Branston learns of a possible threat.
The Guard Stricken
Evening came as Branston slowed to a walk. Aclaides followed.
Trees rose high around them and cast shadows across their path. The river was hours behind them. Neither man spoke a word. Branston stopped and pointed to a fallen tree. They sank onto the thick trunk, panting and sulking at the leaf-covered ground.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” Branston said at length. His body had dried long ago, but his clothes remained damp, and blood crusted the side of his neck, matting his hair. He pulled off his left glove and tentatively touched his head. A deep furrow drew across the side, dampening his fingertips. With horror, he felt his ear. The top half was gone. The arrow before the fight had sheared half his ear away. He wiped blood on his pants and pulled his glove on.
“I am alone now,” Aclaides said. His tone was flat, his eyes distant. “Thanorg was the last of my family.”
Branston frowned. “What will you do?” He sympathized. He remembered the day he killed his father.
“Whatever it is.” Anger burned in Aclaides’ voice. “Whatever those things are, and whatever leads them, I will kill it. It, and all of them.” His lips pursed; his eyes blazed.
Aclaides shook his head. “There is no after. Not yet. I’m not thinking a moment past their destruction.”
Branston spoke hesitantly. “Vengeance is your life now?”
Branston nodded. “Good. When the last of my family died, I had no purpose. I just lived for the sake of living. Vengeance is a good motivator.” Branston’s revenge had been fulfilled at the same time as his father’s death, when the spirit inside his father died.
Branston stood. “We should keep going.” He had no idea what lay ahead, be it a village, a city, or another army of monsters. He only knew it was away from the army at the river, and the winged beast.
Aclaides stood, and they walked swiftly forward, heading south. They would reach Fangog withing a day or two. The council needed to know what occurred, and what came. Branston knew little of the landscape, but he was sure the river would reach Fangog.
Night crept upon the world, chilling the forest. Branston shivered against his damp clothes as they strode through the dark. The moon was scarce and the clouds thick. His wound pained him, but he was glad it was not worse.
He could have died on that shore, along with Aclaides.
“What was that beast?” Branston asked. “The one that flew.”
Aclaides looked up, peering past the overlapping branches and thick canopy. “I have no idea.”
“I think it was from the Second World, along with the other creatures.”
Aclaides shrugged. “What do you know of the Second World?”
“My father took me a few times. He owned a saldacrosse, and would teach me about the world.” Branston stared ahead as he walked, though his gaze was to the past. “The way he saw it, the Second World was as important to know about as our own, because the worlds interact, and overlap.”
“Spirits come here, or animals, occasionally. The Divide is weak in places. And some men smuggle items through the Second World.”
Branston nodded. “Breach Wardens hunt smugglers as often as spirits or anything else.”
“So something from the Second World is attacking us?” Aclaides asked. “That’s something we should know.”
“You didn’t know?”
Aclaides shook his head. “The Guard find dragons, that’s it. We haven’t been involved in the workings of the soldiers.”
Branston scowled. “On my way to Fangog, a wraith attacked me and my group. More, the other Guard with me–the illegal–told me that wizards found a cage in the Second World, filled with millions of souls.”
Aclaides stared to the sky as he walked, mouth moving silently. “How are they gathering souls?” he said.
“Arms are reaching through the Divide and pulling them straight from people’s bodies.”
Aclaides looked to Branston. “You’ve seen this?”
“No.” Branston gripped his sword, eyes peering into the darkness that grew around them. “A Takinthad commander down in Dasoren told it to one in my group.”
“Which one?” Aclaides sounded skeptical.
“His name was Vigo. He died before we left Dasoren. The wraith killed him.”
They walked in silence for a time, the only sound their boots on leaves and the chirp of bugs.
Aclaides broke the silence. “We all need to know this. If we had known what traveled the river, we might have had better fortune. I wonder what else the commanders know. Maybe they hide things from us, or maybe the King hid things from them. Either way, everybody needs to know about everything.”
The night drew on, and neither man spoke. Branston kept his gaze every direction he could, often looking back; frequently looking up. What other beasts does the Second World hold? What leads them?
The creatures on foot bore weapons and armor, and boats. Those canoes had been too big for men. Something supplied them with weapons on the other side, and something might lead a campaign. Were wraiths agents, or leaders?
There were books, in Branston’s old castle Castathern that told of things in the Second World. Each book spoke of the creatures there as primitive beats, living like animals. No book spoke of weapons or armor, or any intelligence among the inhabitants.
On the shore, the creatures fought like animals. There was no coordination, no strategy. They landed the beach, and rushed the soldiers.
Branston’s hand tightened around his sword and he clenched his teeth in frustration. We know so little.
The ground rose steadily, up toward a thicket of thorn weeds and trees. Takinthad was a hilly, ridged land. The rise in the ground continued on in either direction, but they steered around the thorns, stopping on the top of the ridge.
Branston stopped and sat down, leaning back against a tree. His breathing came ragged, and his legs throbbed. Aclaides stopped, placing hands on hips and looking to the sky. The sparse trees allowed good view of the clouded night, though the night allowed poor view of the land.
Branston touched the gouge across his head, grimacing as gloved fingers ran over the remainder of his ear. Tyollis’ leather patch came to mind. The man had lost his entire ear, and wore the patch over the wound. Was it so nobody would see it, or was it for health?
Branston closed his mouth and drew breath through his nose. He was parched, and his stomach rumbled.
“Branston, look.” Aclaides pointed.
Pushing himself to his feet, Branston strode to Aclaides’ side. Down the slope lay a large field. The grass was cropped and a lake shimmered on the far end, only a quarter mile away. A village sat by the lake, orange glow dotted a couple dozen buildings and thin columns of smoke curled up to join the clouds.
Branston nodded and set to walking. Aclaides followed him down the steady slope. Knee-high grass rasped as they quickened their pace. Coming to the leveled field of cropped grass, Branston quickened to a jog and made his way across the field. Thoughts of food and of warmth sprang to mind as a chill wind sped past.
Coming to the street of the village, Branston halted and looked at the buildings. They were of wood and thatched roof, curtained windows letting orange light touch the street. The scent of meat and sounds of speech came faint in the wind, and at the far end there sat a two-story building with a smoking chimney on either wall. The ground was of packed dirt. A path broke away, running between two houses headed for the lake. It led to a tiny dock mooring a dozen canoes that bobbed in the water.
“Must be an inn,” Aclaides said, nodding to the large building. A man staggered from the door and down the steps, pausing to stare at Branston and Aclaides.
“We got some visitors,” the old man called into the open door.
Another man stepped out, his wide frame nearly brushing the threshold. He whispered to the drunk man, who nodded and staggered to a nearby house. As the door shut, the large man came forward, eyebrow raised.
“Can I help you?” the man looked to the silver dragon embroidered across Branston’s black tunic. “A Dragon Guard?” He looked to Aclaides. “Two? What brings you here?” He sounded reverent.
“We’ve had trouble,” Branston said. “We ask for food and drink, though we have no money.”
“Hmm…” the man’s dark eyes flicked between the Guards. “Show me the marks.”
Branston pulled off a glove and showed his palm. Aclaides did the same. The man examined the marks, scratching the fringe of his hair.
“All right. Follow me.” The man turned and walked toward the large building, and they followed. As they passed the house where went the drunk man, the face of a little girl peered from a window. Wide eyes clung to the dragon displayed across Branston’s tunic, until a woman pulled her away and lowered a curtain before scolding a man named Harless for drinking.
They stepped into the building, and it was an inn. A bar stood on one end of the spacious room, behind which stood a slender man leaning and watching the strangers enter. The hearths on either wall roared and crackled, painting the paneled walls and boarded floors in flickering orange. A few tables stood among the floor, and stools lined the bar, but no other furnishings.
“Dragon Guards?” the slender man said.
“S’right,” said the wide man, closing the door and crossing his arms.
“I’m Garl.” The thin man held out a small hand marked with callouses and scars. Branston shook the hand, and on Garl’s insistence, sat on a stool. Aclaides stood behind Branston with arms crossed.
The wide man spoke. “They say they can’t pay, but want food and drink. I looked at their hands; the marks seem true.”
Garl nodded. “May I?” Branston and Aclaides removed a glove. “Good, good.” Garl turned and picked two pewter mugs off a shelf, filling the with a brown liquid. “In this time, the Guard is serving their country. Of course they will get what they desire.” He placed a mug before Branston, and stretched over the bar to offer the other to Aclaides.
Mug in hand, Aclaides took the stool by Branston.
“So,” Garl said, running a hand through thick gray hair. “What brings you here? Should we be worried about a dragon? I’ve heard they broke free near two months ago.”
Branston sipped the mead. “We were hunting dragons, but were attacked by something else.”
“Creatures from the Second World.” Branston took another sip of the sweet drink, the dryness lifting from his mouth and throat.
Garl grew stiff, his olive skin paling. “That’s how you got hurt?” He touched the side of his own head.
Branston nodded. “These creatures traveled by boat and ambushed us. We lost a dozen men.”
“All Dragon Guards?” Garl’s eyes widened.
“No,” Branston shook his head. “We did lose one Guard, the others were soldiers.”
Aclaides downed his mead and turned away, hand over eyes.
Garl frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that. Should we be worried?”
“If I were in charge,” Branston said, “every village would be evacuating and heading south.” Though south was not much better. He imagined the wraith was still down there, causing trouble. And animals killing people in Veresses...no place was safe. Branston gulped mead.
“I see.” Garl nodded. “We’ve been thinking of leaving for a day or two now. But where can we go that’s safe?”
“What’s the problem?” Branston asked.
“It seems the Second World is getting closer to our own, in a sense. Three men have been possessed by spirits in the past week. We had to put them down.”
Branston scowled, remembering his father in the same position. Shaking away the memory, Branston said, “That’s the only way to handle it, though it’s terrible. Is that all?”
“No,” Garl said. “Hunters report seeing lights in the forest, and over the water. Lights of many colors spinning or bobbing.”
“Saw one myself,” said the wide man standing by the door. “It was green, then blue. It hung there and I felt as if it watched me. I blinked and it was gone.”
Branston nodded slowly. That sounded like the harmless spirits, though the fact they were seen was worrying. The Divide was weakening.
“I would suggest you leave,” Branston said. “Though I don’t know where you could go. A wraith prowls Dasoren, and animals attack people in Veresses. I don’t know the state of Margolad, or Canderale, but the fact we hear no news may mean something good.”
“Actually,” Garl picked at a piece of wood on the counter, “a Margolan army is crossing the land right now.”
Garl nodded. “They stopped here yesterday, speaking of wraiths leading armies of animals in their land. When I asked why they were in this land, and not their own, the commander said ‘Because this is where we need to be.’ I don’t know what it meant, but the man was grim and sure.”
“Where were they headed?” Branston asked.
Garl shrugged. “Not sure, but they were going south.”
“To Fangog, maybe,” Aclaides said. His voice was thin and his eyes red.
Branston nodded. “Bolthos said the king would not allow Margolans to cross our country.”
“Well,” Aclaides said, “I don’t think the King will object.” He gave Branston a knowing look. Branston took a sip of mead. The council of commanders might accept Margolan help, now the king was dead. The problem was, the council hadn’t been at work long enough for the Margolans to form an army by their request, let alone the sending of the message. Which might mean they formed the army before the king had died.
“How big was the army?” Branston asked.
Garl blew through his teeth, his cheeks puffing, and said, “The commander said ten thousand.”
Branston’s hands tightened around the mug. Bolthos said the Margolans were at war with Takinthad. He suggested the Margolans might attack the borders while the main Takinthite force was focused on the Second World, and sitting in the north. Branston’s stomach twisted at the thought.
“What was their purpose?” he asked. “Why are they here?”
“They didn’t say.”
Branston drained his mug and placed it on the counter. Standing up from the stool, he said, “We’ll have to forget the food. I have another favor to ask. We need horses.”
Garl’s face fell slack, his lips parting. “I think that can be arranged. Athax, would you?” He hurled a sack of coins past Branston, the bag clinked in the hands of the wide man by the door.
“Will do.” Wind blew through the open door and cut off abruptly as Athax left the inn.
“Some fellow might be willing to part with a horse or two,” Garl said.
“Thank you,” Branston said. “I will try to repay you, when I can.”
“Oh no,” Garl waved a slender hand. “It’s an honor to help those fighting for our country.”
Branston nodded, a pit forming in his stomach. His conscience would not let the man go unpaid. I will return when I can. “Thank you, nonetheless.”
Garl dipped his head as one might do for a lord. “It’s my pleasure.”
Branston looked to the door, waiting for the horses. What are the Margolans planning? With ten thousand soldiers, they were nearly half the size of the force sitting around Fangog. Surely the Margolans would know that, if they had spies among the camp. Branston frowned. Might Bolthos have been a Margolan agent, sent to kill King Krassos? And what of Faldashir?
Faldashir seemed a loyal Veressan agent, yet King Dendlo had Dragon Guard working for him. That alone was rebellion. So was Bolthos working for the Veressans, or the Margolans?
Branston ran a hand through his hair, but flinched when his wound flared with pain.
“Do you want that bandaged?” Garl asked.
Branston nodded, teeth clenched.
“Sit in the stool, back to me.” Garl reached under the bar, pulling out a roll of linen.
Branston obeyed, fists clenching as Garl wrapped the linen around his head. The material rubbed against his wound, but Garl was gentle. The man tied the linen to a knot at the back of Branston’s head.
“There.” Garl stepped back. Branston turned in the stool and thanked the man. “That should keep you from bleeding all over yourself, anyway. And no dirt will get in it, at least.”
Branston stood, running his fingertips along the thick linen.
Athax strode through the door. “Horses are ready. Two of them, saddled and all.”
Branston looked to Garl. “Thank you for everything.” He shook the man’s hand and left the building, Aclaides following.
A portly man stood in front the building, holding the reins of two horses. The tallest was brown, with a stripe of black running down its face. The other was gray and thick-legged. A young man held a lantern that cast the animals and men in flame.
Garl sauntered down the steps with hands on hips. Athax followed behind. “Do you need a map or anything?”
Aclaides answered. “No, thank you. I know roughly where we are.” He pointed toward the lake. Beyond it sat a high hill, pointed, with trees sticking from the sides. Branston squinted, spotting what might be a tower sitting on the top, though it was only a jagged broken structure.
Aclaides continued. “That’s a landmark. We’re a few leagues north-west of our destination.” He stepped forward and mounted the brown horse.
Branston tore his gaze from the broken tower and mounted the smaller gray horse. The clouds had parted, now moonlight lit their path, and the lake shimmered.
“Thank you again,” Branston said to Garl. He looked down at the portly man. “And thank you for the horses.”
“My pleasure, Guards.” The man dipped his head.
Branston followed Aclaides at a gallop through the village. People peered from their windows. One family stood on their porch, watching the Guards pass. Branston ignored their gaze. It was common for people to be afraid when the Dragon Guard visited their home. It usually meant danger was near.
Olivar walked the halls of Fangog, leaving behind the night. The stuffy air inside made him wish for the spring air outside.
No windows graced the halls, the gray corridors lit instead by lanterns and candles.
Olivar’s stomach twisted knots. Tonight was his second visit to the dragon chamber. His first visit had gone well, though he still shuddered thinking of the dragons. How had humanity discovered they could control dragons? Why did I want to?
A group of soldiers passed Olivar, who looked to the floor. They did not seem to notice him. He did not wear a dragon uniform, nor the emblem of his family. He wore simple clothes; even his wide-brimmed hat he left in his room.
The more unnoticed he could be, the better. He was an illegal Guard, and everybody within Fangog knew it. Most had seen his punishment. He rubbed the stub of his wrist, tears forming.
“Once before, a king and his entire family was murdered,” Olivar’s father once said. “His kingdom fell to chaos. The lords grew violent, all vying for the throne. Men proved themselves in strange ways, killing criminals forgiven by the king. Some soldiers became bandits, while others fought for lordship.”
Olivar frowned. Now another king was dead, as well as his family. The king had forgiven Olivar, to an extent. Would the man who led them now be the same?
He strode through a door and climbed the winding stairs, counting the doors along the way. On the sixth, he knocked. The eye-slot opened and a pair of hazel eyes stared out at him, reflecting the lantern behind him.
“Show the mark,” the man said.
Olivar suppressed his annoyance and lifted his only hand.
The old man eyed the dragon mark, nodding. The door opened and the short man waved Olivar in. The young Guard passed the older, who wore his uniform. There stood a second Guard in the wide circular chamber, leaning against the wall. He did not wear his uniform, but a dragon pin adorned his shoulder.
Two wizards sat at a table, the youngest with dice in hand.
The oldest wizard looked up. “Lord Olivar, welcome back.”
Olivar scowled, inching forward as the door closed. “I’m not a lord.”
“Of course you are. Your family is...no longer around. You’re the sole Baltor now.”
Olivar shook the words away, looking to the only dragon in the room. She was a tall gold beast, horns protruding from her slim head. Her entire body was lithe. She sat in her cage as a proud cat might. Her wide wings folded against her side, moonlight shining through the membrane and sparkling against her scales. This was the tallest tower in Fangog, with narrow windows that let in moonlight and fresh air.
The old wizard continued to speak, stroking his silver mustache. “The king didn’t disband your House. You know that, correct?”
Olivar gave the man a sidelong look. “I committed a grave crime, my House is done. You think the king would have allowed it to continue? He may not have said it, but it didn’t need to be said.”
Olivar stepped closer to the cage. A dozen cages lined the round walls, typically three dragons could fit in one. But tonight only this one sat in the chamber. Branston had run off with the second that morning, and Faldashir had gotten the third killed two days prior.
Olivar inched closer to the cage, gripping a bar.
“I’m just saying,” the wizard pressed. “The king did not disband you, and now he cannot–Gods preserve his soul–so if I were you, I would carry the Baltor name proudly. Work on siring children, and continue the House.”
“Please,” Olivar muttered, “leave this alone. I’m not a Baltor any more. There are no Baltors now.” Though he meant the words, tears filled his eyes.
For a minute, the only sounds were of the dragon breathing, and the wind blowing against the stone and through the windows.
“All right,” the wizard said. “I’m sorry, boy.”
Something hammered on the door, and Olivar flinched, spinning to face it.
The long haired doorman rushed to the door, opening the eye-slot.
“Let us in,” roared a man on the other side. “Hurry!”
Th Guard opened the door, and a dozen soldiers poured in, swords free. Their boots stomped as they rushed in, pushing and shouting.
A black shape flashed through the door. A man pitched forward, head toppling and rolling across the stone. The soldiers froze, and the wizards at the table leaped from their chairs and threw out columns of air. The compressed air slammed into the dark blur as it moved. The darkness smashed into the wall, falling to knees.
Olivar gasped. There knelt a wraith.
It rose to its feet, looking barely human. The wraith was merely the outline of a man, like a shadow with red points for eyes.
“Olivar, to me,” cried the old wizard. More pillars of air soared toward the wraith, visible only as columns of distortion.
With two flicks of the wraiths stark black sword, the columns dissipated. The soldiers charged the creature, while Olivar turned to run. Men screamed as that dark sword tore through them. Steel screeched as the blade cut through, bones snapped against the onslaught.
The screams stopped as Olivar ran.
“No!” the old wizard roared.
Olivar tumbled forward, falling to his hand and knees. He wept; the blade stuck through his ribs. He looked to the dark sword. Blood dripped to the stone beneath him.
The sword ripped through his body. He collapsed upon his spilled guts.
END OF CHAPTER TWENTY SIX