Opening Chapters from Mike’s Books
One: Prophet and Loss
Stage fright consumed me and I peered through the curtain, fist clenching my lute. Nervous sweat trickled down my hair as Bobo, regular as clockwork, fell on his arse. I barely noticed that something had been said to me until it was repeated with greater force. Blinking stupidly, I looked around.
“Now,” the young squire growled. He stood before me, unduly muscular, with angular features emphasizing his dark skin, and decorated with the kind of goatee young men have because they can’t grow hair anywhere else on their face yet. “His Grace does not wish to wait. He requires your presence immediately.”
“There must be some mistake,” I mumbled. “I have to perform in a few moments.”
He and his fellow squire exchanged a glance that said “musicians” in a wholly disparaging way. I opened my mouth to explain, but they grabbed me and pulled me aside. The subject was not open to debate.
“Look, you have the wrong guy,” I stammered while being dragged away. “I have to go! I am scheduled to perform as soon as Bobo and Spanks finish their act …”
Emerging from the backstage area, we meandered through the crowd of drinking, stinking patrons who were busy drowning their sorrows with similar wretches, pinching waiters and waitresses, and laughing at the antics on the stage.
“Oh Bobo, you’re sooooooo stupid!”
Consequently, no one paid much attention as we made our way past tables packed tighter than a Galanthian slave ship. My escorts stayed close to my side, but were polite enough to make it seem as if they simply happened to be going in the same direction as I was.
Boris, the owner of the Five Lions, looked up and raised his bushy eyebrows as I passed. His moustache twisted in frustration and his mug slammed onto the bar. I shifted my eyes to the two guards with me and Boris backed away, watching me suspiciously.
Bobo and Spanks’ routine continued on unabated. I knew that in a few moments, Bobo would be hit by the slapstick — two long, thin boards held together at one end and open at the far end, which make a loud crack when applied to an appropriate posterior but which didn’t really hurt at all. Slowing my pace, I glanced over my shoulder.
The squires, surprised, spun around to stare at the stage as I ducked under a table. Frantically crawling past jutted knees and slopping through spilled beer, I squirmed my way towards the rear, my lute strapped to my back scraping against the undersides of the tables. The shouts of the squires followed soon behind as I scrambled to a half crouch and tried to sprint between two long tables filled with smelly sailors.
“Stop that bard!” Smallbeard yelled and a hand reached down to grab at my shirt. I dove under a neighboring table, slamming into the legs. It collapsed immediately, drenching me in a variety of intoxicating liquors as the table’s occupants sprang upright or fell backwards in their seats.
The clamor from the crowd drowned out Bobo and Spanks as everyone shouted at once, “What’s going on?”
“Maybe it’s an escaped convict!”
“Is there a reward?”
The word ‘reward’ was all anyone heard, and the patrons spun around trying to locate the object of the reward, grabbing anyone who looked like a possible escaped convict and turning aside all available furniture to discover the whereabouts of the prize.
Quickly pulling myself up, I leapt onto the nearest table and started traversing the room, crossing stepping-stones over a river of spilled beer. “A reward! A great reward!” I shouted over the din, waving my arms enthusiastically. “There he goes now, out the door!”
There came a scramble of arms and legs as bodies lunged towards the front in order to catch the villain. I navigated towards the rear the best I could, knowing the back door waited for me.
Crossing the last table brought me to a quick halt as Smallbeard loomed ahead. Leaning across, he held out his sword and raised an eyebrow threateningly.
I paused for an instant, considered, and then took a careful step backwards. The now unbalanced table fell under my weight as the other end rose up to catch Squire Smallbeard under the chin with a satisfying thud. I jumped aside, not looking to see how he was, and dashed for the backstage area.
I had only run a few feet before mysterious words bellowed behind me and I fell to my face. Strange how my first thought was relief that I had not broken my lute.
I couldn’t move a muscle, not even my eyes, and so had no idea what was happening. Wildly trying to conceive of an escape plan, I was interrupted by suddenly being flipped over. I found myself staring into the eyes of the other squire.
“You’ve been a very naughty boy, Terin Ostler,” she said.
By the time the spell had worn off and I could move again, the tavern had calmed down. The squires had assured everyone that everything was fine, I was not an escaped criminal, and that no reward had been offered. They tossed a few coins to Boris, who did not look satisfied, and with each one taking an arm, led me out of the Five Lions Inn. Their demeanor made it clear that I would not be let go, and the sword gripped tightly in Smallbeard’s other hand issued a discouraging warning.
Tripping slightly while my eyes adjusted, I stepped into the dark night and brisk air of Ashbury City. The noise level dropped tremendously and the cool breeze was like a splash in the face. No, wait, it was a splash in the face from some drunken barbarian falling backwards at the sight of the squires and accidentally tossing his mug into the air. He made a loud oof sound as he fell, and then fixed me with bloodshot eyes. His dark scraggly beard accentuated a face that seemed older than the muscled body to which it was attached. Ragged muddy clothes barely fit his oversized frame. His eyes widened as he looked up.
“Bishortu!” he gasped fearfully.
The squires glanced at each other and then one gave a tug as if to say, “Let’s go.” I went, but looked back and saw the barbarian staring. Even at quite a distance away, he remained still. He seemed to be afraid of me — not the squires, but me. Eventually he faded into the night, still standing, still staring. I swallowed uneasily.
“What does the Duke want with me?” I asked once I shook my discomfort at the barbarian’s distracting gaze. “I haven’t done anything. Does he want to hire me to perform? I didn’t know he had even heard of me. I didn’t know anyone had ever heard of me.”
“You are Terin Ostler,” replied the other squire calmly, as if stating a fact so obvious that further discussion was not needed. She seemed about my age and her voice was quite sweet. I idly wondered if she could sing. A biata, judging by the feathers. I had only encountered biata a few times in my travels and always thought of them as a rather mysterious race of people — apparently descended from gryphons, feathers grow in their hair and on their eyebrows, which can sometimes make them look, well, kind of foolish. Still, with a lifespan, history, and culture almost as old as the elves, they probably were used to us short-lived humans thinking them strange.
“Ah. Well. Yes, I am,” I stammered. “As you said. So you have heard of me?”
“Not until a quarter hour ago,” replied Smallbeard. “His Grace told Darlissa and me to go to the Five Lions and find a short lad with a long nose and a lute. We asked Boris what your name was.”
Both seemed more at ease now that I was not struggling to get away. I did not even consider the idea of escape. This was getting interesting. Besides, they had very large, sharp weapons.
My mother had always complained that I was too curious for my own good. “Curiosity killed the cat,” she would say, an expression I always hated. What? It’s bad to be curious? We should just be stupid and never wonder? On the other hand, that part about being killed was pretty persuasive. On my list of things to do, “being killed” placed way down at the bottom.
This thought unnerved me and brought me back to reality like a slap. I could not think of any beneficial or positive thing that could come of being brought against your will to see the Duke, and once more began to ponder various escape plans.
“The Duke specifically asked for me?”
“You or someone who looks like you and carries a specific musical instrument,” replied Darlissa. Giving me a glance, she added quietly, “Although he also said you were supposed to be handsome.” She snorted, shook her head sadly, and smiled.
Nothing more was said as they escorted me down the dirty cobblestone streets. The quiet spring night made the process unnerving, but the people out and about didn’t pay us any attention as they trod along in their various tasks. The fog sliding off the river shrouded the city in gray and made me feel like a participant in a dream.
As the capital city for the entire duchy, Ashbury had much to offer. You could find unusual merchants on every block, great restaurants, and many forms of entertainment. When in Ashbury, you were in the front row (as the saying went), because everything happened there. Of course, “everything” included its fair share of crime, and groups like The Fist had supposedly easily taken control of Dockside and the black market. Ashbury was a city of contrasts — front rows and watching your back. Not a bad idea for a song.
That night the city was, as usual, crowded with drab people pushing against each other, each convinced that their errands and duties were more important than anyone they might possibly encounter. They filled the doorways of short, squat buildings that towered a few stories over the narrow passageways, threatening to topple but never making good on the threat. Dogs, cats, and chickens wandered aimlessly underfoot.
I had only been in Ashbury City for a few weeks, having traveled from Blythedale through Nordenn and the Ash Forest to reach the capital. “You’re crazy!” my father had said. “Do you know how many starving bards there are in Ashbury? Stay here and help with the business, and you can live well.” But still I snuck off in the night, afraid to let him know that I had no intention of becoming a solicitor — all those contracts and wills bored me to tears. I remained grateful that my parents believed in education, since I knew how to read and write and had a basic understanding of the world. I also learned from my father how to tell a good story, because that is what lawyers do best.
Unfortunately for my family, they also paid for music lessons.
Still young, and with all the optimism and stubbornness that comes with inexperience, I convinced myself that unlike all the other bards who traveled to Ashbury, I would become famous. I would write great epic poems and songs, enrapture my audiences, travel the world, and perform before nobility. And now I was to meet the Duke.
I didn’t expect it to happen that fast.
Even Druzilla, the beautiful gypsy lady who had cast my fortune in Nordenn had not predicted this. Still, her voice haunted me, because she had somehow known me as soon as she threw her fortune stones. She knew where I was from, knew where I was going, and knew my dreams and desires even better than I did. I was flabbergasted by her accuracy. And then, after she had absolutely convinced me of her extraordinary powers, she gazed deep into me, her blue eyes cutting through me like a fat man at a buffet table, and said with the most solemn of voices, “You will find that the pen will be mightier than the sword!”
At that, I laughed out loud and the ominous feeling dissipated. I paid her two silver pieces for that? I left, convinced that I had been duped by a very skilled fraud, but she followed me to the door of her varda, anger in her eyes. “Do not toss away your future, young bard!” she cried at my back. “Your destiny has revealed itself to me and I have revealed it to you!” Of course, I thought, The Powers That Be always reveal themselves in cliches and homilies. It still made me chuckle to think about it, although deep down I had to admit it was a powerful reading up to that point.
Without warning (or maybe because my mind was on other things) I found myself before the huge doors to the Ducal Castle. Why do the powerful always make their surroundings so large and imposing? I thought. Is it supposed to make me feel inadequate and meek? I examined the doors as they slowly inched open. The scrollwork must have taken years to finish, and the large brass hinges displayed inlays with the coat-of-arms of the duchy of Ashbury. The highly polished knobs sparkled and the hinges proved to be well oiled, for the door made little noise as it towered over me, opening to reveal the great halls beyond. I felt inadequate and meek.
Ahead ran a long hallway divided by a bright red carpet, illuminated by hundreds of candles on dozens of pedestals with long ornate tapestries lining the walls depicting scenes of classic battles and proud heroes. My taxes were being well spent.
Marching through another set of doors brought us to the throne room. A dozen or so ornately dressed people were surrounding Duke Aramis, who sat listlessly on the throne. They must have been very important because, well, they were surrounding Duke Aramis who sat listlessly on the throne. Many races were present — humans, elves, dwarves, biata — which makes sense when you consider that people are always referring to Ashbury as the city that is owned by no one. No other place on Fortannis can claim the diversity of Ashbury City. Of course, that also makes it a place of much turmoil and confrontation as well, but such is the price.
Duke Aramis was a good looking and fairly young noble whose long blonde hair curled around his head and escaped over his shoulders. His friendly, clean-shaven face exuded trust; his active eyes hinted at great intelligence. He proudly wore his gold and purple colors with the winged sword symbol prominently displayed on his chest. To his side, his magical shield and sword sat, well known through a myriad of stories and songs, most of which I could perform at a moment’s notice. His dedication to the Code of Chivalry was unparalleled. Unlike some of his predecessors, he had a reputation as a “man of the people,” earning his title through his heroic actions and not because he had been born into a noble family. The squires motioned for me to stop and then they bowed before the Duke and spoke quietly to him for a moment. I followed their example and fell to one knee.
“You must be Teril.” The voice was strong and commanding but completely friendly and comfortable. I looked up nervously.
“Terin, Your Grace.”
“Yes, I apologize, Terin. Please rise.”
He gave a smile as I stood. I could not help but grin back like some farmer brought up on stage to win a prize and who beams nervously as he looks into the audience. I caught myself and tried to look serious. The crowd mumbled around me.
I then noticed two biata in long robes decorated with their strange writing. One was fairly elderly, with graying hair, a slight beard, and thick spectacles. The younger sat in his chair in a pose that clearly portrayed that he did not wish to be there. Duke Aramis glanced at the older biata and then spoke to me.
“Are you aware why we called you here today, Terin?”
I held up my lute. “Entertainment?”
A short burst of laughter erupted from the crowd as well as from Duke Aramis. It made me feel good even though I had not tried to be funny. It also made me more hopeful that I was not about to be sentenced to death.
“I am sure this will be entertaining, Terin,” said the Duke. “You are here because of the prophecy.”
I looked at him and furrowed my brow. So there was a prophecy about something — there is always a prophecy somewhere — and His Grace obviously wanted me to write a ballad about it. Although honored, I wondered why he chose me for this task, but remained silent, not wanting to speak out of turn. I glanced nervously around the room.
The Duke frowned and turned to the older biata. “Xapano,” he said, “are you sure it is him?”
The one called Xapano lowered his spectacles a bit and stared at a yellowed piece of paper in his hand. “Short, male, human, long nose, handsome” — he paused for a heartbeat as a slight bit of doubt crossed his face — “lute. He fits the description. I can’t imagine there could be another one.”
“Very well then,” replied His Grace, turning back to me. “I hereby name you Terin of the Prophecy. You will be provided with the supplies you need to complete your quest as well as writs to allow access to any part of the duchy in order for you to perform your duties. I will be sending Sir Frost and a few squires along with you to assist and also to protect you from harm …”
“Are you certain that is allowed, Your Grace?” asked one of the nobility gathered around. Based on her leather crown, I guessed her to be the elven Baroness Glenduria Manyave from the Ash Forest.
“Yes, why not?” the Duke replied testily. “It doesn’t say he can’t have assistance.”
“We wouldn’t want to destroy our only chance by not following the prophecy correctly,” she replied.
“Well, if they wanted us to follow it correctly, why didn’t they make it clearer?” Duke Aramis snapped, and the room went silent. “Why are all prophecies written in such a way that there is more than one interpretation? They are always phrased so that it isn’t clear until afterwards what you were supposed to do. Just once I would like to see a prophecy that says something like ‘On the fifth of next month, watch your head as you get out of the carriage so you don’t get a bump.’ Would that be so bad?”
“It is of course Your Grace’s decision,” said the Baroness, looking unconvinced.
“This is the damndest prophecy I have ever seen,” continued the Duke. “Absolutely accurate and exact at one moment and then vague and prophecy-like in the next. Well, at least it is an improvement over all the other prophecies …”
I had remained completely mute during all of this. Something was definitely wrong, or else I was the subject of a massive practical joke. I ran all the possibilities through my head and could find no reasonable explanation. The murmuring of the nobles gathered around grew in my ears and I finally said to myself, “What prophecy?”
I must have said it louder than I’d meant to because the room got quiet very quickly.
THE AXES OF EVIL
SPOILER ALERT: Contains information that gives away plot points from “Arch Enemies.”
One: Whispers in the Dark
The shock of hearing one’s own name conspiratorially whispered is a great awakener.
I paused in mid-step. The whisper had come from the tent beside me, one of the large, ornate pavilions used by Duke Aramis of Ashbury and his knights. A lantern inside the tent threw two hugely disfigured shadows against the linen wall.
“Yes, Terin, the squire; that’s the one. I’ll make Terin do it.”
A chill traversed my spine as I realized that I had not misheard my name seconds earlier. Had I taken another route back from the latrine, I would have missed this conversation completely. Instead, and against my better judgment, I inched closer.
“But the Vansir Reclaim belongs to the barbarians by treaty,” said a voice I did not recognize. “You can’t just take it away.”
“I don’t plan on taking it away. I plan on … encouraging them to leave.” I recognized the voice of Frost Vardik, the newly appointed Baron of Blythedale. His voice invariably held undertones of menace and threat—even when he ordered scrambled eggs for breakfast. Now it also dripped with a wicked smugness.
“This new prophecy nonsense is exactly what I need,” Frost continued. “The barbarians foolishly think that Squire Terin is their leader. They have some silly prophecy about him and call him ‘Bishortu.’ I’ll order Terin to make them leave our lands.”
“I’m not sure that will work, Your Excellency,” the timid voice said. “They have lived there for many years. It’s the only land they know.”
“That’s not my problem!” Frost said loudly. His shadow pulled back as the snoring that surrounded us dropped off a bit.
Apparently catching himself, he continued in a quieter tone, forcing me to move closer to hear.
“The superstitious barbarians won’t leave because of the treasure buried beneath their lands—treasure they haven’t been able to find in a hundred years! That treasure belongs to the barony of Blythedale, not to some ignorant savages. Terin will make them move or he’ll die trying.”
I gasped. Frost jerked his head around. His shadow danced wildly against the tent as he grabbed the lantern and headed for the opening.
Backing up, I tripped over a stone hidden in the darkness and stumbled wildly. I quickly whispered a Silence spell around myself and ran from the scene.
Dodging tent ropes, I panted through the maze that was our camp, frantically searching for my own tent. Listening for the sounds of pursuit produced nothing—and then I mentally slapped my head. Of course! The spell that surrounded me removedall noise.
Sheer luck finally brought me to my small tent, and I dived in, breathing heavily. Pulling up my blankets, I pretended to be asleep, keeping my eyes open slightly. Someone with a lantern approached.
Reminding myself to continue breathing, I gulped and tried to think of excuses. I can’t lie, I reminded myself. I’m a squire now. I made an oath!
The light passed by. I sweated in my cot, despite the chill night air. It seemed hours before the chirping of crickets announced the end of the spell, but I remained awake, pondering the conversation I had not been meant to hear.
“Bishortu!” sneezed Rendal.
I ignored him. He had been doing this for days now, and the humor of it had worn off. I suspected that my dislike of it was the reason he continued, for he seemed immensely pleased with himself each time.
Hlafweard also did not seem amused by the constant insulting use of the great barbarian hero’s name. The fact that I, and everyone with me, insisted that I was no great barbarian hero made little difference.
The barbarian chieftain observed my sigh. He adjusted the large axe strapped to his back and moved his horse closer, crowding my own steed who kicked her disapproval.
“You may think that it was just a coincidence that you appeared to teach our ancestors about the power of magic,” Hlafweard said, “but these things do not happen by chance. You are Bishortu, and the prophecy said that you would return, and here you are. See?”
His backwards logic frustrated me. “I met your ancestors after being mistakenly sent back in time,” I once more explained, trying to hide my impatience at repeating myself. “I used the Disarming spell against your ancestors to protect myself, not because I was trying to teach anyone anything. And as I left, I jokingly said ‘Be sure to tip your waitress.’ Trust me, I wasn’t introducing myself as ‘Bishortu T’Porway Triz.’”
“That’s true,” Rendal added. “Terin says that all the time. I guess he thought some day he would be a bard and use it when he performs.”
“I am a bard!” I countered sulkily. “You don’t have to actually perform anywhere to be a bard.”
“Ah, my mistake.” Ren smiled. He turned to Hlafweard, placing the palm of his hand against his chest. “I myself am a tightrope walker.”
Rendal was, of course, not a tightrope walker of any type, but instead the bravest person I had ever met. But I said nothing and Hlafweard nodded, accepting Rendal at his word.
I shifted in my saddle and considered Rendal. He sat tall on his steed, surveying the surrounding land for trouble while fingering his sparse chin hairs. His dark eyes matched his dark skin, and his handsome, sharp features held an air of authority quite unusual for someone of his young age. His red belt, the symbol of the squire, showed the nicks and cuts of his many battles. His twin swords hung from each side.
Darlissa rode behind the three of us. I glanced at her. Her brown hair and feathered eyebrows fluttered in the slight summer breeze. When she noticed me looking at her, she gave a slight smile, which I returned. The sunlight glinting off her hair made her look extremely pretty to me that day. I immediately tried to rid myself of that thought. Darlissa was a biata, the race that had supposedly been created by the gryphons, and she had certain powers that never allowed me to feel completely comfortable around her.
The biata prided themselves on secrecy and strange manners, which proved quite useful when intimidating others. A biata could enter your mind, read your thoughts, and control your actions, enslaving you without your knowledge. On the other hand, they could use that skill for good, by healing those with mental problems and emotional hurdles. The feathers that grew in their eyebrows and hair made them look strange to humans, but then again no more, so than the stocky dwarves with their long beards—male and female—or the elves with their elongated ears.
Darlissa and Rendal, both squires to Duke Aramis, had happily welcomed me into their ranks when the Duke had named me his third squire. They had become my closest companions and protectors over the past few months and were the only ones I really could confide in. I ached to tell both of them what I had overheard the previous night, but the presence of Hlafweard prevented that. Instead, I just kept repeating the conversation in my mind so that I would not forget.
The broad, well-maintained road to Blythedale, one of the three main baronies of the Duchy of Ashbury, easily handled the crowd that now traversed its length. The Duke, his knights, and his closest advisors, including Baron Frost, rode in the lead, followed by their colorful wagons, and then we three squires, accompanied by Hlafweard. More wagons followed, filled with supplies and the cooks and servants necessary for such a parade, and then a company of the Duke’s soldiers. The barbarian chief’s entourage—if that word can be applied to such people—took up the rear. The first few days on the road had passed rather uneventfully, and predictions held that we would be at our destination within another two.
I gave a sideways glance at the barbarian chief. Like most Ashbans, my encounters with barbarians had been few and far between. Growing up in a fairly well-to-do family in a city meant that I had little contact with any as a child. Despite my father’s urging, I had tended to ignore my history and other lessons to practice music, so intent was I on becoming a traveling bard. Almost immediately upon setting off to follow my dream, I found myself involved in an adventure that resulted in a magical ritual that sent me back in time. The barbarians I encountered there mistakenly thought me some great hero, which, upon my return to my own time, led me to my present situation.
What I did know about barbarians was that they once roamed over vast areas of the Duchy of Ashbury but had been pushed back farther and farther as more advanced cultures moved in. They now primarily resided in the Vansir Reclaim (“vansir” being the name they called themselves), a region to the far north between the border of the baronies of Nordenn and Blythedale, yet technically belonging to neither.
When Hlafweard had first proposed that I travel to his lands as the prophesized Bishortu, I had refused. Then His Grace, Duke Aramis Llyrr, took an interest and vowed to travel with me. Relationships between the Duchy and the vansir had never been good, and the Duke had great hopes that this trip would make amends.
Baron Frost Vardik, another biata, did not seem pleased with his liege’s decision. A large and muscular man, Frost held a perpetually annoyed expression, as if merely having to deal with other beings was painful to him. The red and black feathers over his eyes tended to shake slightly when he was angry, and his shaved head only emphasized their presence.
The soft breeze made riding pleasant that morning. Jarille kept a steady pace and I was thrilled that she had been found and returned, healthy as ever. Riding a familiar horse always makes the trip easier. Still, the burdens placed on me weighed me down.
After some time, in an attempt to distract my mind from my worries, I turned to Hlafweard and said, “Let’s discuss exactly what is going to happen.”
He smiled, as if nothing pleased him more than being in the presence of the Great Bishortu. “I do not know,” he replied.
I tried to hide my frustration. Hlafweard had impressed me with his intelligence, something I had not expected to find in a barbarian, and he even seemed cleaner than the others I had met. Perhaps that was why he had been made chieftain. As part of his effort to mend relations with the barbarians, Duke Aramis had recognized Hlafweard’s position by inviting him to ride with us.
“Then tell me why Bishortu is important.”
“It was foretold that Bishortu would be the one to bring together the three tribes. We have been fighting with each other for many generations,” Hlafweard said, somewhat sadly.
“The vansir have been fighting among themselves?” Dar asked.
“Van-seer,” Hlafweard said, smiling as he corrected her mispronunciation. “But yes.”
Glancing over at me with a more serious expression, he continued slowly, as if admitting something embarrassing. “Had we not been fighting for so many years, we would probably not be living in the Reclaim now.”
His expression prevented me from inquiring more about the Reclaim. I knew from the overheard conversation of the previous night that the area was once a part of the Barony of Blythedale and that Baron Frost wanted it back, but I was not about to mention this to Hlafweard. I hastily tried to revive the subject of Bishortu.
“So what happened?” I prodded. “Who foretold this reuniting?”
“Well, that is the problem,” Hlafweard said. “Many years after Bishortu taught our people magic, our seers had three visions of Bishortu. One prophecy said Bishortu would bring peace to the warring vansir tribes, which didn’t make sense because there were no warring tribes at that time; the vansir were one tribe. My ancestors who believed in that prophecy began to fight with those who believed one of the others. Soon, all were fighting, and that prophecy was true. We split into three tribes.”
“Ah, Prophecy Boy.” Ren laughed. “Life is never boring around you.”
“And one prophecy is very bad I think,” Hlafweard continued. “One tribe wants to kill you.”
“What?” I screamed. Jarille sidestepped into Hlafweard’s mount, and I fought to get her and my emotions under control. “Again? I thought that was behind me! Why is there always some stupid prophecy that involves me dying?”
“I do not believe the prophecy says you must die,” Hlafweard said. “I think that the Hawk tribe does not want their prophecy to come true.”
Glancing at Ren, I was pleased to see that he took this piece of information very seriously.
“There is something else you should know,” Hlafweard said. “It has to do with the Wretched Axes…”
A loud crash from behind caused all to spin around. The dwarf Barinor had fallen off his wagon.
“I’m fine!” he bellowed. “Don’t ye worry about me!” After pulling himself up, he leaned over for his jug, which he had apparently dropped and then followed in due course. Muted chuckling erupted from those riding nearby, but Barinor gave it no mind.
Barinor’s decision to come with us pleased me. His good humor and down-to-earth nature had often provided just the right counter to the pessimism I had felt while trying to avoid the biata assassins hunting me the last time I had been named in a prophecy. Although his mercenary nature sometimes impeded his morals, he had been there to fight with us when needed, and his bravery was unquestioned.
Barinor had shown great interest when the magical axes were first mentioned a few days earlier and was determined to come along to see them for himself. “Ye may need me expertise,” he had explained. “Besides, I got nowhere else to go.”
After Barinor settled himself back on his wagon and the procession continued, I turned to Hlafweard to resume our conversation, but the number of guards who had come forward when Barinor fell made me wary. “I want to know more about this dying prophecy, but…” I whispered.
“We probably should wait until later to discuss this,” Dar interrupted.
I nodded my agreement, although terrible visions of my death beneath the swords of nameless barbarians flashed through my mind.
Uneasiness rode with me the rest of that day so that I hardly noticed when the caravan stopped. The sun loomed low in the sky, obscured by darkening clouds that made nightfall appear nigh. A clearing along the road provided just enough space for the entourage, and scattered prickly brush provided a bit of privacy in places. Tall trees swayed in the growing wind as His Grace and Baron Frost pointed to the best spot for their tents.
The horses were gathered and fed as cooks prepared a meal of chicken stew with potatoes. With so many people nearby, we didn’t dare speak of the things on our minds as we set up our own tents. By the time we finished, the meal was ready.
I motioned Ren and Dar to follow me to a secluded area under a trio of shady trees where we could not be overheard. Ren’s bowl was half empty by the time we settled in.
“Baron Frost has ulterior motives for going on this trip,” I started, but Darlissa rolled her eyes. “No, it’s true!” I protested. “Listen!”
I summarized the conversation I had heard the previous night. For once, neither interrupted. Both looked concerned.
“What is this treasure he is talking about?” Ren asked Darlissa.
She shook her head, feathers swaying in the breeze. “I don’t know,” she replied, and then took a slow bite from a piece of salty cheese. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“I thought you knew everything …” I started, and then realized how ridiculous that sounded. “About … other races…”
“In the past, you asked me about biata history.” She grinned. “I am no expert in the ways of the vansir. Let’s begin by summarizing what we know.”
“Very well,” I said, brushing hair out of my face. The slight breeze calmed my worried mood, but the seriousness of the situation kept me firmly planted in reality. “The barbarians are split into three different tribes…”
“Vansir,” Darlissa corrected. “If you want them to respect you, you should call them by the name they prefer. ‘Barbarian’ is seen as an insult.”
I nodded my understanding. “‘Vansir’ it is, then. One of the vansir tribes is called the Hawk tribe, and they’re the ones who want to kill me.”
“A popular activity in Ashbury,” grinned Rendal.
I grimaced. “What’s the name of Hlafweard’s tribe?”
“Badger,” said Dar.
“Badger?” I laughed. “What kind of tribal name is that? Ooh, I’m so scared! Save me, save me, it’s the Badger tribe!”
Ren held his hand over his mouth and pretended to be scratching at his beard in order to hide his grin as Dar shushed me. “Not so loud!” she warned. “They’re right behind us. Besides, have you ever fought a badger? They are vicious little things.”
“Still … badger!” I shook my head. “All right, so we have the mighty Hawk tribe and the vicious little Badger tribe. Who’s the third? Goat? Anteater?”
Ren shrugged with a smile while Dar sighed. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Fine, we’ll ask later. I guess the names really don’t matter.” I returned to summarizing what we knew. “Now, at one time they were all one tribe, and they had three different prophecies and split up because of that, right?”
They both nodded.
“The Badger prophecy is that you will reunite the three tribes,” Ren offered.
“And we have no idea what the other two prophecies are, do we?”
Dar shook her head, which made her hair fly fetchingly around her face. “Even Hlafweard doesn’t know.”
“That’s one of the first things we need to find out then,” Ren said. “Especially the Hawk prophecy—the one that makes them want to…”
“…kill me,” I said. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“You really need to start your weapons training soon,” Ren admonished.
I sighed. Glancing down at the puny dagger strapped to my belt, I felt no desire to become a great fighter. I wanted to learn magic and be a wizard.
“So now we have Duke Aramis’ order to travel to the Vansir Reclaim and try to bring peace to the people,” I said. “Baron Frost, on the other hand, wants them off the land so he can get the treasure.”
My fellow squires nodded their agreement.
I glanced around. “I should tell Duke Aramis what I heard last night.”
“Yes,” said Dar. “As much as I think you may have misunderstood or misheard the conversation, His Grace needs to investigate this.”
Pleased that she liked my suggestion, I considered how best to approach the Duke with this news. Would he think me out of line for suggesting that his new baron seemed to be undermining his goal of bringing the barbarian tribes together? Would he be angry at me for eavesdropping? Would he say that as Baron, Frost had the right to decide these things?
A scream interrupted my thoughts. I looked up, confused. An arrow flew overhead and struck a soldier several yards to our right. Cursing with pain, he pulled the shaft from his shoulder and yelled out a Healing spell.
Ren jumped up and, drawing his swords, ran toward the growing sound of battle. Dar sprinted at his side. The sounds of horses galloping toward our encampment echoed around me. I scrambled toward a wagon for cover.
From my hiding place behind the wagon, I peeked out toward the sound—a large group of vansir approached, some bearing crude lances adorned with flags featuring flying hawks. Many were on horseback, which gave them a distinct advantage as our horses had been taken aside and tethered for the night. Some of His Grace’s knights raced toward their mounts while the rest dove into the fray.
The vansir made good use of their favorite Disarming spell, and our soldiers often found themselves weaponless at a critical point. Shields clang from the onslaught. Wizards on our side responded in kind but had a disadvantage given the number of attackers.
Battles are chaotic, no matter how heroic and organized the stories try to make them seem. This was not an organized war where both sides meet on the field of battle, with flags and insignia clearly identifying the participants and with rules of engagement to be followed. This was loud, fast, and confusing. Screams erupted from all around, spells and arrows flew overhead, and distinguishing friend from enemy proved a tricky task.
A nudge at my side made me jump. The servants of His Grace cowered beside me. They stared at me, wide-eyed with fear.
I clenched my teeth, embarrassed. No longer was I Terin the Bard. I was now Terin the Squire. To these people, I was the hero of the Arch Battle. Songs had been written about my adventure. And here I hid, cowering like a lowly cook.
Embarrassment spurred me into action. Springing from behind the wagon, I dashed forward. Reaching to my belt, I pulled out my meager dagger. I had absolutely no plan at all and frantically searched the crowd for a sign of Darlissa or Rendal.
I halted abruptly in confusion when I found vansir fighting vansir, until I realized that the Badger tribe had engaged the Hawks. Uncertain who was who, I steered clear.
To my left, a large vansir with a mighty black beard grinned wildly as he charged a young soldier. His Bishortu medallion bobbed around his neck as he sliced at her. The soldier blocked the blow but lacked the skill to take advantage of the situation. Despite a fierce expression, fear showed in her eyes. Hastily voicing the incantation, I aimed a Disarming spell at the attacker. He gawked in surprise as his weapon slipped from his hand as if coated in butter. His eyes passed by me quickly, then looked back in shock. He had recognized Bishortu. His shock was short-lived, however, as the young soldier took advantage of this lapse to slice through his chest. Without a second thought, she turned to face another attacker.
I dashed on, searching for Ren and Dar. The Hawk tribe had lived peacefully in the Reclaim for years. Why did they want to attack the Duke’s forces now?
I tripped over a stump and sank to the ground as realization hit. They weren’t here to kill the Duke.
They were here to kill me.