Roland of the High Crags (1): Evil Arises

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The devout know the terrible truth.  Evil cannot be destroyed.

The death of a city is a grim spectacle to behold.  Terrible knowing all your efforts to save it were for naught.  The thundering crash of masonry. The searing heat of ravaging fires hungrily consuming the city. The billowing smoke filled with terrible smells.

High-CragsBut worst of all, the cries of the dying. Innocent victims caught up mercilessly in a quest for conquest which could only mean, for them, either death or the cold iron bracelets of slavery.  And through the smoke the ghastly beauty of a phalanx of marching dragons.

Bristling death. Gigantic porcupines of spear-carrying infantry.

The Clan Hartooth were the masters of a battlefield.  In one hand they carried vicious steel tipped pikes, twelve feet long, lowered and flashing like thousands of diamonds through the smoke.  In their other hand was their distinctive clan dragon shields.  Each clan had their own unique shields.  Clan colors, their clan motifs, all could be seen plainly on their lozenge-shaped shields.  They are made of wood and leather. The leather comes from the carcasses of their fire-breathing Winged Beasties, making them extremely difficult to cut through.  The shafts of wood which compose the dragon pike were made of Hack wood. A musky aromatic wood almost impossible to break and incapable of burning.  One could smell a phalanx of pike approaching long before it was seen if the wind is right.

Yes.

There were a precision and unity in the way dragon pike arranged themselves in their traditional checkerboard formations.  They seem to flow like waters of an unstoppable flood across a broken and confused field.  Watching them approach through the flames and smoke of the dying city was a surreal fascination—especially so when eighteen thousand pikes were marching straight toward you.

But pike usually never entered a battle alone.  They were only one half of the dual threat the enemy brings to bear against those they wish to destroy.  Imagine Winged Beasties, the long-necked, bat-winged, fire-breathing flying dragons of ancient lore, with their Great Dragon bowmen riding in their saddles filling the skies above the battlefield.  From the saddles of their terrible mounts, dragon riders assail the enemy in front of the advancing infantry with clouds of deadly crossbow bolts.  Whistling death from above pins down a hapless foe into a defensive formation which protects them from the skies above. But not from the assault of advancing infantry.

With the mailed fist of dragon pike commanding the ground, matched with the inspired terror of Winged Beasties and their riders controlling the skies, one understood how the dragon dominated mankind on the battlefield.  For a thousand years the armies of human kingdoms, kingdoms which once filled the forest and plains below the High Kanris like the grains of sand on a tropical beach, tried to defeat the dragon foe.  All failed.  All the kingdoms of man have swept away in the process.

But on this day, standing with a bow in hand and looking over the stone ramparts of the last castle of the Dragon Clan Anktooth, I had to stop and openly admire the precision and malevolent grandeur in which the ancestral enemy of humanity made war.

Above me, I heard the fire-breathing roar of Winged Beasties on the attack.  Looking up  I recognized the dark mustard yellow and green Winged Beastie called Uaala… Dark Warrior in Great Dragon tongue, and his master swirling around above the castle walls.  The Beasties’ master was a dragon warrior who called himself Uccmoth, from the Clan Hartooth.  He was a Captain of the Guards for the Baron Hartooth, his ancestral liege.  But there also was the cardinal red Upahil . . .Daemon Kind, and its master Usa, also from the Clan Hartooth.  Two renowned warriors, blood kin to the ancient First Clan of dragonkind, leading three hundred Winged Beasties in the final assault on the breached walls of the last walled city of the House of Anktooth.

The city was in its death throes.

Flames leaped into the sky from all parts of the city. Thick black smoke curled and swirled in angry updrafts into the morning sky.  Before me, in the open plains stretching out beyond the city, six months of carnage laid in ruins.  The bodies of dead Great Wings, the giant hawk-like birds, human warriors from the High Kanris rode into battle, littered the field.  Along with the bodies of hundreds of warriors both dragon and human.  Smashed siege engines, water-filled trenches, all the flotsam a long siege creates laid scattered about the battlefield like discarded toys.  But it was the screams of the dying which affected me the most.  The Hartooth were plunging through the gaps in the thick city walls, burning and pillaging with a dragon’s fury.  It was evident the baron planned to raze the entire city and take no captives. So the innocent, the old and the young, both human and dragon, were put to the sword with ruthless intensity.

I stood on a portion of the castle keep’s outer walls, a small castle in the heart of the burning city, knowing the battle was lost.  For almost a year the few Great Wings, and the warriors who rallied to the call of the dragon house of Anktooth, fought valiantly to keep the skies above the city of Ank free from Winged Beasties.  But for everyone Great Wing there had been six of the magnificent flame-throwing winged dragons. For everyone human or dragon warrior who fought underneath the blue and gold banners of the House of Anktooth the baron had ten dragons loyal to his banners of deep maroon and gray.  It was a lost cause from the beginning and all who heeded the pleas of the House of Anktooth knew it.

Rarely did human and dragon fight underneath the same banner against a common enemy.  Rarely did humans and their Great Wings descend down into the rolling hills and thick forests below the lofty crags of their mountains.  For the most part, human and dragon were ancestral enemies whose hatreds for each other went as far back as either species could remember.  But the House of Anktooth, the dragon lords who held the kingdom in the rolling foothills just below one of the few mountain passes which led up into the High Kanris, had over the centuries forged a somewhat neutral stance with mankind.  This noble house had the most contact with the high country kingdoms of man.  For centuries the Anktooth fought humans and their Great Wings whenever a mountain kingdom lord decided to mount a military incursion down into the foothills and plains.  It was this house, as was the custom, which provided dragon warlords with troops and expertise whenever a dragon barony wished to test his skills against Great Wings and humans.  But, between the conflicts, it was the House of Anktooth who quietly tried to set up some kind of communication between ancestral enemies.

I was familiar with the Anktooth.  Baron Ahnkar Anktooth was an old and cagey leader who appreciated the fighting ability of humans and Great Wings.  More importantly, the baron admired the artifacts and goods humans created.   He was one of the rare dragon lords who thought riches could come by expanding commerce and building trade agreements between human and interested dragon kingdoms.

When word arrived that the Clan Hartooth had been invaded I mounted my favorite Great Wing and hurried to their aid.  Almost a year I fought alongside dragon and human in repelling the forces of the maroon and gray-hued warriors of the First Clan.  My Great Wing, who called himself Cedric, and I led the small number of Great Wings against the Winged Beasties.  We rose from the upper crenulated towers of the fortress walls and stone keep every dawn to face the winged dragons and their dragon riders.  Sometimes we would take to the skies and fight four or five times a day.  But with each sortie warriors and Great Wings would be missing by nightfall.  But now, the last of the Anktooth strongholds was falling.  Those of us who fought for a year to stymie the baron’s plans had severely mauled his mighty army.  We failed in our efforts. Only hours remained for the once mighty House of Anktooth.  Yet I was determined to fight to the finish.

Others, however, had plans of their own for me.  As dragon pike men began to assault the castle keep’s walls, and as I was hurriedly throwing what few bowmen I could find into an ad hoc formation for a defense, the rough dry hand of a dragon guardsman loyal to Baron Anktooth gripped me firmly and pulled me to one side.

“You are the human they call Roland of the High Crags?  The one who rides the Great Wing named Cedric? Yes?  You will come with me.”

The din of battle and the spray of crossbow bolts whizzing through the air around our heads created an almost unbearable cacophony.  Yet I heard ever word the old warrior said and I could not protest.  The guardsman, whom I recognized as the Captain of the Guards for the baron’s private entourage, was already pushing his way through the thick maelstrom of the battle and heading back to the keep itself.  I paused for a moment and sent two arrow shafts swiftly into the throats of a couple of pikemen and then hurried after the dragon captain.  Interestingly, as I was dodging the rain of crossbow bolts hurtling through the air with my shield, I noticed several of the baron’s guardsmen pulling selected human and dragon warriors from the final fray and sending them back into the castle itself.  It would be a grim last stand I thought as I slid through the narrow slit of a partially opened stone passageway the dragon held open for me.

The old Clan Mauk guardsman, Clan Mauk because of the green and yellow pebble skin and three rows of horns down the top of his head, thrust a badly smoking torch toward me, holding one high over his head in the process, and without uttering a word turned and began leading me up a winding set of dust covered stone stairs. Clan Mauk dragons, for centuries, had been loyal followers of the Anktooth, serving the more ancient clan faithfully and without hesitation.  They, like the Anktooth, were soon to be no more once the Hartooth‘s assault on the castle was completed.

The stairwell, barely large enough for a dragon to slip through, was filled with cobwebs and carpets of dust.  Obviously, this hidden passage had not been used for centuries and as to where it led I could not begin to imagine.  But a few moments of swift ascent and suddenly we entered a cold and barren aviary once used to house Winged Beasties but long since abandoned.

As I entered the wide expanse of empty stone floor my eyes fell on the small group of figures standing in the middle of the room.  Guardsmen loyal to the old baron stood close by holding burning and hissing torches.  Beside the baron were a dragon mercenary captain whom I recognized, and one human mercenary also known by me.  The dragon mercenary, of the Clan Horak, was a renowned renegade who called no clan’s baron his ancestral liege.  He was the leader of fifty warriors and their Winged Beasties.  His reputation was that of a warrior who sold his services to the highest bidder and that only the color of gold held sway over him.   I could not trust this creature who called himself Dagan Horak.  But it appeared the old Baron Anktooth did.

The human mercenary was a captain of thirty Great Wings.  His reputation, like that of the Horak captain, was anything but honorable. Behind a face, many regarded as the most handsome in all the land lay a heart as merciless and calculating as that of a viper.  He was a skilled courtier, an accomplished diplomat, a superb leader of men and a deadly swordsman.  He called himself Helgar Longhair because his gold hair, the same color of wheat ready to be harvested, fell down to his shoulders.  I trusted the human even less than I did the dragon.  But neither interested me nearly as much as the small form standing close to baron.

She was a female dragon child dressed in the finest of silk in the green and gold of the House of Anktooth.  Perhaps five in age, she was a tiny, delicate creature standing between the three warriors.  Her reptilian eyes, with their blue vertical-shaped pupils in a dull gray eyeball, stared up at me in wondrous awe.  I confess, I stared with awe at her as well.  There had been rumors, of course, during the year’s siege of such a creature existing.  But no one ever saw her and only whispers of her circulated among us when we rested our weary bones during the night.  But to believe a Pearl Princess actually lived within the walls of Ank was too much to accept.  Until now.

She was a Pearl Princess.  Her pebble skin was the color of a dull off-white and the circle of tiny horns, no bigger than the tip of a small finger, encircling her head were startling white pearls.  Unlike the dull tan or yellow horn which decorated the skulls of King Dragons in various configurations, the horns of a legendary Pearl Princess were white as the finest porcelain and of the same texture as a pearl.   They were legendary in their exotic beauty among dragon kind.  They held an almost mystical power for the dragon.  They were reputed to be able to see into and predict the future.  It had been, as legends said, a Pearl Princess who first drove the ancestors of the King Dragons from out of the steaming swamps of the Southern Seas and made them compete against humans.  A thousand generations later it had been a different such creature who preached of warring against all of mankind and dominating them.

It was said that the Hartooth were destined to be the rulers of all of the dragon baronies because, from the ranks of the Hartooth, Pearl Princesses were born.  Baron Hartooth’s troops were even now beginning to pillage the castle we stood in.  Dimly I heard the clash of steel against steel and the shouting of men in battle from somewhere beneath me.  The noise was heard by those standing around the tiny princess as well.

“My liege, we must hurry!” the mercenary Winged Beastie captain hissed, turning to look at the old baron. “In moments the enemy will be upon us.  Let me take the child.  With my troops, I promise to deliver her to safety.”

“Give her to me, my lord,” Helgar Longhair growled, the oily smile creasing his handsome face as he patted the child on the head. “I shall take her into the High Kanris. No Winged Beastie will be able to follow.  No one will find her until it is time.”

The old and grizzled baron listened to one speak, and then to the other, before slowly shaking his head no.  Dark slits for eyes lifted up and settled onto my visage and he gave a slight nod toward me as he spoke.

“This is the one whom I have told you about.  He is of the Bretan Brotherhood.  He has been here since the beginning, leading man and dragon into battle fearlessly, never tiring of his desire to beat the forces of the Hartooth.  He is the one whom I will entrust my grandchild to.  No other.”

“Bah!” exclaimed the human, turning fiercely burning brown eyes toward me and balling hands into fists. “There is no such thing as the Bretan Brotherhood.  That vile heresy was stamped out over a hundred years ago in the High Kanris.   This warrior is an impostor I tell you!  Why won’t you believe me, my lord?”

I said nothing.  I admitted nothing.  But with narrowed eyes, I watched intently the old baron’s face.  Even as the noise of battle approached, my fullest attention was on the old warrior.  I too wondered why he called me something long since dead.

“I know, Helgar Longhair, of what I speak.  He is who I say he is and that is all you need to know.”

“But, my liege . . .” Dagan Horak began, stopped in mid-sentence when the old baron lifted a hand up in a gesture demanding silence.

“We waste time with words, captains.  And time I have little to spare.  Roland of the High Crags, approach me.”

I stepped closer to the old baron as he knelt to one knee and gently enveloped the small child into his arms for one last embrace.  Kissing her on the forehead, he looked into her beautiful blue eyes for a few heartbeats and then nodded in silence.  Rising, he gently pushed her away from him. She ran to me, instantly clutching at the leather of my leggings.  I felt her tiny little body press against my leg and I felt her shaking in terror.  Instinctively I lowered a hand and gently placed it against her pale cheek.  One tiny child’s hand grabbed mine and held on for dear life, her fragile soul radiating,  like a burning forge, waves of fear and terror at what might come next. Squeezing her hand gently, trying to convey in my touch the feeling that all would be well, my spirit filled with a desire to protect this innocent life from those who wished to harm her.

“She is called Ursala and she is my last surviving heir,” the old warrior began, controlling his voice well.  Yet one could hear the aching pain of being separated from a part of his life in his words. “She is also the youngest daughter of the Baron Hartooth.  Being the daughter of the most powerful baron of all of dragon kind, and a Pearl Princess at the same time makes her immeasurable important to my enemies.  But I am determined to save her and stop the baron.  You, and your brotherhood must help me.

“You are to take her, young warrior.  You and your fabulous Great Wing are to ride high into the mountains beyond.  Hide her, Roland of the High Crags.  Hide her and protect her for a year.  If I survive this night, if I can rally the Clan Anktooth and our cousin clans, perhaps in a year’s time I will have gathered enough strength to challenge the Hartooth and stop this madness.”

“Bah, you cannot stop him,” the yellow and blue pebble-skinned Dagan Horak hissed, turning and walking two steps away before whirling around angrily to glare at the old baron. “Even as his troops assault your castle, my lord, the Hartooth are spreading like a disease across three separate kingdoms.  The Clan Ahknak, the Clans Kaboo, and Ghagh, are all toppling even as we speak.  By this time tomorrow, the First Clan will have quadrupled their holdings and Baron Hartooth will command close to a half million troops!”

“My lord,” the golden-haired human began soothingly in the voice of the diplomat he was. “My spies informed me the enemy is negotiating a treaty with the Clan Hue.  It is said a huge shipment of gold, more gold than any human or dragon has ever seen gathered in one place, is the bribe the baron is paying the Hue to remain neutral.  Without the ancestral enemy of the Hartooth to thwart their plans the baron will sweep across the northern landscape like a plague.

At the same time, he has issued a decree he will pay a king’s ransom for any paladin Winged Beastie and his warrior to come and fight under his banner. Hundreds are answering that call, my lord.  His wealth is unlimited; his power grows with each passing hour; his armies are commanded by renowned dragon generals.  With no power able to stand before him, how can you trust this charlatan with the fate of your grandchild?”

“I am aware of all you tell me,” the Anktooth growled, nodding in acknowledgment, “I understand the hour is bleak and there seems to be little hope.  But my decision stands.  This warrior will take the child and he will care for her for a year’s duration.  The Hartooth can be destroyed!  But we must continue to fight and not allow overwhelming odds make us falter!”

The old baron took a step closer to me, touched the child again with one hand, then looked up into my eyes.

“Below the castle are catacombs.  Miles and miles of underground catacombs.  I have selected a few to follow me into subterranean vaults in an attempt to escape.  I have released all others from their oaths.  They are free to abandon the City of Ank and save themselves.  But from you, warrior, I ask you to do something which could easily make you the most hated individual in all of Mankind.  I ask you to take the child and become her tutor. Teach her the ways of the trained Bretan mind.  Teach her how to control her terrible powers.  With her, and you, standing together to face the First Clan’s terrible wrath, hope may yet exist the prophecies of the Dark Lords might be broken and cast aside!  Take the child.  Summon your Great Wing and flee.  Save her, warrior.  She is the only hope this world has in stopping the First Clan and their madness.  Without her as a rallying point, man and dragon will die by the millions!”

He turned and with a firm step which belied his advanced years, bellowed for dragon and the human mercenaries to follow him.  Sweeping out of the aviary and down a second hidden passage, the child and I stood in was almost engulfed in blackness. Only the torch in my hand held the dark shadows abay.  But just before the entourage left, Helgar Longhair paused at the entrance of the passage and turned to stare long and hard at me.  As if making a silent vow, I saw him nod his head, and then disappear into the inky depths of the passage one second before stones slid heavily across the cold granite floor.

Holding the torch above me, I half turned and found myself surprised to see the battle hardened, weather-lined face of the Clan Mauk dragon standing directly behind me.

“Listen carefully, human.  Time we do not have,” the captain of the baron’s bodyguards hissed softly and just loud enough for me to hear. “My lord is to be betrayed tonight.  He is to lead the few still loyal to him through the catacombs. But he knows there is a trap waiting for him.  Death probably awaits him and he knows it.  Yet he must make the appearance as if he is unaware of the trap and continue along with his original plan.  His death might guarantee the safety of his grandchild.  He will gladly give his to save her’s.

“My job is to take my Upasha, my old friend, and flee to the south while you take the princess and enter the High Kanris. I am to accomplish what my lord wishes to accomplish.  I am to find dragon barons who fear the Hartooth, and like we, wish to destroy him.  It will be a year’s worth of effort to find even a minuscule amount for such a task.  The baron’s gold speaks with a persuasive tongue, human.  I am not hopeful there will be enough strength to defeat him.  Still, we must try.”

“Why does the Hartooth war against the Anktooth?  I know of no such dragon prophecy which foresaw the destruction of your lord’s clan.”

“You know little of the dragon’s heart, warrior.  You cannot believe the howl of our blood in its lust to make war!  This lust for destruction and blood letting runs the deepest and most fiercely in the Clan Hartooth.  It has been our curse for thousands of years.  Many dragon clans have come to resist it, to change their ways and become more, how do humans say it . . .more civilized?   Yes.  Civilized.

“But not the First Clan.  They desire to rule the world.  They were the first to wage war on humans and dragon kind both.  They are ruthless, unrelenting, and without any form of honor.  And Baron Hartooth is the ultimate example of his clan.  He will stop at nothing in his attempts to eradicate human kingdoms and dominate all of dragonkind.

“In my lord’s clan Baron Hartooth saw a potential ally to the mountain kingdoms of the High Kanris, a dragon ally who might persuade other dragon clans to join in our fight against him.  He could not let that happen.  Eradication of the Anktooth is his solution to the problem   Unbelievably, even though I have fought you and your kind all my life, I have taken my master’s words to heart and find myself wishing to forge a bond of friendship with humans. Humans and dragons, together, might create the weapon which could thwart the First Clan’s lust for destruction!  Only time will tell.”

“Why me,  Ankor?  Why did your master pick me to save the child?”

Just the barest hint of a smile cracked Ankor Mauk’s light green and yellow pebble skinned face.  But there was this glint in the old three-horned warrior’s eyes which was unmistakable.

“Let us just say my master listens to all voices, human.  He knows you by reputation and by experience.  More importantly, he knows what you truly are.  That is why you were picked.”

“I am to protect her for a year,”  I echoed, half turning to peer into the aviary’s darkness and the approaching din of battle which seemed almost upon us. “And what then?  How shall we contact each other?”

Two angry cross bow bolts flew across the room some yards away from us and glanced nosily off the stone walls.  The scream of a dying man cut through the darkness of the room before the source of the noise, from out of the dim gloom, staggered back clutching his throat with both hands as hot blood poured from his grasp and spilled down his chest.  Sagging to his knees he fell forward and was dead before he hit the floor.

Hurriedly I bent down and threw the child up into the old guard’s arms and lifted a finger to my lips.

“Shhhh!  Say nothing and stand close to me!” I hissed as I reached around to the small leather pouch on my waist and opened it quickly.

Ankor Mauk, holding little Ursala, moved very close to me as I whirled a thin, semi-transparent cloth around us and enveloped all of us from head to foot.  Just as the last fold of the cloak covered us the aviary was over ran by hundreds of dragon warriors of the Clan Hartooth, bloody swords drawn and crossbows at the ready.  The maroon and gray skinned Hartooth filled the vast expanse of the empty aviary and energetically began searching everywhere.

Half glancing to my right I saw the wide eyes of an amazed young Pearl Princess staring at me.  I had to grin and wink.  Even the hardened soul of Ankor Mauk seemed startled as we stood in the middle of hundreds of Clan Hartooth unseen.

“Cloak of invisibility,” I softly whispered, touching my lips with a finger again to ask for silence. “Slowly move with me and make no sound.”

“They are not here, my lord!” a clansman shouted loudly, stepping into torch light and glaring off into the darkness directly in front of us at someone unseen by us.

“Keep searching.” a voice from out of the darkness growled back.  A voice so deep and so menacing it made me stop in my tracks and turn to see the owner of such a sound.

Seconds later the figure of a young but incredibly tall dragon warrior stepped into the light of the many burning torches, hands on his waist and looking left and right as he walked toward us.  He was a head taller than his clansman, with wider shoulders, and dressed in chain mail which covered his entire body.  Flapped over his back was the standard lozenge-shield of a Hartooth clansman, while around his waist was a finely crafted curved dragon scimitar so favored by dragons.  Covering his chain mail was a dark maroon and gray silk livery with the Clan Hartooth coat of arms, that of a flying Winged Beastie with flames roaring from its mouth and with its front claws raised toward an unseen foe, stitched in silver wire adorning his right shoulder.

“They cannot have escaped.  My spies tell me they have not left the castle yet. Find them! I want the body of this human warrior lying at my feet before nightfall.  I want my father’s daughter brought to me alive before I leave tonight.”

The warrior was huge and impressive and was standing right beside us, almost in the circle of invisibility with us, when he bellowed out his commands.  I stood only inches away from his back and marveled at the creature’s size.  Never before had I seen such a dragon specimen.  I started to say something but caught myself just in time.  But Ankor Mauk’s grunt of disgust almost killed us.

It was more like a snort, a quirky passage of air through the flat nose of a dragon only a dragon can make, uttered barely loud enough to me to hear.  But it was enough to make the tall prince turn suddenly directly toward me, eyes darting back and forth rapidly to find the source of that noise.

“Did anyone hear that?” the creature shouted, his head darted back and forth and as a hand dropped to the pommel of his scimitar.  “Did we not hear this human creature was a magician?  A wizard?  Search this room again and be more attentive!  They are here, I tell you!  They are here!”

One more step closer to me and I would have had to drive the dagger in my hands straight into the creature’s heart.  He was so close to me I could feel his hot breath caressing my face.  The aroma of a King Dragon is that like of a musty house.  It makes one’s nose twitch and those who have had little or no contact with King Dragons have this desire to sneeze repeatedly and violently in their presence.  I controlled my desires and held my breath while gripping the cold steel firmly in hand.  In hindsight I should have thrust the blade into the creature’s heart then and there.  Much death and hardship would have been alleviated if I had.  But I am of the Bretan.  We are not assassins.  Much as I deeply felt I should harm him I could not.

The clansmen almost tore the aviary’s walls to pieces as they again searched for the three of us.  But we dodged and side-stepped around those who came too close and somehow remained undetected.  Eventually, after a half hour of intense scrutiny, the warrior angrily ordered his clansmen to tear apart the castle stone by stone if they had to in order to find us.  We waited until all left the stones of the aviary, plunging the place into total darkness in the process, before I removed the cloak and turned to face warrior and child.

“That was Baron Hartooth’s bastard son.  He is Aukmar and be all accounts he is a fiend.  The baron intends to make him his heir and successor.  But in order to do that he must find little Ursala and dispose of her.”

“Then we shall make sure he does not find her,” I answered, grinning wickedly as I lifted the surprisingly light dragon child into my arms. “Come, to the aviary’s entrances.  We must call our mounts and be away from here.  And before we leave, you must tell me where we shall join forces one year hence.”

“Aye, in one year I hope to have raised an army to join you, human.  But what kind of force will you have to join us?  Will humans in the High Kanris unite to fight the First Clan?”

I shrugged and conceded it was a good point.  It would be difficult to take into the High Kanris a dragon child, much less a Pearl Princess, and keep out of harm’s way.  No dragon, neither King Dragon nor Winged Beastie, had been allowed among the snow capped peaks of the High Kanris in over a thousand years.   To be with me might place the child in as much jeopardy as if she would have faced staying among her kind.

“I make no promises, Ankor Mauk.  Armies I may not muster in your aid, but there will be a few, like me, who see the dangers of allowing the Hartooth uniting the dragon baronies under his domain.  There is a saying we humans have,“‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’” Once we might have been enemies. But now we face a common foe.  A foe who will destroy us all if we do not find a way to forget old hatreds and suspicions and take a united stand.”

“Hmmm, well said,” nodded the Clan Mauk warrior, stepping out into growing twilight of a descending night and looking up and off to his left. “One year from now, Roland of the High Crags, you will meet me at the top of Skullcap.  Keep the princess safe and away from harm, warrior.  We will unite our forces there and we will ride together to face the baron and his bastard siring.”

I looked up and to the left and saw the breathtaking image of a dark emerald green Winged Beastie, with incredibly bright yellow bat-like wings, falling out of the growing darkness straight for our stone perch!  Like a hurtling meteor, it flashed past two circling Hartooth Winged Beasties and their masters who were circling like vultures around the burning castle.  A third Hartooth winged monster and his rider turned steeply to their right in an effort to intercept Ankor’s Upasha, but the ancient emerald green monster let loose such a fiery tongue of searing flame the First Clansman’s beast and rider flailed wings and tail mightily in an effort to save themselves.

“Fare thee well, human.  Remember, in one year!”

The Clan Mauk warrior stepped out on the long pencil of stone which jutted out from the side of the aviary like a stone lance embedded into the castle’s turret and ran for all his worth before leaping out into the vast expanse of empty air!  I shouted out in alarm, realizing the warrior was leaping to his death, but just as I shouted, a massive green body with yellow wings swept across my vision and I saw Ankor Mauk leap into Upasha’s saddle all in the blinking of an eye.  My shout of alarm turned into a shout of amazement and glee at seeing such audacity!  I found it hard to believe an old King Dragon like Ankor Mauk was capable of such agility.  Never before had I heard of such a feat.  My opinion of the Clan Mauk rose considerably.

Below shouts from the Hartooth filled the air, soon followed by a barrage of crossbow bolts, and we had been discovered.  I grinned and lifted the wooden whistle to my lips and blew the long and silent musical notes only my Cedric would hear before again wrapping the Cloak of Invisibility around us.

“Come child, we must leave quietly.  Lay your head on my shoulder and sleep.  We have along ride ahead of us.”

– From the Book of St. Albans-

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