Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Annyaa lifted her head from the elf whose bandages she was changing, and looked out the window of the tavern that had become a makeshift hospice for the wounded. She threw the bloody rags into a bucket in frustration. More wounded were coming into E'eldaduranus. They had been fighting a desperate battle to slow the advancement of skraeg invading their homeland, slowly making their way to Elven Home. The brave elves had slowed the advancing enemy to a crawl, but not without a price. It seemed to her, every time she and the elven healers were getting ahead, more wounded were brought in. Her hands, face, and green dress were smeared with the blood of the wounded and dying, her hair in tangles, her eyes bloodshot and shadowed from exhaustion. "If only Drogan could see me now," she thought. "He wouldn't find me so pretty." And then she cursed herself for thinking of him. It brought more worry. She knew not where he was, how he was—he could be dead or dying just like the wounded she was tending for all she knew. She gripped the hair on a cord around her neck that he had cut off for her, just as she did for him. That did it. Suddenly she felt faint, and nauseous. 

"I have to get some air," she said to the dozen elven healers in the tavern, slowly rising from her knees, and stumbled outside. Once outside, she leaned back against the wall and slowly slid down. It had snowed, and was cold, but she did not care. She took a long deep breath and let it out as she rested her head on her knees. She wanted to be sick, but there was nothing left in her stomach to come out. She had given up trying to eat a day earlier. Some of the wounds she had witnessed were well beyond horrific. The damage a skraeg warrior could do with an axe—her stomach heaved and she leaned over. "Perhaps I should eat something. It hurts less when something actually comes up!" She looked up toward the elves being carried on litters, or limping on their own, being directed toward the building, and saw the long trail of blood staining the snow across from where she sat to the tree line. So much blood. For a moment she did not hear the moans of the wounded from within, a momentary moment of silence that felt like a blessing for the short time it lasted. But the moans began again; a curse.

An elf walking on his own toward the tavern suddenly stumbled and fell. He tried to rise, but could not. Annyaa forced herself to stand and rushed to his aid. She helped him to stand again, putting his arm over her shoulder, and he smiled down at her. He had a terrible wound from his hairline to his cheekbone, and was missing an eye. "One God! How can he smile?" She could not imagine the amount of pain he must have been feeling. Helping him into the tavern and then calling for water and a clean towel, she eased him down to sit against one wall, and began cleaning his wound. And so began another long day of tending the wounded in E'eldaduranus. She wanted so badly to just go home to Misting Hill and see her father. But then, Misting Hill was burned to the ground, and she knew not whether her father even lived. That brought tears to her eyes every time the thought crossed her mind. What of friends? What of their families? Busying herself with the wounded, she lost track of time, and she blinked in surprise when she realized lanterns were being lit along the walls of the tavern. Another full day had passed. Her stomach growled. Another full day of no eating had passed. She decided she must eat, and began the walk to the palace where the kitchens had been open to all, and food was being served in the E'eldakune A'hule A'el—The Hall of Kings. She still had a hard time pronouncing the elven name, E'eldakune A'hule A'e'eldroan. The language was best described in her mind as a dance of the tongue. She never was a very good dancer. 

At the sound of a horn, she stopped and turned. "What could this be?" she thought. Elves were running toward the tree line, some raising fists, spears, swords, or bows above their heads and shouting in joy. Others came out of other buildings or their homes to see what was happening. And from the trees came—dwarves? A long line of them, short and stout, armored in chain, and leather, and some with breast plates of steel, with round helms upon their heads ringed with fur. They had fur lined boots with the tops folded down, and cloaks trimmed in fur or made entirely with fur. Many wore kilts, and many wore baggy brown leggings. From under their helms flowed long thick hair; some were blonde, some were dark, most were reddish. And they all wore beards, with braids to match the braids some wore in their hair. There was not a single shaven dwarf among them, although a few kept their upper lips or chins bare. They carried with them heavy axes, and hammers, some as tall as they and others meant to be held in one hand. And some of them carried spears with thick hafts and broad heads. Many carried large shields of wood and iron, though a few had smaller shields, bucklers fastened to the hard leather bracers on their forearms. And as they filed in, they were met with shouts of greetings and handshakes by elven soldiers. And the dwarves eyes lit up in joy at the site of the e'eld children as they ran to meet them as well. The dwarves were being led to The Hall of Kings, and as they walked past her, one particular dwarf was singing at the top of his lungs, to the smiles of dwarf and elf alike... 

"Oooooooooooh!" The fiery haired dwarf sang. 
"I walked into a tavern at even'n time for ale
I'd hoped for sumthin' stout, but the ale they saled was stale
I drunk it down anyway because it warmed me guts
And numbed me from me brainpan and down unto me butts! Haha!

I saw a dwarven tavernmaid who warmed me heart for sure
And watched the beauty of her work, the skill of her ale pour
I knew that I'd been smitten for the first time in me life
And I knew someday that short plump lass would somed'y be me wife! Haha!

I hollered for a pitcher, though I'd done drunk far too much
And the lass she come a runnin and promptly told me "shush!"
There be some upstairs sleepin, me loudmouth'd surely wake
And I told'er I'd do anythin to please her purty face! Haha!

She said I surely drunk to much and she don't care for drunks
I told'er she misjudged me, yet she said me ale breath stunk
And then I tried to kiss her and she slapped me in me face
And if she'd hit me harder, I'd have sworn she'd swung a mace! Haha!

She grabbed me by me britches and dragged me 'cross the floor
All across the tavern and outside through the door
She mumbled and she grumbled, and scolded me for a drunk
And dragged me to a water trough and gave me head a dunk! Haha!
Oooooooooooh!" he finished the song to uproarious laughter.

"And what did you do then, Horigar?" A dozen or so dwarves shouted at once.

"Why, I married the lass!" He shouted back to more laughter, as they slapped him on the shoulders and back. 

"And will you drink tonight, Hori?" The others shouted.

"Not a drop! She'd drown me if she thought I had!" He laughed aloud, and the others laughed with him.

Annyaa smiled, despite her exhaustion, and turned to walk toward the palace. But with no food, and very little sleep, her strength was waning greatly and her legs betrayed her. She fell to the snow, and rising was proving to be difficult. "You should have eaten something earlier, you stubborn fool," she berated herself. "Fat lot of good you can be to anybody if you can't even stand on your own two feet." 

"Ho there, lass," she felt strong arms helping her to her feet. "Are ye alright there?" It was the dwarf who had been singing, and he looked down at her with concern. "Ye took quite the fall." He was as rough looking up close as he had been from a distance, with his black steel helmet and chain mail, over fur lined leather and boots and dark brown leggings. He carried a round shield of thick wood and iron, and an axe with a moon shaped blade balanced by a heavy spike opposite, which rested in a loop of his belt. And ringing his belt was a smaller axe, and an assortment of knives. But beneath the helmeted head of braided hair, and behind the bearded and mustached face, were kind blue eyes.

"Yes, yes." She began brushing snow from her dress. "I'm fine, thank you. Overly tired and overly hungry, I suppose."

"Well then, let us get you inside, and some hot food in your belly." He walked slowly beside her with a hand on her waist, gently guiding her to the palace and The Hall of Kings.

"Your name is Horigar?" she asked as the walked.

"Aye, lass. Or Hori for short."

"Thank you, Hori. My name is Annyaa." As they walked into the palace, the other dwarves had moved ahead leaving them alone. Hori stopped a passing elf to ask where Annyaa could clean up a little before she ate, and the elf led them to the kitchens, where she was able to wash her face and hands. She had to take a moment before entering; the smells of cooking made her a bit nautious, but after a few moments of deep slow breaths she deemed she was alright. Hori then led her into The Hall of Kings, still walking close with an arm on her back in case she stumbled. Of course, dwarves being dwarves, those he came with were all seated at the long tables, shouting and pounding their fists on the hard wood, and gulping ale and wine, and shoveling food into their mouths and making toasts, and just being raucous. So Hori led her to the end of a table near the end of the hall. She took a goblet of water, and a piece of bread, while Hori began grabbing sweet rolls, and a hunk of venison, a big leg from some kind of foul, and a good sized hunk of cheese. When he reached for drink, a number of dwarves stopped what they were doing, and grew quiet, with goblets half raised to their mouths, or stopping in mid chew. He reached ever so slowly, his hand reaching, near a decanter of wine—his eyes under bushy brows daring them all to say a word, and instead reached for water. And he smiled a toothy grin as the dwarves broke out in laughter once more.

"Was the song you were singing true, Hori?" Annyaa asked while nibbling on some bread.

"Aye lass, that it is." He smiled. "And my sweet Lolfa made every one of them promise to tell her if I had even one tiny sip of ale or wine or mead, or beer, or any of their like. And if she found they were lying, she'd do the same to them as she did to me!" He laughed. "And she can do it too! And they well know it!" He looked over at her. "So tell me. How did a young human girl like yourself wind up here amongst the e'eld? Are ye one of those from Ravenhold?"

"I was there, yes," she began. She ate a little more vigorously as she began her tale, of how she was just a simple tavern maid at her fathers Inn in Misting Hill. She began the story from the day Drogan had come back home from fighting for Grey Home, in Duke Nordhelm's army. She talked slowly at first, but as she spoke, the words were beginning to flow as she was beginning to feel better. The water and the bread had helped, and she found herself reaching for some meat with some kind of brown gravy that she swore had to be the best gravy she ever tasted. Hori listened intently as she told her story, and his eyes grew wide and a grin split his face when she spoke of throwing the flagon at Andorin, knocking him from his horse.

"Ho there, Lass!" he laughed. "My sweet Lolfa would truly love ye!"

"Oh but I'm not a strong woman, Hori," she explained. "Not as it sounds she is." But he looked at her with a smile and pointed to her chest.

"Strength, Lass, is what is in there. It's what is inside ye that really counts. Strength of heart will win out over strength of body any day, I assure ye." He grinned, and she continued her story. By then the loud and rowdy dwarves had begun to quiet down, and were listening to the story with as much attention as Hori. A few of them raised their goblets and flagons in agreement with Hori's claim of strength of heart.

"Well, needless to say, I paid dearly for hitting him with the flagon," she continued her tale. "From there things only got worse." And she told of Borian and herself being taken from Misting Hill, as the temple burned, and the countless days thrown belly first over Andorin's saddle. She told of Drogan's first attempt to rescue her and Borian. She told of the young priest's death in an attempt to save her, tears flowing as she remembered her longtime friend—tears shared by the dwarves listening as they moved closer to hear her account of the ordeal. And when she was certain that any rescue was not to be attempted again, Drogan arrived once more, but was ambushed by Blackwood elves lying in wait for Andorin. Again her story brought tears, as she told of Halin's death; a hunter who was a friend to both hers and Drogan's fathers.  And as Drogan and his party were busy with the Blackwood elves, Andorin escaped with her once more.

"Oh, this Andorin is a snake and a villain, and as vile a man as ever there be!" Shouted one of the dwarves. And the others raised their flagons and goblets in agreement, with "Aye!" and nods of heads all around. She continued her tale once more, of Andorin sneaking past Ravenhold, and her shouting as loud as she could for help—though it hurt her ribs so terribly to do so. And again, ever persistent, Drogan was there again! And Andorin was wounded by an arrow, by Prince Arden, as Andorin tried to run her down when she threw herself from his saddle. But if fate could not deal a harsher hand—skraeg just so happened to be near, and for a chance at what they thought was easy prey or just plain bloodlust, attacked her would be rescuers. It appeared that all was lost. Finally she was to be rescued by Drogan, only for them all to be killed by the savage skraeg. But then! Out of nowhere it seemed, came a massive wolf, and arrows, as Tia'ialla and Jarren the Hunter joined the fray! At hearing this the dwarves were shouting and pounding their flagons and goblets and fists on the hard wood of the table, as proud as if the battle had been fought by themselves! After the rowdy dwarves had calmed themselves, Annyaa took up the story again, telling of the skraeg being defeated, killed to the last, and of the white dragon that visited Ravenhold before the attack, and finally of the terrible battle that took place there and how quickly the skraeg overcame the defenders of the stronghold city. When she spoke of Commander Fain and the men who bravely held the skraeg, calling the avalanche down upon themselves and the enemy so the people could escape, the dwarves bowed their heads in silent lament of the heroic deed. They raised their flagons and goblets in a salute to the brave souls who gave their lives so willingly. 

"And when we found we could not go to Rosenguarde, as the city was under siege, we came instead to Elven Home," Annya finished. 

"By the beard of a mountain giant," Hori whispered. "That be quite a tale to tale—worthy of any bard. But I believe ye, I tell ye!" He looked at the other dwarves, all nodding their heads in agreement. "We all believe ye! Just as I told ye, Lass. Ye have strength of heart to rival the strongest spirit." He shook his head. "To go through such an ordeal as ye have!" And to her surprise he put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her tight, as did the rest! They all hugged her tight, one by one. The even stood in line to do so! She was hugged so much she thought she'd break, but each and every hug by those rough looking, rowdy and raucous, bearded dwarves filled her with a warmth to chase away the bitterest of cold. And despite all she had been through, all the pain, all the sadness, all the tragedy—she laughed—as loud as she could with a smile that could civilize even a skraeg as each dwarf hugged her. And for the first time in what seemed an eternity, she truly felt a little bit of joy.

"Now lass, it was a pleasure meeting ye," Hori suddenly said. "But ye need sleep. I can tell just by lookin' at ye. You should rest for the night."

"I must help with the wounded, Hori." Annyaa shook her head, as she slowly rose from the table.

"And likely make yourself sick from exhaustion lass. No, I believe ye should sleep. There are others helping the wounded, and ye can't be of much help if ye're too tired to see their wounds." He rose from the table as well. "Now then, I'll walk ye to where ye be stayin'. With some rest ye'll be better able to serve later."

"I'm actually staying here in the palace, Hori." Annyaa said. "Prince Arden gave us leave, my friends and I, to stay here."

"I was wondering where he might be," the dwarf said. "As well as his brother and his father the king. I'm sure one of them will come down to greet us in the Hall before long."

"Prince Arden and his brother are out there fighting somewhere, and the king has been leading from here. I actually have yet to see him, I've been so busy.

"Perhaps the king sleeps. It is late, and even kings must rest. Especially when fighting a war. I am certain he will see us in the morning. He may be waiting for the rest of us to arrive."

"There are more of you?" Annya stifled a yawn as they walked down a tapestry filled hallway.

"Aye lass, many more. We are just the first arrivals coming to Elven Home. Some of us are already joining the elves in battle. My company came to help make preparations to defend the city and palace if need be. Hopefully it does not come to that, but better safe than sorry. I am personally to oversee the building of draughn'fell." Hori held his chin up proudly.

"Draughn'fell?" Annyaa asked.

"Aye," he nodded. "Not much different in your tongue lass. Dragon fell. And it does just as the name implies. If you have time tomorrow, ask for me, and I'll show ye."

"I'd like that, Hori," she smiled as they came to her door. "And thank you again. Tell the others I said thank you as well. You've all lifted my spirits tonight." 

"I'll do so, lass." Hori smiled with a hand on her arm. "Now to bed with ye!" He turned and strode away, humming the song he had sung when first entering Elven Home. Annyaa shut her door and immediately lay down on the bed, wondering if she'd be able to sleep, despite being so weary. But sleep came easily. Before she knew it, she was out for the night. 

Dawn brought with it more snow, and Annyaa walked from the palace wearing a heavy cloak of deep green with a fur lined hood, over green leggings and a grey shirt, offered to her from one of the female elven warriors. She wore soft yet sturdy leather boots, laced to the knee. It was too cold for a dress, and she was ready to work. Dresses just got in the way sometimes. Although, she did feel a bit odd wearing leggings as opposed to dresses. As much as she wanted to help the wounded, she was afraid she could not bear to see another, so she chose to help in other ways. She was certain there was some work she could find. There was more to her than serving drinks and food at her father's tavern, or washing dishes. She was no stranger to hard work. She could chop wood, and she had used a hammer more than enough times repairing things here and there at the tavern. 

It was the sound of hammers pounding in the distance that caught her interest, and she went to find it. It sounded like work to her, something to take her mind off the horrors she had seen tending the wounded. Reaching a clearing of trees and buildings she found a number of the dwarves who had arrived the night before. Standing among them with a big mallet in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other, was Hori.

"Ho there, lad!" He was shouting over a mouthful of bread. "Try turning that wheel now! Good, good! Looks sturdy, and it seems to turn easy enough. Let me get in there with this mallet. A'right now, hold that there." He pounded something with his hammer a few times and stood back again. "Aha! Near perfect!" He crossed his arms proudly. "Ye do good work lad. Ye all do!" He turned when he saw Annyaa out of the corner of his eye. "Ho there, lass." He smiled up at her. "Ye do look a little less weary this fine dawn."

"Thank you, it is a bit cold though." She said.

"Aye, perhaps for someone who doesn't dwell in the Axeweavers!" He laughed. "This is a fine day compared to the storms we've seen in the mountains."

"Is this one of those drauhghn'fells you spoke of?"

"Aye. If we can get enough of them built, we can give any dragons who might visit something to think about. They're a bit difficult to use in heavy forest, harder to get a clear shot, but they'll be pack'n a punch when we do."

"I would like to help, if I can." Annyaa looked around at the working dwarves and the tools, and the stacks of lumber. Hori looked long at her, and smiled. 

"If ye can swing a hammer as hard as ye throw a flagon, ye'll do just fine." 

And so, Annyaa went to work, as Hori explained to her how each piece of the drauhghn'fell were pieced together, and how the finished product worked. A finished drauhghn'fell would be a large wooden frame with thick stakes pounded into the earth to keep it stable, and atop that frame was a rouded platform on a turret, with a wooden seat. A dwarf would sit in that seat, with a turning wheel to his left side which was manned by another dwarf, that when turned, would move the turret all around in a complete circle. In front of the seated dwarf would be a massive crossbow which could be aimed up or down, with a great lance or harpoon connected to yards upon yards of rope. In use, one dwarf would turn the seat and crossbow while the other aimed the weapon itself. When fired, it would strike the dragon, and with another crank manned by four dwarves, they would pull the dragon down from the sky to the ground where, if it survived, other dwarves, and in this case elves and men with them, would finish the job. 

"I do not doubt that you are all very strong," Annyaa said, a bit skeptical. "But only four dwarves to pull down a dragon? How is that possible?"

"Oh lass," Hori winked. "That's the beauty of it! It is all about wheels and pulleys. It sounds impossible, I agree with ye, but it can be done I assure ye. Still, those four dwarves do have a very difficult job of it, lass. It takes time and much effort reeling in one of those dragons trying to fly away and pull the whole drauhghn'fell with it. Often enough it attacks. Manning the drauhghn'fell is a dangerous duty indeed. But all of us here have done it before, and we know the dangers of it. I assure you, if we have to use them, some of us will die." But then he winked again, with a great toothy grin. "But we'll take a few of them with us!"

As they worked on the drauhghn'fell, well into the afternoon, half a dozen of them were beginning to take shape from piles of wood and iron into a great weapon of warfare. And although Annyaa's hands were beginning to blister, she continued to work. Hori was able to aquire a pair of leather gloves from an elf, which fit her quite well, easing the friction of the hammer's handle on the bare skin of her hands. She had been helping assemble the giant crossbows to the frames of the the draughn'fell, and although it was tiring work, she was pleased to be helping out. Not wanting to abandon the wounded, especially those she had helped herself, she had made the decision that she would continued to help in the makeshift hospice, as well. Later in the day she would do just that, but for the time being, using a hammer and actually creating something was helping her take her mind off the horrors of the wounded she had seen. She was standing beside Hori, taking a momentary break, as he was telling her the science of ropes and pulleys and wheels, when she saw a trio of large manlike creatures coming out of the treeline. Much taller than a man they were, about as tall as skraeg, though perhaps not quite as broad. And they were covered from head to toe in long and thick reddish brown hair. They had apelike faces, and long powerful looking arms, but they walked upright as would a man. And with them came a smaller kind of people! Judging by the e'eld they walked amongst, they could not have been any taller than three feet. They were manlike as well, but with large round eyes, and long pointed ears ears that shifted at the detection of sound. They were ears much like those of a long eared fox, but perhaps a bit longer, covered in short fur-like hair. The little people were otherwise very child like in appearance with their big eyes and little noses. And they were dressed in earthy colored pants and shirts, with long sleeved jackets of greens and browns and some greys. There were eight of the tinlings in all, two of them riding upon the shoulders of the monstrous hairy creatures.

"Raesigwalda!" Hori's eyes grew wide. "And tinlings!" Annyaa's eyes were as big as saucers as well. 

"What are they?" Annyaa asked.

"Forest giants," He replied. "They are very elusive. That they are here, and tinlings with them, can't be a good sign. The skraeg advancement must be large, driving the tinlings and raesigwalda from their homes."

"The raesig— forest giants. Are they dangerous?" She eyed the big creatures warily, even at a distance.

"Raesigwalda," Hori spoke the word again. "Oh, aye. Very dangerous if provoked. But we have nothing to fear from them. They are a friend to dwarf and elf. And to tinlings of course. If more follow them, and I suspect more do, then ye can be sure they will be provoked." He started walking toward the forest giants as an elf stood before them, talking in sign language to one of the creatures. "Come, Annyaa, let us find out." Laying down her hammer, she followed. They were met halfway by Broan who followed in step beside them.

"Forest giants?" The big bearded man asked, to which Annyaa nodded. "I've heard tale of them, but thought they were only myth."

"Aye, big man," Hori answered. "They're real as the nose on your face. I suspect the skraeg drove them from their homes, along with the tinlings. We go to find out."

"Tinlings? Is that what the little ones are? Never heard of them. At first look I thought they were children, nearly babes! They can't be as tall as my knees." He held a hand at knee level as they walked.

When they reached the creatures, standing well taller than even Broan by nearly three feet, Annyaa was drawn to the little tinlings. They looked up at them with their ears laying down near to their cheeks, with their big eyes and little noses, giving them an appearance quite sad.

"Oh, Hori! Broan! The little things are adorable! But they look so sad." She kneeled down and reached her hand out to one, who hesitantly took it.

"Hello there, little one," she said. "My name is Annyaa. Can you understand my language?"

"Yes," the tinling replied, his ears rising a bit. "We understand many languages." Annyaa eyes widened, clearly not expecting an answer. "My name is Regi," he continued.

"What brings them here?" Hori asked the elf who had been using hand sign.

"Many skraeg, have been moving in through the east out of the mountains. The raesigwalda and tinlings have been caught up in their advancements. I fear as well, they will likely flank our soldiers."

"As I feared!" Hori exclaimed. "How did they avoid dwarven eyes? How many are they?" 

"At least as many as the first wave." The elf sighed. "You know, friend dwarf, the skraeg can hide themselves well." Hori nodded in agreement.

"You must learn to protect yourself, Annyaa, if it comes down to it that I cannot." Broan said. He looked down at her, and for the first time, she saw worry in his eyes." 

"But I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to use a sword, or any other kind of weapon." She shook her head.

"You will learn," Hori then said with a low growl. "And you will have to learn quickly." The dwarf took her hand, leading her away from the tinlings and raesigwalda, Broan following close behind. "The others can do without me, building the drauhghn'fell. Come. Your training starts now."

"But Hori," she protested, shaking her head forcefully. She looked over her shoulder once more at the tinlings and raesigwalda.

"No buts, lass!" He nearly shouted at her. "I've only recently made a new friend, and I hold my friends dear! I'll be blasted with dragonfire if I lose you to a skraeg's axe so shortly after meeting you!" He pulled her along. "Now, come!"

"He is right, Annyaa." Broan agreed with the dwarf. "I have been charged with protecting you, but if the fight comes to this elven city, and I cannot do so, then you must be able to protect yourself." He shook his head, disgusted with himself. "I should have gotten you away from here, perhaps to Grey Home, but I fear it is too late for that."

"But women do not fight!" Annya exclaimed.

"No?" Hori looked up at her raising a brow. "Look around ye, lass! The e'eld women fight alongside the men, and every bit as formidable a warrior. If they can do it, why not you?" He gestured to the elven soldiers here and there within E'eldaduranus. "Ye wouldn't be the first human female to take up arms against an enemy if need be. And I assure ye, it is far better than the alternative." 

"We will go to the armory," Broan said. "And there you will choose a weapon that feels comfortable in your hand." And Hori nodded his head in agreement. "And then between Hori and myself, I'm certain we can teach you enough of the basics if it comes to a fight."

And so, the E'eldroan struggled against the ever nearing advancement of skraeg. It was a battle, that according to the griffin riders who came with news, the elves and men from Ravenhold and dwarves with them, were slowly losing. They had no choice but to fall back, time and time again against the much larger, and much stronger enemy. Although the elves were deadly in their ability to fight, force of numbers and savagery were beating at them and hammering at them relentlessly. And all the while, more dwarves were coming down out of the axeweavers to join with the elves and men on the front, or within the great elven city to help bolster its defenses. No dragons had been spotted, but they continued to build the drauhghnfell regardless. Others worked on defenses along the perimiter of the city and its outlying villages, and within the city itself. More raesigwalda, and tinlings, came to Elven Home seeking refuge, their homes and habitats destroyed, the tinlings sad, and the forest giants increasingly agitated. Many of the big hairy creatures carried small trees they had uprooted and stripped the branches bare, turning them into makeshift clubs. Even the tinlings were seen running to and fro carrying tiny bows with tiny arrows, some with small axes, their ears laid back at the stress they were feeling. But there was some good news, according to the griffin riders. King Erehk was on the move, as was Duke Nordhelm, coming to their aid if the elves could hold long enough. 

And Hori and Broan showed Annyaa the use of blunt weapons, such as hammers and maces. From dawn to dusk they trained her, as the fighting grew nearer every day. She wondered if her father would approve, deciding he probably would under the circumstances. She wondered what Drogan would think if he could see her. It did not really matter, she decided. She was certain Drogan and her father both would want her to do what must be done to survive. But could she survive a fight against a skraeg? Did she have the courage? She must. It seemed there was little alternative.

Belkarus moved his vast ever growing army out Durgin's Pass and into the Mistwood. The E'eldhiavan, still reeling from the devastating dragon assault, simply watched their passing from the shadows of the trees with hopes the enemy would not turn south into their lands. But Belkarus moved on with little more than a contemptuous glance, considering the Mistwood elves beneath him. He could let the E'eldnarak deal with them later. The Blackwood elves would cherish the thought of conquering their Mistwood cousins. His advisors, made up of his generals and red robed priests of Xandrous wanted to take the Mistwood while they were still weak, still hurting and licking their wounds. And after personally taking the head off of one his priests for daring to assume he needed his advise militarily, Belkarus reluctantly agreed to allow a large force of the E'eldhiavan to invade. 

Leaving the Mistwood behind, he moved on Crymeer, staging his army outside the walled city in the south eastern corner of Rylos. This would be his main force's first siege. The Duke of Crymeer himself rode out of the gates with two of his commanders, to parley, to seek the safe removal of women and children and the old from the city. Riding his walven to meet them, Belkarus smiled at the duke, and then ran him through, laughing at the shock upon the man's commanders as he let the beast devour him and his horse. Those two he let return to the gates of Crymeer laughing at them as they fled and shouting at them for cowards.

"I should let the walven chase you down to gorge on your cowardly flesh!" he shouted. "Tell your women and children they can die or be my slaves!" He turned the walven around to look upon the vast army of skraeg, men, Blackwood elves, and hulking creatures behind him. "Well?" he shouted. "Laugh with me you fools! Laugh, for by this time tomorrow we shall turn the snow red with the their blood! By this time tomorrow their streets will be rivers of red!" And as he watched, the army gave a shout, laughing with him, and shouting of victory to come. As he watched them proudly, from their midst came a company of skraeg, dragging something wrapped in furs, upon a litter, with a man in their midst. He watched curiously as they came near, turning the walven to the side to better see as they approached. "What is this?" he asked. He watched as the man among the skraeg walked, no—strutted toward him, with a toothy grin reaching from one ear to the next, looking like a blasted fool, as full of himself as a single rooster surrounded by hens. 

"My Lord Belkarus, I assume?" The man asked.

"Who else would I be?" Belkarus rolled his eyes. 

"I was approached, a time ago, by red robed priests recruiting in your name anyone who would join your cause. I accepted."

"What is your name?" Belkarus asked.

"I am Andorin, my Lord." He held his chin high.

"And what have you done for me?" Belkarus looked on in a quite a bored manner. He removed his black gauntlets, studying his fingernails.

"I have brought you this." Andorin turned and ordered the skraeg to remove the furs covering the dragon's head. "A gift, to perhaps gain your favor my Lord, a place in your army, a higher rank if it pleases you to do so."

"My favor?" Belkarus chuckled. "Tell me, Andorin. If I remember correctly, those my priests sought out were to be given specific orders. Burn temples, kill priests, bring priests to me as prisoners. Do you have any priests with you?" 

"I burned a temple. I would have burned more—"

"You lie!" The skraeg with the skulls on his belt interrupted him, and began moving toward him. "You say you part of army. You lie! You not know Belkarus! We agreed, I take your head!"

"Shut up!" Andorin shouted. But the skraeg continued toward him raising his axe and shouting. "I said shut up!" Before the skraeg could advance further, Andorin suddenly leapt at him, his sword piercing the brute's stomach. The skraeg dropped to his knees and Andorin finished him off. The skraeg's head rolled in the snow. "Perhaps I'll take yours instead!" He stared hard at the other skraeg who had traveled with him. Not one appeared interested in challenging him. He turned at the sound of Belkarus's hands clapping.

"Well done!" Belkarus said with a smile. "Good show indeed." But the smile faded. "As you were saying?"

"I would have burned more temples, my Lord. But I was pursued. And a priest I had with me was killed."

"Unfortunate," Belkarus frowned. "However, I'm certain that can be remedied. So you wish to gain my favor? That dragon head helps. But I will need more from you. Stay beside me in the upcoming battle. Let us see if we cannot find something to help you gain my favor, yes?" He smiled, a wicked grin. Andorin nodded, and dropped to a knee.

"I live but to serve you, my Lord." He said. Power was within his grasp. He just knew it! He would fight the battle at Belkarus's side. He could not hide the smile that crept onto his face.

"That dragon head there!" Belkarus shouted at the skraeg who arrived with Andorin. "Have the skull stripped bare, and cleaned. Place it on a rolling platform, a tall one, with a seat inside its open jaws. I shall call it the Dragon Throne! I want all our enemies to see my arrival from afar and know that I come to bring death!" He then turned once more to Andorin. "So Andorin," he said. "You seem to be just the kind of man I'm looking for. I need a cavalry commander. But first, let us see how you fare in the battle to come. Continue to seek and gain my favor, and it could profit you greatly." He smiled that wicked grin once more. "For now, come," he said as he climbed from the massive walven he had made his mount. He handed the reins to a reluctant skraeg, and motioned Andorin to follow. "I would have you meet more of these great beasts." He led Andorin through the throng; men, skraeg, elf, and other creatures moving to make way for their lord. Belkarus talked as Andorin followed. "You impressed me, how you handled that skraeg, Andorin. And his companions. Not many men have the stomach to face one willingly, let alone a company of them."

"I have never feared an adversary. I've never feared anyone for that matter, be they man or beast like the skraeg," Andorin replied confidently. He was pleased with himself. Finally he had come face to face with Belkarus, and it seemed he may already have a greater rank and more respect than he ever had in Duke Nordhelm's army. It was almost too easy. Even without the priest, even without Annyaa, he had made a lasting first impression on the man who would be conqueror. "I have never suffered cowards or weaklings, and I would not act as such myself. There is only one way to deal with them and that is death."

"Do you fear me, Andorin?" Belkarus asked. It was a test, Andorin was sure. He would answer truthfully, and to the point.

"I respect you, Lord Belkarus." Andorin tapped the hilt of his sword. "I respect this sword, and therefore I have done well by it. If I feared it, I likely would have hurt myself or died by another's sword long ago."

"That is a good answer." Belkarus smiled. "Ah," he said as they came near a long line of walven, two columns, all tethered with heavy chain to prevent their escape. "At least two hundred of them and more to come." The massive, horned wolfish creatures let fire and dark smoke escape their mouths with each breath. They should have frightened the bravest of men. Belkarus led Andorin to within feet of them, nearly nose to nose with the foremost. One of those creatures could rip Andorin in two with a single snap of the jaws, he was certain. They seemed agitated as he drew near, growling menacingly, fire leaping and dancing among their jowls. Andorin had to force himself to move as near the beasts as Belkarus. When one of them tensed and leapt at Andorin, he jumped back reflexively, his heart seeming to beat out of his chest. But the chains stopped the beast short. It seemed as though the beast felt a hatred toward Andorin, the way it stared at him with those eyes of green flames, the way it pulled at the chains to reach him. Belkarus watched the exchange thoughtfully. "They have a strong hatred for followers of the so called One God, and all things good."

"I assure you, I am no follower of a weak god. I will slay this beast if it thinks I am!" Andorin moved a hands width of steel from his scabbard. 

"No need!" Belkarus laughed. "I am sure you would." But then he looked thoughtfully at Andorin. "But do you not fear such a beast? I saw how you jumped."

"I respect it," he answered.

"Indeed." Belkarus smiled. "Well, if you prove your worth to me, one of these beasts will be yours. Perhaps you can teach this one rather disobedient beast to respect you."

"I would be more than pleased to teach this creature respect and obedience," Andorin said. Belkarus simply nodded with a smile. For a moment, he thought perhaps the walven sensed a spirit loyal to Jandrous in Andorin. If that had proved true, he would have allowed the beast to rip him to shreds. But Andorin's actions showed him the young warrior was much like himself. And there were so few like himself. 

"Go for now, Andorin," Belkarus said. "I'm certain your journey has been hard, and you should rest and eat. If anyone gives you trouble, tell them Belkarus orders that you be shown the utmost respect."

"Thank you, Lord Belkarus," Andorin bowed his head with a fist to his chest in salute. Belkarus watched silently, and thoughtfully, as Andorin moved into the crowds looking for something to eat and a spot to rest.

"We'll see just how well you earn my favor." Belkarus whispered. "I'll find a way to test you true." He walked back to his walven, and climbed into the saddle. He then turned to one of his advisors, a red robed priest with a shaven head who kept his head bowed with hands in the opposite sleeves of his robes. "Make contact with the dragons, I still owe them elven blood. I would pay more by having them attack E'eldaduranus. That, and the skraeg moving against the filth who dwell in the Griffinwood should weaken our enemies greatly. The sooner the elves fall, and their dwarven allies, the sooner the skraeg can focus on Rosenguarde once more. With the kingdom of Erinor defeated, as well as Rylos where we march, the other kingdoms may very well lay down and watch us enslave them all. If you have any trouble, remind the dragons just who and what I am, and who I may very well become."

"Yes, my Lord Belkarus." The priest bowed and disappeared into the crowd.

"Now I'm bored," Belkarus said. He pointed to a squad of skraeg nearby. "You!" He shouted and pointed to a huge grey skinned creature with what appeared to be a large, iron cooking pot on its head for a helmet. "Drag that daegra to just outside the range of Crymeer's bowmen. And feed him to a walven—no, two walven. Let the soldiers atop the walls see what they have to look forward to." He chuckled, looking over at one of his commanders. "This should prove entertaining, no?" 

"Indeed, my Lord Belkarus." They watched as the skraeg threw chains around the bellowing beast as it roared and struggled in vain to escape. Having subdued it, they dragged the hulking creature through the snow, one of the skraeg shouting for walven to be brought with them. Belkarus smiled again.

Holding his cloak close and hugging himself to ward off the cold, the man trudged through the snow in the Borderwood. He stopped, peeking through the trees at the massive army in the distance, hoping there were none within the woods. He was hoping, by staying within the trees and keeping a sharp eye, he could move past them undetected. He knew not who they were, but he felt in his spirit that the army was made up of evil, and led by evil. Somehow he knew they would do terrible deeds soon, and he was regretful and angry and at the same time deeply saddened. He shook his head.

"Why?" he said aloud, tears pooling in his eyes. "Why must you do the things you will soon do?" He thought he felt the presence of someone for whom there was still hope. "Please turn away from your wickedness before it completely overcomes you!" He cried. "You have done so much evil in your life already. But you are not yet completely lost! Please!" He fell to his knees sobbing, not knowing of whom he cried for, or how he knew what he knew. But he knew the feelings were true, and the grief he felt was real. All this unknowing! He still knew not who he himself was or where he was from! 

"You there!" Someone shouted, causing him to jump. He tried to run, but huge wolf-like creatures ridden by men surrounded him from out of the trees. The men were suddenly fighting the reins hard, as the horned beasts appeared nearly out of control, snarling and throwing out fire and smoke from their throats, spittle like molten lava sizzling as it dripped to the snow. "Cursed beast!" One rider shouted. "The man must be a priest. The walven sense it!" The unknowing man moved as if to attempt to flee, but one of the riders was able to ride close, striking him hard in the temple with the flat of his sword. He fell down, nearly senseless, holding his head. He passed out, only to come awake again shortly after. The rider was just getting out of his saddle. "Who are you?" the man demanded. "What are you doing here?"

"I—I do not know!" he answered, holding his head in his hands. "I mean no harm. I'm only trying to move past!"

"To where?" The man reached down and grabbed a fist full of his hair, forcing the unknowing one to look at him. "Why do you sneak so?"

"I don't know!" He answered. "I only want peace."

"What is your name?" The soldier demanded.

"I don't remember my name," he answered. "I honestly do not know."

"It doesn't matter, priest. You are coming with us." He looked at the other riders. "Another amnesiac, it seems. And likely a priest. We have agents scouring towns and cities from here to Greatwood in the west having little luck in finding others like him, and here one just practically walks right up on us," he chuckled. "I still don't understand what he wants with such men, but Belkarus himself will give us gold for this one." Pulling a length of rope from his saddle, he bound the man's hands. "I'll pour the drinks myself when we rest for the night, men."

"Aye captain," the other riders said. Pulling himself into his saddle he ordered the man to walk. 

"Move," he pointed out of the tree line toward the army amassed in the distance. "And don't try to run. You won't get far." And so he walked. 

He was not sure what should be more frightening; the walven behind him or the army that drew ever nearer as he walked toward it. But he was not afraid, he was calm. Even a number of black dragons that swooped down out of the sky above to land in the midst of the great horde did not frighten him. He wondered at that. Why was there no fear? The crowds parted before him and the riders, as the captain who had bound his hands asked Belkarus's location. They found him at the head of the throngs facing toward Crymeer, watching and smiling as a pair of walven ripped something to shreds in the snow in the distance. A group of skraeg stood by holding the reins of the massive beasts. 

"My Lord Belkarus." The captain dismounted and knelt down on one knee. "We have brought you a prisoner, my Lord."

"Have you now?" Belkarus turned to look at the captain and the prisoner. "And why do you bring him to me as opposed to locking him up with the others?"

"Well, we think he may be a special one, my Lord." The captain answered. "One of those who does not remember much, like you asked to be brought directly to you. I believe he may also be a priest. The walven were quite agitated at his presence. But he claims not to know his name or what he is."

"Is that so?" Belkarus climbed down from his saddle to stand before the captain and prisoner. "You may rise captain." When the captain rose, Belkarus continued looking over the prisoner. There was a trickle of blood dripping down his face where he had been hit in the head by the captains sword. "He has a head wound. Did you do this captain?" 

"Yes my lord. He tried to flee." He never saw the hard backhanded slap of Belkarus's gauntleted hand, and was knocked to the snow.

"Fool!" Belkarus shouted. "You may well have caused this man's memory loss yourself! It appears you struck him a hard blow!" He kicked snow in the captain's face. "Get up! Take him to the cages with the rest of the prisoners and get out of my site before I allow those walven your hide for dessert!" The captain struggled to his feet, hastily, bowing his head to Belkarus as he turned the prisoner around and marched him away. He looked over his shoulder repeatedly as though afraid Belkarus might change his mind and do just as he threatened. Not wanting to be the next to face their lord's anger, the other riders quickly rode away in an opposite direction from their captain. In the center of the the camp were a long line of large wagons, constructed of wood with no windows other than a small barred opening on the door. The captain ordered a guard to unlock the door of one the cages and then shoved the prisoner up the steps and through the doorway. 

"I should have just killed you!" The captain shouted as he pushed the prisoner hard to the wooden floor amidst a crowd of others lining the walls. The door slammed shut and the cage grew dark. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, another prisoner stood and hurried toward him, helping him to his feet.

"Are you alright?" The man asked.

"I believe so," he answered. "Thank you." He struggled to rise even with the man's help.

"What is your name?" The man holding him asked. He thought for a moment he had a fleeting memory, and tried to form his name.

"I—" he began, uncertain. "I do not know." He shook his head. "I—am," something about that sounded right. "Iam," he smiled. "Call me Iam."

"Well Iam, some of those you see in here with us, can't remember their name." He patted him on the back and led him to the wall to help him sit. "It seems they are quite interested in people suffering from memory loss, although yours may well have been caused by that blow to the head." 

"I am not entirely sure that is my name," Iam admitted. "But it does seem familiar. I remember very little. This most recent blow is not what caused it. I fell into a river, and struck my head on a stone I believe."

"Well, Iam, perhaps you are beginning to remember. Iam fits you. It is a name I've not heard before, but it fits you well. My name is Olien, a priest from Northport. I can't do much more to help than I have, but I can quote some of The Teachings. A few of us in here can, being priests, but we have no books. It brings us and the other prisoners some comfort."

"After some time," Iam quoted, "the betrayer will grow in strength, seeking to destroy all those most faithful to me and who teach my story. In those days, a long winter will cover the land, not for a season, but multiple seasons and autumn will become winter, and the winter months will be intensified. The spring months will come, and the summer months will follow, yet the winter will hold strong until the time I speak of comes to an end. A great hunt, by the betrayer's followers, will devastate the faithful. It will be a time of great fear and sorrow accompanied by terrible war. Dark beasts, will move upon the lands, seeking to destroy all those who defy the betrayer. Dragons will return and will war against one another. Drayan'os, those drayan who betrayed the One God, will be free upon the world." 

"It seems we are indeed in that time," Olien nodded. "What else can you quote from memory?"

"I believe I could quote the entire book from memory," Iam answered. Olien placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Then perhaps you are a priest as well, Iam." Olien smiled and chuckled. "I have studied The Teachings from the time I was a very small child, and even I could not quote it in its entirety." He looked around at the other prisoners, dirty and frightened, and cold. "Please, Iam," he said. "Give us some comfort and speak a little more." Iam looked around at the other prisoners, and smiled a warming smile. 

"I would be more than pleased to do so." And so he began, from the very beginning. "At one time," he said. "there was an empty hole in the dark vastness of space, and the One God breathed into his hands. And he formed in his hands out of his breath the world. He formed mountains and valleys of stone and dust, and then knowing the sorrow the world would witness he weeped, and his tears created the oceans and lakes and rivers..." Iam continued, telling the account, word for word as in The Teachings, of the One God's creation of the world. And all the prisoners listened, gaining comfort from his words, and huddling together for warmth, as outside a vast army made preperations to lay siege to Crymeer. And as he spoke, outside the large wheeled cage, the walven raged pulling against their chains, snarling and howling, and throwing forth fire and smoke and spittle like molten lava. Belkarus's soldiers struggled to gain control of the beasts, some dying; ripped to shreds by the teeth of the beasts, or burned by their fire, or impaled on their great horns and tossed into the air. Drayanos possessed within the army suddenly fled, screaming as they ran, ripping at their faces and clawing at their ears and pulling out their hair. Into the trees of the Borderwood they fled, fear driving them, dozens of them, to a sudden shear drop where they fell hundreds of feet to their deaths, screaming in pain and fear as they plummetted to the rocks below. Dragons circling in the sky above screamed and roared in rage, sensing a strong presense of the One God. Belkarus raged at the chaos within the ranks of his army, screaming at his commanders to gain control, he alone managing the walven he mounted. And suddenly he screamed in pain, falling from his walven.

"Treachery!" He screamed, reaching over his shoulder to his back to locate the daggers he was certain pierced him. He screamed in pain, reaching, turning to find the assassins, but no assassins were within sight. But he felt the blades twist in his back, just below his shoulders. "Assassin!" he howled in pain and rage. "To me! To me!" he shouted for help. His officers stared at him in confusion.

"There is no attacker my Lord!" One said.

"I am stabbed you fools!" But the officer who spoke shook his head.

"There are no wounds, my Lord. And your armor is whole, I swear it!" Kneeling in the snow, and sweating from the pain, Belkarus reached for the straps and buckles of his black armor. Pulling off the armor protecting his back he threw it in the snow before him. He stared, eyes wide, as the the armor was indeed whole.

"My back!" he shouted. "Are there no wounds?"

"None my Lord," the officer replied. 

"I swear it," Belkarus said, slowly rising to his feet. "It felt as though two blades were stabbing and twisting in my back." He shook his head. "And my head is pounding."

"Perhaps you should rest, my Lord." The officer suggested. And Belkarus nodded his head.

"Perhaps I should," he said. "See to my mount. I will be in my tent." He walked away, still reaching over his shoulders to feel at wounds that were not there. "And get this chaos under control!" He shouted. 

The attack on Crymeer began that night, with arrows aflame arching over the walls, answered in turn by the city's archers. But although many of Belkarus's army fell to the arrows, it made little difference in the vastness of his horde. He now sat within the jaws of the dragon skull, his dragon throne already complete, torches set all around so the soldiers atop the walls of Crymeer could see him clearly. Andorin stood beside him, at Belkarus's own request, watching feverishly. 

"You wish to join the fight, Andorin?" he asked.

"Yes, my Lord." Andorin tapped the pommel of his sword anxiously.

"You will get your chance," Belkarus said. "We will ride into the city together." They watched from the great wheeled throne, as skraeg and more of the huge beasts like the one Belkarus had fed to the walven earlier pounded at the gates with a massive ram. The huge creatures were called Daegra, Andorin learned later. As they fell to Crymeer arrows, and burning pitch poured down from above, more simply took their place. Even from where Andorin stood beside Belkarus, he could hear the pounding above the din of battle, above the screams of the dying, the shouting of rage and commands from both sides. Belkarus smiled. It was music to his ears. As long ladders were hoisted against the walls, tall siege engines slowly rolled toward the walls as well. With the vast amount of soldiers at Belkarus's disposal, the building of the great towers took little time, constructed from trees of the Borderwood. "It will not be long," Belkarus continued. "Soon we will ride in. Find your horse, Andorin."

It was not long, before Andorin and Belkarus with his personal guard made up of men and Blackwood elves indeed rode through the shattered gate, although the heaviest fighting had moved deeper into the city toward the keep. In their proximity, the fighting was more from building to building and dwelling to dwelling. As the foremost of the invaders moved on, those behind simply found and slaughtered the innocent as they hid within their homes. Andorin was restless, near to begging to be allowed to move forward into the fray, when they came to a temple. Skraeg warriors were barring the door and preparing to set it ablaze when Belkarus ordered them to cease. 

"I would see those within the temple before we destroy it," he said. "I will need slaves." After ordering the doors be opened, Belkarus strode into the temple, motioning Andorin to follow. Huddling there inside were a handful of priests, and a crowd of elderly, and women and children; all with fearful looks upon their faces, the children holding onto each other and their mothers. One of the priests strode toward Belkarus, raising his hands in a gesture of peace.

"We are only women and children here, and the old," the priest explained. "I humbly ask protection for these people."

"Do you now?" Belkarus walked around thoughtfully, a finger to his lips, looking at those huddled against the walls. He smiled as he ruffled a young boy's hair, winked at a little girl.

"Would you like me to oversee their taking into custody, Lord Belkarus?" Andorin asked. 

"Oh yes," Belkarus smiled at Andorin. "You wish to gain my favor." He strode among the women and children and the old a moment more, and ruffled the boys hair again. "A beautiful child."

"Should we leave them be then, my Lord?" Andorin asked. Belkarus stopped to stand beside him. And placed a hand on his shoulder. He took a deep breath, smiling at all those within.

"My Lord?" The priest said. He looked upon Belkarus hopefully, holding his hands clasped before him.

"Oh yes, priest." Belkarus's smile became wicked. "Your Lord." He looked at Andorin once more. "Kill them Andorin." A moment of surprise appeared in Andorin's eyes, but he began unsheathing his sword.

"And what of the children?" he asked.

"You wish to gain my favor, yes? Kill them!" Belkarus moved away to stand in the doorway, leaving Andorin in the center of the temple sanctuary. He watched thoughfully as Andorin slowly drew his blade and turned in a slow circle, taking in the priests, the old men and women—the mothers and their children, some still of the age to feed from their mother's breasts. 

"Kill them," Andorin muttered. "Kill them all." He continued to slowly turn. Some of the children old enough to understand had begun to cry, their mothers begging for mercy, hands reaching out pleadingly when he moved near them.

"You can't do this!" The priest who spoke to Belkarus pleaded. "There are innocent lives here!" He grabbed hold of Andorin's sleeve, who looked back at him blankly. He rushed to Belkarus in the doorway. "Please, my Lord! You cannot! The children!" Belkarus pulled his sword and rammed it hard into the priest's stomach, kicking him off the blade as his legs still twitched.

"Do it, Andorin!" Belkarus shouted. "Do it and earn a place as one of my commanders!" And Andorin turned to look at him. 

It was just as he wanted. A higher rank. Killing came easy to him. "You are a pitiful human being. I have been afraid all this time—but now I wonder if perhaps I should just feel sorry for you." He remembered Annyaa's words to him as he looked upon the frightened faces of the children. "I go to be with the One God," the white dragon had said to him. "Where will you go when you leave this world? Where, human, will you go?" He grew angry then, raising his sword. He raised the blade high over a small boy clinging to his mother as she held up a hand pleading for mercy with tears falling down her cheeks. He gripped the hilt of his sword tight in both hands, his knuckles white with the strain. He clenched his jaw, his teeth grinding loudly in his ears over the sounds of screaming and pleading and begging and crying. He screamed in rage and turned—and tossed his sword to the floor. Belkarus raised a brow as it slid across the floor to rest at his feet.

"I—I cannot," Andorin whispered, his shoulders slumped. Belkarus moved to stand before him.

"You cannot?" He repeated. "You can not?" He asked louder. Andorin raised his head to look him in the eyes, and sighed.

"I will not," Andorin spoke louder. "I have done many things, but I will not take the life of a child." Belkarus actually looked surprised. Turning on his heel he strode to Andorin's sword, picked it up and returned. He grabbed Andorin's arm and placed the hilt in his hand. But he dropped the sword once more. "No. I will not," he repeated.

"Then you are no good to me." Belkarus turned and motioned men to come forward. "Take him," he ordered. Three men came forward. Andorin hardly had time to flinch before a hard fist hit him hard just below his left eye. He stumbled, and another strike to his temple knocked him down. He tried to cover himself as blow after blow rained down on him; punching, kicking, and stomping. "The rest of you," he heard Belkarus shout. "Finish what this coward could not!" As they beat him mercilessly, he heard the sounds of boots rushing forward and the scrape of steel leaving scabbards—and then he heard the screams—just before everything went dark.

A door was opened, and Andorin felt himself thrown bodily to a hard wooden floor. He struggled to rise, unsuccessfully, and felt hands lifting him to his feet and leading him to sit against a wall. He kept his eyes closed; opening them even in very little light made his head pound, and made him feel nautious. "He took quite a beating," he heard one man say as a low light suddenly appeared behind his eyelids. "The One God can heal his hurts," he heard from another. And then he felt hands on his face, and warmth that enveloped him from head to toe, concentrated especially where he was beaten the most, his head, his ribs, his back. His pain eased, although a minor ache still existed. Yet, even that ache seemed to be slowly fading.

"Open your eyes, Andorin," someone said. Slowly he opened his eyes and found himself face to face with eyes that appeared full of joy, sadness, and fierceness together.

"How—how do you know my name?" 

"I don't know. A gift from the One God perhaps." The man smiled. Andorin noticed another man in the white robes of a priest kneeling beside him holding a small light in the open palm of his hand. His eyes grew wide with shock. There was nothing in the priest's hands to hold the light. It was simply there.

"What did you do to me?" he asked the man who knew his name. And the priest with the light smiled.

"He did nothing. It was the power of the One God."

"Nonsense!" Andorin nearly shouted. "Impossible!"

"Yet the blemishes and cuts and bruises upon your face are gone."

"Sorcery then!" He was growing angry. He stood up to move away, and the priest rose with him, gently grabbing his wrist, and began praying. Praying for him, Andorin realized with a shock. "I don't need your prayers priest," he said. Reluctantly, the priest let go of his wrist. 

"I believe we all need prayer from time to time," he said. "Sometimes when we don't want it, is when we need it most." 

"Shut up!" Andorin shoved him against the wall. The priest opened his mouth to say something else, but Andorin's fist knocked him to his knees. Reaching down, he grabbed a handful of the priest's robes and hauled him to his feet, only to throw him to the floor once more. As the priest tumbled to the center of the cage, Andorin was on him, sitting on him, with a fist raised to strike him once more. He stopped at the touch of a hand upon his shoulder and stood up, rounding on the man who touched him, ready to do the same to him. He came face to face with those eyes once more—eyes full of joy, sadness, and fierceness together. He wanted to lash out at the man, to strike him down, and beat him mercilessly, as he was beaten himself just before. But he could not. Slowly, he opened his fist, and abruptly turned. He moved against another wall and sat with his arms resting on his knees. "We're all going to die, you know." He said to the man as he helped the priest back to his feet. "We're all going to die, or become slaves. Those of you who are priests, will likely die."

The priest Andorin had stricken turned slowly to look at him with a look of genuine sadness in his eyes. "Be that as it may, friend, when I die I will go to be with the One God. Where will you go?" There were those words again; the same question put forth by the dragon whose skull now made Belkarus's rolling throne. Andorin gritted his teeth and rested his head against the wall, closing his eyes.

"I am in here," Andorin said quietly. "Because I refused to kill children at the temple here in Crymeer. It matters little. They died regardless." This brought gasps of horror from many within the cage. Iam moved to sit beside him, and Andorin glanced at him with hostility, but the man was not fazed.

"You have done many terrible deeds in your lifetime, Andorin." Iam spoke quietly. "Do you believe the One God is such that he would not wipe those terrible deeds from his memory if you so asked him?"

"What do you know of my life?" Andorin sneered. "You know nothing of what I've done!" Iam did not answer.

"You were a good child, once." The man said instead. "All men were good children once." He smiled, placing a hand on Andorin's shoulder, before standing. "There is good in you yet. I can feel it."

"What do you know? What makes you think that?" Andorin sneered in contempt.

"If I were wrong, you would have killed those children yourself." He stood and walked away, leaving Andorin to his thoughts.

"Where will you go?" The dragon had said. "Nonsense," Andorin muttered. Outside the sounds of battle could still be heard as Belkarus army began the destruction of the city of Crymeer. He closed his eyes, but only saw the children who had been struck down by Belkarus's soldiers; children he had been ordered to kill, but could not. An entire room of children who would laugh and play no more, who would dream no more—whose eyes would sparkle at the wonders of life no more. No more.

©Anthony David Rosenthal/To The Valley Of Dragons 2010