DargonZine 3, Issue 1

Conflict of Interest Part 1

Ober 30, 1013 - Nober 1, 1013


This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Conflict of Interest

Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

30 Ober, 1013 B.Y.

 

The column of horsemen rode south towards the city, having crossed the river the previous day. The soldiers’ spirits had risen upon leaving behind the seemingly endless mountains for the forest and grasslands that were so much like western Galicia. Then they remembered that for all that it looked like Galicia, this was a foreign country and they would answer with their lives if anything happened to the ambassador or his party. Their smiles and grins and good-natured banter were replaced with grim looks and wary, watchful attention to all that took place around them.

 

The peasants working the fields around Magnus looked up in surprise, and not a little fear, at the strange horsemen heading towards the Crown City. Granted, fifty or so horsemen were no great threat, but the crest they bore and the standard they flew were not those of Baranur or King Haralan, and that was sufficient cause for worry in and of itself.

 

The peasants were not the only ones who noticed the column making its way south. A detachment of cavalry was riding north from Magnus to investigate. Jordaan saw them approaching and barked an order to his troops. The Galician horsemen formed a protective cordon around their charges while Jordaan himself rode to inform his liege of the approaching Baranurian cavalry.

 

“My lord,” he said, “a small force approaches from the city.” “I should hope so,” Myros replied. “We are strangers in this land, after all. Halt the column here. We’ll wait for them to come to us.”

 

“Yes, my lord.” Jordaan galloped to the front of the column and gave the order. A single note sounded on a bugle and the column halted. Baron Myros and Sir Grange Rarrack, one of Myros’ oldest and most trusted advisors, rode forward and waited for the Baranurian horsemen to arrive.

 

The Baranurian leftenant halted his twenty men line-abreast one hundred yards from the strangers. The leftenant was no herald, but garrison duty in Magnus does expose one to a large number of foreigners. In all his five years in the Crown City, he had never seen a standard resembling the one these strangers flew.

 

“Well, I’d best get this over with,” he said to himself and rode forward. When he got to within twenty yards of the strangers, he stopped and called out, “Who are you and what is your business in Baranur?”

 

The old man leaned towards whom the leftenant assumed was the leader and said something inaudible. Translating, the leftenant thought. After receiving a reply, the old man spoke in accented Baranurian, “May I present His Lordship, Baron Myros, Ambassador of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Nyrull of Galicia. His Imperial Majesty has heard much of the Kingdom of Baranur and desires relations with His Royal Majesty, King Haralan.”

 

Galicia? the leftenant thought. I’ve never heard of such a place. Oh well, not my problem. “Welcome to Baranur, Ambassador. If you will permit, my men and I will escort you and your party to Crown Castle.”

 

The old man again leaned over and translated. “His Lordship shall be most honoured,” the old man replied.

 

The leftenant turned to his squadron and barked out commands. “Squadron! Squadron will turn to the right in column of two’s. Right turn!” The squadron sharply executed their officer’s command, backs ramrod straight, eyes looking straight to the front, their thoughts focused only on their next command. The Royal Horse Guard would have been hard-pressed to emulate them. “Squadron! At the trot! Right wheel! Forward!” The leftenant brought his squadron onto the road leading south and led the Galician embassy towards Magnus’ outer fortifications.

 

Magnus had originally occupied only the west bank of the Laraka River. Due to its increasing prosperity, Magnus attracted new citizens like a magnet. In time, Magnus’ population had doubled to 20,000, making for crowded living conditions. The tide of immigrants showed no sign of stopping, so the decision was made to expand to the Laraka’s east bank.

 

A wall, similar to the wall around Magnus’ Royal District but not as massive, was constructed to protect Magnus’ New District, which was designed to house 10,000 people. In time, New District was filled to capacity and a second district was constructed. When that was filled to capacity, another was built. All told, Magnus housed 50,000 souls, 20,000 in the Royal District where Crown Castle, the Bardic College and the homes of the nobility were located, 30,000 in the New Districts, home of the infamous Fifth Quarter.

 

Myros was impressed with the Royal District’s fortifications. For a minor power, Baranur had done well in fortifying its capital. Of course, the Imperial capital’s defenses far out-shone Magnus’, but Myros would still not relish attempting to reduce Magnus.

 

The walls protecting the Royal District stretched for leagues around the perimeter of the city’s west bank. The fifty feet high, twenty feet wide walls were adorned every hundred yards with fifty feet diameter, eighty feet high round towers. Each gate was protected by a barbican consisting of two forty feet diameter, sixty feet high round towers. The gatehouse at each gate was twenty feet wide, thirty feet long and twenty feet high and was set into the wall itself.

 

Access to the gatehouse was barred by two ten feet wide, twenty feet high, five feet thick reinforced oak doors. Once past the oak doors, anyone wishing to gain entry had to pass through the gatehouse, its walls lined with arrow slits, its ceiling with murder holes. If the person wanting to gain entry was hostile, an iron portcullis could be dropped down to block exit into the city.

 

Myros and his party passed through the massive gates of Northgate. There were three other gates in addition to Northgate; Eastgate, Westgate, and Southgate. Eastgate and Westgate both provided access to the Merchant’s Quarter; Eastgate opened onto the waterfront and Kheva’s Bridge. Kheva’s Bridge joined the Royal District with the New District across the river. The Bridge was named after the engineer who supervised its construction over a millenium ago.

 

Northgate, Eastgate, and Westgate all saw a great deal of traffic. Southgate was not witness to the volume of traffic that flowed through its sister Gates however. Southgate was for military use only, as it gave direct access to Crown Castle. It differed from the other Gates in one other way. Southgate was more heavily defended. If an invader managed to breach the Outer Gate, there was an Inner Gate that remained to be forced. Southgate had never fallen to an enemy, not even after King Caeron’s army was crushed by Insurrectionist forces during the Great Houses War of 97-98 B.Y.

 

Jordaan felt uneasy passing through the gatehouse knowing that at least twenty archers were manning the arrow slits and murder holes ready to fill the passage with death. Myros’ party emerged into the daylight of Magnus’ Royal District.

 

Apparent chaos reigned. Everywhere, people were shouting and jostling with one another. It was market day. Every manner of item was up for sale. Animals, cloth, jewelry, food of every description traded hands in the large open marketplace. The Galician embassy threaded its way slowly through the throng, aided by its Baranurian escort.

 

They made their way slowly out of the marketplace, gradually working their way through the Merchant’s Quarter. This Quarter, one of two in the Royal District, housed the wealthier merchants and lower classes of nobles. It was also the site of three large markets that saw a never-ending stream of goods, even in the dead of winter.

 

The column began making its way uphill, a sign that they were about to enter the second Quarter in the Royal District, the King’s Quarter. Ahead, they could see Crown Castle, its battlements and snow-capped towers dominating the Royal District. The famed College of Bards could be glimpsed above the rooftops of the elegant houses of the middle and upper-class nobles.

 

Celeste stiffened slightly when she caught sight of the College. Those within could pose a threat to her mission. She must be careful to avoid bringing undue attention to herself.

 

Her attention was drawn from the College to Crown Castle. More fortress than castle, its many walls and towers were situated on the hill that dominated Magnus’ landscape. The complex of fortifications that was Crown Castle occupied an area roughly three quarters of a league north-south and one half league east-west. It was almost a city unto itself.

 

To reach the King’s Keep and the Inner Courtyard, one had to pass through three gates in walls that dwarfed the Royal District’s outer defenses. The first wall was sixty feet high and twenty feet wide and boasted sixty feet diameter, eighty feet high round towers every fifty yards. The barbican defending the gate consisted of two sixty feet high, forty feet square towers and a twenty feet wide, sixty feet long gatehouse thirty feet high. There were massive bronze gates at either end of the gatehouse, each door ten feet high and fifteen feet wide. An iron portcullis could be dropped at either end as well.

 

The second wall was thirty feet farther up the hill and was even more massive than the first. The wall was eighty feet high and thirty feet wide. Instead of towers, this wall had fifty feet square bastions every one hundred yards equipped with light catapults. The gate in the second wall was one hundred yards east of the gate in the first wall. The gate was not defended by a barbican. Instead, the gate was incorporated into a sixty feet square keep eighty feet high. The outer gates themselves were bronze; twenty feet high, twenty feet wide. There were also two lesser gates inside the keep; ten feet high, ten feet wide oaken doors. Unlike the Gates on the outer fortifications and the gate through the first wall, this gate had no portcullis. On the outer fortifications between the second and third wall was Southgate.

 

The third and final wall barring access to the King’s Keep and the Inner Courtyard was on the summit, one hundred feet farther up the hill. The wall was one hundred twenty feet high and fifty feet wide. It had one gate situated in the middle of the wall, placing it one hundred yards west of the second wall’s gate and in line with the first wall’s gate.

 

Of the seven gates in the Royal District, the gate through the third wall of Crown Castle was the most formidable, even more so than Southgate. Unlike the other gates, this gate was not made of oak or bronze, nor did it have a gatehouse or keep defending it. This gate was made of stone and was, in fact, part of the wall itself. Each door of the gate was forty feet high and twenty feet wide and opened onto a passage with the same dimensions through the wall that ended in a similar gate. Each gate was operated by huge winches. If the gates were to be closed against siege, they would not be barred as is common with most gates. Instead, a mechanism would be tripped that would prevent the gates from swinging on their massive hinges. Shut tight thus, the only way to gain entrance to the Inner Courtyard was to go through the gates. Not an easy task.

 

Once into the Inner Courtyard, one would then have access to the King’s Keep. The name was misleading, however. The King’s Keep was not one building, but a group of fortified buildings, the most prominent of which was the original keep upon which the Castle grew. Each building was connected so that once inside any given structure, one never need see daylight in one’s travels throughout the King’s Keep.

 

But perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Inner Courtyard was the series of buildings to the west of the King’s Keep known as Barracks Row. There were fifteen two-story buildings in three groups of five along the west portion of the inner wall. Each building was the headquarters for one of the fifteen Regiments that made up the Magnus Garrison. There was nothing unusual about that. What was unusual was that the barracks for the soldiers were located under the buildings. Fifteen thousand men lived in an underground complex that stretched throughout the hill upon which Crown Castle was constructed. The underground quarters came complete with recreational, eating and medical facilities as well as stables for the cavalry. There were dozens of entrances to the King’s Keep to allow a rapid deployment of men and horses from their barracks.

 

About half of the garrison was on duty at any given time with the rest engaged in the off-duty activities for which soldiers are well-known no matter what sovereign they serve.

 

The Ambassador and his party were escorted through Crown Castle’s defenses and taken to the King’s Keep. The embassy was given several rooms in the Diplomatic Wing where other embassies were quartered. They were given time to settle in and then Myros, his wife, Jordaan, and Rarrack were taken by Coridan to an audience with the King.

 

***

 

King Haralan and Sir Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of the Royal Armies and Haralan’s close friend, were in Haralan’s study discussing matters related to the recent trial of Duke Dargon on charges of treason. The Duke had been framed by elements within Baranur supported by Beinison. The scheme to start a war between Baranur and Bichu nearly worked. If not for the Count (then Baron) of Connall’s belief that his cousin was innocent, Baranurian and Bichanese would be slaughtering each other due to foreign meddling. When it was learned that Beinison was behind the plot, a large group of nobles called for war.

 

Thus far, cooler heads had prevailed. However, those who did not share Duke Dargon’s views on war, or the lack thereof, had been clamoring for action. In response, the King called a Council to begin the first week in Nober. Already, several nobles had arrived with more expected within the next few days. For Coridan, the Falcon Herald, Ober was a very busy time. And with the probability that the Council would last all winter, it looked like Coridan would have to wait a very long time before he could relax. As Haralan put it to Edward earlier that day, “What with my birthday only three days ago and now this Council, it’s a wonder Coridan doesn’t go mad!”

 

“Since you chose to see me wearing full uniform, can I assume the news you bring is not good?” Haralan asked.

 

“Yes, Sire. As you are aware, I’ve asked certain merchant houses to instruct their caravan captains to keep their eyes and ears open during their journeys in Beinison. The first reports have just come in.”

 

“And?”

 

“There is evidence of increased military activity within Beinison. I can’t say with total assurance that it is directed against us, however–”

 

“However, you think we should be on our guard.”

 

“Yes, Your Royal Majesty. In light of the discovery of Beinison’s interference in our affairs, the Beinisonians will be forced to act. I can’t see them doing anything until spring, but one never knows.”

 

“What is it you want done?”

 

“First, we should put the Royal Army on an increased state of readiness. Second, we have to give serious thought to whom we shall have as field commanders.”

 

“The first is easily enough accomplished. Who do you have in mind for the second?”

 

“Jan is out on an inspection tour now. I told her to single out those officers that have potential. If war comes, I want to promote those officers to major commands, even if it means promoting them over the heads of more senior, more noble officers.”

 

“Isn’t that somewhat drastic, Edward?”

 

“Perhaps, my friend, but consider this. These promotions are only going to affect the Royal Army, not household troops. And if war does come, it will be life or death for Baranur. We can’t afford to have incompetent commanders.”

 

“We don’t know that war WILL come, Edward.”

 

“Maybe so, but one of the first things my father taught me was that a soldier must prepare for the worst possible case. If it doesn’t come to pass, so much the better. But if it does, at least you have an even chance.”

 

“Very well. Now, are there any nobles that seem promising?”

 

“Quite a few. I’d like to put Duke Dargon in command of the Navy. He is more familiar with naval warfare than I. As for the Army, there is one in particular that I’d like to have. Lord…Morion I believe his name is. Is something wrong?”

 

“I don’t think you should count on Morion. He prefers to administer his own lands and not become involved with the King’s tasks. Remember when Kyle Bluesword and his bandits were raiding in the south? I had to send Coridan to Morion to get him to agree to help.”

 

“He’s the one Commander Rian spoke of?”

 

“The same.”

 

“Then he’ll make a valuable commander. If he refuses, why don’t you just order him? You are the King, after all.”

 

“I can’t. You see, my uncle gave Morion’s lands to him as a reward for personal service to the Crown. Morion holds fealty to no one. My father re-affirmed the dispensation and I confirmed it: it is irrevocable. I can only ask, not order.”

 

“You can’t be serious!? You are! I know I’ve been in Baranur long enough to know the customs, but by Nehru, Haralan! This Morion’s lands are in effect a separate country! How could you have allowed this to happen!?”

 

“I didn’t ‘allow’ anything, Edward. Understand. Morion was granted his status for extraordinary loyalty to my uncle. Unless there was good reason, my father and I could not have refused to confirm his status. Lord Morion has served Baranur well. He deserves his reward.” Haralan paused, trying to think of some way to explain the situation from Edward’s viewpoint.

 

“Edward,” he said, hoping he had found the right words, “this is not Galicia. The attitudes are not the same here. You are accustomed to Imperium, with all the benefits and obligations that go with it. That’s part of your Galician heritage and you should be proud of it.” Haralan paused briefly before continuing. “Don’t forget that Baranur is a younger nation. We don’t have the legacy of history that Galicia does. Galicia has had six hundred years that we here in Baranur haven’t. That in itself goes a long way toward explaining the differences between us.”

 

Edward persisted. “I just find it hard to accept the idea of a noble owning independent landholds inside Baranur.”

 

“Lord Morion’s lands are NOT independent,” Haralan said with frustration. “He depends on Baranur just as much now as when my uncle ruled. Call it semi-autonomy. It’s not such a bad thing, Edward. Morion may not help me with some matters, but I think we can count on him to support Baranur IF war comes.”

 

“Yes, Sire.” Edward sounded unconvinced.

 

Haralan decided to change the subject. “Now, who else did you have in mind?”

 

Edward sighed. “I would have liked to give Luthias a command, but you sent him to Beinison.”

 

“Don’t you think he’s rather young?”

 

“Granted,” Edward conceded, “he is young. But he has talent, Haralan. He reminds me–”

 

“He reminds you of you at his age?”

 

Edward smiled sheepishly, a rare occurrence for Edward. “Yes, he does. I don’t think he’s ready for a major command. What I’d planned was to give him the Cavalry Wing. Luthias likes freedom of action. The cavalry would have given him that.”

 

“If he were here.”

 

“Yes, if he were here. Still, if he makes it back before the war starts I think we should consider him.”

 

“Alright. Who else?”

 

“I can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head. Give me a day to go through my records?”

 

“Done. There, that’s finished. I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.”

 

“And I as well. Why don’t we go down to the kitchen and see what we can scare up?”

 

“Excellent idea,” Haralan said humorously. “Where do you ever get them?”

 

“I’m gifted, Your Royal Majesty,” Edward replied in the same tone.

 

“Gifted my eye!” Haralan said in mock anger. “I ought to–”

 

At that moment, Coridan, the Falcon Herald, entered the study. “Forgive me for disturbing you, Sire,” the young man said. “An embassy has arrived from Galicia. Shall I show them in?”

 

Edward turned and went to the window, suddenly overcome with emotion. Haralan glanced briefly at his friend, knowing something of what Edward must be thinking. Edward hardly needed a reminder of his exile from his homeland. He turned to Coridan. “Yes,” he said. “By all means, show them in.”

 

Coridan bowed slightly then turned and went to the door. He opened it and announced the embassy. “His Lordship, Baron Corneilious Myros, Ambassador of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Nyrull of Galicia. Her Ladyship, Baroness Elaine Myros. Sir Grange Rarrack, Advisor to His Lordship. Captain Jordaan, Captain of the Guard to His Lordship.”

 

“Welcome to Baranur, Ambassador,” Haralan said. “I’m sure that–”

 

“Myros!” Edward shouted in Galician, his gaze fixed upon the Ambassador.

 

“Edward?!” Elaine burst out. The shock on her face was plain for all to see.

 

“Temper, temper, Edward,” Myros replied. “Is that any way to talk to the Baron of Alphoria?”

 

“Edward!” Haralan said forcefully. “What is the meaning of this?” Haralan asked. The King’s guards were getting nervous. So was Jordaan.

 

Edward paid no attention to Haralan’s query. All his attention was focused on Myros. “You lie!” he nearly shouted. “My father is Baron of Alphoria!”

 

“Not any more. He was tried and executed for treason a year ago. Duke Markin gave me your father’s lands as a reward for loyal service. I don’t know why someone didn’t reveal your father sooner. How’s that saying go? Like father, like son?”

 

“Corneilious!” Myros’ wife said, a hint of outrage in her voice. “How can you say that?”

 

“Because it’s the truth, Elaine,” Myros replied.

 

Edward went white with rage. “GET OUT!” he roared. “GET OUT BEFORE I KILL YOU!!!” His hand flashed to the hilt of his bastard sword. Jordaan leapt in front of his liege, sword drawn. Edward and the King’s guards drew steel immediately. Myros moved Elaine out of harm’s way but did nothing more. He stood his ground, his calm exterior hiding his uneasiness.

 

Haralan interposed himself between the two would-be combatants. Edward had taught Haralan enough Galician to get by, but the accents and the rapidity with which Edward and Myros were speaking meant all he knew was that Edward and Myros appeared to be enemies and that he had to calm the situation down before it got out of hand. “Enough the both of you!” Haralan said in passable Galician. “Sheath your weapons! Now!”

 

Jordaan looked to his lord and Myros nodded his assent. Jordaan reluctantly sheathed his sword, but remained in a protective position. The King’s guards relaxed visibly.

 

“You too, Edward,” Haralan said, returning to Baranurian. He could barely hear Rarrack translating in the background.

 

“I cannot,” Edward answered, also returning to Baranurian. “My family and my honour have been insulted. That is something I cannot ignore.”

 

“Edward,” Haralan said coldly, “as your sovereign I order you to sheath your sword. If you do not comply, I shall have you arrested for treason.”

 

Edward looked his friend imploringly in the eyes, a pained expression on his face. The look he got back told him that he was talking to his King, not his friend. Slowly, he complied with his sovereign’s wishes.

 

“Sir Edward,” Haralan said, speaking formally, “your actions today were inexcusable. Go to your quarters and remain there for the duration of this day.”

 

Edward bowed stiffly and walked mechanically out of the King’s study. After he had gone, Rarrack, translating for Myros, said, “That’s all? He isn’t to be punished further?”

 

Haralan turned to face Myros and said, “Ambassador, I know enough Galician to know that Edward was not entirely to blame. As I see it, you were as much to blame as he.” Haralan held up a hand to cut off Myros’ protest. “Whatever the reason for this conflict, it is between you and Sir Edward. When you came in here today, you came as Ambassador and you insulted the Knight Commander of my Armies. See that it does not happen again. The audience is ended. You may leave.” With that, Haralan turned his back on Myros. Coridan led the Ambassador and his party out of the study and showed them to their quarters.

 

Haralan stood gazing out the window for long hours. As his mind re-played his dressing-down of Edward, Haralan’s thoughts drifted back to the day he met the man who was to become one of his closest friends…

 

***

 

…Haralan parried a thrust meant for his throat and slashed clumsily at his attacker. The eight remaining bandits had formed a semi-circle about their target. The four knights comprising Haralan’s bodyguard lay contorted in death about the man they had given their lives to protect. Nine bandits lay on the ground also, having paid the price for their attempt to ambush Haralan and his party.

 

The King of Baranur estimated his chances of surviving as somewhere between slim and non-existent. He was bleeding from a score of wounds and knew that he would be unconscious from blood loss in a short time. From the looks on their faces, his assailants had come to the same conclusion.

 

The bandit on the right, bigger and stronger than the rest, signalled with his saber and the rest moved in. Haralan braced himself against a tree and prepared to sell himself dearly.

 

One of the eight moved in from the left, wielding a double-bladed battle axe. Haralan saw the swing coming and did his best to parry it. He succeeded, but at the cost of losing his sword. The bandit, grinning, raised his axe. He never brought it down.

 

A iron-tipped crossbow bolt made of black teak punched through the back of the man’s skull. He fell without a sound. As they were turning to face their unknown foe, another bandit fell, a black crossbow bolt in his heart.

 

A man dressed in black and armoured in chainmail charged out of the forest on a warhorse, yelling a battle-cry in a foreign language. The suddenness of his attack surprised the six assailants. Haralan’s unknown benefactor opened the throat of a third bandit with his bastard sword before any of them could react.

 

While Haralan struggled to reach his sword, the five remaining bandits surrounded his would-be rescuer. Whomever he was, he didn’t seem concerned. His horse reared, striking out with its front hooves. Brains splattered everywhere as the horse’s hooves connected with a bandit’s skull. The horse’s rider used the momentum of his mount to put extra force behind his downward swing. The result was that a fourth bandit lost that portion of his sword-arm below the elbow. While he was staring dumbly at the bloody stump that was his arm, he was dispatched with a thrust to the chest.

 

The bandits’ leader rushed at his enemy from the flank, hoping to catch him unawares. He almost succeeded. At the last moment, however, the unknown rider turned, taking the blow upon his left arm. Ignoring the blood flowing from the deep gash, he delivered a stroke that nearly hacked the bandit’s arm off. The three unwounded attackers, seeing their leader seriously wounded, fled.

 

The rider let them go. He bandaged his arm and then got down off his horse and came over to Haralan. To Haralan, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. How strange, he thought, then collapsed.

 

When he awoke, he found his benefactor watching him anxiously. The man’s helm was removed, revealing dark black hair with beard to match and deep brown eyes. He also had a scar that ran from his above his right eye down to his right cheek. Obviously he had seen his fair share of combat. “Thank you,” Haralan said. He tried to get up and was abruptly halted by intense pain coming from just about every part of his body.

 

The stranger said something in a foreign tongue that Haralan wasn’t familiar with. He’s not from Baranur, Haralan thought. I’d best be careful until I know more about him. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

 

The man frowned in concentration. “Who you are?” he said in Merctalk, a hodgepodge of several different languages that was common among mercenaries. Haralan had learned the language as a boy from listening in on his father’s conversations with some of the mercenary officers serving in the Army. When Arenth finally found out, young Haralan couldn’t sit down for a week.

 

“Sir Haralan I be,” he replied, not wanting this stranger to know who he was until the time was right. “Who you are?”

 

“Sir Edward,” the man replied. “You travel able?” he asked.

 

“Little, yes,” Haralan answered. “Village that direction is,” Haralan said, pointing in the direction of Dyunill, a small village to the northeast.

 

“How far?”

 

“Fifteen leagues it is.”

 

“Rest you till tomorrow. Morning, take you there I will.”

 

“Grateful I am.”

 

Sir Edward nodded and offered his hand to Haralan. Haralan shook it, closed his eyes and slept, determined to convince this man to journey to Magnus with him…

 

***

 

…That was almost six years ago. Edward had indeed proved to be a true and caring friend and a loyal subject. I’ve never seen him this way, Haralan thought. He’s usually very reserved in public. Whatever this is, it must be serious. It’s getting late. I should go see him. We must get this out in the open.

 

Edward sat in the dining area of his quarters, staring into the fireplace, lost in memories of the past. The events of the day had shaken him, particularly the news of his father’s death. A large snifter of brandy sat untouched on the table beside him. A knocking at the door brought him out of his reverie.

 

“I don’t want to be disturbed,” Edward said to his unknown caller.

 

“It’s me, Edward. I want to talk to you.”

 

“Come,” Edward said. He rose from his chair and faced the door, bowing as the King entered. “Forgive me, Sire. I wasn’t aware it was you.”

 

“There’s no need for formality, Edward,” Haralan said. “I come as your friend, not as your King.”

 

“You want an explanation about what happened today,” Edward stated.

 

“Yes I do. Edward, we’ve known each other for close to six years now, and not once have I ever seen you act like this. What’s wrong?”

 

“It is…personal, Haralan,” Edward replied. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

 

“I told you that I come as your friend. As your friend, I want to know. I want to help you.”

 

“And for that I am grateful, believe me. It’s just that–”

 

“Edward,” Haralan interrupted, “I had hoped I wouldn’t have to resort to this, but I have no choice.”

 

Edward looked his friend in the eyes. “What do you mean?” he asked.

 

“As your King, I must know. If this conflict between you and the Galician ambassador is going to ruin any chance I have of reaching an agreement with him, I have to know why. Please, Edward,” he said indicating the chairs by the table.

 

Edward sighed. “You are right, of course.” Edward took a seat opposite Haralan. “Do you remember what I told you of how I came to be here?” he asked.

 

“You were exiled from Galicia for killing some noble’s son in a duel, wasn’t it?”

 

“That’s most of it,” Edward replied, looking down at his hands. “I didn’t tell you everything, Haralan,” he said.

 

The King sat back in his chair. “Go on.”

 

“When I was seventeen, my father sent me off to Count Janos as a squire.” Edward’s eyes lost all focus and he even smiled a little, lost in the days of his youth. “How proud I was. Janos had trained some of the best knights in the Empire. If I impressed him, there was a chance I might have been recommended for service in the Imperial Guard! Only the best serve in The Legion. It was my dream.”

 

“I spent the next five years trying to bring myself up to his standards. I was beginning to think I would never become a knight when Janos gave me a gift for my twenty-second birthday. He said that I was ready, that my training was over, that I was now a knight! I was speechless. He smiled and told me to get some rest, and that we would talk the next day. Then I realized that I would soon be leaving. I might never see Janos or his daughter again. I wanted very much to see both of them. You see,” he said, looking at Haralan, “I was very much in love with his daughter.”

 

“She did not love you?” Haralan gently asked.

 

“I wasn’t sure. I never had the courage to speak to her of my feelings. Not even when Duke Markin’s son Giles began courting her. When I received my knighthood, I knew I had to act or I would lose her forever. So, that night I told her I loved her.” Edward paused in his recollections. His expression was grim and he radiated tenseness.

 

Edward rose from his chair and began pacing back and forth. “It was then that Giles came into the garden. He’d overheard me and challenged me to a duel then and there. I refused. I could see that Giles was in no condition to fight. I suppose he thought Elaine was about to declare her love for me, and simply couldn’t accept that possibility. He was too agitated to be a worthy opponent. That’s what I thought, anyway.” Haralan had wanted to ask Edward several questions during his recounting, but thought better of it. Edward seemed to need to talk about his experience, to get it out in the open.

 

Edward stopped pacing and went to the window. A storm was coming on. “Giles called me a coward,” he continued, gazing out onto the courtyard below, “and attacked. I had no choice but to defend myself. He was quite good, actually. He almost had me twice before I struck him. The duel should have been over. Even though Giles only had a superficial cut, blood had been drawn and I was the victor.” Edward sighed. “But Giles would not yield. He came at me like a madman. I didn’t want to kill him, damn it! I just wanted to disarm him!” Edward stopped, calming himself.

 

“Giles rushed at me, and before I could halt my attack, he had impaled himself on my blade. Elaine screamed and within moments, her father and his guards had arrived. I told Count Janos the full story and surrendered myself for judgement.

 

“My trial began in Rhylon, the capital, two weeks later. Janos defended me, risking reprisal from Duke Markin, Janos’ liege-lord. The Duke wanted my head on the block, but Janos pointed out that it was Giles who was responsible for his own death. Janos said I should be acquitted of any wrong-doing.

 

“Markin wouldn’t hear of it. He DEMANDED that I be executed. Clearly, I was in the right, but the Emperor couldn’t risk antagonizing a powerful noble such as Markin. And so, I was exiled,” he said bitterly.

 

“I was given twenty days to leave Galicia. The next morning, we rode out, bound for Janos’ castle. We arrived two weeks later. My parents were waiting. So was Elaine. What followed was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do.

 

“As soon as we rode through the gate, the verdict was plain for all to see.” Edward paused for a moment, remembering the pain he felt. “In Galicia, if a knight is convicted of any offense he must wear black whenever he dons his armour. I still wear black today, even in Baranur.

 

“Janos and I rode over to my parents while a servant went to fetch my belongings. Mother and Elaine were crying,” he said softly. “I said good-bye to both of them. Mother didn’t take the news well, as I expected.” Edward stopped and drew in a shuddering breath. “But Elaine. She’s a strong woman. I hadn’t seen her like that since the night her mother died,” he said in a pain-filled voice. “She kept insisting it was all her fault. I told her that was nonsense. I am an adult. I’m responsible for my own actions. I said that if I had to be exiled, there was nothing I would rather be exiled for than fighting for her love and affection.

 

“I made her promise not to hold herself responsible. She agreed and then her father led her away to calm her down. I was appreciative. I couldn’t bear to see her that way.

 

“Lastly, I said good-bye to Father. I…couldn’t look him in the eyes. I was sure he was about to disown me.” Edward paused, momentarily overcome. “Do you know what he did?” he continued, speaking reverently. “He gave me his sword. He didn’t say anything, just unbuckled it and gave it to me.

 

“Emperor Nyrull presented Father that sword himself! Father had had it for thirty years, Haralan, thirty years! It was his most prized possession. I looked up at him, not knowing what to say.” Edward turned from the window, tears streaming down his cheeks. “He was crying! My father, the strongest, bravest man I ever knew, was crying.”

 

Haralan, his own eyes watering, went to Edward, laying a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I–I’m sorry, Edward. I didn’t know it would be so painful for you. I had no right to put you through this.”

 

“Yes you did,” Edward said, trying hard to regain his composure. “You are my King as well as my friend.” He blinked back his tears, and drew himself up to his full five feet ten inches. “And as King and friend, it is time you learned everything about me.”

 

Four hours later, Edward had almost finished filling in the gaps of Haralan’s knowledge of Edward’s past. Edward had explained to Haralan why he had become a mercenary, for lack of a better word, when he could as easily have sworn allegiance to any number of more than willing nobles. His conviction had weighed heavily upon him. The fact that he could never go home, and that he would never again see his loved ones was a painful burden. Edward felt empty inside when he began his wanderings.

 

Edward went from war to war, from skirmish to skirmish, unconsciously looking to re-establish a place for himself. In the three years during which he was a mercenary, his fighting abilities improved remarkably. As his reputation built, he was offered higher and higher positions. He rose from being just another wandering knight temporarily in someone’s service, to becoming one that any noble would gladly have command his troops. In time, he came to be known as ‘The Wanderer’. Many a noble learned to fear that name.

 

“Where does Myros fit in all of this?” Haralan asked.

 

“He and I were opposing commanders in the infighting so prevalent in Alnor. I was in the service of the Duke of Valencia. Myros was in service to the Duchess of Dreknor. We had been maneuvering for weeks, Myros trying to catch and destroy my force, myself trying to find a place to fight on my terms.”

 

“And did you succeed?”

 

“In a way, yes. But then so did Myros. I had found a location where the terrain was clearly in my advantage. Unfortunately, Myros found me before I had time to prepare. I remember that day as if it were yesterday…”

 

***

 

…Edward stood on the grassy knoll, surveying his troops’ dispositions. He’d anchored his left flank to the forest surrounding the clearing, and moved his front rank up to the stream that ran through the center of the meadow. His right flank he anchored to the knoll. I wish I had more time, he thought. He turned to Justarius, his second-in-command. “Well, what do you think?” he asked.

 

“I would have preferred more time,” the grizzled veteran replied, unconsciously echoing Edward’s thoughts, “but all things considered we’ve done all we can.”

 

“All we have to worry about now is the enemy.”

 

“Aye. That and the fact that all we’ve got in those woods are pickets.”

 

Edward sighed. He and Justarius had argued about this until early in the morning. “Justarius, you know we can barely cover what frontage we have. I don’t like it any more than you, but a thousand men can only do so much.”

 

“I know, sir, I know. At least we still have a reserve.”

 

“If only it wasn’t so small. Oh well, time for–”

 

“Listen!” Justarius said. “Do you hear that?” he asked.

 

“What? I don’t–” Edward stopped in mid-sentence, cocking his head to one side. “Wait. Now I do.” He stood quietly still for several seconds, trying to determine what the sound was. Finally, he gave up. “What is it?” he asked his second-in-command.

 

“An army,” he said matter-of-factly.

 

“How can you tell? I can’t even make that out,” Edward said, indicating the direction the sound was coming from.

 

“I’ve campaigned for thirty years, sir,” Justarius replied somewhat defensively. “I’ve heard a good deal more armies on the march than you. And believe me, that’s an army.” He paused. “There,” he said. “You can feel it now.”

 

He was right. Edward could feel the dull pounding of the drums as well as hear it. And it was growing louder.

 

“Aye,” Justarius said, again voicing Edward’s thoughts. “It’s a good bet they’ve found us.” As if on cue, rank upon rank of Dreknoran soldiers emerged from the tree line at the opposite end of the clearing, sunlight glinting off armour and weapons. The clearing reverberated to the sound a thousand drums beating out a cadence.

 

“Nehru’s Blood!” Edward exclaimed. He had to shout to be heard. “They outnumber us at least three to one! Perhaps more!”

 

“You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you, sir?” Justarius adjusted his sword belt and loosened his sword in its scabbard. “I’d best get down there.”

 

“Good luck, my friend.”

 

“Thanks,” Justarius replied. “I’ll need it.” He hurried off down the slope, bellowing commands to his men. “Move you lazy louts! What do you worthless whoresons think this is, a picnic? Close up the distance between the ranks! Look alive, look alive!”

 

The Dreknoran commander arrayed his force in line-of-battle about halfway to the stream. The force of the drums set teeth chattering and made weapons and armour vibrate. Then, quite suddenly, the drums stopped. Everywhere, ears rang, protesting the punishment they had been forced to endure.

 

Edward surveyed his line, looking for that one small mistake that could spell disaster. Hard as he tried, he couldn’t find one. That did not comfort him though. He had a thousand men to face three thousand, perhaps more. And of his thousand, he had pulled a tenth out of his battle-line to form a small reserve which he stationed on the reverse slope of the knoll, hidden from view.

 

Then Edward had no more time to study his dispositions, for the enemy was on the move, marching slowly toward his line, their spears like a moving forest.

 

Edward moved his line up to the edge of the stream’s bank, and prepared to receive the enemy. He didn’t have to wait long.

 

The Dreknorans charged the last hundred and twenty yards. Had it not been for the fact that the heavily armoured spearmen had to struggle through knee-deep water, Edward’s line might well have broken.

 

Edward’s troops, the best Valencia could field, were not as heavily armoured as their Dreknoran counterparts. In the first minutes of battle, the Valencians took a heavy toll of the Dreknorans as they floundered in the water. Eventually, however, the Dreknorans’ numbers began to tell.

 

Several Valencians in the center fell at the same time, opening a gap in the front rank. Raising a great shout, the Dreknorans poured into the breach. Justarius led a Quarter against the Dreknoran line in a desperate counter-attack. Justarius slowed, but could not halt, the Dreknoran advance. The buglers trumpeted an alarm and in response, two Quarters of the third rank moved forward to deal with the growing Dreknoran wedge.

 

The situation on the left was not going well for the Valencians either. Edward’s line had been pushed back from the stream, and was sagging badly. Every available Quarter on the left had already been committed. Edward was forced to take two Quarters from the right flank and send them to reinforce the left.

 

The right flank was the only place the Valencians held their ground. The Dreknoran spearmen lumbering up the slope of the knoll were easily dispatched.

 

Edward judged the overall situation, while not pleasant, was much better than it could have been. He was confident that if he could shore up the sagging left, he might be able to inflict enough casualties on the Dreknorans to force them to retire.

 

In the center, Justarius finally managed to contain the Dreknoran break-through, and was in the process of slowly reducing it, when the buglers’ trumpets sounded in high alarm.

 

A badly decimated Quarter on the left, desperately trying to hold back the Dreknorans’ inexorable advance, finally succumbed to the overwhelming numbers of the enemy. The Dreknorans poured through the hole and fell upon the other Quarters. All but one of the nine Quarters on the left simply disintegrated, attacked from in front and behind.

 

The voice of doom whispered in Edward’s ear as he led the four Quarters of the reserve towards his shattered left, shouting to what remained of his front lines to form circle. Somehow, Edward’s small force held off the Dreknorans long enough for him to build a shaky all-around defense.

 

The Dreknorans gave no quarter. They attacked from all sides, but the Valencian troops showed their mettle. Their ring contracted, but wouldn’t break. Edward side-stepped a spear thrust at him, and neatly hacked off the Dreknoran’s arm at the elbow. Another Dreknoran rushed him. Edward tried to side-step this one’s thrust as well, but tripped over the body of the soldier he had slain only moments ago.

 

The Dreknoran paused, lifting his spear. Edward prepared for the end, but it never came. Just as he was about to finish Edward off, the enemy soldier was struck from behind. The spear fell out of his nerveless fingers as he toppled backwards.

 

“Are you alright, sir?” Justarius asked with concern.

 

“Fine,” Edward said somewhat shakily. “Thanks. I owe you my life.”

 

“Think nothing of it, sir,” Justarius replied. “After all,” he said with a grin, “if you died, I’d be left in charge of this mess.”

 

Edward smiled. “Wouldn’t want that, now, would we?”

 

“No, sir,” Justarius agreed.

 

“Dreknor can’t have had this many troops,” Edward said. “She must have gotten help from somewhere,” he commented.

 

“We’ll worry about that later,” Justarius said. “If we get out of this bloody mess, that is.”

 

Edward nodded in solemn agreement.

 

“Time to get back at it,” Justarius said and was gone.

 

The Valencian circle was now so compressed that the Valencians were fighting almost back-to-back. Of his thousand men, Edward thought it a miracle if there were two hundred still alive. Edward could see no hope of surviving. He decided that, at the very least, he would kill the Dreknoran commander. Or die trying.

 

He made his way to Justarius and told him his plan. Justarius didn’t even flinch. Long years of campaigning had hardened him and prepared him for anything.

 

Fate had other ideas. Before they could implement Edward’s plan, the inevitable happened. The Dreknorans shattered a portion of the Valencian line and in they came.

 

Edward barely had time to return Justarius’ hand-shake before the enemy was upon them. Edward and Justarius fought back-to-back against the Dreknoran tide. Edward deflected a thrust with his sword, and killed his opponent with his riposte.

 

A second Dreknoran attacked him. Edward parried the Dreknoran’s thrust, then pursued him as he backpedaled for his life. The luckless Dreknoran tripped over a body and Edward finished him. Edward paused for a moment to catch his breath and to assess things.

 

Everywhere, the battle had degenerated into individual combats. Valencians and Dreknorans intermingled in their efforts to kill one another. Edward looked around for Justarius. They had been separated when Edward had pursued the second enemy soldier that attacked him. Edward finally located the man he had come to think of as a dear and close friend fighting a one-sided duel with an opponent whom Edward assumed was the Dreknorans’ commander. Justarius was bleeding profusely from several wounds.

 

Edward went to the aid of his friend, but was blocked by two enemy soldiers. He feinted towards the first Dreknoran’s mid-section. The Dreknoran tried to parry Edward’s thrust, but Edward’s actual target was his opponent’s throat. The Dreknoran staggered backwards, vainly trying to stem the blood gushing from his wound.

 

The second enemy soldier succeeded in disarming Edward. Thinking quickly, Edward grasped his shield in both hands and beat the Dreknoran to death with it. Edward retrieved his sword just in time to see Justarius fall, mortally wounded.

 

“NO!” Edward screamed. He threw himself at his opposite number, letting the battle-rage take him. Edward put everything he had into attack, giving no thought to defense.

 

His opponent was hard-pressed to defend himself against Edward’s wild onslaught. Edward landed several blows, but at a price. A particularly vicious swing that the Dreknoran barely managed to avoid left Edward vulnerable. The enemy commander lashed out blindly and struck Edward a hard blow to his helm that sent it flying, staggering Edward. The Dreknoran aimed a downward slash at Edward’s head. Edward lurched backwards just far enough to avoid being killed, but not enough to avoid being struck.

 

The Dreknoran’s sword cut diagonally across Edward’s face from the right portion of his forehead to his left cheek. Edward fell, unconscious.

 

This last was the final straw. The sight of their commander falling, coupled with the enormous casualties they had suffered, was too much. The seventy-five or so remaining Valencians surrendered.

 

The Dreknoran commander called for a physician to attend to Edward. The physician slapped a bandage on Edward’s wound and gave him something to bring him around. “Will he live?” the Dreknoran commander asked the physician.

 

The physician shrugged. “The next few days will tell. If infection doesn’t set in, he should survive.”

 

“Good,” the enemy commander replied. “Ah,” the Dreknoran said at Edward’s groan, “you’re awake.”

 

Edward sat up groggily, every movement painful. Through the pain-clouded vision of his right eye, he recognized the figure of the Dreknoran commander. “Who are you?” he asked.

 

“Corneilious Myros,” he replied. “Captain of the Guard to Her Grace, the Duchess of Dreknor,” he said formally. “And who might you be?” he inquired “I want your real name, not that alias you go by.”

 

“Sir Edward Sothos,” Edward replied.

 

“Well, Sir Edward, you’ve been causing quite a stir lately. You’ll bring a fine ransom.”

 

“What of my men?”

 

“We can’t afford to take prisoners,” Myros replied. He gestured to two of his men. “Take him away.”

 

“No! You can’t!”

 

“I can and I will. We’ve wasted enough time. Take him!”

 

Edward’s guards led him away, his weak struggles nothing more than a nuisance. He felt himself sliding towards unconsciousness. The last thing he heard before the blackness took him was the dying screams of his men…

 

***

 

…”I swore vengeance on Myros for what he did that day.”

 

“So long as he is Ambassador, I must ask you not to do anything. Can you do that?”

 

“I’ll try. For Baranur’s sake, I’ll try.”

 

Haralan smiled. “Good.” As he turned to go, he noticed the first streaks of daylight breaking through the clouds. “Morning already,” he commented.

 

“I apologize,” Edward said. “I shouldn’t have kept you so long.”

 

“Nonsense. We both needed our discussion. Now, I think the both of us should get some sleep.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more, Sire,” Edward said with conviction.

 

Duke Markin’s castle, New Valencia, Duchy Valencia, Galician Empire

1 Nober, 1200 G.Y. (1013 B.Y.)

 

Garog pulled his cloak tighter about him in a vain attempt to keep out the rain. Just my luck, he thought. As if drawing guard duty tonight, of all nights, isn’t bad enough. He sighed. Time for another round.

 

He left the minimal shelter of the doorway and proceeded on his sentry-go of the battlements of Duke Markin’s castle. He paused before one of the many braziers positioned along the battlements. Their normal function was to allow the pots of oil to be easily lit. This night, they performed a second role; they allowed the sentries a modicum of comfort against the chilling rain. Garog glanced to his left and saw two other sentries trying to warm themselves by another brazier ten yards away. He chuckled and continued on his rounds. He got no more than ten feet before he stiffened in shock. “Two?!” he said aloud. There’s supposed to be only one!

 

He turned to see the other two sentries moving towards him in such a manner that told him they had to have weapons drawn. Garog drew his sword and was about to sound the alarm when something slammed into him from behind, knocking the wind out of him and forcing him to his knees.

 

There was a dull throbbing pain in his back. He tried to rise, to defend himself, but his strength was fading. He just couldn’t seem to summon the effort necessary. He tried to cry out but he couldn’t get his lungs to work right.

 

The two people he had mistaken for sentries were no more than five feet away. He willed his sword arm to rise, but nothing happened. Again something struck him from behind. He felt his lifeblood well up and choke him. He toppled forward, blood flowing down his front. His last conscious thought was that he was going to be in big trouble. Then everything went black.

 

Tarn bent over and wiped his dagger clean on the guard’s back. “The poison usually takes effect a lot sooner than that.”

 

“I just wish there was a better way than this,” Julia said.

 

“As do I,” Justin said with regret. “But I can see no other choice. Help me move him, Tarn.” Tarn replaced his dagger in its scabbard and helped Justin carry the dead guard’s body through the tower door the guard had been sheltering in only moments ago. The two hid the guard’s body amongst some crates of crossbow bolts and then exited the tower.

 

“I think I can see the shed from here,” Julia said as Tarn and Justin rejoined her.

 

“Where?” Justin asked.

 

“Over there,” she replied, pointing to a large two-story structure with dozens of lighted windows in the middle of the outer courtyard.

 

“That’s the inn.”

 

“No, not there. Just to the right. You can barely make it out.”

 

“I think I see it now,” Justin said. “It’s so hard to tell with this rain.”

 

“Now all we need is a way down.”

 

“I believe I can solve that problem,” Tarn said. “There’re steps on the other side of the tower leading down to the courtyard.”

 

“Good,” Justin said. “Let’s go.” The three companions made their way cautiously down the steps to avoid being seen. Once at the base of the wall, they paused while studying the sentries’ pattern.

 

“The next time the closest sentry comes to a brazier,” Tarn whispered, “we’ll go.” Justin and Julia nodded their assent. Tarn was intently watching the vague shape of the nearest sentry when a flash of lightning illuminated the courtyard. The three sentries in view were clearly visible for several brief seconds. In those seconds, Tarn saw that the nearest sentry was warming himself over a brazier. “Go!”

 

The trio sprinted across the muddy ground toward the black shape of the equipment shed next to the inn. Tarn, in his leather cuirass, made it to the shed with no great difficulty. In their heavier armour, Justin and Julia found the going more difficult.

 

When they were about three quarters of the way to the shed, the courtyard was again illuminated by the lightning dancing in the night sky. Justin and Julia were both quite visible, and both expected the alarm to be raised immediately. But it was not.

 

Providence, luck, Fate, call it what you will, was with them, for the thunder that followed the lightning masked the clinking of their armour. The sentries, intent on trying to see outside the walls, never heard the sounds that would have caused them to look down into the courtyard and see the two intruders.

 

Tarn picked the lock with ease, and soon all three companions were inside the equipment shed. Tarn lit a torch, revealing the contents of the shed. The shed, perhaps thirty feet square, was piled high with saddles, saddlebags, and the usual equipment that travelers own. From the look of some of the items in the shed, the owners were very well-off. Tarn sighed contentedly.

 

“No, Tarn,” Justin said. “Don’t even think it.

 

“Can’t a man have any pleasure? I mean if this Duke Markin is a traitor, the Emperor won’t mind if we ‘acquire’ a few souvenirs, now, would he?”

 

“Perhaps later,” Julia said. “Right now, let’s concentrate on finding the entrance to the passage that wizard told us about.”

 

“You know,” Tarn replied, “you two have got to get out more. Gamble, carouse, that sort of thing.”

 

“Tarn,” Justin said while checking the walls for the entrance, “stop yapping and start looking.”

 

“Okay, okay. Some people.” Tarn started checking the southern wall for the entrance, or rather the mechanism that would open the entrance. Justin and Julia were doing the same for the east and west walls respectively. After about an hour of painstaking search, nothing was found and the trio were getting frustrated.

 

“The mage said the mechanism was located in here,” Justin said. “So where is it?”

 

“We’ve checked all four walls,” Julia said. “Maybe this isn’t the right shed?”

 

“No, it’s the right shed,” Tarn replied. “The wizard specifically said the equipment shed next to the inn.”

 

“Well where is the mechanism then? It’s certainly not in the ceiling and we’ve checked all the walls.”

 

“The walls yes, but not the floor!” Julia said triumphantly.

 

“Where do we start?” Justin asked.

 

“The first thing we do is check under these piles of equipment. If it was somewhere else, we would have stepped on it by now,” Tarn answered.

 

The three began carefully moving equipment and checking the floor for something, anything. Tarn was checking the northwest corner when he noticed an impression in the floor about the size of a hand. Tarn applied pressure to it and the impression sank about three inches. An audible ‘click’ was heard, and a portion of the floor near the center of the shed dropped away to reveal a shaft fitted with iron rungs leading down into darkness.

 

“Shall we?” Justin asked.

 

“You first,” Tarn said.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Don’t mention it,” Tarn said cheerfully.

 

Justin leading the way, the companions descended about thirty feet. There the shaft ended. The trio found themselves in an ancient passage about ten feet wide and fifteen feet high. The air was stale and the floor covered in a thick layer of dust centuries old.

 

“There’s the lever,” Julia said, pointing to a bronze lever five feet to the right of the shaft. She walked over to it and pulled. All three very clearly heard the entrance to the shaft closing.

 

“After seven hundred years it still works,” Tarn said with awe.

 

“Let’s go,” Justin said and led off down the passageway, lighting the torches on the wall as he went. Two hundred feet later, Justin stood in front of a wall with another bronze lever next to it. Justin passed his torch to Tarn and drew his sword. “Now!”

 

Tarn pulled down on the lever and the wall slowly slid aside revealing a storage area piled high with crates and barrels. The three adventurers moved into the room. While Justin and Julia conducted a brief inspection, Tarn went to a section of wall to the left of the secret entrance and twisted a certain stone. The secret door slid back to become a nondescript portion of the room’s west wall.

 

“Tarn,” Justin called. “Is the entrance closed?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Good. We found another storage room to the east, and there’s a door over here on the north.”

 

“Is the hallway outside lit?”

 

“I think so,” Julia responded.

 

“I can leave the torch then,” Tarn commented. He extinguished the torch and threw it in a corner. Given the amount of items stored in the room, the torch wouldn’t be found unless someone conducted a deliberate search.

 

Justin opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. The corridor was ten feet wide with a fifteen-foot arched ceiling. There were sconces bearing lit torches every ten feet of the corridor’s thirty-foot length. “That’s more like it,” Justin said. “Julia, you watch the rear. Tarn, you stay in the middle.”

 

Justin leading, the trio made their way to the intersection at the end of the corridor. “Which way?” Justin asked. “East or west?”

 

“One way is just as good as the other,” Julia answered.

 

“East, then,” Justin said. The three walked carefully down the east corridor, Julia turning around and walking backwards every few feet. All three were getting nervous. They had penetrated the castle some time ago, and had not encountered any guards thus far.

 

The corridor turned south, leading to a narrow stairway going up about thirty feet. A small oak door at the top of the stairs had Duke Markin’s crest carved on its face. “At least we’re heading in the right direction,” Tarn said.

 

Justin carefully opened the door and surveyed what was beyond. “There’s another corridor that ends in a door,” he reported to his comrades.

 

“How long is the corridor?” Tarn asked.

 

“About fifty…sixty feet. No other doors, either.”

 

“Okay, let’s go. But be careful. I don’t like this.”

 

Sword drawn, Justin proceeded down the bare stone corridor. He halted ten feet from the door and let Tarn ply his trade. Tarn handed his bow and sword belt to Julia so that nothing would interfere with his task. He advanced cautiously on the door, eyes scanning the floor for trip wires or pressure plates. Finding none, he began examining the door itself, making sure to leave the handle for last. He ran his hands gently along the edge of the door, checking for some mechanism that might trigger a trap, if there was one. He found nothing. Lastly, he checked the handle. As far as he could tell, nothing was amiss. He turned to Justin. “As well as I’m able to tell,” he said, “there’s nothing wrong with the door.”

 

“Okay, we’ll go through,” Justin said. Julia handed Tarn his weapons and Tarn took up a position behind and to the right of Justin. Julia again watched the rear. “Everybody ready?” Justin asked. Receiving nods of assent, he opened the door.

 

The corridor continued beyond the door for ten feet before opening into a larger area. The beginnings of a large staircase could be seen. “It looks like a hall of some kind,” Julia said.

 

“Could be the entrance hall,” Tarn suggested.

 

“If it is, it’s bound to be well-guarded,” Justin said. Justin paused for a moment, considering possible courses of action. “We’ll proceed,” he said a few minutes later. “Julia and I will handle the guards closest to us. Tarn, you take out any guards out of our reach.”

 

Julia moved to stand beside Justin while Tarn moved back. At Justin’s signal, the three of them rushed into the hall. It was indeed an entrance hall, though not the main entrance hall. There were four guards in view, all armoured in chainmail and all carrying sword and shield. One guard was posted at the top of the staircase next to a large alarm-gong. Two guards were posted near double doors to the west. The fourth guard was posted near the entrance the companions came through.

 

Justin and Julia fell upon the startled guard before anyone knew what was happening and cut him down. Tarn loosed his shaft at the guard on the staircase. The luckless guard was half-way to the alarm when the arrow punctured his armour and found his heart. He staggered for a moment, then tumbled down the staircase.

 

Justin and Julia were both running at the two remaining guards, who were also charging at Justin and Julia. Julia and her opponent met in the middle of the hall. Julia swung at the guard’s temple, but he parried easily. He countered with a low swing intended to disembowel, but Julia deflected it with her shield. Julia lunged, drawing her opponent out of position and unable to do anything as her sword swung upward and found the guard’s throat.

 

Justin found his man to be a tougher, more experienced fighter than his fellow guardsman. The two thrust and parried, neither able to find an opening. The fight was ended when Tarn, having managed to get around behind the guard without being noticed, buried his short sword in the guard’s back.

 

“Let’s get moving!” Justin said.

 

“Shouldn’t we hide the bodies?” Julia asked.

 

“No time,” Justin replied.

 

“The stairs?” Tarn inquired.

 

“Sounds good,” Justin answered. He led the way cautiously up the staircase. Another corridor, this one decorated with expensive tapestries, led south for twenty feet before turning east.

 

After following the corridor for a hundred feet, the companions came to a four-way intersection. After only a moment’s hesitation, they continued east down a hallway with three oak doors. “Shouldn’t we investigate?” Tarn asked hopefully.

 

“Tarn,” Julia said, “I know it’s hard for you to curb your ‘curiosity’, but we’re here to obtain information on a ring of traitors. The best way to do that is to find Duke Markin’s rooms.”

 

“And how do you know that any one of these three doors isn’t Markin’s?”

 

“I think it’s safe to assume that Markin’s quarters will be guarded,” Justin said in response.

 

“Oh really?” Tarn said as they rounded a corner. “Just because you think that his quarters will be guarded doesn’t mean–” Tarn stopped short, nearly running into two of Markin’s soldiers standing guard at a reinforced oak door. Everyone froze for several seconds, surprised at encountering each other.

 

Tarn was the first to break the spell. His hand flashed like lightning toward his dagger. In one fluid motion, he threw the dagger at the nearest guard and drew his short sword. The dagger thudded home under the guard’s chin strap. He fell, blood spurting around the dagger’s hilt.

 

Tarn rushed the remaining guard. The guard was just beginning to draw his own weapon when Tarn slammed his short sword into the guard, thrusting upward under the rib-cage. The guard’s body slid to the floor without a sound.

 

“You were saying?” Justin said as Tarn recovered his dagger.

 

“Okay so maybe Markin’s rooms were guarded after all. If you consider two guards as ‘guarded’.” Tarn walked over to the door and opened it. Or tried to, at any rate. “Craanor’s Coins!” he said, referring to a previous Emperor whose ‘gold’ coins were so worthless that the mere mention of them came to be a curse. “It’s locked!”

 

“Can you pick it?” Julia asked.

 

“We’ll soon see,” Tarn replied. He pulled a set of lockpicks from his pack and set to work trying to pick the lock while Julia and Justin stood guard.

 

Ten minutes later, an increasingly irritable Tarn was starting to swear at the lock. Justin tapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t bother me! I’m thinking,” Tarn snapped. Justin again tapped Tarn on the shoulder. “What?!”

 

“I think this might help,” Justin said, handing a key-ring he had gotten off one of the guards’ bodies to the thief.

 

“Well why didn’t you give me that sooner?” Tarn asked angrily. “Never mind,” he said, cutting off Justin’s response. Tarn turned back to the door and began trying keys. On the fifth try, he was rewarded with a click as the lock opened.

 

Justin moved forward and kicked the door open, Tarn covering him with his bow. “Nobody home,” Justin stated.

 

“Go in then,” Julia said somewhat anxiously. “We’re kind of exposed out here.”

 

The three entered the room and shut the door behind them. Tarn lit a torch, revealing the room’s details. It was a large room, roughly thirty feet by forty feet. From the exquisite furniture, it was obvious that this room was a reception area. Two doors, one on the south wall, one on the east, led from the room.

 

The companions crossed the room to the east door. Tarn grasped the knob and twisted. As he feared, it was locked. He reached for the key-ring and went to work. As soon as he applied pressure to the door, it swung open. Whomever had locked it had failed to shut it properly before leaving.

 

Tarn stepped back, allowing Justin and Julia to enter the room. This new room appeared to be a study. A fireplace was set against the north wall, a desk in front and to the side of it. The walls were lined with books, approximately one hundred in total. A table with four expensive looking chairs sat in the middle of the room.

 

“What we’re looking for has got to be somewhere in this room,” Julia stated.

 

“We’ll each take a wall,” Justin said. “But remember, be sure to put everything back in its exact place.”

 

The three friends began going through every book in the study. An hour went by fruitlessly. Justin pulled another book from its shelf and began examining it. It was then he noticed the oddity in the wall behind the shelf. “Julia! Tarn! Come here. I think I’ve found something.”

 

“What is it?” Julia asked.

 

“Help me move this shelf,” Justin replied. All three wrestled with the shelf for several minutes before managing to move it away from the wall. What the shelf had been concealing was a ten-foot by ten-foot stone door with no handles or other similar accoutrements.

 

“Well?” Tarn asked. “What do we do?”

 

“I don’t know,” Justin responded.

 

“Why don’t we try pushing it?” Julia asked.

 

“Might as well,” Justin said. All three leaned on the door, pushing with all their might. Slowly, reluctantly, the massive door began to move. The door came to rest against the north wall of a small corridor extending ten feet east where it opened into a twenty-foot by twenty-foot room completely bare of furnishings.

 

Or almost bare. In the center of the room stood a stone pedestal, a small wooden chest sitting on top. Tarn slowly and carefully entered the room, stepping over the ankle-level trip-wire strung across the entrance. He moved cautiously toward the pedestal, eyes intently scanning the floor for anything out of the ordinary.

 

Five feet from the pedestal he noticed an almost imperceptible change in the stone tiles on the floor. The tiles immediately in front of the pedestal lacked the rough texture evident in the floor thus far. Tarn bent down to examine the tiles in question.

 

The “tiles” were not tiles at all. They were very cleverly disguised pressure plates. Tarn began examining the floor more closely in order to determine just how large an area the pressure plates covered. After ten tense minutes of study, he moved back to the entrance where Justin and Julia were calmly waiting in the corridor.

 

“The floor is covered with pressure plates,” he told his two companions, “but there is a way to avoid them. Stay within five feet of the south wall and you should have no trouble.” Tarn turned and led the way into the room, being careful to stay near the southern wall. The trio made their way along the perimeter of the room until they came to a position on the east wall directly opposite the pedestal. Tarn briefly examined the floor. The pressure plates apparently did not cover the area behind the pedestal, allowing access to it. “Nicely done,” Tarn murmured to himself. Instructing Justin and Julia to remain where they were, Tarn proceeded to the pedestal where he began examining the chest.

 

The chest was made of teak, a rare wood, rarer still in western Galicia. There were two locks on the chest, one of which was obviously false. The trick was, which one? And more importantly, what would happen if the wrong lock were opened? Tarn pondered the problem for many minutes. He reasoned that the correct lock was the lock facing the entrance, not the lock facing him now. Unfortunately, there was no way to test his hypothesis without opening a lock. If he guessed wrong, the consequences could be deadly.

 

Taking a deep breath, Tarn leaned over the chest and inserted his lockpick in the lock. Silently sending a prayer to the gods, Tarn twisted the lockpick clockwise. An audible click sounded throughout the chamber. Tarn tensed, waiting for the trap to spring. When nothing happened, he opened his eyes and gently lifted the lid of the chest.

 

Inside were three gold scroll cases approximately one foot in length. “We’ve found it!” Tarn exclaimed. Justin and Julia came forward, intent on examining what Tarn had found.

 

“GOLD scroll cases?” Julia asked incredulously.

 

“I think this is what we were sent to find,” Justin said.

 

“We should take them and get out of here,” Tarn suggested. “We’ll read them later when we’re in safer surroundings.”

 

Justin nodded his assent. Tarn handed him a scroll case, grunting with the effort. Justin stepped back and carefully began making his way out of the chamber. Julia took possession of the second case and followed Justin.

 

Tarn lifted the final case out of the chest and set it on the floor next to the pedestal. As he closed the chest’s lid, he noticed that his two friends were almost out of the room. He picked up the scroll case and started to follow them. He was almost to the east wall when he heard it.

 

A grating sound like stone on stone could be heard behind him. Apprehension seized him as he turned to face the pedestal. It was sinking into the floor. “Craanor’s Coins!” Whoever designed this chamber did their work well. Tarn hadn’t even suspected anything like this. “Run!” he shouted to his comrades. “The pedestal’s sinking!”

 

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

1 Nober, 1013 B.Y.

 

Commander Jan Courymwen (“Coury” to her friends), personal aide to Sir Edward Sothos, strode through the halls of Crown Castle. She had just arrived in Magnus that morning after completing an inspection tour of the Southern Marches. Her weary body cried out for rest but she had a preliminary report to make.

 

The guards on duty outside her office came to attention upon seeing her round the corner. She acknowledged their salute with a nod and went in. Seated behind her desk was Captain Daniel Moore, temporarily filling in for Jan while she was away.

 

Moore looked up as the door opened, a harsh comment for not knocking on the tip of his tongue. When he saw who it was, his expression changed remarkably. He got up from his chair and came around the desk, his frown turning to a warm smile as he greeted his friend. “Coury! You’re back!”

 

“Just barely,” she said with a tired smile. She removed her helm, allowing her fiery red hair to flow freely over her shoulders. “Is he in?” she asked, referring to Edward.

 

“Yes he is,” Moore replied. Jan started for the door to Edward’s office. “Coury, wait.”

 

Jan stopped and turned to face her friend. “Yes, Dan, what is it?” she asked. Then she noticed something in his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Coury,” he began hesitantly, “there was an…incident…yesterday afternoon involving Sir Edward.”

 

“What kind of incident? Is Edward alright?” An icy-cold ball materialized in her stomach at the thought that Edward might be injured.

 

“He’s fine,” Moore reassured her. “An embassy arrived yesterday.”

 

“So? What has that got to do with anything? Embassies arrive in Magnus all the time.”

 

“This embassy is from Galicia.”

 

Jan was silent. Both she and Moore knew that Edward came from Galicia and that he left under less-than-ideal circumstances. “Why are they here?”

 

Moore shrugged. “Who knows? What I do know is this: for some reason, Sir Edward threatened to kill the Ambassador. He almost attacked him.”

 

Jan’s jaw dropped. For a moment, she couldn’t speak. When she finally regained her composure all she could manage was a startled, “What!?”

 

“You heard me,” Moore said. “His Royal Majesty confined Edward to his quarters for the rest of the day. Last night, the King went to Edward’s quarters and the two of them stayed up all night discussing things. Edward came in two hours ago with instructions for me to pass on to General Wainwright. Edward said he has some things to finish up and then he’s going to go to his quarters and get some rest.”

 

“Thanks for telling me, Dan. Well, I have a report to deliver.” With that, she turned and knocked on the door to Edward’s office. Receiving assent, she opened the door and entered.

 

“Jan!” Edward said, pleasantly surprised. “It appears this day won’t be a total waste after all. How did the inspection go?”

 

“Better than I’d hoped, Your Excellency,” she said, taking a seat. “My main concern is Pyridain. King’s General Tegran, in my opinion, is not capable of commanding our forces there in the event of hostilities. We do, however, have several good regimental commanders in Pyridain. One or two may be capable of handling the duchy.”

 

“Good. You look tired, Jan. Get some rest. We’ll finish your report later.”

 

“If you don’t mind my saying so, so do you, Edward.”

 

“Yes. Well, it was a long night.”

 

“Dan told me what happened, Edward,” she said. She leaned over and touched him lightly on the arm. “If you need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to call on me.”

 

“Thank you, Jan. I always could count on you.”

 

“Part of being a friend. I suppose I should go. We both need the rest.” She stood and went to the door. “I’ll have a complete report ready for tomorrow.”

 

“Good night. Or perhaps I should say good morning?”

 

Jan smiled briefly, then left.

 

Duke Markin’s castle, New Valencia, Duchy Valencia, Galcian Empire

1 Nober, 1200 G.Y. (1013 B.Y.)

 

“Run!” Tarn shouted. “The pedestal’s sinking!”

 

Justin and Julia didn’t ask questions, they just ran. They stopped outside Markin’s quarters to wait for Tarn. Tarn came running through the door and collided with his friends.

 

“What are you waiting for?” he practically screamed.

 

“You!” Justin shouted back. Just then, a gong sounded. All three friends took one look at each other and fled down the corridor.

 

Stormhaven, exact location unknown, Galician Empire

1 Nober, 1200 G.Y. (1013 B.Y.)

 

Sehrvat Primus Derek entered the Primus’ private study. The Primus was seated at a table with his back to Derek. He appeared engrossed in a large book lying on the table in front of him. Derek approached the Primus silently, cowl drawn over his head.

 

“Thou hath some matter to bring to my attention, Sehrvat Primus?”

 

“Yes, Primus,” Derek replied uneasily. The man’s awareness of his surroundings was uncanny! Derek thought. “The three adventurers hired to investigate the cabal hath succeeded in penetrating Markin’s stronghold, Primus. They hath succeeded in obtaining the information we seek and even now are attempting to effect an escape.”

 

“Excellent,” the Primus replied without stopping his perusal of the tome. “Thou art dismissed, Derek,” the Primus said in a neutral voice.

 

“Cha loth, Primus,” Derek said. He bowed once to the Primus’ back then turned and exited the room.

 

After Derek had gone, the Primus stopped reading long enough to address one of his guards. “Go to Markin’s stronghold and assist our agents in making their escape. If their situation proveth untenable, thou art to eliminate them. Take care that thou doth not reveal The Order’s involvement in this affair.”

 

The silent black-robed figure nodded its head in almost imperceptible acknowledgement then vanished on the words of a teleport spell. The Primus went back to his reading as if the entire incident had not occurred.

 

Duke Markin’s castle, New Valencia, Duchy Valencia, Galician Empire

1 Nober, 1200 G.Y. (1013 B.Y.)

 

Justin, Julia, and Tarn pounded down the long corner. They could hear sounds of pursuit coming from the direction of Markin’s quarters. “If we can reach the entrance hall far enough ahead of them,” Justin panted, “we should be able to lose them.”

 

“I hope so,” Julia commented. “There’re far too many for us to fight.”

 

“We won’t have to,” Tarn said. “The hall is just up ahead.”

 

The trio rounded the corner that led to the entrance hall at a dead run. A startled guard began drawing his weapon while at the same time shouting for the three to halt.

 

Justin never paused, nor did he try to draw his own weapon. He simply hurtled forward, slamming the guard into the alarm-gong at the top of the stairs. The three companions ran past the dazed guard and down the stairs. That’s when they noticed four other guards near the bottom of the staircase.

 

Halfway down the stairs, Justin leaped for the nearest guard on the left. The two collided with a great clangor of metal-on-metal. The guard lay on his stomach, unconscious. Justin wasn’t much better off. He tried to use his left arm to raise himself, but stopped abruptly when pain lanced through his shoulder. Giving a strangled cry of agony, he fell back to the floor.

 

The three guards still active were rushing up the stairs to meet Tarn and Julia. Tarn removed his longbow from his back and hastily loosed a shaft at the right guard. His target saw what was coming, however, and brought his shield up at the last moment, harmlessly deflecting the arrow from its intended path.

 

Tarn notched his last arrow, took careful aim, and with his target only eight feet away, let fly. The arrow covered the distance in a fraction of a second. The guard literally never saw it coming. It struck the guard in the left eye, sending him crashing down the staircase. His comrade, following behind, tripped over the body and tumbled to the bottom as well.

 

Julia threw her shield at her opponent, sending his blade flying from his nerveless hands. She drew her sword and thrust it through the back of the guard’s throat before he had time to bring his shield up. He died without a sound.

 

Julia rushed down the staircase and went to Justin. He was conscious, though in great pain from his dislocated shoulder. Julia gently helped him to his feet, taking great care not to move his left arm. She was so intent on helping Justin that she never saw the guard behind her.

 

The guard had finally managed to wrestle the dead body of his comrade off him. Burning with rage, he leaped to his feet and focused his fury on his nearest opponent. The fact that his opponent was a woman didn’t matter. The fact that she had her back to him only increased his satisfaction. He approached Julia, raising his blade to strike.

 

Tarn shouted a warning, but Julia couldn’t do anything with the burden she was carrying. She tried to interpose her body between Justin and the guard, knowing she was about to die.

 

Tarn knew he was too far away to use his sword. He reached for an arrow, remembering too late he had used his last one to dispatch this guard’s comrade. In desperation, Tarn drew his dagger and balanced it for throwing. It was a difficult throw and Tarn wasn’t at all certain he could hit a vital spot at this distance. Silently saying a quick prayer, he threw the dagger, aiming for the guard’s neck. Just as he was releasing the dagger, however, he slipped on a step, throwing his aim off. The dagger hurtled through the air and struck the guard on his left knee-cap, lodging between it and the joint. The guard let out an enormous bellow of pain and dropped to the floor, clutching his ruined knee.

 

Tarn could hear the sounds of many running armoured feet. “They’re coming!” he said to Julia. “Hurry!”

 

“What about our shields?”

 

“Leave them! We have no time!” Tarn opened the northern door for Julia as she helped the still-dazed Justin down the corridor. Just before he closed the door, Tarn saw the first of their pursuers arrive at the top of the staircase.

 

Reaching the small oak door at the end of the corridor, Tarn took charge of Justin, thus freeing his more combat-oriented companion to practice her trade as the need arose. The three continued down the narrow stairs and moved as quickly as possible toward the store-room and the secret passage. As yet, their pursuers hadn’t deduced where the quarry had gone; there were two possible directions the trio could have taken. According to what their employer had said, Markin was unaware of the secret passage’s existence. Therefore, the companions could expect a slight reprieve before the chase resumed.

 

Finally they arrived at the store-room. What had taken twenty minutes before took an hour due to Justin’s condition. Fortunately, Justin had, by this time, recovered his faculties. He was still in no condition to fight, be he no longer needed assistance walking.

 

“I think we can relax now,” Julia said. “It should take them about ten to twenty minutes before they discover we didn’t take the double doors. Figure another twenty to thirty to make it down here. We should be gone long before then.”

 

“We’d better be,” Justin said, struggling to keep the pain from his voice.

 

Tarn walked over to the west wall and twisted the stone that would open the secret entrance. A portion of the wall to his left slid back. The torches the trio lit in the passage were still burning, illuminating the seven hundred year-old corridor meant as an escape route for the original builder of the castle.

 

The three made their way down the passage, going as fast as Justin could manage. Tarn paused at the entrance only long enough to pull the bronze lever that would shut the door.

 

The companions reached the shaft at the end of the passage. The pain in Justin’s shoulder had grown worse. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, the only outward sign of his struggle to control the pain his injury was causing.

 

“Justin, can you climb?” a concerned Julia asked.

 

“I’ll have to, won’t I?” he answered in clipped tones, fighting to keep the pain from his voice.

 

Julia reached out and put her hand on his uninjured shoulder in a show of support for her friend. “Tarn,” she queried, “why don’t you open the trap door?”

 

“It already is,” Tarn replied in a grim voice.

 

“It can’t be! We closed it! I’m sure!”

 

“Take a look for yourself,” he said, standing by the ladder.

 

Julia came over to the ladder and looked up. There, thirty feet above, was an unmistakable circle of light where the trap door should have been. “Gods! They must have discovered the passage.”

 

“We certainly can’t go this way,” Tarn stated.

 

“What other choice do we have?” Justin commented from behind them. He walked over to join his friends. “I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to die, I’d much rather die up there in battle than down here like a starving rat.” With that, he reached out with his good arm and began hauling himself up the ladder. Julia and Tarn hesitated for a moment and then followed.

 

Justin climbed steadily, painfully toward the circle of light, fully expecting to die. He paused to regain his strength ten feet from the top. The effort of climbing with one arm was beginning to tax his endurance. Just a little farther, he thought, and then it’ll all be over.

 

He resumed his climb, all thoughts focused on reaching the flickering light above. As he neared the top, he forced his injured arm to adjust the dagger on his belt so that he could more easily reach it with his functioning arm.

 

He was only a few inches from the top now. He paused again, this time in preparation for exiting the shaft. He gripped the top rung with his good arm and, hauling mightily, vaulted out of the shaft. He landed on his stomach but quickly rolled to a crouch beside the hole, his dagger out of its scabbard and ready to throw.

“Greetings,” said a voice from the shadows.

 

Justin whirled, his arm coming down in one quick motion. The dagger flashed toward the sound of the voice. A word was spoken and the dagger seemingly deflected off air. A figure attired in black robes strode out of the shadows toward Justin and the now-emerging Julia.

 

“What are you doing here?” Justin asked.

 

“It is my task to see that thee and thy companions successfully escape from this stronghold,” the figure replied in the same archaic form of Galician that the wizard that hired them spoke. Only this wizard was not the same one who hired them.

 

“Who are you?” Julia asked.

 

“That is none of thy concern.” He paused, not speaking until Tarn had emerged from the shaft. “I shalt take thee to the Sehrvat Primus,” he stated. He spoke the words of a teleport spell and all four vanished.

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