The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part I - The Golden Orb
As soon as I stepped through the mirror, I found myself falling through a long tunnel filled with brightly flashing lights, and suddenly the origin of one of my dreams was clear. The fall was swift, and before I knew it, I found myself hovering before a shimmering wall. Looking through it, I could see Brotus, Lüdowik, and Seth standing on the other side. It appeared that they couldn’t see me. They were rubbing their heads, and seemed a bit dazed and disoriented. Stepping through the wall of light, I found myself standing next to them, although I didn’t seem to be feeling the same disorienting effects they’d experienced. Lüdowik jumped when he saw me, but Brotus and Seth were quiet.
For a few seconds, I stood silently surveying my surroundings. I noticed we’d emerged near a high mountain pass. The surrounding mountains loomed all around us, and some of the peaks appeared so close that I felt as if I could simply reach out and touch them. The range itself was vast and appeared to stretch on out to the horizon forever, and I suddenly understood how a journey here on foot or even with a horse would be a great ordeal.
“Are you alright?” I asked my three companions.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Brotus grunted, “but by the beard of Sarjanus, what just happened? I feel like I fell down a hole and came out on the other side of the world.”
“In a way you did,” I said, “but there’s not a lot of time for explanations. It’s a way to get places quickly,” I added, hoping that he and the boys wouldn’t question me too deeply.
“I’d rather go by horse, myself,” he said.
“I’m sure you would,” I said, and then looking to the boys, asked them if they were all right. Lüdowik appeared a bit dazed and a little frightened; Seth, although slightly disoriented, was smiling.
“My father told me of these magical windows,” he said, grinning at me. “I thought it was just an exaggerated tale. He actually thought the same thing and was sure that somehow the original story had become corrupted, but true to his office he insisted on telling me it to me and making me learn it. Wait until he hears that everything he learned, everything he told me, was really true.”
“I think that your father will soon find that many of the things he’s so carefully preserved will turn out to be far truer than he’s ever imagined,” I said. “And others quite wrong,” I thought to myself.
Once I was sure both boys were fine, I began to survey our location. Looking behind me, I could see the mirror I’d just passed through. It was set into a stone frame inlaid with symbols surrounded it – like the one in the map room. It was at the entrance to a small cave-like alcove and had been set into the surrounding rock. In this remote place it could have easily been overlooked, lost and forgotten. After I’d stepped through it, it appeared to have shut down since the only thing I could see looking into it was my own reflection and those of my companions. I stood quietly for a few seconds, experiencing a warm feeling of self-satisfaction. I’d successfully entered and navigated the mirror gate system; once more ancient memories stirred, but I didn’t have time to reflect on them.
Turning back to my companions, I could see that Seth and Lüdowik continued to appear slightly disoriented, but Brotus seemed to have quickly recovered. In fact, I was amazed at how calm he was after undergoing such a strange and bizarre experience. Moving away from the alcove, I finally got a good look at where we were. Stepping from the shadows of the cave, I walked a few feet outside and paused.
The sight was breathtaking, and I just stood for a few minutes, taking in the incredible view. From where I stood, I could see that the pass we were on was quite high – possibly one of the highest spots in the entire mountain range. All around us, tall mountain peaks reached for the sky – some towered above us while others seemed to lie at our feet. The range was vast, stretching out in all directions. And although the weather was warm throughout the continent, the air here was cold and a constant wind blew across the range. I also noticed that some of the mountain peaks still had snow on them.
“Do you know where we are?” I asked Seth and Lüdowik.
Lüdowik gave me a strange look and shook his head no, but Seth nodded. “Yes, Your Grace. This is near the spot where I said goodbye to my father the day I left Taldor Valoren. He journeyed with me here. The day before I was to depart, we packed two mules with provisions, along with the cages holding the homing birds. The next day we mounted our horses and left the valley, leading the mules. Not too far from here, he told me goodbye. He kissed me, bid me farewell, and wished me good luck. It was from here I journeyed to Konassas.”
“How did you come to pick Konassas?” I asked him. “After all, we could have been anywhere.”
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask my father,” Seth said. “He told me to go to Konassas. He said it was there that I’d have my best chance of finding you.”
“But your only mission was to spy on us for the Kalorians. No?” I said.
“That’s right, my Lord Protector. I was only to find and observe you as much as I could. I was to report your whereabouts and your progress to my father, who in turn would inform the council. I was to stay hidden in Konassas and await any further instructions.”
“But then things changed,” I added.
“Yes, Protector,” he said, giving me a knowing look. “When I got to the city, I found a stable for the mules and my horse. My father told me that when I got to Konassas I should stable the animals, then find an inn and stay there. Once I was settled, I was to search for you and then report back to him through the homing birds.”
“So what happened, Seth? When we found you, you were penniless and trying to sing for your supper in the pubs and taverns of Konassas.”
“Yes, that’s right,” he said with a look of embarrassment as he cast his eyes to the ground. “I’d only left the valley once before in my whole life. It was a trading mission, like the one Lüdowik was on. At first I felt confident, but soon found out that I was ill-prepared to handle life in a great city like Konassas. After finding a stable and paying the owner to keep my horse and mules, I went to the nearest tavern to see where I could find lodging. Since it was evening and I hadn’t eaten all day, the first place I went was to the public room for dinner. The inn was crowded. When I went to pay, instead of first putting a few coins in my pocket before I entered the inn as my father instructed me, I forgot. Not thinking, I pulled out my purse. It contained all my money and while it wasn’t a lot, my father had given me enough to live for at least a month, or a little more.
“Some men sitting near by noticed. One of them came up to me and introduced himself. He was quite friendly. He said he could tell that I was a traveler, and not from the city. He warned me that I should be careful and offered his assistance to me. When I told him I needed a place to stay, he quickly called over his friends. They told me they knew of a woman who took travelers. They said staying with her was better and safer than an inn or tavern. I believed them and left the inn with them. After we left I told them I wanted to get some of my things from the stable and check on the animals. When we arrived, they overpowered me, beat me, and then stole all my money and took the horse and mules, along with most everything else I’d brought with me.
“Laying in the dirt and straw of the stable, I realized what an idiot I’d been. My head hurt, and when I finally got up from the floor of the stable, one of my legs was sore and I had a bloody lip, but I was otherwise unhurt. And although I was scared and cried a bit, I realized that I was lucky to be alive or at least not hurt any worse than I was.
“I’d unpacked the crates with the birds when I first arrived – it was one of the few things they weren’t interested in. The only other smart thing I’d done at the time of my arrival was to hide my flute and harp under a pile of straw in a corner of the stable before I left for the inn. If I hadn’t, I’m sure they would have taken them too. Since I’d already paid to keep the mules and horse for a few weeks, the stable owner let me keep the birds there, but I had no money so I tried my best to get food and shelter by performing, and you know how that turned out,” he paused looking up at me. “You helped me get my harp and flute back after I was thrown out of the Headless Rooster; a few weeks later you helped me again, and I ended up living in the Amber Palace with all of you.”
“Not quite the original plan?” I said, smiling at him.
“No Protector, but indeed a great honor. I couldn’t believe my good fortune in meeting all of you and coming to know you as you really are. I began learning the ancient stories when I was just a little boy. The first story ever told to every Kalorian child is The Stand. It is also the first to be memorized and performed by one training to become an archivist, or barder.”
“The Stand?” I asked. “Is that what it’s called?”
“Yes, it is the beginning of our history,” Seth said reverently, “The history you and King Niklas began.”
Suddenly, he shocked me by singing:
From the mountain of old in the valley of the stone,
did the great game cease to be played.
At the angel’s high wall our chains they did fall
as the hope of the future was laid.
In the Prison of Pain, with the whip and the chain,
the truth they all came to see.
From the Castle of Power to the Seraphim’s Tower
did the seven and eighty-one flee.
To the pass of no pass, through fire and smoke
came the young, and the old, and the lame,
With the mothers and fathers and the sisters and brothers
no longer bound by the game.
Pulled by horses from hell, from the pit of despair
the chariots of fire took aim.
Raining arrows of steel from every black wheel,
their terrible lightening, it came.
At the pass of the Falls, they held firm and held strong
while the seven and eighty one came.
Then they sealed the great gate and accepted their fate,
when the fire of hell it did rain.
Raising my hand, I stopped him. I stood silently for a few seconds, reeling under a flood of emotions as I struggled to recall the real events that had led to the creation of the song Seth sang for me. Finally, I looked over to him.
“We began nothing,” I said, “We only followed the plan everyone agreed to. That’s all we’re still doing, only now, hopefully, with the help of the Kalorians.”
“Oh, that you shall have, Protector, I can promise that. We’ve waited for such a long time.” Then he surprised me again by grabbing my left hand and kissing the asp-shaped ring around my finger. “We are ready,” he quietly added.
“I know, Seth, but remember – there’s still grave danger. The war we left behind – that we hoped would be long gone – has followed us through time. And on top of that, there are now new enemies to deal with. I’m counting on you, and your training as a Barder, to tell the story you know. Tell it true and tell it well, for every life in the valley below depends on what you say, and on how prepared they are, and…” I paused, beginning to choke on the words. “…and how well Brotus can hold them off,” I finally added, casting my eyes to the ground.
“That you can count on, sparrow,” Brotus said, breaking the sudden, awkward silence.
“Then I think it’s best you boys get moving,” I said, turning back to Seth. “Take Lüdowik and head through the pass. Get to the valley as soon as you can. Do you think you can do it?”
“Yes,” Seth quickly answered. “It’s a cold and windy here, but as soon as we go through the pass, that will change. The hot springs in the valley keep us warm and snow-free all year. Once we get through the pass, we’ll take the trail that descends into the valley. It will take all day, but I think we can make it before dark. If we can’t, we can make a camp, sleep, and finish the journey in the morning. We won’t be in any danger; there is nothing and no one to harm us. Taldor Valoren is a safe and peaceful place. The most difficult part of the journey will be to find and get through the pass; even at this time of year there’s ice and snow, as you can see. But it’s not far from here, and I remember the way.”
“Very well,” I said, “Then it’s best you leave now.”
Opening up one of the bundles, Brotus retrieved some dry meat, a few biscuits, and two water skins.
“This should take care of you until you reach the valley,” he said.
“It will,” Seth answered. “As we descend, the air will get warmer. There will be bushes with berries, and springs of fresh water.”
Giving them one last inspection, Brotus and I bade the two boys goodbye and stood silently watching them as they left the main path and trudged off through the snow. They moved slowly, plodding along in a straight line until they came to an outcropping of rock that was covered with ice. I watched Seth turn and say something to Lüdowik, and then he pointed to the right. Lüdowik followed Seth around an ice-covered boulder and both boys disappeared from sight. I stood silently for a few seconds, staring at the spot where I last saw them, but was roused when a large heavy hand tapped me on the shoulder.
“They’re gone, Jamie,” Brotus said. “Nothing we can do for them now but wish them good luck. Best we get about our work.”
Shaking my head in agreement, Brotus and I began to scout around. Because it was summer in the mountains, there was only a little snow and ice on the main trails. Although the air wasn’t freezing, the constant wind was chilling and I wrapped my cloak tightly around my body, grateful again for Esteban’s foresight.
It took us some time to get our bearings and find our way. Following one of the narrow paths that verged one of the mountain summits, Brotus, who’d gone on ahead, turned back to me and called out, “I think this is an ideal spot.”
When I reached his side, I looked around for a minute, then nodded my agreement. The path cut to the left and led to a point where two mountains met, creating a narrow trail that only one person could pass through at a time. In fact, I was pleased to see that it looked more like a small tunnel than an open pass. The tall mountains formed an effective barrier into the valley, and it quickly became clear to me why the warlords of old chose this place to send the plague victims.
“If they want to get in, this is the way they’ll come,” Brotus said. “But there’s one problem.”
“What’s that, Brotus?”
Frowning, he pointed to my wings. “I understand your plan, Jamie...but think, sparrow: we’ll be here on the ground holding them off, while they…”
“No,” I said, cutting him off. “Remember what I told you a long time ago, Brotus. We’re boys with wings, not winged boys.”
“Pff, what’s the difference?” he asked.
“I’ll show you,” I said, and began stroking my wings. With great effort, I was able to lift myself only a few feet into the air. Stopping, I dropped and as my feet hit the ground, I began to cough. I could see dark spots before my eyes, my head began to pound, and I began to question the prudence of my demonstration.
“Are you alright, sparrow?” Brotus asked bending over me and giving me a worried look. “Your face is a red as a legionnaire’s cape.”
It took a few minutes for me to stop coughing and catch my breath. When I finally did, I explained.
“We may have wings, but our flying ability is limited to ten miles at best – then we must rest. Even thrones and the Imperial Legionnaires, who have more strength, can only fly a few miles more at one time. Now look about the sky, and tell me how many birds you see flying.”
For a few seconds Brotus stood silently, scanning the clear blue sky high above our heads.
“I don’t see any,” he said, and began to smile.
“The air is too thin here,” I said. “When Loran’s troops come here, they will come on horse. If we’re lucky, the horses will tire or not be able to negotiate the steep slopes, and they may have to advance on foot, but you can be sure they won’t be flying. If they try, they won’t have any strength to fight you. Even so, fighting will take a lot of effort at this height. They won’t just advance on this pass and easily take it.”
“Maybe so, but there’s two sides to that tale, sparrow. If these thrones, who are stronger than humans, are going to have a hard go of it, what about us?”
“Ghosts don’t breath,” I said quietly, as I stared intently at him.
Nodding his head in understanding, he made his way down the trail, retrieved the sacks of provisions and supplies and hunkered down in one of the small cave-like alcoves that could be found along the pass.
Looking down from my perch on the pass I scanned the terrain. Below me I could see that the narrow mountain path a few hundred feet down opened onto a small flat plain – large enough for a hundred men. It appeared the perfect spot to initiate my plan. Trudging back up to Brotus, I pointed to the spot and told him of my intentions.
Giving me a skeptical look he asked, “So now you’re finally going tell me what you meant when you said that you were a time-tamer?”
“No, Brotus, I’m not going to tell you,” I said. “I’m going to show you, and if I can’t, then this trip will have been for nothing, Taldor Valoren will be lost and many will die.”
Shooting me a strange look, but saying nothing, Brotus stayed in his spot and watched as I turned my back on him. Carefully picking my way down the path, I stepped over stones and negotiated a large sheet of ice. A few times I almost lost my balance, but managed to recover before I fell. Finally, I was standing at the head of the small plain. I was a bit out of breath and my head pounded slightly – probably due to the thin air – but otherwise, I was ready. For a few seconds my memory stirred as an image surfaced from deep inside me.
I was standing in the middle of a small room. It was dark and the only light came from a single candle on a nearby table. Someone standing behind me was resting his hand on my shoulder, but quickly withdrew it. I turned to look at him, but before I could a voice commanded. “No, Jamie, look straight ahead at the candle.” Turning back to the candle, I stared into it. “Now go to your place. Go to your favorite place, Jamie, and concentrate.”
The memory faded, and I stood with my cloak wrapped around me, looking out on the small plain high in the Poniçessian Mountains. Hesitating for a minute, I tightly gripped the Staff of Alexander, and took a deep breath, thinking about the memory I’d just experienced while at the same time trying to recall what I’d done the day I’d retrieved the Staff of Alexander in the Library of Donas. Closing my eyes, I began to concentrate. As my mind began to focus, I struggled to recall bits and pieces of the many stories Brotus had told me of his days with the Iron Regiment. As I did, my thoughts expanded to include what I’d read in the books on the regiment I’d asked Andrew to procure for me. I even brought up the memory of a bust of Derrick the Fat I’d seen in one of the palace museums surrounding the forum.
“Go to your favorite spot, Jamie,” a voice deep inside my head said.
Concentrating even harder, I began to build an image, then another and another. Like pieces of a puzzle, one by one I put the images together, creating first a small picture, then a scene and finally an immense panorama. What started in my mind as a single droplet of water grew into a puddle, then a lake, and finally a great and mighty ocean.
I was standing on the shoreline of Dragon’s Inlet at Isewier, looking out to the Sea of Infinity. The sun was high in a blue, cloudless sky. My feet were planted firmly on the beach; the warm sand squished through my toes. Beyond the shoreline, two immense arms rose from the pounding surf, their hands clutching two great towers – the ancient Gates of Safros. Beyond them lay the sea – vast and endless, stretching out to the horizon... to infinity…
And then I was out of my body. No longer did I feel the sand between my toes, or the sun on my face. No longer did I see the gates, or the sea, or the sky, or the land. A great nothing opened up before me and I flew into it, leaving everything I knew, and felt, far behind. Pulled into a vortex of infinite nothingness, I fell but couldn’t feel it. I flew, but couldn’t sense it, until, out of the nothingness, a light, a fire, a white-hot poker thrust itself into my mind – or into what my mind had now become. The sensation was both painful torture and exquisite pleasure. It tore me apart and pulled me together, all at the same time. I felt the Staff of Alexander in my hands. With a shout and a scream, I smashed its heel down against the ancient rock of the Poniçessian Mountains. Powered by the Great Shout, my voice echoed like thunder through the peaks and valleys of the great mountain range, shattering their ancient silence, and then there was nothing – nothing to see, or feel, or touch, or hear.
As if suddenly waking up from a deep sleep, I felt a cold breeze against my skin. My cloak flapped in the wind, startling me. Weak sunlight was falling upon my face. Opening my eyes, I found myself staring down at my feet. I looked at my toes and wiggled them in my sandals. Then, slowly looking up and out across the plain, I saw them. Armor clad, weapons at the ready, standing at ease, as still as statues in perfect formation, their eyes staring straight ahead, burning into and through me – the Iron Regiment of Palmenter. Behind them loomed a large man on horseback, sheathed from head to toe in armor as black as midnight, as was the large helm covering his head, from which great sharp, twisted horns emerged on both its right and left sides. The helm’s face guard was down, obscuring the large man’s face. There were two dark holes were his eyes should have been, but I could see nothing past the black metal face shield. He sat astride a large black charger, larger than any I’d ever seen. It, too, was sheathed in the same gleaming black armor.
To the right, I heard a flapping sound. Turning, I saw that one of the armored soldiers was holding a long black pole in his hands, its butt set into a sling secured about his waist. High above his head, at the top of the pole, a large banner snapped and curled in the fresh breeze– two red lions rampant, before black a tower on a field of yellow. Above the lion’s heads, two black swords crossed. I recognized its design from the treasure vaults of Tahkor: it was the ancient heraldic banner of the Duchy of Palmenter – the dukedom of Derrick the Fat. On either side of the flag bearer stood an armored soldier with a large, curling, ram-like horn wound around his shoulders.
The black knight looked down at me with eyes I could not see. Standing my ground, I reached into my cloak and pulled out a square piece of cloth. It was pale blue, but covered with dark brown spots. It was a piece of the tunic Luc had worn the night he was killed. I’d asked the tenders of the dead to secure it for me, and had taken possession of it the day we returned to Konassas from Eagles Rock. Holding it high above my head, I released it. It was carried upward by a gust of wind and flew over the heads of the soldiers of the Iron Regiment. As it flitted past the black knight, he reached out his hand and plucked it from the air. Then, as the wind picked up, I cried out above its mournful howl.
“Beyond this valley lies a land of peace,” I shouted. “And a people pure and good. Do not let evil pass this way, do not allow any more innocents to die. I implore you, stand firm. When they come, kill them – kill them all. Take from them what they took from me. Make them pay with their blood, and with their lives. I saw Castor and Garus killed – murdered before my eyes. I was forced to watch when they tortured Cristophe. Help me to keep my promise. Feel my hatred, and stop them here.”
The black knight took the cloth and stuffed it into one of the long, black, steel and leather gauntlets he wore on both hands. Looking down at me, he gave a single nod. Then the two men with the great ram’s horns winded them. Once again the silence of the mountains was broken, this time by the great bass voices of the Iron Regiment’s war horns. They echoed off the mountains while I stood and listened. I could feel the anger in my heart, and the hatred I’d felt so long ago welling up inside me. Suddenly, from behind me, I felt a hand rest on my shoulder.
“Jamie,” the voice said in a tone that demanded I turn around.
“No, I won’t,” I said, tears now running down my face.
The hand gripped me more firmly. “Jamie,” the strong, young voice gently said.
“NO!” I shouted. “I can’t.”
“Jamie, don’t do this out of hatred. I know you’ve been hurt. But don’t let the hate consume you, like it’s consumed your brother.”
The hand remained firmly on my shoulder. I stood with my back to him, looking down at the ground and crying, trying with all my might to resist turning around. Finally, two hands – one behind each wing – came to rest on either side of my shoulders and gently, inexorably, began to turn me around. Trying to resist, I nevertheless felt myself being turned to face him. Still looking down at the ground, my eyes took in the sight of two shiny, mailed black boots. A hand went to my chin, forcing my head upward. Slowly, as my head was lifted up, my eyes went from the boots to the armor clad legs, then upward to the waist, where a heavy broadsword and knife were secured in their belted scabbard and sheath. Then they traveled further, up to the breastplate and finally the helmet that protected the head and face. His uniform was that of an officer – a lieutenant. Reaching up and removing his helmet, he shook his head and his blond hair cascaded to his shoulders. I found myself looking upon the face of a young officer. His eyes scanned me, and finally focused on my face. A warm smile came to his face.
“Brotus?” I said, “When I brought them, I didn’t…”
“Shhh,” he said, “It all happened at the same time – and for good reason. But time is something you don’t have a lot of now, my little sparrow. Time for you to leave now, but before you do, put aside your hatred, Jamie. Do what you do out of love for your friends, not hatred for your enemies,” the tall, young man said. Both his blue-gray eyes looked deeply into mine. “Hatred is like an acid; it not only burns those it comes in contact with, it also damages the vessel that carries it.”
“Brotus?” I said again, once more trying to speak, “But you’re…”
“Now I know what a time tamer does, Sparrow,” he said, smiling.
“I’m sending you to your death,” I quickly blurted out.
“No, you’re not. What I do now, I do of my own free will. And I don’t do it out of hatred, little boy, I do it out of love – for you, and for King Niklas, and for your friends who are also my friends. Remember I am now an Icarian.”
His arms opened and I jumped into them, hugging him with all my might, crushing my face against the cold steel of his cuirass.
“Go, Jamie, there’s much for you to do. The Iron Regiment will stand. The monsters will not pass – I promise. My comrades-in-arms promise.” And as he spoke, the horns once again bellowed their challenge, and all the soldiers of the Iron Regiment snapped to attention. Pulling myself away from Brotus’ embrace, I quickly ran up the path, back to the mirror. Just as I’d done before, I read the symbols around the frame of the mirror, concentrated, and spoke the incantation. As I chanted, the mirror turned from reflecting glass to a shimmering pane of light. Just as I was about to step through it, I turned back to see a young, handsome Brotus waving goodbye; behind him stood the troops and black knight of the Iron Regiment. I stared at them all for a few brief seconds. The black knight – the Duke of Palmenter, Derrick the Fat – threw me a salute, and then I turned my back on the scene and walked through the mirror.
Once more, I found myself falling. Seconds later, I was standing in front of a different panel of light. Beyond it, the map room was filled with everyone I’d left behind, a short time before. Stepping through, I walked into the crowded room. It appeared that a debate or discussion had been going on.
After stepping through the mirror, I took a few seconds to look about the room, and I could see that everyone had remained in the map room, waiting for me. They also appeared to have formed into separate and distinct groups. The kings and their ministers, along with Lord Ottavia and his entourage, stood to the side, staring at everyone else in the room as if they were watching a play. Nic, standing next to Charles, was talking to the princes and scribes of the Icarian noble houses. Hans Kopper had gathered the Guild into a separate group, and Miro – with Philippe and David at his side – was quietly talking to the gladiators.
Then I heard someone cry out, “He’s back!” and all the activity and conversations instantly stopped as everyone turned to look at me. I said nothing as I crossed the room and returned to my place at the great table. Removing the legionnaire’s cloak, I held it out for Esteban to retrieve; as he took it in his hands, I noticed that the various groups were breaking up as everyone returned to the table and stood around the great stone map. Speaking clearly and firmly, I quickly related what had happened from the time Brotus, the boys, and I stepped through the mirror until my return to the map room. A few people tried to ask questions, but Nic forestalled them, telling everyone that he wanted me to relay the entire story without interruption. When I finished, there was an undercurrent of talk and whispers that echoed through the room.
Finally, the questions came. But I only answered a few of them.
“You’ve seen with your own eyes the Wizard’s abilities in the last few days,” Charles stated baldly.
“And time is of the essence,” Nic continued. “Some day, some time – if we’re lucky and fate smiles upon us – you can ask your questions, and if he’s agreeable, Jamie can discuss and debate with you...but Charles is correct, now is not the time.”
“And what do you propose?” Wilum asked, and in his tone I could detect a deep skepticism.
“Now that we have the gladiators and the guild of archers, our position is strengthened,” Nic began, “And my plans need to change.”
“How so?” Lord Ottavia called out.
Turning to Miro, Nic began. “The gladiators will leave for Wrenstatten. Go through Shepard’s Pass and up through the valley of Günter Platz. Stealth is the key to your operation. Information is the second most important thing you must acquire – learn as much as you can. Sabotage, and guerilla warfare is the third prong of your mission. If Loran does what I think he will, there will be a force at Wrenstatten, but it won’t be large. The bulk of his forces will be march south toward the Poniçessian Mountains. I plan to meet him before he reaches the Plain of Pons,” he continued, pointing to the great map. “I will leave some troops here to defend Konassas, but the rest of the Imperial Legion will accompany me to the place you call Fire Block Canyon,” he said to Lord Ottavia. “If the forces at Wrenstatten are small, as I think they will be, and if you feel you can,” he said, turning back to Miro, “retake the city and drive Loran’s remaining troops south, so that they join him. You’ll be on their tail, and if we do it right, I’ll be at one end of the canyon waiting for them as you and the gladiators enter the other end. We trap them, we fight them, and we kill them before they ever reach the Plain of Pons.”
“Commander Kopper,” Nic continued, now turning to Hans Kopper. “Jamie has told us what he has left behind at Mt. Coratt and the Pass of Tears. I’m asking you to leave Konassas in all haste and journey to the foothills of the Poniçessian Mountains. There, establish yourselves and dig in. When Loran’s advance forces attempt the pass to Taldor Valoren, you will be the first line of defense. I don’t expect you to stop them, since I suspect it will be a large force, but you can hurt them, slow them down, and decrease their numbers. You were concerned that you weren’t going to the Pass of Tears to defend your home, but you will defend it, and it will be in those forested foothills that, hidden, unseen and uncountable, you will become snipers, acting as a ghost army and picking them off like a farmer plucks apples from a tree.”
Striding over to the commander of the archer’s guild, Nic put his hand on his shoulder. “This is where you will do the most good,” he said, giving Kopper a serious look. “This is where I need you the most. This is where you can make your stand and save your homeland.”
Nodding his head in assent, Kopper smiled. “I can hardly believe what the Protector has told us, but if he says the pass is defended, then defended it is. I see merit in what you say, Your Highness,” he continued. “In the open we’re just another force to be attacked, but I can place my men behind trees, and boulders. I can place them high and low. I can hide them in many places, and they’ll never be found.”
“Very well,” Nic said, “then leave now and begin your preparations, for time is both our greatest friend and worst enemy at this moment.”
Kopper turned and called out to his archers. Quickly the men began to file from the map room. Kopper began to follow them when a shout from David stopped him.
“Ah, Commander Kopper,” David called out, “Before you leave with your archers, do you remember I said that I had something to show you?”
“Yes?” Kopper replied.
“Then come with me,” David said, flashing the commander a smile, “It will take but a few minutes, but they will be minutes well spent. You’ll be glad you did.”
“Quickly,” Nic said, frowning at David. “They don’t have the luxury of time.”
“No Nic, I think I know what David wants to do, and he’s right,” I said, putting my hand on his and recalling David’s clandestine demonstration – given months before for my benefit – of the mysterious crossbow and arrows.
“Fine,” he said turning back to David, “but do it now, and do it quickly.”
Before Nic got the last words out of his mouth, David was already bounding up the steps of the map room, heading toward the door and calling for the archers to follow him. Once they’d left the room, King Wilum approached Nic.
“And what would you have us do?” he asked.
“Consolidate your troops, Your Highness. Place them strategically as you see fit. Their presence will help calm the human population. We will need them. Not immediately, but in time we will. Therefore, they need to be healthy, well fed, and ready to fight – but just not today. Shore up your defenses, take care of your citizens, and prepare for the worst, but hope that we can stop them before they begin advancing on any of the kingdoms. I’m not making a guess; from what Jamie has told me, I know what Loran wants and after he gets it, he’ll want to be in Küronas. As the Wizard, sitting on the Seraphic Throne in Küronas, he will be unstoppable. He knows that, and that is his goal. If he makes it that far, then there is no hope. A human army of a million will not stop him.”
At Nic’s words, Wilum’s face blanched, but he was of the family Zakaria, and its fierce blood coursed through his veins. Quickly regaining his composure, he turned and pointed at me. “And what of you? Where do you fall into all of this?”
“As you know, I now have less than sixty one days to live. First, I must journey to the Ardentin Forest to fulfill a promise – the most important one I’ve made. If I am successful, I’ll meet King Niklas and the Imperial Legion at Fire Block Canyon. By then, I’ll have absorbed the essence of the final free orb, and Loran will be eager to find me. I’ll be the bait; His Highness and the Legionnaires at one end of the canyon and the gladiators at the other, will be the trap.”
“And you think you can defeat such a mighty army with less than one thousand?” Wilum asked.
“We can try,” Nic replied. “It’s that, or do nothing and allow Loran to make it to Küronas. If that happens, then all hope will be lost.”
“Not quite,” I said, addressing Wilum. “No matter what, I will meet my brother in the Circle of Ondra.”
“You’ve mentioned this Circle of Ondra before,” King Juston observed.
“It is where Loran and I will meet. Two will enter, and only one will leave: the true Wizard.”
There was silence. Then, I turned to the princes and scribes. “There is something I must ask of you,” I began. “I could command you, but since I am not yet truly the wizard, I will ask instead.”
At my words, the rulers of the noble houses fell silent; from their looks, I could see that I had their fullest attention.
“Even if we manage to beat Loran’s forces, we will not be able to kill him. The only way for me to succeed is to defeat him in the Circle of Ondra. If that happens, I will need you to meet us there. The essences will need to be absorbed in their proper order, following the prescribed rubric. Can I count on your support?”
“You will have it,” Prince Ivan quickly said, glancing around at his peers.
“That also means that Jonathan will need to be present,” I continued. “And one of you will need to take responsibility for him. He needs to be protected, and kept out of harm’s way.”
“I’ll take that responsibility, Your Grace,” Prince Ivan said. “I will see that he accompanies us and that he is properly cared for.”
“Thank you,” I said, and then turning to Cody, I asked, “You’re familiar with the ceremony of instillation, and can conduct it?”
“I wrote it,” he said, smiling at me.
“Very well,” I said, addressing the princes, “then I hope you will all follow Prince Cody’s directions when the time comes, is that clear?”
Voicing their assent, the princes quickly agreed.
“Then since we all know what we must do,” Nic said, “I suggest we all get about doing it.”
“One final thing, Nic,” I said, crossing to stand next to him. “I will need some help in my task. I would like to take a small group with me.”
“Of course,” Nic answered, “take whomever you wish.”
“First,” I began, turning to Miro, “I would like to have David. I know that you and he have been apart for some time, Miro, and that all the duets fight as teams, but I know I will need him. He was invaluable when we infiltrated Eagles Rock to save Jonathan.”
“I have no objection, and I doubt that David will either,” Miro said. “Although I’m intrigued by your reference to infiltrating the Royal Academy. It seems as though I’ve missed some things since I’ve been gone.”
At his words I took a deep breath, suddenly realizing that because of his absence, he was unaware of Luc’s death. Mercifully, he hadn’t seemed to notice the little boy’s absence, and I hoped his oversight would continue until Nic could speak privately with him. As if reading my mind, Nic turned to Miro and told him there were some things that had occurred in his absence and he would be informing him of them before he and the gladiators left for Wrenstatten.
“I would also like Prince Charles to accompany me,” I said, and at my words, Charles turned and gave me a look of surprise. Sensing hesitation on his part, I looked at him and continued, “Unless he objects?”
“No, I don’t object,” Charles said. “I’ll accompany you. I guess I’m just a bit surprised.”
“I think it will be good for you to come,” I added. “I have a feeling I’ll be needing you, and you, in turn, may gain some new insight.”
“I’d also like you to accompany me,” I said, turning to Prince Andrew. “That is, unless your father objects.”
“I’m your chosen scribe and I’ll go with you – with or without my father’s blessing,” Andrew said, giving Wilum a long, hard look.
“Spoken like a true Zakaria,” General Zakaria said, a look of satisfaction coming to his face while at the same time he shot his brother, the king, a knowing look. “And speaking of accompanying,” he continued, approaching Nic, “I hope you realize that I’m coming with you to Fire Block. I haven’t come this far not to see it through.”
“Nor have I,” Juston Tark said, stepping forward.
“Nor I,” Ronan Torken said, stepping up next to him.
“Of course,” Nic said, “I would be honored to have you by my side, sir,” as he gave the General a smile. “I was not my intention to exclude you; I only wanted to make sure that there were enough troops throughout the kingdom.”
“That there will be,” General Zakaria said. “I will gather a small force, and we will ride with you.”
“Very well, General,” Nic said. “And as I said, it will be an honor to fight by your side.”
“No, young Highness,” Zakaria said, giving Nic a warm smile, “It will be my honor to fight by the side of one of the most noble leaders I’ve ever known.”
“Very well,” Nic said, shrugging off Zakaria’s compliment with a bit of embarrassment showing on his face. “Then we’re ready, and all know what they must do?”
“Not quite,” I said hesitantly. “Forgive me Nic, but there are two more things.”
“And what would they be, Jamie?” Nic said, with just a twinge of exasperation in his voice.
“First,” I began in a strong voice, but then hesitated when I saw all eyes on me. “First,” I continued, once more pausing while thinking briefly of the firestorm I was about to cause, “I’d like Captain Tark to accompany me,” I quickly blurted out before my courage completely faltered.
The instant the words left my mouth, Tark straightened and gave me a startled look that quickly turned into a deep frown.
“But…” he began.
“We’ll talk of this privately, Juston,” General Zakaria said, also giving both his son and me a frown.
“Now that you’ve successfully kicked the wasp’s nest, Jamie, what’s the second thing?” Nic said, and I was treated to a third frown.
“It’s just that… well… I know you’re mad, Captain… but…”
“Juston and I will discuss it privately,” Zakaria said curtly, the creases of his frown growing deeper with each passing second.
“What’s the second thing?” Nic said impatiently. “You’ve already put a flame to the wood pile, let’s see just how much of a bonfire you plan on making?”
Feeling the burn of his anger, I quickly moved away from the three of them, crossed the room to one of the three sets of stairs descending from the balcony above to the floor of the map room and started up the stairs. Once I reached the first landing, I stopped. The room was quiet, and I could see that every eye was resting upon me. Pausing and looking around the room, I called out, “I know you’re here. You might as well show yourself.”
At first my words were greeted with silence. I stood quietly and patiently waited. Nic gave me a puzzled look, but it was nothing compared to some of the other looks I was receiving. Charles appeared ready to speak but I quickly raised my hand, quelling any movement or talk.
“It’s over. I know you’re here,” I shouted, glancing about the room.
Once more I was met with silence, but then, after what seemed like a very long and quiet minute, a figure stepped out from behind one of the large columns on the highest balcony. Slowly, gracefully, he emerged from the shadows into the light, and there were more then a few gasps since he seemed to appear out of thin air – suddenly standing in the full light of the room, looking down on everyone. Although as tall and thin as Damian, he wasn’t pale and frail. I knew from experience that his sleek body – while appearing slight – masked an unbelievable strength. His long arms and legs were in perfect proportion to his body, and his delicate hands, with their long and slender fingers, in no way gave any indication as to his true profession.
His long, black air was tied back with a purple ribbon – one that I remembered well, since over two and a half millennia before it had adorned one of the tunics I’d worn at the Mondele Royale. I smiled, remembering the first time I’d gathered his hair in my hands and tied that ribbon in place. His wings were a striking reddish color, like a freshly minted copper – the only Icarian I’d ever seen with such wings. Descending the stairs in silence, he stopped when he reached the landing and stood directly in front of me. His face was completely devoid of emotion as he stared down at me. I looked up at him and smiled. Then, without fanfare or flourish, he knelt before me and gently bowed his head, lowering his eyes.
“sa’Crêsmané,” he said softly, using the title of imperial commission I’d been given by the Icarian Council of Shadows over two and a half millennia ago. “Just as I have done in the past, I stand beside you, prepared to serve. Your enemies are mine. I am your shield and your sword.”
Even kneeling, his head was almost level with mine. I stood for a few seconds and looked at him, amused at myself for not remembering him when I’d first seen him at the recaptured abbey fortress. Reaching out, I put my hand on his shoulder. As I looked out across the room, I wasn’t sure if any of those assembled remembered him as one of those we’d resurrected at Eagles Rock.
“This is Renaud,” I began, moving my hand from his shoulder to his head, “the Emperors former chief assassin, and my personal bodyguard.”
Suddenly, as I suspected would happen, the room was abuzz with noise as glances and words flew back and forth between every Icarian present.
“By the Emperor’s stones,” Miro said, “You mean…?”
“Yes,” I said, interrupting and bringing the room to silence. “Renaud is the Angel of Death, the most deadly assassin the empire every created.”
But the second the words flowed out of my mouth I closed my eyes tightly, silently chastising myself for such a loose tongue and wishing I could take them back. Opening my eyes once more, I looked down at Renaud, whose head remained bowed, and I gently placed my hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry, my friend,” I whispered, and leaning forward, I put my lips to his ear and softly spoke to him in Icarian. When I was finished he stood up, once again towering over me.
“Incredible!” Miro shouted, moving closer to the two of us, but addressing Renaud. “Is the rumor true that you were responsible for the assassination of every male of the House of Coble in line for the Imperial throne?”
“That’s nothing,” Lord Antoine shouted, “I heard that he was responsible for the death of the Emperor’s own brother!’
Renaud turned and looked at both Miro and Antoine. His expression remained unchanged, but I could see a deep sadness in his eyes.
“There will be no talk of this,” I said, anger touching my voice. “Renaud’s official title is Protector of the Wizard, and that is final. There will be no reference to the term…” I paused for a second, “… to the term ‘Angel of Death.’ Is that clear?” Looking about the room, I continued, “Good. I will take your silence to be agreement with my request.”
“Jamie?” Nic said, surprise and shock registering in his voice.
“I didn’t remember until I absorbed the essence of the Golden Orb, Nic,” I said, trying to add an apologetic tone to my voice. “With everything else that’s happened, it didn’t occur to me. I realize now that since he left the abbey, Renaud has been following me. I sensed his presence the moment I entered the room today. I’ll tell you the story when we meet again, at Fire Block Canyon. I promise, Nic,” I added, fearful that his initial anger at me might grow.
“Fine,” he said, and by the sound of his voice I knew it was indeed fine. “It can wait. Now, since we all have important tasks to perform,” he continued, “I suggest we begin.”
I quickly gave him a look of grateful thanks, but it only lasted for a few seconds for in short order, the room emptied as everyone left to prepare for a war that none of us wanted, but all knew would sweep us along in its wake, with complete disregard for our wishes and our lives.