Roland of the High Crags (6)
Beware of Evil in all its disguises.
For it does not always come with a sword in hand
And wearing the dragon’s form.
–From the Book of St. Albans-
Two days after leaving the sanctuary of the peasant’s hut and the old wizards who inhabited it I led our small party high into a second mountain valley.
Our birds, drifting lazily on the stiff and powerful updrafts which can be found where one valley joins another, scanned the skies with their sharp eyes for any possible trouble. But the skies were crisp and clear. Except for two gaggles of wild Great Wings we observed circling a mountain peak in the distance we were alone in this grand wilderness.
Ursala, setting in the saddle in front of me, was a curious child. She observed everything around us with a child’s perspective of innocence and wonder. And she wished to talk. Talk and talk and laugh at our silly jokes we told each other. Watching her laugh made me smile and laugh as well. At night, set around a blazing campfire, the twins would begin to act up and be the children they were. They made every attempt to entertain the small princess with their antics.
In those days fleeing from Odar’s Lair, I grew fond of all three. Gawaith and Gawain, blond, blue-eyed and quite athletic by nature, were always energetic and optimistic and willing to take on any trial or hardship with a panache I found invigorating to behold. Nothing seemed beyond their willingness. They put themselves in charge of hunting and preparing the evening meals. And they performed these chores without once complaining.
During the quiet times after the princess fell asleep and tucked safely underneath Cedric’s wing, I began instructing the boys on the Ways of the Bretan Warrior. I began by teaching them the six katas of an exercise called The Silent Crane Movement. An exercise designed to build the lungs and hand-eye coordination. The Silent Crane is a deceptive yet arduous exercise. It involves sweeping movements with the arms and stretches every muscle in one’s body. All of its movements are done in slow motion. When one moved properly the concentration needed to complete each kata taxed both the mental and physical to the extreme.
Gawaith and Gawain absorbed the six movements with amazing clarity. Late at night, we would step through each kata in unison—the three of us together looking as if we were mirrored reflections moving at the same time. It became a required ritual. The boys actually would complain if we, for some reason, missed our nightly exercises together.
But, to be frank, it was little Ursala whom we all fell in love with. A child is a child. Be it man or dragon, there is a certain innocence and naiveté all children possess. The princess was but a small child. A small child with incredible powers living in a cruel world seemingly bent on destroying her. Within her, using my Mind’s Eye, as all wizards are trained to do, I could sense her latent Netherworld powers. No combination of wizards could match her raw but untrained energy. Like all true Pearl Princesses I could sense her gift to communicate with the dead. At night as she slept close to me I would feel her mind drifting into my consciousness. On a few rare occasions I caught glimpses of the dragon’s Netherworld. I felt the harshness, the clawing humidity so incredibly suffocating to withstand. And I heard the screaming voices of the Four Sisters. Shrill, wailing voices . . . the very essence of madness itself screaming off in the distance. Faintly audible to my Inner Ear but for some reason restrained from coming closer and invading my soul with their horrific nightmares.
Yes. Tiny Ursala was as Pearl Princess. She had the same power all of her sisters had possessed. I knew she was potentially far more dangerous than her four previous incarnations. Far more powerful than any wizard I knew. Her power had to be channeled in the proper direction. Her power was so immense she alone could, when fully matured, change the course of our world. The child in her could not grasp the power she naturally controlled. That alone made her quite dangerous. Her grandfather’s willingness to allow me to train her in the ways of Bretan wizardry was a twist in the prophecies of old. Ancient prophecy foretold of a Fifth Sister, a fifth Pearl Princess being born. With her coming the Hartooth would rise. Rise and unite all of Dragonkind. Destroying Mankind once and for all.
The Hartooth were on the march. The Fifth Sister was but a child assigned to me to tutor and care for. As I watched her playing with the boys I found myself in a Herculean struggle with my conscience. My Bretan training, and by the oaths I swore in the monastery when I became a warrior-wizard, told me what my religious path should be. I knew I should have eliminated this portion of the prophecy with a swift stroke of my sword. To kill the Fifth Sister before she attained adulthood was to destroy Dragonkind prophecy. Destroying dragon prophecy meant assuring the survival of all of Mankind. I knew the immensity of dangers I placed myself, and all those whom I knew and loved, by not doing my duty. But I could not bring myself to kill a child. I could not look upon tiny Ursala and see the terrible fury a Pearl Princess, grown to adulthood, might potentially render. She was but a child. A young child as innocent as a soul could be in this cruel and harsh world. And I had her within my grasp. Might I, as her old grandfather expressed, be able to mold her mind and train her to control her powers and resist the seductions of the Netherworld’s Dark Lords?
To use the powers of a Pearl Princess against the Dark Lords, the very gods of the dragons, was something never foretold in any prophecy! Already prophecy had been altered with the child being at my side. The Fifth Princess was to come, to be born into the ancient Hartooth, and all of Dragonkind would tremble. When she came of age the Hartooth would send her to the Nunnery of Hagnoor where the powerful witches of the nunnery would teach her the ways of their dark gods. When fully trained she would, standing beside the baron of the Hartooth, call for a Holy War against all of Mankind.
Her clan did not possess her. Nor, if I had my way, would the Nuns of Hagnoor. I planned to whisk her away to The End of the World and teach her our Bretan ways. I would bring in other Bretan wizards to assist in her training. If the gods whom Mankind prayed to so deemed it I would turn the very powers the Dark Lords against those grim gods themselves. I would destroy the prophecies where Dragonkind would ultimately destroy all of Mankind.
No. I could not harm the child. During the coldness of the mountain lonely nights as we sat huddled, shivering, close to a campfire she would come to me and snuggle deeply into my arms. We would sit for hours, her and the twins, conversing about many things. More times than not she would be the one doing most of the talking and we would barely be able to put a word or two in. In her were innocence and this well of kindness which was deep and sincere. Her gentleness warmed our hearts. Her acts of kindness and her humor made us smile in delight. She was as close to the twins as she was to me. They constantly played together. The moments were rare when they could act like children. She would gather wild flowers and decorate the long flowing blond manes of each of the twins with them. They would patiently allow her to twist and turn their golden hair into whatever puzzles she chose. I could see in the eyes and in the gestures the boys used toward her they felt for her as I.
Prophecy or not, the princess would not be harmed if we had anything to say about it.
“Master, where do we ride? Where do we go to find a place of safety?” Gawain said on the second night of our journey up from the peasant’s hut. “Where can we find a place to hide the princess if we stay in the Kanris?”
“Shhhhh!” hissed Gawain’s brother, hitting his brother soundly on the shoulder with a piece of kindling he was about to throw into the fire, “Have you gone mad? How can you question a warrior-monk? Especially one such as our master? Even our uncle would not ask such a stupid question!”
“Ouch!” Gawain grunted from the blow, glaring angrily at his brother before turning to look at me, “I meant no disrespect, master! I am only curious. No dragon has ever been allowed this deep into the high country. If anyone heard we had the princess with us every warrior in every kingdom would be looking for us.”
Even Gawaith reluctantly nodded at this, turning to look at me with a question on his face. Both of the twins were blunt and honest and hid nothing from view. In many ways they were still children. But children who knew the ways of the High Kanris and knew what it meant if we were caught with the child at our side.
“We will not stay in the high country much longer. We stay here for a few days more only because I need to begin the process of recruiting an army. It is not that we must protect the child, mind you. But we must help in building an army strong enough to fight the Hartooth. For that we need Great Wings and their riders. And we need to find those who would be willing to fight Hartooth pike.”
“You have allies who might help us?” Gawaith said this time, his voice sounding eager and hopeful.
Gawain slapped his brother hard on his shoulder, repaying his brother for the earlier blow to him, as he lifted a finger to his lips.
“Shhhh! Are you mad, brother? Surely the master has a plan!”
“Ouch!” winced Gawaith, glaring at his brother and thinking seriously of reaching for a heavier piece of wood to use against his brother.
I smiled and lifted a stick up to gently place it on Gawaith’s right elbow and restraining him from retaliating against his brother.
“At the far end of this valley, a day’s journey from here is a village called Fyodor’s Crossing. The village, this valley, is a haven for free peasantry. The farmers and woodsmen who live there call no man their lord. Nor give allegiance to any king. Anywhere else they would be considered outlaws and heretics. They are an independent, strong willed lot. They also are absolutely fearless in battle and, to a man, they handle the peasant’s long bow like no other. We, my two young friends, begin building our army by recruiting bowmen. The best bowmen in all of the Kanris!”
“But master. . . .”Gawain began.
“Ouch! You hit me again, brother!”
“Boys,” I rumbled sternly, frowning, but actually smiling with amusement at the two cut ups. “Three day’s ride from Fyodor’s Landing is a small walled city called Parian.”
“I’ve heard of that place!” Gawaith exclaimed, his eyes getting wide with excitement. “Uncle told us about Parian! It’s supposed to be a city filled with mercenaries and thieves. We’re going to take the princess to Parian?”
“We are not. We will journey close to the city’s walls and I will enter the city on foot. There is a person I know there, a mercenary captain of Great Wings, who might be interested in fighting the Hartooth.”
Both boys nodded. But a cloud of concern spread like a summer’s storm across Gawaith’s face.
“Master, we will have bowmen and we will have Great Wings. But what about pike men? Only dragon pike can stand against dragon pike.”
So it was said. Only dragon pike could stand against dragon pike. Proven again and again on the battlefield. No human army stood before such an army, supported by hordes of fire-breathing Winged Beasties filling the air over their heads, and held long enough to stop the dragon onslaught. Not once had a human army faced a dragon foe with the equivalent of a dragon’s pike in their hand. Humans fought with long swords, battle-axes, and to some extent, with the Peasant’s Bow. And since Mankind had arrived in the hill country and forests encircling the High Kanris no pitched battle had been fought pitting man against dragon.
What if an army was raised where both dragon and man stood in infantry phalanxes armed liked our enemies? Could humans be trained to wield the dragon’s long pike as well as a dragon? What if an army could be composed combining pike, long sword, axe, and bow. . . and with Great Wings to command? Could it challenge the might of dragon legends?
What if such an army relied on hundreds of deadly archers to reach out toward the approaching dragon and blunt their deadly advance? The Peasant’s Bow was an invention coming to the hands of man only after they arrived in the high country. Made of yew or birch, and as tall as a fully grown man, the graceful weapon was powerful enough to run an arrow through four inches of solid oak at two hundred yards. If an army threw out lines of bowman, fast and light of foot, and retreated behind standing infantry when the dragon came too close, might things be different on the field of battle?
Such an army had never before been seen by either foe. Was it possible to train man and dragon to stand shoulder to shoulder and face a common enemy? Was it possible to find the bowmen needed to blunt the walls of advancing dragon pike? Were there enough Great Wings and Winged Beasties willing to join forces and face the Hartooth?
I knew not.
Smiling, I nodded and threw some kindling into the fire.
“North of the Kanris is a dragon clan called the Marouth. The Marouth sits between two small human kingdoms. The Kingdom of the Sven and the Kingdom of the Magyars. They and the Marouth, have off and on, been at peace with each other for almost fifty years. They have even fought side be side against dragon and humans who threatened them.
“The three of them, I am sure, might be willing to join us if I can convince them it would be in their best interest. But before we get there we must first journey to Fyodor’s Crossing. Now, the two of you, let us get our training out of the way so we can get some sleep. We have a long trip ahead of us tomorrow.”