wings and their riders, with each keep honed out of giant slabs of native stone which towered over the valley floor. Day and night twenty or more Great Wings floated over the upper end of the valley on patrol, ever alert for dragon and Winged Beastie sorties. And they were tested regularly, for young dragons, freshly matriculated through the dragon rituals of becoming an adult and warrior, along with their newly acquired Winged Beasties, were required to do combat in the air above the valley against a human opponent.
The third line of defense was the massive walls and many towers of the city of Odar’s Lair. It was the capital of King Olaf’s kingdom and it was a bastion of strength. The city had three sets of walls with the inner wall being the highest and strongest. The outer wall was short and thick and solid stone, with a very wide and deep moat in front of it. It was five leagues out from the city and it ran from one side of the narrowing rift valley to the other. Only one massive gate allowed entrance in and it was flanked by two huge round stone towers whose upper floors were Great Wing aviaries. Every five hundred strides a somewhat smaller stone tower rose from the low wall. Each tower was garrisoned by a company of swordsmen and a company of bowmen, with each company numbering 300 hundred men.
Between the outer wall and the second wall were the many farm fields and orchards which fed the city. But half way between the two walls, and on either side of the single wide and stone paved road which cut through the valley and ran to the center of Odar’s Lair, were two large towers, again massive aviaries housing Great Wings and their warriors. The Vik were very skilled riders of Great Wings and their trained war birds were considered the best in all of Kanris. They had to be for they met Winged Beastie and dragon almost on a daily basis in ritual single combats.
The second wall was somewhat higher than the first. And considerably thicker. It too ran from one side of the valley to the other. No moat sat in front of the wall, but a series of stone monoliths with protruding iron spikes littered the ground in front of the wall its entire length of the valley floor. Again dotting the wall were towers housing companies of swordsmen and bowmen, with only a single gate breaching this wall as well. Between the second wall and the city’s walls were several small villages, more farmlands and two large fortified military camps where King’s Olaf army based itself.
The last wall was the one which enclosed the city itself. Odar’s Lair sat in one corner of the very narrow portion of the upper reaches of the valley. Here the valley became the entry point to a set of different mountain valleys which went higher and higher up into the Kanris and were themselves the entry points into more valleys. The Great Rift Valley was a very long conduit, with the lower end wide and opening out into the hills and plains of the vast grasslands below the mountains. But the upper end of the valley was considerably more narrow and rugged. In one naturally craggy niche the Vik built their ancestral city. Odar’s Lair was a city of heavy stone walls, twisting narrow stone streets, and many towers. A wall some forty feet high and twenty feet thick encircled the city. Several gates, fortresses themselves, broke the smooth outline of the walls. Banners, both large and small and always colorful and bright, floated in the wind over the walls and from the many city towers. The city, although designed to be a bastion of strength from dragon invasion, was massive to behold and had a feeling of immense power. But it was far from being a cold and grim place. It always warmed my heart when I journeyed to it. The Vik were people who loved life. Laughter and the finer things in life were part of their very soul.
It was here I wished to hurry with a warning of what was about to descend upon them. But here I could not go with the young Pearl Princess by my side. And here I could not go until I first found a way to dislodge the three Great Wings and their masters who were following us up into the High Kanris.
For two days since the fall of City of Ank the child and I rode Cedric, a Great Wing of six strides tall, black as the blackest of coal with red trim around the eyes and talons, into the heights of behind the shield wall. He was the first Great Wing of my flock whom I trained to face Winged Beasties. He was by far the most experienced of my war birds. At night we would rest on some inaccessible rocky pinnacle barely large enough for a Great Wing, a human, and a dragon child to occupy at the same time. We made a cold camp, not wanting the flickering light of even a small campfire to give our position away from those who might be looking for us. And I knew we would be followed. I trusted not the mercenary, Helgar Longhair. Nor did I trust Dagan Horak. Nor could I shake away the possibility that the Baron Hartooth was aware his young Pearl Princess might be whisked away from his ever expanding clutches by someone like me. All three figures could hire human mercenaries and follow us into the High Kanris to either kill us all or to remove the princess from my grasp. Either way, I could not chance leaving the princess with someone who was not prepared to defend her to the death. Nor would I travel to Odar’s Lair with her. At the same time I felt the weight of responsibility over warning the Vik of the approaching forces of the First Clan pressing me down with each passing hour. Baron Hartooth’s troops would attack the Vik and attack as soon as he could marshal his forces. The longer the Vik were left unprepared the more terrible the fight would be.
But to make matters worse on the second day of our journey it was Cedric who warned me we were being shadowed by three Great Wings. There is something of a telepathic bond between rider and his Great Wing. That power is enhanced and further increased if one becomes a member of the Bretan Brotherhood. There is no reading or sending of thoughts. But there is an enhanced sensing of emotions. Both Great Wing, dragon, and Winged Beasties’ minds I can sense and in some fashion influence. I quickly picked up my mount’s concern when he first glimpsed our trackers at midday. It was on the same day, and at the same moment, I was first made aware of the powers a Pearl Princess might posses.
“They do not come for me so much as they come to see where we go,” she said to me as we came to rest on the second day. “Others, many others, are to follow soon.”
These were the first words she had spoken to us since leaving the dying city. As we sat hunched close together in the dead of the night, with heavy cloaks thrown over us to protect us from the night’s bitter winds, her soft, fragile voice lifted to our ears between bites of the beef jerky she held between her hands. I was so startled. Even Cedric turned from his perch to look inquisitively at me. Grinning, I reached out and pulled the heavy cloak more firmly around her shoulders and nodded.
“Yes, that would make sense, little one. Three riders would not be enough to take you from Cedric and me.”
The large war bird, as if to concur with my words, shifted his wings and changed his stance and chortled deep in his throat. The child, turning to look up at the Great Wing smiled and then let out a small laugh herself.
“He agrees with you, you know. But he’d just as soon fly to their camp tonight and steal their food and bring it back to us.”
I smiled too. Old and experienced as he was there were times when I sensed his impatience with me in not immediately seeking to engage our enemies.
“I like your thoughts, priest.” she suddenly said, her dark reptile eyes looking up into mine with a depth and eerie feeling I found almost hypnotic. “You are so unlike those of my kind. Sometimes I feel a. . . a softness. . . in you. Like today when we rode over that field of wild flowers. I heard your thoughts and I felt your emotions. Your thoughts were warm and pleased to see flowers this late in the season. That made me feel warm too. I like flowers.”
Just before noon, after we had turned up a twisting valley no one inhabited, we soared over a bend in a mountain river which cut through the heart of the valley. In the middle of the bend was a wide sandy knoll and in that sandy soil thousands of yellow and blue wild flowers covered the ground. I remembered leaning from my saddle to catch a better look at them. It was indeed beautiful.
“Why do you call me a priest, child? I worship no particular god or goddess.”
“I sense your desire to protect the weak and to heal the sick. Only the Priests of Ishthas feel the same way. Or at least, only the ones who have good hearts feel that way. So you must be a priest. But I do wish you were a magician so that I could eat a Frik. I am so hungry for a juicy Frik.”
A Frik was a dragon pastry, very sweet and tangy at the same time. Dragon children loved to eat it. For myself I could not tolerate the sweetness. The sticky gooey substance and the tangy aftertaste it left made me shun them. But grinning, I decided to see if I could make her smile again.
“Ah, but little princess, I am a magician! Watch carefully my hands while I say the magic words. Alabraham. . . alabreha. . . .alashazar!”
I moved my left hand over a fist for a right hand when I said the first word, and then the right hand over my left’s fist with the second. And when I said ‘alashazar!’ I unfolded both hands, palms up, to reveal what appeared to be nothing but empty hands.
“Ah, and I thought I was going to eat a Frik!” exclaimed the child, genuine disappointment in her eyes and face.
I heard Cedric chuckle behind me. Great Wings do have a sense of humor much like humans. I grinned as well.
“But child, what is this at your feet steaming hot and in a stone bowl?” I said, pointing a finger toward her tiny feet.
And indeed, at her feet was a large stone bowl of steaming hot Frik, thick and juicy and smelling of cinnamon and sugar. Ursala looked at the bowl and her face lit up with a light of a hundred suns. The childish joy on her face and in her eyes was enough to warm my heart for a hundred nights.
“You are a magician!” she cried out, bending down for the bowl and reaching for it with tiny little dragon claws. “Ohhh! You are a magician!”
Cedric and I watched her consume the sticky pastry with a dragon’s relish. Her joy in eating the delicacy was total. In seconds it was gone and she was licking the sweetness off her hands, a smile on her lips, when she suddenly jumped to her feet and threw her arms around my neck and kissed me on my cheek with reptilian lips. This human gesture was so sudden and so unexpected I found myself speechless. I became even more speechless when she stepped back and spoke to me in that tiny little child’s voice again.
“No harm will come to us while we are in the human city, grandfather. Their king admires you and your kind and will not allow any harm to come to you or to me. And you are right, he must be quickly warned of my father’s plans. We should go as soon as light come.”
I could find no words to say anything. I was perplexed in the way she so easily understood my concerns for King Olaf and the people of Vik. But more, I found myself completely taken aback that she called me ‘grandfather.’
I felt her emotions when she said the word. They were those of a child who was in the presence of a blood relative. She indeed looked upon me as a blood relative even though I was human and she was dragon. For a few moments I blinked in silent amazement until, at last, I could respond.
“Sleep, child. Sleep close to Cedric. He will keep you warm. Tomorrow, when the light first kisses the peaks above us, we will ride to Odar’s Lair.”
She was only a child. But a child gifted with the ability of telepathy far more complex than mine. She could sense the future as well. But she was only a child. And the child in her made her stick her thumb in her mouth, like human children do when they are extremely tired, and nod her head. Turning, she towed the heavy cloak over the stones behind her and walked to where the Great Wing sat. Cedric, being almost as human as I, knew what to do. He lifted one wing up slightly and waited for the child to lie down close to her. Then he lowered the wing down and gently nudged the Pearl Princess even closer to him.
She would be safe and warm and would sleep the deep sleep of the innocent. I, on the other hand, would be deep in my thoughts huddled in heavy cloaks as the cold winds howled
even stronger through the night.