Home > Destiny of the Wulf, General > DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Six.

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?’

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