SEE ALSO THE LILITH GALLERY, THE ART HISTORY ARCHIVE & THE LILITH EZINE.
Larry sat waiting. His friends were late. The Arthian Army and a large number of knights had already left Athex. He stared at the huge granite gates and shivered in the cold wind. They wouldn't be expecting him to come with them to Kinian, but then again, he didn't know the way and didn't want to get lost in the Kinian mountains.
Five figures on horses plus one tall, horned figure emerged from between the granite gates. The glare off the snow prevented Larry from recognizing them. He raised a hand to protect his eyes from the glare.
Two tall men, a woman, an old man, a boy and a minotaur. One of the tall men looked like Wynic Doxon and the woman looked like Victoria, but Larry didn't have a clue who the other three were. The other tall man looked in Larry's direction and pointed.
"I've been spotted," Larry grunted. He got to his feet and mounted his mare. The horse snorted in the chill wind and pawed at the snow. "Shut up and quit complaining," snapped the cutthroat.
The figures drew closer and Wynic waved. Victoria rolled her eyes and reluctantly waved. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Waytorn says I'm to go to Kinian and I don't know the way," Larry explained. "I was hoping I could travel with you." He gave Victoria an innocent, pleading look.
"No," said Victoria quickly.
"Yes," said Wynic, poking Victoria in the ribs. "We'd enjoy your company."
Wynic quickly regretted saying that. Larry's constant chatter, though it did take some of the dullness away from the snow covered plains, it was giving him an earache. He rode ahead to ride beside Gith so he wouldn't have to put up with the noise.
Gith smiled. "Regretting something?"
"Do you think we could lose him in that bush ahead?" Wynic asked seriously.
Nebonex laughed. Minotaurs had very swift, strong and endurance bound muscles. They could run for leagues and leagues without breaking a stride or resting for even a second. The fact that he was plowing through two feet deep snow didn't do much to slow the huge Prince down even a bit.
"Nope, but we might be able to leave camp early tomorrow morning without him. The wind and snow would cover our trail," suggested Gith.
"With our luck he'd probably insist on taking the last watch," muttered Wynic.
"And he's probably a light sleeper too," snorted Nebonex. "Let's just hope the cold somehow freezes his lips shut."
"Tell me again, Dillard," shouted Rades. "Why did we take this God-forsaken road?" He could barely see the knight five feet in front of him, leading his gelding through the deep snow.
"What?" Dillard yelled, trying to be heard over the wind. He looked back at the lieutenant.
"What?" shouted Rades. "I can't hear you!"
"Shout louder! I can't hear you over the wind!"
"Why did we-" Rades shouted, but a sudden gust of snow got him in the face. He wiped the snow away with his free hand. "Never mind!"
"You'll have to tell me later. I can't hear you!"
The sun caused the snow to glare so brightly it was almost impossible to see. Roreed shielded his eyes with his free hand and turned in his saddle to face Carlo. Or who he thought was Carlo. "Are we lost yet?"
"I wouldn't doubt it. We can't tell which way's north because of the glare. It would be better if we stopped and made camp. We can wait until twilight when there's less glare."
"You four look lost!" boomed a loud voice. The companions looked around in all directions but couldn't spot who had spoken. Then an orange, blue and purple figure appeared on the snowy horizon. It was hard to see him because of the glare and because he was a quarter mile away. The companions watched as the strangely dressed figure came closer.
"I'm General Chek of the Royal Stornium Army. Who might you four be?" shouted the figure in a voice that echoed across the field.
"I'm Sir Carlo, formerly of the Royal Stornium Navy and this is Sir Roreed and Sir Eluth, formerly of the Black Stornium Army and Dame Brenda. Why are you without your army? Are you as lost as we are?"
"Nein. I've been sent to find you by Lord Redhawk and my army is being led by General Sardias," boomed Chek. "Redhawk sent me to teach the four of you swordsmanship, horsemanship and a fair bit of discipline." He paused and smiled sardonically. "Now get off them horses and march. The poor girls are going to break a leg in this heavy snow!"
Rades slipped on the ice and cursed. "Dumbkopf!" he swore in old Stornium. Climbing to his feet, he looked at the citadel standing in the distance. It was one of the few fortresses left standing from Kobalix's Quest. "What castle is that?" he shouted, pointing at the citadel.
"Castle Delias. I just hope Lady Bardelias isn't home. She-"
"She'll never let us take shelter there," finished Rades. He had won many arguments against the Lady and thoroughly embarrassed her. This was because she couldn't find anything in Rades to exploit. She exploited Wynic and Pothax's bastardry, Victoria's poor writing, Redhawk's drinking, Dillard's scar and past failures, which were many and great. Fortunately, Wynic was tolerant, Victoria was learning from Princess Darylinn, Redhawk was no longer in Arthian and Dillard had learned to ignore people.
Pothax was another matter. He lost his temper every time he was near the Lady. Rades usually came to the rescue by delivering a quick insult. Pothax would laugh and his temper would subside and dissolve.
Rades was thinking about this so much that he barely noticed passing through the citadel's gate. It wasn't until they reached the citadel's only inn that he looked up and saw where they were. He sighed wearily and led his horse to the stables.
Lady Bardelias was widely known for her gossiping as well as her dalliances with young men. Castle Delias was worse. No sooner had Rades wrote his name in the check-in book than a young man was heading off in search of lady Bardelias with fresh gossip.
"You wouldn't lie would you?" demanded Bardelias. She was a tall, pale woman with a voluptuous figure and a vindictive smile. Rades had always thought her to be vile and corrupt. He was probably right.
The young man shook his head. "I wouldn't dare. I'm the stable caretaker at the inn and I saw his uniform. I recognized it as Stornium because of the yellow and purple. Arthian soldiers wear blue and orange."
Was he traveling with a knight with a horse-shoe shaped scar or any-"
"Yes! Sir Dillard, I believe that was his name."
"Tale me to this inn."
"I told you before," snapped Dillard. "We don't need a god damned whore! We need blankets and a large fire and some sleep. We're too tired for that!"
The prostitute was a bit disappointed. "This room doesn't have a fireplace, none of them do. Only the tap room, the stables and the smithy out back has-"
"Then we'll sleep in the smithy instead of this brothel!" spat Rades. "At least then we'll be warm! This place is a dump!"
Dillard snorted. "The stables were cleaner!" He went down the hall to the tap room.
"Come on. I'll pay more than what they're paying," insisted a fat merchant. The innkeeper shook his head. "It's bad for business," he replied.
Dillard tapped the merchant on the shoulder. "Three silver and you can have our room." He winked at Rades and the Stornium bit his tongue to keep from laughing.
"I'm looking for the knight and soldier that checked in here," explained Bardelias. The young man peered over her shoulder at the cook who had the check-in book. "What room?"
The cook glanced at the book. "Room eight," he replied.
Bardelias nodded and walked across the room and down the hallway. She eased the door open and peeked inside. Muffled sounds and groans came from the direction of the bed. She quickly closed the door and stood there shocked.
She'd never thought about that. Could Dillard and Rades really be men-lovers? Called heretics and blasphemers by the clergy. What great gossip this would make!
"General Chek," said Brenda. "We've been kind of left in the dark about this elite training business. Could you tell us more about it?"
Chek nodded. "You four will be taught by the best of the best, Wynic Doxon, Lord Jacog, General Gisoni, myself, General Sardias, Victoria Doxon. She's quite an archer, you know-"
"We know that," spat Carlo. "We were at the Picnic, remember?" His horsemanship had improved slightly though he still fell off often when trying to dismount.
Chek ignored him and continued. "-Dame Brenda will teach you when nobody else is around, Dame Larel, she's perhaps the greatest crossbowist to ever live, Lord Ponde... Ah, I can't remember anymore, but I got most of the important ones like Wynic, Jacog, and Sardias. My part in this is to impose discipline."
"Your voice has a very unusual talent for loudness," commented Roreed. "Have you ever tested it? To see how far away we can still hear you that is?"
"No." The sound didn't come from Chek's lips. Infact, they didn't move at all! "But I do know the reason behind it."
Eluth stared. "You can throw your voice!" Chek nodded. "And ventriloquism. Unlike others who practice in order to learn it, I was born doing it. It wasn't until I heard voice throwing that I realized I could do it. Since then, I've developed my gift into what it is now. It really intimidates people!"
"Do you think you could teach us?" asked Eluth.
Time goes sluggishly on the plains so it came as quite a surprise when Rades and Dillard finally arrived in the Kinian mountains. They had left Athex only ten days ago. It felt like a decade to a now bearded and tired Rades. The change from plains to mountains was swift and sudden. It felt strange to finally have obstacles and scenery rather than blowing snow in all directions. Now trees were plentiful, whereas the plains had only dotted forests, large in numbers but small in size, especially the farther you got away from Lake Vormia.
Wildlife also increased dramatically. The buffalo and aurochs had went to the southern plains leaving almost no wildlife on the northern plains. Now Rades saw flocks of winter birds, chickadees, sparrows, an occasional falcon or two. There were hare tracks all over the place, one would have thought there was an army of them lurking in the half covered bushes. Rades even saw a stag at one point though it quickly sprinted away when Dillard's horse snorted and pawed the ground.
The sheer mountains, vast glaciers and forests created a cold, harsh place Rades couldn't have dreamt of. It felt better to be out of the blowing snow of the plains though. He reined in his horse suddenly and looked down. A great and sudden chasm lay bare feet away from him. The huge rift was so deep Rades couldn't see the bottom. It was about fifteen feet across to the other side. He was surprised he hadn't noticed it sooner.
Dillard reined in beside him and looked at the other side wistfully. He glanced in both directions for the ends of the rift. "I can't tell where the ends are so which way should we go around?"
"Why would there be a rift here anyway?"
Dillard shrugged. "Glaciers," he muttered.
"This rift could go for miles in both directions. There has to be a quicker way to cross!" Rades looked around helplessly, hoping for anything that would improve their situation.
"Well, let's not waste our time looking. We'll find a place where the rift isn't as wide or we can go around," Dillard concluded. He sawed at his reins and turned west.
Rades followed reluctantly.
"Death canyon," spat Nebonex. "We're lucky it doesn't run east and west or else we'd never get across it. Unless someone decides to build a four hundred yard bridge." The companions moved on, keeping their distance from the edge of the cliff. It seemed to beckon them. To taunt them into risking a peek over it's steep edge.
"Why don't you spit over the edge?" Victoria asked Larry hopefully. The cutthroat was extremely pale and quiet. He refused to say anything and rode ahead to relieve Pothax from scout duty. The archeress smiled.
Someone had built a bridge from a huge hollowwood tree. It had been cut down both sides. The excess half had been cut up into braces to hold the ends in place on both sides of the rift. Rades urged his gelding across the crescent moon shaped bridge. He refused to look down until he reached the north side of the rift. "Come on, Dillard!" he shouted urgently, waving his arm. The knight nodded and started to cross.
There was a sharp twang and Rades' gelding jolted forward at breakneck speed. The lieutenant hung on for dear life as they raced across the icy ground. He glanced back at Dillard, but he couldn't see the knight because of trees in the way.
He sawed at the reins and managed to get the horse to slow down a bit but only for a moment. Taking a firm hold on the saddle horn, he pulled himself back into the saddle properly. His boot snagged on something in the horse's flank. He reached down and jerked it loose.
A dart. Rades stared at the dart for a short second before fully comprehending it's meaning. A poisoned dart... Rades jerked on the reins and tried to turn back towards the bridge, but the horse kept going in the same direction. He couldn't jump off, they were going too damn fast.
Dillard heard a sharp twang and immediately ducked. He heard Rades' gelding whinny and its hooves clattering against ice as it fled. he could only assume that the lieutenant was all right.
He dropped to the bridge and drew his longsword. A second louder twang sounded and he dropped to his stomach and rolled as a crossbow bolt went whizzing by and thudded into the bridge wall two feet from the knight.
A spear came flying towards Dillard, but he deflected it deftly with his sword. He studied the spear with some surprise. It was decorated with feathers and painted with ruins and he presumed it to be Ice Folk ruins. He wondered if the Ice Folk actually had patrols this far south.
If they were this far south there was no point in trying to fight them off. He stood up in plain view and held his sword by the blade in the symbol of surrender.
The huntress cursed. Now that she could see the man she knew he wasn't the knight she was looking for. No sense wasting a good crossbow bolt on the wrong knight. As for the spear? There was plenty more where that came from. She mounted her horse, slung the blowdart pipe in her saddlebag along with the spear-thrower. Sparing the horse no mercy, she spurred it towards the west.
She was looking for a Kinian knight, not an Arthian. He was a Lord and she should have known that he'd have a larger retinue. She was looking for Lord Redhawk.
"He to touch it, He to wield it, Shall rule the World. It will not break, Rust or dull, Tarnish or bend, Burn or melt. It is made of Godsteel, And of Godoak. Long it is lost, Long it will stay, That way. Until he who speaks The Shadows, Claims it It is the Spear of Destiny, And only he who speaks The Shadows, May lift it from It's icy embrace."
"It's icy embrace," repeated Lord Blackaxe with a glance at Lord Redhawk and Redhawk's squire Derick. "Is that not a clue that the Spear of destiny is hidden in the Ice Lands? A place of snow and ice all year round?"
"I wouldn't know," replied Derick. "I've never been taught lore. I thought the Swathick Axe was a myth, but then Wynic Doxon found it and gave it to you. Tell me, why do you seek the Spear of Destiny?"
"If you think it is because I want to rule the World, you're dead wrong. Ruling the world sounds like a pretty strenuous occupation. I want the spear for my collection. It-"
"I thought the Swathick Axe would have made your collection complete. What's the point to finding it then? Besides, have you any idea how big the Ice Lands are?" demanded Redhawk.
"The point is that it will be preserved and kept safe. No collection is ever complete until you have everything. Since mine is a weapons collection, I'd need every sword, every dagger, every... Well, you get the point! I don't believe the finder will rule the world, but I wouldn't want that to happen since the character destined to find it is a shady one," replied Blackaxe. He refused to answer the latter question since he knew the chances of finding the spear were the chances of finding a needle in a hay stack. Damn near impossible. He didn't like to think that since he didn't 'Speak The Shadows' that it was impossible for him to find it.
"And what of 'he who speaks the shadows'?" asked Waytorn, who had been eavesdropping. "Sounds a fair bit like me, only I almost rule the world already. I agree with Blackaxe though; it sounds like too much work!"
"Does it matter?" asked Redhawk. "The Spear may not even exist! It-"
"Lord Redhawk?" interrupted a lieutenant. "There's a minotaur from Athex to see you. His name is Gisoni. Shall I bring him to see you?"
"Immediately," replied Redhawk. "Treat his Lordship like you would a King," he said to the lieutenant and turned in his saddle to face Lord Blackaxe. "I haven't seen Gisoni since the wedding. It seems like years though it was only three months ago."
Rades shivered. He glanced at the cave entrance hopefully for Dillard. Not a sound other than blowing wind and snow. He had tried to backtrack to find the knight after his gelding had finally succumbed to the poison, but the wind had covered the tracks and he had been totally disoriented anyway. Now he was totally lost. He was almost warm, plus he was sheltered and well fed, but he had never been to Kinian before so he had absolutely no idea where he was.
He prayed that Dillard was safe. The knight was one of Rades few friends. Those that were still alive, the rest killed in the siege of Deltex during Kobalix's Quest.
The Lord of Hartfell Keep was very busy, but he managed to help Sir Dillard. He had been very courteous and a bit shocked that there might be Ice Folk this far south. He immediately placed Dillard in charge of a search party of thirty soldiers equipped with cat-sleds.
The cat-sleds were an adaptation of the Ice Folks' dog-sleds only instead of huskies they trained cougars. The huge tawny panthers were more adapted to the Kinian landscape plus they were admirable fighters. Travel in the mountains on horseback was restricted to roads, passes and places of minimal snow, but with a cat-sled one could go anywhere they pleased. the sport of capturing and training these great beasts was considered a national pastime (next to drinking Kinian Brandy).
"You seem glum," remarked the lieutenant. She smiled and tossed her brown hair over one shoulder. "What's your friend like that you're so concerned?"
Dillard looked up at her from his seat on the sled. "He's-he's someone you'd be proud to call friend. He and I have much in common. We-we both lost everyone we ever knew. Mine were killed by the demented Lord Hitlot, his were killed in the siege of Deltex-"
"-which lasted only half of a hour," said the lieutenant. She bowed her head slightly. Looking up, she forced a smile. "Let's get going."
Redhawk laughed and clapped Gisoni on the back. "I've got to meet this Larry fellow! He sounds like he'd talk about the most insignificant thing when faced with the devil himself!"
"I don't think you'd want to. From what Victoria said, Larry tends to cause more trouble than he's worth and he never seems to shut up. Wynic tries to ignore the cutthroat but he keeps following him around like some lost puppy it seems. As for Pothax," Gisoni smiled and shook his head. "Pothax hasn't met him, but I'll wager he'd enjoy every second he'd talk to Larry though it's mostly bragging about which of them can kill faster or something boastful like that!"
"Perhaps, but I'd still like to meet him."
Castle Redhawk was on an island in the middle of a river about ten leagues south of Jaton. It was a huge structure, and was designed to intimidate; it worked too. The Kinian flag flew from it's towers: four crossed blades, three green mountains on an azure coloured sky.
"Nice place," remarked Larry. He rapped impatiently on the gate. He leaned against it and waited. The gate opened a foot and Larry slipped on the ice and fell. Victoria laughed and applauded. He glared at her and stood up to face the guard who had opened the gate.
The guard eyed them suspiciously. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"Wynic Doxon," replied Wynic. "My companions are my brother Pothax, my wife Victoria, Prince Nebonex, Gith of Athex, Larry of Athex and Bren Doxon of Athex. Call Captain Siars if you wish to confirm my identity."
"Not necessary, I remember your hair from your last visit, though it was longer then. I'll call Captain Siars to escort you to your chambers."
Wynic nodded. He remembered the tall, sturdy captain. He had been Redhawk's favorite drinking buddy and a good friend. What he remembered and what was were two different things. Siars had lost his sword arm recently. He appeared to be still recovering from the injury. It was hard for Wynic not to weep at the sight of Siars. The captain had taught him swordsmanship and was very skilled. And still was since Wynic remembered that the captain could fight just as well, if not better with his left hand.
The cap'n smiled and scratched a scar that ran along his cheek. "Welcome Wynic. You've been away too long and your things are still in your chamber."
Wynic clutched his forehead angrily. "I'd nearly forgotten1 Redhawk and I left in quite a hurry that night. I suppose everything's exactly where I left them?" he demanded.
Siars nodded. "To the best of my knowledge nobody's went in that room for over half a year. I-"
"You better give us a different room. I had a scuffle with a rival assassin and left him in the sitting room. I really don't want a half decomposed corpse in the room."
Siars turned pale. He noted Wynic's companions and cleared his throat. "Perhaps a multiple suite would be better. At least then nobody will get lost like you did."
Empress Gweneleque crushed her son's letter in her large fist. She snarled and looked out the window, trying to find some solace in the azure waters of the Ocean. She found none.
The nanny holding the Empress' other son, Robarthars, looked at Gwen in concern. "Is his highness well? Has something happened in Athex?"
"Nebonex says that the Ice Folk and Kinian are on the brink of war. We've received rumours from Gitsi and Lucasn about trade caravans being attacked by Ice Tribes. I didn't believe them since we've been allied with the Ice Folk for at least a millennia." She shook her head. "Over a million people died during Kobalix's Quest. I sure hope the same thing doesn't happen this time."
Rades saw a shadow, but no source that the shadow could have come from. Yet, when he looked closer he saw two dark eyes glittering in the firelight. He gripped his sword, the cold steel reassuring him.
Ever so softly the cougar stepped forward and the lieutenant saw that it was not covered with snow, but was indeed albino. Snowy white fur dripping melting snowflakes onto the stone floor of the cave. The cougar sat down on it's haunches on the opposite side of the fire and rested it's head on it's forelegs.
At first Rades was more than puzzled, having expected the beast to attack, but the cougar made no hostile move. The lieutenant wagered the cougar had somehow become separated from its master or something like that. Whatever the case Rades relaxed, forgot about the beast and fell asleep.
When he woke the next morning the cougar was gone without a footprint. Rades simply shrugged and assumed it all had been a strange dream. Cold must be getting to him.