Authors: Brian D. Anderson
Books By Brian D. Anderson
The Sword of Truth
Of Gods and Elves
The Shadow of Gods
A Trial of Souls
Madness of the Fallen
The Reborn King
You can follow Brian D. Anderson @
For my brother Hunter and his wife Sarah.
Table of Contents
enald stared at
the ripple on the water at the end of his line and spat a curse. “I know. I know,” he muttered. “I’m wasting my time. You don’t have to tell me.”
He glared up at the grey, overcast sky, a deep frown on his face. The fish never bit on dull days like this. The lake was calm enough, and if the sun had been shining he was sure he would have caught a basket load by now.
“I don’t care if I have salted pork in the shed,” he continued. “I’m sick of bloody salted pork.”
The rumble of a distant thunderhead warned him that the time for fishing was nearly over. If he didn’t get home soon, he’d not only be eating salted pork and onions again, he’d be eating them while soaked to the skin.
Lifting the hook from the water, he stretched out a hand. “
The hunk of meat he was using as bait quivered and glowed yellow for a moment. Renald smiled briefly before dipping it back into the water.
“Shut up!” he barked. “I know what I’m doing.” His arm waved through the air, striking out at some unseen nuisance. “It’s not like
helping me, you lazy little rat.”
Only a few seconds later, the end of his pole began to dance. Renald stood up as fast as his old legs would allow. “You see?” he shouted excitedly. “I told you so.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when the line went tight and the pole bent low. He jerked back with all of his strength. “I’ve got you now!”
As if in response to his claim, the fish pulled with renewed energy, dragging Renald closer and closer to the steep embankment.
“Oh no you don’t,” he growled, gritting his teeth. But the fish was too strong. Before he knew it, he had stumbled over the edge and was knee deep in the water. Once there, for a moment he managed to hold his ground, but then another massive tug from his prey yanked him sharply forward again and the pole was ripped completely away from his grasp. A split second later his feet slipped and he plunged head first into the bitterly cold lake.
For a second or two he simply lay there, floating face down. Then, feeling utterly defeated, he regained his feet and clawed his way back to shore. As he did so, a biting easterly wind sent chills shimmering through his body. He gazed down forlornly at his long, wiry grey beard and drenched clothes.
“Not a word,” he grumbled. “Do you hear me? Not a damn word.”
After squeezing as much of the water out of his beard as he could with his rapidly numbing fingers, he started for home. Today, the two-mile walk up the rocky hillside was made to feel far longer than usual by the persistent wind whipping about him. Soaking wet shoes did not help very much either.
Another rumble from the coming storm had him glancing over his shoulder. “Stop your laughing, you little rat,” he snarled.
After finally cresting the hill, he could see that the storm was now only minutes behind him. Not that it mattered. He was already soaked. Each step that he took was accompanied by an unpleasant squishing sound, and he could already feel his toes pruning. He longed to take off his shoes, but knew that the sharp rocky ground would tear his bare feet to shreds in no time at all.
The first raindrop struck the top of his head when he was less than a quarter the way down the other side. He could see a thin line of smoke rising from his chimney – though the house itself was still hidden behind another, smaller hill.
“Well at least you lit a fire,” he said. “But you won’t be getting any of my dinner. You can bloody well find your own.”
He quickened his pace as much as he dared. The rocks and gravel would make a fall very painful indeed. The scar tissue on his knees and elbows were a lingering testament to that.
By the time he reached the top of the small hill, the rain was coming down in earnest, and the frequent, uncomfortably close lightning strikes were unravelling his nerves.
His little stone cottage was now in view. It wasn’t much. Though well-constructed, it was small…too small in his opinion. He had thought many times about expanding it, but his now old and frail body would never be able to stand up to the back-breaking work required.
As much as he longed to be inside, the void in his belly forced him around to the smoke house at the rear of the cottage. The aroma of meat sent a pang of hunger shooting through his belly. As quickly as he could manage, he retrieved a portion from a hook on the back wall and made his way over to the house porch.
A chair placed immediately outside the front door was inviting after his long and difficult walk. He plopped down into this and stripped off his shirt and shoes.
“I’m coming!” he shouted at the still closed door. “You want me to track water into the house?”
The muscles in his legs were aching, his feet shriveled and sore. He leaned back and took a long, deep breath. But it was a brief respite. He could not hang around outside in the cold for very much longer, especially in his present half-naked state. After a few seconds he heaved himself up and removed his trousers as well. Leaving all his wringing wet clothes draped over the porch railing, Renald stepped inside.
The warmth of the fire burning cheerfully in the hearth drew a long sigh of relief. He stood still for a moment, simply allowing the heat to wash over him.
The single room interior, if not spacious, was reasonably comfortable. His bed was pushed into the right rear corner, along with a small nightstand. Beside this was a wardrobe and two trunks in which he kept his clothing, plus a few other odds and ends. Also at the rear, on the left, was a small stove and some cupboards, though usually he would cook his meager meals in the fireplace. The circular dinner table was set dead center of the room with six chairs surrounding it – not that he had ever yet needed any more than one of these.
His collection of books had been shoved carelessly onto shelves situated between the two front windows. Aside from fishing, these were the only source of distraction he possessed. Sadly, he had read them all many times and could practically recite them verbatim.
His favorite spot was by the fire, where he would spend time in quiet contemplation while relaxing on his comfortable sofa. It was the one item of luxury he had brought with him. It had been in his family for generations and was so expertly crafted that it had never once needed repair.
“Where are you?” he demanded suddenly. But there was no reply.
With a shrug, he tossed the pork onto the table and found himself a fresh set of clothing. Once dried and dressed, he searched the cupboards beside the stove for the rest of his meal.
The water in the pot hanging over the fire was already beginning to steam. He scanned the room once again and frowned.
“Come out, damn you!” he called. “Or I really will eat it all myself.”
In response to this, Renald heard a thump come from just outside the door. On opening it, he saw a very nice size lake trout lying on the porch just beyond the threshold. He shook his head and chuckled.
“All right. All Right. You little rat. You’re forgiven…this time.”
Picking up the fish, he took it inside and cleaned it, making sure to put the entrails and head in a bowl. Soon, the aroma of fish stew filled the house. He looked at the now forgotten piece of pork. Briefly, he considered taking it back out to the smoke house, but the ominous rumble of thunder instantly changed his mind. Instead, he cut off a large hunk and added it to the fish parts.
Once his meal was prepared, he sat at the table. “Are you coming?” he called out gruffly, placing the bowl of fish offal and pork on the floor beside him.
A few seconds later the sound of talons scraping on wood came from somewhere close to the fireplace. This was quickly followed by the appearance of a tiny white dragon. It skidded to a halt in front of the bowl and let out a high-pitched screech.
“It’s about time,” Renald groused.
The dragon looked down at the bowl, then back up.
“One fish,” Renald told it. “You brought just one fish. Be thankful I gave you some pork.”
The dragon sniffed loudly, then began devouring its meal. Renald also began eating, but despite his earlier hunger, soon found that he lacked the appetite to finish. The dragon was still slurping down bits of fish when Renald tossed the remainder of his own food onto the floor.
“Be sure you eat it all,” he warned. “Or else we’ll have ants.”
The dragon needed no second invitation and quickly gobbled up the offering. Renald, meanwhile, cleared the table and took a seat on the sofa by the fire. A book lay on the cushion beside him, but he was in no state of mind for reading. A few moments later the dragon hopped onto his lap and curled up, a soft moan gurgling forth as it breathed. Renald stroked its head and smiled.
“You’re sure in an affectionate mood,” he remarked.
The dragon looked at him with sadness in its reptilian eyes that only Renald could understand.
“I miss him too,” he said. “But he died to save us all.”
The dragon buried its head in his lap and whined.
The old man sighed. “Let’s just hope it was worth it.”
than stepped quickly
to his left. Though the wooden sword in his hand was considerably lighter, it felt no less awkward to wield than his real one. He was doing his best to keep his attention focused on his opponent, but his thoughts were scattered and overflowing with instructions – keep your feet apart, shoulders straight, knees bent, grip firm, watch your enemy’s feet, watch his eyes, watch his hands. How the hell was he meant to do all these things at the same time?
Markus grinned viciously, his own, longer wooden blade held high. “Are you just going to dance around? Move already. Or do you plan to kill the enemy by boring him to death?”
Ethan sniffed. “That only works once.” He knew Markus was trying to goad him into attacking, but the soreness in his ribcage was a painful reminder that keeping a cool head was equally as important as skill. He took a step back while looking for an opening.
Markus frowned and shook his head. “Stupid,” he murmured.
His sword shot forward, the tip striking against Ethan’s forearm. In a flash, Markus followed this up by planting his knee firmly into his midsection. Ethan doubled over, his sword dropping to the floor. Before he could even start to recover from this, Markus had gripped him by the collar and threw him roughly to the ground.
The sound of girlish laughter mingled with Ethan’s groans and gasps as he tried to regain some of the wind that had just been driven out of him.
“You won’t last long like that,” Kat teased. She was sitting on a bench a few yards away at the edge of the practice yard.
Ethan glared up at her, his face purple and clutching his stomach. Sitting beside Kat, a look of displeasure written plainly on his face, was Jonas.
“A mage has no business fooling about with swords,” he said. “If your father was here he’d…”
“But his father isn’t here,” snapped Markus. “And he’s not a mage yet, is he?” He pulled Ethan to his feet. “Are you all right?”
Ethan forced a smile. “I’m fine. You just knocked the breath out of me.”
Markus had been instructing him for several weeks now, but only recently had they begun sparring. Jonas had been fierce in his opposition to all of this. He felt his time would be better spent studying his books and refining the few spells he had managed to learn.
“Are you ready to quit?” asked Markus.
Ethan shook his head defiantly. “Soldiers don’t quit.”
“Neither do fools,” jabbed Jonas.
Markus slapped his friend fondly on the shoulder. “One more time then.”
Ethan took a deep breath and moved into position.
“This time, try not to over-think things,” Markus advised.
Ethan closed his eyes, imagining his next move.
“This is no time for prayer,” laughed Kat.
Ethan’s eyes popped open. He lunged hard left, bringing his sword up in a tight arc. Markus stepped easily away, increasing the distance that separated them. But this time Ethan did not hesitate. He immediately pressed in with a short stab, forcing Markus to parry and twist.
Encouraged by this success, Ethan brought his hilt up, aiming it for Markus’ jaw. But Markus spun deftly away. The next instant his wooden blade crashed into Ethan’s left arm, just above the elbow. Ethan sucked his teeth and backed away.
“Better,” said Markus.
The sword fell from Ethan’s hand as he rubbed his arm. “That’ll leave a bruise for sure,” he said ruefully.
“You’re getting off easy,” Markus responded. “I broke both my arms, my foot, and my nose twice when I was learning.”
“This is absurd,” hissed Jonas. “Every minute he spends here is a waste of time. He won’t be fighting Shinzan with steel.”
Markus cast Jonas a hard look. “Why do you even come? All you ever do is complain.”
Jonas snorted. “I keep hoping that he’ll eventually listen to me and stop this foolishness.”
“But Markus is right,” Ethan told him. “I need to know how to protect myself. Who knows how long it will be before I can use magic in a real fight.”
Jonas glared at Ethan, then back to Markus. “Bah! Stubborn as your father.” He threw up his hands and set off briskly toward the courtyard entrance, grumbling to himself all the way.
“I think you did fine,” said Kat, smirking.
Ethan chuckled. “You just like watching Markus beat the shit out of me.”
She cocked her head and batted her eyes. “That’s not true.” The corners of her mouth slowly turned up until the laughter she was holding in burst forth. “Okay. Maybe it’s a
The rapid stomping of boots outside the courtyard caught their attention. Ethan could see his guards had stopped a young dwarf boy. After a few short words, they allowed him to pass. He was clutching a folded parchment in his right hand and his face was flushed and his breathing heavy.
“What is it?” asked Markus.
The boy handed the parchment to Ethan. After reading it carefully, he dismissed the messenger.
“It’s from King Ganix,” he told the other two. “A courier has arrived with a message from Shinzan. King Halvar and the council are already gathering. He wants me to join them as soon as possible.”
The mood suddenly became serious. For some time they had been waiting for a sign from Shinzan regarding his intentions, but the emperor had done nothing thus far. Even the smugglers, who by now Halvar had expected to stop coming, were still making all their scheduled deliveries. Aside from rumors of soldiers massing in the far north, everything was continuing as it had before.
Kat sighed and stretched. “Well, I’m going to Lady Thora’s house. I promised Asta and Maile I’d visit today.”
By the time they reached the edge of the courtyard, ten dwarf guards were already there to escort them back to the manor. Kat ran on ahead after a few blocks and vanished from sight.
The city was now quite a bit calmer than when Ethan had first returned. Most of the siege preparations were now complete, so there was little more for the population to do aside from carrying on with their usual daily tasks. Even so, morale remained high, and many greetings were called out as he and Markus passed by.
The beauty of the city never failed to touch Ethan’s soul. The sheen of the buildings reflected the light of the street lamps perfectly, blending to multi-colored stone in a harmony of warm radiance. This was made even more pronounced by the thousands of magnificent frescos and breath-taking statues, all painstakingly situated to coordinate with their surroundings. On their many walks together, Ganix had pointed out where dwarves from various eras had left their distinct mark, each successive generation adding to the next, yet never overshadowing their predecessors. So vast was his knowledge that the old king could chronicle the history of his people simply by gazing at the construction of this fair city.
When they drew close to the king’s manor, Ethan could see several council members hurrying inside. He also noted that the guard at the gate and door had been doubled. There was no doubt that the air was thick with tension.
Once inside, they spotted Jonas waiting near the door to the council chambers. His face was like stone, but his eyes betrayed his anxiety.
“I see that you’ve heard,” said Markus. “Do you know what the message says?”
Jonas shook his head. “Only King Halvar and King Ganix have read it so far…and they certainly don’t look as if they liked what it said.”
Ethan let out a short laugh and gave him a toothy grin. “
Dear dwarves. Surrender or die
. I imagine it’s something like that.”
“This is no laughing matter,” Jonas scolded. “I doubt a simple threat like that would rattle two dwarf kings. They look genuinely worried.”
The tone of Jonas’ voice wiped the smile from Ethan’s face. The thought of either Halvar or Ganix showing fear was indeed disturbing. Without another word, he entered the chamber.
With the exception of his own chair at the near end, every other seat around the stone table was already occupied. While Ethan sat down, Jonas and Markus took up position standing against the wall by the door. Halvar and Ganix were at the far end of the table, talking in hushed whispers. Ethan could see at once that Jonas had been correct. Both kings looked tense and troubled. On looking up and spotting Ethan’s arrival, Halvar nodded for the guard to shut the door.
After waiting a moment, he stood up – an open parchment in his hand. “Thank you for coming. As you are aware we received a message from Shinzan. I know you are all curious as to its content, so I won’t delay.” He cleared his throat and began to read.
By now I am sure you will have wondered what my reaction to your blatant defiance of my rule will be. Many of you will undoubtedly fear my anger and dread the retribution I am capable of unleashing upon you for your recent acts of rebellion.
So let me set your minds at ease and say immediately that you need not fear me. I have no desire to invade your cities or harm your people. You have simply made an error of judgement, and for this you can be forgiven. I truly value the friendship of the dwarves, and would not see hundreds of years of peace destroyed by a momentary lapse in
Among you is a human known as Ethan Dragonvein. You think to use him to undermine my power. You believe him to be the figure of hope spoken of in foolish elf prophecies. More than that, you actually believe he has the strength to challenge me. In all these things, you have been dangerously misled.
The truth is that I care nothing for this fledgling mage. He is no threat, and what limited power he may possess will not avail you in any way. My only concern is that you have endangered your people by challenging my authority. And even though I am not eager to act against you, such a challenge cannot be
But it is not too late for you to make amends. Along with this letter I have sent a
crystal. Give this to young Dragonvein and convince him to accept the offer held within. Do so, and I give you my word that I will not harm your people in any way.
As proof of my sincerity, up until now I have allowed your trade with the smugglers to continue. And once I have your favourable reply, you may continue to trade openly without fear or hindrance. I very much hope you will see the wisdom in my words and halt your journey down this dangerous path. As much as it pains me, should you persist, the horrors of the past most certainly will be
The room remained silent as Halvar sat down again. Ganix placed a small wooden box on the table in front of him.
“It’s a trick,” said one of the elders. “It has to be.”
Halvar rubbed his chin. “Of that, I am sure. But a trick meant to accomplish what? His armies have not come. And it is true that trade with the smugglers has continued unabated.”
“What do you think, King Ganix?” asked the elder.
Ganix leaned back in his chair, his eyes fixed on the box. “I think that I would prefer an all-out battle rather than subterfuge and misdirection. This letter was meant to confuse us. I cannot reconcile in my mind that Shinzan wishes peace with the dwarves. That he has not arrived here already has concerned me for weeks. And when word does eventually come, it comes with a
“What is a
crystal?” asked Ethan.
“A rare magical item,” Ganix replied. “So rare in fact, that I have only ever seen
. And that was in a broken condition.”
“What does it do?”
Ganix fingered the box. “It delivers messages…of a sort. But messages of a very personal nature. I’m not sure exactly how it works. My people lost the skill to make them long ago…even before Shinzan took power.”
“You should leave it alone,” warned Jonas. “It could be a trap.”
Nods and murmurs of agreement echoed from the walls. Ganix and Halvar looked at one another, then to Ethan.
“I agree with Jonas,” said Halvar. “It’s too great a risk. Though King Ganix thinks otherwise.”
Ganix took a long, cleansing breath. “Never have I heard of a
crystal being used as a weapon. But it has been rumored that if one is used when damaged, it could trap the user’s mind.”
“For all you know, it might not even be a
” Jonas countered. “Who knows what foul device Shinzan would send?”
“How does it work?” asked Ethan.
“It responds to touch,” Ganix told him. “You simply hold it, and the message of the sender is then projected into your mind. It will only respond to the intended recipient, and only
can see and hear what is said.”
“You mean I’ll actually see Shinzan?”
Ganix nodded. “Possibly. If he wishes it. They were designed to send secrets and private messages during the war with the elves. If intercepted, there was no danger of valuable information falling into enemy hands.” He picked up the box and passed it down the table to Ethan. Once there, Ganix folded his hands beneath his chin. “It is up to you,” he said.
Jonas squeezed in beside Ethan and leaned forward. “If you would permit me?”
After a brief pause, Ethan slid the box in front of him. Jonas lifted the lid carefully. Inside was a simple oblong shaped, polished blue crystal – wholly unremarkable from its outward appearance. He touched it with the tip of his finger. Nothing. He gingerly picked it up and held it in his palm.
“Well?” asked Halvar.
Jonas pushed it around with his other hand. “It is apparently as King Ganix said. This is meant only for Ethan.” He placed it back in the box. “But again I say that you should leave it alone.”
Ethan stared at the crystal for a long moment. “Everyone should leave the room,” he said finally. “If it
a trap, I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”
Ethan felt a strong hand grip his shoulder. “I’ll stay,” said Markus.
“As will I,” added King Ganix. Halvar opened his mouth to object, but a stern look told him that there would be no argument.