The Aduramis Chronicles: The Definitive Collection – Volumes 1-3

Advertisements
Categories: General

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Seven.

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

THE BLACK TOWER

The black and emerald creature beat its thunderous wings, sending shocks of air at its captives below.

Jericho sensed the arrival of the dragon was not a coincidence. He had no chance of escape. Even if he managed to release the dragon’s grip, the fall would kill him.

Although undignified, the ride was not uncomfortable; the huge claws provided a surprisingly soft enclosure. This creature, he knew, had guarded Eraywen, and undoubtedly belonged to the dark order of witches and wizards of whose existence he had just learnt.

They travelled southwest, according to the position of the sinking sun, until Rosthagaar lay far behind. He craned his neck and was just able to see the island Sanctuary disappear, and this filled him with a sense of dread. No good would come of this new adventure, he was sure.

The dragon journeyed through the night; the beat of its wings was hypnotic. Jericho dozed during the flight, unable to fully sleep due to the cold. He woke instantly as the animal changed elevation. He was forced to squint as the morning sun’s first rays peeked over the distant horizon. The endless ocean swept below him. In the distance, a small speck of land grew larger with every wing beat.

He was alert immediately, his heart rate elevated, ready to fight or take flight at a moment’s notice. Eraywen should have revived by now and it intrigued him that she had not.

‘Eraywen,’ he called. ‘Eraywen!’

She stirred, and moaned slightly. Her eyes blinked a few times, before she opened them fully. It took a few moments for her to focus and she looked down, and then up at the dragon. Her scream was deafeningly loud. The dragon craned its neck to look at her, snorted a hot waft of air, and then continued its journey.

‘We’re going to die!’ Eraywen screamed.

‘No, we are not!’ Jericho yelled. ‘Now calm down!’

Eraywen sobbed quietly to herself. ‘What happened?’

‘Do you not remember? You got us into this mess.’

‘I don’t know what you are talking about. The last thing I remember is–’ Eraywen paused and screwed up her eyes in concentration. ‘I remember seeing you off to battle, and then I woke up here. He’s going to eat us, isn’t he?’

‘No, Eraywen, he’s not going to eat us,’ said Jericho through gritted teeth.

‘I’m scared,’ Eraywen wailed.

‘I know,’ said Jericho more softly. ‘I am too.’

Jericho thought for a few moments. Something about her was wrong, but he could not put his finger on it immediately. It was only after a hundred or so of the rhythmic wing beats that it hit him.

‘Eraywen, where’s your talisman?’ he asked.

‘What talisman?’

‘The silver butterfly talisman you wore around your neck last night.’

‘I don’t possess such a thing,’ Eraywen said, giving Jericho an odd look.

Jericho puzzled over this new information. Was the talisman cursed, and had it controlled her actions? He had heard of such items before, and they took powerful magic to create. He hoped upon hope that this would be the reason for his wife’s treachery.

‘Eraywen, this is important. Do you remember ever holding the silver butterfly necklace? Perhaps someone handed it to you?

She thought long and hard, and it was minutes before she replied. ‘I think I do remember something. After we said goodbye this morning, I collided with a man who wore a hood over his face. He dropped a few items and I helped him pick these up. I’m not certain, but I do think I saw a flash of silver just before I woke up here.’

Jericho felt a huge sense of relief at this news. ‘That was no accident. I think you were cursed by that talisman, and that man did this to you on purpose.’

‘Cursed?’

‘I feel you were bewitched by this talisman to do that man’s bidding. The moment you touched it your thoughts and actions became that of someone else. Did you get a good look at this man?’

Eraywen had no time to reply as the dragon took a deep dive. She screamed as a small island rushed up to meet them, as did the top of a very tall tower.

The dragon reared and slowed. Its wings beat slower and reversed as it hovered over the ramparts. The creature then released its grip on the captives. Jericho and Eraywen dropped several feet to the hard stone floor, and immediately three hooded figures approached and held outstretched arms. They did not, however, offer assistance to the couple. They each brandished wands.

Jericho rose slowly and stiffly. He and Eraywen had been lucky not to have been injured in the fall. He turned and helped his wife to her feet, and then stepped defensively in front of her.

A cruel-faced man who wore a blue tunic and black robes stepped forward. His dark hair flicked about his face as a result of the winds circling the top of the tower. A scar that appeared to be a recent addition to his features ran the length of his face to his neck.

‘Welcome. I am Le’roth. Please do not attempt to use magic to escape,’ he said. ‘You will find that your journey will end very quickly in a watery grave. You are beyond the limit at which the Destinaté spell can transport you, and there are no boats on this island, before that thought enters your mind.’

‘Of that I have no doubt,’ Jericho replied. ‘Why have we been brought here?’

The captor prodded Jericho in the chest with his finger. ‘We will ask the questions. Follow me.’

Although the man was pleasant in speech, Jericho perceived a ruthless streak in him, and made a mental note to stay well clear. He quickly eyed the other guards, and held Eraywen’s hand. He escorted her down a trapdoor set into the floor without argument.

A cold stone spiral staircase led steeply downwards into the bowels of the tower.

The party passed numerous drab wooden doors, from which a cacophony of noises disturbed the mind. Indistinct screams emanated from a room halfway down the tower and set Eraywen on edge. She looked at her husband, terrified, and grasped him tightly. The general placed an arm around his wife, hoping to comfort her.

What little light drawn in through the slit windows diminished as they trod lower into the depths of the structure, the coldness in the air increasing. Now only torches lit the way at regular intervals with crazy shadows that bounced off the walls.

Everywhere Jericho noticed that symbols of a dragon were embedded into the stonework of doorframes and into the ironwork of fiery torches.

Every now and then, the escorts roughly poked their captives in the back with a wand to serve as a reminder that they were still under guard, and it took all of Jericho’s restraint not to react.

A short time later, the steps stopped and a passageway opened out before them. The arched roof oozed dampness and echoed their footsteps as they walked its length.

Jericho, ever observant, kept a mental note of their path, should the opportunity for escape arise. He pondered that they must be quite a distance under the seabed.

It was darker here still and the sounds of chains rattled and echoed. Screams of the unseen unnerved Eraywen and the general, their thoughts turning to what would become of them. The group approached a fork in the tunnel, and here several men sat on wooden crates in a pool of light. They appeared to be engrossed in a game that was a cross between chess and backgammon.

The gamers stiffened as the small group approached, and when Le’roth stepped into the light, the seated guards visibly relaxed.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ said a gruff voice. ‘I thought it was the master.’

Le’roth raised an eyebrow at the speaker. ‘Believe me, Nestis, if it was the master, you would be dead where you sit.’

Nestis rose sharply, as if to challenge Le’roth, and a fellow guard grabbed his arm and arrested his ascent.

‘You think I lie?’ Le’roth spat. ‘Our master does not suffer fools easily, and you are foolish if you think he does not know you do not guard your prisoners, and instead sit and play children’s games.’

‘From what I hear, Le’roth,’ Nestis sneered, ‘you too are fortunate to be alive, after your last failure. One of many, no doubt.’

Le’roth laughed. ‘I see you are as hilarious as ever, Nestis. However, as you can see, I do not have time for your games. Unlike you, I am on an errand for our master. Now, where would you like the prisoners kept?’

‘Well, let’s see who we have here.’ Nestis rose again and swaggered out of the light and into the gloom. He first grabbed Eraywen and then pulled her to him and reached around to grip her backside. She squealed and he laughed.

Jericho lost his composure and lunged for Nestis, but was arrested as a wand was raised to his face in the blink of an eye, barely an inch from his nose.

‘Who do we have here so eager to pick a fight with me?’ Nestis chortled. He caught hold of Jericho by the hair and dragged him into the light where his smile faltered. ‘You? You die, now!’

Nestis raised his wand once more and prepared to strike, but it was immediately blasted out of his hand and disappeared into the darkness. He rubbed his hand in pain.

‘Who dares–’

‘I dare.’ Le’roth stepped forward. ‘You will not harm my prisoner. That is my job, should it come to it.’

Nestis spat on the ground. ‘I will not kill your prisoner.’ He swung quickly to face Jericho and struck him in the face. ‘But there’s no saying I can’t rough him up a bit. That, general, was for the squadron of men you slaughtered at Windelrow.’

Jericho fell to his knees and rubbed his sore jaw. ‘The battle of Windelrow, yes, I remember it well. It’s funny how you escaped a certain death. Perhaps you were the one that ran tail between his legs, and left your men without a captain.’

‘Lies!’ Nestis thundered, and aimed a kick at Jericho’s face.

Le’roth slammed Nestis hard into the rock wall of the tunnel, a forearm resting heavily on his breastbone. ‘Calm yourself,’ Le’roth growled. ‘Now, where do I put the prisoners? Be warned, I will not ask again.’

Nestis avoided his gaze. ‘Third cell on the right.’ He pointed to his left down a dark intersection of the tunnel.

‘There now, that was not so difficult, was it?’ Le’roth patted Nestis on the cheek, and then gripped it tightly. ‘Next time, do not keep me waiting.’

Le’roth let him go and turned to his prisoners; he hauled Jericho to his feet and pushed him forward into the gloom, followed closely by Eraywen.

‘A fine lot of help you were.’ Nestis winced in pain as he returned and sat with his fellow guards at their makeshift games table.

‘We’re not picking any fights with him,’ a young guard piped up.

‘Cowards,’ Nestis hissed.

‘The way we hear it, you’re the coward,’ a gravelly voice chimed in.

Everyone burst into fits of laughter to Nestis’s chagrin. He cuffed the young guard around the head, and that made everyone laugh that much harder.

The morning that followed brought with it no relief from the cold or bitter dampness that Jericho and Eraywen had endured overnight in their cell. It was nothing more than a rock cave with a solid wooden door in one wall. A single torch had burnt low during the night, and a pile of rags on which to sleep stank of the hundreds of previous occupants.

The last tenant had busily engraved a monologue along one wall in a strange language neither Jericho nor Eraywen understood. Jericho looked dishevelled and had spent time checking the walls and door for a means of escape, to no avail. The rest of the night he had watched his wife sleep while he formulated plan after plan for escape, each of which he discarded. Every scenario failed because it meant he had to take his wife with him and she would slow him down. He could never bring himself to leave her behind, only to rescue her later. He needed a plan that would allow his wife safe passage alongside him. For now though, the ideal solution eluded him.

Chains and bolts rattled on the far side of the cell door. A peephole opened and then shut abruptly with a clang. The heavy wooden door creaked open on rusted iron hinges, and revealed Nestis standing alone with a wand in hand.

‘Good morning, I trust you slept well?’ Nestis sniggered. ‘No? Oh well, never mind. I am sure once my master is finished with you, you’ll welcome a long deep sleep.’

Jericho ignored Nestis’s taunts. Instead, he turned to Eraywen and shook her awake, and supported her as she stiffly got to her feet.

‘Nothing to say?’ Nestis asked. ‘You will have. Now, move it,’ he ordered.

Jericho linked arms with Eraywen and led her out of the cell at Nestis’s command, into an equally dank tunnel system.

‘Where are you taking us?’ Jericho demanded, aware of the wand pointed at him, and curious as to why Nestis was alone.

‘To see my master, of course.’

‘Who is he?’ Jericho asked, and half expected a blow to the head.

‘You know, you ask far too many questions. He is Lord and Master of all of this,’ said Nestis with a grand gesture.

‘He must be so proud to own such an endearing home,’ Jericho snorted.

Nestis looked affronted. ‘This is merely the dungeon, you fool. Now, shut up and move.’

As Nestis escorted them through the complex of tunnels, Jericho kept a close eye on security, and upon first inspection it appeared to be light. This was an advantage; however, he of all people knew that appearances were often deceptive.

They had, Jericho noted, followed a tunnel with a steady incline, and after a quick glance over his shoulder his suspicions were proved correct. Eraywen had become quite puffed; she was not as fit as her husband, and gratefully accepted help partway up the tunnel.

Their journey ended in a dead end and both Eraywen and Jericho turned to Nestis, confused.

‘Here we are,’ Nestis announced.

Jericho raised an eyebrow at him, and then looked at Eraywen and shrugged.

‘You doubt me?’

‘Well, the tunnel has ended,’ said Eraywen quietly from behind her husband.

‘Pretty lady, get ready for a surprise,’ said Nestis with glee. He shoved Jericho aside, and pushed Eraywen roughly towards the rock wall of the tunnel. However, before she hit, she vanished in a bright white flash.

‘A simple portal,’ said Nestis smugly and turned back to Jericho.

Jericho grabbed Nestis’s wand arm and twisted it behind his back. The man gave a howl of pain that was immediately silenced as Jericho brought his forearm around the man’s neck and squeezed tightly.

‘How do I get off this island?’ he hissed.

With a barely noticeable motion, Nestis shook his head.

‘Pity, I would have spared your life.’

Nestis struggled and then stiffened as Jericho wrenched his captive’s arm further up his back.

There was a crack as his shoulder socket dislocated and he gave a yell. Jericho aimed the captive’s wand at his head and uttered the death curse. Nestis collapsed. Jericho allowed the man to fall to the ground and then bent and retrieved the wand from the dead man’s hand.

‘Now who is the fool?’ Jericho grunted, and stepped into the portal stream, just inches from the wall.

He felt as if the air had been sucked out of his lungs, and a giant weight threatened to crush his skull for the few moments that he was in the portal. This was poor magic, apprentice level at best. Transportation in this manner should have felt as if his whole body was tingling with warmth.

It was a relief to reappear at the other side of the portal, and he collapsed on the floor.

Eraywen rushed to his side and helped her husband stand. ‘Where’s that awful man?’

‘Dead,’ Jericho replied without remorse. ‘Which is what will happen to us if we are caught here without a guard.’

‘What do we do?’ Eraywen cried.

‘Get out of here without being seen. That’s the easy part, though I don’t suppose we will be able to use magic to port home.’ Jericho checked about him for danger.

‘They must get off the island somehow, these people.’

‘True, and I guess we’ll find out how soon enough.’ Jericho smiled reassuringly. ‘Let’s move before they discover Nestis’s body. Stay behind me, and keep quiet. If I say run, you run, okay?’

‘Yes, okay.’ Eraywen nodded.

Jericho crept forward with Eraywen so close behind that he could feel her hot breath on his neck.

The other side of the portal had brought them to a world far removed from the dark, damp dungeon. They were still in a tunnel, but this one was exposed to the outside world, and this section ended with a jagged hole in its roof. At some stage, a cave-in had occurred, and a breeze from the sea wafted towards them, salty and fresh. A shaft of sunlight cast a beam through the hole in the tunnel wall, and illuminated what appeared to be a pile of rags thrown against the rock wall.

Jericho and Eraywen moved forward carefully, and after a few steps, Jericho froze. He turned to his wife and raised a finger to his lips.

He crept forward again, and brandished his newly acquired wand. He did not need it to perform magic, he could use unspoken magic should he desire, but it served as a deterrent.

Jericho stepped up to the pile of rags and knelt quietly. He prodded at them with the wand.

‘Just another five minutes,’ a sleepy voice complained from the pile.

‘If I were you I would get up, and be pretty quick about it too,’ said Jericho loudly, as if he had ordered one of his troops.

The rags moved as swift as lightning. So did Jericho. His hand shot out to grab the sleeper by the throat and Jericho shoved him against the rock wall.

‘Oh my, you’re a prisoner,’ croaked the man, his eyes wide in terror.

‘Then you know what I am capable of. One false move,’ Jericho squeezed the man’s throat harder, ‘and it will be your last.’

Jericho wrinkled his nose in disgust as a waft of urine invaded his senses. He looked down at the poorly dressed man. He was shorter than average, wiry and bald, wearing a ripped and charred cloak that appeared to be made of sackcloth. His skin was as rough as leather and looked scorched in places, especially the arms.

Jericho’s sense of smell had worked well. A pool of urine had begun to puddle at the man’s sandals. He released his grip slightly and spoke more softly. ‘Who are you?’

‘I’m a dragon wrangler. I don’t do nothing other than look after dragons, honest.’

Jericho released his grip on the man, but did not lower the wand. ‘What is your name, dragon wrangler?’

‘Silentus Madook.’ His eyes darted here and there and looked for escape.

Did this little man really handle dragons? If so, Jericho knew better than to underestimate him.

‘They don’t need much handling really. I feed them six times a day, and muck them out every morning,’ Silentus offered with a weak smile. He wiped his brow, which had begun to bead with sweat.

‘The wizards, why do they need dragons, what do they use them for?’

‘Well, they travel from here to the mainland mostly, and back again, like.’

‘How come you are working for these people?’ Jericho demanded, and searched for a lie in the man’s eyes.

‘Believe me, it isn’t by choice. I run up a bit of a gambling debt, like,’ Silentus began. ‘As it turns out, I couldn’t pay. So anyway, this chap, he comes to me, he does, and says he can write off my debt, but I have to work for him, on account as how I’m good with horses, you see.’

‘Go on,’ Jericho said.

‘Well, that’s it, I thought I was looking after horses, instead it turns out it’s dragons. You know, I’ve been here ten years. You would have thought I’d have paid off my debt by now.’

Jericho grunted, and then signalled Eraywen to join them.

‘I’d do anything to go home, I would. God knows what the wife will say,’ Silentus mused.

‘Indeed. Perhaps I can help you get home.’ An idea had formed in Jericho’s mind. ‘You get us on a transport out of here, and I will ensure you and your family are kept safe until all this blows over.’

‘I’m not sure about that. These people are ruthless murdering scum.’ Silentus shook his head worriedly.

‘These people are amateur at best. I, on the other hand, am a general of a grand army.’

‘How come you got caught then?’

‘That, my friend, is thanks to one of your bloody great big dragons.’

‘Ah!’ said Silentus sheepishly.

‘Ah is right. Now, will you help us?’

Silentus thought hard. ‘If only to see the back of you, then yes.’

‘Fine, then I shall honour our agreement once we are off this island,’ said Jericho, and offered Silentus a hand in friendship.

Silentus took the hand and shook it, sealing the deal.

‘There is one question I have. Are these dragons used in combat? I plan to escape and don’t particularly fancy coming up against one of them; they are fearsome creatures. I would like to know how to defeat one if I cannot ride one out of here, and you seem to be best placed to advise me on that.’

Silentus grimaced. ‘It’s possible they use them for defence, I can’t say I’ve seen that. But I tell you, it isn’t an easy thing to kill a dragon, near impossible if the stories are to be believed. They can’t be trained, but they are susceptible to certain types of magic that can take away their free will for a while, helpful if you want to use them as transport. Take away its mind and ability to protect itself and then strike at the heart, and it will die, hopefully, if you do it right.’

Jericho looked hopeful. ‘We will talk later on this. Now lead on, friend, we don’t have all day.’

They stepped into the bright sunlight and immediately squinted, blinded by the sun’s rays that cut through a light mist that enveloped the island. It was a few moments before their eyes adjusted, and their new surroundings came into focus. An enormous solitary tower made from a cold, dark stone, rose hundreds of feet into the air. Low cloud skirted its bulk high up, and at the base of the tower, a building made from the same material gathered moss. It had a pitched roof made from straw, and from this angle, no doors or windows could be seen.

‘The building is really two,’ said Silentus. ‘To the left is the barracks and the right holds a meeting hall.’

‘Who meets there?’ Eraywen asked.

‘I don’t rightly know, they keep us away when there’s a meeting going on, but I do hear the guards talking, and they say a council of oath breakers meet here twice a week. Today is one of those days, and I was sent away as usual. I took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.’

Jericho thought long and hard. Warlocks – for that was what Silentus had meant, liars and dark wizards by any other name – meeting here, but why? This might be his one chance to find out. ‘I want to take a closer look at those attending the meeting. Where is the best place?’

‘It would be suicide to try to get close to the building during a meeting,’ Silentus objected. ‘But, if you are mad enough to try it, I do have a suggestion. The barracks are usually empty during the gathering as the guards are busy protecting the wizards.’

‘How does that help us?’

‘The wall between the two buildings is quite thin in the roof space. If you can get into the barracks unseen, you should be able to crawl through the roof space into the meeting hall.’

‘You seem very knowledgeable about this?’ Jericho eyed Silentus suspiciously.

‘Well, I should.’ Silentus shrugged. ‘I went poking about in the meeting room some time ago. I heard someone coming and panicked. I hid in the only place I could; the roof.’

‘How did you get out?’

‘Well, I couldn’t leave the way I came in, so I removed a few loose stones from the wall and slipped through. Thankfully no one was around.’

‘Well, okay, we need a plan,’ Jericho began. ‘Eraywen, I think you should stay out of sight, while Silentus checks to see if the barracks are clear. If they are, he signals me, and I will slip in undetected.’

Eraywen stepped up to Jericho, nose-to-nose, and scowled at him. ‘Why are you doing this? We need to escape. We should have been in their master’s presence minutes ago. By now they will be missing us.’

‘I know you are frightened, my sweet. But these troll droppings nearly destroyed our spiritual home, and I mean to find out who they are so that we can put a stop to their crimes. I will be gone mere moments.’

‘Why you?’ Eraywen whined. ‘Why not someone else?’

‘This may be the only chance we get to do this. There is no one else here who can.’

‘We should be making all haste to get off this island. It’s dangerous enough,’ Eraywen pleaded.

‘Enough!’ said Jericho gruffly. ‘The decision is made.’

‘I am not one of your soldiers to command,’ Eraywen half whispered, her eyes lowered.

‘No, you are my wife, but you are no tactician and fail to see the bigger picture. I do this to protect you. Now, please, let me do what I do best.’

‘Have you quite finished?’ Silentus asked. ‘Only the meeting is due to begin, if I’ve read the sun correctly.’

‘Oh, you’ve read it correctly, for a traitor.’

Silentus wheeled around at the sound of the new voice, and immediately a fist struck him in the stomach. He doubled up in pain, and then a second punch connected with his jaw. He fell onto his back, and was knocked out cold as his head hit the ground hard.

Jericho raised his wand in defence, but knew before he looked that he would be outmanoeuvred.

‘Now that I have your attention, I suggest you drop your wand, general. Despite what you did to Nestis, thank you, by the way, the master still wishes to see you.’ Le’roth smirked. He flicked his wand up and down as an indication that Jericho should drop his.

Jericho fleetingly contemplated a duel with Le’roth, but he knew the man would not be alone, and his instincts proved to be correct when several wizards appeared out of thin air, accompanied by loud cracks.

He was outnumbered, and unsure if he was fast enough to take out all of them before they struck back. There was the additional fear that he would hit his wife if he used a destruction spell. What about Eraywen? She was now in the greatest danger. He had to act, but how?

‘Caught twice in as many days, general. We are losing our touch.’ Le’roth chuckled to himself and circled Jericho. ‘Now, if you do not mind, follow me to the master. He is waiting.’

‘If I refuse?’

Le’roth looked at him, amused. This man dared to test him. ‘Then you pay the price.’ He raised his wand and a jet of red light erupted from its tip.

It struck Eraywen squarely in the chest. Her face was one of shock as the life left her eyes. Jericho launched himself forward as she fell to her knees and caught her in mid-air. He knew instantly that she was dead as she lay in his arms.

‘Perhaps now you will do as you are asked,’ said Le’roth, his tone and expression unmoved.

Jericho, with a solitary tear that ran down his nose, gently kissed Eraywen on her forehead, and then with his fingers he closed her eyes to the world for the last time.

He picked up his wife’s lifeless body in his strong arms and slowly made his way to the barracks several yards away. He was aware, if only distantly, that Le’roth shouted commands and orders to him, but he paid no heed.

Le’roth’s companions stepped aside and permitted him to pass, unwilling to interfere in the man’s grief.

He reached the doorway, and kicked the wooden door open with a crunch, and then located the nearest cot. There he gently laid Eraywen onto it, and knelt beside her, faintly aware of a presence behind him.

‘I don’t care what happens to me,’ said Jericho flatly. ‘But see to it that she is buried with dignity.’

‘It will be done as you ask,’ said a female voice. ‘However, I must bind you now.’

He was vaguely aware that his hands had been tied with leather strips, and then he was assisted to his feet.

Jericho, dazed with grief, allowed himself to be manoeuvred to the meeting hall that neighboured the barracks.

The decoration of the hall was lost on Jericho; his eyes focused on his feet. He had lost countless men in battle, but no amount of training or battle experience had prepared him for this. He blamed himself. If only he had not delayed.

The spacious meeting room held a single large wooden table, an ellipse of highly polished oak. There was a cut-out that led to a central circle, that permitted a speaker to stand within and address those sitting at the table. The circumference held thirteen highly decorated chairs, each with the carved representation of a dragon. The walls were draped in fine red and gold standards emblazoned with the symbol of the dragon, thirteen in all. Each was different, one for each of the attendees. The central standard was by far the largest and sported the shape of a giant black dragon ready to pounce. This matched the central chair, larger than the rest.

In this chair sat a hooded figure. A long beard of grey snaked its way to the floor. A gnarled hand that wore several bejewelled rings grasped the top of a wooden staff, which was inlaid with a band of gold that wound its way down the shaft and ended in a golden dragon claw.

Jericho was forced to kneel several feet from the figure in the chair.

Only then did the figure look up. ‘Dareth Jericho. How you have aged,’ he said, and dropped his hood. Long grey hair tumbled to his shoulders and a heavily scarred face looked intently at him. Piercing green eyes held his gaze. Jericho had the sudden compulsion to look away, but maintained his stare.

The grey-haired man raised a bony finger and beckoned. ‘Come closer so I may see you better,’ he rasped.

Jericho struggled to his feet, and moved forward a few steps before he was again forced to kneel by his captor.

‘You have me at a disadvantage, Sir,’ Jericho began. ‘Who are you?’

‘Ever the gentleman, Dareth. All in good time. I was hoping to meet your lovely wife again. Where is she?’

The young woman who guarded Jericho stepped forward and cleared her throat. She looked nervously at her master. ‘I am sorry. She is dead.’

The master rose sharply. ‘Dead!’ he roared. ‘What do you mean dead? How did she die?’

Jericho’s captor dropped her eyes as the wizard rushed forward and stood toe-to-toe with her.

‘I said, how did she die?’

Le’roth stepped into the intimate gathering. ‘I killed her, my Lord.’

The dark wizard swung to face him and reared to his full height. His eyes blazed red with fury.

‘Fool! Now the general will never defect, and no magic can turn him to our cause,’ he screamed.

Le’roth backed away and trembled with fear. The master raised a wrinkled grey hand, and cast a death curse at Le’roth. The latter gasped as a red energy ball hit him full force in the chest. He flew across the room and skidded to a stop against the meeting room wall. His focus fixed and his eyes dilated. His body gave a final sigh as the breath left him for the final time.

Jericho inwardly rejoiced at the death of the man who had taken the life of his beloved. So he had been correct, these people had wanted him to turn spy against his people.

‘That is the price of failure,’ said the cloaked figure to no one in particular. ‘Something I should have done to him long ago.’

Nobody said a word, too afraid of their master’s anger and of his next move. It was not long before he made it.

‘I suppose you think I am going to kill you too, Dareth, now that my plan has failed. Well, do not worry, you are safe, for now.’ The wizard hoisted Jericho to his feet and put an arm around his shoulders. He led him outside into the cool sea breeze. ‘Dareth, I am truly sorry for the loss of your wife. It is regrettable.’

‘Regrettable?’ Jericho snarled.

‘Indeed, I had never intended for my friend to be hurt in this way.’ A momentary flicker of remorse passed the man’s eyes.

‘We are not friends,’ Jericho sneered.

‘I take it, then, that my appearance prevents you from recognising me?’

‘Am I supposed to know you?’

‘Dareth, you and I were friends for many years, till the day you killed me.’

The general shot him a questioning look, and then the truth became clear. He was looking into the heavily scarred face of his closest and most beloved friend, Lordich Secracar.

Lordich had conspired with Draken to overthrow the Brotherhood of the Wulf and establish his own rule in the seat of power. After a fierce battle between the Brotherhood and Lordich’s armies, Major Jericho, his rank at the time, had single-handedly captured Lordich alive. Draken had escaped, but was found some time later, hiding in a concealed chamber built into a well in the grounds of his home. He claimed that Lordich had controlled his thoughts and actions with a mind-altering herb concoction.

Investigations into Draken’s claim could not conclusively disprove his testimony, but he was banished from the temple by Curator Menin. His great marble statue in the temple grounds was defaced, alongside Lordich’s own. They remained to this day as a reminder to those who might choose the wrong path.

His peers, however, found Lordich guilty and sentenced him to death for sedition. He appealed the decision, but Archmage Orodor upheld the verdict and Major Jericho was given the order to execute his friend at dawn the next day. He had pleaded with Orodor that he be spared the grim task, but Orodor would not hear of it, and so the order stood.

The hour arrived for the execution to take place, and Lordich was led out of the temple dungeon in chains and under heavy guard by his former friends.

Brethren lined the paved walkway from the temple to witness the betrayer being led away. Some booed and jeered him as he went, yet he steadfastly ignored them, proud to the last.

An execution in this manner had not occurred for one thousand five hundred years, so far back there was only one reference to the deed in the temple archive. To kill a dark wizard was not an easy task; many had lost their lives trying. It was determined the only true way to kill such a foe was to cast him into a fiery volcano, and thereby obliterate all traces of the condemned. The timing was critical, as a dark wizard possessed powerful magic, as the tale of the wizard Rindoch reminded them.

The dark warlock Rindoch had escaped his fiery death by summoning a dragon to his side moments before he hit the volcanic magma. He was snatched out of thin air and whisked away to safety under the very noses of his guard.

The people of the village suffered at his hands for many years after that. Therefore, no chances had been taken with Lordich. He would be bound hand and foot and locked inside a heavy iron cage, too great for a dragon to lift easily. The cage would be tethered with rope to prevent it being taken. As a final measure, an anti-porting spell was cast over the cage, preventing any chance of escape.

Lordich calmly allowed himself to be bound and assisted into the cage that would ferry him to his death. Had he planned an escape? Jericho had instructed his men to be extra vigilant.

Horses heaved the cart laden with the cage and carried it to a clearing in the woods to the north of the Sanctuary. Here the order had constructed a platform above a pit that led to a magma lake below. Sanctuary, under Rindor’s protection, was once the site of an active volcano; now the lake bubbled away harmlessly.

The cage was unceremoniously dragged onto the platform by a dozen tethered horses, which strained under the weight. It was raised by pulleys over the pit, where it dangled precariously.

Major Jericho, dressed in a black cape and hood, clambered up the steps to the platform. He did not look directly at the prisoner; instead he directed his attention to the crowd that had gathered to witness the event. Ghouls, he thought as he raised a hand for silence. He took a moment to steel himself.

‘Brothers and Sisters, we meet today in the worst of circumstances. However, what we do today will serve as a message to those who oppose truth and justice.’ He walked the length of the platform, a frown creasing his brow. ‘Do not be saddened that we lose a friend; instead rejoice that we rid the world of one more corrupt and evil individual.’

Jericho allowed a moment for his words to sink in, and winced as a cheer resounded from the growing crowd.

‘Lordich, the traitor and conjurer of dark magic, has, before his peers, been condemned as an oath breaker and is sentenced to death. I ask you now, Lordich, do you have any final words before sentence is carried out?’

Lordich looked up and out to the crowd. ‘You think you are guided by truth and justice. I say you are ruled by prejudice and fear. Beware; others will come to challenge your authority. Before you murder me, I have a final word for Dareth. Major, if you please.’

Jericho visibly sagged; he had hoped that this would have been over quickly, and without the need to interact with Lordich. He turned and moved closer to the cage that swung slightly in a light breeze.

‘I do not blame you, and I hope to see you again someday soon, my friend,’ Lordich whispered.

‘In another life, perhaps?’ Jericho asked.

‘Something like that.’ Lordich winked. ‘Now, quickly, perform the deed. I tire.’

Jericho nodded and picked up an axe that was propped against the platform. With a roar he swung the axe. The rope cleaved and the cage dropped silently into the chasm, save for the rasp of the guard ropes as they followed it into the fiery pit. There were sharp intakes of breath, and a few sobs were heard from the crowd.

The major stepped over to the edge of the pit and checked that the cage had fallen. Convinced, he cast aside the axe and heaved closed a heavy trapdoor that covered the pit when not in use.

He fought back his emotions and again turned to the crowd. ‘Brothers and Sisters, the sentence has been carried out in accordance with our laws.’

He hurried down the steps and walked out of sight into the woods that surrounded the clearing. He walked for a few minutes, stumbling now and then in the early morning light that barely penetrated the canopy.

He reached an enormous oak tree that towered into the sky and slumped against it. There he sobbed unashamedly. The tears clouded his vision.

Above him, carved into the bark of the tree, were the names Lordich, Jericho, Draken and Perindar. They had joined the Brotherhood as young men and had over the years formed a lasting bond. Draken had been banished, Perindar had been killed in battle some months ago, and now Jericho’s closest friend had been executed by his own hand.

Several minutes later, he dried his tear-stained face and took out his knife, which he used to gouge the names of the traitors out of the bark, each slice like a dagger to the heart.

Back on the island, General Jericho looked into the face of a man he thought long dead and felt weak at the knees. In the space of thirty minutes, he had lost his wife and regained an old friend.

‘How can this be?’ Jericho spluttered. ‘I watched you fall myself.’

‘You wizards of light still cannot embrace the idea of the dark. Dark magic is not something to be feared, it should be embraced. I accept both dark and light and this makes me powerful beyond imagining.’

Jericho sniggered. ‘All that power and you allowed yourself to be caught.’

‘I was merely a novice then. I have had many years to master the two disciplines.’

‘So what? You want me to spy for you? That, my friend, will never happen.’

‘Oh, I know that.’ Lordich smiled regretfully. ‘I might have had a chance to turn you but for the fool Le’roth. Grief has a nasty habit of getting in the way of magic. It renders any attempt to influence your mind utterly futile.’

‘What a pity.’

‘So if I am not going to kill you, that leaves me with but one option, to hold you on the island indefinitely, or until I destroy your precious Brotherhood, at which point I may release you.’

‘So that’s your plan? Destroy the Brotherhood and exert your influence over the balance between religion and magic that we have fought so hard to maintain for thousands of years.’

‘Exactly. Rostha may believe it holds the power, but you and I know who truly rules the masses,’ said Lordich. ‘It is about time for a change to the way of things, for the peoples to embrace a new religion, one that has both light and dark.’

Jericho sighed and shook his head. ‘Poor deluded fool.’

‘It is not I who is deluded; can you not see a change has been in the winds for some time? You mock me, and yet I spare you.’

‘What is left for me in this world that I should be spared?’

‘I have not killed you because I wish you to see the birth of my new world. I stand by what I said the day you cast me into the pit. I do not blame you.’

‘Well, that’s good of you.’

‘Do not be like that, Dareth. I do not expect us to be friends, but I at least hoped we could be civil. I even hoped that you would join me in my conquest.’

‘What makes you think I would ever join you? I wasn’t fit to include in your plans so many years ago, was I?’

‘Would you have joined me?’

‘No. Not then, and not now.’

‘Then out of respect for our former friendship, enjoy your new home,’ said Lordich with regret.

Jericho remained silent as he surveyed his new prison. He had to escape and warn his brethren.

Lordich clicked his fingers at his closest aide, who scuttled to his side and received a whispered instruction. The aide gave a low bow, and approached Jericho, who was immediately on guard, but relaxed as he felt his bonds released. He rubbed his wrists and winced at the pins and needles that followed.

‘Dareth?’ Lordich began. ‘There is nowhere to run. Do not try to escape. I would hate to clap you in irons and confine you to a cell.’

‘I’m sure,’ Jericho muttered.

‘Your freedom comes at a price. You will be escorted at all times by two guards. You will eat, sleep, and toilet in their company.’

‘Am I supposed to be grateful?’

Lordich laughed. ‘Not at all. Well, maybe a little.’

‘There is one thing.’

‘Yes?’ Lordich asked with a raised brow.

‘How did you escape the pit?’

‘I guess I owe you an explanation.’ Lordich looked at the crescent-shaped visage of Er’ath’s sister planet Rol’as, highlighted in the morning sky. ‘I made a pact with Death.’

‘What do you mean death? You mean the Death?’

‘Yes. Despite his reputation, he is actually quite pleasant. We made a deal to ensure my continued existence.’

‘What did you trade?’

Lordich cocked his head and studied Jericho. ‘Four hundred thousand, two hundred and thirty-eight lives for my own.’

Jericho looked horrified. ‘No!’

‘The process began many years ago, and that number has grown, but no matter, they will all perish. Burning in a lake of molten rock is not a pleasant experience, yet, true to his word, Death rescued me, and I promised him the deaths of every member of the Brotherhood of the Wulf, bar one. You.’

‘No, you mustn’t, you can’t. They are innocent,’ Jericho cried.

‘I can, and I shall.’ Lordich nodded to the general’s guard. ‘Take him away.’

Rough hands gripped Jericho. He struggled and raged as they marched him away.

Jericho wrenched himself from his captor’s grasp. ‘Mark my words, Lordich, you will pay for this with your life.’

A club struck him on the back of his neck, and he sank to his knees semi-conscious. Supported by his guard, and subdued by the blow, he was dragged through the long grasses.

Lordich closed his eyes, and then shook his head. ‘I already did.’

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Six.

A BIGGER PROBLEM

Coinin had rested for thirty minutes after his vicious battle with the now-dead giant. He had asked for water, and to his surprise his speech had significantly improved. This unsettled him. If he felt thirsty, and his speech had improved, had he entered a dangerous phase of his occupation of the giant’s mind, with the link in danger of permanency? He thought he had best consult with Curator Menin for advice.

A horse and cart arrived with a dozen pails of water, which he greedily consumed. Satiated, he looked around for Menin and spotted her in the distance in talks with her captains, whose men fought the last of the goblin horde.

He rose from his seated position and knocked over the water cart. The panic-stricken horse whinnied in terror, and its legs flailed in a vain attempt to right itself under the weight of the wooden cart.

Coinin bent over and used his giant frame to right the animal and its load. Immediately the horse bolted, its eyes wide in fear. Its handler cursed Coinin and ran after the animal.

Coinin laughed heartily at the fleeing horse and owner.

‘I’m glad to see one of us is enjoying himself,’ Marrok shouted up to Coinin. ‘May I remind you that there is still a giant to dispose of?’

‘May I remind you, brother, that there are two?’

‘Where?’ Marrok looked about him, confused.

‘Great in battle, but as thick as cow dung,’ Coinin said.

‘I heard that!’ Marrok swore. ‘Do you have any idea how you will kill the giant?’

‘I have no idea; I thought you were the great strategist, brother.’

‘I think I’ll leave the decision to Menin.’ Marrok shrugged off his brother’s rudeness.

‘Well, good, because that’s where I head, and your ideas are always useless anyway. Are you able to keep up? Do you want a lift?’

‘I’m fine, thank you,’ Marrok replied a little breathlessly.

‘I’m just saying, you know, if you find it difficult to keep up with your little legs–’

‘Enough of this!’ Marrok roared. ‘What is wrong with you?’

‘I don’t know. I’m not quite feeling myself,’ Coinin replied worriedly.

‘Come on, I’m sure Curator Menin can help.’

‘I hope so, I don’t like the way my head hurts. I feel like I want to rip and tear everything apart.’

‘Just don’t punch me, okay?’ Marrok said, and backed off slightly. He was worried; this was unlike Coinin. What was happening inside the giant’s mind?

‘I won’t, I promise. Look, there’s Menin now.’ Coinin pointed towards the Curator a dozen feet away.

They joined Menin, who was seated on her horse, offering direction to her troops.

‘Curator?’

‘How goes it, Coinin? Are you ready to slay the giant?’ Menin’s brow rose expectantly.

‘I would if I knew how. I don’t think I’m strong enough to break its neck, and even if I did, that would still leave this one.’ Coinin indicated his giant body.

‘I do have an idea how we can kill both at one time, but we will have only one shot at it.’

‘Before we get to that, I need to talk to you about my connection with this giant’s mind. I am feeling things I don’t think I should, such as anger and thirst.’

‘Yes, your speech has also improved.’

‘I’m frightened the connection will become permanent.’

‘That certainly is a concern, and I am sorry to say, a risk you took freely. This was, after all, your idea,’ said Menin. ‘However, I do not think you need to worry. Your brain is far superior to his, which I believe means that you can never truly remain a permanent resident. I am confident you will be forced out sooner or later. Archmage Orodor is the only real expert in these matters, he would know the risks far better than I.’

‘Would you ask him if it is safe to continue?’ Coinin asked hopefully.

‘I would if I could. The Archmage is not within the Sanctuary’s boundaries and cannot be contacted readily.’ Menin’s tone was apologetic. ‘I will, however, send my aide to the library to research it for you.’

‘Thank you, Laliala.’

‘Don’t worry. If my plan works, you will be out of there very soon, and before my aide returns.’

Coinin brightened slightly at this. ‘Okay, what’s the plan?’ he asked.

‘To the west of the caves where you led the giants is a wood. In this wood is a crevice, and at the bottom is a magma lake. The land we stand on once used to be an active volcano,’ said Menin, eliciting an awed look from Marrok, and something akin to a grimace from Coinin. ‘My theory is, if you can get the giant to the pit, you and he can take a quick trip to oblivion.’

‘If all goes to plan, I should pop back into my own body when the connection breaks,’ said Coinin cheerfully. ‘It’s just as well; I’m tired of this body.’

‘You and I both. The smell is something else.’ Marrok winked, and wafted a hand in front of his wrinkled nose.

‘That just leaves my troops to finish off the goblins inside the cave.’ Menin smiled.

‘Easier said than done,’ Marrok added. ‘How on earth do we get the giant to your pit?’

Menin paused, stumped for an answer for the first time in a long time. She paced back and forth, pulling at her bottom lip; her face was a picture of concentration.

‘Aha! Yes, of course.’ Menin beamed. ‘What is the one thing that drives a giant?’

Coinin and Marrok looked at each other and then shrugged at her.

‘Food! Giants love nothing more than food. If you can convince the giant at the cave there is a feast waiting at the pit for him, I am certain that he will follow you.’

‘What makes you think he’ll be hungry?’ Coinin asked.

‘He’s been out here all day without food. Trust me, he’s hungry.’

‘Why wouldn’t he just eat a dead goblin? There’s thousands just lying around.’

‘That is a fair question, however, goblins are the most foul-tasting species on this planet, and even a giant would not venture so far as to eat one. They are like poison, and boils would erupt all over his flesh if he tried to eat theirs.’ Menin turned her nose up at the thought. ‘I have even had to cover my horse in goblin dung, to prevent the giant getting wind of it and coming looking for a meal.’

‘So that’s what that smell is,’ Marrok laughed, and then cringed at Menin’s filthy look.

‘Don’t you think he’ll be suspicious when we turn up and there’s no food, just a great big hole in the ground?’ Coinin probed.

‘There will be food, my dear, you just leave that to me,’ Menin reassured, a twinkle in her eye. ‘Now, if you are ready, we don’t have much time. The giant will wonder where his friend has got to, I’m sure.’

‘Is there any word about the wizard on the cliff?’

‘No, nothing. I was about to send a runner to bring back news. Perhaps you could assist me in this task, Marrok?’

‘It would be an honour,’ Marrok nodded. ‘Coinin, please be careful, I’m not going to be there if things go wrong.’

Coinin wanted to tell him that he was able to look after himself but thought better of it; he had already caused enough tension between them today. ‘I’ll try,’ he said, and then turned to Menin. ‘Curator, I’m ready.’

‘Good. If you would follow me, I will show you to the clearing.’ Menin turned to her guard. ‘Zaruun, ride with me, I have a task for you.’

The ground shook slightly as Coinin followed Menin through the now quiet battlefield. Thousands of bodies of dead goblins slowly decayed, giving off a terrible stench. They were feasted upon by carrion crows, and minutes later the selfsame crows died; such was the way after eating goblin flesh.

‘See, I told you.’ Menin nodded to the crows. ‘Bad for you, is goblin flesh.’

Coinin thought anyone who ate one must be deranged anyway. The smell alone was enough to turn the stomach.

Soldiers roamed the field, checking each corpse. Any alive they quickly dispatched.

‘Why do you kill those goblins? Surely they are dying already?’ Coinin asked, a little sickened.

‘We do not kill needlessly, Coinin. Our aim is always to preserve life. However, we put these poor creatures out of their pain and suffering. Would you want to die a lingering death, or have a swift end?’

‘I understand,’ said Coinin, and said nothing more.

As they journeyed, Menin talked to Zaruun in hushed tones for several minutes.

‘It will be done as you ask.’ Zaruun gave a nod.

‘How long will you need?’

‘Thirty minutes at least.’

‘Then set to it,’ Menin ordered.

Zaruun saluted in return and reined his horse in the direction of the temple. He was heard calling people to his aid as he cantered away. The horse’s hooves thumped on the hard earth and the sound lessened as he gained distance.

Menin turned to Coinin. ‘You were fortunate to have survived the last attack by a giant. I am worried that you are not in full control or strong enough yet to take on another. You will need to be careful, and get out of there at the first sign of trouble.’

‘Wouldn’t that save you the job of killing me?’

‘Yes, but who will kill the other?’

‘I thought your soldiers could do it.’

‘That would not be my first choice, plus my troops are stretched thin. A column still battles goblins to the west.’ Her voice faltered for a moment. ‘I have lost many good men today and I just don’t have the resources to take on a fully grown adult giant. Do you see now why I need you?’

Coinin had not noticed it before, but now the strain of battle showed on Menin’s face. She no longer held herself erect, and she looked tired.

‘Curator?’ Coinin asked tentatively. ‘Are you okay, I mean are you feeling well?’

Menin reined her white horse to a stop, and gave him a weak smile. ‘I am not getting any younger, it’s true, and I will not hide the fact that this battle has tired me greatly. There is no point, if even you can spot my tiredness so readily.’

‘Can you not take a rest and let someone else take over for a while?’ Coinin asked, curious why she had opened up to him.

‘The only person I would trust to do that right now is General Jericho, but he is otherwise engaged,’ Menin replied. ‘However, even if I could let him take over, the rules of office state that it is the Curator’s responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Sanctuary at all costs.’

‘Perhaps someone needs to change the rules.’

Menin dropped her head and sighed. ‘I had hoped to discuss this in better surroundings.’ She took a reflective moment to observe the battlefield in the distance. ‘As it is, needs must. I brought you to this place to test your worthiness to assume the Office of Curator. The prophecy speaks of you bringing order to chaos, and how better than as Curator?’

Coinin looked at her incredulously. Had he heard her correctly?

‘My time in this role is almost at an end, and I agree, a few changes need to be made. I think this is a task for a younger person to accomplish.’

Coinin remained silent; even his giant face said it all. How could he be considered for a position of such great responsibility? He was a skinny seventeen-year-old boy who amounted to nothing. Wasn’t he?

‘I see you are unconvinced. My guess is you doubt your worthiness. Could a simple fisherman’s son step up to the mark and be counted when it mattered?’

Coinin was shocked. Had she read his mind?

‘I helped my father grind wheat for flour to make bread. That was before I was invited to the temple, of course. Would it surprise you to know that I was the daughter of a mill owner?’ Menin chuckled.

Coinin nodded, caught off guard by her revelation.

‘You do not need a position of power or status to be a great man, Coinin. Just a willingness to accept your destiny with humility.’

‘I’ve been told that before, that I have a destiny. I have a hard time believing it,’ said Coinin, uncomfortable at the suggestion.

‘I understand why you say this, I felt the same way at your age. Let’s not focus on that now, we need to win this battle first, and whatever comes after is meant to be.’ Menin checked her surroundings and clicked her tongue for the horse to continue. ‘We’re not too far from the clearing, are you ready for this?’

‘Ready as I’ll ever be. It’s not going to be an easy thing to kill myself.’

‘Don’t think of it like that. It’s not suicide when you consider you will return to your own body.’ Menin patted his arm. ‘Besides, if you can switch before you hit the bottom of the pit, so much the better.’

Menin and Coinin exited the trees and ventured into a large clearing.

‘Here we are,’ Menin announced. She dismounted her horse and proceeded to tether the animal to a tree.

In the centre of the clearing a wooden platform decayed, its frame broken and tinged green with moss. A set of steps led up to the deck. Several workers had begun to enlarge a hole in the decking.

‘As you can see, we are preparing a trap door through which you and the giant will fall.’

Coinin gulped. He had endured nightmares in which he had fallen from great heights before, but this was something else. This was too real.

Menin, oblivious, continued. ‘We shall have a feast ready for you on that platform. All you need to do is lure the giant to the food, and we’ll do the rest.’

‘Tell me again why we can’t just kill him without this entire charade?’

‘Killing that giant was pure luck on Marrok’s part, and I will say again I cannot spare the men to even try,’ said Menin. ‘If you are not ready–’

‘I’m ready,’ Coinin interrupted. ‘Will you at least do one thing for me? If I die, please tell my brother that I love him and that I hope that he finds the peace he seeks.’

Coinin looked away briefly. For the first time he felt truly scared, not for himself, but for his brother. Aside from their Uncle Draken, he was the only family Marrok had. The loss of their parents had torn Marrok apart. For his brother to die also would surely send Marrok into despair.

‘I promise I will do that for you, and you should know that if the unthinkable were to happen, then Marrok will always have a home with the order.’

Coinin looked away; a single tear ran down the giant’s nose and his heart skipped a beat as a fresh wave of panic set in. The link was stronger still.

‘Laliala, I need to do this now before I change my mind. Which way?’ Coinin asked, and fought hard to control his fear.

‘Follow me.’ Menin raced off into the trees, followed by Coinin, who was careful not to step on her as he forced his way between the thick branches.

Several minutes later Menin stopped behind a large tree with her back to the bark. She dropped to her knees and picked up a stick, and then invited Coinin to join her.

‘We are here.’ Menin drew a semicircle in the dirt that indicated the trees, and a cross that showed their position. ‘Just beyond the trees is open space. A little way up the hill is your cave. The giant should be there, got that?’ She drew an arrow in the direction of the cave.

‘Yes, but how do I find my way back to the pit?’ Coinin asked, and scratched his head.

‘That bit is simple.’ Menin winked. ‘I will mark you a path, thus.’ She stood and removed a decorative knife from a sheath in her belt, and with it carved three distinctive grooves into the bark of the tree. ‘All you have to do is follow these back. I will ensure there are plenty for you to spot.’

‘Like a trail of breadcrumbs? Very clever.’

‘Exactly.’ Menin smiled warmly. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Yes,’ Coinin replied, though he did not feel confident in the slightest.

‘Good. Now, if you can spare me twenty minutes to make my way back, and to check preparations are complete, I will just say may the gods be with you.’ Menin nodded, and her eyes smiled. ‘Oh, and thank you.’

Curator Menin turned sharply back towards the pit, and disappeared into the semi-darkness. Coinin felt alone for the first time in days. This did not particularly worry him, it just had the unfortunate side effect of giving him time in which to think. That he did not want to do; he knew it could weaken his resolve to complete his task. He had to do this, people counted on him, and besides, if he didn’t, he would never be able to look the lovely Reena in the eyes again. It was the thought of seeing Reena that gave him a renewed sense of purpose. He would succeed at all costs.

After he had sat in deep thought for a while, he rose and worked out a cramp in his legs, and then set off. He brushed his way past tree after tree, until he broke free of the tree line. Ahead of him was a grassy incline, and in the distance, the natural rock wall of the volcano rose dark against the early morning sky. The first rays of sunlight had begun to breach the rock sides of the Sanctuary. Coinin squinted and brought a hand up to shade his eyes, and after a moment he spied the cave in the rock wall. Steeling himself, he stomped through the dewy grass.

The giant, who had waited patiently outside the cave, saw his kin approach. He greeted his kind willingly, but with an ingrained suspicion, as was the giant way. Friends in the giant world were rare. The race was in a constant state of conflict, and apt to kill one another where they stood for a mere morsel of food. As a result, the multitude of clans from the Northern Waste had all but destroyed each other. Only a handful of clans remained, and in times of food shortages would form brief alliances to skirmish for sustenance in other lands. Other than that, the only time giants were seen together in numbers was if hired to fight. Often food was payment enough, although gold and its value had entered the consciousness of the giant mind, and greed had become the driving force of most clan leaders. After all, gold bought you mountains of food, if you had enough. It had escalated to the point that the leaders sent out raiders to sack towns and villages in search of the shiny metal.

Coinin approached the seated giant, who sat and flicked rocks at a nearby tree stump. His hit rate left something to be desired. One look at the scattered rocks told him that, alongside a hasty dodge of an incoming missile. The giant looked exceedingly grumpy, and frighteningly large, as Coinin knelt next to him.

‘Wha’ you want?’ the giant grunted.

‘I found food,’ Coinin replied, trying to simplify his response.

The giant’s reaction was instant; his drooped shoulders straightened and he looked at Coinin with a toothy grin. ‘Where?’

‘In the woods.’ Coinin indicated behind him. ‘We go eat, yes?’

The giant looked about him with a puzzled expression on his dirty face. ‘Where Glurp?’

Coinin was momentarily stunned. ‘Glurp?’ What was a Glurp?

‘Friend Glurp. Where he?’ said the giant, and appeared annoyed.

Coinin breathed again, remembering the now dead giant on the other side of the woods. He started to panic, and he thought quickly. What could he say?

‘He meet us at food,’ he bluffed in the hope he did not sound too intelligent.

The giant scowled at him and cocked his head, and then after a moment he again sported his toothy grin. He heaved his heavy frame from his seated position and stretched with a deafening groan.

Coinin took this as a sign that he had won a small victory; the giant was hungry, as Menin had predicted.

‘Come,’ said Coinin and indicated that the giant should follow him.

Both giants stomped down the grassy hill and into the trees, and Coinin noted again that his counterpart was considerably larger than he, albeit not as muscular. All hope was that Menin’s ploy would work. He did not stand a chance in a fair fight with this beast, even if he did resemble a lump of congealed bull fat.

As they fought their way through the trees, Coinin scanned ahead for Menin’s telltale tree carvings to point the way. At first he had not spotted any, until his companion swung a large tree branch out of the way and released it, only for it to swing back at Coinin, who then howled as it struck him in the nose. Fortune, though, had favoured him, for as he rubbed his sore nose he spied Menin’s mark clear as day.

‘Dis way,’ said Coinin, clutching his nose.

The giant laughed heartily at Coinin’s bloody nose, and traipsed off in the direction indicated.

Minutes later, they could smell it before they saw it. Mouth-watering wafts of roast pig invaded their senses. Never mind that the other giant was hungry, he was too. He secretly hoped that he would get to taste what must be succulent meat before they took a long drop to nowhere.

The trees began to thin, and suddenly they were in the clearing. In the centre was the wooden platform, and upon this a dozen roasted pigs waited to be devoured. A carcass had been abandoned on its spit above a roaring fire. Coinin’s heart threatened to burst from his chest, as he realised that they must have disturbed Zaruun and his men mid preparation. He puzzled how they had had time to cook so many pigs, and then remembered they were wizards. Time was inconsequential to them.

His companion’s eyes lit up as he rushed forward and jumped on to the platform. Coinin’s heart dropped. He thought for a moment that the platform would collapse under the giant’s weight. It creaked and groaned in protest, but held fast.

The giant barely noticed Coinin clamber aboard the platform, content to stuff his face with roast pig. Coinin positioned himself as close to the other giant as possible, and ensured they were both over the trapdoor. He looked about him, and his heart thumped hard in his chest. The wait for the floor to drop away was scary, but nothing happened.

At the edge of the clearing, a figure waved frantically. It was Zaruun, Menin’s personal guard, who beckoned to him.

‘I find Glurp,’ Coinin muttered. He did not expect a reply, the giant was too busy tucking into a mass of pork belly. He stepped off the platform and half ran, half walked to Zaruun.

Coinin found him in near panic. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, and looked from Zaruun to Menin.

‘Together you are too heavy for the trapdoor mechanism to work,’ said Zaruun, his brow beaded with sweat.

‘How about now? I’m not on it.’ Coinin eyed the platform.

‘That’s the other problem; the catch must have stuck somehow. Perhaps it has bent. You will have to release it by hand.’

Coinin sighed deeply. ‘Where is it?’

‘Follow the rope, you’ll see it.’ Zaruun pointed to a thick rope that trailed into the clearing. ‘Just pull the pin and that’s it.’

‘If it doesn’t work?’

Zaruun and Menin looked at each other and shrugged.

Coinin rolled his eyes and looked for an answer from the gods. The stress was palpable. ‘Oh, that’s just great! I’m panicked as it is, and you don’t have a back-up plan.’

‘I guess we would have to use a destruction spell on the platform, but that runs the high risk of knocking the giant from it and not into the pit. For that to work effectively, however, we would need to be exceptionally close, which in itself runs a risk of being spotted,’ Menin responded.

‘Coinin, you must go now,’ Zaruun said. ‘That food will not last much longer.’

‘Fine, but after this I’m done, I can’t take the strain.’ He strode off towards the platform, and muttered oaths under his breath as he went.

Indeed, by the time Coinin arrived back at the platform, the giant had almost eaten all of the food. His stomach looked bloated, and he had a dreamy satisfied look about him.

As Coinin approached, he spotted the trapdoor mechanism. It was an iron bolt that slid. On closer inspection it did appear to be slightly bent. The bolt was attached to the rope Coinin had followed, and was greased with fish pulp to ensure it slid between two brackets easily. However, the sheer weight of the giant prevented it from being operated by human hands.

Utilising his giant strength, Coinin wrapped the rope around his forearm, grasped it with the other, and tugged. The bolt slid fractionally, so he tugged again. There was a yell and the giant on the platform disappeared.

Coinin dropped the rope and clambered aboard the platform. All but one pig carcass had gone, and so was the giant. He turned to signal to Zaruun that they had succeeded, when a large hand grasped his ankle.

The giant’s hand tugged hard, and he kicked free to turn in blind panic. The giant had not fallen to his death; instead he attempted to use Coinin to clamber out of the pit.

The giant again made a lunge for his leg, and Coinin only just managed to sidestep. Seconds later a horse galloped up behind him, and although he could not afford to look around, he assumed it was Menin.

‘Do I have to do everything for you?’ Marrok yelled, and drew his sword. Without hesitation he dived headfirst into the pit.

‘No!’ Coinin screamed, and lunged for him.

He need not have worried; Marrok had fastened himself to the platform with rope and busily hacked away at the giant’s hands, which desperately clung to the wooden frame of the platform.

‘Come on, fall, you damned monster!’

It took several more slashes with the blade before the giant fell with a silent scream into the fiery depths of the pit. He made a grab for Marrok, but missed by a fingertip, to Coinin’s relief.

Marrok swung slightly in the warm sulphurous updraft that came from the crevice. He looked up and gave Coinin a bloody-faced smile.

‘That was fun,’ he said with the look of a drunkard about him.

‘I will never forgive you for this,’ Coinin snapped.

‘I don’t want your forgiveness. What I do want is to get out of here,’ said Marrok, suddenly annoyed.

‘You got yourself in there, you get yourself out,’ Coinin retorted, and turned his back on his brother.

‘Will you stop acting like such a child, and help me out of this bloody hole!’

Coinin was taken aback; Marrok had never spoken to him quite like that before, even when they had argued as children. He realised in that instant that Marrok had watched over him ever since their parents’ deaths. Right now he continued to put his brother in grave danger with his selfish actions.

‘You are right, Marrok, I’m sorry.’ Coinin lowered his head in shame. His brother had risked his life for him, and he had repaid him with the behaviour of a child. He turned back, reached into the hole, and yanked his brother out by his outstretched arm. Marrok winced; his arm felt as if it had been ripped from its socket. Coinin swung him and deposited him in a heap.

‘Thanks.’ Marrok sat where he had landed and rubbed his sore shoulder. ‘You nearly tore my arm off.’

‘Sorry,’ Coinin mumbled, unable to look Marrok in the eye.

Marrok paused a minute to regain his breath, and then attempted to untie the rope around his chest without success. ‘Would you?’

Coinin inwardly smiled. His brother’s temper was short-lived. He knelt before him and pulled hard, and with a snap the rope parted.

Marrok stood and stretched. ‘Come on, there’s still work to do.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, but first we have to stop and pick up a friend, he has important information for Menin.’

Marrok sprinted to the tree line at the far side of the clearing, followed by Coinin’s thunderous footfalls that scared the birds from the trees.

A few feet into the trees, Marrok pointed to a man who lay on the ground, writhing in great pain. ‘Coinin, can you carry him to Menin?’ he asked.

Coinin grunted and walked to the man. He knelt beside a bloodied Lieutenant Quindil who had lost a good portion of his left arm. Coinin baulked at the sight. The stump had been tied up with cloth, and Marrok had carried him there on horseback.

‘Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help. I will take you to Curator Menin,’ Coinin told the man as he hoisted him into his huge arms. He stood and turned and then headed back to the clearing, only to find Menin and Zaruun had come to investigate their sudden disappearance.

Menin’s face turned ashen, and without a moment’s hesitation she rushed to them. ‘Su’un, what happened to you?’ she asked. ‘Please, Coinin, put him down here; I will see to it that his wounds are treated.’

Coinin did as instructed and carefully laid Quindil against a nearby tree, and then stepped back.

Menin dropped to her knees at Quindil’s side and examined his wounds. She shook her head. ‘This man will not survive without immediate help. Zaruun, please send for a healer.’

Zaruun nodded, and without hesitation sped back into the clearing.

Quindil grasped Menin by the collar and pulled her to him. Despite the intense pain shown on his face, he whispered something to her and then passed into unconsciousness.

Menin stumbled back and landed on her rear. She had a look of shock about her, and a hand went to her mouth as she sucked in a deep breath.

‘This is bad,’ she said. ‘Jericho, you fool.’

Coinin looked at Marrok, who shrugged at him, puzzled.

Menin composed herself and stood. ‘Gentlemen, it seems General Jericho was taken by a dragon during his fight with a dark wizard.’

Coinin gulped. ‘I thought dragons were a myth.’

‘We had thought they were extinct, but this proves otherwise. The question remains, is someone using them as a weapon, and if so, who?’ Menin frowned. ‘I doubt Jericho’s disappearance is coincidental.’

‘You think he was taken on purpose?’ Marrok asked sceptically.

‘It’s quite possible. An unknown enemy wants to destroy us. They certainly made a good attempt at it. Now they’ve taken my most trusted and experienced general, leaving us vulnerable.’

‘Do you think they will try to attack us again?’ Marrok asked, and half expected to see a fresh horde of goblins head his way.

‘Perhaps; we are in a weakened state, but I doubt it will be today. It takes time to muster an army that size. However, I will post guards to ensure we are not taken by surprise again.’

‘I volunteer,’ Marrok immediately offered.

‘No, Marrok, I thank you, but I need you elsewhere. There is a cave of goblins to dispatch, and your natural lethality hasn’t gone unnoticed.’

Marrok visibly swelled with pride. ‘Where is this cave?’

‘Coinin will show you, won’t you?’

Coinin was conflicted. He had said he would not perform further tasks for Menin, but the situation had worsened. How could he refuse when his brother was up to the challenge? ‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘But I thought we had to destroy this giant’s body?’

‘All in good time. Let’s rid the Sanctuary of these foul beasts first.’

Coinin nodded his assent, not overly happy with the decision, but Menin knew what she was doing. At least he hoped she did.

‘Marrok, follow me,’ Coinin growled sullenly.

‘Coinin, wait,’ Menin said. ‘I will have a troop of men meet you at the cave. Do not try to take them by yourself.’

Marrok muttered something unflattering about his desire to tackle this himself, which prompted Coinin to kick him in the shin, only to knock him off his feet.

‘Sorry,’ said Coinin, with a cringe.

Marrok looked at him with daggers in his eyes. ‘You are getting far too big for your boots.’

Menin sighed from behind them, hands on hips. ‘Perhaps you are yet too young for this task, I will send someone else.’

‘No, please, Curator,’ Coinin begged. ‘I’m sorry for my actions. I don’t yet have full control of this body.’

‘I just don’t know if I can trust you to accomplish this task.’

‘You trusted me to kill the other giant. Why do you distrust me now?’

‘It’s not a matter of distrust in that sense, Coinin,’ Menin began. ‘It is that I believe that you may be too young for this task.’

‘I’m too young to kill goblins, but old enough to be Curator. You need to make your mind up, Menin.’ Had he not risked his life? Indeed, he risked it even more the longer he stayed in the mind of the giant. He would show her that he was capable of this duty.

‘Marrok, with me,’ Coinin demanded.

Marrok looked from his brother to Menin, confused.

‘I said with me,’ Coinin spat, and stormed off into the trees.

‘He’s my brother, despite the fact that he’s an annoying little toad.’

‘I understand, Marrok,’ Menin said, ‘but please take good care of him. I fear we may have need of him yet.’

Marrok nodded and trotted after Coinin. ‘That was very rude,’ he shouted when he caught up with him.

‘I had every right to be rude; I’m putting my life on the line for her. The least she could do is trust me, even a little.’

‘It seems to have escaped your notice, but I too am risking my life.’

Coinin was pierced with pangs of shame. He stopped abruptly. He fell to his knees with a sickening crunch, and put his hands to his face and cried.

Despite his anger, this threw Marrok. ‘Coinin, what is it?’

‘I don’t know, one minute I’m angry, the next I just want to cry,’ Coinin said between sobs.

‘I don’t like this, Coinin, I think you’ve been in there too long. Please, let me help you out of there.’

‘What about the goblins?’

‘Forget the goblins, you are far more important. Menin will manage without us.’

Coinin shakily stood, and took a moment to steady himself against a tree, only to then hyperventilate.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Marrok, the worry evident in his furrowed brow.

‘Everything is blurred.’

‘Damn, we need to get you to the pit, and quickly, before you collapse and we have the real giant to contend with. Come on, let’s move!’

Coinin grunted and howled in pain, but rose to his feet and staggered after Marrok back into the clearing. His vision blurred again, and an excruciating pain behind his eyes near crippled him. He collapsed with a thud onto all fours just feet from the platform.

‘Come on, Coinin, you are nearly there.’

‘I can’t, I just can’t,’ said Coinin, the pain evident in his voice.

‘You can and you will. You are far stronger than you know.’

Fortified by his brother’s words, Coinin found a renewed strength to climb the wooden platform. In agony he crawled to the pit edge and after a final nod to his brother he threw himself in. His feet collided with the edge of the deck and tore away a portion of the platform as he fell. He plummeted in silence with only the rushing wind for company as he waited for the imminent splash into the fiery lake.

He looked back up to the surface. The light from the opening grew dimmer, and he had just enough time to catch the silhouette of Marrok peer down at him. It was at this moment that he truly felt scared.

Back on the platform, Marrok breathed easier, only to find Curator Menin had hobbled over to him from the other side of the clearing.

‘What happened?’ she cried.

‘He was in the giant’s head too long. It made him sick, that’s why he behaved so oddly,’ Marrok replied.

‘Oh my, Marrok, I am sorry. If I knew, I would have ordered him out of there immediately.’

‘We have to get back to the temple. He should be there waiting for us.’

‘Yes, of course, take my horse and I will meet you there.’ She pointed into the trees to where her mount stood.

‘Thanks.’ Marrok nodded to the woman and hurried off.

Menin clambered aboard the platform and looked into the hole with some satisfaction, and then turned to the trees with hands on hips and cursed her luck. ‘Goblins,’ she sighed.

Marrok had raced to the edge of the clearing, where just inside the trees Menin’s horse stood patiently. He untied it and leapt into the saddle. His feet found the stirrups automatically. He navigated the horse through the trees until finally he came out onto the battlefield. He urged the horse into a gallop, and it seemed to enjoy the freedom as they sped towards the temple, its mane billowing in the breeze. He did his best to avoid piles of dead goblins, which grew steadily larger with every moment that passed, now that the workers hauled the dead flesh into small hillocks.

As he neared the temple, he noted that a rebuild of the outer wall had already begun. Men and women frantically cleared away debris and hastily erected scaffolding for the restoration.

On the final approach to the temple, he had to slow the horse for fear of being impaled by nervous archers. Eventually he was waved through the remains of the gate. He raced up the footpath and around passersby, to their consternation.

He had no idea where Coinin would be, and as he pulled up outside the temple, he looked for someone who would know. Typically, he had ridden past everyone on the footpath, and there appeared to be no one around. Perhaps there were people inside the temple who might know where his brother was? He kicked himself for not having the common sense to ask Menin before he set off.

He dismounted from the horse, ventured inside the battered facade of the building, and was greeted with the hustle and bustle of men and women who busily made repairs or cleared up. They didn’t waste time, he thought, and halted in front of a dust-covered woman who wore sackcloth about her waist. ‘Excuse me, might you know where my brother is being held?’ he asked hopefully.

‘If he is a prisoner, I reckon the guardhouse,’ the woman surmised.

‘Oh, he’s not a prisoner.’

‘Well, in that case I don’t rightly know. You could try asking Master Ignatius, he knows most things that happen here,’ the woman said, with a swipe of her hand to move hair out of her eyes.

‘Where will I find him?’ The desperation in his voice seeped through.

‘Well, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he’s usually in the vineyard tending to his crop, but as today is Sunday, he’s probably drinking it.’ The woman allowed herself a giggle at her own joke, but saw that Marrok was far from amused, and continued. ‘I should try the winery, it’s through the vineyard, you can’t miss it.’

‘Thank you,’ Marrok said quite politely, although inside he cursed the woman.

‘You are quite welcome,’ said the woman, and returned to her work.

He ran back outside into the sunshine and scanned the area for a vineyard. It only took a few seconds to spot. There it was, mostly untouched by the hostilities. The vines still standing were full of plump and juicy red grapes.

Just visible above the crop, Marrok could see the crown of a tiled roof. He took off at speed, and did his best to skirt workers as they toiled.

He ducked through a small gap in the vines, winding his way through the maze of the plantation, the smell of grape blossom strong and inviting. Finally the small building was in front of him, made from finely carved sandstone.

Outside, several barrels sat in various states of disrepair, and a small man in a leather waistcoat and an oversized straw hat tended to one of them.

‘Even war doesn’t stop winemaking, I see,’ said Marrok, bemused.

The small man looked up and a bushy moustache twitched. ‘The Curator considers me too old to help with the cleanup. I’m only ninety-five, and you’d think I was one hundred and five or something, the way these youngsters go on. I don’t know, the youth of today–’

‘Are you Master Ignatius?’ Marrok interrupted.

‘The youth of today,’ he continued. ‘No patience to listen to an old man prattle on. No, I’m Cooper, Master Ignatius is inside.’

‘Thank you very much.’ Marrok stepped up to a wooden door in the side of the building and opened it. It gave a satisfying squeak as he pushed it, and a blast of cold air hit him.

He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. In front of him was a rough wooden railing. He walked up to it and instantly saw why. Below him, umpteen subterranean floors dropped away into darkness, each bordered by a similar rail that followed a spiral pattern around the endless drop. Each floor seemed to be full to the brim with enormous barrels, stacked side by side, presumably filled with wine.

Marrok jumped back as a very odd looking man with a very bushy beard, bulging eyes, and a balding pate popped his head over the railing and said, ‘Hello,’ rather loudly. Despite his advanced age, he swung his legs over the rail as lithely as any younger man and landed next to Marrok, whose heart still pounded.

‘Ignatius Rindwold, at your service,’ said the elderly man, and grabbed Marrok’s hand and then pumped it up and down vigorously.

‘Marrok–’

‘Wulf, yes, yes, I know of you. Welcome, dear boy, to the winery.’

Marrok’s interest had been seized by the sheer size of the winery, and he could not resist the obvious question. ‘How much wine do you actually need?’

Ignatius laughed loudly. ‘Actually very little, we mainly trade our wine. But I fear you didn’t come here to ask about wine, more’s the pity.’

Marrok nodded. ‘I was told you might know where my brother is.’

‘Coinin? Yes, he is in the infirmary; they took him there right after he returned to us.’

‘So he’s okay?’

‘I don’t have an answer for you; there are some things I am not privy to.’ Ignatius sounded apologetic.

Marrok’s heart skipped a beat. ‘Where’s the infirmary?’ he asked. ‘In fact, what is an infirmary?’

‘Ah now, that is something I can tell you. The infirmary, which is where sick people go to get well, is beneath the Great Hall. They moved it there a number of years ago, after the old one was lost.’

‘Lost?’ Marrok asked, confused.

‘Oh yes, caused quite a stir, let me say. Matron Truelove was the culprit; she had mixed chemicals for a new potion she thought would grow limbs back, after they’ve left the body in a nasty accident, you understand. Anyway, she fell asleep and the next minute there was a huge bang and the whole infirmary floated three thousand spans above ground. We’re still waiting for it to come down, but I don’t suppose it will. Matron Truelove’s potions are pretty strong.’ Ignatius sighed. ‘She was a lovely girl, too.’

‘You mean to tell me that there’s a building floating up in the sky somewhere?’ Marrok asked incredulously.

‘Yes, the whole kit and caboodle. The whole east side of the temple had to be rebuilt after that, of course.’ Ignatius seemed to enjoy his tale. ‘And they do say that sky pirates from the New World take their injured to the sky infirmary. More convenient for them, you see? They don’t have to land. I had thought Truelove would hitch a lift with the pirates and come home, but I suppose she is shamed.’

Marrok nodded. Sky pirates, a floating building, and eccentric wine makers. He had begun to think the world was mad.

‘I’ll just be going then,’ said Marrok as he backed away, his fingers searching for the door handle.

‘Nonsense, dear boy.’ Ignatius sported a wide smile that made his eyes bulge even more, making him appear even more unhinged. He put an arm around Marrok and steered him to the doorway. ‘I shall show you the way.’

Ignatius escorted Marrok into the bright sunlight and waved to Cooper as they passed, who nodded back, and then promptly howled in pain as a hammer struck his thumb.

‘Don’t mind him, he is always doing that. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be.’

‘Perhaps he needs a change of job,’ Marrok suggested.

‘That’d kill him, that would. He is happy enough.’

As they walked, Marrok got the sense that Ignatius itched to ask him something, and after a few minutes, the man’s fidgets irritated him.

‘Why don’t you ask what you want to ask me?’ said Marrok finally.

The sheer delight on Ignatius’s face was visible; it was obvious that he was excited. ‘Is it true you are the last descendants of Soliath Wulf, you and your brother?’

There it was, the same question everyone at the temple desired an answer to. The simple fact was that he did not have a clue. He knew he had been brought to the temple for a reason, and maybe this was the reason, to answer the question that burned on everyone’s lips. He remembered Curator Menin mention a Soliath Wulf. To think that he was related to the old fossil seemed ludicrous. Sure, they shared the same name, but that was hardly proof.

‘I don’t know,’ Marrok said quite simply.

Ignatius’s face dropped at this. ‘Oh.’

‘I’m not saying I’m not, I mean I could be. Coinin may know,’ said Marrok quickly.

Ignatius seemed to perk up at this news. ‘Perhaps it is fate, then, that we go to see Coinin.’

Marrok wished the earth would swallow him up. To have people fawn after him made him embarrassed, and a little annoyed. Perhaps this man would disappear after he had spoken with his brother.

‘Nearly there, Marrok,’ said Ignatius cheerfully. ‘We just need to go down here.’

The old man had stopped outside a cellar entrance cut into the grass on the left-hand side of the temple. Mossy steps led down to an equally moss-covered door; a small covered lantern hung above the entrance to light the way.

‘After you,’ Ignatius said.

Marrok shrugged and descended the steps to the cellar, opened the door and walked inside. The space below the temple was not as pristine as that above ground. The floor and walls were damp, and it was cold here. A corridor headed off into the distance, and the only light came from a series of torches, spaced at regular intervals. They hung from the wall and pooled circles of warm light that guided the way through the coldness of the cellar.

‘It’s not as nice here under the temple, is it?’ Marrok said.

‘The rest of the cellar is dry, but for some reason the corridor remains damp. We haven’t yet determined why. The infirmary is this way; come.’

Ignatius led Marrok to the very end of the corridor and they passed scores of rooms that led off, left and right. The torches warmed his face in the cold hallway as he walked by each one.

Ignatius stopped abruptly before a solid door at the end of the hall, and swung it open. Marrok squinted as a brighter light from the room beyond spilled into the hall, and banished the shadows.

They stepped inside and allowed a moment for their eyes to adjust to the new light level.

The room, besides being brightly lit, was warm and very long. Whitewashed walls held colourful depictions of healers who offered medical aid, and this included some not-so-pleasant surgical procedures. Some of the illustrations peeled in places. Marrok assumed the damp air was not good for them.

The sides of the room were lined with beds that appeared comfortable, each covered with crisp clean linen. Around each bed, four posts held curtains that could be drawn for privacy, and every bed looked to have an occupant, around whom nurses flocked and tended to various wounds.

Down a central aisle, a long low table ran, under which hundreds of drawers spanned the length either side.

A stern-faced woman dressed in a white smock with a pinafore and a fiercely angular head covering marched up to Marrok and Ignatius. ‘Welcome to the infirmary. As you can see, we are very busy. Are you hurt?’

Marrok checked himself for wounds, and apart from the odd scrape or light cut, he was otherwise free from injury. ‘No, not really,’ he replied.

The stern woman looked as fierce as her hat. ‘Then why do you waste my time? There are sick people who need my help. Now please leave.’

‘Matron, this is Marrok Wulf. He is here to see his brother, Coinin,’ said Ignatius.

The woman was suddenly all smiles. ‘I’m sorry for my rudeness, we are quite busy. My name is Didendra Rod’lin; I am matron of the infirmary. Please let me show you to your brother.’

Finally! Marrok thought.

There were quite a number of injured here. Several rows down she stopped outside a curtained bed, the colourful cloth draped heavily, slightly bowing the frame upon which it rested. The curtain was so long it trailed on the floor and the material fluttered as if in a breeze.

‘Here we are. Now I must warn you that there has been a complication.’

‘Complication?’ Marrok asked with a frown. ‘Let me see.’ He pushed forward in an attempt to get to Coinin, but was thwarted by the matron, who gripped his shoulders.

‘Your brother has not returned from his, if I’m the only one to say it, foolish mind swap, completely intact.’ The matron sighed. ‘He is not responsive, and although he is not dead, he is not awake either.’

‘Will he die?’ Marrok asked, and his heart thumped hard. Coinin was his only family; he did not count Draken as kin.

‘I don’t believe so; it’s almost as if he’s taking a very deep sleep. My only hope is that we can revive him.’

‘Can I see him now?’

‘Of course.’ The matron smiled at him, and indicated that he should enter the curtained space.

Half a dozen individuals of dwarven appearance surrounded the bed, puzzling over Coinin’s condition with excited chatter. They were dressed in blue smocks much too big for them, and were in the process of examining Coinin under the direction of the smallest of the group. He held a thick parchment and ordered the others to check this and that. He had upon his head a droopy cloth cap, similar in appearance to a nightcap, and his blue robe appeared to be stained with blood. His long hooked nose held a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, the lenses of which magnified his eyes to impossible proportions. He sucked on a long, thin tobacco pipe that he waved frantically as he gave instructions. His voice was thin and reedy, with an impatient air about it.

‘No, no, it goes in his ear, you fool,’ the dwarf yelled in a high-pitched voice. He grabbed a long trumpet-shaped object from one of his companions and held it aloft. ‘This is not a toy, it is a delicate instrument. Let me demonstrate.’

The dwarf walked to the head of the bed, and pushed his colleagues aside, and then clambered aboard a set of steps. He then promptly stuck the trumpet, thin end first, into Coinin’s ear.

‘Boy, can you hear me? Wake up!’ the dwarf shouted into the thick end of the trumpet.

Marrok had seen enough; he marched up to the dwarf and picked him up with one hand.

‘What are you doing? Put me down this instant!’ the dwarf cried, outraged.

‘What am I doing? I should ask you the same. What are you doing to my brother?’ Marrok demanded of the dwarf, who dangled in front of his face.

‘Marrok, no!’ Matron Rod’lin gasped, her face aghast. ‘This is Doctor Zarth, our resident healer. He is trying to help your brother.’

‘You had better put me down, young man, or I will be forced to use violence,’ Doctor Zarth yelled, his face red from the effort to release himself from Marrok’s grip. To emphasise his point, he rapped Marrok on the forehead with the thick end of the trumpet, to no effect.

Marrok snorted, and set the dwarf down without a word. He was more concerned with Coinin, who lay silent and peaceful.

‘Please leave us,’ Marrok said quietly.

‘But I have so many more tests to perform. My students may never have the same opportunity to learn from such a case again,’ Doctor Zarth objected.

‘I think, good Doctor, that your tests will have to wait,’ said Ignatius with a kindly smile as he gently pushed Zarth out of the cubicle, much to the dwarf’s annoyance.

Matron Rod’lin shooed the doctor’s students from Marrok’s presence and closed the curtain behind her.

Marrok looked at his brother, ignoring the complaints from Zarth and the efforts of the others to silence him that penetrated the curtained cubicle. He took Coinin’s hand and held it tight, in the hope he could squeeze life back into it. The hand was warm at least, so he knew his brother was not dead.

‘Where are you, brother?’ Marrok pleaded, the knowledge that he had failed to protect him consuming him with guilt. ‘What can I do to make this right?’

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Five.

December 31, 2017 Leave a comment

THE BATTLE

The scene of devastation outside the temple grounds left a lump in the throat, and rent the hearts of onlookers. The sheer destruction of the once beautiful grounds brought a tear to many an eye and fuelled anger in others.

Amidst campfires, thousands of goblins, overshadowed by four giants, prepared for battle. Ancient trees had been uprooted and honed into clubs by the handful of giants. They drove huge iron spikes into the ends and tested the lethality of each.

On the front line, goblin chiefs and shaman leaders issued orders to the rabble before them, their orb staffs glowing multitudes of colours. They were a deadly force, yet disorganised, and that was often their downfall. The old adage: ‘Too many cooks…’ applied to their military leadership, but thousands had amassed, alongside several mountain trolls and the giants, and this was an unusual occurrence.

The invaders had formed a huge semicircle in front of the temple gates, and the roar of the horde deafened all in its vicinity. Several crude animal horns added to the noise, and psyched the goblin army for war.

On the temple side of the gates, several battlemages stood deep in concentration, keeping an enchantment upon the gates, which was at present the only thing that kept the attackers at bay. These few men and women after years of study and discipline provided the primary protection for the order.

The Archmage and Curator, alongside a dozen permitted mages, were the only others capable of tapping into the elemental forces in this manner. Their actions drained the mind and body and even though the effects were often only temporary, these skills were used only in times of dire need, and in this instance, to allow the gathered troops to make ready.

A dozen goblins lay dead at the foot of the huge gates. Every so often a chieftain would send an unwilling volunteer to approach them. As the volunteer grasped its bars, a purple flash emitted from the metal. The goblin would spasm, endure heart failure, and froth at the mouth, to then drop dead.

Curator Menin had changed her clothing; she looked magnificent in steel and white. A red sash ran left to right across her chest, emblazoned with the temple’s emblem. She wore the Rose of Cerathil proudly upon her chest and a sword dangled at her side. Strapped to her left arm was a shaped steel shield with sharpened edges. She limped from her study onto a balcony that overlooked the battlefield. Her closest aides and generals followed and took position beside her. To their left stood a grand stone table with a rough map of the area, and carved figures represented the combatants below.

Menin surveyed her troops. ‘Lieutenant General Torith, I think the left flank is weak.’

Torith looked up from his map, scanned his men and nodded with a grunt. He called a runner to him. ‘Send word to Captain Dalbo to move his men to the vineyard.’

The runner saluted and took off at full pelt. Torith turned to Menin. ‘My apologies, it will not happen again.’ He bowed respectfully.

‘See that it does not,’ said General Jericho tersely.

Torith returned to his map and altered his figurines to match his order.

‘He’s not himself of late,’ said Jericho quietly.

‘His wife nearly lost their first child during his birth. I think we can go easy on him,’ replied Menin. ‘Would you find and fetch Coinin for me?’

‘You want me to leave, now? I could send one of my men.’

‘No, I don’t trust anyone else with his safety.’

‘Very well, just don’t start without me.’ Jericho turned and left the balcony.

Inside the temple, Coinin did a double take as Marrok exited the armoury. He was clad head to toe in the finest of plate armour, and over this he wore a white cloak that bore the emblem of Soliath Wulf. His head was covered by a red cloth wound tightly around it, and over this sat a domed steel helmet. He carried a long spear and a serrated sword in his hands, and he looked very pleased with himself. He clanked as he walked, but did not care; the armour was so fine that he lost almost no ability to move.

‘That, young sir, is armour cast in the very best elfen forges; it has superior strength and can withstand almost any spear or arrow. Nevertheless, be warned, do not let its strength go to your head. If one of those giants hits you with one of their clubs, it will buckle like any other armour,’ Rendal warned.

Marrok nodded that he understood and watched Coinin as he donned his own armour. His was lighter, and consisted mostly of chain mail.

‘I am sorry we did not have full armour in your size. Yet rest easy, the mail is the finest the elfs have to offer, and will give you almost the same protection.’ Rendal clasped Coinin’s shoulder with a huge hand that almost buckled his knees.

‘Thank you, Rendal.’ Coinin coughed nervously.

‘This is your first time in battle, I think.’

Coinin nodded, a worried look on his face.

Rendal smiled reassuringly. ‘Stick with me and you’ll be fine.’

‘That you will, brother; you’ve got me.’ Marrok beamed, and tested the feel of his sword with a swish through the air.

‘Actually,’ a voice said behind them, ‘Coinin’s presence is required by Curator Menin.’

They turned to see General Jericho, who looked proud and serious. He was dressed in gold trimmed armour.

‘Coinin, please accompany me immediately.’

‘But what about Marrok?’ Coinin asked, and took a quick glance at his brother.

‘I think you and I both know Marrok has waited for such a day for a long time. He will be in his element.’

‘I don’t know,’ Coinin began.

‘Rendal will have his back, will you not, old friend?’ Jericho said.

‘He could not be in safer hands.’ Rendal held his shovel-sized hands in the air and uttered a guffaw.

Marrok finished his swordplay and joined the group. ‘This is an excellent weapon, perfectly balanced. I’d rather preserve father’s sword. May I keep this?’

Jericho nodded. ‘Yes, you can keep the sword. You see, Coinin, he is fine.’

Coinin conceded defeat and clasped his brother’s arm. ‘Marrok, please be careful.’

Marrok merely grunted a response, happy with his new prize.

‘Show me the way, General.’

Jericho nodded to Rendal, turned and swished his way down a long white corridor, his cloak flapping as he went. Coinin had a job to keep up with the tall man and did so at a trot.

‘Why do you think Curator Menin wants to see me?’

‘She believes you are important to the order, and so until you are proven not to be, you must be,’ Jericho replied.

They wound their way through corridor after corridor, ascended a grand marble staircase, and finally arrived outside the Curator’s study. At each side of the large wooden door, a guard stood ready. They saluted at Jericho’s presence, but lowered their spears as Coinin approached.

‘Easy, gentlemen, Coinin is here by Menin’s request,’ Jericho announced.

‘Very well, go on in, she is on the balcony,’ said the guard to the right of the door.

Jericho pushed open the door and ushered Coinin inside and then closed it securely behind them. More guards and nods of recognition greeted them. The room, however, had changed somewhat. The usual bookshelves were pushed to the side of the room and large flaxen dust covers were placed over the shelves that held Menin’s personal library. In the centre of the room, several dwarves huddled together around Menin’s desk to examine their battle options.

‘We have more reinforcements arriving soon,’ Coinin overheard a dwarf say.

‘Aye, but if she don’t use us there’s no point them coming,’ said another.

Jericho whisked Coinin through the hubbub and out into the bright sunshine of the balcony. Menin’s generals looked grave; things didn’t appear to be going too well judging by their expressions. Jericho stepped over to Menin and lightly touched her shoulder, and then whispered in her ear. She nodded and thanked him, and he disappeared into the crowd of onlookers on the balcony. Curator Menin stepped forward, gave a huge smile and grasped Coinin by the hand.

‘Welcome, Coinin. I am glad you could make it. This will prove to be a day of loss for all assembled. Although, I feel, we have the advantage.’ She pointed at him. ‘You.’

‘Curator? I–’ Coinin began.

‘Call me Laliala.’

‘Laliala, then.’ Coinin had begun to feel left out of some big secret. ‘Why does everyone say I’m important? I don’t feel important.’

‘You are important because you and your brother are the last descendants of Soliath Wulf,’ Menin replied.

‘Why is that important?’

‘Coinin, I promise I will explain all, but right now I have a battle to win. Please join the others and observe how a battle is fought and won.’ Menin’s tone was more order than request, and this left Coinin with little choice but to do as she asked. He knew that there were more pressing matters to attend to, and his questions would be answered eventually, but it did intrigue if not infuriate.

A great crash shook the temple, and spectators looked on in horror as three of the largest giants smashed their way into the compound. A sizeable hole had appeared in the wall that surrounded the gardens, and a giant stepped though the gap and over the rubble.

He immediately began to swing his club at any unfortunate that stood in his way. Elfen archers took aim upon the orders of their captain, and let loose, only to watch their missiles bounce harmlessly off the tough leathery hide of the invader. A line of crimson-cloaked battlemages, the elite, cast a variety of spells at the giant, all to no avail. Menin yelled above the din. ‘Trip him! Fell him!’

A squad of burly soldiers stepped forward and enticed the giant to follow them. They threw rocks and hurled abuse at the hulking mass. The beast took the bait and tried to crush them underfoot. A small group of men lay in wait. They had tied a thick rope to a sturdy tree at the side of the central garden pathway, and pulled it taut across the path, creating a tripwire.

The giant roared in triumph as he trod on a hapless warrior and side-swiped a second with his lethal club. This distraction, however, was his downfall. He had failed to notice the rope across his path. His ankle caught the obstruction and he tripped. He crashed to the ground and sent a dust cloud into the air that choked all in the vicinity. His forehead took the brunt of the fall and bled heavily.

The defenders wasted no time. Four of the largest men leapt onto the giant’s shoulders and pulled their way up the torso, until they were at the head. They drew swords and struck, and pierced the skull at its base. The defeated giant let out a roar of pain and clambered onto his knees. He tried to knock his attackers from their precarious perches, but failed. He was already losing his ability to coordinate his actions.

The troops, balanced on his skull, struck repeatedly until finally the giant’s eyes glazed over and he fell dead with a second deafening thud.

A great cheer erupted in the compound at the giant’s defeat, but was soon stifled as a mass of ugly green bodies swarmed at them from the newly created entry point. Elfen archers did their best to down many of the enemy, but the bodies were so tightly packed together that hundreds made it into the compound to meet lines of battlemages.

From his vantage point, Coinin could hear the roar of battle and witness steel as it struck flesh and bone. Arrows whistled through the air, aimed at the enemy below, and the whoosh and crack of spells intermingled with yells and roars, but all the time his concern was for Marrok. He frantically searched the grounds for him, but could not see him. He closed his eyes and concentrated, and summoned all his strength to locate his brother.

He pushed the sounds of battle far back from his consciousness, and allowed only light to enter his mind, then focused on Marrok’s presence and sought his brother’s aura. He felt light and dizzy, as he seemed to leave his physical being and float above the battleground.

As he traversed the compound in his disembodied way, the battle flashed before him in a myriad of colours that swirled so intensely that they took on a tangible texture of their own, as they swished and curled around him like silken ribbons. The colours felt so tactile that Coinin was able to touch the strands, but to his dismay they lasted mere moments and vanished into the air the moment he touched them.

He paused momentarily to let a giant pass by. He did not know why he did that; the giant could neither see, nor touch him. He was sickened to see the giant pick up a horse with his bare hands. It screamed in terror as the giant proceeded to tear it in two and toss the pieces aside with the shocked rider still ensconced in her saddle.

The battle had become bloodier. Bodies lay everywhere. Men, women and goblins pleaded for help as they slowly bled to death from their wounds. The fortunate were already dead. For the moment it looked like the giants would win the battle.

Coinin paused next as he witnessed a half-naked soldier held aloft by a group of goblins, who fastened a noose around his neck and dangled him three feet from the ground. Several soldiers were beaten back as they attempted a rescue. To show mercy, an archer stepped forward, drew back his arrow, and fired. The arrow hit true, and pierced the soft flesh of the heart and ended the soldier’s misery.

He moved on in his search, and the colours became more vivid as he sought out his prize. He stopped suddenly, almost as if he had hit a brick wall.

He faced the pitted and hairy back of a giant, the grime visible within his deep pockmarks and scars. Across one shoulder the giant wore a thick leather strap, which had loops of leather attached at regular intervals. The giant turned slowly, and Coinin could hear it now, the screams of terrified men. Worse, he could see them, trapped in the giant’s leather strap, held tight by loops of leather. A couple of the prisoners appeared to have perished, crushed to death from the tightness of the restraints.

What would this giant do with his prisoners, and where was Marrok? Why had he not found him yet? The giant turned to face him, and then he saw what he had missed. There, firmly attached to the giant’s strap, was Marrok; his aura blazed a deep shade of blue.

Coinin’s heart sank. He had to do something, he could not let his brother die like this. Then it happened without warning, he felt as if he had been cleaved down the middle and his head seared in pain. In the blink of an eye he was elsewhere and nowhere at the same time.

The place, if it was a place, was a sheer brilliant white and made him squint. There were no forms or shapes that could be seen, just a white nothingness. Coinin felt frightened that his magic had somehow backfired. Was he dead and in the heavens having failed to save his brother? He had debated this when a somehow familiar and yet unfamiliar voice rent the air.

‘Coinin, I know what you are thinking, that you must be dead, correct?’ the voice boomed.

Coinin gulped, unsure if he should answer. ‘Well, I had considered it, yes,’ he replied eventually.

The voice laughed heartily. ‘Let me reassure you that you are not dead, but you are in a place between, well, let’s say between everything. I have brought you here as I have heard your cry of anguish, and I have a task for you to perform.’

‘My only task at the moment is to save my brother from a giant’s cooking pot,’ said Coinin.

‘Then we have the same aim.’

‘Who are you? How can I trust what you say?’

‘If you do not, Marrok will die,’ said the voice solemnly.

‘What is it that I must I do?’

‘I need you to be brave and do the impossible. It may be beyond your abilities right now but you have to at least try,’ said the voice. ‘Let me show you.’

A series of images flashed before him that seemed to make no sense until he felt what he thought was a white-hot poker that had been thrust into the back of his skull. He screamed at the pain and it sobered his mind. Then everything went black followed by a pinhole of light that appeared in the distance of his mind’s eye. The light grew steadily larger, and then he was falling, falling fast into a tunnel of light.

Moments later, he was back in his own body and the images made sense. He shook off the disorientation he felt and steeled himself for the task ahead. He ran to Menin and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Coinin, what is it?’ Menin asked, her attention focused on the battle.

‘He has Marrok, that giant out there.’ Coinin pointed at the lumbering giant who scooped up yet another victim and sandwiched her upside down into a leather loop.

Menin did not look at Coinin or the giant. ‘I am sorry, Coinin, there is nothing that I can do for him. He knew the risks when he agreed to help. We are nearly swamped as it is, and I cannot spare anyone to rescue him.’

Coinin saw red. He again grabbed Menin, but this time more roughly and swung her to face him. He looked her deep in the eyes. ‘I am not asking, I am telling,’ he said, and sounded more courageous than he felt. ‘I am important to you, so the way I see it, assist me or I do not help you.’

Menin’s eyes widened in horror and she shoved him aside just as a boulder the size of a horse slammed into the balcony where Coinin had stood moments earlier.

Chunks of marble balustrade showered horrified onlookers, and a dwarf was thrown from the balcony to the cold floor below. A second boulder side-swiped Menin as she attempted to save Coinin from certain death. Blood seeped from a wound to her shoulder, but she shrugged it off and stormed over to Coinin, who shook dust and debris from his hair. She roughly dragged him to his feet.

‘You, sir, are not so important that I should not throw you to the goblins myself,’ she snarled.

Coinin angrily tried to shrug off Menin’s tight grip, but failed, and stood as a rag doll while she shook him. He dropped his head and sighed resignedly.

‘I know how to end the battle,’ he said almost inaudibly.

‘Oh, you know more than General Jericho or I, do you?’ Menin fired back.

Coinin thought for a moment. Would she believe him or would he be carted off in irons?

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have the ability to search out Marrok with my mind, and while I was doing so I had a vision. I was in a completely white space and a voice spoke to me. I was shown how to save my brother and end this battle.’ He looked down, embarrassed. Even he thought he sounded crazy.

Menin gently raised his chin with her bloodied hand, and looked him deep in the eyes. ‘I believe you. I have also been summoned to this place and told many things that have come to fruition. What is it that we are to do to end this?’

Menin had assembled what remained of her elite battlemages in a semicircle that faced Coinin. He in turn faced the enemy, feeling small and vulnerable, just feet from the fierce battle. Archers kept the goblin advance at bay. The goblins could smell fresh meat, and were tenacious in their desire to taste it.

Coinin signalled he was ready and closed his eyes as the battlemages behind him began to chant. They chanted faster and faster, and he began to feel stronger and more confident as a surge of power built within him. He had told Menin how he must defeat the enemy and she had formulated a plan. The idea had been to focus the combined energy of the battlemages into a single point, in this case a giant a hundred yards away that wreaked havoc on the battlefield.

The chants grew stronger and Coinin began to shake uncontrollably as he absorbed increasingly more energy. He levitated, and his back arched, his arms outstretched and his palms facing upwards. His head began to swim and he began to lose his concentration. Tears streamed down his face as his efforts began to overwhelm him.

Visible streams of light energy snaked their way from the battlemages towards Coinin. He absorbed each in turn and this made him give out the same light energy as he drew its power into him.

‘Focus, Coinin,’ a distant voice in his mind called. ‘You can do this.’

The voice was warm and gave him an instant boost in confidence. He redoubled his focus, and after a few more moments, he was ready.

He concentrated his thoughts on the giant’s, and pictured himself as the giant, hulking, clumsy, and oafish. He imagined what he had eaten for breakfast, what his likes and dislikes were, and then surprisingly quickly, he found himself in the mind of the giant. With a swoop that sent his heart into the roof of his mouth, he was there, and stared out of the giant’s eyes feeling very tall and aggressive. The giant had temporarily vacated, and found himself to be much smaller in stature and now occupied Coinin’s body. Two soldiers caught the mind-swapped body of Coinin as he dropped from his levitation the moment they had switched consciousnesses. They proceeded to restrain him, easier now that he was no longer a thirty-foot-tall giant.

Coinin, now extremely large and powerful, turned to Menin and clumsily signalled he was all right. He reached behind him and unclasped the large leather strap that ran across his shoulder and held the giant’s prisoners. He gently laid the strap on the ground, and signalled for a group of soldiers to come forward and release the captives. Satisfied, he reached down and picked up a tree-sized club, through which vicious-looking spikes exited at varied angles, and tested its weight.

This is going to be easy, Coinin thought.

Inside the temple, Draken had not moved from the Great Hall. He contented himself with staring out of a window that overlooked the battle as he waited for the moment to strike. Sounds of war filtered into the domed hall, and a crash sounded behind him. A large boulder had penetrated the dome and had smashed rows of pews as it rolled to a stop against the wooden plinth. Draken’s guard lay bleeding on the ground beside him, a chunk of debris in Draken’s hand the only sign of foul play. Tossing the rock away he took his cue and abruptly left the hall.

He swept along a darkened corridor and bypassed guards who paid him no heed. He reached the grand hallway that held a marble staircase and wound its way up three flights. He took the steps two at a time, and stepped aside only to allow stretcher-bearers to evacuate the wounded to safety.

The boulders aimed at the temple seemed to have had the desired effect. How effective the damage and distraction would be, Draken could only guess, but he hoped that it would allow him to go unnoticed as he slipped into Curator Menin’s study.

He deliberately avoided eye contact as he stepped over the rubble that filled the corridor. He need not have worried about discovery; no one so far had paid him the slightest attention.

He stopped momentarily and surveyed the damage to Menin’s office. Not a lot that could be recognised remained. Bookshelves were broken and scattered around the room, while books lay torn and shredded alongside equally damaged scrolls. The giants had worked overtime in their attempt to destroy Menin and her generals. Draken was not interested in whether Menin had survived or not. He was after one thing: the Rose of Cerathil.

He would deliver the small and unassuming piece of jewellery to his co-conspirator who thought it would give him more power than any man could or should possess. This would free Draken to search out his own heart’s desire. He had only to find it on pain of death, and he knew from experience that it would be worn around her neck.

He clambered over the remains of the doorway to the balcony and peeked around it. Menin was there, in bad shape. She had been struck by falling debris during a second giant attack, and now she was laid face down on the floor.

Draken took only moments to act. This was his chance. He quickly stepped over to Menin and wrenched the Stone of Cerathil from around her neck. Her head bounced off the floor as the chain snapped.

A big smile spread across his face as he stood and checked about him for witnesses, and then deposited the precious stone in his pack. He removed a replica of the Rose of Cerathil from his clothes and fastened this around Menin’s neck. He took a few steps back towards the study, and then returned to her, and aimed a vicious kick to the side of her head.

‘That is for ruining my life,’ he snarled.

Coinin was quite used to the giant’s movements by this time, although he did stumble somewhat if he failed to concentrate properly. He still wielded his club clumsily at all and sundry and even endangered his own side. On the bright side, goblins in his vicinity ran for safety, terrified, realising that they were now at the sharp end of his weapon.

Two giants headed his way. They towered thirty-eight feet, which was considerably taller than he, and he realised he had not thought this out thoroughly. No mysterious voice told him how to fight two giants of superior strength and size.

The first of the giants thundered up to him and shoved him hard in the chest. ‘Wha’ you do?’

Coinin pushed the giant in return. ‘They not friends,’ Coinin boomed.

The larger giant cocked his head and tried to comprehend what Coinin had said. ‘Wha’ you mean?’

Coinin knew he had to carefully word his response. He needed all the help he could get if he and Menin were to defeat the goblin army.

Then the answer came like a godsend. A score of goblin warriors that barely reached above his ankle attacked his legs with swords and axes. They had already inflicted quite a significant amount of damage to his newly acquired legs without his knowledge. This mind exchange obviously did not involve full sensory input, and that was dangerous. Coinin pointed to the goblins.

‘Bad goblins,’ Coinin rumbled.

Coinin could almost see the cogs turn as the other giant tried hard to comprehend the message. Then a lamp seemed to light behind the dull grey eyes of his foe. He held out an arm for Coinin to grasp.

‘Kill goblin,’ the giant beamed.

Coinin could have leapt for joy. He clasped the arm of his newly found ally, grateful that the giant had not seen him attack the goblins first.

The second giant lumbered over and gave a toothy grin.

‘Kill goblin fun,’ he laughed as he picked up two of the creatures that sliced at Coinin’s legs.

He smashed their heads together, and then moved his hands apart to find them covered in green sticky liquid. He looked perplexed. A moment later realisation hit and he guffawed, threw the bodies aside, and targeted his next victims.

Coinin, with the aid of his two new companions, herded a score of goblins to the only natural safe haven in the belly of the dormant volcano.

A deep cave was set into the high mountainous walls, and afforded temporary protection to those within, but also hampered any attempt at escape.

Coinin told his two giant friends to stand guard outside the cave entrance, and then wandered out of sight of the two as nonchalantly as he could, in search of Menin. As he left, the pair began to play a game he had not seen before. They balanced a stone on the end of their noses, the idea being to not let it drop while they punched each other hard in the jaw. As the giants’ laughter and grunts of pain subsided, a figure on a white charger cantered up to him. Coinin knelt before the bloodied and battered Menin and still towered over her.

‘Coinin,’ she yelled. ‘You will have to rid the Sanctuary of those giants before we can move in on the goblins.’

Coinin raised his giant hands in submission; he had run out of ideas.

‘How?’ he drawled.

A heavy weight crashed into Coinin from behind. Arms and legs flailed as he fought off his unseen attacker. He felt a massive blow to his side as he was flung against a huge oak tree. One of the two giants had followed him, but he had little time to contemplate this as strong hands wrapped around his throat and squeezed.

Even though he could not feel the actual chokehold, he knew that the body would fail as it starved of oxygen. Without air, he and the giant would again swap minds, and Menin would be left in the company of two giants. Try as he might, he could not muster the strength to fight back, his muscles failing to respond to his will.

He almost lost consciousness, and things went black momentarily. Ghostly images swirled before him that made no sense, until he was again free of the confines of his body, in a similar manner to when he had searched for Marrok. He took a sharp upwards turn and instantly recognised his surroundings. The summit of the Cliff of Judgement loomed, and a few seconds later he was jolted to a stop opposite a cloaked figure who appeared through a mass of images of battle. The individual stood on top of a boulder, some thirty feet from the edge of the cliff, focused intently on the battlefield below. Coinin noted that the figure raised aloft a staff that held a globe of green light.

Had this man instigated this battle?

Coinin was suddenly whipped away and found he was again in control of the giant’s mind. He sat up stiffly and looked about him. Marrok beamed at him from the chest of his opponent, now dead at his hands.

Coinin struggled to speak, and it was a full minute before his throat was capable of it.

‘Wizard,’ Coinin croaked, and pointed towards the Cliff of Judgement.

All eyes looked in the direction of the cliff; however, it was too high to see what he had pointed to.

Marrok looked puzzled. ‘Where?’

Coinin coughed. ‘Up there, a wizard, controlling the giants,’ he growled.

Menin, looking haggard, turned to General Jericho who had joined her. ‘There should be no one up there. Seek out this mage and bring him to me.’

Jericho signalled that his squad should follow him. Each soldier saluted Menin as they filed past her, and raced to the Cliff of Judgement.

Marrok wiped his bloodied blade on his tunic and strode to Coinin. ‘Come on, brother, we have a giant to kill.’ A large smile spread across his face and his eyes were positively radiant.

Draken had taken refuge in the tallest of the temple’s towers. From this high vantage point, he had witnessed the battle with satisfaction. His nephews were still alive, and he had two of his trophies, but to leave the Sanctuary now would raise suspicion. He needed to remain blameless if he was to use the boys further. He was sure Menin would not discover the fake Rose of Cerathil until it was too late. Now he had to hide the real necklace, and hope that she would never discover the truth. The amulet had to be undetectable to sight, touch, and magic.

He withdrew his own sword from its scabbard. He peeled off leather strips that bound the grip on this specially made sword, and wound the amulet’s silver chain around the grip to form a new one. This complete, he inserted the ruby-red stone into a cavity within the pommel that he himself had built. He positioned a steel disc over the cavity to hide the ruby, and with a snap it clicked into place. Finally, he rewound the leather over the weapon’s grip, hiding the necklace.

Proud of his work, he cast a powerful charm that would prevent the discovery of the amulet by magical means. He replaced the sword in its sheath and wandered over to the tiny slit window to survey the scene.

General Jericho led his squad to the base of the Cliff of Judgement. His brow beaded with sweat from the jog, yet he looked resplendent in his gold-accented breastplate that dazzled as it caught the light. He wore a crimson velvet cloak about his shoulders with the Brotherhood insignia emblazoned across its back. He raised a golden-hilted sword for silence. His men formed a semicircle in front of him, and each knelt on one knee following his example.

‘I do not need to tell you that experienced wizards are notoriously difficult to capture, let alone kill,’ the general said, his fingers playing with his beard.

‘Sir,’ began a young private. ‘Why are we listening to the word of a giant? We have not even seen this mage; what if it’s a dark wizard up there?’

‘Then we are potentially in even greater trouble,’ Jericho replied. ‘In regard to the giant, well, he is no ordinary giant, he is an ally that Curator Menin trusts.’

The young private bowed his head.

Jericho continued. ‘I believe our best chance of countering this threat is to create a diversion. While this mage is distracted, we will attack from the rear.’

‘What’s your plan?’ Lieutenant Su’un Quindil, a short, plump man asked.

‘Simple.’ Jericho faced his lieutenant. ‘Your squad will make a frontal feint, and I will corner him from behind while he’s distracted.’

‘That’s not possible, Sir. You do realise what you propose is against protocol?’

‘Of course I do. I did not make General by sitting on my rump and getting fat while good men died in battle,’ he said as he patted his ample stomach. ‘That’s due to the fine wine and feasting. In all seriousness, though, I have fought in almost every campaign the Brotherhood has undertaken in the last thirty years, and today is no different.’

‘You stayed behind the front lines, Sir.’ Lieutenant Quindil reminded.

‘Are you questioning my authority, Lieutenant?’ Jericho demanded.

‘No, Sir. But Curator Menin will have my head if something were to happen to you.’

‘Then I shall have to make sure that doesn’t happen.’

‘I must insist that you remain behind. If you were injured or killed, we would lose our leadership.’

Jericho refused to listen to reason. ‘True, but I possess skills you do not, and my decision is final.’

‘I want it known that I objected,’ said Quindil.

‘Objection noted, Su’un. Now, I believe a single man will have a better chance to outmanoeuvre our uninvited guest.’

This strategy, he knew, had worked to great effect in the past. However, he had never tackled what was potentially a dark wizard single-handedly. He was nearing the age of compulsory retirement and desired one last glorious moment in battle. He had spent too many years, to his liking, watching others take the risks while he sat by and played the tactician. He was bored, and he was taking a great risk and knew it. He just hoped Menin would understand. He took a long look at his assembled men and smiled.

‘I do not think I need to tell you what a pleasure it has been serving the Brotherhood alongside you,’ Jericho began. ‘Should things go our way, I will treat you all to a fine feast of wine and women, the like of which has never been seen.’

Laughter was interspersed with a few cheers.

‘Just don’t tell Menin about the women, okay?’ Jericho winked to laughter. ‘Prepare yourselves, and let us defeat this coward.’

The general rose, cracked his neck, and signalled to his lieutenant to follow him. They moved aside from the group, and Jericho embraced the lieutenant’s shoulder before giving his final instructions.

‘I want you to keep your head down. If a man should fall then leave him, we will clean up later,’ he said without emotion. ‘Now if you are ready, go and prepare your men. I will need five minutes to get into position.’

Lieutenant Quindil looked ready to object, but thought better of it. He gave a short salute. ‘Sir, please be careful. Okay?’

‘I always am.’ Jericho smiled.

Quindil turned and headed back to his troop, and left Jericho to take one long last look at the devastated Sanctuary and the partial destruction of the golden temple. He offered a quick prayer to the gods for protection.

After removing his boots and holding them, he closed his eyes and concentrated on his destination, allowing the image to form in his mind to the point that it was almost real enough to touch. He remembered his training as a young man and the instructor telling him that trying to picture a destination was as hard as trying to visualise the back of his neck.

She was right, of course, yet he uttered a single word: ‘Destinaté,’ and disappeared with a small whoosh of air.

Moments later, he reappeared in a small recess in the walls of the mountain pass still holding his boots. He surprised even himself on the accuracy of his spell. However, this form of magic always took its toll on him. His head spun from the physical exertion that his body had endured before it reformed at its destination. He had little time to focus fully. His men were minutes away from staging their attack, and somewhere ahead of him was his quarry.

Lieutenant Quindil had his men assemble at each side of the Cliff of Judgement. He had split the troop into two units. Each man was battle-ready and a few offered silent prayers to the gods; others fingered prayer beads while they murmured to themselves.

Lieutenant Quindil clicked his fingers, which drew the two teams to his attention. He raised three fingers at them in a silent countdown.

As he reached one, Quindil cast aloud: ‘Ascenderá,’ and with a slight jolt he and his men ascended the cliff magically on a cushion of air. He was elated. This was the first time he had used magic in battle, and not everyone was permitted to or had the ability to use it at the temple. He had joined the order after his grandfather had seen the spark of a mage in him, and he had impressed the Archmage with his skill, so much so that he had taken special training over the years to improve his abilities.

Quindil was ahead of the group and cast a shield charm, ten feet in from the cliff edge, at the very moment he appeared above the lip. This would afford his men some level of protection as they landed softly.

The wizard had been ready for an attack. His proximity charm triggered. A shower of sparks shot into the air near the edge of the cliff. A flock of birds screeched, and then took flight.

The wizard looked left and right. Quindil’s charm had rendered his troops undetectable. It took moments for Quindil and his men to take up positions behind boulders and outcrops of rock at the sides of the pass. The wizard had not spotted the enemy yet, but would be ready for them; the sparks were evidence enough of that.

The wizard cast a ‘Disintegrá!’ spell. It broke the silence, and a wave of destruction powered its way towards the cliff edge.

The shockwave deafened them with a thunderous clap, and a flash of brilliant light blinded all those in its vicinity. It disintegrated all in its path, boulders and rocks reduced to dust that blew in the wind. Fortunately the wave had lost most of its power by the time it reached Quindil who had retreated behind a large boulder.

He closed his eyes tight as three of his troop bled to death in the dirt not too far from him. All that remained of a fourth was a severed hand that twitched uncontrollably.

From his vantage point, General Jericho cursed the evil before him. This ended now, either with this devil’s death or his own.

He would create three elaborate distractions, yet for this to succeed, he would need to be within ten feet of his foe. But this wizard was smart. He had already set up defences and Jericho had no idea what else the enemy had in store.

Jericho, however, had an ace up his sleeve; he could transform into a leopard, a gift bestowed by the gods. He took a deep breath and murmured to the creator, and then transformed into the silken-bodied black creature. Not a drawn-out, bone-wrenching, flesh-tearing experience like that of a werewolf, but as smooth as if he were made of silk.

He was never in full control of his alter ego. A certain amount of animal instinct took over, and that made him a hunter and killer, formidable in battle. Many a time his troops had been shocked to discover a leopard fighting alongside them on the battlefield, the official explanation from the Archmage was that it was a guardian spirit sent to protect the troops when they needed it most.

He silently padded into the cold night, and spied his prey in the distance.

A slim hand held aloft a long, thin wand that directed shafts of red light at Quindil’s men. The wizard’s spells smacked into rock and ground with a force that sent great plumes of dust into the air, inches from those who sheltered behind cover.

The dark wizard’s spell-casting was effective and kept the attackers at bay. However, Jericho in his new form was able to close the gap to within ten feet. He was ready to enact the rest of his plan when his forepaw trod on a dry twig and it snapped with a crack. The dark wizard whirled to face him, alert to the threat behind.

The general stopped dead, his foreleg raised several inches off the ground. The wizard dropped his staff and briefly disappeared, to reappear just inches from him. It was an effective use of the Destinaté spell.

Animal instinct took over and Jericho crouched low as he readied himself to pounce with a snarl.

‘I wouldn’t bother if I were you, Jericho,’ said a cold, high voice from under the hood of the wizard’s cloak.

Jericho felt speared to the core. How did this person know he had transformed into a leopard? Only senior order members knew of his gift. Should he bluff it? Maybe he could still deceive the threat into believing he was a dumb animal.

‘It is no use pretending, Jericho; I would know that form anywhere. Show your true self, or do I have to make you?’ The wizard brandished his wand.

There was no question then that this had to be a senior member of the order.

The wizard dropped his cowl and Jericho’s breath quickened; this had to be a lie, a figment of his imagination. Before him stood his wife Eraywen, although she looked cold and vacant.

‘Are you surprised to see me? I wonder whom you were expecting,’ she asked with a sneer.

Jericho transformed back into his human form. He did not bother to rise from all fours and his head hung low. ‘Why you?’ he asked quietly. His naked body shivered in the cold night air.

‘Because, my darling, I tire of watching you and your noble friends prance around the land in your vain attempt to put the world to rights. You force everyone to conform to your beliefs. It amuses me to cause disorder and watch you and your pathetic men try to stop me.’

‘Why, Eraywen? Why?’ Jericho asked miserably.

Eraywen strode up and down in front of Jericho, and appeared to enjoy the moment. ‘You think there is but one Council of Mages on this little rock? Wrong, there are two. You belong to the first, and I the second. You fight for truth and justice at the price of freedom. We fight to rid this world of your tyranny, and become the dominant spiritual power in the land.’

‘Why would you do this to the temple?’

‘This is just the start. We will rid this world of all Brotherhood temples, and what better temple to start with than your own,’ Eraywen replied.

‘Please Eraywen, stop this now, I beg you. This is my home.’

‘A home segregated from the world. I am afraid I cannot stop this. The wheels are in motion to destroy the Brotherhood of the Wulf, and that day will be a glorious day.’

‘You are deluded, Eraywen, and I will have to stop you.’

‘You do not stand a chance. Leave now and I will spare your life.’

Without warning, Jericho roared and leapt to his feet. In one swift movement, he grabbed Eraywen and twirled her so that she faced away from him. He held her tightly. Tears stung his eyes as he gripped her wand arm.

Eraywen attempted to free herself, but Jericho was a very strong man. A silver butterfly talisman swung from side to side around her neck as she struggled to free herself from Jericho’s grasp.

‘You cannot cast magic at what you cannot see,’ said Jericho through clenched teeth. ‘That is the preserve of the most eminent of mages, and eminent you are not.’

Eraywen merely craned her neck, looked him in the eyes and smiled. Jericho responded before she could act and spoke aloud a simple sleeping spell. Eraywen collapsed unconscious.

He stepped aside from her and retrieved his clothing, minus his armour, and quickly dressed. He then returned to Eraywen’s still form, but as he reached her, he froze. A terrifying half-screech, half-roar cut through the air, unlike any he had heard before. A dark shape appeared above him and blocked out the moon.

He was powerless to react as a colossal scaly claw enveloped him, and then a moment later a second clenched Eraywen in its grasp. The creature wrenched them both into the evening sky.

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Four.

December 24, 2017 Leave a comment

THE GOLDEN TEMPLE

The morning sun cast long shadows and warmed the cold earth. A chink of light passed through a crack in the bedroom shutters and illuminated Coinin as he slept. His wound was still visible, though it no longer bled. A loud rap at the door woke him.

‘Yes?’ said Coinin sleepily and stifled a yawn.

‘Breakfast will be served in a moment, Sir,’ said an unfamiliar voice through the door.

‘Thank you, give me a few minutes.’ Coinin rubbed sleep from his eyes.

‘As you wish,’ said the voice.

Coinin listened to the footsteps retreat down the corridor and pulled back the covers and sat upright. He was stiff and sore, and yesterday’s antics had taken their toll. After he prised himself from the soft bed, he took a few moments to splash water on his face from a wooden bowl sitting on an ornate dresser, and then gingerly pressed the bruises on his upper arms with his fingers. They would heal in time but the goblins had done well, their aim true. He dressed quickly and left the room, and wondered why he had not dreamt that night. Perhaps the blow to his head had been severe enough to block his nightly visions.

He tapped on Marrok’s door and entered to find his brother already awake and halfway through a shave.

‘Morning. Just a second, I’m almost finished,’ Marrok called from behind a velvet curtain that separated the washstand from the rest of the room.

‘Do you trust these people?’ Coinin asked.

Marrok considered his response carefully. ‘Only until they break our trust. I think we need to see what they have to say before we pass judgment.’

Coinin nodded in agreement.

‘What troubles you, brother?’ Marrok asked.

‘I guess finding out that our father walked these halls. It’s a strange feeling.’

‘I think that’s why we need to trust these people. If father did, then so should we.’

‘That makes sense. Although, I still can’t help but be worried that there’s something odd about all this.’

Marrok wiped his face and tossed his drying cloth aside. He appeared from behind the curtain and threw his arm around Coinin. ‘You worry too much, brother. I thought that was my job.’

Breakfast that morning was delightful. Hot melted butter smeared over lightly toasted bread, slices of piping hot pork, fresh crab, and salmon, and a fruit bowl that held delicious apples, oranges, and grapes, all ready to be washed down with gallons of wine from the temple vineyard.

After the previous night’s intake of wine, Coinin in his wisdom requested milk. Beautifully warm milk straight from the cow arrived minutes later, accompanied by Curator Menin.

‘Good morning. How are we today?’ she asked. ‘Rested well, I trust?’

‘I’ve never slept so well,’ Coinin answered.

Marrok merely gave a courteous nod, his mouth full of salmon fillet.

‘That is good news indeed; we have so much to do today,’ said Menin gleefully. ‘If you would like to follow me, we shall start in my study.’

Both boys looked mournfully at the breakfast table. Coinin more so, his chance to drink his milk lost. They stood and followed Menin from the room.

She led the way through a maze of corridors, and at each turn, people greeted Coinin and Marrok in much the same manner as the night before. It became so tiresome by the end that Marrok indicated that he was not happy.

‘Don’t worry, I shall ask them to stop,’ Menin assured him. ‘However, I feel you will understand why they act this way shortly. Ah, here we are. If you would, please go on inside and make yourself comfortable.’

Menin opened the door to her study and ushered them inside. The room was quite a contrast from the rest of the temple; it was simple, even drab. The shelves held endless scrolls and bound volumes, and a small desk occupied the centre of the room. Upon this sat a quill and a handful of tightly rolled parchments. A candle burned steadily and lit a small area of the desk. To the right of the desk a wooden bookstand with a gilded leg and clawed foot held a large red book. It had the same wolf paw and sun disc emblem embossed into the front cover, and strange repetitive symbols decorated the edges in bright gold leaf.

Warm sunlight drenched the space from a window high in the room, and dust flitted in and out of its rays. The room smelled heavily of incense. It burned the back of the throat and tickled the nose. In front of the desk, two wooden chairs were slightly angled towards each other, and Menin invited the boys to sit.

‘Welcome to my study. As you can see, it is full of fine treasures. All I ask is that you be gentle with them while you spend time here,’ she said.

‘I don’t see treasure, there’s no gold or diamonds anywhere,’ Marrok objected.

‘Quite right too. The treasure I talk about is written in these scrolls and books. Knowledge itself is a treasure, one to be cherished like a precious necklace.’

Marrok looked at Curator Menin with a raised eyebrow.

‘To me, these books are as precious as that sword you carry. They too can strike an enemy down. It is knowledge and information that wins battles, is it not?’ said Menin.

‘Yes, I suppose. We must know all about our enemy, including his strengths and weaknesses, if we are to defeat him,’ Marrok replied.

‘That’s correct; these books are a valuable resource in our battle to maintain order.’

‘Maintain order?’ Coinin asked. ‘What do you mean?’

Curator Menin rose and clasped her hands together in thought. ‘Sometimes I forget myself. It seems I must start at the very beginning.’ She paused a moment. ‘Long ago, and I talk about thousands of years, the world was a different place. For one it was savage and mean and young men like you would not hope to survive long. Often they would be sold into slavery or worked to death in mines. A group of people desperate to flee the violence travelled many miles in search of a safe place in which to start a new life. They settled under the shelter of a mountain, in a lush green forest, and lived there quite happily for many years. Then one fateful day, a band of travelling slavers surrounded their camp and cornered the terrified group. During the night, the leader of the settlers heard a strange voice call to him, and through sheer desperation he investigated the source. The voice led him to a stairway that ran up the side of a cliff. Sound familiar?’ Menin smiled.

Both Marrok and Coinin nodded.

‘Under cover of darkness, and surrounded by the slavers, they quietly slipped up the side of the mountain after their leader, all the while guided by the voice. He led them to a cave, the cave to a river, and the river to a beautiful forest that teemed with life. Can you imagine the trust this man must have possessed to have led them on that journey? For many years the people lived peacefully in the forest, and all they wished for was at hand: safety, fresh water, and plentiful food. They could not have been happier. It was there that the founder of our order, Archmage Soliath Wulf, met them. That is he up there.’ Menin pointed to a portrait of Soliath above the door. He had a slight smile, and his wise grey eyes seemed to twinkle knowingly. He was dressed in the now-familiar white robe of the order, and wore a thin gold band over his wrinkled forehead. Around his neck, a large red stone encased in an ornate gold mount hung from a chain. The stone shone with an unusual intensity from the portrait.

Coinin turned back to Curator Menin, and he realised for the first time that she wore around her neck the very same red stone.

‘I see you have noticed my adornment. It is very old and provides the order some protection. It is called the Rose of Cerathil.’ Menin fingered the necklace draped around her neck.

‘What kind of protection?’ Marrok asked.

‘All in good time. I should finish the story of our beginning. Our ancestors had just met Soliath and he explained it was the God Rindor who had guided them to safety.’ Menin paused, and offered drinks to the young men in front of her. Both refused, eager to hear more.

‘Rindor’s heart was saddened by the tribes of Er’ath and their inability to rule themselves, so he asked Soliath to find individuals who would bring order to the chaos. Rindor had observed our ancestors for some time and liked what he saw. He witnessed creative free thinkers, who were strong of mind and desired an end to injustice. The God Rindor approached Soliath in a vision and they made a decision that day. Between them they decided that they would create a safe haven for those keen to learn, and a place where they could worship the gods freely without fear.’ Menin took a drink of water and continued.

‘Soliath sat our ancestors down and talked well into the next day. Morning came, and they had hashed out a plan. One half of our ancestors would join Soliath, to study religion, philosophy, and the magical arts, for those were the three key ingredients that Soliath most enjoyed. In return they would create a great Brotherhood that would endeavour to rid the world of injustice through belief, magic, and might. The other half would set in place a High King who would rule as head of the lands that surround Rosthagaar. Our common task was to unite the tribes of Er’ath under the banner of peace and under one belief. With Rindor’s support, together we soon restored order and brought the people to know the gods. Rosthagaar and the Brotherhood have always remained separate entities, but united in our goals. Since then our order has grown from strength to strength, not only in belief and knowledge, but also in the magic arts and swordsmanship. Rosthagaar has ever since ruled the people with a High King.’ Menin stood and crossed to the bookstand and retrieved a large red book. ‘This book contains a historical account of the founding years of our order.’

Menin opened the first few pages and showed them illustrations that represented the founding of the Brotherhood and the travels of the ancestors who ventured into Soliath’s safe haven.

‘What’s that picture?’ Coinin asked with great interest.

‘That is the creation of our protection, and the building of this temple,’ Menin replied. ‘Rindor and Soliath knew that one day unwanted visitors would find their way to us, so they built the safe haven you see here, and they created a few distractions on the way. Firstly, Rindor hid the stairway from view with a giant boulder and a waterfall, and then he extended the mountain to an impossible height, which made the cliff climb a daunting task. Secondly, he hid the cave entrance behind the vine, and collapsed a tunnel to create that lovely drop into darkness I so enjoy, and then he turned the river into blood. If that did not stop anyone from venturing further, the final act was pure genius.’

‘I think I know what it is,’ Coinin interrupted. ‘Is it the falling on air trick?’

‘Correct, although not a trick, we call it the Cliff of Judgment. Soliath added his own mix to the pot, and created the illusion that there was an impossible drop, when in reality anyone who had been invited to the temple, and that included companions, would be permitted to fall softly. Those who are not invited, or have not visited the temple grounds, will have a very severe headache.’ She allowed herself a smile. ‘It does, however, cause us no end of trouble with so many goblin bodies. They will persist in their attempt to find new ways down. Ropes or ladders are no use, Soliath saw to that. The only way down is to be invited.’

‘Trenobin said that there was no way back. So how do you leave?’ Marrok enquired.

‘Magic.’ Menin winked. ‘Please let me finish. Since the beginning, our reach had spread and we dominated religious, scientific, and philosophical thought. Millions worshipped the gods through our direction.’

‘Isn’t that a bit odd, mixing religion and the sword?’ Coinin asked.

‘Some say we are conflicted, and have set up rival religions, but I see our order open to all free thinkers who seek a purpose in life. We encourage our Brothers and Sisters to work together to better the peoples of Er’ath. Surprisingly it works for the most part, thanks to Soliath’s teachings. Sadly, though, in the last fifty years, things have changed, and many of Er’ath’s races have broken away from the true faith and have begun to follow their own teachings. I fear this is something we cannot recover from. It was different thousands of years ago, when the peoples had no belief in the gods. It was easier to convert them, and show them the true path. But now–’

‘What happened fifty years ago?’ Marrok asked.

‘The High King Hantestum, who rules in Rostha, ousted the other kings, who by Rindor’s decree must reign alongside him in the lands that surrounded Rosthagaar. He replaced them with overseers who have no real power. This was the turning point in our history; people began to believe that they could think for themselves without interference from the Brotherhood or Rindor. We have fought a losing battle ever since to uphold order, and now we only maintain tenuous religious thought for the human population. Of course if you look around the temple, you can see many from other races follow Rindor’s teachings, and can be found among our ranks. But new converts seem to be waning.’ Menin looked sad as she finished.

‘Could you not have stopped Hantestum?’ Marrok asked.

‘We sadly do not have any say over political matters. If we had, we would have restored the balance.’

‘Did you reason with him, show him how he has hurt the balance, as you put it?’ Coinin asked.

‘Of course Archmage Orodor did what he could, but Hantestum cares not for the people’s revolt. He can sit each day and eat and drink his fill, content that he has what he wants: a seat of great power, and control of a grand army.’ Menin shook her head in disgust.

‘He sounds like a disgusting man,’ said Marrok.

‘So how do you intend to restore the balance?’ Coinin asked.

‘There is a prophecy that reads that two young men from the line of Soliath Wulf will restore order and balance in a time of great upheaval. I believe you are the two men the prophecy speaks of.’

Marrok snorted and Coinin gasped at this news, quite unable to believe it.

A deep resonant bell interrupted the meeting.

‘That is the signal to meet in the Grand Hall. We will talk later on this.’ She stood to leave.

‘You can’t just leave us hanging like this,’ Marrok objected.

‘I am afraid that I must. I have other official duties to attend to. I promise I will take the time to explain all in due course. But now we really must make a move.’

Marrok was silenced quickly by Coinin, who was not eager to upset the Curator at this early stage. He had just learnt some exciting news about his future and was keen to hear more.

Menin escorted her charges from the room and through the temple. She took the time to indicate points of interest as they went, and it was not too long before they arrived at a long prayer hall, two floors below her study. It was plain, yet functional. Two oak tables ran the entire length of the hall, at which sat two hundred or more white-robed individuals. The noise of chatter and laughter abounded.

Curator Menin led them to the far end of the hall and invited them to sit at the head of the left-hand table. She walked up the steps to a low platform at the far end of the hall and sat at the right-hand chair of three. The left-hand chair was occupied by a short plump man, and in the centre chair, by far the biggest, sat a thin old man with a beard that trailed on the floor before him. He stood carefully and raised his arms.

‘Welcome, Brothers and Sisters,’ he croaked, ‘and esteemed visitors, of course. I am Archmage Orodor. Welcome to Sanctuary. I am pleased to say word has reached me that our Brothers have defeated the giants who attacked Astanoth for the umpteenth time in as many years. However, we do not have cause for celebration just yet. Many of our order did not survive the struggle, and we have learnt that a rogue Tomorite clan chief is behind the latest attack. We must plan a strategy to defeat this tyrant. A general council will be held later today to discuss the matter and I invite all to attend. Yet here I prattle on and I see that the time for prayer has arrived, so I will interrupt you no more. Curator Menin, please lead the ceremony.’ Archmage Orodor sat and appeared to doze almost instantly.

‘He’s doing that more and more of late; perhaps the time has come to choose a new Archmage,’ a voice said to Coinin’s left.

‘Shush, Bealam; Orodor will decide in his own good time when he wishes to ascend to Rol’as.’ A squat brown-haired man noticed that Coinin had overheard and turned to him. ‘Please forgive my Brother, he is impetuous.’

Coinin raised a hand. ‘Think nothing of it,’ he said, not quite understanding what had been said.

Draken awoke like a bear with a sore head, after the consumption of an inordinate amount of alcohol following his murderous act. He had felt the need to hide from himself, and the only way he knew to rid himself of his guilt was to drink it away.

He sat up, and his eyes flicked to Trenobin’s body, which now lay stiff and cold under its bush. He felt a small pang of remorse for his old friend, but he pushed the emotion deep down inside.

He stood and hid his pack behind a large tree and then checked the campfire was out. He now needed to enact the plan he had devised and this would help to disguise Trenobin’s murder.

He ventured towards the Cliff of Judgment and closed his eyes, and then uttered an incantation, one he had not performed for three decades. He felt light as air and began, slowly at first, to rise from the ground, unsupported by any physical means. He began to perspire from the mental exertion needed to keep airborne, and yet he rose higher and higher, until he reached an outcrop of rock and made a grab for it. This arrested his ascent, and he scrambled onto the ledge. With a kick of his leg he hauled himself over the edge. He lay back, his heart pounding from the physical effort, and it was ten minutes before he felt able to stand up and assess the area. He had returned to the mountain pass in search of his cover story, and this would bring him one step closer to completing his personal quest.

Then he saw why he had returned. A lone goblin poked at the stone shaman with a stick.

Draken crept up to the goblin, smothered its mouth with his hand and placed a dagger to the goblin’s throat. The goblin froze.

‘I know you do not understand me, vermin, but move and you are dead.’ Draken pushed the knife harder into the goblin’s throat. The creature understood the threat more than the words, and consented to be led by the man.

As they neared the edge of the cliff, however, the little goblin dug its heels in, frightened. It knew what happened to its race when they approached the cliff. Draken took a firmer hold of the goblin and as he did so, he had to unclasp his hand from its mouth. Immediately the small creature screamed, and pleaded in its tongue for mercy. Draken looked up. Thirty or so goblins thundered towards him and his stricken captive.

‘Too soon,’ he fumed. ‘Oh well, come and get me, here I am.’ He picked up the goblin, and slung it over his back. It kicked, screamed, and even bit Draken’s shoulder, but he ignored the pain and raced back to the edge. Rocks pelted him and spears were thrown perilously close. He prayed his next action would work and held tight to his captive. He dove off the cliff edge, and for a moment he fell fast, too fast. His pitiful life flashed before his eyes, and then, just feet from the bottom, the old magic sensed he was there and slowed his descent. He stopped with a jolt, in mid-air, two feet above the ground. He twisted and stood and then gave a sigh. He looked up and to his delight three goblins had slowly begun to drop down the cliff face. He quickly dived out of their way.

The goblins had landed safely and chattered excitedly to each other, basking in their glory that they had succeeded where others had failed. Draken thought quickly. His mind raced. Then he raised his free hand high into the air and called out a new spell. Immediately a localised wind kicked up that sent dust and debris in all directions. The wind grew stronger and formed into a small twister.

The column of air grew faster and stronger and Draken aimed it at the goblins, who turned heel and fled. He took a moment to smile. He had done it, he had broken the spell holding back enemies from the Sanctuary. Now more were free to join the others at the bottom of the cliff unharmed, and that would afford him a suitable distraction to commit an act of theft.

So as to not lose any more time, Draken quickly dragged his captive through the thicket of trees to his campsite.

‘I’m sorry for this, little one, but needs must,’ he said, and swung the creature to face him. He plunged his knife through its chest and into its heart. It let out a squeal and a solitary tear ran down its face. Shock emblazoned its ugly face, and it was minutes before it collapsed.

Later, when the life force had left its body, he dragged the lifeless corpse of Trenobin out of the bush, and placed it beside the goblin. He then laid his knife in the hands of the goblin as evidence of its complicity in the murder of the dwarf.

Satisfied, Draken grabbed his pack and ran to the temple entrance, and there he was greeted with sharp spears pointed in his direction.

‘Wait, wait. Trenobin has been killed. A goblin attacked him.’ Draken raised his hands in submission.

‘What trick is this, Draken?’ a passing officer demanded.

‘No trick, go see for yourself, Zaruun,’ Draken sneered.

‘Fine then, but if this is some ploy I shall not go easy on you. Nethlith, seek out Trenobin and check his story. Draken stays here,’ Zaruun ordered the gate guard.

Nethlith laid his spear against the temple wall and jogged over to the campsite. He returned soon thereafter out of breath.

‘He speaks the truth, Zaruun. Trenobin is dead and a goblin beside him.’

‘How can this be?’ said Zaruun in puzzlement. ‘I shall have to consult with Curator Menin. Stand guard in case there are more goblins. I shall fetch reinforcements.’

‘Actually I do think there were more of those beasts,’ said Draken.

‘Great, that’s just wonderful!’

Draken watched Zaruun leave, happy that his plan had worked this far.

It was not too long before Curator Menin stormed from the temple, accompanied by General Jericho, and marched up to Draken, fire in her eyes.

‘What deception is this, Draken? Explain yourself,’ Menin thundered.

‘I do not know what you mean, Curator,’ Draken blustered, in an attempt to appear innocent. ‘We were attacked by four goblins while we talked. I somehow killed one of them and the others ran off.’

Menin stood nose to nose with Draken. Her eyes bored holes into his as she searched his depths for the truth. Draken swallowed hard. Now was the time his plan could fail. He had to keep cool. Easier said than done, he thought, while a sharp pain at the back of his eyes invited him to spill his guts. Menin used simple mind tricks, he reminded himself. He had learnt many years ago how to counter the urge to reveal true intents while under duress. He just hoped he could hold out.

To Draken’s surprise, he floated above the cold marble steps, just an inch, and barely noticeable. As the pain behind his eyes swelled, he began to perspire; beads formed on his brow that slid down his nose and stung his eyes.

Seconds later, images began to flash before him: distant memories, ghostly and distorted. They sped by at high speed, a child to teen in mere seconds. This had become dangerous; she was getting too close to his darkest secrets. Curator Menin was reading his mind. She searched for the truth, and he had to stop her. But how?

Moments later, an image flickered before him, a warm memory of a time he and his Great Uncle Neld practiced sorcery together. He knew instantly what he must do. He clasped his hands together at his breastbone, and summoned all his strength. He concentrated on a little-known piece of magic. It started as a pea-sized ball of force that grew rapidly within his chest, until it was large enough that it filled his chest cavity with a pressure wave that pulsated. The wave would break the bond between them, but he had a second attack. He would reverse Menin’s magic, and this would cause it to rebound upon her. He would ensure that Menin could never see into his mind again.

The force began to build, and Draken shook uncontrollably until he could hold it back no longer. With a cry, his arms flung outward. The full force of the magic left his body and hit Menin squarely in the chest. She careened several feet down the marble steps and crumpled into a heap at the bottom. General Jericho and Zaruun immediately seized Draken’s arms and roughly pinned him to the floor.

‘Get off me, what are you doing?’ Draken demanded, his face squashed against the cold marble.

‘Stay still and be quiet,’ Jericho barked. ‘Nethlith, please see to the Curator.’

Nethlith nodded and leapt down the steps two at a time.

‘No real damage done,’ said Menin with an embarrassed air.

‘But Draken, he–’ Nethlith began.

‘A simple miscalculation, I’m afraid. The magic appears to have rebounded on me,’ Menin interrupted.

On the cold floor, Draken allowed himself a smile. His plan had worked; Menin believed she had caused the spell to fail.

‘I will, however, be rather bruised and sore in the morning,’ she finished.

‘What of Draken?’ Jericho asked.

‘Let him go. Although he is treacherous, I do not sense deception in him,’ Menin replied.

Jericho gritted his teeth and snarled at Draken, and then punched the marble next to his face. ‘One day,’ he threatened, and released his captive.

Draken stood stiffly and stretched his back. He allowed it to crack, and it eased a cramp sustained while pinned to the ground. ‘Maybe, but not today.’ He turned to face Menin at the foot of the stairs. ‘My dear Curator, I trust you are unhurt? That was a nasty fall,’ he simpered, a sickly smile upon his face.

Menin looked at him with derision. ‘You may have passed my test, but do not think for one moment that I trust a word you say.’ She turned to Nethlith. ‘Please take Draken inside, and ensure he is fed and watered. I believe he will need some time to recover from my efforts. Nevertheless, be warned, he is not to venture anywhere other than the guest chambers. Understood?’

Nethlith nodded agreement and grasped Draken’s arm, then escorted him inside the building.

‘Zaruun,’ Menin began. ‘Please assist me to the Hall of Seers. I have work to finish.’

Zaruun, her personal guard, offered his arm. She winced in pain as she stood and attempted to put weight on her left foot.

‘It seems my ankle may be sprained. Would you see to it that the healer visits my chambers?’

‘Yes, milady.’ Zaruun bowed his head and supported Menin to walk up the long flight of steps.

Jericho marched down the steps to see Trenobin’s body for himself. Something about this whole affair did not feel right to him.

At the summit of the stair, Menin turned to face the paradise she had called home for thirty-eight years. A change was in the air, and she feared that more than anything. A new danger threatened the existence of the Brotherhood, and it had to be fought head on if they were to survive.

Draken lay back on a pile of cushions at the head of Coinin’s velveteen bed. He breathed easier now that his plan had thus far succeeded. His eyes closed and a satisfied smile spread across his face.

Marrok had watched his uncle from the moment he had entered Coinin’s chambers. ‘You smile, Uncle. Why?’

Immediately Draken snapped out of his self-indulgence. ‘I am grateful to be alive. Those goblins are fierce creatures,’ Draken bluffed.

Marrok looked incredulous.

‘I could be lying there dead, just like Trenobin.’

‘Poor Trenobin. Will they bury him? I know I’d like to pay my respects.’ Coinin said.

‘If tradition is maintained then he will be interred at the first available opportunity. You will get to say your farewell.’

‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about, he was just a stupid dwarf,’ said Marrok.

‘Marrok!’ Coinin snapped.

Marrok shrugged and joined his brother at the window. Coinin looked out in the direction of the Cliff of Judgment. What he saw shocked him. An army of small green creatures had begun to form at the base of the cliff, and more descended with each second that passed.

‘You know, Coinin, I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think I trust Uncle,’ Marrok whispered.

‘I think we have more to worry about than him. Look.’ Coinin pointed out of the window.

‘I need some fresh air,’ said Draken, and stood. He grabbed his pack and stepped outside onto a small but functional balcony. He closed the door behind him and rummaged in his pack. He withdrew his orb and held it aloft.

‘What are you doing?’ he said to the glowing orb. ‘This is not part of our deal. We agreed only to get the item, not this, a goblin army at the door. Only a handful were meant to invade the Sanctuary, enough to provide a distraction.’

‘I chose to strike while their defences were at their weakest. My plan worked, it destroyed their protection, and you provided me with the way in,’ the globe responded.

‘You used me to do your dirty work, to what end?’ Draken asked.

‘The destruction of the Brotherhood, what else? It is too late to cast the blame, you betrayed the order and agreed to break the charm at the Cliff of Judgment. You have an equal share in this deception. Besides, this provides an increased chance of success. Watch for my signal, and you will know when to act.’

‘How will I know the signal?’

‘Trust me, you will know,’ the voice cackled.

A call to arms sounded in the distance, and a bell chimed a warning. Coinin heard shouts from the corridor and he left the window. He stepped across the room and opened the door to his chambers and poked his head out.

A hustle and bustle of people ran here and there, and donned armour or carried armfuls of weapons. A young guard jogged his way along the length of the corridor and called loudly.

‘To arms, man your stations, the Sanctuary has been breached. All guards report to your stations. Brothers are to gather in the meeting hall.’

Coinin grabbed the arm of the guard as he made to pass. ‘What’s happening?’

‘Goblins have penetrated our outer defences; all Brothers are to meet in the Great Hall. I think perhaps you should attend also,’ the guard replied, before he again ran off and shouted his instructions.

‘Yes, but where is the Great Hall?’ Coinin called after him uselessly.

‘Don’t worry, nephew, I know the way,’ said Draken behind him, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

‘You’re not meant to leave this room. Nethlith said so,’ Marrok reminded.

‘And you are better off seen and not heard, boy,’ Draken growled.

‘I think the fact that we are overrun with goblins outweighs everything else. I’m sure we’ll all be needed to join the fight before the day is out,’ Coinin offered wisely.

‘Well-reasoned, my boy,’ said Draken cheerily. ‘Follow me then.’

The Great Hall was the most magnificent Coinin had ever seen, so high that songbirds nested amongst the rafters. Their calls were faint, but pleasant to the ear, and gave the sense of being outdoors. The glass roof reflected blue and red as a column of light emanated from a large well-like structure at the centre of the room. This must be the same light he had seen reach to the clouds yesterday. Guards lined the circular room between columns, which held a rotunda, filled with an anxious audience. The hall was cool, mainly thanks to its height, and decorated with friezes of battles won and fought. Portraits of long-dead Archmages adorned the rear wall of the hall. An air of unease hung in the air, and a hum of voices chattered nervously.

Coinin found seats amongst a throng of others. A door opened, and Archmage Orodor entered the hall to an instant hush. Coinin was puzzled by a noise that whooshed every few seconds or so, accompanied by a flash of light behind one of the columns. He turned to a red hooded figure to his left.

‘What’s happening behind that column over there?’ he whispered, and nudged the figure. He was instantly struck dumb, and his mouth dropped open, as the most beautiful, green-eyed woman he had ever seen turned to him. A hint of blonde hair slipped from her hood, and when she smiled at him, he felt his heart leap.

‘There are Brothers and Sisters arriving; they have come to hear Orodor speak and to strengthen our numbers,’ she replied.

Coinin recovered enough to question the young woman. ‘Arriving?’ he murmured.

‘Yes, a specialist piece of magic, used to transport people or objects great distances in an instant. Though not everyone can do it, and many people need a more experienced individual to port them here.’

‘Oh, I see, thank you. I’m Coinin, by the way.’

‘Lieutenant Reena Lifor. Now, if you don’t mind, Orodor is about to speak.’ She half smiled and turned away.

Coinin sat back and permitted himself a moment to savour his few precious seconds in conversation with the woman. He had missed her name, such was his fixation on her beauty, and hoped he would find time to meet her again.

He was snapped out of his thoughts when a gong sounded and signalled the meeting to order.

‘Brothers and Sisters,’ began Archmage Orodor, ‘I thank you for coming at such short notice, and many of you for travelling so far. I am sure the rumour mill has told you of the danger at our door. Let me reassure you that we are in control of the situation. Curator Menin has drafted a defensive strategy, so I will now hand over to her. Curator?’

Menin stepped forward, her limp obvious to all, and a few onlookers murmured. Menin raised her hand for silence, which was immediate.

‘Friends, I will be blunt. There is a horde of goblins interspersed with a number of giants amassing very quickly outside our walls. We can only assume that since the defences that have protected us have failed, they have found the way through the mountain pass. They are preparing for battle. Our inner defences hold for now, but they will fail. Our plight is such that all present are required to defend the Sanctuary; our very survival depends on it.’ Menin paused a moment to gather her thoughts and took the time to observe the tense crowd before her. ‘Generals, if you would report to my study after this meeting. Captains, take your troops to your designated zones. All those not assigned duties, please report to the lieutenants at the rear of the hall. Visitors to the temple are not required to fight and will be guarded.’ Menin looked deliberately in Coinin’s direction.

Coinin immediately jumped up. ‘I choose to fight,’ he said resolutely, eager to impress.

‘I too,’ said Marrok, and thrust his hand in the air, keen not to be outdone by his brother.

Draken, however, remained silent as a hundred pairs of eyes focused on him expectantly.

Menin sighed. ‘Thank you; your help will no doubt turn the balance in our favour. Friends, I have talked enough. May the gods bless us. For Rindor, Soliath Wulf, and the Brotherhood. To victory!’

The crowd cheered and rose as one with a scrape of boots on the polished wooden floor. They began to file to their stations or headed to the rear of the hall to seek an assignment. Coinin looked around the room, eager to spy the young woman who had snagged his heart. After a few moments, he saw her near a column surrounded by a small group of heavily armed individuals. He made his mind up, and turned to Marrok.

‘Marrok, I’m heading to that group there.’ He pointed. ‘Are you coming?’

‘Where you go, I go. Besides, they don’t look too bad at all.’ Marrok admired the polished steel of the battle armour.

‘Uncle?’ Coinin turned to Draken.

‘I will be right here. This is not my war,’ Draken responded with a bored tone.

‘It isn’t ours either,’ Marrok sneered.

Coinin looked disappointed. ‘Very well, Marrok, with me.’

Draken called after the brothers. ‘Try not to get killed out there now. Who will I get to look after me in my old age?’

Coinin gripped Marrok’s arm to stop his attempt to thump Draken.

‘He’s not worth it,’ Coinin hissed.

‘You should’ve let me,’ Marrok complained.

‘He’s annoying, and yes, there are times I’d like to put him in his place, but now is not the time.’

The brothers took up position behind an outfit of soldiers who intently listened to Lieutenant Reena.

She spotted them. ‘You there, step forward,’ she said.

Coinin’s face turned beetroot red as he and Marrok pushed their way through the group of bodies that surrounded the lieutenant.

‘Identify yourself, strangers,’ the lieutenant demanded.

Coinin was again overwhelmed by the beauty of the woman, and left Marrok to answer the challenge.

‘I am Marrok Wulf. This is my brother Coinin.’

The group took an audible intake of breath and nudged one another, or whispered behind hands.

‘Silence,’ said the lieutenant abruptly. ‘Am I to be impressed?’

Marrok looked lost.

‘Well, I’m not. Others may believe you and your brother are special. I do not. If you are to join me then you will do exactly as I say, and only then will you prove your worth,’ she said.

‘Okay,’ Marrok muttered. What did she mean, special?

‘My name is Lieutenant Reena, and you will do as I say if you are to survive this day. Got it?’

Marrok looked at Coinin, who silently mouthed the beauty’s name with a faraway look on his face, and had to be nudged back into existence.

‘Yes, lieutenant,’ said Coinin dreamily.

‘Good, now go with Rendal the armourer and suit up. You’ll need it.’

A fearsome man who towered seven feet tall stepped forward. His muscles bulged beneath his shoulder guards and held many scars. He glared down at the boys, and then smiled big and wide.

‘Come on then, boys, this way,’ he boomed.

Keep tuned for more…

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Three.

December 17, 2017 Leave a comment

PARADISE FOUND

The castle guards were struck down one by one as the horde slew all in its path. Two figures headed the crowd and made their way towards a high tower, the way barred by heavy doors.

Brother, if you will.

His companion frowned a moment in concentration and then reached with his hand as if for the door.

He clenched his fist and pulled his arm back quickly. As he did so the huge oak doors ripped from their hinges, flew twenty feet in the air and crashed through the roof of a nearby stable. As the dust settled they saw a guard, stationed at the gaping entrance to the tower, scream and run terrified into the night.

The brothers wound their way up a never-ending spiral staircase and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the few remaining guards of the castle. As the last was dispatched, the two shadowy figures reached a small wooden door and entered a dark tower room. A cowering old man with an extremely long grey beard, and sharp, piercing eyes greeted them.

You know why we are here, old man? Coinin asked.

Yes, but please, spare my life; I am merely a pawn in the game,’ the old man replied. He shook and prostrated himself before them.

Game? Marrok roared. This is not a game!

The morning proved to be a wet one. The climate they had ventured into was not pleasant and the humidity was unbearable.

It amazed Coinin how diverse Rosthagaar and the surrounding lands were. One moment you might find yourself in a desert or open plain, and the next a tropical forest, or indeed battling snowstorms in the high mountains.

The unlikely foursome set out early that morning and wasted not a moment of light. The going was easy but extremely wet and Draken complained of the cost to replace his boots. All around them birds chirped and sang melodious tunes or squawked at their presence. Strange unseen animals made even odder noises, and a foolhardy monkey attempted to steal Trenobin’s hat. The only thing it left with was a bruised ego and a swift kick up the backside. It sat on a high branch of an oak tree and screeched at them.

‘I’ve not seen trees quite like this anywhere in Arrom,’ said Coinin after some time. ‘Where are we exactly?’

‘We are on an island near the coast of Rosthagaar. We have travelled under the sea from the mainland,’ Trenobin replied.

‘Can other people find this place?’ Marrok asked.

‘Well, it is visible from the mainland, but the only way to get to it without magic is the route we took yesterday.’

Trenobin had led them to a natural pathway that snaked its way up the mountain and was as wide as twenty men. To Coinin’s dismay it spiralled for miles around the peak at a steep incline. Trenobin stopped at the entrance and there he cocked his head and listened. His eyes squinted in concentration.

‘I think I’ll be going back,’ Coinin announced.

‘There is no turning back; you know that. This is the only way to our destination. We will need to follow this path till we reach the exit through the pass,’ Trenobin informed him.

‘Don’t worry.’ Marrok smiled. ‘I’ll carry him if I must.’

‘There now, that’s spirit for you. Shall we?’ said Trenobin, and strode into the pass.

An hour and a half into the journey, Draken lost his temper with the boys, as he had done many times before. ‘Will you two shut up once and for all? I do not care who the better swordsman is. Marrok is better, and that is final.’

Coinin had baited Marrok for some twenty minutes before this outburst and had not heeded repeated warnings to be quiet. Marrok had, though, resisted any attempt to silence his brother for a good while, but now he had pounced on him and pinned him to the ground, and then demanded that he tell the world that he was better at wielding a sword. Coinin of course refused to succumb to pressure. Secretly, though, both boys had a hidden agenda.

‘Will you two get up? We still have a way to go. I am tired and hungry and I swear I will beat you both black and blue until you beg me to stop,’ said Draken, with eyes that flashed menacingly.

Marrok smirked at Coinin and winked, and then clambered off his younger brother. He then held out his hand to help Coinin to his feet. He accepted the assistance and stood, and then took a moment to brush dirt from his leathers.

‘I still say that I’m better at parrying,’ said Coinin.

Draken balled his fists and ground his teeth. He stormed off ahead of the group and uttered oaths and curses under his breath as he went.

‘Nice,’ Marrok admired, and patted Coinin on the back.

‘Thank you,’ Coinin graciously accepted.

‘Hold on. You two planned this?’ Trenobin asked.

‘Yes, that’s right. We wanted rid of him for a bit. He is a bore, don’t you think?’ Marrok chuckled.

‘He talks endlessly about the cost of boots or the women at the tavern,’ Coinin said.

Trenobin burst into fits of laughter.

‘If he thinks we’re beating on each other then he won’t strike us.’

‘Clever, and crafty.’ Trenobin winked. ‘You’ll need that in this life.’

A yell cut the silence, followed by high-pitched laughter and wails of delight. Out of the dust thrown up by a wind that filtered through the pass, Draken ran full-tilt as sweat poured down his brow into his eyes. He moved swiftly, helped by the sloped path. As he ran he breathlessly tried to convey a message, and it was only when he rejoined the small group that he was able to finally get his message through.

‘Goblins, there are hundreds of goblins back there. Take up defensive positions. Move!’ Draken ordered, with his hands on his knees as he gulped for air.

They stood back to back and then moved forward gingerly, eyes peeled for the unseen enemy.

‘Goblins? Why didn’t you tell us?’ Marrok asked. ‘There may be another way around.’

‘There is no other way. I had hoped we’d be able to cross their territory without hindrance.’

‘Well, you thought wrong. I hope it doesn’t become a habit,’ Draken growled.

Trenobin briefly considered punching the man, but thought better of it, as it would alienate the boys. He needed to get through this, and all hands would be needed to do it.

Draken issued orders. ‘Watch your left, check above, ready your bow,’ he shouted.

They moved quickly, although the dust blown down the pass made it hard to see ahead. Coinin issued a cry of pain and raised a hand to his head to find a trickle of blood had run down his face.

‘I’m hit, not bad, but I think they’re throwing rocks,’ Coinin said.

‘That’s not good, there’s no cover,’ Draken began. ‘Change of plan. Run!’ he bellowed, and sprinted forward.

The others took the hint and raced at top speed after him. Rock after rock crashed down around them, amid laughter and cries of triumph, as one or another struck home. The sizes of the projectiles were not enough to kill, thanks to the small hands of the goblins, but they stung hard and left welts where they hit.

Draken stopped short, for ahead of him a line of goblins carried sharpened sticks and clubs. They taunted him with jeers and rude gestures. A goblin, taller than the others, wore a leather strap across his chest that held the finger bones of his enemies. He wore a ragged covering cut off at the knees, and carried a staff with a blue orb that emitted rays of crystalline light. Within swirled a light blue mist.

The goblin shaman yelled a spell in his language and directed his staff at Draken. A blast of green light flew through the air as fast as lightning and struck Draken in the chest. He was flung backwards ten feet and landed hard, his face a mixture of shock and pain.

Marrok’s instinct overtook him and he knelt to aim his crossbow.

The shaman saw the bolt coming and dodged the shot. However, the bolt hit home and smashed the orb. It released a blinding flash of light and a shock wave that hit each goblin in its vicinity with such ferocity that their poses were instantly frozen as they turned to stone.

Trenobin was stunned, gaping at the most wonderful crossbow shot he had ever seen.

Coinin whooped for joy. ‘Great shot, Marrok!’ he said and punched the air.

With a self-satisfied smile Marrok ran to his uncle and helped him up. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘It’ll take more than that to kill me,’ Draken replied. ‘Besides, he hit my breastplate, it took most of the force.’

‘We must keep moving, there are still goblins above us, and they look pretty angry that we killed their shaman,’ Trenobin said.

‘They still need to find a way down,’ Coinin offered hopefully.

‘They already have.’ Marrok pointed. ‘Let’s move, and fast.’

They ran as they dodged missile after missile. The green, bony goblins gave chase, their yellow eyes ablaze with fury. After several minutes Coinin was all but spent when Trenobin bellowed ‘Stop!’

‘Are you crazy? With those things behind us?’ Marrok cried and stopped to gesture at their pursuers.

Trenobin walked up to Marrok. ‘Look down,’ he said quietly.

Marrok obeyed and instantly recoiled; he stood, or floated, on thin air, yet it felt to him like solid ground.

Behind him, the pass had suddenly ended, and below, a high cliff dropped away to the ground.

Trenobin smiled. ‘Dive, as you would into water.’ He mimed the action. ‘Trust me, this is the only way down, and the goblins will not follow us; the air doesn’t agree with them. They seem to have a quick flight, and an unusually violent landing,’ he chuckled.

‘Is it safe?’ Marrok asked.

‘For us it is, yes.’

‘That’s all I needed to hear.’ Marrok shrugged his shoulders and dove as if he was diving into the lake back home.

The sensation was unlike anything he had experienced before. His senses told him he was falling; yet he was doing so slowly, as if on a cushion of air. He kicked his legs as he would underwater and found to his surprise that he dropped faster.

‘This is fantastic,’ Coinin yelled as he zoomed past him, his hair wafting in the breeze.

‘Slow down, you idiot,’ Marrok called after him.

It was a disappointingly short ride, although the sight that beheld them as they fell was magnificent. In the distance, a golden building sat in a high-walled courtyard, surrounded by manicured lawns and majestic fountains. People dressed in white robes, with what appeared to be long spears, stood motionless at the entrance to the courtyard. There appeared to be a vineyard and two or three vaulted canvas tents within the grounds.

One by one the group twisted upright in mid-air and landed softly on a pebbled road that led to a grove of apple trees.

Each stared in amazement at the sheer beauty of this new location. The colour was so intense that it threatened to hurt the eyes; greens, blues, and the yellow of the flowers shone like the midday sun.

‘Are you okay?’ Trenobin asked. ‘Is anyone hurt?’

‘I could do with a dressing,’ said Coinin as he dabbed painfully at his head with his fingers.

‘We will fix that right up when we get inside. For now, though, you must do exactly as I say. We are entering a sacred temple. You are here by invitation, and only those invited may enter.’

‘Who invited us?’ Coinin asked.

‘That would be Curator Menin who oversees the temple library.’

‘Do we know the Curator?’ Marrok asked.

‘No, however, there is not a man or woman here who has not heard of you. There is a great deal of excitement about your arrival.’

They set off up the pathway through the grove of trees and bushes, and soon halted at the entrance to the courtyard. Robed guards crossed spears and blocked the entranceway.

Trenobin stepped forward and spoke to the guards. ‘Make way; we are here by invitation from Curator Menin. This is Coinin and Marrok and their uncle.’

The guards uncrossed spears silently and gestured that they might enter. Coinin and Marrok took sideways glances at one another and shrugged. Trenobin led the way into the courtyard and slowly walked towards the golden temple. The full majesty of the building enveloped his companions.

The temple consisted of fine panels of gold that overlaid the finest of woods. At its heart was a glass dome. From this, a column of pulsating blue light emitted, and around it spiralled a red stream of misty light.

At each corner of the building a high tower reached skyward, and from this hung vertical banners that depicted a paw print of a wolf, surrounded by a sun disc. The pathways were of solid marble that glistened in the sun. A low marble wall ran alongside the pathway that enclosed finely cut lawns, and fountains gushed clear water. In a clearing to the left, a roped-off arena had been erected amongst canvas tents. There was a commotion in the arena and men and women stood and cheered or offered encouragement.

Marrok strode over to the enclosure and was greeted with his favourite of sights: two individuals locked in combat. This was a training arena, much like the one Draken had set up at his home. Little did the boys know that Draken had been preparing them for such events since the day of their arrival at his home. Double-edged swords swung and created sparks as they collided with a clang, or made a dull thud as they struck wooden shields. Marrok could see, to his disappointment, that the participants used training weapons; but then, no self-respecting warrior would use a fine sword as they trained. Trenobin, impatient as ever, had to drag Marrok away from the spectacle, much to his annoyance.

‘All right, I’m coming,’ said Marrok grumpily.

They continued along the path, and were greeted by a dozen marble statues in various noble poses. These led up to the temple on each side of the pathway.

‘Who are they?’ Marrok asked.

‘The order’s finest warriors,’ Trenobin replied. ‘Look to your left and you may recognize that statue.’

The boys stopped briefly to examine the sculpture. Draken merely looked bored and played with his fingernails.

‘Father?’ Marrok gasped.

‘Really?’ Coinin asked, and looked closer.

‘No doubt, it’s him all right.’ Marrok grinned. ‘There’s his name there on that plaque.’

‘Your brother is correct; indeed that is your father. He once served this order and is revered by many.’

‘What happened, why did he leave?’ Coinin enquired.

‘She happened,’ Draken growled. ‘Your mother. He fell in love, abandoned us all and left the order.’ There was an edge to Draken’s voice and he turned away.

Trenobin sensed that the boys wished to know more. ‘Today is a day of surprises, and there is yet more to come. Follow me.’

However, Coinin had stopped. Before him stood two marble statues whose faces had been crudely removed, and their brass plaques were missing. ‘Whose were these?’ he asked.

‘I cannot answer that question, we are forbidden to speak of it to outsiders,’ Trenobin replied, eager to change the subject.

‘Oh, surely you can tell the boys, Trenobin,’ Draken smirked. ‘After all, you and the owner of the statue there on the left are still very good friends.’

‘Draken, enough of this. I warn you not to broach this subject again. Now we really must move along,’ he said with a glare.

‘Very well, as you wish.’ Draken bowed.

The group again moved off, and as they ventured up the main steps to the temple entrance, a handsome white-robed woman waited at the top with a broad grin on her face. She was in her mid fifties with green eyes like that of a cat. She held a leather-bound book and an eagle-feather quill in her arms. A severe looking man in gold trimmed steel armour stood by her side.

Trenobin stepped forward. ‘Curator, I present Coinin and Marrok Wulf.’

‘Thank you Trenobin. Welcome my friends, welcome. I am so pleased you have arrived safely,’ the robed figure began in soft, pleasant tones. ‘Those goblins have given us a hard time of late, but we will rid the pass of them soon, I am sure. My name is Menin; I am Curator here at the Temple of Rindor; the big fellow to my right is my First General, Jericho.’

The brothers clasped arms with Menin and felt a warmth and peace as they did so. They nodded politely to the general who smiled and nodded in return.

‘Well done, Brother Trenobin, you have again proved your skill and brought the boys here safely.’

‘It was touch and go for a while,’ Trenobin admitted with a sly grin.

‘Yes, quite,’ said Menin. ‘Who might this be?’ she asked with a nod to Draken.

‘Have you forgotten me so soon?’ Draken sneered and dropped the hood of his cloak. ‘Have I really changed that much, Laliala?’

‘This is Draken, the boys’ uncle,’ Trenobin said.

‘I can see that. He is banished from this place. Did I or did I not forbid his presence here?’

‘You did, I am sorry. The boys would not accompany me without him,’ Trenobin said feebly.

‘Then he shall have to stay out of my way. We have much to do and little time in which to do it. General, please remain here. Trenobin, if you will.’ Curator Menin grasped the dwarf by the arm and led him out of earshot of the others. ‘You will keep that man as far away from here as possible. I trust you remember why he was banished?’

‘Yes, I am aware,’ Trenobin replied.

‘That man is one of only two members of our sacred order to have introduced dark magic into our midst. He is not to be trusted; he mixes with the wrong sorts of people,’ Menin spat angrily.

‘You will not know he is here, Curator.’

‘See to it that I do not. Fail me, and I will kill him, and hang you by your ankles for a very long time,’ Menin warned.

General Jericho glared at Draken, and he in turn avoided the eyes of his old friend and former military superior.

‘You dare to come back here?’ Jericho asked.

‘Why should I not? My nephews needed an escort.’

‘They had an escort. Trenobin.’

‘What kind of uncle would I be if I allowed my flesh and blood to wander these dangerous lands with a stranger?’

Jericho opened his mouth to retort when Menin swept back to the waiting boys and smiled. ‘I’m sorry I kept you. I had some final orders for Trenobin.’

‘That is quite all right, madam,’ Draken replied, and his eyebrows rose in anticipation of the inevitable.

Menin looked affronted that Draken had even spoken to her. Her features darkened a moment, before she turned and smiled at the boys. ‘If you would follow me, Trenobin will make sure that your uncle is comfortable.’ Menin gestured that they should venture inside.

‘He will not be coming with us?’ Coinin asked.

‘His journey ends here. You will see him again soon, but first we eat,’ Menin replied.

Marrok’s ears pricked at the thought of food and he raced ahead. Coinin on the other hand savoured every moment as he entered the wondrous temple. Besides the gold that overlaid the temple, the sheer beauty of the entrance hall was astounding. The doors were made of thick eaglewood, inlaid with bands of fine marble and gold. The handles were placed centrally and shaped from the finest jade. The hallway inside was pillared again in marble, as were the walls, which helped to cool the room.

Majestic paintings adorned the walls and depicted diverse battle scenes in which figures dressed in white fought overwhelming odds. Along the walls ran long marble benches, and upon these sat white-robed men and women who talked in hushed tones. On seeing the new arrivals they stood, and as the boys passed, vigorously grabbed a hand of each and shook them until Coinin and Marrok had to wrench their hands free.

‘Welcome.’

‘It is so good to see you both.’

‘We have waited for this day for so long.’

The greetings continued in this fashion until Menin ushered them inside a room off a long hallway, and then shut the door. ‘I am sorry about that. This is a big day for us, and I promise I will tell all tomorrow, but for now, please eat.’

Spread across a large table was a feast fit for a king. Never had the boys seen so much food, all set out in the finest of tableware. Tureens of delicious fruits sat amongst various sweet-smelling dishes, while a huge boar head steamed in the centre of the table surrounded by dishes that overflowed with cooked vegetables.

‘Dig in, gentlemen. I have a few matters to attend to.’ Menin motioned to the table.

Coinin did not need to be told twice. He ripped a leg from the nearest turkey dish and devoured it. The taste was delectable, and the succulent meat melted in his mouth. He and Marrok did not notice Menin slip from the room as they ate, with a smile of satisfaction on her face.

It was a full hour later before Menin returned and her eyes widened at how much the boys had actually eaten.

‘You have hollow legs, I see,’ she chuckled.

‘What do you mean?’ Coinin groaned and rubbed his stomach. He had eaten far too much and now paid the price for over-indulgence.

‘Nothing, it’s just a saying. If you two are finished, I’m sure you’d welcome a warm bed. You must be exhausted after your trip.’

The brothers lit up at the thought of sleep and prised themselves from their seats. They followed Menin through the quiet temple and it seemed everyone had retired for the evening also.

Glowing orbs of light floated above them and ignited individually as they ventured deeper into the temple. They cast pools of luminescence before them, and then extinguished as they passed each.

‘I’m really beginning to like magic,’ Coinin whispered to Marrok.

‘I have a feeling we’re going to see more of it very soon,’ Marrok replied. ‘But I agree; I quite like it too.’

Menin had led them a circuitous route, via an upstairs corridor, to the front of the temple. A dozing guard quickly revived and saluted. Menin rolled her eyes and was easily forgiving. She knew full well how hard night duties were on the individual. She saluted in return and directed the boys down the corridor.

‘That will be your room, Coinin.’ Menin pointed to a doorway at the end of the long wide corridor on the third floor of the temple. ‘Marrok will take the room opposite.’

‘Thank you, Curator.’ Coinin beamed at the thought of a whole room to himself.

‘You are quite welcome. Coinin, inside you will find water and a clean cloth to tend to your wound. I don’t believe it’s bad enough to warrant a healer. Otherwise, rest well.’ Menin turned and walked away without further word.

‘Thank you,’ Coinin called after the quickly disappearing Curator.

Menin merely waved as she walked and stopped briefly to speak to the guard in the hallway, who then saluted her as she walked on.

Marrok had already opened his chambers and stuck his head around the door. He turned back to his brother. ‘Goodnight,’ he said and stepped inside and closed the door.

‘Goodnight,’ Coinin replied and yawned. Tiredness had caught up with him at last.

He stepped into one of the most lavishly decorated bedrooms he had ever seen. Tapestries adorned the walls and fine drapes and shutters covered a small window. In the centre of the room, a bed unlike any he had ever seen rested invitingly. It had four posts and a dozen or more feather pillows. He stripped to the waist and wandered over to the window. He drew aside the drapes and opened the shutters and looked outside. Moonlight cut through the darkness and he noted from his position that he must be in one of the tower rooms.

A light from a campfire outside the temple walls flickered and caught his attention. A dark figure sat and warmed by the fire, and he wondered who it might be. But a yawn ended his curiosity and he realised how tired he was. He closed the shutters and the wine-red drapes, and then he tended to his wound. He decided it was not so bad that it needed to be dressed; instead, he concluded his headache would go away with sleep.

He jumped into bed, and what a bed. It was the most comfortable he had ever lain in, a world away from his well-worn cot back at his uncle’s home.

Warming his hands by the campfire, Draken cursed his luck. He had not feasted at the temple like the old days. Instead he had dug into his pack for some salted beef, which he sat and chewed with a look of intense dissatisfaction on his face. He turned to look back at the temple and noted a lit window in a tower room, where a figure silhouetted by candlelight looked out. He wished he were in that room.

Full of regret that he hadn’t insisted on being allowed into the temple, he looked away and sighed. He lay down on his bedroll and gazed at the night sky. It was then that a low voice whispered his name. For a moment he was confused and then he realised the voice came from his pack. He quickly sat up and reached for the bag and from within he extracted an orb that glowed a pale yellow.

An unearthly voice issued from the orb. ‘Is it safe to talk, Draken?’

Draken took a moment to check he was alone. ‘Yes, it is safe.’

‘Good, how is progress?’ the voice asked.

‘The boys are inside the temple under the guardianship of the woman,’ Draken replied, and cast glances around him to make sure he was not overheard.

‘You are sure this is the only way our plan will work?’ the voice demanded.

‘I am certain of it. I do, however, think–’

A crack of a tree branch startled him and he thrust the orb back inside his pack, and then whirled around.

‘Who is there?’ Draken quizzed, on edge, his heart threatening to burst from his chest.

‘Trenobin,’ the dwarf said as he stepped out of the shadows. ‘To whom were you speaking?’

‘That is my business, dwarf. I do not answer to you,’ Draken snarled.

‘There is no need for rudeness. I know of your past misdeeds and yet I remain your friend. I hope that you will not bring danger to the temple. I have been entrusted with the safety of this sacred place, and I take my task very seriously.’

Draken scowled.

‘What are you up to?’ Trenobin continued.

‘You really are a bulldog, aren’t you? It’s unlikely you will let this matter go, so I will show you.’ Draken again reached into his pack and removed a long, thin object that glinted in the firelight. ‘This is what I am up to,’ he smirked.

‘My sword? How dare you! That is a family treasure.’ Trenobin looked shocked.

‘Oh, it is more than a treasure, my friend, it is so much more,’ Draken continued, his voice taking on a menacing tone. ‘I have the means to obtain the other swords and I intend to retrieve them.’

‘Then why are you here?’ Trenobin demanded, while his hand reached for the axe tucked into his belt.

‘Fool, I need help, and who better than Coinin and Marrok? You know the power they possess. I intend to use them to my benefit and they will bring the swords to me.’

‘You cannot; I will not let you,’ Trenobin growled.

‘How do you intend to stop me when you are dead?’

‘The guards shall stop you.’ Trenobin turned his head to yell for assistance.

Draken was lightning fast. The sword that once graced the wall of the dwarf’s cabin now pierced the soft flesh of Trenobin’s neck. It crunched past bone and sliced his spinal column as it exited through his windpipe. Trenobin’s eyes were wide as he fell to his knees, unable to utter a word. Air escaped from his wound, and his life drained away in a pool of blood. A gurgle in his throat and the odd twitch of his limbs were the last signs of life.

‘You have always underestimated me, old friend. That was your fatal mistake,’ said Draken coldly.

Stay tuned for Chapter Four…

Categories: Destiny of the Wulf Tags:

If you just can’t wait…Destiny of The Wulf entirely free on Wattpad.

December 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Destiny of The Wulf in full for free on my Wattpad profile. See you there.

https://my.w.tt/UiNb/sAM663FSOI

Categories: General

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Two.

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

UNCLE DRAKEN

Ædelmær chuckled to himself at the sight of his two boys as they swung their arms in unison and skipped behind him.

Come on, you two, we have things to do, he said, gently pushing the boys ahead of him and into the forest surrounding Arrom.

The clearing before them permitted practice in the art of swordplay out of sight of Godwen, and if they practiced well he would reward them with tales of glorious battle between witches and wizards, of dragons, and most importantly of the gods, the former to be kept strictly between them of course.

Right boys, if you recall, I told you that our ancestors date back to when time began, to when the gods created man and all the other races and creatures, aside from the trolls, goblins and orcs, that is, Ædelmær began. You will remember that I told you that the gods favoured our family, among several others, and blessed them with certain magical gifts to be called upon by the gods for use as they saw fit.

Oh, you mean like when Coinin can find me with just his mind? Marrok asked.

Yes, that’s exactly right. Ædelmær beamed. I want to prepare you for a time when the gods may call and request your help. As we do not yet know what your gift is, Marrok, I have a game in mind. We know Coinin can find you with his thoughts, but can you find Coinin with just your mind?

I don’t know. I’ve never tried, Marrok replied.

Well, there’s no time like the present, Ædelmær said. Coinin, go and hide somewhere and make sure that you cannot be seen. Think hard about where you are. Marrok, I want you to focus your mind only on Coinin. Really think about him, and only him.

Ædelmær looked up and saw Coinin still standing there and picking his nose. Why are you still here, boy? Get off with you and hide. And how many times have I told you not to do that?

Coinin stuck his tongue out and ran into the trees.

All right, Marrok, close your eyes, make your mind go blank just as I have taught Coinin. Now, really focus on your brother, imagine in your mind’s eye that he has left you a trail to follow, and that you need to flush him out.

Marrok closed his bright blue eyes and tried to make his mind go blank.

After a minute he slapped his sides in frustration and opened them again. It’s not working.

It won’t work if you keep talking, Ædelmær whispered into his ear.

Marrok jumped in shock at the proximity of his father and shut his eyes tight. He was determined to make it work so his father might allow him to play with the swords. He thought hard on his brother and tried to picture him, what he looked like, that silly expression he wore. Almost immediately the depiction of a stone footpath appeared in front of him, strangely lit and yet inviting. The image rushed at him and nearly overwhelmed him, but he fought back the urge to open his eyes. He decided to follow the footpath and set off. As he walked with his eyes still closed, the path led him true.

That’s it; you’re doing well, concentrate, said Ædelmær proudly.

I can’t concentrate if you keep telling me to concentrate, said Marrok through gritted teeth.

Sorry, it’s just so exciting to see your gift on display.

Marrok again closed his eyes and permitted the sensation of rushing water to envelop him. Moments later, the image of the footpath rushed up to meet him once again. The path, however, had changed from one of stone to a sparkling white marble. He was again compelled to walk along the pathway. Outside of the vision, Ædelmær merely followed his son along the forest floor, unaware they were headed along a set path.

Marrok never set a foot wrong; his eyes were closed, yet he avoided many obstacles and the odd fallen tree trunk with ease. The vision provided not only a path to Coinin but also one that skirted the flora and fauna within the forest.

A new impression flashed before him. It was almost like he was looking through the eyes of his brother. However, the image was blurred and he had the sense he was underwater and began to gasp for air in panic. His brother was in the lake alone. He woke from his vision with a start and his arms flailed as if drowning.

Da, he’s at the lake. I think he’s in the water, said Marrok worriedly.

Ædelmær took a sharp intake of breath and checked his bearings. Marrok, this way, quickly.

Both he and Marrok tore through the undergrowth and took the shortest path possible back to the lake. After a minute they broke through the trees directly opposite it. They both scanned the water for signs of the small boy but he was nowhere to be found.

Marrok, you go left, I’ll go right. Find him!.

Marrok sprinted along the lakeshore, eager to spot signs of his brother, though not even a ripple from a light breeze seemed to disturb the surface.

Ædelmær began to tear off his boots to jump into the lake, when a small voice behind him stopped him dead.

You shouldn’t believe everything you see.

Ædelmær whirled around and scooped Coinin into his arms, and with a hug, crushed the air from the small boy’s lungs. After several moments he gently lowered him to the floor and knelt before him.

Never, ever do that to me again. I thought you had drowned, Ædelmær scolded.

Coinin was close to tears. I was joking.

It is no joke to make your brother believe you are in danger.

I’m sorry, said Coinin. His head hung low and tears flowed.

Ædelmær could not stay angry with the boy for too long and his heart melted at the sight of his tears. I should think so. I have half a mind not to allow you to visit the feast tonight, he said more softly.

No, please, I must go. All my friends will be there, Coinin pleaded.

Ædelmær relented at his son’s anguish. Fine, you may go, but you have not heard the last of this.

Coinin awoke with a yell and sweat poured from his brow. He panted uncontrollably and clasped his head in sweaty hands as his body shook. He looked to where his brother lay and heard him snore soundly. The dreams had grown stronger each day, more detailed, but always the same dream. It described the nightmare of events that occurred just hours before his parents’ deaths.

Coinin clambered out of his cot and stumbled to the small window through which a soft moonlight bathed the room. He gazed out at the night sky, comforted by the presence of Er’ath’s sisters Rol’as and Tal in the vast darkness, aware that the gods looked down on him.

His features had changed this last year and had taken on a more manly shape. Coinin, now seventeen years old, had lived with his Uncle Draken since the deaths of his parents some ten years previous. He and Marrok had arrived at their uncle’s house in the dead of night while their uncle slept. Draken had barely batted an eyelid before welcoming them.

He had questioned their arrival and learnt of the attack on the village while he dressed Marrok’s wound, and without further hesitation, he had ordered the boys to stay put and set out on horseback to Arrom.

Draken had ridden hard and arrived quickly. He was shocked at the scene that met him. Survivors of the assault by the Madorine had laid out the dead in long rows to bury them en masse.

After speaking with several people he was told by a gravedigger that the Madorine had attacked over Elder Rangsan’s failure to supply the clans with fish as agreed, in return for their assistance the winter before.

Over half of the dwellings in the village were now smoking piles of rubble, and orphaned children scoured the remains in a vain search for loved ones.

He raced to his brother’s farmhouse and noticed immediately the lifeless body of Ædelmær. He reined in the horse outside of the enclosure and dismounted quickly. He rushed to his brother but knew before he even got there that it was too late. Sinking to his knees, he cradled the lifeless body in his arms and wept.

He buried the bodies of Ædelmær and Godwen beneath a large oak tree they would play under as children, and spoke nothing of this to Coinin or Marrok. Even though they asked repeatedly, his answer was always the same. ‘Your parents are dead, now leave it.’

Life throughout the years had been tough but fair. Uncle Draken had of course welcomed them to his home only to promptly set them backbreaking chores. The boys, however, did not complain; as a treat Draken would work them hard in the art of swordsmanship, and like their father, he taught them basic magical arts.

Every day they spent upwards of four hours learning to thrust and parry, slice and dodge, without a break, and the rest of the time was spent in study, much to Marrok’s annoyance.

Marrok, Draken noted, was adept at swordplay and would astound him with his feats of cunning. Often Draken would find himself, to his chagrin, pinned to the ground, a sword point at his throat.

Not all was pleasant in their new home, however, as Draken would punish them severely for any wrongdoing, or if they failed a task he had set. Marrok and Coinin were no strangers to the lash. The past week had thankfully seen no such punishment, as their uncle seemed distracted.

Coinin felt a connection to his brother Marrok, one stronger than any he had ever felt. He sensed the feelings of his brother and knew in his heart that Marrok screamed for revenge, his bloodlust high since the murder of his parents. Marrok did not know from whom to exact his retribution, so he blamed the only being he could: Rindor, the King of the Gods, to the dismay of the devout Coinin.

A light flickered in the distance and caught Coinin’s attention as he stared out of the window. A figure dressed in black headed towards the house carrying a fiery torch.

Coinin expected danger and was immediately on guard. However, as the man drew close and removed the hood of his cloak, Coinin recognised his uncle. The stoop and cruel face gave him away.

He was tall, yet stooped with age, and wiry with dark sunken eyes. He had grey hair tied in a ponytail, but what set him apart from most men were his long pointed nails that he often used as a punishment.

Where had his uncle been at this hour? It was at least three in the morning, judging by the moon’s position. Coinin quickly returned to his cot and pretended to sleep just moments before his uncle opened the cottage door. The boy sensed there was something unusual in his uncle’s actions and peeked between his eyelids to try and get a better idea of why Draken had acted so oddly this past week. He saw the dark shape of Draken approach a locked cupboard, take a key from a string around his neck and unlock it. He placed a small round object wrapped in cloth inside, and then carefully locked the cupboard once more.

Draken took a quick look around at the sleeping boys to make sure they had not moved or observed his actions, and then lay down on his own cot. Minutes later he added to the snores in the room and slept soundly until cockcrow.

Coinin awoke the next morning to Jip the wolfhound licking his face with a big slobbery tongue and breath so foul it could knock a man dead at three paces.

‘Get off me, you beast,’ laughed Coinin, as he attempted to push the mighty hound off him.

Jip immediately thought this a game and leapt on the boy with his crushing weight. Coinin struggled with the hound until Marrok sat up bleary-eyed and saw that Jip was squashing his younger brother. He smiled with a shake of his head and came to the rescue. He lifted the large hound off the small boy who had very nearly turned blue.

Marrok had grown into a strong man of twenty, muscular and tanned from hours of practicing sword techniques in the open air. Coinin on the other hand was naturally thin and pale. He practiced like his brother, but Draken’s teachings for him focused more on the magical arts and study of religion and culture.

‘Go on, get out of it, you smelly oaf,’ Marrok ordered as he opened the cottage door.

Jip lifted a leg and let a warm stream of urine splatter the doorframe. Despite his advanced age, he was ill trained and still behaved like a pup.

Marrok turned to his brother. ‘You’d better clean that before Draken sees it.’

‘But it’s your turn,’ Coinin retorted.

‘No way, I just saved you.’

‘I always have to clean up the mess.’

‘Yes, that’s because you’re the squirt.’

‘Thanks,’ said Coinin, and pulled a face.

‘You’re welcome,’ Marrok laughed, and then swaggered from the room.

Coinin wiped the sleep from his eyes and yawned, and only then contemplated the clean-up job.

A minute later as he finished, Draken stormed through the open doorway to find Coinin on his knees.

‘What are you doing on the floor, boy?’ he asked grumpily.

‘I’m cleaning, sir.’

‘Yes, well, no time for that, we have things to do. Get your equipment and come outside,’ Draken ordered.

Coinin quickly finished his task and threw aside his cloth. He raced to his cot and heaved a heavy package wrapped in linen from beneath, which he unwrapped energetically.

Inside was a set of leathers with plated armour sections accompanied by a long sword. Underneath lay a small dagger, and wrapped separately was a quiver of arrows and a short bow. The boy swiftly donned the leathers and attached a cowhide belt around his waist. On this he hung the dagger and sword and finally he slung the bow, complete with quiver, across his body and stepped outside into the sunlight. He squinted at the low morning sun and saw Marrok stood several feet away.

‘What took you so long?’ Marrok demanded impatiently. He was dressed in similar garb to Coinin. The only difference was that Marrok carried a crossbow and his father’s sword.

Draken had not set up the usual roped training arena in the yard as he had so many times before. Instead, the compound was empty. Coinin raised an eyebrow to his brother who shrugged and mouthed that he did not know why the training ring was missing.

‘We are doing something different today.’ Draken spoke softly behind them.

Both boys whirled around in surprise and each promptly received a smack to the side of the head with the flat of a blade.

‘First lesson, use your ears. I am old and not so light on my feet, but what would a trained assassin be able to do? Honestly, why do I bother sometimes?’

‘I wonder the same thing,’ Marrok quipped.

‘What was that?’ Draken thundered.

‘Nothing, Uncle,’ Coinin jumped in. ‘He just wondered what today’s task is.’

‘For that, boys, you’ll have to follow me.’

Draken motioned and headed outside of the compound with his charges in tow.

Coinin stopped and turned, and then whistled for Jip. A moment later, the huge hound joined them from behind the house.

‘Are you quite finished?’ Draken asked.

‘Yes, Uncle, I couldn’t forget Jip,’ Coinin replied.

‘No, of course not,’ Draken sneered. ‘This way.’

They headed into the forest that surrounded the homestead. It was dark and ominous the moment they stepped inside. Huge trees stretched high and the canopy let little light onto the forest floor. Every so often a strange animal cry startled the boys and made Draken chuckle. At each new sound he would explain the animal that had made it and how best to catch it.

‘What you need to remember about the forest is that almost everything is a potential enemy and what remains must surely be an ally,’ said Draken darkly.

Draken led them deeper and deeper, and after many more miles the forest began to thin slightly and became less oppressive. Before long, Draken indicated that they should be silent. He dropped to his knees and examined the dirt from the ground between his finger and thumb. He brought the mud to his nose and took a long sniff, and then encouraged the boys to sit quietly within the fronds of a leafy bush.

After a few minutes, a wondrous spectacle cantered almost silently past the hiding place. The white body of the creature glowed softly, as did its single horn that protruded delicately from its forehead. It glinted in a shaft of light that penetrated through the forest canopy. The small group felt at peace as they watched the magnificent animal make its way into the distance.

‘What was that?’ Coinin asked after a few moments.

‘That was a Unicorn, a beautiful and rare creature imbued with ancient magic. This is only the second time I have seen one. They do say that they are the favourite of the gods and to harm one would incur their wrath.’

‘I don’t think I could ever hurt such a creature, it was magnificent,’ said Coinin, and attempted to quiet Jip who had begun to growl in a low rumble with his hackles raised.

‘I should think not, unless you want to displease the gods. Okay, boys, the animal is gone and it’s time we did some practice before bed.’

‘I’d hoped we could take a break for once,’ Marrok grumbled.

‘Our enemies do not take a break,’ Draken growled.

‘Enemies? What enemies?’ Coinin whispered. ‘He’s crazy; he jumps at his own shadow.’

Marrok chuckled and nudged Coinin to shut him up.

‘Today we’re going to concentrate on Coinin’s favourite, the mind swap.’

Coinin looked indifferent and too tired to care.

‘Marrok, you go and collect some firewood,’ Draken ordered with a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘And take that damned dog with you.’

Marrok huffed off into the tree line to gather wood and glanced sideways at his uncle with such a dark look that Coinin was surprised he had not dropped dead there and then.

‘Now that the brawn has departed, we can focus on the brains,’ Draken smirked. ‘What do you think is the most prevalent creature in these woods?’

Coinin was lost for a moment before he answered.

‘Birds.’

‘No, let’s try again. What is this forest called?’

‘White Stallion?’

‘Correct,’ Draken smiled. ‘Why is it called that?’

‘Because there’s a white horse here?’

‘Yes, but not just one, there are literally hundreds, all living here,’ Draken replied with a grand sweep of the arms.

Coinin made a face; he did not much care that there were hundreds of horses in the forest. He was exhausted and wanted sleep.

‘Your task today will be to take over the mind of a horse and become the animal for a time,’ Draken announced.

‘I’ve never gone that big before, we’ve only ever done beavers and squirrels. I don’t know if I can do it,’ he said uneasily.

‘Nonsense, boy, you are by far the most intelligent young man I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. I believe here,’ Draken struck his chest, where his heart was, ‘that you can do this.’

‘If you say so, Uncle, I will try it.’

‘Good. Now, it is important to let yourself go and focus all your energy into becoming the horse. Let the moment wash over you. Allow your conscious self to explore its new home.’

Coinin closed his eyes and focused on being the horse. He imagined the long silken mane flapping in the breeze and the wind in his face as he galloped alongside the herd, the breath steaming from his nostrils. Then it happened like a sudden rush of water that engulfed him. He was the horse, powerful and majestic. He was galloping at top speed, free and content.

Draken restrained the small boy who kicked and flailed and smiled at the successful transition.

The horse that Coinin became, as it happened, was a horse not too far away that had been enjoying an evening gallop with the herd. He was the new temporary resident of this horse’s mind and could control its actions. The horse itself now inhabited Coinin’s mind and he felt certain the animal was utterly bewildered or, at the very least, terrified.

This was by far the biggest animal Coinin had controlled and he felt its power surge through him along with its great strength.

He left the herd and galloped through the woods in search of his uncle. It was not too long before he saw him sitting on top of the body he had left behind. It struggled to get away and made odd whinnies of fear and he was quite overcome at the sight.

Marrok appeared out of the trees with a bundle of twigs and wood. He stopped short and looked from the horse to his uncle sitting upon Coinin. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘Restraining your brother’s body.’ Draken pointed to the large white stallion that puffed great clouds of breath into the twilight air. ‘There’s your brother. Coinin, why don’t you give Marrok a ride?’

Coinin, the horse, hoofed the ground and raised his powerful head in a whinny of delight. He enjoyed this new adventure immensely.

Marrok smiled and rushed forward, and then leapt onto the large horse. He held tight onto the mane as Coinin reared and took off like lightning.

The hair whipped around Marrok’s head and the wind stung his eyes. But none of that mattered now; he was content to enjoy the moment and the exhilaration of the ride.

A few minutes later the horse bucked and reared and threatened to throw him off.

‘Whoa! Coinin, what’re you doing?’ Marrok yelled.

The horse turned its great head and looked at him, only to buck fiercer than ever. Marrok held on for dear life as the horse tried even harder to eject him, and as a final desperate measure the terrified animal galloped into the forest and wove around trees and bushes.

Marrok sat up a few moments later with a pain that blazed across his chest and an egg-sized lump on the back of his head. He groaned and rubbed gingerly at his swollen head.

The horse had done its job. It had careened Marrok into the nearest low-slung branch and had knocked him clean into the dirt. The horse stood some distance away and panted, with what Marrok would swear later was a haughty expression upon its face. Or was it satisfaction? Either way the horse had won.

‘Nice job, horse.’

The horse snorted and took off into the undergrowth to join its herd.

‘Shall we make camp?’ Draken asked and leant against a tree. ‘That is if you are quite finished playing in the dirt.’

Coinin stepped out from behind Draken and looked sheepish.

‘What happened, runt?’ Marrok demanded as he stiffly stood up.

‘I’m sorry, Marrok, the connection broke. I lost my concentration, I couldn’t hold it.’

‘No harm done, I suppose. Though next time, Uncle rides the horse.’ Marrok smiled and ruffled his younger brother’s hair.

The small group made camp and then settled down for the night. Draken told them stories by the dancing light of a campfire. He told of ancient peoples who were said to inhabit the forest thousands of years ago, and how they had destroyed themselves in a civil war. He also showed Marrok how to make a snare to catch rabbits, and once he had mastered the trap, he and Draken set several around the camp while Coinin slept.

The next morning, Coinin awoke to Marrok standing over him.

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that!’

‘What? I brought breakfast.’ Marrok held up a pair of rabbits and threw them on his brother’s lap. ‘Now you clean them.’

‘Thanks, much appreciated.’ Coinin wrinkled his nose in disgust as blood and bodily fluids leaked over his hands.

Coinin skinned and gutted the rabbits while Marrok built a fire and Draken watched lazily from his bed of heather.

After breakfast had finished, Draken led the boys deeper still into the forest and slowed only to ford a river that teemed with fish as they headed for spawning grounds.

They had weaved in and out of endless trees for several hours when Draken finally stopped to check his bearings.

‘We are almost there. I warn you not to make any sudden moves, and you will be quiet until spoken to directly,’ he said sternly.

‘Almost where?’ Marrok asked.

‘Did I not just say to be quiet?’

Marrok and Coinin looked at each other and then nodded.

‘Then shut up and follow me.’

After a few minutes they approached a clearing deep inside the forest. Draken stopped at its edge and his eyes flicked sharply left and right.

‘Trenobin, it is I, Draken. Show yourself, you mangy excuse for a rat’s tail,’ he called to the air.

‘I wondered when you would turn up, you foul-smelling dung heap,’ a deep, throaty voice piped. ‘Although I heard you coming five miles hence.’ The newcomer chuckled.

A figure formed in front of them like a morning mist in the air.

One moment Draken was alone and the next, a short, stout fellow stood in front of him, barely coming up to his waist. He wore a green tunic and carried an axe nearly as tall as he. His face was ruddy and lined with age and dirt, and his forearms bulged muscle, born through hard work. He carried a drove of rabbits slung over his back, a considerable catch by any standards.

‘Welcome to my humble home. I am Trenobin.’ He bowed slightly.

‘You live here?’ said Coinin with a puzzled expression. ‘There’s nothing but trees.’

‘Coinin!’ Draken roared, and clipped his lug smartly.

‘Let the boy be, Draken, he asks a fair question,’ Trenobin interjected. ‘I see you boys have a lot to learn. First you must learn to open your eyes and see what cannot be seen.’

Trenobin raised his hand, and in the same manner in which he arrived, a small dwelling began to form before their eyes. It was as if a mist had descended, and then a chimney appeared and belched wood smoke that filled the air. Next, log-by-log, a cabin began to take shape, until finally, in all its splendour, stood a woodsman’s home. It was a single storey with two small windows and a very small door in its side. The home had stood for many years, judging by the moss that clung to its timbers. Outside, a vegetable patch grew varied and delicious fare.

‘I see that you are hungry,’ Trenobin smiled, as the boys eyed the rows of carrots and potatoes. ‘My vegetables are the best in the forest. Come inside and I shall let you try my broth.’

The boys cheered at this, for they had travelled for hours with no food or rest.

The inside of the cabin was wondrous. All manner of curiosities adorned the walls, including animal traps, and even the hides of the trapped. An alcove built into the wall opposite the door held a bed with storage underneath. Also built into the wall were a hundred or more small wooden drawers that held unknown items. Two tallow candles either side of the bed lit the cosy room, and a small fire warmed the room, over which a blackened iron pot hung full of simmering broth.

Marrok spied a large sword above the fireplace, oddly thin and encrusted with green gems, and with what appeared to be a golden hilt that held strange markings in a language unfamiliar to him. ‘I have never seen such a sword, Master Trenobin.’

‘Nor shall you again. This is the last of a family of swords made for our ancestors long ago. Four were cast for four ancient sovereigns, mirroring the Sword of Unity. This is held in the palace of Rostha. Sadly, the others are perhaps destroyed, I do not know.’

‘Have you looked for them?’ Coinin asked.

‘Of course. Forty years I have looked, but it is a big task when you don’t know where to look. I grow too old to search now. But enough about this, I promised you broth, did I not?’ Trenobin smiled.

Never had a meal tasted so fine to Coinin and Marrok. The broth was so thick you could have stood a spoon up in it, and Trenobin had provided them all with thick wedges of bread that served well for dunking. Even Jip the hound contented himself with a large bowl set down for him. They sat around a small oak table and enjoyed the meal, though Draken complained bitterly that he could not stretch his legs in the cramped quarters.

Draken had refused the broth and merely contented himself to drink wine, which Trenobin regularly topped up from a leather flagon he kept in his alcove.

‘Boys,’ Draken began, ‘today begins a new day in your tutelage. I need you to open your minds and follow Trenobin’s instructions exactly. Do you understand?’

Coinin and Marrok nodded without question.

‘What will we learn?’ Coinin asked.

‘What I will say is you will find out the reason why you have trained so hard all your lives. So let’s not spoil the surprise, shall we, and put that enquiring mind aside.’

‘Yes, but–’

Draken growled. ‘How simple can I make this? You will find out in good time if you do what our friendly dwarf here tells you to do.’

Coinin began to object, but Marrok grabbed his arm to silence him.

‘We will, Uncle,’ Marrok intervened.

Satisfied, Draken returned to his drink and pulled out his pipe, and after he had filled it with tobacco, he lit it with a long match and puffed away.

Trenobin was quite animated during the meal and regaled them with stories of battles where he had fought against giants. It seemed unbelievable to the boys, but Draken reassured them all that what was said was true.

It was not long before Draken’s head had fallen to his chest and long drawn-out snores erupted.

‘Ah, about time,’ Trenobin said. ‘I thought he’d never drop off.’

‘What do you mean?’ Marrok enquired.

‘Your uncle will not be coming with us. He should sleep for an hour. That wine is my finest batch.’

‘But why can’t he come?’ Coinin asked worriedly.

Trenobin sensed Coinin’s fear and clasped an arm around his shoulder. ‘Because, young sir, your uncle is a man of advancing age and we have much to accomplish. He will only slow us down. Moreover, he has not been invited to our destination. Don’t worry, I have waited for this day to arrive since your birth. Rest assured you are safe with me.’ Trenobin shook his head and walked to the door of the cabin, a strange twinkle in his eye.

‘Somehow I trust him,’ Coinin began. ‘Besides, Uncle Draken has ordered us to do as he asks.’

‘If you make one false move I’ll run you through,’ Marrok threatened the dwarf.

Trenobin merely laughed. ‘Boys, if I wanted to hurt you, you would have been sorry a few hours ago,’ he called over his shoulder.

‘Fine, but if this is some trick we will see who will hurt whom,’ Marrok grumbled.

Outside, Trenobin smelled the air and noted a stiff breeze. He faced downwind and whistled a long note. Marrok looked at Coinin and signalled that Trenobin seemed to be a couple of arrows short of a quiver.

Three large horses burst into the clearing and came to a standstill opposite the trio, tossing their heads. Coinin gently stroked the nose of the brown mare meant for him and spoke softly to her. He felt he owed her a new respect after becoming one of the beasts for a short time earlier that day.

Trenobin nodded his head with approval. ‘Boys, there are harnesses on the wall inside the hut.’

A couple of minutes later all three were ready to go.

As they rode through the forest the trees started to become more enclosed and made them feel claustrophobic. The very air seemed stale and as they rode deeper Coinin glimpsed flashes of war, battles, and death. This shook him and he struggled to force the images from his mind.

‘Trenobin, I sense there were great battles here in the forest,’ he said after a time.

‘That is not strictly true; most of the forest grew after the last great war. I was in that battle and many of my closest friends lost their lives here.’

‘Impossible,’ Marrok objected.

Trenobin laughed. ‘Have you ever met a dwarf before, young Marrok?’

‘No.’

‘Then you have no idea how long we live?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Then until you do, I suggest you keep your mouth shut and your ears open.’

Marrok made a rude noise and looked sullen.

‘Exactly how old are you Trenobin?’ Coinin asked.

‘Ah, well, I lost count after nine hundred years,’ Trenobin replied.

Coinin looked at him in awe, altogether unsure if he should believe him.

‘The elfs, however, can live three times as long,’ Trenobin mused.

As they rode on, the night grew cold and dark and this made it harder to see. Trenobin acknowledged this and stopped to fumble in his pack for a second, and immediately there was a strange shift in the air that made the boys momentarily lightheaded. The space around Trenobin began to glow and lit the way as they rode.

They travelled for several hours and then Trenobin called a rest.

‘Thank you, Trenobin, my behind feels like it’s fallen off.’ Coinin winced as he dismounted. He rubbed his sore behind and stretched the kinks out of his body.

‘You’ll get used to it young sir,’ said Trenobin, and clapped a dirty hand on his shoulder. ‘Don’t get used to the rest, though, we must make haste. It grows light and our destination looms.’

‘Where exactly are we headed?’ Marrok asked.

‘Beyond this thicket is a cliff at the side of Mount Rostha. High up this cliff is a cave and inside is – well, it’s hard to explain, and perhaps it is better if you see for yourself.’ Trenobin instructed the boys to follow him without their horses. He and the boys undid their saddles and laid them against a tree. Trenobin then gently slapped the rump of his horse, and this made it trot off. The boys followed suit.

‘Don’t worry, they’ll find their way home.’ Trenobin winked.

Marrok immediately understood the lack of horses as he fought his way through a particularly nasty thicket. His clothing and his bare arms were constantly under attack from sharp thorns and stings, and the horses would never have been able to make any sort of headway. He noted Trenobin did not seem to have the same trouble as he glided effortlessly through the fronds of plant life. Marrok unsheathed his father’s sword and hacked a path, which Coinin followed closely, as it seemed the moment they passed the thicket it grew together again, thicker than ever. Jip the wolfhound seemed to have the most trouble. His thick fur became entangled in the undergrowth, to the point that Coinin had to cut him free and Marrok had to carry him the rest of the way.

‘Stay close to me, boys; this place has a mind of its own,’ Trenobin called over his shoulder.

‘You can say that again,’ Coinin muttered, as he fought off a particularly vicious plant.

A few minutes later the trio exited the thicket, to Marrok’s relief; he had not been able to use his sword while he carried Jip and was left to use brute force to push his way through the undergrowth, and he now bled from dozens of thorn cuts. He dropped Jip to the ground and stretched his sore back.

The boys gazed in wonder at a sheer cliff face before them. No matter how far they strained their necks, the top could not be seen before it disappeared into a misty cloud. A waterfall cascaded down it from some hidden point far above, and crashed into a pool below. The river then wound its way back through the thicket.

‘To go up, we go this way,’ said Trenobin confidently, and strode ahead. ‘Unfortunately the dog must stay. It would be impossible for him to follow.’

‘Now hold on, Trenobin. First you lead us a merry way, half kill us through the thorns of hell and now you expect us to climb that, and fall to our deaths as likely as not?’ Marrok stood fast.

‘And leave Jip behind,’ Coinin added.

Trenobin turned and smiled. ‘Of course I expect you to follow.’

‘Well, I think our little quest ends here, Trenobin,’ Marrok said. ‘I’m not following you up there.’

‘You knew the cliff would be the stumbling block and yet you fail to allow me to accompany them,’ said a familiar voice. A moment later, a figure stepped out of the shadow of the cliff.

‘Uncle Draken?’ Coinin gasped.

‘Why did you let me drink so much, Trenobin?’

Trenobin appeared momentarily shamed. ‘Draken, you cannot come, the guardians forbade it.’

‘Nevertheless, I will accompany you,’ Draken said. ‘Boys, a new life of discovery begins here. Your path has been foretold, and your destiny lies ahead. You are about to begin a journey of enlightenment and I wish to be a part of that journey.’

‘Enlightenment?’ said Coinin and turned to his brother, excited. ‘We have a chance to see or do something other than share our lives with Uncle. We should go with him. I need to know more.’

Marrok looked torn and then resigned. ‘If Father wanted this, then so be it. I vowed years ago to protect you, brother, so I guess I’m going too.’

‘Again, I say Draken cannot join us,’ Trenobin reminded them.

‘Then we don’t go either. Uncle Draken joins us, or we turn back now,’ Coinin warned.

Trenobin clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. ‘Fine, this way then,’ he said sullenly. ‘If the Curator did not need to speak with you so urgently, I would turn around myself and head home.’

‘The Curator? Who is that?’ Coinin asked.

‘All in good time. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.’

‘Fine, keep your secrets, but what about Jip?’ Marrok asked.

‘As I said, he cannot come. Perhaps there is somewhere he can go?’

‘There is a place where they will take care of him, Coinin. Lambic from Relton quite likes the dog, he will do well there,’ said Draken.

Coinin was deeply unhappy at the thought of leaving Jip behind, but understood he could not go with them, and so conceded. He hugged the dog tightly and kissed him on the nose. ‘Go to Lambic, find Lambic, boy,’ he said in a high playful voice.

Jip gave a deep woof and licked Coinin’s face, and then headed off into the undergrowth without a second glance.

‘I guess he’s tired of travelling with us,’ said Marrok, wrapping his arm around Coinin.

‘He’ll be okay, won’t he?’

‘Overfed, most likely,’ said Draken. ‘Lambic enjoys his ratting ability and no doubt will reward him well. I presume the next time we see him he’ll be rolling home.’

Coinin gave a brave smile and fended off Marrok who had decided to ruffle his hair.

‘If we are ready, this way, if you don’t mind,’ said Trenobin in a bored voice, an arm outstretched to indicate the path.

He led the group to a large boulder that jutted out from the cliff face directly beneath the waterfall and located a small hole at its base, into which he inserted his hand. A moment later the boulder swung aside and he disappeared behind it. Coinin was next to round the boulder and was greeted by an astonishing sight. Hidden in the cliff face, a set of roughly hewn steps wound their way up the cliff side. Only from this one position would the steps be visible. The waterfall hid its secret well.

The boulder swung closed to hide its secret once more and Trenobin led the way up.

He reminded them to be careful as spray from the waterfall made the steps slippery. They climbed cautiously for more than two hours without rest. Their hands were cold, wet, and numb, and they were barely able to grip the rock, yet they soldiered on.

‘Is it much further?’ Coinin puffed.

‘We are almost there,’ Trenobin called from above.

Several minutes later Coinin collapsed on a shelf that jutted out from the cliff. Below, low clouds drifted slowly westward and the whole of Rosthagaar could be seen clear to the lands of Madorine and Lushan with the open sea beyond. A twin peaked volcano smoked at the heart of Mador, and the boys were awed by the sheer size of the city of Rostha laid out before them. Marrok arrived next and looked fresh as a daisy with a huge smile on his face.

‘That was fun,’ he said, and turned to offer a hand to his uncle who sweated profusely and was considerably red in the face.

‘Boys, grab my pack and bring us water and vitals. We still have some way to go,’ Trenobin gasped through breaths.

The small group rubbed life into sore feet and hands and then ate salted beef in silence as they admired the view. The downside of being so high up was that they had to wrap up in cloaks to keep warm from the high winds. They also had to keep dry from the waterfall spray.

The meal eaten, the boys curled up and slept soundly, warmed by a fire Trenobin had started. Where he had obtained the firewood the boys did not know or care, for they slept.

A ferocious storm lashed rain down the mountainside and cascaded into the citadel below. Thunder shook the foundations and struck fear into the hearts of young and old alike as they cowered in their beds. Lightning flashed across the sky and lit the castle towers within.

Such a storm had not been seen for hundreds of years and many feared it was a bad omen. Wind blew dark clouds across the sky, scudding across momentary glimpses of a full moon. All around, debris flew so violently that no one but the most foolhardy ventured outside. A flagpole lay broken, its standard in tatters. Horses kicked at their stables in terror, eyes wide and mouths frothed, while stable-hands dodged kicks in a futile attempt to calm them.

Atop the castle walls, sentries found it near impossible to hold on to the ramparts. The wind and rain blurred their vision and their cloaks flapped wildly.

At the entrance to the castle, two shadowy figures observed the chaos. The interior of the smaller companions hood began to glow with a golden hue, obscuring his face. Wolf-like eyes shone brightly and illuminated the ground around him.

His hands extended and his fists formed claws. The castles portcullis gates began to vibrate noisily and slowly bent inward to his will until they shattered in a blast of air. The remainder of the gates lay in ruins and the edges glowed softly as would a sword in a blacksmiths forge.

The pair moved forward into the portcullis and a heat radiated from the remains of the gates. A flash of lightning momentarily lit the features of the taller figure and glinted off the hilt of a sword.

Are you ready, brother?

Yes.

A sword rose and motioned forward. The two figures ran into the castle followed by bloodthirsty roars as a horde of armour-clad warriors piled into the courtyard.

Coinin sat up with a start, his heart thumping and his brow beaded with sweat. His dreams had taken a new turn and they had again progressed beyond the recurring theme. He looked about him and saw his uncle by the light of the dying embers from the fire. Draken hastily hid a glowing object from sight.

‘Go to sleep, boy,’ Draken hissed, his eyes hard. ‘We have quite a journey ahead of us.’

Coinin lay down and closed his eyes and listened to his uncle’s movements. Why was he so secretive? He mulled over what he had seen and once more sleep overtook him.

Morning arrived and with it a warming sun. Trenobin was already awake and had prepared breakfast. Coinin awoke to the smell of food; he nudged his brother and gratefully received a plate from the dwarf, which he bolted down. Breakfast did not take long to finish, not with two growing boys to hand, so Trenobin gathered the small group for instruction.

‘Now listen carefully, all of you. We shall head into there.’ Trenobin indicated the wall of the cliff.

‘I don’t mean to be rude, but your plan has a flaw,’ Marrok pointed out. ‘All I see is rock and vine.’

‘Indeed you do, but you must look deeper. Have you not recently learnt this lesson?’ Trenobin chuckled. He stepped forward and prised the vine fronds apart. The plant parted easily and revealed a dark cave beyond. Marrok muttered to himself and Coinin caught a curse word or two. He wondered why they had stayed the night out in the open and not in this cave.

‘Behold the Cave of Destiny. None who venture forth can turn back. The path to enlightenment is a singular journey fraught with many dangers,’ Trenobin announced dramatically.

Coinin looked at him wide-eyed and excited, and Marrok credulous, until Trenobin broke into fits of laughter.

‘I am joking, it’s only a cave, and we must journey through it. Come on,’ he said, and disappeared behind the fronds.

‘Why did we spend the night out here, and not in the cave?’ Coinin asked.

‘The cave seals itself at sundown, and reopens at sun up. We didn’t reach the cave before sundown yesterday,’ Trenobin replied.

The moment Coinin stepped inside, the light was almost as bright as the day outside, thanks to Trenobin once again providing his magical illumination.

The dwarf led them through a cave that grew taller and wider than any Coinin had seen. Thousands of stalagmites and stalactites attempted to reach one another and the group had to dodge and weave around them.

‘Is there not an easier route?’ Marrok complained.

‘Sadly not for you,’ Trenobin replied.

It took twenty minutes to reach the other side, and at each step the cave became smaller until they finally arrived at the far wall.

‘Now what?’ Marrok enquired, bored with Trenobin’s games.

‘This,’ said Trenobin cheerily, and promptly stuck his hand into a second hole in the rock wall. An instant later he dropped through a hole in the floor that had appeared.

Coinin shrugged and followed suit. His heart immediately jumped into his throat as he hurtled down a long shaft that twisted sickeningly with dozens of turns, until finally he landed with a bump.

‘I have not done that in years. I forgot how much fun it was,’ Trenobin guffawed.

Marrok, followed closely by Draken, arrived with equal force several moments later.

They took a moment to shake the ride from their systems, and then Trenobin led them to a shaft cut into the rock wall. Each member of the group, except Trenobin, had to stoop to enter it. Coinin grew so anxious at the closeness of the rock walls that he began to sweat and grasped at his brother for comfort. Ten minutes later the shaft widened and the ceiling raised enough to stand upright, and it was now that Coinin began to relax, his fear of enclosed spaces eased.

The faint sound of running water echoed up the tunnel and bounced off the rock walls.

‘Is there a river nearby?’ Coinin asked.

‘Yes, and a fairly swift one at that, but don’t worry, there is transport available,’ Trenobin assured them.

‘We have to ride a river in pitch black?’ Marrok indicated the lack of light ahead.

‘Trust me, Marrok, you do not want to see this ride. Safe as I know it to be, it has been known to drive man and dwarf alike out of their minds.’

‘That’s very comforting, I’m sure,’ said Marrok sarcastically.

‘What are we waiting for? We have a river to ride,’ said Trenobin as he sped his way down the tunnel.

As he disappeared, so did the light. Marrok cursed and dug into his pack, and after a few moments he managed to get a torch lit that cast a warm glow around them. With no other options, the group followed Trenobin’s example and emerged minutes later on a ledge only slightly higher than the river itself. The river looked strange, glowing red with blood.

‘Curious, is it not?’ Trenobin smiled.

‘How many rivers of blood do you see a day, Trenobin? Of course it’s curious,’ said Marrok rudely, and promptly received a cuff to the head from Draken.

‘Respect, boy, show some.’ Draken glowered.

‘Yes, Uncle.’ Marrok glared back.

‘Is it really blood?’ Coinin asked.

‘No, it’s an illusion designed to scare intruders away. There’s more to see if you’ll follow me. Now, be careful as you step into the boat; I wouldn’t want any of you to fall in and be swept away by the current.’

As if piloted by an invisible oarsman, a wooden flat-bottomed boat appeared in the glow of Marrok’s torch. They boarded swiftly. Trenobin cast off and asked that the torch be extinguished.

To the uninitiated, the ride was the most terrifying anyone could endure.

It twisted and turned so sharply that Coinin had to hold on for dear life for fear of being thrown from the craft. There were many long drops and sudden jolts that he wondered why every bone in his body was not broken. The journey was in pitch black, which only added to the fear, as there was no warning of what lay ahead. The wind howled and bit at the face as they swept down the black tunnel, and the roar of the water deafened them. Marrok understood why Trenobin stated that men’s minds would turn.

Trenobin hummed a merry tune to himself the whole of the journey, but Coinin lost his breakfast several times over.

‘Are we going uphill?’ Coinin asked queasily, and hung his head over the edge of the boat once more.

‘Yes, indeed we are.’

‘I don’t think I want to know how, my brain hurts enough as it is,’ said Coinin as he fought a fresh wave of nausea.

Finally, after many more minutes of gut-wrenching movement, the boat slowed as the river became less violent, and a faint light began to bounce off the walls of the cavern. The walls of the chamber seemed to move and slither, and as the light grew the reason became apparent. The walls crawled with thousands of small beetle-like creatures that made Coinin shudder in disgust.

‘Don’t worry they won’t hurt you, unless you fall into the river,’ Trenobin reassured.

The boat rounded a bend and was bathed in sunlight as they exited the mountain into yet another forest.

Colourful birds flew overhead and landed in trees or squawked loudly to each other.

Coinin had passed out, while Marrok stated he would like to ride the river again. Draken looked at him as if he was crazy.

‘Told you it makes you go mad.’ Trenobin winked. ‘Help me get Coinin to the shore.’

Marrok located the oars tucked under the seats, and rowed the craft to the side of the river. It bumped against the shore and Draken grabbed for a tree root and held on, while Trenobin fastened rope to the roots to secure the craft. Marrok picked Coinin up and threw him across his shoulder as he would a sack of grain, and then deposited him on the shore, while Draken and Trenobin dumped their cargo next to him.

‘Shall we make camp, rest the night and move out in the morning?’ Trenobin asked.

Marrok nodded his agreement. Draken, however, had fallen asleep exhausted, with his arms crossed and his head on his chest.

‘I told you he was too old for this trip,’ sighed Trenobin.

Stay tuned for Chapter Three…

Categories: Destiny of the Wulf Tags:
%d bloggers like this: