"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
1 / SECTION 2
The body lay in the road, a crossbow quarrel sticking out from the throat.
Cornell of Cayaboré halted his horse and peered down at the dead man. The blood pooling under his neck was still fresh. No sign of vultures or buzzards in the air. And there were the tracks of a carriage leading away down the road, along with the hoofprints of at least four other horses gallopping after it.
He shook his head, patted his stallion’s neck – then gave his spores to the horse’s sides. The stallion snorted, then sprang into action, rushing along the dirt road. Dust rose, testament to the dry spell that had recently fallen on the Arrufatian province of Zepol Olyaj. For the last week, Cornell had only heard about failing crops in the villages he’d been passing through on his way to Faithold. It would be nice to get a bit of distraction.
The tracks careened around a bend in the road. Warcries sounded in the distance, somewhat familiar. Three hundred yards further, a second body lay on the ground, his arm and chest peppered with quarrels. Calmly Cornell drew his own crossbow from its hook on the saddle, hurrying his stallion onward. Trees had been planted along the side of the road, masking sight of what was happening ahead.
He loaded the crossbow single-handedly, loosened the knot around his sword.
A loud crash. Screams. More warcries. They sounded scratchy, harsh. Elves? The local baron’s death squad?
The first part of his suspicion was proved moments later when his stallion rushed around another curve, and Cornell saw riders ahead, stowing their crossbows. Chainmail armor on their bodies, metal spikes along the arms. No helmets. Unmistakably elves, with their blue skin and cyan hair. Not to mention the heavy armaments that were laden on their horses. Mercenaries or the baron’s men?
Behind the elves, he saw the carriage. A stagecoach, actually, with a closed passenger compartment. Its drivers dead, the horses had run out of control, and the coach had toppled over at the curve, sliding into the next tree, while the horses… One was already dead, the other was struggling to free itself from the gear – but the nearest elf drew his sword and slashed its neck open.
The three remaining elves approached the coach, readying their swords.
“Hey, blue boys!” Cornell yelled, leveled his crossbow at the elf closest to the coach and shot the quarrel.
The bolt flew true, embedded itself in the elf’s neck. Arrogant bastards should consider wearing helmets.
Two elves whirled their horses about to face the new threat. The third leapt from the saddle, behind the coach, sword and crossbow in his hands.
Cornell threw his own crossbow away. No time to load it again. His sword flew into his hand, he ducked close to the stallion’s neck, the horse still rushing forward.
The third elf fired his weapon. Cornell clung to the neck, the quarrel missed.
Then he reared up, zig-zagged his horse, swinging his sword. Just in time to meet the blades of the two elves near him. Parry right, parry left, parry right. He slipped one foot from his stirrups, kicked the horse left to him. The animal protested, stumbled aside and tried to bite at the offending foot.
That distracted the left elf enough that Cornell could concentrate on the one to his right. He flung himself forward, slashed his sword under the elf’s defense, scoring a hit on his armor. No good. The other one was ready again, but Cornell had no desire to resume fending off two foes. He hurried his stallion forward, straight through the elves’ gauntlet.
Then his plan backfired.
For an instant he’d forgotten about the third elf behind the coach. He remembered when his stallion suddenly reared up, and Cornell was flying from the saddle, one foot tied up in the stirrup. Pain lanced through him. He tried to roll, hang on to his sword – then he smashed into the ground.
One elf jumped from his horse, sword arcing down towards Cornell’s abdomen.
The Cayaborean brought his blade up, parried, smashed his free foot up, kicked the elf back a step. The next moment his stallion started running, and he was carried forward, straight at his opponent. He flashed his sword up, sliced into the elf’s leg – his own thrust and the horse’s movement enough to cut through the armor into the flesh.
The elf yelped, stabbed his weapon down. He missed.
Cornell twisted about, slashed the stirrup free from the horse. The stallion rushed off, while Cornell bounded up to his feet, twirling his sword about before getting his bearings. None of the elves was nearby, his blade cut empty air. For the moment.
“Die, human!” a grating elven voice screamed from behind him.
Cornell dropped to the ground. A sword stabbed the air above him, and Cornell thrust his sword upward at the elven chest following the weapon. Chains splintered open, the blade pierced the armor. The elf’s warcry died in a gurgling sound along with himself. The body fell down, onto the Cayaborean, its weight pushing the air out of Cornell’s lungs.
He heaved the body away as fast as he could, hearing the second elf’s footsteps, knowing that the man would use Cornell’s defenselessness if –
The second elf made a gurgling sound as well, then his sword clattered down. Stunned, Cornell stopped pushing the body on top of him, staring as the second elf joined his fellows on the ground.
But there was the third one left!
He gave the deadweight on him another push, freed himself, rolled over, pulling his sword from the body, ready for a round with the last of the elves.
Instead he saw the back of a slim man wearing a black wizard’s robe, his dark hair stylishly tied into a knot over his neck. “Thank you, kind sir,” the wizard said, watching the road for signs of other adversaries. He held throwing daggers in each of his hands. A similar dagger protruded from the nape of the second elf. “I’m sure we would have –“
“Barandas?!” Cornell gasped.
The wizard froze, his head jerked up – then he swiveled his head to take his first close look at his sudden rescuer. “Cornell?” he blinked, his narrow face as blank as the Cayaborean’s.
At least that’s what the latter’s face had looked like. Now it turned to disgust and frustration as he got back up to his feet, shoving the sword into its scabbard. “All right, Barandas,” he muttered, “what have you stolen from these elves?”
“Excuse me?” the wizard said indignantly. “Why is it that every time we meet you accuse me of thievery? I am Barandas the Magnificent, I don’t steal!”
“Unless we’re talking about, oh,” Cornell started counting his fingers, “magical appliances, magical artifacts, anything valuable, something to get you close to a pretty girl, or anything else that suits your fancy.” He waved the now open hand at the wizard. “Did I miss anything?”
Barandas shrugged. “Whatever. That doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t stolen anything. I won the book fair and square at cards.”
“How did you cheat?”
The wizard cursed inaudibly. “Hard as it may be for you to believe, Cornell, I didn’t cheat, either.” He paused, shrugged, then continued with a wide grin, “It wasn’t necessary, you see? Natural wins all the way. The acorns just kept popping up in my hands, like magic.”
“Not that you’d know anything about magic,” Cornell countered. “Have you ever cast a single spell in your life? Except for little light shows?”
“Shut up!” Barandas hushed urgently, pointing at the stagecoach. Its door – now located on top – was open, and two people were clambering out of the passenger compartment. “My employers, they, uh, don’t know me as well as you do. They bankrolled my way into the game, thinking – forget it, and please be quiet now.”
The first thing Cornell noted about these employers was their long, unkempt hair. Which happened to be a bright cyan color underneath a layer of dust and dirt. Blue-skinned faces, eyes various shades of purple. Ears tapering to elegant points. More elves?!
Seeker elves, to be exact, Cornell realized a moment later when he saw the simple cotton tunics on the man and woman. Both clothes and the elves themselves looked as if they hadn’t been cleaned in months. Typical of seeker elves, always concentrated on their search for the elves’ Eternal Forest rather than the mundane necessities of everyday life.
“You work for seekers?” Cornell blinked.
“For the moment,” Barandas shrugged, switching on fake confidence and elation as he turned to the elves. “Ah, Siaxos, Deimitra, it is safe now. Please, join us and meet my friend. His sword and my magic have defeated our assailants. This is Cornell of Cayaboré.”
The seekers were tall for their kind, the man about 5 feet 6 inches, the woman a little over five feet tall. She kept a pace behind him, shaking her long hair in front of her face – not enough to hide the beauty under the layer of dirt. Cornell sneaked a suspicious glance at Barandas. Was that the reason for his association with the seekers? The girl? Barandas had always had a penchant for landing himself in trouble because of the ladies.
The man – Siaxos – was a good deal older than Deimitra. Probably into his third century, unless his elven blood was diluted a lot by human infusions over the generations. “Master Cornell,” the elf nodded slowly, “I extend my gratitude to you for assisting the wizard in defending us. Thus the book of spells is protected, and our search may yet yield us the path to the Aionios Dasos – which you call the Eternal Forest.”
The book? Cornell repeated in his thoughts. “Sure. No problem. Were they after you because of that book?”
Barandas frowned – just for a moment, then returned to the effusive blankness of before. You don’t me to know too much about this book, right, old friend? Just what kind of a spellbook is this that you’re so interested in it? But before Cornell could pounce on the wizard and find out what exactly he was hiding, Siaxos responded with a gentle shrug. “No, kind sir, I am afraid that these are relatives of ours, members of the clan of Hexaphie’al. Over there,” he pointed at the man that had fallen on Cornell, “lies Xenipherios, second nephew of mine and first cousin to Deimitra. Zika’el, third cousin to me and fifth cousin to Deimitra, was slain by Master Wizard’s dagger, as was Thermiadal, first uncle to me and third cousin to Deimitra. Taken by your crossbow was Soktaphios, second nephew to Deimitra and second cousin to me.”
Cornell raised his eyebrow at the dispassionate listing of Siaxos’ kin, sounding much as if he were reading from an army roster. “Why did they try to kill you?”
“Well,” Barandas interjected quickly, spreading out his arms, “we don’t really have to –“
“They have rejected us,” the woman Deimitra said, moving a shock of cyan hair from her face. She shook her fingers vigorously, sending clumps of dirt flying. “They care not about the sacred grove of our ancestors, they wish no return to the tranquil ways of yore. They have encased themselves in the vile ways of war and mundanity.”
Siaxos raised his hand. “Thank you, my niece, that will be enough. Our tired tale is surely of no avail to the master warrior, and we do not wish to repay his kind assistance with boredom.”
“Surely not,” Barandas said, his bright façade crumbling bit by bit.
No, the wizard didn’t like to spend time with the seekers, Cornell concluded. Neither did he. Ordinary elves were bad enough with their love for fighting and cruelty, but seekers had turned the ferocity of their kind into a maniacal search for their mythical homeland. Supposedly the gods drove them out three millenia ago, for some terrible sin they had committed. The Cayaborean remembered as much from his tutors’ lessons at home, and those dry words had little more meaning today than they had in his childhood.
The elven male continued with a slight nod to his niece, “Little Deimitra here is the daughter of the clan patriarch. Old Hienamyos is enraged that she joined me on my sacred quest, for thus she has marred his honor. To remove the taint, she must be killed. That is all this has been about. The book or the wizard are of no consequences to Hienamyos.”
Cornell frowned and cast a closer look at Deimitra. “The patriarch’s daughter you say? That means the elves will continue to pursue you.”
head jerked up an inch, telling proof that he hadn’t realized this part.
He’s probably stopped thinking
about anything after figuring out that the woman’s an elven princess.
“Yes,” Siaxos confirmed calmly. “But the remaining parties will not be nearby. This one was composed of lesser warriors of the clan, else I fear that the battle might have had a different outcome. I predict that we will have quiet for at least a day, possibly three. Enough for the wizard and us to reach our goal and effect the transit to the Aionios Dasos.”
Again with the Eternal Forest and a pathway there, Cornell thought and started to ask about it – only to be cut off by Siaxos who said, “Therefore we have no need of further protection, Master Cornell. You may continue on your way.”
“Uh, Siaxos,” Barandas said carefully, “are you sure? We could use Cornell’s sword in case your family attacks us again.”
Deimitra flashed her eyes at him, for a moment revealing all her beauty. “But, Master Wizard, surely your magic will be enough to keep us safe.”
“Well, I –“ Barandas stuttered.
“As I said,” Siaxos nodded to Cornell, “we have abused your kindness too long already. Also, I must admit that your presence is unsettling to us. We are peaceful seekers of the sacred grove; weapons are what cast our ancestors from their homeland. Please, Master Cornell, heed our wish and leave.”
The Cayaborean looked at Barandas. The wizard tore his eyes away from the elven woman, facing Cornell straight. “Well, as the dear lady said, my magic is quite potent, and it is less offensive to seekers than your sword is.” His words sounded honest and confident, but to Cornell’s satisfaction, his eyes lost that sheen and converted to their more usual shiftiness. Right after finishing speaking, the wizard mouthed, “Stay!”, careful not to let the elves see it.
Cornell grinned, then bowed to the elves. “I am sorry to have caused you discomfort,” he said, and patted Barandas on the arm. “Take good care of these two elves. I have my own business to attend to.” He enjoyed the shock on the wizard’s face – wondering why Barandas didn’t up and leave the seekers. Something about the spellbook, probably. It didn’t matter much to Cornell what nefarious business his friend was up to this time. Unfortunately the wizard wasn’t likely to get out of this mess on his own. As usual. “First of all, I have to get a new horse. That crossbow quarrel took out mine… Well, but you’re in the same predicament, so –“
“Do not worry about that,” Siaxos replied. “Deimitra.”
The woman nodded and walked off toward the bend of the road.
While Barandas was visibly fidgeting, Siaxos went to the overturned carriage. “My niece has a way with animals, as you will soon see. Now I will retrieve the book, and when Deimitra returns, we shall leave.” With that, the elf climbed into the coach’s passenger compartment.
Once he was out of sight, Barandas shot out his hand to grasp Cornell’s arm. “Don’t you dare leave me alone! Those bloody elven soldiers are going to slaughter me, and –“
“Then leave the seekers,” Cornell retorted.
“I can’t,” Barandas groaned. “That book was written by Alwouldiss of Daeshael, one of the greatest wizards ever. But the bloody fool wrote it in code, and the seekers have the key. They’ll only give it to me when –“
A whicker interrupted him. Both men turned to see Deimitra return, leading three chainmailed horses in tow. “Forgive me, Master Wizard,” she said, “but I only found these. Perhaps I might ride with you?”
Barandas managed a weak smile, torn between the prospect of having the girl close to him and the risk he was braving by said prospect.
Cornell rolled his eyes, leaned forward and whispered, “Risking your life for a spellbook is foolish.”
“I know!” The wizard’s words were loud enough for Deimitra to look their way, and Barandas quickly put his happy façade back on. “Certainly, my lady, I will be delighted to have you share my ride.”
“Barandas the Magnificent,” Cornell snorted. He was following the tracks of the other two horses, as best he could. The road was dry, and the wind was blowing over the hoofprints, merging them with those of other travellers of recent days. “A stupid fool, that’s what you are. Can’t you see how they’re playing with you?”
At least his horse was obeisant, in good shape, and having armor on it felt a bit like the rides he knew from his home. Except, of course, that his favorite ride at home was a female horse dragon named Tempest. With her under him, and a couple of hundred yards of air, he wouldn’t have had much of a problem tracking the elves and the wizard. Alas, he was stuck with a horse and land travel.
He kept on grumbling about the wizard while following the tracks – until they veered off the road and lost themselves between the ash trees planted aside it. Blades of grass grew in clumps on the ground, some bent and broken by hoofs. Cornell slowly guided his horse through the trees, then scanned the environs under the shade of his hand.
The land was mostly flat, with a few hillocks here and there. Hardy shrubbery grew in a few places, but little else survived the scorching sun. Even less cover than the road provided in case of an attack. Did the elves worry that little about their clan pursuing them?
Cornell shook his head. He knew rather little about these. Too little perhaps. They were like monks of dirt, appearing here and there, spouting their mumbo-jumbo about the Eternal Forest, and how they wanted to plead for the gods to let them return. Of course the other elves disdained them, even though seekers were recruited from their own numbers – after all, who would like to have his brother (or his daughter) amongst fanatics who never wash themselves, who don’t keep any goods besides their clothes and beg for food and drink?
Seekers didn’t have money. How could they have given Barandas enough to make his way into that card game?
Perhaps their vows of poverty could be pushed aside if it was for the good of their search. Cornell wasn’t sure, but he seemed to recall that there had been instances when seekers had stolen items supposedly from the Eternal Forest.
“Whatever,” he sighed and signaled his horse to start moving again. The chainmail jingled softly, in tune with the sound of the hoofbeat on the dry ground.
Deimitra snuggled close to Barandas’ back, tightening her grasp around his midsection. “Is something wrong, Master Wizard?” she asked. “You have been looking back a lot.”
Barandas forced a smile onto his face. “Only to make sure that you’re secure in the saddle, my lady.” Under different circumstances, he would have enjoyed having her sitting behind him, her body molded to his. Granted, she could use a bath. On the other hand, she didn’t reek as badly as some other seeker elves he’d met. There was a slight hint of perfume about her – she probably hadn’t shed the (few decent) ways of her people all the way yet.
“I am safe, Master Wizard,” she assured him. “Or may I call you Barandas? Barandas the Magnificent.”
Cornell would beat me over the head for being an idiot right about now, the wizard thought. And rightfully so. “Call me anything you like,” he said cheerfully, adding softly, “Deimitra.”
“My name sounds nice on your tongue,” she replied, “Barandas.”
Barandas tried to ignore the woman behind him and focus his thoughts. She’d only grown interested in him after the battle. Because he’d been such a grand wizard to defeat their foes? Well, he had killed two of them – with daggers rather than magic, but she didn’t know that. Or did she?
Just give me the key to Alwouldiss’ book, and I’ll be off. “How far is it?”
Deimitra looked about. He felt her breath wander about on his neck, before she said, “About two hours more. We’ll get to a brook in half an hour, follow its course, and then we’ll be at our homestead. Then,” she took a deep breath, “you can use the book and follow the great Alwouldiss to the Aionios Dasos. Won’t that be wonderful, Barandas? Your name will be spoken along with that of Alwouldiss of Daeshael!”
That would be wonderful, Barandas thought. If I could work that spell. Despite all his claims, Cornell was right about him and magic. They didn’t quite agree with each other. Sure, Barandas could create some small spells, and he knew a great deal more – some of them so advanced that only the most experienced wizards would brave their knowledge. Yet he only had a paltry access to magic, far too little for any of them. Maybe if he practiced more often. As if he had the time for that!
But that book… It was authentic, he’d checked before entering the game. Late period, perhaps the last book that Alwouldiss had written before he disappeared some seventy years ago. Siaxos claimed that he had gone to the Eternal Forest and stayed there. Not that Barandas cared much about that. All he wanted was the book and the spells; they could unlock so many secrets of magic – perhaps an easier way of amplifying his own potential, without having to spend months or years practicing.
“Alwouldiss of Daeshael,” Deimitra whispered behind him, “and Barandas the Magnificent. Two of a kind.”