The Arcanian Saga Part 1: Rowin’s Quest

 

I know most writers wanna get paid for their books and I’d love to but for now I’d be happy just knowing people were reading my book.  Alright people so for those of you that have read my book and were less than thrilled here’s the new blended version of it and it’s better. There’s so much more to the story that you guys are missing so I’ve fixed that.

 

 

Welcome to the World of Adoleha home of  The Arcanian Saga.

the-arcanian-saga-volume-1-cover

©2016; original story by James Heinrich

Chapter 1

 

The hammer came down on the red-hot steel in a steady rhythm, beating it into the desired shape. The smith found her pace and filled the workshop with the sound of ringing steel.

A young boy coughed a lungful of soot. He wiped his sweaty face and pulled another heated blade from the fire. He brought the blade over to the anvil, set it down, and pulled the hammer from his belt.

The two smiths fell into step, working their steel with years of practise. After ten strokes, he coughed again and then looked at the girl to his right.

She kept hammering with determination, not even stopping when she said, “Hey, where’s my accompaniment?”

He immediately went back to work, rejoining their rhythm. He fell into a trance, allowing his instincts to guide his movements. The subtle change in heat told him to put his blade back in the fire. He knew exactly where in the coals to move it and how long to wait before taking it back out and back to the anvil. He got it into the shape he wanted and quenched it in the trough of ice-cold water, which turned to hissing steam on contact.

“Rowin.”

The young man snapped out of his trance, and recognized his father’s voice calling him.

“Still getting lost in the music?”

He looked, and saw the sweaty, sooty face of his father waiting for him to snap back to reality. Rowin took the sword, now cool enough to handle, from the trough and laid it on the table.

Ken ran a hand down the flat of the sword, examining it for imperfections. His experienced hands picked out tiny cracks and uneven spots in the metal. “It still feels out of line, but not as much as the last one. You’re getting better.” He shoved the blade back into the furnace to heat it for tempering.

“Thank you, Father.”

The girl quenched her blade. She placed it on the table. “I’m finished, Father.”

Ken examined it. He looked down its edge and ran his fingers along the flat. “Excellent, Erica. You’re getting better every day.” He put the raw blade into a display rack and went back to the fire. “I want the two of you to flatten out the other one before we’re done for the day.”

Ken shuffled Rowin’s blade around in the coals. He removed the blade, now glowing dull red in the middle, and set it on the anvil. “Away, children.”

Rowin and Erica pounded the bend out of the blade with alternating strikes of their hammers. In less than a minute, they had it straightened out, quenched, and in the rack with the other blade they had finished that day.

“Have you ever thought of quenching yourself in the trough?” Erica jokingly asked her younger brother.

“Have you ever thought about your future?” Rowin replied. “Do you really want to be a blacksmith’s daughter, stuck here for the rest of your life?”

“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad! He’s the Chief Metallurgist to the royal family! Our grandfather forged the king’s sword, so we’re bound to get a big commission like that someday.”

“Sir Scott MacDougal arrives,” a young man declared from the workshop door. The blacksmith family looked and saw the herald. Behind him stood Sir Scott MacDougal.

Rowin had pictured Sir Scott as a tall, armoured knight, with sword and lance, astride a mighty horse, as the tales had told.

Erica had pictured Sir Scott as a handsome older man with steely eyes full of mercy and a sensitive soul full of poetry.

Ken, who had actually interacted with Sir Scott, recognized the dark hair, broad shoulders, and lined face. The fables had built him up, but Ken knew the man. “What brings you to my shop personally, Milord?”

Scott walked into the workshop. He carried himself with great poise, looked at the teens for a moment, and then turned his attention to the master smith. “I was on my way to the castle to attend to other business, so I figured I’d get this out of the way. His Majesty is sponsoring another tournament in two months’ time, and I am obligated to attend. I need a new jousting shield.”

Ken nodded. “Then take a seat, Milord.”

The knight sat down on the offered chair. Erica went to his side with a measuring tape. “With which arm do you carry your shield, Milord?” she stammered.

Scott raised his left arm and clenched his fist. Erica spent far too long measuring the distance from his wrist to elbow, and then finally wrote the number on a small pad. “I… I have to… find how tall the… the shield…” she tried to say, motioning the tape toward his side.

“Then get on with it, girl.”

Again, Erica took more time than she should have in taking that measurement. When she had finished, she had a visible blush. She handed off the note to Rowin, quickly scrubbed her sooty hands in the trough water, splashed her face, and ran toward the house with the excuse “Mother needs me in the kitchen now.”

Rowin sketched out a rough of the shield’s angles on the note. He did the math, double-checked his calculations, and handed his results to his father.

Ken looked over his son’s work and nodded. “Milord, I will have your shield ready before the eve of the tournament.”

“Thank you, Chief.”

 

“Milord,” Rowin called before Scott left.

“Yes, my boy?”

Rowin bowed reverently. “Milord, I wish to become your squire.”

“You seem to have a steady career here; why do you wish to leave this place?”

“I don’t want to just make the swords, I want to carry them into battle. Everyone knows who Sir Kelvin Tolmous is and what he did, but does anybody know – or care – who made his sword, his armour?  I’m not going to settle for being a name scratched into a tang that nobody will ever see.”

Scott looked at the young man standing before him. He saw the wide-eyed idealism, the noble goals, and wanted to warn him against holding such preconceptions. “Let me speak with your father on this.”

 

“Your son has expressed his desire to become my squire.”

Ken smiled. “Yes, he has been increasingly focused on that goal. I fear his work is suffering for his dream. I think you should take him; he will either flourish under your tutorship or come back to the forge. In the meantime, I already have one skilled apprentice, and she is just about ready to take more responsibilities.”

“I find this interesting,” Scott told him. “Were we in our grandparents’ time, we would not be having this conversation.”

“Ay, how the times are changing. Perhaps we will see the trade restrictions relaxed in our lifetimes.”

Scott scoffed. “Such a thing will not happen without careful measures to ensure that our way of life doesn’t collapse. But there is a rise in female smiths so it’s not that unheard of. She is your eldest yes?” “Yes Milord.” “Then I will have no guilt in taking your son as my apprentice after he proves himself I want him to be the one that makes my shield Ken call it a test of will to show his dedication. It will be a worthy task and will serve him well if he truly wants to be a knight.”  “I’ll tell him your conditions Milord.”

“Good.” With that Scott Left the forge. Ken turned. “Okay Rowin, Erica you can come out now.” He knew they were hiding in the depths of the large forge out of sight.

“I take you heard Scott’s conditions Rowin?”

“Yes sir he wants me to make the sword instead as a test of my dedication.”

“Correct you up to the task?”

“You bet I’ll get started right away.”

“You can start tomorrow it’s dinner time.”

 

 

It smelled wonderful, and Rowin took his seat and waited patiently for his mother to serve dinner.

Lilly looked pleased with herself, while Erica, following behind, did not. Between them, they carried a pot roast, gravy, biscuits, and a platter of potatoes. They could afford to eat well these days, since Ken’s commission from the Royal Family to produce a pair of high-quality swords in anticipation of the alliance’s inevitable victory over the Furindian belligerents and further reaffirm Arcania’s commitment to her Saltarian allies.

“It smells good,” Ken said.

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” Lilly replied. “Set the table, dear,” she said to Erica.

The “Yes, Mother,” that Erica gave sounded like they had had another row over Erica’s desire to join her father as a blacksmith instead of marrying into another minor noble house like Lilly had wanted for the past five years.

“Well, this is certainly going to be an interesting few days,” Ken announced.

“How so, dear?” his wife asked.

“Well, Erica is ready for her next test in her apprenticeship, and Sir Scott has offered to take on Rowin as his new squire that is if proves himself by making Scott’s new shield himself.”

The children perked up. The tension they could feel when they sat down had evaporated.

“You’ll be losing an apprentice,” Lilly told him. “Who will carry on the family business?”

“I’m right here, Mother,” Erica said, “and I’m doing very well.”

“But it isn’t right for Rowin to give this up for anything else. He should want to take over the family business when you retire.” She looked at her husband. “You took over when your father retired, and he did too. Have any of your ancestors given up the business to chase a dream?”

“No, but they didn’t believe that women could be blacksmiths as well as men can and they didn’t have a daughter who was better at it than their sons and could take over for them. I do.”

“Well, Liam did, and it got him killed.”

“Father’s right Erica is a far better blacksmith than I am” Rowin asked.

“Yes but with practise and if you put your mind to it you would be a great blacksmith one day if you didn’t want something more,” his father told him. “Father you know I don’t belong here I want to be a knight.”

Rowin looked at Erica. She raised an eyebrow. “Why are you looking at me? You know I love you and will support whatever decision you make.”

Rowin then turned to his mother. “Will you support my decision?”

She waited for a moment. “Rowin, my son, I just want what’s best for you. You should be looking forward to claiming your father’s title when he retires, not gallivanting off to fight for some reason or another. I’d die if I lost you.”

“If you don’t let me make my own choices, I’ll be a boy forever. You don’t want that, do you?”

“We will continue this discussion after dinner.”

“No, Mother; this is too important. My future isn’t here in father’s forge making swords.”

Ken had not expected his son to act in this way, Rowin was normally a quiet and obedient boy, to refuse his mother’s request. He didn’t know what to make of the situation right away.

While Lilly sat astonished, Rowin continued. “You just have to answer my question: will you support my decision to become Sir Scott’s squire?”

Lilly closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. She did not want to lose her son like she had lost her beloved brother. If she could not stop him from following this path, then she would take comfort in knowing that he still wanted her approval before he went.

“Yes. Make me proud, my son.” Tears ran down her cheeks she wanted Rowin to be happy and follow his dream but she thought it was unrealistic.

 

While his father and Scott discussed business, Rowin went to the herald. He stood patiently at the door, hands behind his back. Rowin extended his hand, and the herald returned the gesture, shaking his hand with a firm, cool grip.

“I am Joshua Albion. Tomorrow, I will be knighted.”

“So you were Scott’s squire? What was it like?”

“Yes, I am Sir Scott’s squire for the time being. I am his shield bearer, his flag bearer, his horse keeper, his armour keeper; I must replace his sword should he lose or break it; I assemble his armour; I hold the prisoners he takes, and I rescue him should he be taken prisoner himself.”

Rowin shivered at the thought of doing those things. “Is it hard?”

“My friend, I have spent the last four years learning heraldry, swordplay, riding, and etiquette. When it wasn’t hard on my mind, it was hard on my body. It shaped me into the man I am now.” Joshua puffed out his chest and put his hands on his hips, but couldn’t stop a smirk from reaching his lips. He looked past Rowin and said, “Are we leaving, Milord?”

Rowin turned around and saw Scott standing next to him. “Retrieve the horses,” he ordered and Joshua left without hesitation.

Rowin bowed as reverently as he could. “Milord, I wish to become your squire.” Rowin waited for Scott to reply. He watched the knight look him over and hoped he saw that he really meant what he said and understood his dream.

Scott breathed in and looked away. “Do you want the power?”

“Sir?”

Scott looked at him with weary eyes. “Is that what you want: titles, land, the power that comes with being a knight? There are too many of those people in the world. I’m said to say I know some of them.” He looked around the workshop. “You seem to have a steady career here; why do you wish to leave this place?”

“I don’t want to just make the swords; I want to carry them into battle. Everyone knows who Sir Kelvin Tolmous is and what he did, but does anybody know – or care – who made his sword, his armour? I’m not going to settle for being a name scratched into a tang that nobody will ever see.”

“I see. You want to fight.”

Rowin shook his head. “I – No, I didn’t say that. I want to be a hero, like Sir Kelvin.”

Scott’s head drooped. “Can I tell you a bit of what I know about Sir Kelvin? He wasn’t a pure knight in shining armour. He was… headstrong. He didn’t see eye to eye with his king. His crusade into Furindi probably got him killed.”

“Then I’ll be a hero my own way.”

“You’re not the only boy who wants to be my squire and I don’t know if you can handle it. I don’t know if you really want to take the responsibility or you’re just attracted to the idea of becoming a knight. It might not be worth the risk of leaving this life and taking up something far removed from what you’re good at. I would be very upset if I accepted you and then you broke under the weight of responsibility.”

“But I want to be a hero!”

Rowin went silent when Scott raised his hand. “You want to be a hero, like me? Others expect the impossible from their heroes. I earned my Silver Cross as the only survivor of twelve. I have had more brushes with death than I care to remember. Does that sound like the work of a hero?”

Rowin couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I will return when I receive word that my shield is finished. If things change and you can show me that you can handle the responsibility of the position, then I’ll reconsider.”

Rowin watched Scott and Joshua ride away. How could he show Scott that he wanted this? He slapped his hip, right where his hammer hung. He had an idea, but he would wait until dinner to tell everyone at once.

 

Rowin could smell the roast and potatoes even before he got inside. He took his seat and waited patiently for his mother to serve. Erica set the table with a wounded look on her face and went back to help their mother bring in the meal.

“I spoke with Sir Scott before he left,” Rowin announced. “I asked to become his squire.”

Both of his parents stopped. “You’re still on about giving up your work for a dream?” his mother asked.

“It’s not a dream, Mother; it’s my destiny.”

His father leaned over. “What did he tell you?”

“He didn’t accept me, but Scott said that he’d reconsider if he sees I’m good enough when he gets the shield. I’m going to show him that I’m the best man for the job.”

“How do you plan to do that?” his mother asked.

“I’m going to make that shield by myself, and it’s going to be the best piece I will ever make.”

His mother leaned back, his father raised his eyebrows, and his sister gasped.

“That’s all well and good,” his mother said, “but think about it: if you give Sir Scott the best shield you will ever make, then it proves you’re an outstanding blacksmith. You should stay here, with your family trade, and inherit the business from your father. When you’re older, you’ll teach your children the trade.”

“But we all agreed that Erica is inheriting the business. We won’t lose anything.”

“We’ll be losing you, and I don’t want to think about losing you the way I lost Liam.”

“Knights are the best, and the Royal Knights are the best of the best,” Rowin told her. “I’m going to be the best of the Royal Knights, you’ll see.”

“Yes, we’ll see,” she replied, her tone sceptical. “Eat your dinner.”

 

Rowin lay in his bed, staring into the dark ceiling and listening to his heartbeat. He heard a soft knock on his door and Erica came in. Rowin sat up and asked, “What got you so upset before dinner?”

“I told Mother about Joshua. She said ‘You can’t do much better than a knight, dear. You should see him more and think about marrying him.’”

Rowin laughed to himself. “He didn’t seem that bad when I talked to him.”

“You talked to him; I got my hand kissed.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to think about him right now. I’m worried about you.”

“Are you afraid that I’ll finally reach your level?”

“I want to see you excel, I really do. I know you’ve got the talent. I’m worried that you’ll let your goal take over. I could hear it in your voice. Don’t work so hard that you sacrifice everything else.”

Erica sat down next to him and put her arm around his shoulders. “I think you’ve got what it takes to be a knight. You work hard, and I’ll be there to rap you on the head if you’re getting too absorbed. If Scott turns you down again, I’ll give him a stern talking-to in your favour. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Erica kissed him on the forehead. “And don’t get killed. Mother lost Uncle Liam to violence; she’s not going to lose her son too. It would kill her. But I know you can do anything you put your mind to. I believe in you. Good night.”

 

Metal clashed against metal as the valiant knight blocked his dastardly foe’s swings. He stepped back and thrust, his blade deflecting off his black-armoured enemy’s breastplate.

The black knight punched him in the gut, knocking him to his knees, and when he looked up, he could see that his black foe had left himself open as he brought his sword up for a killing blow.

Rowin brought up his sword and thrust it through his opponent’s breastplate, bringing him to the ground and ending the battle. He stood tall above his fallen foe and raised his sword high, proclaiming his status as a hero, now and for all time.

He could hear the people chanting his name: “Rowin! Rowin! Rowin!”

“Rowin, wake up.”

He cracked open one eye, and when it focused, he saw Erica standing next to his bed. The light of dawn streamed through his window.

“Have a nice dream?” she asked.

“Actually, yes. Dreamt I was a knight, fighting an evil knight. I defeated him.”

“Good for you. Get up and get dressed; breakfast is almost ready.”

 

Rowin’s world shrunk to the sound of ringing hammers, the blistering heat of the furnace, and the stiffness in his shoulders. He worked out his frustration on the metal, beating a curve into the steel plate with fierce hammer blows.

“As long as this shield remains unbroken,” he swore between strokes, “Sir Scott’s faith in me shall remain also unbroken.”

He did not even break his concentration when Erica brought in the wooden backing. He said nothing to her as he clamped the backing onto the workbench and test-fitted the metal face. Of course it didn’t fit right away, so he beat on it some more.

His vision went blurry and his head started spinning. He dropped his hammer to clutch at the workbench. He felt hands on his arm.

“Are you okay?” Erica asked from his side. “When did you last take a break?”

“Can’t remember.”

“Then go outside and sit down. Rowin, you could kill yourself if you keep this up.”

 

Rowin sat in the grass outside the shop, breathing slowly and waiting for his headache to clear and his hands to stop shaking. Should he keep going? Maybe Erica had a point; he never felt this drained before.

But if he relented, he wouldn’t finish the shield on his own. He would need Erica and his father to help, and that would break his oath to himself. He put his hands over his face. He needed to make this decision.

Erica came up to him and handed him a plate of food. “You missed lunch,” she told him. “No wonder you nearly passed out.”

Rowin took three quick bites and then choked. He coughed out the blockage.

“Don’t eat so fast,” Erica told him patting him on the back. “You’re not going to get much work done if you pass out or make yourself sick.”

“I know.” Rowin wiped the tears from his eyes, leaving soot and metal dust from his hand. “Oh, that was a bad idea.” His eyes started watering even more.

Erica laughed a little. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh.” She handed him a plae of water and Rowin put his hands in and splashed his face with the clean water washing the soot and dust out of his eyes.

“It’s okay.”

“Are you really going to try and finish that shield on your own?”

“I have to.”

“No, you don’t.”

Rowin looked at his sister and found her looking right back at him. “What?”

“You don’t have to, but you want to. I have never seen you throw yourself this hard into your work, not even the commemorative swords we finished last week, but you’re working harder than you ever have, and it could hurt you.”

Erica stood up when Rowin did. “Don’t you tell me that you think I’d be able to make that shield without effort. You are just as good as me. Stop putting me up on a pedestal.” She leaned in close to him and put a finger on his chest. “I know you’re going to make the best jousting shield because you can, but you’re going to do it safely. No skipping meals, understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now finish lunch and you can get back to work.”

 

“Well, what do you think?”

Rowin handed the finished shield to Erica. He smiled as she hefted it, tapped the surface, and held it against the light.

“This is fantastic for two weeks’ work,” she told him. “It feels perfectly balanced, and the face looks great. This will impress Sir Scott, no doubt about it. What do you think, Father?”

Rowin’s heart swelled. His father closely inspected the shield’s surface. He waited patiently, but sweat poured down his face. He had put so much effort into his work that his father would have nothing but praise for it.

“It needs something.”

“Of course it ‘needs something!’” Rowin snapped. “I slaved on this for two weeks! I put my heart and soul into making this! But my best is never good enough for you, is it?”

Rowin hung his head. He could feel tears welling in his eyes. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been working so hard. I’m on the edge.”

“I should be apologizing,” his father said. “I know how hard you’ve been working; I’ve watched your dedication every day. I should have said it right away: it needs a coat of arms and a lacquer, and then it will be spectacular.”

Rowin wiped the tears from his eyes. He understood his father’s hidden praise. “Thank you, Father. I want to present this to Sir Scott personally. Would you take me to his keep tomorrow?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

 

While his father and Scott discussed business, Rowin went to the herald. He stood patiently at the door, hands behind his back. Rowin extended his hand, and the herald returned the gesture, shaking his hand with a firm, cool grip.

“I am Joshua Albion. Tomorrow, I will be knighted.”

“So you were Scott’s squire? What was it like?”

“Yes, I am Sir Scott’s squire for the time being. I am his shield bearer, his flag bearer, his horse keeper, his armour keeper; I must replace his sword should he lose or break it; I assemble his armour; I hold the prisoners he takes, and I rescue him should he be taken prisoner himself.”

Rowin shivered at the thought of doing those things. “Is it hard?”

“My friend, I have spent the last four years learning heraldry, swordplay, riding, and etiquette. When it wasn’t hard on my mind, it was hard on my body. It shaped me into the man I am now.” Joshua puffed out his chest and put his hands on his hips, but couldn’t stop a smirk from reaching his lips. He looked past Rowin and said, “Are we leaving, Milord?”

Rowin turned around and saw Scott standing next to him. “Retrieve the horses,” he ordered and Joshua left without hesitation.

Rowin bowed as reverently as he could. “Milord, I wish to become your squire.” Rowin waited for Scott to reply. He watched the knight look him over and hoped he saw that he really meant what he said and understood his dream.

Scott breathed in and looked away. “Do you want the power?”

“Sir?”

Scott looked at him with weary eyes. “Is that what you want: titles, land, the power that comes with being a knight? There are too many of those people in the world. I’m said to say I know some of them.” He looked around the workshop. “You seem to have a steady career here; why do you wish to leave this place?”

“I don’t want to just make the swords; I want to carry them into battle. Everyone knows who Sir Kelvin Tolmous is and what he did, but does anybody know – or care – who made his sword, his armour? I’m not going to settle for being a name scratched into a tang that nobody will ever see.”

“I see. You want to fight.”

Rowin shook his head. “I – No, I didn’t say that. I want to be a hero, like Sir Kelvin.”

Scott’s head drooped. “Can I tell you a bit of what I know about Sir Kelvin? He wasn’t a pure knight in shining armour. He was… headstrong. He didn’t see eye to eye with his king. His crusade into Furindi probably got him killed.”

“Then I’ll be a hero my own way.”

“You’re not the only boy who wants to be my squire and I don’t know if you can handle it. I don’t know if you really want to take the responsibility or you’re just attracted to the idea of becoming a knight. It might not be worth the risk of leaving this life and taking up something far removed from what you’re good at. I would be very upset if I accepted you and then you broke under the weight of responsibility.”

“But I want to be a hero!”

Rowin went silent when Scott raised his hand. “You want to be a hero, like me? Others expect the impossible from their heroes. I earned my Silver Cross as the only survivor of twelve. I have had more brushes with death than I care to remember. Does that sound like the work of a hero?”

Rowin couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I will return when I receive word that my shield is finished. If things change and you can show me that you can handle the responsibility of the position, then I’ll reconsider.”

Rowin watched Scott and Joshua ride away. How could he show Scott that he wanted this? He slapped his hip, right where his hammer hung. He had an idea, but he would wait until dinner to tell everyone at once.

 

Rowin could smell the roast and potatoes even before he got inside. He took his seat and waited patiently for his mother to serve. Erica set the table with a wounded look on her face and went back to help their mother bring in the meal.

“I spoke with Sir Scott before he left,” Rowin announced. “I asked to become his squire.”

Both of his parents stopped. “You’re still on about giving up your work for a dream?” his mother asked.

“It’s not a dream, Mother; it’s my destiny.”

His father leaned over. “What did he tell you?”

“He didn’t accept me, but Scott said that he’d reconsider if he sees I’m good enough when he gets the shield. I’m going to show him that I’m the best man for the job.”

“How do you plan to do that?” his mother asked.

“I’m going to make that shield by myself, and it’s going to be the best piece I will ever make.”

His mother leaned back, his father raised his eyebrows, and his sister gasped.

“That’s all well and good,” his mother said, “but think about it: if you give Sir Scott the best shield you will ever make, then it proves you’re an outstanding blacksmith. You should stay here, with your family trade, and inherit the business from your father. When you’re older, you’ll teach your children the trade.”

“But we all agreed that Erica is inheriting the business. We won’t lose anything.”

“We’ll be losing you, and I don’t want to think about losing you the way I lost Liam.”

“Knights are the best, and the Royal Knights are the best of the best,” Rowin told her. “I’m going to be the best of the Royal Knights, you’ll see.”

“Yes, we’ll see,” she replied, her tone sceptical. “Eat your dinner.”

 

Rowin lay in his bed, staring into the dark ceiling and listening to his heartbeat. He heard a soft knock on his door and Erica came in. Rowin sat up and asked, “What got you so upset before dinner?”

“I told Mother about Joshua. She said ‘You can’t do much better than a knight, dear. You should see him more and think about marrying him.’”

Rowin laughed to himself. “He didn’t seem that bad when I talked to him.”

“You talked to him; I got my hand kissed.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to think about him right now. I’m worried about you.”

“Are you afraid that I’ll finally reach your level?”

“I want to see you excel, I really do. I know you’ve got the talent. I’m worried that you’ll let your goal take over. I could hear it in your voice. Don’t work so hard that you sacrifice everything else.”

Erica sat down next to him and put her arm around his shoulders. “I think you’ve got what it takes to be a knight. You work hard, and I’ll be there to rap you on the head if you’re getting too absorbed. If Scott turns you down again, I’ll give him a stern talking-to in your favour. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Erica kissed him on the forehead. “And don’t get killed. Mother lost Uncle Liam to violence; she’s not going to lose her son too. It would kill her. But I know you can do anything you put your mind to. I believe in you. Good night.”

 

Metal clashed against metal as the valiant knight blocked his dastardly foe’s swings. He stepped back and thrust, his blade deflecting off his black-armoured enemy’s breastplate.

The black knight punched him in the gut, knocking him to his knees, and when he looked up, he could see that his black foe had left himself open as he brought his sword up for a killing blow.

Rowin brought up his sword and thrust it through his opponent’s breastplate, bringing him to the ground and ending the battle. He stood tall above his fallen foe and raised his sword high, proclaiming his status as a hero, now and for all time.

He could hear the people chanting his name: “Rowin! Rowin! Rowin!”

“Rowin, wake up.”

He cracked open one eye, and when it focused, he saw Erica standing next to his bed. The light of dawn streamed through his window.

“Have a nice dream?” she asked.

“Actually, yes. Dreamt I was a knight, fighting an evil knight. I defeated him.”

“Good for you. Get up and get dressed; breakfast is almost ready.”

 

Rowin’s world shrunk to the sound of ringing hammers, the blistering heat of the furnace, and the stiffness in his shoulders. He worked out his frustration on the metal, beating a curve into the steel plate with fierce hammer blows.

“As long as this shield remains unbroken,” he swore between strokes, “Sir Scott’s faith in me shall remain also unbroken.”

He did not even break his concentration when Erica brought in the wooden backing. He said nothing to her as he clamped the backing onto the workbench and test-fitted the metal face. Of course it didn’t fit right away, so he beat on it some more.

His vision went blurry and his head started spinning. He dropped his hammer to clutch at the workbench. He felt hands on his arm.

“Are you okay?” Erica asked from his side. “When did you last take a break?”

“Can’t remember.”

“Then go outside and sit down. Rowin, you could kill yourself if you keep this up.”

 

Rowin sat in the grass outside the shop, breathing slowly and waiting for his headache to clear and his hands to stop shaking. Should he keep going? Maybe Erica had a point; he never felt this drained before.

But if he relented, he wouldn’t finish the shield on his own. He would need Erica and his father to help, and that would break his oath to himself. He put his hands over his face. He needed to make this decision.

Erica came up to him and handed him a plate of food. “You missed lunch,” she told him. “No wonder you nearly passed out.”

Rowin took three quick bites and then choked. He coughed out the blockage.

“Don’t eat so fast,” Erica told him. “You’re not going to get much work done if you pass out or make yourself sick.”

“I know.” Rowin wiped the tears from his eyes, leaving soot and metal dust from his hand. “Oh, that was a bad idea.” His eyes started watering even more.

Erica laughed a little. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh.”

“It’s okay.”

“Are you really going to try and finish that shield on your own?”

“I have to.”

“No, you don’t.”

Rowin looked at his sister and found her looking right back at him. “What?”

“You don’t have to, but you want to. I have never seen you throw yourself this hard into your work, not even the commemorative swords we finished last week, but you’re working harder than you ever have, and it could hurt you.”

Erica stood up when Rowin did. “Don’t you tell me that you think I’d be able to make that shield without effort. You are just as good as me. Stop putting me up on a pedestal.” She leaned in close to him and put a finger on his chest. “I know you’re going to make the best jousting shield because you can, but you’re going to do it safely. No skipping meals, understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now finish lunch and you can get back to work.”

 

Rowin had one thing left to do. He went to his big sister’s room and put his ear to the door. He didn’t hear anything, so he quietly opened the door and entered.

“Hey; you awake yet?”

She opened her eyes and smiled at him. “So, what are you doing up this early?” she whispered groggily as she sat up.

Rowin smiled back at her. “Erica, I love you. You’ll be in my heart always. I’m going, and the next time we see each other, I will be a knight.”

“Then before you go,” Erica raised her arms toward him.

Rowin gave her a long hug and she kissed him on the forehead. “Good luck, dear brother. I love you too, and you’ll always be in my heart as well.”

Rowin smiled and ran a hand through her long sandy brown hair. “I know. Go back to sleep, my beloved sister.”  He tucked her back in and watched until she closed her eyes and he bent and kissed her forehead once more and ran his fingers through her hair again then turned and left her room shutting the door quietly behind him, so he didn’t wake her again. He then made his way out the front door to his dad’s forge.

 

Ken looked up from the anvil to see his son approaching, with a pack over his shoulder and his sword tied around his waist.

“No regrets, no second guesses,” he told his son.

“I wanted to say goodbye before I left, and that I’ll come back to visit. I want to become a knight, and I want to ride into battle to defend my country from the bad guys. I’ll stay in there, and I’ll make you proud of me, Dad.”

“I already am, son. Did you tell your mother yet?”

“No, I didn’t,” Rowin nearly spat, crossing his arms, frustrated just at the thought of his mother.

“Rowin, even though she seems like she doesn’t want you running off to follow your dreams, she still cares. If you head out without telling her, she’s going to worry herself sick about you.”

 

“She does that anyway, I’ll always be her little boy. It’s like she hasn’t even noticed that I’m not a little boy anymore. I’m a man!” Rowin said, slamming his fist on his dad’s anvil. His hand throbbing from the impact, Rowin ignored the pain in his hand.

“You’re not acting like one right now.”

Rowin took several calming breaths, and then said, “Can you say goodbye to her for me?”

“I will, Son. Good luck. Your sister and I believe in you, and even if she doesn’t say so, your mother does, too,” Ken said, holding out his hand.

“I know you do. Thanks, Dad.”  Rowin shook it firmly, and with that he started down the beaten path.

 

“Well, what do you think?”

Rowin handed the finished shield to Erica. He smiled as she hefted it, tapped the surface, and held it against the light.

“This is fantastic for two weeks’ work,” she told him. “It feels perfectly balanced, and the face looks great. This will impress Sir Scott, no doubt about it. What do you think, Father?”

Rowin’s heart swelled. His father closely inspected the shield’s surface. He waited patiently, but sweat poured down his face. He had put so much effort into his work that his father would have nothing but praise for it.

“It needs something.”

“Of course it ‘needs something!’” Rowin snapped. “I slaved on this for two weeks! I put my heart and soul into making this! But my best is never good enough for you, is it?”

Rowin hung his head. He could feel tears welling in his eyes. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been working so hard. I’m on the edge.”

“I should be apologizing,” his father said. “I know how hard you’ve been working; I’ve watched your dedication every day. I should have said it right away: it needs a coat of arms and a lacquer, and then it will be spectacular.”

Rowin wiped the tears from his eyes. He understood his father’s hidden praise. “Thank you, Father. I want to present this to Sir Scott personally. Would you take me to his keep tomorrow?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Outside, in the chill dawn, Rowin assembled his pack. He looked up to see his family coming to see him off.

Erica hugged him tight. “I love you,” she said, brushing her cheek against his. She took his hand and put something in it. Rowin looked at the gift: a pendant of wrapped iron bands on a silver chain.

“Thank you,” he said. He put it around his neck and felt the weight.

“You do good, okay? If you don’t, I’ll have to come out and kick your butt.”

When Erica stepped back, their mother came in and hugged him just as hard. “My lovely boy, I’ll miss you. Come back and visit whenever you can.”

“I will. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of myself.”

Finally, Rowin’s father came up, leading two saddled ponies. He handed the reins of one to Rowin, who hopped into the seat. His father handed him the shield and he strapped it to his back. He snapped the reins and started out to the west, following his father’s lead.

He started to turn his head but stopped himself. He closed his eyes and shivered.

“Having second thoughts?” his father asked.

Rowin straightened up and opened his eyes. “No, sir. I’m not backing out now.”

 

After some hours on the road, Rowin felt a twinge in his back. He shifted in his saddle, but did not complain. He looked over at his father and saw the discomfort on his face. He saw something moving in the corner of his vision. He turned around to get a better look.

Rowin saw the largest man he had ever seen, carrying the largest axe he had ever seen, running toward them. Rowin’s breathing quickened as he tried to speak. “F-Father, look behind us!”

His father looked over his shoulder and then to him. “Don’t worry; it’s just Jon.”

“You know him?”

The man reached them faster than Rowin thought possible. He looked them over. Rowin kept glancing at the enormous double-bladed axe while he looked up at the bronze-skinned, sweaty titan standing before him. He slowly raised his hand in greeting.

“Don’t say it,” the giant told him in a deep, gravelly voice.

Rowin shied back in his seat and pulled his hand close to his chest.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you. Who’s this?” he asked of Rowin’s father.

“He’s my son. We’re bringing Scott’s shield to him. Would you escort us the rest of the way, Warden?”

Jon looked at them for a moment before he motioned with his head and started down the road.

 

Rowin studied the behemoth named Jon as they continued on their way. Rowin estimated that his axe weighed at least ten pounds.

“What’s so interesting?” Jon asked. “Have you never seen a Black Eagle before?”

“No, Milord, nor anyone as big as you.”

“Do not call me ‘Milord.’”

The young man straightened up. “Yes, sir. May I ask a question?”

Jon looked down at Rowin. “What do you want to know?”

“Why are you up here?”

Jon looked over his head. “Slave hunters from Rojobrerro tried to take me. Scott slew them and I pledged ten years of service to him for saving my life.”

“Do you admire his heroism?”

“I admire his strength of arm and his wisdom. There are few people in your nation who would have stopped to save a Black Eagle.”

 

By the time they arrived, his back hurt. Rowin had never ridden this far before. They stopped at the main gate of Scott’s keep, and he hid his ache the best he could as he dismounted. He stood next to his father as Jon swung open the steel-barred wooden door.

A stableboy met them as they walked into the courtyard, and Rowin handed over the reins. He looked around; taking in the sight of – hopefully – his home away from home.

Jon swung shut the gate behind him. “You want to talk to Scott, right? Wait here; I’ll get him.”

 

Rowin waited. He tried to rub the soreness out of his back. He tried to compose what he wanted to say to Scott when he arrived. He tried to calm himself.

The inner door opened and Scott came out, with Jon looming over his shoulder. Rowin instantly forgot what he wanted to say. He presented the shield and tried to stop trembling.

“You didn’t have to deliver this personally,” Scott said.

Rowin took a few breaths. “I wanted to, Milord, to get it directly into your hands from mine.”

When Scott grasped the shield, Rowin released his white-knuckle grip. Scott examined the face of the shield while Rowin watched Scott’s face for any sign of disapproval. Their eyes met, and Rowin straightened his back and puffed out his chest, hoping that Scott couldn’t read his anxiety or discomfort.

Scott slid his arm through the loops and held it close to his side. He tightened one of the straps. He turned to Jon. “What do you think?”

Jon merely shrugged.

“I like it,” Scott pronounced.

Rowin could finally breathe again. “Thank you, Milord. I put all of my effort into making it to your specifics. This should prove that I have the dedication you’re looking for.”

“You made this yourself?” Scott asked. “Is this true, Ken?”

“Absolutely,” Rowin’s father replied. “I merely supervised the process. What hangs from your arm came entirely from my son’s own hard work and skill. You’ll be proud to wear it, and you’d be proud to call my son your squire.”

Rowin shivered.

“Well, I agree.”

Rowin’s knees buckled. He focused on Scott’s extended hand. He reached out and shook it, his fingers slightly numb. “It will be my honour,” he said. “I won’t let you down, Milord. Will I be staying here from now on?”

“Of course. You’ll have your own quarters.”

Rowin looked at his father. “So you’ll be going home alone today.”

“Are you going to cry?” Ken asked.

“No, sir.”

“It’s all right if you want to, son. Do you want me to tell your mother anything for you?”

“Tell her that I love her.”

Ken smiled. “You don’t have to tell her; she knows.”

 

“Goodbye, Father. I will miss you.”

Ken climbed into the saddle, where he rolled his shoulder. “Son, do your best. I know you always have. Scott, take care of my boy. I expect to see his knighting ceremony.”

Scott looked down at Rowin sceptically. “So do I.”

Rowin watched his father leave, conscious of Scott at his side. “I’ll be able to visit once in a while, right?”

“Of course.”

“So, what will be my first task, Milord?”

“Your first task is to relax. Even I take the stick out of my ass once in a while. Your duties will begin tomorrow. For now, we’ll have dinner.”

A man sat at the right hand of the master’s chair. He stood when Rowin followed Scott into the dining room. “Welcome, child,” he said. He had a hint of an accent that Rowin could not place. “I am Irammun Kels, Sir Scott’s seneschal. I take care of the day-to-day business and represent our lord when he’s otherwise not available.”

Rowin approached and extended his hand. “Hello, sir. I’m Rowin, Sir Scott’s new squire.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Rowin.” Kels shook Rowin’s hand with a cool, firm grip. He motioned to the chair on the other side of the table. “Sit. Dinner will be served shortly.”

“I hope I won’t be a bother to you, sir.”

“Please, call me Kels, and you won’t be a bother. I enjoy having people around who will listen to me once in a while.” Kels glanced at Scott. “I’ll be teaching you the finer points of heraldry and etiquette.”

The staff started bringing in dinner. “Ah, we’ll talk about that later,” Kels said. “For now, we eat. Jon brings in fresh meat every week, so we have him to thank for this fine meal. He’s also taught the kitchen staff how his people preserve meat. I hope you like deer jerky, because you’ll be eating it often while you’re here.”

 

Jon looked very uncomfortable in the keep’s dining room as he wolfed down his food. He mostly ignored the servants and concentrated on eating.

Scott ate calmly and paid no heed to his friend’s crude behaviour. “You sound like you want to get back out there, Jon. Would you give Rowin a tour to get him acquainted with my land?”

Jon glanced up at the comment. He ripped a chunk of meat from the bone in his hands. “Fine.”

Scott smiled and looked to Rowin. “You’ll have tomorrow morning for this, but you will begin your duties and study in the afternoon. After Joshua’s knighting ceremony.” Scott waved over the maid standing by the door. “Mary, this is Rowin. Please show him to the squire’s room.”

“At once, Milord.” The petite but busty brunette curtsied to Rowin. “I am pleased to meet you, Rowin. Please follow me.”

 

As Rowin followed, he tried to come up with something to say to break the silence. “How long have you served Scott?”

“As long as I can remember. My mother served him as well as his predecessor. You are in good care here.”

Rowin smiled. “I figure I must be lucky to have a pretty maid to look after me.”

“How sweet of you. Joshua said the same.”

“Well, he was right.”

Mary opened the door and said. “This will be your room.” She motioned for Rowin to go inside.

Rowin went in and looked around. It smelled clean, not at all like the oil, sweat, and iron scents that permanently filled his own home. A cool breeze wafted through the open window, rustling the blue curtains.

“Is it to your liking?” Mary asked.

“Yes, it’s fine. It’s bigger than my room at home.” He examined the metal dome on the nightstand. He saw the hinge and handle. He gripped the handle and opened the dome. A bright blue-white light emanated from within, dazzling him. “I get a magilight?”

Mary smiled. “Of course you do. Every room has one.” “We live pretty well at home but we don’t have any magilights they’re too expensive even for us.” “Then you’ll really like it here I hope. If there is anything else you need or want, do not hesitate to ask.” She scratched behind her ear. “I will leave you to your accommodations.”

“See you later Mary,” Rowin said, but she had already closed the door behind her.

 

 

 

“I, Joshua Albion, son of Jacob of the House of Albion, do hereby pledge to honour the strictures of the Royal Knights of Arcania, and promise by my faith to be loyal to His Majesty, the King of Arcania, maintaining my devotion against all persons without deception or forethought.

“Further, I vow to promote and uphold the principles of fealty, courtesy, honesty, valour, and honour, and to solemnly and faithfully follow the edicts of His Majesty, the King of Arcania Trian X. I take this pledge freely, without coercion or expectation of reward, sworn by my hand on the sword of His Majesty, the King of Arcania, and in blessed memory of those who have given their lives to this noble cause.”

King Trian X Arcan tapped Joshua on each shoulder with his sword.

“On this day, the twentieth day of Marda, in the year Seventeen and Forty of the Arcanian Calendar, I hereby dub thee, Joshua Albion, as Royal Knight of Arcania, and entitled to all of the privilege and responsibility therein.

“Arise, Sir Joshua, to serve the Crown and the people of Arcania as best you can.”

 

Scott left Joshua in the company of a pair of young ladies a blonde and brunette both rather busty. The new knight had them hanging from his every word while Scott worked his way through the crowd toward the king.

Trian had surrounded himself with military advisers, several Saltarian dignitaries, and Councillor Rasdi, his communications agent. Even at this occasion, the king concerned himself with the Furindian campaign. He looked at Scott and waved him over.

“Scott, what do you have in mind to end the siege of Kazikli Bay?”

“Fire,” he replied. “With fire on two sides and water on the rest, the Furindians will surrender or die. I would have ended the siege a month ago. And before you ask, the blood would be on Furindian hands for daring to put civilians between us and them.”

“They should be starving by now. They will have no choice but to accept the demand for unconditional surrender,” a visiting Saltarian dignitary said. “Reaching Damask will only be a matter of marching.”

Scott wanted to ask the dignitary if he knew anything of real war, but etiquette demanded that he hold his tongue. He looked down on the hereditary nobles who lived in luxury and safety, deferring military service through shield taxes. He wanted to take this man to the front lines and have him see the fighting personally.

“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” Rasdi said, raising a hand to his head. “I am receiving a message from the front lines.” He closed his eyes to listen to the magical communication. “Your Majesty,” Rasdi said, returning to the conversation, “the message concerned action near Kazikli Bay. We have the city.”

“Excellent.”

“The entire population is dead, sir. The Furindians starved most of them and slaughtered the rest before our forces moved in.”

“Godless bastards,” Scott muttered. “Did we capture the enemy commanders?”

“Yes, sir. Dion is having them interrogated and will subsequently have them executed.”

“Is it wise to have your son and heir commanding the front-line forces, Your Majesty?” the courtier asked. “Should he meet an unfortunate end, you would have to pass the crown to your daughter, for whom you have yet to find a suitable husband.”

Trian straightened up at that remark, emphasizing his height advantage despite his advancing years. “I have faith in my son. He is a fine leader of men, and he will wear the crown one day.” He turned his attention back to Rasdi. “Send word to Dion to clean out Kazikli Bay and set up a depot. He will stockpile supplies until such time as he can safely reach Damask.”

“As you command, Your Majesty.”

Scott shook his head. “They’re getting desperate. Every day pushes them closer to defeat. As terrible as the fighting is now, I dread what will happen when we finally win.”

“Tsar Torbald and I are planning to meet in the next months to develop a plan for demilitarizing Furindi and make sure such aggression never happens again.”

 

 

A small caravan slowly made its way across the mountain trail from Furindi. Their buyer had paid a small ransom for the cargo they carried, and paid even more for no questions.

“It looks all the same,” the animal handler observed, taking a look around at the snow-capped mountains and the misty valley at the bottom of the slope. “How will we know when we get there?”

“I don’t pay you for your opinions,” the captain snapped back. “We’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Those minutes seemed to take forever, but they reached the gaping cave entrance, smoothly shaped by a force other than nature. A huge blue-skinned goblin waited just inside, like the buyer had instructed.

“You’re late,” the goblin grumbled.

“I had to bribe the border guards,” the captain explained. “This kind of stuff is illegal to transport. It usually gets burned.”

“Yeah, I know what they do with it,” the goblin snarled. “A waste of damn good meat. You’ll get the rest of the money once you’ve unloaded inside.”

The captain winced at the thought. “All right guys, start hauling.”

 

When the last of the heavy boxes came in, the goblin handed over two heavy sacks of gold. “There, now beat it. You never saw this place.”

As the caravan set back for Furindi, a smaller figure stepped out of the shadows. The wind picked up, whipping his wild white hair and black robes. He grabbed his sleeve with his sharp-nailed fingers and watched them leave. His yellow eyes narrowed as they moved farther and farther away.

“And they will never have the chance to tell anyone about our merchandise.”

He raised his hands toward the caravan, chanted the words to the spell, and writhing red flame erupted in his hands. It gathered into a tiny sphere and he flicked the bead of energy toward them.

It flew so fast that it arrived before he had to time to blink, before anyone knew what had just happened.

It exploded.

They watched from a safe distance as the fireball washed over the horses, riders, and carts. The pressure wave washed over them, and when the dust cleared, nothing remained.

“There. Tend to the merchandise, Xaktor; I have some research to do.”

 

Ken sat down at the table with his wife the next day. “Times are changing, and we have to change with them. I’ve been watching Rowin closely, and he was consistently distracted. Almost obsessed with becoming a knight. He wants more than what I can give him, and I will respect his decision. He’s almost a man now and he can make his own choices, if he can live with the consequences.”

“I just want him to be safe. Rowin…” Lilly trailed off.

Ken put his arms around his wife. “Love, have some faith in our boy. He’s an amazing child, and no matter what, if he reaches the knighthood or if he comes back here and puts hammer to anvil, be proud of him.”

 

Erica got up from the table, went to her room and thought about the night she had visited Rowin in his room and the day they saw the fortune teller Mara.  Erica quietly knocked on his door. “Rowin, can I come in?”

“Of course,” Rowin said as he looked up at his big sister as she gently smiled down at him as she shut the door behind her, her sandy brown hair flowing down her back and her blue eyes were soft and full of love. Erica sat next to him on his bed and wrapped her arms around him. Rowin always felt warm and safe in her arms.

Rowin put his head on her shoulder. “She just doesn’t understand me and she never will.”

Erica looked down at him and said, “Mom does have a point, you know. You can’t just walk into the castle and become a knight the next day. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication.”

“I know I can do it.”

“You can do anything you put your mind to; Rowin. I wish I thought like you. I’ve always admired the speed that you learn, and I’ve always wished I could learn that fast.”

“I’ve always admired you, Erica; you’ve always been there for me. You’re my strength when I’m weak, and your belief in me is what keeps me going.”

“And I always will.”

“Thanks, Sis. I love you,” Rowin said holding Erica closer.

“I love you too; Mom just doesn’t want what happened to Uncle Liam happen to you.”

“Thanks, I feel better now. You always cheer me up when I need it.”

“Hey, that’s what big sisters are for.”  She playfully ruffled his hair and then kissed him on the forehead.

 

 

 

 

For years Rowin and Erica shared a deep bond that went beyond the love of a brother and sister. They wanted to know why they could feel when the other was hurt or in danger or happy.

 

It was time they found out so they took the money they had earned and saved for a year and went to the city to see a fortuneteller.

 

They walked through the streets and finally they found one. Mara.

“A fortune teller named Mara?” Rowin asked his sister.

“Maybe she can tell us about our connection.” Erica said

Rowin snorted. “Five crowns says she can’t tell us the next street on the left.”

“You’re on!” Erica said as they went inside.

 

The air inside Mara’s audience room choked with thick smoke. A woman sat at the table in the room. She looked at them with piercing blue eyes. Erica returned her gaze, but Rowin looked a little lower.

“Hello I’m Erica, and this is…”

“Your brother Rowin, whom you love a great deal. More than is considered proper.”

“You know, mind reading without permission is illegal.” Erica leaned over to her brother.

“Please sit down.” Mara gestured to the chairs on their side of the table. “Gaze into the ball and we discover why you two love each other in more ways than one.”

 

“As I part the mists of time, I reach back into the past. I follow the threads of your fates, and find them intertwined. Siblings, you have been for only a short time. In incarnations long past, I see romantic love.”

Mara’s words unsettled the siblings.

“Blood and death have haunted you throughout. For twenty cycles, you have sought to twine your fates. As lovers you were, but I feel something recent. Your last reincarnation… twins.”

“What did we do?” Erica asked.

“I cannot see. That revelation is yours to uncover.”

 

Rowin and Erica paid her for her revelation and Rowin paid Erica the five crowns he owed her.

“Rowin, I feel dirty.”

“Me too. But it does explain why we’re connected and why we love each other the way we do. We didn’t choose to be brother and sister or twins.”

“I know but still, it’s a little creepy.”

“Yes it is. Come on it’s almost lunch time, let’s get back home I’m starving.”

“So am I.”

With that happy memory Erica fell asleep.

 

 

Lily rose after dawn and went down to the kitchen to make breakfast with Erica.

“Good morning, Mom,” Erica said with a wide smile and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“You’re in a pleasant mood, dear,” Lily noticed.

“It’s a nice day.”  Erica said with a shrug. “There aren’t too many clouds, and everything’s right with the world.” She lied partially. Rowin had only been gone a few hours but it was like she was missing a part of her heart already. However she felt that Rowin was okay.

Lily got a plate together and took it out to the forge for Ken. As always, he had awakened before dawn and went to work. She wondered about him sometimes, if the smoke and soot hadn’t clogged his brain. She also wondered how he managed to work so hard without eating first.

She came up behind him and kissed him gently on the cheek. “Breakfast is ready, honey.”

“Ah good, I’m starving.”  Ken set the hammer down and quenched the steel on his anvil.

“That’s what you get for not eating before starting work. Have you seen Rowin?”

“I dropped him off at Scott’s two hours ago,” Ken informed her.

“And he didn’t say goodbye to me?” Lily yelled.

Ken winced. “Sweetie, he didn’t want to wake you so early. You know how you are very early in the morning. He asked me to say goodbye to you when you got up.”

“I would have let him wake me up to say goodbye.”  She started to tear up.

Ken raised an eyebrow at her. “Oh yeah, that would’ve gone over real well.”

Lily took a deep breath and said, “Come on, your food is getting cold.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Rowin sat across from Scott at the table listening to all things that he would have to learn and do as Scott’s new Squire. The list was long and the tasks were many that took him far into the night, between chores and weapon inventory he was glad that Mary was there to keep him company she reminded him of Erica he missed her but knew she was okay. A herald came in to the room and handed Scott a letter. “It seems that the King wishes to meet my new squire I’m too busy to take you today he turned to Jon will take you. “I’ve wanted to meet the king for a long time Milord.” Rowin said.

Then today you’ll get your chance.”

 

Jon brought Rowin to the Royal Audience Chamber.  The “Throne Room,” as most called it, loomed high above Rowin’s head, with long draperies adorning the walls and a golden dragon mosaic dominated the floor in front of the dais, upon which sat the throne.

King Trian Arcan X sat in that throne; his steely blue eyes watching his guests arrive.  He wore the uniform of an officer in his Royal Army, befitting his station as the Commander in Chief.

“Your Majesty, I present Rowin Baker, son of your Chief Metallurgist, Ken Baker.  He desires to join the knighthood, in the hopes of serving you and this country.”

King Trian stood from the throne and smoothed the jacket of his uniform.  He approached the young man and looked him over, noticing his youth and exuberance.

Rowin looked up in awe at his king.  He never imagined he would ever stand this close to the man who ran the country.  He didn’t know if he should say anything, so he said nothing.

Finally, the king spoke.  “You’ve grown well, Rowin.  I had the privilege of seeing you when you were but an infant.  You take after your father, I see.”

“Th-thank you, Sir,” Rowin stammered.

“Sir Scott tells me he has recently taken you as his new squire and it was you that made his shield.”

“Yes sir I worked on it for two weeks.”

Your dedication to your craft is impressive that will serve you well on your journey to being a knight.”

Rowin never expected such praise from his sovereign.  “I will do my best, Your Majesty, to live up to your expectations.  I will become the greatest knight this kingdom has ever known!”

“A-hem.”  Joshua crossed his arms.  “You have to make it to the knighthood first, young man.”

 

Joshua escorted Rowin back to the front gate, talking to him on the way.

“This is not something you can walk away from if it doesn’t go to your liking, my boy.  It will be years of hard, thankless work, but you’ll learn so much, and if you’re good enough, you’ll be able to join the ranks of the knighthood, and from there possibly get into the Royal Knights of Arcania.”

“I’ll do anything I have to, Sir.”

“Good. Since you’re here you can run an errand for me I need some swords from your father he’s the best. I’ve already told Sir Scott that I would be sending you and it would take a day and he said you have his permission to go but return to his home when you’re finished.”

“Yes Sir” Rowin said and with that left the castle.

 

It was only an hour after Rowin was on the road and it began to pour. One of the common occurrences living near the eastern coast line it rained a lot. Up ahead Rowin spotted a cave.

He went in quickly so he wasn’t fully soaked. After making a fire he sat down and pulled out some food from his bag. He heard a tapping sound coming closer. Rowin was scared until he saw a rickety old man with a cane come and sit in front of him.

“May I ask what you’re doing in my home young man?” He asked his features were kind.

“It’s raining out there I’m just waiting for the storm to pass.”

“Well then be welcome although I don’t have much in the way of food. My name is Aghagolos.”

“That’s quite the name um Mr. Golos.” Rowin said shortening it.

The old man laughed long and loud. “Mr. Golos I like that. The rain should pass soon.”

“How do you know?”

“Oh I have my ways.” The man said avoiding the question but soon the rain did stop just as he said.

“Well it was nice to meet you, I should get going. Goodbye Mr. Golos.”

“Goodbye Rowin.”

 

 

 

Rowin returned home in the early evening, he went straight to his father’s forge, where he could hear the rhythmic sound of metal on metal and the crackle of the fire.  As he entered, he took a deep breath of the wood smoke that stained the walls dark grey.

Ken looked up from his latest project.  “Back so soon?” he asked, hammering the metal into the shape he desired.  “How was your first night living at Scott’s?

“It was okay a bit different but he had a nice servant girl named Mary she showed my room and I have a magilight.”

Ken stopped his hammer in mid-swing.  “A magilight eh? I’ve always wanted to get you one my boy but they were too expensive.”

“I know dad it’s okay. I’ve been getting to know Sir Scott he has me doing all kinds of chores and it’s very hard work.”

 

“Scott is the Captain of the Royal Knights.  He’s considered the foremost expert on battlefield tactics in this generation.  When he speaks, everybody listens.  I didn’t tell you about him?”

“Only a little. Anyway I’m here because Sir Joshua needs some new swords and wanted you to make them because you’re the best.”

 

“Well then I shall get to work. But before I do I have a present for you.” Ken went into the back of the shop and came back out holding a sword and sheath in hand.

“Son I made this for you, I wanted to give it to you before you left but it wasn’t ready yet.”

Rowin unsheathed the beautiful sword his father had given him. He could clearly tell it was Baker Steel and perfectly balanced.

“It’s the most beautiful sword I’ve seen father. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome Rowin I know you’ll take good care of it.”

“Yes sir.”

“Your mother and sister are inside I know they’ll be happy to see you but Erica more, due to the bond you two share.”  Ken went back to work.

Rowin looked around the forge, trying to think of something else to say.  “Joshua said he expects the swords tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow morning would be ideal.  Of course, if you don’t know where he lives, that could be a problem for you.”

Before Rowin could say anything more, Ken continued.  “Sir Joshua owns thirty square miles of land west of Arcania City, all around the main roads from Taldor and Joston.  His keep is at the top of the hill that overlooks the intersection.”

Rowin scratched his chin for a moment.  “It’ll take a while to get there.  I should leave somewhere around the crack of dawn, I suppose.”

“Then help me out here.  Burn off some of that energy you seem to have so much of these days. Grab some of that metal over there.”

Erica came in with some water.  When she saw Rowin, she threw her arms around him.  “Rowin, I missed you.”

“It’s only been one day; but I missed you too Erica.”

“That’s okay; you’re here now you can tell all that’s happened to you so far.”

 

The great blue goblin dragged the last of the heavy boxes into the deep cave and stacked it with the rest.  “Did they have to put three to a box?” he asked his master as he wiped sweat from his brow for the fourth time.

“This is less suspicious.  I need as many as I can, and it’s easy to fit three when you stack them right.  Now, open the box, Xaktor.”

The goblin grumbled and pulled the top off the closest crate.  The two of them looked inside.

“Exactly what we need.  I told you war was good for business.”

 

At noon the following day Rowin rode into the village built around the hub of the trade route between the three major cities of Arcania.  It looked well off, with smooth stone roads and white-walled buildings to his left and right.  The tenant farmers worked their fields farther out, not noticing the traveller amongst the regular traffic to and from all corners of the country.

He led his horse toward the centre of the village and hitched it outside a three-story inn.  He went inside and saw a gathering of folk as varied as he’d ever seen.  Going up to the bar, Rowin flagged the bartender down.

“What do you want, kid?” he asked, observing him with a single eye, the other hidden behind a black patch, a scar peeking out the side.

“How would I get to see Sir Joshua?”

The bartender turned away for a moment, stifling a laugh.  “If you’re lucky, he’ll be in here shortly.  He makes rounds of his land monthly, and today he comes in here.  Sit down, have a drink, and wait for him.”

Rowin took the offered seat.  “I’ll have some water,” he said, passing the bartender a single silver crown.  “Could you tell me how you lost that eye?”

The bartender smiled briefly.  “It happened a couple years ago.  A guy brought in a dog he said he got from Xiang, and had been trained in Kung-Fu.  He told me about how he got the dog to smash a chair by saying, ‘Kung-Fu the chair.’  I just laughed and said, ‘Kung-Fu my eye!’  The dog did.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What, you want me to make something up?”

The bell over the door rang, and the bartender looked over.  “There he is,” he said to Rowin, and pointed toward the door.

Everybody straightened up and tried to look sober as the owner of the land entered.  He looked around with dark eyes as he made his way toward an open table.  He sat down on the bench and the serving girl quickly went over to him.

“The usual, sir?”

“Of course, my dear.”

As she went to fill his order, Rowin stood up and walked over.  He stood on the opposite side of the table and said, “Ah Rowin do you have those swords?” Joshua asked. Rowin handed him the bag he carried over his shoulder. Joshua took them and inspected them counted 6 of them and nodded satisfactorily. After he was told that Scott expected him back in the evening.  But also told him that he had the day off all that was expected of him was a hot meal, a hot bath and plenty of rest as he’d be up at the crack of dawn. Rowin returned to Scott’s home early evening and ate with Kels and Jon and Mary it made him happy to see her again but it was different than being with Erica.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Rowin spent the next two weeks working for Scott, learning the etiquette of the knighthood and the basics of swordplay.

“His Majesty is hosting a tournament next week as part of the annual summer festival,” Scott told Rowin as the new squire worked in the stables.  “You’ll get to see how the knights fight, how we stand against those who would wish evil upon His Majesty and his lands.”

 

Scott led his entourage to the tournament grounds the day before the events.  Rowin looked around at the tournament grounds, astounded by the scale.  He saw hundreds of people, commoners and nobles alike, with banners and coats of arms displayoud proudly, some of which he had learned to identify on sight.  The tilting yard alone looked larger than any building he had ever seen.  Rowin had never seen so many people in one place at one time in his life.

“We’re going to the visitors’ tents,” Scott told everyone with him.  “Rowin, stable the horses and see to their needs.  I want you take very good care of Mina; she’s your horse now and if you treat her right, she’ll be your friend for life.”

“Thank you very much, Sir, I will.”

As they dismounted, they heard a loud voice bellow, “Scott!”  Everyone turned to see where it had come from, and they saw the gigantic warrior Jon sar Makay approaching them.

“I would hardly expect to see you here,” Scott said to him.

“I enjoy a good fight,” Jon replied, “no matter what you call it.”

Rowin looked at the two of them.  “Hello Jon” he said looking up at the large man that stood head and shoulders above everyone else. “Can I ask how you got that scar?”

“Rowin.” Scott whispered. Jon just laughed, “It’s okay Scott you know I love telling this story. This scar is why I owe Scott my life.” Jon told him putting a large hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “He showed up when I was wounded and surrounded by a dozen goons.  I definitely wouldn’t have finished off more than, oh, six of them before they took me down if he didn’t arrive when he did.”

“Are you in any of the matches?” Rowin asked.

Jon shook his head.  “No; even if the organizers would let me, they wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Oh, I see. Well if you’ll excuse me I should check on our horses.”

 

As Rowin checked on their horses in the stables he gave Mina an apple holding it palm up for her, he saw two young men practising an acrobatic routine.  One of them threw a knife at the other’s feet, and he did a back handspring to avoid it.  Rowin watched as the process repeated several times.

After a few minutes of watching the routine and engraving it in his memory, Rowin decided that he had better get back in case Scott had more for him to do.  As he left the stables, he mentally went over the acrobatics he had just seen.

He walked past the many horses, but at the far end, he saw more exotic animals.  Until now, he had never seen a horse with wings and a beak.

“Are you Sir Scott’s squire?”

Rowin turned around to see another young man about his age.  “Yes, I am.”

“I serve Sir Robin.  He rides the hippogriff that you were staring at.  I firmly believe that Sir Robin will defeat Sir Scott in the joust.”

“I haven’t known Scott long, but I don’t think anyone can beat him.”

“Sir Robin has won five tournaments.  How many has your master won?”

“I don’t know.” Rowin said with a shrug.  “I’ve only been a squire for three weeks.”

“Some squire you are.”  He left the stables.

“Nice guy.” Rowin said to himself.

 

Rowin went and found Scott to tell him that he had taken care of their horses.  “I’m done.  Can I ask you a question?”

“Go ahead.”

“How many tournaments have you won?”

Scott raised his chin and replied, “I have won ten.”

“Wow, that’s a lot.”

“Why did you ask me that?”

“I was in the stables and Sir Robin’s squire asked me, and I didn’t know.”

“Sir Robin’s squire?”

“Yes.”

“He has entered the behourd.  You can enter as well, if you’d like.”

Rowin smiled.  He would be able to beat up that loud-mouthed jerk fair and square, with everybody looking on, especially Scott and Sir Robin.

 

Rowin entered the behourd, the matches for squires and new knights, right after he talked with Scott.  Scott himself had his place in the jousts.

Rowin entered the behourd pit wearing a shirt of chain and a helmet, and carrying a wooden club and small shield.  His opponent, Geoff, squire of Sir Robin, entered the other side, similarly armed and armoured.

“Disqualification occurs when one of you drops his weapon or falls to the ground,” the judge announced.  “There are to be no unarmed strikes.”

Rowin studied his opponent carefully.  He figured he could have the match over quickly.

Geoff approached, keeping his shield between him and his opponent, and threw the first strike, swinging his club wide and low.

Rowin brought his shield down to block the blow and struck, his swing blocked by Geoff’s shield.

He didn’t see Geoff attack, and took a solid hit on the helmet from a hard blow.  He staggered back and quickly recovered, raising his shield to block a strike that would probably have dropped him if it had connected.

Rowin manoeuvred to his left, keeping Geoff in his sight, and raised his shield to block a blow.  Geoff’s attack had left him open, so Rowin swung his club and struck Geoff in the back.

Spinning in the opposite direction, Rowin brought his club up and hit Geoff in the faceplate.  Sir Robin’s squire fell backward, dropping his club and shield as he hit the ground.

 

“Impressive,” Scott said as Rowin left the pit.  “Who taught you that move?”

“I came up with it myself.”

“Quite impressive.  You’ve humbled Geoff, but I will have to meet Sir Robin in the joust.”

“Is Sir Robin as loud-mouthed as his squire?”

“Where do you think Geoff got it from?  This is the first time in ten years we’ll be jousting, and I don’t see any way Robin’s going to get out of it.”

 

The joust would take place in an hour, so Scott got himself ready for the event.  Rowin helped him into his armour, making sure he had the straps and fitted plates secured tightly, and he helped Scott into the saddle.

Rowin carried the lance as Scott rode into the tilting yard.  His opponent came in on the opposite end, riding his hippogriff.  Geoff handed him his lance, and Rowin handed Scott his before hurrying out of the way to watch from the sideline.

Scott lowered his faceplate, raised his lance, braced himself against his horse’s flanks, and charged.  Sir Robin spurred his mount on and charged toward his opponent, lance aimed for his shield.

Hooves thundered beneath Scott as he and Sir Robin moved closer.  Through his visor, he could see Robin coming at him.  He tensed and thrust his lance forward as they met at the middle of the tilt.

With a crash, their lances contact each other’s shields.  Scott cranked back, but remained in his seat.  Sir Robin twisted from the impact and almost lost his grip on his lance.

They reached the opposite ends of the tilt, moved to the other side and prepared to charge again.

On the next impact, Scott’s lance struck Sir Robin in the chest.  The force of the blow pushed Robin out of his saddle and off the back of his mount.  Sir Robin lost his lance on the way down, landing on the ground with a crash.

Scott pulled his horse back to slow him down, and headed toward the centre of the tilt.  Rowin ran out to take his lance and shield so Scott could remove his helmet and hear the roar of the crowd.

“Come with me,” he told him.  “My match is done for today.”

 

Rowin returned to the sideline.  He sat next to Jon, who watched the events with keen eyes.  Jon looked up toward the top centre of the nobles’ seating.  He motioned toward them and told Rowin, “Up there.”

He looked up and saw two figures observing the proceedings from that location.  “The king’s watching?”

“Of course.”

Rowin’s eyes wandered to the girl sitting next to him.  “Who is she?  She’s beautiful.”

“That would be Her Royal Highness the Princess Kathryn, and yes, she is beautiful,” Jon saw the look in Rowin’s eyes.  “Forget it, kid, she’s out of your league.”

“For now.”

 

The days of the tournament passed, and Scott defeated opponent after opponent.  Rowin defeated squires and new knights in the behourd pit, but he knew that the princess would not see his matches.

 

As the tournament progressed, the Mages’ Council met in their chamber.  A spy had returned from Furindi.

“Tell us what you have to report,” Councillor Janos asked.

“At first we didn’t believe it, but with some deeper investigation, we learned for ourselves that a number of parties were purchasing bodies from the scavengers picking across the abandoned battlefields between Furindi and Saltaria.  They’ve also tracked a number of shipments of large crates across the border.  The crates are large enough to hold two or three bodies apiece.”

“What need would anyone have for dead bodies?” Councillor Rasdi asked.

“Reanimation,” Janos replied.  “I want you to find out where those bodies are going.  In the meantime, we will keep a vigilant eye on what happens around Furindi and the Border Mountains.  You may go.”

As their spy left, Janos looked around the table to the other councillors.  “Any suggestions?”

Councillor Ivan raised a hand to speak.  “The priests of Thanatos should be informed of this development.  To have them and their holy order available against a force of animate corpses would be a great asset.”

“Suggestion noted.”

“I have another suggestion,” Councillor Bauer said.  “Perhaps we could bring this matter to the attention of the Lady Nayrene.”

Rasdi looked at him.  “We have not heard from her in almost one hundred and sixty years.  Surely she must be dead.”

“Don’t underestimate the ways of magic,” Janos told her.  “The records say that the Lady Nayrene, from her first step into this chamber to the last day anyone saw her, thirty years later, never aged a day.  Finding her, if she is still alive, will be difficult, but I am sure we can do it.”

“Someone must find her, then,” Rasdi said.

 

Rowin watched the jousts, but continually found that he turned to look at the princess, who sat at her father’s side to watch the event from their royal box.

A loud crash brought his attention back to the joust, and he watched as one knight fell to the heavily trampled earth amidst the roar of the crowd.

But the promised excitement could not hold his attention for long; he looked back up.  He saw a messenger approach the king and said something to him.  The king looked concerned at what he heard, but looked back to the joust for a moment before he said something in reply.  The messenger left as suddenly as he appeared.

 

When Rowin met with Scott for dinner that evening, he noticed that Scott had a letter with the Royal Seal in his hand.

“His Majesty has a task for you.”

“For me? I’m honoured.”

“Since I have business at the castle as well, we’ll leave first thing in the morning.  Make sure our mounts are rested and fed before the trip.  Don’t worry; we’ll be back in time to see the end of the tournament.”

 

They arrived at the castle the next evening

Scott and Rowin entered the Throne Room and they noticed that King Trian had someone at his side.

King Trian got out of his chair and greeted them.

“Ah Scott, Rowin, just the two I was looking for.  Rowin, I have a task for you.”

“I’m at your service my Liege.”

He gestured to the man beside him. “Rowin, this is Councillor Janos, he’s the head of the Mages’ Council and he’d like you to find someone that could help them with their present situation.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I’m sure you will.  The person you’re looking for is the Lady Nayrene.”

“Nayrene, no last name?” Rowin asked.

“Most people in the magical community don’t use the names their parents gave them,” Janos informed him.  “Names are a source of power.”

“Why do we need to find her?” “Rowin!” Scott whispered.

“That information is none of your concern, squire,” Janos replied.  “You must do as you’re told.”

“Yes Sir.” Rowin said.

“Thank you Rowin, you may go.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”  Rowin bowed and then followed the two castle attendants to the library.

 

He stood in awe at the size of the room.  The librarian, a rather old man with a small pair of spectacles perched on his nose, approached him.

“This place contains records of history, treatises on politics, and numerous travelogues from around the world, among other works.  What do you seek?”

“I need to find somebody.”

“Census information?  Come with me.  Do you know where this person lives?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, how about a name?”

“Nayrene.”

The librarian stopped.  “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long, long time. I’ll have to check in the back.  If you’d come with me.”  He took Rowin to a row of drawers, and he pulled out the first one.  He looked through the rows of cards inside, mumbling to himself as he rifled through them.

“What do you know about her?” Rowin asked.

“The Lady Nayrene first appeared in Arcanian records around Fourteen Hundred, and the last record comes from Fifteen Eighty-Six.  She served on the Council of Mages from Fifteen Fifty-Six until her disappearance in Sixteen Hundred.  Personal records from the Council during the middle sixteenth century indicate that she never ages.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s still alive somewhere.”  He finally stopped and went back through the cards.

“So what have you found?”

“The personal records of members of the Mages’ Council are kept in locked storage for security.  Come with me and we can learn more.”

 

The librarian unlocked the door.  “There are a number of security precautions in place to prevent unauthorized access to these sensitive documents.  Follow me, and don’t go poking around if you value your appendages.”

After he had searched the personnel records for a few minutes, he stopped and took out a card.  “Ah, here we are.”

“Where is she?”

“Well, it doesn’t give us an exact address, but it does have her symbol.”  The librarian showed him the Lady Nayrene’s symbol.  It looked like a beetle.

“When you find that symbol, you have found Nayrene.”

“Could you point me in the right direction?”

“I once heard that the Lady Nayrene lives in a cottage in the forest that separates the castle from the city. So if I were you, I’d start there.”

“Thank you very much.”

“I’ll give you a copy of the symbol that you can keep as a reference.”

“Thank you but I won’t need it; it’s pretty distinctive, and I’ll recognize it when I see it, I have a Photographic memory.” Rowin informed the librarian.

“Oh, I see.  Well, good luck then.”

 

Rowin left the castle grounds, and headed for the forest that separated Castle Arcania from the city.  He walked slowly, looking everywhere for the cottage that Nayrene supposedly lived in.

He looked left and right as he walked, trying to find anything that looked man-made in the maze of trees.  He tripped over a fallen trunk, but got back up and kept searching.

“Back in time for the rest of the tournament, huh?” Rowin said.  He stopped and looked to his right.  He didn’t see anything, so he started walking left.

His second step came down a lot lower than it should have.  Rowin lost his balance and started falling down an embankment, rolling through a deep briar patch, the thorns scratching and cutting him repeatedly as he passed through.  He couldn’t stop himself, and that thought came to the forefront when he got through the briars and saw a thick tree before him.

Luckily, he came to a stop in front of that tree.  Scratched dozens of times over, some even drawing blood, he pulled himself to his knees and looked around.  He didn’t see any clear paths back up the slope.

“Well, how am I going to find the place now?” he asked of nothing in particular.  He looked at the tree and stopped: he saw the beetle-shaped symbol carved deeply into the bark.

Rowin tentatively touched it, and the grooves started glowing.  He stood up and put more pressure on the symbol, and then he fell into the tree.

Chapter 4

 

He hit something that felt like a hardwood floor.  Slowly, he got up, groaning in pain.  He looked around and tried to figure out what had just happened.

“Whoa…”

He couldn’t possibly have fallen into the tree; the place looked too big to fit inside the dimensions of the tree trunk, and it had corners to put things in.

Along the walls, he could see shelves of books and jars that held strange, weird, and some just plain creepy things floating in liquids.

It felt like he had broken something when he landed, but he didn’t know what.  He knelt down and gritted his teeth in pain.

“Okay Rowin, touch nothing, you’ll live longer,” he said to himself.

Rowin turned back to the wall where he came in, careful to leave everything where he found it. A tall portal, the one he came through, stood against the wall, and the magical symbol burned brightly above it.

“I’m out of here!”

He took a step and walked right into an invisible wall.  He heard somebody enter the room from behind him.  He turned around, but his shoulder hit another invisible wall, right behind him.

“Yes, you are trapped,” said a sweet musical voice, thick with the ancient dialect of Arcania.  “Tell me why you are in my home, and why I should not turn you into a horsefly.”

“Are you the Lady Nayrene?” Rowin asked.  “His Majesty King Trian requested that I summon you to his court.”

For a long moment, she didn’t respond.  “A Trian is back on the throne?  Tyr’s eyes, I must have lost track of time.  Is he as bad as the last one?”

“Milady?”

“That old goat couldn’t keep his hands off me.  King or not, I was not about to put up with it for a minute longer.”

“I think you’re talking about a different King Trian.  The current monarch is Trian the Tenth.”

Nayrene stopped.  “How long have I been away for, then?”

“The current year is Seventeen Forty-one,” Rowin informed her.  “What was it when you left?”

“The year was Sixteen Hundred on Arcan’s Calendar; what have I missed?”

“The end of the Interregnum, for one.  We have an enshrined constitution that has put most of the king’s power in the hands of Parliament.”

“Well, I suppose I will not have to worry about the king feeling me up right away.”

Rowin laughed.  “Please, could you let me out of here now?”

He heard a snap of fingers, and the invisible walls shimmered and vanished.  He stepped back and rubbed his shoulder before turning around.  “Thank you…”

He saw a tall woman with flaming red curls, the same colour as her clothing, flowing down past her waist.  Her emerald eyes glittered, as she looked him over.  “Did you fall through a briar patch out there?”

“Yes, I did.”  I see why the old Trian did that; she’s beautiful, thought Rowin when he saw her his falling to her impressive bust.  He moved his arm and a dull pain shot down his shoulder.  He winced and put his hand over it.

“You are hurt, how terribly rude of me.  Where are my manners?  I will be right back,” Nayrene said, and then left the room.  In a moment, she returned.  “Here, drink this.”

Rowin took the vial of glowing white liquid that she offered, studied it briefly, and then drank it in one gulp.  Immediately, his cuts and scratches faded away, along with most of the pain.

“Now, give me your hand.”

When he did, she chanted a few words in a language Rowin did not know, and he felt a short, weak jolt.  Instead of listening, Rowin concentrated on how her hand felt.

In only a few seconds, Rowin’s clothes had mended themselves.

Nayrene released his hand.  “Well, you know who I am, but I do not have your name, young man.”

“I am Rowin Baker, Milady, Squire to Sir Scott MacDougal of the Royal Knights of Arcania, at your service.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Rowin.  I would imagine that I am to report to the king and then see the Mages’ Council, am I correct?”

“Yes, Milady.  I His Majesty sent me here on the Council’s behalf.”

“Then let’s get going; they do not like to wait.”  She pointed to the mirror-like portal.  “What are you waiting for?  Out, out!”

 

Rowin stepped back into the world he knew, and turned to watch Nayrene step out of the tree.  The bark rippled, like a reflection in a pond, as Nayrene appeared.  She moved gracefully, and Rowin couldn’t help but watch as she took stock of her surroundings.

“The neighbourhood has really gone downhill,” she mused.  “Which way is north, again?”  She turned on the spot to face the direction she wanted.  “So the castle is over there,” she said, turning toward her destination.  “Take my hand; I can make this trip a lot faster than you can.”

“His Majesty is at the tournament.”

“Are they still using the Sirrion Parade Grounds?”

“Yes, Milady.”

Nayrene closed her eyes and said, “I can take us there just as easily.”

She chanted words that resonated with power, and Rowin felt the world fall away from him.  Everything went black and starry, he flew a million miles in only a second, and then everything came back.  Now, he stood in the fairgrounds, and the milling folk stepped away when the air cracked open around them.

Nayrene looked around until she saw the royal coat of arms draped across the largest tent she could see.  “All right, let us get moving.”

 

They entered the tent, where King Trian sat in audience with Scott and several other Royal Knights.

“Your Majesty, I present the Lady Nayrene,” Rowin announced.

“Lady Nayrene, I have heard tales of your beauty, but they do you a disservice.”

Nayrene had heard it many times before.  “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Scott walked over and looked at her.  “I didn’t really expect you to complete your mission, Rowin, well done.” Scott said putting a hand on his squire’s shoulder.

“Thank you.”

“I figured Nayrene would’ve been long dead.”

Nayrene put her hands on her hips and told him, “You underestimate the nature of the multiverse.  Time does not pass in my domain.”  She looked past him, toward the king.  “So, Trian, what is so important that you sent a young pup to track me down?”

Scott stepped into her line of sight.  “You will address his Majesty properly!” he told her.  “If you cannot, then you have no business standing in this room!”

“Are you going to get in my way the entire time I am here?  The king himself asked for me to be here, so step aside.”

As Nayrene stepped around him, Scott moved back in front of her.

“Get out of my way!”

“You will not—” Nayrene snapped her fingers, Scott never finished his sentence as the world turned to blackness for a moment and when things came into focus, Nayrene’s ankle filled his vision.

She reached down and picked him up as she walked toward the king.  “Are all of your knights as rude as this one?”  She held up Scott, now in the body of a frog.

“I need Scott just as much as I need you right now,” Trian told her.  “I want you to change him back immediately.”

“As you wish, Your Majesty.”  Nayrene put the frog down and snapped twice, dispelling the magic to restore Scott to his proper form.  He lurched to one side, but quickly regained his balance.

“The representative from the Council should be here shortly,” Trian explained.  “When he does, he’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

The tent flap moved aside, and Janos entered the room.  “You called for me, Your Majesty?”

Lupus in sermone,” Nayrene said.  “You must be Janos.”

“Chief Janos, I would like you to meet the Lady Nayrene.”

Janos saw Nayrene, and immediately approached her.  “It is an honour to meet you, Milady.  I never doubted that you could return to this country’s service.”

“I never said I was rejoining the Council.  Just tell me what is going on that you had to go and get me for.”

“If you would come with me, all will be explained.”

 

Dion held the prisoner by the throat.  “Who’s behind this?  Why did Furindi declare war on Saltaria?”

The prisoner spat on him.

“Don’t you understand?  The war is over for you.  The rest of your army has been routed; we’re advancing on all fronts, and the capital is within reach.  If you don’t tell me what I need to know, then you’re useless to me.  We’ll capture your commanders and interrogate them.”  He threw him down and turned to one of his soldiers.  “Get rid of him.  I have work to do.”

The prince walked the halls of the command centre, while everyone he passed gave him plenty of space.

“Milord, I have good news,” a messenger said as he approached.

“I need as much of that as I can get right now,” Dion replied.

“Our forces are about to breach the capital’s defences.  We also have battalions  stationed around the city to prevent escapees.  It’s only a matter of time before we win.”

“In that time, how many men are we projected to lose?”

“No more than forty, Milord.”

Dion stopped and turned to face the messenger.  “Am I the only person here who doesn’t treat our own men like numbers?  Every day, I have to read casualty reports, and I can’t help but see families torn apart.  I have walked the battlefields and seen the bodies.  Any of us could end up face down in the mud, riddled with bullets and drowning in our own blood.”

“You’re the Prince of Arcania, Milord; you’re not going to die out there.”

“When the enemy has weapons that can kill from fifty paces, titles don’t mean anything except ‘high-value target.’  I want the enemy command structure identified as priority capture.  Bring them to me alive!”

“Yes, Milord!”

As the messenger left to pass on the order, Dion covered his eyes with his right hand, and then lowered it to the holy symbol around his neck. “Tyr, Lord, don’t let this be Kazikli Bay all over again.”

 

Nayrene sat down in the seat she had once held, and Janos sat across from her.  “So, what is so important that you had to pull me away from my vacation, and don’t skimp in the details.”

“Vacation?  Almost two years ago, Furindi declared war on Saltaria.  Both sides say the other provoked it.  His Majesty sent soldiers and supplies to aid Saltaria, and His Highness Prince Dion led our contribution.  It turned into a bloody stalemate and stayed that way until recently, when we finally broke through and started advancing on their capital.

“But that’s not the point.  We’re concerned about the person who’s having the bodies of the dead sent through the mountains.  We don’t know who that is yet, but we’ve got our intelligence working on it, and Prince Dion is also aware of the issue and making this one of his top priorities.”

“And where do I fit in?”

“We don’t have enough resources right now to aid Saltaria, keep our own nation running, and monitor this new development.  If you’ll agree to rejoin the council, we’ll give you access to our intelligence, bring you up to speed, and accept your input.”

Nayrene sat back to try and absorb all this exposition.  “This sounds dire indeed well I suppose my vacation is over it has been one hundred and forty one years since I was out in the world I think I will stay a bit and see how the world has changed in that time.”

 

He stripped the rotting flesh from the skeleton on the table and threw it into the corner of the room.  When he picked it clean, he started rubbing the alchemical oils into the bones.

“This will be the first of many.  Xaktor, keep an eye on the apparatus, and bring me the next vial when it’s full.”

“Yes, Milord,” the giant goblin replied as he left the room.

“And don’t eat the bodies,” he snapped after him.  He returned to his task, and finished applying the oil to the skeleton.  “There, one bone bomb complete.”

He left the room and went to his study.  He knew it would take some time to brew the next batch of oil.

“All my life, I have been working to achieve this goal.  Now, in this year, all the pieces are in place, and I will emerge victorious!  Nobody shall stand in my way!  You thought you stopped me, Trian, but you only slowed me down.

“I still remember what you did to me.  My cheek burns every time I think of that day…”

He touched the scar on his left cheek with a sharp-nailed finger.  In the twenty years since he received it, it had only healed slightly; most of the features had faded, but it kept a definite shape.

“Your destruction will be only the first step, Trian!  I will see to that!”

His arrogance matched only his hatred for the king of Arcania, the man who dealt him the wound.  Revenge had become a driving force for him, stronger than the desire to gain his father’s respect.

That thought had driven him ever since the battle, and the wizard would get his revenge, one way or another.

He went to his crystal ball.  He activated the magical device and concentrated on the way to get his revenge on Trian.

“Your death is part of my ultimate plan.  I started the war to get the bodies I need, and when you see the result of all those lives and resources spent, it will be the last thing you see before I kill you with my own hands.”

The foggy interior of the sphere began to shift, colours appearing and flowing together, and the browns, yellows, and pinks flowed together to form a picture: that of the Princess of Arcania, Kathryn Latrel Arcan, as she sat in her room at her desk.  He leaned in close on the transparent orb, the light illuminating his twisted features, his pupils constricting into vertical slits in his glossy amber eyes.  His mouth split into a grin, revealing a pair of sharp teeth.

“Yes… that’s it!  I will break you, Trian, when you see that she will be mine!  You cannot stop me!  Not this time, and never again!”

His evil laughter rang out in his chambers and throughout the fortress.

Chapter 5

 

At dawn the next day, Rowin reported to Scott to start his training for knighthood, but when he got there, he saw Sir Joshua instead.

“Where’s Scott?” Rowin asked.

“He got called to the Furindian front to replace Sir Robin as forward commander. Apparently, Robin fled his post when he saw an unexpected Furindian troop surge. They’ve almost pushed us back to the western bank of the Volgor River because of his cowardice.”

“Are we losing?”

“Hardly.  We’ll recover, and with Scott taking over, I’m sure we’ll be marching into Damask in a matter of weeks.”

“So who’s going to train me?”

Joshua smiled.  “He talked me into paying the shield tax so I could work on you while he’s away.  He should be back by the end of next month, so don’t get too attached to me.”  Joshua folded his arms and got to the point.  “I don’t expect you to be perfect—”

Rowin almost bounced around with exuberance.  “I’m going to show you how perfect I’ll be!  Just show me what I have to do, and I’ll do it!  Whatever it takes, I’ll do it!”

The enthusiasm of youth…  “First, calm down.  Second, listen carefully, because I have never had to repeat myself.”

As Rowin slowly wound down, Joshua told him, “Before anything, you have to be in top physical condition.  As with each initiate, you won’t get to handle live steel until you build your endurance and hand-eye co-ordination.  You will also have to learn heraldry and proper etiquette.”

 

 

Rowin had expected some difficulty, but when he looked out toward the course, he suddenly realized that he had underestimated the difficulty greatly.

He looked out onto a positively huge training course and thought it would take at least an hour to get from one end of the field to the other.  The high walls cast long shadows as the sun continued to ascend.

Would I be able to cross this courtyard without taking a break to rest?  “Uh, isn’t this place kind of… big?”

“If you want to be the best, you have to work for it.  The best things in life are earned.”

 

As always, the first day felt the hardest.  Joshua outlined the day’s work, and Rowin started with the energy of a youth, but Joshua’s harsh training soon extinguished any liveliness he might have had.

When the sun reached its noon position, Rowin hadn’t finished the course.

“Hey, Rowin!” Joshua called from the other end of the field.  “It’s time for lunch!”

“Coming!”  I need this break…

 

The knight sat in amazement as he watched Rowin eat.  He thought the boy would drop from exhaustion, but he watched in astonishment, eating plate after plate.  His table manners looked less than attractive; fortunately, Kathryn wouldn’t see this boy eat, not for a long time, at least.

“Are you almost done, Rowin?”  Joshua inquired; his own lunch only partially-finished.

“Almost done with this one!  Two more plates, and that’s it for me.”

“We must continue your training as soon as possible; there is still a lot of you have to prove.” Rowin swallowed his mouthful.  “You got it, Joshua!”

 

Two more weeks of increasingly gruelling physical training ensued, with Rowin’s body quickly turning fat into muscle.  He broke every speed record that stood during that time, much to Joshua’s amazement and discontent; he had set most of them during his own training, many years before.

“Rowin, it looks to be about time to continue to the next session: hand to hand combat.  Once again, I don’t expect you to be perfect, but if this has been any indication, perfection is something that should come quickly and easily.”

 

Rowin got up bright and early the next morning and went out to the field.  Scott waited there, as usual, and he stood with a familiar-looking ogre of a man.

“I’m going to be training with him?” Rowin asked.

Joshua nodded in agreement.  “You’ll need to be perfect to last against Jon; I’ve seen guys twice your size wash out against him.”

“Well, I guess that will make me the first to defeat him.”

“Don’t count your bones before they’re broken, my young friend,” Jon told him, his voice deep and rumbling.  “I might just drill you into the dirt on the first day.”

“You may be surprised with my speed and agility.”

“He could run circles around you,” Joshua said to the giant.  Turning his attention back to Rowin, he said, “We’ll start unarmed, then we’ll graduate to weapons.”

 

Jon took Rowin to the training room, a sprawling room, easily a hundred feet wide, with the royal seal of Arcania on the marble floor: a gigantic golden dragon, wings up and head reared back, flames licking its nostrils.  Racks of weapons and armour lined the walls.

“Some of the best knights have trained in this room, Rowin,” Jon told him.  “Scott was one of them.  Shall we begin?”

“The sooner we start, the sooner we can get it over with.”

 

The huge man had the speed to match his overwhelming strength.  He instructed Rowin how to move in combat, and how to read his opponent’s movements.

“The foremost rule of combat is anything goes and anything in the hands of a well-trained warrior can be a weapon a branch, a chair,  a piece of cloth. The second is anticipate your opponent.” Jon explained to his young trainee.  “If you know how he moves, and where he’s moving, you can know his attacks beforehand and counter them.  If you don’t pay attention…”

Jon jumped on him faster than he could react, and with his hand firmly on Rowin’s head, he told him, “You could get killed.”

The young man didn’t know what to say.  “Sorry Jon. I was thinking about my big sister Erica. I’ve never been away from her for more than a few hours a day. I miss her a lot. I…  I guess that’s why my reflexes are off today.”

“It sounds to me like you guys are very close.”

“Yes, we are. We’re even closer than twins. My sister and I are a part of each other and we keep a piece of each other in our hearts at all times. Sometimes we can feel how the other one is doing.”

“That’s remarkable! You two are very close indeed. But you must keep your mind on the task at hand. Scott once told me, ‘Never rely solely on reflex or instinct to carry you through a fight.’  That’s what I used to do, but now I’m much better than a raging killing machine.”  He stepped back.  “Let’s continue.  Remember to watch my movements and pay attention to them.  Some people like to talk while they fight, drawing your attention away from them and toward what they say.  You must learn to tune the words out, as if they were never said.”

He brought his arms up, and Rowin looked over Jon’s stance.  He had most of his weight on his back foot, and he thought about what attack he could make from that stance.

Jon lunged and swung down his massive arm, right through the empty space where Rowin had stood.

“Back here!”

He turned his head and saw that Rowin had moved off to his right.  “That fast?  I’ve never seen anyone move like that!”

“That’s what Scott said. Keep teaching!”

 

The days passed, drenching both men in sweat and dull aches.  Rowin surprised Jon with his speed on foot, and truly amazed him with the speed he absorbed Jon’s instructions. Within a week Jon was convinced that Rowin had a photographic memory, because Rowin didn’t forget anything Jon had taught even when he showed Rowin new things he still remembered the first lessons.

 

With two weeks gone, and three and a half weeks’ worth of training through, Jon would put everything he had taught the young man to the test, and pull no punches.

Rowin showed great strength of arm, pushing aside the pain of most of Jon’s brutal strikes.  The bruises on his arms made them feel heavy, but every time that Jon said anything about stopping to rest, Rowin insisted on continuing.

“I’ll stop when I can’t feel my arms,” Rowin told him, holding his purplish arms low and in front.

Jon admired his tenacity.  “I see it’s pointless to argue with you on this.”  He hurled a punch that he thought would at least crack Rowin’s arm, but he had seen the attack coming as soon as Jon reared for it.

Rowin twisted away from the strike, and kicked the back of Jon’s knee to knock him off-balance.

“Well done!”

Scott had watched the match from the other side of the room returning from the battle early as there was no point in him staying anymore after the victory.  “I see you have done very well against Jon.  Very few have done as well as you have, Rowin.  Since we likely have little time, now you will move to the next stage: armed combat.”

“Armed?  Are they sharp?”

“No, they’re not.” Scott said.

“We’ll start that tomorrow,” Jon added.  “Now… it’s time to eat!”

“I’m sure you guys could use the food, since you’ve used up a lot of energy.  We’ll send somebody in to clean up the sweat while we dine.”

As they travelled from the training hall to the dining hall, Scott informed them, “You should be honoured that His Majesty has requested that you dine with him.  Only a few knights have ever received that invitation. You guys might want to get cleaned up first though.” Scott suggested and Jon showed Rowin to the showers.

 

Once they had cleaned up and changed, Jon and Rowin entered the king’s dining hall, and saw King Trian seated at the head of the table, with his daughter, Princess Kathryn, sitting at his left side.  The seat on his right lay unoccupied, and Scott sat at the right side of the table.

Jon showed Rowin to the seat across from Scott, and then took the place next to him.

“I feel out of place here,” Rowin murmured to his instructor.

“Scott tells me of your progress, Rowin,” said King Trian.  “I’m impressed at how far you’ve come in such a short time.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”  The young man bowed deeply, his face inches off the table.

“I, too, am impressed by your progress, Rowin,” Kathryn told him.

The young man blushed.  She had the most beautiful voice he had ever heard.  “Th-thank you, your… Your Highness?”

“Please, call me Kathryn.”

Rowin turned to the king.  “May I, Your Majesty?”

“It is not my place to decide how my daughter wishes others to address her,” Trian replied.  “If it eases the tension, I will allow it, but only in the presence of those at this table.”

Rowin almost couldn’t bear it.  “Thank you, Your Majesty.  I, a humble servant, am greatly honoured to be allowed to address a princess by her given name.”

She looked upon him with her deep blue eyes and smiled.  Rowin could only meet her gaze for a few seconds before he had to look down at the table.

“Jon, I feel like I’m going to burst into flames.  I’m so nervous!”  He wrung his hands under the table as he spoke.

“Give it time.  You’ll get used to it, and you won’t be so nervous afterwards.”

 

Rowin had never eaten that well.  He had also built up enough confidence that he actually said a coherent sentence to Kathryn.

She seemed interested in listening to Rowin talk (with difficulty) about the tasks he had been put to, and his quick completion of the training.

“You are quite talented, Rowin,” she said, a smile on her face.  “Perhaps you will be the equal of Sir Scott one day.”  Everyone had finished eating, and Kathryn stood up and extended her hand to Rowin.  “Come with me and tell me more about yourself.”

Rowin looked up to Jon who nodded, then back to Kathryn.  “I, uh, that is…  Sure.”  He had only interacted with his older sister, and he wondered if he could approach Kathryn in the same manner.  A royal family member, however, would probably expect different treatment than a normal person, and Rowin had to figure out how to do it.

 

Rowin followed Kathryn as she led him down a hallway and asked, “So Rowin, when’s your birthday?”

They turned a corner to another hallway, lined with portraits of the royal family.  Every ruler of the country had his or her portrait on the walls, from King Trian Arcan X to the man who gave Arcania its independence, Trian Arcan I.  Beneath Trian X’s portrait, two smaller portraits depicted Princess Kathryn Latrel Arcan and Prince Dion Dunbar Arcan.

Kathryn looked at him and waited. “My birthday is on Jono 16.” He told her and she etched into her mind.  “Mine is Jala 14.” She told Rowin and he locked it into his mind. He would not forget.  “Our Birthdays aren’t very far apart.” She said.

“No they’re not.” Rowin said.

The princess sighed and looked toward her brother’s portrait.  “It is a great shame that Dion is still away.  I am sure that you would like him.”

“Where is he?”

“My elder brother was called away to assist our allies in Saltaria to defend against the hostile Furindi army.  We have not received word from him in some time, and I am finding myself more and more fearing the worst.”

A voice behind them called, “Worry no more, Princess; I have returned.”

Kathryn’s face lit up.  “Dion!”

The voice belonged to the man standing at the entrance to the hall.  “It’s good to be back.”  He looked identical to his portrait, except that he had slightly shorter hair, and he sported a healthy tan.

Kathryn ran to him and hugged him tightly.  “We all missed you, Dion.”

The prince looked directly at Rowin.  “Who is your guest, little sister?”

Rowin stepped back.  “I’m just talking, that’s all.”

“Dion, it’s okay; I invited him here to talk with me.  He is a guest of our father.”

The prince could see the sincerity.  “Well, since you invited him, I guess it’s okay.”  Dion extended his hand in greeting.  “I am Dion, Prince of Arcania and heir to the throne.”

“I’m Rowin Baker Sir Scott’s new Squire.”  Rowin told him.

Dion extended his hand.  “Ah Ken’s son right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, Rowin Baker, it’s nice to meet you. To be chosen as Scott’s Squire is quite an honour.”

“Scott wanted me to prove myself to him so I made him his new shield spent two weeks on it.”

“Impressive, I’ve seen it in battle you did a great job I’ve never seen a shield like Scott’s new one before.”

“Thank you, it’s made from Baker Steel it’s twice as strong, but lighter than regular steel. It’s nice to meet you as well, Your Highness,” Rowin replied, shaking his hand.

Dion rolled his eyes.  “Please, just call me Dion.  I always hated formal titles; it makes me sound like I’m better than everyone else. I’m not.”

“So it’ll be the same with you, then?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, your father gave me permission to use Kathryn’s name without formalities, but there were restrictions.”

Dion stepped toward him, making apparent the difference in their height.  “We may be friends now, but that won’t stop me from beating you up if you try anything funny with my little sister.”

“The thought had never crossed my mind, I swear.”  Rowin did not want to get into a fight with a war veteran.  The prince probably had even more skill than he did, and definitely had a lot more combat experience.

 

A messenger came running into the throne room and he bowed.

“What’s wrong?” The king asked seeing the frightened look in the man’s eyes.

“Your Majesty, we have just lost contact with one our patrols in the south.”

“Survivors?”

“None.”

“I want you tell Scott to take a group of men and find out what happened and then tell Jon to speed up Rowin’s training.”

“Yes Your Majesty.” The messenger got up and went to carry out his orders.

 

 

The wolf-like creature sat against the wall as its master wandered about the room, gathering foul components from their racks.

“Sir, this is quite hazardous,” the creature hissed.  “You do remember what happened last time?”

“I am quite aware of that!” he bellowed back.  The lupine fiend had been referring to the botched experiment that gave him his wild white hair and fangs.  “I’ve learned from that mistake, but I’m not trying that again.  This is all part of my plan to ascend to the throne of Arcania.”

“Don’t you have to be born into the royal family to do that?”

“Of course, you idiot!  There is another way: the tried-and-true method of marrying into the family.”

The creature looked confused, and then disgusted.  “You want to marry the Princess?  Do you have any idea what your kids will look like?”

He blasted the creature with a volley of green-grey mana bolts.  “That is not the plan!  As we speak, shipments are making their way from Furindi and Saltaria to this location.  I will use those to distract the people of Arcania City, and the royal family in particular, while I enter the castle unnoticed.  I will find the princess and force her to become my wife, and then kill the rest of her family.  She will have to become the queen, and that will make me the king of Arcania!”

Dazed and scorched, the wolf creature rolled onto its belly.  “I won’t comment.”

He took a break from his vile harvest and activated his crystal ball.  He sent the magical sensor toward Castle Arcania, moving it around until he found an open window.

“Fools, all of them.  Is this the best that Trian could come up with?”

The magical device brought his sight into a hallway, where he found three people gathered.  He recognised Princess Kathryn and Prince Dion, but he didn’t recognise the other one.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Dion, back from playing soldier in Saltaria.  It was quite crafty of me to push Furindi into a war, and now not only Saltaria, but Arcania is low on resources.”  He turned his gaze to the barghest.  “Was that not an ingenious plan, Xak?”

“Will you blast me if I say it wasn’t?”

“Imbecile.  I have all the time I need.  Nothing is going to stop me from executing this plan!  I will have Trian’s head, his daughter will be mine, and every man, woman, and child in Arcania will become nothing more than fodder for the cause!”

Chapter 6

 

Upon word of Prince Dion’s return, the royal family gathered in the dining room; Kathryn brought Rowin with her, and they all sat around the table.

“So, Dion how was the war?” Rowin asked, trying to break the ice.

A solemn look came to the prince’s face.  “It was terrible.  We lost many good men.  The Furindi… they committed atrocities against us.  It… I don’t want to think about it.”

They all sat silently for a moment, respecting his wishes.

“Well, shall we change the subject?” King Trian suggested.

Dion agreed with that.  He turned to their guest.  “So, Rowin, why are you staying with Scott in his home?

“I am training to become a Royal Knight.”

“Ah, so you’re training with Scott and Jon?  I know you will learn much from them.  Our best knights studied with them.”

“And Joshua he oversaw the start of my training since Scott was called away into battle.”

As if on cue, Scott entered, “Rowin come with me.”

Rowin excused himself. “The king has ordered your training be sped up but for that you’ll be staying at the castle as there are better facilities there and that’s where the Royal Knights of Arcania train you’ve advanced to a point where staying at my home is no longer to your benefit. So pack your things we leave tomorrow morning.”

“Yes Sir.” Rowin left to pack his things for the trip to the castle. As he did so there was a knock on his door. He turned to see Mary.

“Hello Rowin, you’re packing I see.”

Yes Scott says I’ve advanced far enough in my training that staying here is no longer to my benefit.”

“I’m sorry to see you leave us so soon but I’m happy you’re doing well.”

“Thank you Mary. I’ll miss you it was nice having you as a friend.”

“I’ll miss you too but we’ll always be friends I’m sure we’ll see each other again often.”

“Me too.” He hugged his new friend and then she left and he finished packing and went to bed.

 

Before dawn the next morning Scott took Rowin to the castle training grounds where The Royal Knights of Arcania trained he was led into a large room and to his surprise he found that Jon was waiting for them in the training hall, Scott immediately went up to him.  “Jon, we’ve received word that a patrol in the south has been killed. It looks like we’re going to need more men soon.”

“And you want me to speed up Rowin’s last few sessions?”

“You got it.  We’re going to investigate what happened; the orders came down from King Trian himself. I should be back in a few hours.”

Jon rolled his neck.  “No problem.  I’ll have to squeeze a few lessons together, but it can be done. Do you need me to come along?”

“No. We need you here to train Rowin.”

“Yes Milord.”

He looked down to the eager young man.  “Let’s get started, Rowin!”  The young man nodded.  “What weapon do you want to train with?”

He drew the sword his father had made for him from its sheath on his left hip.  “My sword.”

“A sword, an excellent choice.”  He went to the rack of blades, and then looked at Rowin’s weapon.  He picked out a similar sword and brought it back.  “You’ll have to start with the training weapon.”

Rowin accepted the sword and staggered under its weight.  “It’s heavy!”

“Actually, it’s your own sword that’s light.  Get used to this, and your own will feel like almost nothing at all.

“However, before I begin your armed training, there is one final unarmed lesson I need to teach you: disarming your opponent.”

Jon reached over to the rack and took out a large knife, which looked more like a small sword, and then approached Rowin.  When he came up in front of his student, he told him, “If I were an enemy, I could have killed you now.  Surviving means staying out of your enemy’s killing area.”

Jon swung and Rowin immediately backed off.

“There is a technique to getting through the killing area: the enemy is trying to hit you with the edge of his weapon, not his arm.  Get past his weapon and grab his arm.  Twist inward sharply, and then strike just above the elbow. Now, you try.”

Jon swung again, and Rowin did as he had instructed: he moved past the arc of the swinging blade and caught Jon’s thick wrist.  He twisted inward and struck with his free hand just above the point of Jon’s elbow.  Jon’s grip slackened, and the knife fell to the floor.  Rowin kicked it away and released, backing off and staying in a ready stance.

“That’s good.  Now, on to your next set of lessons.  I ought to show you how to hold the sword properly, otherwise you’ll get sore or killed, and neither will make your day any better.”

 

Jon put his student through tests that seemed even more brutal than the unarmed combat.  He had to swing the sword properly, block in a certain way, and anticipate his opponent’s next move by watching the body.  He also had to balance everything as Jon showed him.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Rowin remarked.  “No matter how many times I do it, it’s never easy.”

“It will be.”

Jon lunged, Rowin blocked, and then struck at the large man’s body.  Jon parried the swing at the last second.  “Good, you’re getting better.”

He made another advance, and Jon blocked and countered.  Metal rang against metal for hours on end, accompanied by grunts and shouts, all stopping briefly when Jon gave some instructions.

 

A little after sunset, Scott and his men returned to the castle.  The gates opened for them and attendants took the reins of their horses as they dismounted.

Scott went directly to the throne room.  As always, he bowed before his king. “Report,” Trian ordered..

“Your Majesty, we return with grave news: we went to investigate what happened to the border patrols, as you had instructed.”

“What did you find?”

“Nothing.  There was no sign of anything left at all, like they had never been there.  My guess is that someone or something is clearing the border so that they will have no problem crossing it and marching against us.  But I’m not sure of anything.”

“I understand.  I want everyone on heightened alert and double the rotations.  If anybody is going to attack, I want to be ready.”

“As you command, Your Majesty.”

 

The hours continued to pass, but to Rowin, the hours felt like days.  Two weeks passed with five weeks’ worth of instruction given, and the speed with which Rowin absorbed the knowledge convinced Jon and Scott that Rowin could move to the next step: learning to fight with real weapons.

“Make sure to go easy on him,” Scott suggested, “but don’t make it look like you’re going easy.”

“The kid is too good for me to go easy, I’m sure he’s got a photographic memory.

“That explains a lot.” Scott said rubbing his chin.

“I don’t go easy for you or anyone.”

“Well, just make sure you don’t kill him.  It would look very bad on you if you did.”

“Trust me.”

The knight sighed.  “I trust you with my life, but I know you too well my friend.”

“I won’t beat him up too bad, okay?”

“Okay.”

 

“Hey Rowin, Scott and I have decided that you’re ready for real combat training.  This time I am going to make things a little easier and a little harder on you.  The part I’m going to make easier on you is you get to use your own sword…”

“Finally.”  Rowin wanted to wield the shining blade his father had crafted for him.

“And the thing I’m going to make harder is that I am going to use this.”  He went to the axe rack and withdrew his massive weapon.  The width of the blades dwarfed Rowin’s shoulder width.

The boy stepped back and his eyes bugged.  “You’re going to use that?”

“Think of it this way: if you beat me while I’m using my axe, which very few have, then no one should be able to touch you.”

“Good point.”

Rowin took his sword from the special place on the wall where Jon had put it and struck a pose.  Light streamed through the windows and danced along the edge.

The giant man swung his axe twice and then came at him; Rowin dodged the first swipe and parried the second.  The brute force of Jon’s attack knocked him to the tiled floor.

“I see you’re not used to blocking such intense force.”

Pushing himself back up, Rowin told him, “That won’t last long.”

Rowin struck back, but his blade crashed against Jon’s axe in mid-swing.  Jon blocked his second attack just as easily.

Rowin went to strike again, but this time, he lunged to his right, jumped up, and in mid-air, swung toward Jon’s head.

He blocked the surprise attack with the handle of his massive axe and pushed him away.  Rowin landed on his feet and prepared to follow up, when Jon put his hand out, indicating to pause.

“Good work, Rowin.  Nice job on that surprise attack; no one’s ever done that to me before.”

Rowin lowered his sword.  “Thanks, Jon.”

“Why did you decide to try that?”

“Well, the other moves I tried didn’t work, so I tried something new.”

“That is always a good thing to remember: when what you use doesn’t seem to work, try something else.  It’s going to come in handy sooner or later.”

 

The training hall rang of metal clashing against metal for many more hours, while the rest of the Castle bustled with other activity.

Scott walked from place to place around the castle grounds, giving out instructions for defensive preparations.  “I want those ballistas oiled up!  Check the communication lines!  You two!  Stop slacking and haul those beams!”

Nayrene noticed the frantic construction.  “Scott, is there anything I can do to help out around here?”

“Yes, you can go assist the men setting up the trebuchet.”  He figured that kind of labour would keep her out of his hair for a while.

“Okay.  Let us see if I can do this.”  She went to the giant siege engine and sized up the situation.  She saw about fourteen strong men pulling on ropes to bring a huge, thick wooden beam into position.

“You boys look like you could use a hand,” she told them.

“Uh-huh,” the largest of the men replied.  “What can you do, girlie?”

Nayrene smiled to herself, and then chanted the words to a spell, invoking magical energy to infuse the heavy wood and steel.

The components seemed to lose weight.  The men who still strained to haul the beam fell backward when they felt the change.

“See?  It is easier this way.”

The burly man stood in awe.  “Why can’t we get the Council to do this for us?”

“If you need anything else, just look for me in the library.”  Nayrene smiled at him, and then turned to leave.

 

From a high balcony, Prince Dion watched the main courtyard as the men worked to fortify the castle.  He could see construction on the walls surrounding the city itself.

“It’s going much faster than I had anticipated,” he told his sister as she came out onto the balcony.

“It would be going even faster if the Council would agree to aid the construction.”

Dion looked around the courtyard.  “True but Lady Nayrene made the beams a lot lighter with a spell so it’s taking half the time than it normally would. The Council has their own way of helping.  I just wish I knew what they were planning to do.”

Chapter 7

 

Dyphise reached up and pulled down a heavy black tome.  Slamming it down on the oaken table, the evil wizard opened the first page, and a blood-curdling scream issued from the book itself.

Cowering in the corner, Xaktor reluctantly spoke up.  “Master, this could be—”

The barghest didn’t get a chance to finish, as Dyphise pointed a hand at him and released a ball of greasy, cloying magical energy.  It tore through the air and exploded against Xaktor’s side.

“Don’t caution me, worm.”

Dyphise turned the page and studied the profane glyphs.  “Yes… yes… this will be sufficient.”  He did some calculations in his head, and figured out how long it would take and how many bodies he would need for this to work.

He came to a sudden realization; he couldn’t do it alone.  He only knew one other person who would ever consider assisting him, and they both despised each other.

“I hate having to rely on you,” Dyphise said as he stood up and headed for the tall black mirror on the wall.  He activated the device and homed in.  “Resurrecting bodies is very difficult to do.  You’re more experienced in this type of thing than I.”

The image in the mirror undulated, like a reflection on water, and then turned into a rolling mass of fog.  A female voice emanated from the miasma.  “I was waiting for you to come to me for help.  You can’t do everything by yourself.”

“How soon can you get here?  I… need your experience with reanimation magic.”

“I’ll be there by tomorrow.  Don’t do anything stupid, or you won’t just get away with white hair this time.”  The fog rolled out, leaving Dyphise to stare at his reflection with only the light of several candles to illuminate his wicked, angular features as he sneered in barely-contained rage.

“If you weren’t my sister…”

 

Rowin and his formidable combat trainer Jon ate a hearty breakfast, and then they went back to the training hall.

“Are you sure we should be working out so quickly after eating?  I mean, my mother always told me that I should take a few minutes before going out.”

“Then we won’t start right away.  Let’s sit and digest for a while.”

They rested for about five minutes, when Scott appeared.  “Why are you two sitting around when there’s work to be done?”

“We were digesting,” Jon told him.  “There’s nothing wrong with being rested before fighting, right?”

“Well, since you don’t seem to be doing anything, you and Rowin can come with me down to R-and-D.”

“R-and-D?” Rowin asked.

“Research and Development.  There were some things that Dim wanted us to take a look at before he puts them into production.”

 

Scott and Jon led Rowin down into the laboratory complex beneath the castle.  Strange bits and pieces of metal lay strewn about the workbenches, with rows of technical manuals along the shelves.  The benches only came up to Rowin’s knees, but when he looked around, he saw at least fifty small people running all over the lab.  He couldn’t hear anything over the chatter and the noise of machinery.

“This is a weird-looking place,” Rowin remarked.  He noticed several more standing around a machine that gave off sparks.

Scott called out over the noise.  “Dim, how’s it coming?”

One figure turned at the mention of his name.  Dark lenses covered his eyes, and dirt and soot covered his face.  He took off a glove and pulled up his goggles.  “Howdy, Scott!  What’s up?”

“I want to know how the progress on this thing is coming.”  The three made their way through the laboratory, dodging other gnomes that ran about underfoot, carrying things that looked dangerous if jostled.

“Oh!  Sure thing!”  The little man ran around to the other side of his machine.  “I haven’t had a chance to test it, yet, but I have fixed the problem of the exploding barrel.”

Rowin had absolutely no idea what the gnome meant by “barrel.”  He didn’t see any barrels in the laboratory.

The device that Dimble referred to consisted of a long metal tube with thick walls and a cap on one end.  Only he could know what it did.

“Would you mind telling us what this is?” Rowin asked.

“I call it a Parabolic Projectile Delivery Device; it fires these things in a parabolic arc of up to eighty degrees.”  He put his hand on a conical, steel object.  “I’ve accounted for every variable…  I think.”

Scott rubbed his chin.  “Coming from you, that’s not very reassuring.”

They heard a loud crash, and Dim turned to face some of his co-workers, who stood around a broken piece of machinery.  “I TOLD you!  Don’t remove the pins until it’s welded!  Grab the blueprints and put it back together!”  After the short outburst, Dim turned back.  “I heard that we lost a couple of our border patrols.  A loss of communication is usually the first signs of invasion. I’m mixed about it, though: I get a chance to use some of these things, but I hate having to build weapons.”

“I hear you.”

Dim dashed over to Rowin and took what he had picked up.  “Don’t touch that!  This acetylene torch could burn a hole through you at over a thousand degrees!  It’s used for spot-welding!”  He put it on its place against the steel tank that held the volatile fuel.

“I know, my dad has one.” Rowin said, fully aware of what the torch could do.

“Dim, can I introduce you to my new squire.

“Of course!  Why would I pass this up?”

“Rowin, this is Dimble Terrick, head of Arcanian Research and Development.  He and his clan-brothers have been working for the Royal Family for generations.

“Dim, this is my student, Rowin Baker, soon-to-be Royal Knight of Arcania.”

“Related to Ken?”

“His son.”

Dim grabbed Rowin’s hand and vigorously shook it.  “I’m honoured to meet the son of the great Ken Baker!  It is because of him that we have the best materials!”

Rowin made a few connections in head.  So that’s where he sent all his completed projects.  “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, too…”

The gnome engineer finally released Rowin’s hand, which he had covered with dirt and grease.  “We hope to have it ready for testing in a couple hours.  Come out to the range and see it.”

“I’ll be sure to be there,” Scott said.  He wondered if it would work this time.

 

Dyphise carefully went over the diagrams in his books, making sure he wouldn’t leave out a single step in the process of reanimating dead bodies.  Although he had done it countless times in the last five centuries, he could never quite commit it to memory.

“You’re losing your touch,” his sister told him as she leaned over his shoulder.  “Maybe you’re getting old?”

Without missing a beat, Dyphise replied, “They’ve brought back as many of the dead as they could find.  It’s your turn to animate them.”

The dark-haired woman moved to the other side of the room and looked down into the abyss of bodies, a familiar smell of rot wafting upward.  “Your war made quite an impact on the population of both countries.”

“Not to mention their allies.  I’m saving the best for last.”

“So, whom do you want me to resurrect?”

Dyphise didn’t move from his spot.  “None of them.  Just animate their corpses.” He closed his book.  “However, there’s one man that needs a little special treatment.”  He beckoned for her to follow him.

Her black and gold robes swished against the floor, and her dark grey mace tapped against her hip plate with each step, staining it with flecks of fresh red blood.  In the next room, a mouldy skeleton lay on a stone block.  Despite the total lack of features, she recognized him.  “You took the time to actually identify this one?  I’m impressed, Dyphise; Father would be proud.”

“Yes, it is none other than General Henry Clayton, the greatest military mind in all Arcania!”

“You’ve done your research, I see.  He died bravely, defending the southern border from an invasion force.”

“A force you sent.  Like you said, ‘Father would be proud.’  If you can, I want his soul ripped from its afterlife and thrown back into its rotting shell of a body, and then put under my control!”

She took her mace off her belt and held it in both hands.  She chanted some words of dark magic, and her weapon started to glow.  The foul bones sparkled, and they took on a deep blue-green glow, which expanded and shaped to surround the entire body.

The glow changed to flesh, grafting itself to the restored bones, and a military uniform appeared around the body.  In a matter of minutes, the evil cleric had restored the body of the great Arcanian general to a semblance of life.

“How much of him did you bring back?”

“Everything but true mortality.  He’s still undead, so I’ll handle this.”

The dead man grunted and opened his glassy eyes.  He tried to remember how to speak after being dead for so long.

“Welcome back to this life, General.  I have brought you back, and therefore you are under my control!”

Dyphise snarled, and she glanced over to him.

“You will obey my brother, or be subject to a fate worse than death.”

The general tried to exert his will, but Dyphise struck him with a powerful spell of his own design before he could muster any defiance.  “Now you are under my control!  You have no will of your own anymore!  You obey me!”

“Well, I’ve done my work.  I’ll animate the rest of those corpses on my way out.  If you don’t mess this up, I’ll see you after your war,” she said as she left her brother’s cave.

 

Rowin, Scott, Jon, and Dim stood behind the protective wall as the gnomes prepared to test their machine.  They watched through the slit in the thick metal as the gnomes hustled around, making last-minute checks and bringing out the conical steel projectile.

“They’re going to throw that thing with that tube?” Rowin asked.

“If anyone can do it, Dim can.”

Two of the gnomes loaded the projectile into the tube, and the rest scattered.  “Fire in the hole!” they shouted, and one pulled a switch on the sealed side.

They heard an explosion, and smoke came pouring out of the open end.  After a tense moment, the gnomes returned, upending the device and carefully removing the live projectile.

Dim ran around the wall and gave his analysis of the problem.  “Right now, it looks like we didn’t use enough powder.  I told them to use cordite, since my calculations took it into account, but they must have misunderstood and grabbed the gunpowder.  I should have double-checked before they put the projectile together.”

“Cordite?” Rowin asked.

“New explosive we made.  Remember when we accidentally knocked that hole in the side of the castle?  That was when we invented cordite.”

Scott remembered that incident all too well.  “It took over a week to patch up the hole.  Some of the crew wanted to dunk you in the mortar.”

The team placed the unexploded projectile in a sturdy steel case to take it back to R&D for refinement, when it suddenly exploded.  Fortunately, the case took the explosion, its walls only buckling slightly.  After it detonated, the team hustled it back inside.

“At least I’ve got the blueprints for it.”

“Keep us posted.”  He turned back to his young student.  “Rowin I have something for you to do,”

 

Scott took Rowin to the stables and they walked down the hall and stopped at the stall three away from the other door. Rowin looked into the stall and standing before him was one of the most beautiful horses he had ever seen. The horse had chestnut brown fur and big soft brown eyes.

“Rowin this is Ariel; she’s one of my best war horses. She’s strong and brave and loyal.” Scott said petting her.

“Rowin couldn’t find the words. “Scott she’s beautiful,”

“She is. I know you’ll take good care of her.”

“Yes, does she have armour?”

“Yes, your father made some for her many years ago, why?”

“I just wanted to make sure that she would be protected when we went out onto the battlefield.”

“You’re a good man, Rowin,”

“Thanks Scott,”

“I’ll take good care of her and Mina I try and check on her as much as I can.

“Good man horses need human companionship.”

“Thanks Scott.”

“You’re welcome, my friend; come on we should get you back to your training.”

“Right,”

 

Scott left Jon and Rowin to work out, knowing that they’d be finished soon, when Kathryn approached him.  “Sir, may I make a request of you?”

“I am at your service, Princess.”

“I would like to organize a birthday party for Rowin.  It is only three days until then, and I would like to make him feel welcome.”

“Rowin already feels welcome, but if there are other reasons, then I would be honoured to assist you.”

“Thank you, Sir, but what do you mean by ‘other reasons?’  Are you suggesting anything?”

“Um, of course not, Princess.  When I can, I will see to it.”

 

She just had to tell her father about the surprise party for Rowin.  Kathryn went into her father’s office, where he had a stack of correspondence to go through.

Trian looked up and smiled when he saw his daughter come in.  “Is there something you want, my dear?”

“Father, it’s Rowin’s seventeenth birthday in three days, and I need your permission to hold a celebration here in the castle.”

“Of course, we will have the party for Rowin here.  I’ll send an invitation to his family, and see to the arrangements.”  King Trian had taken a liking to the boy; he reminded him of his early days as a young man, preparing to take on a role long on effort and short on benefits.

“If it is going to be a surprise, then we will have to keep him distracted from the preparations we will have to make.”

“Considering the way he acts when you’re around, keeping him distracted won’t be too difficult.”

Kathryn blushed.  “Father!”

Trian grinned broadly.

 

After each training session was over Rowin would go to the stables and he would tend to his new horse. He’d spend time brushing her, and making sure she had good shoes and would spend time playing with her. Soon Rowin and Mina were so close that he was able to get her to come when he whistled and she recognized the sound of his footsteps and would get excited when he came into the stables. But he made sure to take care of Ariel as well he didn’t want her to be lonely it was hard taking care of two beautiful horses but he had come to like it brushing them was very relaxing. He made sure not to feed them too much.

Chapter 8

 

Dyphise looked over his army of the dead his long white hair almost moving on its own.  “We will march on Arcania soon, but before we start moving, I want to fine-tune this legion of the damned.”

Xaktor wandered into the room.  “That’s a lot of dead bodies.  You’re actually going to make an army from these things?”

“Let me go over the enchantments.  I want the impending battle to be one that will be forever etched into the memories of the survivors.”  The white-haired wizard went to his study, searching for one particular book.

“Each member of this army will be unlike all the others.  Why should I just send some corpses, when I can send shock troops that will be underestimated at first glance?”  He pulled a thick, black-bound tome from the shelf.  “Zombies that exude acid…  Skeletons that explode upon destruction… abominations that defy nature itself… This will be no ordinary army!”  He turned page after page.  “This isn’t it… where is it?”

“Looking for this?”

His sister sat at his desk, holding a black and silver book.  “You can’t possibly cast all these spells by yourself.”

“The thought had occurred to me.”

She opened the lock on the side of the book and opened it to a random page.  “Are you sure you know how to use this?”

“I’ve been using it almost my entire life!  You’re getting on my nerves, Miah!”

 

Two uneventful days came and went, and then the third day dawned.  Rowin awoke, washed up, ate, and met with Jon.

“Scott wanted me to give you a practise test,” the teacher told his student.  “It will last maybe an hour or so.”

“Sure, Jon, but today’s my birthday.”

“Hum?  So it is!  Well, if you show me your best, I might decide to make this practise test the real thing.”

 

Scott had a few other things to do that day.  He checked in with R&D to see if Dimble had perfected his weapon yet.

“The Parabolic Projectile Delivery Device itself is working fine,” Dimble informed him.  “It’s the projectiles that need fine-tuning.”

“Dim, we would all appreciate it if you came up with a simpler name for it.”

“Uh, right; I’ll put that on my list of things to do.”

“You should also put down that today is Rowin’s birthday.”

“Really?  Well, that’s news.  If there’s anything I can do, just ask.”

“You just have to keep it quiet for an hour or two.”

Dimble looked around the laboratory.  His clan brothers made an enormous racket with their chatter and the ceaseless hum of their power tools.  “If there’s any place where you don’t want something heard, this is it.”

 

Kathryn overflowed with happiness on this day of impending celebration.  She sat with Rowin’s sister Erica and chatted for what felt like hours.

She started out small.  “So, Erica, what were you and Rowin like as children?”

Rowin’s older sister laughed as she looked back on those days.  “Oh, if you know him like I do, nothing’s really changed; even when he was little, he wanted to be a knight.  He would stay in the forge with dad all day, and wouldn’t come in until we called him for dinner.”

“Now he’s finally getting to live out his dream of being a knight.  He has a drive to be the greatest at what he does.  I hope he becomes everything he wanted to be.”

“Knowing him like I do, I’m pretty sure he’ll get there; I have never seen him give up on anything. Rowin doesn’t know how to give up, he’s a fighter. Once he’s made up his mind about something there’s no arguing with him. He’s pretty stubborn, just like his mom. He’s more like her than he wants to admit, but he takes after dad mostly.”

“You sound very close.” Kathryn noticed.

“We are closer than twins even we have a special bond that connects and links us to eachother.”

“I wish I had a sister.” Kathryn said sadly.

“Who knows you may have one day.”

 

With the day’s lessons over, Rowin wiped the sweat from his brow and headed for the audience room to see Kathryn and his family.

He pushed open the door and entered.  “Did I miss anything good?” he asked.

“Hey, Rowin!” his father called.  “You’re looking great!”

Erica’s eyes locked with Rowin’s from across the room and her heart began to pound in her chest. They smiled at one another for a moment and they ran toward each other and embraced for a long moment. It was all they could do to separate. Erica smiled at him and he smiled back at her.

“I missed you so much, Erica.” Rowin said to her squeezing her tight never wanting to let go.

“I missed you too, Rowin, but we were never really apart, nothing can break our bond.”

“I know.” Rowin said tears streaming down his face.

“Let me look at you.” Erica said stepping back.  “You’ve grown into a handsome young man.”

“Thank you. I swear you’re more beautiful than I remember.”

“Thank you, little brother.”

“So, what’s everyone here for?” Rowin asked.

“We’re here on business,” his father told him.  “With the tide of a possible war coming once again, the army needs equipment.  I’m the first smith that got here.”

“Oh…okay.”  Rowin thought he might be avoiding his question.

“Come over and sit down, son; I want to hear about what you’ve been doing.  Don’t leave out the slightest detail.” His mom said.

 

The work crews lifted the thick wooden beams while Nayrene maintained her levitation spells on the materials.  They drove the pegs in to bind it all together, and the foreman reported to Scott.

He came over and examined the trebuchet, putting his weight against the thick wooden beams, checking the counterweight, and pulling on the net.  Everything met his expectations.  “Ah, good work, men, and well done, Lady Nayrene.”

“Thank you, Scott, I’m glad I could help, and please, just call me Nayrene; we do not need formalities.”

“I’m honoured.  Thank you; I don’t think we’ve ever been this far ahead of schedule before.”

“If there is anything else you need me for, just ask.  If you do not need me right this moment, I’ll be returning to the library.”

With that, she left, and Scott watched her leave, his eyes taking in every inch of her body.  It took all his willpower to turn away and ask himself: Why do I keep staring at her?  I, the Captain of the Royal Knights, I am only human, and she is a very attractive woman after all.  He regained his senses and turned to the siege engines.  “All right, men, let’s get these things to their stations!  Hook them up and roll!”

 

Aghagolos entered the library, his walking stick tapping against the floor and making the only sound, which echoed across the huge room with each step.  “Nayrene, I must speak with you.”

The wizened old man sat down at Nayrene’s table, where she had three books open and a stack of four more next to her.  “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Go ahead,” she said, not taking her eyes off the page.  “I should have come here sooner; there’s so much here that I never found anywhere else.”

“The situation is getting worse; dead bodies are being shipped to the mountains from across the north.  A dark wizard is most likely animating them as we speak, and is preparing to march them on the castle.”

“Anyone with any amount of magical potential can feel the incredible amount of foul magic that’s being used in the mountains.”  She looked up at him.  “Perhaps we could go and see if there’s something we can do about it right now.”

“The wizard has been developing his spells for centuries.” Aghagolos said to her kindly.

“So have I,” Nayrene told him.

“If you go off half-cocked on your own, he’ll probably kill you.  It would be better if we inform everyone who needs to know, and prevent this from becoming a full-scale war.”

“So we are just going to wait until he walks up to the front gate?”

“If need be.  We have an army of our own, and enough magical power to make it a force to reckon with.  With the right materials and enough time, we can equip the army with the right gear to keep any threat at bay.”

Nayrene closed her books and stood up.  “I will send out the call for the master smiths.”

“Rowin’s dad Ken is already here.”

“That is good. Is there anything else we need?”

“Hope.”

 

A messenger entered the room while Rowin told his family what he had experienced in the castle and approached Ken.

“Sir, your presence is required in the forges.”

Ken raised his brow; the heat from his own forge had long since seared the hair off his face.  “Is it important?”

“Greatly.”

“Well, I should get going.  See you all… later.”

As Ken got up to leave, the messenger turned to Rowin.  “Master Rowin, Master Jon requests your presence in the training hall.”

Rowin looked to Kathryn.  “I’m needed elsewhere; Jon is such a taskmaster.” Rowin made a whip cracking motion.

Kathryn giggled and bid Rowin farewell for now.

 

Jon scratched his head and put his helmet back on.  “Well, it looks like you’ll be finished this part of the training in a couple of days.  However, if you’re going to be a Royal Knight of Arcania, you’ll have to learn how to act in proper company.  Diplomacy is just as important as knowing how to clobber the other guy.”

Rowin raised an eyebrow.  “Is that going to be worse than combat training?”

“You never know until you try it, but you’ll have Scott teaching you; he’s very good at everything he does.”  Jon brought his gigantic axe to bear.  “Now, let’s go!  Show me everything you’ve got!  Don’t hold back!”

The young knight-in-training drew his shining sword and held it before him.  “All right.  Get ready!”  He stepped forward and swung a tight slash.

Jon put his axe between himself and the swing, blocking the blade effortlessly.  He pushed Rowin back and thrust out his elbow, aiming for Rowin’s nose.  If he connected, he would flatten his whole face.

His feet moved as fast as his blade, and Rowin dodged as soon as he saw the move coming.  He jabbed the butt of his sword into Jon’s side, then brought the flat down and slapped Jon across the back.

“That’s one!”

Jon laughed.  “You’re getting better with every session!”

Rowin swung a second time, and again Jon blocked it.  He quickly moved to the other side and went for another one.

Jon whirled his axe and deflected the swing with a spray of sparks.  He stepped forward and slammed his massive shoulder into Rowin, throwing him to the marble floor.

As Jon raised his axe for a final blow, Rowin rolled backward, pulling himself back to his feet and stepping away from the falling blade.  “One to one!” he called.

Recovering, the giant axe-wielder brought his huge weapon about, swinging it in a low arc.  Rowin jumped over the swinging blade, bringing his sword down as he moved over Jon’s back.

The shining blade bounced against the floor, as Jon had ducked out of the way long before.  Rowin rolled back to his feet and turned quickly, bringing the weapon back to a ready position.

He watched Jon’s feet, remembering the lessons on movement.  He shifted his weight to his left, then back to his right, and then the young man drove forward, holding back his attack until Jon struck first.

Rowin saw the butt of the axe coming in.  He dodged beneath it, grabbed Jon’s huge arm, and threw himself into a spin, taking Jon with him.  As Jon hit the floor with a loud crash, his student tapped him in the chest with his fist.

“That’s two.”

Jon grabbed Rowin’s shirt and hurled him across the room.  As soon as he saw the floor coming for him, Rowin ducked into a roll, coming out on his feet, slightly off-balance, but still ready for anything.

They locked gazes, and then both broke out into a run.  Rowin held his blade back, pointed forward, while Jon kept his giant axe at his shoulder, ready to swing.

The two met in the centre of the room.  Rowin brought up his arm, blocking Jon’s swing before it started.  “Look down,” the young man insisted.

Jon did so, and saw the point of Rowin’s sword had stopped dangerously close to his abdomen.

“I’ve got you.  Three to one.”

“Congratulations, Rowin.  You’ve passed the final combat test and this completes the combat part of your training.”

“I did?  Thanks, Jon; it was great training with you.”  The two fighters stepped back and lowered their weapons.

“It was great training with you, as well; I’ve never had a student like you before, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have another.  I’ll tell Scott that you passed the combat training, and then I’ll leave the rest to him.”

Jon put an arm around Rowin’s shoulders.  “You’ve got to keep me on my toes; don’t think you won’t get away with not showing me what you learn from here on out.”

“I’ll do that.”

Jon clapped Rowin on the back, causing the young man to stumble forward.  He turned and said, “You intentionally did that, didn’t you?”

Jon just smiled and said, “Come on, let’s go get something to eat; I’m starving.”

 

Jon led Rowin down the hall, but turned right instead of left, as Rowin expected.  He looked and said, “The dining room’s that way.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Rowin would have said more, but he just let the matter drop and followed Jon anyway, until they arrived at the doors to the throne room.

“Well, go in, Rowin.”

Rowin pushed the doors open and walked into a room of absolute darkness.  “Jon, what’s going on here?”

Suddenly, the darkness disappeared, and he saw everyone standing in the room, a banner with his name on it hanging above the throne, and they all announced, “Happy birthday, Rowin!”

Rowin stepped back, surprised and awed; he had no idea that his friends had a party planned for him.  He scratched his head and smiled.  “I should have guessed you were going to spring something like this on me,” he said.

His parents and his sister came over to him and hugged him, wishing him a happy birthday.

“Thank you, everyone.  Who arranged this?”

“I did.” Kathryn said, with great happiness in her voice.  She practically glowed in the light of the room.  She wore a beautiful deep blue dress that matched her eyes.  “I hope you like it.”

He went over to her and hugged her in the middle of the room, and in front of their parents.

“I think we’ve got something here,” Ken mentioned to Trian.

The king nodded.  “Your son is a good man.  Perhaps we are seeing just the beginning of something more.”

“Possibly.” Ken agreed.

 

Kathryn brought Erica over to where Jon stood telling Rowin of previous adventures he had when he and Scott were younger. The two waited for a break in the conversation and then Kathryn spoke up. Rowin noticed that Erica was with her. “Hey Jon,”

“Yes, Your Highness?” The big man said with a slight bow.

“This is Rowin’s elder sister Erica. She told me that she would like to meet you when we talked earlier.” Kathryn said.

“Oh, I see. It’s an honour to meet Rowin’s older sister. He’s one of the best students I’ve ever had. He also told me that you were very close.” He told Erica in his booming voice.

“Yes, we’re very close, and we love each other very much. It’s an honour to meet you as well. I see that Rowin wasn’t kidding when he said you were really big.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. But being this big does have its advantages.” Jon said.

“Especially on the battlefield.” Scott said.

“I bet.” Erica said.

“Despite his size, he’s pretty fast Sis.” Rowin said.

“I have no doubts.” Erica said.

“Hey Jon, come here. We need your opinion on a matter.” One of the other knights called from across the room.

“It was nice to meet you Erica.” Jon said as he bowed low.

“It was nice to meet you as well Jon. Perhaps we’ll talk again?”

“I’d like that. Excuse me.” With that he went to see what the other knight wanted.

Rowin looked at his sister. “So what do you think? Isn’t he great?”

“Yeah, Rowin he is. He’s definitely a gentle giant.”

“Unless you tick him off of course.” Scott said. He had seen first-hand what Jon was like when he was ticked off and it wasn’t pretty. Most people who ticked Jon off usually didn’t live long enough to regret it.

Rowin who had taken his combat training with Jon knew that he was deadly and agile. “Of course.” Rowin agreed.

Erica made a mental note to stay on the large man’s good side.

 

A few minutes later Jon came back to where Rowin and the others were still talking.

“What did they want Jon?” Rowin asked.

“Oh they just wanted to hear my opinion of the best way to take down a large animal while hunting.”

“Oh I see. It’s no wonder they called you, with you being the resident hunting expert.”

“I’m no expert but I did hunt a lot when I was growing up in my tribe.”

Rowin snapped his fingers. “That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Where did get your axe?”

“I made it. Making your own weapon is one of the steps to becoming a man in my tribe. First you have to make it, and then you have to go hunt something with the weapon that you made.” Jon told Rowin and the others.

“Oh, I see. Impressive. It must’ve taken a long time to make.” Rowin said knowing how long it took to make regular axes.

“It took me six months to make it, mostly because it’s so big.”

“That makes sense. I’ve helped dad make lots of regular axes and swords and other things, and they always took a while.”

“Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”

“Otherwise there’s no point. My dad always says that.”

 

 

The party lasted well into the night; midnight had passed long before anybody started heading to bed for the night.

Kathryn walked with Rowin to his room, where they said goodnight, but before Rowin could enter his room to go to sleep, she kissed him, pressing her rosy red lips against his.  The kiss took Rowin by surprise at first, but he quickly relaxed and got to enjoy it.

The two separated and said good night again.  This time, Rowin took Kathryn’s arm and kissed her just as she did, but with more passion.

When they separated again, Rowin said, “I’ll see you in the morning, Kathryn.”

Kathryn smiled. “Good night, Rowin.  Sweet dreams.”

“Sweet dreams beautiful.” Rowin said bowing low.

Then he went to bed and slept.

Chapter 9

 

In the morning, Rowin went and found Scott so they could start the next part of his training.

“Jon told me that the next part of the training would be etiquette, and stuff like that.”

“Yes, that’s correct, Rowin: the next part of your training will be how to act around others of high standing.  It consists of many different things that you will have to learn and understand.”

“When do we start?”

“We start right now.  Follow me.”

 

Rowin followed his friend and new mentor to the classroom, where he would learn everything he needed to know about proper etiquette.  They had a large room, but not as large as the training room.

“Take a seat, and we’ll start when I get everything I need.”

Rowin picked the front row centre seat and waited for Scott to pull out the materials.  When he had what he needed, Scott started going over all the things that Rowin would need.

 

Deep in the mountains of the Arcanian border, tendrils of foul black energy flowed from Dyphise’s clawed fingers into the cold-forged iron ring on the table before him.  He chose the spells carefully to create an artifact of dire power and horrible effect.

The plain iron ring glowed under the assault, its form twisting into unfathomable shapes, and evil runes burned into the outer face.

“You certainly are taking your time, brother.”

“Don’t interrupt me,” Dyphise snapped.  “You know what will happen!”

Miah smiled to herself and stepped out of the laboratory, nearly tripping over the sleeping Xaktor.

“Don’t you have something better to do?” she asked, but before Xaktor could answer, she added, “Yes, you do, now get to it.”

The creature slinked away, padding down the hall and turning the corner.  Miah smiled to herself and went back to her room.  Kneeling in front of the shrine to her deity, she said, “That fool; his plan will never work.  Eventually, his arrogance will get the best of him.”

 

Rowin paid close attention to Scott’s lesson.  The days usually went by quickly, but today, it seemed like Scott’s lesson went on forever.  When Scott finished for the day, Rowin couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

He went to his room, got his sword, then went out into the field and practised all the combat moves Jon had shown him to burn off his restlessness.  He worked out for about three hours, than decided that he had had enough.

He went back to his room, put his sword away, and then took a shower before he went to see Kathryn.  When she saw him, she smiled warmly and said, “Yes, Rowin?”

“Hey, Kathryn,

“Rowin you can call me Kate if you would like.”

“Kate would you like to go for a walk with me tonight?  I want to take you somewhere special, it’s a surprise.”

“Oh, Rowin, I would love to, what do you say to after dinner?”

“It’s a date.  I’ll come get you when I’m ready.”

She waited in anticipation for their date, getting prepared, and bursting with joy.

 

Rowin silently thanked his parents for teaching him about the stars when they did, otherwise he wouldn’t have anything to talk about tonight.  Well; he could always tell her about shaping metal, but he thought that she’d think it was boring. However it was something else he could talk about. Once he had fought down the butterflies, he knocked on Kathryn’s door, and she opened it and stepped out.

She wore a gorgeous sapphire dress that highlighted her eyes and hugged her body. She also wore a pair of earrings of the same colour.  The dress took his breath away.  She looked Rowin over from head to toe; he wore a three-piece formal suit and had combed his hair.  “Rowin, you look great.”

“Thanks, you look absolutely beautiful.  Shall we go?”

They walked along the path that led to Rowin’s favourite place.  He held his hand over her eyes so she couldn’t see.

“Okay, you can look now.”

He took his hands off when they were right in front of the waterfall.  She opened her eyes and saw the most beautiful waterfall in all of Arcania.

She didn’t say anything for a moment, but then she turned to him.  “Rowin, may I tell you something?”

“You can tell me anything.”

“This waterfall… I’ve been coming here for a while now.”

“You have?” Rowin asked, slightly crestfallen.

“But now that I know that you love this spot as much as I do, Rowin, it seems like we were meant to be together.”

“It’s possible.”

He kissed her for the third time.  A while after, Kathryn looked to the stars as they were talking.  “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Rowin looked up.  “Yes they are, but not as beautiful as you.”

“Thank you.” Kathryn replied and kissed him on the cheek.

Rowin pointed to one of the constellations.  “That one is the Great Bear, and those three stars are Jammu’s Belt.”

“Which one is that?” she asked as she pointed to a group of stars almost directly above them.

Rowin looked straight up, studied the stars, and then replied, “I think that’s the White Dragon.  I know it doesn’t really look like a dragon, so you’ll have to use your imagination.”

“Rowin,”

“Yes,”

“What’s it like being the son of the Royal Blacksmith?”

Rowin laughed a little.

“What?”

“Nothing; I just thought you’d think hearing about what it’s like to be a blacksmith’s son boring.”

“Not at all, I think that working with your hands and shaping metal is quite interesting.”

“I see.” Rowin said and then he began to tell her what it was like growing up and learning to shape metal from the age of four. Kathryn listened intently and asked many questions which Rowin answered the best he could.

 

“Hey Kate, it was great to sit and talk with you,” Rowin mentioned as he and Kathryn watched the sun rise in the eastern sky.

“I sense there’s a ‘but’ in there.”

“Well, I have to go to Scott’s lessons in about three hours, and—”

“You need some sleep, or you’ll get it in class.”

“Exactly. Especially Scott’s Etiquette class isn’t exactly the world’s most exciting subject. Personally I’d rather be in combat class with Jon.”

“No doubt. I understand; now that you mention it, I need some sleep as well.  I’ve never been up this late before.” Kathryn finished her sentence with a long yawn, which caused Rowin to yawn as well. Then they both started to laugh hysterically.

 

They walked back to the castle, and Rowin escorted her to her room, where they kissed each other goodnight.

After he went to his room, Rowin closed the door, took off his suit, and then collapsed on his bed, asleep before his face hit his pillow.

 

Dyphise watched and laughed to himself.  The boy’s meagre training could not match the century of conflict he had engaged in. However his training in sword fighting is far more extensive than my own. No matter…the blood of thousands had stained his hands over the five hundred years he had lived, and hundreds more would offer up their dying screams to him in the near future.

Xaktor paced into the room.  “Hey, Boss, are you almost done?”

Dyphise blasted him across the room for his interruption.  “I am now.”  He stood up and left the room.  Xaktor shook off the pain and followed at a respectful distance.

In the next room, Dyphise found Henry watching a scale representation of the fields between Arcania City and Taldor.  “How are the battle plans coming?”

Without turning, the living corpse of the great military hero droned a reply in a monotone voice.  “Place five legions, hill northwest of Arcania City, twelve miles.  Place four legions, hill due west of Arcania City, ten miles.  Place two legions, field southwest of Arcania City, eight miles.”

Dyphise raised an eyebrow.  “I cannot gather that many bodies.  You have one thousand troops at your disposal and not a carcass more, do you understand?”

“Understood.”  Henry continued to observe the battlefield, formulating new battle tactics in his rotten mind.

“We have plenty of time, just come up with something that works.”

As he left, Dyphise turned to look at Xaktor.  The beast cringed and slinked off in the other direction.  As he continued on his way, Dyphise grinned wickedly.

“I will show you that I don’t need your help, dear sister.  I will wreak more havoc than you could ever hope to achieve.”

 

Dyphise inscribed the dark runes onto the bones of the skeletons.  As he finished the inscriptions, the runes glowed with evil power, and he moved on to the next.

Following close behind, Miah called down the power of her deity to infuse the corpses with the power to move.  As Dyphise finished the next set of runes, the last skeleton started to shift.

“We will be ready to strike soon,” Dyphise told her, hardly taking his attention away from his work.

“Once you are, you will be on your own.  After all, this is your battle, not mine; I’ve done my part.”

His impatience with his sister continued to grow.  “That’s fine with me, for I will no longer need your abilities.”

 

Back at the castle, with his class ended for the day, Rowin found himself without anything to do around the castle, so he went to his room and got his sword, and then he found Jon in his usual place: chopping great chunks of wood with his enormous axe in the castle’s main courtyard.

“Hey, Jon would you rather chop wood, or work out with me?”

He split a massive piece in half with one swing.  “Is that a challenge, Rowin?”

“Sure is, although I’ll understand if you don’t want to, since I’ve kicked your butt so many times.”

Jon turned another piece into a matched pair.  “Don’t rub it in, kid.  I never back down from a challenge.”

“All right, then, meet me in the training room when you’re done, please.”

“You got it. And Rowin,”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t get cocky. It’s a good way to get yourself killed.” The big man said a large grin sprouting on his face.

“Right.” Rowin said with a nod.

 

Rowin practised his strikes, going through the motions that he had done hundreds of times already.  He wanted to see how he could fare against Scott, but he could never seem to catch him at a good time to ask.

He stopped when he heard the door to the training room open.  He looked over and saw Jon step through, his giant axe riding over his shoulder.

The giant brought his axe down, gripping it in both hands, and stared down at Rowin.  “Class begins now.”

“Hey Jon, before we start, may I see your axe please?”

“Sure.” Jon said handing it to him. Rowin stood it on the ground with the handle on the floor. Then he looked over both blades and ran his fingers over them.

“So?” Jon asked.

“You did a good job, a few imperfections in the metal, but that’s probably because it’s seen so much use lately. Other than that, I don’t see anything wrong with it. Its construction is very solid.” Rowin said tapping on the side of the blade.

“Thanks Rowin, I see your dad did teach you a lot about making weapons.”

“Yeah, he did. Come on let’s get started.”

 

Jon took his axe off the floor and then broke into a charge, rearing his axe back.  He covered ground with immense speed, reaching Rowin in only a few strides.

As his axe came bearing down, Rowin dove under the swing, coming up behind, but had to drop again as the axe came around a second time.  He backed away and watched Jon bring his weapon around to bear, wielding it effortlessly.

“You will never get an easy win over me kid,” Jon told him.

“That wouldn’t be any fun.” Rowin replied with a grin.

Jon grinned back, and they clashed again.

 

Both warriors dropped to a knee, sweat pouring down their faces.  Rowin braced himself on his sword, gasping for air and biting back the pain of bruised ribs.  “So, had enough yet?”

Jon wiped the sweat away.  “That was good for a warm-up,” he said, concealing the twinge of pain he felt in his side.  Must’ve strained it.

He pushed himself to his feet, groaning all the way.  “You don’t know when to quit, do you?”

Rowin braced himself on his sword and pulled back up.  “Nope.”

 

Today seemed like just another day for the men who patrolled the Border Mountains and the Furindi border.  Nothing happened that required their attention.  Furindi had kept quiet since the end of the war, forced back over the river and back into their territory.

“How much time do we have left on our tour up here?” one of the soldiers on duty asked of his commander.

“The next shift is on its way; Leges talked to them earlier, and they said they’re about a week’s ride out.”

“A week for them to get here and then two weeks to get to Taldor.  I can’t wait to get back to civilization, find a good meal and a warm bed, and a warm body to share it.”

“I can’t help but agree with you.  We whipped Furindi pretty good, and I don’t think they’ll have the resources to fight a war again for a long time.”

They heard a rattle and a commotion from several rooms away.  “Go check it out,” the commander ordered.

The soldier went toward the source of the noise and entered the room.  He saw Leges, the posted wizard, lying on the floor with his throat torn out.  A misshapen humanoid creature hovered over him, blood dripping from its mouth and claws.

“Sweet and merciful gods above.”

The creature looked up at him.  The door on the far side of the room flew open, and a small horde of rotten monsters poured in.

 

“What’s taking him so long to report back?”

The commander left his post to investigate.  As soon as he reached the door, it swung open.  Half a dozen slavering ghouls jumped through, spattered with blood and thirsty for more.

Chapter 10

 

Rowin finally caught up with Scott, directing some workers in construction of the castle’s fortifications.  “Hey, Scott, what are you doing later?”

“I’ll call for a replacement in a couple of hours, so I can rest for a while.  Why do you ask?”

“I’m feeling kind of bored, and since I’m beating Jon all the time, I was wondering if you’d like to have a match?”

“Really?”  Scott felt a small measure of pride that Rowin could hold his own against his friend.  “I’ll let you know if I take you up on your offer.  I do have other pressing matters to attend to, though.”

“Sure thing,” Rowin said, then went back to see if he could be of some service elsewhere in the castle.

At the moment, no one needed his help, so he went to find Aghagolos to see if he could tell him of some events that had long since passed.

 

Rowin found him in the library, his eyes on an opened book.  As he approached, he heard him talking to himself.  “That’s not how it happened; I was there, and I distinctly recall half that number.”

“Am I disturbing you?” he asked.

The old man looked up, shaken out of his little trance.  “I always have time for you.  What brings you here?”

“I’m bored, so I’d like a history lesson.”  Rowin sat down across from him and took a quick look at the book: it looked very old.  “What are you reading?”

“Just some old history: a legion of Loyalist soldiers held off an army of rebels for a week, with dwindling supplies and distant reinforcements.  History’s written by the winners, I tell you.”

“That’s not the kind of history lesson I had in mind.”

His weathered, aged face turned from the tome to the young man.  “You wish to know about the foul wizard known as Dyphise Honzonoto?”

“Jon and Scott both told me the same thing: in order to be fully prepared, you must know your opponent, and I want to know my opponent as well as I can.”

His steel-grey eyes showed some recollection.  “The tale of Dyphise begins long before King Trian, during the reign of Mikhail the Fourth, in the thirteenth century of the Arcanian Calendar.  None know of his early years but himself, but I am sure that they were full of nothing but evil and spite.  He found the path of the dark arts, and the evil energy has corrupted his mind and body.  If he could ever have been redeemed, that time was gone long ago.  His acts were so evil that they were erased from the common knowledge of the world by the effort of many historians.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Course you don’t.  Anyway, it gets worse: the wizard once tried to invade this land from the frozen northlands.  The army of then-Prince Trian stopped his army of evil.  The two battled for a day and a night, and when the sun rose at dawn, Trian struck down Dyphise with such force that it scarred the Royal Seal into Dyphise’s face.

“He had the chance to kill him, but Trian would not.  He banished the evil wizard from this nation for the rest of his life.  Such chaos and destruction has never been witnessed in this nation before or since, but that time may be coming to an end.”

“So if we’re not prepared for him, then the world will be plunged into darkness, and Dyphise will rule with an iron fist, if we don’t stop him first.”

“Precisely, if a bit poetic.  If we didn’t get reports of our lost border patrols when we did, we might have been caught totally unprepared.”

The doors opened, and Scott’s footfalls echoed in the huge library.  “Rowin, I’ve decided to take you up on your offer.  I’ll wait for you in the training hall.”  He noticed that Mr. Golos was there.  “Mister Golos, I trust you find our library is to your liking?”

“It is adequate.”

Adequate? This place is huge, thought Rowin.

 

Rowin met Scott at the appointed place.  The knight kept one hand on the handle of his longsword, as if he expected an attack at any moment.

“Are there any special rules that I should be aware of?” Scott asked.

“Let’s make it best-of-three hits; that’s how me and Jon finished the combat sessions.”

Scott unsheathed his blade.  The metal shone, as he always kept in excellent condition, and it bore the symbol of the Royal Knights of Arcania at the cross guard.  “Shall we begin?”

Rowin unsheathed his own sword and held it before him, indicating to Scott that the battle had commenced.  The young squire shifted his weight around, moving his balance to find a good starting position.

Scott saw this, and readied himself for an offensive.  He took a half step forward and tightened his grip.  It would look very bad on his record if he got beaten too quickly.

Without warning, Rowin thrust his sword forward.  His mentor quickly reacted and stepped back, knocking the tip of the thrust aside with his blade.  Scott followed up by reversing his swing and stopping right before it touched Rowin’s neck.  “Are you still practising?” he asked in a condescending manner.

“Give me a little break; I’ve spent most of my training with a guy three times my size.”

They backed off and went at it again.  Rowin blocked a slash deeply, hooking Scott’s blade in the curved guard of his own sword.

The elder knight had seen that tactic before, and twisted his sword to try and pull Rowin’s out of his grasp.  Suddenly, his weight shifted much farther than he had expected; Rowin had twisted his sword with him and slid the blade out.  Scott had just struggled against nothing.

“Good one.”  He swung his sword across his body to block Rowin’s strike.

Rowin took the opening and pushed his shoulder into Scott’s unprotected chest.  The knight staggered back, but regained his footing and held his sword out in a ready stance.

“One to one, Scott.”

They both waited for each other to make the first move.  Rowin shifted his weight from his left foot to his right, and back to his left, bobbing to each side.

Scott stepped, and swung his blade down low, and would have taken Rowin’s feet out, if the boy hadn’t jumped and countered.

Scott dodged the counter strike, and their blades clashed between them.  They parried each swing and dodged each thrust, forcing their dance of swords to continue for some time.

Scott marvelled at how the boy had mastered his sword.  He wielded it with finesse and innate skill, like an extension of his arm.  Scott just had to avoid losing a limb to his student.

He blocked low and swung his sword around to block high, but Rowin did not follow that pattern; he thrust and the tip of his blade poked against Scott’s abdomen.

“You left yourself open,” Rowin mentioned.  “Are you still practising?”

“It’s good to see that you still are.”

“Always.”

Scott replaced his sword in its sheath.  “You’re almost done, you know.  You’ll be a full-fledged Royal Knight in a few weeks if you keep it up.”

“I’ll have to be done, because we don’t know when war will be declared.”

“We’ve lost contact with our patrol in the west.”

“Hey, Scott, what do you think our chances are?”

“It depends on the size, equipment, and experience of both sides.  Right now, we don’t know; we’d need to see the army before we can make even an estimate, but if we do get into a war, remember that Arcania is a superior military power.”

“Didn’t they say that Dyphise used dark arts?”

Scott paused.  “You’re right.  We could be at a disadvantage.  I’ll talk to the Council when I can, and discuss how we’re going to fight that.  Knowing them, they’ve probably already come up with a few plans.”

“We had better have more than just a few plans, and backup plans of our own, just to be safe,” Rowin said.

“Having plans is always good, but when you spend more time planning than you do fighting, your priorities have to be straightened out.”

 

The body convulsed as Dyphise channelled his evil magic through it.  When the crackling energy abated, the corpse twitched.

“You’ve created unlife!” Xaktor exclaimed.  The gigantic blue goblin’s eyes glowed bright orange as he watched the dead body start moving.

“It’s child’s play compared to what I have in store for the rest of those rotting shells.  Anyone can animate a body, but it takes someone like me to create a work of ghoulish art.”

“But can you do something about the stench?”

“I thought creatures like you enjoyed the smell of rotting flesh.”

Xaktor held his pug nose.  “I only like killing and eating them.  I’m not a vulture.”

The white-haired villain didn’t want to waste any valuable magical energy on the barghest; he wanted to save as much as possible for his army.  “Then it won’t bother you if I have a surplus of skeletons.”

“He’s right; these things reek!”  His sister walked in, holding a black cloth to her face.

“Didn’t you leave already?”

“With this place packed to the roof with corpses, I found it difficult to get out.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the thought of going to war, but do you have to use worm-eaten carcasses?”

“It’s easier than binding fiends.”

“Hey!”

Miah clubbed the barghest with her mace.  “If I ever do find my way out of this mausoleum, I’ll be sure to drop by before you finally do go to war, if you ever stop playing with your cadavers.”

Chapter 11

 

“I, Rowin Baker, son of Ken of the House of Baker, do hereby pledge to honour the strictures of the Royal Knights of Arcania, and promise by my faith to be loyal to His Majesty, the King of Arcania, maintaining my devotion against all persons without deception or forethought.

“Further, I vow to promote and uphold the principles of fealty, courtesy, honesty, valour, and honour, and to solemnly and faithfully follow the edicts of His Majesty, the King of Arcania.

“I take this pledge freely, without coercion or expectation of reward, sworn by my hand on the sword of His Majesty, the King of Arcania, and in blessed memory of those who have given their lives to this noble cause.”

Rowin knelt before King Trian as he tapped him on each shoulder with his sword.  He trembled with the excitement that he had officially joined the Royal Knights.

“On this day, the twentieth day of Arundel, in the year Seventeen-Thousand and Forty-One of the Arcanian Calendar, I hereby dub thee, Rowin Baker, as Royal Knight of Arcania, and entitled to all of the privilege and responsibility therein.

“Arise, Sir Rowin.  To serve the Crown and the people of Arcania as best you can.”

He stood and received the symbol of the Knights, affixed to a shirt: a stylized letter A against a shield and sword.

Applause broke out from the Knights and Rowin’s family.  Scott crossed his arms and let a smile come to his face.  He looked up to Jon and said, “We did pretty well.”

Jon nodded in agreement. “Rowin did most of the work and he even showed us a thing or two.”

“Yes he did. He’s pretty extraordinary.”

 

Kathryn stood next to her father and her brother.  She stepped forward and said, “Congratulations, Sir Rowin.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m very proud of you, as is my father.”

“Again, thank you Kate.” Rowin whispered bowing slightly.

 

King Trian stepped forward to address the crowd.  “This is cause for celebration!  In these days where the dark clouds of war once again hang over our heads, this is a much-welcomed ray of light.  There will be a great feast tonight, and all are welcome!”

Ken and his wife had received an invitation to Rowin’s knighting ceremony from Scott himself telling them when it would be and when to be at the castle. Of course they wouldn’t miss it for anything. Erica came along as well. She was so proud of Rowin, no way she’d stay at home today.

Rowin saw them and went over to them. “Mom, Dad, Sis, I’m glad you made it.”

“It’s not everyday your son is knighted.” His father said.

“Rowin, I’m so proud of you.” Erica said giving him a big hug.

“Thanks sis.”

Lily stepped forward. “Rowin I was…”

Rowin cut her off. “It’s okay Mom, you just wanted me to have a backup plan in case things didn’t work out. You just wanted what was best for me.”

“Still, son I was wrong.” Lily said and Rowin gave her a hug.

After watching the family together for sometime Kathryn came over and put her hand on Rowin’s shoulder. He jumped slightly and looked to see her there.

“Hi Kathryn.” He said.

“Hi Rowin. Hello everyone”

“Hello dear.” Lily said.

“Hey Kathryn.” Erica said.

“Your Majesty.” Ken said.

“There’s no need to be formal here, kind sir.” Kathryn said as she bowed slightly.

“As you wish. It was quite an honour to meet you, I have heard so much about you.” Ken smiled and took her hand in his and gently kissed it.

“I too was honoured to finally meet you, Rowin talks about you a lot. We’re all very proud of Rowin, here at the castle, especially Scott and Jon.” Kathryn informed them.

“As are we.”

Rowin waited for a moment. “So Kathryn, your library is amazing.”

“I’m glad you like it Rowin.”

“You have a library?” Erica asked.

“Castle Arcania has the greatest library in the country.” Kathryn said.

“Can I see it?” Erica asked.

“I don’t see why not, our library’s open to everyone.”

“I’ll take you sis.” Rowin said.

“I’d like that Rowin.”

“If you’ll all excuse me I have a meeting to get to.” Ken said shortly after.

“Of course, we wouldn’t want to keep you from your work.” Kathryn said.

“I’ll see you all later.” Ken kissed his wife and then went on his way.

“Bye.” His family said together and with that he headed for the meeting hall.

Rowin took his sister’s hand in his they said goodbye to the others and then Rowin showed Erica to the gigantic library. Erica looked around for a few minutes she was speechless. She had never seen a library so big before. “Rowin, this place is huge.”

“I know; I had the exact same reaction when I first saw it.” He told Erica.

“Imagine what you could learn in here.” Erica said.

“Just about anything, it would take a thousand years to read all of the books in here.”

“Probably three or four actually.” They turned to see Aghagolos coming toward them.

“Hello Mister Golos.” Rowin said.

“Hello Rowin, who’s this?” He asked looking at Erica.

“Mister Golos, this is my big sister and best friend Erica,” Rowin said. “Erica this is Aghagolos.”

“I’m honoured to meet Rowin’s elder sister,” he said, and took her hand in his and gently kissed it.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Erica said.

Awhile after Rowin left to meet Kathryn for lunch, Erica went home and Aghagolos went to the meeting that would start soon.

 

Nayrene wanted to attend, but she had other pressing matters to attend to.

“Do you think summoning a few outsiders would be effective?”

“Dragging them away from their planes to fight in our war would probably not rub off very well on them,” Chief Council Member Janos replied.  “Only if this battle endangered the fate of all creation could we resort to that tactic.”

“I wouldn’t put it past Dyphise.”

“I have a suggestion,” Aghagolos said.  “I have an old friend who might be persuaded to join us, but he does live quite far away.  We go back a long time as old war buddies.”

“Then depart as soon as possible.  We could use all the help we can get.”

Council Member Rasdi had some input.  “Saltaria is unable to lend any aid; they are still recovering from the Furindi incident.  Hybernaya wants to stay neutral.  We can forget about negotiation with Furindi.  Nihon is very isolationist; we have a better chance negotiating with the desert nomads.”

“Can we get the nomads to join us?”

“Unlikely.  They only know the desert; if we brought them over here, they would be confused.  Our options are very limited, and we don’t know how much time we have left.”

Aghagolos got up and began chanting the words to a spell, when Rasdi interrupted.  “If you plan on teleporting through the walls, you can’t; they’re made of an inch of lead sandwiched between heavy stone blocks.”

“I wonder how I forgot that.”  Aghagolos scratched his head.  “Maybe I’m just getting old.”

“Four smiths have arrived at the castle,” Nayrene said.  “We expect at least six to a dozen more.  Ken is already working with them to craft as much equipment as they can.  We’ve already spent a hundred thousand Arcanian crowns on materials, and this war could drain a million from the treasury.”

“A hundred thousand?  A million?”

“You don’t expect the best metal smiths to work with lumps of raw iron do you?  We can only use the best materials to make the best equipment.  That is what we need before we can do our jobs,” Ken told the group.

“We cannot afford a protracted war, not in terms of resources or manpower.  Helping the Saltarians cost us a great deal, and we haven’t fully recovered.”

 

All the smiths assembled in the large shop, where they would receive instructions from Ken.  The Blacksmiths’ Guild respected him, and no one questioned his authority or experience; he didn’t get the title of Chief Metallurgist to the King for nothing.

“We have received several hundred tons of pure iron from the dwarven settlements in the mountains, “ he informed them.  “We must forge the finest steel and make the best weapons and armour that we can.  We will not get payment for anything less than masterwork.  I know that you can do this, so let’s get to work!”

All the smiths in the room went to work at once.  Forging all the equipment that the soldiers would need would take weeks to make, possibly even months, and they would all be working over intense heat with red-hot metal, with the repetition of metal hammers against steel and the hissing of hot steel in cold water to accompany them.

 

Two weeks later, Ken approached Rowin, riding a horse-drawn cart.  “Son, I made these for you and your friends.”  The cart contained three full suits of armour and a wide breastplate.  “They’re made with my special alloy.”

“Dad?”

“I know you’ll need them at some point; as you well know Rowinium is lighter and stronger than steel, I don’t know of anything short of magic that can punch through it.”

Rowin examined the armour.  He figured out who would wear them.  “Thanks dad, I’ll give them to the others when I can.”

“You’re welcome, son.”

 

Rowin went and gathered Scott, Jon, and Dion.  He showed them the armour that his father had brought.

“It’s… armour,” Dion said.  “We already have armour.”

Rowin picked up a gauntlet and tossed it at him.  “Not like this, catch.”

Dion caught it and almost threw it back.  “Where’s the weight?  This doesn’t feel like a steel gauntlet.”

“That’s because it’s not, this is the newest batch of my family’s special alloy: Rowinium.  It’s much lighter than steel, but has far more strength.  I’ve seen people break chisels trying to do more than scratch it.” Rowin told them all handing Dion the rest of his suit of armour.

“Rowinium eh? Strange name.” Dion said.

“Well you see my dad named it after me; until I was born his alloy didn’t even have a name.” Rowin explained.

“That’s cool Rowin; you have a special kind of armour named after you.” Jon said.

“Yeah, anyway, Dad brought three full suits, and an extra-large breastplate.”  He took the breastplate and handed it to Jon.  “Let’s see if it fits.”

Rowin and Scott strapped the plates onto Jon’s chest and back.  He took a deep breath, stretched back and forth, and finally said, “It fits pretty good.  No chafing, no pinching; I’ve never had armour that actually fit like this.”  He slapped it with an open palm.

“You’ll be able to fight with it like you weren’t even wearing it,” Rowin told him.  “It’s pretty easy to forget you’re wearing it because it’s so light. Don’t do anything stupid, just because you’re wearing Rowinium armour doesn’t make you invincible.”

“We’ll keep that in mind, Rowin.”

Rowin handed Scott his suit of armour and then gathered up his own suit and said, “I’m going to put this away now.  If you see my father, let him know how you like the armour, okay?”

 

After Rowin had put away his new armour, he figured he could take a short nap.  As he lay on his bed, he heard a soft knock on his door.  He reluctantly got up and answered it.

“Hi, Kate, what brings you here?”

“May I come in?”

“Of course.” Rowin said opening the door wider.

Kathryn stepped in and saw the armour on the stand in the corner.  “I saw Dion’s new armour.  He said your father made it, and that you had a suit as well.  Is that it?”

“Yes, it is.  Do you like it?”

She moved closer to it and examined it.  “It looks good, but I bet it would look even better on you.”

“Would you like to see it on me?”

“Could you?”

Rowin went over and took the suit off the stand.  “This will take a while; I’m also going to need your help with the straps in the back.”

They strapped the plates to his body, and eventually got it all connected.  Kathryn did up the straps in the back because Rowin couldn’t reach them. Its weight felt like his ordinary clothes.  “What do you think?”

“You look wonderful, Rowin: a knight in shining armour.”

“Thanks.  No one makes armour like my dad.”  They removed the armour and replaced it on the stand.  “Was that all you came for?”

She looked away briefly, but replied, “No, not really.  I’ll see you at dinner tonight?”

“Of course.”

After Kathryn left, Rowin went to lie down again.  Just as he got comfortable, he heard another, stronger knock.  Who is it now? Go away!  Rowin thought. Again, he reluctantly got up and answered.

“Hi, Scott.”

“I just wanted to tell you something.  I need to see your armour.”

Rowin went over and took the breastplate off the stand.  He handed it to Scott, who pointed out the symbol of the Royal Knights: a dragon rampant breathing an A-shaped flame.

“Just as the dragon stands, we knights stand bravely against the enemies of the land. It bares its claws, and we bear our steel. The fire is our duty to serve the king. ‘Honour, Duty, and Bravery’ is our code; the Royal Knights live by this code, and many have died by it.”

“So we wear the code as much as we live by it.”

“Absolutely.  It should always be in your heart and mind.  If you ever doubt yourself, just look down and see the symbol; that is what you fight for. It’s a constant reminder of the commitment we have made to our king and country.”  He handed back the breastplate.

“I won’t forget.”

“I know you won’t, you haven’t forgotten anything we’ve taught you yet. I’ll see you at dinner.”

“You got it.”

Scott left, and Rowin put back the armour.  He went to lie down, but paused for a moment.  Satisfied that nobody would interrupt him again, he lay down and took a brief nap.

 

Rowin entered the packed dining room, and took his seat next to Scott.  He looked around and saw the rest of the Royal Knights in attendance, as well as Nayrene, who didn’t make the knighting ceremony, and Aghagolos, his silver eyes taking in every detail of the room.

Jon had his place next to Scott, and he loomed over everyone, even when sitting down.  Jon had the title of an honorary knight, and Scott had given him authority over the order he was second-in-command.

Scott stood and called for attention.  “As Captain of the Royal Knights of Arcania, I am granting Sir Rowin Baker the power of third-in-command in the order.”

A murmur came over the Knights.

“I know that some of you may not agree with my decision, seeing that Rowin was just knighted.  I see great things in the future for this young man, and he ought to get started quickly.  To develop his leadership skills, and to give him a sense of responsibility, he has been given this position.”

Rowin sat speechless.  Did he actually deserve something like that?  “Uh, Scott, don’t you think that’s kind of… hasty?”

“Not at all Rowin, you’re a very skilled knight.  You make decisions quickly, and you are not only the quickest to complete the training sessions, but you’re also the youngest.  As I said, you need to develop leadership and responsibility.  Being a knight is not all swordplay.”  He turned his attention to the rest of the knights.  “I have made my decision.”

The rest of the knights knew that the discussion was over once Scott made up his mind there was nothing anyone could do about it. The decision was final.

Rowin stood and all eyes were on him. “I know that I have just been knighted and I’m the youngest person to be knighted, but I promise that I will do my best to make you all proud and I want you to know that I will always be there when you need me and I will do my best to lead you. All I ask of you is that you give me a chance to show you that I have earned this position. If I do a terrible job; I will step down and Sir Joshua can take my place. Does that sound fair to everyone?”

There was another murmur among the knights and Sir Joshua who was supposed to be Third-In-Command now Fourth-In-Command stood up. “Rowin, after discussing it with the others we accept your terms.”

“Good. You won’t be sorry; I swear it.”

Chapter 12

 

Dyphise looked over the map again.  Although he planned to attack the castle shortly, he couldn’t tear himself away from the planning stages.

“Miah, is everything ready?”

“It took long enough, but all we need is your command.”

“Good.”  The white-haired fiend turned to the slack, dead man.  “General, prepare your men; we will attack in two days.”

Devoid of will, Clayton droned, “Yes sir.”

“They will never know what hit them.”  He looked over to Miah.  “Sister, you may leave; I no longer need your services.”

“I would, but I can’t find my way out; there are too many bodies.  I will leave after the battle has started.”

“Very well.”

 

Rowin and Kathryn sat at the table having lunch, when Scott came right over to them.  “Rowin, I am in need of your assistance.”

He looked up at Scott.  Whatever he needed, it sounded important.  “Excuse me Kate; Scott needs my help with some last minute preparations.”

“Of course.  I’ll see you later, right?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t forget.”

Scott did not know what he was talking about.  “Forget what?”

“Oh, nothing.”  Rowin got out of his chair.  “So, is everything ready?”

“Yes; we’re just doing some last minute checks on the equipment.  If the strike comes, we’ll be ready for it.  Dim and the rest of his clan just finished bringing out some of their heavy gear.”

“Has anything exploded?”

“Not yet.”

Suddenly, they heard an explosion from outside, muffled by the walls of the castle.

“There it goes.”

 

Dimble picked himself up and dusted himself off.  “Can’t you guys read?  It says, plain as the nose on my face, ‘Handle With Extreme Care!’  You could have killed somebody!”

 

In the library, Kathryn searched for a particular book, but she came upon one that she had not expected to find: “Prophecies of the Old World.”

She opened it to the first page, which had a name and date written on it, “Ander Nostromo, 1584 AC” in an archaic script.  Kathryn had read old books before, but nothing this old.  “1584 AC” meant that she held a one hundred fifty-eight year old book.  “This book is extremely old; I can’t believe it’s still in here,” she said.

She turned to the second page, and all the writing on it was faded by the passage of time, except one line.  It read, “One will rise from the ashes and bring peace to a land where the dead walk.”

“What could this mean?” she asked herself.  She decided that maybe her father would know what this meant, so she closed it, put it under her arm, and took it to him.

 

Trian read it and called for Rowin.  The young knight appeared almost immediately.  “Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Kathryn found this in the library.  I want you to take a look.”

He took the book from the king and read the prophecy out loud.  “‘One will rise from the ashes and bring peace to a land where the dead walk.’  What does it mean?”

“That’s what we’re having trouble figuring out.  Nobody has the slightest idea.  Of course, none of Nostromo’s writings make much sense even before he went into a coma.”

Rowin rubbed his chin.  “Well, the part about ‘rising from the ashes’ could be interpreted literally, about somebody coming out of ashes.  ‘Where the dead walk’ could mean walking dead, but I’m not sure about anything.”

“I’ll have some of the Council members work this out,” the king told him.

“Let me know when you do, Your Majesty. If it’s all right with you I’d get Nayrene and Mister Golos to take a look as well. They’re the Resident History Experts or so they claim.” Rowin said bowing low.

“I will have them take a look as well, thank you Rowin.”

“If you’ll excuse me Your Majesty, I have some other duties to attend to.”

“Of course.”

 

Several days passed, and everyone who would fight waited for the enemy to arrive, if it would.

Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, came two men riding on black horses.  One looked like he wore a uniform of some kind, and the other looked like a stereotypical wizard, except for the aura of pure evil that he gave off.

“Send out the signal,” the attending knight ordered.  “It looks like we’ve met the foe.”

“Some foe,” a soldier mentioned.  “Two guys on horses.”

 

Dyphise tightened his grip on the reins.  “You do your part, and I’ll do mine.”

“Yes… sir…”

The dead general raised his stiff arm and activated the cold-forged ring.  At the same time, Dyphise cast his own spell.

 

They looked on as the military-man raised his arm.  A glow emanated from something on his hand, and the ground tore open.

An army of the undead clawed free from the ground.  Legions of zombies, skeletal warriors, and other types that the Arcanian soldiers could not identify stood up.  Some were even transparent.

“Tyr, protect us!”

 

General panic ensued among the soldiers, but the knights managed to keep some semblance of order as they issued their commands.

“We’ve got a war!  To your stations!” Scott bellowed.  “I need to see the Mages immediately!”

“Now I see why he’s the boss,” a soldier said as he ran by.

One of Scott’s subordinates approached.  “They are advancing slowly.  We estimate they will reach our western outpost in one hour.”

“Get as many soldiers over there as fast as possible!  Send some heavy equipment with them!  Requisition some catapults, and send over as much junk as we can throw at them!”

Rowin walked over.  “Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes: go to the Council and tell them I need to see them, immediately!”

“You got it!” Rowin said and left to carry out the order, he returned shortly and told Scott that the council would see him.

 

In less than forty minutes, two catapults accompanied three hundred soldiers and five carts of gear to the western outposts.

“Did we underestimate the size of the force?” the knight-in-charge asked as he looked toward the rather large, rather close army.

A soldier handed him a spyglass.  He looked through it, and saw a magnified view of the enemy.

“We’re in trouble.”

 

“Slowly their doom approaches.  They will be destroyed by the force of the dead reanimated.”

Dyphise pulled on the reins, turning his steed about.  “I have more to do.  Stay here and ensure that they do not survive.”

“As you wish…”

 

Scott rushed down the catwalk and almost bowled his student over.  “Rowin, have you seen—what’s his name…?”

“Aghagolos?”

“Right.  Well, have you seen him?”

“Last I saw, he was in the library with Nayrene.”

“Well, go get them.  We’re going to need their help.”

“Need our help with what?”

Scott turned to see the two coming their way.  “There you are.  We need your help, as much as you can give.”  He handed her the looking glass, but she gave it to her friend while she cast a spell.  She sent out magical spying devices to look at their foul opponents.

“I see why you’ll need our help: they have a vast army that will require more than just steel to defeat.”

Aghagolos looked through the spyglass.  “Oh, my…  I haven’t seen a force like that in ages…  Nobody with a shred of honour or humanity would ever send the dead to battle.”

“Our foe has no honour or humanity, and this tactic is not unlike something he would do.”  Nayrene continued to scan the enemy.  “In fact, I am not surprised in the least that he would raise the dead to do his dirty work.”

A soldier hurriedly ran across the walkway toward his superiors.  “Sir, the enemy is right on the outpost!  The battle will begin any minute!”

“Everybody’s equipped?”

“They have all the supplies we sent.  If it goes as planned, we may have the upper hand against these things.”

“When you are fighting the undead, things rarely go as planned.” Nayrene informed them.

Scott got the spyglass back from the old man, and then took a look at the enemy.  “I never thought anything could be that ugly.”

 

The outpost tower shook as the army of dead relentlessly pounded against the walls and the door.

“Is it set up?”

“We’ll know if it works when they get here.”

The huge iron-barred doors buckled under the assault.  The soldiers looked up at the roof, and decided to go somewhere safer.

With a few final rams, the doors burst inward, allowing the horde of undead to force their way inside.

When the gate opened, it activated a pulley trap that released two huge tree trunks.  The wooden beams swung down on ropes and smashed into the invaders.  Many undead abominations were hurled out from where they came, and a few bits of bony debris went with them.

From the roof of the tower, archers lit the pitch-soaked heads of their arrows and fired them down into the seemingly endless horde.  A small catapult on the roof launched a ball of wrapped stones along the path of the arrow rain.  The bound ball of rock came apart, scattering a hail of fist-sized chunks of stone.  As soon as the arm was released, they were winding it back for another shot.

Inside the tower, the soldiers had set up defensible positions from which to attack.  They hammered their enemies with swords and clubs, barely caring for their own safety.

 

Siege engines were brought out and set up.  The specially forged weapons were enchanted.  Nayrene and the Mages’ Council were preparing their spells.

“The war has begun!”

Rowin readied his sword.  “Nayrene, where’s Aghagolos?”

“He said something about ‘making a grand entrance.’”

Scott rode up alongside them.  “It’s inevitable that they will break through our outer defences.  I’m going up to the battlefield with my knights and my soldiers.  Rowin, mount up!”

“You got it.”

Rowin turned his head, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled.  His horse Mina galloped up, and he put his foot in the stirrup and swung up into the saddle.  He patted her. “Good girl. I’ll go with you.  It’s my country, too!”  He called to an attendant, “You, there!  Hand me my helmet!”

He received the brilliant silver helm and slid it over his head.  He snapped the reins and followed his mentor as he rode out toward the west.

“Wait for me!”

Jon hustled after them, his massive legs taking huge strides as he managed to almost equal the speed of the warhorses.

 

The tower had been overrun, and while the soldiers had fought their best, they had been beaten.  Although they had defeated many of the dead, the entire station had been destroyed, the assigned force killed.

They had one last trick left, though.  As the undead hauled their battering ram against the back doors and smashed it open, nets of rocks came down, crushing them under the trap and sealing off the door.

 

With one hand against his forehead in concentration, Dyphise said, “Resourceful little pests, aren’t they?  Wasn’t that trick one of your inventions?”

“It was…”

“My sister’s forces managed to break through back then, and mine will now.  Watch as your former country is brought to its knees.”

 

Scott, Jon, and Rowin arrived at the platoon of soldiers waiting some distance from the outposts.

“Report!”

“Sir, we have seen activity inside Outposts Three, Four, and Five.  Outpost Three was just overrun, and we expect them to break through at any time.”

Another set of hoof beats came over, and Scott looked to see Prince Dion and Janus, his warhorse.  “I’m surprised to see you here, Your Highness.”

“I’m here in the name of the Crown and for Tyr.  I will not allow my country to be assaulted by a horde of creatures that don’t know they’re supposed to be dead.”

“Rowin,”

“Scott?”

“The time has come, for you to prove yourself and show everyone what you’re made of. Are you ready?”

“I was born ready. This is what I’ve been waiting for my entire life.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Terrified.”

“Good. I’d think you were a fool if you weren’t. Remember Rowin we fight for our home. Arcania is ours and we will do all that we can to protect it. You’re the greatest warrior of your generation; it’s time to show everyone that you deserve to be Third-In-Command.”

“I won’t let you down Scott.”

“I know you won’t Rowin. The time for the great battle has come.”

“Right behind you. Scott, are you afraid?”

“Petrified, just don’t tell the men that.”

“They won’t hear it from me.”

Chapter 13

 

Scott made a pass in front of the army to get their attention; Rowin rode over to Jon’s side and waited for orders. Jon stood in front of the knights.

“Knights of Arcania, fall in!” Scott called and the men came closer so they could hear their captain’s every word.

“Men, this could be the greatest battle we have ever faced.  I’d rather fight alongside you than any other army in the world!  This is our home; no one has been able to conquer Arcania yet!  All those who have tried have failed!  We will die before we let evil over run our city!  Today we write our names in history!”

Scott made another pass in front of his army with his sword held high and everyone including Rowin and Jon cheered.  After basking in his men’s cheers for a short while, Scott brought his horse beside Jon and Rowin.  “Let’s make them regret this day. To your stations!”

“Right, great speech Scott.”

“I’m glad you liked it, Rowin.  Now let’s get down to business.”

 

Scott, Jon, and Rowin led the charge down into the valley, where the Arcanian Royal Army would clash with the forces of evil.  The shining knight raised his sword and swung wide, cutting off the heads of two skeletal monsters and a zombie corpse.

With their morale at its peak, the soldiers waded into the sea of undead, swinging their blades and pole arms.  Their battle cries carried across the field and all the way back to the city itself.

Prince Dion raised his own sword high and called down the divine wrath of Tyr.  The blade glowed with intense light, searing his enemies with its purity.  A group of minor undead crumbled to dust under its glow, and several more cringed from the fury.  Dion’s unit quickly disposed of the stronger ones, and Dion brought his blade down on a slavering ghoul, splitting its skull in half.

 

Rowin nimbly dodged the stiff swings of broken clubs and broken arms as he ripped through his enemies, knocking several away with a gauntleted fist.  He ducked under another one and sliced it across the stomach, and it fell in a heap of chopped meat.

A beast with sharp claws came up behind him, but before it could rip into his armour, a massive fist came down and crushed its skull.

“You all right?” Jon inquired, swinging that fist again and taking off a skull along the way.

“Peachy!”  Rowin stabbed over his shoulder and impaled another walking corpse.  He swung his blade back over his shoulder and threw the body off and into another group of its undead brethren.  A pack of five more came at him, but with one swing he sliced through three of them, kicked one more down, and split the final one in half.

No matter how many monsters he slew, more and more kept coming.  Rowin brought down one after another but it appeared that he did not see two approaching from behind him, raising their dirt-matted claws as they drew near.

 

Standing on the valley ridge, the fiery-haired sorceress sensed Rowin in danger, so she raised her arms and with a silent command her hands glowed with the fire of magical energy.  She brought them together above her head, and the glowing energy formed into spheres of flame.  With a final shout, Nayrene threw her hands down, hurling the flaming balls toward the hordes of undead.

 

Streaks of light came across the sky and arced down, passing over the heads of the soldiers, and came down in the midst of the undead.  Explosions rocked the battlefield, hurling the corpses and bits of obliterated undead all over.

From the safety of her room Kathryn watched Nayrene cast her spell. “She is indeed powerful. I’m glad she’s on our side.” She said to herself.

 

“There’s nothing like a tactical strike to even up the odds,” Scott mentioned before knocking down another ghoul with a metal-clad kick.

Jon threw himself into the horde and let his berserker nature take over.  His axe became a whirling instrument of permanent death, mowing down monsters like saplings.  Rotten flesh and bits of mouldy bone went flying as Jon hacked through his foes with wild abandon.

Prince Dion again called down divine wrath, turning five more unliving corpses to piles of grey ash, and then charged down into the fray, his shining sword ripping through the dead with ease.  “For my father, and my country, I will strike you down!”

Pushing himself up off the ground, Rowin fought to regain his senses.  He didn’t know about Nayrene’s spell until the explosions blew the zombies right into him, knocking him down.

 

At the top of the hill, Dimble and his brothers set up their new weapon.  They aimed it carefully, testing the wind, and then slid the projectile into the tube.

“Ready?” Dimble asked.

“Ready.”

“Fire!”

Dimble’s brother pressed the trigger, and the Parabolic Projectile Delivery Device lived up to its name.  The weapon kicked as the projectile left the barrel, arcing through the air and coming down whistling.  It exploded in the midst of a legion of the undead, sending bodies flying and shattering bones to tiny shards.

Dimble observed the effect of his weapon.  “Excellent.  Reload.”

 

Far away from where the projectile had exploded, Rowin looked to be in trouble, with two creatures at his sides.

“Nah, too easy.”

He jumped up and did the splits kicking the two creatures and knocking their skulls off before he came down, and thrust his armoured elbow back into the neck of a ghoul, and his sword came forward into a desiccated creature.

“Come on!  Why don’t you try a little harder?”  As he split another in half, Rowin added, “I’ve had harder times getting into my armour!”

Two more came toward him, one in front and one behind.  Rowin flipped backwards, his feet coming up and smacking into the zombie’s chin and knocking its head off.  He pushed off the ground and came back to his feet, and noticed the ghoul right behind him.  Rowin slammed his helmeted head back into the ghoul’s face, then turned and split him from shoulder to waist.

 

Dyphise chanted the words to a spell.  The nearby ground cracked, and red-orange light glowed from below.  As he completed the incantation, the ground split open, and a creature made wholly of congealed magma rose from the rift.  Dyphise gave it a silent command, and it stalked toward the young knight.

 

Rowin slipped his blade through the chest of a pale zombie and kicked backward to knock down a skeleton.  The zombie collapsed, its wound bleeding corrosive acid, while the skeleton exploded when it hit the ground.

He looked around, seeking more foes, when he saw the magma elemental approaching.  It raised an arm and hurled its red-hot fist at him.  Rowin saw the fireball hurtling toward him and a thought occurred to him. He flung himself backward and did a back hand-spring. As Rowin’s body arched, the fireball passed directly over his head and hit several of the other minions of the undead.

 

Scott took down an approaching zombie, and when he looked up, he saw Rowin as he flipped away from the lava creature as it threw a second fireball at him.  “Hey, Jon!”

“Yeah?” Jon asked as he smashed a skeleton with his bare fist.

“Did he do that when he was training with you?”

Jon looked to see Rowin completing his final handspring.  “Uh, no.”

 

Rowin landed on his feet and charged the creature, raising his sword and slicing an arm off.

The creature reeled back, seemingly unfazed by having an arm lopped off, and Rowin swung around and cut low, taking off its leg.  He jumped out of the way as the creature collapsed to the ground, unable to move on its own anymore.  Then Rowin drove his sword into the magma creature’s chest a final time.

 

Scott swung his sword, easily cleaving through an incoming zombie.

“Is this all you have?  I’ll take you all on!  Give me your worst!”

When his blade sliced through the zombie, it sprayed a milky liquid that he could not identify.  He moved away, barely avoiding the spray, and it hit the ground and burned the grass and bleached the dirt.

“What manner of creature is this?”  He examined his sword; it looked quite bad, as if something had corroded the metal.  “I’ll have Dimble take a look at this later.”

A skeleton came up from behind him, and he backhanded it, his mailed fist smashing its jaw off and knocking the creature to the ground.

The monster landed and twitched violently.  In a matter of seconds, it exploded, sending bone shards flying across the battlefield.  When another skeleton fell, it exploded as well.

“Watch yourselves!” Scott yelled, ducking underneath the shards of bone.  “These are extremely dangerous when slain!”

 

Rowin had been listening to Scott’s orders but didn’t see the monster coming up to him from behind.

“Rowin, watch out!” Jon yelled.

He looked behind him just in time to see a zombie make a slow swing at his back. Rowin saw the zombie swing slowly at him he nimbly dodged the attack and bent low and cut the zombie in half spilling its guts across the land.

 

Dyphise watched his legion from afar, exulting in the carnage they wreaked.  He howled with glee as Arcania’s rank and file slowly fell to the horde of evil.

“Dyphise!” a familiar voice barked.

The foul wizard turned to face the origin of the voice.  “Well, well, well… I didn’t think you were foolish enough to come out here, old man.”

King Trian X Arcan dismounted from his horse and drew his ancestral sword.  “I should have finished you when I had the chance.”

“Yes, you should have.  That moment of weakness will cost you your life.”  Dyphise spurred his mount to charge and raised his hand as a dark pulsing mass of evil magical energy formed in his palm.

Dyphise hurled the sickly sphere at his foe, but Trian crouched beneath the attack and chopped the legs from his mount.  The black-coated stallion vanished into wisps of smoke, and Dyphise fell to the ground.

“Your overconfidence will cost you yours.”

Dyphise merely laughed as he pulled himself up.  He gripped a sword that had fallen nearby and took it.  He turned and cast another spell at the ground beneath Trian.

A mass of black tentacles erupted around him, and Trian moved to avoid them.  One of the dark appendages wrapped around his shin and pulled tight, holding him in place.  He chopped at it and severed it from the ground, but as soon as that one slackened, another grabbed his left arm.

Dyphise approached, cackling madly.  “Tell me, old man, do you have any grandchildren?”

“What relevance does that have?”

“I just want to know how many people I’ll have to kill.”

A tentacle rose up behind Trian and slid around his neck, pulling him back and bearing his throat.

“Goodbye, old man.  I’ll take care of your nation while you’re gone.”

Dyphise raised his sword and gave his foe an evil smile.  As he brought it down, another blade interposed.

Prince Dion pushed Dyphise back.  “You’re not getting anything today, you bastard!”

“Whelp!” Dyphise cried, and slapped the prince aside.  The blow dazed him more than anything, but Dion didn’t get his bearings back before he saw Dyphise close on his father again.

Trian took that opening to cut himself free from the tentacles, and surprised Dyphise with a quick lunge.  His blade bit into Dyphise’s side, drawing blood.

“How does this happen?” the evil wizard demanded.  “Bah, I’ll get you all later.”  He flicked his wrist and cast a teleportation spell.

“Father, are you all right?” Dion asked.

“I’m fine, son.  He couldn’t have gone too far.”

“Then let me find him, and I’ll finish him off for you.”

“No; he’ll probably come after me if I’m alone.”

 

The weather started to change, and the calm air grew rougher.  Distant rumblings usually meant thunder, but not a single cloud hung in the sky that day.

Nayrene looked to the north, and she saw a faint figure in the sky.  “I didn’t think it would be that grand.”

It approached fast, and wing beats came as rumbles of air.  He would get there any moment, and the battle would turn in their favour.

 

The battle still rang with war cries and the sounds of steel ripping through rotting flesh and the shattering of bones, with shards of bone flying all around.

“No force will ever invade this nation!” Scott shouted, bringing his foot down on another monster.  “Be it living, dead, or otherwise!”

Suddenly, everything went dark.  Scott raised an eyebrow.  “What?  I would have known if there was going to be an e—” he looked up, “—clipse…”

The sun disappeared behind the body of a huge, muscular, scaly, winged creature.  He had only heard legends of the great dragon, but to actually see it…

“Who…  What… is that?”

Rowin stepped back and looked up.  “Aghagolos!”

“Grant us your strength, great dragon,” Dion prayed before swinging his sword straight through the body of an approaching ghoul.

 

As White Wing flew overhead, Rowin put his sword through another vile creature.  It screamed and collapsed to the ground, sliding off his blade.  Rowin took a deep breath and paused for a moment.  That moment nearly cost him his life when an old sword glanced off his nearly impenetrable armour.

Turning to face his new foe, he saw a withered, skeletal figure clad in old armour taking another swing, this time aiming for his less-protected elbow.  Rowin stepped back, avoiding the blow to his elbow, but took it on his more protected forearm.  He blocked the blow and he gave the creature a devastating head-butt and then he kicked it in the chest and then Rowin split the creature from waist to shoulder. The creature split in two and fell to the ground.

 

White Wing, the great silver dragon, swooped down low as he passed over the battlefield.  He reached out a massive claw and ripped it through a line of the undead soldiers, hurling their shattered corpses far across the war zone.

After one pass, the dragon turned and came back for another.  This time, he came down and landed on the monstrous army, crushing many beneath his bulk.  He opened his jaws, exposing a mouthful of huge, sharp teeth, and crunched down on three beasts at once.

 

Dyphise snarled as he clutched his wound.  “Inconceivable!  The Great White Wing has joined the battle!”  He clenched his fist, but he relaxed it.  “No matter.  It’s only a distraction, anyway.  The castle is relatively undefended and ripe for my picking!”

With a word and a gesture, Dyphise stepped through a hole in space and appeared right at the castle wall.  “Now for the easy part.”

 

“I’m glad that you came,” Kathryn said as she closed the door.  “With everyone else out there, I don’t want to be completely alone.”

“You’ve got the guards,” Erica replied.

“Them?  They’re no fun; all they’re concerned about is protecting me from, well, myself.  They watch me like hawks at all hours.”

“Even—?”

Kathryn looked at her raising an eyebrow.  “They have the sense to wait outside.  What I’ve always wanted is—”

“A sister?”

“Well, yes.  The closest I’ve got is my cousin up north, but I don’t get to see her very often.”

 

The guards saw the intruder approaching their location.  “Halt!” they demanded, levelling their spears at him.

He did not relent, and continued to advance.

“I said, ‘Halt!’”

The intruder reared back a clawed hand, full of roiling black energy.  He threw the glob of blackness, which elongated into a writhing black spear as it flew through the air, and impaled the guard on his right, throwing him back and bouncing him off the stone wall, leaving a bloodstain on the masonry as he fell.

The other guard knocked on the door.  “Your Highness—urk!”  He fell to the floor after a volley of grey-green magical bolts slammed into his back.

 

“What?” Kathryn asked.  Receiving no reply, she reached for the door handle, but as she closed her hand around it, the handle slipped out of her grip, and the door flew open.

She shrieked in horror when she saw the man on the other side.  His amber eyes looked into hers, and his evil grin exposed his wickedly sharp teeth.  “Princess Kathryn, I’ve so wanted to see you in person,” he hissed.

When she saw the bodies of her guards, Kathryn screamed again.  When she saw the pools of blood, she fainted.

Erica stepped back and balled her fists.  “Don’t think I’ll go without a fight.”

“Of course you will, young one.”  The intruder raised a clawed finger toward her and spoke a word in a foreign language.  His voice reverberated as he pronounced each syllable, and when he completed it, Erica felt her limbs grow heavy, and she dropped to the floor, fast asleep.

He gathered up his captives and cast the spell of teleportation; nothing happened.

“Damn. The castle must prevent teleportation somehow.”

Once outside he cast the teleportation spell again spiriting them through the astral plane to his stronghold.

Chapter 14

 

The lupine fiend bounded down into the valley, his eyes glowing with excitement.  He had gone too long since he had fed, and he knew that his next feeding would make him stronger.

Xaktor licked his lips.  He would feast well.

 

Nayrene rained fiery destruction down upon the evil horde.  Bony bodies went flying from the explosions.  Shining swords tore through the weak defences of the undead as Scott, Rowin, and Dion hacked and slashed.  Jon’s berserker rage struck fear into the hearts of those who saw it, and the enemies could not stand up to it.

The soldiers rallied behind their leaders and refused to retreat from the face of death.  Only a few of them had fallen before the undead, but the rest continued to fight on.

The great dragon swung his tail and smashed a group into oblivion, scattering pieces of their bodies across the field.  He slapped his wing down and crushed some more.  It looked like he could fight the battle by himself and win.  He probably could.

 

The barghest worked his way into the bedlam.  He found a fallen warrior and went over to the body.  As soon as he could, Xaktor sank his teeth into the cooling flesh.  He chewed on the corpse, devouring meat and life essence.

A great shadow fell over him, and when he brought his face up from his meal, he had barely enough time to notice the massive clawed foot before it stepped on him.

 

White Wing brought up his front paw and examined the mess.  It vaguely resembled a barghest.  With a look of disgust, he wiped it off on the grass and continued fighting the undead horde.

 

Sir Joshua was a well-trained warrior. He cut down every creature that got in his way. Rowin killed the creature that he was fighting and then he watched Joshua cut down five more. Rowin could see why he was selected for Third-In-Command before Rowin took his place. However Rowin’s abilities were far greater and he could even show Joshua a thing or two. Rowin didn’t think that Jon had trained Joshua which was odd since he was Scott’s former Squire he should have gotten the same training Rowin did. He would have to remember to ask Scott about it.

 

With the ranks of the dead thinning, Rowin managed to get through and behind.  He came upon the leader of the army of darkness: a partially rotted horseman in an old, unwashed military uniform.

“Hey, ugly!  I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”

The dead man stiffly turned his head to face him.  His dull, lifeless eyes regarded his armoured foe.  “You will all die…”

“Not before you!”

Rowin charged up to him.  As the dead general moved to kick him, Rowin grabbed his leg and pulled him off his mount.  When he fell to the ground, Rowin swung his sword down.

He brought up his arm in a feeble attempt to block, and his lower arm came off cleanly as the blade sliced through bone.  Rowin brought his sword around and stabbed him in the chest twice, to make sure he stayed dead this time.

Rowin looked into the lifeless face of the man he had just killed.  “Hey, Scott, come here!”

The knight finished a ghoul with an elbow and a solid slash, and made his way over to Rowin, who was kneeling over the body.

“Do you recognize this guy?” he asked.

Scott looked him over.  “If he wasn’t so decomposed, he would be General Henry Clayton, the best tactician and military mind we’ve had in the last two or three hundred years.”

“I suddenly feel sorry for putting my sword through him.”

“He died a century ago, and he was brought back to fight against those he once protected.  Don’t feel bad, bro.  We’re fighting for our country, just as he did.”

“I know…  Get down!”

Scott ducked his head and Rowin threw his armoured fist into a zombie right behind him.  The knight captain swung his sword and finished it off.

“I never thought a battle with the undead would be so easy.”  Something came into his head suddenly.  “I know what he meant now!  ‘Rise from the ashes,’ ‘the walking dead,’ it all meant this battle!  I ‘rose from the ashes’ of my father’s forge to become a Royal Knight, and we battled ‘the walking dead’ to bring peace to the land.”

“Wow, Rowin you figured out one of Nostromo’s prophecy’s something not many have been able to do. You sure are a clever man.”

“Thanks, Scott.”

They finished off the few remaining undead, and then they got together and returned to the castle for a grand feast no one argued for; they had all been fighting for the entire day, and they were all hungry.

 

Before Rowin went to eat something he stopped by the medical ward and had the healers tend his cut. The young woman chanted words to the healing magic and the stab wound closed itself and he felt the pain leave him.

“Thank you.” Rowin said moving his arm. “That’s much better.”

“You’re welcome.”

Sir Joshua had a few minor wounds and he had the healers take care of them as well. “Hey Rowin,” He said.

“Hey Joshua,” Rowin said.

“Listen, I saw you out there on the battlefield and I just wanted to say that I’m glad that you were made Third-In-Command. You earned it, I’d be happy to follow you.”

Rowin extended his hand and Joshua clasped it. “Thank you Joshua, that means a lot. Oh and by the way I saw you out there on the battlefield as well and if you’re willing I could show you a few things and I could help you fine tune your skills a bit more. Weren’t you trained by Jon?”

“No Scott trained me himself usually only those that have been selected as Royal Knights are trained by Jon but Scott saw great potential in you Rowin. I never pass up an opportunity for improvement. The Royal Knights of Arcania are the best of the best they have different and better training.”

“Good. We’ll get together when everything settles down.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll see you at dinner.”

“I’ll be there.”

 

With that taken care of he went to get something to eat.

 

Before anything could be served, an attendant rushed in.  “Your Majesty!  The Princess is not in her room!  Her guards are dead!”

Trian virtually jumped up from his chair.  “What?  Turn this castle inside out if you have to, I want to know where she is!”

 

Trian had dispatched everyone to locate Princess Kathryn, but nobody wanted to find her more than her family and Rowin.

Nayrene stood in the Princess’s room, conducting magical tests.  “Normally, the castle’s lead-lined walls prevent astral travel, but in this case, I’m searching for other methods of egress.”

“It could only be one man,” Aghagolos announced, tapping his walking stick against the marble floor.  “The foul wizard who reanimated the dead to fight a diversionary battle as he made his way in here to kidnap Her Highness.  Gods know what he plans on doing to her.”

Her eyes lit up.  “Found it!  There is astral residue just outside the window!  He bypassed the walls by teleporting outside the castle!  Inform His Majesty immediately!”

“I’m on my way!”  The old man shuffled off in search of the king.

“You could use a faster form!  Try a distance runner instead of a rickety old geezer!”

“I heard that!  I’m old, but I’m not deaf!”

 

Trian punched the thick oak table.  “Find out where she was taken to!  I’ll go there myself and kill that bastard!”

“Your Majesty, calm down!” Scott said.  “Allow me to go.  My own men were assigned to guard the Princess, so it is my responsibility.”

“No!”

They both turned.

“Let me.”

Rowin stepped into the room.  “As Third-In-Command of the Royal Knights of Arcania, I request that I be allowed to find the villain and rescue the Princess.  I will return with Kathryn in one arm, and the head of the foul demon in the other. Besides I’m the only one you can spare, you’re all needed here.”

“You’re needed here too Rowin. There’s never been a knight like you before.” King Trian said putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t worry Your Majesty, I’ve been well trained, I’ll come back. I give you my word.”

“I am going with you,” Nayrene said as she came in right behind Rowin.  She came around and stood in front of the young knight and told him, “Look, the bastard is about as old as I am, and he’s had so much time to create his own spells that he could easily blast you onto another plane, but since I’m coming along, you have less to worry about.  I’ll watch your butt while you kick his.”

She is so awesome, Rowin thought.  “You’re the best, Nayrene.”

“Thank you.” She smiled at him.

“Let us get going!  We have no time to waste!  Kathryn is in grave danger!”

“Take care, and come back alive.  The Royal Family’s hopes will go with you.”

 

Nayrene and Rowin headed outside, so she could cast her spell without the walls of the castle interfering.  “Nayrene, can I ask you a question?”

“Yes.”

“When I was on the battlefield, how did you find me?”

“When we first met, when you took my hand, we became connected, in many ways.  I etched your life force signature into my mind.  If I concentrate, I can know where you are anywhere in the world.”

“It’s good to know that I’ll always have back up when I need it. So that’s what that jolt was.”

“Exactly.  Now, let us go.”

 

Kate spoke to Dyphise with great disgust and contempt.  “Rowin will come for me.  I know he will.”

“Is that the boy’s name who killed my general?” He asked Kathryn as he ran his finger along her jaw. Kathryn almost vomited at his foul touch.  “Seventeen years compared to my five hundred?  He is nothing.”

“He will come, and you will die.”

The evil wizard turned to his other captive.  “Do you have anything to say, my dear?”

Erica merely spat at him.

Wiping the spittle from his face, Dyphise asked, “Did your elders teach you no manners?  Well, I am the elder here, and I will teach you to fear me!”

“I will never fear you, because my brother will destroy you.”

“Then let them come.  I will tear their hearts out and offer them up, and you will watch as your nation burns in abyssal flames.”

Erica and Kathryn looked to each other, knowing something Dyphise did not.

 

Space split open within the Border Mountains, and Rowin and Nayrene stepped through.  Rowin drew his sword and looked around.  “I suppose this would be a nice place to live if you were a crazed villain.”

“Kathryn and your sister are here somewhere; I can still see the residue of the magic that opened this space.  The longer we tarry, the greater peril they face.”

 

Dyphise had brought his magic crystal into the prisoners’ chamber.  “The boy has arrived.  Watch as I destroy him.”

When the image appeared in the crystal structure, Erica and Kathryn lit up.  “He has come to save us!” Kathryn told her.

“I knew we could count on him!” Erica replied.

Dyphise looked at them both, and then had a revelation.  “So, there is only one, then?  Rowin is your brother?  And here I was expecting two men to arrive on my doorstep.  This should be mildly amusing.”

He left the dank room, cackling to himself.

“Rowin might be in over his head,” Erica said.

Kathryn looked at her. “Scott and Jon said that Rowin is their greatest student to date, but for some reason, I’ve got this gnawing doubt that Dyphise might be too much for him. He wasn’t trained how to fight a dark wizard.”

“Look,” Erica told her.  On the image in the crystal, they could see Rowin turn to empty space and talk to it.

“What’s he doing?  Has my brother lost his mind?” Erica asked.

“There is magic that can make people invisible.” Kate told her.

“Perhaps he has not come alone.” Erica said.

“I’ve seen Nayrene on the battlefield. She’s a powerful sorceress, I’m sure that she came with Rowin.” Kathryn assured her.

“I’ll have to take your word for it.” Erica said for she had never seen Nayrene’s awesome power.

Just then, Dyphise returned.  “Let us greet our guest.”  He unlocked the chains around their wrists and connected them to another chain he held in his hand.  He bound the girls together tying their fate to one another this would make it harder to escape.

 

Rowin led the way up the twisting grey pathway into the mountains.  He could only see grey rock and twisted, dead vegetation from where he stood to the limit of his vision.  Up above, he saw thick grey clouds.  He felt a chill up his spine.  “There’s nothing here, nothing alive, at least.”

“Long-term presence of such palpable evil physically alters the landscape,” Nayrene explained.  “I have seen such effects before, and it always makes me feel ill at ease.”  She shuddered.  “The evil grows closer.  Prepare yourself, Rowin!”

Raising his sword to a defensive stance, he replied, “I was born prepared.”

He heard growling coming from above, and saw two huge dog-like animals bound down between him and Nayrene.  Their dark purple fur rippled with each movement as they snarled at the intruders.

Nayrene stepped away and drew in magical energy, channelling it into a roaring mixture of flame and corrosive acid.  “Rowin, step back.”

Rowin moved away as she instructed, and then saw her throw the roiling sphere at the dog monsters.  It exploded between them, dousing them with bubbling acid and white-hot flames, and they disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving burned bones where they once stood.

“That was too easy,” Nayrene said.  “I’d almost expect a whole pack of them to jump down on us.”

Another one jumped down on her, knocking her to the ground.  Rowin took one step forward, and then two more of the giant mastiffs dropped down between him and Nayrene.

 

Dyphise dragged his chained prisoners to a room containing a large stone block.  He locked Kathryn’s wrist to the wall and chained Erica next to her

He chained her wrists and ankles to the corners of the block.

Dyphise first looked over Erica and saw her impressive bust, but he wondered to himself what they really looked like. He smiled widely and stepped closer to her and then in a heartbeat clutched her shirt in his fist and ripped her shirt off exposing her breasts in their bra. Bent on seeing what they truly looked like the sick old man ripped her bra off of her in a single motion exposing her large perfect breasts.

“You bastard!” Erica screamed shaking her cuffs.

“Now, now flattery will get you nowhere. Has anyone told you, that your breasts are perfect?”

“No.”

“Well they are. Comfortable?” he asked.

“No.”

“Good.”  He looked up through the opening in the ceiling.  “The full moon is high; the time is right, and your life ends tonight, my dear, to extend my own.”

 

Rowin stepped toward the closest mastiff beast and swung his sword downward, catching it as it leaped at him and cutting deep into its head.  He pulled the blade out and expected it to drop dead, but it didn’t.

With a seemingly mortal wound in its head, the beast lunged at Rowin.  He moved just out of its biting range and slashed again, his blade cutting deep into its back and dropping it to the ground.  This time, it didn’t move.

 

 

“How dare you!” Kathryn screamed at their captor, pulling against the chains next to Erica on the wall. “Do you know who my father is?”

“YES!” Dyphise bellowed. “I know exactly who your father is!” He spat each part of the name at her: “Trian Maronius Theodore Arcan! I know him better than you do, child; I was more of a father to him than his own sire.”

While he ranted at Kathryn, Erica looked up at her manacles. The meagre light didn’t let her see much, but she could feel the slag intrusions in the metallic surface. It felt like wrought iron. She felt upward and weighed the chain links.

“Did he tell you the story? Twenty years ago, I fought him on Thieron’s Plain.” He showed her the scar on his cheek. “He wounded me and had his men abandon me in the desert. He ordered me never to set foot in his nation again. But your desert border is poorly guarded; I found it trivially easy to come back, to build a new lab, and to set about my plan. Almost as easy was it to start the war.”

He turned to face Erica. “I see what you’re trying to do, girl.” He grabbed her wrist and pressed it against the stone. “Don’t think you can escape these bonds.” The man in black smiled, showing a set of sharp fangs. He caressed her cheek with a sharp-nailed finger and traced a line down to her jade necklace. “I may not get a princess’s ransom for you, but I see you’re valuable to somebody. Still, no matter how valuable you are, you might be worth more to me dead than alive.” He turned back to Kathryn. “Tell me, Princess, does your father value your life above his kingdom? I’ll find out when I meet him again on the plain. His death will be poetic.” He left the room and his ogre followed him.

“Don’t you leave me here!” Kathryn shouted after him.

“Save your breath,” Erica told her. “He won’t listen to you.”

“And what are you going to do to get us out of here?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Your Highness, but if you have a magic wand that will summon knights in shining armour to rescue us, why don’t you use it?”

“You will not speak to me in that manner!”

Erica laughed. “We’ve been taken prisoner by an evil wizard who wants to kill your father over a grudge older than either of us. This is not the time to act like you’re holding court.”

“Then what do you suggest we do?”

“You can just sit there. As long as he’s not here, I can get to work.” Erica turned around and grabbed her chains. She put one foot against the wall and started pulling. “If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, you can try this, too.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?”

“Well, the chain is ten gauge wrought iron. If I put enough stress on the chain, the links will stretch and I can get more leverage to break one open.” She put her other foot on the wall and yanked. Her strength faltered and she slid down. “Sooner or later.”

 

The rescue party made its way down into the cave. The light from outside faded as they went deeper, so Nayrene pulled a pocket magilight from her belt to aid them.

“Magilights above us,” Nayrene said, shining her light along the ceiling to illuminate them, “but I do not know how to open them.”

“Can you try opening them remotely?” Rowin asked.

She raised her free hand and cupped it, motioning to open the covers. The hinges above hissed and light peeked out. The light fixture snapped open, startling a colony of bats.

The creatures swooped and chittered. Rowin raised his shield to protect his face. Nayrene moved to put him between herself and the swarm. Rowin screamed and backed away as he swatted.

“Stay close,” Nayrene said. “They will be out of here soon.”

The bats’ flapping wings caused the cold light to strobe. Nobody could keep track of anyone else. Rowin tried to move toward Scott, but couldn’t see him. Bat wings and claws scratched his arms as he protected his head.

Then, just as suddenly as the swarm erupted, they had fled. Rowin finally brought down his arms to look around, but only saw darkness. “Nayrene?” Rowin’s voice echoed through the cave. “Hello? Where are you?”

 

“Where did he go?” Nayrene asked. “I said to stay close.”

After talking to Aghagolos Scott found his way to the cave he wasn’t going to sit in the castle and do nothing. Scott heard faint thumping footsteps from farther down the hall but heard Rowin’s voice and ran toward it. He drew his sword and readied his shield. “Stay behind me.” He said to the new knight.

“I thought you were gonna stay behind?”

“And leave you to have all the fun?”

 

Nayrene walked through the dark abyss stopped closing her eyes then concentrated on Rowin’s life force energy signature than cast the spell to bring her to his side. “Rowin.”She said quietly.

“Nayrene I lost you.”

“Never I can always find you even in this evil place. I see Sir Scott has joined us.”

“I couldn’t sit at the castle and do nothing.

A hulking, blue-furred creature entered the room. “Thought I heard something spring the trap,” it grumbled. “Guess it’s feeding time.”

“Analysis?” Scott asked of Nayrene.

“It is no ordinary goblin,” she replied. “It is a shifter; that is not its only skin.”

“When you see an opening, blow it away. I’ll keep it occupied.” Scott charged, shield-first. The goblin swatted Scott away with a double-handed swing. He rolled and stood up. “Was that serious?” he asked while stars faded from his vision.

“Name’s Xaktor,” the creature announced. “It’ll be the last name you ever hear.” He lunged at Scott, huge fist drawn back, but Nayrene interrupted him with a thunderous bolt of lightning. Ears rang and a sharp smell of burned hair filled the chamber.

While Xaktor recoiled from the shock, Scott led with his shield, bashing away the beast’s thick arm and slashing at his scorched abdomen. The blade sliced through fur and flesh and a spray of blood followed. Xaktor grunted and slapped Scott away again.

“Quit it,” Xaktor growled. “That still hurts.”

As Scott stood up, he saw Xaktor’s wound close. Xaktor raised both of his fists. Scott raised his shield in defence and went crashing back to the ground when Xaktor hammered on it. Pain ripped up and down his arm, but his shield held against the blow. He thrust his sword into Xaktor’s belly.

The beast pulled off the blade and another bolt of lightning struck him. He wrenched a stalagmite from the ground and hurled it at Nayrene. “Quit it, bitch,” he snarled.

Scott shifted his shield to deflect the overhead blow and thrust his sword into Xaktor’s gut. He twisted the blade and pulled, slicing a long and deep gash into his belly, but again it wouldn’t stay open.

Nayrene pulled another handful of dust from her pouch and chanted the words that would turn it into a bolt of lightning. She cast the dust at her target and completed the incantation. Electricity sparked through the dust and then shot out, cracking through the air and blasting Xaktor in the chest.

Nayrene fell to her knees and rolled onto her side, clutching her face in both hands and screaming in terror.

“Nayrene? What’s happening?” Scott asked. The distraction allowed Xaktor to hammer him into the cave wall.

“No magic to help now,” the beast growled, flashing his yellowed teeth. He grabbed Scott by the arm and pulled him up. “Going to crack you open and eat your guts.”

Scott swung his shield upward, catching Xaktor across the eyes with its edge. He felt the bone crack on impact. A rivet holding the metal face of the shield popped. Xaktor released him.

Scott continued bashing the monster with his shield. The lacquer scratched off and the paintwork peeled. He swung his sword low and hard, connecting with the beast’s knee. It popped and the beast went down.

Before it could heal itself, Scott hacked downward, severing its injured leg at the knee. He then stepped on its neck and said, “Grow that back.”

It grabbed his leg, but Scott drove his sword into its chest, pinning it to the ground.

“No, you don’t. Where’s your master?”

He laughed, mixed with grunts of pain. “Did my job. He’s probably picked off the other one by now. Matter of time before he wins. Just give up.”

Scott dropped to his knees and leaned his weight on his sword. “I don’t give up.”

“That all you got?” Xaktor hissed.

“What does it take to kill you?” Scott replied, on the edge of passing out from exhaustion. He twisted his sword, eliciting a groan of pain from the goblin, and fell back as he pulled it free. He crawled forward and drove his sword through Xaktor’s head. “Well? Anything more to say?”

The goblin did not respond.

“I thought so.” Scott left his sword and staggered over to Nayrene. He fell to his hands and knees next to her. “Are you all right?”

Nayrene opened her eyes and peered through her fingers. “I think so. I can not hear it anymore.”

“Hear what?”

She shivered as she uttered the word, “It.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you are in tune with the world and can make it do your bidding, you always hear it when it responds.” She reached out and grabbed Scott’s arm. He could see primal fear in her eyes. “There is a creature underneath everything. The magic is part of it. We let it in to make it do what we want, so we have to have iron discipline. It works most of the time, but if we get distracted or let our emotions get too wild, then it tries to take us over.”

“Did you defeat it?”

She stared off into the distance. “You can never defeat it, only push it out. It is always there, lurking behind your eyes, waiting for the moment you pray is not this one. This thing is so powerful that an echo can turn the strongest of us into maniacs.” She took a series of deep breaths. “I think I am fine now. Come on, we have to find Rowin he’s probably in over his head Dyphise is an evil the likes of which Rowin is ill prepared for.”

Rowin followed the magilights in the ceiling until he heard something coming from down the hall and around the corner. He followed the sound as it grew more distinct.

The sounds resolved into two voices and the rattling of chains. He recognized his sister’s voice and picked up his pace.

He rounded the corner and walked into a round room. He saw Erica and Kathryn against the wall on the far side, both in chains. “Erica!” he called.

“Rowin! Oh, I knew you’d come for us!” Erica rattled the chain on her right wrist. “Could you give me a hand here?”

Rowin went to her side and examined the chain. “Where’s the key?”

“I think he has it.”

“Who, Dyphise?”

“That who he is? Guess we’re not just opening these. We’ll have to break them.”

Rowin felt slag intrusions in the weighty iron links. “Ten gauge wrought?” he asked.

“Feels like it. I can’t tell for sure.”

Rowin unstrapped the shield from his arm and dropped it to the ground. He reached up and felt the pegs holding the anchor plate to the wall. “Hex pegs,” he announced. “They’re probably eight inches deep. I don’t feel any space between the head and the wall.”

“Yeah, we’d need a heavy pry bar to get those out.”

“Rowin get us out of here please.” Kathryn asked.

Rowin gave a quick bow to the princess. “Kate listen without the proper tools, there’s really nothing I can do. I need to see this from every angle to find a weak spot. If there isn’t one, you’ll have to wait until I can get what I need.”

Kathryn sighed and hung her head.

Rowin turned back to the chains on his sister. “Well, this could be going better if I had some light.”

A bright white light flashed over his shoulder, lighting up the wall.

“Ah, much better. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” said a deep, male voice from over his shoulder.

Rowin felt his heart stop a moment later than it should have, right before a hand grabbed his head and drove his face into the stone wall. Blood and pain erupted from his broken nose and torn forehead. The man holding him threw him to the ground.

“Does he not take me seriously? Trian sends a boy to rescue his little girl? Does he think so little of me after all this time?” He grabbed Rowin by the hair and pulled him up to look him in the face.

Through the tears, Rowin could make out the man in black, Dyphise Honzonoto. Piercing yellow eyes glared out from sunken eye sockets. Unkempt white hair fell to frame his narrow face. He snarled and Rowin could see fangs.

“Tell me: are you supposed to be a distraction while the other intruders mount the rescue? Either way, Xaktor will deal with them soon enough.”

“Don’t hurt him!” Erica cried. “He’s not… he’s not the one they sent!”

“That much is obvious.” Dyphise pushed Rowin back to the floor and looked her in the eyes. “Then what is he to you?” He reached out and touched the jade necklace. “Is he special to you? A lover, perhaps?”

Erica shook her head. “No, no, he’s my brother.”

Dyphise’s chuckle bared a glistening canine. “Don’t try to hide anything from me. I won’t judge you. You probably won’t be alive long enough for it to matter.”

Rowin’s head cleared enough that he could push himself back to his feet. His grip would not tighten on the handle of his sword. Blood, tears, and stars clouded his vision, but he saw the dark robes and wild white hair. He drew his sword, its point catching on the locket of its scabbard as it came free. He tasted his own blood as he wound up for a killing blow.

He brought down the blade. It would cleave right into the back of Dyphise’s head.

Dyphise turned and grabbed Rowin’s wrist. His sword fell from his fingers to clatter on the stone. The dark wizard squeezed and Rowin’s fingers twitched.

“I’ve survived better assassination attempts than that, boy.” Dyphise threw him to the ground and kicked away his sword. “I hope you’ve got another plan, because this one was foolish.”

Rowin spat blood onto the ground. “My friends will be here soon enough, but why wait for them? I’ve been well trained I can take you on myself.” he told him.

“As I was telling your lovely little sister, Xaktor should be chewing on their cooling entrails by now. Since I won’t get to enjoy killing them myself, I’m going to have to settle for you and wait for the next dispatch.” Dyphise clenched his hand and reached to the handle in his belt. “I’m not just a wizard, you know. In my prime, I was a decent swordsman.”

Rowin looked down at the puddle of his own blood forming beneath him. He looked up at Dyphise. “Then show me.” Rowin had been trained by Scott and Jon this son of a bitch probably didn’t even know how to hold a sword.

Dyphise grinned. “I was waiting for you to say that.” He drew his sword. A crackling yellow-white light formed the blade. It hissed as he whipped it through the air.

Rowin looked past him to Erica. Her eyes went wide and her lips trembled. Her shoulders rose and fell with each quick breath. She shook her head.

“Any objections, ladies?” Dyphise asked, turning his back to Rowin to look at the girls.

Rowin pushed himself to his knees and drew his dagger that he had brought with him just in case he lost his sword. His right thigh burned with pain when he tried to stand. He leaned in and stabbed Dyphise in the back of his leg.

As Dyphise howled in shock and pain, Rowin pulled himself across the room to grab his sword. When the pain in his leg went away, he stood up. Holding his sword as best he could, Rowin breathed deep and locked eyes with the wizard.

Dyphise snarled and ripped the dagger loose. A spray of his blood splashed onto the stone floor before he closed the wound with magic. He threw the dagger away. “So you Arcanians aren’t all ‘honour’ and ‘chivalry,’ I see.” He smiled through his own pain. “This will be interesting.” He hobbled forward and swung an overhand strike.

Rowin raised his sword to parry. He deflected the blow outward and swung at his unprotected target. His blade caught Dyphise’s collar and he heard a crack of bone. The impact rang up his arms; he had struck too far forward on the blade and the shock prevented him from capitalizing.

Dyphise dropped his weapon and recoiled, howling and clutching his collar. He stepped back as Rowin advanced, digging his free hand into the pouches on his belt.

Rowin didn’t see whatever he pulled out and crushed between his bony fingers. As he closed the gap between them, Dyphise turned his hand and a bolt of lightning erupted from his fingers, hitting Rowin and throwing him to the floor.

Rowin’s body seized on him. His muscles twitched and wouldn’t stop. His eyes wouldn’t focus but he could see Dyphise approaching, picking up his sword on the way. A drop of blood rolled down the steel blade. He watched Dyphise raise it in his left hand, ready to run him through.

Rowin rolled away but Dyphise kicked him in the side. “Hold still, boy!” he hissed before rearing back his sword and thrusting. Rowin rolled away again, letting the attack pierce the ground, and pushed himself up. He saw Dyphise leaning on his sword, his shoulders rising and falling with his heavy breaths. Rowin stepped forward and stomped on his sword’s blade. It felt like a white-hot slug of iron pressed against his thigh when he made contact, but his plan worked: the blade snapped and Dyphise fell to the ground.

Rowin hobbled to his neglected dagger and took it up, looking back to see Dyphise pushing himself back to his feet, still holding the shard of blade. He went back to Dyphise and grabbed his hair. Dyphise grabbed his wrist.

Rowin thrust the dagger into Dyphise’s gut and received a hissed grunt. He saw pain and anger in Dyphise’s eyes, the wizard trying to kill him with his glare alone. He fell back to his knees and Rowin released his grip on the dagger and Dyphise’s hair.

“Damn you, boy,” Dyphise hissed. “A child… cannot kill me.”

Rowin reared back and punched Dyphise in the face again breaking his nose the monster screamed in pain as blood ran down his ugly twisted face. Rowin then backed away and looked around. The yellow-white glow of Dyphise’s sword caught his eye and he went for it. The wire-wrapped grip felt cold in his hand and he couldn’t feel any weight in the blade. In his current state, the lighter weapon felt welcome it was still a little heavier than his own sword but he couldn’t see where it landed. He stepped toward Dyphise and raised the sword.

They locked eyes again. Rowin swung down with all the strength he could muster. The blade’s arc passed through Dyphise’s neck and his head hit the ground a moment before his shoulders.

Rowin also hit the ground, exhausted.

 

“Rowin… Rowin, look at me.”

Rowin opened his eyes and saw his sister’s face. Tears streaked her face, but she smiled. He could feel her arm under his head.

“You’re so brave, Rowin.”

“Look what it did to me,” he whispered. He couldn’t feel his right arm, and each breath felt like a hot iron rod jabbing into his side.

“Your friends are here. They found us. Now we can all go home.”

“That’s good.” Rowin’s vision started to go dark.

“No! Rowin, stay with me!” Erica looked at Nayrene. “Can you do something, please?”

“I can save him, but I need your help.”

“What must we do?” Kathryn asked.

“I need your energy for the spell. We do not have the time or components to do it normally.”

“Anything you need from me, I’ll give it,” Erica said.

“Me too Nayrene do whatever it takes to heal him I can’t live without him!”

“Give me your hands,” Nayrene said, reaching out to the others. Scott, Erica, and Kathryn all put their hands in hers while she laid her free hand on Rowin’s forehead.

Rowin felt the hot, burning pain slowly subside. The pain accompanying each breath grew less intense. His right arm started tingling, followed shortly by his fingers. His vision cleared and warmth returned to his core. “I think I’m okay now,” he said.

Erica immediately hugged him.

“Ow!” Rowin cried. “I’m mostly okay, I guess.”

“Well, you will live at least,” Nayrene said, wiping her hands on her dress. “”we should leave this evil place.”

Erica and Scott helped Rowin back to his feet. Rowin put his hand on Scott’s breastplate. He let his fingers play across the metal it was only scratched a little due to the magic Dyphise used.

“Before we leave,” Scott said, “I have to talk to you, Rowin.”

“I’m glad you were wearing the Rowinium armor.”

Scott pushed Rowin’s hand away. “Forget about my armour, I shouldn’t have stayed behind so long I’m glad I found you in time but I see that your training has paid off. You did well. You truly are my greatest student.”

“Thanks Scott…”

“Let’s get out of this horrid place I want to go home.” Kathryn said as she helped Erica hold Rowin. Nayrene spoke words of magic and opened a patrol to take them to the castle door.

Rowin more staggered than walked through the teleportation portal, leaning on his sister’s shoulder as his thigh stung with each step. Scott went through ahead of him, escorting Princess Kathryn, while Nayrene followed and closed the portal behind them.

“Tell His Majesty that we’ve returned,” Scott told an idle soldier. He ran off and Scott turned to Rowin. “Let me do the talking.” Rowin nodded he was too tired anyway.

Moments later, King Trian, Prince Dion, and several attendants arrived. “You’re all alive,” the king observed. “And Dyphise?”

“Slain, Your Majesty, by my blade.” Rowin announced tossing Dyphise’s head at Trian’s feet.

“I’m sorry that my mistake came back so violently,” Trian said. He extended his hand to his daughter, and Kathryn took it. “Are you all right, my dear?”

“I am. Dyphise didn’t hurt me.”

“Scott, if there is anything in my power I can grant you, name it and I shall see it done.”

Rowin put his head on Erica’s shoulder. “This is the part where the hero gets the princess’s hand,” he told her. “I wanted to be the hero for once.”

“You’re still my hero,” she said, “and that’s all that matters.”

“My lord, Dyphise’s forces did great damage to my land and my people. I would see them compensated for their losses.”

The king nodded to the request. “Always thinking of the needs of others. Very well, it shall be done.”

Rowin caught Scott’s eyes as he looked back. He didn’t say anything.

“You went above and beyond the call of duty,” Trian said. “Considering how dangerous Dyphise was, I would say you’ve earned a Silver Cross, if not the Valour Cross.”

“Can it be awarded collectively?” Scott asked. “I couldn’t have done it without their help.”

 

Kathryn sought her father for comfort; he held her for a long moment.  When Kathryn felt a little safer, the king looked at Rowin.  “I am forever in your debt, Rowin,” King Trian announced as the young knight stood smiling and with light in his hear that he was able to rid the world of that evil bastard and rescue his sister and the princess.

“If there is anything in the land you desire, it shall be yours.”

Rowin thought for a moment.  “Your Majesty, I wish to have the hand of Princess Kathryn in marriage.”

Those in attendance went silent.  Trian spoke up, breaking the silence.  “Kathryn, will you accept?”

“Of course, Father.  Sir Rowin saved me from a fate worse than death, and saved our kingdom from the foul wizard whose head he has brought back as proof the monster is gone forever, and I love him for it.”

“Then we will have to arrange an appropriate ceremony.”  Trian stood from his seat.  “It will be an honour to have you in my family, Rowin.”

“I will be honoured to call you Father, Your Majesty,” Rowin said.

Dion got up and walked over to Rowin and extended his hand and said, “Welcome to the family.”

“Now that that’s settled Your Majesty, May I have some time to bring my sister home to my parents? “You may and then after you return you will have your wedding.”

“Thank you.”  Rowin bowed and left with Nayrene in tow.

 

Once the three of them were outside Nayrene put a hand on Rowin’s shoulder and he nodded as he held Erica’s in his own making a silent vow to never let her get hurt again.

“Think about your home.” Nayrene instructed; he did as he was told.

Nayrene then cast her spell and time warped around the three of them and in an instant they were outside Rowin’s dad’s forge.

 

Nayrene followed Rowin inside his father’s forge. “Hey, dad I’m home!” He called into the massive room “Daddy!” Erica screamed and threw herself into his arms. “Oh my baby shush it’s okay you’re safe now.” Ken put the sword of Baker steel that he had just completed down in a barrel with many other swords. “Hello, son. Who’s your friend?”

“Dad, this is Nayrene, Nayrene this is my dad, Ken Baker.”

“I’m honoured to meet you.” Ken said taking Nayrene’s hand in his own and kissing it gently. “It is an honour to meet you sir. Rowin is one of my dearest friends, like a little brother.” She smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder. Rowin smiled back.

“So what brings you here son?” Ken asked.

“Mom, dad, I’m getting married.”

“Rowin, that’s great!” Ken exclaimed.

The happy news broke Lily’s trance.  “Who are you marrying son?”

“The princess.” Rowin said simply.

“I’m proud of you Rowin.” Ken said.

“I’m happy for you Rowin.” His mom replied.

“I want you guys to be there.”

“Of course, son we wouldn’t miss your wedding.” His dad told him.

“When is it?” His mom asked.

“Um, we’ll pick the date when I get back to the castle I asked for some time to bring Erica home after being captured by Dyphise. I’ll write and tell you when it is.”

“Sure, that’d be great son we’ll look forward to your message.”

“Anyway, we should get back. I have all kinds of new things to learn now that I’m Third in Command of the Royal Knights of Arcania.” Rowin said clasping his dad’s wrist in the warrior way. “I’m proud of you son.”  “Yes, we should.” Nayrene agreed. “It was nice to meet you.”

“It was nice to meet you as well, Nayrene.” Ken said.

“Let’s go, Nayrene.” Rowin said and took her hand. Nayrene waved and then began to chant words to her teleportation spell. In a moment they were outside the castle walls.

 

Rowin knocked on the door to Scott’s office. “Come in.”

“Is this a bad time?”

“I always have time for you Rowin. What can I do for you?”

“Well my friend, I was hoping that you’d be my best man at my wedding.”

“Rowin, it would be an honour.”

“Good. I’ll let you get back to work.”

“See you later.”

“Yeah.”

 

Three days before the scheduled day of the wedding, Rowin, Scott, Jon, Erica, and Lily, and the royal decorator were finishing the final touches on the decorations.  “I want those sapphire roses hanging over on the far wall, those candles there and…”

“Rowin,” Scott called with urgency.

“Yes, what is it?”

“The Princess is on her way down the hall.  She looks like she’s heading straight for us.”

“Cover this stuff up, quick!” Rowin ordered.

Everybody moved to conceal the decorations.  As the last cloth settled, Kate came into the room.  “Rowin?” she called.

“Yes Kate, what is it my dear?”

“Is there anything that I can help with?”

“No…not really.  Besides, you have enough to do. How’s your dress coming?”

“It’s almost done.  You’ll like it, I’m sure of it.”  She gave him a peck on the cheek, and then left.

“That was close,” Rowin said to Scott.

“Yeah, a little too close.”

“Okay people, let’s get back to work.”

 

With all the decorations in place, Rowin stepped back and looked at what he and the others had done.  Nayrene walked in and looked around.  “This place is beautiful, Rowin.  I think the Princess will like it.”

“I know she will.”

She took another look around.  “I wonder if I’ll ever get married in a place like this.  Well, I’ll see you later.”  Her eyes met Scott’s as she turned to leave.

Rowin nudged him.  “Scott… Scott!”

“Hum?”

“You’re drooling.”

 

The day before the wedding, Rowin brought Kate into the room that they were going to be married in.

“Okay, open your eyes.”

Kate opened them and looked around at the beautiful decorations.  “Rowin, it’s breathtaking.”

“You like it?”

“Like it?  It’s wonderful.”  She turned back to him.  “How did you do all of this?”

“With a lot of time and energy.  We went all out, and spared no expense.  Your dad also called in a few favours.”

“I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

“That makes two of us.”

 

The wedding came the next day, and they would have a day like no other.  King Trian had personally ensured that it would be appropriately grand.  The Royal Knights, led by Sir Scott, attended, as well as their honorary knight Jon.

Prince Dion stood guard, in full dress armour, to see to it that everything went smoothly; he did not want anything to ruin his sister’s big day.

A high priest of Frey presided over the event.  He had to administer to marriages as part of his duties, especially those of great importance, such as this one.

Rowin stepped forward, dressed in finery that befitted his new role.  He had neatly combed his hair, and he stood with his hands together in front of him, waiting for his bride-to-be.

The doors opened, and in walked the Princess, wearing an extravagant white dress that had everyone captivated, accompanied by her father, King Trian Arcan X.

She approached the podium where Rowin waited patiently, a bead of sweat forming on his brow.

“Are you nervous?” she whispered.

“No. Just a little warm” He whispered in reply.

“On this day, the eighth day of Jala, Seventeen Hundred Forty One, we bring together two people with the bond of marriage: Sir Rowin Baker, Royal Knight of Arcania, and Princess Kathryn Latrel Arcan.  Under the eyes of Frey, God of Marriage.”

They stepped closer.

“Who gives this woman to this man?”

King Trian stood tall and proud.  “I do,” he announced, his voice carrying all the way to the back of the room, and he took his seat.

The priest turned his attention to the couple.  “Sir Rowin Baker, do you take this woman as your wife, to have and to hold in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”  Rowin said his line without hesitation and without a hint of anxiety in his voice.

“The ring,” the priest requested.  Scott handed the ring, a band of pure gold twining around a small sapphire, to Rowin.

“Repeat after me: with this ring, I thee wed.”

“With this ring, I thee wed.” Rowin said.  Rowin slid the wedding ring on her left middle finger.

“Do you, Kathryn Latrel Arcan, take this man as your husband, to have and to hold in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live?”

She turned to him and smiled.  “I do.”

“Repeat after me: with this ring, I thee wed.”

“With this ring, I thee wed,” Kathryn said.  She slid his gold ring on his left middle finger.

“I was told that you each have you own wedding vows as well?”

“That’s right.”

“You may read them.”

Rowin took Kathryn’s hands in his. “Kathryn, my love, I devote myself to you above all others. I will always be there for you. I love you and I will catch you when you fall. You are my guiding light and I will look to you for strength and support in my time of weakness.”

“Rowin, my darling, you saved me from a fate far greater than death. I know I will always be able to count on you. I believe in you. I’ve never met anyone like you before and I’m so happy that you will be my husband. I devote myself to you above all others. As much as you look to me for strength I look to you for strength and you are my hope and knight in shining armour.”

 

The priest reached over to a table behind him and produced a cup of wine.

“This cup symbolises your dedication to each other for all time. By each taking a drink from the same cup it binds you together for all eternity.” The priest said handing the cup to Rowin first. He graciously accepted it and took a drink.

The priest then handed it to Kathryn and she took a drink as well.

“Under the eyes of Frey two have become one. By the power vested in me by the God of Marriage, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

Rowin pulled back the veil, then dunked Kathryn and kissed her for a minute that seemed to last far longer than it did.  As he brought her back up, the priest said, “Frey blesses this couple.” The crowd erupted, Scott and Jon were caterwauling, the knight cheered, Ken stood proud while Erica and Lily cried happy tears.

 

At the reception, the Master of Ceremonies told jokes as everyone waited for Rowin and Kathryn. A moment later the happy couple entered smiling at their friends and family. The MC called for silence. “Everyone for the first time I’m proud to give you Mr. And Mrs. Rowin Baker!”

The crowd erupted and they took their seats at the table.

After dinner was served the crowd had become restless. “Speech. Speech!” They cried and Rowin obliged them. “This is the happiest day of our lives and I’m glad you all could be here.” His turned to his family and especially his sister as she sat by their parents then he turned his eyes back to his new wife. “Kathryn I love you.”

“I love you too.” Kathryn said from her seat.

“I want to thank Scott and Jon, for everything, your training and your faith in me, a man couldn’t have better mentors.”

“It was an honour Rowin.” Scott said.

“Here, here.” Jon agreed.”

“I look foreword to many more adventures and serving with you two for a long time.”

“As do we my friend.” Scott said.

“And to Dion, I look forward to many more adventures with you and getting to know you my brother.”

“I look forward to getting to know you too, Rowin. May we have many adventures together.” Dion said.

“Here, here.” The rest of the knights said.

The crowd erupted once more and after a moment Rowin again called for silence.

He took Kathryn’s hand in his and helped her up and looked deeply into her eyous.

“Kathryn, my love, my wife, the air that I breathe, I look ahead to spending the rest of my days with you and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Neither would I my love.” She said and kissed Rowin deeply.

 

When Ken had found a moment, he went over to Kathryn.

Rowin’s mom and sister came over to her as well.  Ken gave his new daughter-in-law a hug and said, “Today I have two daughters. Welcome to the family.”

“I’m very happy to be a part of your family.  It will be nice to have a mom again it’s been a long time since my mother died.

“I’ve always wanted another daughter but I couldn’t have any more children after Rowin.” Lily said to her.

“I’m glad to be a part of your family Mom.”

“Welcome my daughter. You have filled my heart with happiness.” Lily said holding her tight.

“Thank you. Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Feel free to come visit me whenever you wish. I don’t really remember my birth mom. She died when I was five.” She said smiling broadly.

“I will.”

 

Nayrene had one hand on Scott’s shoulder, and a glass of wine in the other.  She looked over at Rowin.  “He’s quite a catch,”

“He’s a fine man.  I’m proud to call him friend.”

She turned to look at him.  With a hint of alcohol on her breath, she asked him, quite bluntly, “So, what does he look like with his shirt off?”

“You’re drunk. Come on, let’s get you sobered up.  More than a hundred years old, and she can’t even hold her liquor.”  Scott rolled his eyes.

 

With a wave of her hand, the sphere grew dark.  Miah sat back and smiled to herself.  The wheels turned as she thought about how to turn this to her advantage.

“Enjoy your peace, while you can.”

Miah stepped up to the pulpit. She laid her hands on the rail and looked across the mumbling congregation. She smiled to herself. She raised her hand and the chatter subsided.

“My children,” she said, her voice strong with her conviction, “by now you may have heard of the actions on Thieron’s Plain. The revolutionary Dyphise has again been thwarted by the unyielding might of the Arcanian monarchy. Our bright future is dimmed by his loss, but as long as one of us still strives for a better tomorrow, we are not defeated.”

She raised her fists at the end of her speech and the crowd cheered for her. She lowered her hands and placed her right on the iron-bound tome in front of her.

“As it is written in the Book of Iron Law: When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lady Inaree, and shalt be obedient unto Her voice; (For the Lady Inaree is a merciful God); She will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which She swore unto them.”

 

 

Advertisements

4 comments on “The Arcanian Saga Part 1: Rowin’s Quest

  1. So awesome I can’t wait for The Arcanian Saga Part 6: Nayrene’s Destiny!

    Like

  2. Lisa Bullins says:

    Finished Book 1..Rowin was my favorite character..Amazing book! On to book 2

    Like

  3. Lisa Bullins says:

    Finished Book 2. Lots of new character, but Nayrene was my favorite this time. Incredible!

    Like

  4. Wait till you see her in Book 3.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s