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Over a thousand years have passed since Labad wrote his prophecy. Some say he used a dagger dipped in his own blood. A peculiar writing instrument at the least, but if one examines the characters in the prophecy closely, their color and line could have come from just such an origin. The Prophecy of Labad has been a point of discussion among clerics, scribes and scholars through the centuries. Even among the learned, there are those who say it is only legend, or that the dying King merely penned visions seen by a man in the last throes of Garloc poisoning.
Yet the prophecy is coming to pass and the Promised Ones written of in its few terse passages are now among us. These are the last of the King's lineage. Twin brother and sister imbued with the sympathetic magik of Labad himself and armed with his weapons. Their names, Adam and Charity, have already become subjects of legend in their own right, he with his sword, and she with her bow.
Many of my colleagues may choose to dwell upon that part of the legend alone, but there are others who have been placed into service to aid their endeavor, for the prophecy itself bore powerful magik. I list them here: Morgan, who molded Charity into a warrior of supreme skill, Milward, the last of the Wizards of old, who sheltered them while they were newly come into their task. Hersh of Dunwattle, who took them under his wing and taught them skills of market, Flynn and Neely, one-time thieves now stalwart companions of the lady Charity, Drinaugh, the first Dragon ambassador to walk among men, and the wolves, once shy of all mankind except the Wizard Milward, now packmates with Adam. They have had their part in thisplay, as did the Lady Thaylli, the only woman to ever ride a Dragon. There is another player, but the prophecies are even less clear on this point. They intimate this one is wields great power brought into being by circumstance.
This is not to say the path was trouble free. By no means, the perils of their journey were many and varied. Within the caverns of the Dwarfs, they faced the dread Fire Wyrm, beyond the caverns, Trolls, villainous Giants, bigotry and war. Through them all they persevered and survived, though often by the sheer skin of their teeth. A petty war, begun by the machinations of the Sorcerer Gilgafed tore them apart as he had planned and eventually placed the lady Charity into the tender care of Lord Cloutier, the vile Earl of Berggren; her tribulation yet worsened by the belief that her brother lay murdered by the soldiers of Avern. On the way to her time of trial she encountered Flynn and Neely, who upon witnessing her skill with the long bow promptly bent their knee and swore fealty to their Lady. The worth of these two would be proven repeatedly, even during the long two years she would spend as a prisoner within the Earl's castle.
Despairing of finding his sister, Adam journeyed back to where he and Charity stayed with the Wizard Milward. Together they set out on a journey to find Charity and to foster Adam's rapidly developing powers, what the Wizard's call Shaping. On that journey the young man learned much about whom and what he was, and of the awesome power he would wield. There are those who speak of a thing impossible, a cavern of glistening diamond, formed by the strength of his will alone.
There are dark whispers that the one of whom the prophecies call The Destroyer is now walking among us, if this is so, the time is indeed short. I have come across a particularly ancient vellum written in the dead language of Angbar that speaks of The Destroyer as having once been a man born of the great eastern whore. Who, or whatever she may be, one can only guess. I believe the Witches may be speaking of a city. Other prophecies speak of it as having no soul of its own but filled with the thoughts and lusts of many minds, black with death and decay, a twisted being that revels in pain, both in that which it gives and that which it receives. Fear is said to flow from it in great waves and this does give verification to the Angbar fragment.
War is now on the horizon. It is said the Southern Empire has formed an army whose numbers defy description and they march north to bring the vengeance of the Ortian Emperor down upon Grisham and her Duke.
The Duke's madness has killed many of those in his care and few will escape the time of judgment, unless the Promised Ones fulfill their destiny.
Alten Baldricsson, Grisham Librarian
McCabe enjoyed the feel of the sunlight hitting his face and the small sharp pains the glare caused after so many long months in the Duke's dungeon.
The steps leading down from the Ducal Palace he took leisurely, one at a time, while casting his new senses for what he had touched in the far north. On the outer edge of sensation, he felt a quiver in the ether and decided a small detour from his trip north would not hurt. The voices inside him shrieked at him to leave the city now but he ignored them and began walking down the hill in the direction of that tantalizing power, toward the Southern Gate Market.
Grisham's townsfolk fled from him as he approached, giving the former thief a wide path down the twisting streets. Later, when asked, some of them would talk about an all-consuming desire not to be there when the little man dressed in black passed. Pressing for more brought nothing but an invitation to leave the table.
A beggar, crippled by a fever in his youth was unable to escape a brush of McCabe's finger. As the thief moved on down the street a grinning mummy watched his departure, holding a placard upon which was scrawled a plea for alms.
He worked his way through the area city dwellers called The Steps. A series of switchbacks steep enough to require ladders in some sections. Thatched roofed inns, shops and cottages lined The Steps with individual landings leading to each brightly painted front door.
The crowd fleeing McCabe's approach spread out into the various landings and streets as he passed through the area. Most were able to stay out of his reach but those who could not were fed upon. Bodies left in various contorted positions showed the passage of his wake.
From The Steps the last stairway led into a twisting street lined with pubs and joy houses called Adders Alley. At its far end the alley opened onto the northern boundary of the Market Square. A Scrivener's studio stood across from the gaudy entrance of a pub at the alley's mouth.
McCabe's vantage point in the alley's mouth gave him full view of the ten acres that made up the Market Square. The sense of power that drew him came from somewhere to his right along the shops and warehouses lining its perimeter.
He narrowed the focus of his senses until they rested upon a gathering even he found noteworthy. A Dragon, a wolf pack, an old fossil with a respectable smattering of the power and a young couple, stood some three hundred yards from his alley. The power that drew him emanated from the male half of the couple. It was tantalizing, overwhelmingly so. Inside him, the voices shrieked again. This time begging their host to go north now, before disaster fell upon their plans. He ignored them in favor of the power that emanated from the sandy-haired young man. It pulled him like a moth to a flame.
Swallowing his saliva, he flexed his hands hungrily and started across the square towards his prey. The onlookers that had been gathering to gawk at the sight of a Dragon with its own wolf pack fled from him like mice from a cat, many of them screaming.
Thaylli turned her head in the direction of the screams and released one herself as she fell back against the wall of the Factor's shop. Her arm rose, pointing to the northwestern corner of the square.
All heads whipped around to where she pointed and they saw a small black figure walking across the square towards them with a panicked crowd streaming away from it to either side. Milward began forming a protective shaping and then groaned, falling to his knees and grabbing his head in agony.
The amulet against Adam's chest flared into a tiny sun burning him with its heat and he fell back, gasping at the pain.
"Back, spawn of evil, back," The Alpha wolf growled and bared his fangs at the approaching figure.
One of the younger pack members snarled and launched itself at McCabe's throat. A small yelp sounded and the wolf's body fell to the market floor, shriveled.
Drinaugh spread his wings and called out to the wolves, "To me, to me, now, for your lives."
Two of the other young pack members hesitated, snarling and snapping at the one who had killed their packmate. The Alpha wolf's mate growled at them, "Do what the Skylord says, now!"
The pack retreated into the shadow of the young Dragon's wings and he furled them around until all the wolves were covered.
Drinaugh looked back at the approaching figure. To him McCabe looked anything but dangerous, why he was smaller than the girl who had ridden on his neck. A swat of his tail could probably discourage the fellow from coming any closer; however, there was the corpse of the young wolf lying there.
He turned to ask Adam what he should do but his friend was occupied with the old Wizard.
Milward still knelt on the ground, waves of pain and nausea swept through him and his head felt as if it would soon burst from the pressure.
Adam tried to get him to stand. "Milward! Come on! You've got to get out of here, now!" The old Wizard merely groaned and shook as with palsy.
Thaylli fought the waves of terror that swept through her and bolted from the shop's wall to where her man knelt with Milward. "Adam! Please! We've got to go, that thing's going to kill us!"
"Don't you think I know that? Milward's frozen here, like ... like he's been struck down."
Thaylli shrank back from Adam's anger. "Why yell at me? I didn't do anything."
"Don't waste foolish anger on your companions," Milward's voice was a weak groan and audible only to Adam's ear. "Only the power of a shaping can save us now." He collapsed in Adam's arms.
Adam watched the figure walking across the square towards them. A shimmering presence seemed to be moving with and around it like the echoes of a score or more insubstantial beings. An impression of intense evil flowed over him and nausea tried to overwhelm him. This must be what downed Milward, he thought, and then he saw the corpse of the young wolf. It was the one who had hunted with him, the one who had became his friend. A mist, red, like the one that came over him when he pummeled that bully drowning the kittens, rose up.
Adam did not even feel the headache that usually ensued with a shaping. All he wanted to do was blast the man who killed his wolf into as many small pieces as possible. Every fiber of his being formed into what shot out of his hands.
Folk looking into the square found themselves blinded for a few moments. The brilliance of the shaping went beyond white into a color that could only be described as pain. Thunder exploded into the square, sending those in it to their knees. Next, came a sound like that of a gigantic waterfall, as air rushed in to fill the void McCabe's body left as it vanished over the horizon.
Miniature tornadoes created by the disturbance completed the destruction of goods and stalls within the market square, and a rain consisting of what had sat in those booths pelted those below for several seconds. The air was scented with a pungent mix of spice and vegetables.
Milward recovered instantly and looked at Adam with something akin to fearful awe, "Bardoc's balls, boy! What in the nine hells was that?"
Adam did not answer the Wizard's question. He stood there, unmoving in the same position he held when the shaping erupted out of him. He was becoming less fond of his path in life, and his chest hurt where the amulet burnt him.
Running footsteps came to him from his back and his left, unbidden, another shaping rose up to destroy the threat when Thaylli threw herself against him, sobbing.
He put his arms around her, not knowing what else to do. When Charity was upset he could say, "Buck up, it will be all right," and give her one of those lopsided grins she found so amusing. This, this was different, entirely different. His feelings concerning Thaylli were a major part of the emotional stew churning within him.
Milward's tone brought him out of where his thoughts wandered and he turned to see what the old Wizard wanted. "What is it?"
"Your tone is a little sharp for addressing an elder, Adam." Drinaugh looked at him mournfully while he allowed the wolves to leave the shelter of his wings.
Adam looked up at the Dragon's face. Drinaugh's expression said volumes about the value of an apology.
He looked down again, avoiding Milward's eyes. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap. That ... thing killed my friend Milward! Loo ... look at what's left of..." His shoulders began to shake and he turned back to Thaylli. This time, she comforted him.
The wolf pack left the shelter of Drinaugh's wings and padded over to where the corpse of the young male lay. As one they pointed their muzzles skyward and howled. The sound of their voices carried an intense feeling of mourning, sadness and loss. The pack expressed as one being the feelings of all. Tears coursed down Adam's cheeks unhindered by shame. He felt as if he should be howling with the wolves.
The vigil continued for several minutes and then stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The wolves lowered their muzzles and then turned to walk out of the city. Adam watched them go, holding on to Thaylli's hand.
"They know you need to stay here Adam."
He could hear the tears in her voice and nodded his understanding.
A growl came from the Alpha wolf and Drinaugh tapped Adam on the shoulder with a finger.
Adam looked up at the Dragon. "I heard him." A blush warmed Adam's cheeks.
"What did he say?" Thaylli asked.
"That's wolves for you," Milward shifted his stance putting more of his weight against his staff, "Practical to the end."
"What ... did ... he ... say?" Thaylli stamped her foot while glaring at her companions.
"They are a practical people, as the Wizard said." Drinaugh lowered his head to where he could whisper in Thaylli's ear. "The wolf repeated what his mate had said earlier. They expect Adam to prove his leadership by siring a litter with you. The last was just a farewell."
Thaylli watched the pack walk out of the ruined gate and then break into a run. She blew out her cheeks and then turned to look at Adam. "Well, I'll be a wet hen."
"Look at that boy go." Colling-Faler twitched a thumb at Circumstance as he ran past with a sheaf of elevation sketches clutched in his hand.
"Yes," Lemmic-Pries looked up from his perusal of a set of building plans with the suspicious look of a cafeteria, "even Gaspic is being turned around now by the boy's attitude. He actually said thank you to him the other day."
Colling-Faler raised an eyebrow, "He did? What did Circumstance do? Erect the General's headquarters all by himself?"
"No," The Chief Engineer chuckled, "nothing quite so elaborate. You know how Gaspic sets impossible deadlines for himself that only he cares about keeping?"
"Uh huh, so?"
"So he finally decided to set one that could only be met if he managed to be in two places at one time. The boy overheard our favorite administrator bemoaning what the cruel fates did to him and stepped in. With that imaginary blade hanging over his neck he really had no choice in the matter, at least the way he sees things. Circumstance not only completed his part of the task on time and error free, but he did part of Gaspic's as well. He's an amazing kid." Lemmic-Pries shook his head as he refocused on the plans before him.
Mashglach tapped a talon against the small crystal bell balanced on the top right corner of the podium. The Dragons assembled in the expanse of the great hall heard the sound. It began as a silvery hum that seemed to come from every corner of the hall and built into a pealing tone that slowly faded into soft echoes and memories of better times.
Dragons of every shape, size and color filled the great hall. At the bell's sounding they all turned from their individual conversations to face the front where the Winglord's platform rose.
"The Winglauch is now begun. Let all who have business before the Dragons prepare to raise their voice in truth," Mashglach tapped the bell one more time.
When the tone faded into its sweet afterlife the chief Dragon raised his wings to their full extent, "Who has business before the Winglauch? Let them come forth."
"I ... I have something to say," Shealauch stepped forward aided by a push from his mother, Temidi.
A number of Dragons voiced quiet encouragement.
Mashglach looked down at the young Dragon and nodded, "Come forward young Shealauch and tell your tale." He indicated the assembly with a sweep of his right arm, "The Winglauch will receive your words."
Murmurs of agreement and approval of the young Dragon swept through the hall as he worked his way up to the dais that held the podium.
The Winglord smiled as Shealauch paused just before the dais, "Come Shealauch, step up to the podium and tell your tale. All of Dragonglade waits for you."
Shealauch took the three steps to the dais as Mashglach moved aside, opening the way to the podium for the young Dragon.
"Ummm..." Shealauch cleared his throat and swallowed nervously as he looked over the assemblage in the great hall. Paintings of great moments in Dragon history covered the walls of the hall and he tried focusing on them in order to reduce some of the stage fright threatening to overwhelm him.
"Ummm..." He tried once more.
"You said that," The mutter came from within the front rank of Dragons accompanied by a flutter of soft laughter that rippled through the hall.
It helped to reduce the tension as well as the young Dragon's stage fright. He drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. He was ready now. "I saw a small party of the beings who call themselves men below me during a time of flying over the lands to the north and west of Dragonglade. It was my first sighting of them since the Wizard and his apprentice came to visit us."
There was a muttering and nodding of heads as the assembled Dragons digested the bit of recent history.
Shealauch continued, "I thought it would be fun to look at them more closely and maybe to talk with them."
This time the muttering contained mixed approval of the young Dragon's actions.
"I realize now that was a mistake," Shealauch said contritely.
"Tell them how you came to be wounded," Mashglach urged him on.
The young Dragon nodded, "As I dropped into a lower flight layer they sent these things Niamh called arrows up at me. Two of them stuck me in the foot and the tail. The pain was surprising and I almost fell out of the sky. I didn't know what to do. I thought they were all friendly.
"I also had no idea I was bleeding so much. I mean, it was just my foot and my tail. I didn't know about the large arteries being there."
"Just tell us what happened, Shealauch. We'll discuss your lack of attention in class later," the Winglord said dryly, which brought another ripple of muffled laughter from the assembly.
"Sorry," Shealauch's facial hide flushed pinkly with the intensity of his blush. "After the arrows pierced me I flew back to Dragonglade as fast as I could. Things were getting blurry by the time I reached the glade and I don't remember the landing, not much about it anyway.
"The next thing I remember clearly is my mother and Niamh tending to me."
"Someone had to," Timidi sniffed loudly and then subsided upon receiving a glare from Mashglach.
Shealauch looked at the Winglord who encouraged him with a nod, "Ummm, well, that's all of it really. The Winglord called for the Winglauch and here we are."
The young Dragon backed away from the podium and then made his escape back to the comforting wing of his mother. Mashglach retook his place behind it, tapped the bell once lightly, and then stopped the chime with a forefinger, "We have heard young Shealauch's testimony of what caused his injuries. This is the first time in our recorded history that any of the younger races has attacked a Dragon. Not even Gilgafed during the Magik Wars dared such a thing. It is only by the grace of the Creator that Timidi's child survived to give testimony today.
"Now," he paused for a moment, "is there anyone else in this Winglauch who wishes to have his or her voice heard upon this matter?"
Chabaad stepped to the front and raised his right hand, "I, Chabaad, have something to say."
Mashglach beckoned the mature Dragon forward, "Speak your piece."
"The other races, those who call themselves Men, Elves, and Dwarves live lives far shorter than we Dragons do. We need to remember this, especially in times when we are forced to deal with them. It has been over a thousand years since the Magik Wars. That is the last we had much to do with those other than our own kind outside of the occasional Wizard or lost traveler. Is there agreement on this?" Chabaad swept his gaze across the other Dragons in the hall. Many gave no visible response one way or the other as to his question, but enough of them nodded either to him or to the one they stood next to in the assembly.
He grunted, satisfied with the answer and then continued, "Because of this difference in life spans, we Dragons have a tendency to discount, or in some cases ignore altogether, events in the world that may resolve themselves within a few seasons or a few years. Our perspective is a different one than those of the younger races.
"However, in this instance, I do not believe Dragonkind can afford to act similarly. Shealauch's having been attacked and his resulting injuries are a symptom of a larger problem that has yet to manifest itself in this world. We, if we choose to wait and see as before, will be remiss in our responsibility to the younger races at the very least. At the worst," he paused for effect, "we may bear silent witness to our own destruction. This is not the same as deciding on changing a planting schedule."
The last word in Chabaad's speech threw the Winglauch into turmoil. Mashglach had to tap the bell several times before the tumult began to settle down, "Enough of that! The Winglauch is a place for sober discussion and resolution." He leaned forward, putting some of his weight on the podium, "This is not a classroom where favorite theories are bandied about for the entertainment of students. This is a serious matter that Chabaad brings to our gathering and it bears much weight when placed with the witness of young Shealauch."
The Winglord looked into the hall of now silent Dragons, "Is there anyone who has a view supporting or opposing Chabaad's words?"
For several long moments, the hall remained quiet and then several hands rose into the air.
Oscglach, an ancient Dragon so old that white showed on his muzzle, walked slowly to the front of the crowd. Those Dragons with hands raised lowered them as they saw him pass.
He shook his head at Mashglach's invitation to take the podium and instead turned to face the Winglauch, "You know me, I am Oscglach. A few millennia ago I was Winglord before the tragic Naublouch and our wise Mashglach. My view differs from that of the noble Chabaad. I believe this is a lesson we all may learn from, if wisdom is still the path for Dragons. He mentions time and how our use of that time may decide our fate. In that aspect, we agree. The interpretation of that aspect is where we part ways."
A few murmurs followed Oscglach's statement but he ignored them as he continued, "I have lived for seven thousand years, though you are already aware of that bit of information, I find it is still good to use as an illustration of where my opinion is founded. During that time, it has been my privilege to see the traditions of Dragonglade proven valid repeatedly. Time, rather than being our enemy, will in all probability be our greatest ally in this matter. What enemy can assail us here? What foe could pull down the glory that is Dragonglade? No, learned Chabaad is in error in this matter unless I miss my guess."
He paused and paced to the left a few steps and then returned to where he'd been standing, "Prudence and long tradition suggests to us it would be best to do what we have always done when it comes to dealing with the younger races, wait and see. There is always the possibility their next generation will change for the better. After all," he spread his hands, "their lives are pitifully short in comparison, are they not? I see no reason why we must change our way from what has been proven to serve us well up to now."
"That's because you never had a child fly home punched full of holes!" Timidi pushed through the assembled Dragons and stood before Oscglach, her nose twitching in fury.
"Timidi!" Mashglach gasped at the female Dragon's lack of manners.
She rounded on the Winglord, "And you! What good does this gathering do for us when the ones who ... assaulted my Shealauch are still out there waiting to shoot their arrows at some other helpless Dragon?"
"Silence!!!" Mashglach's roar snapped Timidi's mouth shut. "Great Gakh female, have you taken leave of your senses? Shealauch's injury is the reason we're here now. Hide and Tail! What do you think this is all about?" He waved a hand in the direction of the other Dragons.
Timidi kept her peace under the glare of the Winglord.
Mashglach held his gaze on her for several seconds and then nodded, "Very well." He raised his voice as he addressed the Winglauch, "Is there anyone else who wishes to speak?"
"Lookit 'im," Muttered the Avernese guard as he sipped from his bowl. "Sittin' off by hisself, thinks e's too good fer the' rest o' us 'e does."
"Keep yer voice down Aerny and eat yer breakfast," The one to his left said, as he hid his moving lips behind the pipe in his hand. "Tha knows 'is nibs there's a friend o' th' Baron? Well, 'e is, an' it'll be yer 'ead on th' spike, not 'is, iffn this little field trip goes wrong."
Aerny sipped another mouthful of soup as he watched Vedder. The priest was huddled with his hands crossed in front of his knees, staring into the fire he'd insisted be set up several yards away from those the guards were using. "Makes yer wonder, ya know?"
"Wonder whut?" The pipe smoker blew a cloud into the firelight.
"Whut goes on inna head like that?" Aerny finished off his soup and tossed the bowl against his pack. "Probably workin' on 'is next sermon, I'll bet."
Vedder stared into the flames of his campfire as they danced into the morning air. This was it, he was sure of it now. A Cardinalship at least would be his once word got out of his triumph over the evil the Dragons represented. It seemed amazing to him how ignorant most people were concerning the ways of evil. Well, soon he would have his proof of how Dragons abducted young children and used them in obscene rituals before devouring them at their perverted feasts.
One thing did surprise him though. Dragons were much bigger than he thought they would be.
"Well, Sergeant, are you going to tell us what this enlistment nonsense is all about?" Charity blew on her tisane to cool it and then patted on the log next to her indicating where he should sit.
No more than a quarter hour earlier, Sergeant Travers and the members of his patrol had attempted to "enlist" Charity and her companions into the Ortian army. The attempt had proven less than successful and ended with the Sergeant staring at the business end of a clothyard shaft. Much to his relief, the arrow stayed with the bow. The redheaded giant didn't seem inclined to do more than hand him a cup of tisane and the wiry fellow with the crutches ... well he was just as glad a fight had been averted.
He looked at Flynn and then at Neely. Both of them wore unreadable expressions. The men in his party were no help either. With a sigh, he sank down onto the log and sipped some of the tisane Flynn had given him. "I suppose talking is better than getting our bottoms kicked in."
Neely chuckled around his pipe, "I'll say. Let's hear yer story."
The Ortian Sergeant nodded, "Very well. The name's Travers by the way."
"And I'm Charity."
He nodded in turn to each introduction. "There's a good reason why my men and I are out doing the job we are. You know anything about the Ortian royal family?"
Flynn and Charity shook their heads; Neely nodded while blowing a smoke ring.
Travers grunted, "Seems I'd best add some history to what I'm telling you.
"The Emperor's a good man, a real good man, considering where most Royals put their pleasures. His brother's the Ambassador to Grisham, been there oh, two years now since the death of his wife. Wouldn't hear about backing out on the assignment. Many folks respected him for doing that. The man did his job and didn't ask for favors just because of his title."
"Sounds like a good leader. Someone men would follow," Neely said around his pipe stem. Flynn nodded agreement.
"That he is. The whole family is that way. Not a bad apple in the bunch." Travers finished his tisane and held out the cup for a refill. Charity did the honors.
"Thank you." He sipped and smiled, "I wish I had your touch. Mine always tastes like I used saddle polish."
"Boil the water first, and then add the dry mix. Don't cook it. Cooking brings out the bitter oils and kills the sweet." Charity tested the coals with a twig.
Travers sipped again. "I'll keep that in mind. Back to the Ambassador's family, the only one any of them worried about was the daughter, Hypatia. She had a touch of the wild in her and Alford, the Emperor, her uncle, was more than a little happy to see her accompany her father up to Grisham and away from the crowd she was running with back home."
"Grisham, safer than Ort? Sorry Travers, but I'm havin' trouble belivin' that," Neely took the pipe out of his mouth and stared at the Sergeant.
His answer was a sigh as the Sergeant lowered his gaze to the fire. "Turns out you're right in your feeling. Someone killed Hypatia. They found her body in one of the guest rooms in the back of the Embassy." He shook his head, "She was only seventeen summers along too. The Emperor knows Grisham's Duke is involved. I don't know what proof he got, but he's not a man who goes to war over just a suspicion."
"And you got the conscription duty, right?" Flynn scootched down his part of the log until his ample bottom was on the ground and his back against the wood.
Travers grimaced, "Right. It's not a proper duty for a soldier, but when you've got orders..."
Neely's smile was crooked, "Seems those orders ran into a bit of a snag."
"Not really," The Sergeant smiled back. "They said to collect as many conscripts as possible." He emphasized the word possible. "Seems to me possible wasn't in the picture here. As far as I can tell, I've obeyed my orders to the letter," He put down his cup.
"How did she die?" Charity's question came out wrapped in quiet dread.
"That's not something I'd tell a lady, miss," Travers looked embarrassed.
"Tell me anyway," Charity's tone and expression changed from concerned to dangerous.
"Better do it," Flynn grunted.
"But..." The Sergeant looked hunted. His eyes darted to and from each of his hosts.
Neely yawned, "Go on man, she's not gonna let ya go. Yer on the' hook, ain't no wrigglin' off."
Travers lips tightened and then loosened in a sigh, "Very well, but you're not going to like it. I don't like it; in fact the information apparently wasn't supposed to be known to the average soldier. But now that I think of it, the Crown probably leaked it to move the foot soldiers off their collective butts."
"Probably," Neely agreed, "so what did they leak?"
"That she was raped and strangled. Whoever did it wrung her neck like a chicken's." He paused for another sigh, "But that isn't the worst of it. I told you the Emperor had proof of the Duke of Grisham's involvement?"
His three listeners nodded yes.
"The worst of it was where they found the proof, whatever it was."
"Where?" Neely asked from around his pipe.
"Umm ... well ... as I said, I'm not sure I should mention it with a lady present," Travers demurred.
"Mention it!" Charity said sharply.
Travers told them. No one said anything for a while and then Charity stood and began pacing back and forth in front of the campfire. "Animals! To do that to ... to ... she was my age. Do you know that? My age. That could have been me on that bed."
"Not likely," Flynn said dryly.
"You know what I mean," Charity dismissed Flynn's attempt at humor. "We've got to do something about this."
Neely snorted, as he tapped out the dottle from his pipe, "Like what, go to war against Grisham? Somebody's already doin' that." He pointed the handle of the pipe at Travers.
Charity rounded on Neely, "Were you listening to him? How can you sit there after hearing how the Duke violated that girl? The man's no better than Cloutier and he deserves exactly what the Earl got."
"You think he doesn't?" Charity's eyes blazed. "You think maybe Cloutier didn't deserve what he got?"
"I didn't say..."
"I'm not going to let an animal like that escape if I can do anything about it," Charity hissed as she turned away from Neely. "Do you have room for one more in your party who isn't a conscript, Sergeant Travers?" She sat back down next to the Ortian and glared at Neely.
He returned the glare, "Now don't you do that to me, missy. You ain't gonna make me guilty just because of what you think I thunk. Women are always doin' that, an' it ain't fair! I never said we wasn't gonna do somethin' about what th' Duke done, I just asked what was we gonna do, an' that's somethin' different all together. Ain't it?"
Charity looked at Neely, trading glare for glare, and then she looked away. "You're right," she murmured.
"What's that?" Neely asked with a half smile, "Sounded like you said something."
Charity scowled. "You heard me," She muttered. "What are you grinning at?" She said to Flynn who was watching the two of them with a wide smile pasted onto his face.
"Me? Nothin'. Whut should I be grinnin' at?" Flynn's smile grew broader.
Charity looked from Flynn to Neely and then to Travers who wore an expression of supreme puzzlement. Neely began to share Flynn's smile. "Men!"
Neely nodded, "Yup, that's us, and I ain't apologizing for it neither. So, whadda you wanna do? Join up with the Sergeant here and hunt down the Duke fer whut he done? Or keep headin' on south where we most likely are gonna run into more press gangs?"
"That's conscription patrols," Travers said quietly.
"Same difference," Flynn grunted as he settled a bit against the log. "Like he said, Miss Charity, what's next? You wanna head to Grisham? I'm ready to go if you are."
Charity's expression softened immediately, "Thank you Flynn. I really appreciate it."
"Neely?" She looked at the tracker.
He shrugged, "Yeah, sure. Why not? Just give me legs a chance to heal up afore we get too much into th' thick of it, ok?"
Charity jumped off her place on the log, ran over to Neely and gave him a hug. She then did the same to Flynn. "Thank you, both. You don't know how much this means to me."
Neely took hold of his crutches and struggled to his feet, he headed over to where the horses were tied off.
"Where you goin'?" Flynn turned his head to watch Neely as the tracker stumped out of the campsite.
"To sharpen me sword," Neely replied without turning his head. "Looks like there's gonna be some killin' to be done."
Adam watched through the ruined city gate as the wolf pack ran across the lands west of Grisham until he could no longer see their forms in the distance.
Faces appeared at the corners of the building lining the square. Braver hearts ventured into the square itself, but kept a wary eye locked onto the thirty-foot form of Drinaugh. When the Dragon showed no sign of desiring to snack on anyone, others came into the square. They rummaged through the rubble to see if anything was left worth taking. Items not thoroughly ruined by the power of Adam's shaping were snapped up or fought over.
Drinaugh looked at Adam, "I should probably be going too."
"But you just got here," Adam looked up into the face of his Dragon friend. Drinaugh's presence brought back a rush of memories of Dragonglade. He had a sudden desire to go back there, where things weren't so confusing and it was easy to forget about the terrible power hiding within himself.
"I know," Drinaugh looked around the market square and at some of the fistfights going on over disputed loot, "but this isn't exactly what I expected. You live in a violent world Adam, and if I'm going to be any kind of an Ambassador to these people I'm going to need to learn a lot more about them."
"Why can't you learn about them right here?" Adam asked.
"I don't think they'd let him," Milward poked aside a piece of rubble with the point of his staff. "Grisham's general population may be willing to forgive a little breaking and entering, as long as they get to profit from it along the way, but it would be foolish to expect that sort of understanding coming from their leaders. They're not people who take kindly to those who damage their property, especially the expensive pieces." He pointed his staff at the gaping hole where the gate used to stand.
Adam looked to where Milward pointed, "Oh."
"He's right Adam," the young Dragon murmured, "but don't worry, I'll visit as often as I can, and we Dragons are very good at keeping our promises."
"Please don't go," Thaylli hugged Drinaugh's abdomen fiercely. "I'll miss you terribly."
"You fainted when you first saw me ... twice," Drinaugh said quietly, with a smile at the corner of his mouth.
Thaylli hugged him harder, "That was before I knew how kind and gentle you are."
"That's very nice of you to say," Drinaugh answered, "but I really must be going. You don't want Grisham's soldiers trying to poke me full of holes do you?"
"If they do, I'll have Adam send them all away just like he did that horrible man in black!" Thaylli sounded like a mother defending her child.
"No," Drinaugh gently chided her, "that wouldn't be right, and if you think a bit, you'll agree with me. It's not good for an Ambassador to develop the reputation of being fearsome."
"We have to get going. Eventually someone official is going to notice us and then start putting pieces together. I don't feel up to another fight with guardsmen right now," Milward tapped the floor of the market with his staff. "Say goodbye and let the good Dragon leave."
Drinaugh disentangled himself from Thaylli and backed away. "I'm going to miss you all, especially you," He looked at Thaylli once more, "Dragon rider."
The Dragon leapt into the air and with powerful strokes of his wings soon lifted himself high into the sky. Soon that all could be seen was a dark speck that shortly disappeared into the clouds.
Adam turned to look at Thaylli, "What did he mean, Dragon rider?"
"Oh, didn't I tell you? I rode him on the way here. Like a horse!"
Adam didn't know what to say. He felt jealous and scandalized all at the same time. "Y ... you ... rode ... a Dragon?"
"No," Thaylli said primly, taking small offence at Adam's tone, "I rode my friend." She turned her back on him and stalked off being sure to show him a good amount of wiggle as she did so.
Milward chuckled as he clapped a hand onto Adam's shoulder, "Let's be off lad. I could use a bite to eat. It's near lunchtime isn't it? A brown ale would go down well right about now."
"I doubt I'll ever understand women, Milward." Adam let himself be led off into the street that would lead to Granny Bullton's Inn. Thaylli allowed them to catch her, not wanting to become lost in the city's twisting streets.
"That's the way of Creation Adam," Milward murmured in a voice for his apprentice's ears only. "Women understand us only too well, whereas we are kept continuously in the dark, by design, I'll wager."
"What was that?" Thaylli looked at the old Wizard suspiciously.
She got a beatific smile in answer, "Why nothing my dear. I was just telling our mutual companion here about the lovely brown ales awaiting us at the Inn. Would you like one too?"
Thaylli sniffed, "I don't like ale, it's too fizzy. Some wine would be nice though, for a change."
They left the square behind and walked up the incline into the Inn's neighborhood.
Back at the market's edge a whip thin figure dressed in the black uniform of a Grisham Guard Officer watched them as they turned a corner and disappeared from his sight. His right hand played with his rapier's ornate basket hilt as his lips pursed in thought.
"I tell you, it's getting' worse," The scullery maid hissed to her fellow worker in a frightened whisper. "I had to go into his rooms to pick up the dinner dishes last night an' he didn't even look at me. He just sat there twitchin', with his eyes all bugged out, starin' at somethin' that ain't there. Gave me the chillers."
"You needn't convince me Lisbeth," The other girl, a rather plain, short woman with mouse brown curly hair replied. Her arms were immersed in suds up to her elbows, washing crockery, "Poor Grisabele paid for it the night before."
Lisbeth started, nearly dropping the stack of plates she was carrying to the cupboard, "Grisabele? No! How?"
The short one, relishing the chance to retell a good juicy story pulled her arms out of the suds and wiped them on her apron, "Well, what I heard is, she was called into his chambers 'cause he says there's bugs crawlin' all over 'im."
"Oh my! What did she do?" Lisbeth had a deep-rooted fear of all things crawly.
"The poor thing made the mistake of tellin' his nibs there weren't no bugs in his bed." The short one shook her head; "I hear he went spare at the tellin', total spare. Started yellin' crazy like, and grabbin' her, sayin' she's a Garloc in disguise. Grisabele tries to say she isn't an' to please stop hurtin' her."
"What happened? How did she pay for it?" Lisbeth put the dishes away while keeping one eye on her co-worker.
The stout one's eyes grew large, "I hear he called in the guards outside the door and had 'em skin her, alive! All the time she was screamin' an' bleedin', an' he was yellin', sayin, 'See I wuz right!' Over an' over agin."
Lisbeth felt her gorge rise at what the dishwasher described. She choked as she tried to keep it down.
Her co-worker handed over a dishcloth dampened in cold water, "Here dear, this'll help. I hear poor sire Wuest weren't so strong. Nestia tol' me he come runnin' out of his nibs rooms and lost it right there in the' hallway. Three times."
That was enough for Lisbeth and she showed why.
"Oh you poor dear. Just like sire Wuest."