The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part I - The Golden Orb
Standing under the portico of the Amber Palace, I stared out across the vast expanse of open space encompassed by the Forum of Konassas, shaking my head in amazement at the organized chaos that washed through the great square like flotsam caught up in a surging tidal wave. If anyone with even the slightest interest in the monumental forces the revelations from the Council of Kingdoms had awakened and unleashed was missing from the amazing tableau unfolding before my eyes, certainly none immediately sprang to mind. The sun was just cresting the horizon as I gazed out over the muster of forces assembled by the Alliance – both human and Icarian – along with the horses, wagons, pack mules, and carts that were assembled there for their use. But where an untrained eye might see only mass confusion, I watched the threads of a grand and intricate tapestry being carefully and deliberately woven together.
Two days before, the instant the council adjourned, everyone streamed from the map room and into the Forum. Like bees swarming from a nest or a herd of cattle fleeing from hungry wolfs, they poured from the circular building that housed the great map and scurried across the smooth marble paving stones in what looked like pandemonium – rushing with all haste in every possible direction. While the goal was to leave Konassas as soon as possible, the plan required intense preparation. Although everyone’s initial reaction was to begin their parts of the drama immediately, it quickly became evident that there would be more to it than just jumping on horses and riding pell-mell out of Konassas.
Because the council meeting ended late in the afternoon and a good part of the day was already behind us, it quickly became evident that a few hours of preparation would never be sufficient to prepare for everything our plans entailed. That there was a problem soon became evident when, three hours after the council’s adjournment, a sharp knock on the door of our apartment heralded the appearance of General Zakaria. Flanked by Ronan Torken and Juston Tark, he strode into the grand salon, searching the room with his eyes.
Startled by his appearance, I looked up from the map I was studying. Given to me by Prince Andrew an hour earlier, the map represented a detailed rendering of the western end of the Plain of Harren, along with most of the Ardentin Forest. I’d been discussing some of my plan with Andrew, who’d come by to get David when, halfway into my explanation, he dashed from the room and ran down the hall. A few minutes later he’d returned with the map.
“I thought I might find this in Charles’ library,” he said, handing it to me. “It’s old, and I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it might be of some use.”
Delicately plucking it from his hand, I noticed how ancient it looked. Taking a seat, I placed it in my lap. The brittle yellow parchment crackled as I carefully unfolded it. Gently smoothing it out, I examined its faded markings and notations. “I guess it’s better than nothing,” I said, tracing some of the features of the map with my finger. Then realizing the remark might have sounded rude, I looked up at Andrew and smiled. “Thank you, Andrew. There are days when I think I should have made you Chancellor of Eagles Rock; you always seem to dig up the most amazing information.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said, “thank my teachers at the academy at Tahkor. I know the Holy Office is hostile to you, but the church has spent centuries amassing things like this. They know the value of knowledge.”
“As long as it agrees with their doctrines,” I said, frowning.
“Maybe so,” Andrew said, “but at least they preserved it. An intelligent man can reach his own conclusions. One doesn’t always have to bow to the theological dogma promulgated by Wheems.”
“Spoken like a true Zakaria,” I said, smiling.
“And as far as my being Chancellor of Eagles Rock,” Andrew said with a grin, “I think Charles would have some strong feelings about that. He’d rather that position than Prince of the House of History and Philosophy.”
“I know,” I said looking up at Andrew, “But right now I need him in both positions. Maybe some day he can retire to Eagles Rock and lock himself in the Library of Donas, although I’ll probably have to appoint someone to make sure he eats and sleeps.”
Sitting down beside me, Andrew chuckled at my remark, then turning his attention to the map he began pointing. “The Ardentin is thick and dense,” he said. “For the most part it’s uninhabited, so there haven’t been many reasons to accurately map it. There are a few trails that cut through it – mostly leading to the Sirenese Mountains and into Vorhalla – but since a part of it also borders the wastelands, the territory it covers in the south is usually avoided.”
Andrew lingered only a few minutes, then excused himself to continue his search for David. After his departure, I once more took up the map and began to study it. I’d become so lost in thought that I jumped at General Zakaria’s entrance
“Yes, General?” I said, regaining my composure as I quickly folded up the map.
“I’m looking for King Niklas,” he said. “There are important matters to be discussed.”
His statement, delivered in a serious tone with clipped brevity, was accompanied by such a strong look of concern that I quickly jumped up from my seat.
“He’s down the hall, talking to Lance,” I said. “Please be seated; it will be just a moment until he returns.” I crossed to the door, opened it and asked one of the guards to go to Lance’s apartment and ask Nic to come and meet with the General. Scorning a chair, Zakaria paced back and forth while we waited.
After a few minutes, Nic arrived. No sooner had he passed through the doorway than Zakaria, in his usual brusque and blunt manner, began to lay out all the logistical problems in gathering everything necessary for an army, given the short time period we’d set for ourselves.
“It will take at least two days to make sure we have the minimum amount of food, supplies and equipment,” he said. “Not to mention the wagons, and horses to pull them.”
“And provisions for the horses,” Torken added.
“Even so,” Zakaria continued, “We still won’t have enough of everything we’ll need. And we can’t completely strip Konassas and the surrounding territories of food, wagons and horses. I’ve discussed this with Wilum. He left for Tahkor an hour ago, but we agreed that we would send a rider ahead. Changing horses every few hours at the message stations and riding as fast as he can with only brief sleep breaks, he should get there days ahead of Wilum and his party. He carries an order from Wilum to Senior Commander Enjus, quartermaster for the Xannameirian army in Tahkor. Wilum’s ordered provisions and supplies be loaded on wagons and sent to Fire Block. They should arrive there about the same time we do. The rape and looting of Günter Platz has been a grave blow to us since we’re now deprived of those resources.
“An hour ago I received a message from one of our spies in Vorhalla. The situation is even worse than we thought, so we can’t expect any help from them. And while King Juston is willing to throw Academia’s support to us, Farenta is a lot further to the east than Tahkor, and even then they must cross the river Nestor, so for the moment getting anything quickly to or from there isn’t really an option. On top of that, there’s been more than a few reports – thus far unsubstantiated – that a large army in the north is making it’s way to the east. There haven’t been any reports of fighting, and I wish I knew more of the situation, but for now that’s all the information I have.”
It didn’t take much convincing for Nic to agree with Zakaria, but shooting a concerned glance in my direction, he added, “Although time is of the essence General, we must be well prepared; as I’ve told Jamie many times, a fight worth winning is one worth properly planning, but understand this: we must prepare as quickly as possible. Jamie’s time is limited – it’s either action or death for him.”
“Of course, Niklas,” he said. “I understand the situation. Taking time to make the proper preparations isn’t the same thing as dragging our feet. It will all be done as quickly as possible. We will be working night and day to get ready.”
As I listened to Zakaria’s words of reassurance, I could feel the general’s obvious relief in getting Nic’s quick agreement. Apparently satisfied with the outcome, he nodded and rose from his seat. He strode across the room toward the door, prepared to resume his supervision of the preparations, but before leaving he turned back to me and paused.
“Juston and I have discussed your wishes, Your Grace. He will be accompanying you when you leave for the Ardentin – you have both his and my word on that,” he said curtly, with a piercing glance at his son. Then he turned and left the room. Torken and Tark followed behind Zakaria, but just before he turned to go, I saw a slight frown come and go across Tark’s face.
After Zakaria departed, Nic excused himself to once again join Lance and continue their preparations. Later that evening, we all met in the formal dining room for dinner – including all the princes and scribes. The evening started off on a somber note. Shortly after the Council of Kingdoms had ended, Nic took Miro aside and told him of the events that had occurred during his absence – the most shocking being the death of Luc. When he arrived for dinner, arm in arm with Philippe, I could see that he appeared troubled. When Cody, who also noticed, asked him what was wrong, Philippe volunteered that they’d just come from the crypt that presently held the body of Luc. What followed was an uncomfortable and awkward pause.
“Nic said they’re all dead, no?” Miro asked finally breaking the silence, “That is, except for the one that actually killed him?”
“They’re very much dead,” David said without emotion, and I shot him an uncomfortable look as I recalled the events that followed our discovery of Jonathan in the torture chamber.
“I hope I have the pleasure of meeting the one that got away,” Miro said flatly.
“We all do,” David said.
I could see Miro was about to add something, but stopped when a bustling army, composed of members of Master Sandro’s and Master Arnod’s staffs, entered the room and dinner was announced. Soon everyone had taken a seat and dinner was served. In the course of the conversation, I was surprised and pleased to learn that many of the princes and scribes – despite their questions, concerns and disagreements – had pitched in to help with the various preparations for the upcoming campaign. Dinner was simple, and although everyone appeared tired, the evening went well. Cody managed to bring Miro out of his melancholy when he began to question him about his adventures in Sonnen Taggen, and asking how he came to find the gladiators and meet the Kalorian archers. Miro seemed eager to tell us, and within a short time I could sense the gladiator’s mood lightening as he entertained us with the tales of his exploits. I smiled when I noticed that even the sometimes stiff and aristocratic princes and scribes leaned forward in their seats, giving him their full attention throughout his narration.
Nic was more than interested in Miro’s encounters with the people in Sonnen Taggen. “Do you think they’re potential allies?” he asked.
“They hate the bloody church, and the bloody Holy Office,” Miro said. “I don’t mean to brag, but Evan and I made some good friends there. I think they would stand with us.”
“It’s not bragging,” Nic said. “I’m proud of you. You did what was right. You protected the innocent, and saved lives. It was indeed a worthy endeavor. You followed the code of the Gahdar, Miro. I wouldn’t have expected anything less.”
“Yes, and he had a bloody good time to boot,” David said, a tone of envy in his voice. “But I do want you to show me that game you played in the inn, sometime. It sounds like it could be fun.”
“It can be, if you’re not playing it with a bunch of bone heads,” Miro said laughing.
“I think we should have a contest between the duets,” David said enthusiastically.
“Right now we have a much more important game to play,” Nic said, interrupting the twin’s conversation.
“True,” David said, “but after this is all over, Miro, I say we challenge Tanguy and Francesco. They’re always bragging about how good they are with knives. It would be fun to see them eat their words.”
Miro shot David a grin, enthusiastically nodding his head. “It would be fun to see them choke on their pride.”
Once dinner was concluded, the conversation quickly wound down. It was obvious Miro wanted to spend some time with Philippe. David kept whispering something to Andrew, and most of the princes and scribes appeared tired so it was decided that everyone should get a good night’s sleep and resume their preparations in the morning. In the meantime, much needed provisions, supplies, horses, wagons and weapons would continue to be readied throughout the night by the Imperial Legion and the garrison of Konassas. It was a monumental task, not one to be rushed, and certainly not one that could be accomplished without a large army of support staff.
The next day, our last full day in the city, was used to complete all the necessary preparations before our various departures the next morning. A quick early morning inspection of the forum and its surrounding quarters with Nic revealed an army of people engaged in all manners of activity. It appeared everyone, from the household servants and stable boys in the High Council’s general staff to craftsmen and merchants from the city, were caught up in the effort. Some had worked throughout the previous night and it became obvious to me as I peered at many a weary face that most hadn’t slept in at least a day as they worked ceaselessly to make sure everything was ready for the following day’s dawn departures.
In addition to the large number of horses needed for the cavalry, draft horses were also gathered requisitioned throughout the city, along with the wagons they’d be pulling. Supplies were stockpiled, food procured, and weapons readied in addition to everything else necessary to launch a major, synchronized military campaign. Since it all needed to be assembled in one place, Nic, General Zakaria, Hans Kopper, and Miro – the principle leaders of each force – agreed that the Forum should be that place. It appeared to be an ideal secure and central location, and its expansive space was perfect for such an endeavor.
After our inspection, Nic and I went our separate ways – he to the stables to check on Master Barzo, and me back to our apartment to deal with a number of important matters that would need my attention before leaving. Giving him a quick kiss goodbye, I crossed the Forum to the Amber palace. Once there, I immediately began to make the several necessary arrangements to insure that important issues would be taken care of in our absence. Of key concern was the crucial matter of keeping the princes and scribes of the noble houses safe and secure, while at the same time making sure that when the time came, they would be ready to journey to Taldor Valoren.
Although Charles usually acted as my liaison to the princes and scribes, since he would be accompanying me, it was important to find someone to take his place. No sooner did I arrive at our apartment than I sent for Cody and Prince Ivan. When they arrived, we sat down to make plans with regard to the leaders of the noble houses who would wait in Konassas, guarded by a small force of Imperial Legionnaires. I reminded them that it was imperative that they be prepared at a moment’s notice to journey to the Poniçessian Mountains and eventually arrive at the valley of Taldor Valoren. This was, of course, under the assumption that we’d all be successful in our tasks and that with me serving as the bait for Nic’s trap, Loran’s army would either be defeated or severely crippled, and my brother and I would eventually stand wing to wing in the Circle of Ondra – a prospect I was privately viewing with increasing fear.
Prince Ivan renewed his initial promise that he would assume charge of Prince Jonathan, and that every precaution would be taken to insure the Oracle of Icaria’s safety. Cody, although somewhat disappointed to remain behind and supervise the Princes and Scribes, understood the importance of his role and, putting a good face on the situation, assured me that he would have everyone ready to move as soon as he received word from us.
“You know you can count on me,” Cody assured me as we concluded our session. “I’ll make sure they’re ready...but how will I know when to act?”
“I’m not completely sure yet, Cody,” I responded, “but I’ll find a way to get word to you. I promise.”
“I know you will,” he said. “I’ve seen you and Nic perform the impossible before.”
“Yes, with help from you and everyone else,” I quickly added.
As he prepared to leave, his usual smile vanished, “I’m really worried for Lance,” he said quietly. “They’re going against impossible odds. I’m scared I’ll lose him.”
“I know. It doesn’t look good. Less than two thousand against eighty thousand,” I said. “All I can tell you is that I have faith in Nic, but I’d be lying to you, Cody, if I didn’t confess I’m worried too.”
Giving me a nod that showed more resignation than confidence, Cody rushed off to find Lancelot. Since it would be their last night together for some time, I knew that they wished to be as much in each other’s company as possible – a fact I clearly understood.
During my meeting with Cody and Ivan, Masters Sandro and Jaysune had suddenly appeared at the door, interrupting our discussions. Out of breath and almost falling over each other, they attempted to explain the complicated arrangements that they’d made for the archers’ and gladiators’ overnight stay. The previous night most had remained awake, caught up in their preparations. Tonight though they would all need a good night’s sleep in order to be well rested for the journey at dawn. With both of them rushing through their explanation and constantly interrupting each other, I was more confused at the end of their presentation than when they started; after a brief conversation, for the sake of saving valuable time, I simply agreed with their plans. Quickly dismissing them, I assured both men that I was well aware of the difficulty of their task and since we all realized that they were doing their best, whatever they had in mind would be fine since it was only for one night.
No sooner had they scurried out than Master Arnod came sweeping into the apartment, apologizing profusely for he and his staff’s inability to prepare adequate meals for everyone. I listened to him with all seriousness, knowing that the preparation of food and the feeding of those in his care was his life’s work. As with Sandro and Jaysune, I made assurances to him that his efforts far surpassed our expectations, and that a simple serving of bread, smoked meats and cheese would be more than sufficient for those helping with the preparations, seeing the enormous efforts that the kitchen was already making to assure that everyone would have provisions for their journeys. I also reminded him that the Imperial Legion had set up a mess tent in one corner of the forum and the cooks that accompanied them would also pitch in to feed as many as possible. This seemed to placate the sometimes temperamental chef, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the lines of worry leave his face.
Just before Arnod turned to leave, I apologized for so thoroughly raiding his well-stocked larder, but the head chef to the High Council smiled and assured me that it was the least he could do if it helped defeat our enemies. Then his countenance clouded and he gave me a look such as I’d never seen on the face of the serious, but usually friendly, chef.
“They took my son – my only child – when he was but ten,” he said quietly. “When the cycle came around to Konassas for the Holy Office to procure indentures, the press gangs picked him up. He was running an errand for his mother. We never saw him again, and my wife died less than a year later. The healers said it was an infection in her lungs, but I know it was a broken heart that killed her. The illness she contracted is normally minor, but when she caught it she turned her face to the wall and refused any care; it only worsened, and within two weeks she was dead. Two years later, I heard that my son was killed in an accident when the team of horses plowing the field he was working in took fright, and in their panic trampled some of the children who were helping ready the fields for planting.” His face took on a hard look; his cold stare held my eyes and I suppressed the urge to shiver. “Your enemies are my enemies,” he grated, before quickly turning and leaving our presence.
After Master Arnod left, I concluded my business with Prince Ivan. He wished me well and departed. As he was leaving, Esteban and Bastian appeared before me. Looking at me uncomfortably, they stood not quite at attention, but also not quite at ease.
“Yes?” I asked, looking at the two of them.
There was a long pause as the two principal commanders of the Protectorate of the High Seraphic House stood there, while nothing but silence passed between us. Remaining silent, I patiently waited for one of them to speak. Finally, Esteban stepped forward and cleared his throat.
“Your Grace,” he began in a hesitant tone of voice. “We are not here to question your orders, but…” he paused and took in a breath. “When you chose those to accompany you into the Ardentin Forest, you didn’t choose even one pair of legionnaires from your own army.”
He said the words quickly, but in his tone I could clearly sense a feeling of disappointment, mingled with both hurt and resentment. Once his words took hold of me, I realized their seriousness and the misunderstanding they bespoke. I took a deep breath and slowly let it out, but before I could speak Bastian stepped forward and also spoke up.
“As Commander Esteban has said, Your Grace,” he continued, “we do not question your orders…”
“But you can’t understand why I wouldn’t choose my own troops for such a mission?” I said, interrupting Bastian and giving both he and Esteban a level stare.
For the second time since they’d appeared before me there was another long silence, broken only by the sounds and shouts of activity rising up to our window from the forum.
“I understand why you’ve come to me, and I’m glad you have,” I said, calmly taking a seat on a near by stool. “And I can even understand why you’re puzzled by my decision. Would you both please sit down?”
Giving each other uneasy glances, they remained standing.
“Please sit,” I said. “This is very important, both to you and to me. You are the Wizard’s Own, not the King’s Own. I see in your question my own failure, and I must first apologize – I know I’m supposed to be your leader, but I’m still learning how to do that properly. I gave you a command and while I can see that you’re willing to follow it as the loyal soldiers you are, it’s led to confusion and, I fear, a misunderstanding. You two, more than anyone, deserve a proper explanation.”
Once more they stared at each other, shuffled uncomfortably and frowned. “It is not our role to question you, Your Grace,” Bastian repeated once again.
“In fact it is, Captain. I am not all knowing. Now please,” I said, gesturing to the seats in front of me, “Please, Captain. Please Commander, be seated.”
Still exhibiting a fair amount of unease, they reluctantly pulled up two low-backed chairs, draped their wings over them and sat opposite me.
“Bastian,” I began, looking intently at my Captain and speaking in a soft, but what I hoped was a firm tone of voice. “In every battle you fight, what is your most important concern?”
“To fight skillfully, bravely, and honorably in order to achieve victory.”
“Yes, just as it should be,” I said. “And after that? What else is important to you?”
“To protect the life of my mate.”
“That’s very admirable,” I said, “but what about your own life?”
“My life is unimportant. It is the life of my mate that is most precious to me,” he said solemnly and looked toward Esteban. “I must not dishonor my mate by not defending him. I must not allow him to die.”
“Would you agree with that, Commander?” I said turning to Esteban.
“Yes, your grace. I fight first to defend the Wizard, and secondly, my mate,” he said as his eyes came to rest on his mate Bastian
“What if each of you had a great weapon?” I asked “A weapon far greater than any of those your enemies had – greater than a sword, or a knife, or a spear. One that was more accurate than the best bow and arrow ever made. A weapon that was far stronger than the strongest shield, and more reliable than even the finest crossbow. Would you use it to defend the life of your mate if he were in danger?”
“Of course, Your Grace,” both angels replied in unison.
“And you would use this weapon not to save your own life, but to protect from harm your greatest treasure – your mate?”
“Yes,” Bastian said, “without question.”
“Well, I have such a weapon,” I said quietly, gazing intently at both legionnaires.
They looked quizzically at each other, then back to me, returning my gaze with puzzled and questioning looks.
“The weapon I wield,” I continued, “is the Protectorate of the High Seraphic House, for just like both of you and every fighting pair in the legion, the life of my mate – King Niklas – means more to me than my own life. If he dies and I live…” I stopped abruptly, remained silent and stared intently at them. In that silence, I could see a light of understanding begin to shine in each of their eyes. Each legionnaire turned to the other, then back to me.
“Do you comprehend my meaning?”
“Ah… yes…,” Bastian finally answered, with awe, amazement, and understanding coloring his voice.
“You are the sword of the Wizard,” I continued. “You are my dagger, and my spear. You are the arrow nocked to my bow that pierces the hearts of my foes. You are the shield that protects my mate.”
I stood up from my chair. Quickly standing to join me, both officers jumped to their feet – Esteban so quickly that one of his wings tipped over the chair he was sitting on and there was a crash as it hit the floor.
“You are the Wizard’s Own, and as your leader, I place in your hands the greatest treasure I possess – the life of my mate, your king. I want every legionnaire possible poised to protect King Niklas. It is the highest honor I can bestow on anyone. It is an honor I bestow only on you, for I know that you and the legion understand what I now entrust to you – the love of my heart.”
For a few seconds Bastian and Esteban stood in silence, drinking in the words I’d served up to them. Finally they bowed quite deeply. “Now we understand, Your Grace,” Esteban said softly, once more turning to Bastian, who nodded his understanding.
“Forgive us for our ignorance, Your Grace. Words cannot describe what you have given us. We solemnly promise that before anyone can bring harm to King Niklas, every one of us will first have to be dead. We will never forget this honor.”
“Very well,” I said. “Then go, and be my weapon.”
And so Bastian and Esteban left my presence, and I took note that never had I seen them walking so tall and proud. No sooner did the door close behind them, than it burst open again revealing David, with Andrew in tow. “It’s all taken care of,” he said, flashing me a smile.
“What?” I asked.
“Every one of the archers has one of the special crossbows, and an ample supply of bolts and arrows,” he said, obviously proud of himself.
“But I thought you only had the one?” I said. “The one you stole from the arms exhibit in the Jade Palace,” I whispered in his ear.
“Oh that?” he answered, suddenly giving me a sheepish look, “Uhm… I guess I forgot to tell you that a few weeks later I went back to the Jade Palace and started rummaging through its underground chambers. I thought if they had such an amazing weapon on display, who knows what else they might have hidden in storage? When we first came to live here, I noticed the large cache of additional art stored in the lower reaches of the Amber Palace. It seems every museum around the Forum has more things hidden away than they have room for display. And everywhere I went, could easily see that no one has been in any of the storage vaults for years.”
I had to agree with David, for I’d seen the same thing during my explorations with Luc and Jonathan. “So what are you saying?” I asked, my eyes darting back and forth between the two smiling boys.
“Down in the lower chambers of the Jade Palace,” David continued, “I discovered all manner of weapons packed away, gathering dust and rust. In one of the large storage rooms, I found hundreds of the crossbows stacked up like cordwood, along with thousands of bolts. I also found standard arrows with the same properties as the bolts, and learned that they could be shot from regular long bows. The dust was thick about them, and I doubt if anyone has been down there for a very long time. They probably don’t even remember that they have them.”
“I’m sure he’s right,” Andrew said. “I went with him when he took the archers to the storage vault. You can see the dust of ages there. We had to cover our faces with cloths to keep from choking on it.”
It was then that I noticed how dirty both their hands and clothes were. “Well, I have to agree. At this point, they’re doing no one any good lying around, gathering dust. If they give us even the slightest advantage, we should take it. Perhaps we could distribute how ever many remain to the Legion.”
“Well said!” David shouted. “I told Andrew you’d agree,” he added turning to the prince who returned his smile. “I guess we’d best go tell Bastian about the crossbows before we go to my apartment and get cleaned up,” he added.
Andrew simply nodded, but before both boys vanished from my presence, I reminded them that tomorrow we would begin assembling before dawn and, shortly after sunrise, we’d commence our journey to the Ardentin forest.
“Already taken care of,” David said, beaming me a confident smile. “I prepared a list of the things we’ll need and gave it to the Lieutenant Commander that General Zakaria appointed to oversee the preparations. There’ll be some mules packed and ready in the forum; they’ll be with our horses, which will also be saddled and ready.”
After I thanked him for his initiative, he and Andrew left. As they opened the door I could see Renaud standing in the hall. That morning all members of the Imperial Legion had been ordered by their commanders to assist with preparations. This left a vacuum regarding the normal complement of guards who stood watch – a force that had been more than doubled after the raid on the palace and the murder of Luc. Upon learning of the situation General Zakaria filled most of the void left by their absence with Xannameirian troops from the garrison, but since Renaud was my personal protector – the ‘Protector to The Protector’ being his actual title – he insisted on being as close to me as possible. Seeing the tall and stony faced older boy standing statue still in the hallway, I nodded to him. He met my gaze and returned it with one that was so piercing I shivered – feeling like a mouse cowering in the shadow of a hawk. After David and Andrew closed the door, I turned and began to make some of my own preparations when I heard another knock at the door.
“What now?” I though to myself, once more making my way across the room. Slightly annoyed at yet another interruption, I opened the door only to find Giovanni standing there, with a somber look on his face. “Come in,” I said, my heart sinking as I suddenly realized the reason for his visit.
No sooner was he was inside our apartment and I’d closed the door, when Giovanni blurted out “My Lord Regent, I was preparing for our journey when I was told that, by your command, I’d be remaining behind here at the palace, and would not be accompanying you.”
“That’s correct, Giovanni,” I said. “You….”
“But, Your Grace,” he said cutting me off and moving closer to me, “it’s my place to be with…”
“No, Giovanni,” I said, cutting him off just as he’d done to me – although bit more forcefully than I’d intended.
“But, I don’t understand,” he said as his eyes began to glisten.
Ignoring his tears, I continued. “Listen to me, Giovanni. You, as much as anyone else, know the facts surrounding what I must do. You must remain safe here. I insist… no, I command you.”
At my words Giovanni’s eyes fell to the floor and I could see sadness and hurt writ clearly across his face. But I knew he was aware of everything surrounding the journey I was about to take, so even though he was ready to sulk, I was determined to stand firm. Taking him by the hand, I guided him to a nearby chair and told him to sit. I took a second chair, placed it before him, and also took a seat. Now face-to-face, I was so close to him our knees almost touched. Leaning forward I took one of his hands in mine. His head was bowed as he looked down into his lap, and I could feel his sadness and confusion.
“Giovanni,” I quietly began, “I know that you want to go. I know how I’d feel if it were Nic, and it pains me deeply to refuse you this. I know if I was in your position, I’d be feeling the same way you do now; what’s more, I’d probably be very angry and fighting anyone trying to stop me, but sometimes we must follow orders for a higher purpose.”
Giovanni continued to look away from me, purposefully avoiding my gaze. I squeezed his hand a bit tighter and continued. “Think of the soldiers General Zakaria has assembled to march with Niklas. They’re diligently preparing to go to war. Some of them will die and they know that, but instead of deserting, or resisting, or disobeying, they’re following their orders. They understand the higher purpose in their actions, so they obey even if it leads to their death. Now, like them, I’m asking you to obey. You are the friend of my heart. You know that if the circumstances were different I’d not only take you, but insist that you come. I’d carry you on my back if I had to, but it’s too dangerous – and you know that.”
Getting no response, I took another tact. “Giovanni,” I said, pushing my chair back and standing up. “It’s like the day we met at the Mondele. You remember that, no?”
“Of course,” Giovanni said quietly, speaking not to me, but to the floor.
“You’ve always given me credit for being so brave that day, Giovanni, but I was scared – more scared than you can imagine. I wanted to ignore what was happening but Cristophe told me that I had to help you; he said that I was the only one who Sprague feared, and I had to stop him. He told me that King Alexander would want me to do it. But I was still afraid, and I resisted. Then Cristophe reminded me that if I truly believed in everything we’d heard Alexander say, and if I truly considered myself a follower of the King, I must act. I knew in my heart that he was right – when it came to doing the noble thing, Cristophe was always right. So I swallowed my fear, and like a soldier going to war, marched into the courtyard and faced down Sprague...but you know all of this. The point is, Giovanni, I could have walked away. I could have told Cristophe to mind his own business – that your situation was no affair of mine. I could have ignored the words of Alexander, but I knew in my heart what was the right thing to do, and even through I was afraid and didn’t want to do it, I still did.
“That’s what I’m asking you to do now. You know what the right thing is – you know it in your heart. You understand how important all of this is. I don’t have to explain it to you. We don’t have to waste our time talking about something we both agree on.” Pushing back my chair and going to my knees in front of him, I felt my wings brush the floor. Ignoring them, I took both of Giovanni’s hands in mine. “You know how much I love you and you know that I’ve never broken a promise to you, so now I promise you with all my heart that as soon as the danger has passed, what you desire most will be granted. I’m not asking you to be happy about it, I’m just asking you to obey – not as the Wizard, but as your friend. Please?”
Although his head was still down and his eyes refused to meet mine, he bit his lower lip and slowly nodded his head. But although I’d gotten his agreement, I couldn’t send him away dejected and downhearted. Standing up, I looked down at him, sitting so sad and downcast.
“Giovanni, please tell me what you think of King Niklas,” I asked gently.
Confronted with his silence I stood quietly, waiting for a response. When he realized that I wasn’t going to let him go without an answer, he finally looked up at me.
“What do you mean?” he asked, puzzled.
“What do you think of the King?” I repeated. “Is he good, bad, evil, strong? What’s your opinion of His Highness – my mate? It’s a simple question.”
“He’s noble, and kind…” Giovanni began, “… I’m not sure what…” Giovanni paused, and I could see his eyes searching my face to see if he was giving me what I expected.
Seeing his confusion, I changed my tactics. “Was the emperor a king?”
“Do you think he deserved to be a king? Did he do anything noble or kind? Was he compassionate, generous, loving, and self-sacrificing?”
“No, he was a king because his father was a king and his father before him. You know that, Your Grace. And he wasn’t kind; he was very cruel.”
“So even though he was a king by birth, did he deserve to be a king? Did he do anything to show that he deserved such a high honor?”
“Not that I know of,” Giovanni answered.
“Did he command obedience out of respect, or fear?”
“Fear, I think.”
“Would you obey King Niklas because you fear him, or because you respect him?”
“Because I respect him,” Giovanni said promptly, “and because I know he loves me, and everyone else. I know he would put others before himself. He would die for all of us.”
“Yes,” I said. “Even now, he prepares to risk his life for us all. That is one of the marks, among many, of a true king.” For a few seconds there was silence between us. Giovanni was now staring intently at me. “Then think on this, and think what marks a true king – not one of the blood, but one of the heart. And after you ponder it, tell me what the right thing to do is. What would a true king do?”
Giovanni was silent, but as he looked up at me I could see a change come over him. “A true king would not put himself first,” he said.
Reaching out, I took him by the hand and pulled him up. Hugging him tightly to me, I continued. “Then be strong, be brave, and be true.”
“But it’s hard,” he said.
“Of course it is,” I said. “Brotus once told me that a king of the blood wears a crown of gold, while a king of the heart wears a crown of thorns. It took me some time to truly understand that, but now I do.”
Ending our embrace, I looked down at him. “Dear friend, remember your part, and perform it the very best you can.”
Although he didn’t speak, he solemnly nodded his head. Giving him a final kiss on the cheek I sent him on his way, with orders to check and see if anyone needed any assistance – especially Charles, who was probably reading a book instead of properly preparing for a trip into the Ardentin forest. At my indirect barb at Charles, Giovanni giggled and I was pleased to see a slight smile on his face.
After Giovanni left, the apartment was finally quiet, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to endure any further interruptions. Not knowing how long the peaceful lull that followed would last, I was determined to use the time to make my own necessary preparations. An hour later Nic arrived, and over a large tray of bread, fruit, cheese and cold meats – brought in a few minutes earlier by one of the household servants – he recounted the events since we’d separated after leaving the map room. When he finished, we spent some time discussing our plans in an effort to coordinate my actions with his, so that in the end we would meet for our stand in Fire Block Canyon. Although it was early evening and our normal bedtime wasn’t until later, we mutually decided to go to bed and get a proper night’s sleep. I relished the chance to get one final, decent night’s sleep in our soft bed before once more having to face a bedroll on the hard floor of the Ardentin forest.
That night, after climbing into bed, I was content to simply be held in Nic’s arms. Although neither of us had gotten any much sleep the previous night, we both remained awake for quite some time lying quietly together in the dark, but not speaking. Since there was really nothing more to say, we chose to stay silent, enjoying our time together and knowing that in the morning we’d each be going our separate ways.
Now, as I stood on the steps of the Amber Palace taking in the sea of men, horses and supplies that so thoroughly filled up the square that they threatened to overflow the usually empty space that was the Forum, the reality of what we were about to do took its complete and final hold of me. An hour before dawn, Nic and I awoke, bathed, ate a light breakfast and made our final preparations. The light of day was just beginning to illuminate the sky as we descended from our apartment to the organized chaos of the Forum.
Surveying the Forum, I could see that – although filled to capacity – it appeared to have taken on a planned order far different from the appearance of total confusion and disorganization I’d witnessed when, just before going to bed, I’d looked down from our apartment window and observed the hurried preparations being made as an army of soldiers, servants and craftsmen labored tirelessly to make sure all was ready for the morning’s departure.
In one corner of the square, near its main entrance, I could see Hans Kopper’s archers making one final check of their mounts. I was pleased to see that each man was sporting one of the strange crossbows that David had discovered. A closer look revealed that along with the crossbows, each man had been given an ample supply of both arrows and bolts. I scanned the group of archers for Commander Kopper, but couldn’t pick him out until I looked to where the gladiators had assembled and saw him talking to Miro. Since Miro had been the first Icarian to make contact with Kopper and his archers, it seemed only logical that they would have developed a trust and affinity for each other.
While the archers went about their preparations in total silence, the same could not be said of the gladiators. The fifty duets were assembled in the middle of the forum with their horses and supplies. And although it was early morning and most everyone was either tired from working through the night or still shaking off the effects of sleep, the boys who’d entertained the crowds at Castle Rood appeared to be living up to their reputation as showmen.
Dressed in their finery, they were ceaselessly laughing, joking, shouting and posturing to each other. Occasionally one would push or tussle another. A few were tossing razor sharp daggers high into the air. One of the boys took out his short sword and spanked a nearby comrade, causing an impromptu sparring match that had to be quelled by Miro. On the whole, they appeared to be a thoroughly wild group – continually making noise, or otherwise engaging in some form of horseplay. At one point a chant started within their group, “When do we get to fight? When do we get to fight?” I could only shake my head as I watched them, and although I’d thought David and Miro could be mischievous devils; I quickly saw that there were some in this group that made the twins look calm and sedate.
The forces of the Imperial Legion, on the other hand, were all business – serious, and professional to the core. Assembled in one of the far corners of the forum, with horses, wagons and auxiliary support troops, they were by far the largest group. Of the original thousand, only a handful were now stationed at Eagles Rock, and Nic planned on leaving only about one hundred behind in Konassas. “If we lose,” he’d told me, “it won’t do any good to have a larger force left behind – best to totally commit to our cause.” Therefore, almost eight hundred and fifty of the legionnaires would be marching with Nic to Fire Block Canyon.
For a few minutes I studied the forces of the Wizard’s Own going about their preparations. After bonding with the legion I soon learned that in addition to being composed of fighting pairs, there were further structures and divisions within the over all force. Five pairs made up a ‘des, composed of ten legionnaires. One of the pairs in each ‘des was considered prime’des and acted as the leaders of their ‘des. Five ‘des made up a ‘shan, consisting of a hundred legionnaires. Each ‘shan also had a pair of leaders – chosen from one of the ‘shan’s five prime ‘des and called prime’shan. The ‘des remained unnamed – not so the ‘shan. Each ‘shan chose a name for their fighting unit – garam sarr (talons of steel), ‘shan evons (the hundred eagles), avor dahrah (wings of the dawn). The ten ‘shan joined together made up the entire legion, with Esteban and Bastian serving as their top commanders. The command structure was simple and seemed to work quite efficiently.
I looked on as the legionnaires silently went about their assigned tasks with practiced efficiently. As I watched them make their final preparations, my eyes were drawn to the legion’s battle flag flying valiantly above their heads. Since the legion was made up of Imperial Seraphim from the Imperial House of the Dragon and operated as both a military and ceremonial unit, their battle flag was designed with those two functions in mind – not only serving as an impressive ceremonial banner, but also a quite practical and easily identifiable battle flag.
Fine Odden cloth served to make the banner itself. Woven from the soft threads of the rare Tessel plant – a slender-stalked flower that only grew in the marshes at the mouth of the River Darrdin. The stalk of each plant produced only two to three strands of a thin, pliable fiber that when woven into a cloth, created a material that was softer than the finest silk yet so durable that four strong men at either end of a square, tugging with all their might, couldn’t rip it or even distort its shape. In fact, Odden cloth was so rare I’d only known it to be used for ceremonial wall hangings in the imperial court. Dyed with a mixture of ink collected from the ink sacks of the sea sneet – a small, shelled sea creature – and aurum root, its color was a deep purple – the color of the Wizard’s House. Great golden flames embroidered in the finest gold thread shot out across the banner in a wild swirling pattern, symbolizing the fire of the dragon – the totem representing the Imperial House of the High Seraphim. Watching the flag catch the early morning breeze, I felt a sense of pride that they were a part of the Imperial Household – truly the Wizard’s Own, and I knew they would fight to the death for their honor, their mates, and for me.
Gathering in a spot next to the Imperial Legion stood the forces of Cohort Hawk with their commander, General Lancelot, Prince of the Royal House of Defense. At the adjournment of the Council of Kingdoms, after General Zakaria and Captains Tark and Torken approached Nic asking to join the fight, Lance also approached and requested that Cohort Hawk take part in the campaign. Nic quickly concurred, since of all the human troops only Hawk was fully prepared to fight a battle involving a ground assault combined with an air attack. In the midst of Hawk, Lance’s First Sergeant Aaron Blaze was inspecting his soldiers, nearby Lieutenant Toman Arb, First Commander of Hawk’s cavalry, was also engaged in a final inspection As Lance inspected and conferred with his troops Cody stood to the side, ready to say his final farewell.
Finally I looked across the forum to where General Zakaria and his troops had assembled. While not a large force, it was nevertheless made up of some of the toughest and most experienced troops the Xannameirian army had to offer. The no-nonsense approach General Zakaria always exhibited was mirrored in the troops he’d chosen to lead. Battle hardened and disciplined, these men left no doubt that they were professional soldiers, through and through. Looking closely I saw some of them also carried the special crossbows, bolts and arrows David had found, and I was glad there had been more than a few extras to go around. Within the Xannameirian ranks stood Sergeant Griss and the forces of Cohort Wolf – Juston Tark’s former cohort and the very first Xannameirian troops we’d encountered. Nearby, Captain Ronan Torken was having a private discussion with some of the junior officers, while the general – already mounted on horseback – was quietly studying the scene before him. I was so lost in thought that I failed to notice Niklas’ approach.
“I guess it’s time, Jamie,” Nic said, without any expression or emotion.
“Yes, Nic, it’s time.”
“I’m going to make the rounds,” he said, and began to walk down the steps. As he did, I ran behind him.
Nic’s first stop was the Guild of Archers. As he approached, I noticed Hans Kopper breaking away from Miro, quickly giving the gladiator a handshake and a pat on the shoulder. “Good luck, my friend,” I heard him say. “And to you also, Commander,” Miro replied.
By the time Nic arrived in front of the archers, Kopper was walking at his side. Kopper’s men were mounted and ready to go. Nic paused for a few seconds, looking up at the men astride their horses.
“Fortune favor you all,” he said. “Remember, although you won’t be at the gates of Taldor Valoren, you’ll be in a much more important place. Every throne you prevent from getting to the Pass of Tears is one less that the Iron Regiment will have to fight. You are the true gatekeepers. Keep hidden, use camouflage and stealth, and you will succeed.”
At the mention of the name of the Iron Regiment, my mind went to the windswept Pass of Tears, and my last glimpse of them before I walked back through the mirror gate. They were standing strong and tall. Brought back into the land of the living through my abilities as a Time Tamer, they were united in their purpose. In my mind, I saw again the giant banner, with the tower and the lions rampant, blowing in the mountain wind, and I recalled the figure of the black knight on his mighty warhorse giving me one final salute.
I was quickly roused when I heard Nic speaking to Kopper. “Remember what I told you about the thrones, Hans,” he said. “They’ll come with one purpose in mind – to get through the pass and reach Taldor Valoren. They won’t stop to engage you. You’ll have one shot at them as they pass, so make it a good one, though you may feel free to harry them up into the mountains if you can. And remember, as Jamie told us, they’ll either be on foot, on horseback, or both; the air is too thin in the high Poniçessians, so they won’t be flying.”
“Harry them we will,” Kopper said, “all the way to the gates of doom and back.”
After clasping Nic’s arm, Kopper wished the King of Icaria good luck, mounted his horse and prepared to give the order to ride, but before he could, I stepped back from Nic so that all of the archers could see me.
“Remember one thing,” I called out, and I watched as every archer turned to look at me. “Icarians have two hearts. The main heart, just like a human’s, is here,” and I placed my fist over my first heart. Sliding it down slightly, I continued: “And our auxiliary heart is here. A shot in the main heart is fatal, but a shot in the auxiliary, although it can eventually cause death, won’t kill them immediately or as quickly. They can still fight for some time after being hit there.”
The archers listened intently to my words and I watched their eyes follow my fist as I slid it over my second heart. When I was finished Kopper wished us luck one final time, and with a shout, ordered his men from the square. They left quickly and without ceremony, and soon the last of them had departed the Forum. But while their exit was sobering, there was no time to reflect as Nic immediately turned and headed toward the rowdy pack of gladiators. I was surprised that the instant he was in their midst, they fell silent. It was then that I witnessed one of the more amazing displays of friendship, camaraderie and loyalty that I’d ever seen. Without instruction or orders, the boys formed four tight, concentric circles around Nic – each slightly larger than the one it encircled.
Dropping to one knee, they all drew their short swords and, rapping the hilts hard against their armored chests with a loud crash, they shouted in unison, “Hail Niklas.” Gone were the smirks and grins. Each face was turned upward to Nic, every eye riveted on him and every gaze hard and serious.
“You know what is asked of you?” Nic questioned.
“We know, and we accept,” all one hundred gladiators said in unison. Still on one knee, they placed their swords on the ground and in a ceremony that appeared to me oft practiced and performed with obvious reverence, they began.
“We who fight this day do so for our lives, our honor, and our brothers,” they chanted in unison. “While those who sit and look on are amused and find sport in our battle, we know that death is but a second away, ever present, always standing behind us, ready to clutch us in its cold embrace. We will stand firm, we will defend each other, and we will fight fairly and honorably. Our lives are as silver, but our honor is gold. We will not kill the injured, we will not harm the defenseless, and we will protect our brothers with our lives, for sacrificing our blood to spare our brother is the noblest thing we can do.”
Then, one of the duets in the inner circle picked up their swords and stood. Facing each other and holding their swords pointed to the sky, one member of the duet began to speak, his voice strong with conviction as he addressed his partner. “With my sword I will defend you, my brother; my life is but a shadow compared to yours. My blood for you.” When he was finished the second member of the duet spoke, “With my sword I will defend you, my brother; my life is but a shadow compared to yours. My blood for you.” And so it went as, duet by duet, each pair stood and repeated the same words, and as they continued, I could see the deep sense of honor, loyalty, respect, and love they held for each other. As the scene unfolded, my impression of this pack of wild, unruly boys – who seemed simply interested in fighting – changed, for I could see a loyal band of brothers fighting in a hostile world before a crowd only interested in one thing – seeing their blood spilled as they battled to the death for the sole purpose of frivolous amusement and entertainment. In their struggle, they’d formed a family of sorts – a strange one to be sure, but one where they could find support, caring, and most of all, love.
Throughout the boys’ ceremony, Nic stood unmoving in the center. When they were all once again standing, they put away their swords. Then, one by one, they stood before Nic and each boy bowed. Upon arising, they approached and gave him a strong embrace. “Le’ir Bahr a’Ronei,” each boy said in the melodic lilt of the Icarian tongue. I blinked in surprise, for while I was familiar with the term, I’d rarely ever heard it used. The words would have been impossible to translate into the common human tongue. The terms ‘honored teacher,’ ‘leader,’ ‘supreme friend,’ ‘mentor,’ ‘one who cares more for others than themselves’ – even ‘father’ – might be used, but none could have conveyed the true meaning of the term.
If Niklas Agramos, a gladiator from House Argon, was indeed Le’ir Barh a’Ronei to one hundred gladiator boys, it was an incredible accomplishment, and one that would have made the emperor himself jealous. When the last duet was finished and Nic had been given his final embrace, Miro stepped forward. Because David had been away making ready for our departure, Miro had chosen to stand outside the circle of gladiators, but now he walked up to Nic and stood quietly before him. He reached under his armor and pulled out one of his many hidden knives, but when he held it in his hand, I all but gasped. The jewel-encrusted, golden dagger was magnificent. And although it appeared to be more of a ceremonial piece than a weapon, when Miro withdrew it from its sheath I could see that, in true gladiator fashion, he’d honed it to razor sharpness. Sliding it back in its sheath, he presented it to Nic.
“This is the dagger of King Alexander,” Miro said. “I was in the training hall the day he was killed. When I heard of his death, I snuck into the private quarters where he used to change, and it was there I came across this. I took it not as an act of thievery, but to keep it from the hands of those who would have dishonored it. I hid it in the barracks and never let anyone else see it. When we fought our final battle at Rood, where I thought we would all die, I carried it into the arena with me. When we fled to Piropolis, I brought it along. I can think of no one who deserves to possess it more than you. You are our Le’ir Barh a’Ronei, and we owe all to you.”
Looking at the dagger, a long-forgotten memory flashed in my mind of the King, standing in the dark, lower chambers of the Mondele Royale. Cristophe and I’d snuck down a back stairway after hearing muffled conversations floating up through a floor grate. After our stealthy descent, we were surprised to see King Alexander standing amidst a group of Icarians, and servants who were members of the Mondele staff. That first time I’d seen Alexander, he was wearing that dagger. Now I was seeing it once again, over two and a half millennia later.
Nic slowly took the dagger from Miro’s hand. He stared at it and turned it over in his hands. It appeared to me that he was trying to speak, but it soon became apparent that what had just transpired between he and Miro was beyond words. He embraced Miro in the kind of hug only two best friends and long-time comrades-in-arms can give. Breaking the embrace, Miro kissed Nic, and for the first time since I’d first seen him do it, I harbored no jealousy in my heart. I did, though, feel a sudden twinge of sadness. It came upon me swiftly but then passed, as a fast-moving cloud briefly hides the sun. In that brief moment, I felt a sharp pang of loss and sadness as I realized that what Nic and the gladiators still shared, I’d once had long ago – something very special that had been taken from me. But the time for sadness or even reflection was a luxury I could ill afford at the moment.
Without so much as a word, Miro sharply turned from Nic and mounted his horse, Lightning. The other gladiators followed suit, acting almost as if what had just occurred between them was now forgotten. They appeared more than eager to execute their orders as they silently headed out of the forum. Near the entrance to the square, I saw David pass through the central gate and enter the forum, accompanied by Master Barzo and a few stable boys who were leading our horses and four pack mules. As the mounted squad of gladiators approached them, Miro reigned in his horse and brought it to a halt in front of his brother. David, too, stopped his advance and stood looking up at his twin. In a flash, two gleaming swords were drawn with a flourish and raised.
“We are les gemeaux,” both boys shouted to each other as wicked grins spread across their faces. “We are death, at the point of a sword!” and then Miro kicked Lightning and galloped out of the Forum with the other gladiators in hot pursuit, looking like the charge of the devil’s own army. David continued to stare straight ahead – not turning to look back after his brother – and resumed his walk into the center of the Forum.
After the gladiators were gone, Nic stood silently for a few seconds, still turning the golden dagger over in his hands. Then, as if awakened from a dream, his expression changed as he tucked it away under his armor and began to walk toward Bastian, Esteban, and the Imperial Legion lined up in formation behind them. Suddenly, he stopped and turned back to face me.
“No, Jamie,” he said, giving me a serious and intense look. “It’s not proper for me to do this. I know you’re no general, but they are the Wizard’s Own. This is for you to do.”
Giving him an understanding nod, I walked past him and approached the Wizard’s Own. As I got closer the Legion, in one quick, fluid motion, came to stiff attention. Bastion and Esteban also stood at attention. “Ready for inspection, Your Grace,” Bastion said taking one step toward me.
I nodded, and Esteban shouted, “Present arms!”
At his command each legionnaire drew his sword and held it out. With Esteban in front of me and Bastian behind, we made our way up and down the ranks of the legionnaires, each standing with eyes focused dead ahead, sword raised, and proudly at attention.
When we’d finished, we returned to the front of the ranks.
“You told them, didn’t you?” I asked the two officers.
“Yes, Your Grace. They understand – completely. We are your weapon. We will forever treasure this great honor.”
Suddenly Bastian gave a shout and immediately the entire legion dropped to one knee and a loud shout broke the silence of the dawn: “All hail the wizard!”
“I feel pity for your enemies,” I called out – the volume of my voice increased by the Great Shout. “Let terror enter their hearts when the shadow of your wings falls over them.” At my words, I saw smiles and nods break out throughout the ranks. Bastian shouted another order and every legionnaire stood, sheathed his sword, and waited.
I turned back to Nic, and saw Lance standing next to him.
“Well done,” Nic said smiling.
I nodded solemnly and didn’t return his smile. While I’d performed my obligation, I didn’t relish sending them off to die. “How many will never return?” I thought to myself.
Nic shot Lance a glance. “Ready, General?” he asked.
“Yes,” was the only word that came from Lance’s mouth.
“Then we ride,” Nic said, and resolutely strode toward the Imperial Legion where his horse, Galad, was waiting. Swinging up into the saddle, he gently kicked the horse’s flanks and neck-reined the magnificent brown stallion around, ready to ride from the Forum. As Nic moved on, shouts from the commanders of the Imperial Legion roused the Legionnaires who fell in behind the king. General Zakaria also kicked his horse and soon he, and Torken were riding next to Niklas. Lance, who’d quickly given Cody one last hug and kiss, jumped on his horse, spurred, and took his place with the commanders of the task force. I heard a staccato shout from Sergeant Aaron Blaze, and Cohort Hawk was on the march, falling in behind the Xannameirian troops under General Zakaria’s command. As they passed by me, Nic stopped abruptly and looked down at me. Making my way over to him I reached out, put my hand to his ankle and carefully undid the clasp of the emerald ankle bracelet he always wore.
“I almost forgot this,” I said, smiling up at him and gently brushing his ankle with my right hand as my left slid the anklet into the inner pocket of my cloak.
I lifted my hand to him and he bent down, extending his toward me. Soon our fingers and palms lay flat against each other, firmly touching. After a few seconds, I intertwined my fingers tightly with his, as he did the same to me.
“I’ll be in Fire Block Canyon as soon as I can,” I said.
“I know,” was all he responded.
Then our hands separated, he kicked Galad one more time, and almost as quickly as I could blink, was gone from the Forum. The combined army followed, the riders swiftly flowing through the city while the wagons formed a long line, snaking through the streets. After a few minutes the great square was once more quiet, with only the rumble of hooves and wagon wheels fading into the distance to show that the army was on the move.
“Well?” David said, giving me a look of anticipation.
“Yes,” I answered, “time for us to leave.”
Because I’d been saying goodbye to Nic, I’d failed to notice Juston Tark, Charles, Andrew, and Renaud making their appearance in the Forum. Now I could see that they were already mounted, and prepared to ride. David, ever the performer, leapt into the air and landed on his horse, giving every sign he couldn’t wait to begin another adventure. I, on the other hand, slowly mounted Arax. I knew what lay ahead, and what I must do to fulfill my promise. After I mounted Arax, I glanced around the deserted forum and almost found it hard to believe that a short time before, it had been filled with an army of warriors, horses, wagons, and weapons.
Cody and the other princes and scribes of the noble houses, along with Masters Sandro, Jaysune, Arnod, and some of the household servants stood on the steps of the Amber Palace, bidding us goodbye. Taking Arax’s reins firmly in hand, I looked down at the bracelet on my arm – the Asp Bracelet of the House of the Dragon. I gently touched it with the fingers of my off hand, then looked over at David and nodded.
But just as I was ready to nudge Arax on, I heard a shout and looked across the forum to see Giovanni running down the steps. Suddenly he stroked his wings, pushed off, and was gliding toward us. Landing directly in front of us, he walked over to me. Standing next to Arax, he reached up, extending his arm to me. In his hand, I could see a flower. The humans of this land called it a Perirose, but in Icarian it was known as a Sh’arhan. Gently plucking it from Giovanni’s hand, I looked down at him.
“You know it will wilt and dry up in a short time?” I said, even though I knew the answer I’d receive.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “will you do it?”
“Of course,” I said smiling. “It will be one of the first things I do. I promise.”
This seemed to satisfy him and he smiled shyly at me. He turned, once more stroked his wings, jumped into the air, and glided to the steps of the Amber Palace, where the others were standing. I waited until he was once more on firm ground and had turned back to face us.
“Let’s go,” I said.
David gave a whoop and kicked his horse – a gray named Star. Following his lead, the rest of us dug our heels into the flanks of our horses, and then we, too, were leaving the Forum of Konassas behind us.
Riding through the quiet streets of the city in the early morning light, my head was filled with so many thoughts all competing for my attention, I was amazed it didn’t explode. After passing through the nearly deserted garrison, we arrived at the main gate of the city. The sight that greeted me almost made me tumble from my horse, for stretching out past the gate on either side of the road was the entire remaining garrison of Konassas, both infantry and cavalry, scrubbed, spit-polished and in full dress uniform, with every battle and regimental flag flying as they stood tall and proud.
I turned to say something to Andrew, but found I was so overcome with emotion I couldn’t speak. Looking out through the gate, I realized that everyone who’d gone before us – Kopper and his archers, the gladiators, and the combined forces of Icaria and Xannameir – had been given the same honor. Juston Tark was the first to get his horse moving, and the rest of us quickly followed. The second our horses passed through the gate there was a shout and the entire garrison, in one grand flourish, snapped to attention and saluted. Passing between them, I kept looking to my right and left, occasionally recognizing a man who’d served as a guard in the Amber Palace or someone I’d seen spar with Nic, Lance, or David. And even though they were at attention, there were quiet calls of “good luck,” “take care,” and “stand firm,” as we passed by.
I’d always been amazed that while we’d certainly been served up our share of hostility from various quarters almost from the very moment of our reappearance in this land, I couldn’t think of one instance where we hadn’t been welcomed, protected, and served by the troops of the garrison. We continued down through the honor guard, and although I wanted to say something in thanks to let them know how much we owed them, I found I still was beyond speech. Midway through the ranks, I turned and caught a glimpse of one of the large piles of wood that were always stacked up near the gate. It was used to light a fire that illuminated the gate at night so that it could be seen by travelers coming upon the city, and to help the guards of the gatewatch quickly identify those who entered the city after dark. It was then I got an idea.
Halting Arax, I looked down to see Sergeant Raff, Commander of the Gatewatch standing nearby. I reined Arax about and stared back at the gate. Extending my arm and concentrating, I created a red ball of glowing light in the palm of my hand and threw it. It flew swiftly and accurately, hitting the woodpile and causing it to flare up into a bonfire.
“To light the way, until all return,” I said, looking down at the sergeant.
“It will be done,” Raff replied as he looked up at me, while at the same time giving me a quick and stiff-necked nod.
Turning back to the group, I galloped on to catch up with them.
“Just a souvenir to remember the little boy who throws the fire balls,” David said in a half mocking tone.
I heard Charles and Andrew chuckle, but let them have their fun. I knew that what we were facing was serious, and the lighter we all kept our moods, the better it would be. One last time I turned back, and watched the city of Konassas grow smaller as we galloped on. Turning forward, I shivered, knowing only too well what lay ahead of me.