The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Interlude - The Fourth




The sun was high in the sky when Miro and Evan awoke in The Wine Press Inn. The many glasses of wine had taken their toll, and the boys slept in later than they’d planned. Climbing from his lumpy bed and stretching his arms and wings, Miro shook off the stupor of sleep, and kicked the bed of his traveling companion to rouse him from unconsciousness.


“Ugh,” was the only sound that escaped Evan’s lips as his eyelids fluttered and he turned over in his bed. A harder kick to the bed frame startled the boy enough to cause his eyelids to fly open.


“What the bloody hell?” he groaned, squinting hard in the midmorning light.


“Come on,” Miro said. “We’ve overslept, and we need to get to Domain Carolus. The publican told us it was less than a two-hour ride, but I’d like to get there sooner, rather than later. We’ve been away for a long time. I want to discover what we can learn there and get back to Konassas. I miss Philippe more and more every day, and I don’t want David to have all the fun when it comes to fighting… although we had our share yesterday, no?”


“You call that fun?” Evan said, slowly pulling himself up in the bed and rubbing his eyes. “I can see the rumors circulating the garrison that you and your brother are insane are quite correct.”


“We were created to fight,” Miro said. “It’s what we do. But the scum we dealt with yesterday – that was child’s play. They were so stupid and predictable, it was hardly a challenge.”


“Maybe you thought so,” Evan said, giving Miro a skeptical look.


“Never mind that,” Miro said, giving Evan’s bed one final kick. “Get ready. Today we finally reach our goal – Domain Carolus.”


It took both boys a few minutes to wash up and dress, but soon they were bounding down the stairs of the inn.


“’Morning lads,” the publican said, giving them a smile, “looks like our wine was a sleeping tonic for you.”


“Your wine was excellent,” Evan said, “but I never drank that much in one go in my life.”


“Well, it was a celebration,” the publican said. “You’ve made some loyal friends in the valley of Sonne Taggen. A number of the children who live in the outlying areas have already been returned, and word of your little… uhm… adventure, shall we say, has spread like root fungus through a vineyard. In fact, when you go outside you might be surprised.”


“Surprised at what?” Evan said.


But before the publican could answer, Miro bounded across the public room of the inn, pulled open the door, and blinked in amazement at the sight that greeted him. Standing on the porch of the inn and milling about the front yard was a large group of men. A herd of horses was tethered nearby, including, Miro noted with some surprise, both his and Evan’s in full tack and ready to ride. As he strode onto the porch, a man rose from one of the seats near the door and stepped forward. It was Johann Sobains, the mayor of Augam.


“What’s all this?” Miro asked.


“Your escort to Domain Carolus,” he said.


“But we don’t need an escort,” Miro replied 

“Maybe not, but we’d like to accompany you. The vineyards need minimal tending this time of year, so we have the luxury of time. And you’ve made lasting friends here, my young lord.” 

“You do realize we’re the enemy?” Miro said. “At least, according to your church.”


“It’s not our church, my lord,” Johann said. “You see what they do to the people of the provinces – and our children. No one has ever stood up for us. If you’re the enemy, or even the demons they claim you are, then so be it. I have the impression that a day in hell with you would be far more interesting than one in the heaven of the Sarjanii. And I can’t help but notice that you ride with an officer of the Xannameirian army. You can’t be that evil if Wilum Zakaria is aligned with you.”


“It’s true there’s an alliance between the leaders of the kingdoms and Icaria,” Miro said.


“Icaria?” Johann said, giving Miro a questioning look.


“We are Icarians, not demons, or monsters,” Miro said. “We search for our land and our country to the south, past the Plain of Pons and the Poniçessian mountain range. We wish to live in peace with all of you.”


“So the ancient stories really are true,” interrupted a man standing near Johann Sobains.


“I don’t know anything about your stories or legends except that some think us evil demons whose aim is to subjugate this land and kill all humans,” Miro said. “I must be truthful and tell you that there are some of us who are your enemies, but I serve our king and his mate, the wizard, and wish only peace for all.”


“Wizard?” Johann asked.


“Yes, well, he can do some amazing things,” Miro said, smiling. “If you think I can fight, you should see him throw a few fire balls.”


“Fire balls?” another man said, looking puzzled.


“Well, lets just say he’s his own weapon,” Miro said, chuckling. “Although sometimes I don’t think even he knows it.”


“He must be a mighty lord and a powerful wizard, if you think he’s more powerful than you, my lord. A creature like that…” but the man stopped when Johann poked him in the ribs with his elbow.


“Beggin’ pardon m’lord, but Guston’s an idiot. He didn’t mean it like that.”


“No offense taken,” Miro said. “To many, we are strange and unusual creatures. It takes a little time for some to get used to us.”


“But this wizard, he must be a mighty and fearsome being indeed,” Johann continued.


Barely containing his laughter, Miro’s eyes twinkled. “I see you have a much different impression of him than reality would indicate.”


“Why?” Guston asked. 

“Oh, lets just say he’s a bit smaller and younger than me,” Miro chuckled. 

“Beg pardon, but you yourself are just a boy, my lord,” Johann said. “Do you mean he’s a little boy?” 

“Well, you might be surprised if you saw him. He’s not a little boy – he’s only a bit younger than I am. But I wouldn’t let his looks fool you. He can be deadly if he wants to be, and he has a temper like a kicked nest of wasps.”


“Oh,” was the only sound that came from Johann’s lips.


“But not to worry, he’s not prone to killing people,” Miro said, now laughing. “But his mate, King Niklas, is. He’s a mighty warrior.”


“Mightier than you, my lord?” one of the men standing out in the yard asked. “I can’t imagine anyone mightier than you.”


“Yes, it’s true,” Miro said with a quiet respect creeping into his voice. “He’s the mightiest of us all, and I proudly serve him.”


There was an undercurrent of talk among the men at Miro’s words.


“But now we must ride. Lieutenant Mahon and I wish to bring an end to our quest.” Miro’s voice had an edge of finality in it.


“And we would like to accompany you,” Johann Sobains replied. “We have already sent word ahead to Domain Carolus that we are coming.”


“Was that wise?” Evan said, coming up behind Miro.


“Not to worry, sir,” Johann answered, turning to address the lieutenant. “Akam Vesterling is the owner and master of Domain Carolus, and a more honorable man you’ll never find. He’s no friend of the church and you can be sure that by now he’s heard of your exploits here in Augam. If you’re welcome anywhere, it will be in the vineyards of Carolus. Part of the reason so many of these louts want to come along is that they’re hoping for a bit of Master Vesterling’s pressings. His wine is the finest in the land.”


“Ohhh, please don’t talk about wine,” Evan said putting his hand to his head. “I might never drink again after last night.”


“Well, a taste from Vesterling’s cellars may change your mind,” Johann said, laughing.


“Very well,” Miro said, “but we’re not going to get there standing around talking. Time to ride, Evan,” he added, turning to his companion.


“We’ve already taken the liberty of readying your horses,” Johann said. “All you need do is mount and we’ll be on our way.”


The ride to Domain Carolus was unhurried and relaxing. Fields and rolling hills covered with trellised vines stretched out before them in all directions. The day was sunny and warm, but not as hot as the previous day and while they rode, Miro continued to answer the questions of the mayor of Augam. Everyone listened intently as Miro talked about the Icarians and their quest. He told them more about Nic and Jamie, along with the others they’d gathered to themselves. When he brought up the topic of Loran, he couldn’t help but notice how intently they all listened to his explanation. Finally, as they topped a hill and viewed the beautiful chateau and vineyards of Domain Carolus, he told them of the gladiators and the pin from duet Scorpio that he’d mysteriously discovered in a wine bottle at the pub he and his friends had visited – the real reason for his journey.


Loping down the sloping hill, they started the last leg of their journey to Domain Carolus. The large chateau that gave the Domain its name squatted on a low-lying hill, and was surrounded by a sea of endless vineyards. A large stone-arched gate stood at the entrance to the vineyards, opening onto a road that wound through them and up to the manor house. Far off to the right of the chateau were barns, and storage sheds. A few other dependencies, large and small, were scattered about – structures for storing the casks and barrels not in use, implements to tend the vineyards, and most likely the wine press itself, Evan surmised as they slowly made their way up the road through the vineyards toward the gray stone manor.


The compact clay bed that made up the road was in contrast to the sandy loam and slightly rocky soil where the vines grew in carefully regimented rows. At this time of year, the vines were green with leaves, and Miro could see the beginnings of clusters of grapes half hidden under the spreading tendrils and leaves. In a few months, the small, green clusters would be swollen and ripe for the picking, but for now they blended almost invisibly with the vines. Here and there, a few workers traversed the rows, inspecting vines.


The pruning and trellising work had taken place a few months before as winter gave way to early spring, and the number of workers now needed was small. Other than occasional inspections, the vines were left to produce their fruit. Only when the grapes hung heavy and were ripe for the picking would the now sleepy domain become alive with the activities of the harvest. Workers would flow into the fields like swarms of hungry birds, carefully cutting the grape clusters and placing them in baskets. The grapes would then be hauled off to the press. After pressing, the juice would undergo its initial fermentation in large casks. It would later be filtered and stored in smaller barrels in the small cool dark caves that dotted the surrounding hills. Finally, when it was pronounced ready, it would be bottled and transported throughout the kingdoms – providing the valley with a hefty trading leverage.  

On their way to the domain that morning, Miro hadn’t done all of the talking. The mayor of Augam was quick to remind him how highly prized the wines from Sonnen Tagen were, and while grapes grew and wines were produced throughout all the kingdoms, it was the wines from this valley that commanded the highest prices – Domain Carolus the highest of all. 

Finally they arrived at the chateau. Miro looked up at the large manor house looming before him. It was over five stories tall, and built in the shape of a square. Turrets topped each corner, and spires and towers dotted the roofs. After riding through the main gate, they found themselves in the bailey – a large and open expanse hemmed in by the inner walls of the chateau. Its surface was dirt and gravel made up of tiny, smooth river stones, and the horse’s hooves made a crunching sound with every step they took. 

After all filing into the courtyard, a door in one of the far walls was flung open and a group of people spilled out, led by an older man who was short, and quite rotund. Hurriedly crossing the courtyard, they approached the group of riders. In addition to the stout old man, there were seven others – five men and two women. The other men ranged in age from late teens to middle age. One of the women appeared to be the same age as the older man, while the other woman was quite young – more a girl than a woman – and as they got closer, Miro recognized the young girl as the one who’d placed the bottle of wine containing the gladiator pin on the table he, David, and Jamie had been sitting at on the terrace of the inn in Konassas. 

“Johann Sobains, how good to see you!” said the older man – a bit out of breath from rushing across the courtyard. “Welcome to Carolus.” And a warm smile came to his face.


“Thank you Akam, it’s good to see you again, as always,” Johann answered. “We’ve brought someone who wishes to meet you.” And as Sobains spoke, he gestured toward Miro and Evan.


Taking a step back, Akam Vesterling looked up at Miro and paused. For a few seconds, there was only silence as he studied the boy with the pair of golden wings sprouting from his back. Miro shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, not sure if he was a welcome guest or not, but then a radiant smile broke out on the old man’s face and he beamed up at the armor clad angel boy. Miro, carefully studying his reaction, was surprised to see tears come to Vesterling’s eyes.


“To be so fortunate as to have lived to see this day,” Akam said softly – more to himself than the others assembled in the courtyard. As if remembering where he was, he smiled once more and gave a slight bow, extending his arms. “Welcome. Welcome all of you, to Domain Carolus. Please accept our hospitality, and our wine.”


At the word wine, many of the men accompanying Miro and Evan smiled and murmured exclamations of delight. Quickly dismounting, the sojourners from Augam stood in a group behind Miro, Evan, and Johann Sobains.


“Arian, take these gentlemen and get them some of our finest wine,” Vesterling said, his voice bubbling with happiness. “Today is indeed a day for celebration.”


The young girl began leading the men away, but as Johann Sobains, Evan, and Miro turned to join them, Vesterling stepped in front of them. “Let them go and enjoy themselves,” he said in a low voice. “I know you didn’t come to drink wine,” he added, looking directly at Miro. Without replying, Miro reached into the small pouch hanging on his sword belt, pulled something from it and tossed it at Vesterling. The old man deftly caught it, looked down at it for a few seconds as it rested in his open palm and smiled. “No, of course you didn’t come all this way to drink wine. Let’s go inside and talk privately, but before we do so, allow me to introduce my family. This is my wife Anna and my three sons: Eton, Gaston, and Cedric,” he said, pointing to three of the five men standing with him. Eton appeared the oldest, about forty, Gaston somewhere in his thirties, and Cedric, a boy in his late teens.


“I think you’ve met my daughter Arian once before,” Vesterling said looking over to Miro and pointing in the direction of the young woman leading the men from Augam out of the courtyard. At Vesterling’s words, Miro gave the older man a slight nod.


“Also, please allow me to introduce Auston Kench, our wine maker, and Thomas Beedle, foreman of the vineyards.” The two men, only slightly younger than Vesterling, stepped forward and shook hands with Evan, Miro and Sobains. “Now, let’s go inside and talk, shall we?” Vesterling said, glancing down at the gladiator pin and turning it over in his hand.


As they made their way across the courtyard, Akam asked Anna to fetch some wine. The lady of the manor nodded and hurried off on a new course across the courtyard. Kench and Beedle also excused themselves, walking in the opposite direction and exiting through the main gate. Miro, Evan, and Johann Sobains continued to follow Vesterling and his three sons through a small door, into the chateau itself. The door opened into a small chamber that in turn opened into a narrow corridor.


“This is the oldest part of the manor house,” Vesterling said. “It began as a small log cabin that grew into a farmhouse. Centuries later… well, you can see the results. This great house and land have been in my family for a long time.”


“How long?” Miro asked pointedly.


“A very long time, young man,” Akam said with a tinkle in his eye.


Halfway down the corridor Akam paused at a door and opened it. Passing through, he motioned for everyone to follow, and once across the threshold Miro and Evan found themselves in a small library that seemed to serve as Vesterling’s office or study.


The room had a slightly elliptical shape. At one end sat a large desk. On its surface were a number of books, most of them very large although not too thick. Behind the desk, a large window provided ample light and a spectacular view of the vineyards. Built into the walls of the room were curved shelves; extending from floor to ceiling, they lined most of the walls. They were filled mostly with books, although here and there could be seen a few other objects: a balance, some small brass instruments of unknown purpose, a few vases, busts, and small statues, along with some colorful stones and crystals. In a few spots where there were no bookshelves, a few portraits and some landscapes hung on the dark paneled walls. The ceiling was slightly domed but unadorned, and a great brass chandelier hung in its center. The large oval carpet in front of the desk had been woven in a pattern of grapevines laden with fruit.


“Please, sit and relax,” Akam Vesterling said, motioning toward the chairs and stools throughout the room. Everyone quickly found and took a seat – everyone except Akam, who leaned against the front of his desk, and Miro, who walked across the room, around Vesterling’s desk, and stared out into the vineyards. As he’d passed the desk, Miro studied the large volumes lying open on the desktop and he quickly surmised they contained records of harvests, inventory, and sales of wine, along with purchases, and wages for the workers – in all, ledgers filled with the agricultural and economic history of Domain Carolus.


Just as he cleared his throat and began to speak, there was a quiet knock on the door and Vesterling’s wife, Anna, entered with a servant. While Madame Vesterling put the tray of glasses on her husband’s desk the servant, carrying several bottles of wine, moved to the side and began to uncork them. Giving a quick smile and curtsy to everyone, Anna Vesterling once again offered the welcome and hospitality of the lady of the manor to her guests, but quickly excused herself. Once the wine bottles were uncorked and each glass filled and handed around, Akam dismissed the servant. Lifting the glass to his nose, Vesterling took a whiff of the wine’s bouquet, then a quick taste. Lowering the glass from his lips he smiled, then raising it high, he offered a toast.


“In thanks that I and my family have been privileged to see this day,” he said, raising his glass even higher.


Everyone in the room in turn raised their glasses and drank.


“Amazing, Akam,” Johann Sobains said. “I wish we all knew your secret for making such liquid gold.”


“All the wines from this valley are outstanding,” Vesterling said, “but if anyone deserves full credit for Carolus wines, it should be Auston Kench. The Kench family has been in the employ of the domain for a few centuries now, and they guard their secrets closely. Even I, as the master of Domain Carolus, don’t know how they do it.”


“It is the finest wine I think I’ve ever had,” Evan said, speaking reverently and looking at the wine in his glass with wide-eyed wonder.


“It tastes just like I remember it when I drank it in Konassas,” Miro said, setting his glass down on Vesterling’s desk. “Except I don’t hear any duet pins rattling around in the bottles this time.”


Vesterling’s only response was to give Miro a sly smile. 

“We understand your interest, my lord,” Eton, Vesterling’s oldest son said, getting to his feet and stepping toward Miro. “We know why you’ve come. When word of your appearance in Konassas reached us, father called us together and told us of his plan. We knew we would need to get your attention discreetly, so we placed the object you speak of in the bottle. In fact, I personally placed it there before it was filled and corked. And it was I who accompanied my sister to Konassas, to deliver it to you. We discovered that you and your friends were staying in the Amber Palace, and our plan was to get it to you – although we weren’t quite sure how we’d accomplish it. Imagine our surprise when, as we entered the city, Arian spotted you and two of your companions riding through the streets.” 

Stopping in front of Akam, Eton held out his hand to his father and Akam handed him the pin. Walking up to Miro, Eton continued, “we began following you and after a few minutes, saw you stop at a local pub. As soon as you took your seats on the terrace I quickly had Arian deliver the bottle to you, offering it as a compliment from the publican. We waited and watched and after you found the object, we quickly left Konassas and returned to Domain Carolus. I told father we were successful, and since then we’ve been awaiting your arrival.” Eton concluded his explanation, holding out the pin to Miro, who took it and placed it back into the pouch at his side.


“But why so secretive?” Miro said. “Why didn’t you just come to the palace, announce yourselves, and present us with the pin?”


“That might have been dangerous,” Akam said.


“How so?” Evan said, looking puzzled. “If you knew as much as you claim to, you should have known that the Icarians were welcomed into Konassas by the High Council. As citizens of one of the kingdoms, you could have approached the High Council with your request. In fact, if I understand from what Miro’s told me, the Icarians have been looking for as much information and knowledge regarding their existence as possible. Surely you would have been welcomed.”


“But that’s the first problem,” Akam said, the smile quickly leaving his face. “We are not citizens of any of the kingdoms. Such an approach would have exposed us, and if our assumptions proved incorrect, it could have had disastrous consequences for us.”


“Not subjects or citizens of any of the kingdoms?” Johann Sobains said, giving Vesterling a puzzled look. “Everyone on this continent is a citizen of one of the kingdoms.”


“Except us,” Vesterling answered quietly. “Our allegiance is to the Great Protector, and to the covenant we made with him. And even he does not command us. We do what we do as free men.”


“I think it’s time you explain yourselves,” Miro said.


“Yes, of course,” Akam said, “but first there are some things I want you to see. It will make any explanation more… uhm… shall I say… believable.”


“As you wish,” Miro said. “I’ve journeyed a long way in search of the truth.”


Vesterling nodded, and turned to Johann Sobains. “My old friend, forgive me, but I must ask you to keep what you see and hear today to yourself. The knowledge I am about to impart involves the lives of many. In the hands of enemies, it could mean our undoing.”


“Of course, Akam,” Sobains said. “After what these two young men did for us, you can count on my loyalty along with that of the entire town of Augam. I’ve always known you to be a man of honor. I’ll comply with your request.”


“Just remember Johann,” Vesterling said, “What is discussed here today, remains between us.”


“Yes Akam, you have my word.”


It was then that a sharp and decisive rap on the door abruptly interrupted the conversation. Without waiting for an invitation to enter, the door swung open and a man entered the room. Miro noticed that he was tall and thin. His salt and pepper goatee was neatly trimmed. From his well-polished boots to his elegant silk shirt, he was attired mostly in black. Only the pair of golden tassels on each boot top, and the golden lining of his cloak stood in contrast to his otherwise black ensemble. His look, demeanor and air immediately reminded Miro of General Zakaria, for while this man was thinner and less muscular than the general, they both seemed to have the same commanding presence when entering a room.


Akam Vesterling approached the man, smiled and nodded. The man, for his part, remained silent and unsmiling as his eyes moved about the room resting for a few seconds on each person assembled there. It was only when his gaze fell upon Miro that he paused and continued to stare.


“Allow me to introduce Hans Kopper,” Vesterling said, “Commander of the Guild of the Archers.”


At the word archers, Miro’s eyes widened.


“We’re ready,” were the only words Kopper quietly murmured to Vesterling. Then, with Kopper leading the way, everyone left Vesterling’s study and began to retrace their steps out to the courtyard of the manor house.


As soon as Miro passed through the last door and once more stood in the open courtyard, he was greeted with an amazing sight. Row upon row of men stood in tight formation, dressed exactly as Kopper. The only difference between they and their Commander was that each of them carried either a longbow and quivers of arrows, or a crossbow and quivers of bolts. A quick count by Miro revealed over one hundred men. In the middle of their formation, planted into the ground of the courtyard, was a thick wooden pole. It rose into the air high above the heads of the archers and terminated in a small iron ring. To Miro, it looked like a giant’s needle and he mused privately that if some rope had been threaded through the top circle, it would look very much like a gigantic needle and thread. 

Hans Kopper stepped away from the group and stood before the ranks of archers. He barked a few clipped, staccato orders and the men disbursed, forming a circle around the pole so that no one man was any closer than forty feet to it. After another series of shouted orders, each man carrying a long bow drew an arrow and nocked it, while each man with a crossbow placed a bolt on its slide and cocked his weapon. 

A final order was given, and one by one the men took aim at the top of the iron pole. Miro looked on in admiration as one by one each arrow passed through the small iron circle high atop the pole, not only demonstrating each man’s prowess as an archer, but also their discipline and deadly accuracy as snipers. After the last man finished, Miro noted that not one arrow had missed it mark.


“That’s very impressive,” Miro said, “but you can’t always rely on a steady, unmoving target.”


“Of course not,” Kopper said, stepping up to Miro and giving him a closer look. Then he turned back to the men and gave another order. Suddenly four horses came charging through the courtyard gate. In place of riders, small targets were strapped to their backs. As the horses raced through the courtyard, a barrage of arrows flew. When it was over Miro was amazed to see that virtually every arrow had hit one of the center bull’s eyes on each of the four targets. And although a dangerous and potentially deadly exercise for the horses, not one had sustained an injury.

“We could go on,” Kopper said, addressing Miro. “We could move the targets and also make the men run. We could use a flexible pole – as we sometimes do – and cause it to sway in the wind and make the men try to hit the mark while either standing still or moving, but I can assure you the results would be the same.”


“I believe you,” Miro said. Then giving the man a questioning look, he gestured toward the courtyard and asked, “May I?”


Kopper simply nodded, and Miro made his way toward the center pole rising from the courtyard. Gripping the pole he shook it a bit, then stepped back and sized it up. He also approached one of the horses. The men had cleaned up the arrows from the courtyard and removed them from the targets on the horse’s backs. Miro began talking to a group of the men and after a few minutes, one handed him a long bow, while another presented him with a crossbow. Placing a few quivers of arrows and bolts around the courtyard, Miro laid the crossbow on the ground and gripped the long bow. Ordering the men to one side of the courtyard, he waited until they were assembled and at a safe distance. With a shout, the rumps of the four horses were slapped and they began running around the courtyard.


Miro grabbed an arrow, nocked it, drew and released. It flew effortlessly and passed through the circle at the top of the pole. Then running through the courtyard, nocking arrows and shooting, he continued to successfully negotiate the small circle atop the iron pole. Taking to the air, he would swoop down and pluck up an arrow, nock it and, at various angles and altitudes, continue to hit the mark. Dropping the longbow, he swooped down and grabbed the cross bow and, with the same skill and coolness, loaded, fired, and rewound, then loaded and fired again at the targets on the horses, hitting the bull’s eye every time with deadly accuracy, whether right side up, upside down, in a dive, or during an ascent.


When he was finished there was silence, and then the archers began to cheer. When Miro alighted they mobbed him, patting his back and shaking his hand. Striding up to the young angel, Hans Kopper stuck out his hand. “The Kalorian League welcomes you to the Guild of the Archers, my lord.”


“And how long has your league been in existance?” Miro asked. “It’s not something from before the time we were put to sleep.”


“For a long time,” Kopper replied. “Do you recall ever hearing of the Prison of Pain?”


“Prison of Pain?” Miro said, frowning. “No.”


“Maybe Jacob Kaldon?” Kopper asked.


“Jacob Kaldon? Uhm… I recall… Yes, wasn’t he Head of Household for the Imperial Palace?”


“Ah, so you know of him?” Kopper said his voice taking on a hopeful tone.


“Well, David and I were the only duet attached to the Imperial Court. I occasionally saw him, but had no dealings with him. The only concrete thing I remember about him is the night we rode to Piropolis, he seemed very intent on gathering the household servants to him and they in turn were intent on getting to the Saraphic Palace. They were very concerned about the wizard – Jamie – and somehow getting to him.”


“The Protector,” Kopper sighed, “All the old records are very unclear about this. I was hoping…”


“I’m sorry,” Miro replied.


Nothing more was said, because Akam Vesterling’s voice loudly called out, echoing across the courtyard. “I think we all get the idea. Let’s get back inside. There is one more important task that needs to be accomplished.”


Breaking away from the archers, Miro rejoined Evan and the others as they walked back into the manor house. Within minutes, everyone was back in Akam Vesterling’s study. After closing the door, Vesterling’s youngest son Cedric locked it. There followed a few seconds of silence, and then the rotund vintner walked over to Evan Mahon, who was standing on the thick carpet in front of Vesterling’s desk. “I wonder if you could move away from the edge of the carpet,” Vesterling said to the Xannameirian Lieutenant.


Evan complied without comment and everyone looked on as Akam bent down, took the edge of the carpet in his hands and began to peel it back. The wide planks of the worn wooden floor revealed nothing in themselves – other than being highly polished and patinaed with age. Stepping away from the folded-back carpet and onto the bare floor, Vesterling got down on his hands and knees. Pulling a knife from his pocket, he placed it in the joint between two boards, and gave a slight twist. A small board, less than a foot long, popped out of its place in the floor. Akam reached into the hole the vacant board created. Bending low and reaching further until most of his arm was in the hole, almost up to his shoulder, Vesterling paused, then appeared to grip something and began to sit up – pulling with his arm and his body as he did. There was a loud snap, and Miro saw one of the curved bookcases lining Vesterling’s study move ever so slightly. Removing his arm from the hole, Vesterling replaced the floorboard and recovered the bare, planked floor with the carpet.


Dusting his hands, Master Vesterling crossed the room to the bookshelf Miro’d seen move. He put his hand under one of the thick oak shelves as if he were gripping something, and began to pull. As he pulled, the bookcase slid open like a door to reveal a hidden portal, built into the wall.


“It’s no secret that most of the wine in Sonne Taggen is stored in caves,” he said. “Caves and caverns can be found all throughout the valley. What isn’t widely known is that this manor house sits over one of the largest in the entire valley. It’s never been used for wine storage. My ancestors used it…” Vesterling paused, and looked into Miro’s eyes, “to store various things they deemed valuable. We, their heirs, have maintained their wishes and followed their tradition.”


With that Vesterling walked behind the bookcase and began to descend a series of stone steps. Everyone else followed. The descent was rapid and although they were most definitely headed underground, it didn’t appear to Miro that they were that far under the manor house. The stairs opened into a slender passage, hewn from solid rock. The walls were narrow but highly polished. Miro had to fold back his wings to avoid brushing them against the narrow sides. After a passage of about one hundred and fifty feet, they emerged into a larger chamber that appeared more cave-like than man-made. Stopping before a large metal door, Vesterling motioned for his sons to join him.


Looking up, Miro realized that the door slid sideways on a metal rail. A quick inspection revealed to him that it didn’t appear to have any locking devices, and he could only surmise that its weight was enough to prohibit a single person, or maybe even two, from opening it. Arranging his boys at strategic spots along the door, Vesterling joined them, but just before it appeared he was ready to give the order, he moved away from the door and looked at Miro.


“Just as my sons have promised me, I promised my father, and he his father, and so on back to the founders,” he said, with obvious and solemn pride in his voice. “Would that they could all be here to see this, but they are not. We, their heirs, complete what they began. We of the Kalorian League have been faithful, and vigilant. Tell the Protector that on this day we have fulfilled one of our many promises, and although we are not his to command, we honor him for his courage and offer him great thanks for what was done. We also await the fulfillment of the covenant.”


Without waiting for a reply, Akam resumed his place at the door and gave a shout. Vesterling and his three sons put their backs into the effort and Miro could see the strain on their faces. As they struggled with the door, Evan made a move to help them. Miro quickly reached out and drew his friend back by the shoulder.


“I think this is something very important that they wish to do themselves, Evan,” Miro quietly whispered to the Xannameirian officer. “It’s very much a matter of honor.” And in fact the intuitive gladiator – deeply steeped in his own codes of honor and fair play – was right. Miro, Evan, Johann and Hans looked on as the great door began to creak and moan, then slowly started moving along the metal track. Still straining, the men pushed even harder and little by little the door yielded, first moving slowly, but in the end rapidly, as momentum took hold and propelled it along.


Once opened, Vesterling and his three sons moved away from the door and stood before the large hole its opening had created. The space before them was dark, and only the smallest amount of light from the room where they presently stood penetrated a few feet into the gloom. Vesterling walked into the darkness, telling the others to wait until he could light the space. A full two minutes went by as Akam disappeared into the darkness with only the clacking sound of his boot heels against the stone floor to indicate that he was still there – and even that sound eventually faded away. Everyone remained silent, patiently waiting. Evan was about to speak when there was a snap, and the space on the other side of the door filled with light. 

For a few seconds everyone stood at the entrance and stared. The space was a natural continuation of the cavern, although this particular section was quite large and expansive. The floor – originally rough – was polished to a mirror-like finish. Miro was the first to walk into the room, and he did so with an almost sacred reverence, for stretched out before him were the large double stasis units reserved for the gladiatorial duets of the arena of Castle Rood. Walking over to the first one, he peered in through the glass front. 

Two boys surrounded by a vast array of weapons lay sleeping on plush, silk-covered mattresses. Two finely plumed dress helmets lay at their feet, their gleaming armor – as bright and shiny as the day it had been hand-crafted for them – covering their bodies.


“Marainus and Mercury, Duet Fox,” Miro said quietly, then quickly left the unit and moved to another.


In the next unit a second pair of boys lay sleeping side by side. They were interred with spears – pitch-fork-like impalers – along with spiked maces and clubs, and with very long, sharp swords. The fur-covered bearskin pouches hanging from their kilts were thick and had a lustrous sheen. “Castor and Commodus, Duet Bear,” Miro added as he looked up at Evan Mahon, who’d come to join him.


Coffin by coffin, Miro walked slowly along the row of units with Evan – whose eyes had now grown big as saucers – following in his wake. “Xanor and Gallant, Duet Snake; Januium and Fredrick, Duet Tiger; Alexei and Edward, Duet Scorpion; Adam and Rinaldo, Duet Hawk,” Miro intoned, reciting the name of each distinctive duet and giving their individual names as he approached each coffin.  

“Look here,” Evan said excitedly, after breaking away from Miro and staring into one of the units. In it lay two very young, cute, and diminutive brown-haired boys – thin and wiry, they appeared much smaller and more delicate than any of the other gladiators. Instead of an array of weapons, each had a single sword at his side that appeared slightly curved, and Evan furrowed his brow at their odd shape. Instead of the splendid armor and accessories the other duets wore, these two boys were dressed in what looked like silk pajamas, and instead of the usual military sandals they were barefoot. They hardly appeared to be warriors, but Evan’s jaw dropped when Miro approached, looked in, and smiled.  

“Yann and Yvan, Duet Spider – the deadliest assassin gladiators of all the duets,” Miro said with quiet admiration and respect coloring his voice. With a gleam in his eye, he turned to Evan: “Turn those two loose in a palace, barracks, or encampment of three hundred, and when they walk out they’ll be the only ones with their heads still attached to their shoulders.”  

After a slow and methodical examination of each coffin, they arrived at the final one. It was filled with a pair of boys dressed in short togas, and light slipper-like sandals. Instead of armor, they wore metal protectors on their arms and legs; at their feet lay strange looking head-gear that looked more like wire bird cages than helmets. Among their accessories were heavy hemp-and-wire woven nets with lead weights attached to them. Instead of swords they had a series of daggers – if that’s what they were, since they were too short and thin to be swords, but too large to be standard daggers. “Gray and Nicoli, Duet Viper,” Miro said, giving Evan a smile. “They’re the lion and tiger fighters of the arena.”


“You mean they would fight a wild lion or tiger?” Evan said in a tone of disbelief.


“No, that would hardly be fair,” Miro answered. “They fought between four and six at a time.”


“You’re all insane,” Evan gasped, shaking his head, then quickly added, “I know… I know… it’s what you were made for,” when he realized Miro was about to correct him.


They’d been moving through the cavern and talking the whole time. By the time they reached the coffin of Duet Viper, the others – who had also been gawking and peering into the units– joined them.


“I count fifty duets,” Miro said. “Add David and me, and you get fifty-one – the original army – that makes one hundred two gladiators. Everyone is accounted for. Well done,” he added, smiling at Akam and extending his hand. Vesterling took Miro’s hand and clasped it, giving it a shake while returning the gladiator’s smile with one of his own.


“What about King Niklas?” Evan said. “Wouldn’t he make a fifty second duet? But then, where’s his partner?”


“King Niklas is an exception – a very special exception,” Miro said, “With him we get one hundred and three gladiators, but he doesn’t form a duet. Allow me to tell you about him one day, just not today.”


Evan nodded and remained quiet.


“I think now that you’ve seen what we’ve had to show you, it’s time we talked,” Vesterling said, speaking to the group. “But I think you’ll agree, the focus and basis of our discussions can take on a more direct and serious approach.”


“Of course,” Miro said. “This changes many things. But you have to know I’m eager to awaken my brothers. It’s been a long time, and they too deserve their freedom.”


“And so they shall be awakened,” Vesterling said in agreement, “But for now, let’s return to the chateau, have a bit more wine, and talk. There is still much to discuss, and I would like to hear more about the one you call ‘wizard.’ We know him as the Lord Protector, and many legends have been told of him – some true, others quite fanciful, which I’m sure, were changed and altered in the mists of time. You though, my lord, know him and have lived with him. You can tell us the truth.”


For once, Miro’s usually smiling face became grave and serious. 

“Much has happened since the conflagration at Rood, the Night of Flight, and the stand at Angel’s Fall, but my knowledge is limited. Like my brother David of Duet Lizard, I did not partake of the darroot tea like my mate Philippe and, I’m sure, my brothers now sleeping here in your cavern. I’ve since learned that the darroot tea they all took, for the most part, preserved their memories. That cannot be said of the king and wizard. When I left Konassas they were discovering more about themselves, and it’s my hope that the process has continued. This is a time I wish my mate Philippe were here; I’m sure he might have something to offer. But I will tell you all I know.” 

“Very well, my lord,” Vesterling said walking out of the cavern. “Let us retire upstairs and begin our discussions.”


With Akam leading the way, everyone filed out of the cavern and back up into the chateau. Miro brought up the rear, and was the last to exit. After passing from the large cavern into the smaller one, he turned around to pause and look intently at the fifty coffins lined up in perfect rows.


“Soon, my brothers,” he whispered. “Soon…”