I stood at the bottom of the stone stairs and stared up at the ring of armed men crowding the opening. The men were dressed in uniforms – soldiers, it seemed. But whose? It wasn’t apparent to me. Some of them gripped swords, while others wielded pikes, all of which were pointed at us. They looked grim and serious, glaring down at us from above. The subterranean rooms we’d come from had been cool and comfortable, but now that we were at the entrance, the heat of the day beat down into the open hole and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my neck and running down my back.
“Come up very slowly,” a voice called down to us, and while I still couldn’t see who was speaking, I recognized it as the same voice that had spoken a few moments before.
Slowly I began to ascend the steps. It was then that Nic grabbed my arm and pulled me back.
“I’m not a baby Nic,” I said, giving him a frown. But he chose to ignore me, instead quickly turning to Lance and Miro.
“The stairs are narrow, and if we choose not to go up they’re going to have to come down to us single file; we can easily defend ourselves here, even if they have the advantage of height.”
Lance and Miro nodded in agreement and took out their swords – Lance his long sword, Miro his short sword and dagger. And while Lance looked stern and serious, Miro had a huge grin on his face.
“Come down and die,” the twin called up from the foot of the stairs. “Either one by one or in a group, it won’t matter.”
“Stop that,” I snapped at the young angel, giving him the angriest look I could muster. “Maybe you don’t care if you die here, but I certainly do.”
“Jamie’s right,” Nic said. “Personally, I’d rather not fight, but we don’t know who these men are or who they serve. We can’t allow ourselves to come to harm, but on the other hand we don’t want to risk future problems by killing part of someone’s army– a well trained, fed, dressed and disciplined army at that,” he added for emphasis.
Just then, David emerged from the door on the opposite side of the room with Luc following closely behind. They were both carrying pieces of the twin’s additional armor and weapons.
It didn’t take the second warrior angel very long to realize what was happening. He quickly dropped what he was carrying, motioned for Luc to stay back, and like Miro, drew both his short sword and dagger.
“Look, we’re trying to avoid a fight here,” I said, looking angrily at David. Then turning back to Nic I added, “Would you please stop them?”
Nic raised his hand in the direction of the twins. “Let’s not over-react,” he said looking at both the twins and then me.
“It looks like we’ve got ourselves into a real dilemma.” I said
“Not if we kill them all,” Miro said still grinning at me.
“Perfect,” I growled, “let’s kill them and see how many hundreds more descend on us to avenge the ones we killed!”
“I think there’s a better way.” The voice coming from behind the twins was measured and calm, and suddenly I realized that it was Cody who was speaking.
“It looks as if we’re both in a stalemate. If they try to come down to capture us they’re vulnerable, but if they remain on the surface, they can hold us at bay, and without food and water how long can we last?”
“You’re correct of course, but what do you suggest?” I said, moving past Miro and David in order to get closer to the blue-winged angel.
“Let’s try to talk to them,” he said, “it certainly can’t hurt.”
“No it can’t,” I said. “Maybe we can come to some type of agreement.”
“And if not, cold steel may cause them to change their minds,” David added flashing a smile.
Other then frowning and shaking my head, I chose to ignore his remark and instead began to concentrate on Cody’s suggestion. Nic joined us and within a few minutes we developed a strategy. Since the original idea had been Cody’s and he’d contributed a number of valid points, it was decided that he would make first contact. I was a bit wary, but also impressed with Cody’s initiative, so even though I was a bit worried for his safety, I agreed.
Moving to the bottom of the steps, Cody looked up. Immediately the soldiers pushed forward their pikes, aimed at him. I took a deep breath and watched, hoping that one or more of the soldiers wouldn’t suddenly decide to use their weapons against the unarmed boy.
“May I speak to your leader?” Cody said in a firm and confident voice.
At first nothing seemed to happen, but then I saw one of the soldiers turn and leave the circle. After about a minute, the soldier returned and resumed his position, but a voice called down to us and I could tell that it was the same one that had initially addressed us.
“I lead this cohort,” the voice said, “and I order you to come up to the surface.”
“We’re considering your request,” Cody said, “but there are a few assurances we’d like to have.”
“Assurances?” the disembodied voice said. “I would think you’re in no position to make any demands.”
“On the contrary,” Cody said, "it looks like we have reached a stalemate. You can come down and attempt to force us to obey you, but the stairs are narrow, as you can easily see, and we not only have weapons, but know how to effectively use them.”
“But you can’t stay down there forever,” the voice said, “and how long will you last without food and water?”
“We have enough of everything we need for some time,” Cody said, “so I think you may be in for a long wait. In the meantime, we may have a few surprises of our own.”
I gave Cody a questioning look and raised my eyebrows even though at the same time I was rather impressed with his negotiations. It seemed he knew how to execute a convincing bluff. There was a pause then the voice resumed.
“What do you propose?”
“Withdraw your soldiers and allow us to come up. We will sheath our weapons and will not attack if you also agree not to harm us.”
Again there was a moment of silence.
“Agreed,” was the only other word spoken.
I looked at Nic and he nodded, replacing his sword. Glancing at Lance, David, and Miro he motioned for them to do the same. Lance immediately sheathed his sword. The twins followed suit, but I could tell it was with reluctance and disappointment.
Looking up, I could see the soldiers moving away from the opening at the top of the stairs. Nic put a foot on the stairs and began to ascend into the light leading the way for the rest of us. I moved in behind him, staying as near to him as possible while the others followed closely behind us. Step by step we climbed. The higher we got, the brighter the sun and the warmer the air. Finally we were all above ground, once more standing on the open, arid plain.
As my eyes adjusted to the light and I surveyed the scene, I could see about twenty soldiers; five of them were on horseback and appeared to be cavalry troops while the rest were on foot and struck me as being infantrymen. The soldiers continued to surround us, but the Calvary troops had put their swords away and the infantrymen had raised their pikes. Suddenly there was a clatter that came from down in the hole. Before I could turn and look at what happened the infantrymen immediately lowered their pikes and approached menacingly.
At that moment, Nic reached for his short sword. As soon as my mate drew his sword, Lance jumped directly in front of him, drawing his own sword in a sudden, fluid motion. It seemed my new general was taking his command very seriously. I jumped in surprise as Miro suddenly pushed Philippe behind him and sprang into action, his short sword and dagger drawn, a defiant sneer on his face as his eyes scanned over the small cohort of soldiers.
“If any of you would taste death today,” he shouted, suddenly flashing the broadest of grins. “I will be happy to assist you.” Then he gave a slight bow, without taking his eyes off of the soldiers or relaxing his stance.
The clatter from below ground continued and I turned to see what it was. Looking back down toward the bottom of the steps I could see Luc sprawled on the ground. It appeared he’d tried to bring some of David and Miro’s armor and weapons up with him and had slipped, causing everything he was carrying to fall from his hands – thus the jarring and unexpected noise.
An icy wave of fear rose in my chest and clutched my heart. Just because of an accidental misstep, I could clearly see this encounter escalating into an all-out battle. Swallowing hard, I quickly stepped between Nic and the soldiers. Nic shot me a worried and disapproving look, but I looked away and took a deep breath. After gathering my thoughts, I began to speak.
“Who’s in charge here?” I asked, trying to sound calm and confident while at the same time feeling my legs shake. “We mean none of you any harm, but we will defend ourselves if we have to.”
One of the solders on horseback nudged his animal through the circle and approached me. As he got closer, I noticed his armor was a bit finer and more embellished than any of the other horsemen or infantrymen in the cohort. His horse was also a handsome mount, healthy, strong and well groomed. Looking at his saddle I could see that it appeared to have been specially fashioned for him. I also noticed a crest on the cloak draped over his left shoulder and a plume rising from his helmet – something the other, more plainly dressed soldiers did not have. It quickly became obvious to me he was the one in charge – possibly a nobleman, definitely an officer, and perhaps even both.
“I am Lieutenant Juston Tark, commander of this cohort and an officer in the first army of Xannameir,” the man said in a calm, relaxed voice as he stared down at me.
I met his gaze and held it with what I hoped was a serious and confident look of my own.
Finding David, Miro and Philippe was an unplanned adventure that had caught us off guard. Our time spent in the subterranean rooms – while interesting – had led us to drop our guard, allowing this small band of troops to completely surprise us. I knew Nic and Lance were prepared to offer a fight, but now that we were above ground and I got a better look at the soldiers, something about them seemed familiar to me. Maybe it was the style of their dress or the insignia they wore. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt some nebulous sense of recognition.
I also felt a growing tension in the air between Nic, Lance, the twins, and the soldiers – I could see it in the cold, hard eyes of my friends, and the grim looks on the soldiers’ faces. As I prepared to continue speaking, Cody suddenly stepped in front of me. I was shocked and taken back by his actions but before I could react, he began to speak.
“Lord Tark,” he began, giving the officer a slight bow. “Allow me to present our leaders: James, Wizard of Icaria and King Niklas of Icaria. It seems that we’re all a bit tense. I assure you that the agreement still stands. We mean you no harm if you offer us no threat.”
The leader, Lieutenant Tark simply nodded his head and motioned for the soldiers to raise their pikes. I looked at Cody, and although I’d been taken slightly aback by his boldness, I still nodded my head in his direction in order to show my approval of his actions even though I was still a bit surprised at the turn of events and his sudden interest in diplomacy. But I wasn’t about to allow outsiders to see any disagreement within our group.
I also knew that time was of the essence if we were to remain safe and unharmed. Things had to be resolved as quickly as possible: it wasn’t hard for me to imagine this chance encounter suddenly escalating into a bloody fight.
The first thing I’d done, after ascending the stairs to stand above ground on the open wind-swept plain, was scan the minds of the soldiers. While I could sense wonder, awe and even a bit of fear emanating from them at finding a band of winged boys, there was no underlying sense of evil to be found in these men.
My mind churned with feelings and emotions as I continued to lightly scan their thoughts. I’d also called forth the screen. I chose to project it into my mind, so it wasn’t visible to anyone else, but Charles threw me a glance and I could tell that he knew what I was doing.
At the same time, I was tentatively reaching out to my mate in order to establish some type of plan. Months ago I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. Being a wizard then was only a private joke between Nic and me, but now I was beginning to see the seriousness of my position.
Cody remained at my side, but then I took one step forward and executed a slight almost imperceptible nod of my head. I looked directly into the eyes of the man who’d introduced himself as Lieutenant Juston Tark.
“As I’ve just been introduced to you my Lord, I’m happy to appear before you. I am, in fact, James, Wizard of Icaria,” I began, in a formal and measured tone of voice. I gestured toward Nic and continued, “And this is His Royal Highness Niklas, King of Icaria.” Then I motioned to Lance, “… and my commanding general: Lancelot, Protector of the Throne.”
I could see that Cody’s introduction, followed by my approach, had surprised him. It had been my intention to make him aware that he might be dealing with something he hadn’t originally bargained for. The fact that he was looking at boys with wings was his first indication, but after a few negative encounters with Abbot Gude, I wasn’t about to take foolish chances or make any assumptions.
Since he appeared to be a military man attached to an army with order and discipline, I suspected he was not going to take a chance on doing anything foolish with prisoners who might be valuable. With what I hoped was a subtle mental touch, I tried to reinforce the reluctance for battle I could feel growing in his mind.
Without hesitation I continued, “These are Lords Charles and Jonathan, both of the noble order of Red and Black. This is Lord Cody,” I continued motioning toward the young angel, “It is he who was negotiating with you. Also accompanying us is Master Luc Tourney.” I paused, and then turned to the twins but without warning they moved forward and undertook their own introduction.
“And we are Les Gemeaux,” David said, as he and Miro executed deep bows.
“This is my mate Philippe,” said Miro, interrupting David as he pointed to Philippe, who stood quietly behind him. Then, with an ever-growing smile on his face, Miro added, “and if any of you would care for some sword play, we will be happy to oblige.”
I frowned and gave him a stern look in an attempt to both silence and stop him from saying or doing anything that might be deemed a provocation.
“Uhm, our friends David and Miro are skilled swordsmen and enjoy a friendly sparring match,” Cody quickly jumped in, “but they certainly don’t mean to insinuate that it is their desire to provoke hostilities with you.”
“No, they most certainly do not,” I said turning towards the boys. Once more I shot a quelling glance at both of them, then turned back to the lieutenant and raised an eyebrow. I could see his face change at my introduction, and even without entering his mind I knew he was now thinking carefully about the next action he would take.
“Very well,” he said. “Your fate is not something for me to decide; we will go to Kalas and deliver you to the High Counsel. I ask that you proceed with the troops on foot. The journey is roughly two and a half days from here – two days if we pick up our pace. But since the sun will be setting in four hours, we will walk for another two and then prepare to make camp for the night. I’d ask that you surrender your weapons. Between men of honor, I ask for your bond that you will not attempt to escape, for my orders are specific on that point.”
“Gladly given,” I rejoined, “in exchange for yours that you will treat us fairly and with honor.”
“Done,” he replied, “and fairly spoken.” Turning, he gave the order to stand down to his company, who began sheathing their weapons.
By now I’d made mental contact with Nic and he not only understood, but also approved of the plan I proposed to him. He sheathed his sword and motioned for Lance to do the same. The twins looked disappointed, but followed suit.
A short walk, silent but for the tread of many feet, brought us to the company’s supply wagon, where I noticed that there were two riderless horses accompanying the group – undoubtedly remounts for their cavalry element.
I turned to the soldier in charge. “Lord Tark, these horses will be suitable for myself and His Highness, King Niklas.”
He turned and looked down at me. “These horses have no saddles.”
“That’s fine,” I said to the soldier. Then I looked at Nic and he winked at me.
“Very well, bring the horses,” he commanded.
In the meantime, everyone gave their weapons to two of the soldiers who were going about collecting them. At first I thought David and Miro were going to offer resistance, but to my surprise they quietly handed over their arms without so much as a comment. As the horses were brought for Nic and me, the others moved to fall in line with the foot soldiers.
“And just when did we all suddenly become Lords ‘Your Grace’?” Charles whispered to me under his breath.
“Charles, just follow along.” I said quietly. “We’re all still alive, aren’t we?”
Charles raised an eyebrow, then shook his head at me, and proceeded to follow the others who were being organized for the march by the infantrymen. Nic and I were each given a horse. Nic had a dark brown stallion that was large and appeared strong and spirited. The animal was impeccably groomed and looked every bit the type of horse a warrior would ride. The horse I was given was a light gray color. While it looked strong and healthy, it was a bit smaller and appeared to be gentler and less spirited then Nic’s.
“His name is Galad,” one of the cavalrymen, who appeared to be Tark’s second in command, said as Nic prepared to mount. And this one is Arax,” the officer continued, turning to look at me. The commanding officer displayed an astonished look as the two of us quickly and easily mounted our horses and took the reins, looking every bit the experienced horsemen.
I looked over to Nic and he smiled back to me. Angels on horseback – what a sight, I thought as I looked at my handsome Niklas. The sun shown on his golden wings and glinted off of his armor – he truly looked like a king.
The lieutenant gave the order to move out, and soon we were off in a southerly direction. The march was at a leisurely pace and it seemed that Tark, although eager to get us to the city he referred to as Kalas, had no intention of pushing his troops. I was grateful for the relaxed pace. While Nic and I were on horseback, the others were on foot and the heat of the day would have made a forced march more than uncomfortable for everyone.
Later in the day, as the sun began to move slowly toward the horizon, we made camp. The soldiers sat separately from us and prepared to eat, while our own little band huddled around a separate campfire. After a few moments, one of the cavalrymen walked across the open space between the two camps and indicated that Tark would like to invite Nic and I to share a private supper with him. The soldier indicated that the commanding officer would like to have a chance to get to know the two leaders of our group better, and a quiet meal together might provide a good occasion for that to occur. He also indicated that he would provide food for the rest of our group.
Nic and I agreed and made our way to the small tent that had been put up for the Lieutenant. Tark greeted us in a friendly, although somewhat formal, manner and soon we were seated with him sharing the meal.
Our talk turned to the story of our awakening and journey in this land. Both Nic and I avoided any discussion of my powers or mention of Loran and our incident at the abbey.
After eating, Lieutenant Tark indicated that he would like to get to know the others of our group a little better and so, with Nic in the lead, we made our way over to where the others were seated, quietly finishing up their supper. Introductions were once again made and the conversation continued in the same vein it had during supper. After talk on the Icarian side began to wind down, Nic began to question the officer with regard to what he might know about us.
“I’ve heard stories since I was a child… everyone has,” He said, looking intently at Nic and me. “Then there’s the teachings of the church.”
“And what would that be?” Nic asked.
And in a measured, no nonsense way he told us. I listened intently, sitting by the light of the fire and pressed closely up against Nic with my head on his shoulder. Looking across the campfire, I saw Philippe lying with his head on Miro’s lap while the battle angel gently stroked his hair. Cody also appeared contented as he snuggled close to Lancelot. I was amazed at the stories this very blunt and direct soldier told us. When he was finished, everyone was silent.
“And what do you think?” David asked, breaking the silence.
Tark was silent for a minute. I could see his eyes scan all of us as we sat around the fire. “I’m not sure,” he said frankly. “My teaching tells me one thing, my eyes another.”
With that he wished us good sleep, excused himself, and walked back to the fire of the cohort.
In the morning we resumed our journey, but before we began, Lieutenant Tark returned everyone’s weapons.
“I think he’s had a change of heart, “David said as he slid his dagger into the sheath strapped to his ankle.