A Knight’s Journey, or “getting there is half the fun”.

The goart Trees had bloomed early this year, perhaps auspicious for Gladriel, since this was his year to travel to Lackland, there to be trained as a Knight candidate.  As the youngest son of a Baron, this was indeed an honor, not to mention his mother was an elf.  The Baron Gideon Samovar had a human wife, and an elvish wife, and  other wives.  Gladriel, the youngest child of the elder Baron, was not so dear to his father as to have passed many of his eighteen years inside Castle Samovar.  He only knew his mother Jana, his aunt Esmeralda, the actual Baroness Lady Amerynthia, and at least most of the myriad of children who represented the ‘Baronial Line’. There were enough of them that his trip to Lackland was necessary if he were to be something more than a ‘semi-royal’. He was too far from the line of secession to be able even to hope for a title.     He looked at the forest around him, suddenly realizing that it was just a large wooded area between the Castle and Targun.  It was filled with hardwood trees and nut trees, fruit trees, berry vines and herbs, with the occasional meadow and glade to break up the monotony.  It was not a true forest, it was more of a corrie (from  the Dwarvish coire meaning a pot or cauldron) or cwm (an elvish word for “valley”, pronounced coom) or just woods.  No creatures lived here that he need fear.  The most dangerous thing that ever roamed these woods would be timber wolves, something that the local militia was always quick to drive away.  His upcoming journey would be through areas that held much more dangerous creatures. It had been many years since true monsters had been sighted, even by the caravansary who traversed the roads from city to city.  This close to the castle and the town, one saw goart trees, ronwood, the tall blackwood trees, mahogany and even birch and cane. Nothing like the huge forests between here and Cavalier, the closest city to Lackland Castle.  Gladriel knew little of those massive gathering of trees, most of that from stories. Caravan guards always had stories, about the things that came leaping from the trees to kill and devour.  Stories of the winged terrors and distant monsters heard in the night, were always about things ‘over there’,  never anything nearby.     His mother had told him of Hobgoblins who had been seen about a century ago, far to the north of Samovar proper, but nothing since.  Still, wild boars and wolves, Cave bears and longtooth lions were enough to keep the guards honest and the caravans cautious.  He thought back to the Castle Samovar, built in the time when monsters roamed the land.  It had bastion walls, a moat, crenelated merlons and an actual drawbridge, all designed to repel Trolls, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Umfs, and even the occasional Rogue Werecreature.  Dire Wolves, Giants and Wyverns were also creatures that were real enough, just not recent.  Gladriel was secretly glad to be going somewhere that hadn’t seen these sorts of creatures in a millennia.  The young candidate decided to forage on the way to Targun, now that the sun was almost up and he could see the berries along the road. The youngerberries were in season, since they ripened before most of the plants even bloomed in the spring. The grownupberries were blooming, promising a rich harvest in high summer, before the fall came and the elderberries would be on every one’s table.      Riding close to the edge of the road was easy, since he was not yet in possession of  a horse, His riding lizard was more than able to carry as much as a warhorse, but it was slower and not considered a ‘fighting mount’. (Thralzs were actually quite loyal and would kill any minor foe that attacked their rider, but a warhorse could kill almost anything short of an Ogre)  Gladriel availed himself of more than a few youngerberries as he rode, reflecting upon the beauty and richness of his homeland.  Samovar was the largest Barony in the southwest of the Newhome Lands.  It was both a blessing and a curse to live in Barony Samovar, because of the proximity of the Backbone Mountains. Those mighty mountains, where legend said that creatures best left to the realm of nightmares were known to roam.  The blessing was the land, fertile and easy to farm and Samovar being noted for it’s Nut brew and Wine, as well as a history of fine Horses and Thralzs having been bred on local ranches.  The major town of the Barony, some distance from the actual Castle, was Targun, and Gladriel had grown up mostly in that town.  His training and education were conducted there, and his mother kept apartments for visits to the ‘Human realm’. Visits Gladriel remembered as all too seldom.    Why his Mother, Jana, had stayed in the town was something Gladriel had never really considered, but he was glad of it.  He had some ‘alone time’ with her and she taught him both the common elf tongue and High Elvish, the language from which the common had arisen.  He also came to know elven foods, ‘the bounty of the forest’ it was called.  Elves ate meat, but it was prepared differently than ‘human food’ and had its own spices.  Elves also ate things that most people would never have considered food.  He had learned forestry and husbanding and even herbalism from his mother, but he never seemed to see her for more than a few days at a time.  It seemed she was much in demand in Byredale, her elven home.  Gladriel arrived in Targun feeling mostly fed and ready to begin the two or three month journey to Lackland.  He was hoping that the Caravan would leave today.  His mother had made preparations for him and Gladriel was stunned to see a destrier in his customary stable stall.  He used that stall whenever he was in Targun, and kept it paid for out of his allowance.  The horse had to be either his or his mother’s, and she rode an elvish mount.  Hers was one of the day mares  so well known everywhere.  Gladriel knew that his mother had gone back to Byredale for the spring rites. She had spoken to him at the Castle only last evening, she told him that he would find all in readiness for his journey when he reached Targun.   Gladriel had made his ride to Targun early in the day for a reason. He left the Castle before daylight.  He wanted to reach Targun when it was just morning in the Town, as it was now.  Morning shadows lay long across the streets, the buildings seeming taller than the two or three stories that Gladriel knew them to be. Shops always had living quarters attached, and sometimes more, as did the various tradesmen dens.  Smiths, Tanneries, Bowyer/Fletcher, Mills, and even the Alchemist, were both places to craft or produce goods and places to live as well. No tradesman would live too far from the goods he made.  Only the Academy was actually tall, and Gladriel could see it, standing in the distance, all twelve stories gleaming as the sun found it on this morning  It was a morning when he would not have to make the trip to the classrooms, or spend hours training on the ‘quad’. He was going to a ‘real’ academy, at Lackland, where he would spend four years becoming a Knight of the Realm, in service to the King.  Gladriel had, of course, never met King Egbert, and probably never would, but he would see the King, whenever the Knights passed in review.  He could look forward to that.  As Gladriel dismounted at the Stable, a tall blue man came to greet him.

  “Kerlock,” Gladriel greeted him, ” What brings you to the stable so early?”  ” As if you didn’t know, Gladdy” only Kerlock called Gladriel ‘Gladdy’, most of his friends just called him Sam, ” Your mother left a pack horse worth of things for you and instructions that no one but you were to see them.”    Kerlock was a person of mixed parentage, as was Gladriel, and that made for an instant friendship, even though they shared only the human part of their heritage.  The Blue Man was from a different group than Gladriel knew, something almost alien.  It was understandable that Kerlock had come to see Gladriel off to Lackland, but not that Gladriel had supplies for the trip.  He hadn’t even expected the horse. He’d saved a small bag of silver over the past months to finance his trip, and was glad that he might not need it.   Gladriel was puzzled, wondering what his mother had left, since he was going to Lackland to study, not on vacation, or to be on display.  Kerlock went to the Stable and began loaded the packsaddle on the Thralz that Gladriel had ridden to town.  Thralz were often used as pack animals and this one was no stranger to the gear.  While Kerlock loaded the animal with goods, Gladriel almost went into shock.   First were the clothes, fit for any Lord to wear, and enough to keep him a year or more.  Next were the three cloaks, each finer than the last, and two traveling cloaks, one for dry and one for wet.  Next was a suit of training armor, finer than any Gladriel had ever owned, and a suit of dress armor, made by elves and at least a good as his father the Baron owned.  as if this weren’t enough, there were some protective wear for the journey, a fine light mail, and leggings that were both fashionable and good armor.     The most amazing things were the weapons.  There was a flail, one of the ‘morning star’ varieties, with a handle, chain and spiked ball. The short chain made some call it a mace. Then Gladriel found a set of  javelin, spear and lance. He was also delighted to find both a short sword and a broadsword, ornate and obviously to be worn with his dress armor.  He was not surprised to see that there was no bow, since his crossbow was a gift from his elven grandfather and, some said, worth it’s weight in silver mithril.  As he helped pack, he noticed that his mother had even packed a bag of elven travel rations, and wondered why.  He must have said something, or thought it too loudly, as Kerlock answered him, almost at once.

   ” You know your mother, ” he laughed, “She always tries to prepare for any eventuality.”

   “What’s this, then?” Gladriel wondered aloud, having encountered a small box, made neither of stone, wood or gemstone.

   “That would be from your Father, the Baron” Kerlock responded, ” I’ve no clue what it’s made from, nor what it contains”.

   Gladriel had grown up in a Castle full of those older and closer to the Title than he was and that trained him in caution above all things.  He moved to a spot in the stables where neither he nor the contents of the box would be easily observed, and looked well before he opened it.  The opening would have been impossible except that it was a ‘family lock’ one which worked on a series of touches and pressures that he had been taught all his life.  The box opened in one try, because Gladriel had a good memory and had been teased enough to make him careful in his movements.

   Within the box was what could best be described as an amulet on a chain, although the chain was made of some sort of woven black rope and the thing at its end neither moved nor could be detached.  It was as if the entire object had been made complete, a single part which was the entire thing.  The end piece was golden, but not gold, and semi-transparent, save for the center, which was opaque blue.  The gold and blue were separate, but it was impossible to discern the end of one color and the beginning of the next.  Looking at the border between the colors always made it appear that the actual point of color change was either slightly to the right, left, above or below your point of focus.  Gladriel was aware that it must be magic, but he was one of the rare people who could not use any magic that he had encountered. He doubted his father would give him a magic amulet. They  usually required a spell to activate  It would be like giving a parachute to a fish.

    Having decided that, he  surmised that the item to be very valuable. His father had provided him with ’emergency funds’ in the form of a saleable item.  Certainly this was more portable than coinage would have been.  He quickly put the necklace on, hid the rope that held it and resolved to keep it under his chain mail, against need.  The box would be safe enough in his travel pack, because without its contents it probably was much less valuable.  There was also a letter from his Mother, written in elvish script, in her own hand, and on vellum parchment.  Gladriel would need time to read it, since his reading and writing of Elvish had not kept up with his speech.  He packed it away for later.

 II     A Caravan to Remember

    Gladriel wasted no time getting into his ‘traveling armor’ now that he had it.  It was so exciting to have protection that looked like normal clothes and could be worn for the entire trip, protecting him and allowing him to feel more adult than he ever had before.  Somehow the entire city of Targun, which the Caravansary called a village, began to look almost provincial, and he felt like he had grown just by changing clothes.  The streets, only a few of which were paved, looked more narrow, somehow, and the buildings seemed a trifle smaller. The shops, homes, workshops, the Tavern and the Inn, all of which used to be large in his eyes, seemed to recede in his mind, as he thought about the world before him.  Of course, it could have been that the sun was rising, and the shadows were shorter.  The Academy was suddenly just a College in a small town, albeit one with a solid reputation for martial skills.  No Academy trained its cadets better in unarmed combat than the one at Targun, it was almost legendary.  Gladriel thought, briefly, about the five years he had spent at that bastion of learning.  Since he was thirteen, and one of the youngest there, he had spent every waking moment working toward this day, hoping that he could be accepted to the ‘real’ academy at Targun, where Knights were trained who actually became agents of the High King.  He hadn’t had much hope, at first, but the last two years had given him reason to expect better things.  Being the top of his class in almost every field of study had taken more effort than most of the candidates were prepared to expend, but Gladriel was driven.  Being a half-elf meant that he was automatically excluded from most social circles, and he tried, desperately, to compensate for this by being the best at everything he did.  He knew that he would never be an ‘insider’, since half-elves were not considered as ‘good’ as humans, but he had become something of a celebrity by excelling.  He hoped that he would be able to duplicate this success at the Lackland Academy.  These thoughts reminded him that he couldn’t afford to be late to the departure of the Caravan, being half-elf and all.

   With a last check to make sure the thralz was hooked to lead on his new saddle, and a quick glance to make sure his new amulet was safely concealed, Gladriel mounted. He was  ready to ride out and join the caravan, but not without a moment of unease at the prospect of spending day after day in the saddle. He was an accomplished rider, but the Thralz had a smoother gait than a horse and he knew that he would spend a week or more getting accustomed to horsemanship. Still, he felt at home on his mount almost at once, and put those worries aside. He would have more than enough to do, trying to be useful and accepted on the journey, because it was said that half-elves were ‘unfriendly and haughty’ like there elven parent.  He had often considered living with the elves, but being ‘half-human’ wasn’t that much better than half-elf. He rode through town quickly, anxious to be in attendance when the canvasary departed.

    The caravan was led by a tall, muscular person who was known, locally, only as Hodan.  Without clear origin, and since no one was absolutely certain of his complete parentage, the Caravan Leader was generally just regarded as the boss, with no modifier.  Gladriel knew the man had to be learned.  His knowledge of the world and the contents thereof bespoke someone who had studied, somewhere, if not anywhere anybody could name.  Hodan made regular trips from Samovar to Lackland, owing to the market for the pitch black nut brew, finest when harvested from the mountains of southern Samovar.  The closer the arbors were to the region of dense trees and rain, which was called simply ‘the tropics’,  the finer the nuts. Nuts from the mountains within the tropics were more expensive than their weight in electrum, and harder to find.   With only one real city, Bobuktu,  the tropics were seldom visited by anyone not having business there. 

    Hoden made a good living on the Nut trade, and augmented his cargo with whatever novel thing Samovar might have to sell.  This trip was to be varied, because the winter, even one as mild as was the normal for Samovar, still made for time to spend at the carving and magic tables, making items less functional and more for artistic enjoyment.  There would be everything, from Fireworks to fine carved furniture, on to statuary and paintings, ornate glass and pottery, and some furs and cloth for those interested.  It was a rich load for Hoden, and he knew it. He’d brought four extra caravan guards just for the return trip.  How he always knew the nature of his cargo, before even leaving Lackland, was a subject of conjecture, both among those who knew him and those who didn’t. 

   Gladriel took his time passing the various liftants, mules, Oxen, Thralz, komels and various other beasts, always looking for something unusual, but never seeing it.  It was only slightly worthy of note that someone had sold a fine looking pair of Hippogriffs, caged but obviously trained to ride. Hoden would probably turn them to a massive profit, once in Lackland.  Such steeds were rarer than Griffins, with a greater carrying capacity, but were only caught and trained far to the North, above the Great Plateau.

   As the beasts of burden and the riding animals finally passed behind him, Gladriel found himself looking at the huge creatures that pulled the main wagons of Hoden himself.  He was surprised that the Tents were loaded and everything was ready to go, because the Caravan usually departed on First Day, for luck.  

     “Are we leaving on third day then?” Gladriel asked the first familiar face he saw, a skinner named Maney.

    “Unless Hodan finds a way to wind back the clock.” Maney shot back, 

“There’s rumor afoot that someone is bringin’ a flock of tearns over from Seacliff, and Hodan wants these Hippogriffs to beat them to Market.” 

    Gladriel understood instantly, since Tearns were huge flying carnivores that could be trained to carry warriors into battle, and were deadly fighters themselves.  A flock of Tearns would surely depress the market for not only Griffins but Hippogriffs as well, and Hoden was not fond of depressed markets. 

    “Gladriel!” Hoden’s voice came from beyond the big wagon, “Is that you?, I hope it is because otherwise you’ll be riding that…,” Hoden emerged from beyond the huge caravan wagon and was speechless for an instant. ” Where in all the realms did you get that Goldenwood Destrier?” 

     “My mother’s people”, Gladriel answered, suddenly aware of just how much horse he was riding. ” She surprised me with him.” 

    “What’s his name?” Hoden shot back.

    “I just got him this morning, I’ve no idea. I’m hoping there’s a letter or something from Her Grace Jana that will tell me more.” Gladriel was caught flat-footed, having failed to identify the animal and as such unprepared that he needed to know it’s name.

     “No need for that,” Hoden reassured him, ” I’ll ask and tell you right off.”   

    ” I’d be honored if you did,” Gladriel answered at once, since the art of learning an Elven Horse’s name was not common and usually cost a pretty penny.

   ” Dismount and stand at his head, he knows you and will be easier to talk to.” Hoden explained.

    Gladriel wasted no time, since he had never seen this done, and moreover was greatly pleased that it was being done here, at the beginning of the Caravan journey.  The superstitious drivers and lesser guards would surely see the name learning as a good omen, which would make for a more pleasant journey all round.  Hoden approached the massive horse with confidence and an expression of goodwill that seemed to extend into the air around him.  Gladriel suspected magic at once, but could not tell for certain, because of his magic blindness.  The steady stream of calm, quiet conversation, inaudible to any but the horse, and the gentle touch that accompanied the words seemed to bespeak a bond between the grizzled Caravan Master and the magnificent warhorse he faced.  It seemed to take a long time, but in only a few minutes, Hoden stepped away with a broad smile.

   “You’re riding Waekahn”, he announced, ” Son of Haephilis, from Goldenwood itself “.

     Gladriel was set back again, another massive surprise on this day of wonders.  Haephilis was famous, and as his son, Waekahn would be a warhorse of inestimable value. How, and why, his mother had procured the creature Gladriel could only guess, barely.  He began to wonder about the armor and weapons he had received.  Was he magicked like a real Knight? That would mean that someone had cast an augury and he was at the center of it.  He decided to keep that to himself, as the omens for the journey were good so far. He did not want to risk stirring up the dark superstitious fears that came with auguries and the associated events.  He wondered, briefly, if the amulet, so recently acquired, was yet another indication of things to come.

    As if learning his horse’s name had been a sort of signal, the Caravan Master suddenly started everyone in his charge into motion. Within a matter of moments, all the wagons were beginning to form a line, all the loaded beasts were filing into lines and the various travelers were finding places to stand, in preparation to move.   Gladriel took a moment to greet and introduce himself to Waekahn, as he knew he should do, before joining the procession himself.  The last to form up were the Guards, each waiting to see the form that the group would take before finding their proper place in the perimeter.  Those members of the Caravan who had made the trip before found this procedure easy, as did Gladriel. He had been present at more than one departure, although seldom as a traveler, and never mounted in the line before.  What, he wondered, should he do, as a half-elf, a non-human among humans, to be useful and more nearly accepted in this group.  He thought that riding with the guards might be something that made him less conspicuous, since not all the guards were fully human, and he could just be a kind of volunteer security.  It wasn’t much of an idea, but Gladriel hoped it would help.

    Suddenly ill at ease, Gladriel began to softly sing an old song that was traditionally used as a method of passing the time during a journey.  It was one he’d learned from an elder Elf years ago, when his family had gone to Lackland for some celebration he could no longer recall. He was  surprised that he remembered the song, and continued to sing it as the Caravan moved off.  He quickly fell into the movement and rhythm of the march, as the song soothed him, his mount and even those around him.  The Caravan to Lackland was underway.

III Leaving on an Elf Horse

    The first day of the march was a series of settling in experiences.  There was finding the pace and learning how to move within the ordered ranks, to be able to observe.  Even the process of eating and drinking, with only breakfast and dinner served while stationary, required adjustment.  It was another world for Gladriel, but he was quick to adapt.  He found the pace leisurely, the scenery enjoyable and the company good.  He had seen caravans that had characters included whom he would have avoided, but this group had none such, and Gladriel had no one to avoid.  It was almost a pleasure to be travelling, if one left out the constant horseback riding, lack of real diversion, perpetual smell, noise of pack animals, sense of going too slowly toward a much-desired destination and lack of privy facilities.  Gladriel had at least three incidents in the first day during which he was deeply thankful that he was not a woman.  The evening was a time during which everyone took a walk in the woods, either with members of the same sex, or alone.  Gladriel chose to go alone, and was amazed to find that there was a creature, watching the Caravan from a distant perch.  Being magic blind had made Gladriel more observant than most. He could never ‘sense’ the presence of another creature magically, nor could he ‘scry’ to see if he were being observed.  When he returned to the camp proper, Gladriel told Hoden what he had observed at once.  To his surprise, Hoden went to a member of the expedition and had that person use a seeing crystal to make sure of security.  In a matter of only a moment, six of the senior Caravan Guards quietly faded into the woods.   As the camp made preparations to sleep, Gladriel noticed that wards had been set, not usual for a camp only a day out of Targun.  It was much later when the Senior Guards returned, and one was injured.  Gladriel lost some of his sense of security at that, since the Guards in question were in no way easy to injure.  Gladriel decided to sleep in his mail shirt, with his mace close at hand. The night passed, not without dreams, but at least without interruption. 

   Gladriel was not surprised to hear the rumor mill running at breakfast, and it took longer than it should have for the caravan to get underway.  Travelers were armed and looking about, and the Guards moved in a pattern to prevent any from being in front or behind for too long.  It seemed that everyone was ready for something to happen, and that included Hoden.  He was carrying what was clearly a magical weapon of arcane origin.  It was something bladed on both ends, with a buckler designed in the center of what otherwise would have been a staff.  Gladriel found himself looking for any signs he could spot, from birds to moving game, in order to see an otherwise hidden adversary.  Finally he had to resort to another song, under his breath at first, to relax.  It was one of his father’s favorite marching songs, about bravery and resolve, and diligence.  Eventually, almost as if the song were motivating them, the Guards took up the melody and began to move with more of a deliberate confidence, while the drivers and travelers began to act as though they were less worried.  Gladriel could not help but reflect on the positive effect of a traditional marching song when it came to bolstering confidence.  That didn’t mean he would fail to query Hoden, after the wagons halted. 

    The train continued until much later than even the Guards expected, but it turned out that Hoden was aware of a location that was actually slightly defensible.  There were the ruins of some sort, a dwelling or perhaps a small temple.  There was room to congregate and yet enough cleared space to place wards well away from the main grouping.  With the availability of cover that could be used by archers, and a raised platform in the center of the clearing as well, the location was much better than a simple camp along the road.  Gladriel took advantage of the late meal to find Hoden and see if he could learn anything.     “So, it would seem that all goes well,” Gladriel opened, hoping that he would receive affirmation.

   “As well as a Caravan can be,” he answered, “When it’s being followed.” 

   “Why?” Gladriel asked, before he thought, “What can we be carrying that anyone wants badly enough to stalk us?”

    ” We’ve yet to determine that,” Hoden evaded, “But we know that it must be important. That was a Blood Monkey you spotted yesterday.  Thanks for that, by the way.” 

   ” Blood Monkeys don’t come cheap,” Gladriel noted, “Neither do their Handlers.” 

   “Let’s hope that the Ferryman knows that,” Hoden answered, “When he charges them passage over the river. Handler as well.” 

   Gladriel realized that the Guards who went out had faced a pack of trained Blood Monkeys and their handler, and in the woods at that. He was suddenly impressed that only one had been injured, and none killed.  Blood Monkeys were a monster that many considered a myth, but Gladriel’s father, the Baron, had a skull of one that he had killed. That was a tale Gladriel had heard enough that he wondered if he would sleep this night.  The creatures were at home in the trees, had claws on every limb, huge teeth, little, if any, fear.  They would leap on prey and could hear, smell and see better than a person.  The skull, that his father had, was larger than Gladriel’s chest. It was used as an end table, with a short wooden riser beneath it.  Even with his half-elven sight and hearing, Gladriel knew himself no match for one of the creatures in single combat. Not without some magic he wasn’t. 

   During the next few days, Gladriel was able to spot creatures of an unfamiliar sort in the rocks and trees some distance from the Caravan.  This was usually when camp had been made, but eventually while riding during the day.  He was never slow to pass the information to Hoden, and in almost every case, the spy or spies would be dealt with  Only one time was the message different.

   “There’s a corpse with one of my crossbow bolts in it, off to the left among those hawthorn bushes,” he told Hoden.

    ” I’ll send someone for the bolt,” Hoden answered, ” You just watch for more.” 

     Gladriel was not reassured when his crossbow ammunition came back stained with some ichor he had never seen.

   The days turned into a week, and then more, but still the spying eyes persisted.  Finally the Caravan approached Crossroads, a place where the Old Road crossed the High Road they were using. It was barely more than a trading post, with a few buildings, inhabitants who made a fair living in trade, and a single inn.  The trader there always liked to see Hoden arrive, because it meant Travelers who would stay a night at the Inn, and perhaps buy something from the trading post.

   The settlement was a short distance toward Targun from the actual crossroads.  The area where the two roads crossed was magical to the point of being uncomfortable for long endurance, let alone sleeping.  It disturbed the mind and caused nightmares. It was, perhaps, a mixing of the magics of each road.  All roads were, to some extent, magic.  They would have decayed away had they not been so.

    The Caravan was called to a halt unexpectedly as it approached that point in the road where the small village should have appeared.  Gladriel, with his exceptional observational skills, was instantly armed and not with a crossbow.  He had a sword in his hand, and did not even remember drawing it.  Something was very wrong up ahead.    As the armed Guards and Scouts surveyed ahead, word was passed for the travelers and drivers to armor up, which, it turned out was a waste of effort.  Every person in the group was already in that state, and had a weapon in hand as well.  It would seem that Gladriel had become a person to watch.  As soon and he drew his sword, people began to ready themselves.

    The smell had helped, a scent of burned wood, and the sickly sweet miasma of things newly dead.  As the Caravan finally approached the area, there could be seen the remains of homes, a small forge, and the skeleton of the inn and the trading post.  Nothing moved and there were only partial bodies to be seen.  The silence of death was even deeper than the silence in the Caravan.  The animals seemed aware of something unnatural having visited this place.  Gladriel sought vainly for any sign of life, and was unable to find anything natural.  He did, however notice something unnatural.

  “Over there,” beyond the remains of the trading post was a pile of debris, “That’s wrong, it shouldn’t be there.” Gladriel finished his remark to Hoden, who looked with interest.

   “Ragorhn,” he spoke quietly, but a scout seemed almost to materialize at his side, ” Take a careful look at that pile of rubble, but be what you would call, careful.  It seems out of place to our watcher here.” he indicated Gladriel.

    “Aye, and you can spend that in a store,” Ragorhn returned, ” Everything but that pile is burned. There be something evil gathered there.” 

   While Ragorhn was carefully moving, to see what he could see, Hoden signalled his best men to gather in the direction of the pile.  The other Scouts were carefully scrying about, in order to assure that no trap had been set, with the rubble as bait. Ragorhn was using hand signals to send information to those gathering, when Gladriel had a sudden epiphany, from his training at the Academy.  The hand signals reminded him of something learned there. 

    He moved to a location where the Rubble was just hidden, but not too distant.  Once there he scouted as well as he was able, looking for high spots in the earth.  Most he found were natural, one was not.  He  spoke to his steed.

   “Waekahn,” he was surprised at the fear in his own voice, ” I need to run my lance into that patch of ground, as soon as we can arrange it.” 

    To his surprise, Waekahn understood exactly what he wanted, and took him to his pack Thralz for the long, magic lance.  Gladriel took it and set it in the saddle, exactly as if for a joust. Waekahn then began a gentle acceleration, toward the spot in the ground that Gladriel had noticed.

    While Gladriel had been occupied with his search and preparation, the Senior Caravan Guards had moved into position,  without a noise or obvious sign, they began a systematic advance on the pile of rubble.  The best of the archers in the party moved to a position of advantage, to fire at any targets of opportunity that might appear.  Once they were in place, the Guards advanced like the well-trained force they were.  The came suddenly upon the enemy, without pause or warning.

    The rubble erupted as they attacked, with creatures of myth and nightmare boiling out of the ground, dozens of them finally appearing.  The archers began taking their toll. The Guards were fighting with almost superhuman skill and strength, thanks to magic weapons and armor. Even though they were Hobgoblins, and larger than men in size, the Guards knew that they could win, especially with the archers behind them.  There weren’t enough of the creatures to overrun the Caravan alone.  They would have needed help, and massive help to be sure.  It was at this moment Gladriel obtained a target.      As Gladriel accelerated to the charge, soundlessly thanks to Waekahn’s superb training, the almost unnoticeable mound moved.  A huge stone slid aside, with a huge hand attached. An Ogre stood, almost the height of a mounted soldier, and bearing a club as big as a man.  He was behind the Guardsmen attacking the rubble mound, and the noise of battle had concealed his rise from the ground.

    As he made to step from the pit which had hidden him, Gladriel arrived, the force of his charge driving his lance all the way through the Ogre, and probably angering the monster in the process. Ogres were tough, and Gladriel knew it.  He had heard enough about them over the years to know that this one would fight with the lance sticking through him and never pause.  He understood that the arm with the club was now his target, and drew his broadsword, striking in the same motion.

    Gladriel’s training was coming in very handy, since he had been forced to abandon the lance and move to attack, while drawing his broadsword.  He was proficient in this process, because it was the move which he used to pass his senior exams at the Academy.  With a silent prayer of thanks to the Goddess Kalichkell, Gladriel began to worry the Ogre’s right arm from the rear, backing Waekahn as the monster turned, knowing that he must remain behind it.  He had to be mounted to even reach so giant a target.  The Guardsmen had not heard the encounter, but the Archers had.  As the Ogre turned his head to see what small thing he had to kill, his face was toward two of the archers.  Ogres eyes are larger than an adult man’s hand, and Gladriel learned ,in that instant, that each of the creature’s eyes could easily hold two arrows.

    Suddenly blind, the monster lashed out, but at nothing, since Gladriel was still behind him.  Still, even a blind Ogre could kill, just by its hearing and sense of smell, and Gladriel was wishing someone nearby could, perhaps, give him some assistance.  He got his wish.   From the ground, moving like a striking serpent, a pitch black blur of motion struck the Ogre. It made a single wound, but the cut was incredibly deep and precisely below the arm, where the muscles attached.  Distracted, the Ogre tried to locate this new threat, since it smelled different from the surrounding creatures.  Gladriel suddenly saw his moment to strike, and used a jumping maneuver that would have gotten him detention at the academy, but allowed him to put all of his strength and weight into an attack on the neck of the Ogre.  He cut away a cleft as large as his forearm, and the artery to the creature’s brain with it.  Mortally wounded, the Ogre slapped backward with its off hand and Gladriel flew like an albatross,  beautiful in flight, but terrible at his landing.

    The ogre fell, and the streak of dark, armored death, which had already attacked it, proceeded to pierce it in a dozen places. It would not rise again.   The pile of rubble was proving even less of a challenge than it first appeared.  A Dwarf with a very large ax had joined the fray, and his blows bisected one of the hobgoblins every time he struck.  With the skill of the guardsmen and the support of both the archers and the deadly Dwarf, the encounter never even reached the point of being a full fledged battle.  None of the Caravan people were noticeably injured, and the only person down was Gladriel, although his armor had resulted in his receiving no cuts or abrasions, and only a few thousand bruises.  Gladriel was happy, for once, that he had no lady love, because if he had possessed such, and she had come to hold him after the battle, he might have been forced to kill her.

      An entire group of the Caravan travelers, who had not been involved in the fighting, were suddenly present and offering to heal even the smallest cut.  Someone passed Gladriel a potion that began a rapid healing of his bruises, with an almost instant end to the pain.  He was happy for that.  A Druid named Linda, took his morning star and hung it on Waekahn, and then healed him of several cracked ribs.  She took her time examining him and he learned her name and that she was going to Chevalier.

    The person who had aided Gladriel in the fight turned out to be a Dark Elf, a rarity anyplace north of Narl, and a member of the Caravan.  He explained that he had been travelling in disguise, since Dark Elves were given a bad reputation since, well, forever, and he wished to avoid being a source of discord.  He was quickly assured that his presence here was welcome and he need not resort to further disguise,  He had helped kill an Ogre, and that was more than enough for the people around him.

   Once the monsters had been stripped of all they had, the horde was divided, with half going to the fighters and half to the Caravan.  Even split in so many pieces, Gladriel wound up with a sack full of more coin than he had brought. Then the Caravan moved onward a short distance to camp, and sleep.

 IV Rocky Mountain High     

       Sleep didn’t arrive easily, and when it did, it was broken by any sound that might have presaged an alarm, so that Gladriel was still somewhat tired when dawn broke. What a surprise that was.  He noticed that the rumors had stopped and people seemed to be in good sorts, so that the Caravan broke camp and moved out on schedule.  Around noon, Hoden called a halt to progress in a large open meadow.  Two of the warders went out and began to circle the meadow, and Gladriel was surprised to see two Wizards with them.  Magic was being woven, and wards were being set, although why was a mystery. When the four  had completed their circle, a single woman, in a plain tunic, began circling the camp, touching plants, trees and the ground itself, from time to time. Gladriel realized it was Linda, and that she was casting some form of spell. 

  “Forest magic”, someone commented.  

  “We’re being hidden, that’s for sure” another voice spoke. 

   After long minutes of preparation, Hoden, believed all was in readiness.  He  called the Caravan to order.  

   “You may all remember that we were going to take the High road to Cambre, and the Royal Road to Chevalier,” Hoden began, “But there’s been a change in plans.”

    “Those of you going to Cambre will have to backtrack from Nushire,” he continued, with sudden attention spreading through the group, ” We’re going to take the Old Road to the Pass of Tuan, and from there go down into Lackland by the Ancient Way.  That will cut two weeks off our trip and make us the very devil to track.” 

    ” Some of us paid to travel to Cambre,” a voice began.

  ” And you four will get a gold sovereign for your trouble,” Hoden cut him off.  “We’ve attracted some unwanted attention, and to avoid the bandits that are otherwise in our immediate future, we’ll be changing paths.  No discussion and no delay to be tolerated.” 

    ” What kind of attention could redirect a well-guarded Caravan such as this?”  A Dwarvish voice was heard.

   ” A creature’s spoor was found, that divides the hoof in three, and leaves a smell of rotting meat.” Hoden answered.

   ” I know that one, ” shot back the Dwarf, “And I’ve personal knowledge of the Breed.  They’re Cavebarrows, you can well know, and if even one is after us, I’ll personally clout the fool who tries to keep to our original course.  Up the pass it’s cold, and the creatures can’t stand that. If nothing else it will stop them from following, and there’s no easy place for ambush on the down side of the Ancient Way. It’s wide and has the old travel houses all along it, we’ll have more than adequate defense at our camps.”

    “Do Cavebarrows really exist?”  one voice seemed full of doubt.

    “I’ve a bootjack made from one’s shoulder blade,” Gladriel spoke, “If you’d like to see it.”

  The item was probably 800 years old, but the magic of the creature made it almost indestructible.  Gladriel knew how hard it could be to remove boots in a cold, wet place.  He had brought it before he knew the extent of his mother’s generosity, but, if they were going through the pass, he would need it for the snow camp.   Another hour was spent setting a false trail, and making sure that no trail led from the crossroads ahead which might lead a searcher toward the Pass. 

   Gladriel worked on obscuring the passage of the Caravan to the North, and, as was his wont, he sang to make the work lighter.  Everyone had come to appreciate his songs.   His voice, while not loud, seemed to brighten the mood of all who heard it. 

   Finally the Caravan moved off along the Old Road, a track that was broad and smooth, but covered with dust.  Because during the war it had ceased to be an easy route for trade.  It was, actually, easier to traverse. That was something that all the Travelers would appreciate.  With the labor of creating a false trail, and hiding the real one for a long distance, everyone was exhausted by the time they halted. 

   They set wards and ate cold rations, so as not to have cooking fires. It reminded all the Veterans of a camp in the field, during wartime.  No one spoke above a soft tone, and stealth was the order of the day. Everyone slept in some version of armor and at least one weapon.

      Dawn came, and a path up into the mountains lay before the Caravan.  Several people, whose magic was applicable, worked together to create enough hot breakfast and nutbrew so that all could partake.  It goes without saying that those responsible earned enough love to equal that of having cured the plague.   The animals were harnessed and mounts saddled.  The Caravan moved off as if it were a shadow moving across the land, driven by the sunrise. 

    Gladriel was amazed at the stealth of such a group, and chalked it to fear. It was his first experience with how powerful that emotion can be.  Whatever the reason, the Caravan made time as if it were on a level road.  What should have been a day and a quarter’s journey along the trail, was covered by sunset.  No one went on a ‘solitary walk’ that evening, and Gladriel noticed that the women were not as concerned about being away from the men as they had been previously.  Nobody wanted to be alone, at all. 

    Several days passed, then it was a week, and finally almost two weeks.  The trail became more steep, but the Magic wielders had spent time teaching those who could learn how to  ‘lighten’ the loads borne by the animals and wagons.  Because everyone who could was working on this, the speed of the Caravan only decreased slightly as the trail became steeper.  Finally it became switchbacks and hairpin turns, tending to concentrate the worst of the climbs into smaller areas.   That gave the magic wielders respite. 

    The constant magic actually sped the Caravan up, so that instead of four weeks to the Pass, it was three weeks and a day.  They never even paused at the little used side roads, which branched out at intervals from the Ancient way. Those people who would have taken the smaller roads to places like Cambre and Nushire elected to stay with the Caravan, not wanting to risk travel alone.  Nights grew cold, but the large tent was warm.  It became a Barn for the animals, and smaller tents went up inside it.  All in all, it was cold, scary, tiring, and stressful.  Aside from that, it was cold food, water, and hushed conversation that made everyone feel hunted.  A wonderful time was had by none. 

    The area of the Pass decreed that some time be spent in recovery.  Trying the downhill with tired men and animals was to invite injury, and the Caravan was six days ahead of schedule already.  At the center of the passage was a long-unused barracks and stable.  The pass entry, and its exit, had larger buildings, former fortresses, but Hoden suspected that if anyone came looking either by magic or stealth, they would expect those edifices to be prime choices.  It proved wise of Hoden to take the center buildings, because  the Woman in the plain tunic, Druid by persuasion, was gathering ingredients all the way up the Pass.  She was able to give the smaller buildings a look of empty ruins, even as they were occupied and warm.     “We keep being able to stay a step or two ahead of our foes, ” Hoden observed during breakfast on the second day, “Whomever they be.”

   ” I think it’s a matter of good choices,” Eartle, one of the warders spoke.   

   ” Choices are based on information, ” Hoden replied, ” And I’ve had the good fortune of getting plenty of information, both magical and non, for these past weeks.” 

   ” Still,” Walker, one of the Scouts broke in, ” We know they accepted the false trail at the crossroads, without a sign that it was a trick, and that was a blessin’, but they’ll be hard after us in a few days when they can find no other sign.”   

    “There’s two roads as branch from the road we’re on, ” Tag the Dwarf spoke now, ” they may be low roads, but either one could pass us with care, so that’ll slow ’em down a bit, at least for a couple of days.”

    “By then we’ll be well on our way down the pass,” Hoden agreed, “And they’ll be hard pressed to catch us, even if they think they can lay ambush on the Ancient Road.” 

   “If they do,” one of the Guards remarked, ” I just might take exception to their having caused me such a rough trip.” 

   ” I’ve an ax to grind upon them as well,” Tag put in. 

    ” I think there are about sixty fairly accomplished warriors and battle mages in this group.” Hoden said, “If they all are as tired of running as I am, it should be a good fight.”

 V    Eve of Destruction

    Morning on the third day, after arriving at the Pass, everyone ate well and convened at Hoden’s request in the main barracks hall.

   ” Today we’ll pack up,” he began, ” And tomorrow we’ll begin the journey down the pass.  Remember that the way will be easy and the animals will want to speed somewhat, but don’t rush.  The chance of a stumble is just as great as ever, and at speed it could cost us an animal. We can’t afford that and we need to avoid it.

   “There’s no reason to hurry now”, he continued, “We’ve left our pursuers behind, and we’ll be back in civilized lands in two weeks or a bit more.  If they come upon us now, it’ll be better that we’re not as tired and are ready to defend ourselves.  I trust you lot are as tired of running as I?” 

   ” There will be Blood,” from somewhere in the crowd, that was heard, neither loud nor obviously angry, it nonetheless carried to every ear, a simple statement, as if it be fact, in the accent of a Dark Elf. 

     The chorus of aye, too right, and even Damn Right, was loud and clear.  The group was made up of many veteran adventurers, who were known to be, in some cases, a bit hotheaded.  It had reached the point, however, that every traveler in the group was tired of running and ready to visit retribution on someone for the flight of the past month and a half.  From the look of the core of deadly fighters and battle mages present, one could indeed imagine that “There would be Blood”. The Gods might well pity any bandits who came upon this Caravan, if it come to pass. 

   The packing procedure was conducted with almost a military air.  Each person in the party who had armor wore it, and weapons as well.  The Dwarf, known as Tag, was a block of Adamantium, the metal preferred by his people, and his ax looked too large to be wielded, since the blade was almost the size of a Dwarven tower shield.  Other adventurers were wearing magical armor as well, more than a few. Everyone wore some sort of protection that was more than purely physical. 

    Gladriel found himself wearing his ‘best’ armor, not for show, but out of more than a tiny bit of trepidation, one might even say he was afraid of the coming conflict. But he was in good company there.

    “No shame in a drop of fear,” Tag assured him, ” Might even keep you alive for a minute or two longer, if it comes to that. ” 

     “Call it what you like,”   the Dark elf, whom everyone had begun calling ‘the black cat’ due to his speed and ferocity, remarked, ” trepidation, caution, nerves, or even fear, it all amounts to the same thing. Your common sense reminding you to be careful and not die.” 

    “And try not to jump on any Ogre’s heads, if you can avoid it,” Gladriel came back, “they can hurt you.”    Everyone laughed at that. 

    The route down the pass was both pleasant and disquieting. Pleasant for the scenery, trees well away from the road and berries, both ripe and soon to ripen, which somehow found their way into every one’s diet. The disquieting part lay in that nothing appeared, no spies, no trace of any kind of pursuit or danger.  It was altogether too quiet and peaceful, like the calm before a storm. 

   Gladriel took to circling the entire Caravan, albeit at close range.   First he would slow so that the group passed on his left side, then he crossed behind the last of the travelers. Finally he would pick up his pace, to pass to the front of the group without hurrying.  In this way he could see both sides of the road for long stretches. It gave him something to do, searching for any ‘monsters’ that might appear.  On one such pass, Hoden suggested that he look for game, as fresh meat might make the evening meal more enjoyable.  After a few of his circles, Gladriel spied a carrobier, a large herbivore of the cattle family.  He mentioned it to Hodan, and offered to bring it in. 

   ” We’ll send a party,” Hoden decided, “You can go with, if you like.” 

    Gladriel was only too happy to be a part of a hunting party in this wild area.  He had less fear of the normal predators, since his Ogre encounter, and was eager for a break in the stress of not knowing when, or if, the next attack would occur.  He joined two scouts, an archer and two other Guardsmen as they moved out toward the line of trees. They passed a few ‘berry pickers’ in the process, but nothing to speak of.  After only a moment, Gladriel had spotted spoor from his earlier sighting, and the Caravan was still close.  One of the Guards tensed at this, but Gladriel couldn’t determine why. 

    “Meat on the Hoof”, the other guard whispered. ” Left and forward.” 

    A shot from the archer, a bolt from Gladriel, and a javelin from the scout all struck within an eyeblink, and the creature turned. It was a trophy animal, though none of the group cared.  They were hunting the twenty stone plus of meat that the creature represented, not the thirty points on his antlers. Gladriel doubted if anyone in the Caravan had a recipe for horns, in any form.

   “My kill,” the guard who had tensed spoke just loudly enough for his voice to carry. 

    His horse moved like it was a part of his body, taking him close enough to slice the animal’s throat from ear to ear, and moving away even more quickly than his initial approach. His escape was clean, but only just.  The massive rack of the carrobier swung through the place he had occupied less than a second after he moved.  It was probably four stone of horn, spike and anger that might well have killed him outright, had it connected.  It was a moment in which Gladriel realized that he couldn’t have taken the thing alone, or even with a hunting party from Castle Samovar.  This creature required experience and skill to slay. 

    Even as the creature fell, the hunters took it in tow, because bleeding, cleaning and skinning a fresh kill had to be performed within the hour, anything less would ‘taint’ the meat with the musk of the animal.  Even Gladriel was enough of a hunter to assist in this action, using his shortsword to ‘gut’ the carcass,  and bleeding it by hanging it in a tree.  The skinning was work for several anxious minutes, since all of the hunters knew that the smell of blood would attract scavengers, and perhaps a predator of size as well.  Anything that could hunt this animal would be well avoided. 

   With skin and carcass in tow, the group moved back toward the Caravan, but the scout noticed a movement in the sky that gave him pause. 

    “Incoming,” he announced, and everyone looked up. 

    “What the…” a guard said, ” That bird’s as large as a liftant, and its claws are as long as my arm.” 

    ” That’s a Wartearn,” the black cat spoke from nowhere, ” It’s got a saddle and something riding it, although I’ll pass on the species astride that saddle.”  

   “Let us make haste,” the guard who had killed the carrobier said, “I would not want to be a part of the meal that this bird and rider might make of our kill and horses, not to mention us as well.”

     Suddenly frightened beyond measure, the Scout took an arrow out of his quivver, spoke to it briefly and fired it into the air with all the strength he possessed.  Almost as soon as it left his hand, it burst into magical flame, making a line of fire all the way to the armor of the Wartearn.  It burst against that protection with a huge spread of sparkling light, larger by half than the bird.  The bird was interrupted in it’s dive, and had to reorient before beginning again.  In the moment of respite, those moving the carcass urged their mounts to greatest effort, anxious to be closer to the Caravan, where the Wartearn would be less likely to mount an assault. 

     “Hope the other scouts and guards saw that,” he said, “We could use more eyes and arrows and, if it has friends, it could be very bad.” 

     The guards and Scouts had indeed seen the shot, as had everyone else on the Caravan.  By the time the Wartearn had begun his descent, he was travelling to meet almost a score of arrows, most either magic or magicked.  More than a few pierced his armor, and every shot was on target.  The creature riding the Wartearn was trying in vain to get it to veer away, and was hit by more than a few arrows itself.  As it approached the ground, someone cried out an identification of the rider.   “An ahnis!” came the call, “right out of the storybooks”.   Indeed the creature was a tall, skeletal form, with claws and fangs that matched the old stories, but none in living memory,(and elves are long-lived) had ever seen one.  It was about human sized, but gave off a constant aura of dark magic, as if it were undead.  The arrows which had struck it remained embedded, but there was no sign of blood or ichor where the creature was pierced. 

    As the dive continued, now with a cluster of guards at its focus, an elder warrior leapt to the fore.  Striking the ground with his hammer and uttering a word of power, he called forth a circle of protection and hurled the hammer toward the pair.  It struck the birdlike creature a glancing blow to the head and then struck the ahnis full in the chest. The combination of the ward and the blow unseated the rider and caused it to fall among the guard.  The bird was only too happy to be rid of its rider, and banked away into the distance, receding toward the horizon. 

     As for the creature, two of the slower Guards were struck as it landed. It seemed to bounce into the air, and the two Guards were thrown from the battle, torn deeply by the impact of the ahnis’ claws.  The Two of the slower Guards struck by the creature as it hit the ground and bounced, were thrown from the battle, torn deeply by the impact of the ahnis’ claws.  The creature started to rise then, still active, but it was felled again by a blow from Tag, who cut off its legs at the knee.  Undaunted, the creature rose on its stumps, prepared, again, to return to battle. Its elbow drove Tag back, but did little damage, and its claws sought more victims from the Guard, who had retreated slightly.  Those who had them raised shields. 

   Gladriel had begun to approach the ahnis, but had not expected it to bounce when it landed. He was out of position to use his sword, and struck with his off hand using the morning star he had been given.  As he moved it, the weapon seemed to seek the ahnis, drawing power and speed from the ancient magics of its construction.  When it impacted the monster, it was with such force that the creature’s head was driven from its body, and carried almost a span away.  The battle was over. 

    It was at that moment Gladriel decided it was high time he read his mothers letter, to learn what he might of the weapons he carried.  The injured Guardsmen survived, but not without massive magical healing.  The minor injuries seemed to just have appeared, none from the Wartearn, But the feet of the ahnis had continued to fight until the creature was dead. Magic armor in use had saved lives, as did Linda.  Gladriel was relieved that his mace had proven so adequate, but puzzled as to the reason.  As he rode, he began the almost painful process of reading his mother’s note. 

   Written in her flowery script, and high elf as well, it was almost encoded, for all that anyone else could have seen.  Since all the magical viewing that could be done, was being done, Gladriel felt safe taking a break from his almost constant watching. He used the time to work through the complex script, grammar and form.  Waekahn ignored his preoccupation and kept up with the Caravan.

VI      M is for the many things you gave me.

    ” Gladriel, my part human, part elven son” it began, ” For you there is no title prepared, and yet a crown may find you if the future proceeds along its more  likely path.” 

   At this point, Gladriel understood much, as the predictions of  Elvenkind were almost at the level of Prophecy, having been perfected for millennia. His mother would have made her decisions, choices and expenditures based on what was most likely to lead to the future she had chosen for her son, without discussion or consideration of any desire or want he might have had.  Since he’d waited almost the entire trip before reading her missive, he was probably too late to make any decision.  He went back to the letter. 

    “The seers of Brightwood have seen a possibility that all Elves, Dwarves and men have long awaited. Within your future exists a path which leads to the destruction of the ancient evil which drove us all from Old Home beyond the Backbone Mountains. Sometimes this evil is personified as Fifnir, but it has grown into a vast army of monsters, not all of whom can distinguished by their appearance.  Those who have come under that evil influence will try to destroy you, because in you lies hope, and hope is their greatest enemy.  To protect that hope the Elves and Dwarves have come together to assist you, so that you may have the chance to become that which is within your future.  Your weapons, the sword and shortsword, are from the Elves, with runes of power on each.  They will strike with more than your strength and speed, and shield you from many blows.  Your Armor came from the Dwarven Forges, and the Elves gave the Mithril to add to the adamantite so that they would be lighter.  The magics give the armor greater strength, less bulk and weight and will aid you in healing faster.    As to your weapons, they are as follows.  

  • A sword from the Hall of Goldenwood, inscribed and magicked beyond any normal blade. 
  • A short sword from the Tunnels of the Smallfolk, named Follower, which is as good as a shield and a strong piercing weapon. 
  • A Javelin, which, when the need arises can daily unleash a small lightening into its target. 
  • Your spear is such that it travels farther, strikes more truly and wounds more deeply, able to pierce any normal armor or hide and some that are magicked.  
  • Your lance is from Byredale,  and is heroic in itself.  It will give you balance and speed beyond your normal limits, and is almost unbreakable.
  •  The mace, or more properly, morning star, is from your siblings, and was found in the castle family treasures.  It is supposed to have come from Old Home, and is one of the most ancient things I have ever examined.  It neither corrodes, tarnishes nor becomes blunt and I could find nothing which would mark it.  It detects of a magic that is older than modern history, and seems to be attuned to the monsters of fifnir himself, as your bootjack elicits a small glow when the mace is brought near it.  Your siblings decided to gift it because they were not comfortable with its being in the hands of any who were to remain at home.  

    ” Now, I suppose, I should speak of Waekahn, the Steed given you by those horsemen of the Mountain Family.  He is much smarter than any horse you have ever known, he knows his name, your name, and many commands.  I suspect that he will teach you as much as the instructors at Lackland, because his

training is complete, and he is an Elven horse, who can live more than a century.  Ten years of training have made him sure in battle and able to defend you well, sometimes knowing your needs before you do.  If any other attempt to steal him, you should pity them, and tend any wounds that Waekahn may have when he returns to you.  By the time he returns, it will be too late to tend the injuries of any thief involved. 

   Among your rations, which you may need, are several healing cakes and potions, for you and any companions you feel may deserve such.  Also are some magic apples, not for you, but for Waekahn, one of them each day will feed him, when forage and food are lacking. 

    When you arrive at Lackland, probably in the city of Chevalier, you may encounter my second cousin, a ranger and mage by the name of Seana.  She is a good friend to me and will be the same to you, not to mention a warrior and mage of some reputation, should it come to pass that those skills are needed.  Do not put your trust into anyone you do not know, unless she, your father, or I vouch for them.  Everyone may be an enemy, and some will be. Change what you are called, Waekahn suggests the name Sam, as it suits you and you used it at the Academy. It will shield you from those who have but a name to use to find you. I have faith in you, because I have raised you well, but I wish you were a few decades older.  This is no trial for a child such as you. I send this with my Love, 

Jana of Byredale, Lady of the First Planting and Elflady.”

    Gladriel took a moment to be terrified, and then let his emotions sink to the level of simply scared out of his mind.  Fifnir was a creature from children’s stories, and not supposed to be real.  Even the idea of crossing the backbone mountains was something that made Gladriel feel a tingling sensation in his hands and feet, as though he were looking down from a great precipice.  The concept of having hordes of enemies out to kill him was something that he would have expected from a hero in a book, not as a part of his future.  The only part of the letter that he actually liked was the line in which his mother suggested he use the name Sam, because he much preferred it to Gladriel.  He resolved to make that a goal, and set himself a mental reminder to seek out this Elf named Seana, in Lackland.  He hoped she was in Chavalier, so the process would be easier.  He also expected her to be much like his mother, and someone who would ‘keep an eye’ on him, thereby ruining his chances of having any fun at Lackland.      When his terror subsided a bit more, Gladriel, or Sam, as he had decided to be called, was ashamed of not having read the missive sooner. Possibly he should have read it before leaving with this Caravan.  He was personally convinced that it was his presence in the party which had caused the various attacks during the trip.  Unsure what to do now, whether to put distance between himself and the others or to continue on to Chevalier he moved toward the front of the Caravan.  He needn’t have worried on either count.  There was a conference of travelers called by Hoden before he could make any decision.

 VII       The Ambush Makeover

   ” The time has come,” Hoden declared, as soon as the Caravan had assembled along the Ancient Road, ” For me to make known, to you all, a few facts. 

   “First, and most importantly, we are traveling with Tagernoab, one of the Council Members from the Court of Egbert the wise.  The information he bears is critical to the Court, and may have led to our attacker’s interest.” he paused, but did not give any indication he was finished. 

   ” Secondly, and perhaps almost as important,” he continued, “We have a shipment among our goods for Saul Baric, and as he is perhaps the wealthiest merchant in commerce, you may be assured of it’s value.  I comes from Bobuktu and is priceless.” again he paused.

   “Finally, and it pains me to say it, I’ve taken on perhaps the most profitable load in decades.  The goods I purchased in Targun this time are worth at least twice as much as my normal haul.” Hoden allowed this to sink in, ” We haven’t been accosted by a party of bandits, probably because they were not able to get into position to strike, owing to our sharp lookouts and quick responses.” 

   ” That will change, because they’ll be desperate now, having lost so much in the way of spies and searchers, they’ll need to at least try to take the goods we carry, if not the information or treasure.  We can’t even know how much they’re aware of, or if they even know what they seek.  It’s not unheard of for certain of the more powerful crime figures to hire bandits to do their dirty work, and pay them out of the treasure, never revealing the true nature of the raid, nor what it was actually worth.  It is certain that brute monsters, with little in the way of Speech or intelligence, would not know why they had been ordered to loot a Caravan.” 

    Hoden seemed to have reached the end, and Tag moved up to him, obviously anxious to speak.

    “If you’ve reached a place where ye can pause”, the Dwarf said to him, “I’ll be needing to pass along some information of my own.”  Hoden agreed silently, but Tag knew the man had more to say.

    “I’ll be brief,” Tag began, ” What I’ve learned at Whitsno is no less than terrible, and must go to the council as soon as may be.  I chose this Caravan because it was leavin’ early and I thought it would make good time, from the folk in it.

   I was right, but it’s more than likely that the forces who want my knowledge to remain concealed have learned that I left wi’ this group.   Hoden is right that they’ll be desperate, but I’ve managed to use a magical device that we council members carry in order to alert the forces in Lackland.  I should expect them tomorrow at the latest, to provide safe escort.”

    “That having been said,” Hoden again took the center, “I’ve also managed to alert Saul Baric of our plight, and because he values this cargo beyond its worth, he’s sending some additional Guards, from those he keeps as part of his personal entourage.”

    Gladriel was listening carefully, and realized that his presence on this Caravan was probably not even known to those who would want him dead.  He was leaving early, and traveling not to Lackland proper, but to Chevalier, from where he would make his own way to the Castle complex.  Perhaps his presence here was more of a boon to the Caravan than a bane.  He made his way back to the point from which he would begin his watch, once the caravan began moving.

    No sooner was the trip well begun than Waekahn began to shift as he moved, obviously aware of something Gladriel or rather Sam, had not noticed.

    “What have you?” Sam asked him, “Something to notice?”

    As soon as he spoke, Waekahn took to a swift canter and soon was at the front of the formation.  From there he began crossing back and forth in front of the troupe, almost in a dressage motion.  Sam strained his eyes and hearing, but it was his nose that finally alerted him.

   “Eyes in the Trees ahead”, He called to Hoden as he turned and rode toward him. 

   No one had noticed anything, but Sam had a reputation of spotting danger early, and the Caravan came to a halt as if everyone had noticed the same thing he had.   ” Do ya smell that?” Tag asked Hoden, having quickly arrived alongside Sam.   ” Actually I do,” Hoden answered, “But if we hadn’t halted, I might have missed it.”   

    All along the head of the Caravan, you could see people noticing the miasma, and realizing that an attack was imminent.  The wagons came into a circle, with practiced efficiency, and the animals were brought in while archers found vantage from the shelter of the wagons.  Guards raised shield, to remove as much target as they might, from possible archers or javelineers, or even spearmen, if it come to that.  Those.mounted and armored began to form into a group, so as to be able to carry the fight to whatever came.  And it came, from woods on both sides and rising from the high grass at a run.

     The assailants were in three groups, dogmen who carried bows, goblins who simply ran at the Caravan Guards, and a mounted group of bandits who were a mix of lizard, human and whatever else one could imagine finding a mount.  This mounted force was at least slightly armored and had a better grade of weapon.  They were at a disadvantage, in that they were discovered before the Caravan got close, and had to make up the distance either on foot or riding.  The dogmen were especially hurt, since the longbows in the Caravan could reach them before their short bows could return fire.  They couldn’t halt and they couldn’t effectively shield themselves while running.  They were being shot to pieces, but soon they would be close enough to force their prey to find cover.

     It’s a well known fact that Goblins don’t like fire, and especially magic fire.  Someone in the Caravan had a spell for that, and it went off about ten feet in front of the charging Goblins, effectively breaking up their charge.  Some died but most just stopped or turned or even reversed direction.  Goblins fell over one another and could not resume their approach as anything like an organized force.  It did not bode well for them.  The dogmen continued to attempt to reach their effective range, but the Goblins hampered their movement.     The remainder of the force took a moment to form into a line, then two, and finally three, each fifty creatures strong.  They began a slow march, gaining speed little by little. obviously building to a full-fledged cavalry charge as the Goblins and Dogmen worked to engage the Caravan fully. 

   The members and Guards of the Caravan were outnumbered three to one, but each resolved to give a good account of himself, whatever the outcome of the battle.  Sam realized that he might be at the end of his journey, instead of the beginning, but refused to allow fear a place in his actions or thoughts.  Fear was with him, but not his master, he had trained at least that well at the Academy. It didn’t hurt to be wearing the best of armor and wielding magic weapons either.      Suddenly the Caravan was awash in the surviving Goblins.  Small creatures that they were, they climbed well and failed to realize that those within the wagons were just as dangerous as those outside.  They leapt into the center and were either crushed by the pack animals, or quickly faced the nearly berserk women and non-mounted men, some of whom were wielding magic as well as magic weapons.  The magic darts, something everyone seemed to know, except Sam, were especially effective against Goblins, and even the dogmen could only endure a few without falling.  Sam emptied his crossbow, and never missed a single target, spurred on by the fear that was ever present in his mind. He used his lance to gather up a string of about five in a mixed group of dogmen and goblins, and left it impaled in something larger that was in the Goblin horde.  Then it was a matter of sword and shortsword, while he hoped the armor would stop any stray arrow that might come by.  Arrows weren’t a very large danger by then, the press of bodies among the Goblin and Dogmen attackers too great to allow much in the way of accuracy with a shortbow. It also helped that any Dogman who found a vantage point from which to shoot,drew fire and died quickly for his efforts.  The Dogmen became less quick to ride above the press.    As is true in any close combat, it became a story of block, cut, slash, block, shift and stab, over and over.The fight continued for long minutes, as the last group gained speed, soon to close with killing power. Some of the Guards fought free, to face the charge, and Sam was able to retrieve his lance, leaving a pile of bodies tall enough for some of the Caravan Archers to use as cover.  He rode down every creature in his path, and Waekahn seemed almost to enjoy running over them.  He quickly reached the Caravan line of those facing the charge.  A dozen formed up while the rest of the Caravan fought Goblins, since almost all of the Dogmen were dead.  It looked bleak, but suddenly it got less depressing.     Somewhere in Lackland, some Archmage took time out of his busy schedule to cast a portal. His target was the location where magic told him the Caravan lay.   He was of above average skill, in that it opened directly in front of the approaching charge. This was fortunate, as about a hundred of the King’s Knights burst onto the scene. They had intended to make a display for the Caravan.  What they did instead was scare the contents out of about 150 thieves, who found themselves charging fully armored knights. 

    The Knights, never ones to look foolish, simply spread out across the road and began to systematically target those charging them, with lance and sword.  Magic strikes went out ahead of them and they moved to a gallop.  The thieves were brave, to be sure, but the sight of those knights was more than they had signed on for, and they began to find ways to begin the journey away from the fight.  This was especially true as the Goblins were about done dying and someone cast a fireburst within the third rank of the bandits.    Sam fell in behind the Knights, and when one of the enemy actually made it through, it was to find Sam’s lance in his face.(assuming he had a face, some didn’t)  Sam unhorsed two, injured another and finally took the head off one as he rode by.  He was struck himself, and injured, but he had so many cuts and bruises that he simply shook off the effects, and unhorsed yet another.  Since his Lance was unshielded, every enemy he unhorsed hit the ground quite dead. Sam was quickly alone among his dead opponents. Not a single target lived more than a moment.  The same was true of all the Caravan fighters, except Tag. The old Dwarf found himself having to stand on the bodies of those he had slain in order to reach new victims.  In minutes the fight was over, save for the Knights running down those who were trying to flee.   The King’s Knights believe that you either surrender or die, and running away isn’t surrendering.  You could come back later, if they let you flee alive. 

    Sam dismounted and began tending to Waekahn’s wounds, ignoring his own. He now believed that his armor was all he needed to heal.  Tagernoab, the Dwarf, walked up to him and spoke. 

   “Tend to the worst of his, and then the worst of yours, Sam,”  He had decided to use Sam, as it sounded less like a ‘sissy Elf name’, in his words. “You can tend his minor wounds later, if you’re not down from your own.” 

    “Thank you for the wisdom” Sam responded,” I’ll do just that.”

   VIII         After the battle’s over

    Once he had spread healing salve on all the major wounds on Waekahn and made sure that they were closing, Sam reached into his saddlebag and retrieved one of his mother’s healing potions. He drank as if it were a draught of water.  As the magic and medicine hit him, Sam was forced to sit beside Waekahn, because he was no longer able to stand.  He had not realized the extent of his own wounds, and he might have collapsed from sheer loss of blood, had not Tag stopped him.  Sam realized that he was going to have some trouble cleaning his armor, not to mention his weapons and saddle, because of the blood and gore on them.  He also realized that he would need to see a healer, since the potion had only removed the worst of his injuries.

    Suddenly he felt arms lifting him, and heard the voice of the woman healer, whom he had met before, speaking to him. 

    “Here now,” Linda began, ” You’ve been a hero for long enough.  It’s time you got properly cleaned up and healed, since you saved so many lives today.”   

    Sam explained he would have to care for Waekahn himself, because he was an Elvin horse, but was surprised to learn that there was an Elf in the company who cared for mounts and would be available to assist him.  An Elven Equerry would be a blessing, they were rare outside of Elven settlements. 

   He avoided removing his armor, citing modesty, but actually so that the armor’s healing properties could help the healers ministrations, and therefore would be able to attend to the remainder of Waekahn’s injuries in short order.  In that interim, much happened.    The Knights returned, and were regaled, by Tagernoab, with the entire story of Sam, the Knight trainee, on his way to Lackland, and already a hero in his own right. While the knights were not predisposed to place much credence in the tale told by a Dwarf,  they quickly learned that everyone on the Caravan, even the seasoned Guards, felt the young man had performed at least above normal, if not heroically.  Had the Knights been aware of Sam’s unique problem, and known of the nature of the adversaries he had been told to expect, they would have been even more impressed.  Sam, it seemed, had made a name for himself, even though his actual name never came up in conversation.  It was probably due to the fact that Tagernoab didn’t like Sam’s given name, at least he worked hard to make sure the Elf-like name never got mentioned.

    Sam, having been sewn up and cleaned up, was tending to Waekahn with the help of a very knowledgeable Elf.  Mostly he was trying to become presentable before facing a cadre of the King’s Knights.  He had no idea of the discussion involving him.  By the time he got himself in order, as much as he was able, the Knights had come to him.  They were around a large campfire, where nut brew was being made.     “Fancy a cup of Joe?”, one of the Knights inquired, “You look as if you could use it.”   “If there’s plenty,” Sam responded, feeling quite intimidated by the Knight.   “From what I’ve heard, and what I saw,” the Knight responded, “You’ve earned a cup and more, even if there isn’t enough.”   ” I’ve got some Samovar fine in my pack,” Sam volunteered, “If we run short.” 

   “Fights like a squad of regulars,” another Knight put in,” And has his own Nutbrew to boot.  That’s Knight material if I ever saw it!”

    With a laugh the first speaker added, “And Samovar Fine as well, there’s a young man who knows his nutbrew.”

    “You’re Sam, right?” the second speaker put in, “I’m Sir Elkin, and the man before you is our Commander, Sir Albren.”

    “I’m from the Academy at Targun,” Sam thought quickly, “I’m called Sam and I’ve been accepted to train at Lackland.”

    ” I shouldn’t wonder,” the Knight Commander responded, “I’d take you into my ranks as you are, with the skills you have and the bravery you showed.  You can’t teach bravery, a man either has it or he doesn’t.”

      As the evening wore on, and the Knights became acquainted with Waekahn, since Sam continued to check on him and nothing would do but that the Knights had to admire the Elven horse.  It gradually became less and less formal, with finally the ‘sirs’ being dropped, everyone using just names and talking about the season, various nutbrews, and the quality of various types of healing.  Sam’s sword drew some comment, as it was ‘better than most’, and the morning star made the rounds to everyone, because of its ‘strange magic’.     None of the Knights had ever actually seen an Elven Destrier, up close, because they were normally kept by Elves, and rare even there.  Waekahn got more attention than even he deserved.  His shoes and coat were carefully examined, with advice from one and all on what might be best for him.  The Elf who had helped attend to Waekahn made sure to veto any bad advice and praise anything good that he heard.  Sam learned more than a few things that he made sure to remember, to make Waekahn’s care of a higher quality.

      Finally it was night, and Sam made ready to take a watch, circling the Caravan as he always did.

    “Sam,” Knight Commander Albren spoke to him, “You and Waekahn have earned a night of solid rest, to heal and appreciate the rewards of heroism.”

   “Are you sure, Sir”, Sam looked concerned, ” I wouldn’t want to inconvenience any of the Knights.”

    “We were sent as an Escort,” Albren answered, “And the other Caravansary are already fast asleep.  If they get to sleep, you certainly do.  Only Lord Tagernoab performed as well as you, and he’s a veteran of many wars and hundreds of years old.”

    Sam knew of one other who had performed with skill and without fear, felling probably a score of dogmen  and even more of the Goblins, but he respected the Black Cat enough not to mention him.  Anyway, that strange Dark Elf was probably watching from a perch somewhere already.   Sam took a moment to consider, and then said he would check one last time on Waekahn and go to bed.  Albren told him to do so, with what was almost an open laugh.

    The night came and went, as night does, and sleep was not broken by any violent moments.  It appeared to the Knights that all of the attackers had perished at the ambush, and the trip to Chavalier would be without incident.  Hoden, Tag and Sam were not so sure.  After that much expenditure, it seemed an overconfident attitude to assume another try would not be made.

   “They would need a company of attackers, and I doubt they have that nearby,” was all that Sir Albren would say.

    Sam and Tag discussed it, and had to agree that Sir Albren was probably correct.  This close to Lackland itself, a large group of lawless bandits, of the skill needed to mount an effective offense against this Caravan, might be hard to find, and would take more time than whoever was behind this had left.  Only if the force was being assembled for some other purpose would they be able to attack.  Then the Caravan reached the Guards sent by Saul Baric.  Those valiant fighters were bandaged, limping and leading injured horses.  They looked as if they had encountered a squad of Hel’s legions.

     “Amicus?” Sir Albren rode up to the leader of the injured band, ” What in Erblood’s name did you encounter? A dragon?”

    “Worse”, came the answer, ” There were at least half a dozen Green Trolls, no less than four Ogres, a pack of hags, complete with Magic, and an, honest to Ar, Umf, so awful that you had to fight it without looking at it.”

    “Oh is that all?” Sir Albren returned, “I was afraid that it was something dangerous.”    ” They left when we put up the wards and lightening,”  Amicus went on, ” and took the platoon of goons with them.”

    “Left to where?” Sir Albren was suddenly serious.

    ” Down the road toward Chevalier,” Amicus answered, ” They seemed to be looking for someone else, probably you lot.”

    Sir Albren wasted no time, but told Sir Elkin to attend to the injured men and horses while he spoke with Hoden.

    “We need to call a halt and have a conference,” he said to Hoden, without preamble, “There’s some major trouble ahead.”

    The Caravan stopped, yet again, and the healers went to work. Linda was in evidence, but very busy.  Sam gave one of the men in the party a healing cake, because he looked as if he would not be able to recover otherwise, and then learned he was a mage and had saved the entire band with his wards and lightening.  Such a spell was very draining, and the healing cake was probably the best remedy available.  The mage searched his face, memorizing it for future use.

   When all the principles were able to gather, and information was about to be laid out, an old man came up from the Caravan wagons, with several retainers obviously trying to quiet him.

   “I don’t care what the excuse this time,” he told his retainers, “I will know why my journey has been interrupted again.  What caused us to halt?” this question was aimed in the general direction of Hoden.

    “I did,” Sir Albren answered, “and if you’ll shut up and listen, you’ll learn why.”

    “I am Lord Eglion, High Archmage of the Order of Air on Magic Isle,”  the old man responded, “I’m not often told to shut up and listen.”

    “I am Sir Albren, High Commander of His Majesty’s Knights, Order of the Realm,” came his answer, “And I often tell others to shut up and listen, it’s a perquisite of my position.”    “Fair enough,” came the answer from the Archmage, “I’ll take your advice, as I know of the Knights of the Realm and would not willing cross them.”

    His retainers were silenced, by virtue of having witnessed the first time their master had ever shown respect to anyone, ever.   The Archmage listened to the description of the monstrous force awaiting them and his complexion varied from white, to red, to almost blue and finally back to normal, with difficulty.      Sam lost any trace of composure he might have had, and if Tagernoab had not been beside him and the Knights before him, he might have taken Waekahn and tried a cross country route to Chevalier.  Tag looked serious, and for a Dwarf that is no easy task, as one would always think them serious until seeing the look that Tag bore.  It was an expression to melt lead.  Hoden was upset, for as much as he maintained an air of authority over the Caravan, this gave him pause, and his look did not bode well for any enemy he might encounter. Oddly, it was the Archmage Eglion who spoke first.

     “The time has come for me to intervene,” he remarked, “Wards with Lightening is a good solid spell, but we need something with bite and fire, for this.”

     “I could not agree more,” Sir Albren came back, ” What, if I may ask, do you have in mind?”

     Without answering him, Archmage Eglion turned to his closest retainer, “Fetch me my third book of Spells, the one about Dragons,” was all he said.

 IX   Taking it to the Streets

   Every person who had magic was preparing it, and every corner and cubby was searched for any herb that might be of use, either in battle or healing.  The Guard alternated from setting up whatever magic they possessed to patrolling the camp.  Sam rode a wide patrol, stopping to gather herbs whenever he found any that were of value.  He was suddenly glad of being the youngest sibling, because it caused him to have to learn herbs and how to gather them.  He found little, but even some was better than none, and one find was truly a treasure, the small white flowers and starburst leaves being unique to the Amaranth family of healing herbs. Whitestar was one of the strongest herbs that could be used in compounding Healing draughts, and Sam found a pouch full.  That earned him smiles and a kiss from Linda who was brewing draughts as fast as she regained strength.  Making the draughts was as draining as casting the spell, and so the healers were bone weary by day’s end.  In the Archmage’s wagon, big things were afoot.

    Shortly after the Archmage made his decision, Eglion was engrossed in his ‘third book of magic’ a tome as large a half a man’s arm length and a hand thick.  In only a few minutes, he was heard to exclaim “Ah Ha! Eureka!” and, putting a bookmark in his book, he took it and almost ran into his Caravan wagon.  Another few minutes passed and the wagon began to glow blue, as a sign appeared on the door declaring “Disturbing this wagon may be hazardous to your health”.

    There was little likelihood of anyone disturbing an Archmage, let alone a High Archmage, and even less when his wagon was glowing with blue fire.  The sign just made certain that if anyone were killed by touching the conveyance, they would have been adequately warned. 

     Time passed, as it has a way of doing, the sun finally gave up to the evening, and the moon rose. The tiny moon was behind the large one, when they rose, but it would take longer on its passage through the sky. It would be visible in only a few hours.  Both moons were nearly full, so that the evening sky was well lit, for nighttime.  That was why everyone was at the evening meal, when the Archmage arrived, looking as if Death had been unable to force itself to take him.  He smiled, and didn’t look much better. 

  “I did it,” he announced, ” For the first time in over a thousand years, I bespoke a Dragon”. 

  “Sweet merciful mounds of masticated mulch!” a voice said quietly.   “To what end?” Hodens voice was quiet but almost hopeful. 

   ” Oh,” Eglion answered, ” I had read that righteous Dragons hated Umfs, and would seek out and destroy them, so I found one and told him of our encounter.  He was most interested and will be here by dawn.” 

    “Ah, I see,” said Albren, “We can expect a Dragon to add to our woes.” 

    “A righteous Dragon,” Eglion corrected him, “One of those who fought alongside men in the Ancient War.” 

    “I thought those were all long passed” said Tagernoab, thoughtfully. 

    ” We have long known of several who still watch over Mankind, in the Halls of Magic Isle,” said Eglion, “But usually they haunt the backbone mountains.  I was fortunate to find one this far East. He was above the Great Plateau, hunting a creature so terrible that it frightens even me, an Ahnis!” 

     “Like the one Sam killed the other day?”, came a voice from the dark. 

    ” I seriously doubt that any of you, or all of you, could have accomplished that feat” Eglion returned. 

    ” Want to see the head?” Hoden asked, “I’ve got it in a jar.” 

    ” If you had such a thing,” Eglion replied, “I would buy it from you with a sack of Emperor’s Tears”. 

    Hoden was up and moving in an instant, and back in two more, since a single one of the stones called ‘Emperor’s Tears’ was worth more than a year’s wages for any merchant or officer.  He had a covered jar that he, carefully, passed over to Eglion. 

    ” This is it,” he said, ” Sam took its head off with his morning star.”    ” We shall see,” Eglion spoke while untying the bag, “What manner of creature this really,,,,” his voice trailed off, as he saw the head, submerged in a fluid that kept it in stasis.  Hoden was not so much worried about the head rotting as he was afraid that it might spring to life and attack.    “Sam,” he said quietly, “With what did you kill this thing?” 

   Sam picked up his morning star, which he carried because it had almost no weight, and he found sitting by the fire difficult, while wearing a broadsword. “Here it is,” he told Eglion. 

    “The star of Sedelma,” Eglion said, almost at once, “Well I suppose that would have done it.  Did it hurt you much to wield it?” 

    ” I’m almost completely magic blind,” Sam answered, ” It was painless, at least to me”.

     ” The forces in this can maim or kill the one who wields it,” Eglion told Sam, “Unless the wielder is precisely attuned to the weapon.  I can see you are indeed a fortunate young man.” 

     “At least I don’t have worry about its being stolen,” Sam rejoined, ” No one else can use it.” 

    “Very few, if any,” agreed Eglion ” and they would probably not know unless they tried.  A dangerous game at best, since a mistake could be fatal.” 

   “Back to this Dragon,” Albren broke in, “Just which one did you say it was?”      “I didn’t say,” Eglion answered, “But since you asked, it’s Alhabra, himself.” 

  “His very self,” Tagernoab joined the discussion, “The Lord of the Dragons?”   

  “His title is actually chief defender of humankind and Dragonkind,” Eglion said, “But he isn’t big on titles, and prefers to be called Alhabra.” 

    “My head,” Hoden said, referring to the ahnis head that Eglion still held. 

   “I really wish you’d take me up on that bag of gems,” Eglion responded, “Alhabra would be most appreciative if I could present him with this.” 

    “We’ll present it as a gift from the Caravan, and from Sam, who killed it”, said Hoden.    “Even better,” Eglion agreed, ” That way he’ll not only kill the Umf, but probably the others as well.”     “Should make for an interesting day, all round,” came the voice from the dark.   That having been said, dinner was finished and those who could do so went to sleep.  Some did not.

     X  Dragon the line    

    When morning arrived, Sam wasted no time in going to the Breakfast Campfire, both because he wanted to have a morning cup and because he wanted to hear any news about the Dragon.  As he approached the area, he saw Hoden, who was talking to a tall, muscular man, with pure silver hair.  The man was not familiar, and that was a surprise, because Sam knew just about all of his fellow travelers by now, if some just by sight.  He wondered if the stranger had brought news of the Dragon, he hoped so.

   “Ah, Sam”, Hoden called as he saw the young man, “I’ve a guest I think you’d like to meet.”

   “My name is Sam,” Sam said to the stranger, “and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

   “Well spoken, young Samovar,” the stranger returned, “I am Alhabra, of whom you have heard.  I’ve come to help deal with a problem you and your fellow travelers are having with an Umf.”

    Sam was struck speechless, even though he knew from the stories he had heard that some Dragons could magically assume human form.  He could think of nothing to say, and then tentatively he recalled an item from the last evening’s conversation.   

   “I believe I may have killed the ahnis you were tracking,” he said, apologetically,  “Well me and those with me.” 

     “And glad am I, that the thing is dead,” Alhabra answered, “I’ve seen the head, and it’s the very one I was seeking.  I believe we can assume that Eglion will buy it, and be glad to get it.” 

    “I can only thank you for coming,” Sam returned, “We’ll have enough trouble with the other monsters, without having to deal with an Umf as well.” 

    “Perhaps I can be of service in that,” Alhabra remarked, “Green Trolls and Hags have no business among the lands of humankind, and Ogres just get right up my nose.”

     In spite of himself, Sam laughed at the image of a huge Dragon with an Ogre up his nose.  He started to apologise but Hoden laughed as well, and then Albern made a comment about toasted green troll being a delicacy in some quarters, and Alhabra had to laugh as well.  Breakfast went well from that point, with Alhabra proving he was a Dragon by eating enough for three men.  Tagernoab, not to be outdone, ate enough for two.  Sam almost forgot to eat, until Alhabra passed him a piece of carrobier and told him it tasted fresh and was cooked to perfection.  The hunt and kill of the creature was suddenly on everyone’s lips, since it was something of a triumph to take one so large, and such a dangerous place as well.      “That must’ve drawn the Ahnis’ wartearn,” Alhabra mused, “The monster would have been enraged by that.” 

    “Perhaps that explains its attack on the Guard,” Sam agreed, “I would have expected one of its deadly magics, but it just struck with claw and fang.”    The talk continued until the time arrived for moving the Caravan onward toward Chevalier.  Alhabra chose to travel on foot, since he might have to change and fly without notice.  As the caravan came into motion, conversation could be heard on the usual subjects, but much was also said about how nice and personable Alhabra had proven to be.  He wasn’t scary at all, to any of the Caravaneers, although the mounts. hauling and pack animals shied at his presence.  That didn’t include Waekahn however, and Sam realized that the horse was having a conversation with the Dragon.  Sam missed most of it, but it seemed to be a description of the journey from Targun, as viewed by Waekahn.  Sam hoped he didn’t come off too badly.   After a while, as the Troop moved down the Ancient Road, Sam began to sing one of his Traveling songs.  To his great surprise, Alhabra joined him in an intricate harmony that quickly caused everyone who heard it to join in.  In minutes, the entire Caravan was singing the road song, and the Caravan began to travel more quickly.  The pace hadn’t changed, but the road seemed to rise to meet them, and they moved as if in a magic field.  It was both strange and exhilarating for Sam and he went through every verse he knew, and then the first and last again, before ending the song.  Every person was alert and poised for action, with morale high and fears very low.  Somehow everyone knew that this would be a day of victory and the battle was as good as won.  The mood was good, for awhile.

    Presently, Sam noticed that the birds had abandoned the trees, and there was a lack of small animals in the brush.  The sides of the road seemed devoid of life, and then he noticed that there were no flying insects to be seen. 

   “Somethings wrong,” He spoke softly to Alhabra, “Even the insects seem to have gone.” 

   “Hags do that,” Alhabra explained, “They summon the insects to use as a weapon. It’s one of the things I don’t like about them. It’s bad enough when the Druids do it, but at least they care about the bugs.” 

   “Form up,” Sam said to a passing Knight, there’s something we can’t yet see ahead.” 

   The Road dipped ahead, forming a hollow at about a quarter mile ahead, but it was deceptive in its depth.  The low lying area was just enough cover for the waiting Hags and Goons, with the Trolls, Ogres and Umf forced to hide in the tree line a hundred yards on both sides of the way.  Sam had a sudden epiphany and rode up to Albren.

    “Perhaps some of our Archers could arc some arrows beyond the rise, just to be sure the space is empty.” He suggested.

    “It would take a magic arrow to stir that lot,” Albren replied, “If they’re even there.”

    “Id like to try it,” Sam continued, “With your permission, of course.” 

    ” Its your arrow,” Albren said, “I just hope there’s nothing there, I’d like to be closer to the city when we’re attacked, all things considered.” 

    Sam selected one of the few magic bolts that remained to him, while a couple of the archers came up to inquire just what the flack he was doing.  After a brief explanation, one of the archers took a handful of arrows, dribbled a bit of something on them and said something obviously in the way of a spell.  He then split the arrows with the other Archer and they began firing at the greatest range they could reach.  Sam hadn’t fired, but was singing a song about little arrows that hit everyone, every now and then.  It actually seemed to help the Archers find the range, as the Caravan closed on the hidden area.  Everyone in the forefront of the Caravan heard the first real scream, it was obviously something that was hurt and angry, and not even vaguely human.  It was also loud.

      Hodan had arranged a signal for his Drivers to halt, in case of something like this, and used it now.  The knights, already aware of the danger, galloped into a phalanx while the Caravan Guards, and Saul Baric’s unit, found a way to screen the front of the Caravan, while being mostly covered with shield.  Sam, still singing his arrow tune took aim on the top of the yet empty rise, and as he reached the line about the arrows coming out of the blue, he loosed his bolt toward what was only a tiny suggestion of movement, just beyond the rise. 

   While the crossbow bolt was in flight, and more quickly than any man could have moved, a couple of goons and a hag came over the top.  The hag had an arrow in one of her eyes, and had probably been the source of the scream.  Sam’s bolt went right through the goon in front of her and lodged in her chest, effectively ending whatever spell she was about to unleash.    At some command, that was lost to any non-Knight in the group, a charge began, with the Guards moving up sharply behind the heavily armored force.  A burst of flame erupted beyond the rise, sent from the Caravan by the mage who had the long distance fire spell.    Sam didn’t remember moving up, but Waekahn carried him to the top of the rise just after the knights cleared it.  He found a melee below, with Knights killing Goons almost with abandon, and the Hags reduced to spells they could use without killing their own.  Sam put five bolts into the air so quickly that the last was fired before the first reached target.  Then, Elven sword in his main hand and mace in his right, he entered the battle.  It was harder to kill the Goons than it had been to kill Goblins, they were canny fighters and strong, with either a club or some other blunt weapon that had to be blocked.  Both the Sword and the morning star were more than adequate weapons, and his elven armor aided him in avoiding the blows.  Waekahn was, as usual, fully barded, seeming not to notice the Goons unless it was to kick one or bite a handy appendage.  Sam was making no progress, but he did seem to be helping to keep the right flank of the Knights formation less crowded, so that they could press forward into the foe.  Then the Caravan Guards arrived, and Goons began to die like flies on a sweet poison. 

   Sam remembered his training, ” A mortal wound is a very severe and serious injury (almost always a form of penetration or laceration) whether accidental or inflicted intentionally, leading directly to the death of the victim. Death need not be instantaneous, but follows soon after.”  He strove to fulfill the definition as many times as he could.  The Knights would wound the Goons and pass them on, so that the Guards could finish them. It was an efficient strategy that allowed the knights to close on the hags. Suddenly the Hags quit caring about the Goons and lightening and fire were everywhere.  Then, as suddenly as the spells began, they halted.  The knights had ridden down every hag who tried to concentrate on a spell, and that left only those that the guard killed. Even though they were not unscathed, they were all alive, and the Knights and Guards looked up to see what was next.

    In the sky there was a solid cloud of Gold, it had wings and was fully ninety feet from tip to tail.  The wings spread probably sixty feet outward from the body, on each side, and moved with a lazy motion that seemed almost casual.  As the Trolls and Ogres left the shelter of the trees, the Dragon watched, until the Umf emerged.  It was hideous and its wail could terrify, or even kill, but it reacted to Dragon’s Breath in the same way as anything else does. It took damage.  In an instant the creature put up a magical shield that blocked the fire from Alhabra, but it failed to realize that it was more than a target of opportunity, it was ground zero.

    Alhabra dove and scattered Green Trolls in all directions as he seized the Umf and mounted to the sky.  Once high above the battle he released the Umf with extreme prejudice and dove on the Ogres, to vent his rage at the Umf for being shielded.   Ogres aren’t as strong as Dragons, and they have no claws, so Alhabra was able to maul several of them on a pass toward the Umf.  He curved around, and prepared to attack again.  Before Alhabra could complete the maneuver, Sam rode up to the Umf from behind and struck him repeatedly with his morning star.  

    Sparks flew and the Amulet the creature wore finally flew off.  As soon as the magic field collapsed, Sam and Waekahn moved away as if a Dragon was coming, because he was. The Umf made a bad tactical decision at that moment, deciding to turn on Sam and Waekahn instead of dealing with the angry Dragon who was approaching.   The Umf made ready to wail, and unleash a spell of Death, which would have slain Sam and Waekahn outright.  Just before he unleashed his foul power, a Dragon smote him.  A Breath weapon, claws from four appendages, a bite and both wing and tail strikes accompanied a magic spell.  To say that the Umf was killed would be a gross understatement.    For some reason neither the Green Trolls nor the Ogres had presented a huge challenge any longer.  Terrified as they were by the Dragons presence, they mostly just tried to overrun the Knights.  The Knight’s lances and spears kind of ruined that approach.  Sam speared one of the Green Trolls, but was unable to set it aflame, and the creatures can only be killed by something that destroys them utterly, since they grow back like a fungus.  From somewhere, someone set the creature aflame with magic, and Sam was quick to add a flask of oil from his saddlebag, opening it and throwing it onto the creature.  As the oil ignited it quickly burst the container and bathed the Troll in fire.  Shortly thereafter Sam withdrew his lance and looked for another target.  He failed to find one.

    The battle had ended. Just as it began in chaos, it ended as chaos ends, with damage and much debris, not to mention carnage and the sound of warriors in pain.  Alhabra was in human form, and had somehow come up to Sam without his realizing it.  He took the young warrior with him to the place where the Umf had fallen and instructed him to find the amulet he had struck from the creature.  He was instructed not to touch the thing when he found it, but to call Alhabra to look at it.  The Dragon himself was busy locating various objects, which he piled in the center of the road.  Others who realized what he was doing began bringing objects to add to the pile, which grew to a considerable lump of ‘stuff’.  When Sam finally found the amulet, across the road and in the grass, he summoned the Dragon to where it lay.

      “Well, what you thought about that?” Alhabra said quietly after he had observed it, “It’s not cursed.”

    He carefully turned it over and even used a tiny spark of magic on it.   “I can find no hurt in the thing,” he announced, “Pick it up and put it on, so I can see it’s effect on you.”

    Had any human or creature other than Alhabra made that request, Sam would have declined.  Since it was Alhabra who said it, Sam picked up the Amulet, cord and all and looped it around his neck, tying the cord where it was broken.     After studying Sam for a few moments, Alhabra decided that he could wear the amulet without ill effect. 

    “And who knows?” he said mischievously, ” Someday an evil Dragon might try to breathe on you and you’ll need the thing.”.

    “I’ll get a proper chain in Chevalier,” Sam promised, “But I hope the amulet is something I never actually need.” 

    “Or how about this?” Alhabra was grinning, “You could charge into a  mass of the enemy, and when they all ran at you, I could breathe and destroy them, leaving you undamaged in their midst.” 

     “Uh, lets save that maneuver for a desperate situation, shall we?” Sam replied as Alhabra laughed.

    When all the various debris had been checked for cursed items, and several had been added from the loot previously acquired by the Caravansary and Knights, Alhabra cleared everyone away from the pile.

    “We Dragons,” he began, “At least those of us most ancient and learned, have several types of fire that we can use.”  He paused and moved slightly, placing himself in what appeared to be an exact position with reference to the pile of cursed items.

    “We have, of course the red fire, which is a magical fire that all of you know,” he continued, ” And we have both a Blue Flame, which is hotter, and a Green Flame, which is more deadly to life.  We also have another flame which looks,” he cleared his throat, ” Much like this.”  He suddenly opened his mouth and seemed to spit a thin line of pure white light.  When it collided with the cursed items, it consumed them utterly, and was so hot that it left the stones of the road fire polished, like fine porcelain.

   The chorus of Oohs and Ahhs was almost as impressive as the fire itself.  Sam found that he was holding his new amulet, that was about his neck,  in his hand, without even thinking.  That had impressed him more than anything Alhabra had done previously.

    When the more seriously wounded had been placed in wagons or on travois, the Caravan moved along the Ancient road to a building that stood alongside.  This was a large example of what people called a way station, or traveler’s House, and it was ancient.  Alhabra explained that these places were here when men first came to the land, just like the Ancient roads which they bordered.  The food and rest that they provided was in addition to the building being comfortable.  It was never hot and never cold within one of these structures, and the food was always there, enough for a score of travelers, and it replenished itself without any assistance from mortals.  Its source of power, how it made food, and even why it was indestructible, these were all a mystery to all.   The wounded were placed there, where they could be easily fed, and a couple of healers stayed with them.   Everyone else found a Tent, or pitched one and the Caravan fed itself and went to sleep. Even the Guards were lax, because of tiredness, and only a few remained vigilant. 

  Sam found himself restless, and mounted the way station to a small square location on its top.  From there he could see for miles, up the trail to the pass or down the trail toward Chevalier.  For a moment, when the night was darkest, he almost thought he could see the lights of the city.  He had time to reflect upon his situation, and was glad that things were going so well. But his mind quickly turned to the future, and he knew that the worst was probably yet to come, for him.  So far there had been no indication that he was in any way special, except for his fighting skill, and he was no better than a Knight of the Realm in that.  Perhaps something else would happen to make his future more clear.  Finally he slept, exhaustion taking its toll.                                                     

XI   Reaching Town

When morning brought dawn, and the rising sun into the sky, it found Sam unready for another day.  He was weary, in a way that he had never known, tired of the fighting and death, the injuries and repeated healing.  He wanted to curl into a ball and sleep, but the light filled the box like refuge that he had found the previous night, and refused him that luxury.  He decided to find something to eat, and perhaps a cup of nutbrew.  He might even put honey and milk in his drink, so that it would be less bitter and more comforting.  He was not only depressed, but awash in self-pity and perhaps some guilt. He had never felt such ennui.  Alhabra met him at the ground. 

    “What is that you wear around your neck?” he asked.

    Sam realized that he was wearing two amulets, the one he had gotten from Alhabra, and the one his father had given him.  He took it off and showed it to Alhabra, ” My father gave me this, without a word of explanation.  I just assumed that it was something of great value to assist me in times of financial trouble, if such occur.”

    “It blocks spells from hitting you,” Alhabra told him, “at least most spells. It should be made into your girdle, there it will also increase your strength.”

    Sam had on his ‘good’ Armor, having slept in it, and it included an armored Girdle which helped protect the space between his plackart and cuisse. That area was vulnerable because a Knight had to bend, turn and lean, and all of those required flexibility at the waist.  Alhabra examined his Girdle and found a place where it had a lamellar plate in the center.  Taking that plate in his hands he transmuted it into adamantium, while inserting the Amulet of Sam’s Father into the mix.  It molded in his hands, guided by almost five thousand years of experience, becoming a magical whole, and an intrinsic part of the Armor.  Sam felt the strength immediately and felt his mood alter perceptibly.  He said as much to Alhabra.

    “Always remember Baronet”,the Dragon cautioned him, “Wearing two of the same type of item will cause the magic to interfere, and if the items be strong enough, it will kill you.”

 He paused for a moment and then resumed speaking, ” There are many things I could tell you, and probably should, but in the interest of keeping you among the living, I will but say this.  You will be betrayed by powerful people, you will need to have friends, some of which you have met already, you cannot ever take tomorrow for granted, since anything can happen to you, and it may happen without warning.  Train as though your life depended on it, because it does.  The last advice is to keep who you are as hidden as is practical, even in training, because there are those who seek an end to theSamovar line, including you.  Now, how about breakfast, I hear green troll is on the menu.”

   The sudden change in Alhabra was not lost on Sam, who realized that others were approaching and the Dragon chose not to appear serious before them.  Affable and likable, he was the picture of a friendly soul, off to breakfast with a young warrior he liked.  Sam fell into step and casually asked what sauce was best with green troll.  Alhabra responded instantly with a remark about either Charcutroll sauce or Bearnaise with Green peppers.  Sam shot back that mushrooms from an Eogre tunnel were the best sauce additive.  They continued the quips all the way to the breakfast table.

     After Breakfast, when the leaders of the Caravan were in conference, they called Sam over to talk.  They had a plan to make their entrance into Chavalier less conspicuous, by making it more conspicuous.  What they had in mind was for Sam to dress as an Elflord, and for Tag to ride in on the Thralz which belonged to Sam.  With Sam on his destrier, and Tag in full Armor, the Caravan leaders were hoping that no one would realize the true identity of either.   They could pass as just two more visiting dignitaries, not worthy of comment.  Those same leaders asked Sam if he had a Dress cloak, and he responded that he had three, and would they like to choose one.   When they saw the cloaks the opinion was unanimous, the Elven Green cloak was perfect, and was magicked to conceal the wearer.  It would cover any non-elven features that Sam had, and would make him look more unassailable, richer, as it were.  When the two were outfitted, and mounted, the illusion was almost perfect. A quick spell by the mage of the Knights, and no one would easily be able to detect them, especially as the magics of armor, weapons and cloaks would blend in to the magic of the spell.  It would be unnoticeable to any but the closest of scrutiny.  The Knights assured them that no such scrutiny would occur, because no one would get that close.

***

    Chevalier was a town built on a town.  The original had been there when men arrived, and had the same kind of durability and power as the wayfarer stations along the ancient road.  Tall spires of whomever built the original place were dotted among the newer constructions.  Some of the ‘newer’ places looked older than the original buildings, because they weren’t indestructible and hadn’t held up as well, to the passage of time.  Stone was the construction material of choice, by law, and the interior plumbing and connection to the sewer system was also mandated.  The sewers were so vast that they had inhabitants, although these were usually confined to thieves and worse.  Tourists came to Chevalier, just to view the sewers, because of their size and style of construction.  Sam missed all of this, because he was otherwise occupied.  He didn’t really notice the towers, minarets or even the bridges that crossed the streets high above the surface.    Sam simply entered Chevalier.  He was disguised as a highlord Elf so well that no one knew he had arrived, not even him.  It was late afternoon by the time he learned that transport would be leaving for Lackland Castle in the morning.  He had a moment to hope that he could spend some time visiting the city but then one of the Guards informed him that an Elf was looking for him. Once he realized that it was his cousin, Seana, he had to get Sir Elkin to tell her about his disguise, so that she could meet with him without disturbing it.  Seana was delighted to learn that her ‘Highlord’ cousin had arrived, and greeted him in style, enhancing the disguise and laughing every time she thought about what she was doing.  Sam was just a tiny bit thunderstruck to learn that Seana was a Lady herself, and she was more than taken with Tagernoab, even inviting him to dinner with her and Sam.  The end result was that a Dwarf and two Elflords made the trip to Lackland Castle, where the Knights had arranged for Sam to vanish into the Academy, so he could keep up the pretense.  Sam was finally to begin training as a Knight of the Realm.

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