Alymndes 18: Invasions

A lone man and his large dog were walking along the dust road leading through expanses of high grass undulating under the sea breeze blowing across the flat tops of tall cliffs bordering the east coast between the minor harbors of Anse and Valmoray.
The long strides and straight stature of the traveler betrayed a great inner strength of body and mind.
His companion was an imposing wolf, in fact.
They had been surveying the vast ocean for the past weeks as well as this particular part of the shore.
“Wise One, do you feel some alien presence in this land?”
The animal replied in mindspeech as she kept ambling beside the tall man.
“Yes, but it is still very diffuse. I would say that something or somebody unpleasant stays hidden somewhere still a long way ahead of us!”
“I thought so. We will have to keep walking for still quite a while before we can ferret them out. That will leave us plenty of time to talk!”
“Aren’t we doing this all the time, Ancient One?”
“It helps me think.”
“Why do humans talk and think at the same time? I would have thought that speech is the result of reflection. How can you ponder on anything with all that noise?
“It’s certainly better than howling at an inopportune time of the night and waking up everybody into frenzy!”
“I never howl! I have better things to do than announce my arrival to the whole world!”
“All wolves howl unless they become domesticated by humans. Are you telling me you are getting soft?”
“Would you like a solid bite in your heels to prove you wrong?”
“Aren’t we testy today? I doubt you would hurt me. My hide is far tougher than you might imagine!”
The Wolf snorted in disgust.
The old man suddenly stopped, signing with his hand down for the Wolf to do the same.
They immediately forgot their banter, all senses alert.
“Wise One, we cannot see it from here. These cliffs will lower and peter out to become a large mangrove. Can you smell the fresh water and the sea meeting there? The trees are growing until the beach. The mangrove is so large it is like a forest. There are living things inside.”
“You are right. What can they be? I can’t smell them from here. We shall have to investigate it.”
“Yes, but we’d better wait for the night and feed first. Let’s find some kind of shelter to hide and restore ourselves. From now on, we move only after dark and sleep in daytime!”
“We ought to leave this dirt road and progress inside the land. This way we shall reach that place from behind unnoticed.”
“Just my thought! Better find some fresh water, too. I’m parched!”
Far in the west, dawn was rising above the calm sea.
A dozen dark shapes could be seen approaching over the water.
Dargelblad and Umatar lay hidden behind spruces growing atop a large dune. The beach spread from the infinite on their right to suddenly stop a few miles away on their left where it met with a rocky promontory at the extremity of the Fire Mountains. There were no volcanoes in the proximity, but the rock rose so quickly as to form an impassable barrier, the result of innumerable layers of lava and earthquakes. Nothing much seemed to grow on this natural border, probably due to the high amount of sulfur, which could be discerned in the wide yellow streaks scouring the stone. The first trees of the Forest of the Elves grew fifty miles behind an arid steppe found along an interminable line of beaches and dunes. The area was uninhabited there for lack of natural grass or trees and the harsh climate. You would have to travel more than two hundred miles north before you could find the first river of note. Had it not been for the premonition of the Dragons, nobody would have witnessed or prevented the coming incursion.
“How long will it take them to reach the shore?” asked Umatar.
“At least still a couple of hours.”
“Do you reckon we ought to attack them as soon as they disembark?”
“No. Let them all come ashore. There is nothing to sustain them here, unless they have brought enough water for at least three days. Let them cook all day. I doubt they plan to move on before tomorrow. It must have been quite a long voyage.”
“So you plan to attack them at night?”
“Yes, in the wee hours of the morning exactly, when humans are at their weakest. Before then we shall invest their ships and burn them all. We must make sure that not a single man or vessel goes back to tell our enemies beyond the Fire Mountains of the fate that befell their advance party. No news will seem good news for them for some time before they realize their mistake. By then, we will be even more prepared!”
“Alright. We had better tell your Elves and my Tribesmen to lie low and keep sentinels along the dunes to inform us of their movements. I will meet you later at our camp. First, I will spend some time with Boy and Apprentice.”
She had translocated during the night to her friends’ camp near Trade Fair City and had carried them to the Western Shore while it was still dark to land unseen and unheard among the dunes a few miles north.
It had taken all the rest of the night to reach the main encampment of the Elves and Tribesmen Dargelblad had alerted and ordered to gather in that particular spot.
She found her companions under the small tent where they lay quiet, too well aware they had to store their strength while the sun burned the land dry.
“What is coming, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons?” asked Apprentice as soon a she sat down.
“A dozen sail boats are coming. They are not very big. I doubt that they carry more than twenty passengers each. I wonder how long it took them to come here. After all, we do not know how far south of the Fire Mountains their cities and harbors lie.”
“Why is it that they haven’t come here before?”
“Simply because they had known that nothing much of interest could be found in this particular area of Alymndes, or we would have had to deal with them a long time ago!”
“So this time they come with a purpose!” cut in Boy. “Which means they are not paying us a courtesy visit, but are more some kind of reconnoitering vanguard.”
The lad was bright and would become a figure of note among the Tribes or even more if properly guided and raised, thought his mentor.
“That is why we must make sure none of them go back to their land,” grimly commented the Golden Dragon.
“You had better erase any traces of their coming. How do you plan to do that?” inquired Apprentice.
“We will burn the boats and bury the bodies.”
The young man thought for a while.
“The bodies can always be carried behind the dunes away from the beach and buried where they will dry quickly enough. You must ascertain the beach is cleaned of any clues, however small. But burning the boats is no solution. Unburned parts are bound to get washed away on other beaches, leaving telltale signs of fighting, which might bring about an even bigger invasion than you had envisioned. On the other hand, if another party is sent to investigate, they might end up wasting a lot of time and energy searching the beaches while you monitor their movements in full impunity.”
Umatar raised an eyebrow.
“Who would have guessed such military planning skills from a healer?” she chortled. “But you are right. What do you propose that we do about those boats?”
“Why not simply appropriate them? You might as need them some time in the future, who knows?”
“In that case, where will we take them?”
“Aren’t there any Tribes in the North along the shore? I’ve seen dried fish being bartered by the Tribesmen. Where could it have come from?”
Umatar uncharacteristically scratched her head. She was fast taking on some human mannerisms.
“Which means I have overlooked at least one Tribe! Well, we will think of that once we have got rid of those invaders. But we have to change our plans and make sure that none of these boats escape!”
She exited the small tent and went in search of Dargelblad. She could have communicated in mindspeech, but she could not take any risk with their enemies so close at hand.
She found him lying on the shadowed side of a dune.
“We have to change our plans!” she started, skipping any niceties.
“Why so?”
“We have just realized it would be better to seize the boats than destroy and burn them. There is always a danger of leaving a trace while we might need these very boats sometime in the future!”
The Silver dragon thought for a while.
“It makes good sense. This is work for the Elves. They are even better than the Tribesmen at moving at night completely undetected. I might even give them a hand. I have probed all the vessels. Plenty of evil thoughts there, but no magic whatsoever!”
“That was a bit risky, wasn’t it? What would have happened if you had encountered anyone possessed in a similar fashion to that Elf Prince you had to kill?”
“I knew of that possibility, so I was careful, believe me! We are dealing with normal humans only this time!”
Umatar did not insist.
“These boats are small enough to be sailed quite near the shore. I don’t see any barges on them, so their occupants are surely planning to land them on the beach. Could your elves swim around them and board them unseen to neutralize whatever sentinels would be left aboard?”
“Sure they can. I will ask them to do so a couple of hours before dawn. That should leave them plenty of time to achieve their mission while I gather the other Elves behind the dunes. Divide your Tribesmen into two groups to run at them simultaneously from the sides while the Elves will run down the dunes and start shooting down anybody moving. The Elves on the boats will prevent any enemy retreat to the water. We only have to agree on a signal. Tell everybody to move as silently as possible!”
“Don’t worry. The Tribesmen will shoe their horses with leather. They shan’t be heard until they have come very close! The warriors will not shout or say a word when they attack. I know the Elves are disciplined enough to do the same. We should be able to finish them quick!”
“Will we take any prisoners?”
“And run the risk to provide the evil lurking behind the Fire Mountains with a vessel to exert its nefarious influence? Do we want another Montreduc inside the Elf forest?” hotly retorted the Golden Dragon.
“Sorry, sister. I was only asking. After all, killing that whole party is very close to murder!”
“Do we have any choice?”
The Silver Dragon shrugged his shoulders.
Having little else to say, they parted to give instructions to their respective forces.
When the Elves swam around the small ships, they were really surprised to find nobody on them. Since the shore had seemed completely deserted to their invaders, they had not bothered to defend their vessels and must have been anxious to land and take a rest out of the restricted space they had been confined to during their voyage. Such carelessness was understandable but inadmissible to trained warriors. Or had their foes been gifted with unbreakable faith in their own superiority? Whatever the reason, they would probably never find out, and it did not matter much.
The Elves aboard the boats sent the agreed messages at dawn and took position, holding bows and arrows that they had dragged along wrapped in oilcloths. They wore only loincloths on their bodies, which they had painted dark brown to swim unnoticed. They did not need any other weapons, proficient as they were at naked hand combat.
When the sun finally started rising from the east over the dunes and the shore directly into the invaders’ camp, the Tribesmen, who had gathered behind the top of the sand hills, rushed down the slope in two groups wide apart. They reached the beach a few hundred paces away from the enemy camp and then veered to converge onto their foes. No visible sign of alarm came from among those yet as the Tribesmen rapidly closed the distance while the Elves were running down the dune situated directly behind the haphazardly planted tents.
All was done in almost eerie silence. Dargelblad and Umatar were running along with the Elves. Boy and Apprentice had asked to ride with the Tribesmen and the Golden Dragon had reluctantly agreed on the express condition they would keep out of the fray and restrict themselves to the role of observers.
When the first cries and shouts rose from the camp, the Tribesmen were already charging through it, pulling down the tents with hooks and hacking at anybody facing them while the Elves had taken position and were shooting a relentless rain of darts onto their unfortunate enemies. But the latter, who were trained soldiers after all, began to organize themselves, although they could only form isolated pockets of resistance to oppose the devastating assault. It was only a question of time before the last of them would fall as the Tribesmen and Elves did not have to risk themselves in hand to hand fighting. Some invaders tried to flee to the sea but never reached the waterline, shot down by the Elves aboard their boats. Soon enough, all the invaders were either killed or dying.
Umatar suddenly saw the lone figure of Apprentice running among the fallen invaders. What was he doing there? Did he intend to administer his healing arts or what?
Apprentice was looking for somebody.
He was certain to find him among the bodies.
He reached a heap of fallen men in the center of the fated camp. He was wondering if any of them had survived when a groan of pain coming from under a mass of inert corpses reached him. He frantically pulled at a killed soldier to reach the man he could hear moaning from under his fallen comrade.
He finally uncovered the dying enemy.
Three arrows, whose broken shafts were protruding out of his midriff, had pierced the man. He was barely alive.
He recognized the commander of the invading mission.
Apprentice grabbed the man by his jerkin to bring his face close to his.
“Rasgon! Hear me! Rasgon!”
The commander, terminally wounded, slowly opened his eyes.
“Well, well!” he coughed out, as blood trickled out the corners of his mouth.
The man was made of tough steel. He still had the guts to face and mock the enemy in his death throes.
“After all, you survived, William Clonderbie!”
“I did, bastard! What of my family? Tell me!”
A cruel smile appeared on the commander’s battered face:
“I’ve got good news for you. The Hammer of Fate decreed their execution the day after you left. All crucified, if you want to know!” The last was spat at Apprentice’s face.
“That can’t be! You’re lying, you filthy bastard! You’re lying!”
He started to shake the man for an answer, when a hand came to lie on his shoulder.
“Leave him. A dying man does not lie!”
Apprentice turned to the new arrival and was about to scream an angry retort when his movement stopped dead.
Umatar was towering over him. Her face appeared hard and cold, but her eyes showed a great sadness and concern. Her dragon and human senses were vying for supremacy.
Apprentice did not rise up. His shoulders sagged and his head bowed down in defeat.
“You’ve known it all the time, haven’t you?” he weakly stammered.
“Shouldn’t you have known yourself, considering you are only one of the two humans aware of my true identity?” she retorted, keeping her voice low.
“Why didn’t you face me with the truth, then?”
“For many reasons. But this is not the place to talk about them. For your peace of mind, let me tell you that you are not alone in your plight. A lot of people have already died in Alymndes because of the Hammer of Fate!”
“That’s good for you to say! You don’t have any idea of what we are going through in our own lands!”
Umatar grabbed the young man and forcefully pulled him up on his feet.
“I’ve already told you this is not the place to discuss it! Come with me!”
Keeping her hand on his arm, she guided him away from the carnage to walk along the waterline.
Dargelblad’s voice came into her head:
“Are you alright, sister?”
“Yes. Please take charge, and make sure nobody comes near us, even Boy!”
Dragons did not need linger on unnecessary explanations. The Silver Dragon began to shout orders to clean the scene.
The two of them walked for a long time. The water was splashing on their boots, but they did not care.
William stopped and turned to face the sea.
His eyes closed. Umatar sensed his body stiffen. She looked at him. Silent tears were flowing down his cheeks.
The pain was unbearable. A weaker man would have collapsed in despair. She wanted to embrace him, but she refrained, knowing her companion had to overcome his grief on his own if he was to survive the ordeal.
They stood there immobile for long moments. Only the sound of the sea and the birds surrounded them. The sun was climbing in the sky and the air grew hot and dry.
Umatar handed her water flask to the young man. He took it and brought it to his mouth. The drink seemed to bring him back to reality as he uttered:
“When did you learn about me?”
“I probed your mind. Only once. What I saw was enough to convince me.”
“Convince you of what? Knowing of my mission, why didn’t you blast me into oblivion there and then?”
“Because I saw that none of your actions were the result of your free will. I discovered too much good inside you and stopped my probing at once to let fate decide for us!”
“So you probably don’t know everything.”
“No, I don’t. And I don’t intend to search you against your will ever again.”
“Why if I opened myself and invited you to do so?”
“Would it be wise? Do you really want me to become cognizant of your deepest thoughts, secrets and whims? Would it be fair to either of us? No, William, you will have to tell me yourself if you truly wish me to understand all the facts. It is your choice. But whatever your decision, I will not judge you upon it. You are too important to me!”
William stared at the beautiful woman. What had made him so essential to a creature of such power and greatness? Humans, he could understand, but dragons?
He came to a decision.
“I owe you a lot, don’t I? I will never be able to repay you, but at least I can start with some explanations. Let’s walk, it will be easier for me.”
Umatar took his arm in agreement and they began moving ahead. William spoke along the way:
“I’ll try to make it as short as possible. I come from a land that has been subject for uncounted ages to the harshest rule you could imagine. Nobody is free and we obey the caprices and orders of the Hammer of Fate. Only his Inquisitors and Commanders know what or who it is. Rasgon was one of them. I hail from a supposedly noble family. The land south of the Fire Mountains is vast and divided into many kingdoms. I was told they were constantly fighting with each other eons ago before the Hammer of Fate came to put us all under its unshared rule. Our societies, our people, our lives, all are bound to its decisions, however vile or revolting. Although my family was mainly military-oriented, I decided a long time ago that I would not become a fighter but a healer in spite of the fact I was the eldest son. So I studied the arts of medicine and herbs and became an errand physician. But one day I was called back home. As I arrived at our country mansion, I was greeted not by my kin, but by the Inquisitor and Commander Rasgon. They certainly didn’t waste words on my destiny. They simply informed me that my family had been found wanting, and that their fate depended upon my will to redeem for their crimes. I was crushed. There’s nothing you can do against the Hammer of Fate and its minions. You obey or you die in unspeakable pain and horror for all to see. A single word or gesture of refusal or rebellion spells your immediate doom. So I asked what I was expected to do. That is when they told me I had to leave immediately on a single sailboat, which had been especially prepared for my mission. I was to sail around what you call the Fire Mountains. They told me that there lay vast lands north, of which none of us had been aware of until then. Our city is actually a harbor, so manning a boat holds few secrets for its inhabitants. They commanded me to voyage along the coast until I could find a spot where to land and proceed from to travel as extensively as possible and gather information about your societies and people; they would contact me for further orders. So I departed at once. It took me a whole week to find my way past the mists and around where the land ended. We have no name for that place, as we are not supposed to find anything beyond the mists, although we had heard of a mythical place called “Land’s End”. Once past that particular spot, I discovered unending beaches and dunes along the sea. The land was utterly uninhabited and the desert or steppes I could guess behind the sand hills were too forbidding for me to attempt a landing. So I voyaged on, hoping to find some kind of fishing village from which I could travel inland. I had good winds so I did not worry too much. Even so, I spent more than two weeks sailing until I could spot some boats and what appeared like a fishing community. I must have covered at least two hundred miles by then, and I was near exhaustion because of the heat and was also running short of water and food. It was about time I left the sea. The fishing folk there were certainly very surprised to see me coming out of nowhere. They must have been distant cousins of your Tribesmen as they very much share the same physique, if not exactly the same traditions. It took us some time to communicate. I must admit that they were quite awed by the apparition of a completely alien creature from the sea. As I did not bear any arms, they concluded that I was inoffensive and readily enough accepted me in their midst. They showed great interest in my sailboat and I happily lent it to them as thanks for their hospitality. I volunteered to take care of the sick and lame, for which they were extremely grateful despite their Shaman’s orders not to approach me. I quickly mastered their language as I was already used to learn new tongues and dialects back in the south. I must have spent half a year with them when I heard about your coming. No word or sign had come yet from the Inquisitor, so I decided to move on and seek you. I traded my sailboat for a horse and riding equipment and said my good-byes to those good fishing folk. I must say they were not happy, except for their shaman, to see me go, but I promised them against my best judgment that I would come back one day. Well, that’s about it.”
Umatar reflected for a while.
“That figures. That Inquisitor of yours probably failed to enter in contact with you. This must be why they decided on a reconnoitering mission of theirs. Their own ignorance of our lands played against them!”
“But why did they have to kill all my kin as soon as I had left?”
“To keep the whole operation as secret as possible. I surmise you would not have survived your next encounter with them, either, from what I could deduce from your Commander’s attitude.”
William stopped.
“Now, what’s going to happen? In my case, I feel pretty useless now. I have no reason to come back to the South as I have lost all my kin and certainly can’t resume a life of slavery. I don’t serve much of a purpose here, either, except that of a traitor.”
“I beg to differ William. First, some people care for you here. I know at least two of them. Moreover, you have become our biggest asset in our protection of the land, like it or not. Your knowledge of the South will become an invaluable source of information when we will pay back our sufferings, and yours, to this Hammer of Fate! We are not defenseless, far from it, and you haven’t seen or guessed half of our might yet! We bide our time, but mark me well, the day of reckoning will come, and the Hammer of Fate and his minions will disappear once and for all from the surface of this world! I admit there will still be a lot more suffering until then and we can’t help it. This is destiny. But before that, you and I have things to do!”
The young man looked askance.
“What might they be?”
“First, tonight we fly to that fishing village of yours and offer its folk the ownership of the boats we have captured today.”
“That’s the most incredible present you could make to them!”
“Well, this is the best way to look after these vessels, isn’t it? Next, we fly to Trade Fair City where you will pack your belongings. We will give you a horse and a pack mule to help you travel to Beaucastel, the capital of Beaulieu. I will write passes for you to clear all patrols and militias both through the Steppes and the Realm. In Beaucastel, seek Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur. I very much doubt that you can miss her. She is building a hospital there and needs men like you. I will give you a sealed letter for her. Not so much for her reading, as she will know of your coming, but for the sake of making it look as official as possible. Jay, that’s her nickname, will be as good as I in protecting you from unwanted curiosity. That way, we will be able to keep you hidden until the day you can get your revenge!”
William ruminated on that for a while before asking:
“May I presume that friend of yours, Jay, is of your kind?”
The Golden dragon laughed.
“More than that, actually! But all things in good time! Follow me!”
They were back at their tent later where they met Boy who had returned there without waiting for them.
Umatar spoke to the young lad:
“Boy, Apprentice is leaving us for quite a while. He has work to do for us in a faraway land. Say your good-byes!”
Her two companions got busy packing the healer’s belongings, which were few and held in a single backpack. Once finished, they left the tent and embraced. Boy knew better than to ask questions.
Umatar and Apprentice soon left the camp to walk away. It took them a couple of hours before they felt absolutely safe from the inborn curiosity of the Elves and tribesmen. The Golden Dragon said to the young man whose hand was in her own:
“Close your eyes!”
William instantly obeyed. If he did not comply, translocation would make him so dizzy as to make him sick. The phenomenon had no effect on Dragons, but humans did not possess their magic or endurance.
They found themselves standing on top of the House of All Tribes, as the Mount of All Gods was now known.
“Why are we coming here? I thought we were going to the fishing village!” the surprised healer blurted out.
The Golden Dragon laughed.
“We will not go before night. As I have never seen the place, we will have to fly. We do not want anybody to point at us in the sky, do we? Besides, I wish to put a seal on our new relationship!”
She laughed again at William’s puzzlement.
The irises of her eyes turned yellow and the pupils grew into a thin dark line. She grabbed his hand.
“Never loved a Dragon, have you?”
She recklessly ran down the rock mound, laughing and roughly pulling her companion along.
William woke up. How long had he slept? He heard the water trickling into the pond at the back of the cave on which floor he was lying. A small fire provided enough light to see as far as the rock wall and ceiling of their momentous abode.
A smooth warm body nudged him onto his side.
Umatar spoke in his ear:
“Ready to go, loved one?”
Their lovemaking had been torrid and passionate at times. The Golden Dragon, having none of a human woman’s fears and prejudices about losing her virginity, had literally forced the young man inside her, almost enjoying the pain, before plunging into an unknown world of bliss. In between fiery bouts of ardor, she had been deeply surprised and amazed at the man’s gentleness and attentions. She had guessed the same sensations through Dargelblad and Amrel’s echoes of passion shared with their lovers. But this had come as a revelation to her. Would she be able to master her wanton needs? Would William ever satisfy her? Only time would tell, though she doubted it. One thing was certain, lovemaking had not been conceived for a Dragon’s body!
William stretched his tired limbs, planted a light kiss on her cheek before rising up and offering her his hand to pull her up on her feet. They went to the pool to wash themselves.
Umatar spoke while she rubbed William’s back:
“I forgot to mention that we have to create a totally new identity for you. Therefore you had better get used to assume it right away. I found an old name in Beaucastel that nobody bears any more. The whole family was wiped out by a plague a long time ago. So you will be called Robert de Glacis. You come from the northern reaches of Beaulieu and will resume your own self as an errand healer. Officially, you met me on your way to Beaucastel where I recommended you after you helped some of my Tribesmen.
William repeated his new name aloud and laughed:
“The name will take some using before I get accustomed to it!”
“Not as difficult as William Clonderbie!” retorted the Golden Dragon with a playful slap on his back.
It was a couple of hours after dawn in the fishing village far up north on the fringes of the Steppes. People woke up early there, high or low tide notwithstanding. There was always plenty of work for the adults. A few children were playing on the beach looking for seashells and whatever mysteries only children could understand when the apparition made them raise their heads.
A young man and an outlandish woman were coming near, walking along the beach. The woman they did not have a clue about, but the man they recognized. They stood up as one and ran to the village with shouts of joy:
“Healer’s back! Healer’s back!”
Hearing their children’s unusual cries, the fishermen at work at their nets or boats lifted their eyes to contemplate the object of their sons and daughters’ excitement. Smiles came on their faces. The young man, who had helped them so much, He-Who-Heals, as they called him, had come back as promised!
Women, sensing an uncommon stir among their kin poked their heads out of their huts and yurts, and came to join their husbands, fathers and brothers when they recognized William.
The chief of the village, a proud old man with skin burnt to the color of leather by the sun and the sea and wearing long braids falling from his temples, came forward to greet them.
“He-Who-Heals, many moons have come and waned since your departure, but we cherish this day which brought you to our humble village again!”
“He-Who-Sails-Furthest, hail to you and all your good people!” answered a smiling Apprentice. “Yes, I have returned to you, and the sea and the sky be my witnesses, I am truly and deeply happy to stand among you again! But since I have to depart soon on a most important mission, I cannot stay long to my deepest regrets.”
Looking at the saddening faces of the fishing folks, he promptly added:
“But someone very important has come with me who is bringing some great tidings!”
A puzzled chief looked at William and Umatar in turns.
“But where is this most influential person? I see you and your companion, but no one else! By the way, I want to compliment you on your woman. She is tall and her hair is like the feathers of the raven. She is dressed like a Tribesman of the Steppes, but nobody would dare call her manly!”
Umatar kept smiling. Her companion was caught between mirth and exasperation. He would have to be brusque about it.
“Well, this woman is actually going to become your most important Tribeswoman soon!”
His audience seemed astonished for a while.
Men looked at each other, with the faces of people wondering if they had become the butt of a strange joke. Women behind their backs were heard commenting in low voluble voices. A couple of little girls had fearlessly approached the Dragon and were fingering the laces of her jerkin in wonder. Umatar smiled at them and gently ruffled their hair.
William went on:
“He-Who-Sails-Furthest, may I introduce you to She-Who-Talks-Dragons, the …”
A sudden change came onto his interlocutors.
Men and women fell on their knees around He-Who-Sails-Furthest, weeping and moaning. The old man seemed about to break into something akin to panic and fear in front of imminent death. He had grown sickly pale and cold sweat began pouring down his cheeks. The wailing around him grew louder.
“Don’t kill us! Don’t eat our children! Please spare us! Please!”
Umatar had seen it coming for a while and knew what was behind all that, but she had kept her counsel. She knew she had to go through the motions. Keeping her soothing hands on the two little girls who seemed oblivious to the pandemonium provoked by the revelation of her name, she sternly stared at the chief and his kin:
“Silence!” she ordered in a low commanding tone.
The unforeseen authority of the strange woman instantly stopped the crying and weeping.
“All of you, stand up and look at me!” she ordered in the same powerful voice.
All in front of her rose on their feet and fixed their fearful eyes on her, evidently fearing for the worst.
Umatar’s voice was still strong but its tone softened:
“Who said I would kill you? Look at your children! Am I going to eat them? Answer me?”
A ball came rising inside the chief’s throat:
“But She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, the, the …”
Umatar did not let him continue.
“Ah, I see. Let me guess. Your shaman told you so? But why isn’t he here to greet me?”
A deep silence greeted her questions.
A cold smile thinned its way across her face.
“He-Who-Heals, could you please stay here and look after my people?” she asked stressing on the “my”. She gently pushed the little smiling girls towards their folks before leaving them where they were standing after a last word:
“I will see He-Who-Knows-All this instant! Don’t tell me, I know where the sloth is sleeping instead of helping you with your work!”
She briskly walked towards a yurt that stood away from the village.
A very concerned chief asked William:
“He-Who-Heals, what is going to happen to us?”
The healer burst into laughter.
“Nothing, my dear chief, nothing at all! On the very contrary, She-Who-Talks-to-dragons has come to help her people. Although I can’t say so for your shaman!”
“Is she going to kill him?”
“Not a chance! She will not eat him, fry him or kill him! Just a very noisy scolding, but I can assure you he will come out a very different man!”
Umatar had reached the shaman’s yurt.
All sorts of poles adorned with feathers, shells, dead animal skulls and what else surrounded the abode. A thought sent them flying into broken pieces.
She stood in front of the entrance:
“Shaman! Come out at once!” she shouted in a low rumbling voice, which shook the whole structure.
A querulous voice was heard from inside the yurt:
“Who is shouting at He-Who-Knows-All? Who prevents him from praying in peace?”
The man must have been on spirits or worst substances, as the fracas around him had not fully woken him up yet. No wonder he had not come and deigned to greet her. Even so, she strongly doubted the charlatan would have sensed her coming, or he would have disappeared miles away, fearful as he seemed to be of retribution by her person.
“Shaman! Get out or I will fetch you!”
Soon a disheveled head materialized through the opening made by a hand raising the flap of the entrance.
The shaman considered the tall woman facing him.
“By the coals of hell! Who are you woman, to have the temerity to disturb He-Who-Knows-All?”
The charlatan had not fully proffered these words when he suddenly felt himself pulled outside by an invisible hand and found himself dangling in the air, flailing arms and legs, two lengths above the ground.
Umatar’s voice resonated for his ears alone:
“Shaman! She-Who-Talks-to-Dragons has come to you! Why haven’t you joined your peers when summoned to the House of All Tribes, as the Mount of all Gods is now known? What puts you above your betters to ignore my orders? Who allowed you to spread such vile lies about my person?”
Whatever he had imbibed himself with the night before; the man was now fully awake and sober and frightened to death. To his unending shame he was wetting his loincloth and sobbing uncontrollably.
Umatar let him down, violently crashing onto the packed sand.
“I see you have lost your voice, so I will not waste my time any longer on questions you can’t answer. Here is your doom: a holy man you wanted to be, a holy man you will be! For six moons and a day, you will wear nothing but a loincloth and a blanket. No more beads, no more feathers, no more shoes! You will sleep in the smallest tent only. You will spend your waking hours helping your people at whatever they will allow you to do, even cleaning their latrines! You will have to beg for your food, and will not eat or drink anything else! Only when you have completed your punishment, will you have redeemed yourself in my eyes. You will then travel to the House of All tribes and seek an audience with me and represent the needs and wishes of your people!”
She turned her back to the crumpled figure and left without a further look.
She spent the rest of the day with her lover visiting all the families of the village, talking to people, treating the sick and lame, playing with the children and counseling mothers.
When evening came, they sat for a meal with the chief and the elders of the village.
As the repast came to a conclusion, the Golden Dragon addressed her audience:
“He-Who-sails-Furthest, Elders! I am very pleased with you all and I love you dearly! He-Who-Heals has taught you well. I thought I had met and known all my people, but I will never be able to fully express my joy at your discovery! I want to show you my gratitude. Therefore, you will assemble all your able men as soon as possible and all travel south. About two hundred miles from here, sailing along the coast, you will find your kin and another race called Elves. They are waiting for you. They will hand you twelve sailboats, which will be yours to use and look after. These are very fast and will help you catch more fish and become a respected tribe among the Free Tribes of the Steppes. You are the only Tribe, which can also call itself the Free Tribe of the Sea and will be proud of your new name! She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons has spoken!”
The Chief and the elders readily believed her. They had seen a changed shaman begging for work that afternoon. He had beforehand given away all his possessions but for his loincloth, a blanket and a small tent. They did not know what to make of it, but then reflected he was made an example. On the other hand, the twelve fast sailboats were a boon beyond compare. The severity and generosity of the Golden Dragon had struck them speechless. They silently bowed in deep thanks.
They had not tarried after supper and had left as early as it could be considered polite. Umatar finally came to the conclusion she had now secured all the Tribes’ loyalty and could move to other concerns. As soon as they were beyond sight and hearing, they translocated to the neighborhood of Trade Fair City where they spent the last few night hours together. She ordered a horse and a mule with all the necessary equipment for the long trek to Beaucastel as well as all the medicine, ointments and salves they could put their hands on.
They rode until they were far enough from any dwelling.
Umatar handed a small purse to Robert as his name was going to be.
“Robert,” she said with a wink, “here is some silver to pay for goods you cannot barter for, but keep away from inns or taverns. Stay at farmsteads if absolutely necessary. Otherwise pitch your tent and make do.”
“Are the roads unsafe?”
“Not that I know of, but one can’t be absolutely sure. As an errand healer, you can’t really carry any weapons but the knife you have always worn. But do not worry, I will keep an eye on you at all times, and one had better not think of waylaying you, unless he or she wants to find himself or herself hanging head down in thin air!”
“Would you really?” her lover mocked.
“Probably. But here we part. I will meet you some time in Beaucastel. Until then, enjoy yourself!” she mischievously added before grabbing him by his jerkin to kiss him passionately, almost dismounting him in the process.
Dargelblad and Queen Ellana were walking along the beach enjoying the cool early hours of the day. The Elf Queen had arrived with a small retinue the night before. She had had her tent pitched a way behind the large dunes hiding the inland from the sea.
Two days ago, the fishermen who called themselves The Free Tribes of the Sea had come to the great surprise and delight of the Tribesmen of the South who had mostly ignored all from their kin until then, but for the dried fish that appeared in trade and barter meetings. They had spent the whole night feasting and reveling. The Elves had gratefully joined in and shared lore, close as they had become to the warriors of the Steppes. Elves and Tribesmen had always enjoyed excellent trading and bartering relationships. The Elves greatly valued the soft skins and suede expertly created by the denizens of the unending plains. They also had a special fondness for the cheeses made from ewe and goat milk, a delicacy they were willing to travel miles to obtain. In exchange they offered beads, crystals, chopsticks and finished metal products such as knives, arrowheads, hooks and so forth. Working together and defending their lands against a common enemy had forged new ties and a greater need for communication, understanding and mutual respect.
The Tribesmen of the North had left at high tide the next morning and the whole day had been spent cleaning the beach of any trace of fighting. That did not prevent the defenders of the land to walk along the beach or in the dunes, knowing that wind and water would soon erase their footsteps.
Ellana, like any other Elf, particularly cherished the shells and coral of the Sea. That western shore was replete with them and graced its visitors with even more valuable treasures such as amber and gemstones. Dargelblad had some difficulty to understand the childish delight of finding and picking them in the sand. Glamrun had taught his daughters and sons that, eons ago, so many other dragons had perished for the sake of their ownership. He admitted they were beautiful. He could conceive the appeal of gold or silver, but what for? Unlike the Elves, he did not wear any bauble or ornament and stuck to simple and practical clothing. He knew well that his looks sometimes disturbed overly appearance-conscious Elves, but he could not care less. What was the beauty of pieces of metal or rock compared to that of trees, waterfalls, sunsets and skies?
He was ruminating on these thoughts when Ellana suddenly stopped in her tracks, dropping the little bag in which she was collecting her little treasures. Looking at her face, he saw her eyes growing vacant. He knew at this instant that she was communicating with her sisters in the Elf Forest.
Her body started to shake. Alarmed, he took her hand in his.
Her eyes cleared and looked inside his.
“Wilfred, can you hear me?” a voice resonated inside his head.
Not too pleased to reveal himself, Dargelblad nonetheless accepted he had to, in view of her great agitation.
He nodded in understanding.
“Can you see?” the Elf said to him in mindspeech.
He saw.
His face grew hard.
He gripped her hand, and pulling her along, he began running towards their camp across the dune.
They did not utter a word until they reached their tents. They did not need to.
Once there, the Silver Dragon called:
His second-in-command appeared in alarm out of his canvas shelter.
Dargelblad held his hand to cut short any questions.
“Sieghel, you are in command of the Elves from now on! I have pressing business in the Forest. It will be quite some time before I can come back. Queen Ellana will assure all communications between us. Inform the Tribesmen of the new dispositions!”
Holding his hand toward the nonplussed officer:
“Sieghel, I know you are a good Elf and you have shown ample ability to assume the rank that is yours now! You will hereby hold the title of Captain of Her Majesty’s Army!”
The other Elf shook the Dragon’s hand. Dargelblad smiled at his former aide with a last slap on his shoulder.
“Come on, Sieghel! You are in charge now! Go and give orders!”
The Dragon left the Elf to run where some horses were picketed. Choosing two of them, he shouted for saddles and reins. While the mounts were made ready, he went to the Queen.
“Ellana,” he spoke clearly for all to hear, “we ride back to the Forest! Some of your ladies-in-waiting will have to stay here to insure proper communications!”
But he added in mindspeech:
“We ride as far as we have to, and then we fly!”
“Yes, we could teleport directly to the Forest, but I want to survey our borders along the way!”
The horses were quickly brought to them. They mounted and kicked then into a gallop at once.
An hour or so later, they had reached a secluded enough spot to dismount unseen. Dargelblad clapped the horses, impressing a thought of return to their camps inside the animals’ heads.
“Stand back, Ellana!” he ordered.
The tone of his voice made the Elf react swiftly.
Once at a safe distance, Dargelblad’s figure seemed to shimmer in the air to be suddenly replaced by the imposing body of a radiant Silver Dragon.
Ellana stood transfixed in awe and elation.
“At last!” she exclaimed in pure joy. “Oh, Wilfred! You are so beautiful!”
She approached him and tentatively put her hands on his flank, feeling the large bright scales. She discovered their warmth and heard the heart beating under them inside his breast.
Dagelblad lifted a forward paw armed with long and sharp evil-looking talons.
“Climb, you will have plenty of time to admire me on the way!” he roughly joked in mindspeech.
She stepped on the proffered limb, which was raised until she could transfer onto his back. She took a seat between the protruding bones at the base of his long neck.
“How am I going to hold on you?” she queried.
“Do not worry! You will not fall as I can make you integral part of me! Enjoy the flight!”
“But what if we are seen flying in the sky?”
“We shan’t. I have thrown a spell of forgetfulness around!”
“Isn’t that a bit risky, being so close to that evil land south?”
“Do you believe that who or what lurks behind the Fire Mountains does not already know about us? In any case, the most important of us is still well hidden!”
“The most important of us? Are there any others?”
“Ellana, you are asking too many questions! Dragons are known for their short tempers. So beware!”
The Elf Queen could not figure if Dargelblad was serious or not, but she kept her peace. She reasoned she ought to feel quite satisfied with being the only Elf to know Dargelblad’s secret, as well as with becoming his lover and rider. Life would never be boring!
“Maybe,” the Silver Dragon cut into her thoughts, “but never more dangerous!”
This was a sobering notion, indeed.
The land seemed to fly under them, so great was their speed. But Wilfred could not discover anything suspicious along the Fire Mountains. They would have to come back later and conduct a more thorough search.
“Ellana, show me again where those invaders were found!”
Ellana relayed the images sent to her by the Elf Women in charge of the safety of their Forest. The Silver Dragon marveled at the clarity and precision of details. How could it be that only Elf Women were capable of such tremendous magic?
“Show me the forest around so that we can choose a spot from where to teleport!”
He noticed a small deserted clearing at a distance. Memorizing it, he veered away from their course so as to land between two mountains, which were not spewing any dangerous lava or gases. But they did not tarry there as a cataclysm could occur any time.
As soon as Ellana had climbed down from his towering body, he shifted back to his Elf appearance.
Taking her hand, he intimated:
“Hold fast!”
In the space of a heartbeat, they found themselves standing in the clearing. Before moving on, he checked his surroundings, making sure no one had espied their sudden arrival.
Ellana stood on wobbly legs. Even Elves could be physically affected by translocations, although less than humans.
“Let’s go!” he ordered, not waiting for her to recover completely from her disorientation.
They soon reached one of the many small valleys created by rivers flowing from the Fire Mountains.
They had to proceed across lines of Elven warriors before they could reach the spot where a score of invaders had been intercepted. None had survived. Elves did not ask questions when their forest was breached. They just shot to kill first, and investigated later.
Dargelblad walked among the dead bodies to commit their appearance to his memory. These men were very similar in build and features to those they had just exterminated on the Western Shore. Only details in garb and weapons slightly differed, a fact, which could be interpreted as normal, taking in account the vast distance separating the two groups of invaders.
But how could they have possibly crossed the Fire Mountains?
Was there a hidden way through?
Even knowing the exact topography of the land, he doubted such a group of men could have spent long days through a landscape so devoid of life and water. The only way he could think of was magic or flying between the volcanoes and the mountains. The Elf women would have discovered the existence of magic long before the intrusion, so he immediately discarded the eventuality. But fly?
The Silver Dragon turned to the Queen:
“Ellana, have all the bodies and their possessions disposed of at once! Tell your soldiers to erase all traces of their coming!”
Not waiting for an answer, he loped away in the general direction the intruders had come.
Once at a safe distance from the Elves’ eyesight, he reverted to his Dragon self and took off, flying at a low altitude to conduct a close inspection of the ground in search of clues. He found footsteps that no Elf would leave, if even they had had the insouciance to do so. The denizens of the Forest could walk and run without so much as breaking a twig or bending a grass. These were the marks left by score of humans wearing heavy boots. They had walked along the riverbed where the soil is softer. He had no difficulty following the trail until he reached a grassy knoll overlooking the stream.
The grass there had been heavily trampled. Among the human footmarks, he discovered indentations left by many hooves. Horses? The invaders had been walking along the river when they had been ambushed. Moreover, as far as he could see, there were hoof marks only on the hill he was presently hovering above. Once again his dragon senses were not aware of any foreign magic.
At a loss with that mystery, he decided to take a rest and think.
The land behind the hill where he stood soon met the first slopes of the Fire Mountains where the stream came forth through a spring rushing out of the rock under a haze of vapor, denoting its volcanic origin.
Well, the best he could do was to fly ahead between the mountains wherever he could, in a more or less straight line and hope he could come onto some kind of revelation.
He took off again and continued his search.
Soon he met steep slopes and barren cliffs he had to bypass or fly over, before being confronted with the first volcanoes. He kept gliding between them, keeping a wary eye on any eruptions. Poisonous fumes spewing out of the vents and fissures soon became to greatly incommode him.
He was going nowhere. No living creature could possibly have crossed this hellish landscape on foot.
He was about to give up and turn back, when his eyes caught an unusual sight at the bottom of a slope formed by black tides of lava lying spilt against a volcano like slag from a furnace.
It was a dead animal or beast.
The half-charred body looked like that of a horse. He noticed large appendices on its back. Their shape and a few long burnt feathers indicated they were wings.
A flying horse?
He was about to come closer to better examine the strange creature, when a low rumble alerted him. Looking over his head, he discovered a cloud of incandescent dust bursting out of the volcano and rushing down the slope in his direction.
He barely had time to translocate back to the knoll he had departed from.
It had been a very close call indeed. He did not care to find how hot that cloud had been. No magic could have saved him.
Well, he knew enough for the moment being. He had better confer and compare notes with Ellana.
Late that night, the Queen had joined the Silver Dragon inside the bole of the giant elm that served as his official abode.
Ellana had long abandoned all pretense of chastity, and she waited until late after dark for the sole sake of propriety before entering her lover’s chamber.
His welcome had been cooler than expected.
Tell the truth, Dargelblad was vexed by the lack of security witnessed south of the Elf Forest. The invaders should not have been permitted to even step down from the promontory they had landed on.
Time had come to take the safety of his adopted people in his own hands.
Ellana had accepted the rebuke with grace. Knowing the quick temper of the Silver Dragon, she understood she had better humor him.
After a while, Dargelblad relented and mentioned his discovery inside the Fire Mountains.
“A pegasus!” Ellana exclaimed.
“A pegasus?”
“Yes. A flying horse! A famed magical beast in our lore!”
“A flying horse it might have been, but I did not sense any magic about it!”
The Queen thought for a moment before venturing her next comment.
“This is what is all wrong about your discovery. Long, long ago, these beasts and many others suddenly disappeared from Alymndes for no apparent reason. Why are some of them obviously living south, and why have they lost their magic?
“The only reason I could think of is that someone or something forced them south to steal their magic and enslave them! That could actually explain quite a few mysteries I haven’t been able to solve so far!”
“What mysteries?”
“Well hunches more than mysteries. Tell me, were there other flying magical beasts in your lore that could have carried humans?”
“Dragons for the first. But these haven’t been found to exist even in our lore. They had been thought creatures of true legend until I had to revise that notion when I met you! On the other hand, we had flying centaurs, …”
“Flying centaurs? What is a centaur? You had better explain and describe these one at a time!” interrupted a suddenly interested dragon.
“A centaur is half human, half horse, and some bear wings. We also had gryphons, which were half eagle, half lion. But the pegasuses, would be the most likely to carry humans. Harpies flew, too. They were birds with the head of a hag. But they were too small and tended to attack any other living being! There was even a race of humans gifted with wings. But I very much doubt they ever existed. They were called heaven sprites and were said to live inside caves high in the mountains. Of course, there were many other magical beasts that could not fly, both good and evil: the gnomes, the trolls, the giants, the dryads, the mermen and mermaids, and many, many more!”
She went on to describe each in detail, and only finished at the first lights of the next day.
Although Dargelblad had thoroughly enjoyed the tale, as all dragons were so curious and avid for knowledge, he had to bring the Queen back to earth:
“All that is fine, but it just shows that there are more dangers than we expected, lurking behind those mountains and only waiting to exploit any lapse of attention from our part! It’s about time I took over matters of security and defense of our Forest! I’m afraid we are in for some drastic changes!”
“I thought so, too. Our women can insure we are always warned in time, but military operations should be our men’s prerogative! How would you plan such organization? What about the present hierarchy?”
“I have already nominated Sieghel Captain of Her Majesty’s Army. We should amend it to Captain of Her Majesty’s Western Army. We will have to choose two more able individuals to elevate to the rank of Captain of Her Majesty’s Forest Army and Captain of Her Majesty’s Eastern Army for better allocation of precise responsibilities. I can help them coordinate their missions and tasks since I can move at liberty and communicate directly with you over any distance. But you will have to choose a title for my own person as well as decree a state of emergency so as to prevent any bad politics interfering with all the workload we will have to bear!”
“How about Marshall of Her Majesty’s Army? That title did exist a long time ago when our Forest was not as secure at it seems today.”
“Well, I suppose it is good enough for the time being, but you will have to ram it down in all those courtiers’ heads once and for all! Moreover, you could do well by putting all male Elves on a war path and dispense with those interminable parties and revelries, which have served no other purpose but to make them soft and inattentive to the outside world!”
“I’m definitely with you there! It’s about time these men made themselves useful! We will also have to prepare the Prince Consort and his retinue’s embassy to Beaucastel! This way, we will be able to keep most of the senior Elves out of our legs!”
“It might become necessary to organize patrols and guard shifts to provide rest, too. I doubt it would be a bright idea to stress too many people. Only a general emergency alert should justify putting every Elf on duty.”
“I’d better confer with my senior women magicians to devise a code of duty for all, and call for a council to announce the coming changes!”
“Then, the earlier you start, the better!” the Silver Dragon encouraged her.
Alfred was riding his horse in the company of Hildegard and her squad.
They were on the third day of his second field survey. The venture itself had quickly become a routine for their group. Every evening, before their supper, they set camp in a pre-organized fashion: first a grassy area was chosen for the horses to be picketed. Saddle gears were taken off and the steeds brushed and fed. Hidegard and her soldiers had discarded their usual battle destriers and chargers for lighter and more mobile mounts. They were also only wearing essential armor as not to be encumbered by the heat. Mules were carrying their baggage. While the cook kept busy, tents were erected, and a perimeter of stakes was planted to prevent any mounted enemy or would-be attackers from running through their bivouac. A latrine was dug up. Sentinels and shifts were ordained. Camp sites were chosen not only where grass grew aplenty, but also in near proximity to a watercourse for washing and cleaning.
The former Montjoie Duchy provided plenty of these in addition to many woods. A large portion of the land was tilled, as many farmers lived on the rich land.
They had found most of the same farmers quite ignorant of the recent events, and most had never heard of the Hammer of Fate. The fanatics had not thought of subjugating their peasants to their destructive doctrine yet. People, evil or not, still needed food. Simon de Montjoie had not been ready yet to enslave the whole population, although that would have certainly come about, had he succeeded in eliminating the King and his entourage.
Their troop was pacing along a dirt road circling around a large forest. Despite the early morning hour, the air was turning hot, as the weather in the later part of the summer was growing heavy. Storms had become frequent. The sky was still clear of clouds, but the experienced soldiers knew they probably could expect some rain or hail come evening. It would probably prove as a better idea to spend the night in the forest than in the open.
At noon, they elected to halt under the trees along the fringe of the forest, where the shade offered them relative cool and quiet. They chose a spot nearby a small stream where to water their horses. They all sat down for an informal lunch. There was no need to cook as they had ample provisions of bread, cheese and fruit they bought from the farmers along the way.
Alfred and Hildegard sat slightly apart, as was their habit, not because of their rank, but simply because their conversations often engaged into sensitive matters not for the ears of their helpers. All that could be heard by common soldiers would surely find its way to the ears of the whole garrison and more the very next day. A fact which could also be used as a devious fashion to spread around any useful rumor when need arose.
Alfred did not have much heart for serious conversation that day. He felt more like having a nap in that heat.
As he bent to pick up some more bread, he noticed that Hildegard had unfastened her jerkin. The Walkyrie cared little for bodices and other feminine underwear when on patrol. She only wore a linen shirt as an inner garment. The woman was very strong like most of her kind, and still quite young. For all the bulging muscles, Alf discovered she was much of a woman under her clothes. He had some difficulty averting his eyes from the sight of the Walkyrie’s breasts bulging under the fabric.
Hidegard must have guessed something because she suddenly faced her companion:
“Alf, what are you staring at?” she asked in a low dangerous voice.
Although caught red-handed, Amrel’s confidante did not batter as much as a single lash.
“I would be hard put to begin. There is so much of you to look at!” he laughed.
Hildegard made to grab his collar, but the smaller man smoothly evaded the extended hand.
“Easy, easy! What would our soldiers think if they saw us coming to blows?”
The Walkyrie was about to retort angrily, when a sudden change on her companion’s face stopped her.
Alf turned his head about as if looking for something.
Signing her to keep quiet, he asked in a very low voice:
“Hidegard, can you hear anything?”
The woman tried to listen. She shook her head.
“No, I can’t hear anything.”
“That’s the problem. Why have the noises of the forest stopped, then?”
The soldier quickly realized what her companion meant.
She quickly stood up, grabbed her sword she never left far away from her whatever the situation, and bringing her fingers to her mouth, she emitted a short whistle.
All the other soldiers left their meal at once upon hearing the alarm signal and rushed to their Corporal with weapons in hand.
She had them fan out with a wave of her free hand.
They had had barely the time to comply, when a disorganized group of black-clad soldiers rushed out at them out of the trees, shrieking and brandishing swords or maces.
There did not seem to be much order or concerted planning in their attack, as they charged in a bunch, allowing Hildegard’s platoon to close quickly around them.
On the other hand, their concentrated assault fell directly onto the Walkyrie who found herself momentarily outnumbered. Two assailants bore on her simultaneously. Having no time to choose, she had to face the one on her left, being left-handed. As she was dispatching her foe with an expert lunge through his chest, she left her vulnerable right side completely exposed to her second opponent. The man was already bringing his sword over his head for the killing blow. In a surreal moment, Hildegard clearly saw the gold hammer on the soldier’s black surcoat as death was coming onto her. She knew she would never have the time to retrieve her sword to fend him off. A cruel grin disfigured her enemy’s face as his sword starting falling. The grin suddenly disappeared to leave place to a look of mute surprise. The weapon dropped from his hands to harmlessly bounce off his back. As he slowly collapsed, Alf’s head emerged over his body. Seeing the mortal danger the Walkyrie had fallen into, he had grabbed his own dagger to lunge at the Hammer soldier’s side without a second thought.
But just as he was smiling to Hildegard, two fighting soldiers crashed into a heap on his uncovered back. Something hit his head hard.
He passed out.
When he recovered consciousness, his eyes were looking at the sky. It was still in the afternoon. His head hurt, although it rested on some kind of pillow.
A feminine voice resonated in his ears:
“At last, he has awakened! Alf, can you hear me?”
He passed a hand over his eyes to fend off the harsh sunlight.
“Yes, I can hear you. But you don’t have to shout at me. I have enough of a headache already! What happened?”
He felt a hand gently resting on his forehead.
He realized that what he had thought to be a pillow under his head was in fact the thighs of Hildegard kneeling behind him. Her legs were not a bad place to lie on indeed, but that would not look too good to the other members of her squad. He tried to sit up.
“Easy! You’ve been hit on the head! I wouldn’t move yet!” Hildegard warned.
He nonetheless ignored her counsel. His head still hurt, but he did not feel dizzy or suffer from a blurred vision.
He reiterated his question:
“What happened?”
“We were ambushed by a score of former Montjoie soldiers. They all wore the hammer on their surcoats. They must have stayed hidden in that forest all the time. I suppose they were not sent against us in that battle in front of Montreduc. They heard of the demise of their kin and decided to stay low. They must have been quite desperate and starving. They were not much of a fight after you were knocked out cold. They are all dead now. We suffered only a few cuts and bruises. I must say you are the only real casualty! Although without your timely help, I could have ended on the funeral list! I owe you, Alf!”
“You certainly don’t. I didn’t even think about the whole affair. Pure instinct of conservation, that was. You might have led a soldier’s life, but I can tell you that my own life taught me well!”
“Even so, since it appears that we still have to contend with more dangers than we care for, it would best that we share the same tent from now on. I’ve already lost one man to these savages, and I’m not ready yet to lose another one!”
Alf looked at the woman quizzically:
“May I take this as a declaration?”
Hildegard stared at him with a mixture of surprise and anger:
“I said “share the same tent”, nothing else! Unless you wish to be hit on the head again!”
Alf feigned resignation:
“Well, it was worth a try, wasn’t it?”
To be frank with himself, he felt attracted to the imposing woman, though he had second thoughts about the wisdom of his feelings. After all, he entertained some doubts about the feasibility of some more private concerns. Mind you, women, or men for that matter, were all about the same height once they were lying flat on a bed, weren’t they?
He must have got lost in his musings, because a voice called him back to the reality:
“Alf, what are you thinking?”
“Not much,” he lied, “we just have to call it a day as far as this field survey is concerned. Better send a couple of messengers to the d’Estrees brothers right away. They ought to organize a screening of all possible hideouts and make sure we don’t encounter another one of those little surprises. We go back to Montjoie!”
“Well said! Stay quiet and let me take care of that, Delegate!”
She left him immediately to supervise the burying of the dead hammer soldiers, break the news that they were heading back home and send messengers ahead.
Only later did Alf find out that she had left a lot of things unsaid. Members of her squad confided when she was not listening that, upon the instant Alf had been struck down, she had gone quite berserk. She had charged headlong into the melee over his prone body, hacking death all around her. She probably had accounted for half of their assailants by herself before the skirmish had ended. At one time they had to restrain her, lest she wrecked her vengeance on dead foes. Once she had calmed down, she would not let anybody else attend to his person. For two hours she had nursed him.
Alf wondered whether it would prove prudent to keep their relations to a strict minimum. Passions are not the best counsels in battle, and probably not in administration, either. He had come to value her services both on the field and away from it.
And thinking that he had first refused Amrel to consider the mere thought of looking after her, she had become the one taking care of the other.
Fate decidedly had a propensity for irony, he mused.
The long column of small men had reached the last road leading to the Pass.
There were five scores of them. Diminutive in height they might be, but the inhabitants of Beaulieu had learned long ago to show them extreme courtesy and respect. Dwarves were not to be laughed at. Stories had traveled ahead of them, telling how summarily a denizen of the Iron Crags treated boors, whereas no one was a better companion around a big tanker of ale and an even bigger platter of food. They were full of questions and keen to swap lore and knowledge. At taverns and inns they were scrupulous to a fault when paying their food, drink and lodging. Their great appetites usually depleted stocks and had innkeepers scurry for more. Many a taverner had had the surprise to discover after their departure that all kinds of repairs had been done to their establishments free of charge. The happy owner could not wait until the day his guests would grace his inn again.
A lone figure was standing in the middle of the road, a hundred paces ahead of them.
He was a Dwarf, too, although of an unusual height and appearance. Whereas Dwarves were supremely proud of their long beards, he sported a very short one, almost reduced to a stub. His boots were made of leather, while the Dwarves’ shoes contained more metal than animal skin. He did not bear any weapons or tools. Each Dwarf, on the contrary, carried a wicked-looking double-bladed axe and an enormous hammer across his backpack. Marching in solid cadence as they were, their steps could be heard well before their arrival or actual appearance.
The column stopped as one a few paces away from the lone Dwarf.
The leader of the troop raised his right arm:
“Flint Ironfoot! Hail! Here we are come!”
A broad smile broke on Numnir’s face.
“Well met, Rockgrinder! Praise on you all for your swift coming and my thanks to Drumbeat Hammerblow, King Under the Mountain, for answering my message!”
The two warmly embraced each other with many slaps on their backs.
But Dwarves do not favor long greetings, so Rockgrinder bluntly asked:
“Will we go?”
“Of course! We can talk on the way!”
They reached the Pass two hours later.
Numnir explained the choice of the site: they could have built a wall way ahead across the defile, but they would have been forced to clear a road through heaps of rock and debris. The same impediment would in turn serve as a good natural defense against any foes, slowing down their progress and causing all kinds of trouble. The rock faces on both sides of the wall still came to a height of more then three hundred hands, the equivalent of more then thirty average-height humans. Both cliffs were too smooth to be safely scaled. Numnir doubted that any enemy would try overtaking the Pass by moving along both sides of the chasm, as miles and miles of impassable mountains separated them from the land south. The would-be invaders could do nothing but come all the way to them. Numnir was already designing a few nasty traps of his own making to render any hostile force’s progress even more problematic.
Moreover, any foe would suffer greatly from the disadvantage of being spotted well in advance, canceling any possible surprise. The width at the location chosen might be still markedly greater than at any point of the chasm, but would not extend the front to an unmanageable level. In fact, it should prove another headache for assailants, as new reinforcements would have to crowd into a smaller space before moving to the actual fighting.
The wall had been planned at a height of two hundred and fifty hands, with a tower at each end, flanking the rock faces with their tops reaching the same height as the cliffs, and a barbican in the middle.
No gate had been arranged for through the bottom of the barrier, as they did not intend to venture inside the pass.
Both towers and the barbican presented a square face jutting out of the fortification to allow defenders to shoot at the enemy from the sides.
The whole edifice was twenty paces wide at the bottom and would still measure slightly more than ten at the top to enable the storage space for ammunitions and guard rooms lining the back of the battlement parapet.
Large enough stairs for two large soldiers walking shoulder to shoulder were to be built across the back of the wall every fifty paces. To facilitate the transport and haulage of any equipment, a system of pulleys and lifts would be installed near the last step of each flight of stairs.
The whole contraption had already risen to a height of sixty hands or so, and work was picking up pace as all necessary barracks, lodgings and jails had been finished. Now they could concentrate on the wall only. With the help of a hundred Dwarves, the speed should increase markedly. Numnir wanted the barrier completed before the first snows of the winter.
The Flint Dragon had some difficulty fathoming the causes behind this climatic aberration.
How could the weather be temperate in Beaulieu and in the Forest of the Elves, whereas the environment in the dry and hot Steppes obeyed to the laws of geography and physics? The cold sea currents near Beaulieu and the proximity of the Fire Mountains helped by high winds from the arid land north might provide enough clues for unraveling the mysteries behind such a phenomenon, but his logical mind was certainly not convinced.
Rockgrinder started his own questions:
”How many Dwarves are already here?”
“A score, no more. You will realize how impatiently we have waited for you!”
“I’ve heard of labor being provided. Could you explain?”
“This might become the hardest part for your kin to understand. Men are not Dwarves. The longest they can work efficiently is eight hours a day. They need the same amount of time in rest and sleep. Therefore we have organized shifts to have workers on hand all the time. We dwarves can toil for days and days without hitting the sack, but it might be a good idea to impose some rest of our kin every day.”
“What kind of workers do we have?”
“They are all convicts condemned to hard labor. The ones chosen for that particular project will not recover their freedom before twenty years. Quite a few are actually serving life sentences. They are mainly men from Beaulieu and Dunlago. I did not notice any from the Steppes or the Forest of the Elves. Apparently these have a different and more expedient law system. Only the strongest have been sent to us for obvious reasons. Even so, we will have to husband their strength carefully. That is why we have built comparatively comfortable jails with all the basic facilities. They have to wash every day and clean their own quarters, and are given plenty of food.”
“Who’ll police them?”
“We have human guards carefully selected for their strength, no nonsense and integrity. I will introduce you to their Corporal. He has been instructed to receive orders from the two of us and will refer to you or me when the other is not here. Just keep in mind we are dealing with humans, not Dwarves. All prisoners are manacled and chained outside their cells, but you may order them to be freed if need be. Any fight of any kind among themselves or against their guards or Dwarves will be reported to me at once. I will deal with that myself when I’m on hand!”
“Do you plan to include rooms inside the wall itself?”
“No. I’d prefer to keep it as solid as possible. We will build supplementary buildings directly against the wall between the stairs to serve as extra storerooms, forges and shelters from rain or snow. Your own quarters have been constructed near the quarry that you can see on your right to minimize transport and walking distances.”
Looking at the crowd of Dwarves and laborers at the foot of the cliff on his right, Rockgrinder smiled.
“At least, we shan’t run out of good stone!”
Numnir smiled back.
“Even if we did, we still have the left rock face to provide us with more!”
“Well, why don’t we start?”
“You can’t wait, can you? As soon as you see some stone, you have to put your hands on it!” laughed the Dragon. “But before that, check in your quarters and come to my room after you have all taken a meal. I want to personally introduce you to our Corporal!”
A couple of hours later, Numnir and Rockgrinder were savoring a dark ale in the Flint Dragon’s personal abode, when they heard a knock on the door.
“Come in!” ordered Flint Ironfoot.
The door opened to let a large soldier in full Blue Knight uniform and armor, although he had dispensed with all useless trappings more common to his fellow Royal Guards.
Numnir introduced them:
“Rockgrinder, this is Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon, Corporal of the Beaulieu Royal Guards, expressly recommended by Geoffroy d’Arcourt, Captain of the same. Gratien, this is Rockgrinder, Master Mason of Drumbeat Hammerblow, King Under the Mountain. Please shake hands, but Rockgrinder, mind not to break our Corporal’s hand!”
Gratien had the grace to laugh as he held his hand forward to Rockgrinder who had stood up.
He had become well used to Dwarves’ ways and entertained a healthy respect towards them. He had been given his duty because of his great ability to adapt to people and situations, while being a stern but pragmatic enforcer of the rules. He commanded undisguised loyalty and obedience from his guards. Although he could prove a congenial guest in private, his men, or charges for that matter, never saw him smile, shout, laugh or utter a misplaced word in public. Soldiers were quite comfortable with the notion, but some prisoners had learnt to their personal detriment that he was not to be dealt with lightly. Although taller by a head, many a Dunlago man had suddenly found himself the butt of cold and very precise retribution after their arrival. A sole lesson had been enough to convince any never to try and cross the officer again.
Gratien warmly greeted the Dwarf:
“I’m honored, Master Mason Rockgrinder!”
“The pleasure is mine! But if we are to become friends, you had better call me just Rockgrinder. Tell the truth, your name is too long for me to remember! Gratien, I will call you in private, and Corporal in public. What do you say?”
Before his interlocutor could reply, Numnir addressed the Corporal, repressing a chortle:
“Well, well! I haven’t heard a Dwarf make such a long introductory speech for quite a while! Rockgrinder must like the looks of you! I’m quite certain you will make a good team! Why don’t we celebrate with some good ale? Gratien, take a seat, will you?”
The Corporal gracefully accepted. For all his apparent seriousness and severity, he was not yet ready to let pass a good occasion to refresh himself, and what is more, in good company.
Life was dour and pleasures were rare at the Wall, as the Beaucastel men called the barrier being erected across the Pass. The land north of the Fire Mountains was rich and quite populated in spite of the looming menace of the volcanoes. Numnir had readily agreed to the Corporal’s request for regular leaves for the Royal Guards, as long as they were not on alert, and kept within a day’s reach.
Life at the Wall followed a regular pattern of three eight-hour shifts for Guards and prisoners.
Guards and Dwarves had three meals served at a refectory where cooks were always on hand to satisfy their guests who had the privilege to order anything within reason. The staff was always quick to point out any new arrivals or special treats. Both communities had come to share the same tables without fuss, right from the beginning. After all, their informal conversations around good food and ale or wine were one of the very few pleasures to be enjoyed in that desolate place.
Prisoners, on the other hand, where served plain, but healthy and plentiful hot meals washed down with water or light beer. They separately ate in their individual cells to avoid any petty fazing. They were requested to clean their rooms and own privies every day. The Dwarves had conceived a sewer system similar to that in Beaucastel. For many a convict, such a luxury had been unheard of. They were freed of their irons before returning to their jail. Each cell was also provided with a low wooden plank bed with straw bedding changed every week. The inmates could ask for supplementary blankets if they were cold. They were made to wash their clothes regularly, while their uniforms and boots could be replaced as soon as they had become worn out. A military physician made periodic rounds to check their good health. Apart of that, they were granted no privilege or personal belongings whatsoever. Their guards needed not be reminded that their charges were making time for particularly awful deeds and crimes. The convicts certainly did not attract any sympathy from their overseers, as they were granted enough time to rest and plenty of food. But for the hard work, they could be considered lucky compared to life in other jails in Beaucastel or Dunlago.
Rockgrinder put his tanker back onto the table with a clonk:
“Gratien, how many laborers do we have?”
“Nine score, that is, three score for each eight-hour shift.”
“Umph! Sixty men and forty Dwarves, if we apply the same system. It might be a good idea if we Dwarves worked in teams with the same gang of prisoners. It would save a lot of explanations in the long run. We could use the rest of the time polishing the work and planning for more.”
“I would say this a good notion indeed!” commented the Corporal. “But as far as the Guards are concerned, I will have to change their shifts regularly. I don’t want those criminals to get accustomed to the same faces. That could prove dangerous!”
Numnir approved:
“You are right. While Dwarves are actually working with those men and must obtain the best results possible from them, your soldiers are only guarding them and making sure they do not stray from their arranged path. We certainly cannot afford them to entertain unhealthy ideas of developing any kind of relation with your men! To make things easier, I will ask King Gerhart and Captain Geoffroy d’Arcourt to change a third of the Guards every moon!”
“I would be most grateful, Ironfoot!” the Corporal sincerely thanked. “But make sure they do not send anyone in my stead! I don’t know why, but I wish to stay until at least the Wall has been completed!”
“In my turn, I would greatly appreciate your help until the end of that big venture, too! Gratien, you are a rare person to have around, and I would be really sad to see you go!” Numnir added.
Rockgrinder seemed satisfied with the arrangement, too:
“Good! That will make our work definitely a lot easier! Now, not to change the subject, may I ask you a personal question?”
Gratien assented with a chortle:
“Of course you may! I will decide if I wish to answer, that is all!”
“Thanks. I was wondering, I’ve heard that Blue Knights always had a Walkyrie on their left side. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen any of them here, although I was told they count for half of your royal Guards …”
The Corporal raised his hand to stop the flood of inquiries that were bound to follow.
“Rockgrinder! You are well informed! Now, we at the Wall were chosen for the simple fact that none of us has found the right woman yet! Actually, the same applies for Walkyries. Tradition might say that Blue Knights and Walkyries ride side-by-side, but only if they are betrothed. You must understand that either kind of Guard might find his or her lifelong companion outside the Palace, among lay people. Moreover, I’m afraid you can’t generalize on everyone’s personal preferences, when it comes to love or more fundamental relations. I would not presume on Dwarven lifestyle and traditions, but saying that a Blue Knight should find a Walkyrie is a bit too simple and even patronizing. No offense taken, mind you! Personally I love women and only women. But I’m not ready yet to commit myself to betrothal! The other reason you do not see any Walkyrie is obvious, since all our prisoners are male. You do not want more complications than absolutely necessary, do you? Now that I have answered your question, you owe me one: for my part, I have always wondered what a female Dwarf looked like?”
Both Dwarves roared in laughter.
It took them a while before they recovered.
Rockgrinder finally replied:
“Wait until you meet our King’s wife! Since it might take some time, I might say right away that the apparent physical differences are few. They do not have beards, but that does not mean you will find them less ugly. They are certainly well-endowed at chest level, and apart from their high-pitched voices, that is all you will notice at first. They work as hard as their male counterparts, swear as much, eat as much and drink as much! If you put them here as guards, I can tell you that your prisoners wouldn’t give a damn about the difference! Even a Dunlago giant stands little chance to overcome a female Dwarf!”
“Why don’t we see any among your charges, then?”
“They love their mountains and caves even more than their males. But when our King and Queen come to Beaucastel before next Spring, quite a few should accompany them. I can guarantee you’ll have your fill of them, then! There is only one thing a Dwarf fears more than a mountain collapse, and it’s a female Dwarf!”
“I can’t wait to meet one of them, then!”
“Gratien, are you out of your mind?”
“Not at all. I’ve been blessed, or cursed, with a very curious nature. That is why I’ve always volunteered for missions away from Beaucastel. I do well with your Dwarves and thoroughly enjoy their company. Why shouldn’t it be the same with the fair gender of your kin?”
Both dwarves roared in merriment again.
Rockgrinder raised his tankard:
“Well, we will drink to that!”
Glamrun and the Wolf sat immobile, hidden among the mangrove trees in the gloom of the night. Here the forest was at its thickest and concealed a large knoll emerging above sea tide level. The rock mound must have existed there for a long time before the forest had grown around to the point of rendering it completely invisible from any point along the border of the woods. No natural way led to the clearing created by the bare rock, except for a narrow canal, which had been cut through the tress by human hands. It had taken them two full days to reach it, wading in shallow waters over sand and mud and finding their way between and around trees and hanging roots. Knowing what was in wait ahead, Glamrun had carried enough water and food for both of them, but even so, they could not afford to stay long before tracing their way back. Food could be found in the form of shellfish, crab and other crustaceans and a few sparse hanging fruit. But humans would be hard put to light a fire inside the forest, except for the small rock mesa where they presently saw figures sitting around a brazier. The nights in the mangrove were cool and comfortable. The fire served more for cooking and drying than for mere heating. Half a dozen huts large enough for six to eight occupants each had been erected along the rim of the rock for easy access to the water. Depending upon the time of the day and receding tides, the river pushed the salty brine back to the sea, providing enough to drink as they had found out on their way. So one could definitely survive without too much trouble, especially if one had access to the sea for regular provisioning. Three shallow barges were moored to piles in front of the narrow canal. The passage through the forest must have been cut in circuitous fashion, or Dunlago or Beaulieu ships would have surely spotted it. It proved a very clever and effective hideout. Judging from the look of the huts, it must have existed there for a sizable length of time.
“Who are they?” asked the Wolf in mindspeech.
“Slavers. Who else would need to stay away from human eyes for so long? Certainly not pirates or smugglers. The former simply do not exist in Alymndes, and the latter can conduct their activities in all impunity through the innumerous caravan routes found south of Dunlago, through the Steppes and across the wide Beaulieu border. Moreover, these humans show physical traits not found in any part of Alymndes. They are smaller than most men found in Beaulieu, but broader than the warriors of the Steppes. Their skin is dark, which implies they must have come from warmer climates or spend long days at sea. Note their clothes, hair fashion and ornaments. They do not hail from this part of the continent.”
“And they smell different!”
When Glamrun’s thought reached the siblings, they were all asleep or lying on beds.
Dargelblad woke up inside his tree, minding not to disturb Ellana.
Ekan was lying on his bed inside his room upstairs above the Blue Mermaid main hall. Mareeva did not stir on her couch.
Amrel was caught in the middle of a very interesting occupation with Geoffroy and experienced some trouble disassociating her mind from her body without rousing her lover’s attention.
Umatar was asleep inside her yurt after a long workday in Fair Trade City. Boy was contentedly snoring at the other end of the canvassed shelter.
Numnir had fallen into a doze over his map table. He cared little for a bed and could slumber anywhere and anytime he chose.
“Yes, Father?” The common answer came inside the Old Wyrm’s head.
“Look through my eyes. Ekan, keep a rein on yourself!” he cautioned.
The warning had not come too early, as he felt rage seething through the Black Dragon’s body at the sight of the slavers.
“Where are they?” he screamed in his Father’s mind.
“Inside a vast mangrove forest between Anse and Valmoray, the two northernmost port towns in Beaulieu. They have been hiding here for a long time, judging from their organization!”
“I will take care of that scum right away” Ekan growled.
“You are certainly not!” Glamrun roared back. “This is exactly the kind of reaction we have to avoid at all costs! Moreover, you shan’t find a better occasion for Dunlago and Beaulieu to join forces and eradicate that filth once for all!”
The Black Dragon finally calmed down as he saw the good sense in this sire’s suggestion.
“I will have Petren and his Constables take care of that from our side!” he uttered.
Amrel joined him:
“We just happen to have the right people to help you! And what’s more, since they include Tribesmen of the Steppes, you will benefit from the cooperation of three nations united against that evil!”
“Good!” her Father replied. “Wolf and I will depart at once. I leave you the decision of when and how to take action. But do not participate in person! Let the Races of Alymndes look after themselves!”
“Where are you headed for?” Dargelblad inquired.
“We go back to the South. I want to take a look at the Pass.”
“Will I meet you there in person?” Numnir hopefully asked.
“I doubt this is a good idea. Sorry! All of you, take good care of yourselves!”
The contact was abruptly broken.
Two days later, Mareeva was lying on her couch and was about to close her eyes, when a voice came into her head:
“Mareeva, are you awake?”
“Wolf!” The little girl exclaimed in her mind.
She had grown very adept at their mindspeech conversations.
Nobody would have known, including her father, that the seemingly sleeping child was engaged in a deep conversation with another creature miles and miles away.
“Where are you?”
“We are in Beaulieu. You know, the land of the pink people? Well, I can tell you right now that you will visit that place with your father next year after winter!”
“What’s winter?”
“It is when the weather gets cold and it starts snowing like in the land I come from.”
“What’s snow?”
“It’s rain which has become ice and falls from the sky.”
“How cold will it be?”
“Well, you will not know since you will go in Spring, the new season after winter, when new plants and flowers come out of the earth. But let’s say you will need at least two layers of fur to protect you.”
“What about you, then? Will you be alright?”
The Wolf chortled:
“No problem! I wear my own fur. And it will grow longer and thicker as soon as the weather turns cold!”
“That’s very neat, isn’t it? I wish I could grow hair like that!”
“It wouldn’t look very pretty! Clothes are better for humans! You don’t want people in Beaulieu to confuse you with some furry animal, would you?
Mareeva could not help laugh at the idea.
She became serious for her next question:
“But I will know almost nobody there!”
“Don’t worry! I know a boy there who will be very happy to look after you, and take you to places where only children want to go!”
“Is he pink, too?”
“Oh yes! And he also has frizzy yellow hair! Think about it! And now, tell me good night!”
“Good night, Wolf!”
“Good night, little one!”
Mareeva soon fell asleep and dreamed about running hand in hand with a strange boy with pink skin and yellow hair inside a house all made of stone.


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