Dave Bailey – Page 3 – Welcome

Chapter 9 – Beautiful Feathers

“Nix? You okay?” he shouted. “Nixon, answer me, buddy.”

Nixon spluttered and wiped blood off himself as he scrambled to his feet with the gun still in his hand. He had a hard look in his eye. He kicked at the boy lying dead at his feet.

“I said I don’t want to hurt anybody, but I’m not afraid to use this thing if I have to. Now, give me the Firebird Jar, and don’t even think about touching that knife on the floor. Else you’ll end up with a hole in you like your friend there.”

Aurora glanced at her grandfather. He nodded at her again. The stable boy that had first greeted them now sat against the wall by the double doors in stunned silence. His eyes glued to his coworker’s dead body, still bleeding out onto the barn floor where it got seeped up by the hay and formed a thick, red mat.

She started to bend over to pick up the jar, but Nixon jerked the gun toward her.

“I said, not to go for the knife. No funny stuff, brat. I’ll blow your head off without a second thought.”

Aurora’s hands shook as she stood back up. She glared at him angrily. “It’s right there on the floor under that bit of hay. Do I look like my arms are long enough to reach the knife from here?”

She used her foot to brush the hay off of the small, brown bag. She nodded toward it without taking her eyes off of Nixon. Then bent down to pick it up. Matt circled around to take it from her. Then walked over to Nixon where they huddled together enthusiastically.

Nixon took the bag and handed Matt the gun. He squeezed it gently and frowned. He shook the brown bag and heard the clinking of pottery. A scowl darkened his face as he untied the drawstring and opened it gingerly. He dumped the contents into his open palm.

Aurora saw several white pieces of pottery fall out into the palm of his large hand. He shook it again, and something small and golden rolled out as well. Nixon rolled it around on the palm of his hand. It looked like the mummified remains of the golden birds she had seen in her vision after falling on top of the jar.

The bird shuddered. Then lifted its head. It fluttered its wings and hopped to Nixon’s thumb. He tried to reach out to grab it, but it leaped into the air and spread its wings.

Nixon flailed his arms as he tried to snatch it out of the air, but he was too clumsy. Aurora wanted to laugh, but maintained her composure.

The golden bird lighted on her shoulder and chirped loudly in her ear. It trilled off a beautiful song. And it almost sounded like Aurora could understand what it was saying as it taunted and jeered at the man still holding the jar it had come from.

The man looked at her in astonishment. His face went red with rage. “You broke the Firebird Jar!” Nixon roared at her.

Matt looked from his friend’s furious, red face to the girl. His face went dark with rage as well, but he remained silent. He pulled up the gun with both hands and pointed it in her direction. It recoiled in his hands.

Aurora saw the puff of smoke long before she heard the noise. She saw the slug leave the barrel. The round metal object floating in her direction. Coming at her chest. She knew if it hit her, it would tear through her just like it had the stable boy that had attacked Nixon and Matt.

The slug was about halfway to her before she heard the blast of the gun roar. But it didn’t cause her to jump or flinch. The golden bird on her shoulder continued to sing its trilling song. Telling her not to worry. All she had to do was stand up for herself and fight. Everything would be alright.

Soon the air around her was filled with the sound of dozens of golden birds. Aurora saw them flitting in through the eaves and windows and doorways. Joining in with her golden bird’s song. More continued to pour in and join the chorus. Soon it seemed there were hundreds. Filling every nook and cranny of the stable with their beautiful feathers and songs.

Her attention returned to the slug flying from the air. Now it was only an arm’s reach from her. She could have stretched out her finger and touched it. It mesmerized her. She turned and watched it continue its flight through the air as it floated past her.

Then she turned her attention back to Matt. He was still holding the gun in her direction.

Continue Reading Chapter 10 – Racing Horses

Chapter 10 – Racing Horses

Then she turned her attention back to Matt. He was still holding the gun in her direction. Leering at her as if waiting for the slug to tear through her. His look slowly turned to one of disappointment as he saw it missed her. She stepped over to the knife and reached down to pick it up.

From Aurora’s point of view, she wasn’t moving very fast, but everyone around her seemed to move exceptionally slow. From the men’s point of view, Aurora’s movements blurred together. They heard the gunshot. They saw her spin away. Then blur down to pick up the knife. And finally, standing right there in front of them. So effortlessly.

Matt tried to swing the gun around. He jabbed the weapon in her direction and pulled the trigger. But the girl was no longer in front of the gun. She had disappeared. The slug shot out of the barrel, causing his arms to jerk up.

The knife sliced cleanly through his wrist. His hand still gripping the gun for a brief second before dropping to the ground. It happened so fast that he didn’t even see it take place. Matt tried to wrap his mind around what he was seeing. One second, he was holding the gun, and the next second he was holding up a handless arm.

The weight of the gun pulled his other arm down. He let go of the gun and it fell to the ground. He didn’t even feel pain at first. As if the fact that his mind couldn’t process what was going on meant that it didn’t even know it was supposed to register pain.

Then, as if on cue, everything clicked. He understood that his hand had been severed from his body. The pain was excruciating. And he finally screamed. More in terror at the sight and rage towards the girl than the actual pain itself. But then the pain took over, and he slid to his knees, sobbing and groveling in the hay.

Nixon hadn’t waited around. As soon as he saw how fast the girl was moving, Nixon leaped on the horse standing to the side. He dug his heels into its ribs. The horse took off in a dead run. It was terrified by the ruckus and commotion. Ready to get away from the gunshots and screams.

Aurora watched Nixon ride toward the gate. The birds all seemed to turn in unison to watch him with her. She wanted to laugh at Nixon. It looked as if he and the horse were running through mud.

She glanced at her grandfather to make sure he was still okay. He was looking at her in awe. His eyes wide. Aurora smiled and patted him on the shoulder as she moved past him. She walked out through the open double doors, observing the dust rise lazily behind the horses’ pounding hooves.

As the girl bent forward into a run, the golden birds began to shoot out of the stable before her. Rocketing past her as she sprinted after the horse. The sunlight reflecting fiery light off their golden feathers. The shimmer made it look as if they were on fire. They were, and then they weren’t. Aurora wasn’t sure if their feathers were really on fire or if it was just the light playing tricks on her eyes.

Aurora didn’t feel like she was running that hard. It felt almost effortless. As if she were flying toward the horse carrying Nixon. Not even flying. It was more like soaring. The horse seemed to move so slowly that she caught up with it before it had gone another block.

She slapped the horse hard across the rump as she pulled up beside it. It was so surprised that the beast came to a hard stop. The horse dug its feet and skidded, throwing Nixon forward on the saddle as he tried to hang on.

But to Aurora, the beast seemed to be moving slowly. She watched Nixon struggle to hang on as his face slammed forward into the back of the horse’s neck. He spluttered and spat the horse’s mane out of his mouth.

The girl slapped the horse again. This time it kicked its legs out, throwing Nixon forward again. While Nixon’s momentum was propelling him forward, the horse was rearing up on its hind legs. Tossing him around like a rag doll.

Aurora slapped the horse again as it reared up. And it bucked and jumped until it had thrown Nixon over its head. Nixon landed on his back, the breath knocked out of him. But before he even hit the ground, he could see the girl already standing there, waiting for him to hit the ground. He watched her as he floated past her.

Then he got the wind knocked out of him, and he couldn’t breathe for several seconds. He tried to get up, but her fist cracked him on the side of his jaw. Three blows before he could even blink. Nixon screamed in pain. Her fists pummeled him up and down his body, his ribs, his sides, and his stomach.

Nixon begged for mercy.

Continue Reading Chapter 11 – Golden Bird

Chapter 11 – Golden Bird

Nixon begged for mercy. To Aurora, she wasn’t even moving that fast. She punched him, but he didn’t even groan. So she punched him several more times. After about the sixth or seven blow, Nixon finally started screaming. She stood up and waited for his brain to process the blows.

When he stopped writhing around on the ground, Aurora gave him one last kick for good measure. Just as he had done to the dead boy. Nixon didn’t even see her foot coming. He only felt the explosion of pain in his side.

“Please, don’t kill me,” he begged. “Please, just let me go home.”

Aurora picked him up by the nape of his neck and dragged him back to the stable. To her, it seemed as if she were walking normally. To Nixon though, it seemed as if someone had tied him to the horse and were dragging him through the street at a full gallop.

Grandpa and the stable boy’s mouths dropped when she dropped Nixon in front of them. They had seen Nixon yelling for mercy way down the street, and then suddenly he appeared at their feet.

Aurora dusted her hands off as the golden birds slowly began to fly away. She smiled at them as they went. The red light of sunset gleaming on their fiery golden feathers. Finally, only the original golden bird was still there. It chirped quietly as the sunset.

Grandpa and the stable boy helped her tie up Nixon and Matt. Matt was still blubbering about his hand as he clenched it, trying to press it back onto his wrist. They waited for the constable to show up. He seemed nervous when he saw the two men, and they glowered at him. Aurora wondered what he was going to do, but the sheriff was there.

The constable did his duty of placing them under arrest with the help of another colleague as the sheriff questioned grandpa about what had happened. They told Grandpa pretty much everything except the part about Aurora’s transformation into whatever that had been.

Grandpa had a reputation around town as a man not to be trifled with, and the sheriff had seen Aurora compete in races and fights. So, it didn’t seem to bother him that an old man and his granddaughter had beaten up two other men.

To Aurora’s surprise, the stable boy didn’t say anything, either. He just nodded and backed up grandpa’s story. Aurora thanked him after the sheriff and the constable had left.

Aurora and grandfather walked down the street toward their home. Grandfather finally asked her what had actually happened during those brief moments of the scuffle. She tried to tell him, but it was hard to explain. In his mind, everything had happened so fast that he had barely seen Aurora moving around.

“Look, that looks like the bird that came out of the clay jar. Only it’s a lot bigger than the jar. I guess it couldn’t have been that one.” Grandpa said, pointing to the golden bird that followed them down the street, still chirping and singing.

It surprised Aurora that he could see it, too. She had thought it was still just a part of her imagination since grandfather told her he had seen none of the other hundreds of birds that had flown into the stable.

“Yeah, it sure does,” she said with a smile. “Do you think if we take the pieces of the Firebird Jar to the Goulbern Mountain that your friend Lort can tell us what it is?”

Grandfather shrugged. “Maybe, but sometimes it’s more fun to figure things out for yourself instead of looking to others for answers. Give it a few days. You’re a smart girl. You might learn more just by observing and questioning things. If others provide all the answers, it can take the mystery out of life.”

Aurora paused at the steps to their home.

“Yes, sometimes a little mystery and adventure can be fun. But not too much. No more getting poisoned and beat up by bad guys. What are you going to do with the gun?” she asked.

“Play around with it. Observe it. Ask questions about it. Maybe I’ll hand it over to the sheriff. Maybe I’ll keep it in case Matt or Nixon come back and you’re not around to protect me with your golden firebirds.

“Oh, I’ll be around. Don’t worry. I’m not leaving your side, Grandfather. At least until I get married.”

Aurora gave her grandfather a hug and squeezed him tightly.

“But even then I’ll still protect you when you need it.”


Squire of Sarsuit

The sound of screams woke Jorgen from his nightmare. For that brief moment between sleep and wakefulness, he thought the screams had been part of his dream. But they dragged on. Endless in the night outside his window.

The seventeen-year-old lad leaped from his bed and pulled his jet-black, shoulder-length hair back from his face. As he scrambled to pull on a pair of loose-fitting, dark riding pants and a loose-fitting dark shirt. He didn’t know what was going on out there, but if he had to flee in the night, it would be best to blend in the darkness.

Crashing sounds grew louder and more menacing. He couldn’t be sure, but if Jorgen had to guess, it sounded like buildings were being razed from the North by something large that was moving in his direction.

Jorgen knew he needed to escape immediately. He didn’t bother to take time to put on his shoes. The lad grabbed them, along with his scabbard, and ran for the door. He joined the fleeing mob running down the street.

He glanced briefly over his shoulder to see a huge, leathery creature almost the height of a house coming behind them. Although the monster didn’t seem to be attempting to catch the people. It moved to a house and tore through the roof as if searching for something.

The crowd ran for the castle, and Jorgen ran with them. Although based on the creature’s immense size and strength, he wasn’t sure that the castle would be able to withstand a full-on attack if this strange beast decided to focus his attention on its walls.

When he arrived at his destination, the guards were already raising the drawbridge. People screamed to cross, but the guards waved them on and yelled for them to take cover in the woods.

Jorgen ran with all of his strength and prepared to attempt a leap across the short distance onto the slowly rising wooden bridge. It was only about three feet off the ground. A few desperate people were hanging onto the edge of the drawbridge, trying to clamber up onto the bridge as it continued to rise into the air.

He knew he could make the jump easily enough. The only thing he had to worry about was jumping far enough over a few people already ahead of him, so he didn’t knock them off into the dark waters of the moat below. Jorgen could see the reflection of the moonlight on the scales and fins of the Moatmorphins already teaming under the drawbridge, waiting for someone to lose their grip and drop into the midst of their feeding frenzy.

Some said that a former king and brought them from the eastern kingdoms. Others said that they had been created by magic specifically for the purpose of defending the castle from anyone attempting to swim across the murky waters.

A break appeared as one of the men hanging onto the drawbridge managed to scramble over the edge and slide down to the bottom. The guards at the gate didn’t lower it, but they had stopped raising it to allow this already clinging to it to pull themselves over before it became too difficult for them to make it over the edge.

Jorgen prepared to leap into his spot but saw a feeble, elderly woman and the child she was carrying at the edge of the embankment. She must have slipped at the edge as the drawbridge rose and was clinging there with one hand as she struggled to push the squalling child that couldn’t have been much older than three.

He reached down and grabbed the child by its flailing arms to drag it up to safety. Jorgen held onto it with one arm so the child didn’t slip back over the edge and reached down to help the elderly woman with his other arm.

“Thank you, young man. A million blessings be upon you in this life and the life to come for saving me life and the life of the child. If I had lost him, it would have been better for me to fall into that roiling mass of Moatmorphins than face her fury.”

Jorgen smiled and bid her well on her way. But by time he turned back to the drawbridge, everyone had lived over and the guards had begun raising it again. It was too high and too far out of reach for him to make the jump now. He actually thought he might have been able to make it with a running start, but it was too risky. Besides, he actually knew another way to get into the castle.

The crowd had scattered in all directions, seeking safety from the onslaught of the beast crushing roofs behind them. The elderly woman was hobbling along with the young child in tow. She was too weak and frail to carry it, and the kid was screaming and walking slowly, unaware of the danger behind it.

The elderly woman’s warm smile was all the thanks he needed as he grabbed the child up in one arm and helped her with the other. She thanked him gratefully over and over as they walked around the side of the castle to a secret entrance.

“You must swear to never tell anyone what I am about to show you. If you do, I will deny it.” Jorgen threatened her sternly.

He waited for her to promise that she wouldn’t ever tell anyone under any circumstance before he pulled back the bushes to lead her and the child through it. She gasped in pleasant surprise as he triggered the secret latch that caused the side of the building to swing open. She wanted to know if he was one of the royal spies.

“No, nothing like that,” Jorgen replied with a chuckle. “I just happened to overhear two drunk men talking a little too loudly in the kitchen one night as they came through one of the secret doors. I kept quiet, and they never realized I was there. After that, I began exploring the tunnels and passageways to learn my way around.”

Jorgen didn’t tell her he was one of the king’s armor squires. Nor did he tell her he had been brought here from Manisuk as a hostage. The king called him his ward, but Jorgen knew what it really meant. As long as his family kept their treaty with the king, he would live. If they ever broke their alliance with him, Jorgen would be decapitated and his head sent on a pike back to his relative as a warning. He had seen it happen to a few of the other wards in the palace over the years.

Not that Jorgen was overly worried about it. His family was peaceful and prospered under the king’s reign. He had never felt his life threatened previously. The lad served the king as best he could and took advantage of the opportunity to study and train with the other up-and-coming knights. He applied himself diligently and excelled at every challenge Lord Soren placed before him.

Jorgen led the elderly woman a short distance to an exit at the palace gardens where he knew the guards would send others who had crossed the drawbridge. He smiled and winked at her as he placed a silent finger over his lips. She smiled and clasped his hand with both of hers to express her gratitude. Then the elderly woman moved her fingers across her mouth to let him know her lips were sealed.

He jogged across the gardens, weaving his way through the small crowds that huddled there. Jorgen overheard them discussing what they had seen as they tried to piece together a complete description of the creature that was attacking the city.

It would have been nice to stay and listen to what they had to say, but he knew the king would be waiting for him. He was easily irritated, and the last thing Jorgen wanted was a good tongue-lashing at this unearthly hour of the morning.

“Where have you been, lad? What took you so long to get here? Do you know how hard it is to put this armor on by myself?” the king bellowed the moment Jorgen walked through the door.

He hurried forward and quickly helped King Karl don his armor. Just as they were leaving, a beautiful red-head burst breathlessly through the doors.

“What news have you brought, Naja?” the king demanded.

“Aye, I bring news, my lord, but I fear it is not good,” Naja said, still panting.

“Well, say on, woman. Don’t keep me waiting.”

“Tis a Silver-Eyed Smogpod that tears up the city, my lord.”

Jorgen wanted to roll his eyes at the formal way the king wanted everyone to speak in the castle. He never had though and simply pretended that it was too difficult for him to learn. Naja reveled and boasted in her ability to speak it fluently though. She had also been brought to the castle as one of King Karl’s wards.

Naja came from a kingdom to the south called Kangsatsarsuk. That wasn’t her real name, though. King Karl had named her Naja and ordered everyone to call her by that name. Jorgen didn’t know what her real name was. Just as she probably didn’t know his real name, either.

“Goodness gracious!” The king roared. “How in the world are we to rid our kingdom of this thing. I’ve heard they are almost impossible to kill.”

“Aye, my lord. Although I conferred with the royal mastermind as you ordered and learned some encouraging news.”

“Well, tell me. Spit it out, lass!” King Karl bellowed.

“I was told that there is a melancholy melody that when played on the flute or lyre will draw the Silver-Eyed Smogpod away. Someone could play the song and lead the creature back to the forest.”

“Splendid!” King Karl shouted with glee as he clapped his hands together.

“Find a minstrel who can play this tune. No, find several. Send them out to draw this furious creature away from my castle. Meantime, I shall prepare the soldiers for battle your strategy doesn’t work.”

Naja bowed and spun to leave. Her coppery red hair glowed in the light as she left, setting off her dark blue dress perfectly. She smiled at him before leaving, and his heart sang as he watched her leave.

“Come, Jorgen!” King Karl ordered. “Tis not the time for swooning. I fear her little song will do naught to dissuade this vile beast from tearing apart our city. Let us prepare for war.”

The king marched out the door with his helmet under his arm. This long, black cape trimmed with gold snapped sharply as he spun toward the door and marched toward the royal hall. The king was an enormous man. Big and bulky. He was a heavy man, but not fat. His long legs chewed up the distance down the hall, and Jorgen had to rush to keep up with him.

Blond-headed Soren, the king’s right-hand man, was already there, waiting. Martin and Niels, the brothers from Eqalugartaq were also there. They were all older than Jorgen, and like him, they had all been wards at one point in time.

Now they had become the king’s trusted warriors. Knights trained in his castle, who had grown up under his care, tutelage, and command. And all had demonstrated admirable courage and skill. To be like them was Jorgen’s greatest aspiration. Someday, he hoped to serve as a knight in King Karl’s royal guard.

“Hail, King Karl!” the men shouted as the king strode into the hall.

Once again, Jorgen wanted to roll his eyes at their exaggerated show of formality. It’s not like there was even anyone around to perform for. They were just buttering up the king to remain in his good graces.

“Come, men! To the walls. Let us view what havoc this foul monster from the fathoms of the deepest forest has wrought upon our city.”

The knights all jostled to fall into line directly behind the king. Soren managed to get ahead of the brothers as they pushed and bumped each other out of the way. They weren’t as blond and fair as Soren. Their hair was a darker shade of blonde, almost a light brown.

They were identical twins, but Jorgen could tell them apart because Martin kept his hair a little longer. He was the smarter of the two and very pragmatic towards life. Niels, on the other hand, carried a little more muscle on his bulkier frame and was very intense, no matter what task he was performing. He threw himself into it with vigor and gusto.

Jorgen was taken aback by the scene before him. Houses were in shambles. Some stoves had been knocked over in the destruction and the fires were blazing away and consuming them rapidly. A flickering orange glow reflected off the haze of smoke that had begun to gather over the city.

He could see the vile beast wreaking havoc in yet another house as it tore apart the roof and stuck its head inside the building.

“Soren, take the archers and prepare them to fire at my command. Martin, you prepare the lancers and swordsmen. Niels, find horses for as many of them as can ride. You will lead the cavalry. We must be ready to attack swiftly.”

Each of the men nodded and trotted off as soon as their orders had been delivered. The king turned to Jogen and looked him in the eye.

“And as for you, young Jorgen, it is time for you to lead a group of your own. Hurry down to help Lady Naja and the minstrels. Take them each a swift horse. Be their eyes and ears. You have been here long enough to know the city well. Lead this evil beast down the broadest streets where it can do little damage. Preferably past homes that have already been destroyed. Lead it away from the city and toward the forest. If the creature gets too close, though, order them to scatter and flee for their lives. Do all that is in your power to help them fulfill their task.”

Jorgen bowed and trotted away quickly as the others had. He felt pleased that King Karl had seen fit to give him his own mission. At the same time, he felt a twinge of nervousness. This was his first time actually being in charge of his own group.

But there was no time to ponder these things. He made a beeline for the nearest secret entrance and used it to cut across to the courtyard, where he crossed to the stable. He ordered the stable boys to prepare four horses for riding. Jorgen chose the quickest and most sure-footed creatures himself.

These were the king’s own horses, and they were the best in all the kingdom. Riding was one of Jorgen’s favorite pastimes, and he knew each horse’s strengths and weaknesses. When they were ready, he led them to the front of the castle.

He saw Naja and her two minstrels standing with a small band of guards at the castle gate. Jorgen called her name as he rode up with the horses.

“Jorgen, where are you going?”

“King Karl bid me ride with you. The horses will be quick and sure-footed in case the Smogpod doesn’t like your tune.”

Naja’s laugh was musical and light. He felt his heart pounding with joy at her reaction. The knights helped her mount one of the horses. One of the minstrels mounted a horse quickly as well. The other, however, admitted that she had never ridden a horse before.

Jorgen couldn’t imagine how it could be possible that someone not know how to ride a horse, but he suggested that one of the knights come along with them to help her. She smiled coyly at a young knight named Sir John who promptly hopped up onto the horse. Then Sir John helped her climb up to sit behind him.

The minstrel wrapped her arms tightly around the knight and smiled a little too much. Jorgen had the sneaking suspicion that the pretty young minstrel really did know how to ride. She was just taking advantage of the situation to spend some time with the handsome knight. He didn’t begrudge her the opportunity, however, it just didn’t seem like hunting monsters was the most appropriate time to be out romancing her beau.

As soon as the drawbridge came down, Jorgen led the group quickly through the gate and down through the city streets. They could hear the beast crashing around the city down near the marketplace. He did as the king commanded and moved along the widest streets until they came close enough to see the Smogpod.

The beast pulled its head out of yet another roof that it had smashed in roared into the night sky. The horses became skittish, and didn’t want to move any closer to the ferocious monster.

It was the first time Jorgen had gotten a good look at it. The Smogpod was bigger than he had first thought because it stooped over as it moved about. Its long arms were thick and muscular, with long, bony fingers and sharp pointed nails.

It looked as if its father had been a gorilla and its mother a giant lizard. When it opened its mouth in a roar of challenge in their direction, Jorgen could see multiple rows of sharp teeth waiting to devour them and their horses. Sir John kept a straight face, but the women all cringed at the sound it made. It let off a loud shriek at the end of its roar along with a series of chirps.

“Well, ladies. It’s time to see if your musical ruse works to draw it away. Lady Naja and Lady Kristina, if you’ll give me your reins, I can lead your horses so your hands are free to play your instruments.”

Lady Naja lifted the flute to her beautiful lips and began to play the haunting melody as the minstrels joined her. Kristina played her lyre. Dorthe played a stringed instrument that Jorgen had never seen before.

The Smogpod cocked its head and began to move in their direction. Jorgen picked up his pace, leading the women’s horses behind him. The hideous beast continued to move in their direction, knocking over houses until it reached the street.

Lady Naja and her minstrels continued to play without pause, but the creature didn’t follow them down the road to leave the city. It cocked its head and roared at them again. Then it turned to look back at the city in the direction of the castle.

“No! No! No!” Jorgen yelled. “This way. This is the way you want to go.”

Smogpod lowered its head and replied to his yell with a scream of its own. Then it let off that same strange screech at the end with a series of chirps before turning to walk down the street in the opposite direction. When it came to the next house along the way, it shrieked again and tore through the roof.

The minstrels were still playing. Jorgen raised his hand for Lady Naja to give it a rest.

“It’s not gonna work. You’ll either have to find another tune that it enjoys.”

“But I don’t understand,” she whispered. “The king’s mages assured me that this tune would mesmerize the creature and draw it away from the city. Lady Juliane told me she had seen this used once by hunters who were attempting to lure a Smogpod out of the woods.”

Jorgen shrugged. “I guess that it just didn’t like the song.”

“Either that or else it’s desperate to find whatever it’s looking for,” Lady Kristina answered.

“Yes,” Lady Naja agreed. “It’s intent on finding something that it thinks is inside one of those houses.”

Sir John slid down from his horse and unleashed an arrow from his bow. The Smogpod was far down the street and he had a small riding bow, so the arrow didn’t seem to have much effect on the creature. The arrow flew low and bounced off the back of its hind leg. He shot a second and third arrow higher in quick succession.

The second arrow found its mark and dug into the Smogpod’s ribs on the left side. The monster let out a loud shriek of annoyance and swatted at it. It didn’t come out, which irritated the beast. It then grabbed the arrow with its claws and pulled it out. After tossing the arrow to the ground, the Smogpod hissed in their direction.

“Tis no brute beast for sure. Methinks it’s quite intelligent.” Lady Dorthe said, not wanting to be left out of the conversation.

“Aye, it knew we were responsible for the pain it felt,” Sir John muttered.

“It’s better we let the archers take it down with their longbows from the safety of the castle walls. They’ll do more damage as well as have the effect of multiple simultaneous hits. Let’s head back and report to the king.”

Jorgen tossed the reins of the horses he had been leading back to the ladies. Then spun his horse around to lead his little band back to the castle through the allies of the city he had come to know so well and loved as his own.

“You were so brave, Sir John,” he overheard Dorthe cooing to her knight.

He looked over at Lady Naja and rolled his eyes. She just smiled and winked at him.

“You were brave too, Sir Jorgen,” she murmured quietly.

When they returned to the castle, Jorgen left the horses with one of the guards to return to the stables. He found the king up on top of the walls with Soren and the archers who were prepared to shoot. Jorgen quickly filled them in on what had taken place.

King Karl sighed, “As I suspected. I figured Naja’s plan wouldn’t work. But we were hopeful at the attempt.”

“At least we know that the infernal reptilian’s skin isn’t as thick as a dragon’s. We’ll pierce it through with arrows until it looks like a porcupine.” Soren growled threateningly.

Jorgen felt a hint of sadness flush through him. Sure, the creature was destroying the city, and they needed to stop it. But he didn’t get the impression that the beast was trying to harm them or kill anyone. As soon as it found what it was looking for, it would leave of its own accord.

King Karl headed to the royal hall to speak with his counselors and check in with the mages before engaging the monster. Jorgen followed along. The royal hall was abuzz with chatter. Everyone stood around Naja who had just finished giving them her account of their failure to lure the beast out with music.

They quieted when they saw the king striding toward his dais. Karl threw himself onto his throne, as if exhausted. He looked as if he hadn’t gotten any sleep before this early morning madness had begun.

“Come, my counselors. Share with me your sage advice before we take action. As Lady Naja has told you, plan A failed to remove this feral beast from our city. Even as we speak, this monster continues to destroy our homes. If we fail to act, it will tear down every home one by one.”

“Your archers stand at the ready, my lord king. Do they not? Let them fire upon this beast and take it down now before it destroys another home.”

“Aye, they do. However, the beast has not yet come within shooting distance. If we leave the safety of the castle walls, we run the risk of the creature tearing into their midst and either killing or maiming them before we annihilate it.”

“I agree, my lord king,” Lady Juliane spoke up. “This foul creature is a danger to us all. We all want to put an end to its rampage, but we should be very careful before sending men out to their death.”

“So, what do you suggest, my lady?” King Karl asked. “Even though you are not a knight or a warrior, you know I value your wise suggestions.”

Jorgen wanted to groan at all this flattery and buttering up that took place among the nobles. Why couldn’t they just speak freely and say what they thought?

“If we can’t draw the beast away from the city, then we must attract it closer to the castle walls so that the arrows of the archers find their mark.” Lady Juliane said.

“Aye, but that is the question. The crux of the matter. How can we draw it close? What will attract it in this direction so that it stops what it is doing long enough to come close. We must also consider that if we shoot as soon as it gets close enough, all it has to do is turn back out of reach of our arrows. It is necessary to wait until it gets close before shooting at it.”

A familiar scent that Jorgen recognized hit his nostrils. The sweet smell of lilacs. Jorgen turned to find Lady Naja standing next to him. She leaned in so close that her arm was brushing against his.

“I don’t trust that woman,” she whispered in his ear. “She’s up to no good. It was her suggestion to lure the Smogpod out with music. I think she knows more than she is letting on. Juliane is playing the king for a fool.”

Jorgen nodded. “This isn’t a random attack. Smogpod is searching for something.”

He looked up to notice that everyone was silent. The king was looking in his direction with a bemused smile.

“Jorgen, you braved the fierce beast and stop face-to-face with it. Do you have a suggestion or bit of wisdom that you care to share with us?”

The young man smiled nervously at the attention and started to shake his head. The king raised his eyebrows and cocked his head, waiting expectantly. Jorgen sighed.

“My lord king, when we were riding toward that creature, I did get a good look at it. I looked deep into its burning eyes. As the minstrels played their melody, the creature did in fact begin to follow us. But then it turned to look back as if something stronger than the melody had its attention.”

“And what do you think that was, lad?” the king asked.

Jorgen could tell that King Karl was intrigued by his insight. The king didn’t rush him but waited encouragingly for Jorgen to process his thoughts and put them into words. Jorgen was pleased with his choice of words. Even though he hated the flowery prose of formality, Jorgen knew the nobles ate it up.

“It seeks something, my lord. The way it searches from house to house. It tears off the roof and looks inside. It lets off a shrill shriek and then chirps several times at each home. Almost as if calling for something.”

Jorgen’s voice trailed off at the realization of his own words. The memory of the elderly woman and young child he helped at the drawbridge. Something she said stuck in his head. How had she worded it?

If the child died, she didn’t want to face its mother. It would be better to die herself than to face the wrath and grief of the childless mother. Jorgen didn’t remember her exact words, but it was something to that effect.

“Jorgen?” the king finally asked after a long period of silence. “You seem to have realized something that may help us.”

Jorgen smiled and nodded excitedly. “I believe this is a mother that lost her child. And for whatever reason, it thinks that someone from this village has hidden it in their home.”

King Karl stroked his beard and listened intently as Jorgen retold the story of the woman and child. He could sense Lady Naja’s interest and attention. He was acutely aware of her hand resting lightly on the back of his arm as she listened to his story.

“Hm! So, that’s why our young hero took so long to arrive at the castle. Well, I guess I can forgive your delay then. But if your assumption is correct how do we find her child to return it to her.”

King Karl looked around the room and let the small crowd discuss ideas among themselves. Lady Juliane was the first to speak up again.

“My lord king, surely you don’t entertain this boy’s foolish notion? You remember what his father was like. Lets’ be reasonable.”

Jorgen’s face burned and felt the sting of her words cutting through him. They didn’t even make much sense. How did she know about his father? And what did that have to do with his suggestion that the creature was looking for its young?

“It’s not a foolish suggestion,” Lady Naja spoke up. “The same thought crossed my mind. It reminded me of the mother ducks we raised when I was a child who called and her ducklings came waddling back to her.”

“Don’t be daft, child,” Juliane scoffed. “That monster is nothing like a duck.”

“Why do you attack us personally if you don’t agree with our idea,” Lady Naja retorted hotly, her green eyes blazing. “If it a bad idea, tell us why.”

“I just think it’s silly,” Julian said with a sniff.

“Uh, it does make sense, Lady Juliane,” King Karl said. “It would explain why she didn’t follow the minstrels out of the city. The urge to find her young would have been more powerful than a mesmerizing melody.”

Juliane continued to scowl and fidget with the hem of her sleeve.

“So, the question is, who took the Smogpod’s young? And if we give them back to her, will she return home and leave us alone?” Lars asked.

“But who would be so foolish as to rob a Smogpod of its brood?” the king asked.

“Perhaps they didn’t know what it was. Maybe a hunter thought it was a small reptile. They could have thrown it into the pot and eaten it for supper.” Soren laughed in scorn. “If it’s already doing that kind of damage, I wonder what the mother will do when she finds their bones.”

“Well, we’ve been sitting and discussing this far too long. Spread the word and see if anyone has seen or heard anything about Smogpod broodlings within the city. Hopefully, someone has some information.” King Karl said as he dismissed the crowd to carry out his command.

Jorgen had an idea and spoke up. “My lord king, if you will permit me to speak once again.”

“Say on, lad,” the king said with a wave of his hand, motioning for Jorgen to speak.

“If some hunter knows the sound a Smogpod young makes and can imitate them, perhaps that would be the melody that the mother would be willing to leave the city for.”

“Brilliant idea, my boy. Spread the word people. Gather what information you can and bring me news swiftly. We have no time to lose.”

The crowd scattered, and the hall was soon silent. The king grunted as he stood wearily and walked for the door.

“Good thinking, Jorgen. You’ll make a fine addition to my ring of counselors once you are an adult and no longer under my ward.”

The king’s warm words of praise rang like music in Jorgen’s ears, and his heart felt like it was bursting with pride. Then a troubling thought crossed his mind.

“Sir, if I may ask, what did Lady Juliane mean about my father?”

Karl was walking quickly ahead of Jorgen, so he couldn’t see the king’s face clearly. However, it seemed to him that the king becomes quite uncomfortable and agitated. He picked up his pace and cleared his throat a few times before answering.

“It’s nothing, my boy. You are my ward and you know what that means. But don’t let it trouble you. Lady Juliane was just jealous that she didn’t come up with your idea herself. That’s the way she is. If the idea is solid, she attempts to attack your character to make others doubt you.”

There was a brief pause, and the king chuckled.

It’s the oldest trick in the book. Just wait till you get married. Wives are masters at using those kinds of tactics to manipulate their husbands. I should know. I have three of them myself.”

Jorgen smiled politely, but his mind was busy analyzing Lady Juliane’s words. He sensed intuitively that the king was dodging the question. He knew there was more, much more, to what the woman’s words had meant.

The Smogpod had continued its path through the city. The creature was farther from the castle than it had been previously. Broken houses with roofs torn off lay in its wake. It continued ravaging homes and huts in its desperate search.

“But why had it risked coming here into the city? What was it looking for?” Jorgen wondered.

The king spoke up, breaking through his reverie.

“Men, this vile villain seems to be most intelligent. It is aware of the danger we pose to it here in the castle and avoids us as it continues its ferocious rampage. Let us prepare to take the battle to the Smogpod and fell it before it razes the entire city.”

The archers fell into formation along the walls. Jorgen could see the cavalry and foot soldiers in the courtyard do the same.

Just then there was a shout and a young woman came running up to the king with a knight right on her heels.

“I’m sorry, my lord king. This fair maiden rushed at you without heeding my orders to halt.”

The knight seemed quite miffed that she hadn’t obeyed him, and he grabbed her by the elbow to lead her away. The king raised his hand, and the knight let go of her.

“Calm down, sir knight, in your haste to stop her. It seems something troubles her. She is unarmed and may have urgent news for us.” King Karl said with a smile.

The knight nodded and stepped back, but kept his hand on the hilt of her sword in case she made an attempt on the king’s life.

“Say on lady,” the king said with a smile. “What troubles your beautiful heart?”

The girl was panting from her hurry to get to the king, and she was still trying to catch her breath.

“My lord king, I heard that some think that fearful beast tearing apart our city is a mother looking for its younglings,” she said in between heaving breaths.

“You speak true words, my fair lady,” the king said. “The young Jorgen here first came up with this theory based on upon his brave observations when he first faced this dreadful monster.”

“Oh, my. What a brave, young man. And quite handsome at that.” she murmured and flashed Jorgen a beautiful smile.

“Yes, but pray tell what bit of news you have for my ears,” the king said.

“Yes, of course, my lord king. I should have told you right away instead of babbling on about a fair knight in this midst of this danger as this scandalous monster razes the homes of our dear neighbors.”

“Yes, of course. You are forgiven, my lady. Please, say on and tell us your news.”

“Of course, my lord king,” the lass said with a curtsey. “So, at supper, I overheard my father talking with my mother. Well, she’s not really my mother, anyway. She is his wife because my mother died. So, she’s really my stepmother. But I still call her mother.”

Jorgen bit his tongue and closed his eyes so that no one would see him rolling them back in his head in exasperation.

“Yes, it’s okay. I understand. Please say on.” the king said, noticing Jorgen’s closed eyes. “Jorgen, do you feel alright? I know you have had little sleep tonight. I’m exhausted myself. Do you feel the need to lie down?”

The young man’s eyes flared open, and he smiled at the king as he shook his head. He said nothing for fear that the king would begin interrogating him. Jorgen just wanted the girl to hurry and tell them what she had come to say.

“Please, continue, my lady. You were about to tell us what your father said to your stepmother.”

“Yes, my lord king. So my father told her that he saw a weird man entering the North Gate with a cart. Father thought little of it, but he swung by the tavern before coming home. While he was there, he overheard the man muttering to himself as he sat in the corner.”

“That is strange,” he replied and waving his hands, encouraging the girl to continue her story.

“And you know, Father talks to everyone. He never meets a stranger. So, he exchanged a few words with this man. The man was nervous and coy with his answers. But father bought him a few rounds, and he began to open up. Father said he didn’t hold his liquor very well. He became quite tipsy and as time wore on, this man spoke freely.”

“Of course,” the king murmured. “It’s only proper that one should open up and talk if another is buying you a round of ale. So, what did the man tell your father?”

Jorgen could tell that the king’s patience was wearing thin. He was trying to remain patient and friendly. His voice was a little snappier at the end as he tried to get her to tell them the bottom line. More so than usual. Yet still, he tried to remain polite and flowery in his words.

“Well, then the man told father he was delivering eggs,” she replied, finally taking the hint and tell the king what he wanted to hear.

“Eggs,” the king roared in exasperation.

His voice thinly veiled his exasperation and annoyance at having gone through this entire conversation to have been told something so mundane. King Karl spun and called for Soren.

“Prepare the archers and begin marching them out front of the direction the beast is headed. Send scouts to find some high ground. Preferably somewhere that offers an excellent view of the beast within range of their arrows. And that offers protection.”

“But sir, I haven’t finished telling you the rest of my Father’s story,” the young woman said.

“Yes, please continue, my lady,” the king sighed. “But I must beg you to summarize anything not pertinent to what I must know to deal with this creature because the men are preparing to attack.”

“Yes, my lord,” the charinged girl said, nodding quickly. “I understand your hurry and will tell you everything you need to know as quickly as possible. I shall tell you the facts you need to know to make an informed decision.”

Jorgen wanted to roll his eyes and bob his head as she prattled on.

“Anyway, to make a long story as short as possible, Father learned that this man was making a delivery of eggs to the city under very strange circumstances. However, the weird, little man wouldn’t give Father many details. He didn’t tell Father what the eggs were for or where they were coming from or even who ordered them.”

The king nodded and waved his hands together as he bobbed his head. He took a deep breath and sighed as he looked around to make sure Soren was doing as he commanded, as the girl continued talking.

“When the man got up to leave, Father followed him outside. He offered to buy some eggs, but the man said they were all spoken for. He acted strangely, as if he didn’t want father to see them. So, Father pretended to go back inside the tavern. After the man continued on his way, Father followed him from a distance. The man stopped once to urinate because he had drunk so much ale. While he was occupied, Father snuck up and peeked in his cart. He had to dig through the straw to find them.”

“Yes, and what did your father find in the cart? Did he find Smogpod younglings?” the king asked, unable to contain himself any longer.

“No, of course, he found eggs in the cart, just as the man said,” the girl replied sweetly.

That was almost too much for the king. “What? Please, tell me what this has to do with the Smogpod, my dear lady?”

King Karl was clenching and unclenching his fists in exasperation. Protocol dictated that he should let the woman finish her story. But his nerves were wearing thin.

“It’s just that the eggs were large. Much larger than chicken eggs. Much larger than ostrich eggs. Even larger than the great gray hens of Oqatlaq up along the great Northern mountains.”

“Hm! So you think these may have been Smogpod eggs?” the king’s voice rumbled. “What happened then?”

“Well, Father continued to follow the weird man. He said that he followed the man pushing the cart all the way here to the castle.”

“What! Here?” the king roared. “Here, to my castle! Does that mean the Smogpod will come here and tear the castle down looking for its eggs? Why didn’t your father warn us?”

The poor girl was almost in tears.

“Please, my lord king. Be not angry with my father. He thought the eggs had been ordered for the feast of the full moon. Father told mother that those three eggs were big enough to feed an army. He thought you were a lucky man to eat such delicacies.”

“No, I did not order giant eggs for the feast of the full moon,” the king roared in exasperation. “Jorgen! Fetch me the royal cook or anyone in the kitchen that knows about these giant eggs.”

Jorgen raced off to the kitchen as the king roared for Soren to have the knights round up the guards who had been on watch at the gate earlier that evening, who might have seen a weird, drunk man pushing a cart.

The cook and assistants all denied having received a cart of giant eggs. Jorgen took a quick look in the pantries and cupboards, as well as anywhere else that might have been large enough to hide three giant eggs. But he came up empty-handed.

When he returned to report to the king, a trembling guard was apologizing profusely.

“I did see a man who matched this description. He came pushing a cart. Told me he was making a delivery of eggs. I thought little it. Delivery people come through these gates all the time.”

“And did you not think it strange that he was making a delivery at night?” the king growled in irritation.

Jorgen had never seen the king so irritated.

“I assumed that there was a shortage of eggs,” the man stammered. “Or perhaps, that you, my lord, desired some dish that required more eggs that the kitchen had available,” the man stammered in a pleading voice.

“Who did he say the delivery was for?” the king asked.

“He didn’t say, my lord king,” the man said.

The king sighed in exasperation.

“But, I did see Lady Juliane talking with him shortly afterward,” the guard said, his countenance brightening. “Perhaps she may know.”

“Jorgen, fetch me Lady Juliane,” he roared when he saw the boy standing beside him.

The young squire rushed off to find the king’s counselor. She wasn’t in her chambers, but he found her in the king’s kitchen, talking with one of the butlers in a hushed voice. She seemed surprised that the king wanted to see her. Jorgen thought that she even seemed a little nervous.

“What does the king want with me?” she demanded to know.

Jorgen just shrugged. He wasn’t about to tell her any more than necessary. She was a shrewd woman, and he didn’t want to give her any time to prepare for King Karl’s interrogation. Besides, he was still angry at the way she had attacked him and Lady Naja’s personal character just because she didn’t like their idea that Smogpod was a mother looking for her young.

“What did you mean earlier when you reminded the king of what my father was like?” Jorgen asked abruptly.

Lady Juliane didn’t turn to look at him, but he could tell that she was watching him from the corner of her eyes. He got the impression that she was trying to keep a smug smirk off her face.

“Don’t worry about it, lad. Things are never what they seem.”

“The way you spoke of my father. It felt as if you were speaking of someone long gone. Someone who was no longer alive.”

“Well, my lad, tell me what you know of your father?” she said as they turned down a dark hall where the torches hadn’t yet been lit. Jorgen pulled a torch off the wall so they continue on their way.

“My father is Chief Atanarjuat of the Manisuk. His name means Fast Runner. He is one of the greatest chiefs our people have ever known. They sing songs about him around the campfires at night.”

“Do you remember your father?” Lady Juliane asked.

“No, my lady. I was only a small child when I was brought here as the king’s ward. I do not remember my father, nor my mother, nor any of my siblings.”

“Have you ever met them? Or even seen them?”

Jorgen shook his head. “No, my lady. The castle is the only home I have ever known and the people here the only family I have ever had.”

“Do you not find that strange, Jorgen? Other wards are visited by their families. They are even permitted to visit their old homes.”

“Not really. I never gave it much thought. The other wards come from noble families and enormous castles. My people live in tribes that roam the lands around the mountains during the summer and near the sea in the winter. My family isn’t like the families of the other wards.”

“And yet, you never felt the desire to meet your family?” Lady Juliane persisted.

“Of course, when I was young. But I don’t think about it much anymore. Some day, I suppose the king will allow me to visit my family. Once I become a knight and gain my independence.”

“Yes, of course,” the tall, gracefully woman said quietly.

But by the tone of her voice, Jorgen could tell that she doubted it. He glanced at her and still had the feeling that she was attempting to keep that same smug smirk off her face.

They turned down the main hall leading to the courtyard, which was well lit. Jorgen paused to place the torch on the wall. He pondered what Lady Juliane had said. Jorgen didn’t understand it, but sensed that there was a deeper meaning behind her words. He tried asking her a few questions, but each time she changed the topic with standard bits of castle gossip.

When Jorgen returned to Karl, the king was fit to be tied. He was ranting and raging as the knights looked on glumly. The king whirled to face Lady Juliane.

“Who was the drunk man you were speaking to earlier this evening?” King Karl roared.

“Excuse me, my lord?” she replied meekly.

“Don’t play me for the fool, Lady Juliane,” the king bellowed. “I was told that you had a cart full of Smogpod eggs delivered to the castle. That’s why that beast is tearing up our city. And that is why you dismissed Jorgen and Lady Naja’s ideas earlier. Because. You. Didn’t. Want. Me. To. Find. Out!”

A strange smile flickered across Lady Juliane’s pale face.

“My, my! How fast the little birds do fly around the castle this night carrying bits of news.”

“Is this true, Lady Juliane?” King Karl demanded.

Jorgen thought she would deny. Surely she feared the king’s fury. Even if it were true, Lady Juliane would deny it. There was no way she would admit to being responsible for bringing this attack on the city. Or so he thought. To his surprise, she admitted it.

“Yes, my lord king. As you were told, I did have three Smogpod eggs brought into the city.”

The king was outraged. His face went livid. He couldn’t speak. Jorgen was absolutely flabbergasted. He looked from the king to Lady Juliane and back to the king again.

“And what in the world did you do with those eggs?” the king finally managed to gasp.

“Why, I ate them, of course. Why else would I have ordered Smogpod eggs, my king?”

“You ate them, you say? You say you ate them?” King Karl said, repeating himself as he tried to process this information. “What did you do a thing like that for? Did you not think of the consequences?”

“I’m only joking, my king. I did not eat the Smogpod’s eggs. And no, I did not think that the Smogpod would follow its eggs here.”

The king was so furious he could hardly speak. He paced back and forth along the rampart several times before suddenly stopping and fixing his eyes on Lady Juliane.

“Why did you not tell us you had the eggs as soon as you knew it had arrived? Instead, you made up that entire story about playing some stupid melody to draw it back into the woods. Yet you knew it was here looking for the eggs you had taken.”

“I, I…” Lady Juliane stammered. The smirk wiped from her face.

“You what, Lady Juliane,” the king lowered his voice into a growl.

“I was afraid, your royal highness,” Lady Juliane said quietly. “I hoped you would deal with the beast quickly, before it did much damage. And yet you sit here like a coward instead of rushing out to face it like Jorgen’s father would have done.”

Jorgen looked at her in confusion. What was she getting at?

“Lady Juliane, I’m warning you,” he said, pointing a finger in her face.

“Or what, Karl. Or you’ll kill me too? It’s too late. You’ll be dead before the day is done and another will rule in your stead.”

The king looked at her in confusion. Jorgen thought that the king’s face turned an even deeper shade of livid, as if that were somehow even possible.

“Have you gone mad, Lady Juliane? How dare you utter such words?” King Karl bellowed in rage. “Guards throw her in the deepest, darkest dungeon. Do not permit anyone to remove her until we’ve had a chance to deal with this churlish Smogpod monster. Then I will deal with your treachery myself, lady.”

“As you wish, my lord. However, I don’t think I shall see you again in this life.” Lady Juliane said with a sweet smile.

“Oh, you’ll see me alright in this life,” the king screamed in fury. “My face will be the last thing you see as the royal executioner cuts off your head tomorrow.”

The king turned toward the destruction taking place in the distance and screamed again in rage as the guards led Lady Juliane away.

“Wait,” the king shouted as he spun back around. “You didn’t eat the eggs, you say? Then where are they?”

Lady Juliane looked over her shoulder and smiled, but didn’t stop walking. The guards who had stopped at the king’s command had to hurry to catch up with her.

“Don’t let that woman go. Stop her!”

The king trotted over and changed his tone. “Come, Lady Juliane. This was all just a misunderstanding. I apologize for my anger and harsh words. Of course, you didn’t know the Smogpod would come. Tell us where you placed the eggs and we will let you go. We can put a stop to this mess and all will be well.”

“Suck Smogpod, Karl,” Lady Juliane said with a smile and added, “Your royal highness.”

King Karl roared in fury again and screamed for the guards to drag her away. “You’ll never see my face again, woman. Not even when the royal executioner cuts your head off.”

The king continued to rant and rave. He stormed around and kicked at the parapets.

“Uh, my lord,” Soren interrupted him. “Should we move the men to attack the Smogpod?”

“Has the Smogpod actually killed anyone yet?” the king asked with a sigh from where he leaned against one of the merlons.

“No, my lord. No reports have come in yet of anyone having been attacked or killed directly by the Smogpod. So far it has only destroyed houses and buildings.”

The king ran his fingers through his hair and signed, “Then it is true. Young Jorgen was right. The mother seeks her eggs.”

“So, what would you have us do, my lord?” Soren asked. “The beast seems to be changing direction and coming this way.”

“Send everyone to sweep the castle. Search every room from top to bottom. Direct the knights so they aren’t backtracking or searching the same areas. If we can find the eggs, perhaps the Smogpod will leave the city.”

“But, sir, with all due respect, we could attack and kill it much more quickly. We may not find the creature’s eggs. And even if we did, would we want more of these monsters being bred?”

The king ran his fingers through his hair once again and pondered Soren’s words.

“Sir Soren, have you ever heard tales of anyone killing a Smogpod?” the king asked.

“No, my lord. Dragon’s of course. But never a story of a knight slaying a Smogpod. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”

The king snorted.

“When a knight slays a dragon, minstrels across the kingdoms sing of his bravery and courage. I have never heard a single song of a knight anywhere in the known history of mankind that ever slew a Smogpod. Which either means that they never tried or, if they did, never lived to tell the tale. Now, so far, this creature hasn’t attacked any person. No lives have been lost. I would like to keep it that way. We can rebuild the city, but we can’t raise the dead. I would prefer we find those Smogpod eggs and return them to their mother. We can have it followed and find its lair later. Then if you desire to be the first knight to have minstrels sing songs about his victory over a Smogpod, you shall have my blessing to slay it.”

“Yes, my lord king,” Soren said with a bow. He turned to order the men to search the castle for the Smogpod eggs.

Jorgen joined the men in the search for the eggs. But instead of running off randomly to search hidden corners of the castle, he wanted to be strategic. He first asked interrogated the young lady who had brought news to the king of what her father had seen.

He hoped to get a description of the man and possibly even locate him. But she didn’t know much more about the weird, drunk man her father had followed to the castle. She didn’t even know where her father had disappeared to in the mad melee as everyone escaped in the night. They had gotten separated in the crowd. She had hoped to find them in the castle, but hadn’t seen them since arriving. She hoped they had safely escaped the city until things settled back down.

Next, Jorgen questioned the guard, who had claimed to see the man entering the castle with the cart. His description was vague. The knight said that he had been about the same height as the king, although perhaps a little shorter. He walked slowly, with his shoulders hunched over. He had silvery-white hair down to his shoulders, with a short beard that matched the color of his hair.

But that was about all the knight could remember. Nor did he remember seeing the man leave the castle later.

“Perhaps he is still around,” the king mused, and ordered the knights to spread the word. “Be on the lookout for this strange fellow.”

Next, Jorgen went down to the dungeon to speak with Lady Juliane.

“Ah, young Jorgen. I hoped to see you before things got out of hand,” the woman said with a pleasant smile.

“Please, my lady, tell me where these eggs are kept so that we can return them to the Smogpod and rid the city of this foul beast.”

Lady Juliane reached out through the bars of her dungeon cell and traced the side of his face with her finger.

“So, much like you father, may he rest in peace,” she murmured.

“But my father yet lives,” Jorgen replied, pulling back at her words. “Please, just tell me where the eggs are. What have you done with them?”

The woman gave him a sad smile and pulled her hand back inside her cell.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, young Jorgen. Plans have been set into motion. There are forces at play that cannot be undone. But fear not. Once all has been said and done, and the events have played themselves out, I will explain everything.”

“Will you live long enough to tell me? I fear the king plans to execute you as soon as he rids the city of this monster,” the squire said.

Lady Juliane shrugged and backed away from him toward the far wall. She slid down against it until she was seated on the floor.

“Let’s hope that he is unsuccessful until my help arrives,” she replied.

“Please, Lady Juliane. The city is being torn apart even now as we speak. Surely this isn’t what you intended. Have mercy on the poor villagers. Winter will be here shortly. Think of their families and their suffering.” Jorgen pleaded.

She just shrugged. “I do. This is justice. This is no different from what King Jorgan does when he sends his armies out to conquer other cities to expand his borders and increase his wealth. He razes their homes and destroys their families. Karl did it to my city and family. He did it to your city and family. I don’t see why this displeases you.”

Jorgen looked at her in shock. “You really did plan for this, then?”

Lady Juliane beamed at him and leaned forward as she said, “Yes. Absolutely. This and so much more.”

The squire shook his head in surprise. He wasn’t sure if he should be impressed with her astuteness or upset at her for the havoc she had brought upon his home. But he knew that chiding her would do no good. He opted to try flattery to get her to open up.

“That is a most impressive strategy,” he said.

She scoffed and waved her hand at him. “Don’t attempt to flatter me, boy. It’s a useless strategy to get me to open up and tell you my plan. It might work on a silly schoolgirl, but not me. I’m way past that stage.”

“You are most astute, Lady Juliane. I must give you kudos for your cunning. You are the most insightful person I know, which is why King Karl trusted your counsel. I hope someday to be as wise and quick-witted as you.”

“Well, I have worked hard for it,” she admitted. “I’ve been scheming to take down King Karl since the day he killed my father and left my uncle to rule in his stead. I spent years earning his trust. Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of my labor.”

“It is a most genius plan. To exact revenge by cunning without even lifting a finger.” Jorgen continued with his line of flattery. “To think that he never even saw this coming or suspected a thing from you.”

Lady Juliane smiled at him and nodded in agreement. “I’ve had my people looking for a Smogpod for some time. They found signs of this one over three years ago but couldn’t find its lair. Rasmus happened to stumble across it just as the last winter snows melted. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the creature to lay eggs. I worked swiftly to place the rest of my plan into motion, and well, here we are.”

“So, we wait here for the Smogpod to destroy the castle? Why did you stick around and not flee before the king found out? Your life is in danger too when the Smogpod comes to tear down these walls.” Jorgen said as he leaned back against the wall.

She nodded and shrugged. “I didn’t expect the king to find out about the eggs. I should have been more careful in allowing Rasmus to bring the eggs here. As for Smogpod destroying the castle, I’m sure King Karl will kill it before then. Even if he doesn’t, we’re in the safest place possible here in the depths of the dungeon.”

Jorgen smiled and wagged his finger at Lady Juliane. “Ah, my lady! Truly, you are a wise woman. You always come out on top.”

He slid down the wall to sit down himself. Suddenly, a flash of insight hit him, and Jorgen realized something.

“Don’t tell me you placed the eggs in the King’s chambers. If you wanted Smogpod to destroy the castle and exact revenge against King Karl, that’s where you would have put them. Wouldn’t you?”

Lady Juliane tried to hide her smug smile, but Jorgen was pretty sure that he had hit the nail on the head. He stood to his feet and turned to leave.

“Leave them, Jorgen,” she called out as she leaped to her feet. “I’m doing this for you and all the other wards as much as for myself. King Karl is getting what he deserves.”

He turned to see her gripping the bars of the dungeon door and shook his head. “I’m not doing this for King Karl. I’m doing this for my friends and the people of the city. They don’t deserve to have their home destroyed.”

“Wait, Jorgen!” Lady Juliane shouted as he turned to leave. “It really is too late. Stay and I’ll tell you everything. There is more to my plan.”

The squire shook his head and continued backing away. “We can talk more later. Right now, I need to stop that Smogpod you unleased on my city.”

“I’ll tell you the truth about your father.”

Jorgen stopped and took a step back toward her. “What could you tell me about my father that I don’t already know?”

“I shouldn’t tell you this yet. I should let you discover it for yourself. But you force my hand. The truth is that your Father and King Karl were once great friends. Or so the king led your father to believe. He used your father to learn how to survive in the land. He made an alliance with your father to strengthen his power. Your father helped make Sarsuit the powerful kingdom that it is today. And it was all because of the sword your father carried. A magical sword powered by a mystical suit. And King Karl deceived your father into helping him. He made your father many promises. But after he built his kingdom and strengthened his power, Karl betrayed your father and killed him in an attempt to take your father’s sword. Your father was mortally wounded, but managed to flee. They finally found his body, but not the sword, nor the helmet, nor the suit that powered it. The only part of it that remained is the black and gold cape that King Karl wears today. And that is why King Karl continues to war and take other cities. He still seeks your father’s armor because some say that your father had it scattered among the tribes in an attempt to keep Karl from obtaining it. Your people hope that someday, someone worthy will rise up to wear it and free the land from King Karl’s reign.”

“But he’s a good king. He rules well and allows people their freedom.”

“So you think because that is what he wants you and the other wards here to believe.”

“Then who is Chief Atanarjuat if he’s not my father?”

“One of your father’s brothers who helped King Karl betray him. Part of his agreement was to claim you as his child to keep you from learning the truth. Did you never wonder why you aren’t allowed to travel to visit your family? It’s to keep you from learning the truth. When you grow older, he will allow you to serve as his knight, but King Karl will always send you somewhere other than home to your family. Ask any of the other wards if they have ever been allowed to go home.”

Jorgen took a step toward her as his mind processed all of the information.

“Please, Jorgen! Let me out of here and we can escape together. I’ll show you the secret corridors to escape and return to your home.” Lady Juliane said quietly.

“I know about the secret corridors and entrances to the castle,” Jorgen said, and cocked his head. “You just made up this entire story to get me to let you go. Didn’t you? Do you really think I’m that foolish?”

It irritated Jorgen that he had let himself get sucked into her story. She had probably just made it all up to manipulate him into helping her escape.

“No, Jorgen. It’s all true. Let me out and I can prove it to you.”

He shook his head as he turned to leave. “I’ll ask around to find out if any of this is true. If so, I’ll come back to talk more. But I’m pretty sure that you’re using some sort of spell to make me believe your story. Arent’ you?”

“No, Jorgen!” she sighed and slid back down to the ground as she watched him leave.

The young squire stormed up the dungeon steps and crossed the bailey toward the keep. Once inside, he moved swiftly through the halls and corridors to the king’s chambers.

King Karl was surprised to see him. Jorgen was surprised to see King Karl as well.

“I’m sorry, my king. I didn’t expect to find you here. I thought you were still up on the wall walk with the knights.” Jorgen stammered.

“No, lad. I came to change my boots. The new ones were hurting my feet. I came to change into an older pair that is already broken in. I don’t want to be out running for a Smogpod in an uncomfortable pair of boots.” The king chuckled. “So, what brings you here if you thought I was up on the wall walk?”

“I spoke with Lady Juliane and even though she didn’t say as much, I suspect she had Rasmus hide the Smogpod eggs here in your room. Have the knights already searched in here?”

The king’s eyes narrowed in anger. “I don’t suppose they have. I wouldn’t have authorized it. I never suspected they would be in here. But why would she do such a thing?”

Jorgen shrugged, not wanting to get into everything he had just learned.

“Lady Juliane seemed to indicate that she had been planning this ever since you killed her father and left her uncle to rule in his stead.”

King Karl pursed his lips and ran his fingers through his hair nervously. “She said that, did she? Where would Lady Juliane have gotten that idea? The woman was just a baby when she arrived here. There’s no way she could remember that. I mean, if it really happened. Has the woman gone mad, Jorgen?”

The king snorted and waved his hand as if it were nothing. “Don’t mind that crazy woman, boy. Nor give ear to any foolish nonsense, she says. That daft woman is out to harm all the poor people of this town, as well as the castle where she’s hiding. So, daft that she would bite off her nose to spite her face.”

The king was muttering now as he nervously shuffled through his closet to pull out a long pair of boots. Jorgen was looking at the long black and gold cape flowing down the king’s back. He wondered if that cape really had belonged to his father.

“Well, don’t just stand there, lad. Get to searching for the Smogpod eggs if you think Lady Juliane hid them here. That crazy woman.”

Jorgen nodded and began searching the room. He had no idea how big or small the Smogpod eggs might be. He had never seen the egg of a Great Grey Hen from Oqatlaq before. Although he had seen ostrich eggs once.

He started in one corner and worked his way around the room. Jorgen wasn’t sure how the king would react to him opening his dresser drawers, but he went ahead and took the liberty, anyway. Jorgen really hoped to find something else that might prove or disprove Lady Juliane’s story. But Jorgen found nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing more than he might find in his own dresser at home.

The king poked around as if he were helping search, but Karl moved around the room randomly. Jorgen could tell that he really didn’t expect to find anything there. But that didn’t stop the squire from sweeping methodically around the room.

He went into the giant walk-in closet and went through every drawer in there as well. There were walls and walls of drawers and walls and walls of clothes on hangers. He was careful not to mess up the neatly folded clothes as he went through each drawer.

It took him a while, but he finally made it through the drawers with no sign of the Smogpod eggs.

“Are you sure Lady Juliane had them placed in here?” the king asked.

Jorgen shook his head. “She didn’t say they were here specifically, but she made it clear that she was doing this to get back at you. That’s why I thought she might have left them here.”

The king shrugged, and Jorgen knelt down to look under the bed. Still no sign of the eggs. Jorgen stood up and sighed.

“Guess not, my lord king. I do apologize for digging through your chambers,” Jorgen apologized.

He was starting to think that perhaps Lady Juliane had been pulling his leg this entire time. She could just be making up stories and sending him on wild goose chases to keep him from finding out where they really were. A secret passage, perhaps. Another idea flashed through his mind.

“My lord, where is the secret entrance to your chamber?” Jorgen asked politely.

Of course, he knew where it was. He had been past here many times before, but Jorgen didn’t want to let on to the king that he had access to that sort of information.

“Secret entrances?” the king mumbled. “I suppose the palace spies do gossip, don’t they?”

He walked over and opened it for Jorgen. The squire walked up and down the hall as he tried to imagine which direction Rasmus might have come from and where he would have gone once inside.

“Hm!” Jorgen murmured as he paced around the room.

“What is it?” King Karl asked.

“My lord, if there are secret entrances that lead into your room, then surely you must have your own secret chambers where you hide things you don’t want the spies to find.” Jorgen continued his line of thought.

The king wagged his finger in Jorgen’s direction with a sly smile. “Very sneaky, Jorgen. Trying to discover my secrets now, are you?”

“No, of course not, my lord. I’m just thinking where Lady Juliane or Rasmus may have hidden something in here where myself or the knights wouldn’t know to look. But listen, I’ll step outside so that you can check your secret hiding places yourself to make sure that they didn’t stick them in here.”

Jorgen walked toward the door, but the king called him back.

“It’s okay, lad. I trust you. Come, let us find these cursed eggs if they are here.” King Karl said as he strode into the massive closet. “There is a secret room where I may hide if the castle were ever to come under attack.”

The king opened a drawer and slid his hands inside to press something. There was a soft clicking noise as the entire panel swung away from the wall. Jorgen smiled in amazement as the king waved his hand toward the entrance.

A vast chamber spread out before them. Larger than the king’s bedroom itself. There was an entire living area off to the right side, with a large kitchen area behind it. Tot he left was a room set up with a gigantic bed. In front of that, a party where Jorgen saw food stashed away in the event of an emergency. The king could survive inside here for weeks, if not months. Hidden away safely from anyone who might be searching for him.

“You mustn’t tell anyone else about this hideaway,” King Karl said in a hushed voice as if he were afraid someone might hear him while Jorgen searched the room.

He finally found the eggs tucked away in the back corner of the pantry. Jorgen almost passed by them. But they were there inside a large basket on the bottom shelf.

“Lady Juliane must have known you would come hide here when the Smogpod attacked the castle. When it broke through and found the eggs, you would have been the closest person to them. Then the angry mother Smogpod would have blamed you for taking her baby’s eggs.”

The king was astounded. “How would she have known about this chamber? No one knows about it.”

Jorgen wanted to tell him that just about everyone who lived in the castle probably knew about the existence of the secret passageways. But he didn’t. Jorgen kept his mouth shut and suggested they hurry and run the eggs out to Mama Smogpod.

Soren and his knights were on the wall, nervously watching the giant reptilian-looking beast advancing toward them as it continued tearing the roofs off houses along the way. Jorgen thought it interesting that as they walked up to the ramparts with the basket of eggs, the horned beast lifted its head and let out a loud, long bellow. It was almost as if the monster knew she was getting closer to her offspring.

The king ordered Soren to take a small troop and deliver the eggs, but Jorgen requested permission to do the honors.

“Please, my lord king, allow me to return them to her,” Jorgen asked.

The king looked at him sternly before saying, “She could turn on you because she thinks you took them.”

Jorgen shook his head. “I don’t believe she will. Remember, she’s already seen me out there before. I think she’ll understand that I helped her find what she was looking for.”

King Karl nodded and agreed to let him go. “But keep your distance from her. Place the eggs in the open and walk away from them well before she gets close to you. The knights will ride behind you and shoot if necessary to provide cover.”

The young squire nodded and shook his arms as he prepared to run, if necessary. He bent over and grabbed his ankles for a few seconds. Then squatted and stretched his legs out in front and behind himself to work out any kinks in his muscles.

Soren looked relieved that he didn’t have to be the one to deliver the eggs to the rampaging mother. He nodded respectfully to Jorgen and indicated for the lad to take the lead with a wave of his outstretched arm.

Jorgen felt pleased to have earned the respect of the knights that he had long looked up to for inspiration.

The horse squire brought Jorgen a large, dark red stallion with saddlebags in which to place the eggs. Jorgen transferred each of the dark leathery eggs into bags. He placed one in each saddlebag, and the third he carried himself up on top of the horse.

Jorgen rode slowly and carefully toward the gate. Once he felt comfortable with his cargo, Jorgen allowed the horse to walk a bit faster. He was careful to protect the eggs but wanted to get out as fast as possible to prevent the Smogpod from destroying any more homes than necessary.

The angry mother monster wasn’t far from the castle walls. One of the better archers on the wall probably could have hit it with a good, strong bow. Jorgen looked back to see the king and his archers watching him from above. A small band of knights and archers followed him from a short distance away.

The squire made his way down the widest roads until he had a direct view of the Smogpod. It was furiously tearing the roof off another two-story building. The beast paused for a second to look at him before sticking her head inside. She shrieked with her series of chirps at the end.

Jorgen slid down from the horse and placed the bag he was carrying on the road. He kept it covered so she wouldn’t see what he had until all three were on the ground. Jorgen untied another saddlebag and placed it in the road beside its sibling egg. And then the third.

The Smogpod was already moving on to the next building when Jorgen slid the top of the bag open, revealing its contents. The mother monster paused and hissed. It let out a low motherly whine, as if recognizing its egg. Then followed up with a menacing growl as Jorgen pulled back the bags around each of the other three eggs.

She took a step forward in his direction with another menacing growl. Jorgen turned to leap onto his horse, but it was already gone. His red stallion raced off, leaving him behind. He wanted to yell after it and curse it but didn’t want to irritate the monster moving in his direction. Jorgen could have kicked himself for not having hung onto the horse’s bridle or tied it to something.

Jorgen backed away slowly and glanced over his shoulder at the knights in the distance. He wondered if she would chase him if he started running, but didn’t want to risk it. For the moment, she seemed to focus on her eggs, making sure they were okay.

The squire continued backing away with his eyes fixed on her. Ready to turn and run if she turned his focus to him. The Smogpod bent over and sniffed each of the eggs, then wrapped gently back in the bags before picking them up. She cradled them tenderly in her arms and looked over at Jorgen.

The Smogpod snorted, and Jorgen’s heart froze. For a brief second, he thought she might rush him, but she turned and moved down the road toward the east from the way she had come.

Jorgen bent over and gasped for air as the tenseness rushed from his body. His head felt light, and he fought the urge to heave. The squire kneeled down in the dirt and breathed heavily as relief flooded through his body.

After a few moments, as the monster moved away from him, he heard the hooves of horses approaching cautiously. He looked up to see a knight leading his red stallion back to him. Jorgen thanked the knight and clambered onto the horse. He wanted to kick and beat it for having run off on him, but Jorgen knew the creature had only responded out of instinct.

The king and guards and all the people were waiting for Jorgen at the gate. They cheered as he rode across the drawbridge and gathered around him. Arms pulled him off the horse as Jorgen slid down. Knights clapped him on the back. Lady Naja threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

King Karl gave a short, flowery speech. Jorgen’s mind was still reeling from the shock of everything he had been through. And his attention was focused on Lady Naja standing beside him with her arm around his waist as she smiled up at him.

In the end, the king said something about dubbing him a knight. The next thing he knew, Jorgen was kneeling before the king, who slapped him lightly across each cheek with the flat side of his sword.

Then he was back on his feet as the other knight picked him up in their arms and threw him in the air as the crowd cheered. He couldn’t do much as the crowd passed him around the courtyard over their heads, so he just relaxed and enjoyed the moment.

Slowly, the villagers began returning to the city from the forests and hills to where they had fled when Smogpod first attacked. They joined the celebration in the palace courtyard, and the throngs grew larger and larger until there was no more room for anyone to enter. The crowd was backed up plumb out of the castle and across the drawbridge into the road.

The king declared that there would be a sumptuous feast in honor of Jorgen’s wit and bravery in removing the Smogpod from the town. It would help provide food for those who would be busy cleaning up the mess in the city.

King Karl also promised to help restore the destroyed buildings with funds from the royal coffers, as well as authorizing the royal guards to help with the construction and building. The people clapped and cheered and celebrated a little longer before they began heading back to their homes.

Lady Naja kissed Jorgen before leaving. He was tired, but still too wound up to sleep. And he still wanted to speak with Lady Juliane before heading home. When he arrived in the dungeon, however, the guard was passed out on the floor.

Lady Juliane was not there. Her cell door was wide open. Jorgen shook the guard and helped him get up. Then sent the guard home before he broke the news to the king. Karl was furious, but there wasn’t much to be done about it then. She must have escaped in the confusion of the celebrating crowd and been long gone by then.

When Jorgen arrived home, he saw the Smogpod had torn the roof off of his home as well. His bed was situated directly under the gaping hole, so he pulled it off to the side, where it would remain dry in case it rained. Jorgen went to the kitchen for a snack and found Lady Juliane sitting at the table.

“Hello, Jorgen. You did well for yourself. Although you did mess up my plans.”

Jorgen froze, unsure of what the woman’s intentions were.

“Oh, relax, boy,” she said, pouring him a glass of milk. “I’m not going to hurt you for throwing a monkey wrench in my plans.”

“What was that all about anyway,” Jorgen asked.

“There is more coming. Bringing the Smogpod in was only the beginning. I’m going to have my revenge on King Karl one way or another.”

“Why are you telling me all of this?” Jorgen asked.

“I think you would make a wonderful ally. I’d like to have you on my side.”

“I’m not mad at the king for whatever you think he’s done to deserve this,” Jorgen replied. “In fact, I’m quite happy here.”

“Yes, yes! I know, silly boy,” Lady Juliane said with a flippant wave of her hand. “I saw he made you a knight. Big whoop. Especially, after stealing a kingdom that was rightfully yours. After stealing kingdoms from each of us wards. I think we should join together and take back what was rightfully ours.”

She wanted to talk long into the night, but Jorgen was exhausted. His eyes grew heavy, and it was all he could do to keep them open.

When he opened his eyes again, the sun was blazing high overhead. Jorgen struggled to sit up, but he was tied to a saddle.

“Help, help!” he shouted as he tried to look around.

Lady Juliane’s smiling face came into view.

“Hey, Sir Jorgen. How did you sleep?”

Jorgen spluttered and growled, demanding to know what was going on.

“Don’t worry. I left a note saying you were going after the Smogpod to return with its head while the tracks were still fresh. No one is expecting you back for a while.”

“Where are you taking me?” he demanded to know.

“I want you to go back home. Or what you call home. But not as yourself. Return as a stranger. Speak with the people of your land. Hear the stories they will tell you. Listen to their version of what really happened to your father and your family. Not the version King Karl has fed you all of these years. Allow yourself to learn the truth.”

“And then what?” he asked.

Lady Juliane shrugged and smiled. “That’s up to you, my friend. You can help me create alliances to fight for the return of your rightful kingdom. Or if you want, you can still return to Sarsuit and be a knight who defends King Karl’s claim to the throne, that’s up to you.”

“What happens if I do that?” Jorgen asked warily.

Lady Juliane cut the bonds that held him down against the horse and said, “Then I imagine we’ll end up facing each other in battle someday.”

Jorgen rubbed his chaffed wrists and thought about it. The idea of returning home to see his family was appealing. Especially as a stranger that they wouldn’t recognize. The longing to see his mother and brothers had long since grown dim, but they still strummed at as heartstrings.

“Fine, I will go with you,” he said confidently.

Her silvery laughter rang out like music over the silence of the forest.

“Oh, no. I’m headed back to my home. You’re on your own. I plan on spending three moons there. If you want to join me as an ally, you’ll find me at Nalusuaq,” she said, patting the saddlebags. “I left you plenty of provisions and a bag of coins for your journey.”

Jorgen nodded and bowed his head. “Thank you, my lady!”

He started to leave, but then turned back. “Forgive my rude manners, Lady Juliane. I should accompany you safely to your city before making my own journey.”

“No, Sir Jorgen,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ll ruin my disguise. I’m not returning as a lady. And you should do the same. It will not please your uncle to know you have returned.”

Jorgen nodded.

“Oh, and if you find your father’s armor, it will help you reclaim his throne,” Lady Juliane said, before digging her feet into her horse’s side.

The squire-turned knight watched her trot off into the distance. He felt butterflies in his stomach. Jorgen didn’t know why, but he felt more nervous about returning home than he had facing the Smogpod.

Jorgen looked back over his shoulder in the direction of Sarsuit, before continuing on his own journey. He would miss Lady Naja and hurry back to her. But for now, he had his own path to forge.

Knight of Fire

Emilian pushed his way through the churning crowd for a better glimpse of the king’s carriage. Since he was the tallest and largest of the group, Emillian took the lead. Gheorghe walked close behind him and a little to the left to open the way for Sir Costin who walked directly behind them.

The rowdy group they were trying to get through didn’t make it easy for them, but they finally made it to the front of the line at the edge of the road. Emilian and Gheorghe each stepped to the side, allowing Sir Costin to step forward.

Unlike Emillian, Sir Costin was short and slim. But he was the oldest, smartest, and most well-educated of the entire group. Everyone respected his wisdom and looked to him as their leader in spite of his size.

Emillian scanned the crowd. He was the newest of the bunch. The tall, young man had recently joined Gheorghe’s mesnie of knights for hire. It wasn’t as exciting as Emillian had imagined it would be growing up.

He had never fought a dragon or even been in a war. There had been great peace in the land for over twenty-seven years. Ever since King Rares Petru Matei had come to the throne, no one had risen up to challenge his right to rule.

All he and his little entourage had done so far was escort noblemen and women up and down the road from one nobleman’s castle to another. And then take another group back again. Emillian longed for adventure and yearned to do something great that would allow him to make a name for himself.

A woman caught his eye. Taller than most of the others in the crowd. Almost as tall as Emillian himself. Her dark dress matched her hair and eyes which were in stark contrast to her pale skin. She looked pale, as if she didn’t get much sun, but was still fair to look upon.

She noticed his gaze and turned to lock eyes with him. It took his breath away and he couldn’t seem to stop looking at her. The corner of her full lips curled up slightly in a small, brief smile. Not encouragingly as if she liked him, but almost smugly as if she had caught sight of her next victim.

It caught him completely off guard, and Emillian couldn’t stop looking at her until the woman turned back to watch the road. Mesmerizing was the only world Emillian could think of to describe her.

The woman murmured something to the gentleman beside her who glanced over in Emilian’s direction. Emillian immediately shifted his gaze across the crowd as if he were looking for a familiar face. He smiled and waved to no one in particular off in the distance. Then turned back toward his friends.

He could see the king’s carriage coming around the bend in the road. The crowd grew more agitated as the carriage approached. They shouted and screamed and threw flowers into the road.

King Rares was a good and kind king who had brought peace and unity after the War of The Seven Nobles. He strived to rule well and do his best to bring prosperity to all those under his reign. It wasn’t an easy task, and he wasn’t a perfect man. But he connected with the people and they loved him for it.

But more than that, they enjoyed the sense of peace and prosperity that he had brought to the kingdoms all those years ago. Way before Emillian had ever been born. So, even though the had been trained as a page, become a squire, and then finally knighted himself, Emillian had never fought in a real battle before.

Sure, he had faced down a few highway robbers and fought off the occasional forest gang. But Emillian longed for adventure and excitement. Just like the stories of the wars of old that he had grown up listening to as a boy.

The first group of knights rode past Emillian. There must have been at least fifty in the first group. They all rode magnificent black steeds. After them, there was a small break in their parade. He glanced over at the woman again. Her companion had left her and she was alone.

Gheorghe slapped him on the back and leaned close to shout in his ear over the noise of the rambunctious crowd. “Go talk to her man.”

Emilian felt himself blushing at having been so obvious. He grinned at his friend and shook his head. He didn’t bother to reply over the noise of the rambunctious, rowdy rabble. Another fifty knights rode by. Each of them in this group rode a large, white steed. Then several more groups of knights rode by before the king’s royal carriage reached the spot where they were standing.

The knights weren’t wearing full suits of armor as those going out to war, although they did wear their decorative uniforms and carried weapons. These parades were mostly for show. Emillian knew that the king traveled the realm every so often. He heard through the grapevine that the impressive displays were used to keep his would-be enemies in check.

The marching horses up front had paused and forced the carriage to stop just after it passed Emillian and his friends. A murmur rippled through the crowd. Emillian stuck his head out past Sir Costin and strained to get a better look. But he couldn’t see what was going on.

The crowd around him strained to reach out to reach out and touch the king’s carriage as they shouted for his attention. The king smiled and waved jovially. The queen didn’t seem to be as enthused as he was. She sat quietly beside her husband, looking straight ahead as she fanned herself. Queen Elena seemed worried and agitated.

The king murmured something in her ear which caused her to scowl. Emillian couldn’t hear what they were saying, but by the way King Rares gesticulated, it seemed as if he wanted her to smile and wave at the crowds along with him. She shook her head and replied sharply. Then looked nervously over her shoulder.

Someone in the crowd, rushed past Emilian, pushing him Sir Constin. Emillian stumbled and caught himself while yelling loudly at the man, “Watch where you’re going, buddy!”

He patted Sir Costin and turned to see the man that had bumped into him standing in the middle of the road between two carriages. The king and queen were still arguing in the lead carriage and seemed oblivious to him standing there behind them.

A second carriage carrying the mayor and his wife blocked the view of the knights who were behind them in the rest of the parade. The man stood there for a moment with his head bowed and his hand on the hilt of a dagger at his side. He seemed to be talking to himself and struggling with a decision.

Emillian couldn’t hear what he was saying, but took a step into the road toward the man. A knight behind the mayor’s carriage shouted for him to step back out of the road. He started to reply that there was someone acting strangely, but knew it wouldn’t do much good over the roar of the yelling crowd. So, he stood there and pointed at the strange man between the carriages.

The knight simply waved his arm for Emillian to get out of the road. He complied and took a step backward. But as he did so, the man took a deep breath and pulled his dagger out of its sheath. Then leaped onto the back of the carriage.

A collective gasp went up from the crowd as the man plunged his dagger into the side of the king’s neck. The queen’s scream was cut off as he jerked the dagger out the king’s neck and blood squirted into her face. Then the short, stocky man plunged it into the king’s neck a second time before attacking the queen.

Emillian didn’t think twice. He leaped into the road and crossed the distance to the carriage in two long strides. Emillian grabbed the man by the belt and jerked him from the carriage. He kept his grip on the dagger as Emillian pulled him back.

The man landed on the ground on his back with a thud. He rolled to his side, gasping for breath. Emillian leaped on top of him to take his dagger, but he had already rolled over onto his belly with the dagger under him.

Emillian attempted to grab his arms, but the man continued to roll. He slid off to the side, and the man came up with dagger sweeping in Emillian’s direction. Emillian threw himself back and felt the wind from the blade brush past his face. The point nicked and scratched him which stung.

He threw himself off the man and rolled away before coming back up onto his feet with his back against the carriage. The man rushed him and butted his left shoulder into Emillian’s belly. His right arm came in with the dagger for the killing blow. Emillian twisted to the side and it stuck into the side of the carriage.

He grabbed the man’s wrist with his left hand and bashed him across the face with a wicked backhand using his right. The man let go of the dagger still sticking into the side of the carriage and fell to the ground under Emillian’s weight.

The knight came rushing over and threw his knee on the short man’s burly neck and grabbed his arms. He knew it was over and quit struggling. Emillian pushed himself off the man and let the knight take over in arresting him.

It had all happened so fast. Emillian hadn’t even had time to think about what he had done. As the shock wore off, he felt the sting on his face. He brushed his hand where the singing blade had nicked him. A little blood wiped away, but no more than when he nicked himself shaving.

The crowd began to press in around them and the carriage. Emillian looked up and saw the dark-haired woman still standing where he had seen her previously. She hadn’t moved forward with the rest of the crowd. She held his gaze coldly, but seemed to pleased with what had just taken place.

People gathered around the man on the ground and began kicking at him. The knight struggled to keep them away while he finished handcuffing him. The mad crowd seemed more intent on lynching the assassin than they were with helping the king.

Knights from both the the front and back of the carriage tried to press through the rurly throng, but the crowd wasn’t letting them through. It was a surreal moment. Emillian looked for his friends, but they weren’t around. He spun back toward the carriage where the king and queen both gasped for breath.

Emillian looked at the crowd, but no one seemed to be paying them any attention at all. He glanced back where the woman had been standing, but she was no longer there. He yanked open the door to the carriage and leaped inside.

The queens handkerchief lay on the seat where it had fallen. Emillian grabbed it and pressed it against the king’s wounds. Emillian shouted, “Hang on, my lord. We’ll fetch a barber to treat your wounds.”

The king shook his head and tried to speak, but Emillian tried to silence him as he continued to press on the wounds. The king stretched out his arm and struggled to reach for something on the floor.

“Please,” the king whispered hoarsely. “Help me get up.”

Emillian let up the pressure of pushing down against the king’s neck and shoulder. The king leaned forward and brushed his hands against the ground. Something clattered softly when the king pulled his arm back up, but Emillian didn’t see anything there.

The king slumped back against his seat and sighed. Emillian reached out to apply pressure to the wound, but the king raised his arm to push him away. He could have refused the king’s wish and continued to apply pressure, but the they both knew that the king had lost too much blood.

When he was just a lad training to be a knight, Emillian had seen a fight break out between two older knights over something petty. One challenged the other’s honor and they began to duel. The one who started the fight lost an arm. The winner refused to let anyone come forward to help him. Emillian watched him bleed out quickly. He had been shocked at how quickly the man had passed away.

King Rares was pale and his breathing shallow. He took Emillian’s hand and pushed it down toward his other hand. Emillian was surprised to feel something leathery and hard instead of the softness of the king’s hands. He looked, but couldn’t seen anything in them.

“What is this, my lord?” he asked.

“The source of my power,” the king whispered. “Let no one no you have this. Swear to me that you will take this to the royal blacksmith in Morasi. He will know what to do…”

But before Emillian could answer, the king grimaced and took several quick, shallow breaths as his body trembled before falling silent. He kneeled there in front of the silent king, horrified at his death.

The door to the carriage burst open and a knight climbed in beside him. The knights had finally managed to push there way through the crowd and began to clamber onto it. One of the knights standing outside grabbed his legs and ordered him to get out to make room for the others.

The knight pulled harshly and dragged Emillian out through the door. He managed to hang onto whatever the invisible object was that the king had given him charge over. It got caught between the sides of the door and stopped Emillian short, almost yanking his arm off. The knight lost his grip and fell backward into the milling crowd behind him.

Emillian gathered his feet under him and stood up quickly as he threw the object over his neck and shoulder. It felt like a scabbard looped through a belt of some sort with a sword inside. He didn’t have time to wrap it around his waist in this melee without being able to see the buckle. And he needed his hands free to push his way through the crowd.

But before he could start, the knight was back on his feet with eyes blazing. He drew his sword and ordered Emillian to back up against the carriage and turn around. The knight slammed Emillian’s head against the carriage and handcuffed his arms in irons.

“You have a lot of questions to answer, young fellow,” the knight growled menacingly with his face so close to Emillian’s ears that he could feel the bristles of the man’s beard prickling the side of his face.

“What are you doing?” someone asked.

The man whirled to face him and Emilian twisted his head to see what was going on. There was a loud groan, and the knight slipped to the ground. Then they undid his handcuffs and were gone. Before Emillian could turn around, his liberator had slipped into the crowd.

Emillian looked down at the dead knight in shock. Everyone else seemed to ignore him. The other other knights continued to mill around and simply stepped over him without paying him the slightest heed.

Another knight came walking up with a large steed and handed him the reins. It was absolutely majestic. Emillian had never ridden a horse this large or beautiful before.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

The knight that handed it to him, turned to look at Emilian with a look of surprise and scorn.

“Becuase you asked for it, my lord,” the man said as if Emillian had gone daft. “You said you needed a fresh mount to return to the royal city. Hurry, your companion awaits you.”

Emillian looked in the direction that the knight was pointing to see the assassin mounted on another smiliar large horse and making his way through the crowd away from him. Emillian felt more confused than ever.

Was this some sort of strange dream? Had the king told him to go to the royal city? Was this all part of some plan? And if so, who’s plan? Who was orchestrating all these weird happenings.

“But that man just assassinated the king,” Emillian said incredulously.

The knight snorted as if he found that funny. Then he said, “No, that’s impossible. The king is up at the front of the parade giving a speech.”

Emillian looked at the knights inside the carriage with the people that had been assassinated. The knight’s had straightened the king and queen back up into sitting positions and stood around chatting as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

He pushed himself up on his mount and tried to look over the crowd up to the front of the road. Emillian weaved his horse out through the people still milling about, the circled the throng toward the front of the parade.

There was a man standing there in the road. He shouted and gesticulated as if giving a fiery speech, but he wasn’t the king. He didn’t look anything like the king. There was no resemblance, yet the crowd seemed to be eating this imposter’s words up though.

Emillian felt a mix of confusion, frustration, and anger. He didn’t know what was going on here, but he aimed to get to the bottom of it. He scanned the crowd again and saw the man weaving his way off in the opposite direction.

His horse responded perfectly. Not only was it beautiful, but it was also well trained, doing exactly what Emillian needed it to. It was quick and sturdy, allowing him to catch up with the assassin easily enough.

“Hey! You. Assassin. Slow down. Wait up!” Emillian shouted.

The man reined his horse in and turned to wait for him which Emillian found strange. He half-expected that the man would have taken off on a dead run. But instead, he greeted Emillian like an old friend.

“Hale there, friend. It’s a beautiful day. Isn’t it?” he said with a broad smile.

Emillian approached him cautiously and didn’t get too close in case the man pulled his dagger and attempted to assassinate him.

“Indeed it is,” Emillian replied. “It makes me wonder why you slew the king on such a fine day.”

A look of bewilderment crossed the man’s face and he cocked his head to the side, “The king! What king is that? I take it you aren’t from around these parts lad. That wasn’t the king, but the Duke of Rosiocari. He slaughtered my family. It was an act of fitting revenge. But if you feel the need to challenge me to a duel to avenge his death, I will be happy to oblige. Choose the time and location.”

“No, I have other matters to attend to,” Emillian replied. “I’m just trying to understand what my eyes saw. But for the record, I do know what my eyes saw because I am from these lands. Born and raised here. You did slay the king.”

The man scoffed and shook his head. “You’re daft, lad. And if that is all, I must be on my way. Have a pleasant day.”

“What is your name, sir?” Emillian asked, hoping to engage him in conversation to understand this madness.

But the man didn’t stick around. He slapped his reins and dug his heels into the horse’s sides to take off on a dead run. “Liviu Iacob Albu,” he shouted over his shoulder. “The blacksmith of Rosiocari.”

Emillian shook his head and spun his horse around. He went back to the procession to look for his friends. They were nowhere to be seen. The lifeless king and queen were still seated in the carriage. The knights and soldiers milling around them acted as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

He rode up close to one of the knights and hissed, “What’s wrong with the king?”

The knight looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean? He’s just giving a speech as he always does.”

Emillian pointed to the king in the back of the carriage.

The knight chuckled, “No, that’s the duke. The king is up at the front of the procession.”

“So, then what’s wrong with the duke?” Emillian asked.

The knight turned to him and scowled. “Nothing man. He looks fine to me. Just a little tired.”

Emillian sighed and stepped forward. The knight frowned at him and blocked his path. “Stay back. I have orders to protect these noblemen and women. I will not hesitate to cut you down if you attempt to harm them.”

“It’s a little late for that,” Emillian growled in exasperation.

He turned his horse and circled around the crowd still looking for his friends. The man giving an impassioned speech at the front of the procession finally finished and returned to the crowd. People began to disperse when suddenly someone shouted that the king had been murdered.

Knights converged on the carriage and surrounded it until Emillian could no longer see it for the mass of people. Screams and shouts and wails began to rise up from the people as they realized that their beloved king was dead. He shook his head and wondered how it had taken so long for them to realize what was going on.

It felt like something out of a fairy tale that his mother used to tell him as a child. Some wicked witch throwing a curse over the people and blinding them to the truth. All so she could perform some deceitful act of revenge. But he had never really believed that those stories were true.

The memory of the mesmerizing woman flashed before his eyes. Emillian shook his head. The witches in his mother’s fairy tales were all wizened, old hags. The woman he had seen was young and beautiful. But still, Emillian couldn’t get that haunting look she gave him out of his head.

“Hey, you there!” a knight shouted in his direction. “What are you doing on a royal steed. Get down from there and return it now.”

Emillian looked around to see who else the knight might be referring to, but there was no one else riding on a horse behind him. He pointed to himself with a questioning look. The knight nodded and waved him over.

He slid off the horse and returned the reins to the knight who had demanded them. “Someone handed me the reins and walked off,” he tried to explain.

“Move along before I arrest you for thievery,” the knight growled at him. “Be glad that I have more urgent matters to attend to as we seek the one who assassinated the king.”

“It was a short, stocky man. He rode off on a steed just like that one there in that direction.” Emillian said.

“So, you saw him, did you? And why didn’t you raise the alarm?” the knight asked with evident distrust in his eye. “I think I’d best take you in for questioning.”

Emillian raised his hands in front of him in a placating manner as he backed away. But the knight charged him and tackled Emillian to the ground. He didn’t put up much of a fight since he figured this would all be over soon as the knight handcuffed him for the second time.

“Aye! Good catch there, Sir Ieronim!” another knight said as he walked past. “I saw this man in the king’s carriage. Sir Virgiliu was pulling him out before he was killed, poor fellow.”

“Wait! No. I didn’t kill Sir Virgiliu. I didn’t kill anyone. It was someone named Liviu Iacob Albu.” Emillian shouted. “He’s the blacksmith in Rosiocari.”

The two knights looked at each other as if Emillian were crazy and then burst out laughing. Emillian demanded to know what was so funny.

“Liviu the blacksmith has been dead for months. He died last winter of the scourage. You should have picked a better alibi for your story there, brother.” the knight said as he shoved Emillian toward the carriage.

Emillian shook his head in frustration and tried to argue as the knight handed him over to have him carted off to the dungeon. “You’re making a mistake,” Emillian shouted.

“Tell that to the judge,” the knight replied. “And if you are telling the truth, try coming up with a better storyline. The kingdom won’t waste any time looking for a scapegoat for the murder of their beloved king. And right now, you’re the closest thing we’ve got.”

Emillian felt a cold chill squeeze at his heart. They tossed him in the back of a covered wagon used to transport prisoners. Emillian began to panic. His breath coming and shallow gasps as he realized how much danger he was in. His vision began to grow dark and he instinctively threw his head down between his legs.

“What had he gotten himself into?” Emillian wondered. “Had he gone mad? Had he imagined seeing Liviu the blacksmith? Could he have possibly killed the king himself and imagined everything else? Or worse yet, could he somehow have fallen under the spell of that mesmerizing woman and done something terrible under her control.”

His mind whirled at the sickening thought that he had been the one to kill the king. Emillian’s thoughts became more and more frightening. He began to moan and wail in his small cage.

“Shut up down there,” the driver shouted and slapped his sword against the bars of the window.

The loud noise shook Emillian out of his thoughts. He took several deep breaths and focused on looking at his surroundings. As reality set back in, Emillian realized that it couldn’t have all been in his head. Otherwise, how would he have known the blacksmith’s name? Or even that the man had been a blacksmith.

And even more than that, if this were all part of his imagination, then why did he still feel the invisible scabbard and sword looped over his shoulder. He could feel it and knew it was real. He wasn’t imagining things.

Whoever that man was that had killed the king and ridden off on the royal steed, Emillian intended to find him and bring him to justice.

Emillian began to shout and rock the sides of the carriage that they had put him in. There wasn’t much danger of him doing anything to escape, but he could tell that the noise irritated the driver who shouted for him to shut up.

He continued carrying on. Making as big of a ruckus as he could. Shouting for help as they made their way toward the city through throngs of people who were returning home. The driver pulled off the road a bit and stopped. Then climbed down and shouted for him to be quiet.

“I’ll come in there myself and slap you silly,” the driver roared at him.

Emillian continued to yell and taunt him. The driver pulled the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. He stepped inside and buffeted Emillian across the face with a stunning blow.

“Keep quiet. You’re driving me bonkers, man!” he shouted.

But instead of doing what he said, Emillian continued shouting and yelling. Not saying anything in particular, but simply making as much noise as he could to irritate the guard. He had an idea. A way to test if his invisible object was really real.

Emillian rose up to face the man and slid the loop of the scabbard over his shoulder while he continued yelling. The driver came rushing at him with his arm raised. Emillian swung the invisible scabbard across the man’s head.

He couldn’t see anything, but he did hear a loud thump as the hilt of the sword connected with the side of the man’s face. The driver fell back against the wall of the carriage in shock.

“What magic is this, you fool?” The driver roared in anger and fear, as he tried to stand back up and charge Emillian again.

Emilian pushed himself to the side and swung the invisible sword again. This time it connected with the back of the driver’s head, and he slid to the ground with a groan. The sword came loose from the scabbard though and clattered to the ground.

He heard the loud clatter of the metal against the wooden flooring. Using the keys to uncuff himself wasn’t difficult. Then Emillian got down on his hands and knees as he felt around for the sword. He managed to find it and slid it back into the scabbard before looping it over his neck.

But then he stopped and slipped it off. If he were going to do what the king ordered, it would be a long trip and it would be uncomfortable to carry it all the way back like that. He ran his fingers around the belt as he felt for the buckle.

Emiilian found it and tried fitting int around his waist. It felt awkward, as if it hadn’t been made to fit around his waist the way he was used to wearing his unusual sword. The one that the knights had taken from him when they threw him in this carriage.

He slipped the belt back over his shoulder. Strangely enough, it seemed to have been made to fit that way. Emillian had seen knights wear their swords that way even though he never had. It was the customary way that knights in Hubinti tended to wear their swords.

But without being able to see it with his eyes, he needed time to play around with it. And that wasn’t something he had a whole lot of right now. Emillian knew that he needed to to get out of here and fast before others of the royal guard came along and decided to see if the driver of the carriage needed help.

Emillian slipped the handcuffs on the driver, and then tore a strip of cloth from the bottom of his guard’s shirt to gag him with for when he woke up. Then he locked the door and hopped up to take the reigns. Emillian followed the crowd into the city.

Once he arrived, Emillian began looking for a man who described the assassin. He left the horse and carriage near the market and began his search for the assassin.

“Hey! Excuse me. I’m looking for this blacksmith. I was here a few months ago. He’s short, about this high, stocky, and going bald on top. Wears a dagger with a blue handle on his right side.”

Nobody seemed to know who he was talking about as he weaved his way through the market. Finally, he came across someone selling pots and pans and other metal objects created by a blacksmith. When he described the assassin, the sales man seemed to know who he was talking about it.

“Yes, I used to buy wares from a blacksmith that sounds like the person your describing,” the man muttered as he rubbed his beard. “Where was it?”

Emillian pulled a few coins from his pocket and set them on the table. The salesmen smiled.

“I’ll be happy to take your money, but I’m not being coy just to get you to job my memory with a bribe. I really don’t remember. It was several months back. I needed some specialty work done. Someone recommended him. I believe his name was Liviu. He lived down near the bull run. The name of the street may have been Copper Lion or Copper Leopard. One of those two. Like I said, it was a long time ago.” The man mused.

Emillian thanked him and made his way down toward the bull run. When he got close, Emillian asked around for direction to Copper Lion or Copper Leopard.

“Copper Lion is right over there. Just two blocks down, friend. Copper Leopard on the other hand is way over on the other side of town.”

“No, it’s close to the Bull Run,” Emillian said.

“Well, than it’ll be right over there.”

Emillian found it and started down the street, asking where the blacksmith lived. He came across an elderly woman sitting on a rocker on her front porch.

“There used to be a blacksmith down at that corner. But he died several months back,” an old lady said.

A door with the word blacksmith still painted across the top soon came into view. It looked old and run down as if no one had been in or out in a very long time. Emillian knocked, but no on answered. He pushed on the door and tried the knob. To his surprise, it opened easily with a slight push.

“Hello,” Emillian called out into the empty room that greeted him. “Is anybody here.”

No one answered, so he stepped through into the first room. The building was warm from the heat of the sun beating down on it. The thud of his footsteps on the wooden flooring echoed around him as he crossed the room.

A white sheet draped down over the door blocked his view of what was in the next room. Emillian knocked on the door frame and called out before stepping through. It was dark and quiet. Three doors led off in different directions. Two to his left and one straight ahead out the back. Each one covered with a white sheet like the previous.

Emillian checked the first of the two side doors. The only thing inside was a single bed against the far wall. The second room also had a bed. Emillian saw a brown wooden dresser on one side, along with a small table and chair on the other.

The bed looked as if it had been slept in recently. He ran his fingers across the dresser and noticed that there was no dust across the top of it. And there were also no clothes or anything else stored in the drawers.

After checking the two side room, Emillian went through the sheet that covered the final door in the back of the building. It looked as if it had once been a kitchen.

There was a single plate, spoon, and pan on the sink underneath a window. A few bare shelves to the right. And a small wood stove in the corner. Although Emillian was excited to notice that the ashes inside were still warm.

“Could this be where the assassin hid?” Emillian wondered. “Should he stay here and wait for Liviu to return? The man might not come back though, at least not any time soon.”

Emillian decided that patience was a virtue though. He might as well wait for a bit. He didn’t know where else he could go. So, Emillian wanted to sit down, so he went to the bedroom where he flopped himself down on the bed.

It felt good to sit down and rest his weary bones. No, exhausted was a better word for the way he felt after all his running around.

He leaned back against the wall and thought he heard the sound of fire in the distance. A deep heaviness fell over his body so that he felt like he could barely hold his head up. Emillian realized that it was more than just being tired. It felt as if all his energy were being sapped from his body.

His eyes started to close. Emillian struggled to keep them open. The sound of the burning fire roared around him, getting louder until it sounded like the entire house was burning down around him. He could hear the crackling of flames, the hissing of burning wood, and even the popping of the coals.

Emillian wanted to stand up and leave the house, but he no longer had the strength. Worry and fear gripped his heart. His breathing became came in heavy, labored heaves.

And then, Emillian could see the flames enveloping the walls around him. Swiftly consuming the building around him as if it were only paper.

Then a dark figure strode toward him through the smoke and flames. A dark knight unsheathed his sword as he came closer. His cape billowing behind him as the hot drafts wafting up from the blaze around him.

Emillian’s body trembled in terror. He wanted to flee but was paralyzed from the neck down. He couldn’t move a muscle. Emillian tried to speak, but no sound came out of his mouth. His breath came in labored gasps.

The ground turned black from the soot and ashes raining down from the fiery drafts. Each step the knight took caused the ground to tremble and crack before him, exposing fire under the ground.

The flames had consumed the entire building around Emillian and the knight. The only thing that hadn’t been touched was the bed he had been sitting on. Even the wall behind him that he had been leaning upon had been consumed. He leaned over the edge, but a blast of heat coming up from the ground pushed him back onto the bed. It was his only safe haven in this fiery inferno.

The knight stopped several paces away. He kneeled and rammed the tip of his sword into the ground. The jar of the sword striking the ground caused the fiery cracks to open even wider and longer, stretching out toward the bed that Emillian was sitting upon.

It also seemed to activate the sword as a series of sigils began to light up along the center of the blade. Emillian didn’t understand explicitly what they spelled out, but they seemed to awaken something deep within. They felt familiar somehow as if he had seen them before.

The awakening of an urge began to grow in his heart. A longing for the sword seemed to fill his bones. Implicitly, he sensed that the sigils somehow meant that the sword belonged to him. He wanted the sword and struggled to stand up. But his body still failed to obey him. His limbs sluggish and weak.

“Who are you?” Emillian moaned as he finally managed to force his mouth to cooperate.

The knight remained motionless, still kneeling in position until all of the sigils had been activated. Then stood to his feet. The roar of the fire intensified. Flames continued to rise even though there wasn’t much left of the building to consume. Vapor rose from cracks in the ground and a deep mist began to fill the air around them.

The fear that the knight would leave with the sword overcame Emillain. The thought terrified him. He struggled to roll off the bed. Fire or fire. Heat or no heat. The desire to possess the sword consumed him. And yet he still couldn’t seem to force his muscles to cooperate. Tears of desperation streamed down his face.

The knight took a step in his direction and Emillian breathed a sigh of relief that the sword wasn’t leaving yet. He no longer feared the knight’s presence as it strode toward him.

His heart yearned to reach out and touch the sword in the knight’s hand. Emillian strained to reach out and wrest it from his grasp. As the knight came closer, Emillian felt strength returning to his body so that he was able to move again.

“Rise, Sir Emillian Petre Solomon of Sulisani. Arise before me and hear what I have to say.” a deep command resonated from the dark knight standing before him.

Emillian felt no fear. Only a strange sense of curiosity to know what they knight would say, mixed with the desire to wrest the sword away for himself. Although he sensed deep within his heart that he would never be strong enough to take the sword by force.

As he swunt his feet over the edge of the bed, Emillian realized that the heat from the flames around him no longer bothered him. In fact, they felt good. Almost as if they massaged his aching muscles and soothed his soul.

The knight stopped and cocked his head to the side. Looking at Emillian as if he could see straight through him and into his heart. There was a long pause before the knight finally raised his visor. The face of the king.

Emillian gasped. “Are you a ghost?” his voice quavered.

“Emilian Petre Solomon of Sulisani. You are a strange choice. Fate and coincidence have merged this day with your path. Your destiny has intertwined with that of the Firebrand, Deflector of Darkness and Protector of Darmadauti. Through no fault of your own, it fallen into your possession and you now have a choice to make. Will you keep it and fulfill its duty as the Hope of Hubinti, or would you prefer to pass on the task to another more worthy?”

His head reeled with the information. He had heard of such a sword as Firebrand. Legends of old and many of the old wive’s fables spoke of this sword of power that had been forged centuries ago to drive away the forces of darkness that had once enslaved all the lands of Darmadauti.

Old King Nicu had gained victory over the dark forces with that magical sword, and then divided the seven kingdoms of the continent among his children. Six sons and a daughter he found fit to rule among her brothers. His daughter Ruxandra became the queen and ruler of Hubinti, the mightiest of the seven kingdoms of Darmadauti.

But that had been long ago, and Emillian never truly believed the stories his mother told him were real. He was extremely pragmatic and had never believed in magic. Not even as a child. He shook his head and realized that this must all be some silly dream. But if it were a dream, it was an interesting one, so he might as well play along.

“What are the duties of this Hope of Hubinti?” Emillian asked. “And what shall be required of me?”

“As you know, the sword was forged to defeat the Vinoid and drive them from the land.”

Emillian nodded.

“From time to time, the Vinoid, as well as other threats appear. The seek to kill the bearer of the sword. You must be alert and vigilant. You must use your wits and your strength and your skills to protect the land and its people from those who would devour them. It is a great task, but Firebrand is willing to allow you to wield it. It will aid you in this great endeavor.”

The desire to possess the sword continued to grow. It was all Emillian could do to refrain himself from reaching out to grab it with both hands.

“Yes,” Emillian responded without hesitation and reached out his hand for the sword.

The king knight twisted his body to the side and pulled the sword back to his shoulder out of reach.

“Kneel and swear fealty to Firebrand, the Deflector of Darkness and Protector of Darmadauti,” the knight’s ordered.

Emillian knelt and clasped his hands in front of him as he had years before when he was first knighted by his first master. Lord Horatiu had treated Emillian well while he was alive, but had died several of an illness shortly thereafter. Emillian struggled as a blacksmith’s assistant for almost a year before being invited to join Sir Costin’s band.

They were mercenaries for hire and swore fealty to no one. Anyone who needed a task completed and was willing to pay the highest price. It really didn’t matter to Sir Constin whether they were good or bad. The color of their money was all the same to him.

But Emilian swore with all of his heart that he would serve the sword and fulfill its duty. He didn’t care what was required, Emillian felt the desire to carry it wherever it led. The words flowed out of his throat from the depths of his heart. No, it felt even deeper as if the words were coming from his very bowels.

“I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the sword Firebrand. Always to deflect the darkness and protect the land. Never cause it harm and will observe my homage to it completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit.”

When he completed his vows, Emillian felt tears streaming down his cheeks. It surprised even himself. His heart burned within him. It was a strange feeling of tenderness and care. Almost how he imagined he would feel for his parents, his siblings, or even his children when they were born.

The king knight took a step forward and towered over Emillian. He continued to hold the sword against his right shoulder with is left arm crossed in front of him to hold it in place. With his right hand, the knight struck Emillian a backhanded blow across the right cheek and then struck him against the left.

“I hereby dub thee, Sir Emillian Petre Solomon of Sulisani, Knight of Fires and Wielder of Firebrand, Deflector of Darkness and Protector of Darmadauti.”

A wave of fire flowed through this body. Emillian could hear the cackle of flames roaring in his ears. He felt heat wafting from his heart and across his body. The blood in his veins thrummed with the vibration of each heartbeat.

Emillian felt unlimited energy, as if he could do anything. Nothing seemed to be impossible to him. Difficult maybe, but not impossible. He felt as if he could fly if he wanted to. His heart sang with joy as the knight placed Firebrand in his hands and bid him rise to his feet.

And then everything began to glow around him and turned orange. He opened his eyes and found himself lying in the bed once again as he gasped to regain his breath from the beautiful dream.

The invisible sword that the king had given him was gripped in his hands before him in the same position as the knight had given it to him. He closed his eyes and struggled to make sense of everything he had experienced. It had felt so real. Had it all been just a dream?

The knight’s final warning continued to echo in his ears, “Only you can see the sword. When others know you have it, they will attempt to take it from you by force or by trickery. Guard it well and it will protect you.”

Suddenly, Emillian realized that the house had caught fire and was burning down around him. He jolted upright in the bed and looked for a way to escape, but there was none. Flames consumed the wall around the door. The roof was caving in to his left.

He leaped out of bed still holding the sword in front of him. The sigils glowing brightly before him as they seemed to reflect the light from the flames. Then he realized he could see the sword. It was no longer invisible to his eyes. It was even more exquisite than he remembered from his dream.

Another, larger chunk of the roof caved in and landed at his feet. A shower of flames poured down across the left half of his body, but he felt no pain. Emillian held out his hands over the flame and it felt good. He reached down lower, but the heat still didn’t bother him.

Emillian even went so far as to stick his hand down into the center of the flames. No pain. He grabbed a handful of coal and brought them up close to his face. He inhaled the flames and even went so far as to take a bite out of the coal. It didn’t taste very good, so he spit it back out.

Then he walked out into the center of the flaming mass that had fallen from the roof. Not even his clothes caught fire. Emillian grinned and jumped around the in the flames giddily. He laughed out loud and walked toward the wall.

The fire had weakened it enough that he could push right through it. It didn’t give way immediately, but as he pushed against the wood, Emillian could sense the flames intensifying around him. Almost as if he were willing the fire to burn and consume the wooden walls even more furiously.

Now that he could see the sword and scabbard, it was an easy task to adjust the belt into the proper position across his chest. It was a baldric. Not a piece customarily used by the knights in Hubiti, but he had seen them before when his mercenary missions had taken him to other countries.

After adjusting the baldric and scabbard properly, Emillian slid the sword into its protective sheath. Then he pulled it out again just to feel its weight in his hands and admire the sigils. They felt so comforting and familiar.

There wasn’t much sense staying in the burning building. The roof had burned off and most of the walls had been consumed as well. Only the outer edges of the building still stood. He walked to the front door and opened it to let himself out.

A collective gasp went up from the crowd standing around watching the fires consume the building. Lines had formed in front of the surrounding buildings as people handed buckets from wells to the rooves of their homes so that the fire wouldn’t spread.

Someone ran forward with a bucket of water and splashed it over Emillian as he stood framed in the door as the building burned down around him. He sputtered and walked away muttering a thanks. Not that he was very happy to be soaked, but he understood that the person was only trying to help. It would have been rude not to show some appreciation. The silent crowd backed away in each line as he walked toward them.

“Good sir,” a woman called out as he approached. “Did you see what started the fires?”

Emillian shook his head. “I was sleeping,” he replied.

It was growing dark. He had slept right though the afternoon. There was no sense waiting around for Liviu. He most likely wasn’t going to return. Emillian decided to find a good horse and ride for the royal city. There he would look for the royal blacksmith and maybe get some answers to the questions burning in his mind. It would be a long ride, but if he left soon on a good horse, Emillian knew he could make it there before sunrise.

It was just as well. Riding under the cover of darkness would offer protection against being seen by the city guards who were probably still on the look out for him. Give them a few days and they would probably forget what he looked like. Once he got to Morasi, Emillian could lay low till for a few days.

A large, sprawling city with plenty of places to rest and relax after a long night’s ride. He even had a few friends there, maybe he could even find a place to stay for free and save some coin. Who knew how long it would take to meet up with Sir Constin and crew to start working again. Best to conserve money for the time.

Another good reason to be on the road at night because then he wouldn’t have to pay for an inn. Especially since he didn’t know anyone this far west. He was a long way from Morasi and even farther from his home in Sulisani.

Maybe after talking with the royal blacksmith, he would head back home. It had been almost two years since he had been back there. The thought of seeing his brothers again warmed his heart. He was the oldest and knew they would be happy to see him return in safety. Emillian couldn’t wait to tell them stories of his adventures across the lands. He made a mental note to pick up some souveniers for his sisters from the royal city as he approached the city stables.

“Here to pick up a horse, sir?” the stableboy asked him as Emillian approached.

“Actually, I left my horse with a friend. I just want to see if he arrived with it yet.”

The boy nodded and returned to grooming a large, dappled silver horse. Large and muscular. One that looked like it had been bred for battle.

Emillian moved quickly through the stables as he looked for Freckles, his white horse with scattered brown splotches. It wasn’t anything magnificent to look at, but it was sturdy enough to get him around. Still.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to continue riding the poor, old thing. It was well along in years and probably wouldn’t survive another winter. Emillian didn’t spot the horse in any of the stables though.

Sir Constin had most likely decided to camp under the stars for the night and hobbled the horses somewhere outside the city. Emillian knew he didn’t stand much chance of finding them at night. So, he made his way back to the lad and asked if the stable had any horses to rent for a week.

The stableboy shook his head and said, “All our available horses were taken for the events of the day. Most aren’t due back till tomorrow morning at the earliest. And others will be gone for the entire week.”

“Do you know of anyone who wants to sell a horse for a cheap price?” Emillian asked hopefully.

The stableboy shook his head instantly and without hesitation, “Not one worth riding.”

Emillian walked up the road toward the entrance of the inn. He might have to stay here tonight anyway, but when he inquired of the innkeeper, Emillian told that there were no available rooms. That would explain why Sir Costin’s horses weren’t in the stable.

“We’ve been booked out for the entire week, as have all the other inns in town,” the innkeeper said with a grin. “And now it looks like we’ll be booked out even longer as people wait around to find out who killed the king.”

Emillian started to spit out a snarky reply but decided to keep his mouth shut. No sense in irritating the innkeeper or drawing unnecessary attention to himself. He ordered a plate of pumpes with a side of compost.

His mouth watered at the smell of the food. When his bowls arrived, Emillian dove right in. The sauce of almond milk and spices over his meatballs weren’t the best Emillian had ever tasted. However, the mix of vegetables he ordered on the side were perfectly seasoned.

After Emillian had paid and bid the maid farewell, he set off to the stable. He had been hatching an idea for getting a horse yet tonight. But if that didn’t work and all else failed, he would start walking to Rosiocari. Emillian felt refreshed after his nap and meal. Then he would wake up in the morning and hitch a ride on a wagon the rest of the way to the royal city.

Just as he left the in though, Emillian heard the familiar voice of Sir Costin calling for him.

“There you are, lad. We’ve been looking all over for you. You had us worried sick. Where have you been?” the leader of their little band asked.

Emillian smiled broadly as he turned to approach the short, balding man.

“Right here, my lord!” Emillian replied. “It’s good to see your face again. Have you found an inn to stay the night?”

Sir Costin snorted in irritation, “No, we had to camp down by the bend in the river. There’s not an inn to be had for all the gold in Darmadauti, lad. We came up here to see if we could get a warm meal.”

Gheorghe came around the corner of the building across the square with a band of five soldiers in his wake. A sly smile crossed Sir Costin’s face when he notice them too. Emillian saw Gheorghe pointing in his direction and the soldiers picked up speed as the came toward him.

“What is the meaning of this, my lord?” Emilian asked.

“We’re getting you a room for the night down in the dungeons, my boy. You’re worth a bag of gold coins to the mayor of Rosiocari.” Sir Costin said with a greedy glitter in his eye. “I never thought you were worth much, but I guess the mayor thinks otherwise.”

Sir Costin snicked at his own joke. He always laughed at his own dumb jokes even when no one else did.

Emillian breathed in deeply and analyzed his options. He had never considered himself overly intelligent. And tended to let others make important decisions. For the last several months, Emillian had pretty much let Sir Costin do the thinking for him, obeying pretty much everything the man had told him to do. To be betrayed like this was infuriating.

Now, it was time to cut ties and do his own thinking. Even as the knights ran toward him and ordered him to get down on his knees, Emillian felt a strange peace come over him. His focus seemed to clear and he knew exactly what to do. He could sense the flame burning within his heart guide him.

The sound of the flames crackling provided intense focus. The sense of warmth flowing through the veins blodded him with calm. The heat from his belly radiated into his bones and muscles as he exploded from where he was standing.

Emillian leaped backward up onto the ledge of the fountain. He kicked water with his foot into the face of the lead soldier. The man jerked back thinking he was going to get kicked in the face and slipped on the wet stone. Emillian flipped over the man’s head and landed in front of the other. Emillian ducked as the man swung at him. He spun and kicked the man’s feet out from under him. Then he came up with a wicked uppercut that knocked the third man out instantly.

Gheorghe raised his hands and backed up with fear in his eyes. He had always been a coward and let others do his fighting for him. Sir Costin’s mouth moved as he stood there flabbergasted. Neither of them had ever seen Emillian do anything close to this.

“You’ll regret this. Both of you.” Emillian growled before racing for the stable.

“Halt! I command you to yield on order of the sheriff of Rosiocari!” A the guard sputtered furiously after composing himself.

Emillian thrilled as he raced into the stable. He had never felt so alive. He vibrated with a sense of energy and excitement that made him laugh as he leaped onto the back of the silver dapple horse. He had always been obedient and complied when told what to do. The sense of rebelling against the sherrif’s soldiers was amazing.

The silver horse responded instantly to his touch and command even though it had no bit or bridle. He felt as if the horse had been waiting for him and knew exactly what he wanted it to do as it raced out of the stable almost bowling over Gheorghe and the soldiers who had come after him.

“Hey! That horse belongs to Sherrif Ovidiu. He’ll throw you in the dungeon for stealing his horse.”

“He already wants to throw me in the dungeon!” Emillian shouted over his shoulder with a gleeful laugh.

Even his own reaction was surprising to him. Emillian had never thought it could be this much fun to be in trouble with the law. Did this mean that he was now an outlaw? Emillian the Outlaw. He grinned with satisfaction at the name.

It didn’t sound that exciting though. He would have to come up with something a little more catchy. He thought of other names as the silver dapple horse galloped through the forests and over the hills toward the royal city of Morasi.

This horse was nothing like any he had ever ridden. It rode fast and hard almost the entire night. They stopped only to drink and let the horse catch its breath at a few strategic spots. As the sun rose over the mountains ahead, Emillian could see the city sprawled out before them.

The massive spires of the castle jutted high into the sky. There was not another structure like it in all the land of Darmadauti. Emillian loved the city and had wandered its streets often. However, he had never been inside the fortified section that housed the castle.

But today, that would change. He needed to find his way inside to speak with royal blacksmith of Morasi. Then, it struck Emillian that he didn’t even know the blacksmith’s name. He wracked his brain, but for the life of him could not recall the king mentioning the man’s name as he gave Emillian his final instructions.

Previously, Emillian would have worried and through about how to proceed. But today, he felt like a new man. Deep within him, he felt the unshakeable confidence that everything would work out. Not just because he wanted it to, but because Emillian felt confident that he could face whatever obstacle came his way and overcome it using his wits, skills, and strength.

Emillian rode through the city streets toward the gate of the fortress that loomed before him. He wondered if anyone would recognize himself of the sheriff’s horse that he had stolen. He doubted it, but Emillian had heard of people using pigeons to carry messages from one city to another.

The drawbridge over the moat was down, but before he could cross it, two guards stepped out and challenged him.

“Halt and state your business, man,” one of the royal guards called out.

“Good morning, fine sirs! My name is Emillian Petre Solomon of Sulisani. I come to seek the royal blacksmith.”

“Sir Valerian? The king’s blacksmith? What do you want with him?” the guard asked, glancing over at his companion.

“I have a message and token for him,” Emillian declared boldly.

He was pleased to have learned the name of the man the king wanted him to see.

“What is it?” the guard demanded to know.

“It’s for his ears only. It was whispered to me by King Rares as he lay dying yesterday. I rode through the night without sleep to get here as quickly as possible.”

The knights conferred amongst themselves for a few moments before the guard ordered Emillian to dismount and walk forward slowly with his arms to the side. When he got close, they ordered him to turn around so they could see if he had a weapon.

“You were there when the king was killed?” the knight inquired.

Emillian nodded curtly and pursed his lips.

“And you saw who killed the king?” the other guard beside him interrogated.

“Aye. And sadly, the queen as well,” Emillian sighed.

“So, you could identify their killer?” the first guard asked again. “Who was it?”

Emillian nodded again at his first question. To the second, he told the guard that his information was for Sir Valerian’s ears at the king’s command. The guard narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“You rode through the night from Rosiocari without a sword?” the guard demanded incredulously.

Emillian had forgotten that he hadn’t been able to see the sword either when the king gave it to him. He did have the invisible sword with him, but he couldn’t tell them that. And he had to come up with something believable otherwise they wouldn’t let him through.

“My friend Sandu, a carpenter lives down the street. I’m staying with him and leaving my belongings there. I didn’t know if I would be allowed to enter the king’s fortress with weapons.”

Which was mostly true. He did plan on staying with Sandu, and he didn’t know if weapons were allowed in the castle.

“Well, stand aside and let the miller behind you cross over with his bags of flour. Meantime, we’ll relay this information to Sir Valerian. If he agrees to see you, we’ll let you through. Due to the king’s assassination and other strange events, you have to understand that we aren’t just letting anyone inside the castle today.”

Emillian nodded and pulled his horse to the side. After the miller passed, he returned to the edge of the drawbridge to wait for Sir Valerian’s invitation.

He didn’t have to wait long. The messenger came back and spoke to the knights with his hands on his knees. The knights waved him back over.

“Sir Valerian says that he will see you if you can answer a question correctly.”

Emillian smiled encouragingly and nodded. The knights turned to look at the messenger who was still breathing hard from his run up the castle steps. Emillian raised his eyebrows expectantly as he waited for the messenger to catch his breath.

“This token,” the messenger said as he stood back up and put his hands on his hips still breathing hard. “What letter does it begin with?”

“The sigils of the…” Emillian started to say when the messenger held up his hand with a frightened look.

“Sir Valerian’s clear instructions were that you not say what the token is. Only that you tell me what is the first letter that it starts with.” the messenger said before clarifying apologetically. “He did not tell me what it was either. I only know the letter that he told me would be acceptable.”

“Oh, I understand now,” Emillian said with a smile. “The letter S.”

The messenger bowed his head in acknowledgment and nodded for the guards to let him through. He also beckoned for Emillian to follow him. The guards looked from the messenger to Emillian and then to each other in confusion. The one who seemed to be the leader and asked the most question shrugged and stepped back first. The other followed suit.

Emillian nodded and thanked each of them as he led his horse through the gate. The messenger showed him where to tie his horse, and then led him up the wide steps through the entrance of the castle. Four guards fell into step behind Emillian and the messenger as they passed through the entrance.

The messenger must have caught his breath by then because he was walking briskly down the halls and through the corridors that even Emillian’s long legs had trouble keeping up with him. It felt as if they had walked the entire length of the castle and back at least three times.

Emillian was completely lost and knew that if the messenger and guards disappeared, he would be lost in here for days. The castle looked enormous from the outside, but it felt even larger now that they were inside.

They finally came to a large set of double doors with two guards standing before it with solemn faces. They stepped aside and opened the doors. The messenger held up his hand for Emillian to wait at the door. The guards closed the door behind him.

After a brief pause, the doors opened again and the messenger beckoned for Emillian to come inside. The four knights followed him.

The room was long and narrow. There was a forge with a fire blazing down at the end. Shelves and tables filled the room with many blacksmith tools that were familiar to him. They reminded him of his days working as a blacksmith’s apprentice after his first lord had died.

The blacksmith smiled and motioned for them to wait. He pulled a glowing yellow block of metal from the forge and swirled around in a pail of water. The water boiled a bit and vapor rose from the pail. When he was satisfied, the blacksmith pulled the hunk of metal out of the pail and set it on his anvil.

Then he pulled off his gloves and approached Emillian with a sad smile through a thick, snow-white beard and mustache. He kept it short and trimmed which made him look wise and elegant.

“So, they tell me that you were with King Rares when he was assassinated,” Sir Valerian spoke with a rich, resonating voice.

Emillian nodded and tried to match his somber mood with the appropriate mourning look in his own eyes. He had been so focused on trying to understand the mysterious events and escape Rosiocari on his journey here, that he had forgotten that people who had just learned of these events would still be grieving themselves.

“Yes, I’m sorry, my lord. I was in the crowd when a man jumped out and stabbed the king twice with his dagger before striking the queen.”

“Were no guards there to stop him?” Sir Valerian asked with a suspicious edge to his voice.

“There were guards, knights, and soldiers before them and behind them. But some sort of confusion at the front of the processional drew their attention.”

Emillian briefly explained what he had seen and the events that had transpired around him. When he started to relay the king’s message, Sir Valerian held up his hand for Emillian to pause. The white-haired old man ordered all of the guards to leave the room.

There was a silent, collective sigh of disappointment as they turned to leave. Emillian had noticed that they were anxiously leaning toward him, listening to every word. Grasping for morsels of gossip to spread as soon as they left the room.

After they were gone, Sir Valerian offered Emillian a chair and told him to continue, “There are words that are best not spread around the castle at this time,” he said in a hushed voice. Pray, tell me all.”

Emillian looked around the room and scanned the walls for slits or peepholes. He had heard that most castles had secret tunnels that allowed the palace spies to eavesdrop on kings and noblemen as they discussed their plans.

The blacksmith chuckled when he noticed what Emillian was looking for. “It’s okay, lad. There are no tunnels here. When this castle was built, no one expected the blacksmith to hold secrets like this to the kingdom. That’s why I had you brought here. It will chafe the palace spies so. Just keep your voice down.”

With a satisfied nod, Emillian continued his story and telling the blacksmith what the king had said. The old man seemed disappointed that there wasn’t more.

“So, you do have the sword with you?” he asked huskily almost nervously.

Emilian nodded and started to reach for it, but the old man held out his hand to stop him. He stood up and walked over toward his forge, motioning for Emillian to follow him.

“The confusion that you noticed was caused by the use of powerful magic. Illusions confound the minds of the crowd and blind them to the king’s assassination. I suspected as much when we received so many different variations of when the king was found dead.”

The memory of the woman in black that had mesmerized him flashed through his mind.

“This sounds like the Vinoid. They return every decade or so with a new plot or attempt to destroy the sword. Through the ages, we have managed to withstand their wiles. But this is the first time they have been so bold as to actually assassinate a king.”

Sir Valerian held up a strap of leather before Emillian’s chest as if measuring him as he felt for the invisible baldric and scabbard. He pretended to be measuring Emillian’s size as he deftly unbuckled the sword. Emillian felt a strange sensation as Sir Valerian tried to take the sword from him. A sense of anger and jealousy for the sword. As if the sword belonged to him, and he felt possessive of it.

Just then the door burst open and a large man in black burst through, followed by two others. Emillian recognized him.

“That’s the man who was with the mesmerizing woman yesterday,” Emillian hissed to Sir Valerian.

The two guards who had been standing at the door were lying across the threshold where they had been slain. Blood from their slit throats pooled around them.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Sir Valerian called out cheerily as if they were regular customers. “I’m just finishing up some measurements here and then I will attend to you.”

He gave up trying to unbuckle the invisible baldric and came back around to lay the piece of leather on the table. He cut it with a smile and great relish as if this were his favorite task in the world.

“And what can I do for you today?” Sir Valerian asked without a trace of nervousness.

Sir Valerian stepped in front of Emillian protectively. The man in black grunted and turned to the door as if waiting for someone. After a brief pause, a fourth man dressed in black arrived dragging a short, stocky figure.

“Liviu Iacob Albu? The blacksmith of Rosicario that everyone says is dead? Huh?” Emillian glowered at him.

Liviu shrugged and said, “It’s easier to plot revenge when everyone thinks you are dead. I told you that the duke killed my family. It was a blood debt that needed to be repaid.”

Emillian stepped forward and pointed an accusing finger. “But you didn’t kill a duke. You killed the king,” Emillian said in exasperation.

Liviu looked confused and shook his head. He looked at the large man in black and said, ” You told me that was the Duke of Tanlan who killed my family.”

“I also told you to fetch his sword and bring it to me,” the man in black growled. “Is this the man that pulled you off of the carriage?”

“Yes. I didn’t have a chance to find the duke’s sword because this man pulled me away from the carriage,” Liviu replied with a snort. “If he has the sword, will you still pay me what you promised?”

“I will pay you right now,” the man in black said with a wicked grin.

Liviu grinned and said, “Paid great wealth to exact revenge I already wanted. It doesn’t get much better than…”

The man in black’s sword sliced across his throat just as it had the guards at the door. Liviu slumped to the floor beside them.

“Give us the sword and we will let you live, lad,” the man in black said reaching out a gloved hand.

“What makes you think I have a sword? Do you see one around? Sir Valerian, do you have a sword around we can give this man? Or I’m sure Sir Valerian can forge you a beautiful sword to your exact specifications.”

The man in black growled and said, “So, you think you are a funny boy. Huh? We know Liviu didn’t get it. And you pulled him away. That means you must have it.”

“Uh, there were lots of knights and soldiers and guards around. Any one of them could have taken it.”

“No, because our men were on the scene almost immediately and the sword wasn’t there. Either you or Liviu took it.”

“Well, maybe Liviu took it and hid it. He just didn’t tell you.”

The man in black roared in frustration for Emillian to be quiet. “Silence. We’ll soon find out if you have or not. This is an easy matter to resolve.”

Emillian tried to change tactics and distract the man from his questions about the sword.

“Oh! Do you have six fingers? And you fight with your left hand?” Emillian asked. “Are you a Vinoid? My grandmother and mother use to tell me tales of those who had six fingers and were left-handed. And they usually had red hair.”

The man in black grinned wickedly and splayed his six fingers proudly as he reached up to pull off his wig. Tufts of coppery red hair stuck out in a wild mess. “Vinoid as they come, and proud of it,” he said with an arrogant boast.

Emillian smiled and gave Sir Valerian a knowing look. His mother and grandmother had never called the Vinoid by name. That he had learned from the old blacksmith. But now he knew where many of the old fairy tales had come from. At least he had confirmed Sir Valerian’s information.

“Well then, I guess that makes me the handsome prince. Here to free the beautiful princess from your evil grasp.” Emillian joked nervously.

Just then the woman in black that he had seen at the assassination breezed into the room. She stepped over the bodies lying on the floor as if seeing them there didn’t bother her in the least. The woman’s eyes swept over everyone in the room and came to rest on Emillian.

“Told you he had the sword, Xander,” the woman said.

She gave the man in black a mocking, I-told-you-so smile.

Xander gave a sigh of relief and said, “Good. Does he have it with him?”

“Of course, he does,” she replied. “I can sense it wrapped around his body.”

The man in black growled and motioned for the other three men behind him to grab Emillian. Sir Valerian leaped to the side of the room and drew a long sword hanging on the wall. He yelled Emillian’s name and tossed him the sword.

Emillian grabbed it from the air just as the men were upon him. He didn’t have much room to swing but took a step back so that he managed to thrust the sword up into one of the men’s belly. The man went down with a loud scream, pulling the sword with him, almost yanking it from Emillian’s arms.

The other two men grabbed Emillian by the arms and slammed him back against the wall. They were as large as Emillian and extremely strong. They each held him up against the wall with one arm, as they felt his body for the invisible sword.

One of them felt it and gave it a hard tug to pull it from his body. But by them, Sir Valerian was upon them with another sword that he had grabbed. They let Emillian go and he slid to the ground.

The man closest to Sir Valerian engaged with his sword and they had a go. Sir Valerian was old, but still very spry and nimble on his feet. He struck and parried blows as well as any sword fighter Emillian knew.

But the other man was still tugging at his invisible scabbard as if by pulling hard enough, he could get it off, even if he had to yank Emillian’s shoulder off. He was too close for Emillian to swing it or do much damage. So, he raised the sword up over his head with his free arm and brought the pommel down hard on the top of the man’s head. The man yelped and leaped back drawing his own sword.

“You little punk. You’ll pay for that. I’ll get that sword from you even if I have to chop you into little pieces.”

He came in swinging furiously. It was all Emillian could do to block and parry his blows. He was surprised at the intensity and ferocity of the man’s attack. Emillian blocked a blow. Then another. Finally, he found an opening and struck out with one of his own.

Emillian wasn’t used to fighting a sword this long and heavy. The sword he normally used was much thinner and lighter. It was mostly just for show. He practiced with it often and even sparred with other men from his band. But he never really had to use a sword much in real fights due to peace in the land his entire life.

He soon began to tire. Emillian struck out a couple of times. But mostly he was simply trying to defend himself. After his opponent came in close, Emillian managed to parry with his sword before kicking with his leg and driving the other man backward.

It gave him time to glance over at Sir Valerian who seemed to be having a great time sparring with his opponent. Unlike Emillian, he didn’t seem to be tired, and he was getting almost as many strikes in as he parried.

By then, Emillian’s opponent had recovered and came rushing back in hard. He struck several solid blows, and it was all Emillian could do to hold parry fast enough to keep from losing ground.

Sir Valerian battled his opponent and moved around so that he was close to Emillian. He struck hard at his opponent to throw him off and then struck out at Emillian’s opponent which the man had to defend. It gave Emillian a brief moment to catch himself and regain his footing.

“Give me the king’s sword,” Sir Valerian ordered. “It’s the only thing that will drive these Vinoid back to where they came from.”

Emillian didn’t want to give it up, but he knew that there wasn’t time to argue. Sir Valerian was the only one who seemed to be effective at fighting these men. And at the rate Emillian was going, he would soon lose the sword to them anyway.

He grudgingly pulled the sword from its scabbard and held it out toward Sir Valerian while he simultaneously tried to defend against his opponent’s attack. Once again, Sir Valerian managed to drive his opponent back and struck out at Emillian’s assailant.

This gave him enough time to grab the hilt of the sword from Emillian’s hand. But just as he took it, Xander rushed in together with his minion. The two of them drove Sir Valerian back with the fury of their blows. And once again, it was all Emillian could do to defend against the attack of the one man he was fighting against.

Emillian heard Sir Valerian cry out to his side and then a loud thud as he hit the ground. There was a clatter as the swords fell from his hands. Emillian glanced to the side to see Sir Valerian sprawled on the ground with blood streaming from cuts on his arms and across the front of his chest and stomach.

The distraction gave Emillian’s opponent to strike with his sword and knock Emillian backward as well. A second follow-up attack while he was off-balance with a well-placed kick to the belly, and Emillian found himself sprawled on the ground too. His sword had fallen from his hand and slid up against the wall.

His opponent stepped between Emillian and his sword. The man paused to grin down at Emillian as he wiped sweat from his forehead and eyes. He glanced over at Xander for approval as well as instructions on how to proceed.

“Just finish him,” Xander growled. “Then help us find the sword.”

Xander and his partner were already on their hands and knees as they felt around for the invisible sword. Emillian could see where it lay under one of the tables. It had partially fallen under a pile of firewood near the forge. It was too far for him to reach though.

Emillian’s opponent stepped forward and swung his foot into Emillian’s side with a wicked kick. He felt ribs crack. The pain was sickening and he howled with pain. He gasped for air and his vision began to darken as the man raised his sword for the final blow.

But for some reason, he seemed to freeze there with his sword over his head. Emillian heard the sound of flames crackling. He felt a rush of heat flood through his veins. And then he saw the same black knight walking toward him.

The knight crouched down beside Emillian and cocked his head to the side as he lifted his visor. The king’s face looked down at him with a look of pity mixed with anger. He didn’t open his mouth, but Emillian could hear his voice.

“Why did you hand the sword to another? The Firebrand was given to you. Only you can wield its power. You took the vow. I knighted you as the deflector of darkness. This is the darkness. You are the protector of Darmadauti.”

“It’s too late,” Emillian grunted. “The sword is too far away. I can’t fight as well as that old man.”

The king shook his head and said, “You have no idea what that sword is capable of doing through you. Call Firebrand and let it show you.”

Emillian glanced up at his nemesis still frozen over him. Then over at the sword still under the pile of wood. He reached out his hand and screamed for the sword as loud as he could.

“Firebrand!”

The sword twisted around and shot into his hand. The pile of firewood around it exploded into a mass of missiles that flew around the room. One hit Xander. Another hit Emillian’s opponent standing over him. The third man threw himself to the ground at the sound and just barely missed taking a chunk of firewood to the head.

As soon as his fingers wrapped around Firebrand’s hilt, the king disappeared and a burst of power and energy sizzled through every cell in his body. Energizing and empowering him in a way that shocked even Emillian.

He leaped to his feet in a single bound. Everything happened so fast, that he was on his feet before the firewood struck his opponent. The surprise of Emilian standing in front of him while his arms were still over his head seemed to shock him just as much as the piece of wood whacking him upside the head.

Emillian drew back his sword and swung Firebrand as hard as he could. Adjusting his angle with precision and agility as his opponent fell from the knock to his head that surprised even Emillian himself. It was almost as if the sword had taken over him and were using him, adjusting him, and even empowering him.

The blade sliced through the man’s head and knocked it clean off his body. It hit the ground and rolled till it stopped at the woman’s feet. Blood splattered up across the front of her dress. She didn’t seem happy. That mesmerizing smile had been wiped from her face when she realized Emillian had just used the invisible sword.

The other man leaped to his feet and charged Emillian, but he seemed to be moving so slow. Emillian turned and waited for him to take the five steps needed to reach him. He didn’t even move until the man was on his fourth step before pulling back his sword and sidestepping the rush.

Once again, the sword seemed to be directing and guiding Emillian’s hands. It simply held itself out as the man moved past him, sliding its blade across the side of his bicep just deep enough to hit an artery.

The man didn’t seem to notice it. He turned and came in for another attack. This time Emillian felt as if the blade were once again doing all of the work. It was so effortless. Firebrand seemed so light and easy to use. Nothing like the clunky piece of iron that he had been struggling to fight with earlier.

The blade once again found its way along the man’s other arm, slicing through the side of his opposite bicep just deep enough to cut the main artery. The man stopped with a confused look on his face as he watched the blood draining from his body. He looked at Emillian’s hands.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

Emillian kept forgetting that they couldn’t see Firebrand. They couldn’t even see that he was holding a sword, much less how he was wielding it.

The man in black had risen to his feet. He moved toward Emillian. He wasn’t as slow as the other two men were. His attacks were smooth and sure. But he still wasn’t fast enough to land a blow on Emillian with Firebrand directing him.

Firebrand parried every attack perfectly. Emillian didn’t even feel the jar of the other blade hitting his. He wondered what he must look like to Sir Valerian and the woman watching. Him blocking direct sword strikes with his empty fists. It made him smile.

The smile caused Xander to pause his attack and take a moment to catch his breath.

“What’s so funny?” he growled in frustration.

“I’m just imagining what I must look like fighting with my pretend sword,” he said with a chuckle.

Xander’s eyes narrowed in irritation, but then his face softened. “You actually fight pretty good for a human. I’ve never seen someone move as fast you. Not even a Vinoid.”

The compliment made Emillian’s heart swell with joy and his face flush with pride.

“Don’t let it go to your head because I’m still going to kill you,” Xander growled before attacking again.

Emillian parried several more times but then realized that he hadn’t yet even tried striking back. His strong point was that Xander couldn’t even see how his blade would be angled to block it.

After blocking one of Xander’s attacks, Emillian took a step forward and swung his sword at his opponent’s head as a test. But since the Vinoid couldn’t see the blade coming at him, he began pulling his sword back for another attack.

Emillian’s blade sliced right through the top half of his head, slicing it off like warm butter, surprising even Emillian himself. He took a step back in shock.

The man in black turned toward the mesmerizing woman and gasped, “Aradia, flee and take word back to our lord…”

He toppled to the floor as he spoke. The woman screamed in grief and fury before turning to escape. Emillian felt the sword pulling his arm back over his head. He tried to resist it mentally, but the sword’s will was stronger.

It flew from his hand directly towards here head. A puff exploded at her feet and her body began to transform into a mist from her toes all the way up to her neck. But before her head could dissipate, the sword had sliced through her head and come out the front of her face.

The force of the throw carried the sword forward until it hit the wall. The blade vibrated from the blow until the weight of her body reforming pulled her feet to the ground. Emillian quickly stepped forward to pull the sword from the wall.

Aradia’s body slid to the floor, her blood mixing with the pool that had already formed around the palace guards they had killed earlier.

“Guess they got what they deserved,” Sir Valerian said quietly.

Emilliand jumped at the sound of his voice.

“You spooked me. How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Good, now that those Vinoid are dead. We’ll drive stakes through their hearts and heads. They burn their bodies just to be sure they don’t come back to life. I’ve helped King Rares kill a few over the last several decades. We just have to make sure that they are really dead.” Sir Valerian said as he sat down with a loud groan.

“I feel bad for the woman,” Emillian said still in shock.

“Don’t be. If you had let her go, she would have attempted some trickery. Or worse, returned with more of those things.”

Emillian shuddered and sat down beside him. He watched as Sir Valerian took off his shirt.

“Not too deep,” the old man said with a sigh. “I should be good to go in another decade when they return.”

Emillian wiped Firebrand on a towel before sliding it back into his scabbard.

“You know what this means?” Sir Valerian asked in a grave tone. “The fact that the sword chose you. I tried to wield it, but it was unresponsive. I had hoped that for once it might choose me.”

Emillian shook his head. “I had a vision that the king gave it to me. He made me take an oath. Then he dubbed me and placed it in my hands.”

Sir Valerian nodded and smiled. “It means that you will be the next king.”

“What about his heirs?” Emillian asked with shock.

“The people will crown his son as king for now. You can serve him for a time if you like. But the sword is powerful. It will guide events. The people will notice. Eventually, they will crown you as their king.”

“But I don’t want to be king,” Emillian stammered. “I never even thought about it.”

“Evil and cruel men will attempt to seize and usurp the throne,” Sir Valerian replied. “Even if you don’t lay claim to it. They will fight among themselves. There will only be peace if you as the wielder of the sword fulfill your duty. That is what it was forged for all those years ago.”

“You forged it?” Emillian asked.

A twinkle in the old man’s eye was all the answer he needed.

The messenger came rushing in and gasped at the mess. He tore back down the hall to call more guards.

“Aye, that I did lad. You’re the first to ever realize that. I’ve been doing my part to keep the land free of the Vinoid. They are an ancient enemy. I do my part to make sure each person who receives the sword understands what it is capable of.”

“Sharp enough to help a dunce like me see through the illusions of the Vinoid and capable enough to defeat them once again all these centuries later,” Emillian said with a pleased sigh as he flipped Firebrand around in the lighting of the flickering fire as the guards and servants burned the hearts and heads of the Vinoid in the forge.

“I guess that means you are the King Maker,” he said with a satisfied sigh and tried to imagine what life might be like in the future with his newfound allies and powers.

Clara of Cesfati: Slayer of Kings

“Please, help! Someone help me, please!”

Clara sighed and pulled back from Donatello. She had been so close to kissing him. Trying to work up the courage. Clara had sensed for a few days now that he wanted to kiss her, too. But so far, he hadn’t made any moves on her.

She had sat down beside him and leaned in closer to see what he was drawing in the dirt. Just waiting for him to look up at the right angle. And boom! She had been ready to plant one on his perfect lips.

But as soon as he heard the cry for help, good ol’ boy Donnie had leaped up and raced off to the rescue without so much as a backward glance.

“C’mon, Clara!” he shouted as he raced around the corner of the building. “Let’s go see what’s going on. Someone needs our help.”

Clara sighed and stood up. She angrily scuffed up what he had been drawing with the toe.

“Why was she like this? Nothing else really scared her. So, why couldn’t she work up the nerve to just tell Donatello the truth? The worse he could do would say he wasn’t interested. Right?” Clara thought to herself as she followed that gorgeous knight around the corner.

Donatello was already up in a tree with a kitten in his hands. He pet the tiny creature gently with his huge hands to calm it down. Then he tied his cape around in front of him to make a sling for the little reddish-gold ball of fluff.

The young girl with long, dark hair clapped gleefully and jumped around as he scrambled back down with her pet. Before Donatello even had a chance to turn around, the child had already grabbed onto his leg and hugged him gratefully.

“Thank you, Donnie. Thank you. You saved Zolapia. She couldn’t climb down and I was scared she was going to fall.” the girl exclaimed breathlessly.

“Hey, calm down there, Lady Assunta. She’s a cat and climbing trees is what cats do. They like to be up high where they can see everything.” Donatello said gruffly as he wiped a tear from her eye. “Don’t cry, little lady. She’s safe in your arms.”

The young girl squeezed her cat tightly and sniffed as she nodded up at Donatello with a smile. “Okay. I won’t. It’s just that she’s still so small. I thought she might not know how to stay safe up there. And it scared me.”

Donatello patted her head roughly and then pushed the child back toward the castle. “Better get her back safely inside. If you stay near the tree, that little kitten is going to want to climb it again. Next time it will go up even higher into the small branches I can’t climb.”

Clara smiled at Donatello when he noticed her standing there. “You’re too nice, Donatello. I would have told her just to wait for it to come back down on its own.”

He just smiled and shrugged as he tried to untie the knot he had made in his cape to form the sling around his neck. Clara stepped in close to help and brushed her fingers against his as she untied it with her nimble fingers. She didn’t back away after finishing and smiled invitingly, hoping he would take the opportunity to kiss her.

Donatello cocked his head and looked at her questioningly. But before he could say anything, they heard another loud scream. The shrill, blood-curdling scream of something terribly wrong. It sounded like her friend, Filomena. This time, it was Clara who took the lead in running around the corner.

Filomena was bent over at the threshold of the building. As Clara got closer, she could see someone’s boots just inside the door. She rushed forward and pushed past Filomena to get inside. The body of Abramo, her friend and a member of the group, lay on the floor in a pool of blood and vomit. Tears welled up in her eyes as she bent down beside him.

Donatello stood up as she came in. Licked his finger and wiped it off on his pants as he stepped back for her to take a look. Clara circled Abramo’s body before kneeling beside him where Donatello had been.

“What happened, Filomena?” she finally managed to ask.

“I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” Filomena wailed as she stood up. “Please! You have to believe me. The baron will punish me for this.”

Donatello was standing behind Filomena. She turned to him and fell on his chest, sobbing. He held her up and demanded to know what had happened.

“I had just made a plate of food and set it down on the table. I went out to wash my hands. Abramo came in and teased me by saying he was going to eat it. I told him he’d better not or else I would kill him. But it was just an expression. Just a manner of speaking. When I came back, I found him like this.” the distraught girl wailed.

Emanuela and Lino came racing around the corner just then and wanted to know what was going. They were shocked when they saw Abramo lying on the floor. Lino fell to his knees beside his friend’s body.

“No, no, no!” he moaned. “I don’t believe it. I was just talking with Abramo a short time ago. What happened?”

Emanuela was one of the smartest of the bunch and liked to make sure everyone knew it too. She kneeled down for a closer look at Abramo’s face.

“It looks like he might have been poisoned,” she said. Emanuella stood up and walked over to the table to look at the plate of food. She didn’t touch it. Emanuella picked up a fork and poked at the meat and potatoes, sliding them around as if looking for something. Then she picked up the plate of food and walked toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Donatello asked.

“Throw it to the pigs. If they die too, then we know it was really poison in the food.”

“Who could have done this?” Lino asked angrily.

“I swear it wasn’t me.” Filomena continued to sob. “I shouldn’t have left the plate there. If he hadn’t eaten it, then Abramo wouldn’t be dead.”

Clara grabbed the sobbing girl by the shoulders and looked her dead in the eye. “Listen, stupid girl. It’s not your fault. That poison was meant for you. If Abramo hadn’t eaten it and died, then you would have. You would be the one lying on the floor right now.”

Filomena’s face turned pale as the realization of what Clara was saying meant to her. Then she really started to bawl up a storm.

“But why? Who would want to kill me?” Filomena finally managed to say.

“C’mon, Filomena. We’re all assassins,” Lino said. “We’ve all killed people. It could be any number of people wanting to exact revenge. Besides, you know that all assassins are eventually betrayed.”

Filomena’s face puckered up, and she started to cry again. “But I’m not really an assassin. I’m more like a spy. Why would someone put poison in my food?”

“Whoa! Wait. Hold on.” Clara managed to blurt out. “What do you mean we’re all assassins?”

Lino stepped forward and stopped right in front of her. “Look, I’m sure you suspected it. You just joined our group here these days. You haven’t been initiated yet. But we invited you for a reason. You didn’t just think we’re a regular group of knights in shining armor. Did you?”

Clara nodded. She looked at Lino, Filomena, and Donatello. Filomena blushed and looked down. Donatello shrugged and nodded in acknowledgment.

“You don’t think we fight battles and let the bad guys walk away, do you? We’re an elite group of assassins. Our job is to kill the bad guys before they can do bad things. We prevent their evil deeds.” Lino said so sincerely that Clara almost believed him.

“So, the Baron just tells you to kill people and you do it?” Clara asked incredulously.

Lino nodded and added, “And we get paid handsomely for it while we’re at it. You don’t think we live in a castle and are this well off just doing normal knight tasks. Did you?”

“Yes, I just thought we were going to do normal knight things, like protecting the Baron and his castle,” she responded, still in shock.

Clara’s mind raced as she processed all of this information. Lino tried to apologize and gloss over what he said, but she wasn’t paying much attention. Remembering everything that had been said when she had received orders to come to the Baron’s castle. No one had ever mentioned anything about becoming an assassin.

“Look, I’m sorry to break it to you this way. I know it probably doesn’t sound very good. The Baron should have been the one to tell you when he was ready. He would have made it sound better. I just thought you had an idea. I didn’t know you were so naive.” Lino rambled on apologetically as Clara’s mind raced.

“Wait! Where’s Emanuella?” she asked, stopping Lino mid-sentence. “She was just taking the food out to the pigs. She should have made it down to the pigpen and been back by now.”

Clara rushed out the door and raced down the path toward the pigs. Clara was there. Lying face down in the dirt. About ten paces away from the pens. Blood and vomit surrounded the area where she had fallen.

The plate of food on the ground. The potatoes and meat scattered around. None of the pigs had even eaten any of it. They could smell it though and all pushed against the fence, trying to squeeze their snouts through to get the food that had rolled close to them.

Clara threw herself down beside Emanuella and shook her. She rolled the girl over and shook her shoulders while yelling for Emanuella to get up.

“No! No! No! This can’t be happening,” she screamed as Lino, Donatello, and Filomena came up behind her.

“What? How did she die?” Lino gasped.

“Did she eat the food on the way down here?” Filomena sobbed. “I could have cooked her more food if she was hungry.”

Lino rolled Emanuella over and pulled her hair up, looking for wounds or anything else that could have killed her. He gave up in disgust and tossed her hair back down. He stood up and asked Filomena, “How much food did you put on your plate? Is it all here?”

Filomena looked and threw up her hands. “I don’t know. It looks like it. But I didn’t count each potato and slice of meat. I just put in the amount that looked like enough on my plate.”

She picked up the fork and began scooping the meat and potatoes back onto the plate. “It looks like the same amount. Minus the dirt and twigs that are mixed in.”

Filomena took the plate of food over and chucked them into a deep pit, where the maidservants threw trash that the pigs couldn’t eat. She pushed the cover back over the top of the pit and turned the rest of the group.

“Well, that’s gone. Now, nobody else will die from it.” Filomena said, brushing off her fingers.

“Just need to make sure you throw the rest of the food away, too,” Lino growled.

He picked up Filomena’s body and turned to walk back to the building. Clara fell into step behind him. She glanced over at Donatello, who was leaning against a tree. He just shrugged.

“Comes with the territory. Welcome to the team.” He said gruffly.

They followed Lino back up to where they had left Abramo. Lino turned back and scowled at them. “Aren’t you gonna bring Emanuella?” he asked Donatello.

“No way!” the big man retorted. “No telling what’s killing them. It might be contagious.”

“It’s obviously poison,” Lino growled. “Someone poisoned them.”

“But Emanuella wouldn’t have eaten the food. And neither did Filomena.” Clara pointed out.

Lino let Filomena’s body down to the ground. He stood up and got in Clara’s face. “And just how do you know what did or didn’t kill them.”

“I don’t,” she replied.

“You know what I think, Donatello?” Lino asked. “I think Clara poisoned them or did something to kill them.”

“What?” Clara said in shock. “No, way. I just got here. I didn’t even know them. Why would I kill them?”

“Exactly,” Lino growled in her face. “You didn’t know them, but you were paid to kill them. To kill all of us. I’ll bet you, that you and I are next, Donatello.”

Lino looked over at Donatello. Clara took a step back from Lino and glanced at Donatello, who shrugged.

“I guess you could be right,” Donatello said.

“What?” Clara exclaimed. “I can’t believe you two seriously think I had anything to do with this.”

“Lino is thinking logically,” Donatello said without blinking. “You show up and our team starts dying off one by one.”

“But, but I was over there with you while you were drawing in the sand. How could I have killed any of them?” she exclaimed. “And besides, they obviously weren’t poisoned by what they ate.”

“Right! So, you do know. Which means it was poison on the plate or utensils. When they touched the plate or fork, the poison was absorbed into their bodies.”

“You’re crazy,” Clara replied hotly. “I had nothing to do with this. And that doesn’t make sense either. Why didn’t Filomena die when she first put the food on the plate then. She should have died before Abramo.”

Lino looked at her and smiled grimly. “That means the poison was on the silverware. Right? You sure know an awful lot about what happened or should have happened for someone who claims to not know anything.”

He took a step back and pulled his sword. “I think you did it, and I’m going to kill you before you have a chance to kill me or Donatello.”

Lino feinted with his body and Clara leaped back. He jabbed his sword in her direction. Clara knocked it aside with the protective armor around her forearm. Lino pulled back and came back in for another attack. He swung the sword toward her neck. Clara ducked and pulled back.

“C’mon, Lino. You’re not thinking straight. I didn’t kill anyone here,” Clara yelled as she continued to move down the path toward the pigpen to stay out of Lino’s range.

She kept yelling for him to stop, but he came swinging. “Help, Donatello,” Clara yelled.

Donatello just shrugged and leaned up against a tree in his typical lazy slouch. He licked his fingers again and slid his hand back inside his pocket. Then pulled an apple out of the other pocket and took a bite. Clara screamed in frustration. She was close to the pigpen and couldn’t keep backing away.

“I’m gonna pull my swords and fight back, Lino,” she screamed in frustration. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. You’re just saying that so Donatello doesn’t suspect you. Now, you’re going to try and kill me while making yourself look innocent.”

He kept swinging and stabbing until Clara’s back was against the pigsty. Finally, Clara felt like she had no choice but to pull her own swords to defend herself.

“You asked for it, Lino,” she murmured softly. “I really don’t want to hurt you, but I’m not just gonna stand here while you try to kill me without fighting back.”

Clara blocked his first swing and took a step forward. Lino stepped back to get enough range to swing again, and she blocked it as well, continuing to move him back toward Donatello.

Lino had never seen her fight before. She had been caught up in getting situated since she arrived and hadn’t yet been to any of the training sessions. So, he seemed caught off guard that she really did know how to fight back as well as she did.

After he collected his wits about him, Lino switched tactics. Instead of coming straight toward her, the furious knight tried faking her out using fancy footwork and fast attacks. But it wasn’t anything new, or that Clara wasn’t already used to seeing.

She continued blocking his swings with the sword in her right hand. Occasionally, Clara used the sword in her left hand as well. What Lino didn’t know was that the woman he was fighting was left-handed. And that the sword that she held in her left hand was actually five inches longer than the other.

Clara blocked and parried his clumsy swings and blows. It surprised her at how bad of a fighter Lino was. Somehow, she had expected more from this elite team of knights that they had sent her to join.

Eventually, she grew tired of deflecting his blows and evading his swings. She went on the offensive and took a few swings and jabs of her own just to tire him out quickly and let him see she wasn’t one to be trifled with.

Lino was soon panting and took a step back to catch his breath. He held his sword in front of him, as if waiting for her to strike at any moment.

“Take it easy, Lino. Can’t you see that I’m not trying to hurt you? You’re the one who attacked me. Just put your sword down and we can figure things out.” she said.

“Mmm-hm,” he nodded. “Then you’ll kill me when I’m not expecting it, just like you did to all of my friends over there that are dead.”

“Of course not,” Clara said as she flipped the sword over to slide it back into its sheath.

Lino took advantage of the movement, thinking that she was off guard. He leaped forward to attack her with a wild swing. Clara didn’t bother to flip the sword back up. She simply turned to the side and blocked his blow with the sword still pointing down. Then brought the point of her left sword up against his throat.

“I’m not trying to kill you or anyone else,” she said adamantly. “If I were, I would kill you right now, but I’m not. So, back off.”

Lino sighed and took a step back. Then suddenly rammed his head forward and running the tip of her sword through his throat. Clara jerked the sword back. But it was too late. The cut was too deep. Lino gurgled and turned before falling to his knees.

Donatello was standing just behind him. The realization that Lino had been shoved into the sword by the other man behind him made Clara’s head spin. She was horrified at the thought. Not Donatello, the gentle giant she had wanted to kiss earlier.

“What did you just do, Donatello,” Clara gasped.

The tall, broad man shrugged. “Doing you a favor. He would have tried to kill you later. Now, you’re safe and you don’t have to worry about it.”

“No, no, no! What is this? This is madness. The baron is going to think I did this.” she gasped.

“Don’t worry about it, little bird. The baron isn’t going to do anything about this. Trust me. Let’s just get this mess cleaned up and get everyone back inside.”

Donatello picked up Lino’s body and slung it over his shoulder. Then bent down to pick up Filomena. “Why don’t you go ahead and grab Emanuella,” he ordered.

“No,” she exclaimed. “We can’t just act as if nothing happened. What are you doing?”

Clara followed Donatello back up toward the building. He tossed the bodies he was carrying onto the floor beside Abramo like sacks of potatoes. He turned to go back outside. Clara blocked his way, still demanding to know what was going on.

The big man shoved her aside and went back toward the pigpen to pick up Emanuella. Clara kept trying to block his path, but Donatello walked around her and made his own way.

The idea that he was responsible for their deaths still seemed difficult to grasp. She couldn’t believe that Donatello would have done such a thing. Finally, she just blurted it out.

“It was you! Wasn’t it? You killed them.”

“Duh!” Donatello said with a shrug of his shoulders. “Was it really that hard to figure out?”

“What?!” Clara screeched, as if she couldn’t believe it. The truth was that she didn’t want to believe it. The idea that she had actually liked this guy and wanted to kiss him earlier was infuriating. Clara couldn’t believe that she had been so deceived by him.

“Hey! Listen. I’ve got nothing against you.” Donatello said softly. “I know you didn’t even really know them and weren’t a part of this group. So, if you can let it go, I’ll let you live. Okay.”

Donatello stood in front of her with his palms in front of his chest, as if trying to keep the peace. But she could tell by his stance that he was braced for an attack.

“Why did you do this, Donatello?” she asked.

“I can’t tell you now. But in time, you’ll find out,” he said with a gentle smile.

“No, you tell me. Or else I’m going to tell the baron right now what you’ve done.” Clara said as she pointed to the door.

He just shrugged and gave her that same goofy, stupid smile she was beginning to hate. “Fine,” she said, and turned to leave.

“Hey, wait,” Donatello said. “I’ll tell you everything.”

Clara turned back to face him. He tossed something in her direction from a towel in his left hand, and she instinctively reached out to catch it. As soon as she caught it, she realized what it was. A fork. Just like the one that everyone else touched before dying.

She dropped the fork as fast as she could. Donatello just stood there, grinning at her. He held a towel in his left hand and licked the fingers of his other hand.

“The poison wasn’t in the food. It was on the forks.” Donatello said as he tossed the towel onto the table.

“You and Lino didn’t touch them. But I have to admit that it was fun watching you fight him. You’re a pretty good fighter. Too bad you couldn’t just play along and join me. You would have been a great asset to my new team.”

“But why?” Clara asked. She took a step forward and felt her legs going numb.

“I know you liked me. Wanted to kiss me. I like you too. Wanted to kiss you back. But that would have been too cruel knowing that I was probably going to have to kill you too.”

Clara eyed his pocket. Whatever he had been licking on his fingers must be some kind of antidote. Every time he had been near one of them, she had seen him licking something off his fingers.

“Well, then kiss me one last time before I die. Making a dying girl’s dream come true.” Clara said softly as she stumbled toward Donatello. She wrapped one arm around his neck and the other around his waist to support herself.

“No, no, no, my dear. Can’t kiss you now. Sorry.” Donatello said as he let her slide down to the ground.

He was nice enough to hold her arm and support her as she slid to the floor, which gave her enough time to slip her hand in his pocket to grab the vial that was there.

“What are you going to do with us?” she asked.

Donatello turned to pick up Filomena’s body and set her on top of the table. Clara popped the top off of the vial and gulped it all down. She noticed Donatello licking it off his fingers in small doses. But he did it several times and hadn’t even directly touched the poisonous objects himself.

She could feel the poison working in her system. Shutting her down, and she needed to clip the effects fast. Clara hoped she wasn’t taking too much that might actually have the opposite effect.

Darkness came on fast. Clara knew she was going to pass out and didn’t know if she would ever wake up again. The vial started to slip out of her fingers and she had enough sense to shove it clumsily into her pocket before losing consciousness. The last thing she saw was Donatello stacking the rest of her friends onto the table and shoving furniture underneath as if it were an oven that he was going to light up. Then she was out.

Donatello finished shoving everything that would burn underneath the table. He picked up Clara’s body gently and carried her over to the table. Then set her on top of her friends’ bodies. He caressed her face gently before turning to leave.

He slipped his hand into his pocket for another dose of antidote, but the vial wasn’t there. Donatello quickly ran his hands over all of his pockets and searched the floor. He couldn’t find it anywhere. He nervously brushed off his hands and hoped he already had enough antidote in his system to fight off the effects of any of the Strasinth Futhorax they had given him to pull this off.

The person who had given it to him claimed they were only a messenger. They delivered the money they had promised him, as well as the poison. There was another small vial wrapped in paper that let him know it was the antidote.

Unfortunately for the messenger, he must not have known about the powerful effects of the poison, because he had died before Donatello left the room. He never did say who had sent him, so Donatello didn’t even know who had hired him to do this job.

He felt bad poisoning this group. He had actually come to like them in his own way over the past three months of working and living with them. But it was what it was. Most everyone who entered his line of work knew that they would get a taste of their own medicine someday.

Even Donatello knew that someday, someone somewhere would seek revenge for someone he had assassinated. They would attack. He would try to defend himself. But they might be just a little bit faster or a little bit stronger.

Then they would manage to get the upper hand over him, just like he had to so many others before him. After that, his life would be over. So, in the meantime, Donatello just wanted to make as much money as he could and live as well as he could until his time came.

Clara came to with the smell of smoke filling her nostrils. She coughed and gagged as she struggled to sit upon a pile of bodies underneath her. Clara didn’t recognize any of them. She looked around but didn’t recognize where she was. Flames were licking up along the edges of the hut and racing along the thatch roof as smoke curled up through the eaves.

Heat along her back made her turn around and she realized flames were licking up from under the far end of the long table where she was sitting as well. She leaped onto the floor, away from the flames, and turned to pull the others off the table as well. But then she realized they were dead.

Her head felt heavy and foggy, as if she were thinking through a cloud. She couldn’t recall where she was or why she was here. Or for that matter, even who she was. The smoke filling the room was getting thicker and the flames coming down the walls.

The girl knew she needed to get out of there, and fast. She looked around for the door, but that side of the building was covered with the most flames. Clara raced toward the back end of the building and checked each of the rooms.

A small window in the corner farthest from the burning flames seemed like her best option. She raced across the floor and leaped through it, not knowing what might be on the other side. Fortunately, she was on the ground floor and she landed safely in the grass. Clara lay there for a moment, looking up at the building being consumed by flames in front of her.

She stood up stiffly and checked her body for cuts or broken bones. But other than bad stomach cramps and the fogginess in her head, everything seemed fine. Clara moved up along the trail toward a large castle-like building in front of her.

Other buildings had caught fire as well and were burning around her. She could see bodies lying on the floor in some of them. Clara knew there was no point in trying to save them from the fire. They were too far gone.

When she arrived at the castle doors, she could see men on the far side of it fighting desperately for their lives along the top of the walls. Clara looked down at her armor and the swords at her side. She felt the cape blowing gently in the wind and flapping against her side.

Clara flipped it around and looked at the crest embroidered in it. She didn’t recognize it. Clara couldn’t remember what it represented or why she was wearing it. She must be a part of whatever group was inside the castle and defend it. She could see they were under attack. But she had no idea why or what they were even fighting for.

She pushed open one of the wide-double doors and looked inside. Maybe someone inside here would recognize her and could tell her who she was. She stepped inside and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness inside.

Slowly, she made out a few silent shapes scattered along the floor in the back. She made her way carefully toward the back where they had conglomerated. They seemed to have been coming from the other room, running this way, when they fell dead.

Clara entered a large dining hall. There were dead people everywhere. Lying across the tables. Fallen on the floor from where they had been sitting. They all held their forks in their hands, or their forks were on the floor where they had fallen as well. She felt no sadness or pity for them. It felt as if she were in a dream observing everything that was going on, yet completely detached from everything taking place around her.

A long, loud scream made her move quickly across the large dining hall and out the far door. She moved quickly and silently down the long hallway. Moving deeper into the darkness. She checked each room on her way down, but they were either empty or if there was someone there, they were already dead.

She came to the end of the hallway. Clara looked right and then left. Everything dark and silent. Whoever had screamed was probably already dead, so there wouldn’t be much sense in searching each of the rooms down these long halls for them.

Clara turned to return to the front door and help the members of her crest. Whoever they may be. Perhaps one of them could tell her who she was and what was going on if they survived this attack.

Just as she turned, though, her ears picked up the sound of someone’s voice coming from one of the rooms down to the left. It sounded as if they were yelling or arguing loudly. Clara moved down the hallway quickly in the direction she had heard the sound.

The yelling had stopped, and everything went silent again. She moved from door to door, putting her ear up against each one. Then the shouting began again, farther down the hall. This time, Clara moved swiftly but silently down the hall without having to stop at each door.

When she arrived in front of the door, the yelling stopped. Clara stood to the side as she leaned up against the wall in case someone came out. The voices were speaking quietly now. She waited until they picked up again so that they wouldn’t hear her lift the latch.

Clara pushed the door open slowly as she held her breath in the hopes that it wouldn’t creak. She peeked through the widening crack in the door until she could see what was going on inside.

“That’s how it’s going to be, Baron. And don’t forget that we have your daughter. So, if you don’t comply, well, let’s just say that if Lady Assunta lives, she’ll probably be so ugly no one will ever want to look at her again, much less marry,” a tall, broad man said with a dull, wicked laugh.

The Baron roared and struggled against ropes that bound him to a chair in the center of the room. He attempted to kick at the man who stood in front of him and mocked him.

Clara noticed that the tall man who was standing was also wearing a cape with the same crest that she had on hers. She pondered that for a moment. Why was this baron here? Wouldn’t the castle be his, she thought to herself? So why would someone with the same crest as her have him tied up?

She stepped forward into the room and waited for the men to notice her. She didn’t want to get too close to either of them until she had a chance to assess the situation and understand what was going on.

The Baron noticed her first. His eyes squinted and darkened when he noticed her standing there.

“You are a part of this too, Clara? I knew I shouldn’t have trusted either of you two newcomers.” The Baron growled. His eyes flicked over to the other man and said, “I thought you said you killed the rest of the group, Donatello?”

The woman processed this information. He called her Clara. The other man’s name was Donatello. Both names seemed familiar. However, her head still felt too foggy to remember what that meant or who they were.

Donatello whirled to face her. He frowned when he saw her, as if trying to understand what she was doing there.

“Clara! What? How?” he mumbled. “No one survives the Strasinth Futhorax. Oh, wait! I get it now.”

The large man suddenly slapped his head and guffawed loudly. “Okay! I get it now. You stole my vial of antidote. Didn’t you, you sneaky little thief?”

Clara said nothing. Her foggy head reeling with all this new information. This man poisoned her? Was that why she couldn’t remember who or where she was? She waited for him to continue to see what else he had to say.

“Clara? Hello! Are you okay?” he asked, snapping his fingers in her direction.

“I don’t remember anything,” she finally said honestly. “I don’t remember who I am or what I’m doing here?”

“Really? Oh, that too bad, Clara! I’m so glad you’re alive, though. You don’t remember when we almost kissed this morning? I was drawing in the sand and you leaned in for a kiss. But then Lady Assunta screamed because a cat was up in the tree. And I climbed up to pull it down.”

Clara shook her head. Digging deep. Trying to remember something. To recall anything from earlier.

“What are we doing here?” she asked.

Donatello said, “The Baron here brought you in as part of his team of assassins. We were making preparations to kill the king of Pelarese. You were the lynchpin of our team. Does any of this ring a bell?”

“Of course it doesn’t, Clara. We didn’t tell you about your part. To pull it off and make it seem convincing, we never told you what we were doing and what your role was to be. That way everything would seem believable and convincing during our mission.”

Clara looked from one to the other in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? I’m not an assassin,” she said to Donatello.

“Not yet,” he replied, pointing to her swords. “But you are an excellent fighter. Just like when you killed Lino with those swords earlier today.”

She pulled a sword from her sheath and felt the weight of it in her hands. Clara saw some dried blood on the tip of it that ran down the edge of the blade. She swung the sword in her hands. The weight felt good, almost natural. She slid it back into her sheath, but kept her hand on the hilt in case she needed to use it again.

“Look, this is great that you’re here,” Donatello said, taking a step forward.

Clara took two steps back quickly and pulled her sword again.

“Whoa, calm down. I’m not going to hurt you. This is a good thing. We have a second chance now. I wanted you to join me. Remember?” Donatello asked.

“And I refused, so you poisoned me. Does that sound about right?” she retorted.

“Hey, look! It is what it is among us assassins. It’s kill or be killed. Just like you killed Lino.”

“Why? Because he was working with you?”

“No, but he thought you were to blame, and he attacked you. You beat him so easily. We know that you have what it takes to join us. You’re a survivor. Just look at you standing here now.”

Clara looked over at the Baron. “So, what’s the new mission now?” she asked.

“This,” Donatello said, pointing around them and stopping at the Baron. “The King of Pelarese was willing to pay more than the ol’ Baron here was. All I had to do was take down the castle from the inside while his men stormed the castle walls. It wasn’t even that hard with the Strasinth Futhorax. And by the sounds of it, we’re winning outside as well.”

Donatello walked around the Baron toward the open window overlooking the courtyards and the wall where the sounds of battle echoed. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly.

“I’m sorry it had to come to this Baron. But I did warn you of the dangers of attempting this mission before we started.”

“But you betrayed us by telling the King of Pelarese of our plans.”

“Oh, no! You can’t blame me for that, Baron. The king has spies everywhere. He learned of your plans from someone else. A man approached me and told me that our mission was already doomed. They offered me a handsome sum to assist them from the inside. I would have been killed if I had refused to take part. This would have happened with or without my help. And well, you know what they say about assassins working for the highest bidder.”

“Fine! Let me go and I’ll pay you ten times what they are offering. In fact, you can have all my wealth if I can escape with my life.”

“Hm, sorry. I don’t think that’s a valid offer, Baron. You no longer have any wealth. As soon as King Pelarese breaks through those walls, he will claim all of your treasure for himself. Part of our deal was that I deliver you to him, dead or alive. I get paid more if you are still alive, though, which is why I have you tied up. And as long as you cooperate, I will make sure Lady Assunta is taken care of. So, just sit still a little longer.”

Clara listened to them talking. Trying to process everything as fast as her foggy brain could think. She tried to remember who the King of Pelarese was. Clara tried to decide whose side she should be on, which was difficult without her memories.

Right now, all she knew was that she wanted to stay alive. But a fight broke out and push came to shove, Clara didn’t know if she should continue to fight for her crest or against it. Was the Baron wrong for trying to kill the king of Pelarese and use her as part of his assassination team? Or was he right in what he was doing, and she was with them for a reason?

She wanted to go back to her room to see if she could find anything to jog her memory, but at the moment, Clara couldn’t even remember where her room was. She reached inside her pockets to see if there was anything there.

Her hand brushed against something small, hard, and cold. Clara’s slim, nimble fingers wrapped around it and pulled it out. A small vial. Donatello had said something about his antidote. Suddenly, a rush of memories hit her. Not much, but enough that she remembered what had happened from the time she had woken up earlier that day.

Abramo, Emanuella, Filomena, and finally Lino. She remembered Donatello pushing Lino into the tip of her sword. She couldn’t remember anything before that yet, but she knew enough to realize that Donatello must pay for his crimes against her friends.

Donatello was still looking out the window. She pulled a dagger and stepped forward. Clara slid the blade between the cords that bound his hands and motioned for him to remain silent. Then placed the dagger in his hands.

The Baron continued to sit on the chair as if he were bound to it. Clara stepped to the side and coughed loudly. She bent over and grabbed her head as if she were in excruciating pain. Donatello swiveled in her direction and came over to assist her.

“Come, Clara. Lie down here on the bed. The poison is powerful. It may still be affecting your body. Do you have any more of the antidote or do you remember what you did with the vial?”

She stood up and shook her head. Donatello turned to help her walk toward the bed. When they passed the Baron, the furious, vengeful father stood to his feet and ran the blade of the dagger that Clara had given him into the small of Donatello’s back. Sliding it up between the joints of his armor.

The fact that the Baron hired assassins didn’t mean that he did not know how to kill himself. He immediately removed the blade and plunged it in higher up the man’s back. Aiming for his heart. By the time Donatello reached his hands behind his back, the Baron had already withdrawn the blade. This time he drove the dagger in from the side. Once again, aiming for his heart. Twisting the blade to inflict as much damage as possible.

Donatello fell to his knees with a loud groan. The Baron stepped in close and ran the blade deep along his throat from ear to ear. Then he took a step back and pushed Donatello’s head forward.

The large man fell slowly forward and hit the ground with a loud thud. A pool of blood flowing from his throat built up around him. The Baron turned to thank Clara profusely.

“Come on! There’s no time to waste. We must find Lady Assunta and get you both out of here.”

They found the girl in her room. Locked in her closet with the cat. She hugged her father and told him that Donatello had locked her in there. The Baron went to look for his wife but soon returned with a silent shake of his head that she was dead without Lady Assunta knowing.

“Come, there is a secret passageway that we can use to escape. It leads out to the river,” the Baron said breathlessly as he bustled them along the corridor toward the secret entrance.

Clara nodded and motioned for him to go on. She didn’t trust him as far as she could throw a brick of gold. He might try to kill her so no one would know where he had gone.

“I’m going back out to help defend the walls and stop the king of Pelarese,” she said.

“No, that’s foolishness and madness. You will die. Your duty is to protect my daughter and I. Escort us to our king in Barlegnano. We will raise up an army and make Pelarese pay. I will richly reward you for your courageous services.”

“It’s okay!” Clara said quietly in the silence of the dark hall. “I have a plan. After you leave the passageway. Hide somewhere close to hear me call. If my plan works, you can return. If not, I will escort you to the king.”

“What if you die or get wounded?” The Baron asked.

“Don’t be so pessimistic, daddy,” Lady Assunta said with a serious look on her face. “She’s going to be fine. Think positive.”

“I’m a practical man, honey. I can’t afford the luxury of daydreaming and fantasies.” The Baron said gravely.

Clara smiled at the young girl and brushed her cheek. “It’s okay, Lady Assunta. Your father is a wise man and only thinking of a backup plan to keep you safe. If I don’t show before the moon comes up over the horizon, then continue your journey without me.”

She watched as the Baron and his daughter let themselves down into the secret passageway. Clara helped close the trapdoor behind them and threw a rug over the top so no one would see it.

Then Clara raced back to the room where Donatello lay. She felt along his body for where he kept his vial of poison. She found a glass vial similar to the antidote tucked away safely in his side. It was wrapped in a small cloth bag with a drawstring.

She held the vial up to the light and shook the clear liquid around. The symbol of a Pelarese dragon etched into the glass. Clara could see a small white wick with a brush at the end. It wasn’t what she had expected at all. She had expected it to be some kind of powder, but it made sense that they had diluted it in some sort of liquid that the human body could absorb.

Clara jumped up and raced down to the Baron’s study, where he kept some of his most prized possessions. He had once been a mighty warrior himself when younger, and achieved many glorious victories. Now older and well along in years, he served as the king’s counselor and right-hand man. And the Baron loved to tell stories about his conquests. Everyone knew about his achievements.

The Baron kept the rewards and prizes that they had given him for his achievements in his study to show all who came to visit him. That was when he got his chance to retell his stories and brag about his former conquests. But there was one, in particular, that was the envy of every king on the continent of Vicetone. It was the Eye of Scafallo.

The Eye of Scafallo was a large, legendary Wolloitine set into a base of precious metals that had been encrusted with other jewels surrounding it. Wolloitine a bright red stone that glowed in the dark. It had been given to the Baron after he helped the King of Scafallo defeat a dragon that had terrorized the land for almost an entire year. The people of Scafallo and been so grateful that they were willing to give him anything he wanted. It was the only thing he asked for and they gave it gladly.

So, Clara knew that if the King of Pelarese or any of his men broke in here, this would be the first thing that they would come looking for besides the Baron himself. She opened the vial carefully and brushed the sides and base of the Eye of Scafallo completely.

Clara also brushed poison from the vial onto two other objects in the room as well. They looked like they would draw the enemy’s eye. She made careful note of which objects had poison on them so that she could be sure to tell the Baron not to touch them when he returned.

On second thought, Clara got to thinking that it might not be such a great idea to just leave it there. The first men to come in would touch it and die. Then the king and none of the other men would touch it. She knew she needed to come up with a better plan.

Just then, she heard a loud splintering roar. She glanced out the window and saw the men of Pelarese were breaking through gates. They had killed most of the people with Donatello’s poison. The few that survived and fought valiantly, but there were too few left to hold them off.

Clara ran down to the kitchen and grabbed a large gunny sack. She raced back up to the Baron’s study and threw the bag over the Eye of Scafallo. Clara knew she had to be astute if she wanted to kill the king. If she simply walked out and handed it over, he would be suspicious. She had to find a way for them to catch her and make them feel like they were taking it from her.

The gate was open and the army of Pelarese streamed through into the courtyard. Clara ran down to the front door as if she were trying to get away. She waited for some of the men to see her before running back through the kitchen and out into the yard, where she threw herself up against the wall.

The two men running after her never stood a chance. They didn’t even know what hit them. They raced out the door and stopped when they didn’t see her. Clara ran them each through with a sword at the same time. They fell to their knees and began to topple forward.

Clara grabbed the smaller one by the collar and untied his cape. She quickly undid her own and threw his cape around herself. Then she picked up the bag with the Eye of Scafallo in it and tossed it over her shoulder.

There were knights and soldiers everywhere as they swarmed the castle looking for the Baron. Clara walked through them unnoticed to the gate. She saw the king standing beside his horse in the center of the courtyard.

“Find me the Baron! And bring all of his treasure out there to me.” the king shouted to the men running around.

Clara watched from the side as the men cleared the castle room by room. They stuck their head out the windows and yelled before throwing stuff out into the courtyard to the king. The men standing outside would pick it up and bring it over to the king.

The king kicked at a few items to roll them over with his boot for a better look, but he didn’t reach down to pick anything up. She knew it wouldn’t do any good to walk over and simply throw the Eye at his feet.

“Remember not to touch any of the forks,” the king shouted. “The forks have been poisoned. Everything else should be fine, but be careful.”

Clara knew she needed to act fast before they made it to the study and found out that some of the Baron’s treasures had been poisoned. She began walking across the courtyard toward the gate. The king was less than twenty paces away. She could feel him watching her.

“Hey! Hey! You there with the bag. Where are you going? What do you have there?” he shouted.

She glanced at him and kept walking a few more paces to make him suspicious. He yelled for her to halt and took a step in her direction.

“Come here! You aren’t stealing from me, are you? Let me see what’s in your bag.”

Clara stopped and turned slowly. She tried to look as nervous and suspicious as possible. Her hands shook as she slid the bag off her shoulder.

“No, of course not, your royal highness,” she let her voice quaver.

“A woman dressed up as a knight using our crest?” he asked. “Methinks you are trying to flee with some of me treasures. Come here, lass.”

The king took another step forward. The surrounding knights remained relaxed and at ease, thinking she was just a maidservant dressing up like them to escape.

She stepped forward and made a point of clutching the gunny sack tightly, as if she didn’t want to give it up.

“What have we here, little lady?” the king asked.

“Uh. Um. Just some food, sir,” Clara replied, letting her voice tremble slightly at the end as if she were going to cry for having gotten caught doing something bad.

“Food? Huh? That looks too heavy to be food. Let me see what’s inside. Don’t worry. If it is, we’ll let you go. We’re not here to kill the women and children.”

Clara continued hanging on tightly to the bag. She closed her eyes, willing herself to shed a tear. But none came. She wasn’t as good of an actor as she would have liked. Clara took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what’s in the bag. They gave me orders to escape with it.” she said quietly. “Please don’t be angry with this humble servant.”

“Ha! I knew it wasn’t food. I could tell by the way you walked that you looked awfully suspicious. Go on and open the bag. Let’s see what you’ve got there.”

Clara opened the bag a little so he could get a glimpse of what was inside.

“What in the name of Scafallo?!” the king exclaimed as he grabbed the gunny sack from her hands. “No wonder. You were trying to sneak away with my treasures, you thief. I’ll have your head for this.”

“Please, sir. I was just following orders. I’ll do anything. You claimed this castle, so now I’ll serve you.” Clara begged, getting down on her knees.

The king kicked at her and ordered her to get back as he reached inside the gunny sack to pull out the Eye of Scafallo. With his hands around the base, the king pulled the gunny sack down around the shining jeweled object until everyone around him could see the exquisite piece.

A soft, red glow illuminated the king’s face as he pulled it close and kissed it.

“It’s more beautiful than I could have imagined,” he whispered.

The knights crowded in around him to touch it and place their hands upon it.

“Yes, men!” the king said. “Absorb its power. Legend says that all who rub it receive power to rule. I am not greedy. I will share its power so that together we may grow and expand our kingdom.”

The king extended it out to the knights, who came running from all directions. They lined up to rub it and kiss it as their king had done.

“We’ve made a complete search of the castle, my lord!” one of the last knights to struggle out of the castle said as he came running forward. “But the Baron is nowhere to be found.”

The king scoffed and said, “No worry. Let the outcast vermin run for his life like a coward. He is at this very moment fleeing to his king in Guiples. We will deal with him after we conquer all of Barlegnano and take down the Castle of Guiples. It will be a long and arduous fight, but now that we have the Eye of Scafallo in our possession, we shall prevail!”

The men cheered and jumped around the courtyard. The king coughed and brought his hands down weakly. Knights around him mistook his gasping for weakness and quickly grabbed the Eye of Scafallo from him. They passed it on to others and grabbed the king to hold him up.

The knights gathered in closer and reached out to touch it. They continued to dance and chant madly as they passed the poisoned object around the crowd from hand to hand.

“Death to the Baron! Death to our enemies! Barlegnano shall fall before us as we ride toward Guiples!”

Clara had been on her hands and knees before the king the entire time, with our hands on the hilts of her sword. Ready to pull them at a moment’s notice to strike death to the king and those around her. Willing to fight to the death and lay down her life for the Baron and his castle.

But with the way things were going, it didn’t look like she would even have to lift a finger. Every man in the courtyard had rubbed their hands on the Eye of Scafallo at least twice.

She backed away slowly from the men still dancing around her. They didn’t seem to notice yet that the king was down on his hands and knees with his face in the dirt. The knights closest to him staggered around him before falling to their knees.

Clara stood up and walked through the men to the outer edges of the party. Some of the men stopped dancing when they noticed the king wasn’t moving. They rushed to surround him, leaving Clara alone near the wall. She leaned up against the wall to watch events unfold.

One by one, men began to fall to their knees beside the king. Others simply toppled over where there stood. Their companions tried to support them and pull them back up, but soon fell over themselves.

Finally, the last man standing fell over onto the pile of men who had already died around them. The Eye of Scafallo buried underneath a mass of poisoned flesh.

Clara pulled her swords, just in case any of the knights weren’t quite dead yet, and tried to attack her. She stood on a pile of rubble by the looking over the circle of dead and dying knights before her. Their bodies lit up by the flames of the burning huts and homes around them.

She hopped down from the mound she was standing on and walked around the group until he spotted a familiar red glow shining up from underneath someone’s lifeless arm. Then picked up the gunnysack and tossed it back over the Eye of Scafallo to return it to its place in the Baron’s study.

The few remaining survivors who had managed to stay hidden came out to the courtyard because of the silence. They looked at Clara in awe as she walked past them into the castle.

Clara lit a torch and opened the escape hatch to make her way down the tunnel toward the Baron. He was surprised to see her so soon. At first, he was suspicious and refused to return to the castle because he thought she was setting a trap for him.

When she finally convinced him that everything was under control, the Baron and Lady Assunta followed him back up to the castle. He stood at the door of the courtyard in complete and utter astonishment.

“I’m flabbergasted,” was all the Baron could say for several minutes as he walked around the courtyard cautiously, as if he expected someone to jump up and attack him any minute.

Clara told him the entire story of everything that had transpired. He didn’t seem very pleased that she had chosen to poison his beloved Eye of Scafallo. In the end, though, he admitted that it had been the only thing that would have caused the now-dead king of Pelarese and all of his knights to throw caution to the wind and all want to touch, bringing down their downfall so swiftly.

“I’m absolutely astounded,” he kept saying over and over as he walked around the courtyard. “I don’t know how to thank you. You saved me. You saved my daughter. You saved my castle. And quite possibly, you’ve saved the entire kingdom.”

The Baron insisted on knowing how she wanted to be rewarded, but Clara just shrugged as if it were no big deal. She had come from a small, humble family in Cesefati which was a small city to the north. She had just finished her training and started her career.

All Clara wanted was to be successful in life. She had been an active tomboy and a good fighter. So joining the military ranks seemed to be her best shot. She had quickly worked her way up the ranks to where she was now. Clara felt good about what she had accomplished so far.

So she wasn’t really sure how to answer the Baron. She wanted a better life for her family. But Clara wasn’t sure what would be a proper reward for someone of her status. So, she asked for some time to think about it so that she could consult with people she knew and trusted.

The Baron agreed. He even proposed a marriage, which shocked Clara.

“Marry me, Clara. My wife is dead. Lady Assunta needs a mother who can protect her. Half of everything I own will be yours.”

“I am flattered,” she replied, even though it didn’t seem like that exciting of a reward for her.

Sure, the wealth would be nice. And even though the aging Baron had probably been quite good-looking in his prime, he wasn’t exactly the kind of person who Clara had grown up imagining she would marry.

“Thank you for your kind offer, sir,” she finally managed to reply after the shock of his words wore off. “Although, I’m not sure that I would be the best choice to meet the demands of a Baroness. I come from a humble family and have never been inside a castle before. I’m not sure I would know how to behave myself before all the fine lords and ladies. Besides, I think I’m better fitted for the open fields and fighting battles. Surely, there are many other beautiful ladies properly trained to fulfill the duties you desire.”

The Baron patted her gently. “Of course, my dear. I understand. Don’t worry. We’ll think of an appropriate way to reward you for your faithful services.”

Clara giggled giddily with excitement and nervousness. “Well, now I know that you brought me to join your team of assassins. Since I’m the only one left, I guess you’ll just have to put up with me.”

He laughed loudly and said, “Yes, you are the best assassin I have ever hired. Clara, the assassin who eliminated the army of Pelarese and its king without ever even drawing her sword.”

She smiled as the Baron and those around him began calling her “Clara the Slayer of Kings”.

The Baron ordered the men to repair the gates and the women to clean up the castle. He had them fix up the largest and best guest room in the castle for Clara.

“Yours, for as long as you chose to stay here with us. Once we fix and clean up the mess around here, you’ll ride with me to give your report to the king, Clara the Slayer of Kings.”

“Since I’m the last, living person who will ever touch the Eye of Scafallo, I guess I’ll hold its power forever.”

“Only until someone else with the antidote will be willing to take that risk,” the Baron replied. “Which I’m sure won’t be long till they try. I’ve had people trying to steal it from me ever since I first acquired it.”

“Well then, I guess we just better not tell them by what poison the King of Pelarese and his royal army really died. We can call it by the name of some other poison.” Clara said.

“I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard for people to guess what kind of poison was used since it was so deadly. But don’t worry, by time we make our journey to the king, news of your feat will have traveled the entire land to a hundred kingdoms. Each person who retells it will embellish it and make it sound even more incredible. Before the story of your victory reaches the farthest lands, there will be a hundred different versions of how you killed the King of Pelarese and his indomitable army.”

“Hm! So, it’ll be Clara the Slayer of Kings, who defeated an entire army with her swords. I like that version.” she said with a grin.

“Oh, that one. And the one where Clara the Slayer of Kings defeats them with a snap of her fingers. And another where they all keel over dead when Clara the Slayer of Kings looks in their direction. And so on and so on and so on. Every bard will add his own spin to the tale, and every minstrel will twist it to fit his song. All we have to do is not tell them the authentic version.”

The Baron instructed every one of the survivors to never tell the true story of what had happened that night. They could tell any version they wanted, but he made them swear to never tell of the actual events.

“And the bonus is that anyone else who tries to steal my precious Eye of Scafallo is in for a nasty surprise.”

“Yep! That’s for sure. They’ll all be shouting, ‘It’s the Eye of Scafallo’ in the thrill of the flight before dropping dead.”

“Ha! Yes, and you will be the last known survivor who stalks her prey in the night after touching us all with the Eye of Scafallo.”

They both liked the sound of that.

“I can’t wait to hear the songs they write about you,” the Baron said as he looked around his study.

“I’ll just have to place it up high and out of reach so that none of my friends or family brushes against it by accident. Somewhere that a person would have to work really hard to get to it if they wanted to steal it.”

“Well, let them try,” Clara said. “If they come, I’ll kill them. I will slay them all. And I will protect you and Lady Assunta as long as I have breath.”

Broozer The Barbarian Knight Mage

Battle Against The Blind Giant Of Wandermere

“Broozer! Broozer! Get up, boy. Get down here.” Egwald yelled from the front door. When Broozer didn’t come running immediately, he apologized profusely to the three knights standing at the door and begged their patience.

The tall, white-haired old, man requested the use of one of their torches and climbed the creaky steps up to the attic where the tall, burly lad slept on the floor with only a thin, brown sheet to protect him from the dank chill.

Exhausted from a long day of hard labor and service to his master, the poor, overworked kid had fallen into a deep and dreamless slumber.

“Get up, you lazy, worthless, good-for-nothing rascal!” The old man screamed with a wicked kick at the boy’s ribs.

Broozer leaped to his feet, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “Yes, Master Egwald.” his deep voice rumbled through the attic. “What time is it?”

“Doesn’t matter the time when the king calls for us, boy!” the surly old geezer barked. “Now, fold up your sheet and wash your face quickly to make yourself presentable. Prepare a bag for a few day’s journey if needed. And grab some bread from the kitchen. We ride as soon as the horses are ready.”

Broozer knew better than to ask any more questions than necessary. His grouchy old master had a short fuse and was already in a foul mood at this early hour of the morning. The lad had received beatings for far before, even when he hadn’t done or said anything.

He did as instructed and met the other men at the stable, well before Egwald was ready. He ate his bread quietly just outside the stable door while the other men laughed and jested inside. Broozer wished he could be anywhere but here with this old man. After he finished eating, he practiced sticking his three throwing knives into the side of the stable wall.

“Boy! Boy!” Broozer heard the old man screaming from the house. “Where are you, lad?”

The startled horses jumped back nervously when Broozer let his bag hit the ground and he took off running for the large stone mansion the old bragged about having built over the blood and bones of a dragon he had once slain on this property.

He helped carry the Egwald’s bag and a knapsack of food that the maidservant had quickly thrown together for them. Broozer rode out with Egwald and a dozen other men.

They met up with the king’s men still waiting at the front of the house, who took the lead. Egwald and his men fell into line behind them as they raced down the path to their destination.

Broozer wondered where they were going. His heart beat with excitement and a sense of adventure. It brought back memories of his childhood. Racing bareback with his father and brothers over the desert sands of Agaza as his father taught them to shoot arrows, wield their swords, and fight bare-fisted.

All those happy memories had come to a screeching halt though, when the armies of Langland came seeking to extend the borders of their kingdom. Broozer had been only twelve at the time. He watched as the dark knights of Langland had run his father through with a sword like a stuck pig.

When his brothers reacted, the archers shot them down like swallows. Broozer hadn’t stood idly by either. He had been one of the first to pull his knife and stabbed the knight guarding him. Broozer slipped the blade between the joints in his armor.

The young lad would have finished the job, except that his blade snapped when the knight jerked toward him and beat him down. The wounded knight raised his sword high over Broozer’s head, but an order from Egwald had stopped him.

“Don’t! He’s just a child. Remember that the king’s orders are to take the young ones to serve as slaves and for manual labor.”

The knight snarled angrily, but lowered his sword as ordered. Other knights had stepped in to tie the boy up and brought him to serve as Egwald’s personal servant. Egwald told Broozer that he spared his life and given him another chance because he admired the boy’s instincts, courage, and quick reflexes.

Broozer hated Egwald and the knights of Langland for what they had done to his family. But over time, boy had come to admire the code that the knights lived by. Even though he wasn’t allowed to become a knight himself, he sought to emulate them and even trained with a few of the men who were kind to him.

Most of Egwald’s men had respected the boy initially. But the old man had grown ill for a long period of time and become very weak. Only recently had he regained his health and had attempted to return to his former activities.

Few of the men who served Egwald admired him or respected him any longer. They knew it wouldn’t be long before he would die. Then there would be feuding and even bloodshed as they fought to take his place.

Broozer wanted no part of it even if they would have allowed it. To them, he was just an outcast slave there to do the bidding of his master. As far as they were concerned, he was nothing but a work mule. Tall, strong, and powerfully built, only to carry their burdens and help Egwald out.

In the six years that he had served Egwald, the lad had never received anything other than the food he ate and clothes on his back. These had been handed down to him from the others until he outgrew them all. Now, the lad stood head and shoulders over most of the other knights who served under Egwald.

His master had finally been forced to have clothes sewn for Broozer, but even those were of the cheapest material and poorly made to remind him that he was nothing but an outcast among them.

Broozer rode close behind Egwald in case the old man needed him. He was glad that his master was doing better. The months he spent caring for the old geezer while he was bedridden had been pure agony. The old man had nothing better to do than to curse him and make his life miserable.

Now that the Egwald was up and around, he was busy enjoying life and left the lad to himself. Until tonight when the old man came kicking and screaming to drag him out of bed. Broozer worried that the lack of sleep and the hard ride would cause Egwald to fall ill again. The lad was determined to do whatever he could that night to make his master’s life easier.

There was also the unspoken threat that if anything happened to Egwald, then Broozer would lose his life as well. At the very least, his future would be uncertain. As bad as it was within the old man’s mansion, at least the boy had never gone hungry. Life could be worse.

His thoughts were interrupted at the sight of royal guards standing around a campfire along the edge of the road. They were impeccably dressed even at the early hour. Broozer looked on with unabashed admiration when they came to a halt. Every one of them was at least as tall as he was, if not larger. And if being a regular knight under Egwald seemed like an impossible dream, then Broozer saw no possibility of joining their ranks.

“Come, Sir Egwald,” one of the royal guards said after greeting the group. “Your king awaits you in the royal tent.”

Broozer leaped off his horse and helped his master unmount as gracefully as the old geezer could. He was breathing hard and looked like he was in pain. The strong lad let the old man hang on to his arm for support until he steadied himself.

Egwald wouldn’t want to hang on and appear weak before the other knights, so Broozer just walked in sync with the old man staying close to his side in case he got wobbly again.

When they arrived at the door, Broozer paused to let Egwald squeeze in past the guards. When he tried to step through though, one of the guards reached out a hand to his chest to stop Broozer from entering. “You may not enter without the king’s permission, barbarian.”

Broozer didn’t think about what he was doing. Instinctively, he gripped the guard’s wrist and twisted it away from him until the man was on his knees. The next thing he knew, Broozer had the swords of half-a-dozen men at his neck.

Egwald apologized profusely, but the king didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the scene. He waved Broozer on into the tent. The guards backed away from him as the king ordered but didn’t put away their swords. Several of them followed after the lad, but the king waved them back out.

“It’s crowded and hot in here already. We have more than enough guards in here as it is.” King Jensen said.

The guards inside didn’t seem to think so, they shifted nervously and placed their hands on their swords as his large frame moved closer to them. Broozer stayed close to Egwald and followed his lead. He had never been near royalty and wasn’t sure quite how to behave. He had never had any formal training in proper protocol.

“Relax, son.” The king said pointing for them to be seated. “You’re safe here. I remember when Egwald brought you back with him, and I’ve heard of your valiant deeds and heroic efforts over the years. I’m glad Egwald brought you with him. I’m sure your presence will be of great help in spite of my people’s prejudice against your kind.”

Broozer listened carefully. He wasn’t sure exactly which of his efforts the king was referring to. The lad didn’t think of himself as anyone heroic. And he wasn’t sure why someone like the king would have taken an interest in remembering someone like him.

The king didn’t act at all like the tight, uppity snob Broozer had expected based on his interactions with other noblemen and women who had come to visit Egwald’s manor over the years.

The king smiled warmly and motioned with his finger. Several servants popped out from various locations and began pouring drinks and serving heaping plates of fruit and food. Broozer took a few sips and nibbled at the food while Egwald and the king made small talk.

The food was delicious and the ride had been long. It was almost dawn and time for breakfast. Broozer dug in voraciously as he listened to them discuss matters of the kingdom. Most of it was boring, and little of it made sense to him. He tuned out and focused on the food. His ears picked up when Egwald asked why the king had called for them to join his party.

“It’s probably nothing,” King Jensen sighed. “A group of knights came down here the other night from Swordbreak. They were supposed to have been bringing me some very important items.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, my lord,” Egwald interrupted.

The king continued, “They never arrived. So, we sent out a second group to search for them. They disappeared as well. I came with my finest soldiers yesterday and sent out scouts into the surrounding woods and fields. One group never returned.”

“Which way did they go?”

“They headed into the Woods toward Wandermere.”

“Highway robbers?” Egwald whispered. “We haven’t had highway robberies for twenty years since you became king. If this place is dangerous, then you should not be here, my lord,” Egwald said.

Broozer wanted to smile at the insincerity he recognized in Egwald’s voice. The fear that laced his words though was very real. It was not the king’s safety the old man was worried about but his own.

“No,” the king shook his head gravely. “I don’t believe so. The land is prosperous. And keeping the roads safe has always been a priority for me. We deal swiftly with those who attempt such things.”

“Simple highway robbers would not be so foolish as to attack a band of soldiers and knights,” Broozer said thinking out loud.

“Hmmm. My young friend does have a tongue after all,” the king said with a smile.

Broozer glanced at Egwald who was not smiling. He sighed and sat back in his chair. The look in the old man’s eye, let him know that he was in for a beating when they returned to the manor.

“There is the possibility they wanted the artifacts the men were bringing badly enough to attack a group of trained soldiers. But, truth be told, we don’t know quite what to make of it yet.”

“We will find out who did this, my king,” Egwald proclaimed confidently

The king nodded and stroked his beard, “I hope so too, Egwald. That is why I have called for you and all the lords of the land like yourself. They should be here soon to help us get to the bottom of this mystery.”

“I and my men shall lead the way,” Egwald proclaimed loudly as if trying to convince himself that heading into the woods where three other groups of armed soldiers had disappeared were a perfectly normal thing to do since he wanted to be the first to impress the king.

The king smiled. It was the broad easy smile of someone who was constantly looking for the positive things in life. Nothing like the pompous expressions of someone who took themselves too seriously like Egwald and the other nobles that Broozer was used to seeing. He found it refreshing.

“Thank you, Egwald. I know I can always count on you. You have served me well and faithfully as you did my father before me. And I am pleased you brought this child of Agaza. They are fierce, brave-hearted warriors and some of the best trackers I’ve ever known.”

Broozer cocked his head to the side and wondered how the king could have learned that about his people simply from fighting them in the War of Fire.

“We ride at first light with whoever has arrived by then. Get some rest till then.”

Broozer finished cramming the last few bits of food from his plate into his mouth as he stood to follow Egwald. There were many questions that he wanted to ask the king about his people, but Egwald was tired and wanted to get some sleep. The grouchy old grump would chew him out if he did. So, Broozer kept his mouth shut and nodded respectfully on his way out.

He quickly prepped a place for the old man to sleep and then headed down the hill towards the woods on his horse. Broozer wanted to get a headstart and find something that would make himself useful to the king. Perhaps then, he would get the chance to gain an audience to ask the king to tell him more about Agaza and what was going on with his people.

Several soldiers turned to look at him on the outer edges of the camp as he rode by, but no one challenged him or asked him where he was going. Watching a barbarian ride off into a death trap didn’t worry them.

Let him come back with the location of the robbers’ hideout or even a few of their heads, and he would be sure to gain the king’s favor and an audience.

The full moon overhead lit up the path before him until he arrived at the edge of the woods. The horse stopped at the edge of the woods and refused to step into the darkness.

“C’mon, Rebel!” Broozer said as he gave it several kicks to the ribs and tried to urge it on. The house refused to budge.

Broozer slid down from the saddle and tried pulling the horse along with him as he walked into the woods. It pulled back its head and reared up. Broozer grabbed the horse by the throatlatch and cheekpiece of its riding tack and pulled it back down before it got too high.

“Whoa there, Rebel! Calm down,” he whispered as he tied it to a sapling at the edge of the trail. “Fine, stay here and keep watch. I’ll be back.”

The lad stepped into the woods and waited a few moments for eyes to adjust to the darkness before moving forward. The silence was deafening. Strange for a forest. No crickets chirped. No owls hooted. Broozer didn’t even hear the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind.

A sense of dread washed over him and a slow chill spread up his spine to the base of his neck. Broozer stopped walking and concentrated on listening into the silence.

The eerie silence seemed to be growing even more silent by the second. He remembered a place like this long ago when he was hunting with his father. They raced out of there and managed to make it safely home. His father told him that these were the kinds of places that witches made their abodes.

Broozer was torn between continuing on to find the king’s men and the urge to flee this place as quickly as possible. He decided on the latter. Better to return to the king alive than to disappear along with the others.

As he turned back to his horse, Broozer heard the fluttering sound of wings. He looked up but couldn’t see anything in the little light that managed to filter through the leaves and branches of the shadowy darkness. It grew louder and more intense as if these things were flitting all around him.

Bats? Moths? Owls? Something worse?

His heart pounded and his first instinct was to run as fast and as hard as he could back to his horse Rebel. With his first step back, he felt the whisp of wind from the wings wafting over his face. By his second step, he actually felt the brush of wings trailing over his skin.

The lad instinctively stopped running and took a few steps back away from these things. He drew his sword and waited. The fluttering and flapping sounds continued to draw closer. Broozer kept backing away from them in the direction he had been headed deeper into the woods.

Was this some sort of trap? Was it to keep him from fleeing? Were they hunting him? Were they leading him somewhere?

Broozer backed away several steps and things grew silent again. He waited a bit, and soon heard them again as if they were advancing in his direction. He held his sword out and forward. Pointed in their direction.

The sound of their fluttering wings paused briefly and switched into a high-pitched hum as if they were gathering themselves and synchronizing their flying pattern. Focusing their formation to attack. The little light that did filter down through the trees seemed to dim and the darkness grew heavier around him.

Broozer lowered his sword and instantly, the humming sound faded and the fluttering returned. He considered throwing one of his knives in their direction, but then he wouldn’t be able to find it in the dark.

He tried walking off the trail to the side, but the fluttering intensifed. Broozer moved back onto the trail and it diminished. He then tried to leave the trail on the other side and the same thing happened.

“Fine,” he muttered. “I get it.”

He stepped back onto the trail and slid his sword back into its sheath. Broozer continued walking until he came to a fork. The lad started down one of the trails, but the fluttering of wings intensified. So, he turned down the other and it let up. Broozer continued walking in that direction.

The same thing happened every time he came to a fork on the path. The fluttering would only allow him to take one of them. If he attempted to walk down the other, the fluttering things in the darkness would press in closer and push him back.

“Where are we going?” he asked over his shoulder.

No one answered him. Not that he expected one. It didn’t matter how fast or slow Broozer walked, anytime he stopped the fluttering would pick up immediately.

After about the third time of testing his starting and stopping pace, Broozer began walking extremely slowly. The sound faded away, but as soon as he stopped moving forward, the fluttering began again.

“Fine, let’s just hurry up and get to where we’re going and get this over with,” he growled as he began walking again at a normal pace with his usual, long strides.

The trees grew thicker around him and the darkness deepened. The air grew heavy and Broozer felt as if it were getting harder to breath. He gulped air in through is mouth as though panting, even though he wasn’t running or exerting himself.

Broozer was strong and fit, used to hard, heavy manual labor in Egwald’s fields. He often ran from one end of the farm to the other without breaking a sweat, but just walking through the woods had him feeling exhausted.

He paused to catch his breath, but the fluttering soon started up again. Broozer didn’t start walking immediately, and the whisping of wind and the brush of wings began drawing closer. So, Broozer sighed and started walking again.

The lad realized that he could see where he was stepping. It was as if the ground in front of him were glowing softly. But when he looked to the sides or even behind him, all was dark again. He could see the path in front of him just fine to avoid tripping on stones or branches that had fallen in the way.

It was the weirdest sensation. As if something or someone was guiding him somewhere. Broozer had no idea if this were good or bad. He felt no fear. Only the instinct that this wasn’t right and he should leave. But there was no going back now. He had to follow along and see how this all played out. Hopefully to find those who had gone missing before him, and somehow use his wits, skills, and strengths to survive and escape.

The path Broozer was on, eventually came to a small clearing. He could once again see the pale moon and twinkling stars overhead. The scenery was beautiful, but the scent of the woods had given way to a foul stench. Broozer pulled the edge of his shirt up to cover his nostrils. He paused to listen.

The fluttering sounds behind him had stopped and didn’t start up again. That was a relief. He looked behind him, but the woods were still complete darkness. He was completely lost and would never find his way back in the darkness. At the very least, he would have to wait until the sun came up to try to find his way back.

Broozer looked around the clearing. Whatever brought him here had met for him to come to this particular clearing. He was curious and wondered what it was. It wouldn’t take him more than fifty paces to cross it to the other side. He used his sword to draw an arrow in the ground back the way he had come. He also broke the branches on a few saplings in case rain or something else happened to erase the markings on the ground.

He turned and continued moving across the clearing to the other side of the woods. As he peered into the darkness of the woods, the foul stench grew stronger. Broozer could sense something there. Watching him. Waiting for him. Broozer backed out into the clearing again.

The faint outline of a dark mass coming toward him. It wasn’t huge. The shadowy figure didn’t come up much past his knees. Broozer could hear it breathing heavily as it came closer. It let out a warning snort before charging. A wild boar.

It came in fast and low. Snapping at his legs and slashing with its tusks. Broozer’s fast instincts and quick reflexes allowed him to leap over the creature. It was so low to the ground that his sword wasn’t much use. He quickly moved out of the way each time it charged and attempted to stab at it. But its hide was thick, and he couldn’t get much leverage trying to hack at it while leaping over it.

The boar came in again. Low and fast. Broozer stood his ground. Leaning into his sword. Allowing the boar to impale itself with its own weight. It let out the loud and furious squeal of the stuck pigs Broozer had heard on Egwald’s farm.

Then, Broozer heard the terrifying sound of answering pigs. Coming in his direction. Charging from the woods. His only hope was to leap up into the safety of a tree, but they were coming fast. Broozer knew he wouldn’t make it to the other side of the clearing before they got to him.

He pulled his other knife from his belt and met them face on. Once again, he impaled let the lead pig impale itself on his sword. The weight of the other pigs behind it pushed it even deeper onto his sword.

Broozer pulled it free and leaped over the next one trying to come around it. It barreled past him, but he landed in the path of a third pig coming in behind it. It’s tusk slashed the side of his leg as he tried to spin around it.

He screamed in agony and brought his knife down furiously into its side, just behind its front leg. Driving the blade deep up into its heart. Then again just as quickly, stabbed it again on the other side of its front leg deep into its throat. Attempting to hit its heart or slash any major arteries in the vicinity.

By then, the other pig had already come back and knocked him off his feet. Broozer went down hard. Its teeth and tusks tearing into his leg once again. Broozer screamed again. More in rage at it being so bulky and hard to kill than at the pain itself.

The frenzied pig came back for another attack. Broozer rolled out of the way and slashed at it. His blade cut deep into the pig’s side, infuriating it. It’s tusk slashed into his arm and up his shoulder. Then it twisted back and bit into his chest before he could ram his knife deep into its chest and cut its throat.

The pig fell on top of him as it bled out. Its warm blood pouring out over him. Broozer pushed the heavy weight off of himself with his good arm. His left arm numb from the pig’s vicious attack. He tried to stand, but his wounded leg gave way. Broozer fell back to the ground. His head heavy and numb from the loss of blood that he himself had suffered.

Broozer heard something shuffling toward him and looked up to see a shadowy figure moving in his direction. He struggled to push himself back up onto his feet. Careful to balance his weight on his good foot. Broozer raised his sword and yelled. Warning it not to come closer. But the sword was heavy. His head felt heavy. His legs felt heavy. The knife slid from his fingers and Broozer slumped back to the ground as the shadowy figure loomed over him.

The last thing he saw before passing out was the wizened, old face of a woman leaning over him. Her lips were moving, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying.

When he came to, Broozer found himself in a small hut. It smelled nice. The hearty scent of soup wafted from the kettle over an open fire. The memory of the fight with the boar and his brood came rushing back. Broozer focused his attention on various parts of his body where they had slashed and bitten him on his legs and chest. He felt no pain.

Broozer pushed himself up carefully on the small bed in a corner. It was way too small for him. His legs stuck out over the edge onto the floor. His legs were bandaged as was his chest. He peeled back the gauze covered in green goop. The slime still covered his chest, but Broozer could see no wound or even any sign that he had been bitten. He reached down to unwrap the bandages around his leg. There were no wounds at all. It looked as if he had never been bitten or slashed open at all.

Had he dreamt the entire event? But if so, why were the bandages on him at all? The lad used the back of the bandages to wipe away the rest of the green goop and slime from his body. He checked but only had two of his throwing knives with him. He must have left the other one out in the field with the pigs. Broozer felt a bit wobbly. He stood up and walked over to the fire.

The young man lifted the lid and sniffed at the steam that burst from the pot. It smelled wonderful and his mouth watered instantly. No one was around, so he reached for a bowl and spoon to pour himself a healthy portion. Then sat down and a stool to chow down.

The warm broth filled his belly and soothed his hunger. He felt the weakness in his legs slowly dissipate and strength return to his bones once again. He had just finished his first bowl and was reaching over to fill it up again when the door burst open and the old woman walked in with a bundle of herbs and plants in her arms.

“Hm. Up already? Eh? You heal fast. Guess we don’t need these.” the woman mused. Broozer froze still holding the lid over the pot. He placed it back down and returned to his stool. “Um. Your stew is quite tasty.” he finally stammered awkwardly.

“It is. Is it?” she asked turning away from Broozer to hid her smile. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to eat from random pots in a witch’s hideaway in the middle of a forest? It could be dangerous for your health.”

“Oh. Um. No, ma’am. She never did. We didn’t live near forests. And I haven’t seen her for many years.”

The old woman finished arranging the bundles of plants and hobbled over to him. She sat on the chair sitting across from the fire.

“Hm. I can see that you are Barbarian. lad. I thought Barbarians came from the deep forests and mountains to the North. Many powerful and dangerous old crones up there. Where are you from, boy?”

“Agaza, the barren lands to the west. But we do have witches there too.”

“Oh, I believe it, boy. One of the most powerful in fact. Vulmeis Gwistroll. Have you heard of her?”

Broozer shook his head and looked down at his soup. “It’s been many years since I left.”

“Brought here as a slave when Langland sought to expand his kingdom.”

The young man looked up at her briefly in acknowledgment, but then hung his head again. This time in shame. The woman took his bowl and refilled it.

“You are Barbarian, lad. Barbarians live free. They serve no man. What happened to your family?” the old lady asked as she filled a bowl for herself.

“My fathers and brothers are dead. My mothers and sisters, I have no idea.”

“I am sure they died valiantly. Your father and brothers, I mean. Defending their lands and their freedoms.”

Broozer shook his head and set down his bowl. He was no longer hungry. “Our leaders met with the emissaries of Langland as a sign of respect when they first arrived. But it was a trap. Our men were shot down like stuck pigs.”

The old woman’s eyes bored into his and she cocked her head to the side thoughtfully. “Almost like the pigs you slaughtered tonight. I was shocked to find you alive. That boar was huge and so were its sows. You must be a mighty warrior to survive that kind of an attack.”

Broozer scoffed and shook his head. “I’m no warrior. I’ve never been a page or even a squire. Because I’m an outsider, they will never let me become a knight.”

“Well, two things, lad. First, those wild pigs would have torn a normal man to shreds, stomped him into the mud, and dragged his innards into the bushes to feed their piglets. You lived to tell the tale. With a little help from me of course.”

The young man looked down at his legs. “How many days was I passed out?” he asked, suddenly worried that Egwald would have his hide for disappearing for so long.

The woman chuckled. A deep, belly laugh that made her whole body shake. “Not long, lad. About the time it takes to cook a pot of stew. I brought you in and bandaged you up. Then I put on this pot here and went out to fetch more herbs from the woods. When I came back, you were already up and around.

“Wow! You are a great healer.” Broozer said in amazement.

“Harumph! Those herbs are good, and I helped with a small healing spell. But your body healed extremely fast. I was hoping you would be up and around again in three days’ time. But that was more your body taking care of you more than anything I did.”

Broozer picked up his bowl and slurped down a few spoonfuls as he pondered the old crone’s words. Finally, he looked up her and asked, “So, what was the second thing you were going to say.”

“Secondly, you don’t have to become a knight to be a mighty warrior. I can sense it flowing in your veins. But you don’t an old hag like me to tell you that. The fact that you survived that attack and healed so quickly on your own is proof enough. The blood of the ancient race still flows within you. Might and magic belong to you, boy. Your father? Was he the leader of your people?”

“One of them. They ruled and made decisions together.”

“Leorakel!” The woman whispered in a hushed voice. “The Oracle of the Lions. I’ve heard of them and their demise in the time of wars. You must be one of the few remaining members of your kind. You must honor your ancestors and walk in your destiny.”

“That sounds pretty vague. What does that mean exactly?” Broozer grunted.

The old woman smiled and said, “That is for you to discover for yourself, lad. Throw off the shackles of those who enslaved you. Live free like the Barbarian you were meant to be. Return to your country. Gather your people. And lead them as your fathers did before you.”

Broozer scoffed again and finished the last few scoops of his soup before answering.

“That’s a stupid idea. They killed my family and all the warriors there. Egwald and his men would kill me too if I even mentioned that idea.”

The old lady knelt down and brushed the hair from his face. “They deceived your father and the other warriors. Your people didn’t know who they were dealing with. Men without honor like themselves. You do. You’ve learned their ways. You know who you are dealing with.” Soft grey light from the predawn sky filtered through the cracks in the window and under the door. Broozer set down the bowl and stood to his feet.

“Thank you for the soup, and thank you for healing me. It’s getting light and I must get back. I will ponder your words. But today, I must help my master and the king find some missing travelers. Otherwise, they will kill me before I have a chance to step into this destiny.”

The old woman smiled and nodded. She touched his arm and closed her eyes briefly. “Then let me help you on your journey. Return to your horse. Lead the man you call master and the king down to the river. Follow it up to the falls. There you will find a cave. There is an old giant who lives there. He has no eyes. Only a keen sense of hearing. Defeat him, and the king’s men shall be returned to him.”

“How do I defeat him?” Broozer asked.

The old woman smiled and patted him on the cheek. “You are a mighty warrior, lad. Your path is your own to choose. Your battles are your own to fight if you choose them. Remember whose blood flows in your veins. You are the son of the Leorakel. You have the strength of a lion, the speed of a gazelle, and the wisdom of an owl. Don’t worry about the how. The best of plans can fail. Keep your wits about you and improvise. You are young and your heart is yet pure. Let it not become blinded by greed or hate. Then your heart will guide you home.”

Broozer thanked her and headed up the trail in the direction she pointed. The rising sun lit his way and Rebel seemed excited to see him again. The horse carried him swiftly back to camp where the king was addressing the latest newcomers to the group and giving his men final directions.

“Where have you been, lad!” Egwald screamed angrily when he arrived. “I need my breakfast. Put on the tea.”

The old man raised his hand and swung out to slap him. Broozer easily ducked it and stepped back. The young man had never done that before and had always absorbed the shock of Egwald’s blows. The old man’s eyes widened in shock and then narrowed angrily. Broozer gazed back at him without flinching as he backed toward the fire and began to prepare the old man’s pot of tea.

“Don’t think you won’t get a beating if I think you deserve it,” Egwald growled as he settled down to wait for Broozer to pour him a cup. “The men will tie you down like a hog if we have to.” Broozer didn’t answer. He focused on preparing breakfast. Served the old man, and then headed over to see the king.

“Hey! Where are you going, boy? Get back over here.” Egwald started to scream.

Broozer didn’t turn to look back even when he heard the old man choking and coughing at the end of his yell. Egwald’s men saw him coming and bunched in closer as Broozer approached. He circled around them and pushed through others in the crowd as far as he could till he stood almost at the front of the line.

“Remember, we are simply gathering information to assess what happened. So, stay with your leader. Don’t try to play hero. If you see anything strange, come straight back here and tell me. We will all ride together to bring back our missing men.”

The men turned to leave making more room for Egwald to step forward. He waited for the king to acknowledge him.

“Well, well! Look who showed up. Our missing man made it back and is still alive. I overheard Egwald looking for you this morning. I guess he hasn’t killed you yet like he was threatening too earlier.” King Jensen said with a broad smile.

“Who else would make him breakfast?” Broozer quipped.

The king laughed heartily, “Yes, these noblemen wouldn’t survive a day without someone to put food in their mouths. So, are you ready ride? I’m hoping you learned the tracking skills of your people and can help us figure out what happened to our missing groups.”

Broozer took a deep breath. This might just be his chance to prove himself to the king. Could he trust what the old woman had told him?

“I spent the night walking those woods. I believe I know where they might be.”

The king raised his eyebrows and cocked his head, waiting for Broozer to continue. “Those are dangerous woods.” The king mused.

“If you follow the river to the falls, you’ll find a cave. That is where they seem to have gone.” The king looked off into the distance and rubbed his beard.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of people disappearing near the Wandermere Falls. When I was a child, there were tales of a giant who lived down there. But that was a long, long time ago.”

Broozer’s heart sank. Had the old woman just guessed that was where the missing men might be. If this was an old tale, then it might just be an old wive’s fable. Had he given away too much information? He should have gone down there first to check it out, confirm the old hag’s words, and then come back to tell the king. He could kick himself for being so impulsive. He didn’t even know which direction the river lay. What if the king wanted him to lead the search party.

“Well, good. That might save us time scouring the woods.” The king said. “Let’s go straight there and find our men.”

The king sent for his horse to be brought up immediately. He ordered the men to return once again. While they were coming, he entered his tent to put on his armor.

“Come, Broozer. I might have something for you.”

King Jensen ordered his largest guard to take off his armor and give it to Broozer. The guard glared at Broozer but did as the king commanded. Broozer slid the pieces on and found that it fit fairly well other than being a little tight around the chest.

“You look good, barbarian,” the king roared with a loud laugh as he slapped Broozer on the back. “You will ride beside me and lead the way. Don’t worry about Egwald.”

Broozer smiled and nodded. Inwardly, he was worried about how to lead them men if he didn’t even know which way the river ran. And even once he got there, he didn’t know if the falls lay upstream or down. And here the king thought he had already been down there.

When Broozer stepped out from the king’s tent, Egwald’s jaws dropped. He stormed over and reached up to grab the lad by the ear. “What are you doing, stupid boy! Get that suit of armor off. You’re not worthy to wear any knight’s suit. Especially not one that bear’s the king’s crest.”

Broozer grabbed the old man’s wrist and pulled it from his ear. Just then the king stepped out through the door and waved the old man back as he strode to leap on his horse.

“It’s quite alright, Egwald. I told the lad to put it on. He has an interesting idea about where the men might be. And if he is right, may well need it to protect his life.”

The king turned his horse to address the men. Egwald glowered at Broozer. “What did you do, boy. You should have come to me first. You’re going to get it when we get back to the manor.” Broozer didn’t reply, but he did stare long and hard into Egwald’s eyes without flinching. The king began to address the men, and Broozer turned away from Egwald to listen to the king.

“We’ve just gotten a lead on what may have happened to our men. So, instead of wasting precious time searching, we’re all going to head down to the falls.” The king yelled out.

As he started to ride away, Jensen yelled over his shoulder, “C’mon, Broozer. Where’s your horse. Ride up here with us.”

Egwald and his men scowled at him as he trotted over to untie his horse. “You’re no better than you were yesterday, barbarian,” one of the men scoffed.

Broozer ignored him. “Come, Egwald,” the lad urged on his way back. “This is what you wanted. To ride with the king at the front of the line. He is inviting us.”

His words seemed to soothe Egwald’s bruised ego and perked him up. He ordered his men to mount up while Broozer waited for them. He didn’t like them any better than before and knew that his relationship with them would soon change. However, he didn’t see the need to antagonize them any more than necessary. Besides, if the old lady’s tip didn’t pan out, and they didn’t find the men there at the cave, then he would be right back where he started.

Broozer took the lead with Egwald hot on his heels as they moved up the ranks toward the king. He was fine with letting others lead the way toward the river. They soon came around a bend in the road where the river came into full view. Before they arrived at the bridge, the king and his men turned off the road and headed upstream toward the mountains. He was relieved that they seemed to know which way they were headed.

The tall, dark mountains loomed ominously over the forest that surrounded them. The plains soon gave way to the mountains as they continued along the path up the stream. The cliffs grew taller and higher the further they went. The wild beauty around them amazed Broozer. He could see the water pouring over the rocks high above.

He had never been this close to the mountains before. Even though they looked majestic from a distance, they were even more fantastic up close. Mist floated in the air around them as they drew nearer to the water shooting down the chasm on each side of the high cliffs.

The path along the river narrowed and the men were forced to spread out. Broozer rode beside Egwald who tried to make small talk to understand how the lad had gotten into the king’s armor. The lad answered his questions as ambiguously as possible without giving away much information. He was busy scanning the sides of the gorge for signs of the missing men. But there wasn’t much to go on.

The king had stopped at the edge of the trail. They had come as far as the horses could go. The king turned back to look at Broozer as if to ask what they should do next. The lad slid off his horse and moved past the men. He leaped up onto a boulder and made his way around the sides of the cliff toward the falls.

There was a narrow ledge that he was able to move along. The wind from the falling water churned the thick mist up into his face. Broozer put his head down and continued to make his way back behind the falling waters.

The ledge widened as he got closer to the falls and soon opened up under a wide overhang so that he was able to safely walk under the falls without fear of slipping into the churning water below.

He turned to see King Jensen and the royal guards close behind him. Egwald and his men were close behind them, as well as the rest of the men that had gathered at the king’s command during the night.

Broozer hoped with all of his heart that this would pan out. He was going on a whim at the words of an old crone that he had met in the woods. She seemed like a nice old lady. But for all he knew this could be a trap.

He looked down where the ledge met the water. It was shallow along the edges. The overhang protected the shoreline and the water was calm near Broozer’s feet. He saw something glimmering, and slid down into the water carefully on his hands and feet. The lad waded out a little and reached down to pull out a sword and shield.

“What is it, lad? What did you find there?” King Jensen asked.

Broozer turned it toward him so that he could see the crest. He handed it over to one of the men who slid down into the water to join him. Broozer reached down into the water and pulled out two more shields. And then several more after pulling them out of the water.

The first few were shiny. But the others after were old and rusty as if they had been down in the water for much longer.

“Those first five there belonged to my men,” the king rumbled angrily. “But those others are from long ago. I was a child when I heard of people disappearing around here. Some said it was a giant. Whatever it was that took them has returned.”

“Death to the giant!” the men roared in unison.

Several of the men had brought torches along and lit them up. Broozer turned to enter the cave. One of the knights beside him put out an arm to stop him.

“Let the men go first, boy. We’ve been trained to fight our entire lives.”

Broozer wanted to argue, but the fact that the man’s voice held no disdain or animosity toward him for being a barbarian, threw Broozer off. There even seemed to be a sense of respect toward him for having brought them straight to the cave. So, Broozer deferred and took a step back to let the knights go first.

“It’s okay, lad. You’ve done well already.” King Jensen said with a pat on the back.

The rest of the knights all drew their swords and followed close behind. Egwald and his men didn’t even bother to look up to acknowledge Broozer as they went past him. But Broozer could sense that the old man was seething again.

“The giant is blind, but he has a keen sense of hearing,” Broozer told the king.

He looked back at the falls and things clicked into place. “He can’t see but can feel the water. That’s why he walks upstream to the road where he catches travelers. The sound of the water falling guides him back home.”

“You sure know a lot about this giant for a stranger in our land,” the king said somewhat suspiciously. “It sounds like you know him or at least have seen him. Did you come across this blind giant last night?”

Broozer shook his head. “No, but someone told me about this particular giant.”

There was a long pause as the king studied Broozer’s face. Finally, he said, “Well, I hope they told you how to kill this thing.”

“So, do I. But unfortunately, they didn’t. Although they didn’t seem to like it very much. So, if they knew, I’m sure they would have killed it themselves.”

The king started to reply, but the last of the men were filing into the cave when someone up at the front shouted back for the king. King Jensen lit his torch off of one of the other men’s torch. Then he lit a second and handed it to Broozer.

Broozer noticed a thin white line running along the cave wall along the left side. He asked the king about it. “The first man in runs chalk along the walls as he walks. That’s how we find our way back out.”

There was a small fork halfway down, and the king followed the white line till he came to his men. They had entered a cavern. The knights had fanned out as they waited for the king.

“There are several tunnels leading out from here,” said the royal guard who had pushed Broozer back. “We’ll have to break up into smaller groups and spread out to search this place.”

He waited for the king’s command. The king turned to look at Broozer. The lad looked around the cavern and said, “If he really is blind, there must be something else that guides him.”

“A blind giant,” one of the men behind Broozer scoffed. “Really?”

Broozer didn’t turn to look, but the voice was familiar. It sounded like the voice of one of Egwald’s men. Broozer ignored him and closed his eyes. The king raised his hand and a hush fell over the men. There was the faint sound of water dripping from the far end of the cavern.

“Do you hear that?” Broozer asked, pointing in the direction he heard it coming from.

He moved in the direction he heard the sound coming from. Water dripping from a stalactite. There was a large tunnel nearby.

“That looks big enough for a giant to walk through, and he uses his hearing to find it.” King Jensen replied.

He waved his men on forward through it. Broozer waited beside the king for the rest of the men to pass through. A few noded in acknowledgement as they walked past with a newfound look of respect in their eyes. Broozer glowed inwardly. It felt good to be able to do something that they approved of and found helpful.

They followed the rest of the men down the tunnel a long way. It felt as if they were descending deep into the earth. The came to another even larger cavern. Broozer could hear the sound of running water leaping and splashing over the rocks as it rippled its way across the wide, cavernous, rocky floor. The sound echoed off the walls of the chamber.

The men had stopped and huddled in the center. The cavern was so large that the low light from their torches threw long shadows from the stalactites and stalagmites, but failed to reveal the walls along the edges.

All the men looked to the king and Broozer as they joined the rest of the group. The king turned to look at Broozer expectantly. Broozer felt like the king was doing this purposefully and giving him room to prove his worth which he appreciated.

Broozer paused and closed his eyes. Listening for any sounds other than the running water. He couldn’t hear any.

He finally opened his eyes after a brief pause and said, “We know our giant likes water. He uses it to mark find his way up the river. He may continue doing the same here. At least using the sound of it to guide him through this cavern. We should try following it for now and see where it leads.”

The king nodded and the men moved in the direction of the running stream. “Be careful. We don’t know what else may be down here.” The king cautioned.

Several of the men lit new torches to replace others that were burning low. The men moved together as a large group along the river. But it didn’t take long until they came to the end of the river. The river hit the end of the cavern and disappeared underground.

“What now?” Someone behind Broozer asked.

Other men started murmuring among themselves. Broozer closed his eyes to listen. The king raised his hand once again and a hush fell over the band of knights and soldiers. Off in the distance to the left, Broozer heard a quiet howling sound mixed with a soft hum. Like wind blowing through the eves up in the attic of the manor where he slept.

Broozer held out his hand to the closest man with a torch. He gave it to Broozer who nodded in the direction the sound had come from. The king and other knights nodded back at him and followed closely behind him as he led the way.

As they drew closer to the sound, the ground began to slope downward along the edge of the cavern wall. When they arrived, the flickering light from the torches lit up the sides of the rocky cavern exposing a giant black hole that led deeper down into the mountain.

Broozer crouched and scooted himself down the slope with one hand trailing the ground to keep his balance. He glanced back to see the other knights following close behind. The slope finally leveled off and they came to a fork in the tunnel.

He raised his hand for the men to stop. When they grew silent, Broozer listened intently down one side and then the other. A soft crackling and feeling of heat wafted up from the second one. He pointed down that side and the men nodded in acknowledgment.

The king was no longer in sight, but Broozer didn’t wait for him to come forward. He checked to make sure that the person responsible to mark their trail was still leaving a white trail along the walls. Then he continued heading down the tunnel.

The air around him grew warmer and as they came around another bend, Broozer could see a soft, red glow in the distance. It grew brighter as they got closer to it. Eventually, it became so bright that they no longer needed the torches to see.

When he entered the cavern, Broozer stepped aside to let the other men through. They fanned out around him, waiting for everyone else to join them in the cavern. Finally, everyone was in and the king came up beside Broozer.

“What is it? What’s going on?” he hissed quietly to the group standing near Broozer.

“I think we’re getting close,” one of the men answered before Broozer had a chance.

He was busy studying the cavern around them. The ground ran for a good way toward the center of the chamber they were in before dropping away into a fiery red glow. A smoky mist wafted up from below. The scent of burning lay heavy in the air.

Every once in a while, the wind would whip around the cavern, churning the smoke and mist wildly upwards in the chamber. Broozer couldn’t tell how high it was though since the smoke above the pit blocked their view of it.

A low moan echoed through the chambers from the pit before them.

“I fear we have arrived at the entrances of hell,” one of the men hissed. “Maybe we shouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah, maybe this isn’t the giant’s lair,” whispered another.

Another low moan echoed from the pit and off the cavernous walls around them. Then a low growl. Shadows moved across the smoky mist above the fiery pit.

The men backed toward the tunnel exit leaving more space around Broozer who stood his ground. He pulled his sword out of its sheath and flipped it between both hands as he recalled the words of the old crone.

“Who goes there?” a guttural voice rumbled out over the edge of the pit as the wide forehead of the giant began to rise up from the pit. “Welcome. You’ve arrived just in time for my feast.”

The rest of the giant’s head appeared. His long strands of hair floating in the drafts of warm air that rose up from the pit. Only dark shadows covered the area where its eyes should have been. Then its shoulders and chest appeared along with its long arms. It stood in the pit up to its waist, and from the waist up was still almost three times taller than Broozer.

A wave of relief rushed over him. The old woman had spoken the truth. He felt vindicated and all of his effort to bring the king here worth it. He turned to smile at the king who looked at him as if he were crazy.

“What are grinning for lad,” the king whispered.

“We can’t fight that thing,” another hissed.

Broozer raised his finger to his lips to silence them. He pointed to his eyes and closed them to indicate that it had none. Then pointed to his ears hoping they understood that the giant could hear the slightest sound. Finally, placing his finger over his lips again for them to be silent.

King Jensen nodded and motioned with his arms for them to prepare their bows. The men who had them stepped forward and waited for the king’s command.

“I can hear your silence, silly people. Did you come to join your companions for dinner?” the giant asked in a sing-songy voice.

The king raised his hands and the archers raised their bows. A few had crossbows and they raised those as well. The king waited a beat for the giant to finish its sentence then brought his hand down sharply. The archers let loose a volley of arrows at the giant’s head.

The giant ducked as the arrows hurtled in his direction. It was surprisingly fast for such a large creature. The arrows all missed by a wide margin except for one. An archer’s aim was low or else it was aiming for the giant’s neck. But it only brushed through the giant’s hair that was still wafting in the smoke.

It disappeared completely for a brief moment before it popped back up again and peeked over the edge of the pit.

“Hm. I see you want to play. Nice. I like games. Are there any rules I should be aware of before we begin?” the giant asked mockingly.

The king motioned for the archers to fire again. Another volley of arrows flew through the air a second time. This time the giant didn’t bother to duck. He raised a giant ax in front of his face that deflected the pointy missiles. Then it stood back up to its full height and swung its ax low across the ground in front of the pit.

The razor-sharp edge of the gigantic weapon grazed the ground along the edge of the pit. Rocks and bits of gravel flew out of the ground in their direction. Broozer threw himself across the king, knocking him down before either was hit. Several others had good sense and quick enough reflexes to do the same. But most of the men took the brunt of the stony shrapnel.

Broozer heard them screaming in pain and agony as sharp bits of rock chewed into parts of their body that weren’t protected by their armor. And others were completely knocked out by the larger stones that bowled them over.

A few of those that were okay, crawled over to the king and dragged him back to the tunnel along with any of their friends that were still breathing. Broozer lay completely still and watched the giant listening intently to hear what they were up to as they scrambled around.

“What? Leaving so soon. What rude dinner guests. Guess I’ll just have to come and drag you back for the main course.” The giant said with a loud laugh that echoed through the chamber.

The giant raised its other hand that was also holding a giant ax. It ran the blades along each other as if sharpening them and sparks flew from the honed edges.

The giant ran the other ax along the ground even harder, sending another volley of rocks and rubble in their direction. Broozer threw his arms over his head to protect himself. The blast of stony rubble left his arms sore and numb.

He heard others behind him screaming in pain and agony. Broozer twisted his head to look over at the tunnel. The king and several men were just inside, leaning up against the wall for protection. The king motioned for Broozer to join them. He shook his head silently.

“Come on. Doesn’t anyone else want to play this game before we switch to phase two?” The giant rumbled playfully.

“I can still hear five of you in this cavern breathing as those who are awake. The rest are either unconscious or dead. It’s a shame. Fresh meat always tastes better than those who are dead.”

Broozer grimaced at the grotesque way the giant spoke of them. He could see Egwald lying not far behind him. Broozer couldn’t tell if he were alive or not. Another man that Broozer recognized moaned as he began to regain consciousness.

This wasn’t going at all like Broozer had imagined. The old crone had said he should use his strength and speed and wits against this evil fiend. But she hadn’t warned him of how fast and brutal his beast would be.

The lad knew that he wouldn’t defeat this monster groveling on the ground with his head between his arms though. So, he stood slowly to his feet.

“How does this work?” Broozer challenged the giant. “Aren’t you supposed to ask us a riddle, and if we get it right, then you have to let us go on our way.”

“Bwahahaha!” The giant burst into guffaws of laughter. “I like your style, boy. I do. I do. And no, you’re confusing me with the trolls. You don’t get any free passes here with me. It’s mano-a-mano. A duel to death or I hunt you all down. Unless of course, you make it all the way back to the pass before I catch you.”

“Well then, let’s get to it,” Broozer bellowed.

The giant burst into peals of laughter. “Sure, if you insist. But you should have stayed home today and let the men do the fighting today. I almost feel bad killing one so young who hasn’t had time to live. Of course, that means your flesh will be soft and tender. I just hope you aren’t too scrawny and have some flesh on you.”

Broozer glanced back and motioned the king and his men to leave while he held off the giant. He wasn’t sure if he had much of a shot at defeating this giant regardless of what the old lady said. He would do his best and fight fearlessly as his father had taught him when he was a boy.

If he did die, he hoped it would at least give King Jensen enough time to escape. He liked the king with the easy laugh. The king seemed like a good man who tried to do his best for his people. Even though he had brought war on Broozer’s land, war was the way of the kings. He couldn’t bring himself to hold a grudge against the man.

Unlike the other nobles, the king seemed sincere and genuine. It would be a shame to have one of them take his place if the giant killed them all that day. It was better to have Jensen ruling over his people back in Agaza than some other douchebag who didn’t give a rip about anyone other than themselves.

The lad waited until he saw that the royal guards had pulled the king back and had left before stepping forward to face the giant. It lowered its axes and took a long, deep inhalation.

“You smell different than the others. You’re not one of them. Why would you choose to die for them?” the giant asked curiously and almost gently.

“It is my duty and my destiny,” Broozer replied as honestly as he could without giving away too much information.

“Hm,” the giant murmured. “As I said before, I like your style. I sense no fear within you. Your heart is yet pure. Walk away, and I shall let you leave. There are more than I need here already.”

“I can’t leave these men behind for you to gorge on,” Broozer replied while thinking of something positive to say about them that was truthful even though he didn’t like most of the men. “They are husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. They have families I must protect.”

“Bah! None of those things mean anything to me,” growled the giant. “I once had all those too before I was cursed into this place. As I said before, leave and I shall let you live. The rest stay here with me. This is my final offer and my last warning.”

Broozer took another step forward. The giant raised the ax in his right hand threateningly. Broozer didn’t budge. The giant roared angrily and pulled back its arm as it had previously. If he waited until it blasted rocks in his face, he would never survive.

He leaned in and leaped forward to meet the giant head-on. Broozer flipped the sword into his left hand and drew a throwing knife with the other as he raced forward. He threw the knife and reached for the other while watching the ax in the giant’s right arm to time his attack. The giant turned its head without missing a beat.

The ax swung forward. Coming down low in his direction. Broozer threw the second knife and continued running until the ax was almost upon him. The giant ducked but kept his swing steady.

Then Broozer leaped high into the air, pulling his feet up as high as he could toward his chest while flipping the sword back into his fighting hand.

The ax swept clean under him where his legs had been and then on past as it scraped the ground. Another blast of sand shrapnel scattered against the wall of the cavern.

As he reached the zenith of his jump, Broozer caught the sword so the tip was pointing down. He grabbed onto the blade with his hand and pulled it back over his head. Then flicked it forward with all of his might as he would any of his other throwing blades.

He wasn’t far from the giant’s face and his aim was true. The tip of the sword pierced the giant’s face, just above the bridge of its nose and in between where its eyes should have been. The blade sank deep into its head. It wobbled for a moment as Broozer landed on the ground and rolled to the side.

The giant started to raise the other ax in its left hand before toppling forward silently directly onto the hilt of the blade and driving it even deeper into his brain. The ax fell forward as well and the blade sank into the ground at his feet.

Broozer reached out and grabbed the handle of the giant’s weapon. It wasn’t as heavy as he expected. Almost as if it had been forged of some strange alloy. The lad took a practice swing before bringing it down over the giant’s neck.

The blade was just as sharp as Broozer expected based on the way he had seen it slice through rock and stones. The giant’s head came off with a single swipe. Broozer grabbed the head by the hair and dragged it forward.

He pulled the other ax forward as well before pushing the giant’s body back down into the flames of the pit below. He squinted as he looked down at the crumpled heap below.

After staring down thoughtfully for a few moments, Broozer circled around the pit toward the back of the cavern. There were several tunnels leading off in different directions. But he could hear the sound of voices distinctly from one of them.

Broozer found the men that the giant had been gathering for his feast in a large dungeon-like area. They were at the bottom of a pit. He went back out and weaved tresses from the giant’s head into a long enough cord to pull them out. Most were weak and frail from having been without food for several days.

That seemed strange if the giant had been planning to make a feast of them. But none of the men knew why he hadn’t eaten them before.

He led them back out to the pit where they gathered the men who had been wounded by the rocks. Many hadn’t survived their wounds. Even old Egwald was dead. Broozer didn’t feel sadness over his master’s death, but nor did it bring him any joy. Someone else would try to claim him as their slave. None of them would simply let him go free based on the words of some old crone to fulfill his destiny.

The lad knew his journey ahead would be long and arduous. It would take time to fulfill his destiny. He still had much to learn. But the event of the day gave him hope. They gave him something to cling to and believe that maybe the old crone was right.

Broozer let the men with torches lead the way as the group followed the white line back through the tunnels. He grabbed onto the giant’s long tresses and found that it slid along behind him fairly easily.

He didn’t know why he did it, but he dragged it along behind him. He stopped once or twice to rest in each of the main caverns. Some of the men tried to help him, but none of them could budge it.

They all looked at him with a newfound look of respect and awe. Even more so than earlier when he had led them straight to the giant. After they made it out of the cave, Broozer let the head roll down the ledge and through the waterfall. From there he let the current of the stream carry it down the river as they made their way back to the bridge.

The look on King Jensen’s face and that of his men was priceless. They looked from the bobbing head to Broozer and then back again. There was great rejoicing over the return of the missing men.

After sending a group of knights to return the missing men home, the king stayed behind with the others to retrieve Egwald and those who had perished within the cave. They mourned the men’s death and gave them a hero’s funeral.

Egwald’s men squabbled over the land. In the end, King Jensen split it up amongst three of them. They all claimed him as their own slave, but the king put a stop to their arguing. He gave Broozer his freedom and invited him to join the royal guard.

“I would be honored to have a man as brave and as strong as you protecting our kingdom, Broozer.”

Broozer thanked him but turned down the offer. “I have never been trained as a knight. Most of your nobles would not accept me. They would see me only as a Barbarian. They might respect me for killing the giants, but they still wouldn’t accept me as one of their own.”

The king was disappointed but seemed understanding of Broozer wishes. He asked what Broozer wanted as thanks for having saved him and his men.

“I am still young. Allow me to take some time to travel and experience life throughout the land. Maybe with time, I will find my place in this world and understand how I can best fit in your kingdom in my own way.”

“Very well, lad. It shall be as you wish, on the condition that you are willing to come to our aid if the kingdom has need of it and I request your help. I will knight you anyway to aid you in your journey. It matters not what others think, they must respect what I say as king.”

Broozer acquiesed at the king’s insistence and allowed the king to knight him. The king gave Broozer great treasure and lands to the north of Langland near a city called Firebend. Far enough in the wilderness where Broozer felt comfortable but still close enough to access needed supplies when desired.

There he built a house and hired someone to care for his lands while he set off to journey the kingdom and make his way back towards Agaza to see where the old crone’s words led him in the fulfillment of his destiny.

Later, Broozer went back into the woods looking for the old crone and her home near the clearing where he had killed the boars, but he never could find it. He wanted to ask for more direction before heading off into the wild unknown. But the words that rang over and over in his were, “Your path is your own to choose. Your battles are your own to fight if you choose them.”

Broozer was in no rush to find the Leorkel or do whatever needed to be done. If it was truly his destiny, it would all play out at the right time. For now, he just wanted to explore the land and enjoy life. Trying to be a hero and save others was hard work.

Besides, he was still young and there were many things he wanted to do before taking on that burden. He enjoyed wandering the woods, fishing, making friends, drinking ale, and doing all the things he had never had a chance to do before.

Feast of Fire

Norah opened her eyes and looked up at the sunlight streaming through her open window overhead. She leaped out of bed and scrambled into her clothes for the day. She was already running late. A twinge of nervousness when she remembered what day it was.

Today was the big feast. Those who had done something significant would be presented with awards. One would be chosen. She knew she wouldn’t be. Norah would never be chosen because she had never done anything significant.

Norah’s routine was always the same. She spent her days outside of the village. She didn’t even think that most of the villagers outside of her immediate family and neighbors didn’t even know that she existed.

Often, Norah wished she had more friends. She wished that one of the handsome village boys would notice her. Maybe even kiss her. But there was no time for daydreaming today.

The slim, disheveled, dark-haired vixen threw some food into a bag and raced out the door. The scorching sun had already begun its fiery trek across the bronze sky overhead. It wasn’t long until she had broken a sweat as her feet crunched over the rocky trail to Ammar’s hideaway in the cliffs of Damaraw.

Off in the distance, she could see a couple of figures bent over. As she drew closer, Norah could hear them quarreling heatedly. She was running late, but her curiosity got the best of her. The young men were so engrossed in what they were looking at that they didn’t even hear her coming. They spun around with a look of terror in their eyes when she greeted them.

“What did you boys kill for the Feast of Fire?”

Ikraam bent with one hand on his knee and the other on his chest as he panted deeply. He had grown a mustache since the last time she had seen him. She had always thought he was cute, but found the fuzz under his nose strange. It didn’t suit him very well.

His buddy, Esmail, glared at her. Both boys blocked her view of whatever they had been looking at. She moved closer to peek around them and gasped.

“Is that a dead body? Who did you kill? Why did you burn them like that?”

She ran around them for a better look at the charred skeleton propped up against a rock on the ground. Its white bones singed and blackened around the edges. Suddenly, the realization struck her that she might be in danger for witnessing the boys were trying to dispose of a body.

“Hey, it’s okay, guys. I don’t know who this skeleton belongs to. I don’t know that you killed him. And if you did, I’m sure he deserved it. So, I’ll just keep on moving along and pretend like I didn’t see anything. Okay?”

Ikraam looked at her incredulously. “You, you think we killed somebody,” he stammered. “Are you crazy? Of course, we didn’t kill him, or her. Or whatever it is?”

“Stupid girl,” Esmail growled. “We were taking what we hunted down to the market and stumbled across this skeleton right before you showed up.”

He pointed to their bows that were resting on a pile of rabbits and hyraxes under a small grove of doom palms. She nodded in relief and turned back for a closer look at the blackened remains of the skeleton.

“So, who do you think it is? Or who did this?” Norah asked them.

Esmail scoffed and shook his head. “Most likely that crazy, old man you’re headed to see right now over there in those cliffs.”

“Ammar?” Norah laughed. “That’s crazy. Well, he is a little crazy. That is true. But I don’t think he would do something like this.”

Esmail rolled his eyes. Norah looked to Ikraam for support. He just shrugged his shoulders sheepishly.

“Oh, come on, Ikraam. You can’t believe that nice, old man would be able to hurt someone like this even if he wanted to. What are we going to do now?”

Esmail slung his quiver over his shoulder and picked up his bow. “We need to take these down the butcher. Then we’re going to alert the sheriff. And you’re coming with us. We can’t have you running over to Ammar’s so he can cover up his evidence.”

Now it was Norah’s turn to scoff. “You can’t just declare him guilty because he lives nearby.”

“Well, Norah, the tracks do come from that direction,” Ikraam said, pointing down toward the caves.

“Tracks?” Norah asked.

Ikraam pointed to scuffs in the sand and Esmail continued pointing out crushed blades of grass in the direction the trail came from.

“C’mon. Let’s go over there and have a chat with Ammar. You can ask him yourself and take him to the sheriff for a reward.”

“No way!” both boys stated emphatically. “That man is crazy. And he could put a spell on us to make us crazy, too. You’re his apprentice and know what he is capable of.”

“Oh, c’mon. Two of you against one. You don’t even have to tell him you found the corpse. Just see if he looks suspicious.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll throw a spell on you too if you don’t do what I say.”

The boys looked at each other nervously. They relented and fell into line behind Norah. She felt better now that she had an excuse for being late. Old man Ammar liked to get an early start on things, and she usually left home at first light. Getting chewed out by the old man was never any fun.

Everything was silent when Norah arrived at the main cave entrance. The ashes like thick and white, as if a fire had been burning all night. But there was no fire now. No one was there to tend to it.

Norah quickly bustled about to get rid of the pile of ashes with the few small smoldering embers scattered at the bottom. Then built another fire to boil water for the old man’s tea while Ikraam and Esmail waited impatiently.

“See, he’s not here. Ammar roasted that skeleton and then took the poor soul out there to bury it. He heard us coming and fled so we wouldn’t see him.”

“More like he went down to the market to meet a client or pick up some items he needed for the Feast of Fire,” Norah said. She rolled her eyes and headed for the entrance. “C’mon, trackers. Let’s see how good you really are.”

She led the way back to the burned-out skeleton and then let them take over from there. The boys nervously led the way back down toward the caves. Norah could tell that they were afraid of what they might find.

The tracks led back to Ammar’s cave and came out of there, but the boys quickly realized that the tracks had come from somewhere else.

“Whoever brought the skeleton must have come looking for Ammar, before heading on over to where they left those bones,” Ikraam admitted.

“See, what did I tell you. It wasn’t Ammar then. But where did they come from? If we follow them back far enough, you boys should be able to tell where the body came from then. Right?”

Ikraam shrugged. “It is possible, I suppose,” he said as he continued to search the area to make sense of what the tracks were telling him.”

Esmail continued to scowl and poke around. But Norah got the impression that he still didn’t believe Ammar was innocent. He was using the opportunity to poke around Ammar’s belongings to make sense of his magical items.

“I wouldn’t poke around too much if you don’t know what you’re doing. Some of that stuff is dangerous. Some of those herbs and potions are poisonous.” Norah said with a sweet smile.

She almost hoped the surly boy would touch the wrong thing and keel over. It was depressing to be around such a negative person.

“Maybe whoever that is out there came in here got into the wrong thing and the potions burned him to a crisp as he ran down the trail,” Esmail said. He had a look of such seriousness that Norah burst out laughing. That only made the boy scowl even harder, even though he stopped touching stuff and moving things around.

“Do you hear what you’re saying, goofball? It doesn’t work like that. But let’s suppose that was a robber, and that he did touch the wrong thing in here. He would have dropped dead. He wouldn’t have become the barbecued deal of the day.”

Ikraam hollered from outside. Norah followed Esmail out to make sure he didn’t take anything that didn’t belong to him. They caught up with Ikraam farther down along the cliffs, and all walked in silence from there.

The boys almost lost the tracks a few times, but eventually managed to find it again. Their trail led to a small den. Norah had been past it before when she was out gathering herbs.

“Careful,” Norah warned. “I’ve seen a caracal around here with its cubs.”

Ikraam shook his head. “No fresh caracal tracks. It’s long gone. We should be safe,” he said as he walked down into the den. Norah crinkled up her nose at the foul scent and didn’t bother to go inside. It smelled of sour sweat and something dead.

The tall boy acted like it didn’t bother him and went deeper into the den. He scouted around in the dark corners as far back as he had light to see.

Norah and Esmail waited outside in the fresh air for him to return. Ikraam came out a few minutes later and shrugged.

“Where do the tracks lead from here?” Norah asked.

The boy shrugged in reply. “It looks like the tracks came from inside the cave. There aren’t any other tracks other than what we followed here. Whoever it was must have come from the tunnels inside.”

“Tunnels inside?” Norah asked. “I’ve been by here before and it’s just a small den.”

Ikraam frowned and shook his head as they walked away. “The den itself is small, but there is an opening at the back. A tunnel that looks like it leads deeper into cliffs. But it’s too dark to see much back there.”

Suddenly, an arrow appeared out of nowhere and hit Ikraam in the thigh. He screamed and fell to the ground, where he scrambled to get behind some rocks. Another arrow hit Esmail in the foot as he was pulling his bow off his back and running for cover.

Norah threw herself behind the dusty boulder with Ikraam. She helped pull him closer to the rock in a sitting position. Norah peeked around the side and saw a young girl running from a patch of trees and sagebrush where she had been hiding.

She grabbed Ikraam’s bow and took off running after the girl. Ikraam hissed for her to stay, but she ignored him. She didn’t consider herself a hunter, but like every other child in her village, Norah had been trained to hit a bullseye from 25 yards away.

Norah knew the hills and surrounding area like the back of her hand. So, she cut through the sparse trees of the savannah off the beaten path. It also helped that Norah was in pretty good shape from being physically active all day.

When she cut the young girl off at the pass, Norah had barely broken a sweat. The arrow was notched and her bow pulled tautly.

The terrified girl stopped running and burst into tears. By the paleness of her skin, she looked like she didn’t get out much. She doubled over in pain and pressed her hands against her sides as heaved to catch her breath.

“Rhyanna! What are you doing out here and why in the world are you shooting at us?”

The other girl had dropped her bow to clutch her sides. Norah loosened the arrow in hers and walked back a few paces to pick four broad leaves off a tree. She kicked the girl’s bow away as she handed the leaves to Rhyanna.

“Here! Place these on your sides where it hurts. It will help relieve the pain so you can breathe easier. And you definitely need to get more exercise if you feel winded after running that short distance.”

Rhyanna complied and sat down. Norah noticed she didn’t have any more arrows in her quiver, which was why she had been spared from getting shot at.

“Did you kill that man that was burned to the bones back there?” she asked when the girl stopped panting and sobbing.

“It wasn’t a man,” Rhyanna said. “Please don’t let them take me to Juhasuf. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave my family.”

“We don’t know who will be sent to the Blessed Land of Paradise yet,” Norah said. “We won’t know until the Feast tonight when the lucky one will be chosen. But I’m sure if you don’t want to go, they won’t force you. There are many who would offer to go if they could.”

Rhyanna burst into tears again and began sobbing until she couldn’t hold herself up any longer. She lay down in the sandy trail and wailed as if she were dying. Norah grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. Yelling at her to stop, but it didn’t do any good.

Norah stood up and walked away far enough that ringing in her ears from Rhyanna’s bellering died down. After the girl calmed down a bit, Norah walked back over to her and helped her get back up.

“Why did you shoot at us?” she demanded to know.

“Because I told you already. I don’t want to go to Juhasuf. I won’t go. I assumed the boys had been sent to track me and you were there to trick me into turning myself in.”

“No, we didn’t even know you were out here. We were just trying to find out who left the skeleton back there. And why would you assume I don’t know how to track you if I wanted to? Girls can track too.” Norah said in an exasperated voice as she motioned for Rhyanna to stand up.

Norah carried Rhyanna’s bow as they walked back toward the boys. Rhyanna bawled like a baby and started shaking when she saw their wounds. She apologized profusely while helping Norah tend to their wounds with a few herbs she had gathered on their walk back.

“I overheard Nur and Ammar talking last evening. They’ve rigged the lottery so my name gets chosen tonight.” Rhyanna told them as they walked back toward Ammar’s cave so Norah could get some stronger potion for the boy’s wounds.

“But why? That doesn’t make sense.” Ikraam asked.

“They said that Gomauxnaakh demanded I be chosen,” she replied.

Esmail’s curiosity was piqued, even though he still seemed irritated. “Who is this Gomauxnaakh person?” he wanted to know.

Rhyanna shrugged. “At first I was thrilled when I heard that they were going to choose me, even though it sounds strange. Then I heard them say that they were going to bring me up here to the cliffs just before the fireworks started. They would give me to someone or something while everyone celebrated my journey to Juhasuf.”

She stopped talking long enough to choke back some sobs. Then continued.

“I confronted them and told them that I would refuse to go. They told me that I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t go, they would kill my family. I ran away and hid out here. So, when I saw you coming out of the den, I thought you all were sent here to capture me and take me back.”

Norah thought it seemed like a strange tale, but let the girl talk and answer the boy’s questions. Finally, she asked, “So, how do you know that skeleton was a woman?”

“I saw three skeletons come out of that den where I shot at you. They were all walking around with flames coming off their bones. It called my name and said it could sense that I was near.”

“C’mon! A walking skeleton. You expect us to believe that story?” Esmail sneered and then yelped as Norah poured another potion on his wound.

Rhyanna nodded and said, “I know it sounds strange, but it’s the truth. It had a woman’s voice. The other one said that it wasn’t time and went back into the den. But she came out looking for me. I would have run, but it was dark and I knew it would make noise. So, I just laid low. The flames on her bones began to die down. She went back inside several times to get a boost somehow because every time she came back out, the flames were blazing again. The last time she went out was right before dawn, but I never saw her come back. I guess she didn’t make it back to the cave in time before her fuel ran out.”

“Oh, for crying out loud!” Esmail growled again. “I’m sure she’s lying. She killed the woman and burned her with a magical potion that she stole from this place. In fact, it’s probably Ammar’s skeleton that’s out there right now.”

Norah snorted. “First, you think Ammar killed that person out there. Now, you think this girl here killed Ammar. You don’t have any logic in your conclusions. You just take the first thing that pops into your head and run with it.”

Just then, Ammar walked through the door. “I agree. This boy has always been quite rash and impulsive.”

Suddenly, Ammar noticed the young girl who had backed into a corner as soon as she saw him walk into the cave entrance. His eyes flicked nervously around the area before he looked back and greeted Rhyanna.

“Hello, my dear. It’s good to see you again.”

Rhyanna looked like a cornered caracal. The poor girl glanced around desperately for a way to escape, but seeing none she took another step backward. Her foot bumped into a jar of Ammar’s potion and knocked it over with a loud clatter. She jumped forward and let out a nervous scream.

“Calm down, child. It’s okay. I’m not going to bite.” Ammar said in a quiet voice.

Norah didn’t say anything. She continued tending to Esmail’s wound while edging her away around to his other side where she had left the bows and quiver of arrows. She looked over at Ikraam and analyzed her chances of getting into a scuffle with Ammar. The boys wouldn’t be much good in a fight, and she wasn’t sure that she and Rhyanna would be able to take him on alone in a fight.

The silence that fell over the room was deafening. She could feel Ammar’s eyes burning into the back of her head. Norah looked up at him and tried to flash him a smile, as if all these people here were just a normal everyday occurrence.

“Hey, Ammar! Did you see a blackened skeleton when you were coming up the path from the village?” she asked nonchalantly.

He shook his head and replied, “No, I got called over to the Mufti farm because someone was sick during the night.”

But she could see that he paled visibly at her question. Norah stood up to get some more potions for the small bronze jars on the far shelf. She used her body to block Ammar from seeing the herbs she was mixing. A little Wekkasil and a few pinches of Vessafron stirred in with a vial of Blood Mallow. Then she went back to work patching up the boys.

Ammar poured himself a cup of tea. He politely offered everyone else a glass. No one accepted. The silence hung thick in the air. Norah saw his hand tremble as he sat down. A large bag full of silver sols clinked together as he lowered himself onto the chair. He looked like a guilty schoolboy trying to come up with a quick excuse to get out of a paddling.

“So, Rhyanna says that the lottery tonight is going to be rigged in her favor, which means that she is the lucky person who gets to go to Juhasuf.” Norah finally said as she put away her healing kits.

“Did she, now? She must be one very lucky girl if she gets chosen to visit the Blessed Land of Paradise.” Ammar said, looking at her with squinted eyes as he tried to understand where she was coming from.

“Rhyanna also says that she doesn’t think this blessed land is such a paradise. And she doesn’t want to leave home just yet.”

Ammar grunted and raised his cup of tea to his lips. He took a long, slow sip before answering. “Oftentimes in life, we must do things we don’t want to do. And the luck of the lottery is up to the guidance of the Fiery Ones. They chose during the Feast of Fire who will be allowed to enter Juhasuf that year.”

Esmail snorted and rolled his eyes. He sat up and groaned at the pain in his shoulder. But before he could even get all the way up, Ammar had flown across the room in a single bound. He brought his cane down hard across the boy’s right shoulder and knocked him back.

Ammar spun his cane around in the other direction and caught Ikraam at the base of the neck. The blow knocked the boy out cold. Then Ammar stood up as he turned toward Norah. He seemed surprised to see that she already had an arrow notched and pointed directly at his face.

“Bravo there, little lady. I didn’t think you had it in you to harm anyone. I thought that was why you wanted to be a healer. To make the wounded better. Wasn’t that what you told me?”

Norah circled around him toward Rhyanna and the exit while keeping the arrow trained on him.

“I can’t believe you’re in cahoots with Chief Nur and that wretched Mufti clan. They don’t take the lucky chosen ones to Juhasuf. Do they? You help them sell young girls like Rhyanna off as slaves to the highest bidder.”

Ammar smiled grimly and downed the rest of his tea in a single gulp.

“You’ll get no final confession from me, if that is what you are looking for, young lady. Put the bow down and I’ll pretend this never happened. Things are going to happen the way they are going to happen, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. You can keep your apprenticeship as long as you don’t rock the boat and make things difficult.”

“Until next year, when my name comes up as the lucky one to be sold off into slavery, I mean until I get to go to Juhasuf.”

Ammar threw his teacup to the ground at his feet and smashing it into a thousand pieces. Ikraam and Esmail both moaned as shards of glass cut into their flesh.

“You have no idea of the forces we are dealing with here, young lady. In time, if you last long enough, you will learn everything I have to teach you. But suffice it to say, that if the chosen one does not go to Juhasuf, the entire village will perish. The Feast of Fire is how we appease evil and continue to dwell in peace from year to year. Now, give me that bow and I will forgive you.”

Ammar stepped forward and held out his hand. Norah didn’t back down. She motioned for Rhyanna to move toward the door while keeping her body between Ammar and the other girl.

The old man screamed in rage as she started to leave. He threw off his cape and began to wave his arms as he uttered an ancient incantation in the Tounge of Fire.

Norah didn’t understand many of the words but had studied enough to get the gist of what he was saying. Something about flames and skeletons. It was an ancient spell from one of his books. And she knew it would kill both her and Rhyanna when he finished his spell.

The arrow was pointed directly in Ammar’s face. She wasn’t more than 25 feet away from him. Norah had never really competed in the yearly archery contest because she didn’t consider herself as good as some of her other colleagues. But she could nail the bull’s eye in a target three times that distance.

She yelled for him to stop, but Ammar kept chanting. Norah screamed that she would kill him if he persisted, but he completely ignored her. Somewhere between her fear and rage, Norah found the nerve to let her arrow fly.

Norah squinted her eyes shut. Ammar’s chanting had stopped. She was afraid to open them and see her arrow sticking out of Ammar’s mouth and throat. But when she opened her eyes, Ammar was still standing in front of her. The arrow floating a foot in front of his face.

“I can’t believe you actually tried to kill me, you ungrateful, little wretch,” Ammar shouted. His face turned purple and contorted with rage. He grabbed the arrow out of the air and snapped it in half.

Norah threw down her bow and grabbed Rhyanna’s arm. Pulling her toward the door. But before they could get there, a large piece of rock appeared out of nowhere and sealed off the entrance.

The girls spun around and looked at Ammar in shock. His outstretched arm holding the rock in place as he walked toward them.

“What kind of fool did you take me for, child? Did you think I was just some stupid healing mage that you could take out with a single arrow when I did something you didn’t like? Even the village chieftain knows better than to kill me, just because he doesn’t like some of the things I do around here. Who do you think you are to try to kill me?”

Ammar was furious. Norah backed away from the advancing mage as she pushed Rhyanna back along with her. She had never seen Ammar like this before. He had always seemed like a sweet, charming old man who used his herbs and plants to heal those who were ill. Seeing this new side of him terrified her.

The terrifying mage continued coming until their backs were against the wall. Norah felt paralyzed with fear. Ammar grabbed her around the throat and lifted her off the ground with a single arm while he reached out to grab Rhyanna with the other.

Norah couldn’t believe how much strength the old man possessed. Ammar had always hobbled around like he was frail and weak with age. But this wasn’t like him at all.

“Where did this strength come from? Or had he just been fooling her all along?” she thought as his fingers slowly squeezed the life from her body. Norah realized that she was choking as her consciousness started to fade away.

“Stop it, Ammar!” Rhyanna screamed. “Let her and the boys live. Then I’ll go with you of my own free will to Juhasuf or wherever it is that I’m supposed to go at the Feast of Fire.”

“Why should I let them go now? I already have you. I can kill them and take you anyway.” Ammar growled.

Norah struggled to remain conscious long enough to reach into her pocket for the mixture of Wekkasil, Vessafron, and Blood Mallow. It was a potion strong enough to kill an adult human. She had planned on throwing it in Ammar’s face. But with his new display of character and magical powers, Norah didn’t know if it would have any effect on him.

So Norah did the next best thing she knew to do in this situation. She handed the mixture to Rhyanna.

“Poison!” Norah rasped.

“No!” Ammar screamed.

His arms were occupied, holding the girls up by the throat. He let Norah slide down to get her away from Rhyanna since he couldn’t grab the vial himself.

But Rhyanna was fast. She snatched it from Norah’s hand before her body slid to the ground. Rhyanna popped the cork with her left hand and brought the vial to her mouth. Ammar clamped the hand that had been holding Norah over Rhyanna’s mouth. But it was already too late. The pale girl had chugged the mixture into her mouth before Ammar could stop her.

Ammar screamed in frustration. He pressed against the bottom of her chin with one hand while choking the lower part of her throat with the other. As if somehow that would keep her from swallowing the mixture. Norah watched them from below and struggled to catch her breath again so she could sit up.

“Don’t you dare swallow it! Don’t you dare swallow it!” The angry old man screamed at Rhyanna. “Fine. I’ll let your friends live. I’ll let them go. Just don’t swallow that poison. If you die, we’re all dead. The entire village. Do you hear me? Don’t swallow the poison.”

Rhyanna motioned the little that she could with her head, that she would comply. The mage slid her body slowly back down to the ground and eased up on her throat.

“Spit that out,” Ammar ordered.

The girl leaned over to comply, but Norah ordered her to stop. “If you spit it out right now, Ammar will do what he wants,” Norah said from behind the mage’s trembling form.

She wasn’t sure if it was from rage or fear or exertion, or maybe even a bit of all three. But she held up three fingers for Rhyanna to see and motioned for the girl to spit the poison in her mouth in Ammar’s face. Rhyanna nodded.

Norah glanced over at the Ikraam and Esmail who had regained consciousness in the middle of all the commotion. Ammar hadn’t taken his attention off of Rhyanna as if willing her not to swallow the poison. He hadn’t even noticed that the boys had gathered their bows and notched their arrows.

They let loose their first volley of arrows when Norah counted down to three with her fingers. Rhyanna was smart enough to wait until after Ammar let out his bellowing scream. When he breathed in a deep, ragged gasp, she spewed the poison into his face. Ammar drew the poison directly into his lungs.

Ammar was bellowing out his second scream of anger, frustration, and pain when Ikraam and let their second volley of arrows fly. He turned toward them and tried to stop their third round with his magical powers, but he was too weak. Two more arrows hit him directly in the chest.

Rhyanna grabbed a solid brass instrument that was sitting on the deck beside her. She brought it down hard across the top of his head as the boys let loose a fourth set of arrows into Ammar’s chest. He fell to his knees and bellowed with rage. Still trying to call upon his powers to take the boys out.

It seemed to be affecting them somehow because Esmail started choking. It stopped when Ikraam shot the old man with his arrow right through the throat. Ammar started choking himself but turned his arm toward Ikraam, who seemed to feel the effects of his magical power.

Ikraam was brought to his hands and knees as well. Seeing Ikraam like that brought Norah out of her shocked state. She grabbed the broom that was leaning up against the wall and brought it down across the back of his neck. It hit him just above the tip of the arrow that had gone through his throat.

“Die, old man! Die!” Norah screamed as the broomstick snapped in half. The other end spun up into the air and clattered to the ground. Norah felt frustrated that the blow hadn’t seemed to have any effect upon the rotten old man that she had once admired.

Norah noticed the broomstick had broken off with a jagged point. She didn’t think twice. The girl stepped in for the killing blow as she raised the stake over her head and drove the wicked point down through his heart.

Rhyanna followed suit. She had picked up the other half of the broomstick and drove it through the other side of his body.

Ammar fell forward on his side with a terrified scream. He tried to roll over onto his back, but couldn’t because of the stakes and arrows sticking out of him on both sides of his body. He looked up at Norah and smiled at her.

“You think you’ve won some glorious victory, but instead you stupid kids have only made things worse. Run and tell Nur, the chief, that I am dead. Maybe, he can fix things still before it’s too late.”

Norah kneeled beside him and cradled his head in her arms. “I’m sorry, Ammar. We were just trying to protect this girl. What’s gotten into you? What’s all this about?”

Ammar coughed and swallowed hard before answering. “Many years ago, on this very day, Nur did something terrible. He killed a man. The man was troublesome. He deserved what was coming to him. But the way we went about it was wrong.”

He coughed and closed his eyes. For a second, it seemed as if he had stopped breathing. Norah shook him gently and called his name. Ammar coughed again and continued his story.

“Nur asked me to use an ancient curse on the man that transformed him into a burning skeleton. Not only on him, but on his wife and brother as well. They should have wandered as burning skeletons until the next full moon and then perished. But before the next moon came around, they found another mage, who managed to stop it.”

Norah looked up at Rhyanna. “That must have been the woman you saw last night.”

“It didn’t transform them back into their original form. But as long as they stayed near a source of heat that allowed the flames to burn, they would live. If they were away from the heat too long though, they would burn out and become a blackened skeleton.”

“So, what does the Feast of Fire have to do with all of this?”

Ammar grimaced and closed his eyes. But he kept speaking. “The fuel required to keep them alive is the blood of a young villager. Hence, we came up with the story that there was a way to send a lucky villager to the Blessed Land of Paradise.”

“Yeah! Lucky, my eye.” Esmail growled from across the room.

Ammar ignored him and continued speaking. “To appease the man that Nur had turned into a living, burning skeleton, the fiery monster required a yearly sacrifice. At the Feast of Fire. The anniversary of the night Nur and I transformed him.”

“So, how can we kill this creature or undo this curse?” Ikraam asked.

Ammar shrugged. “I never really tried. They came after Nur and his family, but we managed to make a treaty by offering the yearly sacrifice. I didn’t want to attempt anything to escalate the situation. So, every year, Nur throws a big party and we send some unwitting young lady to her death here in the mountains. We tell her to follow the rope until she comes to the end of it. There she was told to wait until a glowing angel came to take her to Juhasuf.”

“You disgusting monster!” Esmail yelled. “We should kill you right now.”

The old man looked over at him and chuckled. “I think you already have. I deserve this. Go and enjoy your last few hours. When the girl doesn’t appear tonight, Gomauxnaakh will kill Nur and burn the village to the ground.”

“His name is Gomauxnaakh? The same Gomauxnaakh that we were taught in our history lessons was the mighty hero who saved us from our enemies and founded this great village?”

Ammar opened his eyes to look up at Rhyanna and chuckled again. “Ironic, isn’t it? That was part of our treaty with him. Gomauxnaakh wanted to be remembered as a hero. We had to find creative ways to weave him into our history. And he gets to choose which villager will be his yearly tribute.”

“That is so messed up!” Esmail roared and hobbled over to where the old man was sprawled out on the hard cave floor. “We’ve been lied to and deceived our entire lives.”

“It is what it is. Look on the bright side, kid. It appeased Gomauxnaakh’s wrath and you are still alive.”

Esmail growled and limped back to his seat. The four people looked at each other to see if anyone else had a plan.

“So, how can we save Rhyanna tonight?” Norah asked.

“You can’t. Not unless you want to risk the lives of the entire village. If Gomauxnaakh doesn’t get the prettiest, young woman in the village, there will be trouble. You’ll have one very angry, flaming skeleton stomping through the village. You can run away, but he’ll burn your homes, kill your families, and just take someone else in her place. It’s better if you three just turn her over to keep the peace.”

Rhyanna looked at them with a terrified look. “You can’t do this to me. You can’t just hand me over to those foul things and walk away with a clean conscience.”

“Well, if we let you die, that means others in the village can continue to live. Either way, someone is going to die. At least this way, everything is orderly and peaceful.”

“What?!” Rhyanna screeched at him. “You wouldn’t be talking like this if it were you in my shoes. You would let everyone else die just so you could live.”

Esmail was at loss for an argument and stammered for a bit before finally saying, “Well, you just have to think about others and do the right thing.”

“Yes, and the right thing is to make sure I don’t die. I don’t want anyone else to die, either. But I don’t want to have to die just so we cover up Ammar and Nur’s mess. They should be the ones to pay for what they did.”

Norah looked down at Ammar. His eyes were closed. She shook him to see if he was still alive. The old man let out a low groan.

“Ammar, what were some of the options for eliminating Gomauxnaakh that you considered but didn’t want to risk trying?” she asked.

The old man opened his eyes and looked up at her. He started to chuckle at her audacity, but burst into a fit of painful coughing. He wheezed for a few seconds until he got himself under control.

“Nur had a pendant forged with magical properties. He brought it to me, and I added my spells to it. We hoped it would destroy Gomauxnaakh. But…”

The old man paused and took a deep breath. Norah thought it was his final breath, and shook him hard to keep him awake. “But what?” she screeched.

“Calm down there, little lady. Let me catch my breath, will you? But, we were also afraid that it might have the opposite effect and make him even more powerful. We don’t know exactly what the other mage did to keep him alive. Magic isn’t an exact science you know.”

Another long pause as Ammar breathed deeply before continuing. “The other issue was how to get it on him. We couldn’t just waltz down into his cave and force it over his head.”

“So, if we can get the pendant from Nur, and put it on the man you cursed, we either finish the job you started or make him more powerful.”

Ammar smiled grimly, without chuckling like he normally did, and took a few more deep breaths. “I like the way you think there, little lady. You always have been a sharp one. You’re going to make a great apprentice. I’m just sad I won’t be here to continue your training and see how you turn out.”

Norah worked swiftly to remove Ammar’s arrows and apply potion to his wounds. Ammar protested weakly. They both knew it wouldn’t do much good. He was too far gone, but he appreciated her effort to alleviate his pain.

“Thank you, child,” he whispered quietly as she gathered her things to leave.

She motioned for Rhyanna to follow her. The boys wanted to know where Norah was headed.

“To fix this mess,” was all she told them.

The boys protested that they should be there with her while she fixed things. But she shook her head and told them to stay put.

“The sun is moving quickly. We have little time to do what needs to be done before darkness falls and the Feast of Fire begins. You both are wounded and will just slow me down. Stay here and keep an eye on Ammar. Try to keep him alive until we can turn him over to Gomauxnaakh and make our own deal.”

Ammar protested weakly. The boy’s eyes widened. They wanted to know what she was planning. But she didn’t have time to explain herself and left quickly for the village with Rhyanna.

Norah walked as quickly down the path toward the village as Rhyanna could keep up with her. She went straight home and gathered her brothers and a few close friends. Norah told them what was going on.

They were all shocked to learn that she and her friends had almost killed Ammar. And even more shocked to hear the truth about the Feast of Fire.

“You mean to tell us that the chosen one doesn’t actually go to Juhasuf and instead actually gets sacrificed to a burning skeleton?” Norah’s father said when he came in and heard what was going on.

The group swore to keep Norah’s information a secret until they could put her plan into motion. Norah’s father and oldest brother called an urgent meeting with the chief. He made several excuses but finally came over due to their insistence.

Capturing him turned out to be the easiest part of the entire process. Norah’s brothers and friends drew their bows and trained their arrows on them. Once foolish bodyguard tried to play hero and pull his bow.

The bodyguard looked like a porcupine before he got his arrow notched. The other bodyguards wisely tossed their bows and arrows to the middle of the room. Once they understood what was going on, three of them chose to join Norah’s attempt to save Rhyanna. The rest sat quietly by until things got sorted out.

Nur threw a fit. He screamed and yelled that Norah’s story was all a lie. She let two of the bodyguards go up to his cave to verify the story. It didn’t take long for them to run up there to verify that Ammar had indeed been wounded but was still alive. Just barely, but still alive. They also said that Ikraam and Esmail’s story matched up with what the girls were saying.

The chief sulked and scowled, but realized that they now knew the truth. Nothing he could do now would get him out of this predicament. He still swore that he would make Norah and her family pay for this once things had settled down.

Norah liked the way her dad handled him. He didn’t cower down or grovel. He put the smug chief in his place by telling him that he might not be chief or even alive once the rest of the village found out the truth.

“They are going to be pretty ticked when they found out what you’ve been doing to their daughters every year at the Feast of Fire. You may end up being a burning skeleton when they burn you at the stake.”

The chief finally quieted down when he realized that his bullying wasn’t getting him anywhere. He finally got to the point where he was begging and pleading for them to help him get out of this mess. Nur still refused to tell them where he kept the magic pendant that Ammar had given him.

Most of the men were hesitant to apply a little pressure until Norah reminded them how little time they had till the Feast of Fire. A glance up at the sun dropping quickly in the sky, and the men convinced Nur to tell them where the pendant was.

They didn’t even have to torture him. Just the threat of the men circling around the chief was enough to convince him to reveal the location of the magical object. Again, the two runners left to verify that he was telling the truth.

It didn’t take them long to come back with the pendant wrapped in a cloth, just like he had told them. They gave it to Norah and wanted to know what to do next. Norah didn’t hesitate. She already had a plan ready for them.

“Remember when they taught us about Gomauxnaakh’s travels in school? How he came to the land of the little people, and they tied him up?” Norah asked.

Everyone nodded. It was one of their most famous stories in history class. The chief laughed at them. “You fools. Ammar and I made those stories up to explain Gomauxnaakh’s disappearance. We simply adapted stories we had heard in other places.”

Norah ignored his mocking laughs and continued. “It doesn’t matter where the story came from. That’s what we are going to do. We’re going to tie Gomauxnaakh up and place the pendant on his neck. Either it will kill him and he will die, as Nur intended. Or we will break the curse and return the fiery skeleton to its original form.”

Some of the men liked the sound of her plan. Most of them didn’t. No one else had a better idea though, so eventually, they all agreed to go along with it.

“One question though, Norah. How are we going to tie these skeletons up? Won’t the fire burn the ropes?”

“Ammar has a magical rope that he has brought from far-away lands. He calls them steel cables. The fire won’t burn them.”

“What if the pendant doesn’t transform Gomauxnaakh or kill him? Then what will we do?” Norah’s father asked what everyone else was thinking.

Norah smiled, “If worse comes to worst, we will drag him out of the cave and far from the sacrificial fires that fuel their burning bones. There we let them perish like the bones that Ikraam and Esmail found this morning.”

The men liked this idea. They all agreed that they needed to work together to do whatever it takes to put an end to this ridiculous Feast of Fire ritual.

The chief tried to talk them out of it. He mocked them when they didn’t listen to him. Rhyanna’s dad had come by to see what all the ruckus was about. He went into a rage and punched the chief into silence. The men had to pull Rhyanna’s father away from the chief before he killed Nur.”

“We will all die this night if need be, but we will never give another one of our daughters to feed this monstrous beast and keep it alive. I will give my life to protect my daughter tonight, and that beast will die with us tonight.”

“Death to Gomauxnaakh. Death to the fiery skeleton. Death to the burning bones.” Norah’s younger brother came up with a simple chant that the others quickly picked up.

It didn’t take long for word to spread. Soon the entire village was chanting along with him. Everyone gathered their swords and bows and arrows.

Those who didn’t have a weapon gathered their pitchforks and kitchen knives. They formed a long line headed up the trail in the direction of the setting sun toward the Cliffs of Damaraw and the Ammar’s cave.

When the crowd gathered outside Ammar’s cavern, the people wanted him dragged out to face their fury along with Nur. He was still alive, but barely conscious and burning with fever. Norah convinced them to leave him for the time being.

She had the men gather and prepare the steel cables while the women prepared torches for their entrance into the den tunnels. Norah went back inside to check on Ikraam and Esmail.

They seemed to be doing much better and wanted to go along with her. They still limped a lot, so Norah told them to stay and keep an eye on Ammar. Ikraam wanted her to take his bow. She almost refused it, but decided to oblige him. It might come in handy.

Once again, Nur screamed at them to stop this foolishness and nonsense. He told them they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

“Ammar and I created this treaty to protect you. The Feast of Fire is for your own good. If you break it tonight, you will all perish.” Nur yelled.

It didn’t long for a few men to tie a gag around his mouth. It didn’t stop him from yelling, but it did muffle the sound. His former bodyguards were careful to keep the parents of those whose children had been lost in previous Feasts of Fire from getting too near. Many of them looked like were ready to dispatch him right then and there.

“Calm down, everyone! Let’s stay focused on the task at hand. Our first task is to deal with Gomauxnaakh. After that, we’ll deal with Nur and Ammar. For now, let’s just stick to the plan.” Norah urged them before leading the group to the den.

The mob of angry villagers arrived at the den just before the setting sun slipped behind a glowing red and orange horizon. When they arrived, a burning skeleton was already at the entrance waiting for them.

“Nur, what is this? Why are you breaking your treaty with Gomauxnaakh?”

Norah grinned when she saw him. This dude didn’t stand a chance against this angry mob. She motioned for the men to remove the gag and push him forward.

Nur fell to his knees as he were actually afraid of this measly skeleton.

“Please, I apologize for this unruly mob. They don’t know who they are dealing with yet. Through no fault of my own, they discovered that the young maidens were being brought here. This child here has instigated the people to try and stop the Feast of Fire.” Nur said, pointing at Norah.

Norah stepped forward to address the burning skeleton. “Are you not Gomauxnaakh?”

The fiery skeleton shook his head. “I am not. You had best return to your village and leave your tribute here. You should not think to face the wrath of Gomauxnaakh.”

Norah looked at the villagers around her. She saw the fury in their eyes. Anger at the lies they had been fed all these many years. Anger stronger than fear.

“We will no longer pay tribute to Gomauxnaakh. We will no longer provide him with the girls from our village. We are here to make our own treaty with him. Go tell Gomauxnaakh to come out here and speak with us himself.”

The skeleton lowered its head and pointed its finger in her face. “You impertinent girl. Gomauxnaakh listens to no man. He is a giant of a skeleton. He is three times larger than me. If he comes out here, it will not be to talk with you. Only to consume you with his eternal burning flame. You had best listen to me and give me the child he requests. Leave her and go home before I lose my cool and demand seven young maidens for the Feast of Fire.”

Norah heard some in the crowd murmuring at his words. If she didn’t act fast, some of the more cowardly might convince the others just to toss Rhyanna to the skeleton and leave. She needed to act fast before the sunset completely.

“Listen here, you silly excuse for a skeleton,” Rhyanna’s father screamed. “I will never leave my child here with you monsters.”

His yell fired Norah up and she

“Take him down,” Norah yelled to the men ready with steel cables. “Let’s show this skeleton how we do things in Damaraw. Then we’ll drag Gomauxnaakh out bone by bone if he really is too big to come out of the tunnel himself.”

Several of the men had already positioned themselves around the cave entrance. Two threw lassos over the skeleton. One missed, but the other fell perfectly over its shoulders. The villagers yanked the skeleton farther out into the open.

“Death to the skeletons!” Norah’s brother chanted.

The people soon followed suit and chanted along with him. The skeleton struggled against the lasso, but more of the men circled him with their cables. They quickly had him wrapped around so it couldn’t get away and pulled him to the ground.

The courage of the villagers grew as they realized he wasn’t invincible. They surged in and helped pull on the cables to drag the kicking and screaming skeleton out into the clearing. The maddened crowd fell upon it with their pitchforks and shovels and rakes. They beat out the flames and hacked its bones apart at the joints.

“This is what you should have done years ago, Nur!” Rhyanna’s father screamed. “You should have put an end to these monsters like you originally intended instead of letting it get the best of you.”

“Nur is the real monster here. Creating these creatures and feeding them our children.” Someone in the crowd cried out.

The rest of the villagers began to chant, “Nur is the real monster here!”

The crescendo of voices grew louder and louder as more of the villagers began to chant, along with the rest of the crowd. Norah screamed along with them. The feeling of exhilaration at having completed the first phase of her plan even though it had been completely improvised.

The villagers soon quieted down and looked expectantly at her for their next step. Norah looked around at the crowd and smiled as she raised Ikraam’s bow. She enjoyed having it as a symbol to rally the people around.

“You all have done well! But we still have work to do. We know there is at least one more of these things inside that cave. We just have to go in there and find it. Then we’ll drag it out and make sure it never gets any of your daughters, your sisters, and your friends again.”

Someone in the crowd picked up the chant, “You’ll never get our daughters and sisters and friends again!” They continued chanting it as they entered the cave.

Several of Norah’s brothers and friends stood at the entrance to the caves with torches. She realized they were waiting for her to lead the way. Norah wasn’t sure why everyone suddenly was looking to her as their leader, but she liked it.

The flickering light from the torches threw silent shadows on the walls and glittered off the minerals buried in the walls. Norah wasn’t sure how far they would have to go, so she had the men scratch markings into the walls to guide them back out again.

They didn’t have far to go, though. The tunnel soon opened into an enormous cavern. It echoed as the people marched through giant pillars that lined both sides of the tunnel with strange etchings.

Even stranger still was the fact that a soft glow filled the entire cavern that wasn’t coming from their torches. Norah couldn’t tell where it was coming from exactly, but it seemed to emanate from the walls of the cavern on all sides.

It was a light that didn’t flicker or create moving shadows. And it was bright enough that she could see all the way to the other end of the cavern. Norah knew that it definitely wasn’t coming from their torches.

Unlike the arid savannah and rocky deserts that surrounded the village, the environment down here was the exact opposite. There were soft fields of grass, tall trees, and the lush growth of underbrush.

Norah looked at the people coming in behind her to see if they were seeing the same things she was. Everyone’s face was in awe as they looked around them.

“What is this place?” they asked each other in hushed voices.

Norah looked at the chief and motioned for the men leading him to remove his gag. He shrugged and growled at her.

“What is this place?” Norah’s father asked Nur.

“Ammar and I found this place soon after we settled here. It didn’t like this then, but we knew it had potential. Ammar began to cultivate it. We were going to farm here, and sell the produce in the market. But after Gomauxnaakh made it his home, we couldn’t come down here anymore.”

“So, not only have you been feeding this monster our children, you’ve let him have the best land around?” Norah’s father asked incredulously.

“Where do we find Gomauxnaakh?” Norah asked.

The king shrugged and told them that he hadn’t ever come back down here since Gomauxnaakh took over.

“There is a dry, rocky place full of fire and lava down that other tunnel there,” he said pointing to a second tunnel off to the side.

Norah led the group down the trail through the lush surroundings. She admired every detail of this amazing place. The air was fresh and sweet. So different from the dry, arid oxygen that she was used to breathing outside this cavern.

When they came to the glowing red tunnel, Norah to look at the strange symbols, etc etched along the sides of the entrance. . Two of the men offered to go through first and lead the way. Norah and the villagers watched as they followed the rocky slope down to the level below.

Once they reached it, they called Norah and the rest of the villagers on through. Norah notched an arrow in her bow. She didn’t know how much good it would do against a flaming skeleton. Having it gave her a sense of comfort as she led the villagers down the tunnel into the unknown, though.

Chief Nur resisted and tried to hold back, but the men lifted him by the arms and carried him through, kicking and screaming.

“It’s not my fault, Gomauxnaakh! I didn’t bring them. They came on their own, even though I warned them not to mess with you. I told them to continue to pay tribute to you.”

Unlike the cavern behind them that led to lush forests and grasslands, the environment here was rocky and bare. The air was heavy and hot. Although, unlike the air of the desert, the oxygen was humid and moist.

The farther they moved into the barren cavern, the worse the stench became. It reminded Norah of the smell of chicken eggs that didn’t hatch. One of Norah’s brothers noticed her scrunched-up face as she tried to plug her nose.

“My teacher taught us about this. It’s called sulfur. She said that in areas with volcanic activity this stench is very common.” He said.

“But we don’t have volcanoes here in Damaraw,” Norah protested.

“No, but look at the red, glowing river up ahead. That is called lava. It’s the molten rocks of the mountain. Fortunately for us, it only runs underground and hasn’t exploded into the sky over our village. Our teacher told us that this has happened in other places. Especially on new islands that rise up out of the oceans.”

Norah recalled having studied this phenomenon briefly when she was in school. But that had been several years ago. She had to stop studying to begin working to help her family. Norah had missed school but felt like she learned something new each day with Ammar.

The small group of villagers spread out as they admired the place and looked around the fierce-looking cavern in awe. Barring the stench, it had its own form of beauty as did the previous cavern they had come through.

Norah continued to move forward, toward the molten river on her own. She went as close as the heat would allow. The air was so thick that she could barely breathe. Norah bent forward and dipped the tip of an arrow into the lava to see what would happen. It instantly burst into flames.

She had just started to turn to go back and show it to her brother when a shadowy movement caught her eye off to the side.

Norah instantly ducked and notched the burning arrow as a giant skeleton came rushing toward her. Based on the previous skeleton’s description, this must be Gomauxnaakh. The little skeleton hadn’t been lying when it said Gomauxnaakh was three times bigger than her.

The giant skeleton roared as it rushed in the direction of the villagers from the backside of the cavern. Flames bursting from every bone on its body. Norah hadn’t even seen where it came from. The thought that it may have leaped out of the lava crossed her mind as she prepared to be swept aside.

Fortunately for Norah and the villagers, the large skeleton wasn’t very fast. And it seemed a bit clumsy, if not unsteady on its feet. Norah let her arrow fly up into its face. At that close distance, there was no way Norah could have missed. Her aim was true.

Unfortunately for Norah, though, the arrow went straight through an empty eye socket with nothing to hit except the back of its skull. The creature let out a dull roar, but simply swatted the front half of the arrow away as the flames consumed the other half that was still stuck in its skull. That gave her enough time to race back to the villagers huddled back near the entrance.

The skeleton roared and continued to lumber in their direction. Norah yelled for them to hold their ground and prepare to take it down. But the more cowardly began to run up the tunnel. Then, others followed suit.

As the skeleton drew near, only Norah and a few brave men stood with her. She realized that this wasn’t going to be as easy as she had anticipated and ordered them to flee up the tunnel too.

Everyone had run screaming their heads off out the tunnel and through to the other side of the lush cavern the way they had come in. They had stopped there when they realized Norah wasn’t with them. By the size of the diminished group, it looked like a good portion of them had run all the way through the final tunnel out onto the edge of the cliffs of Damaraw.

When Norah arrived and stopped running, she turned around and looked back. The skeleton was nowhere in sight. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Norah’s two fearless soldiers once again offered to go take a look. They quickly raced across the lush, green grass of the cavern and then returned.

“I think we are safe now,” the one named Rauf shouted excitedly.

“Gomauxnaakh is still there, but it seems he has grown too large to crawl up through the tunnel.” The other one, called Nadir, said.

Some of the villagers who had run out started to come back in when they realized they were out of danger. They gathered around to discuss their options. Some seemed content to leave Gomauxnaakh alone. Others thought it too dangerous. Norah agreed with them.

“He could dig his way out eventually,” she stated emphatically.

“There may be other tunnels for him to come around the long way,” Rauf added.

In the end, Norah and the villagers crossed the grassy cavern back to the reddish, glowing tunnel of heat and lava.

“Gomauxnaakh!” she called.

The creature replied by roaring and shoving his arm up the tunnel as far as he could reach.

“You will die. You will all die.” Gomauxnaakh hissed. “Gomauxnaakh will eat you all.”

Norah watched its giant fingers wiggling around in front of her father down the tunnel. She laughed out loud. “How do you eat, skeleton? You have no throat to swallow. No tongue to taste. And no belly to digest. You don’t scare me.”

The skeleton hissed and let out another giant roar of rage. Norah and the villagers had to put their hands over their ears till it stopped.

Norah motioned for the men to prepare the steel cables. They wrapped one end of the steel cable around a rocky stalagmite. Then, Jabbar, the blacksmith, worked until he was able to create a noose at the other end with pliers and tools on his belt.

He couldn’t guarantee that it would hold, but Norah gave the okay for them to slip it around the giant skeleton’s thumb. Gomauxnaakh jerked his arm back as hard as he could when he felt the noose close around his finger. That only tightened the noose even more. He roared, but couldn’t pull his hand back out of the tunnel.

The sudden jerk on the cable pulled it taut. Everyone threw themselves back against the sides of the tunnel to get away from it. But poor Jabbar, who had been right at the front, got caught in its path before he could jump out of the way.

It smacked him back up against the wall and several other men hard, knocking two of them unconscious. Jabbar was screaming. When Norah crawled over to him, she could see that his arm had been broken.

Norah had several of the men remove him carefully from the tunnel so they could continue dealing with Gomauxnaakh.

“Find one of the village doctors in the group and have them take care of Jabbar,” she ordered.

Once they had gotten Jabbar out of the tunnel safely, Norah focused her attention back on the skeleton. Gomauxnaakh had reached its second hand up the tunnel to try and free the noose that held it captive.

She had the men wrap another steel cable around another pillar. They wanted to wrap it around the same pillar, but Nadir and her smart little brother had pointed out that the pillar seemed to be weakening. Each time the skeleton jerked the cable around, the sides crumbled and grew weaker.

Unlike Jabbar, none of the other men were blacksmiths and didn’t know much about how to use his tools. They admired the steel cable that looked like the ropes they were used to tying things with. But several of the men who had helped Jabbar and paid attention earlier were able to replicate his efforts.

The men worked swiftly under Norah’s guidance to create a noose and throw it over the thumb of Gomauxnaakh’s other hand. They all managed to leap back in time. No one was injured. They all applauded her and slapped Norah on the back as they watched Gomauxnaakh struggle with both of its hands caught in the tunnel.

Gomauxnaakh roared threats and screamed curses at them. It swore it would break free and kill them all. Norah waited a minute or two until it had tired itself down.

“Listen, Gomauxnaakh. We want to make a new treaty with you,” she shouted down the tunnel.

“Hush, child. Run back home to your mommy. I will never make a treaty with you. I am Gomauxnaakh. Even your chief and your mage fear me. You should do the same. Give me, my tribute and I will let you all live.”

Norah snorted. “We’re going to tear you apart, bone by bone, like we did your other little friends. Watch this, you stupid skeleton.”

Everyone followed suit as she grabbed the steel cable, and they pulled against the skeleton. It was a dangerous move and had its risks. But Norah didn’t think about it and acted on instinct. The skeleton was lying down with both hands outstretched up into the tunnel where it was stuck, so it had little leverage.

Everyone pulled until they slid Gomauxnaakh’s arms up into the tunnel as far as they could. The skeleton pulled and struggled, but they managed to dig in and hold him in place. Norah grabbed another cable and motioned for the other men to help her wrap it around the skeleton’s wrists.

The flames were too hot for them to get close to do much good. And on top of that, Gomauxnaakh could still move his wrists and arm a bit. That meant they ran the risk of getting crushed if they got too close.

Norah decided to try something different. The left side of the cave entrance was lower and sloped down at an angle. Since the skeleton was jammed up on the other side, she and Rauf managed to slip past Gomauxnaakh and ran down to his feet.

She threw the cable over the skeleton’s legs and motioned for Rauf to stay on that side. Norah ran around to the other side and picked up the end of the cable she had thrown. She pulled more of the cable over to herself.

Just then the skeleton kicked its lower leg up at the knee and pulled the cable higher up its body. It jerked Norah along with it, and she almost fell into its burning thigh. When its leg came back down, it almost crushed her underneath. Norah rolled back out from underneath it just in time.

She grabbed the cable and pulled again. Norah held the cable loosely until the skeleton raised its leg again. This time she let go of the end and tossed it back over toward Rauf so that they could loop it together around Gomauxnaakh’s legs.

When she ran back around, they looped the cable in a loop. Then Rauf tossed the end over the skeleton’s legs. This time he ran around its feet to the other side and did the same thing Norah had.

They repeated this until they were able to wrap the cable around Gomauxnaakh several times. It was hard to do without getting close enough to get burned. When they had used as much of the cable as they could, the team stood back to admire their handiwork.

“Think it’ll hold him?” Rauf asked.

“Of course it will,” Norah said confidently.

Now, they just had to find a way to get the pendant around Gomauxnaakh’s neck. Norah moved along his side to see how close she could get to its side before it got too hot. As long as the others could keep the skeleton’s arms pulled up into the tunnel, she might have a chance to get it on him.

Norah heard someone shout. Several other villagers began screaming up inside the tunnel. At first, she thought that more fiery skeletons had arrived and they were being attacked. She squeezed past the burning bones toward the panicked mob.

When she arrived, someone pointed out that the base of the pillar that they had wrapped one of the cables around had begun to crumble. The pulling and tugging of the cables had weakened it. The crowd was currently holding it in place, but at the rate it was going, it wouldn’t take much longer before the pillar gave way.

Some of the men had wrapped another cable around a different pillar, but it was even smaller than the first two and farther away. Before they finished securing it, the first pillar had crumbled away and broken off. The people strained to hold Gomauxnaakh in place, but they were already tired.

Gomauxnaakh realized that he had been able to loosen one of the cables. He roared with excitement and redoubled his efforts of tugging and pulling to free himself completely. Norah grabbed onto the cable with the others to pull and keep it in place, but she soon realized that this was a losing battle for them. The skeleton didn’t seem to be tiring like they were.

The villagers struggled valiantly. They almost got the other cable in place to replace the one that had pulled free of the pillar. But the second pillar finally crumbled and gave way as well. Split between the two cables and without the support of the pillars, the villagers began to lose hope.

Gomauxnaakh roared and pulled as furiously as a catfish on a hook. The villagers, holding onto the cable attached to his right hand, began to get pulled in towards the cavern. Several let go and then it pulled the rest even farther in towards it.

Eventually, everyone let go of that cable, and most reached over to help hold the other one. But Gomauxnaakh reached back up in the tunnel with his right hand and grabbed onto the other cable himself to provide more leverage.

They were all getting pulled in toward the cavern. Norah yelled for them to hang on. But many of the villagers had already let go. Norah yelled for everyone to let go before it was too late.

Everyone let go and scrambled to get away from the steel cable as it slid past them. Gomauxnaakh let out a loud bellow of furious glee at having gotten free. He stood to his feet and tried to turn around. But the cables wrapped around his legs tripped him up and fell back in the other direction with a loud thud.

The skeleton howled and looked down at his feet. It shook them angrily and to get loose. It sat up and tried to untie the knots that Norah and Rauf had left. It looked over at the villagers, watching it from the edge of the tunnel.

Gomauxnaakh jerked in their direction and let out a terrifying yell. Those at the front leaped back and slammed into those standing behind them. Several people tumbled and fell as the crowd scrambled to race back up the tunnel. The skeleton got a kick out of seeing their mad dash and let out a howl of laughter.

He made a few more attempts to untie the knots, but his bony fingers were too clumsy to loosen the steel knots. Gomauxnaakh growled at those who were still watching him. He stood to his feet slowly and made sure he was balanced. He took a few shuffling steps forward and then hopped over a rock.

Norah noticed that the flames weren’t as bright and fiery as they had been when they first arrived in the cave. She realized it was trying to get back to the lava streams to fuel itself back up.

The cables they had gotten around his thumbs were still attached and hanging down to the ground. The loose ends that had been tied around the pillar caught onto the rock and boulders and pulled them along.

Norah had a flash of insight. She gave an excited shout to the people still in the tunnel with her.

“Quick! Everyone who has a bow, come here. Bring the cables. We can’t let Gomauxnaakh make it back to the lava stream. That’s what keeps him alive and strong.”

The skeleton overheard them and nervously started shuffling along and hopping a bit faster. Norah had the villagers tie arrows to each end of a cable.

Norah and Rauf each shot an arrow at the same time on either side of the skeleton. The arrows flew past the skeleton, but the cable they were pulling smacked it in the back.

The arrows still tied to the cable were pulled toward each other and crossed in front of Gomauxnaakh. The cable wrapped loosely around the skeleton’s frame, dropped to his feet and tripped him up. It continued to move forward, but even more slowly so it wouldn’t fall over.

The rest of the men with bows each tied one of their arrows to the end of a cable and lined up to take turns to shoot their cables in pairs around the skeleton. The shorter cables worked the best since the weight was lighter, the arrows flew stronger and faster. They wrapped around the skeleton higher up its body. The longer, heavier cables slid down around its legs.

Gomauxnaakh roared and tried to get away from them. But after firing all of their arrows, several of the men raced forward to grab the ends of the cables closest to them.

They pulled and the skeleton couldn’t continue his forward trek. It roared and turned back to them. As it moved back, they continued to back away and pull on the cables so the skeleton couldn’t reach them.

More of the villagers ran forward to help when they realized it wasn’t such a dangerous idea. The only ones in danger were those holding on to cables higher up around its arms. Since there were only a few,

Gomauxnaakh managed to pull them up off the ground. But they quickly let go and dropped back down to the ground, where they grabbed onto the main cables that everyone else was hanging onto.

The skeleton paused for a moment as it looked back and forth from the people to the safety of the lava streams behind it. It shuffled forward, and the group moved back toward the tunnels while keeping the ropes taut.

Gomauxnaakh turned and tried to shuffle back, but couldn’t pull the entire group along with itself. It turned back to them and screamed furiously at them. Unsure of what to do, it pulled away from them and then tried to shuffle forward at them quickly to scare them off.

Whatever it was trying to do didn’t work as Gomauxnaakh intended. The giant skeleton tripped and toppled forward toward the people. They scattered off to the sides, but most of them still hung onto the ropes.

When Gomauxnaakh hit the ground, they quickly moved together under Norah’s direction. She had them strategically stretch the ropes higher over the burning bones so that the skeleton couldn’t pull itself back up.

The skeleton roared and screamed and kicked, but it didn’t do him any good. Norah could tell that the skeleton was much weaker than when they had previously arrived. She assumed that due to its size, Gomauxnaakh consumed much more of its fuel to stay alive. The smaller skeletons didn’t consume as much as he did, which is why they were able to move around longer outside.

“Listen to me Gomauxnaakh. Are you ready to make a treaty with us?” Norah yelled.

Gomauxnaakh stopped yelling and turned to look at her. “Never,” it roared. “I will kill you all.” Then it began yelling and struggling again. After a few moments, it quieted down, but continued to squirm.

“Your bones will grow cold as did those of your companions that are lying outside in the cold, night air,” Norah said calmly.

The skeleton sighed and lay still. “What do you want from me? And what do I get in return?”

“We’ll give you Nur. His blood will pay for what he did to you.” Rhyanna’s father said loudly, stepping up beside her where the skeleton could see him.

Go fetch the chief and bring him down here,” Rhyanna’s father shouted to villagers standing close to the tunnel exit.

“But you can no longer have any of our daughters. You may live in this cave in peace. Once his blood no longer fuels you, you will go the way of all men.”

“That is no treaty,” the skeleton growled and struggled against the ropes.

“You can have this too,” Norah said as she held up the pendant.

“What is that?” Gomauxnaakh asked.

Just then, the men came back through the tunnel, dragging Nur between them. He kicked and screamed and tried to keep them from dragging him toward the skeleton. But several others jumped in and pushed him forward.

“What is this?” Gomauxnaakh asked Nur.

“Nothing. It’s nothing. Just an old trinket that Ammar is fooling these people with.” Nur growled.

“Nur had this trinket forged with magic, and Ammar added more magic to it. They think it will remove the curse and make you whole. Maybe. But they aren’t really sure what it will do.” Norah admitted with her fingers crossed, hoping that it would actually kill this monster for what he had done to them all these years.

But at the same time, Norah felt guilty. It wasn’t his fault. Nur and Ammar had put him in this situation. They were the true villains.

Gomauxnaakh looked at her for a long moment that made Norah feel uncomfortable.

“I accept your treaty then,” Gomauxnaakh finally said. “I appreciate your honesty and courage. And truth be told, I’m tired of living down here. Even more so, now that my family is dead. I have nothing left to keep on living for. I will take this pendant. Give me Nur and Ammar. Then you all may go.”

“Ammar is already dying, if not dead. We shot him with arrows this morning when we learned of his secret.”

Gomauxnaakh growled at the news. “No loss to me. I only regret not getting my revenge on him myself. Give me the pendant and Nur then.”

The pendant’s chain wasn’t big enough to fit around the giant skeleton’s neck. Norah requested one of the smaller cables. Rauf brought it to her, and she ran the cable through it.

She tossed the cable over the giant’s neck and had Rauf slide the far end of it under his neck toward her. Norah ran the cable through the pendant and tied a few knots with the help of Jabbar’s apprentice, who had since appeared.

The young fellow knew how to use the blacksmith’s tools well. He helped her tie several tight knots in it. They made it as small as possible around his neck to keep him from pulling it off easily.

Norah couldn’t get as close to the burning bones as he did, but the young man had long gloves. He also said that he was used to working in the heat of the fire all day, so it didn’t bother him. He did sweat quite a bit, but she admired the fact that he didn’t flinch or back away until the task was complete. Then he slid the cable around so that the pendant was centered over Gomauxnaakh’s chest. When the blacksmith’s apprentice let the magical object drop onto its chest, the skeleton gave a loud roar that turned into a scream.

The sound grew louder and shriller. So shrill that the people had to back away and cover their ears. It didn’t last long though and quickly faded away as the skeleton took several last choking gasps as the flames coming off its bones died away. Then Gomauxnaakh fell silent.

The villagers cheered and yelled and jumped and hugged each other excitedly. Even Norah, who wasn’t one to get emotional, felt her eyes tear up with joy and a sense of relief. She hugged Rhyanna, and her father, her brothers, and even Rauf.

Other villagers came up to hug her and thank her for what she had done. Norah blushed and brushed it off, by acknowledging all the others who had helped her out. But they all acknowledged her fearless courage and bravery in completing this mission.

When she turned back to take another look at Gomauxnaakh, the giant bony skeleton was no longer there.

“Where did he go?” she asked.

Others were surprised as well, but someone pointed to the body of a normal-sized human lying on the cavern floor.

“Is that really him?” she asked.

Those standing around and watching his transformation all nodded and stepped back.

“He’s still breathing,” Rauf pointed out.

Norah stepped closer for a better look. The pendant had slipped off to the side and had started coming off his neck. Someone pulled on it and it slipped off completely. Instantly, Gomauxnaakh’s body burst into flames and began burning the flesh off his bones once again.

He came to and let out a terrified scream, full of pain and anguish. The person shoved it back around his neck, and the flames subsided once again. Norah called the blacksmith’s apprentice over and had him use another cable to create a smaller circle for the pendant.

They fastened the pendant securely around this smaller, human-sized version of Gomauxnaakh’s neck. Then they cut the longer, original cable. Norah and some of the others waited for him to regain consciousness.

Most of the villagers grew tired and went home to prepare for bed. Others started exploring the caverns and tunnels in small groups.

Once he came around and was able to stand to his feet, some of the villagers wanted to throw Gomauxnaakh and Nur into the fiery streams of lava. But Norah refused and with the support of her father and brothers and Rauf, convinced them to wait until the villagers could make them stand trial.

As for Gomauxnaakh, he was horrified at the things he had done. He claimed that the last thing he remembered was Nur and Ammar cursing him into becoming a fiery skeleton. Norah wasn’t sure she believed him, but for now, she was too tired to interrogate him.

“Tomorrow, we’ll bring them out before the village. We’ll let the people judge them and decide what to do with them.” Norah said.

She didn’t know what they would decide about Gomauxnaakh. But she was pretty sure that they would make Nur pay with his life. Some form of punishment worthy of what he had done. Maybe they would burn him at the stake. Maybe they would hang him.

Gomauxnaakh though. That was a different story. What if they let him live? And what if he ever removed his pendant? What if he liked being a giant, burning skeleton who lived in a cavern of lava streams?

And even more than that. What was in those caverns? Those plants down there were incredible. It would take a lifetime of study for her to learn them all and what kind of healing properties they possessed.

After the group left the cave with Nur and Gomauxnaah, Norah swung by Ammar’s abode to see how he was doing. Ikraam and Esmail seemed excited to see her alive and well. Norah was especially surprised at Esmail’s reaction. He always seemed so distant and aloof, except when he was berating her.

The boys seemed to be doing much better and were able to move around. They had improvised some makeshift crutches to lean on as they limped around. They moved over toward Ammar’s lifeless body, but instead of looking at them, she watched Gomauxnaakh’s face to see if he showed any emotion.

He remained neutral and didn’t act excited to see his old enemy’s death as a form of vengeance. Nor did he seem disappointed at not having gotten to avenge himself on the old man. He did pay close attention to the jars and bowls of herbs on the shelves. Especially the blood mallow that was still out where she had left it earlier that day.

Gomauxnaakh turned to her when she asked him about his interest in it. He admitted that it was a good herb and very hard to find around the village.

“Oh, of course. I’m the one who showed Ammar where to find it down in the caves back when we first arrived here and founded the village. He was just a whippersnapper at the time and apprenticed under me.” Gomauxnaakh said when she asked him how he knew about it.

That was a surprising bit of information that she hadn’t expected to hear. On their walk back down toward the told her about several uses that Ammar had never mentioned to her before.

Gomauxnaakh wasn’t surprised. “Ammar was an arrogant fool that never even finished his apprenticeship under me before he and Nur tried to kill me.”

“What?!” Norah exclaimed.

“We were the original explorers of this land. We settled here because of the cave. We broke off from another larger village and came here to make a new life for ourselves. We planned on exporting all the good things and growing this into the largest city in the region.”

“So, what happened?” Norah asked.

“Nur and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on a few major issues. And he was a scoundrel. I went to Ammar hoping that he would take my side, but Nur had already promised him what he really wanted. The last thing I remember was them tackling me and wrestling me to the ground.”

“Then, why didn’t they ever access the cave gardens or whatever is down there?”

Gomauxnaakh shrugged and sighed. “I don’t remember. Maybe that was part of our treaty. Or maybe they were just scared to go with us skeletons down there. Honestly, I don’t even remember us getting transformed into flaming skeletons.”

When they arrived in the village, people streamed out of their homes to gather around Norah and the group that had just arrived. They handed Nur and Gomauxnaakh over to the guards for safekeeping till the next morning.

The people had built a huge bonfire in the village square. They brought out the food that they had prepared for the Feast of Fire. Everyone ate until they were stuffed. The band played. The villagers sang and danced around the fire.

Norah danced and jumped with everyone around the fire. Rauf grabbed her and tried to kiss her. It was nice, but she was conscious of everyone around her and pushed him away.

“Slow down there, Romeo,” she said with a smile.

She noticed Ikraam and Esmail sitting off to the side and scowling. Norah ran over and pulled them out of their seats. They couldn’t really jump and dance with their wounded leg and foot. But Ikraam was a good sport and waved his makeshift crutches in the air.

Even Esmail was in a surprisingly good mood. She was shocked when Esmail tried to kiss her too. She pushed him too, which threw him off balance with his wounded leg. He fell backward and Norah leaped forward to pull him back up.

She didn’t know how she felt about him and didn’t know what to say. But he acted like nothing had happened and continued laughing and waving his crutches around over his head in time with the music.

The villagers crowded around the group. Everyone hugged Norah and clapped her on the back.

“Norah should be the new chief to replace Nur!” someone in the crowd shouted.

“But she’s a woman,” someone else replied with a laugh.

“So, what! She is brave, courageous and wise. Norah led all the men of the village against that giant burning skeleton.” Another person shouted out.

“Brave and wise Norah for chief!” Norah’s younger brother shouted.

At first, Norah laughed, thinking it was all in fun. But as more of the villagers picked up the chant, she waved her arms to quiet them down. But they just shouted over her to drown out her protests.

She looked over at her father. He just raised his eyebrows and shrugged with a pleased smile. He flashed her two thumbs up.

“Oh, well! We’ll figure everything out in the morning.” she thought to herself.

Norah just went with the flow and danced around with the crowd until late into the night until she grew tired.

“Can I kiss you?” Ikraam asked.

She looked at him quizzically.

“I mean, I saw the other guys just grabbed you and tried to kiss you. But you pushed them away. I don’t know if you don’t like them and I have a chance with you or what.” Ikraam stammered hesitantly.

Norah smiled and said, “I don’t know. I might like you kissing me. But I won’t know till you do. But just don’t try it here in front of my family.”

She lowered her voice at the end and pointed her finger in his face in a mock threat. He grinned and laughed at her.

Ikraam waited to walk her home. He did kiss her at the front door when they said good night. And she did like it.

“Not too bad,” she said. “You kiss alright.”

“What!? Just alright,” he said, trying to grab her again before she ran inside.

“Good night, Ikraam. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said with a wave.

She sighed and threw herself into bed, exhausted. Glancing up at the open window over her bed, Norah reviewed her day. Wondering how in the world she had managed to survive everything they had been through as she drifted off to sleep.

Dragon Rider of Agardi

The King Is Dead

The stars began to twinkle into oblivion in the night sky as the sun burst over the horizon behind Leyla. She glanced over her shoulder for a quick peek, as well as to give her dark brown eyes a break from the chill, dry wind.

Her dark hood and the scarf around her face protected her from the cold at the high altitudes she was flying on the back of Memmonym, Lady of the Dark Night Sky. She reveled in the freedom she felt soaring through the dawn on the back of a dragon.

This was what she always wanted. To be completely integrated with a dragon. Not dependent on the riding gear she trained with. But connected as one with her very own dragon that adapted to her every thought and movement.

The splendid beast gave a loud roar and sparks from deep within its belly flickered out of its mouth, past Leyla’s legs. The thrill of the hunt always left her feeling giddy with excitement.

“Wake up, Leyla,” a voice broke through the sound of the wind.

The pre-dawn sky darkened, and the nebulous clouds around her swirled in closer and thicker. Memmonym, the dragon beneath her knees, disappeared along with the bow in her left hand. The darkness deepened all about, and only a soft glow remained in front of her.

“Come on! It’s urgent. I need you to wake up now,” the irritating voice persisted.

Leyla groaned and then rolled over with a sigh before opening her eyes. She blinked up into the face of Zuleyha, her best friend. Leyla groaned again and looked up at the open window. It wasn’t even light outside.

“I was having such a delightful dream. Riding on the back of a bronze fire dragon. Why did you have to wake me up so early? It’s not even light yet.”

“Master Danyal, sent me to fetch Princess Banu, but I can’t find her.”

“She’s probably had a nightmare and her nurses took her to sleep beside her mother.”

“I already checked. There’s a tremendous commotion around the King’s chambers, so I couldn’t enter. But Nessim, one of the guards at the door, went inside to check for me. When he came back out, Nessim told me that the princess wasn’t inside. He confided in me that the guards were already looking for her.”

“Well, she’s fine then. Go back and tell Master Danyal that the guards will soon find her and put her back in her bed.”

Leyla closed her eyes and breathed deeply, as if going back to sleep. Zuleyha squealed angrily and shook her.

“You know I can’t return until I find her and can take back news of her whereabouts. Please come help me find her. I don’t live here like you do. I’m sure you know all the places she might be hiding.”

Leyla sighed and sat up, flipping her long, black hair and pulling it back into a ponytail.

“Fine,” she sighed. “But you owe me big time. You know how much I need my beauty sleep, and how ornery I can be when I don’t get enough sleep. So, just remember that you asked for this.”

Zuleyha leaped to her feet and clapped her hands with glee. Leyla changed into something more appropriate to be waltzing around the castle in than her nightgown before heading for the door.

The halls were bustling with activity for such an early hour. Unsettled groups of guards rushed past them nervously. Some coming. Some going. Handmaids and ladies-in-waiting walked quickly around them as well.

Leyla noticed that those coming from the king’s chambers had tears in their eyes. She tried to ask one or two what was going on, but everyone seemed to be in a dazed hurry. The girls entered a large open hall where small groups whispered in hushed voices.

“Maybe Master Danyal was right about sending you here. Something must have happened to the princess.” Leyla whispered to Zuleyha as they looked around for a familiar face.

They both noticed Naile, one of the mages in training, at the same time. The girls bustled over to her and asked what was going on. Naile looked over her shoulder at the guards before answering.

“Something happened in the King’s chambers. We don’t know for sure yet. But rumor has it that the king is dead.”

Zuleyha gasped and grabbed Leyla’s arm. “What about the princess? Has anyone seen her?”

Naile shrugged and brushed her red bangs out of her eyes. “She’s probably in her room or with her mother. I’m sure she’s around somewhere.”

Another group of girls walked past them. Leyla turned to smile at them, but they all stuck their noses in the air and turned to walk around her without acknowledging that she was there.

“It’s okay. Sevda and her little clique think they are better than everyone else, but they still come snooping around to catch all the gossip just like the rest of us.” Naile whispered.

“Who is she?” Leyla asked.

“Just a girl in my class who thinks she can do everything we do better than we can like the snob she is.”

The murmuring of voices from the other end of the hall caused Leyla to look up. Metehan, the king’s brother, came striding in their direction on his way to the King’s wide double doors that the guards opened promptly.

“What’s he doing here?” Leyla asked. “Wasn’t he banished from the kingdom for treason?”

Neither of the other girls answered, and Leyla knew they didn’t know any more than she did herself. But she noticed Naile had her eyes closed. She could see the girl’s eyeballs moving rapidly back and forth under Naile’s eyelids.

Leyla glanced at Zuleyha who raised her eyebrows and shrugged. They waited quietly for Naile to come out of her trance.

“What did you see?” the girls both asked immediately when Naile opened her eyes.

Naile glanced over her shoulder again at the door, then leaned in to whisper quietly. “The king and queen both seem to be dead. Metehan and one of the guards he calls Abdulkerim were discussing how to proceed. It seems like they are plotting for the kingdom. And they are looking for the princess themselves.”

Zuleyha gasped and looked around nervously, “C’mon, Leyla. Master Danyal was right. She is in danger. We have to get moving if we are going to find her before Metehan does.”

Leyla frowned. “We have to be careful. Master Danyal may be in cahoots with Metehan and his cronies if they really are plotting against the kingdom.”

Her friend scoffed. “Master Danyal wouldn’t do such a thing. He’s a good man.”

“Well, that may be. But he knew something was up before we did. I wonder how he knew that. But let’s deal with that later. First, we have to find the princess if we want to help her ourselves. Then we can figure out who to trust and who not to.”

She looked at Naile and asked if the girl could use her gift of seeing beyond walls to find the child. Naile closed her eyes for a few moments and then shook her head.

“It’s too noisy in here. Locating a missing person is different than seeing past a wall when I already know they are there.”

Leyla quickly took the girl’s arm and guided her back to her room, with Zuleyha close on their heels. Naile lay down and rolled onto her side. After a few seconds, she rolled back over.

“Did you find her yet?” Leyla asked impatiently.

“No,” Naile scowled. “You tapping your foot is annoying. Stay still or leave the room.”

Leyla’s face burned at the rebuke, but she held her tongue. She pulled the chair out from behind her desk and sat down. Zuleyha sat down on the rug and crossed her legs. They both watched Naile intently for what seemed like hours, although it probably wasn’t actually more than five minutes.

“Found her. I think she’s crouched in a small room under the kitchen stairs that lead down into the cellar.” Naile said, sitting up.

“What do you mean, ‘you think?’. Is she there or not?” Leyla growled, still miffed at Naile telling her to be quiet earlier.

Zuleyha butted in sweetly to keep the two from arguing.

“Seeing into the glow isn’t an exact science, even for an experienced mage, Leyla. Naile is at the top of our class, but she is still studying and learning. C’mon. Let’s hurry and go see if that’s where the princess is at. We need to get there before Metehan and his dirty henchmen have time to harm her.” Zuleyha said as she pulled them out the door and down the hall toward the kitchen.

The girls raced down the spiraling staircase to the central hall. They had to pause and step aside though as a large group of soldiers barged past them. They waited nervously against the wall until the men went by before continuing on their way. The girls could overhear the men behind them shouting the princess’s name as they kicked open doors.

“Well, at least we know they haven’t found her yet,” Zuleyha whispered breathlessly as they continued toward the kitchen. “I wonder what they plan on doing to her when they find her.”

“Probably kill her like they did her…” Leyla started to say, then stopped as they rounded the corner and came across some guards.

One of them was Nessim. Leyla’s heart fluttered. She had always had a crush on him, but he looked even more striking in his uniform.

“Hey, Zuleyha. Did you find the princess yet? I guess you were onto something. The captain has the entire troop searching for her.”

The girls all shook their heads nervously. The door to the cellar wasn’t far away, and they needed to get down there before the guards did.

“No, but we ran out of cucumbers to place on our faces. So, we came down to get some more. You know how we girls are about taking care of our skin.” Zuleyha giggled nervously as she moved past him toward the cellar.

“Well, let me come with you and keep you company.” Nessim offered politely.

“No!” the girls all burst out simultaneously.

“No, we’re fine. We don’t want to pull you away from your task and have you get in trouble with the captain. Besides, the princess is probably scared and alone. You should work with the others to find her as quickly as possible.” Leyla stammered.

Nessim seemed disappointed but agreed with them.

“Yeah, it isn’t like she would be down here in the kitchen anyway. She’s probably upstairs hiding under her bed or in a dark corner of her closet.” Naile added.

“Hmm. You’re probably right. But I’ll look you, ladies, up when I get off duty. Okay.”

The girls all smiled and nodded as he walked back the way they had come. As soon as he turned the corner, they raced for the cellar door. They found the princess at the bottom of the staircase, crouching behind the staircase, just as Naile had predicted. Leyla was impressed.

The princess was bawling her eyes out. Zuleyha hugged her and comforted her while the other two girls tried to do their best to soothe the child.

“It’s okay, Banu. Everything’s going to be okay.” Zuleyha whispered.

The child shook her head and began to cry again. “They killed my mommy and daddy. I saw the guards stab him with their swords.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Banu. That was a terrible thing to see. But we’re going to protect you from those wicked men and take you somewhere safe so they can’t hurt you. Okay.” Leyla said softly.

The young princess nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes as she sniffled. Leyla and Zuley each took one of her hands and were helping the girl to her feet when suddenly the door at the top of the stairs burst open.

Leyla grabbed a gunny sack full of corn and dumped them on the floor. She threw the bag over the princess’ head and pushed her to the ground again below the stairs. When she looked up, Nessim was walking down toward them with a big grin on his face.

“I sent the other guards on ahead. I wanted to make sure you girls were alright and keep you company.”

“Oh, that was sweet of you, Nessim,” Zuleyha cooed.

“So, did you find what you came down here for?” the handsome guard asked.

“What? What’s that?” the girls stammered.

“The cucumbers, ladies. Wasn’t that what you came down here for?” Nessim asked them as he cocked his head to the side.

“Oh, yeah!” Zuleyha giggled nervously. “Not yet. We were talking about girl stuff down here. Like who the cutest guards are and all.”

Nessim smiled. “And that would include me, of course. Right?”

“Oh, yes, Nessim,” the girls all clamored in unison.

Nessim beamed as he raised his hands and spun around slowly for them to get a good look at him in all his uniformed glory. He stepped on some of the corn that Leyla had dumped out of the bag and almost tripped. The girls giggled, and Nessim blushed.

“What’s all this corn doing here on the floor?” he yelled out in surprise and begin kicking the corn back under the stairs toward the princess that was stuffed in the bag that the corn had come from.

The girls shrugged, and Leyla moseyed off to find some cucumbers. “Got ‘em,” she yelled, waving a handful of cucumbers over her head.

“Oh, you didn’t need to. There is an entire bag right here,” Zuleyha said, picking up the gunny sack that Banu was inside of.

“That’s an awful lot of cucumbers. Isn’t it?” Nessim asked as he tried to take the bag from her arms. “Let me help you.”

“No, I got it. I need the exercise to get stronger. And no, it’s not a lot. We need to look our beautifulest.” she retorted.

Nessim snorted and laughed. Zuleyha laughed nervously along with him. Somehow, between the two of them, they managed to let the bag slip and fall to the floor. The princess screamed, and Nessim looked up at them in shock.

Zuleyha didn’t hesitate. She threw out her arm and tried to summon up enough energy to toss Nessim across the room. It didn’t go quite like she had imagined in her head, and nothing happened to Nessim.

“Were you trying to knock me out,” he asked in surprise. “What’s wrong with you girls.”

In the meantime, Leyla had picked up a broomstick and whacked him across the back of the head. This time he fell like a sack of potatoes. Naile grabbed some rope from a shelf and the girls tied his hands and feet. Zuleyha brought a rag that they used to gag him.

“I’m sorry for dropping you, Banu,” Zuleyha apologized as she pushed the princess back down into the large gunny sack. “But you have to stay in here a little bit longer till we can get you out of this place.”

Leyla tossed the girl in the bag over her shoulder, and they quickly climbed the stairs. Naile opened the door and peeked out. She waved them through when the coast was clear.

“We’ll head to the stables and use a wagon to get Banu out of here,” Zuleyha said as she led the way toward the back exit.

A small group of guards entered the kitchen and walked past them. They eyed Leyla and her bag as they went by. Leyla froze for a second, but they moved on by without stopping her or questioning her.

“Guess, I look like just another cook hauling in a bag of potatoes to make french fries,” she snickered nervously after they left.

They made it outside and circled around the building toward the stables. Leyla had tired and paused to set the bag down for a minute. Zuleyha nodded and motioned with her hands for Leyla and Naile to place it on her shoulders.

“I got you, Banu. You alright in there?” she asked.

The princess replied, but Leyla couldn’t understand her muffled words. Naile was walking in front of the group. She stopped and raised her hand for the other girls to stop.

“What do you see, Naile?” Leyla asked.

“There’s a lot of commotion down at the stables,” Naile whispered in a hushed voice. “Metehan sent a large group of guards down this way.”

“Nessim must have gotten free and told them we have the princess,” Leyla growled. “I knew that boy was no good the moment I first laid eyes on him.”

The girls scrambled to move off the trail and into the shadows of some small trees and bushes. They waited for the group of guards to move on by. They listened to the sound of the guard’s boots marching in unison until they had moved on around the building, and Naile gave them the okay to stand up.

“Can you please let me out of this bag?” Banu pleaded.

“Not yet, little princess. We have to make sure we get far away from here so no one can see you before we let you out of that bag.”

The girl sighed a long, deep sigh of exasperation. Leyla felt sorry for her, but at least the girl was alive and able to sigh. Something she wouldn’t be able to do if the king’s evil brother had his way with her.

“What do we do now?” Zuleyha asked in frustration.

“Let’s head over to the dragon stables, and fly the princess out of here,” Leyla replied, recalling her dream.

“But I don’t know how to fly on a dragon, and it is way too dangerous to put the princess in that kind of situation,” Naile snorted.

Leyla looked up and said, “I’ve almost completed my training. I should be able to handle one of the smaller ones on my own. And I’ve seen Banu riding dragons before. Right, Little Princess?”

“Yep, sure can. We can fly out on Myldrynarth, the Loud One. He’s talkative and can be feisty, but he should be small enough for you to handle.” The princess replied. “Whoa! What’s going on out there?”

The gunny sack floated up off the ground, right onto Zuleyha’s shoulders. She squealed excitedly as it came to rest. “There’s my mojo. Though I’d lost it since it didn’t work on Nessim,”

“That’s just because you’re in love with that boy and got too emotional,” Naile snorted.

Leyla wondered why the girl was so ornery. “Is everything okay, Naile?” she asked.

Naile sighed loudly. “Something doesn’t feel right, but maybe I’m just nervous that we’ll get caught. Let’s just get out of here as fast as we can.”

The girls hurried down the trail toward the dragon caves. It was easier going now that they didn’t have to physically carry the princess. She was small, but still a solid little bundle. Leyla felt a twinge of jealousy that she didn’t have a special power as the other girls did. Master Danyal said hers would come with time, but she was tired of waiting.

They drew closer to the entrance of the dragon caves, and Leyla put up her hand for them to stop. She asked Naile to take a look around. The girl closed her eyes for a few moments.

“I sense half a dozen dragons in there and an old man in the back. Other than that there aren’t any other humans here as far as I can tell.” Naile said.

“Good,” Leyla replied. “It’s old man Evren. He takes care of the dragons and keeps them under control. I’ll take the princess from here. If you girls haven’t had any dragon training, it’s best if you don’t go near them. They can be feisty.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay with the princess?” Zuleyha asked. “Besides, Master Danyal sent me to fetch the boy.”

Leyla nodded. “You two find some horses and meet me down there as quickly as you can. I’ll wait for you in the chapel behind Master Danyal’s house. We’ll go see him together. I still don’t trust him completely. Not until I know how he knew the princess was in danger and why he sent you before we even knew that Metehan was back in the realm.”

Zuleyha and Naile nodded and scurried off into the darkness, back in the direction they had come from. Leyla picked up the gunny sack with the princess. “We’re almost there. Then I’ll let you out of the bag,” she whispered.

She grunted as she lifted the bag to get it up over the threshold and carried it to Myldrynarth’s stall.

The dragon backed away from her and hissed. Like most of the dragons in this stable, they only used it for training. This wasn’t a normal time for it to be ridden. And it didn’t seem to want to go out at all at this time of night.

Leyla ignored it and continued preparing the riding gear. She approached it slowly with her hands in front of her to soothe it, but it wouldn’t stop hissing.

“What’s going on back there?” a voice boomed out from the far end of the stable.

Leyla froze and backed away from the dragon. She ducked down against the wall where she had left the gunny sack. She hoped Old Man Evren would go back to sleep, but a stool scooted across the floor and footsteps came in her direction.

He came directly towards her stall. There was no sense hiding. She just had to explain herself to him till he let her go. Or she’d have to take the dragon by force. Evren was an old man, and he wasn’t a very large man. So Leyla figured she had a good chance of taking him. She stood up and grabbed onto a rake with one hand in case she needed to get physical.

“Hey, Master Evren. There’s been a terrible tragedy this night. The king is dead. So, is the queen. I’m on a mission and require a dragon to complete it.” Leyla burst out as he limped up to her.

“The king is dead, you say?” Evren inquired in an incredulous voice. “What happened?”

“I don’t have all the details yet. The guards are racing around, inside and out. It’s total chaos in there.” She replied, still gripping the rake.

“It’s alright, child. You can put your weapon down. I’m not going to fight you for the dragon. You’ve been properly trained and they are for use of the castle. However, that is an interesting story. Where did you say you needed to go?”

The gunny sack at Leyla’s feet with the princess inside rustled. She held her breath, hoping that the old man wouldn’t notice it, while she racked her brain for a reasonable excuse for needing the dragon. Just as she started to speak, the princess sneezed loudly three times.

“I assume that part of your mission is to deliver your bag of goods. Eh?” Old Man Evren said with a smirk.

Leyla squirmed and gripped the rake tighter as she stammered to explain herself. The old man bent over and untied the gunny sack, but Leyla couldn’t bring herself to whack him over the head.

“Why hello there, little princess. What are you doing here in my stall?” he asked with a gentle smile.

Banu blinked up at him and slowly stood to her feet. “A bad man stabbed my daddy with their swords. Then they killed mommy. I ran to hide. And now Leyla is helping me to escape so they don’t kill me too.”

“Hm! Well, then you two better hurry and get out of here then.” Evren said as he stood back up to look at Leyla. “Do you have a safe place to take her?”

She nodded. “I think so. I’m going to meet some friends and we’ll take her to…”

The old man put up his hand. “The less you tell me, the better. That way I really won’t know what to tell them when they come to question me about a missing dragon.”

Leyla nodded her thanks as she turned to continue preparing the riding gear. Old man Evren stepped over to quiet the dragon for her.

There was a loud thump and when Leyla turned around, the old man was lying on the ground with blood coming from his head. Sevda and two of her friends were standing just inside the door with the rake in her hand that Leyla had set down.

“Where do you think you’re going with the princess, Leyla?” Sevda asked as she pulled the rake back up over her shoulder for another swing.

Leyla ducked and charged straight for the larger blonde girl’s midriff with her shoulder. She slammed Sevda back into her friends. There were too many for Leyla to bowl over, though. The other girls held Sevda up and pushed her back to Leyla.

Sevda swung a right fist that Leyla tried to block, but realized she couldn’t move her arms for some reason. The blow caught her just above the left cheekbone, and Leyla went down hard. She could use her arms to pull herself back up off the floor, but once Leyla was on her feet, it felt as if her arms were glued to her side.

Leyla managed to duck another blow that Sevda attempted to land. Then tried to charge the larger blonde girl with her shoulder again. But it felt like she hit an invisible brick wall after the first step, and she couldn’t get anywhere near Sevda.

“C’mon, ladies. Fight fair. Stop using your friend’s power to keep you from losing fair and square.” Leyla growled at the other two girls, who grinned at her from over the stall wall.

“What? And let you escape with the princess after killing her parents. Not only are you a murderer, but now you’re a kidnapper, as well. We’re going to return the princess and collect a nice, fat reward.”

Sevda came back in, swinging again with a look of righteous indignation on her face. Leyla tried to dodge the blow, but now she was paralyzed all the way down to her feet. She couldn’t even fall down to the ground because the other girls were holding her up for Sevda.

Leyla screamed in rage and bent her knees to pull her feet up off the ground. The girl continued to hold her there in the air as she floated off the ground like a goofy punching bag. Leyla pulled her feet up higher towards her waist and lashed out with both feet.

Sevda’s friends hadn’t seen that one coming, and the kick nailed her just above the knees. Leyla’s follow-through forced Sevda’s knees to bend in the wrong way and buckle. She went down to the floor with a surprised scream. Leyla lashed out again and kicked her across the face before her friends could put a stop to her kick. But by then it was too late. Sevda was out cold.

“Oh, you’re gonna get it now, kid!” Sevda’s friend with short, yellow hair said as she stepped through the stall door. “You should have just shut up and taken your beating like the warrioress you say you’re training to become.”

“How did you find us?” Leyla asked, stalling for time.

The girl snorted. “Sevda can see beyond walls too. Did you think Naile was the only one who had that gift? Are you the only one that hasn’t developed even one ability yet?”

She reached out her hand, and Leyla began to float up off the ground towards her outstretched fingers.

“Please, you don’t understand. Metehan…” Leyla started to say through her choking as she began to black out.

Suddenly, the girl dropped Leyla to the floor. She managed to twist herself so her arms and shoulders took the brunt of the fall, but it still hurt. Leyla gasped and tried to catch her breath. When she looked up, both of the girls had fallen to the ground.

Nessim stood in the doorway with the rake in his hand. He stepped forward and helped Leyla get up. She started to wheeze out an apology, but he held up his hands and shushed her.

“No apologies needed. I know you had no reason to trust me. But I’m on the princess’s side. I’ve been hearing rumors and know things aren’t right around here. So, let’s get her out of here. Then you girls can explain to me what’s going on.”

He smiled at the princess and reached down to pick up the riding gear to throw over the dragon, which was still hissing and spitting in the corner.

“Wait,” shouted out a booming voice.

Leyla looked around to see where it was coming from, but no one else was there in the stall with them. Nessim was still trying to wrestle the riding gear onto the hissing dragon and seemed oblivious to anyone else being around.

She peeked out the stall door to see if the guards were coming for the princess already. But the only thing she saw was a dragon in the other stall with his eyes fixated on her. Leyla turned to re-enter the stall when the voice called out again.

“Wait!” the voice boomed in her head again. “Help you!”

Leyla spun back toward the dragon and cocked her head to the side. “Were you talking to me?” she asked. The dragon nodded and reached out his neck across the hall till its head was inches away from her.

“Touch,” it said. “Connect me.”

Leyla gasped and reached out a trembling hand. It was against the rules for the trainees to integrate with a dragon. Much less one of these training dragons. After completing her training, she would possibly be permitted to integrate with a dragon of her own. If she were found worthy, and a dragon was even available.

But no one was allowed to integrate with these training dragons. They were available for training use only. Integrating with one would mean it belonged to her and could no longer be used by anyone else.

“Are you sure? I haven’t completed my training yet. I don’t want you to get in trouble or even lose your position.”

It didn’t answer, but pressed its face directly into hers until their noses touched. A large horn protruding off its nose and others continuing up its head caused her to realize how large this dragon was. It was at least twice the size of the little one that Nessim was trying to prepare. A chill ran down her spine.

The dragon closed its eyes and opened its mouth a little. A soft, yellow glow lit up the base of its throat as if the great bronze beast were preparing to spew its breath weapon.

“Blow. Breath mix. Become one.” the dragon whispered into her head.

Leyla took a deep breath and blew into the dragon’s mouth several times. Their noses still touching. She felt the dragon’s thoughts becoming stronger and clearer. She could understand full sentences, not just sporadic words. It was almost as if she were learning the dragon’s language. It was beautiful.

When she opened her eyes, the dragon had pulled its head back over to its stall, but its voice was just as clear as if it were still directly in front of her.

“I am Ytar, Protector of the Sky. I come from the Elmandost deserts. I was there when the treaty was made with your people. I swore an oath to protect your kingdom. And if the princess is in danger, then it is my duty to help you protect her. Myldrynarth, the Loud One, is weak, cowardly, and will only cause you trouble that might put the princess’ life in danger.”

“Hey! That’s not fair.” Leyla heard Myldrynarth’s voice whining in her head.

Ytar roared across the hall into the other stall. Leyla placed her fingers on her lips for it to hush. “You’ll draw too much attention to us down here,” she whispered.

Nessim’s head popped over the stall wall and looked at her with enormous eyes. “What’s going on over here. What did you do to that thing? Get away from it and come help me get this little booger ready here. I’ve almost got everything buckled on.”

Leyla smiled and went through the door to pick up the princess. Sevda’s yellow-haired friend stirred and moaned a little. Leyla didn’t wait for the girl to open up her eyes. She lashed out a hard kick under the girl’s chin that sounded like it might have clipped a few teeth. Leyla hoped it wasn’t too bad, but needed to make sure that the girl didn’t wake up and use her powers to prevent their escape.

“C’mon,” she said to the little princess as she opened up the door to Ytar’s stall. “Are you ready to ride?”

Banu nodded with wide eyes as she looked up at the gigantic dragon. “I’ve never ridden one this big before.” the princess whispered in awe. “Not even when my daddy came with me.”

“What are you doing?” Nessim protested as she led the dragon to the exit. “I’ve already got the other one ready to go. You don’t even have riding gear on that one yet.”

Leyla smiled and shrugged. “He wants to help the princess and is willing to take us of his own free will.”

Nessim’s eyes widened. “And he integrated with you? You’re not supposed to do that.”

Leyla couldn’t hold back the enormous smile that threatened to rip her face in half. She even giggled and shrugged sheepishly. “You know what they say about desperate times.”

The guard put his hand on her shoulder and nodded approvingly. “It’s always the dragon’s choice. If he accepts you, then he knows you are worthy. That is all that matters.”

Nessim placed his hands together to boost Leyla up onto the Ytar’s broad back. Then he handed Banu up into Leyla’s waiting arms.

“Go with the wind. Get the princess to safety. I will stay here to make sure these foolish girls don’t tell anyone how you escaped. I’ll try to keep them occupied until you’ve had sufficient time to get her far enough away that Sevda can’t locate her.”

Leyla thanked Nessim and let the dragon know they were ready to go. Ytar leaped into the air and spread his mighty bronze wings. The swiftness and power of the dragon’s body made her catch her breath. The princess squealed with delight and excitement.

This was by far the most magnificent dragon that Leyla had ever ridden. And the best part was that she didn’t even have to use any riding gear to direct it. All she had to do was think about where she wanted to go, and the dragon was already heading in the proper direction.

“Where are we going?” Banu asked over the sound of the wind.

“I’m not sure yet,” Leyla answered honestly. “First, we are going to stop behind the chapel in the village to meet some friends. We’re going to see what Master Danyal’s intentions are. If they are good, we will go where he directs us. If not, we’ll head out on our own. But don’t worry. Ytar and I will do everything within our power to keep you safe until you are old enough to come back and claim your father’s throne. Then you can avenge those who killed your parents.”

Banu looked up in surprise. “Does that mean that someday I will still be queen?”

Leyla looked down at her and smiled soberly. “Yes, little princess. You’ve done well escaping them so far. Now you just have to stay alive and learn how to be a mighty warrioress. I will teach you everything I’ve learned. And when I can’t teach you anymore, we will find others who are better than me.”

The little princess smiled gratefully up at Leyla and snuggled into her arms to nestle up for warmth against the chill wind. Her eyes drooped heavily, and she drifted into a light sleep as they flew toward the village ahead.

Leyla looked up and noticed that the sky was getting lighter, and the stars were growing dimmer. She glanced back over her shoulder to see the light of the sun bursting up over the horizon, just like in her dream.

Suddenly Leyla gasped. Just like in her dream. She had been riding a mighty dragon without riding gear. The dream had been a premonition of her being fully integrated with Ytar before it even happened.

The only difference was that in her dream, she had been holding a bow and not a child. Then it hit her. Banu was the bow. The little princess was the weapon that Leyla had been given to defeat this evil that was attempting to take over the kingdom.

Tears welled up in her eyes. Grateful for this opportunity. Pleased to be serving her purpose. And satisfied that her gifts were showing up finally.

Did this mean that she had the gift of premonition? Would she be able to see things before they happened? Leyla liked the thought of that. She swore to herself that she would do everything she could to develop this gift and use it to protect the princess.

Portal Hunter

“No! What have you done?” Samara screamed.

Her body lay in a crumpled heap where she had been thrown during the blast into a dusty, smoky corner of the building. Well, what was left of the building anyway. The acrid smoke lay thick and heavy. Laced with the smell of burning plastic and sulfur.

Her nemesis walked slowly across the room toward the portal that now lay exposed. The heels of her boots clicked sharply as she walked. The crunch of rubble and the grinding of shards in each step grated on Samara’s already frayed nerves.

“Please, Andreia. Let us all through first. Then you can destroy the portal. We’ll never come back here again.”

Andreia set down the bag of explosives she was carrying carefully. Then mosied on over toward the woman in the corner. Samara panted heavily as she struggled to sit up. Careful to keep her arms pressed down against the floor and her back against the wall.

“My, my!” Andreia exclaimed. “Aren’t we resilient? Can’t believe you survived that blast. And are still moving. I underestimated you.”

Andreia stopped walking and cocked her head to the side to analyze the situation.

“Please. Let those of us that you haven’t killed through. We’ll shut it down ourselves.”

“Then you’ll just build another.”

“We took you in. We fed you. We treated you like our own. Why are you doing this?”

Andreia shrugged and stood back up. “This is why I came. To infiltrate your ranks. Find the portal and destroy it. I was raised to hate your kind. I was raised to hate what you represent and why you come here. My mission has always been to seek out and destroy these portals.”

She slid the rifle slung over her back. Barrel pointed to the ground and swung it in Samara’s direction. Samara heard the click of the safety as Andreia prepared to pull the trigger.

“Wait, Andreia. But we didn’t create this portal. We don’t have that kind of technology. We won’t be able to create a way to get back here.”

“No, but you’ll just find another portal to use `somewhere else. Then you’ll go there and scavenge off the land from the already established inhabitants like the parasites that you are.”

“But we are a nomadic people. We are constantly on the move. We don’t pillage. We trade our skills and services to enhance the lives of the people we come across.”

Andreia scoffed. “Tell that to the ‘nomadic’ people that came through our portal when I was a child and wiped out my entire village in a single day. They took everything we worked for. They burned our homes. Killed our families. Destroyed everything we had built.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, my friend. There are truly evil people out there. But those aren’t my people. That’s not what we do. You can’t stereotype all portal hoppers like that.”

“It’s nothing personal against you or your people. It’s just what I and my people do. Our mission is to shut down all known portals.”

Andreia turned around and walked back toward the large, black bag she had set down. Samara felt her bones twisting back together and our muscles healing. The nanobots were working quickly. Just a little bit more and she would be able to move again. She felt sensation coming back to her feet and legs. She could wiggle her toes again.

She watched Andreia sling the rifle back over her shoulder before picking up the bag. Andreia turned around only to find Samara in her face.

“What? How did you manage to walk again.” Andreia gasped as she dropped the bag and tried to grab the gun.

Samara blocked Andreia with her left hand and punched her with a right uppercut. Andrei would have fallen except Samara was still hanging onto the base of the rifle and the sling held her up.

She gave the gun a hard tug to pull it up and over Andreia’s head. Samara pointed the barrel down Andreia’s face who had fallen to her knees and was now begging for her life.

“You’re no better than the people who wiped out your village. You’ve become like them yourself by blowing up this building to kill my family and loved ones.”

“No,” Andreia pleaded. “It’s not like that. Just let me go and I’ll never try to destroy this portal again. Please.”

Samara scoffed and mimicked Andreia when she said, “No, but you’ll just find another portal to blow up somewhere. Then you’ll go there and blow up buildings and kill innocent inhabitants like the murderers you are.”

She reached down to pick up the bag of explosives. Andreia tried to grab the gun and push it away. Samara didn’t give it a second thought. She pulled the trigger. The bullet hit her square in the chest.

Andreia lay on the ground. Looking up with a stunned look of disbelief on her face. Then she saw the green lines running down the sides of Samara’s arms. She started to laugh but ended up coughing as she choked up blood.

“Now, I understand. That’s why you survived the blast. And how you got up so quickly. Next time, I’ll make sure to start with the more powerful explosives.” She said glancing at the bag after she had finished coughing.

Blood still ran out of her mouth. There wasn’t much chance of her serving. But Samara pulled the trigger several more times to make sure Andreia didn’t get another chance to destroy the portal. Then pulled the trigger a few more times out of sheer anger and grief at the destruction the woman had caused. The sound of a radio cackled lightly. Samara picked it up to listen.

“Are you coming, Andreia? We don’t have much time. Set the timers then meet us down at the docs. Do you copy?”
“Roger that. On my way,” she responded mimicking Andreia’s voice and accent.

Samara turned to the portal. She couldn’t see it clearly for the flames, so she climbed up onto part of the wall that was still standing for a better look. The blue sheen of the portal looked normal although it seemed to cackle with more electricity than usual.

It would be a little while before the flames died down enough for her to get over there. Meanwhile, she would have time to take out Andreia’s team and avenge the death of her friends and family. As well as search for any other survivors.

Samara checked to see how many bullets she had left. Then hopped down to go hunt the rest of Andreia’s team and prevent them from destroying any other portals like this one.

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