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   Chapter 15 The Great Northern Kingdom

Maldene II: Mysteries Of Olde By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 92398

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:03


"No, no, no, " the sergeant roared, "you've exposed your backside to him. Bring your guard up. And you there- straighten that sword arm!"

The sounds of swords clashing was all around, of men straining with exertion, sweat covering their muscled bodies. It was the practice yard inside the King's castle, the sergeant walking slowly about as he gave corrections to the fighting techniques of the men he drilled. Several small groups of men were scattered about the dusty yard, each battling one another in mock drills. The sergeant had been the drill-master for a few rels now and had seen most everything there was to see of standard fighting styles in this yard; there had only been one time when someone's skill and technique had surprised him.

"Think you're up for that re-match, sergeant?"

"What green-horn dares to-, " the sergeant began as he turned around, then stopped as he saw who had shouted out to him, "Shong!"

Shong smiled his shy smile as the sergeant came walking swiftly over to him. The two greeted with a handshake to the forearm, the greeting of comrades in arms. Several other heads in the practice yard were turning to look, several faces smiling at the one they saw.

"Why you old sword-hand, " the sergeant's voice carried out upon the yard, "finally come back for a visit?"

"Just thought it was about time for that re-match, " Shong replied as they released arms, "I've been kind of busy before this."

Several voices shouted Shong's name in greeting across the yard, most of the fighting now having come to a stop. Shong gave a half-shy wave of his hand back to the men in general as the sergeant led him on to the practice yard.

"Busy?" the sergeant said. "I'll say! We've heard the stories of Krey and Devoon. You've become pretty famous around here."

"I was just helping out, " Shong corrected humbly, "the guys with the magic did all the real work."

"Nonsense, " the sergeant replied, a small group of men now gathering round, "the wizards have their magic to work with, Bronto his great strength, that priest his god. Of all the ones in your group, only you have just but the skill of your sword to use against all that you met. You're a true hero!"

"I don't know about that, " Shong said, "and Kilgar doesn't have any magic either, just his knife."

"You underrate yourself, " the sergeant corrected, "that boy's a Destir- that alone is advantage equal to Bronto's strength. No, you're the only true hero for us men whose life is with the sword."

Several shouts and cheers echoed the sergeant's sentiment, Shong's name being called out in various ways upon the yard. After a few moments, the sergeant quieted his men down a bit.

"Now, " the sergeant said, "you mentioned something about a rematch?"

"I just thought, as long as I was here, you might want to face off again, " Shong said. "I think I can do better this time."

"Better?" The sergeant cocked an eyebrow as he reached for the sword at his belt. "We'll see about that."

The men backed away, forming a large circle around the two as they both readied themselves. Shong pulled out a more ordinary-looking sword, leaving his diamond blade in its sheath. The men muttered about themselves, the newer recruits expressing their doubts about the rumored abilities of this unknown person.

"Is he really as skilled as they say?" asked one.

"No one can be that good, " said another.

"You just wait and see, " one of the older men corrected the new recruits.

"I say the sergeant wins."

"The sergeant's good, but I'll have to put my money on Shong."

The talking died down to a low murmur as the two opponents faced each other off, each in a crouched battle pose, sword ready in front, battle to begin as they circled each other with but five feet separating themselves.

The sergeant made a feint with his sword, Shong showing no sign of reacting to it at all. The sergeant gave another feint, with again not even a flicker of an eyebrow from Shong. The third feint from the sergeant turned into a lunge, thrusting his sword straight for Shong's heart; a sure hit.

Except for the fact that Shong wasn't there. The sergeant heard a soft-footed landing behind him. Immediately he whirled around, ducking down low as he did so, bringing his sword up over his head.

Against anyone else, the sergeant would have had the right idea, but Shong didn't fight like anyone else. The sergeant's sword blocked nothing but air, for it wasn't a down-stroke that Shong delivered, to come crashing down upon the sergeant's head only to be blocked by his upraised sword. No, Shong's sword had come up from under, starting a swift arc from where Shong's toes were and coming up from the ground where the sergeant crouched, and up under the raised sword.

The sergeant found himself with Shong's sword at his throat, several inches below the height at which he had raised up his sword in anticipation of Shong's coming attack, blocking naught but air.

"That's one, " Shong said.

They held that position for several tids before the sergeant broke out into a grin. The sergeant's laugh then echoed out upon the yard, several of the new recruits staring out in disbelief that the first fight was already over.

"I knew you'd get better, " the sergeant said as Shong drew back his sword, "I just thought I might at least get a single hit in before you beat me."

"I could hold back, if you want, " Shong offered as the sergeant got to his feet.

"Don't you dare!" the sergeant replied fiercely. "Let's go for a second round; this time I'll try not to look like a first-rel recruit."

"See?" an older recruit said in an aside to one of the newer ones. "I told you he was good!"

The newer recruit just stood slack-jawed.

The second battle lasted a bit longer. This time the sergeant was able to block Shong's coming sword as he whirled around, but only to have Shong's foot come around low, ramming into the back of the sergeant's knee, unbalancing him. As the sergeant fought briefly to regain his balance, Shong swung around in a full circle, his sword starting from where it met with the sergeant's, arcing full around with Shong's body, to come around into the sergeant's back, right into where the sergeant was trying to keep himself from falling into.

The sergeant fell right back against the flat of Shong's blade, ending up on the ground as Shong drew away his sword before it could do any harm.

Cheers went up from the onlookers as they applauded the short but well-timed sword play. The sergeant chuckled as Shong offered a helping hand.

"Well, that's two, " the sergeant said as he came up to his feet. "At least I lasted longer this time."

"I'm going for three, " Shong reminded him with a smile.

The echoing cheers of the third fight brought the attention of three individuals, to look across the practice yard onto which they were not normally permitted. They saw the leaping form of Shong coming down upon the sergeant and cooed with delight. They immediately started running out across the yard.

"Well, that's three, " the sergeant said, clapping Shong on the back as their third bout ended, "though I'll be darned if I know how you did half that stuff. It was just about two rels ago that we had a nearly even fight."

"I just learned from that fight, is all, " Shong shrugged.

"Ha!" the sergeant bellowed. "And a diplomat as well. That deserves a drink at the tavern after practice."

The sergeant looked around at the assembled men, now growling at them with his drill-master's face.

"Okay you laggards, get back to practice!" he yelled them into dispersing. "We've still got half a nev out here before you can slack off!"

As the men started to break up, the sergeant turned to Shong in a more normal-volumed speaking voice.

"So, what brings you back to Th?r Glomd?ita?or?"

"Well, " Shong began, "I'm just here to-"

"Oh Shong!"

A chorus of three young feminine cries echoed simultaneous across the open yard. A shiver ran down the brave warrior's spine as he recognized the triplet voices.

"Oh no, " Shong breathed, afraid to look up.

"Afraid so, " the sergeant grinned.

Shong looked up to see three girls, all dressed in the same flowing peach-colored gowns, all with shoulder-length straw-yellow hair and blue eyes, their identical freckled white faces glowing with gay anticipation, their breasts having filled more with coming womanhood since last Shong had seen them. Three identical triplets running up to his side.

"Oh, you were great in that fight!"

"Oh, how we've missed you."

"We've heard about your wondrous exploits."

"Did you get our letters?"

"You're even better than last we saw."

"Did you really kill all those creatures by yourself?"

The sergeant was noticing that the unflappably-brave warrior, the same one that had died and come back, had faced off vicious clawed terrors- was starting to turn a bright shade of red. The thing he feared the most was upon him...

"Hi princesses, " Shong finally said, visibly uncomfortable.

...Social interaction, specifically women.

"We just had our sixteenth birthrises, " one of them said, "that means we're almost women."

"We can date, " said another.

"We can even marry, " said a third, with a demure smile.

"Do you like big weddings?" one of them asked. "Because what with our father being King and all..."

"Married?" Shong's voice skewed an octave as the word came out of his mouth. "I'm not even- I mean you have to date first before-"

"Good, " one of them said, "a date it is. Do you want one of us at a time, or all at once?"

"We could take a nice walk in the private family garden, " suggested another.

"No, " Shong tried frantically, "I didn't mean it that way. Teenya-"

"I'm Tanya, she's Tonya."

They'd surrounded him, Shong had nowhere to go. Shong's eyes looked frantically around for help.

"I'm sorry princesses, " the sergeant interrupted, "but Shong is busy on the King's business right now. You'll have to get him later."

The three pouted almost as one, disappointment on their faces.

"Can't we just talk to him for a little bit?"

"It's been such a long time, I'm sure he's missed us so."

"A brave warrior returned from faraway lands must have time with his girlfriends."

"Sorry, " the sergeant said, gentle but firm, as he started to move one of them along, "but we've important matters to discuss. You'll just have to wait."

"Oh, that's the trouble with loving a hero, " one of them said, Shong wasn't sure which, "he's always busy doing hero stuff."

"It's okay, " another said as they broke off from around Shong and started to step away, "it'll give us time to practice."

Shong was almost afraid to ask.

"Practice?" he ventured.

"A surprise, dear heart, " the third smiled, stroking a hand across his cheek, "so we can always be by your side."

Shong almost went into shock right there. He kept thinking of how his epitaph would look: noted warrior and swordsman who'd faced off Krey and the forces of Miro, found dead from shock on a practice yard- the cause: three pubescent young girls.

"Well, " one of them said, "we'll leave you to your important work."

The triplets reached up on their toes to kiss their beloved, each picking a different spot on Shong's quickly-reddening cheeks as they bestowed their gift simultaneously. With a hard swallow, Shong watched as they walked away, smiles over their shoulders, waving their hands behind them. Shong gave a vague limp-wristed wave of his own hand as they left the practice yard.

"You've got problems any man should have, " the sergeant grinned.

"Thanks for bailing me out, " Shong said, gratitude plain on his face.

"Anytime, " the sergeant replied, "though there's not a man at this castle that wouldn't give anything to be in your position. They're growing into rather beautiful-looking women. And triplets at that? I've had wet-dreams that haven't been as nice."

"I'm just not that kind of-" Shong began, unsure of how to broach this kind of subject. "I mean, they come on rather strong."

"That would be understating it, " the sergeant agreed as they started a casual walk across the practice yard and past the groups of fighting men. "Before your first visit here, they were ever after anyone with a good look to his face, ever since they were twelve; always pestering the good-looking men. But ever since they saw you, they've stayed loyal to you, haven't pestered anyone else at all. More's the pity, the men are regretting having shooed them away as kids now that they're almost into their womanhood."

"Wonderful, " Shong rolled his eyes. "They have a crush on me, but if I break their hearts I might offend the King."

"Hey, there's better fates then being loved by maidens like them, " the sergeant said, then spared a quick aside for a group of trainees. "You there- grip that sword farther up on the hilt!"

"I'm just not too comfortable around- well, you know, " Shong said.

"Never been with one, have you?" the sergeant winked. "That's what you get from sword practicing too much."

They walked a bit more while Shong's face sought to reassert its normal color. After a bit, Shong asked a question that had been on his mind since the triplets left.

"What did they mean by practice? They said something about always being by my side."

"Oh that, " the sergeant said. "Well, you aren't going to like it."

"What?" Shong persisted, a bit worried.

"Well, a couple of times I caught them doing it in back of the main Keep, and once when I was passing by the Family garden. Getting pretty good at it too."

Shong stopped in mid-step, looking the sergeant straight in the eye.

"What?!" Shong demanded, uncertain which emotion to feel just then.

The sergeant sighed and answered.

"They practice with the sword, " he said. "They hope to become warrior enough to fight by your side. They use normal men's infantry swords and even do it in standard leather armor. I guess they want to prove their love to you by... Shong? Are you all right?"

But Shong couldn't hear the sergeant, or even see the practice yard. All he could see was an image of himself in a pitched battle with some great clawed creature, life on the line, when three straw-yellow haired girls come running up to his side with swords carved like long phallic symbols, distracting him with their caresses and kisses just as the giant claw comes down on his head and turns him into road-kill.

"No, " Shong shook his head disbelievingly. "The gods can't be that perverse."

"You think not?" the sergeant raised the question as he put a hand on Shong's shoulder. "I think you can count on it. Besides, it's not every man that can have his women fighting by his side."

Shong's gaze lost itself in the distance, his mind numb, as he slowly voiced his response.

"But, ... they're not my..."

"I anoint thee in the name of Athena and the King, " the glowing sword came down first to one shoulder then to the other as a light suffused the kneeling applicant. "Arise now, a servant to good, warrior for the King."

The man arose, a new strength about him, plate armor on him now infused with the symbol of the Kingdom, sword at his side glowing with new magic. He looked up to the robed figure of Mov standing in front of him, back to the altar. The chapel was grand, as befit such a one in the King's castle. Built as a stronghold for good, back when Mov had started laying its humble foundations the King couldn't help but offer up a little more. Thus it ended up with a radiant beauty, more than just a humble temple, though with the lack of over-ostentatiousness that its priest demanded, a shining jewel of beauty. Its altar was a simple large rectangle of white bedrock, though carved and polished in a way to admire, the walls paneled with fine woods, though none that would not add a relaxing fragrant sniff for the troubled pilgrim. The ceiling domes up high, the main chapel softly lit for the weak of eyes. This was a temple where no one was refused entrance, no one refused help.

Of Mov, the man rising to his feet saw a tall person, of medium build though with the slight tautness of muscle that would mark one who had been a warrior in a former time. His dusty-brown hair came down to his ears, a slight contrast to his green eyes and Katoan-white skin. Simple robes did he wear, though back in his priestly chambers did he ever have ready his own suit of armor, evidence of his willingness to truly fight for what he believed in. In his hand he held his upraised sword, holy glow along its length diminishing now as the man stood on his feet.

"Welcome to the ranks of the holy, " Mov said as he sheathed his sword.

"Thank-you, my lord, " the man said to the one to whom he had just pledged his soul.

"Go now, your new brethren will show you your quarters, " Mov said, then added, his tone a bit less formal. "And while you're there you can tell them that some volunteers are needed to help out with the villages in the district near the base of the mountain; the orkai have been active again and are producing more than enough homeless and orphans."

"Yes, my lord." The man nodded a curt bow, turned on heel, and then marched out down the long church aisle. Mov watched him as he left the chapel, a sigh finally escaping his lips.

"I wonder if we will ever have enough, " he said.

He turned around and faced the altar, the statue of Athena above and behind it smiling down. He stepped up to the altar, his voice now almost conversational as if he would speak to his goddess like one would a normal person.

"Oh Athena, will it ever be enough? The orkai seem to breed like rabbits and yet the King says that they are not the least of what is coming. Can we ever be truly prepared for a Donjflou?"

"Preparation starts with the heart, " came a younger voice behind him. "At least that's what you've always taught us."

Mov smiled at the familiar voice, then replied without even turning around to look.

"Yes, I suppose that's true, Maloma, " he replied.

"How can you always tell us apart from just our voices?" the female voice approached. "Is this some gift of Athena that you haven't told us about?"

Mov suppressed a grin before he turned around.

"Just the knowing of your soul, child, " he said.

Maloma stood there, of medium height though much shorter than Mov's tall frame, she was still fairly well built, endowed with both the virtues of womanhood and the strength of a warrior. She wore the gown of a priestess, its light blue blending with the darker blue of her eyes, her light chestnut hair cascading down over it to her shoulders. From the way her robes hung, he could tell that she also wore some sort of light armor beneath, perhaps her sword as well, as ever ready as her twin for imminent danger.

"Back from your trip to My-Thov?" Mov asked.

"Oh, a motab ago at least, " she answered with a smile. "Where have you been?"

Mov stepped down from the altar as he answered, tired look about his face.

"I'm sorry, " he said, "but I've been so busy of late."

Maloma stepped in beside him as he came down from the altar, the two now strolling slowly down the center aisle of the chapel, as it led them to the entry-gate.

"You know, " she suggested, "you could just leave that anointing to someone else. That's what the other priests are for."

"No, " Mov answered, placing a hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword, "I'm afraid that the sword can only be used by me. Its power will not bestow the transformation when used by anyone else."

"A lot of volunteers have been coming in?"

Mov sighed.

"Yes, " he said, "more with each passing rise. The threat of the orkai to friends and family have spurred men on to take sides. The ranks of the Elite Guard grow ever greater."

The entry-gates opened of their own as they came to them, the two walking through them without noticing the casual magic that had done so.

"Will they be enough?" Maloma asked.

"They will never be enough, " Mov answered. "Unfortunately the very definition of elite means that they will always be few."

"It's a pity that Vold doesn't subscribe to that notion, " she said as they walked across the anteroom, towards one of the smaller branching hallways. "His priests convert entire towns to his Sentinels; an entire army of his own elite."

"Yes, " Mov said, sadness creeping into his voice. "But the price they pay- children being sacrificed by their own parents, people abandoning their hopes and lives for something they don't truly understand, their souls forever lost."

"Vold puts himself up as the solution to a problem that he and his own priests made, " more than a trace of anger creeping into her voice. "I would not have believed it had I not been there! The people know Miro is a threat, and yet they flock to Vold for help. His priests twist the truth, making father out as the ally of Miro and Vold as the savior of good. After all father has done!"

"My-Thov is on the other side of the world, " Mov reminded her as the smaller corridor they were in now turned a corner, "they know nothing of the Kingdom or of your father; only what the priests have told them. The King's rule is too far away for them to know of it. Not like the good people of Degaloth- they would never fall for the lies of Vold and his priests; they know too well of what your father has brought them."

"True, " Maloma gave a slight smile, "they remember what he did for them when he pulled the Kingdom together and kept it free from Miro's influence."

They finally exited through a door, coming out in a garden behind the large chapel. Walled off from the rest of the castle yards, the stone walls rising up just enough to afford some tranquility and privacy. A sculpted garden, pebble-lined pathways winding their way through the colorful trees and manicured lawns and flowered bushes. A bright orain-colored sky shone down upon them, a spell put about the garden keeping out the encroaching noises from without. Trees dripped with green and blue colored leaves, the splash of violet, tairu, and narlu colored flowers about them despite the growing of winter outside the protected castle. Two other priests walked about the garden, while a small group of Mov's Elite practiced their swordplay in a convenient open area. Mov and Maloma walked down one of the paths as they continued their talk.

"Vold shall vastly outnumber us, " Mov said, "but the light of good shall be on our side."

"Will that be enough?" Maloma asked.

"Who can say?" Mov shrugged. "We can but try our best and persevere against all that Miro would bring us."

"At least the anointed will be ready to fight, " Maloma said, noting the ones at their swordplay.

"The King wants me to form them into a special elite corps, " Mov said as he watched them with her. "Make them into a cohesive fighting unit. Let's hope my rusting fighting skills are up to it."

"I'll hear not of any disparage upon your fighting skills, " Maloma chided him. "Not even from you! It was you taught me and Tirna how to fight."

Mov smiled at the scolding as he gave reply.

"Okay, I apologize. I guess we'll see if the rust isn't so thick as I might think."

They stopped in the middle of the garden path, ahead of them three of those anointed by Mov's sword thrust and parried at one another while a fourth stood by and observed technique.

"They shall have to be more than just good fighters, " Mov said. "They must be pure of heart and soul, unfailingly brave."

"Your sword took care of that when you anointed them with it, " Maloma reminded him.

"True, " Mov said, "but they must also learn to face impossible odds, learn courage when they face the fears of their very soul. Only experience can be a true test of that. They shall have to learn survival where naught can be had. The training is hard, and they all put their hearts into it, but I'm not sure how many will make it. These Elite must be something special."

"They'll make it, " Maloma reassured. "They have you for a teacher, after all. You overcame the hazards and challenges of your own early life, you can teach them.

"Ah, " Mov said, remembering with both fondness and regret, "but I had the King to help me out of my situation."

"Don't underrate yourself, " Maloma said. "From the way father tells it you still had to muster up the willpower to overthrow that which had been laid upon you."

"True, " Mov admitted. "But if it wasn't for the King I never would have gotten to the point where I could have done so."

"That's another thing, " Maloma's voice changed to a less serious questioning tone. "You've been friends with my father since long before I was born, yet you call him 'King' instead of by his first name. Why?"

Mov looked on at the fighting anointed, his face lost in memories as he replied.

"Two reasons, " he began. "First, out of respect for how he helped me and all that he has done for the Kingdom. He is something higher than I ever will be, something higher than any man I know of can achieve. He deserves the respect and so I give it to him."

"Okay, I accept that, " Maloma admitted. "But, what's the other reason?"

At this a slight smile crossed Mov's face, a grin of a long-held secret.

"The other..., " he continued. "Well, you know that your father was an orphan."

"Of course, " she shrugged. "Found wandering through the forests as a small boy, no sign of where he came from or memory of any parents. Mother's always saying how proud she is of having a husband that brought himself up from orphan to King."

"Well, " Mov went on, "when he was found, the family that first took him in were simple folk. The husband worked at chopping wood, the wife at bundling straw for bedding."

"I remember, " Maloma said, recalling the stories from her childhood.

"Simple and just folk, generous in taking in a stray orphan, but Fate had denied them one small thing common to a lot of other folk."

Maloma look questioning at Mov, waiting for the answer.

"An imagination, " Mov finally said.

"Huh?" Maloma didn't get it.

"They lacked for the imagination or patience to give your father a proper name, so they named him after the first sound they heard. Unfortunately that happened to be the sound of the new found child burping at the same time as the husband popped open a well-corked bottle of cheap wine."

"My father was named after a sound?" she sounded incredulously.

"Out of respect for him did I promise to never tell anyone of what is the rather ignominious name of such a great King, " Mov replied seriously but with a slight grin. "A secret that I shall take with me to my grave."

"Come to think of it, " Maloma said, "I've never heard mother use his name in front of anyone, not even us. You couldn't tell one of his children what that name is, could you?"

"As I said, " Mov replied as one of the anointed finally noticed them and walked over, "a secret I take to my grave."

"My Lord, " the man said, cutting off their conversation. "We had not noticed you there. Did you wish to offer advice for our practice?"

"No, " Mov said, "I was merely about on a stroll. Have you been practicing the mental exercises I taught you?"

"Yes, lord, " the man replied, standing at a relaxed but respectful attention. "But for sleeping and eating we practice both with the sword and the exercises you taught us all day and night. As well do we practice as a team, just as you advised."

"Good, " Mov said, "because now there shall be someone else to h

rkai would not permit them.

The animal cries of the orkai echoed off the rocks as they neared, cries that sent a chill through the fearful refugees, but only held Starke's well-trained men firm with anticipated battle. The cloud of orkai closed in on the gap in the cliffs that was the alcove's entrance, a mere mile from the shore at which the refugees were being evacuated. The orkai came in hungrily, a small horde a thousand strong; Starke raised his sword.

Just as the orkai were between the twin cliffs, Starke brought down his sword in a swift cutting motion, the signal to his men.

Boulders were leveraged, large ones to come tumbling down to dislodge still others. It was not by accident that they found themselves at this site; it had been scouted out by the Sea Mage's spells on their way here, its location communicated to the running refugees, a haven for them to run towards. The perfect place for an ambush. The rocks came tumbling down, crashing in upon the beast-like creatures. So intent had they been on gaining on their prey, so absorbed with anticipation of the horrible things they would do once they caught up, that they had not thought to look overhead. A frenzied battle fever they were in, normally the bane of any opponent that would face their unforgiving claws and swords, Starke had used their greatest advantage against them.

The creatures screamed and clawed about as they sought to avoid the tumbling death, looking around for the foe that dared assail them. But Starke held off his men, did not send them charging down into the fray to press their advantage, but rather he waited, waited as the rocks stopped their crashing about, his men waiting in silence for his next order.

When the rocks had stopped moving, the dust starting to clear a bit, the surviving orkai began to crawl out from under.

"Now sir?" the soldier next to him asked quietly.

"Not yet, " Starke calmly replied. "Too soon and they will but take shelter under the very rocks we have given them. We will wait a bit longer for more of them to come out into the open. Hold steady."

The angry cries of the creatures came up from the rocks, the refugees beyond looking nervously back at their pursuers. Hundreds of orkai slowly climbed out of the debris, looking about for an enemy to fight. Starke carefully waited, watching as their numbers grew from orkai dislodging themselves, while others moved no more.

Starke came up with his sword, again slashing it swiftly down. The well-trained response was immediate. A volley of arrows came down. Not just a flock aimed at random in hopes of getting what they would, each had been carefully aimed as each archer had picked out his own target. A hundred well-aimed arrows, each finding its target in a still-groggy orkai.

Now the creatures knew where to look. As a hundred of their number fell, they looked skyward, up at the hidden recesses of the cliffs. They screamed their inhuman battle cries as they ran for the towering rocks, scrambling up them as fast as they could.

"Just as you predicted, Captain Starke, " a soldier remarked.

"These creatures do seem to lack in both imagination and tactics, " Starke answered, staring dispassionately down at the climbing orkai. "Get ready for the second volley."

The orkai climbed like born to it, crying out their screams of battle, though perhaps surprised at hearing nothing in return. Did not your enemy scream out at you his rage when you engaged in battle? But these hidden troops cried out not; there was no way to locate them by any cries of battle and lust for blood.

Starke had trained his men well. As long as they remained hidden they would not cry out in lust of battle. Oh, they still felt the rising adrenaline of the moment, but they trusted in their leader and obeyed his desires. Starke had told them to keep quiet and so they would, until Starke himself gave the order.

Starke's sword came slicing down for the third time. A second volley of arrows went silently flying out from each cliff, each volley aiming for the orkai climbing up the cliff opposite; a clear shot from both directions.

That's when the orkai discovered the meaning of the word "cross-fire". Metal-tipped arrows pierced through hard skulls, sending more of the twisted creatures to tumble down and join their dead brethren, screaming out their cries of pain and death.

Starke spared a glance over in the direction of the fleeing refugees. The next load of longboats was just coming in. It would take two more trips before they were all safe. He looked back at the progress of the climbing orkai and brought down his sword once more. Another volley of arrows, orkai trying to take shelter within the cliff walls, more bodies falling. Still, they climbed.

"Sea Mage, " Starke ordered, "now."

"Yes, Captain Starke, " she answered from nearby.

The Sea Mage looked down the tall cliff side, raising her arms in incantation.

"Let the sea cleanse this place, sweep it clean of the filth and debris. Rid this shore of the presence of evil."

The ground beneath their feet shook, rocks tumbling loose from the cliff's face. The orkai held on, determined not to be done in by another landslide. But it wasn't a landslide that they would face.

A spout of water gushed out from the cliff face, catching an orkai full in the chest as it ripped him off from his tight grip. He was sent smashing against the opposite cliff, dashed upon the rocks and another clinging orkai.

Then another water spout erupted from the cliff-side, then another from the opposite side. A host of water spouts erupted from either side, scouring clean the cliff of climbing orkai, smashing them against the opposite cliff. When a section would be freed of the creatures, a water spout would disappear, but only to reappear in a different spot of the cliffs. Drowning cries of the bestial creatures came up from the pile of rocks below as the flood of water also coursed down through the fallen rocks to orkai that hadn't quite managed to free themselves yet. The orkai, a force ten times the number of Starke own men, were being wiped out.

Perhaps not all of them. More than a few finally managed to make it to the top of the cliffs, to look around and finally see the face of their assailants.

All they saw was Starke, Vortex Sword raised up high, no one near him. The ones on the cliff opposite saw even less.

"You will surrender, " Starke announced, "or you will die."

At this point the orkai were unsure of themselves. Ready they were for battle against whichever vast force had ambushed them, but all they saw was but a single man.

Rocks, arrows, flood- did this one man do it all himself? Did he have a magic that gave him the power of any entire army? The orkai weren't certain; all they knew was what they saw, and they saw but a single man that had to be the one responsible, a sword of obvious great magical power held in his hand.

They approached cautiously. Starke raised his sword, the orkai stepping back a bit in response. Starke's sword shone darkly in the wintry sun as he continued to fix them with a stern emotionless stare.

He brought the sword down.

Immediately one of the creatures cried out in pain as his arm suddenly sliced off, the head of another next to him peeling itself off as well. On both cliff sides orkai were suddenly finding body parts falling off, wounds ripped open across their bellies.

And all they saw was a single man with a sword.

They cried out in terror, seeing the single man only as a wizard whose power they could not understand nor fight. They panicked and started to flee, the sounds of steel slicing away at them now filling the air. From all around them came invisible ghostly cries of battle, cries for their blood, battle cries of the dead.

The orkai, still three times the number of Starke's own men, ran. So frightened at this point were they that some ran straight over the edge of the cliff, plunging down to their deaths. Others struck out wildly with their swords, hoping to hit whatever spirits this magician with the dark sword had conjured up. The march of the thousand orkai had turned into a rout.

The Sea Mage appeared beside Starke, materializing suddenly out of the air, a bead of sweat on her forehead.

"I cannot keep up the invisibility spell for much longer, " she said.

"It matters not, " Starke replied, "the morale of the creatures has broken; they will run from anything now. You may release the spell."

With a relieved sigh the Sea Mage nodded. Immediately the mysterious invisible cries of battle were filled in by living bodies, Human and Thirdocian alike, slicing about with their swords at the confused creatures.

If fighting an invisible enemy wasn't bad enough, seeing one suddenly appear in front of you, weapon coming down straight for you, can be enough to make one's heart fail. The orkai screamed, half of them dropping their weapons and running straight over the cliffs, the only direction away from the suddenly-appearing force. The orkai had long since lost any sense of organized fighting and were now fleeing for their lives, the way the refugees had fled before them. Swords sliced at their backs, cutting off life and limb. Starke looked carefully through the unorganized mass of creatures, searching for something. Finally, he spotted it.

A particularly large orkai, shouting out his guttural orders, trying to rally what was left of his fighting force.

"That's their leader, " Starke said to the Sea Mage, pointing with his sword, "he's mine. Kill the leader and what's left of their morale will go with him."

"Have fun, " the Sea Mage said as she sat down on a convenient boulder to rest.

Swinging his sword up overhead, Starke ran over to the large orkai, crying out loudly in his direction.

"Ka'ru!"

The orkai turned, heaving up his own large battle axe, a bloody grin crossing his face as he saw his counterpart run towards him. He brought his axe up to bear, growling out loud his own cry of victory, as Starke's black sword came down against his own.

The Vortex Sword hummed high and loud, slicing through the creature's own large battle axe. The heavy metal head of the axe vanished, as if erased from view upon contact with the sword. Starke's swing sliced right on through where the axe used to be, not pausing to give the orkai time to be surprised. A slice straight across the armored chest of the creature, leaving a deep cut through both metal and flesh, the sword drinking in hungrily of any matter it would touch.

The orkai screamed out in rage and pain, trying to bring what was left of its weapon up to bear against Starke's second stroke. The creature's scream was cut short, the Vortex Sword slicing right through its head, cutting a three inch wide swath of nothingness straight through the middle of its skull. The top of its head fell to the ground, the rest of the creature's body tumbling down after it, the whole center section of its head now missing, turned to nothingness by the touch of Starke's sword. Starke looked down at the orkai leader, regarding his former opponent, and then turned up to shout out a cry of victory.

"Ka'ru!"

His voice echoed throughout the stony cliffs and hills and the rocky beach as his men cleaned up what was left of the once large force of orkai.

Not one of the orkai that had chased after the refugees survived to tell their tale.

"Refugees all aboard, sir, " the soldier saluted Captain Starke.

"Good, " Starke said, looking out over the railing of his flagship. "Set sail then, we'll drop them off at North Lamica somewhere, unless some of them want to get off at Ha?kldalnsa."

"Yes sir, " the soldier saluted.

"Which reminds me, " Starke said, stopping the soldier as he was about to take his leave. "Tell the Sea Mage to send a message out to Lieutenant Gormal. Have him tell the others there that we have some more dragon eggs for that ogre of theirs to take care of. And also a few refugees that might want to take up residence in their little town."

"Yes sir, " the sailor said, this time waiting.

"Dismissed, " Starke acknowledged.

Starke turned to look back out to the shore, the crew already pulling the ship away from its rocky expanse. It was said that giants had made those boulders, dropped them upon the shore in some war of old. Others said that My-Thov used to be even bigger, stretching out over the Sea of A Thousand Islands to almost touch North Lamica, that the Sea was the shattered remnants of that old shore, lost in perhaps the same war of old that had involved the aforementioned giants.

Starke shook himself out of his reverie and looked about at his flagship. A Glydytan Flagship, the one type of ship afloat that could put a Tirrissian Warship to shame. One of the very few in the King's fleet, he had charged Starke with the use of this one to head his patrol of the Sea.

A patrol of what now, a dozen ships? Four large sleems and the rest Tirrissian Warships, scattered in small groups all throughout the Sea of A Thousand Islands, all watching, waiting.

They'd found a few other such caches of dragon eggs like that last one, each one hidden along My-Thov's rocky eastern coastline or within one of the innumerable islands of the Sea, each guarded by but one or two dragons. A small wealth of eggs to be handed into Ha?kldalnsa, though nothing to compare to the hordes of Traugh if truth be told.

Then of the refugees there had been several others like this last group, picked up by others of his fleet. A rout of humanity across the eastern reaches of My-Thov, while word came from the West that the people there were being turned into Sentinels by entire townfulls. Why turn half of the people into Sentinels while leaving the rest to run, fearful but free? Perhaps they cannot yet fight the Plains Riders in the East nor the Destir in the West and seek to flood them with fearful homeless refugees, to take up valuable food and supplies.

"This speaks of strategy and planning, " Starke said to himself as he watched the rocky shore of My-Thov slowly shrink with growing distance. "They use the refugees as a weapon against those that would fight them, that others may have to occupy extra man-power at their care and feeding. I think it not a coincidence that most of the refugees are either the very young, the very old, or women caring for their young. Of able-bodied men there are almost none, having been killed in the raids that made the rest refugees."

Starke paced around a bit more, thinking.

"But, they must know that the refugees might seek help completely off of My-Thov, that we are evacuating what we can to other places. How can they expect the refugees to be a burden on the Plains Riders or others that still survive on My-Thov, when we take them with us. Indeed, this is not the first time that we have made such a trip to Lamica or Ha?kldalnsa."

Starke took another step or two, lost in thought.

He stopped suddenly, head jerking upright.

"Of course!" he said emphatically, then quickly shouted out. "Sea Mage! I want a message sent out! Now!"

The Sea Mage quickly came up, sped along by the urgency in Starke's voice.

"What is it?" she asked as she came up before him, concern written on her face at the urgency in Starke's voice.

"Send a message out to Gormal on Ha?kldalnsa. He's to increase his vigilance and expect immediate trouble. Then send out a message to the nearest ship patrolling that area and have them steer close to the island; I want an extra ship guarding that place."

"Something wrong, Captain Starke?" she asked.

"Yes, and I should have seen it earlier, " he answered. "They aren't trying to flood the rest of My-Thov with refugees, they're trying to see where we take them."

"Sir?"

"Where are the two places where we take the refugees?"

"The western coast of Lamica and to Ha?kldalnsa, " she answered.

"And why?"

"Lamica has a few rulers that are friendly to the King's cause and Ha?kldalnsa has-"

"One of the most important collection of secret weapons that one small group of people could be, " Starke finished for her. "They're trying to see what places we have about in this part of the world that we could move such numbers of people to, what places we have that we could then use as military bases when comes a war."

"A subtle plan, " the Sea Mage said in surprised realization. "More than I would expect from orkai."

"Oh, it isn't the orkai planning this one, " Starke said, "and they're also after something else: they're trying to find Ha?kldalnsa."

"But, if they find the island while Sabu and the other wizards are away..., " she began.

"Tell me about it, " Starke said brusquely. "Now get to your messages. Lookout!"

As the Sea Mage left to perform the requested duties, Starke's next order carried up to the Lookout post atop the central mast.

"Start watching for something following us, " Starke called out, a sense of immediacy in his voice. "It'll be flying fast and should be considered extremely dangerous."

"A dragon runner?" the Lookout's voice called back down.

"You're catching on fast, " Starke called back up.

The Thirdocian captain of the ship came up next to Captain Starke, questioning look about Starke's sudden excitement.

"You think we're being followed?" he asked.

"Friend, " Starke answered back, "I know it!"

As Starke's flagship with its two escorts sped on away to the small island of Ha?kldalnsa, he couldn't help but think of the other small puzzle that had come up. The answer to the puzzle of the fleeing refugees now apparent, his mind went back to thinking of how easy it was to pick up those scattered dragon eggs. True, there'd been trouble enough in doing so, but to leave just a single dragon or two to guard each small hoard, when the dragons could just as easily have taken the eggs with them- it didn't make sense.

He looked out to sea and pondered, talking quietly to himself.

"There's something I'm missing."

R.K.: 9, 992, 23 Arüdwo:

Our studies have uncovered some new information concerning Miro and the secret of his invulnerability. Though we have much research to do before we can verify it, if proven true this information could be just what we need to win against Miro. More I cannot say now, but let us hope that our studies bear fruit.

For all our sakes.

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