We Six Underworld Creatures



            We six underworld creatures were there.  The six, including myself, had been summoned from the Underworld by a wizard to serve him.  The deal was that we would leave that dreary place and enjoy life Above, if we served the spell-caster for the rest of his life, which we had.  I know not how old I actually am by the standards used Above, for time is hard to keep Down There.  T’is not unlike perpetual night and it rains most of the time.  Not clear, cleansing rain as falls here Above, but a stinking black, bitter drizzle that covers mud and naked stone.  Our lot was serfdom, under the rule of the Demon Lord Arkos, herding the twisted, gnarled beasts that pass for his wealth.  They were snappy, uncooperative creatures which, when slaughtered, tasted as bitter as the rain.  None of us wanted to see one again.  So, t’was a fine moment indeed when we saw the glowing yellow symbol of invitation from Above.  We had heard of such things in ancient stories, of how nobodies such as ourselves could be taken to a better place.  We left our herds and snatched the symbol, and there we were in a sunlit courtyard.

            Service to Leum the Sorcerer was not bad.  We were no longer peasants.  We were living treasures of his talent and a political asset to King Gork, whose seer Leum was.  We had been brought to the courtyard of Leum’s keep, the walled mansion he and his court had been given by his lord.  He served the king as we would serve him.  We were given rooms in that majestic home, until he and Gork found uses for us.  I remember the meals the best.  Three a day of fine food served to us by Leum’s underlings, each a noble feast when compared to gorging oneself on tough, bitter beast flesh once a week as was the custom Down There.  We did not have to kill it ourselves!  It had been cooked!

            The king found purposes for us and we served him and his son and grandson by Leum’s command.  I suppose we were slaves, but being a serf Down There was no better lot than that of a prized slave.  And we were to be freed.  No one was ever freed Down There!  So there we were on the outskirts of Oak Crossing, the city that surrounded the palaces of the king and his servants.  Leum had died an old man.  He was said to be over two hundred years old, preserved by his talent, and I would not doubt it, for he was old and gray when he summoned us and we served three generations after.  But he did not live forever and there had been a great funeral, which we attended to express our gratitude for his invitation so many years ago.  But now we celebrate.  That may seem callous, to celebrate Leum’s passing, but that passing freed us to pursue our own lives, so we made merry in a dive and daydreamed of what to do next.  At the head or our table was Glin.  He was the oldest of us and the least human in appearance.  As tall as two men he was and covered in thick brown fur, with pointed animal ears which seemed to wander about his head at random as they turned and bobbed.  His normally black on black eyes gleamed as would yellow gems in the candlelight and his ivory fangs rested on his lower lip.  His clawed, four-fingered hands were wrapped around a pewter mug of mead and a leg of honey-roasted duck, which he was nibbling on.  His fuzzy tail rested on his shaggy lap.  That was about all one could see of him, other than a burly, furry mass.  Glin wanted to be a farmer and grow succulent plants and fattened livestock, to become part of a warm community.  Although he was the oldest, having known us all since we were born, he did not understand.  He had not seen much of the world Above and did not know how people would react to his monstrous looks.  He had been the royal bodyguard, venturing with the king outside the royal palaces only rarely, briefly and where he was known.  I hoped the old fool would at least find part of his dream.

            To Glin’s left were the twins, Lenko and Furgo.  In contrast to Glin, they were completely hairless and wore clothing, sky blue tunics, which they used to wear under their armor.  Not even we could tell them apart.  They were as tall as a man and a half and had changed color from maggot white to bronze since their arrival Above, looking not unlike bald humans except for the black horns starting just above their foreheads and curling around there ears.  They were quite drunk, and unable to speak clearly, so I could not tell if they were planning new adventures or reliving old ones.  They loved adventure and excess and showed no signs of ceasing.  They had led the royal forces into battle in every war since they had arrived and sported the scars to prove it.

            Ellea was at Glin’s right, with her things spread over the table.  She had purchased a wide variety of perfumes and lotions from the Fay, who were still flitting about the place on their insect wings trying to interest the other patrons, mostly rough peasants who smelled of their plow horses, in their wares.  To the Fay, Ellea’s vanity was a gold mine.  When the little man with wings, no taller than a beer mug, landed on our table and boasted of the magical power of the Fay to make people loved and adored, Ellea’s cherry red eyes began to gleam.  Not that she needs help in that area.  I have seen Ellea blossom from a scruffy surf girl from Down There, into a woman of unearthly beauty.  Now she is as tall as a large human, lean and buxom, with raven black hair down to her waist, cherry-red eyes and leathery black bat-wings, which were usually folded on her back.  I had seen her dance at the royal palace, all wings and legs, invitingly seductive.  I know she is a royal messenger and fast on the wing at that, but that was just her work.  I always figured that the dance was her play.  Whatever other services she had preformed were none of my business.  In spite of her attractive qualities, she still managed to get on my nerves most of the time by being vain and arrogant.  Misunderstand me not, she’s not deliberately cruel, but she does know how enchanting she is.  I knew her plan for the future, she wanted to attach herself to some rich, important man and be pampered in a palace.

            Then there was me, Mlerro the Dwarf.  Call me Mel.  I’m a squat little person as my father was.  I know not my mother’s looks, because she was invisible.  I only know of her gentle voice and touch, and prankster’s sense of humor that often got out of hand, but enough about that.  In case you are wondering, my purpose was to be the royal eyes and ears throughout the frontier.  I’m not invisible as was my mother, but people see me not, until I say or do something that gets attention, or until someone trips over me.  As useful as it can be, it has its drawbacks.  As I say, I roamed the frontier and reported anything of interest to the king, usually through Ellea.  I do not really know if she was listening when I gave her the reports, she was always full of gossip and boasts of which important courtesans and dignitaries adored her.  In times of war, I also accompanied Furgo, who valued my knowledge of the wilderness and my ability to eavesdrop on his enemies.  That is, I went if I could not avoid it.  I do enjoy that frontier land, which the humans fear.  Most of this country is frontier between kingdoms, roamed by animals and wandering woodsmen.  T’is beautiful, sunny and uncrowded, with no one to trip over me.  I had it worked out.  As with all of us, I had stashed some gold away.  There is no rule against that and the kings are not ungenerous when times are good.  I had entrusted mine to Zacker the Moneylender.  He’s a good sort, with a reputation as a trustworthy old crank.  T’was no king’s ransom, but useful if I needed anything.  I would use it to equip myself as a guide for travelers and perhaps open a shop eventually.  I could even include a tavern not unlike the one we were in.  I am on good terms with the king and known in his town, and cordial with the wandering tribes, the Fay, and even the Mountain Ogres, if anyone wishes to travel that far.

            T’was so that there was one more of us in attendance.  I know not her name.  She’s not mute, but you would think she is unless she had a reason to speak.  She was at the bar but facing us and paying attention as she sipped her wine.  She was small and skinny, only a foot or so taller than me and I am only half as tall as an ordinary man, but of all of us, she is the one an enemy would least wish to face in mortal combat.  She appears as a pale young woman, but a closer look at her skin shows it to be slightly green, as if always reflecting the light of a bright green cloth in sunlight.  Her golden eyes were not unlike those of a snake or cat and her mouth was full of round, pointed teeth that caused a jagged crookedness on the rare occasions that she smiled.  She wore a sleeveless black dress that left her arms and legs bare.  The small woman sitting at the bar is just one of the forms she can assume.  I have seen her in one other form and t’is a fearsome beast.  If she can become anything else I know not, nor did I know how she served our master.  The rest of us served the king, for all practical purposes, but she served Leum at his home.  She looked terribly sad that day and I figured she had lost a close friend when Leum passed.

            Furgo was telling a story.  It might have been interesting, but I was not really listening.  Furgo’s war stories were all the same, anyway.  Victory!  Drinking mead by the pitcher did not make his tale any easier to follow.

            Glin polished off his duck and motioned to the serving wench.

            “What can I get for you?” she asked.  She was plump and frightened-looking, but was trying to fake politeness.

            “Another of these if you would,” Glin requested gently.  He always tried to act humble around humans who knew him not.

            Lenko handed her his mead pitcher.  “Refill this!” he ordered, as though addressing a warrior under his command.

            “We’d be running low on mead and...” she responded apologetically.

            Lenko interrupted laughingly.  “Keep it coming until you’re out and I shall gulp the dregs.”

            Furgo piped up, “just bring the barrel and a straw!”

            “And it will be some time before we can cook another duck,” she continued, trying to ignore the two loud drunks.

            Glin favored her with a grin, showing her his fangs, and requested that she “bring it as it is and all is well.”

            She tried not to look shocked, but failed.  “That would be one raw duck and a pitcher of mead...”  “Barrel!” Furgo interrupted.  “Will there be anything else?”

            “Bottle of wine?” Ellea requested.

            The wench nodded and grabbed the back of my chair, then jumped as would a spooked horse when she saw me.  Furgo reached for her ample buttocks only to be stopped by an outstretched wing from Ellea.

            “She must be jealous”, Furgo teased, slurring his words.

            “Perhaps some attention will satisfy the Lady”, Lenko said a bit too loud, through a mischievous grin.

            Furgo stood unsteadily.


“T’is a flying beauty who haunts my dreams

With sunset eyes and skin of cream

A buxom lass with raven hair

In dead of night I wish she were there

To pursue her is a merry chase

But with her wings, she will win the race!”


            Furgo thinks he is a poet.  You do not want to hear him sing, trust me.

            Ellea shivered and went back to examining her newly purchased vials.

            Furgo stumbled over to Golden-Eyes and sat down next to her at the bar, putting a beefy arm around her.  “And what about you, my lovely.  Do you have a heart that I can stir?”

            She looked at his arm as if it were her supper and licked her lips with her forked tongue, causing Furgo to get up, back away, and fall down with a mighty thud.  Ellea let loose with a spattering of derisive laughter and Lenko almost fell out of his chair.  Glin, however, got up and retrieved Lenko, scooping him up as he would a babe in arms.  “This one should find lodgings!”

            As if on cue the others rose and reached into pockets or pouches for coins to place on the table. 

            The serving wench returned with the bottle of wine and pitcher of mead on a tray balanced on one hand and a live duck held by its foot in the other. 

            “I must apologize,” said Glin with his usual humility, stooping beneath the ceiling and still carrying Furgo.  “We must be going sooner then expected.”  His ears twitched.

            “Quite well” she responded, not bothering to hide her relief.  “Will you be having your order, then?”

            Lenko grabbed the mead and Golden-Eyes caught the wine bottle as it toppled, leaving the wooden tray to clatter on the floor.  She uncorked it and took a hefty swig as she was heading for the door.  Glin leaned over and took the duck in his mouth, its wings flapping wildly.  I helped Ellea pack her purse full of the tiny vials.  I know those things seemed exotic to townsfolk, but I also know the woods in which the Fay make their home, and the ingredients were no more exotic than a housefly.  Lenko stood, swayed slightly, and bent down to retrieve his and Furgo’s swords from under the table.  Ellea and I then had to help Lenko up from where he had fallen, right the overturned table, place the swords over his back by their scabbard straps and hunt down the rest of her vials.  Meanwhile Glin, still holding Furgo in spite of his slurred protests that he could walk, fumbled in his pouch with the end of his tail and retrieved something, I’m not sure what, which he tried to give to the serving wench, but dropped on the floor.  Whatever it was, she was happy to have it and retrieved it with haste.

            Glin propped open the door with his backside and we all filed out with me bringing up the rear.  His duck got away, fleeing into the tavern.

            I was the only one who knew the area, so I rounded the others up and led them to the only inn within easy walking distance.  Glin followed me with an arm around Furgo.  He could see in the dark and was strolling, not stumbling carefully as were the other three behind him.  In spite of our fumbling in the darkness, we did reach the inn and rented one room for us all in that termite’s supper.

            When I woke in the morning, Ellea had already taken off.  Lenko and Furgo were hurting and wandering dazedly about, trying to do I know not what.  Glin had the bed and the room’s one window was rattled by snores that could wake the dead, which explained why the twins had risen.  Golden-Eyes was curled up in the corner, purring softly.  I looked to see if I had all of my things, blurrily, and got packed to go.  The party was over.  Let’s see, got my cloak, tunic, leggings, spare cloths, pack with hard biscuits and nuts, dagger, traveling gems.  Why did I have royal coins?  Oh yes, the others had entrusted me to pay for the room.  I was pleased to see that they had paid me more than the room would cost.

            Eventually, we all woke and made it to the front desk, where an old man with a gray beard who sat puffing a pipe accepted payment.  Golden-Eyes punched me on the arm and waved, and that was the last I would see of her for a while.  Furgo and Lenko wished us a half-hearted “’till we meet again”, bowed and wandered aimlessly in the direction of town, leaving Glin and myself.  “Well, off I go looking for home”, he commented.  He hugged me, lifting me off the ground and burying my face in his thick fur.  I think he went down the road to the North, where there lay many a farmer’s field before one found the true frontier I sought.

            I had to walk down the Forest Road, which was fading into a forest path as I journeyed.  After leaving the inn, I had gone looking for a pony for sale, but found none.  This meant I would be late for the gathering.  The Forest, as the locals had named it as though it were a place of danger and foreboding, was the true frontier.  Oak Crossing, and the settled lands around, had been built upon what was once the edge of The Forest, which surrounded it.  To get there one had to brave The Forest’s dangers, not the least of which was getting lost forever, or come by sail.  The king had a palace and barracks on the White Horn River just before it met the sea and the royal coffers were always kept full by the tolls he exacted from vessels using that broad, slow river as a shortcut to the Holy Empire.  The Forest made the river that much more important and served as protection from invasion by Oak Crossing’s neighbors, who were two mighty empires.  They are far enough away that I had only heard stories.  One is called the Holy Empire, because priests rule it, but by what little I have heard, t’is not all that holy.  The other is the Bukan Empire.  The Emperor of Buka and the elite citizenry he ruled had conquered all the land they could lay their hands on and grew fat on tribute, or so I had heard.

            In spite of the reputation that The Forest had for swallowing travelers, who were never to be seen again, many still preferred to traverse it.  Mostly traders who wanted to save themselves the expense of sailing the White Horn River, to skip the cost of a riverboat to carry their wares and the tariffs the king and the river pirates imposed on passage.  To do this they needed a guide who knew the location of the secluded trading posts that provided shelter and the places where one should and should not go.  That is where I planned to come in.  For the right price, I could help them avoid trouble with the wandering woodsmen or stumbling across a Fay home.

            This was the business on my mind as I traveled down the Forest Road.  From what I have heard, the road had stretched all the way to the Holy Empire in ancient times, but it has been ignored as of late, and as I went, it faded into the woods.  Most city folk would become lost at that point, within the mighty oaks as wide as a horse is long, with branches that formed a ceiling overhead, blocking the sunlight but for scattered beams, but I knew this area and its landmarks.  I did tread upon soft soil between trees and listen to all things around me, as was my habit.  As always, birds sang and small animals rustled all around me.  I did not hear anything larger than a rabbit for most of the way.  I walked by day and found a stout branch or secluded nook by night.  T’is not wise to wander the forest at night, for the night was full of mournful wolf cries, as always, and the chilling calls of other, more dangerous hunters, but one who knew The Forest could find shelter and wake in the morning to continue his journey. 

            After days I did not bother to count I neared my destination and saw ponies, mostly white and brown in color.  They were grazing, nipping bits of the scattered brush and wandering about.  Only the wandering woodsmen left their horses to roam free, as only they knew how to train a pony well enough not to lose it by doing so.  I knew I was near the gathering.  Arryn the Riverman’s band of wandering woodsmen was gathering with Willy the Bearslayer’s, at the trading post of Zacker the Moneylender.  Arryn’s band were river pirates, who wandered the shores of the White Horn and stopped any vessel they could for a tax, as well as living off of the forest’s bounty as all woodsmen do.  Zacker’s outpost made their wealth useful.  Willy’s band wandered the deeper woods, hunting and harvesting as they went, and had little use for gold or city baubles.  But they did like to gather.  A gathering was music and dance, games and betting, flirting and fun.  They also exchanged goods and told stories.  It went on until the woodsmen felt like stopping, usually when they ran out of food and drink and the bands went back to wandering.  The woodsmen are a casual lot and when a gathering ended, members would go with the band their whim sent them to, or start a new one if a worthy leader came forth.  No one was ever turned away from a gathering and I wanted all to know that I, Mel the Dwarf, was now a guide for hire, so that they could tell my potential customers.

            But first, I went to see Zacker the Moneylender.  He had once been a woodsman as were the others and must have been a hardy and clever one, for he had live long enough to become a wrinkled old fellow, with long, wispy white hair on only the back of his head and a thick white beard he could tuck in his belt.  He ran the trading post and shopkeepers who sold to travelers and woodsmen paid him rent.  He also holds and lends money for honest rates.  His money is quite safe, for he has a deal with the Fay and no one, no matter how greedy, would be foolish enough to defy the Fay. 

            I was late to the gathering and t’was in full swing when I arrived.  I thought it might be over before I completed the journey there, but the woodsmen were still about.  They must have acquired ample supplies.  There was music, mostly drums, flutes and fiddles.  The music was a jumble of differing tunes, becoming clear only when one neared a particular musician, made more so by the occasional burst of song by a woodsman or woodswoman.  They were scattered about dancing, eating, throwing dice and so on.  I went looking for Zacker.  As I walked into the clearing, where the outpost rested behind its wooden wall, I peered through the scattered crowd in search of him.  That was a mistake.  Before I knew it, the contestants of a footrace were upon me.  They did not see me.  The lead runner, a lean young man, sped into me and went down, landing squarely on his face.  I’ll not repeat the kind of language he used as he snapped to his feet, but I gathered that the spill had cost him dearly as the other runners sped by.  Nobody enjoys losing a bet.

“I have heard of you, you would be Mel the Dwarf,” he said in a matter of fact tone, now that he could see me.  Woodsmen can be forgiving.  Duels among them are always to the death and they feel obliged to fight if insulted.  Therefore they have quite an easygoing standard as to what actually is an insult. 

            “So I am, Lad,” I said warmly, trying to be forgiving myself.  He was off again, trying to salvage his victory in the footrace, weaving skillfully around trees and spectators alike.

            I worked my way closer to the outpost.  From the outside, it resembled a wooden fence as tall as two men, carved from thick oak planks, with points on top.  The only opening was in the front, a gap in the fence barely wide enough to fit a horse through.  Two guards stood by the opening, wearing ringmail and sporting broadswords.  They were Zacker’s hirelings.  The wandering woodsmen, as a lot, abhor slavery and, when they are river pirates, they often stop slave ships.  They let loose all slaves, many of whom become woodsmen or river pirates themselves.  Zacker often hires such freed slaves to guard his outpost, but they are mainly for show.  A man with the Fay on his side has scant need for hired muscle. 

            I headed for the guards.  Nearer the outpost the crowd grew thick.  It had formed circles, which were not unlike great bubbles in a sea of people with minstrels, storytellers, wrestling or games of chance within.  I tugged many a leathery, homemade shirt to make my way through and took a shortcut through the outskirts of a circle where some gamblers were wagering on a snail race, cheering encouragement at the nearly motionless contestants. 

            When I approached the guards, one was munching absently on a handful of sweetened walnuts and the other was gazing intently into another circle where an acrobatic young woodswoman tumbled and leaped to a drumbeat, naked as the day she was born.  I did not recognize either guard.

            “Good day to you, my friends”, I said festively.  Both their heads snapped around to regard me.  “Where might old Zacker be?”

            “He is about somewhere, seek wagering and you may find him,” said the girl-watcher, with a knowing grin.

            “Would you know which direction to go, for there is wagering in all directions,” I replied in jest.  The walnut-eater pointed a powdery finger into the crowd and I was off again, wishing I were tall enough to see more than an arm’s length.  I found the old fellow, eventually.  He sat on a chair nailed to a board, a rocking chair without the rocking, as was the custom of elderly woodsmen.  He was part of a dice game that had recently ended and was enjoying a wordless melody sung by a tall, muscular woodswoman.  The haunting tune flowed over the crowd, as would a morning mist.  I crept up to Zacker unseen and waited for the singer to finish.

            “Greetings, my friend”, I spoke up.  Many a surprised head turned to me.

            “Mel!  Your prying eyes gaze upon this gathering?  T’is good to see you could make it.”

            “I’m freed, have you not heard?” I quipped, countering the prying eyes comment.  If words were swords, Zacker would be a deadlier warrior than the fiercest river pirate.

            “I have heard sad news from town, that the immortal Leum the Sorcerer lays in his grave, but you serve the royal family, do you not?”  Zacker’s elderly face twisted in mock suspicion but with a friendly light in his eyes.  I now had the full attention of all the woodsmen in sight.  They stood as spectators or sat on the ground within the circle, brown and gray in their shirts, which were not unlike blankets, with holes for their heads and bare arms, made of animal skins stitched together and tied at the waist with a rope or belt.  Each of them had a spear in hand or close by, as is their custom.  Woodsman spears are staffs of oak wood, sharpened at both ends and as long as the user is tall.

            “I was summoned here from Down There by Leum and am freed only when the fire goes out of his body,” I stated, addressing the crowd as much as Zacker.  “Whom I serve was by decree of Leum and not of my own accord.”

            “And what will you do, now that you act of your own accord?” Zacker prodded.  He knew full well what I wanted to do, but the crowd did not.  I was secretly thankful for his help to spread the word with his teasing.

            “For these uncounted years I have roamed The Forest on the errands of kings!  Many of those present know the name and reputation of Mlerro the Dwarf and now any who travel this place may have me as their guide, to see that their journey is a safe one, for a fair price,” I stated boastfully.  I knew that more woodsman gossip would arise about a braggart than a humble and polite man.

            One of the older fellows within the circle stood, joining the show.  His spear sported an iron head on one end, as did many about, identifying him as one of the Arryn’s men, as did the silver bracers on his meaty arms and the thin gold chain about his thick neck.  “So you would help the travelers slip through the clutches of those who tax the White Horn!”  He spoke dramatically, his bushy eyebrows jumping with each word.  “Perhaps t’is you we should tax!”  He sat down and watched me expectantly.

            “First you must find me, then a tariff I shall gladly pay for safe passage,” I said, challenging but not insulting.  Laughter flashed from the onlookers.

            Another man spoke from within the crowd.  “And what of the Fay, do you believe they will allow strangers to trample through their home?”

            “I plan to take only travelers, not lumbermen or treasure seekers, not those who wish to open all hidden places to prying eyes,” I retorted.

            The crowd parted so that a woodsman could step forward.  This one was an alchemist, a forest doctor.  I knew so because his arms and legs, the uncovered parts of him, were thickly adorned with tattoos.  Among the wandering woodsmen, tattoos were spiritual.  To have one over the heart is for those who have had a vision and alchemists cover themselves with them.  He wore a shirt made from a basilisk’s hide, using what was once the creature’s head as a hood. 

            “Do you truly know The Forest?” he asked, fixing me with the kind of stare a father would use with a disobedient child.

            “I know enough for the task,” I stated, in a humble tone.

            “He knows enough!” he mocked.  He gestured at me, gazing about at the other woodmen, whose attention he now had.  “He knows enough to steer clear of Wyverns’ Roost and stay out of the caves on the shore of the White Horn!  Enough avoid the mountain ogres!”

            I sat, yielding to him, and he continued in an ominous tone.

            “Does he know to steer clear of the Valley of the Dragon?”  He paused dramatically and knowing chuckles came from Willy’s men.  “I have seen the dragon near there, the flying beast with smoke wafting from her nostrils, long as a sea vessel and twice as fast.  She has a taste for travelers as a merchant named Gregory found out for himself.  Gregory set out on his favorite horse, with six wagons loaded with salt, gems and gold, a dozen teamster-guards and a guide.  He was going from one of the grand castle-cities of the Holy Empire to the harbor at Oak Crossing, to sell his wares to seamen.  Gregory wanted to avoid tariffs, for all his spending coin had gone to fill his six wagons.  To be a rich man was his ambition, so down the paths to Fern Glen, through the bottom of Long Valley and into the deep forest he went.  By day he rode a step behind his guide and by night he and his men sheltered under the wagons, with the mules tied to them.  As we all know, a tied mule in a forest night is as a worm on a hook in a river and every morning a mule was missing, taken by some unknown night creature as the teamster-guards slumbered.  Unknown, I say, but those who know The Forest know several beasts of the night that can make off with a mule.

            So it was that Gregory was left with but one mule for each wagon, with his men pushing them between the trees, unable to steer.  Even his guide was soon hopelessly lost and when a dirt path was found, he knew not where it led.  All that was known was that it led downhill.  The group camped where they found the path, and once again, lost a mule in the night, leaving them with five mules and Gregory’s favorite horse.  So over a morning fire, of the sort townsfolk make which can be seen for miles around, Gregory and his teamster-guards planned.  The idea they came up with was to use their five mules as a single team and take the wagons down the path one by one and then return.  The teamster-guards would look after the wagons and wait.

            So Gregory and one of his men rode one wagon into the unknown, down into the Valley of the Dragon.  As they rounded a bend out of the trees, they saw the valley floor and where they were headed.  The path led straight to the gray stone keep belonging to the Dragonspawn.  Nestled at the bottom of a chasm it was, with four towers taller than a dozen men at its corners, a wall topped with a walkway wide enough to drive one of Gregory’s wagons on, and a palace within, with marble halls wide enough to store a sea vessel.  Gregory chose to turn back, for he could see the winged spearmen upon the castle walls and did not want them to see him.

            Soon as he turned his wagon about, Gregory saw half a dozen Dragonspawn watching him silently from cover.  They were as tall as robust men, but covered in green scales, dragon-headed and with yellow lizard-eyes.  They had wide, leathery wings stretching from their black-taloned hands to their buttocks and smoke issued from their beaky noses.

            The closest one spoke ‘This valley and all within are property of the Dragon Queen!’ It hissed, in a voice like storm winds through oak branches, ‘Drive Her Royal Highness’s wagon unto her!’

            Gregory’s man whipped the mules and got them going as fast as he could, fleeing the way they had come.  However, the air filled with Dragonspawn as they flew from the brush all around.  They circled as do vultures over a carcass and dove low over the wagon, letting loose with hot breath from their mouths.  Soon the wagon blazed as it sped through the woods.  The mules’ panic saved the two riders and soon the flyers were left behind in the smoke.  Gregory and his man stayed on the speeding wagon until the wheels fell off and jumped into the bushes, rising as fast as they could and battering the blaze with their cloaks.  Gregory’s driver loosed the mules and they fled into the woods.  The pair found the path once again and made their way on foot to the waiting wagons.  That was when they saw the dragon, flying toward them overhead.  Huge she was, gliding on her leathery wings, and striped, green like emeralds and crimson like blood.  She blew and her hot breath filled the air above.  The two men fell to the ground and crawled under bushes.

            Once the dragon had passed, they found the wagons.  Smashed they were, and Gregory’s goods were scattered about among the splintered wood and torn leather.  But that was not the worst of it.  Every last one of Gregory’s teamster-guards was either a smoldering pile of ash and scorched bones, or not unlike the remains of a rabbit caught by a hungry panther. 

            Gregory made it home and all is now well for him, but if any man suggests traversing The Forest, he becomes pale as a dead man and cautions against the planning of a journey from which there is no return!”

            The alchemist finished the story and sat down dramatically, his gaze moving about the crowd for effect.  A woodswoman stood, the one who was singing when I had arrived.  She was tall and muscular, with an ample bosom and an enchanting voice.  Her unadorned shirt was made of small animal skins and her spear was only wood, with flat heads not unlike pointed, sharpened oars at each end, so it could be swung as a sword as well as thrust.  She was one of Willy’s people. 

            “I to have heard tell of this Dragon Queen.  Old stories, for her kingdom did not blossom over night.”  She began to sing a “once was a...” sort of song. 

            I spoke to Zacker.  “I wish to wager, but my pockets are empty, which is why I sought you out.” 

            Zacker leaned toward me in his chair.  “Of course, my money is your money.”  He reached under his chair and gave me a generous helping of his of gold coins from his winnings.  “Take it.”

            “At what rate of interest?” I quipped.  Zacker always keeps his word, but one must take care to discover what his word is.  “Perhaps I would do better with some of my money, which you keep within your walls.”

            “Would you make a feeble old man hike about?”  He made his voice high and hoarse, as though he were a pathetic old fellow.  I nodded.

            “Oh, here!” he exclaimed, quickly counting out fifty coins with his skillful old fingers, “take it with no interest, I do not wish to rise from my seat!”  We went back to listening to the song and the hushed conversation around us.

            The woman’s song was cut short by a commotion.  The crowd flowed toward it, all games halted and all circles collapsed.  One large circle formed and the woodsmen thrust their spears into the ground so that the reverse ends were angled inward towards the two women who faced each other.  One was a short, wiry older woman with streaks of white in her raven hair.  The other was a young woman, barely more that a girl, tall, blond and plump.  Both were dressed as Arryn’s people.  The older one had a head on her spear not unlike four curved knives set with the blades facing out and joined at the tips.  The younger woman’s spearhead was as a narrow, double axe-head, wicked-looking but heavy enough that it might slow her hand.

            The older one spoke evenly with an unruffled, proud air.  “T’is thy last chance, lass, withdraw thy insult!”  Woodsmen were only so formal when a duel was brewing.

            The other replied with a voice not unlike a nail scraping a smooth, flat stone.  She seemed a bit drunk.  “I will not!  Thou art flirtatious without end, not that any man would desire thee, hag.”

            “And thou art a shameless gossip, prepare to be taught proper discretion!” came the other woman’s response, which she punctuated by swinging one end of her spear to parry the others weapon and then thrusting with the other end, the one with the head.  The thrust met only air and her opponent swung upward, hard.  The hag weaved skillfully as she took a step back.  The gossip advanced, swinging her weapon downward, only to be blocked, and the hag gave a quick jab, causing the gossip to twist away, off balance.  The hag maneuvered to her opponent’s side and swung her spearhead, which found the gossip’s blonde head, giving a slight cut that made her grunt.  The gossip spun, to put extra power behind her horizontal swing, which the hag blocked, parrying upward while holding her spear tightly with both hands.  She tried to take advantage of her opponent’s upturned weapon, but the gossip jabbed with the headless end of her spear.  The hag turned to avoid it, but took a poke in the arm.  The gossip backed away and walked sideways, readying her weapon invitingly.

            The hag was on her in a flash.  She swung one end of her spear up and to the side, blocking the other’s weapon and thrusting twice with the other end.  The gossip narrowly avoided the thrusts and jumped, spinning, at the last one, swinging hard with her axe-head.  The hag closed in fast, taking the blow from the shaft, rather than the head of her opponent’s weapon.  She was off balance but used her stance to lunge into a mighty thrust to her opponent’s broad belly, causing the younger woman to screech and double over.  She withdrew her weapon and blood shot from the deep wound and dripped from the gossip’s shirt.  The gossip was breathing heavy and struggled desperately to stand, but her legs buckled.  The hag strutted around behind her and delivered a vicious thrust to the girl’s back, aiming for the heart.  The gossip ended up face down with her life bubbling out to form a red pool in the dirt.

            The hag stood over her fallen opponent and addressed the gathered crowd.  The people were electrified with the excitement of the duel and were still commenting to each other in hushed tones.  She said what woodsmen always said at the end of a duel, to complete the ritual.  “My opponent has died with honor.”  No one disputed, which may not have been the case if she had broken the accepted rules of a duel, such as using any weapon other than her dueling spear, failing to give a last chance to apologize before attacking, or allowing her opponent to suffer a slow death.

            Half a dozen of Arryn’s people came and took the body, carrying it into the woods.  The gossip would get a brief, casual funeral and be cremated along with her possessions, as was the way of the woodsmen.

            The crowd reformed the circles and I joined the wagering and swapping.  I won on this snail race and lost on that dice game, and so on, and traded what I had for things I needed.  Soon I was outfitted as a short woodsman, with a fur shirt and stout cloth belt, a dueling spear, a new dagger, a sharp, triangular weapon with a blade as wide as a large man’s hand at the base and with a fine bone and iron handle, horse-bags with provisions including traveling gems and an agile new pony of the woodsman’s breed. 

            The gathering continued for another three days and then drummers gathered near the wall of Zacker’s outpost and beat a slow rhythm in unison until they had everyone’s attention.  They waited as a few people came forward from the crowd.  T’was time to separate.

            Five leaders stood facing everyone.  Willy the Bearslayer was the first to speak, after waiting to see if any more stepped forward.  He was tall, with raven hair and a beard nearly to his waist, and looked even more hairy in his bear shirt, which he wore furry side out.  He also wore a leather string with a score of bear claws about his neck.  “I, Willy, will do what I do every autumn, will go to the beach at Gallick, where snow never falls, and stay through the winter.”  Several of the crowd cheered or whistled and there was much raucous conversation. 

            When the noise died down, Arryn the Riverman spoke.  He was lean and rough, with a large earring in his left ear and a saber on his town-style belt.  “I, Arryn, will spend the winter in the river-caves we know and make them warm with fire and beautiful with the wealth of ships which pass through our realm.”  A few in the crowd chanted “aye aye aye!” and the conversation started up again.

            The next to speak was old Zacker.  “I will remain here and take care of business for myself and many of you.  Any who wish to enjoy my hospitality are welcome.”  Many of the older woodsmen clapped or whistled.

            The next speaker did not wait for the crowd to hush.  T’was the alchemist who had told the tale of the Gregory the Merchant.  Now he stood holding a pipe, which was lit, in his left hand and held up the palm of his right for quiet.  “I, Rog, have made many a good swap and am off to seek some of the Fay, who have goods any alchemist would covet.”  He punctuated his words with a knowing draw on his pipe.  The Fay have all sorts of interesting things to place in a pipe.

            The last to speak was a tall, beautiful red-haired woman of the sort songs are sung about.  She had the unadorned look of Willy’s band.  “I, Kella, will winter in the ruins of Tello, where shelter and good hunting are free for the taking.”  A few in the crowd cheered.  The woodsmen spoke enthusiastically as they gathered their things and their ponies, and followed their leaders away.  The majority went with Willy, five dozen or so, as did I, for Gallick Beach is near to the port villages on the outskirts of the Holy Empire and a good place for me to start.  Most of the rest joined Arryn, with a dozen or so finding Rog and Kella.  Many of the elderly, finding themselves a bit old for adventure, went into the outpost.  Zacker was rushing about settling business before the gatherers departed, and trading for provisions, as his food stores were depleted by his duties as host.

            The journey took from late summer until after what was harvest time in Oak Crossing and was less than exciting.  On a typical day, I rose and joined a hunt or foraging group, starting before sunrise to seek the day’s fare, and then plodded on horseback from midday until soon after sundown.  The woodsmen dislike unnecessary speech when hunting, foraging or traveling, but loved to talk around the fire-pits in the evening, weary as we all were.  Traveling meant everyone on the backs of ponies, single file through The Forest’s depth, with two or sometimes three people on each one and their possessions as well, though most woodsmen could fit all they own in a single pack.  I shared my pony with Nini Treeclimber, a girl of a decade or so.  She had not gotten the knack of being quiet and whispered questions about life in town and far away places in my ear as we rode.  Our hushed conversation drew many a look from the rider in front of me and I suspected the girl’s talkative nature was the reason she was not riding with her family.

            Willy’s folk had half a dozen griffins, which circled overhead with lazy grace.  Their riders could spot anything to be avoided before we reached it, as well as good camping for the night.  For those who know them not, a griffin is a flying beast the size of a small horse.  It has a head, wings and forelegs not unlike a brown eagle, giant feathers and all, and the rear end and hind legs are as those of a tawny cat.  At night they had to be tied up, or they would devour the ponies.  Wild griffins are fearsome hunters, but the woodsmen can tame them.  A griffin rider earned prestige among the woodsmen and typically tied a single great wing feather to his spear, so he would be known even when away from his mount.

            The griffin riders could not find everything.  At one point we were stopped by the Fay.  Two of them, tall as pine trees and sporting wicked-looking translucent bows, appeared out of nowhere to block Willy’s path as he led the group.  The Fay are often called little people, but they use the most difficult and potent sorcery as easily as breathing and are however large as is convenient for them.  One of them ordered Willy to go around and he led us away without asking what we were avoiding.  By the standards of the Fay, this was hospitality, as they are known to drive off travelers with force and without warning.

            At another time, a woman stopped her pony and stared, transfixed, into the shadow between two mighty oak trees.  A basilisk sprung from that shadow and slew the unfortunate woman and her pony, before being brought down.  A basilisk is a mighty lizard, which stands on two legs, as does a bird, leaving its dexterous forelimbs and curved talons free.  It has a head and neck much like a snake, with a single horn on its nose and a mouth full of small but sharp teeth.  It has been said that the gaze from a basilisk’s eyes can turn a man to stone, but the woodsmen know better.  They know that, when a basilisk looks a person straight in the eyes, that person is charmed and unmoving.  Charging woodsmen brought down the beast.  They rode full tilt, as do jousting knights, but with spears held out beside them, to be thrust into their opponent and left protruding from its body as each rider passed.  It took three such charges to bring down the basilisk, and though t’was only late afternoon, we found the nearest place to stay the night.  The woman was given a funeral with kind words from those who knew her and the basilisk, though brutal, was quite a delicacy, with a flavor not unlike a giant duck.  The woodsmen took it apart meticulously, producing meat for all and some for the next night as well, plus stout leather and thick bone for craftsmen. 

            After weeks of traveling, all were relieved to see the white sands and mild sea of Gallick Beach.  Having been so long in The Forest, we were awestruck by the vastness of the sea’s horizons and the open sand, as far as we could see in all directions but from which we came.  We dismounted and gathered around Willy, waiting for the last of our procession to ride onto the sand.  Then Willy addressed his people.  “Friends, it has been a long and perilous journey, but if it had not been, this moment would not be so sweet.”

            Jests and laughter erupted from the woodsmen, but a sarcastic voice spoke from behind Willy.  “Here here!  So sweet to invade our beach.”

            Willy turned to see a merman standing behind him.  It had a look not unlike a man, but below the waist was scaly as a fish.  What it used for feet were two sides of a tail, not unlike a whale’s, which could be put together and used for swimming.  Its gait on land was clumsy.  I had heard of these creatures, they are kin to the Fay.  As we looked, we could see shadows gliding through the surf and a merman or mermaid breaking the surface occasionally.

            Willy spoke with humility.  “We meant no trespass, we simply seek a place in which to winter which is not unkind and...”

“You have trespassed!  Now you will be challenged for the beach.  Two of you must face our gladiators, so that we may have a days entertainment in return for this inconvenience,” the merman interrupted, grinning wickedly. 

            “I would prefer to go in peace,” said Willy, more firmly.  More Merfolk waddled onto the beach, laughing and chatting in their own language.  The one who had been talking to Willy went among them and returned.  “It has been decided,” it mocked.  “Choose two champions.  If they win, you may share our beach, if they lose, you will have our permission to go in peace, mortals, as your leader would prefer.”

            The two gladiators rose from the surf and walked toward us.  They were twins, tall as a man and a half and completely hairless, with a sun-bronzed look.  Each had a pair of black horns sprouting from his forehead and curling around his ears.  They were naked, looking sticky and miserable. 

            I chose to take a gamble, dismounted and strode past Willy to the merman, unseen.  I addressed the sea creature.  “I will face this pair alone, which should prove quite entertaining.”  It jumped slightly and regarded me with curiosity.  Willy looked cross and concerned but held his tongue, as did the others. 

            “You would face them on your own?” the merman taunted. 

            “Yes, but since we are the challenged, I claim the right to choose terms.  Victory goes to the last contestant standing and I wish ownership of these two when the contest is over, provided that victory is mine.”

            The merman stared at me as if I were telling it that grass is blue and sky is green, but it did seem interested.  It flashed a look at the others of its kind that were listening and decided.  “Agreed!”  It stepped back and motioned to the gladiators, who stepped forward looking grim.

            “Lenko and Furgo!” I addressed them.  “Be seated, lest my trickery is in vain!”  Yes, I had recognized them when they walked out of the sea and I was betting they were unfortunate captives of the Merfolk.

            They sat and I declared myself the winner.

            “Oh, that was truly entertaining,” the merman grumbled. 

            “Entertaining or not, I am the last contestant standing, the means of victory was never discussed in the terms of the contest.”  I braced myself just in case things did not work out.  Willy and his people were getting ready to depart in haste.  The Merfolk discussed the matter and there was much laughter, in a way that gave me the impression that they were laughing at the merman who had started the whole thing.  A mermaid ambled forward and spoke to me in a sweet, musical voice.  “The terms will be honored and you may share the beach, but the sea itself is ours.  No fishing.”

            Relieved talk rippled through the woodsmen and they dismounted and built a fire pit.  Willy invited Furgo and Lenko to share the fire and offered them clothing, which was ill fitting, but better than nothing.  The afternoon and evening were spent talking and joking around the pit and polishing off the remains of our provisions.  One of the twins, I know not which as I could not tell one from the other without their military insignia, told their tale with little prodding.

            “After being released from royal service, the two of us made for the port at Oak Crossing.  We had enough gold stashed between us to purchase a sea vessel of fine quality and hire a crew and we planned to make for the island of Meer, where we knew we would be welcome, as we had had dealings with the mercenaries and pirates there.  We knew we could find work for our ship.”

            The Island of Meer is part of a cluster of untamed places ruled by the Islanders, a loosely united, barbaric people with allegiance to the robber baron Mallowy on the Island of Kros.  The Islanders specialized in smuggling, piracy, hiring themselves out as mercenaries and plundering coastal towns when they could find one unguarded.  They are also known for a love of adventure and excess, so the twins’ goal of joining them at least made some sense.  I do know that the kings we had served had hired Islanders for tasks too dangerous for their own troops and had sent the twins, who they viewed as just as disposable, with them.

            “But there was trouble along the way.  The Bukan Navy is after some criminal and was turning away all ships in those waters.  One of their ships, a tall frigate, pulled alongside us and a sailor called.  We were ordered to turn back, but we did not wish to obey and trusted our fast ship, so we continued on in haste.  It was no tall task to outrun the frigate, but in our path were six corvettes, smaller and much faster, with iron points on their bows for ramming.  We passed the first as it turned about and I heard the battle horn sounding.  Another approached and we turned.  We nearly dodged it, but we could not avoid its iron-shod ramming point, which it left in our port side with a mighty crunch as we passed.  The point became stuck as would a giant lance just above the water line and the crew went below with pitch to seal it where it was, so we would not take on water before reaching port.

            To our dread we spied three of the corvettes ahead of us.  They appeared to be seeking to encircle our wounded ship, but their actual plan was much more nefarious.  We made for the gap between the aft ends of two of them, gambling that we could gain distance as they turned.  But those navy men had other plans and they were hurling clay pots filled with some concoction of theirs upon the water.  Each pot shattered when it struck the surface, leaving a sickly film.  As our fast ship could not stop in time to avoid it, our choices were to ram a corvette or continue onward through the unknown sludge.  We chose to surge onward.  As we passed, the crewmen on board the corvettes brought out bows and set fire to their arrows.  As the arrows hit the film on our waters, the sea blazed forth.  Soon the timbers and sails of our vessel blazed as well.  Crewmen hurled themselves into the sea, only to be burnt in the water.  Those who were fortunate enough to live through that were forced to choose between drowning and returning to the blaze.

The two of us found our swords and went below.  We hurriedly chopped our way through the underside of the hull, allowing the sea to flood our empty hold.  Fighting the incoming current, we swam through the gap we had made and escaped into the depth.  We live still only because we found a hole in the blazing film on the surface at which to fill our lungs.  The corvettes had pulled away from the blaze, their work completed.  That left us alone in the open sea.  We believed we would be a meal for some passing shark or sea serpent, but the Merfolk found us first.

            They gave us the power to breath water as they do, but told us that our lives were now theirs and any failure to obey would cause us to drown.  We were taken to their home, a great city built on the ocean floor, among the fine sands and glowing fish.  It was made of many domes of different sizes all white as ivory, with crowds of Merfolk swimming between and about them.  We two attracted their attention and soon their children taunted us by ordering that we do ridiculous acts.  We did not fail to obey for fear of drowning, but it was not our most glorious hour.  However, they soon tired of that taunting and had us doing housework and other menial tasks.  When this bunch decided to move near shore, we were brought along.  I know not why, perhaps to be teased or for sport.  We felt dread as they frolicked in the tumbling waves.  Then they came to us and told us that we would be gladiators this day, and to be ready to fight for our supper, as we are too slow in the sea to catch our own meals.  We were ordered to march up on shore and you know our story from there.”

            He finished his story and one of the woodsmen spoke up.  “We have the beach and we do not keep slaves!” he declared, receiving nods of agreement from the others.  “You may stay here and rest so long as you wish.”

            Furgo and Lenko looked to me.  “He won us, what has he to say.”

            Before I could speak, Willy rose.  “Mel the Dwarf knows what we all know, that no person who travels with the wandering woodsmen would dare to keep a slave.”  He sat and looked to me for a response.

            “Willy’s words are true,” I responded firmly.  “The pair of you would now be free to come and go as you please.”

            Furgo and Lenko began to quarrel between themselves over what to do next.  One wanted to go up the coast to Gallick Village and on to Hunchback Rock, where a seaport he had frequented before lay, and the other wished to stay on the beach with the woodsmen and travel back to Oak Crossing after the winter.  The idea of following separate paths did not seem to occur to them. 

            I informed them about my plan to stay camped on the beach for the winter, and then to relocate to Gallick Village in the spring, to find work as a guide, and that they would be welcome as caravan guards.  “Stay with us”, I implored.

            The woodsmen joined me by chanting, “Stay with us!” and laughed.

            So winter passed quickly.  The Forest provided for us until the first snow and by then the Merfolk had withdrawn and t’was safe to fish.  Nets were woven of vines and cast into the sea and fish were plentiful.  The griffin riders produced the most, flying low over the sea beyond the surf with the nets dangling in the water.  Others gathered muscles from the rocks and clams from the sand.  The weather was cool but not bitter and there was much time to fill with games and song.  Before I knew it, the sandfish heralded spring.

            Sandfish pick a night in early spring to spawn, which they do on the sand rather than in the sea.  One starlit night I was awakened by the joyous cries of children and wandered blurrily out of the tent I shared with Nini Treeclimber’s family, but which had become curiously empty.  I saw the beach writhing in the dim light, with flocks of seabirds feasting and woodsmen spearing fish as long as a man’s arm on the ground about them.  Loose griffins were grazing upon the sand, as would cattle in a field.  A woodswoman, a plump old lady with a kind face, ask me, “do you not like sandfish?  They are succulent.”  She winked and handed me a leather sack, which I filled with ease.  Breakfast that morning was a feast for all.

            For a few days, we did not even need to hunt, and we gorged ourselves on sandfish prepared every conceivable way.  When the feast was done, Furgo, Lenko and I said grateful goodbyes and traveled the half-day’s walk to Gallick Village to seek fortune, me on my faithful pony, followed by the twins on foot.

            Gallick Village is a small settlement, which pays taxes to the Holy Empire but has little allegiance to it.  There are two professions there, fishing and smuggling.  Being too remote for regular sea trade, the village is close to the Islands and the Islanders enjoyed selling their plunder and trading in anything magical in nature, as the Holy Empire has banned such wares.  Every so often troops arrived and put a stop to it, but it starts up again as soon as they go. 

            The three of us arrived at the Hugging Kraken late in the afternoon, a splendid tavern that attracted Islanders with more gold than they knew what to do with.  There was also an Inn where we could purchase a room, town clothing and the privilege of visiting the Inn’s bathhouse.  Soon, we looked presentable.  I wore a dark green cloak over a new shirt of hardened leather armor, but kept the fur leggings I had worn with the woodsmen and the twins chose stout leather armor, which, of course, had to be altered for them.  There was also a smith and I ordered wide shields, as well as swords of the size a man would call two handed, for them. 

            The twins caused quite a stir when they walked in the door of the tavern, acting as if the likes of them were seen every day in that village.  I had become accustomed to not being seen and was mildly surprised by the sudden quiet and suspicious mumbling.  We found a table and waited for a serving wench, but it turned out to be a long wait.  Lenko stood, bumping his horns on the ceiling, and headed for the bar.  He spoke briefly to the barman and soon a wench hurried to take our order.  The girl accepted the gem I offered for our meal and brought menus.  Sandfish was prominent on the menu, but we had had our fill of that.  I ordered octopus and the twins ordered a broiled salmon for each and mugs of ale.  They insisted that the server keep the ale coming.

            The meal was quite satisfying and the ale did keep coming.  Soon, Furgo was singing, off key as usual.  Several of the patrons walked hurriedly out of the Hugging Kraken.  I gritted my teeth and waited.  He finished and there was the sound of one person clapping, slow and taunting.  It came from a table of a dozen or so weather-beaten sailors, seated by the wall under a portrait of a kraken, or giant squid, squeezing a merchant vessel.

            A sailor swaggered over to our table, wearing a knife and saber on his belt.  “Fancy yourself a singer do you, I’ve heard better from seagulls.”  He slapped Furgo’s right horn and continued, bitterly.  “What sort of hellish beast are you anyway and why do you play at being a man in our favorite tavern.”  I crept to the man’s side, anticipating trouble, unseen.

            Furgo stood, looking down at the burley sailor.  “Be gone little man! I only came in for a meal and something to drink.  Or wouldst thou draw thy blade on an unarmed man?”

            “On an unarmed man no, but on you I would.  Perhaps this little man does not wish to be gone,” He responded, holding his ground under the watchful eyes of his companions.  “Perhaps I wish to drive away the freaks!”  He drew his saber and swung.

            I grabbed his flying elbow and twisted, whacking his hand on the table, where his saber fell and lay as a centerpiece.  Furgo swung his fist hard at the side of the man’s head, but only clipped him.  Now our tormenter’s companions rushed to his aid, emptying the three remaining occupied tables.  I threw myself down in their path and tripped the closest two, who impeded some of the others, and took some nasty kicks for my effort.  I ended up wrestling them and then on my belly with my hands held behind my back.  From there I could not see much, just a tumbling mass of fighting and overturned furniture.  Mercifully, no more blades were drawn, although there was no shortage of them.  The twins fought bravely, but there were too many sailors for them to take and they were soon subdued as well.

            A small, well-dressed man arrived, flanked by two others, with rapiers in their right hands and thin, stiletto daggers in their left.  They wore snug, high-quality chainmail and their blades had the lusterless, filmy look of poison on them.  The sailors stood, almost at attention.  

            “Let them stand,” said the well-dressed one.  He was not armed, but had the air of a leader who does not need to be.  The sailors let us up and shoved us forward.  The leader looked us over.  “Causing a disturbance, hmm?  You three follow me, and you two.”  He addressed us, and two of the older sailors. 

            We were led through narrow streets lined with town houses.  The leader and his two men were silent and alert.  I pondered their identity as we went.  They did not have the look of king’s men and there was no way they were Imperial troops.  I would have thought them to be armed peasants or tradesmen, were it not for their expensive clothing and gear.

            Eventually, we arrived at a large town house, much like an inn, but lacking the usual signs that would welcome travelers.  The leader rapped on the door and spoke loudly.  “It is I.”  The door opened and an Ogre looked out.  T’was tall, squat and pale with a nose not unlike a vulture’s beak and a jutting muzzle not unlike a bear’s.  It stooped to walk out onto the street and stood next to the door, glancing suspiciously about as we were led inside.  The room within was large and well lit, one room for the whole first floor, with sets of stairs leading both up and down by the back wall.  The decorations were those of a wealthy man.  There was a table and couches, with more men, not unlike the ones we came with, sitting or standing about.  They all turned to regard us.  At the head of the table was a man of two score years or so, who had the look of a powerful merchant, with some papers and coins before him on the table.  The ogre followed us in and shut the door, locking it with a loud click.

            Five of the men held chairs for us and remained behind us as we sat.  The leader who had brought us went off with the man at the head of the table and they stood by the stairs, conferring quietly.  Then the man returned to the head of the table as the other went downstairs. 

            As he took his seat, the man gazed at the two sailors.  “This disturbance will not be tolerated,” he stated with quiet authority.  “You two are known to me.”

            Each sailor stood and produced coins, received a nod from the man, and placed them on the desk.  Then they left.  We waited in an uncomfortable silence as the ogre unlocked and locked the door.  The man returned his attention to the paper and coins on the table and spoke after the door was shut.  “You three I never met.  Furgo, Lenko and Mlerro so recently released from royal service at Oak Crossing.  Although I hear you fought bravely, such disturbances are not welcome, especially at a tavern I own.  Why are you here?”
            The twins regarded me as if it were my duty to respond.

            “We were traveling along the coast and stopped for a meal.”

            “Do you always fight after supper?”  He did not look at me, keeping his attention on his papers.

            “The others in the place provoked the brawl!” I responded.

            “Those fellows are known to me,” he stated, meaningfully.

            He stopped reading and looked up, regarding me as a father would look at a disobedient child.  “You were just traveling the coast, you were not looking to sell your services as guide in my town?  If you were to sell your services here, you would owe the guild a fee and since I am the Guildmaster, we would have met.  As I have said, disturbances are not welcome.  This wrong must be righted.  However, I have a use for a guide and two guards.”  He motioned and one of his men stepped forward.  “Go with this fellow to see that his wagon has a safe journey and I will be satisfied.  If not, we will consider ourselves wronged.  Agreed?”

            “I agree”, I said, unenthusiastically.

            The Guildmaster stared expectantly at the twins.

            Lenko spoke up.  “What rate of payment will we receive for our services?”  I stared at my hands and gave a frustrated sigh.

            “Your meals along the way and the absence of a blade in your back,” replied the Guildmaster.  The man standing behind Lenko made a slight movement and Lenko straightened up in his seat.

            “Agreed!” he said hastily.

            The Guildmaster turned to Furgo.  “Agreed” said Furgo, with a scowl.

            “May the evening be kind,” said the Guildmaster, dismissively.

            The guildsman we were to go with introduced himself as Lucerio and led us back to our rooms at the inn.  He stayed outside, most likely by the exterior door.  The next day he knocked before sunrise.  We readied ourselves and went to the smith to pick up the armor and swords I had ordered the day before.  Then Lucerio led us back to the inn’s stable where a cargo wagon, which was locked, and a driver were waiting.  The driver was a young guildsman, armed with a crossbow and rapier.

            “The wagon will make it to Hunchback Rock,” Lucerio stated before he departed without waiting for a reply.

            After finding my pony in one of the stalls and tethering him to the wagon, I climbed on board and introduced myself as Mel.  The youth was Jantone and had little to say other than his name and the route we were to take.  So we went, with me riding the wagon pulled by six mules, as Furgo and Lenko followed on foot.  We kept to the edge of The Forest by the sandy coast.  As we went, the beach became rockier, until t’was no longer a beach, but stone being worn by the sea.  The journey took two days and we spent the night at a secluded cabin owned by an old, mean-looking farmer.  We were given a meal of stew and slept in the stable with the mules.  As far as I could tell, Jantone stood at the door the entire night, crossbow at the ready.  The next day we came to a great stone by the sea, in the shape of a squatting hunchback if seen from the proper angle.  Beyond it was the town of Hunchback Rock, with a narrow harbor and rich farmland.

            As we approached, the twins pulled the hoods of their armor over their heads.  Not that it helped much, since they were still too tall to pass for men and appeared to possess great, misshapen heads under their hoods.  Jantone skirted the town and headed for the changeling colony.

            Hunchback Rock had started as a changeling colony and a fair-sized town had grown nearby.  Changelings are any who do not look normal in a way they cannot easily hide.  In the Holy Empire, peasants often reject their children if they turn out to be such people and abandoned them.  They blame the Fay or a witch’s curse and sometimes claim that a child of the Fay has been left in the place of their little one.  I suppose they have to make up some story, for if a family is diseased, the priests of the Holy Empire believe them to be cursed by the gods for some wrongdoing.  For some superstitious reason, the locals leave their changelings at Hunchback Rock.

            The colony is mostly hunchbacks and dwarves, true dwarves, not creatures such as myself.  At least they are the ones most often seen.  Anyway, they have little love for the Empire and keep secrets well.  The day we arrived, however, there was a circus set up between the colony and the town, which was swarming with both townsfolk and colony dwellers.  We passed the crowd through which were scattered jugglers, fire eaters, magicians, mimes and other performers.  We were paid no attention, not that I am complaining.  Then we went past wagons, many of which were cages on wheels with odd creatures within.  I averted my eyes when I saw that one housed a basilisk.  Beyond the line of wagons was a large, brightly colored tent.  Jantone stopped his wagon near the back.

            The youth was met by a round, bald man dressed in red.  That was when he dismissed us, telling us our debt was paid, and got down to business.  I unhitched my pony and led him as we departed, moving through the crowd.  The twins made for a small food market at the edge of one of the tents while I found a spot out of the way and drove my woodsman’s spear into the ground to hitch my pony to it.  I went to find the twins, dodging people and narrowly avoiding being scorched by a fire-eater.  Of course, I ended up paying for ample meals for all three of us.  As I was debating with the seller over the value of a traveling gem, a man wearing an exaggerated sorcerer’s robe, white with presumably arcane and mysterious symbols in red, green, black and blue sewn into it, approached.

            “May I make the transaction a simple one?” he asked, smiling warmly and glancing at the line of impatient people behind me.  He offered me Imperial coins for my gem.  I counted them and saw that he was being generous.

            He followed as we found a bench to sit on and eat and sat next to me. 

            “Are you Mel the Dwarf?” he asked, in a hushed tone.

            “That would be me!” I responded in a loud, jovial voice, just to see if he would look about, as would a conspirator.  He kept his gaze on me, with a look in his eyes as if he were about to play some prank. 

            “You may be interested in our freak show,” he commented, whispering.  He stood and spoke for all to hear.  “I suppose I should be getting back to work!”  With that he raised his hands and disappeared in a flicker of white light. 

            “What was that about?” asked Lenko, through a full mouth.

            “He said I might want too see the freak show.”

            “Probably wants all three of us as exhibits,” Lenko commented after swallowing.

            “He knew my name,” I told him.

            “First that Guildmaster person and now a sorcerer-fool!” Lenko complained.  “Is there no person who knows us not?”  His hood fell back as he spoke, drawing curious glances from the people around us.

            Furgo spoke up.  “There may be peril here for ones such as us.  We should be seen as little as possible.  Lenko, you and I must find a place away from prying eyes and grasping hands, not to mention holy warriors looking to slay horned beasts.  Mel, you would do best to see the freak show alone and cautiously, without us to draw eyes away from those unfortunate exhibits.”

            I nodded.  “Meet me at the colony’s granary at sunset and do be careful.”  All three of us knew this place and knew that colony folk were, as were the woodsmen, welcoming and free of prejudice.  “Stay sober this time,” I added, causing them to grin.

            I worked my way through the onlookers and eventually found the freak show, mainly by ear because I could not see through the crowd.  A man stood on a platform spouting poetry that praised the fascinating frightfulness of the freaks.  With Lenko’s comment about becoming an exhibit in mind, I slipped unseen past the money taker and joined a clump of onlookers who followed a wrinkled old narrator.  I fell in behind half a dozen dwarves from the colony.  They seemed more interested in laughing at the crowd’s reaction than in the show itself and traded hushed jests with each other.  The cages formed a hallway, covered and lit by torches.  The narrator moved in front of a cage, cautioning the crowd not to make any sudden moves around the werewolf.  The cage’s inhabitant appeared to my eyes as an ordinary wolf.  The narrator paused to let the people gawk as the wolf stood and stared back at them.  The dwarves joked about the magical power the wolf had when no one was looking, when it would be let out and a man was put it its place.  The narrator continued, this time showing a man, tattooed as an alchemist, eating wood grubs.  Any who know The Forest know of wood grubs.  They are less than pleasant fare, but if you are out of food, they are easy to find and do not taste too bad fried.  In fact, they have little flavor at all.  One of the dwarves was complaining that this exhibit made his stomach growl.  Another suggested a food stand by the cage.  The narrator finished and the alchemist moved on to swallowing live guppies. 

            “Is his throat ticklish?” a dwarf asked the narrator in a boastful tone.

            The narrator ignored him and waited for the act to finish.

            As we reached the end of the show, the narrator came to a seemingly empty cage and picked up a small drum resting in front of it.  At the far end of the cage was a black curtain, as there had been in each of the other cages, but this one moved as if struck from behind.  The narrator weaved a boast of a frighteningly seductive succubus, as brutal as she is beautiful.  He said that music would lure the beast out and played the drum with his hands.  A wing, not unlike a bat’s but far larger, emerged from one side of the curtain and swayed to the beat, than an arm, not unlike a woman’s, but pale red in the torchlight.  Eventually, a winged woman, tall, lean and buxom, naked with crimson skin and eyes, emerged from behind the curtain and danced, turning and flapping to the beat, which grew faster and wilder as she performed.  She reached suddenly between the bars of the cage, sending her long, black-painted fingernails toward the groin of a youth who had gotten too close.  He jumped back and the crowd gasped.  The dwarves laughed so hard that their eyes watered. 

“She likes you!” one hollered. 

“Fear not true love!” taunted another. 

            The music stopped and so did the succubus.  The crowd moved on to look at the last exhibit, an animated statue, and then was led out the door.  I stayed behind.  When they were gone, I spoke.

            “Greetings Ellea.”  T’was she, covered head to toe in red paint.

            She grinned.  “Greetings Mel!  Pleasant to see and old friend!  Enter and be welcome.”  She opened the cage door from behind and gestured invitingly.  I went in and she hugged me, wrapping me affectionately in her arms and wings.  At times there are advantages to my short stature.  She led me behind the curtain, which hid a narrow room with a door on each of the three walls.  There was a table and chairs and not cheap ones, a red stained bathtub with several full water jugs waiting inside it and a pantry.  I stood by the curtain, attempting to brush the powdery redness from my new cloths.  Ellea stretched, spreading her wings, and withdrew a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and a jar of dip from the pantry.

            There was a knock at one of the doors and the grub-eater strode in, followed by a deliberately unkempt man with long hair and a wolf at his heals.  Ellea introduced them as Fedrick the Alchemist and Mich the Wolftamer.  “This is Mel the Dwarf, who is as a brother to me,” she told them. 

They sat at the table and Ellea served the wine and food.  Then she took a seat on Fedrick’s lap and they toasted a good show.  The opposite door opened and in walked a white marble statue, stooping to fit through the doorway.  It appeared to be the same animated statue of a young man that had been in the show.  Ellea introduced it as “our golem” and it waved in greeting.  It lumbered over and stood near us, settling into a casual pose.

            “An interesting arrangement this,” I said, grinning conspiratorially.  “Straw-floored cages in front and fine living quarters behind.”

            “All part of the show,” commented Ellea casually.  “And could you imagine if one such as I were loose in the Holy Empire!  Their women would bar every door and shutter every window lest the succubus should seduce their husbands and sons and spirit them away to Hell in the night!”  She giggled, flapping only one wing, as the other was around Fedrick’s shoulders. 

            “Yes, those priests would think we were from their Hell”, I commented.

            “So you are... ah...?” Mitch prodded, looking up from feeding bits of dried meat from his pouch to his lupine companion. 

            “I am one of those creatures from Down There, as is she”, I commented, looking him square in the eyes. 

“I know not where their Hell, which they believe evil people go when they die, actually is,” spoke Ellea, clarifying.  “But that would not be where we are from.  No evil souls, just us half-beasts.”

            “I have seen mortals die,” I added.  “They do not seem to go anywhere.”

            “Mortals?” questioned Fedrick, sounding curious.

            “Yes, mortals,” I stated.  “We have roamed here Above for...”

            “Mel!” exclaimed Ellea, giving a playful kick under the table.  “Do not reveal a lady’s age!”

            “If you want to be mistaken for a lady, put some cloths on!” quipped Mich, grinning, and Fedrick and Ellea guffawed at that.  She kissed Fedrick loudly on the forehead, leaving a little red mark there, not unlike a third eye.

            “If I get dressed, how am I to play a red succubus from hell?” Ellea retorted.  “I have heard tales of them doing many things, but getting dressed is never one of them.”

            “So that’s why you get painted,” I said, realizing.

            “T’is true!  Everything here is an illusion, the folk do not pay us for reality,” explained Fedrick.

            “I started as a dancer,” Ellea said.  “But the show I do now, and the paint, was Fedrick’s idea, as is Mich’s werewolf impersonation.  I came here thinking it was a good way to meet rich men, but I found that I can earn quite a bit myself at these games and I have my boss wrapped around my little finger.  Besides, I enjoy giving the folks a good scare.  Did you see the look on that man-child’s face when I reached for him!  Oh, and you should see my act tonight.  Mich puts his entire pack of a dozen wolves in a great cage and we have music for me to dance to.  We have them trained to snap and snarl with a hidden gesture from me.  The audience thinks I will be torn to bits!  Then the acrobats do their high rope act.  One of them lets himself fall and I catch him in mid air!”  She looked to me, expecting me to be impressed.

            “I will not miss that,” I assured her.

            “What about you, Mel?” questioned Mich.  “Do you find success in this land?”

            “T’is my hope,” I responded.  “I seek success by guiding travelers through The Forest, a place of true wonder more striking than any illusions here.  I have wintered with the wandering woodsmen, Willy the Bearslayer camped at Gallick Beach, and now I seek work.”  I paused to sip wine.

            “You are a friend to the wandering woodsmen,” breathed Mich, respectfully.

            Ellea spoke up, “Mel kept an eye on woodsy happenings for the rulers of Oak Crossing for years.  He is a friend to woodsman and Fay alike.”  Mich stared at me.  Ellea continued, “I heard from the owner that a dwarf would bring a wagonload of props for our magicians, accompanied by twin giants with horns on their heads, and I asked the performers to keep an eye out for you.  Where are the twins anyway?”  

            “In hiding.  They do not wish to be found by the priests.  Probably somewhere in the changeling colony,” I answered.

            “They work for you?” she asked.

            “Yes, I found them on Gallick Beach,” I responded.  Then I told her their tale of battle at sea and service to the Merfolk.

            “So they are yours,” she commented when I had finished.  “Two oafish brutes for the price of one.”

            “I do not own them, they are just working for me until they are back on their feet,” I retorted.

            “Well, I know where you might find work and at generous pay,” Ellea told me, leaning forward.  “I met the Regent of Bellosvia and he paid me for a private dance.  The Regent took me to meet the king, who is in hiding here.  I was happy to meet a person of such importance.  However, the rightful king is but an infant, whose parents have been slain by the Bukan hordes, so the Regent should rule in his place, but the Bukans are treacherous.  They ended the last war by making a treaty with the king’s father.  The new king must be coroneted on the longest day this year, for Bellosvia to remain free.  If not, the hordes will choose a ruler.  There is nothing in the treaty to stop the Bukans from slaying potential rulers, so the Regent and his men hide here, where those armies cannot go without risking a holy crusade against them, which would be a war they do not wish to fight.  However, the Regent must get the king home safely.  They wanted me to fly him home, but I cannot stay in the air and out of arrow range the whole way.  I told them their chances would be better overland, with a skilled guide.”

Bellosvia is a city-state on the contested border of the Bukan Empire.  The place has been taken in the past, and has been freed in the past, but I had heard no recent news on the situation there.  What Ellea had told me was typical of Bukan methods.  They keep their word as a matter of honor and I have never heard of them directly breaking a treaty.  However, there is always room for a surprise within one of their treaties. 

            Fedrick spoke up, “If you find not success as a guide, I could always dream something up for you here.”

            I nodded.  “Where could I meet with this Regent?” I asked.  It may have been risky work, but the pay would be welcome and having such a deed to boast of would raise the price of my services.

            “He’s been at the wolf and acrobat show most nights, I can point him out for you,” Ellea said helpfully.  “Tell me, any news of Glin.  I do miss the shaggy old fellow, who was so often a reckless girl’s conscience.”

            “No,” I responded.  “I hope he found a place of happiness.”

            I stayed a few hours with them, dipping bread and sipping wine.  We told the other freaks stories about the intrigues of the king’s court at Oak Crossing and reminisced about the old days.  Those fellows had a few stories of their own as well.  Every so often a bell rang and I waited while they slipped away to do their show, then returned.  The light from outside grew dim and I excused myself, explaining that I had to meet the twins, but that I would be back for the big show.  The back door lead to a corner of the big tent, where a cage was being assembled, as well as the acrobats’ high ropes and the magicians’ props.  No one saw me slip away.

            I arrived at the colony granary near sundown and enjoyed the view as the sun disappeared behind the ocean.  No twins and night had arrived.  I approached a cloaked man. 

            “Excuse me, kind sir,” I said to get his attention.  He turned and saw me.  We were both startled, him because he had thought he was alone and me because I could see his skeletal, disease ravaged face.  I hope I kept my composure, for I did not wish to be rude.  “Where could a weary traveler find a drink?” I asked. 

            “Gell the Ettin’s basement,” he replied politely.  His ailment, which was unfamiliar to me, made it difficult for him to speak.  He pointed to one of the nicer homes of the colony.  I thanked him and went over to knock on the door.  A plump dwarf with a kindly face answered.  She looked mildly surprised and told me that I am a stranger.  For a small payment at the door I would have food, drink and good cheer downstairs.  I paid her and went on down to Gell’s basement, where he had buckets of food to choose from and several kegs of ale.  Musicians played in their seats.  As I expected, the twins were there, towering over the other guests.  Furgo was singing, but no one seemed to mind.  I began to make my way around the people scattered about, with many a “pardon me.”  Gell recognized me and greeted me heartily.  Gell is really two men, twins, joined together from the leg they share to their shoulders.  They turned to see me and walked over, clumping on their three legs.

            “I have been expecting you, since a friend brought those two in,” said the head on the right.  “You have been to long absent, we have not seen you since we were but lads,” said Gell’s left twin.  I made some polite conversation with them and made my way to talk to Lenko.

            “I see you did not follow my advice about sobriety,” I scolded.

            “But this was a good place to hide,” Lenko protested.

            Furgo stopped singing and passed me a mug of ale, which I promptly abandoned.  Ellea’s wine had been enough for me.  “Do tell us of the happenings at that freak show,” he prompted.

            “Ellea is a freak...” I began.

            “Do not change the subject,” Lenko interrupted.  They both snickered.

            “No, I mean she works at the show, and she has news of a guide’s errand for us.”

            “Ah...” fumbled Lenko.

            “What?” I asked, looking expectant.

            “Ah... we found other work,” Lenko informed me.

            “What other work?” I prodded.

            “Know that this colony is nearly undefended.  Certainly, some of the people here have weapons, but not nearly enough.  They have had to depend on the townsfolk for help and those snobs are not fair in their dealings.  To some of the colony’s prominent citizens, a pair of mercenaries to train their warriors and to simply look formidable is worth the cost of room, board and a modest salary.”

            “And all the ale you can drink each night, I suppose,” I quipped.  I figured t’was just as well.  If I were to go on a secretive errand, those two would draw attention.  “I do expect to be compensated for the expense of your equipment,” I reminded them.

            Lenko slapped Furgo on one of his horns.  Furgo was talking with a young lady, who showed no outward sign of being a changeling of any sort.  He turned, startled.  “Aye?”

            “He wants to be paid back.”  Furgo handed me a small bag.  I opened it and saw that t’was filled with Imperial gold coins.  “We were given an advance,” Lenko explained.  “And we are grateful, kindly Mel, for being rescued and for your generous offer of work,” oozed Furgo, grinning. 

“All is well,” I chuckled.  “I shall visit you when I can.”

            I stayed a while, sharing a few jokes with a group of dwarves, and then slipped out to go to the circus tent.  I had no trouble sneaking in and finding a spot near the wolf cage and away from the audience.  Ellea’s show was good and it did look as if the wolves would devour her if given a chance.  I waited for her show to end and the acrobats to begin their performance and approached.  I stood by the cage and whispered a greeting.  One of the wolves stuck his head through the bars and ran his tongue from my chin to my brow, causing me to back away.  Ellea shooed the wolves away and squatted near me.  “Spy that slim fellow in the black cloak.”  I looked and saw a severe-looking man of four decades or so with black hair, gray on the sides, wearing a black cloak, with a wide-brimmed hat on his lap.  “That is the Regent,” Ellea continued.  “Simply tell him I send you.  My cue will be soon, so I suppose this is goodbye.”  She stood, rubbing my head as she would a child’s, and crossed the cage, quietly pushing the door open and watching the acrobats. 

            I slipped over to the bleachers and waited.  The show ended with a dramatic fall and Ellea’s catch.  She delivered the man to the ground, flying low and dangling him by his wrists, circled the tent and departed.  The acrobats finished and I waited through the magic show.  T’was average to my eyes, for I had seen Leum display his talent on many occasions.  When the crowd left, I followed the Regent, until strangers were sparse enough.  I gave his cloak a tug.

            “Greetings and solicitations, Sire Regent, I am sent unto thee by Ellea,” I told him with courtly formality.

            He gave a knowing glance and looked about, conspiratorially.  “Come,” he whispered. 

            I followed him to an inn in the poorer part of town.  He walked in and gave a nod to the youth behind the front desk, then unlocked a ground floor room.  Inside, the room looked ordinary and humble.  He went to move the bed, which hid a trap door leading to an unadorned cellar.  He opened it, lit a candle, and went down the stairs below with a glance at me to follow. 

            Below stood six warriors wearing armor plates bound by chainmail and sporting battleaxes and crossbows.  Each had a falcon in flight etched on his breastplate.  When the Regent entered, they stood at attention with rattling military smartness.  There was also a crib in the corner, with a wide-eyed, laughing infant within, as well as couches and a table in the center of the room. 

            “As you were, friends,” the Regent ordered.  He turned toward me.  “I would be Neilhelova, Regent of Free Bellosvia, and these would be the finest warriors of her armies, loyal as they are skillful, and the king himself, to whom I owe my allegiance.  Men, this kindly fellow would be the guide and rescuer promised by the winged one.”

            I saluted and they returned it.  Neilhelova removed his cloak, revealing fine courtly robes and a bronze medallion about his neck in the shape of a sideways eye.  He produced a map and spread it on the table.  The warriors and I leaned forward to see.  The map was of the forest and surrounding lands and was less than accurate.  Neilhelova fixed me with an intense stare from under his heavy brow.  “Here is where we are going,” he said, pointing to Bellosvia.  “I need to know the swiftest way.” 

            “The swiftest way for whom?” I asked, smugly.  “Men on foot, horsemen, or wagon teamsters?”

            “Men on the backs of fine, strong chargers,” one of the warriors spoke up with pride.

            “The fastest and most risky route would be down the Long Valley, through the deep forest skirting the rocky heights of Wyverns’ Roost, and straight through here, but I would not recommend that route,” I responded, tracing the route with my stubby finger.

            “Why?” Neilhelova asked.

            “First, strong chargers are risky in the Long Valley.  A woodsman’s pony could make the journey without breaking a leg, but a less surefooted breed may not.  Also, there is Wyverns’ Roost.  T’is here, in truth, and going near it would save time.  However, springtime is when wyverns quarrel over mates and choose roosts and they would be in the foulest of moods.  To take a horse near there is not the best of ideas any time of year, as it may attract a hungry wyvern.  Also, I have heard news of a dragon in that area.  T’is said by the wandering woodsmen that those who venture there do not come back.  I would lead you there if you choose, for a fair price, but there are less perilous ways.”

            Neilhelova turned to one of the warriors.  “You led us here, Tellian.  Are his words true?”

            “He knows the woods better than the mapmaker,” the nearest warrior responded.  “Our chargers can handle the Long Valley at a walk, but our enemy may be there and a fight or chase in that place would be best avoided.  He does know much of the wyvern’s ways.  As for the dragon in that valley, I have heard nothing, which does not mean it is not there.  I say we trust him.”

            With that I was hired.  Neilhelova and I haggled over a fair price.  When reached, the agreed-upon price was fairer for me than him.  I recommended a route, following a creek through the woods parallel to the Long Valley, betting that the Bukan troops would not know of it.  Time being short, I would still have to lead them a bit close to Wyverns’ Roost, but after that, we could go through the deep woods and enter Bellosvia through Lencalla pass, avoiding the Valley of the Dragon.  I also recommended a detour to Gallick Beach to trade for ponies with Willy’s folk, but Tellian assured me that their chargers were rugged enough for the task.  I told him that my pony was still tethered near the circus and I could show them the advantages of that hardy breed.

            I slept the night in my new employer’s underground abode, but was awakened many times by His Majesty’s squalling and petty arguments among the warriors over whose turn it was to serve the king.  In the morning I departed to collect my pony and to bid the twins farewell.  They had been given a cottage and treated me to a fine breakfast of bread, eggs and sausage, with a cup of tea.  It would be the last I would taste of town food for some time. 

            I met Neilhelova and the warriors at the Inn’s stable house.  They did have fine chargers, white or yellow in color and much larger than ordinary horses.  They were packing their saddlebags with supplies.  They also had a child’s harness such as the woodsmen use, a kind of backpack for an infant made to hold him comfortably and leave his arms and legs free.  Neilhelova stood to one side holding His Majesty, next to an impressive mounted figure.  The figure was on the largest of the chargers, a stallion as black as a crow covered in dark iron barding, and wore dark plate armor to match.  True plate armor it was, of the kind a smith would spend months on.  T’was fitted to cover every part of the wearer with no need for mail between the plates.  The helm was rounded and smooth, with a mesh of holes too small to see in, but just right to see out of from behind, over the wearer’s eyes.  There was a heavy lance with a narrow hand guard in one gauntleted hand and a long broadsword and spiked buckler slung over the figure’s armored back.  I knew from my years at court that this was the figure of a black knight, a deposed noble seeking revenge.  Given Bellosvia’s history, such a person was not out of place.

            I rode into the stable house and Tellian strode over to me.  He cupped the unbridled chin of my pony in one hand and inspected the animal.  “So!  This is the sort of fine beast that we should all trade our noble chargers for, eh?”  The pony pulled away from his hand.  “He does not even take a saddle,” he taunted.  I was riding woodsman’s style, in other words, no saddle or harness, just the pony and myself.

            “Those giants would have a bit of difficulty following this little horse, just as you fellows would have a hard time following little me, if I so wished,” I responded, matching taunt for taunt.

            Tellian grinned.  “A strong word!  Perhaps you would like to back up your word with coin or gem.”

            I produced one of my traveling gems.  “Will you match this, then?”  I dropped the gem as one would throw down a gauntlet.  It rolled to a stop next to the door. 

            Tellian produced a gem of his own and dropped it next to mine.  “A wager it is!” he cried and mounted a charger with startling quickness.  The other five warriors took up the cry.  “A wager!  A wager!” they bellowed.  Neilhelova spoke up.  “Gentlemen, please! This din disturbs His Majesty.”  The bellows became a gentle chant and everyone moved to leave.

            I turned and rode out the doorway.  Tellian followed, but on a charger so large that he had to lean downward and fumble with the reins to fit through.  I waited patiently, deliberately failing to hide my amusement.  The other five men followed on foot.  After them came Neilhelova, who walked slowly and spoke quietly to the king, who was awake and fidgeting.  The Black Knight followed and steed and rider ducked through the stable doorway as one, showing such skill that one might surmise that the armored warrior had been born in the saddle.

            All eyes were on me.  I gave my pony a squeeze with my legs and he cantered away from the stable house.  Tellian spurred his charger to follow, causing a whinny of protest.  I leaned to one side and my mount turned tightly in the narrow street and headed back, straight toward my opponent.  He stopped so fast that his beast reared up as I passed.  Then the charger spun while still standing on two legs and was after me.  Tellian slowed his mount a bit when he saw me heading straight for the wall of the stable house and got ready for another tight turn.  I leaned forward and hugged my mount’s neck, sliding my knees back and gaining a firm grip.  My pony sprang upward, shooting to the edge of the roof and pulling with his front hooves while still in flight.  He stopped suddenly when he landed and pranced uncomfortably on the flat wooden roof.  Tellian surprised me, bringing his own white charger up after me with a clatter of shod hooves.  The charger stood in the posture of a soldier at attention and both steed and rider stared at me with prideful expectancy. 

            My eyes quickly found a soft place to land and we were off as I urged my pony to hit the ground running.  I chose a narrow, twisted ally and had my mount take it at a full gallop, kicking up as much dust as he could.  I did not look back, but I could hear hooves pounding dirt behind me.  The modest townhouses flew past as my pony made several sharp turns, following the winding street at full tilt.  We came to a plaza with beggars and travelers on foot and I jumped my pony over a matronly woman with a water jug on her head.  She abandoned her jug and dove to one side with a startled squeak as we flew over her.  The swearing crowd parted quickly before me and I heard a whinny from my opponent’s charger.  I turned my mount.  He sprang over a stand where an old man sold cheap seashell jewelry and slowed to a canter, splashing through the broad but muddy street beyond.  Tellian’s charger flew over the stand in haste and slipped to a stop in the mud.  My pony and I cantered along, leading him, then turned sharply down another narrow ally.  I saw Tellian try to stop as his mount stumbled past.  I tried to take advantage, steering through the maze of streets at a trot and taking as many turns as I could, but soon Tellian was close behind again. 

            “Lost?” he questioned loudly.

            “And I suppose you know the way, foreigner!” I taunted.

            We were off with a squeeze from my knees and my pony was again galloping through narrow streets with my opponent trailing.  This went on until I found myself at the end of a dead end street.  My mount halted and stood, panting.  Tellian stopped his mount behind me, turning to block the street.  Horses and riders breathed heavily.  I became aware of the hostile stares of the townsfolk around us. 

            “Say I have won our wager and I shall let you pass,” Tellian spoke breathlessly.

            “Victory is yours,” I mumbled.

            “What?” he coughed, “I hear not your faint words.”

            “Victory is yours!” I said, speaking the words as if they were a curse.

            We dismounted and walked our breathless horses.  “Do you know the way back, guide?” Tellian asked, glancing about.  I looked around for a point of reference and led him silently back the way we had come.  I found the way back to the plaza and then a shortcut down a broad boulevard and back to the stable house.  We walked our mounts and discussed horses as we went.  Tellian, though victorious, congratulated me on a fine chase and I praised his mount’s unexpected talent.  I had never seen a charger perform as well.  Most such beasts were slow and clumsy when compared to the woodsman’s breed.

            Back at the Inn, the others were ready and mounted, with saddlebags packed.  Neilhelova’s town horse was no pony, but was looking small next to the chargers, and stood riderless, as he was with the innkeeper settling the bill.  His Majesty was in the child’s harness on the back one of the warriors and the others surrounded him as they waited.

            Tellian spoke as we approached.  “The wager is mine!  However, I am glad it was only to follow him, and not to win a race, for his skillful horsemanship and the swiftness of his mount make him a formidable opponent.”

            “And I now have a new respect for the Chargers of Bellosvia and what one can do with skilled hands on the reigns!” I exclaimed, matching Tellian’s good sportsmanship.  We took the horses into the stable house for a drink and a brush before departing.  Tellian collected the gems.

            Neilhelova entered and addressed us.  “I hope you gentlemen are through frolicking through town, for time is short,” he complained.  “And I have just found that horses on the roof would raise the price of a room.”

            Tellian grinned.  “Your orders were to trust no man and to test the competence of any who serve the king.”

            “They were at that,” responded the unsmiling Regent.  “But I never ordered horses on the roof or wild chases for all of town to see.”  Neilhelova turned and walked out before we could respond.

            “Is he always so grim?” I asked Tellian.

            “Yes,” he answered, his attention on his mount.  “But he is a kind and loyal fellow and he does mean well, even though his kindness rarely shows in his face and voice.”

            “And he is a nobleman, with us for underlings,” I stated, remembering some of the haughty courtesans of Oak Crossing. 

            “Not truly,” said Tellian.  “He was born a commoner and rose to his position by leading a band of robbers bent on stealing back as much as they could from the Bukans and their soldier-dogs, who had stolen the whole kingdom.  The crown gave him a position and land in gratitude.  He is Regent because he has proven himself, not because he was born to it.  I know he seems grim and severe to those not familiar with him.  The laughter in his heart rarely shows on his face, but I never have known him to complain in vain.  Our little game did draw a lot of attention and with me wearing the sign of a warrior of Bellosvia for all to see as well.  One would expect a cautious fellow such as him to say something.”

            “Ha!  Bukans here! They would not dare defy the Holy Empire,” I laughed.  “We will see them no nearer than the Long Valley.”

            “You and I are certain of that, but Neilhelova is a more cautious fellow than we.  Besides, the Bukans have already risked much to stop the coronation.  We would go much of the way by sail, were they not blockading the sea and sinking ships on a whim.”

            “Ah...  So that is why,” I said with realization.  “Some associates of mine lost their ship to that blockade.  They said the Bukan navy was searching for someone.”

            “Not searching, truly,” said Tellian.  “They need not locate His Majesty, only prevent his arrival.”

            “That explains why they are so quick to sink ships,” I commented.

            “I hear tell that the Islanders are furious and a terrible war at sea is brewing!” Tellian complained.  “No place for an infant king, for certain.”

            We were finished tending to the horses, they had been given a rest after their exercise and we went out to the warriors, who were mounted and waiting.  They were taking turns seeing who could make His Majesty laugh the hardest, making faces and odd gestures, reaching to tickle his exposed feet and so fourth.  Neilhelova was among them and the Black Knight was nearby.

            Neilhelova raised his hand and they all fell into formation, with the warrior who carried His Majesty surrounded by the others, Neilhelova in front and the Black Knight in the rear.  I took the lead position.

            I led the way toward the mouth of the Long Valley, where there was still a road.  We rode along at a leisurely pace, skirting the boarder of the Holy Empire.  We passed farmlands filled with simple folk who stopped working to watch us.  To any who were not schooled in heraldry or courtly symbols, our party resembled the processions that the local noblemen-priests formed when they traveled, so we were not stopped or questioned.  Neilhelova rode next to me, quiet and alert.  Behind him, the warriors told stories and jests as they rode, with the familiarity of men who served together.  In the rear was the Black Knight, who never spoke.  I began to wonder.  I had noticed that the Black Knight never said a word or showed a face behind the helm and made few gestures of the sort most humans did.  Perhaps there was a vow of silence involved.  Perhaps the Black Knight was a mute, or perhaps not a person at all.  Neilhelova did wear a medallion with a symbol, which may or may not be the mark of a sorcerer.  I remembered one of Leum’s tricks, to enchant a suit of armor so that it would walk about, serve, and even fight if that were required of it, but I had never heard of one riding a charger with skill.  I figured that my curiosity would be satisfied before our trip was through.

            When nightfall came, we made our way to a temple-keep, arriving shortly after sundown.  A temple-keep is a square wall of stone guarded by Imperial soldiers assigned to the local nobleman-priest.  Within were the humble huts of peasant folk who found safety behind the wall and then the temple proper, housing courtesans and servants.  The gate was open, but well guarded, with catapults ready.  I rode up and addressed the guard on the battlements over the gate.

            “Art thou open to travelers in need of a place to sleep?”

            “Yes we would be, if such travelers were unarmed and of the faith,” he responded, sounding aloof.  “All faithful must attend services at the temple come sunrise.”  This was typical of a temple-keep, or so I had heard, for avoidance of the service and payment of the tithe was considered to be an offense to one’s host.

            We handed over our weapons, which were taken to the battlements, and found a place to sleep near the wall, with hooks to hitch our horses to.  The men had brought a single large tent, which could cover us all when pitched, and a blanket for each of us in their saddlebags.  The warriors removed their armor and set up the tent, each man claiming a space for his blanket beneath.  The peasants came over and greeted us and we traded coin for stew and the services of a young nursemaid for His Majesty, who had a milk bladder to be fed with, but, of course, preferred the real thing.  He was also given a bath and change of cloths.

            Each man got a bowl of stew and a piece of bread.  I noticed that the Black Knight was no longer among us.  I had wanted to see the armor come off for eating and sleeping, but I was disappointed.  I did spot Neilhelova slipping quietly away from us, so I followed.  He slipped between the peasant huts, hiding under his cloak and hat and looking about as if watching for someone following.  He still did not see me.  Well out of site of our camp, a woman waited for him.  I got close enough to eavesdrop and heard him greet her with formality.  I had never heard him be so formal, as he had always treated the rest of us as underlings, which we were.  She put her arm around him and led him away.  I chuckled and then backed up, knowing that if they heard me, they would see me as well.  I gave Neilhelova privacy with his woman and went back to camp.

            The men were dozing off when I returned, except for one, whose turn it was to stand guard.  They slept as they had traveled, around their king, who was wrapped in a warm blanket and had been given pillows to sleep on.  I claimed the last remaining spot and slept, thinking that next time I would stay and claim a better place, rather than witness my employer’s evening meetings.

            We were awakened before dawn by the ringing of the bell at the temple.  We dressed hastily and I shared the morning root I had saved from my time with Willy’s people.  Morning root is a strong tasting, crisp root, which cleanses the mouth and freshens the breath after sleep.  The bell continued to ring and the Imperial soldiers were about, checking to be sure that nobody skipped the service.  We went to the courtyard of the palace, which housed grand statues of the Holy Empire’s four gods, arranged before the palace entrance to look down upon the gathering congregation.  An altar stood before the palace steps, with a priest before it, dressed in a white robe with the hood up, with his back to us.  With him were his six acolytes, also in white hoods.  Just beyond the steps were the soldiers, servants, priests’ families and other palace dwellers, to whom chairs had been given.  The peasants and travelers formed a throng behind those seated, standing and packed close.

            The bell went silent and the ringer went to his chair.  The priest raised both hands to quiet the crowd.  He then spoke a ritual of thanks for another day of living, kneeling before each statue and addressing each god on behalf of his people.  First he thanked The Builder, keeper of aspiration, then The Fate, keeper of harmony, then The Giver, keeper of compassion, then The Shadow, keeper of strength.  After each thank you, the crowd gave applause.  The priest then turned to the crowd and began a sermon.  We in the throng could barely hear him and he was not saying anything interesting anyway.  I began to get bored.  The human habit of worshiping gods always seemed strange to me.  Of course, the closest thing to a god I had ever seen was Lord Arkos and he did not care whether we worshiped him or cursed the ground he walked on, so long as we preformed the duties of his peasants.  Most of us did curse the ground he walked on, but did so long after he had tread upon it.  His palace could be seen always, as the sky is seen over the land, as could his towering form when he was outside it.  Humans, on the other hand, worshiped gods they had never seen or heard from.  In some cases, they made sacrifices as well, although the Four Gods of the Holy Empire required only donations of money for the keeping of their priests and soldiers.

            After the sermon, the collection baskets went around and the people gave.  I passed my hand over it and struck the bottom of the basket gently with the two fingers of my other hand, to create the illusion that I had paid the tithe, and passed it on to the warrior next to me, who winked knowingly but said nothing.  Then the service was over and the throng migrated back to their homes.  We worked our way to the front gate.  Neilhelova was there, along with the Black Knight and our weapons and horses. 

            Neilhelova held and tickled His Majesty, grinning and speaking gently before handing him back to a warrior, who put him in his traveling harness.  We went down the road in the same formation as the day before.  As we went, the terrain became wilder.  Farmland faded to thicket and woods and the land became rolling hills.  We followed the road between two tall hills at the mouth of the Long Valley, to where it ended with an Imperial outpost kept by two soldiers.  We stopped and Neilhelova spoke to them.

            “Is there a border tariff?” he asked.

            “Not to leave the Empire,” said the Soldier.

            Neilhelova rode forward and paid both men generously anyway.  “We were not here,” he spoke simply.

            “Understood, Kind Sir,” replied both soldiers in turn.  We went past the outpost to where the road ended, onto the valley floor and through a gap in the surrounding hills, finding the stream I had planned to guide us to.  The trees were so thick that we would not be able to get a horse through there over land, so in the stream we went, single file.  The stream was only ankle-deep most of the way, but in some places the water was deep enough to reach the waist of a man on foot.  The horses did not like it, being unable to see their footing, but made their way with little difficulty.

            Near dusk, we rounded a bend in one of the knee-deep sections of creek and I showed the others the back of my hand to stop them.  Neilhelova, who was right behind me, ordered a halt and I gave an urgent hiss to shut him up.  T’was then, I believe, that he saw it as well.  A lake serpent was resting on the rocks by the shore ahead, hard to spot as t’was the same gray as the rocks around it.  The horses knew it was there and fidgeted.  The serpent was as long as six horses and large enough to eat one.  T’was coiled around the rocks and had a lump in its belly.  Could still be dangerous, though.  I heard the warriors loading their crossbows and turned to whisper to Neilhelova. 

            “Tell them not to shoot, unless the beast prepares to strike.  It would be best not to provoke it!”  He nodded and whispered to the man behind him and the quiet message went down the line.  I motioned for the others to stay put and walked my pony forward slowly.  The serpent did not move as I passed and I stopped barely in sight of the others.  I held up one finger and motioned to Neilhelova to come forward.  He understood the message to pass one at a time.  He walked his horse forward, carefully easing the animal along.  For some reason, the horse raised his head high and fast.  The serpent noticed the sudden movement and its head came up, coiled to strike, its black tongue flicking.  Neilhelova did the smart thing.  He stopped his horse and moved as little as possible.  The serpent put its head back down, but now its eyes watched the stream.  Neilhelova moved forward as soon as he dared and the serpent’s golden eyes followed him as he went, but he made it to where I waited. 

            Each of the warriors took a turn, easing forward with crossbows at the ready.  The serpent sat, watchfully.  The fifth warrior carried His Majesty and we all held our breath as he slipped forward on horseback.  He had almost passed the beast when His Majesty began to cry, his royal voice echoing through the woods.  The serpent did not react, but the warrior did, urging his charger to a splashing gallop.  As the rider fled, the serpent glided forward and into the water in pursuit.  The charger, slowed by the water, could not match the serpent’s speed and the creature gained quickly.  Crossbow strings sang out, and I think one shot found its mark, but the serpent was not halted and the warriors hastily reloaded. 

            The Black Knight’s mount splashed forward, as would a tidal wave.  The serpent stopped and turned, its head and neck poking out of the water, cocked and ready.  As the Black Knight approached, lance aiming, the beast struck as fast as lightning.  The serpent’s head bounced off the armored mount’s chest, the lance handle protruding from its jaws.  Charger and rider passed it, turning to rear up.  The Black Knight’s broadsword came out with a metallic hiss and was moved into a ready position in a practiced motion, to be held with its blade forward and tip pointing sideward.  The serpent writhed in on itself, withdrawing the lance and coiling once again, only to be surrounded by the Black Knight and five mounted warriors, with broadsword and axes ready.

            The Serpent made its move, gliding through the water headed the way we had come from.  Two warriors parted to let it depart, their chargers nearly bucking as the creature fled past.  The warriors cheered, raising their axes over their heads.  The Black Knight’s mount was prancing backward in celebration and then reared up, whinnying and slashing the air with his hooves.  Neilhelova motioned with a flurry for quiet.  As the Black Knight retrieved the lance from where it lay in the water, the Regent trotted forward and gave his men a mix of praise for their bravery and scolding to keep quiet so as not to draw attention.  He was right, of course.  The Bukans could have been around the bend for all we knew. 

            We continued onward in the creek.  The afternoon shadows grew long and the sounds of The Forest by day gave way to the sounds of the night.  Dusk was brief and soon we were traveling by starlight, which reflected off the surface of the creek, shimmering with the movement of the water.  We became as shadows in the night.  Something big flew past overhead, making the horses nervous, and Neilhelova asked me, in a loud whisper, when we would camp for the night. 

            “Not here by the creek,” I told him.  “Too many beasts of the night.  We should continue a bit further, to where we will find lodging.”

            “Lodging!” he exclaimed, still whispering and staring at me incredulously.  “Are you sure that is wise, with enemy troops about?”

            “Better to take that chance than to be a meal for the things which The Forest hides on a starlit night,” I told him.  “Besides, discretion can be bought.”

            He paused and listened.  Our horses made a relaxed splashing as we moved, but we could still hear movement in the trees and distant calls.  We rode on and soon came to a simple bridge of rope and planks, which spanned the high, muddy walls of the creek bed.  I led the men up the gentlest slope I could find and down a narrow dirt path through the mighty trees.  We came to a clearing, well hidden by the thick forest, with a cluster of half a dozen small cottages and a stable.

            Tiny yellow lights appeared in the woods all around the clearing.  I motioned for the others to stop and we stood together on the path and waited.  The Fay, tiny and glowing, emerged and zoomed around us, as would a whirlwind.  One hovered in front of my face.  “Greetings, Mel!” he chirped.

            “Greetings and Solicitations, Ealrecon,” I responded in a serious tone.  “My employer, his men and I seek lodging for the night.” 

            “I will wake Lim,” stated Ealrecon.  He clapped his hands together and the sound echoed through the trees, not unlike a thunderclap.  I heard some animal in the woods nearby run away.  Ealrecon landed, standing between my pony’s twitching ears.  “Tell me, what have you been up to as of late.”

            I gave him the news about Leum the Sorcerer and summarized my story since then, leaving out Neilhelova’s identity and referring to him as my employer.  The other Fay stopped glowing and drifted away.  Ealrecon told me that things have been quiet lately.  The Bukans were about, seeking the king of Bellosvia, but his people had seen to it that they were absent from this place.  Nobody quarters troops here, by order of the Emperor and without paying, as I well know.  Something in Ealrecon’s knowing grin told me he knew who my employer was, but he said nothing.

            Lim came out to see us.  She is an innkeeper and doctor.  The inn, which consists of half a dozen cottages, each with beds, a kitchen and a fireplace, belongs to the Fay, but they tend to abstain from laboring, so she looks after the place and tends to the guests.  I had stayed there several times when I was in the service of the king, usually when I was sick or injured.  In fact, most of the guests were Lim’s patients.

            We took the horses to the stables and gave them a grooming, brushing them and cleaning their hooves.  Neilhelova took His Majesty and followed Lim to the largest of the cottages, leaving his horse with his men.  Ealrecon and a few others of his kind stayed in the stable with us, trading news.  I told him I was going to Lencalla pass, where the road to Bellosvia and the Bukan Empire met The Forest.  He informed me that a giant ogre inhabited the pass and the few people who had lived there had fled.  He advised caution, were we to go there.  When we finished with the horses, we all went to the main cottage.

            We went inside and there was a large table with Lim at the head and a few other guests.  Neilhelova was there, sitting next to a woman in a traveling cloak with the hood up.  Probably a patient of Lim’s, I figured.  Ealrecon and a few other Fay followed us in and were suddenly the size of men, with their wings flattened upon their backs.  One of them leaned over the table, where there was a large plate and a dome-shaped cover.  He placed the cover over the plate and removed it and a roast had appeared, along with potatoes and gravy.  It smelled wonderful and we all ate with enthusiasm.  After dinner, the Fay offered pipes.  Some of the warriors, guests and I smoked them.  I let the familiar feeling wash over me, as though I had begun to float above the ground.  Fascinated, I watched the fire and the shadows it made on the walls, as well as the dim light from the window, as smoke drifting through subtle beams of starlight.

            After dinner we went to our cottages, one for me and the warriors and another for Neilhelova and His Majesty.  I knew not where the Black Knight had disappeared to.  We slept well that night.  In the morning we made a breakfast of traveling rations, packed the horses and left.  We followed the creek to the lake it flowed into, where we turned and headed into the deep woods. 

            That was where the going slowed.  I know not how many days we spent picking our way through trees and brush or how many nights we spent under our tent, always with a fire burning and two warriors standing watch.  Every night, we were plagued by a pack of wolves, which stayed away so long as the fire was kept burning and the night guards held torches, but who seemed intent on helping themselves to horseflesh.

            T’was in that place that the Bukan troops found us.  It began with a man dressed as a woodsman but without their demeanor.  I spotted him watching us from the brush as we traveled.  I pointed him out to Neilhelova and I heard him mumble and swear as he recognized the man as a scout.  Neilhelova gave a signal to the warriors and they shot with their crossbows, but their target was behind a tree in a flash. 

            The Black Knight moved in, riding as fast as possible through the trees, lance at the ready.  Neilhelova gave more hand signals to the men and they surrounded His Majesty, who was in the arms of a warrior who shook him gently to keep him quiet.  I dismounted and followed the Black Knight.

            I tracked the Black Knight, able to keep up on foot only because the thick terrain would have slowed any mounted rider.  I encountered a Bukan with a longbow at the ready, dressed in the red and gold that conscript troops wore over plate or chainmail armor.  He was doing some tracking of his own and did not see me.  I knew what he was up to, trying to come up behind the Black Knight and shoot from a hiding place.  I came up behind him, though.  Dagger in hand, I looked him over.  The chainmail on his back ran neck to waist, so I turned my blade vertical and struck at his side, under the ribs.  He gave a startled grunt, dropping his bow and turning as my dagger struck deep.  His frantic hands grasped at my face as he fell to his knees, panting and white with wide, panic-stricken eyes.  I shoved him off of me and grabbed his bow, quiver and chainmace, before hurrying onward.

            By the time I caught up with The Black Knight, a fight had already started.  That brave soul had followed the scout to camp and was facing three-dozen Bukans lead by a death knight.  A death knight is the highest-ranking Bukan officer, a citizen who had been rewarded with position for performing well in battle.  They are the only ones that wear custom suits of armor and they always sport a whitened helm in the shape of a human skull without a jawbone, in order to frighten their enemies.  Under them were citizen warriors, Bukans who had volunteered for war to experience battle.  It had always perplexed me that one would volunteer to fight and give up the opportunity to stay home and live off the share of tribute given to a Bukan citizen.  Although I am not above fighting a battle, the smell of death had never excited me.  Under the citizens in rank were the conscripts.  Infants were taken from conquered peoples as tribute to the Emperor and raised by the Bukans to know only warfare.  When not off conquering enemies, they often faced each other in an arena.

            The Black Knight was hunched down in the saddle, with the buckler arm raised to shield the head.  The Bukans sent arrows bouncing off that shield and the charger’s armor, hoping to penetrate.  The death knight lowered his lance and spurred his charger onward, causing the animal to scream in pain and thunder forward with a rhythmic clanking of iron plating.  The Black Knight leaned back in the saddle and charged, steering to the left of the oncoming opponent.  The death knight’s lance point was battered aside by the Black Knight’s buckler, but the Black Knight’s lance was not aimed quickly enough and missed.  The Black Knight steered straight for a clump of conscripts, scattering them.  One stood alone, swinging his chainmace in a circle over his head.  A Bukan chainmace is a brutal weapon.  It consists of a chain, with a handle at one end and an iron ball, adorned with spikes designed to be driven through armor by the ball’s weight, on the other.  The Black Knight’s charger reared up and stayed where he was, striking with his hooves and knocking the man to the ground, then hopping forward and coming down full force on his chest.  The other Bukans aimed their bows for close shooting.  I chose then to shoot from my hiding place, laying on my belly and holding the stolen bow horizontally.  I chose a soldier who was shooting from behind and returned the favor, sending an arrow into the man’s side.  He doubled over and fell.  The bow was a bit large for me and the string stung my arm, even through my leather shirt.

            The Black Knight did not waste time, turning and readying the lance, ignoring the enemy’s arrows.  I worked my bow as fast as I could, occasionally hitting what I aimed for.  The two lance-bearing knights clashed again and this time the death knight took the blow in the chest with a metallic crunch, falling off his steed and landing with the tip of the black knight’s lance protruding from his back and into the ground.  The Black Knight kept moving, weaving through the trees with most of the Bukans in pursuit.  The soldiers were being led away from His Majesty and the others.

            Half a dozen conscripts headed my way cautiously, bows at the ready.  I slithered backward and lay still, trusting that they would not see me.  They did not, and after hearing the retreat of their feet, I rose and worked my way back.  Neilhelova and the others were gone, but my pony found me and I followed as best I could by the signs of their passage.  They were not unskilled in passing without leaving a trail, but had left in haste.  As I went, I could hear the low note of Bukan horns using music to send messages.  They seemed to be in pursuit of the Black Knight, away from where I was headed, and I hoped the troops missed His Majesty’s escort, as there seemed to be large numbers of them.

            T’was nightfall before I found the camp.  The Black Knight was not there and I worried that a life may have been sacrificed.  Neilhelova and the others were a bit off course and probably lost, but the battle horns had gone quiet at sunset and I wondered how well the Bukans were able to find a path in The Forest at night.  Tellian, along with another warrior, was on guard when I arrived, keeping quiet and tending a fire hidden in a pit.  Tellian jumped with an armored clatter when I greeted him, as I had slipped to his side in the dark. 

            “We have not lost you,” he whispered, grinning.

            “No, you are not so easily rid of your rival horseman,” I teased.

            The other guard came over and some of the men woke.  I told them what had happened, showing off my new bow and chainmace.

            “Where did you last see our Black Knight,” Neilhelova whispered urgently from under the tent. 

            “The Black Knight fought bravely then led the enemy astray, but was soon gone from my sight,” I answered, hoping the respectful formality would sooth him.

            “Uninjured?” he hissed.

            “As far as I know,” I responded.  He rolled over onto his back, visibly upset.

            “Rest, men!” he ordered in a loud whisper for all to hear.  “Tomorrow we ride hard.”  With that he put his hat over his face.

            I could not sleep, so I spent the night sitting by the fire and listening.  I could hear wolves in the distance, but they were not pestering us that night.  I also heard a griffin’s hunting cry and something with yellow eyes came near, silently, making the horses fidget, but did not visit us. 

            A gloomy morning came and t’was raining, which was nothing but a tapping all around us, under the canopy of the deep woods.  His Majesty woke and chose then to cry, but was quickly quieted and tended to by the men.  We readied ourselves as fast as we could.  I found a gap in the trees where the cloud-weakened sunlight shone through, stretched out my hand and studied the shadow on the ground to reckon the direction.  I was still unsure where we were, but I had some idea. 

            “Which way, guide?” questioned Neilhelova.  He stared at me intently.

            I pointed.  “With luck, we can make Wyverns’ Roost by nightfall.”

            “You play a deadly game with our lives,” he complained.

            “Know that the dangers there are also dangers to the enemy,” I reasoned.  “If we are quiet, the wyverns’ attention may be drawn away by a larger group of horsemen following us.”

            “Are they tracking us, I wonder,” he speculated.

            “Be assured that they are,” I retorted.  “And in substantial numbers, by the sound of their horns.  We have little chance of evading their trackers on horseback and an infant’s cries will surely give us away.  Luck has been ours thus far, but it would be foolhardy to count on it.”

            He nodded, still staring under his dark, heavy eyebrows.

            We went as fast as we could, recklessly fast, all day, pushing the horses to their limits.  The Bukan horns sounded again and seemed to be drawing ever nearer, all around us.  We fought onward around the trees and through the branches and warriors had their axes out.  A child could have tracked us, but it could not be helped, for what we needed was speed.  Mercifully, the ancient oaks gave way to younger trees and the gaps between them became wider.  The ground was rockier and I knew we were nearing Wyverns’ Roost.

            We rode well into the night, with me in the lead.  I found myself on more familiar ground and got an idea.  I slowed and searched the ground by starlight.  We had come to a clear place where a stretch of bare rock protruded from the soil.  I found what I sought more from memory than sight in the darkness and stopped by a large hole in the ground.  The others rode up, curious.

            I motioned them back, quietly, and inched my way toward the hole.  Three tentacles shot out of it and grabbed hold of my pony.  I whispered to calm him and steered him away, gradually.  As he pulled, the owner of the tentacles, a river kraken as long as two horses, was dragged out.  The creature let go when it was all the way out and then some and writhed in panic on the bare rock.  I entered the hole, which was large enough to accommodate a horse and rider, motioning to the others to follow.  Inside was a cavern with a downward-sloping floor and a clear, noisy stream running through it.  Everyone followed me in and I dismounted. 

            Tellian approached me.  “Will that beast not give us away on the rocks, perhaps we should move it,” he suggested.

            “It will crawl back of its own accord soon enough and block the opening,” I predicted.

            “Will it not attack the horses?” he asked, looking suspicious.

            “T’is no threat to anything larger than a rabbit, though it will grab anything before it,” I stated, reassuringly.  “Come morning, it will feast on bats.”  He looked around and saw that the telltale signs of a bat’s home were absent.  No large piles of excrement, though there was a foul-smelling heap where the kraken’s rear had rested.  There was dim light coming from the river, the source of which darted and shifted in the water.  Hundreds of young, glowing krakens were swimming and hunting, luring fish and tadpoles with their light.  The starlight from the opening was soon blocked, as the kraken slithered back into place. 

            The Warriors were discussing how to build a fire and what with, so I went over to them.  “There should be no fire here,” I warned.  “Unless you would enjoy chocking on smoke.” 

            “How shall we keep warm?” whined one of the men.

            I thought for a moment.  “I suppose our blankets will have to do,” I said.

            I went over to the stream and withdrew an arrow from my quiver.  After waiting for the right time, I speared one of the kraken young and pulled it from the water.  T’was as long as my arm.  I sliced it up with my dagger, leaving its glowing fluid on a rock.  I ate a piece, raw and chewy but not bad to taste, and offered the rest around.  None of the guards partook, preferring to dine on their traveling rations.  They all did, however, have a good laugh at me for offering the raw meat around while chewing.  In response, I opened my mouth, the inside of which glowed in the dim light.  Neilhelova, on the other hand, ate heartily and thanked me.  Soon, he was over by the stream and captured four of the glowing swimmers.  He cut them in half lengthwise and drained the juices into glass vials from his belt pouch.  Then he used the halves to paint the walls, giving us better light.  He approached me.

            “Tell me, how long will this juice continue to glow?” he asked, interested.

            “I wish I knew, sir,” I stated.

            “Well, I shall find that out, as this stuff could prove quite useful,” he said.

            After eating, we slept in a clump on the flattest spot we could find.  Our horses huddled together nearby.  This night nobody stood guard, for we all needed our rest.  Besides, there was but one way in and the beast made that way difficult.

            We were awakened before dawn by the river kraken’s thrashing and the cries of the bats it snagged and gobbled with its beak as they attempted to enter the cavern and those roused not by that noise were awakened by His Majesty, who wailed for his breakfast and a change.  One of the men offered him the milk bladder and gave a new wrapping after washing him with water from the stream, but he still was not quiet. 

            There was a new commotion from the cave mouth and we heard the cry of a horse.  The men were up, ready with their axes.  The man who held His Majesty found as good a hiding place as he could and Neilhelova got closer to the entrance, raising his hands as if to cast a spell.  He must have been a sorcerer of some sort, as I had figured.  I was ready to send an arrow.

            A broadsword made quick work of the kraken and an armored figure strode into the opening.  T’was the Black Knight and we all relaxed.  Neilhelova strode out the entrance and the Black Knight followed.  The rest of us emerged after moving the corpse of the Kraken, mounting our horses and readying ourselves for travel.  A warrior brought Neilhelova his horse.

            We made better time on the less crowded terrain, with Bukan horns sounding in the distance.  We were now in our usual formation, with the Black Knight, missing a lance but still armed with a broadsword and silent as always, watching our backs.

            At around mid-day we were within sight of Wyverns’ Roost.  T’was a hump of bare rock that rose from the ground with sheer sides.  It lay at the start of the hills that would lead to ancient mountains where the Mountain Ogres rule and it served the Wyverns as a spot to guard nest and eggs.  Even from a distance, we could see them on the top and edges of the roost, black against the gray and brown stone.  One who knows the habits of wyverns would know that those were bulls, offering chosen places to potential mothers and squabbling over position.

We rode closer and I had a better view.  For those who have never seen one, a wyvern is not unlike a great, black reptilian bat, as long as two horses.  A wyvern’s head is not unlike a crocodile, but thin and pointed, and a wyvern’s tail is long and supple with spines on the end.  The tail is the dangerous part, as the barbs squirt venom and most wyverns can swing them accurately, even on the wing.  As we grew nearer, we could see them, crowded close and hissing or snapping at each other occasionally.  More than a few dead wyverns lay on the ground, casualties of their infighting.  We all grew nervous as we approached, horses, men and myself alike.  I have seen a wyvern take a horse.  It swooped low and fast, swung its tail with skillful aim and poisoned its hapless victim, then circled high above to wait for its meal to fall.  I was grateful for the lack of them hunting the sky, as they all seemed to be roosting and all we saw above were ravens and vultures seeking the dead. 

            I stopped within bow range and notched an arrow.  I heard Neilhelova gasp behind me and the warriors readied their crossbows.  I turned to address them in a low, quiet tone.  “Be still and watch.”

            I loosed the arrow, arcing it to the roost.  My shot was ignored and I figured I had missed, but t’was to far to see.  I shot again, as the men watched, tense and staring.  Mercifully, His Majesty was quiet.  My second shot arced upward and came down near the top of the roost.  I got the result I wanted.  One wyvern, struck, snapped at its neighbor and soon they were fighting each other, shoving and biting.  More of them joined in and soon they were all either enraged and thrashing or hunched over their nests.  “Make time while we are able!” I implored.

            We moved swiftly over the open terrain, hooves clattering on bare rock.  Our horses needed little urging to go full tilt.  Above us, the wyverns’ battle spread to the air, as the beasts chased each other, sometimes smashing into each other on the wing.  On the ground, Bukan troops chased us, dozens of them pouring out of the edge of The Forest.  We did steer our horses as we fled, to avoid being surrounded and to stay together. 

            The enemy rode with a plan, encircling and driving us.  Their citizen horsemen came near, swinging their chainmaces.  I concentrated on avoiding them.  The warriors of Bellosvia shot with their crossbows.  They were accurate, but the enemy was numerous and we could not slow down or we would be easy targets for the conscripts who were taking any opportunity with their bows.  They were too far away to be accurate, but were a danger, still.  There was a bright orange flash and loud bang from Neilhelova and some Bukans fell while others were distracted by their panicked horses.  With that, His Majesty screamed in protest, adding his voice to the chaos around us.  I did not see what other effects the spell may have had, as my attention was on riding hard and steering.  The enemy horsemen were upon us and a chainmace struck down one of the warriors.  Axes flashed and enemies fell as well.  Neilhelova threw his short sword and it flew through the air, then swung and thrust as if being used by an invisible, flying swordsman of excellent skill.  The Black Knight had also joined the fray, with mighty, two handed broadsword strokes from horseback that took a toll on the enemy.

            I led our group into the last of the open ground, a gap between a woodsy ridge and jagged rock.  Now the enemy could no longer strike at our side and the Black Knight turned to charge, causing the nearest of the enemy to our rear to halt.  Fear gripped me as I saw what lay ahead.  Two mounted death knights were advancing at a gallop, straight toward me with their lances down.  I drew the chainmace, but I was untrained in its use and was fortunate not to strike my own mount.

            T’was then that blind luck saved us.  An injured wyvern fell between the enemy and myself, its thrashing tail aimed right at them.  I saw them stop, turning their chargers sideways and raising their shields, but they were too close.  One of them took tail spines in the chest, with enough force to leave the broken ends protruding from his armor, and I knew he was done for.  My pony and I dodged the wyvern’s snapping jaws and flopping wings and climbed the ridge, with the others turning away to follow, and we were once again in The Forest.

            We pushed our way through the trees, looking for an escape.  The Black Knight came crashing after us, catching up at reckless speed, with an enraged wyvern diving in pursuit.  Glancing back, I could see that the battle in the sky had slowed and the winged beasts were diving after anything that moved.  That would keep the enemy occupied.  However, the Black Knight was also moving and the pursuing wyvern crashed through the treetops, straight toward us all.  The Black Knight halted with raised broadsword in both hands.  The broadsword’s tip sliced into the speeding beast, cutting a long gash.  Thick blood rained over the trees.  The beast shrieked and rose on its wings, flapping with fury, then weakened and crashed into the woods ahead of us.

            The Black Knight was down and struggling on the forest floor, with faithful mount screaming and nodding with urgency.  One could see where the black iron shield was pierced, as well as the gauntlet.  Neilhelova sped to the armored figure, grasping the shoulders to drag his fallen comrade away.  The other warriors joined him and all hands helped carry the Black Knight.  I acted quickly, taking my pony up a rocky rise to get a better view.  Behind us and all around was chaos as the Bukans waged a panicked struggle with the wyverns.  Ahead and to the right was foliage, thick enough to block the view from above.  I motioned to the others.

            “Come this way and be quiet.  If you see a wyvern above, be still as stone,” I instructed, hushed but urgent.  We proceeded and I rode ahead, followed by Neilhelova and three of the remaining warriors on foot, carrying the Black Knight, who writhed in pain but made no sound.  The fourth survivor carried His Majesty, gently covering the babe’s mouth and attempting to keep him quiet.  The Black Knight’s charger brought up the rear at a walk.

            I found a landmark and turned, leading them through the woods to a pond.  We walked the shore of the stream that fed it and soon came to a modest waterfall.  I rode into the water at its foot and stuck my head through the falling torrent.  There was a small, slanted nook behind.  I motioned to the others and they waded into the deep stream and through the falling torrent, placing the fallen knight on the floor and crowding in.  We let the two horses be free, as there was no room for them, and the rest of them had fled when Neilhelova and the others had dismounted, leaving us on foot anyway.

            I sat down as we crowded together and cursed my foolishness for stirring the wyverns.  Tellian was beside me and spoke soothingly.  “All is not so bleak as it may have been.”

            “Buck up, man!” Neilhelova Interrupted, his voice snapping as would a teamster’s whip.  “His Majesty has been spared both the wyvern’s sting and the murderous intentions of the enemy because we chose you as guide!  If your forest wisdom can heal a wyvern’s sting, we need your assistance now, so falter not!”

            I moved toward the Black Knight.  As I looked I heard difficult breath and saw shivering.  “Can we remove the armor?” I asked.  I inspected the helm, unfastened it and saw the Black Knight’s face for the first time.  A woman stared at me, with pain on her pale face and shivering lips.  Her dark, moist hair was spread on the bare rocks.  She was the same woman I had seen Neilhelova meet with at the temple-keep.  I looked back in surprise.  The warriors moved fast, working the screws of her armor with the heads of my arrows and any other small item they could find.  She began to breath easier when she wore only her tight, purple tunic, which had been under the armor.  Her arm was black and swollen from the sting.  Neilhelova put a vial of foul-smelling stuff to her lips, cradling her head, and she sipped.  “For the pain,” he mumbled. 

            “I must seek special plants outside,” I informed them.

            The Black Knight grasped my furry leggings with her left hand.  I turned and she struggled to speak.  “Stay hidden,” she begged.  “His Majesty needs your services.  I am doomed and should lie here while the rest of you make haste.”  Her words and despair-filled tone tied a knot in my stomach. 

I smiled as gently as I could.  “His Majesty needs a protector as well as a guide and this place is as safe as any.  I shall be cautious.”  I moved to go.

“Be cautious here,” she breathed. 

I ignored that and left the nook, wading into the stream.  For me, the water was shoulder high if I stood, but I stooped so that only my brow broke the surface and had a look.  All seemed peaceful.  The sun shone bright and my faithful pony was grazing in the bushes at the edge of the water.  I left the stream and retrieved my bags, which were tied together with rope wrapped in cloth.  I had draped them over my pony’s shoulders when I rode and had left them on his back, but they had come to lay abandoned on the ground.  I then slunk through the forest, seeking plants and trying to remember what I knew of them.  I knew that the poison had to run its course, but some herbs would stop the swelling and others would prevent infection.  Another would strengthen one’s constitution.  I found a black spot on a cluster of grass seeds and picked it.  I knew that stuff.  A woodsman would eat it if he were to take a blood oath of revenge.  It would make a person survive battle wounds and keep fighting for a time.  If one used too much, it could give terrifying visions.  I did not know how much to use, but I hoped it would keep the Black Knight alive in spite of the venom.  I sought onward.  After a time, I spied a rabbit nibbling at an herb with shiny leaves and a red flower.  It fled as I came.  I cut the plants with my dagger, knowing that the leaves could prevent gangrene if crushed into a paste.  I continued to seek, now looking for a root.  The sun was sinking and I had to find one soon or give up and hurry back.

            I came across an enemy encampment.  They did not see me, as I was being quiet.  There were citizen horsemen and conscripts, most resting and some on guard with torches.  There was no shortage of wounded being tended to, but there was a shortage of horses.  One thing they were not was on the move, which was to our benefit.  Eventually, in the twilight, I found a tiny plant growing under a tree.  I pulled it, spying the fat, pale orange root below.  This would keep her awake.  I took my precious finds back to the stream as quickly as I could, quiet in the twilight.  I washed the herbs, shooing my pony away as he came to see what I had.  I waded back under the waterfall, with my bags over my head.

The nook was cold and crowded, with the men huddled together.  The Black Knight lay wrapped in a blanket and asleep, with her head on Neilhelova’s leg.  His Majesty was in Neilhelova’s arms and the Regent amused him and spoke gently to him, keeping him distracted and quiet.  A vial of the glowing liquid from our last hiding place lay in a corner, wrapped so that its dim light shown only toward the back of the nook.

            “Rouse her, unless you wish her to never wake,” I said, addressing Neilhelova, who had not seen me enter and looked up, surprised.

            He shook her gently but she continued to sleep.  He shook her again, as roughly as he dared, but she still did not wake.  I grabbed a lock of her hair in one hand, braced her head in the other, and gave a good yank.  Her eyes fluttered open and regarded me questioningly. 

            “Sleep is your enemy, now,” I informed her.  She nodded, silent.

            I withdrew the blackened seed cluster and sliced it in half with my dagger.  Neilhelova’s eyes widened as though he knew what I had, but he said nothing.  I placed a piece between the Black Knight’s pale lips and she swallowed.  I turned to Neilhelova.  “If you have soft leather, be ready to put it in her mouth if she should twitch.  Next, I fumbled through my bags and found a small, wooden bowl that I had saved from the meal I had purchased at the circus.  I washed it in the waterfall and sliced up the leaves and root I had gathered, crushing the mixture with the pummel of my dagger.  I saw that Neilhelova had emptied a warrior’s soft leather quiver and folded it in half, so he could place its edge in the Black Knight’s mouth when ready.  I added a modest amount of water from the waterfall to the bowl, crushing and stirring until I had made a thick paste.  Then I spoke to the Black Knight.

            “Brave lady, what I am about to do will cause thee agony, but t’is my hope that thou shalt trust I do it to save thee.”  I motioned to Neilhelova and he put the folded leather in her mouth.  I straightened her right arm, which was black and purple from pit to fingertips, and she gave a muffled shriek and bit down hard on the leather, nostrils flaring.  I dipped my dagger in the herbal paste, so I could see it thick on the blade, and cut carefully, making long, shallow slices along the lady’s arm.  She squealed and kicked, with Neilhelova holding her steady with one hand as best he could and holding His Majesty with his other arm. The warriors rushed to hold her ankles.  She reached out with her left hand, grasping my shoulder and steadying herself.  I continued to cut, dipping the dagger in the bowl and spreading the stuff over each wound until the light green paste was tainted red.  When I had made four slices below the elbow, four above and one across the back of her hand, I ceased. 

            She lay back, breathing heavily.  Neilhelova and I stayed awake and watched her during the night.  Her eyes stayed open, but with a glazed look from the herbs.  She stopped shivering.  Two or three times, she began to jerk fitfully and we had to hold her down with the leather in her mouth.  She also gestured in alarm and pointed at nothing, and we had to reassure her that what she saw was but a dream.  I must have given her too much of the fungus. 

            Morning came as a weak glow beyond the waterfall.  Neilhelova had dozed off and appeared to be profoundly old and worn.  I had seen that look about Leum as well, for sorcery is not without a price.  His Majesty was awake and regarded me with wide eyes.  In the new morning light, my attention was drawn to the woman.  She was tall and lean with course features and soft eyes as black as her long, raven hair.  I suppose she had two decades or so, perhaps less.  I could not help but notice the pleasing figure under her tunic.  I saw that she was looking back and turned my gaze away.  When I looked again she was still staring, her eyes a little wild with the pain and the herbs I had used.  I met her gaze and she spoke.

            “I should be left here, for I am without honor.” 

            My mouth worked as I tried to think what to say.  Tellian interrupted.  “Never, my lady!”  He was behind me in the crowded nook.  I glanced over and saw that the others were awake.

            “I had vowed never to speak a word until my brother takes his rightful place on the throne!  I am without honor and should be left behind.”  Her voice trembled.  She motioned with her left hand.

            “Ha!” I began, taking her hand in mine.  “Thou hast never spoken.  I have heard the speech of a wyvern’s sting and the words of strange forest herbs, but the Black Knight has said nothing.”

            “Aye!” said the warriors as one.  All four were awake now. 

            “Leave me behind, lest I slow us all as we flee from the enemy,” she breathed.

            “That is nonsense, my princess,” Neilhelova pronounced, quietly.  He had awakened and now stroked her hair as a father would his daughter’s.  “Rest, please, and clear thy noble head.”  She lay back and closed her eyes.  We waited as the sun came up and then decided to go.  Neilhelova asked the Black Knight if she was ready to travel, using a gentle tone.  She only nodded.  It seemed as if she no longer felt pain, an effect of the fungus I had given her.  I motioned for them to wait, washed her arm with water from the waterfall and then spread the remaining paste onto her wounds.  Though her wounds were not healed, the normal color was returning and I saw no sign of infection.  I poked my head through the waterfall and saw that we were alone, but for my pony.  I motioned to the others and the men carried the Black Knight through the waterfall over their heads.  She got wet, but not soaked.  When I waded out, she was standing, her uninjured arm around a warrior for help, and I once again noticed her figure below her thin, wet tunic.  I tried not to be obvious.  Neilhelova followed, holding the Black Knight’s buckler over His Majesty as he moved cautiously.

            Neilhelova spoke to His Majesty, for all to hear.  “Sire, our hearts are heavy this day, as we have lost two more of our number to the enemy.  They gave their lives with honor and their names, Lantimir and Surino, shall be spoken with reverence and never forgotten.”  He looked up.  “We must move onward, without pause or ceremony, but those who fell shall be remembered.”

            With that, he placed His Majesty in the traveling harness on the back of one of the warriors and all of them looked to me to point the way.  First, I retrieved my pony and offered him as mount to the Black Knight.  The men helped her up and, even without a saddle, it seemed as though she had been born on horseback.  She stroked his neck appreciatively, smiling.  Then she gestured to Tellian, who followed her hand signals and retrieved her broadsword.  He brought it to me, handling it with reverence. 

            “I must ask you to bear this sword.”  I could tell by the faces around me that this was important.  “This ancient blade belongs to the royal protectors.”

            I took the sword and bowed to the Black Knight.  “Thou hast given me an undeserved honor,” I stated, thinking that I would show how undeserved the honor was if I ever had to use the long, heavy weapon.  I put it on my back as best as I could.  T’was nearly as long as a man is tall, and much too large for me, with an elegantly forged, diamond-studded hilt.  The counterweighted blade was made of steel, a form of iron that shines as does silver.  The making of steel is a well-guarded secret among alchemists and the weapon must have been priceless.

            I led them, with Tellian next to me.  My pony followed, ridden by the Black Knight, followed in turn by the warrior who carried His Majesty flanked by the other two.  Neilhelova brought up the rear.  I headed in the general direction of Lencalla pass.  T’was slow on foot, made slower by the fact that I purposefully went through the thickest woods I could find, hoping to hide our presence.  Without the speed of our horses, we moved slowly and were careful to leave as little sign of our passage as possible.

            So we pushed onward, slow but steady.  The enemy’s horns were silent.  That meant one of two things.  Either they had broken off pursuit, which I rather doubted, or they were as hunters who did not wish to spook the game.  Without their horns they would be uncoordinated and less thorough and I hoped we could slip quietly away from them.

            “How do you do that?” questioned Tellian, interrupting my thoughts.  He was bored and talkative.

            “Do what?” I wondered.

            “Fade away, disappear until you step on a twig or make a gesture,” he clarified, sounding appreciative.  “Is it a woodsman’s talent?  I have heard that those who dwell in The Forest know many secrets.”

            “Nothing such as that, my mother was invisible,” I responded.

            He chuckled.  “So be it, I suppose you wish to keep your secrets,” he teased.  “Tell me of her, your mother?”

            “She was invisible” I persisted, “I never saw her.”

            He looked incredulous.  “Are there a lot of invisible people about?” 

            “Not as far as I know,” I retorted.  Then I changed the subject.  “How about you, tell me of your mother.”

            “I remember little of her, she was slain in our wars with the Bukans when I was but a lad.  I had fled, along with many others, to the king’s fortress.  When the king’s men asked if there were any who would gladly fall in battle to exact a bloody toll from that enemy, I said ‘Aye!  For king!  For country!  For family!  For justice!’”

            The Black Knight stirred behind us.  I glanced back and saw that she sat straight and proud, upon hearing Tellian’s words.

            “With that I was trained in the art of war and equipped,” he continued.  “Training was a bit hasty, but I did get plenty of experience soon after, as our fortress came under siege.  We fought hard, but there were too many of those accursed Bukans and that fortress fell.  I have served Neilhelova ever since.”  He fell silent, remembering.  The forest we traveled through was amazing, thick and sun dappled with buds unfolding to open on the bushes and trees around us. 

            “Now I live for that sweet day, when His Majesty has his throne back and the enemy is within their own boarders,” he continued, breaking the silence.  “And you live for it as well.”

            I chuckled.  “A mercenary such as I?” I prodded.

            “It is no lowly mercenary who wears the blade that is on your back,” he said, fixing me with a serious look.  “That privilege is reserved for those who have proven their loyalty in deed.  Judging by what I have seen, you are either true or a madman and as you rave and drool not, your loyalty is unquestioned.”  I grinned and was silent. 

We continued onward for uncounted days, picking our way carefully through the thickest woods, attempting to leave as little sign of our passage as possible.  By night we slept lightly, with at least one guard awake at all times.  I tried to learn the use of the Bukan chainmace I had taken.  I never could swing it at a usable speed.  This was not a bad thing, for if I did not strike my own leather with it, the weapon flew from my hand and skittered through the trees.  One day, as I was practicing, it flew from my hand never to be seen again.

            As we traveled, I spoke more with Tellian.  We were bored, and the way we were traveling was much more tedious than horsemanship, so we whispered to each other.  I told him of wandering woodsmen and stories told on the beach and he told me of battles fought and brave deeds.  He also told me the tale of the Black Knight.  “She was the firstborn of Hubert the Bald and his first wife Lena the Tall.  Lena died during childbirth and Hubert the Bald was a widower for many years.  During those years was the time when the troubles began between Bellosvia and the neighboring Bukans.  Years ago, the Bukan kings had adopted a warrior stance and took up the worship of their warrior god.  That god required death or victory from the faithful and was said to give fallen warriors a home in the afterlife.  With that warrior creed, the Bukan Empire was born and their Emperor and any to whom he granted citizenship grew rich from loot and tribute.  As the lonely Hubert the Bald sat upon the throne and became renowned for his wisdom and kindness, the Bukan tyrants extended their reach, making slaves of many a freeman.

            Hubert’s allies were under siege and he sent Margonio, his personal bodyguard and finest strategist, at the head of an army of knights and yeomen, refugees and subjects, to aide his friend.  Margonio took with him the blade you now carry, taking it from the king’s court for the first time in uncounted ages.  But the allies had fallen and the Bukans are treacherous, so Margonio laid siege to an unmanned castle, filled with brutal traps.  It was said that the castle’s well was poisoned with the carcass of a goat afflicted with a plague and Margonio’s surviving men vowed not to return until the disease was gone from them, lest they bring that plague to their home.  With so many absent, a horde of Bukans appeared on Hubert’s doorstep.  His fortress fell, but the rightful ruler escaped to Lencalla Pass, using a secret passage and taking his precious daughter and his valued advisors with him.  There he joined Neilhelova and other refugees and conducted a thieves’ war, preventing the Bukans in his fortress from receiving supplies and messages.

            It was then that Princess Lenalia secretly took up the manly art of warfare.  Women of Bellosvia are forbidden that privilege by tradition, but she had grown up around refugees bent on satisfying their honor and learned the skill, as well as the ways of an unyielding knight.  She disguised herself, becoming the Black Knight, and took a vow of silence.  Neilhelova kept her identity a secret and provided her with the tools of her new trade and opportunities to practice it as he and Hubert the Bald stalked the roads of their homeland.  When she resolved to go to the enemy’s empty castle to retrieve the jeweled broadsword you now carry, Neilhelova called it folly to go to a plague, so she went alone.  She did return with the sword, so that it could serve her father once again.

            Neilhelova and his men plagued all who would trade with the enemy until the Bukans in Bellosvia were properly starved.  At long last Hubert’s army did strike and take back what was theirs.  They entered through the same passage Hubert had fled through so many years ago and achieved a cunning victory.  They captured the death knight who had ruled Hubert’s kingdom and held him prisoner until he signed a treaty on behalf of the empire he served, before sending him home with the news.  It was then that Hubert the Bald took a wife, a common woman of Bellosvia who was renowned for her beauty and charm, to celebrate his victory.  It is said that all the people of Bellosvia attended the royal wedding to celebrate the return of the king.  He ruled for nearly a year, and fathered a son, before tragedy struck.  In using the passage for escape, he had let the secret of its existence slip out to the enemy and was killed in his sleep by an assassin who made use of that same passage.  The Bukan horde followed the slaying with siege and Hubert’s secret passage was filled in.  Neilhelova was chased into The Forest, taking with him the infant heir to the throne, as well as the princess and a few loyal followers.  During that trip, I assumed the duties of a guide.  I knew how to live in the woods, but did not know the terrain of The Forest and we soon became lost.  Eventually, we had made it to the town of Hunchback Rock, but much time was wasted.”  That was where Tellian ended his tale.

            After many days of travel, we did make it to Lencalla pass.  We saw nothing of the enemy and little of anything else during our trip.  The princess was healing well and became strong enough to walk, giving my pony to whichever of the men carried His Majesty.  At one point, we came upon a panther.  It froze in mid-step and fixed us with an inhuman stare.  T’was a sleek black creature a bit larger than a man, with shining green eyes fixed on us.  Tellian’s crossbow twanged and the bolt struck the ground inches from the beast.  I readied my bow, but the panther was gone with a rustle, its black coat winking through the woods.  Apparently, that one knew what a crossbow was. 

            The terrain became rolling hills once again, thick with ancient trees.  The Forest thinned abruptly and when we saw the stumps of trees that had become firewood or homes or such, I knew where we were.  We had reached Lencalla Pass and t’was a pleasant morning, but I remembered the warning Ealrecon had given me.  I found a well-concealed spot and requested of the others that they wait while I investigated.  I crept into the village, which was near the pass, where the land had been cleared.  There was room for a dozen families or so, in humble cottages arranged around a lodge house.  The village stood abandoned and in disrepair, with birds roosting on the rooftops.  Abandoned except for one house, I noticed.  I got a little closer and looked in the windows of the one-room cottage.  There was a bed and pantry, as well as an impressive bookcase with fine volumes of both stories and knowledge.  It looked uncharacteristic in those humble surroundings.  When I followed the tracks I found on a dirt path, I crept to a field where crops were being planted and I saw a familiar face.  I went to retrieve the others.

            When I returned, Neilhelova decided that Tellian, with two more warriors and myself, should go and ask for quarters and the rest should remain hidden and wary.  The four of us walked to the edge of the field. 

            One of the warriors spoke, quietly.  “Is that a bear pulling that planting wheel?  They must be out of oxen and horses.”

            “I have never seen a bear with a tail such as that,” replied Tellian.

            I moved forward into the open and motioned the others to follow.  “Hello Glin!” I called.

            “Mlerro?” he replied, unfastening himself from the planting wheel and lumbering towards us.  He greeted me with a thump on the shoulder and an enthusiastic “how have you been?”  The three warriors exchanged uncomfortable glances as he towered over us all.  He also bore a scent not unlike that of an overworked ox. 

            “I have been working and these men are agents of my employer.”  I gestured to the warriors.  “I had hoped we could find lodging here, but I never expected to meet an old friend.” 

            “Friend I will always be,” commented Glin.  “But lodging here could be a misfortune, as I have houseguests come nightfall.  Wretched Bukans make demands every night, for they spend their days at the pass, waiting.  I would drive them out, but they are not far from reinforcements and I fear that my house and fields would be burned and my livestock slaughtered.  And I see by the falcon insignia displayed by your companions that we must find you a safe place to rest.”

            “Is there a safe place?” I asked.

            “Yes there is.  The comfortable basement below the lodge house is quite secluded.  Nobody is home here, as they all left after I bought my cottage and lands and moved in, so the village lays empty.”

            “I heard of that, you are now known as the ogre of Lencalla Pass,” I stated, with more than a little sarcasm. 

            Glin snorted.  “Those people would not even sell me an ox,” he lamented, rubbing his shoulder where the fur was worn from his work.

            “Come now, Glin, at least you have the village to yourself.” 

            He grinned.  “That I do, but I long for pleasant company and we have ‘til dusk before my unwelcome guests return.  They do avoid me unless they are all together.  I have food and drink for you and your friends.”

            “There are three more waiting,” I informed him, “including an infant.”

            “Bring them for a meal, I will be ready,” he said warmly.  Tellian and the men went with Glin and I went to fetch the others.

            I told Neilhelova and Princess Lenalia that we would be able too hide in the lodge house basement, after we get a meal from an old friend of mine. 

            “Has this friend got fresh milk?” was all Neilhelova said and the princess was silent as usual. 

            “I will have to ask him,” I responded, motioning them to follow.

            Tellian and the others were sitting at the table when I walked into Glin’s cottage.  Glin was fumbling with the stove, warming up leftover pork.  I joined the others at the table, where they were having bread and fruit juice.  Neilhelova stood in the doorway with the princess, looking suspiciously at Glin and holding His Majesty.  Glin turned to see them and stepped over, then got down on one knee.  He looked straight at His Majesty and spoke.

            “Thou hast honored my humble home, my liege, for I shall ever be thy unworthy servant.”  His Majesty smiled and reached toward the furry thing, which knelt before him.  Neilhelova held him protectively, rocking him gently.  Glin stood and invited them to sit before going back to his cooking.  The smell of pork filled the room.

            Neilhelova sat next to me and leaned over to whisper in my ear.  “We must be cautious, for I fear that the creature will place His Majesty on his stove if we are not.”  I turned to him as though startled.  I know Glin heard the comment by the way his ears moved.  One had swiveled toward us and the other flicked with irritation.

            “His name is Glin!” I snapped quietly.  “And he is no more likely to devour an infant than you are.”  Neilhelova looked taken aback and sat in an uncomfortable silence. 

Glin offered cloth the right size for His Majesty, as well as fresh bathwater, bathing herbs and milk, and soon His Majesty was clean, fed and comfortable.  Neilhelova bathed and changed the infant himself, not letting any of us near.  I sat and regarded Glin’s home.  There was a wood stove in one corner with a pipe for a chimney, a table, chairs, a pile of hay and cloth for a bed and his out-of-place bookcase.  It looked not unlike a regular peasant cottage, but the ceiling was higher than most, so that Glin could stand comfortably.  From what I could see out the windows, he had a few pigs and chickens, and a milk cow, as well as some land he was planting.  Glin served the pork, along with cabbage, carrots and muffins, and we feasted gratefully.

            “Tell me, how did you come to be here?” Neilhelova asked, pretending to be conversational, but not quite pulling it off. 

            “I bought this place from the village chief,” said Glin in a genial rumble.  “He was disappointed when he met me in person, as was the rest of the village.  I had thought that I could simply join the community and become a farmer, but they would not even speak to me.  Within a month, they were all gone.  I have made the best of it and my new life satisfies me.”

            “Becoming a farmer, eh?” Neilhelova said through a phony smile.  “Before then, what were you up to?”

            “Before then, I served Leum the Sorcerer faithfully for many years.  He summoned me, Mlerro here, and several others from the place we were born, which was quite an act of kindness.”

            Neilhelova stared at me accusingly and I nodded with a slight smile.  My secret was out.  He became quiet, giving most of his attention to His Majesty.  The rest of us ate and talked until the sun was high and the shadows were short.  Then Glin suggested that we hide before his houseguests return.  He would also clean up, so that they would not notice we had been there.  He led us to the abandoned lodge house.  The stairway to the basement was hidden under a trap door, covered by a carpet that had once been quite nice.  The basement was an abandoned parlor of the sort men snuck into to avoid their wives and share each other’s company.  There were paintings of naked women in provocative poses on the walls, which were now covered in cobwebs. 

            “One moment, Glin,” I requested.  “What do you know of the enemy’s position?”

            “I know that they are here in force,” he stated.  “They guard every way to Bellosvia, except for the Valley of the Dragon, and are waiting.  They have chosen to wait for their prey, rather than exhausting themselves in a chase.”

            I nodded.  It made sense from their perspective, they did not necessarily have to catch us, just make sure that His Majesty was absent on coronation day.  I had a horrible thought.  “Glin, do you count the days?”

            “Every good farmer must,” he responded.

            “How long do we have until the longest day?”

            He thought for a moment.  “About three weeks.”

            I swore.  We got our map out and Neilhelova splashed some kraken juice on the wall near one of the tables.  I noticed that Tellian was staring at me with an odd half-smile.  I looked at him.  “Aye?”

            “Mlerro the Dwarf!” he said, chuckling.  “You are famous, I heard stories about you as a child.”  That may have been true, bored minstrels were probably responsible.

            “A famous monster,” said Neilhelova, accusingly.  I met his gaze as he glowered at me.

            Princess Lenalia motioned him to be silent and then hugged me from behind, shooting the Regent a defiant look over my head.  Tellian and the other warriors did a poor job of hiding their grins.  Glin spoke up.

            “This map lacks detail, but I know the local terrain,” he started, changing the subject.  “From what I have heard, a rabbit could not make it through without being noticed.” 

            “We are close,” said one of the warriors.  “Perhaps with a swift foot, we could get home alive.”

            “No,” said Neilhelova, being practical.  “Not the seven of us on foot against an army, with our best slayer wounded.  Not without knowing exactly where the enemy is.  We must find a way in!”  He spoke with such force that His Majesty began to cry loudly.  He diverted his attention to comfort the infant and distract him with the milk bladder.

            “Perhaps here,” I suggested, pointing at the map.  “The terrain is rough, but not impassible, and it may be unguarded.”

            “Unguarded by the Bukans,” said Glin.  “But very near the Valley of the Dragon and more perilous than land under human eyes.”

            “Yes, but we could go through the thick woods this way and slip over the hills.  On foot, we may not be seen, it looks to be our best hope.”

            “Be cautious,” warned Glin.  “I have heard that the dragon despises trespassers.”

            “Return home, my friend,” I requested.  “And I shall stay in the lodge house upstairs.”  I turned to the warriors.  “If I stomp on the ceiling, be ready.”  Glin and I headed up the stairs.  As he walked back out to his field, I sat against the lodge’s only door, with a view out the window.  Soon I was dozing.

            I awoke with a start as the door was being opened gently from the outside.  I looked up and saw a furry, clawed hand.  I rose laboriously as Glin entered.  Outside t’was night, overcast and very dark.

            “They are asleep,” he commented.

            “Mmmph,” I replied.

            “Is all well here?” he asked.

            “Yes, all is quiet.  We will depart tomorrow morning, unless you think it wise that we go sooner.”

            “When they have left, I will alert you.  I hid your pony in one of the abandoned cottages.”

            “Thank you.”  I figured my faithful steed had left the cover of the woods and wandered closer.

            “Take this, for your journey,” he said, handing me a large cloth sack.  He shut the door and slipped away, ears perked and tail wagging.  I looked in the bag and saw the remains of the pork, dried and salted, some bread and a white powder, which had once been milk, as I discovered when I tasted it.  Glin had been busy.  I hefted the sack and went downstairs.  In the dim light, I could see Princess Lenalia holding His Majesty and the others resting on their blankets.  I put down the sack by the stairs and turned to the princess.  “From our host,” I informed her.  She nodded.  To my relief, I noticed that the normal color was returning to her wounded arm and she used it as though it were uninjured. 

            I slipped back up the stairs and covered the trap door with the carpet once again.  I went out the door into the night.  I wanted to have a look around, but dark as it was, I could see nothing.  Not wanting to trip or something and draw attention, I went back inside and sat down.  I planned as I waited for morning.  There were two ways into the city of Bellosvia that we could take with any hope of entering unseen.  One would take us close to the Valley of the Dragon and the other was over a wooded hill near the pass.  If we took that second option, we might be early.  That posed a problem, as it would put us in the city while it was still held by the enemy.  I would have to ask Neilhelova if he had connections that could hide us.  The hill was thickly wooded and gave plenty of cover, but, if we were discovered, fleeing through that terrain would be difficult.  On the other hand, the valley’s border would take longer, but we would travel it with less danger from the enemy, as I doubted that they would trifle with a monster.  However, that same territorial dragon would be a threat to us, if we were discovered by her.  T’was a question of which risk to take.

            As I pondered, the dawn came.  T’was a sight worth seeing as it turned the clouds deep purple.  I could smell Glin’s stove going and later saw the enemy soldiers, a dozen conscripts or so led by a citizen, walking up the pass.  Soon Glin came to me and told me that it was safe for us to emerge. 

            I went downstairs and told the others.  As they prepared to go, I went to talk to Neilhelova.

            “We must plan our route carefully.”

            He nodded.  He was being a little snobby, as if I smelled bad or something.

            We looked over the map and the others joined us.  I told them all our two choices and they discussed the matter.  T’was soon decided.  We would go over the hill.  Neilhelova knew of good people who could hide us, once we entered Bellosvia.  We divided up our supplies and slipped quietly up the stairs, single file and alert.  Glin stood outside his cottage, keeping an eye on things.  I bid him farewell and we all thanked him, even Neilhelova. 

            “No need for thanks, since I reside here, I am subject to the crown,” Glin said politely.

            “Loyalty will not be forgotten,” said Neilhelova, mannerly but cold.

            “Do look after my pony,” I requested.  He nodded.

            We moved back into the woods and spent the day circling around toward the hill and camped that night at its edge.  The next two days were spent picking our way through the trees and crags, unable to see much around us through the woodsy thickness.

            We encountered a Bukan conscript, sitting on a rock.  He rose and blew his horn before being felled with a crossbow twang.  Throughout the forest around us, horns sounded.  His Majesty protested loudly, his cries echoing through the trees.  The game was afoot once again.

            We fled as fast as we could, but with His Majesty advertising his presence to any with ears.  The men hastily reloaded their crossbows as we went.  Soon we were dodging arrows, but the terrain was working to our advantage as well.  We could still hear the low note of the enemy’s horns and horses’ hooves behind us.  A death knight came crashing through the trees in pursuit, lance down.  Crossbows twanged, but his armor stopped any true shots.  As he came, his charger suddenly wailed in pain and fell, injured by hurrying over jagged rocks.  The armored man was left flailing on the ground with one leg under his steed and we kept running.  Eventually, we slowed to a brisk walk and the princess took His Majesty in her arms and quieted him.

            We came to an open field on the side of the downward-sloping hill, covered with blooming plants as tall as a man’s navel.  Their purple, cup-shaped flowers formed a carpet that covered the slope.  The princess handed me her brother, who grabbed my beard and held on tight as I squatted.  All of the others went down on all fours and we began to cross the field.

            The enemy arrived behind us.  A few conscripts at first, then the death knight, now without his mount.  I could hear him giving orders from under his mask.  We heard the twang of their longbows, but kept going.  They must not have been able to see us, as their arrows did not come near.  One arrow landed near enough for me to see and my heart sank.  T’was wrapped in slimy cloth and burning.  The green plant it had landed next to slowly caught fire.  I motioned for the others to stop and stood up for a look.  I could barely see over the plants, but I could see smoke billowing from behind us and to our left.  The way ahead was cut off and a crowd of enemy soldiers waited for us.

            “We are surrounded,” I hissed, “This way.”

            I squatted again, moving as fast as I could.  The others followed, still on all fours.  I was watching the ground beneath me, not looking ahead, and soon I had come to something.  I saw a large, bare foot before me.  I looked up and saw one of the Fay, who was as tall as three men and armed with bow and sword made of that which seemed not unlike glass.  He grabbed me by the collar and lifted me by my leather shirt.  I could see two others, who had chosen to be as tall as he was, shooting their bows, and a swarm of them, small ones buzzing around putting out the fires.  The Fay held me up to his face, his green eyes nearly drilling holes in my head and his wings buzzing angrily. 

            “So, you dare to trespass among our flowers,” he rumbled.  “And bring fire with you!”

            “Mercy, please!” I begged.  His Majesty was crying again.  “We did not know that thou owned this place.  Our enemy chased us here and started the fire.”

            “Your plea for mercy shall be heard before you are punished for your deeds,” he rumbled, sounding disgusted.  That was the last thing I remember clearly.

            Next I knew, I was in a woodsy, rocky place.  The rest of us were there, much to my relief.  As I looked at them, I saw that they were slack-jawed and dead-eyed, wandering about slowly.  I went to His Majesty first.  He was sleeping the sleep of the dead, but was still breathing when I checked.  I picked him up off the forest floor and went to the others, each in turn.  After a bit of shaking and slapping, they all awakened.

            As we discussed what to do next, I had a blurry memory.  That memory was of being in a great purple basin, surrounded by houses and fortresses made of that which appeared to be diamond.  In the distance was a yellow tower.  The air was filled with a hum so loud I could feel it in my bones.  Fay were all around us, sounding unruly.  Overhead, a black and yellow bee the size of a castle descended upon the yellow tower and the buzzing stopped.  A yellow fog filled the air as the massive insect went about its work.

            A Bukan horn in the distance ended my remembering.  I handed His Majesty to one of the warriors and climbed the nearest tree.  The others stood in a knot below.  As I looked around, I knew where we were.  I scrambled down the trunk and went to talk to them. 

            “We are a day’s walk from our destination!” I told them excitedly.

            Neilhelova fixed me with a brooding stare.  “What happened to us?” he asked in a demanding tone.

            “We must have been charmed by the Fay.  Be joyous, for that is merciful, since we did enter their land,” I responded.  I did not wish to ponder the fate of any Bukans who were taken.

            “Where are we?” was his next question.  He had chosen to ignore my advice to be joyous. 

            “We are near the Valley of the Dragon, but not too near,” I informed him. 

            “We may have missed the coronation date,” he complained.  “From what I have heard of Fay charming, they could have had us for years and we would never know it!”

            “Well then, we should head for Bellosvia and find out,” I said with impatience.

            He nodded and said nothing, looking worried.

            We began to sneak our way through the woods, again.  I did what I could to keep from being seen from above, but there was little cover.  The shadows were long and night was coming.  The night that came was clear and cool and we could see by starlight.  As we were climbing our way over the crags, His Majesty began to cry and we stopped to quiet him.  All of us were looking around to see who or what had heard.  In the woods, I saw a pair of shining eyes and heard something move away from us, I knew not what.  It may have been a night-beast, or a Dragonspawn.

            “We have been observed and should make haste.”  I announced to the others.

            The princess was feeding and quieting His Majesty, staring at me with a dull fear in her eyes.  She motioned to the others and we began to move.  I took them over a path between trees and rocks, where we could move more easily.  A deep voice boomed through the woods, not unlike thunder.  “Mel!” it spoke.  I thought that perhaps I was hearing things, or my imagination was running away with me.  We kept moving.  “Mel!” the voice boomed again.  This time I stopped and looked back.  The princess was staring straight at me with a question written on her face, still with His Majesty in her arms.  The warriors were looking around with their crossbows ready.  Neilhelova brought up the rear, gazing into the distance.  He pointed.  From the direction he indicated, a massive shadow streaked through the night sky.  As it sped toward us, I could see it more clearly.  T’was a green and red striped dragon.  It had the shape of a serpent with four long legs, each ending in a foot which sported five curved, black talons half as long as a man.  Its wings were as wide as a sea vessel is long, pale green and leathery.  Those wings flapped and then were still, pushing then gliding, propelling a body held as straight as an arrow.  The creature’s head had two horns and a row of short, red spines ran the length of its back.  Its forked tongue flicked between its lipless, toothy jaws, tasting the air.  Its slit-pupil, golden eyes were locked on us.  The beast passed low overhead, we felt wind from its wings.  It turned, banking at an angle, and its head turned toward us.

            “Do you not recognize me, Mel?” the dragon’s voice boomed, teasingly.  Realization struck me, as would a bolt of lightning and I nearly fainted with relief.

            “Hail and well met, old friend.  I almost did not recognize you, it has been so long since I have seen you this way,” I explained, grinning and raising my voice to be heard.  T’was the quiet one with the golden eyes, who had served Leum the Sorcerer while the rest of us served the crown of Oak Crossing.  She was in her other form.  She circled us lazily, wagging her tail slightly.

            She snorted, dismissively.  “You must come visit me, all of you!” she invited.

            The others were looking at me, uncertain.  Neilhelova looked as though he were chewing a lemon.  I spoke softly to them.  “I think it would be best to be diplomatic at this time.”

            “But that is the fearsome Dragon of the Valley,” whispered Neilhelova, appalled.  “Surely we shall not be safe.”

            “Come now Sir,” I retorted, soothingly.  “I implore you to be more trusting of my judgment.  I have gotten us this far and my friends have treated us well.”  He still looked shocked at the idea of enjoying a dragon’s hospitality.  “I have gotten us this far, have I not?”

            He sighed, as if about to make a great sacrifice.  “I suppose we must,” he mumbled.

            “My sons are here,” the dragon boomed, cheerily.

            Dragonspawn approached, four of them, carrying a large wooden box with doors, not unlike a light wagon without wheels, hanging from four ropes tied to wooden staves, which they clutched with their feet.  T’was the first sight I had seen of the Dragonspawn, although I had heard of them.  They were the offspring of man and dragon and were about the size of a man, but with dragon faces.  Their arms were human, except that two fingers of each hand were elongated, and their wings stretched from third finger to fourth, then to their hips.  Their feet resembled human hands with long fingers tipped with black talons.  They were covered in thick, green scales. 

            The Dragonspawn flew laboriously with their burden and set it down near us.  They landed. 

            “Greetings!” one said. 

            “We should be able to fit you all inside,” said another.  Their voices were more hiss than chatter, but friendly and comprehensible.

            The first one addressed us all.  “We will have a fine meal for you in the audience chamber of The Valley Keep, as well as lodging.”

            A third spoke up, cocking his head in the manner of a crow.  “Our neighbors from Bellosvia are quite welcome.”  A fourth held the door for us.  We piled into the box, filling the two padded benches that faced each other inside.  The dragon landed and took the end of a staff in each foot.  Her wings flapped mightily and the box left the ground.  A tight fit it was.  The princess sat on Tellian’s lap and Neilhelova held His Majesty.  I sat on the floor in the center.  We rose and the box swung and lurched in ways we were not accustomed to.  His Majesty vomited, ruining Neilhelova’s traveling cloak.  The smell of sour milk filled all our noses, mixing with our own close, unwashed odor.  The men began to turn a bit green.

            “Woodsmen!” one of the warriors exclaimed, pointing out a window. 

            “Tell me what you see,” I requested, as I was unable to look out from where I sat.

            “There is a woodsmen camp down there, with ponies and griffins,” he responded.  “They are camped in the shadow of the keep.  My word!  That must be the largest fortress my eyes have ever beheld!”  Everyone looked out the window, gasping. 

            “Nice, is it not,” came a voice from outside the window.  One of the spawn was gliding just below.  “It was built for us by the sorcerer’s guild.”  One usually did not mention The Guild so openly.  T’was known that most sorcerers who sold the fruits of their talent were members of that shadowy brotherhood, though they never speak of it. 

            The dragon set our box down and flew away.  One of the spawn opened the door and helped us out.  “Mother has gone to change and will meet you in the audience chamber,” he informed us.  He sniffed, loudly.  “A change of clothing will be made available by the servants.”  Neilhelova was the last one out, trying to look proud and dignified in spite of the off-white stains on his black cloak.

            We could see the dragon heading into a wide hallway behind a second story opening, her wings folded and her middle swinging side to side as she walked.  A plump woman in serving garb stood inside the nearest entrance.  I took in my surroundings as we approached.  The Keep was large, built of smooth, gray stone.  Two stories high it was, but the stories were tall enough to accommodate the dragon.  There were four openings on each floor.  The openings seemed odd to me.  No doors or obstacles, just ornate marble arches with steps leading between the floors.  The hallways inside were of the finest white marble with mosaics on the floors and tapestries on the walls.  Pale blue mold, which gave a gentle glow, grew on the ceiling, giving the interior the look of a place lit by bright starlight.  The keep stood between two steep hills and the front, which we were facing, looked out on the sparsely forested valley floor, where a band of a dozen or so woodsmen were camped.  They were about their business, though I could tell we had their attention.  I looked for familiar faces, but did not recognize them.  A few of the Fay were there as well, flitting around or chatting with the woodsmen.  Beyond the camp was the breathtaking view of the hills that surrounded the Valley of the Dragon.

            The servant woman in the doorway motioned to us.  “Thou art welcome in the Valley Keep,” she said with a polite curtsey.  “Supper is being prepared, and do speak up if thou hast any other needs.  Please follow.”

            We followed the woman down the hallway.  I felt even smaller than usual.  Glin’s cottage would have fit lengthwise in the marble corridor.  The rooms were equally large and contained pillows large enough for the dragon, as well as human-size furniture against the walls.  As we walked, one of the Dragonspawn flew toward us.  There was enough room in the hallway for him to fly.  He landed near Neilhelova, offering a fine black cloak with gold trim.  Neilhelova adopted the air of a nobleman dealing with a servant, taking and changing into the new cloak and handing his soiled one to the spawn who, in turn, folded it and handed it to a passing manservant.  The spawn followed us on foot.

            After a walk through the halls and rooms of giant proportions, we came to a human sized door.  T’was not unlike a mouse-hole in the great marble wall.  The room beyond was of human proportions, with a long table and chairs.  Servants stood waiting and places had been set, each with a small loaf of dark bread accompanied by a bowl of milky dip and a glass of red wine.  At the head of the table there was a large, ornate chair, of the sort used by royalty at diplomatic dinners.  Six people already sat at the table, pausing in their conversation as we entered.  Inside, on either side of the door, a pair of Dragonspawn stood, each bearing a spear with a wickedly sharp, bladed tip in one hand and a small iron shield on the other arm.  They wore chainmail, specially made to leave their winged arms and feet free.  One spoke up, with courtly politeness. 

            “Begging thy pardon, but it is not customary for guests to enter the audience chamber armed.”  With the creature’s hissing voice and immobile face, t’was unknown if he was friendly or sneering, but we did as asked.

            I placed my dagger outside the door and the others followed suit, leaving axes and crossbows neatly lined up.  I took off the broadsword, holding it reverently.  “This blade requires a special place,” I informed the spawn.  The one following us stepped forward.  “I will see to it,” he spoke.  He took the weapon, holding it in one foot and flying upward.  He rose and put the weapon above the doorway, resting it behind the decorative stone gargoyle head that looked down on us from the top of the doorframe.  We went into the audience chamber.

            I regarded the people seated at the table.  Three were large men wearing togas, with the muscular, hard look of warriors about them.  Two of the others were Fay, who had chosen to be the size of tall men for the time being.  The last was Rog the Alchemist, still dressed in the same basilisk skin. 

            “Please do be seated,” said the servant who led us.  I chose a seat near Rog.  I handled the introductions with courtly formality, explaining that the princess had taken a vow of silence.  I also made a point of introducing His Majesty as the rightful king of Bellosvia and Neilhelova as his Regent.  I knew Rog the Alchemist and introduced him.  The three men in togas introduced themselves as the Dragon Queen’s husbands.  The Dragon Queen, as I found out, was using the name Emirald, which she had adopted when she had moved into the valley so many years ago.  The Fay remained silent.

            I turned to Rog.  “Does he know enough to stay away from the Valley of the Dragon?” I mocked, the smugness dripping from my tongue.  I punctuated my question by pulling apart the small loaf of bread at my place with a crusty crackle. 

            He grinned the free, unapologetic grin of a woodsman and dipped his own bread.  “Certain people wished to keep this place hidden, so false stories were circulated to newcomers.  You know that if she kept slaves or murdered travelers, no wandering woodsman would set foot here,” he responded, looking conspiratorial and self-satisfied as he ate. 

            “She does not seem secretive to me,” I prodded.

            “True” he responded after swallowing.

            That got the conversation going.  Apparently, “certain people” were the sorcerer’s guild.  After we were summoned here from Down There, Emirald was given this valley by the guild, with Leum’s help.  He had a plan to create an army of Dragonspawn and conquer a mighty empire, placing the guild’s leader on its throne.  To that end, Emirald was given husbands, gladiators from the Bukan slave pits that had proven their mettle as warriors and would be grateful to be out.  The three who sat with us were the last of them, for when Leum passed, Emirald requested of her husbands that they choose to stay or go and those three stayed.  At that time, the guild’s plan had been delayed by a petty struggle with the priests of the Holy Empire, mortal enemies to The Guild.  The Guild had been counting on Emirald’s support for their plan and had not expected her to simply call it off.  Of course, they had threats and curses for her.  That’s where the local Fay came in.  One of the Fay sitting at the table told me that, although they did not care which mortal man ruled another and where, the marching of conquering feet and the hot breath of dragon and spawn throughout their forest would be inconvenient.  Not even the Sorcerers’ Guild would defy the Fay within their own lands.  That’s as much as I got before Emirald arrived.

            She walked in, having assumed the familiar, near human form I had known as Golden-Eyes, wearing a fancy dress of bright red and a golden crown on her head, and took a seat at the head of the table.  She may have seemed regal, but the effect was ruined by the irreverent way she slouched in her chair and the way she reached for her bread, dipped it and took a large bite without a word.

            “You are trespassers,” she said casually, her mouth full.

            “Out of necessity,” spoke Neilhelova, looking tense.

            Emirald looked at me.  “You can bring people through my valley, but next time ask permission, mmh.”

            “Certainly.  I did not know that you are the Dragon of the Valley.  Now I know better.”

            Neilhelova and the others stared at me.  “She is the dragon?” breathed the Regent.

            Emirald stood and blew in his direction.  We all felt a warm breeze wash over the table.  Then she grinned, showing her pointed, reptilian teeth.  The Regent’s jaw dropped.  She sat back down and looked to me again.  “What necessity brings you here?”

            She listened, munching on bread and sipping wine, as I told her the whole story of our journey.  I tried to make it entertaining.  Before I was done, the servants brought generous portions of mutton, topped with cabbage and onions.  Emirald motioned for all to eat and dove right in, ignoring her silverware and eating with her hands.  When I was through with my tale, she addressed the princess.  “Why are you not destined for the throne?  Are you not the elder sibling?”

            There was an uncomfortable silence as Lenalia looked back without a word. 

            “We must answer for the princess,” I explained.  “She has taken a vow of silence.”

“It is our custom that the crown goes to the elder male sibling,” spoke Neilhelova, as if instructing a child. 

            Emirald grinned, crookedly.  “Customs change.  Do you feel that women are unfit to rule?  Do you feel that only a man would possess the skill to defend the land?  There is no such custom in my queendom.”  She adjusted the crown on her head.  Her husbands were snickering. 

              “I feel that we have the traditions of our ancestors and we are honor bound to keep them.  If we do not, we are no more the righteous rulers than our enemy,” Neilhelova said with passion, gesturing with his fork. 

            Emirald flicked her forked tongue in his direction.  “Do you agree with this person, princess?” she prodded.

            “My lady’s loyalty is to the crown and to tradition!” Neilhelova objected, insulted.

            “I was not asking you,” said Emirald.  “If I am to decide where my queendom and my family, stands on this matter, I need uncensored answers, mmmmmh?”  Neilhelova winced and shut his mouth. 

            Emirald questioned Lenalia again.  “Is your loyalty with the crown, and with tradition, even at the expense of your own ambitions?”

            The princess nodded.  She stood and jerked her thumb towards herself and then she pantomimed drawing a sword and nodded.  Next, she pantomimed putting on a crown and shook her head.  Lastly, she took His Majesty’s tiny hand in hers and kissed it as though it wore a signet ring.  She sat and gave Emirald a defiant look.

            Emirald nodded.  One of her husbands, a large, dark man with scars on his face, raised his wine glass and spoke.  “To a warrior’s loyalty!”  Everyone at the table, including Emirald, raised a glass and repeated the toast.  Then we all drank.  Another of Emirald’s husbands motioned to a servant for more wine.

            Emirald paused as the wine was served.  “And what say you, the last remnants of Bellosvia’s mighty armies?” 

            Tellian spoke up.  “Our loyalty is to the crown.  We must free our beloved kingdom before we decide which custom to keep and which to discard.  Those are matters to be decided by statesmen, not warriors.”  The others warriors nodded in agreement.  “However, we all owe our lives to the bravery of the Black Knight, the princess who defied tradition and made herself into a legend for our children to sing songs about.”  He looked at Neilhelova.  “If custom does permit a queen on our throne, there will be no complaint from us!” 

Another of the warriors raised his glass.  “To lives spared by bravery.”  Neilhelova was first to raise his glass and repeated the toast.  We all drank to that and all of the warriors drained their glasses and threw them against the wall.  One of Emirald’s husbands motioned to the servants again.

            Emirald turned to me.  “What do you think, old friend.”

            “I think I have never heard you be as talkative,” I said, making her grin.  “I am but a hireling.  The customs of Bellosvia are not mine to ponder.”

            The princess grabbed Neilhelova by the arm and jerked her head in my direction.  He spoke.  “Mlerro, you have saved a royal life and if you wish land and title, you shall have it when victory is ours.  That, too, is our custom.”

            “Even though I am a monster from Down There?” I replied, unable to resist putting him on the spot.

            The old fellow smiled a nervous little smile, under the golden-eyed stare of the Dragon Queen.  “I had been taught, as a young man that one should beware of monsters.  However, of late I have been made to ponder a question.  Who are the monsters?  I would not think of a loyal servant or powerful ally as one, but I would gladly slay the sort of monster who seeks to steal kingdoms, with a skull mask to hide his human face!  The lessons of my education bare less truth than the lessons of my life.”

            I raised my glass.  “To the lessons of life!”  We all drank and all the wine glasses flew to the wall this time.  “Additional payment for service will be decided when the job is done,” I said after the toast.  “I am but a servant for now.”

            One of the Fay spoke up.  “We heard of you, servant,” he said, laughing.  “Most of those who are mere servants do not toy with wyverns or try to cross Bronu’s garden unannounced.  Tell me, how many berries hang under your branch, three or four, perhaps?”  I held up two fingers in response.  I think I may have blushed.

            Emirald was grinning.  “And, what is the position of the Fay on these matters?”

            The other Fay answered, sitting back in his chair.  “We do not interfere in mortal affairs.  So long as we are left alone, you may do as you please.”  Emirald nodded.

            She turned to Rog.  “What of the woodsmen?  Will you seek to simply be left alone?  Mmmmh?”

            “We are sympathetic to the cause of Bellosvia, but we are only a small trade expedition and not prepared for battle.  I will put the question to my people.  Some may wish to help, and at the very least, we can spare ponies.”

            “For a fair price, I take it,” I added.

            “We are a trade expedition,” Rog reminded me.

            “And for the last word of this meeting, I would hear from my husbands,” said Emirald. 

            “You know our position!” said the youngest of them, an angry-looking man with long blonde hair.  “We have you and two score of our sons.  Finding allies among our neighbors is not a problem.  We should strike and topple the Bukan Emperor from his throne!  See to it that death knights never again roam the land!”  He punctuated the statement by shoving a large chunk of meat into his mouth and chewing it strongly.

            “You would surely have the support of Bellosvia for that!” Neilhelova piped up.

            “Aye, and place your own buttocks on that tyrant’s throne, or mine.  I know your view very well,” responded Emirald with sarcasm.  “You would have us face the entire Bukan army with a cry for death or victory.”  All three husbands nodded.  “I would counsel patience.  That battle will not be fought unprovoked and when it is won, there shall be no more tyrant’s throne.”

            Tellian raised his glass.  “To the absence of a tyrant’s throne!” he toasted.  More glasses broke against the wall.

            Emirald turned to Neilhelova.  “I have heard the views of all present,” she began.  “Now I wish to negotiate.  What I offer is to escort His Majesty to the coronation ceremony.  No more stealth or perilous journeys.  In return, I will hold you to your pledge of support.  If I do decide to declare war, I would expect a human ally to rally my human neighbors and assist me in raising an army.  Is that a pact?”

            Neilhelova began to chuckle.  “A fine pact at that.  It would be worthwhile simply to see the faces of our enemy when we arrive for the coronation.”

            I spoke up.  “If you count the days, I must ask how many there are until the longest summer day.”

            “Day after tomorrow,” answered Rog.

            “And what does royalty say to our pact?” Emirald interrupted.  She turned to regard the princess.  Lenalia rose and went to her, offering a handshake.  Emirald stood and the two of them shook on it.  Then Emirald put an arm around the princess and motioned to the nearest Dragonspawn.  “I have a gift for you to cement our alliance.”

            When the door to the hallway was opened, the princess looked out and gave an excited sigh before rushing out the door.  Emirald slouched at the head of the table once again, her golden eyes twinkling as though she had just played a joke on someone.  Neilhelova spoke up, looking a little suspicious.  “What gift would cause her to flee so?”

            “You shall see soon enough,” responded Emirald.  “Tell me, Mel, what news is there of the others?”

            She sat quietly, listening and sipping her wine, as I told her all I knew.  I told her of meeting Furgo and Lenko, of Ellea’s new career and her hand in my current employment, and about Glin’s modest homestead.  Rog produced a long pipe made of clay, of the sort people would use once before snapping off the tip of the stem and passing it to the next person.  He stuffed it with what looked to me to be dried red berries.  One of the spawn by the door walked over and Rog handed him a twig.  He put one end in his mouth, blew, and handed it back to him with a tiny flame dancing on the end.  Rog puffed hard to get the slow-burning berries going, inhaled, snapped a piece off of the stem and passed it to me.  I took a puff of the sweet, strong smoke and passed it on.  The pipe went around the table and everyone had some, even the door guards and servants.  When I was done telling stories, Rog started a new tale and we traded stories as we finished our meal, except for Emirald, who listened quietly. 

            As I sat, I noticed that the voices around me seemed far away and the walls seemed to move.  I was keenly aware of a warm draft in the room.  When one of the warriors was in the middle of a funny but rather crude story of an old man and a seductive witch, the doors burst open and two of the Dragonspawn marched in, playing large drums that were slung sideways before them.  A mounted figure followed them.  T’was the Black Knight.  She wore her suit of armor, or an exact replica, and a shield on her arm with the Bellosvian falcon.  Her broadsword, along with a simple lance tipped with a wide dagger-head, lay by the door.  Her charger appeared to be the same black mount she had started with, covered in dark iron barding.  Behind her came two more Dragonspawn, playing reed flutes.  She and her mount clip-clopped into the room and stood, with her helm nearly scraping the ceiling.  The charger gave a proud whinny.  The warriors stood and saluted and Neilhelova was on his feet with His Majesty resting on one arm and his glass in his other hand.  He shouted, “To the Black Knight, who rides once again!”  Wine glasses flew against the wall.  Emirald was grinning her jagged grin.

            The Black Knight dismounted and removed her helm, joining us at the table again.  A servant led her charger out the door and the musicians stayed.  They played and sang, fascinating us with their rich, whispery voices.  T’was nearly morning when the festivities ended.  We were each shown to rooms behind the audience chamber, with the exception of Rog and the two Fay, who returned to their respective peoples.  When we woke, we returned to the audience chamber for breakfast and were offered a restful day.  I spent the day with Rog’s woodsmen, gambling and bartering for ponies.  I lost at the gambling, but did well acquiring five brown and white steeds. 

            The next morning, the Black Knight was the first to emerge from the keep.  She rode noisily down the marble stairs from the entryway and waited, with her lance pointed skyward and her broadsword on her back.  Neilhelova was next, with His Majesty in the traveling harness on his back and followed by the three remaining warriors.  I offered them the ponies and had to help them mount, as they were not used to unsaddled riding.  I gave them some quick instructions on how to steer a mount without reins and the men quickly understood the basics.  Soon, Emirald was standing on the battlements, in dragon form.  She rumbled instructions to her sons about the rules during her absence and the proper care of her eggs, which lay somewhere in the keep.  She spread her wings and glided down to meet us. 

            “Ready to ride?” she rumbled.

            We answered as one “Aye!” and cheered.  “Coronation day at last!” bellowed Neilhelova. 

            Emirald took to the air, circling us as we traveled.  The Black Knight took the lead, with me behind her.  The warriors surrounded Neilhelova, crossbows loaded.  They were a bit clumsy as they rode without saddles, but they followed.  The road wound through the hills at the far end of the valley and was dusty and rutted.  I wondered whose wagon wheels rutted the road, but that was none of our business.  Once past the hills, the road became straight and went through the thick woods.  Emirald climbed higher and circled wider, picking up speed. 

            We were making good progress, trotting down the road, when Emirald’s voice sounded, as would distant thunder.  “Enemy ahead!”  She turned and dove, ahead of us.  Bukan horns sounded.  We could see Emirald gliding low and fast over the trees.  She lowered her head and blew, expelling a wind that shimmered, not unlike the air over a fire.  I heard men’s panicked voices and saw smoke ahead.  Orange light winked at us through the trees, making the ponies grunt nervously.  To their credit, the hardy steeds continued onward.

            Emirald rose and turned in the distance.  I winced as I heard the twanging note of a ballista, then another.  The Bukans were ready.  Emirald breathed again.  I saw her land and come up again, with a burning ballista clasped in her talons.  It twanged and its javelin streaked, yellow with flame, to the ground below. 

            I saw the Black Knight lower her lance and speed to a gallop as a cluster of soldiers fled toward us.  They scattered, dodging or diving for cover as the mounted figure aimed for them.  I heard crossbows twanging behind me.  We grew closer to the sprawling, crackling fire ahead.  A death knight stood in our path, his charger rearing up with the flames at his back.  Emirald was farther ahead and busy.  The Black Knight surged forward, straight to the enemy, who lowered his lance and spurred his mount.  His charger gave a shriek of protest and rushed into battle.  The Black Knight batted her opponent’s lance aside with her shield and passed him.  Her charger reared and spun, kicking.  Mount and rider lunged at the death knight’s back.  Her lance rattled his arm, causing him to drop his weapon.  He turned, pulling a chainmace from his saddle and swinging it over his head.  The Black Knight’s mount rose, kicking again.  She leaned forward, catching the chainmace’s spiked head with the edge of her shield, making it bounce wildly.  A hoof struck the death knight square in the chest, causing him to lean to the far side of his saddle.

            The death knight recovered and surged forward, swinging his mace as he passed.  The Black Knight took a glancing blow and, holding her lance as one would a staff, caught the man’s faceplate with the handle.  She pushed downward, her hands wide apart on the shaft of her lance, sweeping him from his mount.  His stirrups caught his boots by the spurs and his charger sped away, dragging him. 

             We rushed onward, the smoke around us making our eyes water.  Emirald passed over us, blocking the morning sun.  She glided ahead and then began to circle us.  We moved down the road, out of the fire and smoke, hurrying through green woods. 

            A sudden volley of arrows flew from the woods to our right.  They were shooting at our ponies and the air was filled with whinnies of pain.  His Majesty added his voice to the din.  Neilhelova and the warriors were down, helping each other to their feet.  As the Black Knight and I turned back, I was relieved to hear His Majesty’s healthy wailing.  Emirald glided low overhead and arrows flew toward her.  Most bounced off her scales, but a few stuck in her belly.  She exhaled and we could all feel the intense heat. 

            Another Volley of arrows raced toward us, most bouncing off the armor worn by the Black Knight and her mount.  I ducked, leaning against my pony’s neck and stopped suddenly as arrows flew in front of me.  Emirald’s voice boomed, “Run!”  She dove fast, mouth open.  Neilhelova sped into the trees to our left, taking His Majesty, whose voice echoed through the woods.  Two warriors followed as they carried the wounded third.  The Black Knight and I turned and fled down the road.  Behind us, the woods blazed as Emirald dove again and again.

            Soon we were out of the woods and the road ran between walls of stone.  From horseback, we could see peasants working the fields, pausing to look as we sped by.  As we approached the city, we came to a gate set in the outer wall.  The gate was up, lifted over our heads, with a single pike shaft set horizontally to block our way.  Two Bukan conscripts stood outside.  When they saw us rushing toward them, they moved to block the way and one of them held up a gauntleted hand to signal us to halt.  The Black Knight lowered her lance in response to the gesture and kept coming.  The guards dove away from the gate and she ducked, her faithful mount easily jumping the pike.  I followed and my pony made the jump as well.  We galloped down the straight, narrow street toward the inner keep.

            The city-state of Bellosvia consists of the city, which is a sprawl of town houses and cobblestone streets, inhabited by peasant-farmers, craftsmen, merchants and the like, and the inner keep.  The keep is surrounded by a high castle wall with battlements and inside it is the king’s palace, flanked by lodging appropriate for noble advisors, as well as stables and servant quarters.  A Bukan nobleman then occupied the palace, the Baron of Bellosvia.  His troops patrolled the battlements and were quartered inside the keep, although most had been sent out to find His Majesty or to patrol the city. 

            As we neared the Inner Keep, the streets had become crowded.  A parchment on a nearby wall proclaimed that all persons in the city were to show up for a ceremony celebrating the finalization of glorious Bukan rule.  Those apprehended being absent would be dealt with severely.  The Black Knight walked her charger through the crowd, her lance pointed skyward and her shield up, showing the falcon insignia.  The people all around were electrified with talk.  I took up a position behind her, as a servant would.  Bukan horns sounded nearby and the crowd grew quiet.  They parted, allowing us to pass while hindering the movement of the Bukan soldiers scattered among them.  I saw more than one hail us as we passed and the princess responded by raising her lance slightly.  One Bukan soldier managed to stand in our way, but moved aside when the Black Knight’s lance-tip came toward him.  I gestured obscenely as we passed the man. 

            As we made our way to the main archway of the inner keep, the people yielded, clearing the entrance.  As the Black Knight was about to enter, the portcullis slammed down with a heavy thump and a conscript peered out at us between the bars.

            “What are you supposed to be,” he growled, with a heavy accent. 

            “We are here to attend the ceremonies!  Open up!” I demanded, riding to the Black Knight’s side.

            He chortled.  “Here by invitation, I suppose?” he taunted. 

            “Obliged to attend by treaty, no less,” I answered, intently.

            “What does he say?” he asked, waving his hand toward the Black Knight.  She lowered her lance and gave his armored chest a rough poke through the bars.  “I will inform my commander of your presence.  Wait here,” he said smugly.  Something about his sneer told me that waiting there for him to return would be a blunder.

            The Black Knight dismounted and strode to the portcullis.  She leaned over to examine it.  T’was not locked.  She squatted and grabbed the lowest horizontal bar, heaving mightily.  It did not budge.  A knot of large men from the crowd approached.  “May we assist you, sir?” one asked.  She nodded.

            The men turned around, grasping the portcullis and heaving with their legs, putting their backs into their task.  I helped as well.  The thing was raised a few inches before we were forced to let go of it and it crashed back into place. 

            A small girl of slightly less than a decade spoke up from the crowd.  “How high can you raise it?” she asked.

            “This place may become dangerous when the soldiers return,” one of the helpers pointed out, slightly breathless.  “Flee this place, daughter.”

            “But I might be able to slip in!” she countered, with shrill stubbornness. 

            “We cannot get it high enough!  Even if we did, you would be crushed if we dropped it.”

            “Please, Father, I will be fast,” she whined 

            “It might work,” I commented, looking up at him.

            The man looked pale, but nodded.  “If she is slain, I will butcher you myself!” he snapped.  The Black Knight raised a hand to stay him, but he continued to glower at me.  One of the younger men gave a command.  “Heave, men!”  All of us grabbed the portcullis, raising it just enough.  The girl darted between us and dropped, slithering through just before we let go.  “If you see soldiers, forget us and run for your life!” her father advised.

            We waited for what seemed an eternity.  Soldiers were coming, shoving their way through the crowd.  The Black Knight was mounted in an instant, her steel blade bare.  The pulley wheel turned only once and the portcullis rose to the height of a man’s knee.  A Bukan horn sounded, very close.  I moved smartly, dropping onto my belly and struggling through the gap under the barrier.  On the other side I saw the girl.  She was climbing onto the large hand crank that moved the portcullis.  Once she was on top, it spun under her and she fell off as the handle turned, catching herself with her hands on the wall.  I hurried over to move the hand crank.  T’was no easy task, but I put all my weight into it and the portcullis snapped into the open position.

            I heard a clanking sound above us, the sound of men running in chainmail and boots on the stone battlements.  An arrow slapped into the ground in front of me, then another.  I grabbed the girl and held her between the wall and myself, hoping that my simple leather shirt would be armor enough.  Arrows flew on both sides of the wall and people cried out as some found their mark.  A riotous roar rose into the air.

            I felt a gauntleted hand on my shoulder and turned to see the Black Knight, leading my pony.  She took the brave child, hefting the girl onto the her own saddle with one hand and placing her shield over the child’s small, frightened form.  I scrambled onto my mount’s back and followed the Black Knight as she fled recklessly inward.  The crowd poured in behind us and overwhelmed the approaching soldiers. 

            Moments later the Black Knight halted so quickly that my mount nearly crashed into hers.  She stood ready, her charger prancing and snorting, before the raised stone platform at the mouth of the king’s palace.  There stood the Baron of Bellosvia.  He was well dressed in purple with a gold crown on his head bearing the falcon insignia.  He was an old man of cruel countenance, with gray in his hair and beard, standing with his hands on his hips.  His posture and authoritative stare made it look as though he believed his fat belly would impress his subjects.  Surrounding him was a phalanx of Bukan citizen-soldiers, with large, square shields and wicked-looking spears tipped with jagged iron.  The soldiers moved as one, kneeling and setting the ends of their spears against the ground with the tips up, as though bracing for a cavalry charge. 

            “You haven’t a chance,” he taunted.  “Surrender or die.”

            The Black Knight lowered her lance.  I took the child who sat behind her and helped her climb onto my pony.

            “So be it!” said the Baron, beckoning to her with his fingers from behind the soldiers.  For a moment I thought the Black Knight would charge, thus accepting her enemy’s invitation to impale her mount on those spears, but her charger only pranced forward with caution.

            I looked around.  The crowd was a swirling mass of angry peasants, but none approached us.  I saw a winged figure zooming toward us through the sky, with smoke rising behind.  T’was Emirald and she was over the walls in seconds. 

            “Our escort is here!” I taunted.

            The dragon swooped low, her body straight as an arrow.  The keep grounds cleared of soldiers and rioters both with amazing quickness as her shadow glided over the brick floor.  She passed, causing the Baron to crouch in fear behind his men, and then rose, giving a hissing exhale to a knot of archers on the battlements.  They screamed in agony, their armor glowing yellow.  She circled, breathing again.  I heard the girl behind me laugh.  “Now who will surrender?”

            Emirald set down, resting on her coiled tail, her head and forelegs up.  She had the posture of a cobra about to strike, wings folded and claws ready.  “We are here for the coronation of rightful ruler of Bellosvia, any objections?” she rumbled, glaring down at the Baron with her snake-like eyes.  He held his tongue.

            “I wish for a peaceful ceremony,” she taunted.  “Call off your men.”

            “My men are working to keep order here!” the Baron retorted.  Emirald leaned forward, towering over the Bukans.  “Call off your men!”  The Baron spoke a few words in the Bukan language to one of the soldiers, who had a horn around his neck.  The man rose and blew the retreat signal. 

            Emirald turned to us.  “Is His Majesty present?”

            “We have not seen him since we fled your forest fire,” I responded.  “The Regent and his men were on foot.”

            “Ha!” snorted the Baron.  “His Majesty must be here before sundown, or I will be the rightful ruler.  Our treaty makes it so!”

            “You are quite a charmer,” Emirald commented.  “Clear the platform.”  The dragon punctuated the order by inhaling loudly through her nostrils and breathing out again and twin ribbons of smoke streamed from her snout.  The Phalanx of officers rose and moved away without waiting for orders.  The Baron was the last to leave.  The soldiers formed line behind the glaring Baron as though they were about to start a parade.

            Emirald lay down, coiling in upon herself with her head on top, eyes watchful.  As we awaited His Majesty’s arrival, infantry conscripts from the city, which was beginning to quiet down, and archers from the walls joined the Baron.  They lined up, higher ranking persons in front, forming neat rows behind him.  They were to the left and Emirald’s coiled form was to our right, with the empty platform and palace doors in front.  People from the city arrived, stepping tentatively behind us and speaking in hushed tones.

            We waited there for several hours, expectant tension rising from all present.  Only Emirald seemed at ease, coiled in a round lump.  The Baron was agitated and pacing, stopping occasionally to speak with his officers.  The Bukan soldiers had been standing at attention, but began to shuffle and converse as time went on.  The crowd continued to stream through the keep gate and arranged itself into clumps of curious, chatting people.  The Black Knight and I sat on our mounts.  The little girl, Marotta, began to ask questions, which I answered.

            “Who are you?”

            “We are servants of the rightful king, whose family ruled here before the Bukan tyrants took over.”

            “Where did that dragon come from?”

            “She is an old friend and ally, a queen in her own right.”

            “Why does he not speak?”

            “The Black Knight has taken a vow to never utter a word until Bellosvia is free.”

            “Why are you so short and fat?”

            “I was born this way!” and so on.

            Marotta’s parents came to retrieve her.  The shadows were growing long and there was still no sign of Neilhelova and His Majesty.  Still we waited.  The sun was sinking and the crowd’s chatter became more urgent.  The Baron moved to the palace steps.

            “As soon as the sun sinks below the land, I shall be the undisputed ruler of this city, which shall be the property of the Emperor!” he announced in a voice all could hear.  His men gave him a clanking salute.

            “By what right?” asked a well-dressed old man who had difficulty walking, but was working his way to the front of the crowd with the help of a servant boy. 

            “By right of treaty,” the Baron responded. 

            “You mean a treaty with the king your people murdered in his sleep!” the old man responded bitterly.  The crowd became noisy again.  Some were suggesting that a bonfire in the palace would put things right.

            “After my coronation, I will have no patience with rabble-rousers, man.  Not even those rich enough to be elusive,” promised the Baron, fixing the old man with a challenging glare.

            “Let us see this treaty,” commanded Emirald. 


            “I wish to see the treaty and be quick about producing it, for if the sun sets before we see it, you shall be a pile of ash!”  The dragon’s head was up again.  The Baron snapped his fingers and a conscript hurried into the palace.  He returned moments later, carrying a rolled piece of parchment tied with a purple ribbon and sealed with a blob of wax imprinted with the falcon insignia.  He handed it to the Baron.

            We all waited as the Baron carefully unwrapped the ribbon and broke the seal.  He opened it and began to read it aloud.  As his eyes were on the page, a shadow fell over him.  Emirald’s head was poised before him, her toothy snout inches from his nose.  “I wish to see it,” she snarled.  He held it open before her and waited as she read it. 

            When she finished and withdrew, the Baron announced, “I shall read it for the illiterate masses gathered here.”

            “As though we trust you!” the old man snorted.

            The Baron stared at him as though appalled.  “How dare you!  Do you wish to face me in a duel?” 

            “I wish to read the treaty,” the old man said evenly.  Emirald growled and the Black Knight moved closer, lowering her lance.  The Baron relented and handed it over to the old man, who read the treaty for all to hear.  Emirald spoke when he was finished. 

            “The treaty does not state which sibling must be coroneted,” she pointed out.  “If Princess Lenalia were here, she would be a legitimate heir, would she not?”

            “If she were here,” said the Baron.  “She perished long ago.”

            Emirald shook her head.  “She stands before you in the black armor of wronged nobility.”  The crowd gasped and was silent.

            “Ha!” responded the Baron.  “We shall have no imposter here today.”

            “How dare you!” Emirald roared, so loud that her thunderous voice echoed off the stone walls and brick floor and could be felt by the audience.  “Do you wish to face me in a duel?”  She punctuated the challenge with a frustrated sigh and her hot breath blurred the air over the Baron’s head.  He became pale as bed linen and stood silently with his mouth hanging open.

            “No duel, Mmmmh?” the dragon taunted.  “Then it is decided.  The reign of Queen Lenalia begins this day!”

            “But that is impossible,” the Baron said, adopting a respectful but pleading tone.  “A woman on the throne violates their traditions.”

            Emirald turned to address the gathered crowd.  All were silent, witnessing the drama.  “This person claims that you, the people of Bellosvia, would not except Lenalia as your queen and rightful ruler.  What say you?”

            The Black Knight removed her helm and shook her hair out.  She was grinning.  Her hand moved slightly and her charger rose on his hindquarters, whinnying in celebration and thrashing the air.  The old man got down on one knee, shakily and with help from his servant, and averted his eyes.  One by one, all the gathered people did the same.  They waited expectantly in the last rays of the setting sun.  Emirald gave the Baron a prodding stare.  He stepped over to the princess, removing the crown from his head, which was still held high.

            The Baron handed her the crown and spoke.  “By the power vested in me as Baron of Bellosvia and loyal representative of His Glorious Majesty, the Emperor of Buka, in accordance with lawful treaty, I hereby grant thee the title of sovereign ruler, with all accompanying honors and privileges.”  As the Baron spoke the words, his voice shook, as though each word were a flaming bolt in his insides.  When he was through, he turned and walked slowly and steadily toward the open gate, as the crowd parted to let him leave.  He motioned and his men followed obediently in orderly rows.  The crowd cheered the new queen and taunted the former Baron as he departed. 

            And so this story had a happy ending.  Queen Lenalia took over the palace and hired servants and advisors and made coronation day an annual holiday.  The old fellow who had read the treaty became one of her ministers, as did Neilhelova, eventually.  He showed up the next day, with his men.  They were all bruised and bedraggled and one man had to be carried, as his leg was broken.  Each of the men received a title, making each an officer of the guard, along with a fine nobleman’s home in the part of the city he would protect.  His Majesty, of course, was given the palace nursery and the finest nanny that could be found.  The guard, as the royal army was known, was being assembled.  A week after coronation day, a tournament was held, so that warriors could prove their worthiness to serve.  T’was fought using blunted weapons and stout armor and the citizenry came to watch, creating a circus atmosphere.  Nobles and warriors of Bellosvia returned from all around to take part.  Little Marotta and her family were also invited to live in the palace.  She was to be trained as a warrior by the Queen personally.  Emirald changed and stayed as a guest in the palace for two weeks, occasionally changing again to patrol the kingdom by air and guard against treachery from the enemy.

            As for me, I was offered a choice of the outlying lands.  I was the first of many to be given a title in a series of ceremonies on the second day after coronation.  It took place in the palace, before Queen Lenalia on her throne in a white dress and purple robe, her hair braided and her crown resting on her head.  The robe was missing a sleeve, to show the scars on her arm from the wyvern’s sting and the treatments given to cure it.  The Queen had fresh tattoos in red and blue to emphasize those battle scars as a badge of honor.  She spoke to me with courtly formality. 

            “In the name of our gods and our ancestors, I grant thee the right to bear arms and the power to deliver justice.  Thou art to be a representative of the crown and thy word is now law.  An attack upon thee shall be seen as an attack upon the kingdom.”  She handed me a scroll and leaned over and whispered in my ear.  “I am forever grateful that we chose the right guide.  Without you we would have surely failed!”  She kissed me on the cheek and then stood and hugged me, without seeming to notice my forehead on her bosom. 

            The other titles were given and we had a wonderful feast, complete with minstrels and storytellers.  The next morning I mounted a humble woodsman’s pony and left for my new fiefdom of Lencalla Pass.  Along the way I bought an Ox for Glin.



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