Branston and Faldashir reach Maldin, where they get news.
The South Prepares
The sun rose to a gray sky over the bare snowy hills east of the Fingers of the River as Branston and Faldashir rode at a slow pace. Branston's mind had lingered on the villagers, hoping they would get out soon. Hythern had promised they'd leave by morning.
Branston looked over at Faldashir and said, "So what is the plan? Where're we going?"
"Maldin, first." Faldashir only stared ahead, and his voice was certain, if tinged with pain.
Branston raised an eyebrow, "Got something there?" He saw Faldashir wince, so he added, "How's your rib, anyway?"
"Not good, but it could be worse," Faldashir said, "I'm just glad I was wearing leather."
Branston looked at Faldashir's blood stained white coat. He did see thick leather through the tear in the cloth.
Branston looked ahead and asked, "So why Maldin?" He had been heading that way when the bounty hunters had found him. He almost regretted not finding the wagon and hitching the horses to it. But that would slow them down, and he didn't imagine all the hunters were gone.
"That's a meet-up spot, I'm waiting on somebody there." Faldashir continued to stare ahead. "With luck they'll be joining us."
"They? Who are they?"
"I got word that a friend was out here hunting a Dragon Guard as well, North of Maldin," he looked at Branston. "It was a courier who found me, he said that I should expect my friend at the Grand Drink tavern by tomorrow tonight. So that's where we're going."
Branston frowned; this was sounding suspicious. "So we're staying a day in Maldin waiting for your friend and another Guard?"
"Yes, and if you don't like it you can continue on without me." Faldashir cast a brief look at Branston. The man was serious about leaving Branston behind.
There was a long stretch of silence as the sun rose higher before Branston exclaimed, "I need to eat!" He realized as his stomach rumbled that he hadn't eaten since the previous morning.
Faldashir nodded as they came to the top of a hill, "Just a bit further, we can make it to the river and rest the horses."
They made their way down the hill, spotting the river not a half mile away, and rode in silence until they reached the icy banks.
Branston dismounted and led his horse to the frigid water, checking the saddlebags for food. He pulled out a wooden box filled with dry meat wrapped in cloth. He also found a horse tether, which was difficult to get into the frozen ground, but eventually he sat next to his horse while it lapped up water.
Faldashir settled cross-legged in front of him and took a bite of bread.
"You and I will be traveling with two others?" Branston asked.
Faldashir nodded, eyes on the hard bread in his hand.
Branston pressed further, "What are you, exactly?"
Faldashir looked at him, the old man's blue eyes surprisingly vibrant for his age. "I find whoever my king wants me to find."
Branston nodded and swallowed a piece of meat. "Some of your story doesn't add up. You say your king is finding Dragon Guards, yet all the dragons have fled. Surely your king must know I'm useless. Every Guard is, at this point."
Faldashir nodded again, "I know that, and so does my king. But we want to be prepared when we capture the dragons."
Branston almost smiled in ridicule, "You're trying to capture the dragons? Don't you think Krassos will be upset over that?"
Anger touched Faldashir's eyes, but his voice showed none of it, "Right now everybody as bigger problems."
"I think I know about these problems." Branston said glumly.
A thin gray eyebrow rose as Faldashir asked, "What do you know?"
Branston looked down at the snow beneath him, part of him glad for his warm pants. He gave a moment of thought before speaking, "I've been having dreams, lately. You said the dragons escaped three weeks ago, and fled north. I've had these dreams for three weeks. The same dream, every single night." He looked at Faldashir, but not seeing him. "In the dream I'm on a mountain, the banners of the four kingdoms wave behind me, and I'm looking north." He was quiet, and fear lurked in his voice, "There is a shadow, something I see on the horizon. But I feel anger, and hate, I feel the need to kill as I look on the shadow. When I look down the side of the mountain, there is an army making it's way up, and dragons fly above. Fire surrounds me, and I wake up."
Faldashir sniffed and ran a hand over his white beard, and behind his hand he said, "What do you think it means? What separates this from a regular dream?"
"I had dreams of the Sal'Tathern Burning." Branston said, focusing his vision on Faldashir's attentive eyes. "I dreamt it, it happened. And now you say the dragons are loose, so I can't help but think these things are connected."
Faldashir swallowed a piece of bread and stood up. "We'll talk further when the other Guard is with us. We'll see if he's having the dreams as well. The dragons may be the source."
They returned the food to their bags and set off again, Branton feeling far from satisfied from his few bites of meat, and he decided to eat a big meal in Maldin; the coin purse jingled a reminder in his coat pocket.
They rode north alongside the river until they came to a wide wooden bridge covered in ice. Branston and Faldashir exchanged worried glances as they led their horses slowly over the ice, which didn't crunch under their mounts' hooves the way it did on the grass.
But they made it across with no issue and continued on, Faldashir remarking that Maldin would be in sight by morning. Branston said nothing in return, he had already known, and the idea of sleeping out in the open felt uncomfortable and dangerous.
But for the rest of the day they rode in silence, stopping twice alongside the river for water, and finally at night they stopped and built a fire as the sky darkened.
Faldashir got to cooking a stew using the snow that blanketed the ground for as far as the eye could see, while Branston dug through the saddlebags of each horse, finding a fur bedroll for each of them, and a wolf's-fur cloak for each.
Branston draped the cloak around himself and fastened the button at the top. He sighed as warmth seeped into him, between the roaring fire - fueled by logs of wood given by Hythern,- and the cloak. Branston reached into a coat pocket and pulled out his fish-pendant.
"What is that, anyway?" Faldashir asked.
Branston slipped the cord over his neck, letting the pendant hang down, and said, "It's the reason we went back to the village."
Faldashir stood quickly. "A stupid pendant!" The flame flickered in his smoldering eyes. "How is that thing worth it?" Then he let out a long growl and put a hand to his wound, his eyes squeezed tight.
"It will help us." Branston said, stilling his anger. "Just listen. Let's sit." Branston sat down before the fire and the pot, moving the fringe of his cloak away from the crackling flame. He waited while Faldashir glared down at him.
Once Faldashir was seated, Branston pulled the small stone fish off his neck and held it up. "This is a magic item. I told you yesterday magic helped to manipulate the world. King Krassos is the only one to have access to magic himself, by which I mean he chooses who has it and who doesn't. Magic is what allowed the rider escape us yesterday." Faldashir nodded, his thin eyebrows drawn down in confusion.
Branston went on, "What the rider used was a magic item. Magic creates Dragon Guard. This -" he swung the pendant, " - lets me enter the Second World." Faldashir's face twisted in disbelief, and recognition. Branston nodded, "Good, you know the Second World."
"Yes, I know it." Faldashir said somberly.
"Have you been over there?"
Faldashir shook hs head slowly, "No, never. And I don't care to."
"I've been there." Branston said flatly. He stared at the fish pendant, the saldacrosse. "This pendant allows me to go there, with just a drop of blood." He looked pointedly at the blood on Faldashir's white coat. "Or yours. You can go there as well."
Faldashir stared darkly at the stone fish before saying, "And why do we need this?"
Branston placed the necklace around his neck and tucked the stone fish in his coat before answering, "The war coming to us, is from the Second World," Faldashir nodded, they both knew that already, "On the Other Side are creatures that can interact with both sides. If somebody can get over there and stop the creature before, say, an assassination attempt, then there's an advantage."
Faldashir scratched at his bearded cheek, his eyes narrowed in thought, but he said nothing, instead stared into the fire.
"Maybe it's time we put some food in." Branston said as steam rose from the pot. He grabbed a couple potatoes from a linen bag and a large knife. He chopped the potatoes and dumped them in the pot. As he sat down he pulled off his gloves and held his hands to the fire, smiling at the warmth. His smile slipped away when he saw Faldashir eyeing the dragons on his palms.
Branston cleared his throat and said, "Mine isn't the only object that can get people to the Other Side. So there can be multiple guards." Faldashir looked up at him, looking a bit ashamed to have been staring.
Branston continued, "Better, if I were to go the Second World, I could interact with objects from here, objects and people. Which gives me an advantage in battle. It also allows me to travel in secret, nobody from this world will see me while I'm on the Other Side."
Faldashir nodded slowly, "Magic sure does explain some things. The Guard, for instance."
"You've heard of Tygollin Thornigann?"
Faldashir nodded again, then dropped a few cuts of meat in the pot.
"He was the first one to bring magic to our world." Branston flexed his fingers, and groaned happily at the warmth in his hands. "If he hadn't been so power-mad the world would be a lot more difficult now."
"Well," Branston spread his hands, exposing the marks. "The dragons would be uncontrollable. We'd have mamy more problems from the dragons alone."
"So that's how Tygollin got so far." Faldashir said, as if it were a mystery that had plagued him his whole life.
They sat in silence for a few more minutes, adding spices to the stew, until finally they each took a wooden spoon - also supplied by Hythern - and ate directly from the pot.
Once the pot was empty, Faldashir stuffed it in a saddlebag and turned to Branston. "We'll sleep in shifts, go ahead and lay down."
Branston stood and unclasped his cloak, draping it over his white horse, adding a pat to its nose. He crawled into his fur-lined bedroll and shivered, wishing the fire were bigger. It took him awhile to get to sleep - he found Faldashir's pacing very distracting - but when he did, the dream was there to greet him.
Like before he stood atop a mountain, staring north. A sword hung from his waist, a silver dragon's-head pommel glinted up at him. To the north a great shadow stretched across the forest far toward the horizon, and closer, over the open plain obscured by pillars of smoke, marking destroyed villages.
Branston felt hate as he looked at the darkness that threatened to consume the world. But he didn't feel hate for the shadow. He felt hate for everything else, the forest far away, the mountain that he stood on. He looked back at the banners lined in a row behind him. He sneered at them, the hate the strongest.
He turned his attention down the mountain, seeing his army making their way up the slope, scattered as they searched for paths. They would arrive soon, as one, and the shadow would follow. And he would win.
But his thoughts snapped elsewhere as a roar sounded above him. He looked up as flames engulfed him. He screamed as his skin melted and he threw himself over the mountain-side. The ground rose to meet him. It grew closer and closer until -
Branston woke with a whimper as Faldashir shook his arm. Behind Faldashir was a soft orange sky devoid of clouds.
"It's morning, pack up." Faldashir intoned.
Branston crawled out of his bedroll and donned his cloak. "I thought you said we'd sleep in shifts," he said. He rolled up his bedroll and strapped it to his horse's saddle. He wasn't ungrateful for the sleep, though it hadn't done much good. At least he wasn't tired, his heart hammered like a woodpecker!
"I couldn't sleep." Faldashir said with nasty look. "You gave me too much to think about. I fed the horses, both of them. Here's your gloves."
Branston spun in time to catch the gloves the older man had tossed. He hastily pulled the gloves over his chilled hands and muttered a 'thank you'.
"We're ready. Let's go." Faldashir mounted his horse and took off at a trot.
Branton followed soon, his mind lingering on his dream. Again he had forgotten to search for more details, but he never could control his dreams.
He stayed behind Faldashir, following the trails through the snow, which was softer than the previous night. Even the air was a bit warmer, if not by much, and the absence of wind helped greatly.
"Keep up!" Faldashir called back.
Branston spurred his horse along, matching Faldashir's speed and slowing once they were side by side.
"Did you have the dream last night?" Faldashir asked with a sidelong stare.
"Yes, I did." Branston said. "Every night for three weeks without fail."
Faldashir grunted and said, "We should reach Maldin soon. Hopefully the others will be there."
For the next few hours the only sound was of the horses trotting over the snow, and the occasional bird. Branston thought hard about his dream, thinking on its meaning, and the shadow.
The shadow, of course, was the reason the dragons had gone north. The Darksource called to the dragons, it promised them freedom. But was the Dragon Guards strength greater than the Darksource? Would Branston even be able to dominate a dragon under the Darksource's influence? The answer was lost to Branston, but he thought no, and it would explain the dragon roasting him in the dream.
Soon the ground began to rise, and hills slowly came to form. While Branston chewed on a piece of hard meat, he saw smoke rising in the distance.
They crossed over a hill and Branston saw Maldin a half mile away. The town held only a few dozen buildings, with a mansion in the center of town where the mayor lived. Many of the houses let loose pillars of black smoke that gathered above the town.
They rode closer, finding the gate through the tall wooden fence that circled the town, keeping animals out.
The undisturbed snow before the gate showed that nobody had traveled to the town in a day or two. The gatekeeper, Lart, rushed from his tiny cabin and unlocked the door, waving the riders in.
They left their horses at the stables on the inside of the fence, and Branston buckled the sword given by Hythern to his waist.
"Do you need to see a doctor?" Branston asked as Faldashir dismounted his horse with a sharp breath.
Faldashir shook his head, "I wrapped it last night, there's nothing left to do. Let's go, we need to get to the Grand Drink." He took his bow out of the case that hung from the horse's saddle and led the way.
Only two streets made up Maldin, with plenty of connecting alleys, but the alleys were usually closed off by doors.
Snow crushed underfoot, their prints only adding to the many that crossed over each other in all directions. Branston nodded at a man who sat on his porch carving a piece of wood. Branston kept an eye out, watching every direction he could, feeling hidden eyes on him. He pulled his gloves tighter back, and rested a hand on the oval pommel of his sword.
They came to the Grand Drink, a two story tavern with a thick smoke pillar protruding from the wide chimney. They came through the wide open door, and Branston did a quick scan on anybody who payed them any special glances.
The room was warm, with a blazing hearth on either side, and the orange glow was overwhelmed by the bright white light that poured in from outside. A dozen men sat at tables scattered around the stone floor, and a bored looking man stood behind the bar at the wall opposite door.
Branston glanced at landscape paintings that hung on the brick walls, and laying his coat over a chair, he sat at a table. Branston tapped his foot to the flute tune being played by an old man next to one of the fireplaces as Faldashir took the chair across from him. Faldashir settled slowly into the chair, wincing when he touched the ladder-back.
"So we just wait here for your friend?" Branston asked, watching as a young women walked toward their table.
"Can I get you two anything?" she asked, with a smile for Branston.
"Do you have meat?" Branston asked, placing his palms on the table-top; sometimes the gloves didn't feel like enough.
"We have some meat in the back, what would you like?"
"I don't really care, just something big."
The waitress nodded and turned to Faldashir, "And for you?"
"Wine." Faldashir said, his voice tight with pain.
"And you two can pay?"
Branston nodded and she walked away.
Faldashir tapped the table with his knuckles, drawing Branston's attention. Faldashir said, "Yes, we wait here for my friend."
"What if he doesn't arrive?" Branston asked, "What if he was killed by the men hunting the Guard? How long do you intend to wait?"
Faldasir's knuckles balled on the table and he replied impatiently, "No longer than tomorrow night. Now, please, let me think."
Branston blinked curiously, Faldashir's mood was erratic, he had begun to notice. So Branston sat and listened to the tune from the old flute player, tapping his foot to the swift speed.
Eventually Branston's food arrived, a large slice of beef which he enjoyed, and he ordered a bowl of potatoes afterward. Faldashir drank his wine slowly, staring darkly at the table-top, sometimes his eyes flitted toward Branston's hands, much to Branston's discomfort.
As the day wore on, the other tavern patrons left, and as Branston and Faldashir remained at their table, Branston caught suspicious looks from the waitress and bartender.
As night drew nearer, a new crowd of people came into the building, filling all the tables and creating a loud buzz with their speech.
Soon Faldashir's head raised as two men stepped out of the night and into the bustling business. "There he is."
Branston looked to the door, seeing a tall man with thick black hair unclasping the brooch of his gray cloak, and beside him stood a shorter man, whose hands were hidden by gloves. The man in the gloves also wore a wide-brimmed hat and thick bear-fur coat, the tails down to his knees.
On Faldashir's wave the two men approached, Branston quickly snatching chairs from a nearby table.
Omce they were seated the taller man said, "Good evening," with a nod to Branston before turning to Faldashir. "This is him?"
Faldashir nodded and said, "This is Branston. He's yours?"
The man nodded to Branston again before turning to the man in the hat. "Yes, this is Olivar, he's new though." the man's voice was clear, and arrogant.
Olivar looked at Brantson with deep brown eyes and said, "You're a Guard, too?"
Branston nodded, and the tall man introduced himself. "I am Vigo, it seems the four of us will be traveling to Murindin. But first, news."
"What news?" Faldashir asked, leaning forward before letting out a sharp bark of pain. "Sorry, my rib. I was shot saving this one." He pointed a thumb at Branston.
Vigo looked at Branston the way one would look at a nuisance child, before turning to Faldashir. "Apparently the Dasoren military has emptied its fortresses, with the majority of their force heading north. Olivar said he personally saw a large troop traveling."
Olivar spoke up, trying to divide his attention between all three men, "There must've been two-hundred of them, that's my guess anyway. That's how many are at Firinoll, reports say. Or they did."
Branston nodded, Firinoll was a fortress about as south of Dasoren as possible, meant to keep soldiers on hand in case of attack. In times of peace the soldiers usually trained recruits and worked forges, developing weapons for when war came.
Branston tapped the table in front of Olivar and asked, "Did you see any weapons of war with them?" There was always the chance that what Olivar saw was a scouting party.
"Yes," Olivar nodded, "Catapults, ballista, and something else."
"What?" Faldashir prompted.
Olivar scratched beneath his hat, showing red curls, before speaking, "A large piece of white rock. Like stone, if it were broken from a castle or something. It was bright, and heavily guarded."
Branston scratched his beard, deep in thought. "Could it fit in a catapult?"
"No," Olivar's green eyes held curiosity. "It was far too big. It was as big as this building, I'd say. They carried it on a large slab of stone on wheels."
Faldashir said, "That will probably slow them down. Vigo, are all the kingdoms' armies moving?"
Vigo shrugged his narrow shoulders, "I've only heard about Dasoren moving, and only from Olivar."
Faldashir looked to Olivar and said, "And what makes you so sure all the fortresses are emptying? Maybe what you saw was one force."
"I heard it directly from a captain." Olivar said with a shake of the head. "He said most of the Dasoren army is heading into Takinthad. Why, he wouldn't say."
Faldashir nodded, Branston could see the information working through his mind. Then Faldashir said, "If Dasoren is headed to Takinthad, we need to get to Veresses quickly. If the king leaves on a campaign, we need to be there with him."
"But first we need dragons." Branston reminded him.
"Yes," Faldashir nodded slowly, "But for now we need rest. I will pay for rooms," he stood up and pulled a coin pouch from his coat pocket, "and we will leave in the morning."
All alone in a room, Branston lay in bed, the dark chill seeping into him, and thought. He worried over the war, the Darksource would have no mercy, he had encountered its agents.
But more he worried about the dream, he was afraid of the terror that formed upon waking. He feared the meaning of the dream, and hoped to figure it out before it came to pass. What he did know was that a battle was coming against the Darksource. A battle he would surely lose.
And as he drifted off, like every other night, the dream came.
END OF CHAPTER FOUR