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   Chapter 11 Meetings

Maldene - Volume One By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 47198

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:02

"So, you want to be on the winning side then, " he said quietly, dark bottomless eyes searching, his Sileen features seemingly pleasant.

"Let's just say, " came the calm casual response, "that we like to take precautions."

They were sitting on a carved stone bench, Mauklo with Kor-Lebear and Kilinir to either side of him, by the edge of a cobbled path, trees and bushes to their backs, open grassy area across from them beyond the other side of the cobbled path. About a hundred feet away, at the other side of the open grassy area, stood both the tallest and the largest building in the entire castle-city. Scholars, both human and otherwise, went in and out of this building, along the many paths leading up to it. Marble statues lined both the steps leading up to its large book-like doors and either side of the building. It was not only the biggest building, at about a hundred floors by Kilinir's count, but also the most stately looking, holding within it promise of open knowledge and research. It was the Library.

"We don't know if Sindar's prediction about you is entirely real, " came a calm measured female voice, "but we don't know if it's not true."

"But, " Kor-Lebear put in, "if it is true, then you'll be on the winning side no matter what happens, and we want to be there with you."

"And you want to avoid the later rush of people jumping onto my coattails, " Mauklo said quietly but firmly, and then added. "But, if something were to go terribly wrong with my possible destiny, you would then seek for your own benefit and betray me just as easily."

"Without hesitation, " Kor-Lebear smiled gently.

"But, only if it looks hopeless, " Kilinir added sweetly.

Mauklo paused only briefly before responding.

"Glad to hear it, " Mauklo said. "I never trust anyone that's too virtuous; they never know how to deal with the real world."

Kor-Lebear nodded his head slightly in affirmation.

"Very well then, " Mauklo said, standing up, "I accept your conditional fealty. Consider the deal struck."

Mauklo put out his hand for Kor-Lebear to shake. Kor-Lebear stood up, started to bring up his hand, and then stopped. He looked up into Mauklo's face and just smiled.

"I never shake hands with a wizard, " he said pleasantly, "nor make any promises in their presence. So, let's just say, that we have an understanding."

A grin spread slowly across Mauklo's face as he put down his offered hand.

"I think this is going to work out, " he said.

Ever the gentleman, Kor-Lebear offered Kilinir his hand to help her to her feet. Then, like three grinning predators, they walked along the cobbled path towards the Library, Mauklo in the center, and Kor-Lebear and Kilinir to either side of him.

"Sabu, sir!"

The voice came loudly but firmly, shouted across the open promenade area in front of the castle-city's central ornate Keep, the one in which they'd first seen the King. Sabu, Eldar, and Sindar stopped walking towards its steps and turned around to find the source of the call.

Starke came running casually over towards them, stopping a few feet in front of them, as he then straightened himself up into a more formal stance, heels clicking together as he did a quick small curt nod of his upper body in greeting.

"I have something of some importance that I wish to speak to you about, " Starke said formally.

"This looks serious, " Eldar smiled playfully. "What happened Starke, you knock someone up?"

Sabu's right elbow landed discreetly into Eldar's lower ribs, as Sabu started speaking as if nothing had happened.

"What is it Starke?" Sabu asked, a bit of concern on his face.

"I have considered it an honor to be in your service, and will gladly continue to serve you as you so will it, but, " and here Starke's firm speech started to falter as he searched for the correct and honorable way of telling the friends that he'd grown to admire so much.

Luckily for Starke, Sindar's growing mental powers were able to see into his dilemma, and cut short the proud mercenary's quandary.

"He's received an invitation to become a Captain in the King's forces, " Sindar said.

Relief and amazement both showed briefly across Starke's face before he gained control of his expressions again and gave a formal nod in affirmation.

"Well, sounds like you're moving up in the world, " Eldar said, giving a friendly slap on Starke's shoulder.

"General Baldegron thinks that I can do a lot of good in the training and leading of his troops, " Starke said. "He personally made me the offer."

Sabu looked a question at Sindar who nodded in return as he responded verbally.

"Yes, it would seem to be as it should, " Sindar said. "I guess my visions do seem to have some substance to them after all."

Sabu looked Starke up and down as he took a few steps closer. He seemed to take in everything about the warrior as he thought for a bit. Finally he spoke.

"It would appear, " he began, "that you could serve your vow against Miro just as well with the King; a wise gentleman with whom we ourselves would now ally. You could thus serve both us and your vow while serving the King."

Starke stood expressionless as he stood at attention, staring straight ahead.

Sabu paused for a moment before continuing.

"Would you serve this King with the same vehemence, courage, and loyalty with which you have shown us?" he asked.

"I can do nothing less, " Starke answered. "Anything less would dishonor both me and yourselves, and I would feel worse about dishonoring yourselves than I would about myself."

"You would give him your best, " Sabu went on, "never get overconfident or cocky, or show undue pride or haughtiness?"

"My performance has always been the source of my pride, " Starke responded, still at attention, "never my station in life."

Sabu glanced back first at Sindar, who just nodded, and then back at Eldar, who shrugged, smiled, and then also nodded. He then turned back to face Starke.

"Well then, we hereby release you from any vows of service towards us so that you may stay to serve the King, " Sabu said formally.

"You may release my vow, " Starke answered, "but never my heart. I shall make you proud in my service to the King."

"You can relax now, " Eldar said, "you look like you're trying to hold up the sky with your shoulders."

Starke eased himself into a bit more relaxed position, feet spread a bit more apart, hands a bit more relaxed.

"Faw?rsome, " he said, "for allowing me this."

"Oh, anytime, " Eldar smiled. "Next time you have trouble getting unstuck from being at attention, just let me know and I'll-"

Eldar was interrupted by another discreet elbow from Sabu.

"Our fortunes must carry us apart, " Sindar began, heedless of Eldar's amusement, "for we have our own journey to make, but our paths shall cross many times in the future."

"In time to come, I shall speak with pride that I was there when your journey began, " Starke said, chin held rock steady and slightly aloft. "I shall miss you all."

"So, get out of here already, " Eldar said amiably, "you've got a General to speak to."

"We'll all miss you too, " Sabu said to Starke quietly.

Starke smiled back for a moment. Then he stilled his features, reached his right hand to the scabbard at his side, and grabbed the handle firmly. With swift deft formal movements, he took out his sword and held it aloft, arm stiff at an angle over their heads, as he saluted them. The sharp black nothingness of the sword seemed to swirl with the light it absorbed, dark vortices swirling inside of its blade, as he held it there for a moment. Then, a few more deft movements later, it was back in its sheath. Starke then took a step forward, turned on heal, and then marched away into the crowds, not looking back.

"I'm going to miss him, " Sabu said, as he watched Starke vanish into the streets, off to tell his new General of his acceptance of the Captaincy.

"Yeah, me too, " Eldar said, stepping up next to Sabu.

Eldar's mood then changed suddenly, as he brightened and slapped Sabu on the back.

"But hey, " the elf said, "we've got a King to see now."

"He's right, " Sindar said, "we've got to go."

"I suppose so, " Sabu sighed. "Very well. Let's go."

Together they turned back towards the large ornate Keep and walked side by side towards its large double doors.

The room, while its stone walls were lined with a few tapestries and its floor with a large rug, was but a simple meeting room with a single round table and several chairs. It was lit with the same indefinite light source as was the rest of the Keep, leaving just a few shadows in the corners, and had a single door bidding entry. Seated at the chairs were Sabu, Eldar, Sindar, and the King.

"So, kingy boy, " Eldar said, leaning back on his chair, "we passed your test, now what was it that we were being tested for?"

"Forgive Eldar, " Sabu said quickly, "he has no concept of, nor respect for, authority."

"It's okay, " the young-seeming King smiled, "his attitude is just a good reminder of all our humble origins as primitive creatures of the flesh."

"See?" Eldar chimed in. "He likes me as I am."

Sindar seemed a bit thoughtful as he slowly spoke up.

"I'm not sure, " the young wizard said, "but I think that he actually insulted you, Eldar."

"Huh?" Eldar looked surprised as he slowly thought it over.

Sabu chuckled inwardly as the King smiled pleasantly and then continued.

"Now, for why you're here, " he said, becoming all business now. "In establishing and expanding this kingdom, I have acquired a growing number of contacts from all over the world. Be it from traders and merchanteers, explorers or emissaries of faraway kingdoms, I have been listening to any manner of news from the world over. I listen and I try to put the bits and pieces together, and all of my advisors agree on one point."

"This is going to be the part that we aren't going to like, " Eldar said seriously.

"The world over, " the King continued, "Miro's forces are on the move."

He paused to let that point sink in. After a few moments, he continued.

"They move carefully, slowly, and almost unobserved. In some cases there is even no apparent connection between one group and the next, their movements even seeming to be almost random. But, taken as a whole, there is a grand plan at work here, the complexity of which only one such as Miro could master."

"He's going to start a war to take over the planet?" Sabu asked.

"I would almost say yes, " the King answered, "but not all of the pieces fit. He would appear to be maneuvering to prepare for such a war, but there are minor holes and inconsistencies in the information."

"How do you mean?" Sindar asked.

"That's the puzzling part, " the King said, leaning back in his chair. "It's nothing that I can put my finger on, more of a feeling. A bit too many troops gathering in one area, while not enough in another; some of his wizards collecting in places with no apparent strategic value, while other more heavily populated areas are left free from his minions. If it was anybody else, I'd be tempted to say that he's made several tactical errors."

"But, we aren't about to believe that Miro's even capable of that, " Eldar said, "are we?"

"No, it's almost as if he's after something else, " the King responded thoughtfully, "that there's some key piece missing that would show us. It's as if he's planning to go after something bigger, more all-encompassing, that we can't even guess at yet."

"What can be bigger than the whole world?" Eldar asked.

"I'm afraid to even know, " Sindar said seriously.

"That's our puzzle, " the King finished. "But, there is one thing that we do know."

"And that would be?" Sabu asked.

"Whatever his plans are, we will surely lose, " the King answered. "With what I've heard and put together, we cannot win any war against him."

"I knew that this was going to be the part we weren't going to like, " Eldar exclaimed, leaning forward in his seat.

"Where do we come in?" Sabu asked.

"A risky plan, " the King stated, "one requiring us to, not find, but make ourselves some champions. A plan to challenge Fate itself and remake him in our image. A plan that required me to find ones both daring enough and skilled enough to one rise learn how to combat Miro. Ones that could be taught how to be more than what they would be. Much more."

"And that would be us, I suppose, " Sindar stated.

The King nodded.

"You were chosen as having the best potential, but I had to test you to be sure."

"And, if we hadn't passed the test?" Sabu asked.

"I knew you would, " the King answered, "I had faith in you; that's why I sent Filmar along with you."

"Well, that's encouraging at least, " Eldar said, leaning back in his chair again.

"How were we selected?" Sabu asked thoughtfully.

"On that regard, " the King smiled, "I had a bit of help."

From out of a small shadowy corner of the room, came a craggy old voice; a voice that spoke of deep age and wisdom. A voice so old, it was neither male nor female.

"You chose yourselves, " came the old voice.

They all turned to see, as out of the corner walked a figure that hadn't been there a moment before. Old and stooped with age, was the old crone, wearing the tattered remnants of what were once beautifully-colored silks and long flowing dresses but were now dull and faded rags. As she stepped out of the shadows, a gnarled old cane helping her to walk, she tilted her head up to face them, her golden skin reflecting in the light, her solid gold-colored blind eyes staring unerringly straight at them nonetheless.

"The Gypsy!" Sabu, Eldar, and Sindar all shouted at once.

The old crone walked slowly towards them, stopping at the nearest end of the table, to lean herself against it with her free hand.

"I gave you the option of choosing a future and you chose it, " she said in her craggy old voice.

"So, we volunteered?" Sabu asked, wondering.

Eldar's face lit up as he sat forward in his chair.

"Yeah, "

the subject, "and I would like to give you my own wishes for good luck."

"We thank you, your highness, " Sabu said a bit formally, "and promise to return again some rise."

A loud claxon bell interrupted them, a sailor's voice shouting out a warning.

"Passengers boarding in one diid, " the shout came. "Ship sailing in ten!"

"Well, I'd better go now, " another, more polite voice was then saying elsewhere on the dock.

"Just remember, you still owe me a tie-breaker match, Shong."

"I'll remember, sir, " he smiled, politeness always managing its way into his manners.

"That's Sarge, " he reprimanded Shong goodnaturedly, "the only one's that call me 'sir' are officers, and then only when I'm in deep trouble."

"I'll remember that, " Shong said, "Sarge."

"I'll have you at attention, Sir, " came a loud, firm, authoritative voice from behind them.

The Sarge snapped to instant attention, back ramrod straight, mild fear and concern showing on his face. Shong stood politely still as he turned around to see who it was.

"Uh oh, " Shong said, "it looks to be a captain, and he looks a bit angry."

The Sarge swallowed as he felt the commanding presence walking up behind him.

"May I ask the Captain what I've done wrong, " the Sarge said in a firm at-attention military-sounding voice.

"No!" came the answer. "And turn around and face me when you speak!"

The Sarge, visibly sweating some, quickly turned around on heel to face the officer.

The Captain was dressed all in highly polished armor, metal armor scales covering his chest and arms, skirt of metal and leather going down around to his knees, leather covering everything else that showed. A sword was in a sheath strapped to his side, hand on the hilt. On his chest-plate was engraved the twin-peaked symbol of the Kingdom, and on his shoulder a silver bar signifying his rank of captain. His tanned face shone in the bright sunlight, his long thin mustache drooping down past either side of his mouth, stern look on his face.

The Sarge's eyes widened. He glanced at Shong, who was now grinning in amusement. The Sarge glanced back at the Captain and started to smile.

"Did I say that you could smile soldier, " the Captain asked loudly.

The Sarge lost the smile and snapped up straighter.

"No sir!" he said.

"Pity, " the Captain said in a more conversational tone, a smile spreading across his face, "and stop standing at attention already."

Shong walked over, looking the Captain up and down, as he spoke.

"Is that really you, Starke?"

"Well, I guess it's Captain Starke now, " Starke said.

The Sarge broke into a grin again as he came over to look at his new superior.

"It looks like I'll be calling you sir from now on, " the Sarge said.

"No problem, " Starke said offhandedly, "I'll get used to it."

The Sarge and Shong started briefly at the arrogant remark, until Starke's smile showed them he was joking.

"Here to see us off?" Shong asked.

"Something like that, " Starke answered, "but in more of a manner showing how I feel about you all and how much you'll be missed."

He snapped to strict attention, left hand shooting straight up into the air, as if in a rigid salute, paused, and then came swiftly down to his side. Before Shong could puzzle its meaning, he heard the rigidly repetitive sound of several boots marching in military unison. All heads on the dock turned as they saw two rows of six men each marching down the docks, along the length of the boat, their armor shiny new, swords in each of their sheaths. When they were almost there, Starke whirled around on a foot and marched in large exaggerated military footsteps over to the boarding plank. He then turned around, back to the ship, marched out several paces, and stopped, at attention.

The soldiers marched over to his position, eyes forward. Each pair of men in turn, when they got to Starke, made a sharp ninety degree turn towards the ship, stopping to either side of the boarding plank. When they had all finally finished, there were two rows of splendidly dressed troops forming either side of a path up to the boarding plank, Starke standing at the end farthest from the ship. Several pairs of eyes looked puzzlement at all of this. Before Sabu could ask what was on his mind, Starke cut off all questions with a loud and formal pronouncement.

"Honor Guard here to see you all aboard, sirs, " he not-quite shouted. "Would you do me the favor of allowing me this privilege?"

Sabu, Eldar, and Sindar looked at each other. Eldar shrugged while Sindar just nodded.

"He really wants to do this for us, " Sindar said, not needing his psychic powers to know. "He wants to honor us in the only way he feels that he can; he needs this."

"It's fine by me, " Eldar shrugged.

Sabu thought for a brief moment, and then nodded to Starke.

Starke's chin raised a fraction of an inch higher, then he shouted out an order in the kind of barked-out language that it seems only military men know how to decipher. In unison, all twelve men pulled out their swords and held them rigidly overhead at the same angle, forming a sort of roof of sharp shiny metal blades.

Then Starke turned on heel to face himself in the same direction as the rest of his men. In swift movements, he reached for, and pulled out, his own sword, holding it aloft with the others. Its black absence of a blade shone like a scar of night cutting across the morning, the occasional glimmer of air vaporizing along its deadly length.

The others were too overcome with the moment to do anything. Even Eldar was at a loss for a comment. So, they did the only thing that seemed right. They boarded the ship, walking one by one along the offered path and up the boarding plank. Their number at an even dozen now, Lindel took the lead, followed by Shong. Next went Candol, and then Kilgar, himself amazed at being included in such a honor. Then came Kor-Lebear, Kilinir, and Mauklo, followed by Quickfoot, who seemed to be making a game out of it with his exaggerated strutting down the aisle of swords. As Eldar and Sindar passed on by, Sabu stopped for a moment in front of the rigid Starke.

"We'll be back, " he said softly, "and see you a General some rise."

Then Sabu walked on, the rear brought up by the large form of Bronto. When they were all on board, a high-pitched whistle sounded from somewhere on board the ship. Broad-shouldered Thirdocian sailors responded by retracting the boarding plank. When it was fully withdrawn, Starke barked out another order. His men all sheathed their swords, Starke along with them, and then turned as one. As the ship's moorings were being loosed, his men widened their aisle a few more feet, Starke walking up its center until he was at the dock's edge. Then, as the ship was starting to pull a few feet away, he stepped to one side, falling in line with his men.

As Starke and his men stood at attention, Filmar came walking up the aisle with his mother. They all watched from on board ship, as the ship pulled away, leaving Filmar and Queen Erin to stop at the dock's edge, Starke at attention to one side, to watch it pull away from the dock and out from under the large covering roof. In back of the dock area a loud roar of parting sounded out from Blag-ak as he watched his friends pull away. As the ship pulled out into the open, hemispherical sails now being brought up full, Eldar gazed back at the distancing port, wistful look in his eyes.

"I'm going to miss that big ogre, " he said to himself.

"Me too, " Quickfoot said from beside his leg.

They were across the other side of the lake now, heading for the large river that would carry them out to sea. The dock was now but a small dot on the edge of their vision, as sailors busied about their duties, and the passengers started to disperse to their cabins and elsewhere on board the ship. Sindar was still at the railing looking out at the lake, a distant look on his face, concern on his mind.

But, what he saw was not as for the others. To him, visions of power crackled across the lake, a giant hand beckoning at him from out of the sky. Voices he heard, as did no one else, inviting him, calling to him alone. Promises of power and knowledge. Freedom from mortality. An opportunity, an invitation to become second in power only to one other person in the multiverse.

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the visions; visions he'd told no one about, but which he'd been having ever since they left that island and started sailing towards Th?r Glomd?ita?or, and still plaguing him now that they were departing it.

He stared out at a now clear lake, devoid of crackling power and stretching hands, and wondered.

He wondered and thought.

And what he thought, he dared not yet tell the others about.

Somewhere overhead, a large dark cloud floated, defiant of which direction the winds actually wanted to carry it. It seemed to watch the large sleem passing out into the sea far below it, watched as the crew hurried about their activities, watched at the concern of one young wizard. Malice flickered through this cloud like lightning as it watched.

As the dark cloud drifted away, dark evil amusement seemed to emanate from it. Amusement from a vast and patient intellect that knew what was to befall them, had already planned it all out long before.

Hundreds of rels ago.

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