Chapter 1

The first tale...

Losing Time. Of getting lost finding a way

We are all lost, ourselves unbeknownst he thought. Standing on the edge of the precipice enjoying a spectacular vista spreading out in front of him far below. He felt sublimely separated from all human endeavors as he took in the view. The scenery was one of misty green valleys separated by mountain chains, stretching all the way to the horizon filled with forests and sprinkled by iceblue lakes glittering in the cold morning as star sapphires. He was so high up that he actually had believed the fog clinging to the mountain under him to be clouds. Letting his imagination soar he easily could see himself, same as the hawk above him, uncaringly sailing the skies. Slowly turning into the wind watching it all in a constant search for movements. Under him the fog was starting to shrivel up with tendrils of mist tardily undulating, dissolving under the weak morning's light into tiny droplets of water. Standing there free and above it all he felt as a king. As if some long lost puzzle pieces finally were falling into place, it wasn't as if he was entirely happy but there was a certain feeling of peace in it.

Thinking back it all seemed inevitable, as if his losses had steered him, like an arrow loosened, to this place and time. Did there really exist a free choice he wondered as he looked out over the valley or was it all preordained? For a moment he got this overwhelming feeling that no matter what paths he might have chosen they all, in the end, would have left him at this here and now. So much gone he thought friends as well as love. It was as if his memories belonged to someone else as he looked back at his life, like an endless maze of paths, which once chosen never would lead you back. At least he knew the beginning of the play but the ending he thought wryly, what about that? There no longer seemed to be any reason except that damned cowardice. So is that why we come he wondered, to make some new life and then? And when exactly do we become disposable, like strange toys once working, now broken. And love? Would that just be another word for the fear of facing life alone, companionship for the offering with us as the merchandise? His brooding didn't do him any good, he knew that, but it gave him the impartial eyes of a God to look on all human folly, his own included. Although, however rational that view might seem at times, it still left him nothing but a foul taste in his mouth.

Trying to break loose from those mordant musings he stooped down to lift his backpack, fastening it to his back. Giving his camp a last look over, once more checking that it was cleared with no revealing traces left, he slowly started his trek down the mountain. On the move again, leaving as small footprints as possible. He was slightly amused realizing just how hard some habits died especially when stemming, as his did, all the way from the Service. In a way it was bittersweet being on the march again, one last charge into the unknown, but thinking of it, wasn't that the same for all kinds of walks he mused, if it so only was going out for milk. It's all a question of proportions he thought, my saliva becoming your phlegm. The dawn was still chilly so he had put on an extra sweater for that first stroll down. Listening he noticed that there only were a few birds to be heard now and looking up there was a infinite sweep of empty blue sky, promising him a clear and hot day.

It was good to be walking again he thought with a wry smile as he shook of his sleepiness, one foot before the other, moving as if in a trance while watching the sun clearing its way through the misty stillness of the mountain. He couldn't help but notice how the sounds seemed to magnify themselves as he carefully made his way down, he knew that sound traveled faster in water so perhaps the dampness had something to do with it. The fog made it hard to pinpoint wherefrom the sounds came too which he found even stranger. He really should have waited for the sun to dry it up he realized as he stumbled on some unseen stone, this was downright dangerous. Only a fool would go blundering down a mountain unable to see more than a few feet before him he thought with another wry smile fleetingly passing, but he was too damned impatient to wait. As he had looked down at the vista before he had this sudden urge to finally see those forests and lakes at close range. And as long as he kept to the trail it shouldn't be too dangerous he reasoned. Not that is manmade he admitted to himself but it was at least walk able.

Some time later the sun's beams finally succeeded in boring their way down the fog, painting the scenery in streaks of gold, giving him glimpses of the valley below leaving only the most distant parts shrouded. Making a estimate of the time passed he guessed that he had been trekking just over two weeks now, he had actually lost count of the days just understanding it when finding that his food almost was gone. I'm on my walkabout of a lifetime he thought smiling at his own folly. He had hoped against all odds, and what a weak hope that had been shown to be, that there might be something more to it than just a means to an end, but cold logic seemed to prove it wrong. It might be his final walkabout he admitted, then again, he knew worse ways to go than this. Though it would be nice to see something new, while one still could enjoy it he thought a little wistfully but as always with that feeling of time hiding just around the next corner, just waiting to pounce upon him once and for all. But he found himself strangely at peace with it today. One step at a time, one at a time boy'o, he thought as he carefully found his way down, methodically putting one foot before the other while enjoying the suns play with shadows and light.

After some indefinite time he found himself in a little glade. Standing there he didn't have a clue to where he might be any more, but looking back he could see the mountain towering over him. I must have been sleepwalking there he thought. The sun that by now stood high and strong in the sky finally unveiled those last parts of the valley that he had observed from above. He just stood there for a moment grateful to be warm again, just enjoying this moment of peace, then he put down his backpack and took of his sweater, it was all to warm for him now he thought. He lifted his canteen as if to toast the glade before he drank, enjoying a pleasant tang of single malt in it, his last drops of that precious fluid, almost empty now just like his food. Over by the bushes he could hear the clear sound of running water, a brook perhaps? There was a timeless quality to the glade with summer ripe bushes clad in small red and white flowers imperceptibly turning after the sun. Standing there he for a short breathless moment became a part of it, disappearing to himself.

Definitely hunger he decided, looking around again he decided that this was as good a place as anywhere, having made up his mind he went over by the brook to make his lunch. There was a sense of peace and a calm here and to keep walking without goal or purpose seemed meaningless. Behind the bushes he found a small darkly reflecting spring. The last fog was breaking up now giving him a clear view of the mountain magnifying it making him feel like an ant. He could see himself darkly reflected inside the spring as he looked down, he leaned over to see his reflection. It felt as if he was drawn to it and suddenly sucked right into it, now inside that pool looking out watching that infinity of blue sky rushing at him, or maybe him rushing at it? The glade had by now shrunk into a deep green bowl with him in its center being studied by a deep blue eye above. When he woke up he found himself lying on the grass beside the spring with the backpack at his side. He stayed where he was for a moment, trying to ascertain what just had happened, looking around feeling strangely disconnected. I must be weaker than I thought he thought as he carefully sat up finding his bearings again. As far as he could see everything was the same, although he didn't remember the greenery to be this green and lush before. Checking the sun he decided that he couldn't have been out for more than a minute or two. He got up rubbing his eyes wondering if he had dreamt it all, but somehow it just didn't seem to fit.

The last thing seen was that deep blue eye merrily laughing at him, no he thought wondering, not at him but with him. Now, how the hell can a eye laugh he asked himself, but there you were, it was as if he had been company to a really good joke even though he for the life of him couldn't understand what the joke had been about. Worrying that his trekking finally had gotten to him he lifted his backpack, while putting it right he happened to look at a small bush with big leathery blades slightly to the side of the clearing. Tangled in it he thought he had caught a glimpse of something glimmering so out of curiosity he went over to have a closer look. It was a locket entangled in the bush, he decided that it had to have been there for quite some time as the bush seemed to have grown up around it. Engraved on it was a finely chiseled unicorn but with a tarnished old look to it. It hung there by a finely wrought silver chain swept in and out around its roots. It must have been lifted up from the earth as the bush grew he thought as he unchained it, holding it in his hand. Turning it over he found the small spring that sprung it, opening it he found a small piece of yellowish stuff that looked very much like some old parchment.

Unfolding it he became surprised of its size, it was much larger than one could expect seeing it folded. And it wasn't paper at all, more like some very thin silk. Studying it he made it out t be a map of some sort, there were also finely writings on it but in no script he could recognize. While looking at it he found both the spring and the mountain depicted on it, it could even start exactly from this very spring he realized as a spring was placed in its middle. It really didn't make any sense, on the other hand, nothing seemed to make any sense today he had to admit to himself, smiling at his sudden iMage of himself staring dumbfounded at some yellow wrinkled silk parchment. So there was a last adventure waiting then? "Well" he said to himself his voice slightly rusty from disuse, "let's follow that yellow brick road then" suddenly unexplainably happy with a sense as if some dark weight at long last was loosening its hold of him.

Opening his backpack he localized his pan and the last of his dried meat, checking the water quality he found it perfectly sufficient with the spring having a constant flow to it. Building a little fireplace beside with some stones he had found he sat himself down to wait for his breakfast. He took out the map to take another look at it, in fact it seemed to describe a place similar to where he was, with a spring as well as mountains in it. One of the things he found strange about the map was that it had what he believed to be a rising sun depicted, but on the map it was coming up in the west instead of the east if compared to ordinary maps. Feeling consternated he turned it around and suddenly it made sense with the mountain and the spring in it easily recognizable but he still couldn't make any sense of the strange markings, accompanied by small notes that was scribbled on it in some unknown language. He realized with a pang of excitement that one of them seemed to be just where he was not far from the spring at all. It looked to his eyes as some artist's deranged description of a moon resting on a tree. Feeling full and satisfied and for once with a simple goal he finally put out his fire and moved the stones back to where he had found them. Not that anyone would notice, but that didn't seem reason enough for a man to break his habits he thought slightly sarcastically.

At last satisfied with its pristine look he went on to see if he could find that mark. It took him quite some time as well as some rather clever deductions to find it but at last he was reasonably sure that he had it pinpointed. A lot had changed over the years since that map first had been drawn but he strongly believed the tree to have been there then too. It was an old oak, gnarly old and high, with a mighty spread of leafy green branches growing out from it and with its trunk wider in girth than any tree he had seen before. Walking around it he made it out to roughly measure forty feet. Looking at the map once more it suddenly seemed to him that whatever mystery there was it only could be solved above ground, the marking on the map seemed to indicate that too as it was placed halfway up the tree. Giving the ground and the oak a last lingering look he decided to try it. "What the hell Toto. Let's see if I still know how to climb a tree." He said as he went for a low hanging branch. It was harder than he had thought climbing that oak, not at all as when he had been a boy. But he could still feel the anticipation build as he was making his way up the tree. "Yep, this is surely the grandfather of all oaks." he muttered sourly some time later, finding himself in dire need of some rest and only halfway up at that. He choose a thick forked branch to sit on, taking great care in not slipping while doing so.

Dangling his legs over the abyss he felt like Tom Sawyer, a pipe, some tobacco and a jug, that's all that's missing here he thought as he leaned backwards once more to look up at that green canopy above, teasing him and just out of reach. "This damned tree is definitely higher than I expected." he mumbled as he opened the map again. Okay, so maybe he couldn't understand it he acknowledged but he still got a queer feeling that something was mighty peculiar with it, that marking of the moon seemed to have gotten itself a totally unearthly color. "Gotta be some trick of the light." he mumbled to himself as he fruitlessly tried to spot what exactly had changed with his map. Suddenly he found himself staring straight past it down at the ground, it seemed far away now, much farther than one would expect from what little climbing he had done so it was with a slight touch of vertigo he started to raise himself from the branch. Suddenly his hand slipped, it was as if the branch itself somehow pulled itself away, he lost his balance. Desperately he held on to a thin branch just to find it breaking in his hand and by now having no way to stop it he started falling. In what to him felt as a slow motion he toppled over his fall accelerating as he stared fascinated on the ground rushing in to meet him. It's not that bad, he found himself unexplainably thinking as he without fear and almost with gratitude, waited for the fall to end. Everything disappeared in some sort of tunnel vision leaving him only the slowly rotating ground and his own breath.

Waking up it felt as if that breath never ended, also his sight seemed to be gone as everything was dark. It seemed as if he was lying on his back with his backpack under his head, but for his life he couldn't understand where he was. Trying to remember just seemed to make him more confused. Every time he tried to the fog in his head became worse just as his headache. "Lie still, friend" he heard a clear low voice behind him, "I'll see to your hurts in a moment, don't move if you can". He tried to turn his head, immediately wishing he hadn't as every move compounded to his headache. "Please be still I said friend" he heard that same low voice.

"You must have fallen a long way, a long way indeed Sir, it's a wonder you didn't break any bones" "But I can't see?" he said. "Have I gone blind?" "No." The voice answered. "You're not blind but your eyes are swollen tight, it seems you crossed a wasps nest on your way down and crossed you made them indeed. But please, try to be still now so I can help you." Trying to touch his eyes had been excruciating so he didn't much want to move any way. The voice sounded very sweet he thought, comforting him by its sound alone. "How long was I out?" he asked in vain trying to remember what had happened, he had a vague memory of himself falling but for his world he couldn't remember much of anything before that moment. Just that he had been trekking on a 'walkabout', was it?

"Am I on a walkabout?" he asked himself wonderingly. "And just what is a 'walkabout' friend?" he heard the voice asking as he felt her hands wrapping something around his head covering his eyes, it had a herbal fragrance to it and made the pain reduce somewhat. "I don't know?" he said confused. " You don't know?" "I do and I don't." Rolandanswered somewhat annoyed. "I do know the word, but its meaning makes no sense." He heard her laugh, now he was definite that it must be girl. "If it means that you were walking I tend to agree. There were to traces of a horse where I found you, only you and that old medallion you held in your hand." Yes, the locket, he thought, as he started to remember a little more. "And you are a girl?" He asked cautiously. "No offence meant." he hastily added, if he now was mistaken in his deduction. "Now, what's wrong with being a girl?" The voice asked, suddenly sounding suspicious. "Do you have a problem with girls?" "No, of course not" He said. "I just meant that your voice." "Ah, rest assured friend" She answered, now with a barely suppressed mirth to her voice. "I am indeed that rarest of breeds, a woman and I will most hard try not to take offence to that fact."

Shit, he thought. "Look, I'm sorry." he said under his breath. "There was no insult meant, I just wondered, that's all." "Oh, no insult taken, so, would you like to introduce yourself?" "Of course, I'm Roland ah..." It was so hard trying to remember his last name, strange. "Plain Roland miss, at your service." "Oh no." she answered. "No Mistress here 'Plain Roland', just a simple hedge-witch placed here by the guild to help my community, by the grace of our Lady." Hedge witch? Now, what on earth is she talking about here he thought? And why can't I remember my last name? Did she think that miss stood for mistress? Are we then both deranged he wondered. But she sounded nice enough and as she otherwise seemed as normal as him he decided to give them both the benefit of a doubt and leave it be. There wasn't anything he could do anyway he realized as even his slightest motion gave him a headache. "And your name would be, ah, miss?"

"You poor thing you" he heard her mutter "Your hearing gone too?" She raised her voice. "As I said Master Roland, No Mistress for me, I'm only a ordinary hedge-witch by the name of Marigold if you please, you can call me Mari if you like" Roland who wasn't prepared for this sudden onslaught on his ears twitched helplessly finding his headache reaching cosmic proportions. "I'm sorry Roland, did I startle you" she asked contritely as she observed the effect her voice had had on him, she continued in a slightly subdued manner. "I've called for two men from the hamlet to help us to my cottage. It might take some time before they arrive though so try to relax." Roland tried in vain to find a restful position, finally dropping of in an uneasy sleep visited by vague uneasy dreams in which he was falling, time and time again. When he woke up he found that he at last could open his eyes marginally, but with his vision really blurry. Rubbing them he belatedly realized that Marigold must have used some ointment as the only thing he succeeded in was spreading it all over his face. As Mari saw him move she went over to him.

He saw a blurred image lean over him and then felt someone help him up, giving him some smelly broth to drink. "Try to drink it, it's good for you." She reproached as he hesitated, after some consideration he bravely did as she told finding it every bit as vile as its smell had warned him about, soon to fall into a deep sleep again. Again he had those weird dreams about falling but now into the water. As he woke up the next time he felt much better though, his headache becoming almost bearable. Straining to open his eyes he found himself resting in a bed weakly redolent of some sweet aroma. It stood in the corner of what seemed to be a rather big room. Placed in the middle there was an old table with an unevenly made green ceramic pot standing on it. It was filled with flowers spreading a fresh aroma through the cottage and the table was surrounded by an odd assortment of chairs coming from various designs and colors. At the far corner of the cottage there was an old blackened hearth. It had a weathered, once red stone chimney, following the wall out through the roof, in it there a small fire was dancing with a big black kettle hanging above it simmering.

He noticed that whoever it was living here had gone to quite some length trying to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The cottage had two windows open to catch the air letting in the morning's light, each one framed in a warm green color. The windows themselves consisted of a lot of small differently colored glass panes soldered together into a eye-pleasing manner. The leaded windowpanes seemed old and uneven to his eyes, leading his thoughts to those stained glass windows you could see in old churches. All taken together it made him wonder if he had woken up inside someone else's fairytale. What worried him most though was the fact that as soon as he tried to remember anything past that oak his headache seemed to reach immense proportions, that sure was some fall he thought as he finally gave up on it. The sunbeams falling in through the panes seemed perfectly normal to him, rather reassuringly so he thought as he watched how they filled the room with a golden hue vaguely reminding of some old painting. Strangely enough it made him feel as if he was a child waking up at Christmas day, impatiently waiting to open his presents or maybe as if it was the very first day of a summer vacation. As he didn't really know what to do he decided to take it easy and enjoy his rest, and wait for that sweet voice's owner.

But it was becoming very strange and stranger yet that it felt so consolingly familiar, as if he knew it by heart. "Through and beyond then." he mumbled, pleasantly surprised over his eloquence this early in the morning. He couldn't really reconcile himself with the notion of this being heaven though, it seemed all too real to him and also a little to, ah, common perhaps, to resemble any heaven he knew of at least. Nope, it ain't Valhalla at all he decided as he languorously tried to find that perfect position for a relaxed meditation. It was a creaking sound that woke him, it came from the front door softly opening and he saw a lithe silhouette swept in the sunlight falling in behind it. "Welcome back to the land of the living Roland." Mari said as she closed the door going directly to check on the kettle simmering over the fire. "Yes. Coming along nicely." She mumbled to herself, sounding well pleased as she turned back to him. "Now my friend, let me have a look at you," she came over to lean over him bringing a fresh smell of mint with her. "Now, where is your bandage Roland?" "What bandage?" Roland asked confused. "Ah, there it is," she said as she found it under his pillow. "Don't worry, it must have came loose as you slept, anyway your eyes seems much better and the swelling is down too. How is your headache Roland?" "It's almost gone Miss." answered Roland. "I haven't said thanks yet, have I? Thanks a lot Mari"

He was treating himself to another surreptitious look when he found himself caught in those green flecked eyes. Not able to take his eyes away from hers and in a vain attempt too hide his confusion he said. "Without your help Mari, I think I would have been a goner." She studied him frankly and with curiosity filling her eyes, a woman of indeterminable age he thought neither to young nor too old, ageless might be the word he sought after here. She was of delicate features and dressed in a simple homespun brown garment with green eyes sparkling of life and laughter. "A 'goner' Roland? You certainly have a strange use of words. Still, it was my pleasure helping you." She found herself wondering about him anew, there was definitely magic involved somewhere she thought. His sudden appearance out of nowhere that day she saw him fall, and the strange materials of his clothes and that remarkable haversack he had was all unknown to her and very cleverly made. Although with him lying there looking at her with an awed expression on his face he didn't struck her as being particularly dangerous to anyone. More like some eager Pup wagging his tail wanting to please she thought, starting to smile.

Roland who by now had started to feel more than a little stupid wondered just how long he had stared at her, she must think me an idiot he thought seeing the smile. "I'm sorry Mari, it's just that I'm so pleased to be able to see the person hiding behind that lovely voice." He tried to sound relaxed. "I'm not usually like this, it's just such a pleasure finding myself here with you." And so it was, he had been right in that there was a present waiting, she had to be his gift from the gods he thought waiting for the unwrapping. Slightly distressed over the slippery road his thoughts now seemed to take he tried his best to think of something else. They didn't address where the hell he was for example? But considering it all he had to admit that nothing seemed normal any more, hadn't she told him that she was a hedge witch? "We're definitely not in Kansas anymore Toto." He mumbled feeling a vague sense of dread. Mari gave him a look. Yes, his fever is definitely rising she decided, he's starting to imagine things again.

"I am confused." He admitted, proving her diagnose to be a hundred percent certain. "I have a diffuse memory of me traveling, and I'm pretty sure that wherever I was then it must have been a really fair distance from this." She shook her head listening to him. "Don't be impatient Roland, you've got to give it some time." she soothed as she lifted her sooty black copper kettle off the hook. Carefully she set it down on that old darkly varnished table, There was a strange but not unpleasant herbal scent coming from it, infused with a whiff of liquorice and mint, then she turned to him again. "Now Roland, while you were sleeping I took the opportunity to wash your clothes." Clothes? Roland who suddenly realized that he was in her bed without a thread on him except his smile moved restlessly. Mari found herself quite taken by seeing a grown man blush. "Oh, are you worrying again Roland?" She asked trying her best to reassure him. "I've seen men before, you know." Will this torture never end Roland thought helplessly as he felt himself turning into a living carrot. "Do you mean you have another?" He asked trying to turn it into a joke finding himself hoping against all odds that there was no such man in her life.

She studied him appraisingly, what exactly did he mean by that she wondered,, was he coming on to her? Nah, he was much too weak and tired she though, smiling at the ridiculous notion of him trying to flirt with one foot in the grave, well, not really, but near enough. He's still in a state of shock she decided, it was after all an easy diagnosis to do with him having no memory, even hallucinating at times and using such weird sayings. He was clearly not himself she thought. She decided to diversify herself from her growing but slightly unbecoming curiosity by sorting out the herbs she had collected. Lifting the sack up in her lap she said. "Roland, enough is enough. All said and done I am still a healer." But she couldn't help a secretive smile as she started to sort. Roland who by now had realized that his feeble attempts of levity just had fallen on its stomach decided to ease her mind. Smiling at her reassuringly he said, trying for that debonair air. "I'm so sorry Mari, I just can't accept a lovely lass like you and no man there to take care of you?" Mari who by now started to feel slightly confused herself sternly answered. "Sir, would you mind, surely we can find other matters of interest?" But by this time Roland's mouth already had a life of its own. "Oh, but I do mind Mari, I mind terribly." He heard himself say.

Falling into that green ocean again, his whole universe consisting of two disappointed green eyes subtly flecked in brown. "And I'm an idiot Mari." He told her contritely. "I didn't mean, that is, I couldn't stop myself." Mari who could hear the remorse clinging to his voice decided to give him a second chance. "You wasn't hurting me Roland, but you were definitely confusing me." She bent over to touch his forehead. "It must be your fever talking," acting cool and professionally again. "Just relax and let me make some soup, everything will straighten itself out, given time." Roland wondered what had came over him, he was sure he that he kept his cool under most circumstances but something about Mari made him into a bumbling nincompoop. He just couldn't take his eyes of her and even though he tried to be subtle about it Mari noticed. In fact it made her feel very self-aware as well as making her into an uncoordinated stumbling mess, finally ending with her helplessly looking at him as caught as a deer under the headlights, Roland who realized that he was doing it again closed his eyes. "Time to catch up on my sleep." He mumbled decisively turning to the wall while desperately wishing that he just were a spot on it.

Watching him turn away Mari came awake again, she couldn't remember the last time feeling so exposed. The nearest she could relate to was that time she had to go up for her disputation in front of one of the most reputable sorcerer's in Awia, defending her hedge-witch certificate. They had told her that it was a true privilege and honor to have such a formidable opponent but it sure hadn't felt like it. It was as if this weird man found something remarkable in her and whatever it was it sure made her flustered she thought but also, in some strange way, appreciated. Not that the men around her didn't take to her now and then. More than once she had found herself forced to refuse a too obvious even to say obnoxious cavalier. In fact it was partly due to her latest refusal she now found herself situated at this little hamlet. One didn't refuse a sorcerer of the blood without consequences. The Mage had even gone so far as to hint that she might have used a potion to catch his interest, not that the healers guild had believed him she thought but they still had found it for good to place her out of his reach.

But this interest was somehow cleaner and rather refreshingly so. It was intensely personal as well as nicely prejudiced to her advantage, if she now had to be objective about it, witch she quickly decided that she didn't have to, healers oath or not. She gave him another furtive glance as she started to clean the dishes suspecting that he probably didn't even realize what he was doing. It was just his fever magnifying his emotions she guessed as she put away the last cup, getting better he probably wouldn't remember it at all. No matter what, there was still more to be found out before deciding about him especially now with the war drawing so close. For all that she knew he could as easily be a spy sent here to learn the lay of the land, soon gone back to report to that most loathsome Lordship. But she had felt no foulness of mind while treating him, nor seen any of that deviousness one would expect with the foul ones. It's a pity that I never learnt much mind-talk she thought as she sorted out her herbs neatly dividing them into day and night. Some she hung over the hearth to dry directly but most had to be treated by hand before that.

Then again, even if she knew how to mind-talk she still would need his assent to do it. To do otherwise would certainly befoul her and allowing such actions could corrupt even the best. Which I'm not Lady, she hastily added, making the sign of the lady, her left hand open over her heart in a ageless symbol of honesty and good will. When the soup was finished she took it to him together with her favorite chair. Gently helping him up into an upright position she then proceeded to start feeding him. "Look Mari, I'll manage." He protested as he realized her plan but noticing a fleeting expression of disappointment he hastily amended it to. "Wait, you're right Mari, see I can't lift my arm." Having a pained expression he clumsily tried to move his right arm. "There, you see now, don't you Roland." She said almost triumphantly. "Never argue with a healer." She dipped the spoon into something that smelled delicious, reminding him of some kind of stew or thick soup having chunks of mutton potato and onion in it."Yep. For once a true win win situation, if I now ever seen such a thing." He mumbled as he openly admired her as she sat there beside him. "There you go again Roland, we better get your fever down methinks." she said not able to hide her smile. "Those strange expressions of yours, they do confuse me. Stop that gibberish and open your mouth now." "Ah, never mind" he mumbled to himself feeling a slightly goofy smile spreading. "After all, a moment to cherish and remember." Obediently opening his mouth to meet her wish.

After the meal was finished he couldn't help but feel fidgety though. "Mari dear, would you mind bringing me my backpack?" He asked wondering what things he might have there, maybe he would find clues helping him remember in it? "Of course not Roland, but I'm no deer you know?" Hearing her he got confused for a second. "A joke Mari, that was a joke right, good on you girl. You know what, I'm feeling so much stronger after your lovely soup, ah, stew?" he said in a suggestive voice. "And a little fresh air could only do me good, don't you agree?" She scrutinized his appearance for a moment, weighting the hurts against his barely hidden restlessness, then she softened giving him her barely discernable approval. "I'll leave then, so you can get dressed?" She asked remembering his awkwardness before. "Yes thanks, if you please Mari. Not that you haven't seen it all, but I wasn't awake then, and..." He stopped realizing that he had started to ramble again. She just gave him a sweet smile and got his backpack for him, neatly staying any further explanations, then she left to give him his privacy, but staying near the door she could hear him mutter to himself. "Where the hell did she put my socks, ah, there you are..."

Then there came a silence interrupted by some strange noises sounding very much like someone swearing under his breath. "Damn those damned socks, why can't they ever be the same." And then there was a awful noise, as if something heavy falling hitting the floor. "Damn, damn and blasted damn, damn those legs." She dearly hoped it wasn't his own legs he was damning now and that he hadn't fallen over the chair, but as it sounded as if he might need a hand any which way, she knocked at the door telling him "I'm coming in now Roland." Once inside she found him sitting on the floor, desperately trying to untangle himself from a chair at the same time as he was trying trying to get his trousers up. "Ah, sorry about the chair Mari, a little weaker than I thought I'm afraid, my balance seems a little off, mine not the chairs, see?" As he tried to show her that he hadn't broke it.

She helped him up on his feet again and turned to fix the chair as he fastened his belt. "What do you call that?" she asked pointing at his crotch. He looked down terrified that his fly might have become undone, then reddened furiously as he tried to understand. Seeing his face Mari started to laugh as she realized the implications. "Not that, you daft man." She said. "That thing closing your front." Roland relaxed a little, thank God she hadn't meant. "Ah, closing you say, not close too? Well, that should be a zipper miss" he answered. "A 'zipper'" she said musingly. "A strange name for such a ingenious invention, there must be some frightfully clever craftsmen where you come from Roland. What metal is it, bronze?" "Curiouser and Curiouser said Alice, " Roland muttered to himself while trying to make his mind up whether she was joking again or just being factual. "And just whom might Alice be?" asked Mari surprised and a little suspicious. "Did you leave her at home, seeing her are you? I'm afraid your fever is acting up Roland." She was coming at him with a worried expression on her face. "Sorry Mari." Roland answered while furtively checking that his fly really was closed. "It's just an old expression from home, and no, no fever at all. But we do seem to have a lot to talk about. And no, not bronze, steel." He could see Mari nodding sharply at that. "Yes, we do." She said, wondering what he meant by 'steel'? Something like iron probably she decided? "But didn't you say you wanted some fresh air? Let's do that."

Making sure that Mari understood his need of a strong hand he at last limped out of the cottage leaning on her to, as he told her, admire the countryside. Coming out he saw a mountain he thought he vaguely recognized but as turned around a full circle he found himself to be surrounded by similar mountains. There was some black sheep grazing just a few yards away from him and further down the trail, he wouldn't have called it a road, he saw a pond with some cows grazing and further behind that a small hamlet. All in all it seemed like a peaceful little pastoral, sort of reminding him of an old oil painting of Bruegel, like her chamber, and all so medieval. However he searched he couldn't see a car anywhere, no cars and no railroad either for that matter, no real roads at all in fact. Even though he saw the hamlet just some miles away, there were no sounds of machinery coming from it and no commerce done that he could see. He felt cold and alone, it couldn't have been worse, he thought, if he had found himself a thousand light years from home. It was as if the sheer normality of this mediaeval scene just pushed through its absolute wrongness so much stronger,

Finding himself deeply distressed he said. "This is all wrong Mari. It's so normal and so wrong." Trying to absorb it he for the first time truly started to wonder about his sanity. "Mari, why can't I remember, what is it with me?" Seeing him starting to rave Mari found it for best to get him back inside. To her relief he seemed to relax somewhat as they came in again. "Come and sit here Roland, let me make us a nice cup of tea." She took the kettle off the hook and after serving them both a cup she went to sit with him at the table. She studied him as he looking out, resting his elbows on the table. Watched with him how the sun set down, its light lifting forward those otherwise invisible particles, materializing their erratic dance in the air while flooding the room in different hues through the window panes. Slowly she felt how her calming soothed his tangled emotions.

After the tea and some sweet honey cakes that Mari had fetched for them he found that he felt much better even though he by no means was ready to face the world outside this room. Mari swept some crumbs off the table into her hand as she calmly promised him. "Roland, your headache will get better, and with a little luck and time I'm sure your memory will too." He looked helpless as he stared out the window, she found her heart aching for him. "But I don't know what's wrong with me Mari." He said quietly, as he turned to the fire to watch it. "It's like you been traveling in a haze, and when you look up you're in cuckoo land. No machines, no cars, not even a proper road. It's like going backwards in time. And what about yourself Mari? Saying yourself to be a hedgewitch, and serious to boot too. Doesn't that mean magic?"

She studied him thoughtfully weighting her answer, contemplating what her best response might be. Then she said in all seriousness. "Roland, I believe you to be a long way from home, the clothes you wear and the way you talk and act all bear witness to that, you're unlike anyone I ever meet before. And as you said it is the sheer ordinariness of you that makes the most impact on me, you seem so like me and we're sharing the same speech too. But to answer your question, magic is very real here, I do call myself a hedgewitch for a reason. Although we mostly use herbs for the simpler remedies we do have other means too if need be. And as for machines, yes, we do have some but they are rather simple out here in the countryside. If we came to a larger city you would see stone clad roads and some real machinery too. As for what cars is I don't know what you mean, is it carts you are thinking of?" Roland had to smile at the sheer incongruity of her reply "No Mari not carts, the only thing those have in common with cars is that they both use wheels. Wait, let me show you something." Rolands aid as he rummaged inside the backpack to finally lift up something that to her looked mostly like a large locket. It was a large locket she though, nothing she would have like to put around her neck. It was about the size of her palm and made out from some silvery metal with a strange sound to it. "Ah, so that's a car." Said Mari finding herself even more confused. "But where are those wheels you were talking about, and why would they roll around in the countryside?" Roland, by now feeling slightly poleaxed, carefully opened the locket to show her its innards, and doing so he patiently explained it to be what he called a 'pocket watch', not a car. Showing her the numbers inscribed on its face he described to her how it measured time by its dials moving and driven by what to her seemed as highly complicated and delicate machinery.

"It's what is I call a watch, a timepiece or a clock" he said. "At home I used it for knowing the time, luckily for me this one is rather old, a mechanical watch in fact, if it had been a modern one it would have stopped working here I think. Have you ever seen anything like it Mari?" He looked at her, almost in fear for what her answer might be. She looked at the watch, weighting it in her hand while listening to its ticking. Then she looked back at Roland ruefully shaking her head. "I've heard tales Roland, but this is the first such clock I've ever seen. Here only the richest and most influential people could afford such a mechanical marvel and those I know of is mostly placed in clock towers, you have to be a man of great importance where you come from Roland." Roland had to smile at that. "No Mari, where and what ever I was, I sure as hell wasn't no lord. Everyone used such devices at home but that's only a small part of it Mari, it's like I'm locked inside some book. I'm not even sure that I'm here at all anymore, do you see what I'm aiming at Mari? Am I dreaming?"

Mari became silent. She seemed lost in thoughts for a moment, then with her mind made up she effortlessly moved over to his side. Gently turning his face to hers she leaned over him giving him an enthralling glimpse of her cleavage in the process. It was summer he tasted in her lips leaving him with a faint taste of strawberries and laughter wrapped in wild flowers and herbs. "How's that for a dream." She asked, a mischievous glimpse in her eyes, he sat still thinking it over then shaking his head he reached out to her. "If it is a dream Mari you don't need to wake me." The next morning he woke to the intimate feeling of someone sharing his bed. No, not his bed he thought as he remembered last night, they might be two sharing it but the bed was still Mari's. Carefully untangling himself from her he strayed for a moment to look at her. Watching her untroubled sleep and listening to her breaths made him want to lie down to rest beside her again, there was such a reassuring sound to her breaths, like waves whispering to the shore. Then again, he thought doubtfully, even if assuming it all was real what ever could he offer her? This world was not his, and what skills he knew from before might be useless here. Thinking so he found himself back at square one again with nothing more than that damned cold logic to console him, what a weak comfort that was. He studied his hands wonderingly as he turned them over in the clear mornings light, looking at them as if from a great distance, strong and well formed they seemed to him, suitable for both loving and working, but to what purpose?

Lost in his bleak thoughts he failed to see her waking. As she saw him so despairingly study his hands she reacted instinctively. "Do they hurt?" He looked at her, his sandy unkempt hair falling down over his eyes and in dire need of a shower, he looks like my old pony she thought, indulging herself in fond memories for a moment. "What?" He said, coming back from whatever far shore he had visited. "Is it your hands hurting Roland?" He laughed shaking of his dark broodings. "No Mari, it was just me having some misgivings, not over you though. Just life, wondering what good my hands might do in this place." She listened, not so much to the words as to the underlying emotions flowing in them, she was after all a most reputable healer.

It was all too soon to name but somehow he had touched her. "Roland." She started. "I don't know what is happening here, and I don't know where this is going either. Mayhap this is a new beginning for us both, it reminds me of an old saying my mother used to have. 'Don't leave the race undone before the horse is safely in the barn'. You see?" "What!" Muttered Roland. "And you calling my sayings weird?" Now Mari stood up in all her loveliness wrapping herself around him. "Now Roland, you better stay in bed." She said most emphatically while dragging him down again. "No sneaking around you hear, and you better leave the breakfast to me if you know what's good for you." As she started to move about some time later, now fixing this then that, he found him increasingly loosing himself into a world of light and forms as she flowed from movement to movement, never faltering or hesitating somehow bearing to mind the forms of Tai Chi. The alluring lines of her outlined by her nightdress gracefully melting into the golden hue coming from the windows creating a faultless poem and a memory he knew he would carry to his death. When she at long last seemed satisfied with her efforts, telling him to get up for he almost felt cheated. "you sure you're finished?" he asked. "I think you forgot the butter, and tea, where's the tea Mari." He smugly asked.

She looked at him bewildered for a moment and then firmly directed him to the end of the table where she placed him just in front of a large staple of bread, cheese and butter, apples, prunes and ham. To that she put forward a bowl of some strange small seeds that she had blended with milk and honey in one large bowl, for them both to eat out of. She gave him a spoon took another for himself and then simply told him. "Enjoy." He found the result of her efforts to be tasty as well as filling, the seeds reminding him slightly of Persian walnuts but somewhat more bitter with the honey giving it a twinge of sweetness. "One could easily get stuck on this." He remarked blithely while serving himself another spoonful. "See." As he tried to stand up without succeeding. He added in his best phony British accent, "You see, being a simple serving wench you're not half bad girl, a little to dressed though, go correct your clothing." She had incomprehensibly studied his acting skills but hearing him she dismissively shook her head "You know Roland, was that a joke? You really need to come out more, to learn." He allowed her weak comeback to pass him by in favor for eating some more of that delicious breakfast. Finally finished he thoughtfully leaned back in the rickety chair burping, his trousers now undone to let his stomach rest. "That was one of the best breakfasts I've had Mari my lass. Is there anything I can do for you in return?" Seeing her suddenly calculating look he hastily added. "Not now naturally, As all physicians know rest is of the utmost order here, you said it yourself, remember?"

Burping again he smiled condescendingly at her "Men." she darkly muttered before allowing herself to be caught in his embrace. After some consultation they both agreed it better to take their business elsewhere, to renew their companionable relations. The day had by now moved well into noon before Marie found herself dressed again to start her working day, not that she cared that much though. She had just started preparing some poultices for treating inflammations when someone knocked on the door. She called out "I'm coming, just a moment." Roland who still was sitting in his boxers hastily got his pants on, finishing his outfit with a old T-shirt featuring 'The Grateful Death' and a blue skull. While leaning over to draw on his boots he heard her opening the door. Outside Mari found three men waiting, cheaply but warmly clothed and all being of a brooding hard countenance. "You the healer girl?" the foremost one asked impatiently, sounding doubtful as if she was all to young for such an occupation. Mari who had meet their type before just nodded. "Get your stuff together milady, you're needed." "What for?" Mari calmly asked. "We'll explain as we go, there is little time." The man looked at her. "Get your stuff together healer, didn't I tell you that you had wounded men to see too or are you planning on shirking your duty?" he questioned sharply.

Roland who directly, hearing the commotion, had started to look through his backpack franticly praying that it still was in there, found it neatly wrapped in plastic lying at the bottom of his pack. He had planned it for another purpose, but as things seemed to unfold themselves he now suspected that there might be another use for it. He only found a few magazines though. He had put them there mostly out of habit, he hadn't expected any need for more than one bullet. Seeing the clips he felt happy that he still was a man of habit. Those Swedes sure knew how to make a knife he had to admit as he slipped the Mora to his arm. Having a handle of dark hard rubber, knotted to never become slippery, it had a mat black finish with a blade viciously sharp. He was by no means prepared to lose what he so recently had found he decided as he tightened the bands fastening the gun to his ankle feeling slightly better now that he had prepared himself. As he started to listen again he heard Mari. "No, I'm just asking to what their injuries may be, I need to know what to bring to you."

The man outside seemed to calm down slightly. "Knife and sword wounds mostly healer, and some arrowheads. Know how to treat such?" "I do." She answered curtly. "How many are we talking about?" Mari watched the man turn to the others "Do you have the count Jim?" he asked" "Well" answered Jim counting on his fingers "Willard, Fraemy and Hawk and then there was Giligan and." he started mumbling as he tried to remember. "Seven severly wounded boss, at least seven and then some." "Good enough" said Mari. "Far from here?" "We have a horse waiting." answered the boss man sounding slightly friendlier as he had assured himself of her assistance. "And it's yours to keep too, for your trouble, see." Rolanddecided that the time now had come to show himself. "Would there be one for me too?" He asked as he stepped out in the sunshine. "And just whom might you be?" the leader shoot back, unmoving like a rock, ignoring the others involuntary step back. "Well, as you ask so politely." answered Roland smiling at him, "I'm her man see, and you know what's even better? I happen to know something about wounds myself." "Two for the price of one then, is that it?" the other man said musingly seizing Roland up for a moment and then with his mind made saying.

"Well then, hurry up you two, we don't have the whole day, do we." behaving almost congenial as he watched Roland help Mari pack her bags with what she needed. Roland went to collect his old surgical army-set that faithfully had followed him through his years as a corpsman, it was strange how his memories had came alive when needed he thought, now it seemed to him as he always had known about him being a corpsman. He damned well knew he hadn't had the slightest memory of it before those guys arriving, he had in fact seen the box before not questioning it at all. By now he had sized the men up and seeing their scruffy looks he wouldn't trust them any longer than he could throw a stone. But remembering that he too had been a corpsman once he easily could understand Mari's dedication to her work, and when choosing between that and outright killing he found his choice easy. If it ever came to that he thought he definitely wouldn't like to have her blocking his way. So this was the best solution he could find, following them while doing his best to keep her safe.

The men had left their steeds to graze by the pond, and as they got there the leader, judiciously evaluating them, finally decided on a medium sized bay horse. "This one will easily bear you both. But stay awake when on him." He said. "Arrow is feisty" as they mounted their horses. The time was becoming late indeed, almost evening before they reached the men's lager. When Roland saw the calm efficiency shown in its outlay he finally had to admit that they had to be soldiers after all, not ruffians as he first had guessed. Their lack of military garments had fooled him bad at first but quietly discussing it with Mari as they rode he had learnt that few lords willingly spent money on such extravagances, normally only the household troops were supplied with uniforms. Preparing for battle the soldiers usually wound some band around their arm, or some other identification to help separate friends from foes. But, as she impressed on him, one shouldn't take their clothing as a token of their soldiering qualities. He had some weak memories of that being true from his own experiences too, there was a difference between finding yourself in the field as compared to base. Interesting, he thought, and probably something he should have known. But his memory being like it was he was grateful for whatever crumbs he could find.

He had learnt some more just by listening to the guys while riding with them, discussing the battle's aftermath between themselves. It seemed like they had been on the losing side this time, and for the moment their foremost priority seemed to be to put as much space as possible between themselves and their foes. But as they didn't want to leave their comrades wounded and dying to their foes they had searched out Mari. As soon as they arrived to the camp Roland had taken her aside asking her to leave all things imbedded in bodies to him. "I've seen quite a lot of wounds Mari. Trust me on that" He had promised her. "And I'm also known as a pretty mean field surgeon." She had gotten a look on his box and tended to believe him at that.

Roland now went to work removing several imbedded objects. Luckily the soldiers already had water boiling when they arrived so it became easier work than he had expected, treating them. There were also a number of broken bones and Roland tried to set them as best as he could under the circumstances. He found Mari's knowledge to be very good, at time he took second place to her as she showed him another ways of setting bones. Working as fast as they could it still took them the better half of the night before they could get some rest. Finishing Roland asked the Boss man, whom he now knew by the name of Captain Lance, and Mari for a private chat.

He turned to the Captain "Captain Lance." He said. "This was the easy part. But if you really wish your men a rapid recovery this is what you need to know. And, thinking of it, you wouldn't happen to have any health insurance? Ah, just a innocent joke Captain, totally harmless I assure." He then quickly and concisely introduced the Captain to the wonders of modern healthcare. Boiling water and clean bandages was a imperative he explained, he also told the Captain how one by using two wooden poles as a frame, weaving them into a webbed bed with clothes or rope and letting the contraption be dragged after a horse, safely could transport the wounded. It seemed as the Captain was new to the ideas and he listened carefully as Roland explained the reasons behind boiling water and clean bandages. "Also. He finished. "As a simple rule Captain your men will stay a lot healthier, as well as not getting lice and fleas, if you use boiling water for the clothes as well as for the bandages, and see to that they wash themselves regularly. No offence meant Captain, just that I noticed how you care for your men."

They stayed the night at the camp, talking and drinking. At least Roland did, gratefully accepting a dram, or two, after they had finished their gruesome work, relaxing around the campfire while exchanging congenial lies about the joys of soldiering. It was all very familiar to Roland bringing his disrupted war memories even sharper in focus. Roland noticed that when it came to Mari it seemed to be enough for the men just to have her around. Sometime very late, or early as it might have been, they were shown to a tent of their own to find some sleep, badly oversleeping they found themselves leaving no sooner than noon the next day. As Lance had promised them they could keep Arrow, and just before leaving Lance showed up to surprise them once more. "Here" he said releasing the skittish little mare he held, "this one is more suitable for you milady, you struck me as being of a refined mode just as she. The brute you can keep, Roland" he told him gruffly. "We don't really have use of the horses we have left anyhow." He remarked in a more somber mood. He seemed to weight them up for a moment and then continued.

"But beware you two. This battle was just a skirmish, not even the beginning. Lord Foul will have a real army coming soon enough, this was just him allowing his more impatient forces some exercise. And we lost a whole Barony to this skirmish friends. I give it no more than weeks before the war will come to you. You will not come with us then?" He had without success tried to talk Mari and Roland into joining forces with his soldiers but Mari had steadfastly refused it. "The land still needs me more than you Sir Lance" she now answered. "When Lord foul move so will I, but not until then Sir. After all, I too am a shepherd of sorts." Lance studied her searchingly and then the weather-bitten countenance slowly cracked up into something almost resembling a smile. He bowed holding her hand. "My dear Mari." he said. "It has been a privilege meeting you, don't doubt that I wish for the best for you both but I still say that you should prepare for the worst." Hearing him Mari impulsively gave him a hug answering. "And I will pray for you and your men too. And I pray we will meet again. But until such times, fare you well." With that they took their goodbye and left.

As they still were tired, sleep notwithstanding, they rode in silence which suited Roland just fine. He was starting to wonder over a lot of things by now, he had with his own eyes seen Mari close wounds by chanting over them. And she had located an arrowhead sitting near the heart of a soldier by holding her hands over him. If it had been Roland's doing he probably just would have left it there, but she had insisted on it being taken out. "An evil thing it is Roland, it will eat its way into his heart within the next few days if we don't remove it." Rather than letting her do it he had decided to take it out himself. It had been a near thing though and had taxed his abilities to the outmost. If Mari hadn't been there to still the blood he surely would have died, and even so he had barely succeeded in keeping the man alive. The strangest thing he thought was that as soon as the arrow was out it had dissolved into some grey dust. "It won't stand us" Mari had explained it. "Some arrows dipped in magic is created not only to inflict death, but a undead bounding to evil." When asking what she meant he suddenly realized her to mean that those becoming prey in the end would became as undead. He didn't really know what to think about that, pure gibberish he hoped, but it had been very clear to him that all gathered around listening to her reasoning had agreed with her. And that same soldier had thanked him too as he woke up later. "Didn't want to become a ghoul Sir" he had wheezed, short of breath due to the chest wound. "My old lady would never have forgiven me." In what seemed as a feeble attempt of a joke.

They had good weather that whole day and back at Mari's homestead Roland took care of the horses while Mari went in to prepare their meal. The house had a small stable standing beside it, it was in need of repainting but seemed otherwise sturdy enough. In it Roland found some old blankets that he used to rub the horses down with, done with that he led them down to the pond opening the fence to let them in. There was good pasture inside so he left them to their grazing, they were good steeds he thought intelligent and kind both of them, somewhat larger than the horses he was used to and with a unusual reddish tint to their hide. They looked much the same as any other horses he had known. Although, there was one startling thing with them, when wishing Arrow goodbye he for the first time noticed his eyes. both had normal black pupils but where the white should have been there was only a light violet hue. "So tell me Toto, what the fuck am I doing here?" He wondered, looking into Arrows eyes again. "And what strange quirk of mine made it necessary to trek right into the wilderness?" Arrow neighed as if he tried to tell Roland something but then he turned to the mare as if saying that the consultation was over, and it was no use wondering really, either his memory would come back or it wouldn't. But, all considered, he had to admit to that life certainly had became more interesting to him lately, well, at least his and hers.

Part Two.

A Just Cause Or, to new beginnings

When getting back to the cottage he found Mari lost in thoughts, beside the fireplace silently staring into its leaping flames, with her kettle firmly placed at her side but seemingly forgotten, "How is it with you girl" he asked sensing the sadness in her. He sat down besides her lifting her up from the chair into his lap. He studied her face for a moment and then smiled. "Do you know how many ways I cherish you Mari?" he whispered in her ear hugging her. "Let me count. One is your right ear, two is your left," and there he kissed them soundly. "Three is that proud nose." Which he also gave a big sloppy kiss, "four is your mouth," She had listened to him wrapped up in her sorrows but now she couldn't help but smile faintly. "Five is your chin, six its proud double layer." And there he stopped to kiss it most resoundingly the sheer noise waking her to weakly protest. "Double chins, I can't believe you said that." "Ahh." He said. "That just gives me twice as much to kiss girl." Now she slowly got incensed, her sorrows forgotten, "I want you to know that if it is double chins you crave, you can take your search elsewhere, you will not find them here!" "So Mari." He answered meekly. "Once more I stand corrected." he smiled at her as he silently congratulated himself on his sneaky tactic.

"Any chance for some tea Mari?" She studied him, her eyes clear again. "Tea Sir? A scoundrel takes no tea, for him there can only be the swills." Roland started to worry that he might have overdone his part this time, was she joking or not? Ah well, here goes nothing he thought and kissed her again as good as he could. Some time after he woke up starting to wonder where that tea might have gotten to, but then it was her grabbing him to kiss again. Ah, what the hell, who cares for tea anyway, he decided. A little later as they both sat munching quenching their thirst with her tea he asked her. "What was it making you so sad my dear, was it the soldiers?" She looked at him but shook her head. "No Roland, not the soldiers but the war, it's getting so close to us, soon all that we know of will be gone. We are very lucky in getting hold of those horses, there are some old people down at the hamlet that desperately will need them when we have to move." As Roland listened to her telling him about the people she loved and cared for down at the hamlet he found himself almost getting him jealous.

Hearing her rave about how good and upstanding citizens they were really started to get under his skin. "Are you telling me that there are no rotten apples in your little barrel?" he asked skeptically. She studied him thoughtfully for a moment. "Why, Roland" she exclaimed suddenly. "I do think you're jealous." Shamed, he had to admit that she was right. "It's just that they all becomes so perfect Mari listening to you." He said. "In my reckoning most people are shades of grey, not fully good and seldom fully bad either, but listening to you I get a feeling that here there only live saints." She started to laugh. "Saints they are not Roland, but as you say, they are good people on the whole, and they don't need this war." Now she sobered up quickly starting to look sad again. "Do you really think we can get them to move in time?" he asked. "And where do you think they should move if so? Won't the war spread itself everywhere we can go?" "There is the Counts old hold of course" she answered. "We have used it before when unrest have came us by and it have never let us down." Even without knowing its relative strength or size Roland had a distinct feeling that it wouldn't be enough this time. Looking at her he could see his doubts mirrored in her face. "Yes I know." She said in a low voice. "This time will be as no other, but if we can't make a stand there my love, we will have to leave the whole province. And that will mean the death of many I hold dear."

She sat very still looking into the fire, at last she stretched and looked up at him holding her smiling. "But it will wait until tomorrow, we still have peace and a bed." The next day came all to fast to Roland's taste, don't they all, he thought to himself, being as he was in a philosophical mode. Mari spent most of the morning deciding what she needed and what she wouldn't, and Roland who already had his backpack stowed and ready just sat there watching her go around as she made herself ready. Around noon they rode down to the hamlet to discuss the need for getting ready. To their surprise they found that the old Count already had been there, requesting all able men to him, to train for the oncoming war, the only ones left were the old and infirm, and the kids of course. Mari took charge directly collecting what animals, carts they could find into a wagon train with the help of the townsfolk's. "We will ride to morrow morning she told them. Please be ready." Riding home Roland said. "The war must be nearer than what Lance thought Mari, why else would the Count already have collected all weapon able men from the hamlet?" Mari nodded. "Yes, but I hope we still have some weeks left, the road to the hold is two days away and it will be hard travel for the old ones." The next day started with fine weather but halfway through the day Roland could see dark clouds building up to the west. "Mari." He asked. "Is there anywhere we can find shelter to night."

Pointing to the clouds. Mari looked at him, secretly pleased over how well he had recovered from his injuries, he didn't have that instinctive grace of a born horseman but he rode fairly well and seemed almost happy. "There is a Inn down the road, and I hope we all can bed down there. They have a stable so we should be able to fit in most of us there I think." She then added, thinking of how many others there might be fleeing before the war. "Depending on circumstances, of course?" Roland who had been thinking about the same just nodded. The road they were following now seemed more of a trail to Roland's eyes leading them through a dense forestation, now and then broken by open spaces and farms, but it showed that Mari had taken his suggestion to avoid the main roads seriously, and that Roland was grateful off. It made the going harder on those walking though, but that was mostly the young ones. There had been enough draft horses left to draw the carts, so they had been able to keep their own steeds. As both Roland and Mari now were acting scouts, constantly exploring what troubles might lay ahead of them, it all had worked out to the best he thought.

The weather had by now taken a turn to the worse, gusts of wind came and went, and dark low hanging clouds were building up over them. "Are we any way near, Mari?" Roland asked dolefully, casting a nervous eye at the sky above them. This would wreck havoc on the small ones he thought. Mari nodded and pointed to the trail. "Just behind those trees Roland." Roland halted the wagon train and explained that he and Mari would ride forward to reconnoitering. "We should be back before the rain comes, just take it easy and get yourself some rest now." Coming to end of the trail joining the main road they saw the inn at last, or what seemed the remains of it, it had been burned down and looking at i Roland guessed it was some days ago. The stable was still standing though with its barn doors gaping open. Roland asked Mari to wait and guard their horses as he made his way to what once had been the inn. There was quite a few bodies lying there, swollen and fetid, otherwise there were only silence meeting him. He poked around for a good while, listening and searching for any survivors but there were none to be found. He checked the well too, luckily there seemed to be no bodies in it and the water seemed unspoiled. Just to make sure he climbed the barns roof to see if he could spot any movements but as there was none to be found he went back to Mari and informed her that he thought they could approach.

The rain was only moments away before they had made the barn a place to sleep in. There had been some bodies in there too, but those they had carried out quickly before the kids were let in. Mari had wanted to bury them, but Roland had nixed that telling her that the more desolate and abandoned the place looked the better their chances would be. He had no illusions as to what fate would await the kids and their mothers if they were found, and looking at Mari he could see that she too had her premonitions. "You are right." She said. "But the stench, and the way nobody had cared for their bodies, it's horrible." Roland silently had to agree with her, but he also knew he had seen worse on his travels. Even though he still couldn't remember where and when. The storm now came with a vengeance, they were indeed fortunate to have found somewhere to hide from it Roland thought. There was a constant thundering from the lightning strikes, and hail as big as robin's eggs, not that he was sure of their size but he couldn't be bothered testing his ideas of size anyway. They had some small fires going inside, enclosed by stones mostly for cooking and everyone had blankets wrapped around them for warmth. "Well." said Roland. "There seems nothing more to do today. Let's get some sleep and see what the next day bring, shall we?" Giving her his hand he led her up to the loft where they had a small nest built out of hay. Safely bedded down beside her he fast fell asleep to the sound of the falling rain and gusting winds, leaving Mari wide awake.

She was envious on Roland's affinity for sleep, but after he told her that there was a trick to it and that war was one sure way of learning it she wasn't that jealous any more. But she had just seen too much wanton death for one day to relax. They were friends of her, those that had owned this Inn. 'The yellow duck' it used to be called, yellow as that was the color of prosperity, and prosper it had surely done. But now it was gone and them with it, at least she hoped they had gone. She hadn't recognized them in any of those slain here, thank the Lady for small blessings she thought. Roland now started to move in his sleep, muttering "Nope, much bigger than hens eggs I say, this size" grabbing her breast "But harder." She smiled at him as she moved his hand from her breast to burrow in next to him, feeling him laying his arm around her she felt safe and in the end she too fell asleep. The morning opened to a grey and rainy vista even though the storm seemed to be over its worst for the moment, and it seemed possible to travel again. They had created provisionary rain shelters over their wagons using some treated hides laying about in the barn, when crowding together most could find place under them. Both Roland and Mari had their own rainproof clothes, his considerably less bulky than hers though. As he had a spare raincoat he had given it to her and her delighted surprise when trying it on feeling its lightness had made his morning worthwhile. They all had taken a vote for staying one day more to wait out the bad weather, but there was no one wanting to stay among the dead.

Leaving the Inn Roland asked. "Mari, how far is it left to the hold?" She squinted at him through the rain dripping down her forehead from her hat. "Maybe tonight, could be longer though with this weather." Roland looked up at the grey sky with their storm-whipped clouds raggedly moving wishing for a moment that he could be somewhere else, on the other hand, if that elsewhere didn't include Mari he rather stay where he was he admitted. "Never mind, we'll get there when we get there. Would you like me to sing for you Mari." "No thanks, you want to stampede our horses again, Roland? Let's ride before instead and take a look at the ford, with all this rain falling it may not be fordable any more." "Good thinking Mari." Roland answered, and after informing the others they went forward to take a look. Mari was right, the river had swelled to at the very least double its former size Roland guessed and it looked quite dangerous by now, there was whole trees in it, slowly turning around as they drifted by at a fast pace, and some carcasses too. "I wonder if this storm is the Foul ones doing." Mari mumbled making the sign of the Lady. "This is like no other storm I've seen." She continued. "I never seen its like, and that's the plain truth Roland. It built so fast too." "What kind of power do you think it would take to make a storm like this Mari?" Roland asked, more in a feeble attempt to humor her than really believing in what she was saying. "To build a storm like this?" Mari considered the question for a moment and then answered.

"We would most probably need all weather thaumaturgists there was in our guild, I guess." And then said. "But we would never attempt it Roland, such manipulations would only create great imbalances in the normal weather patterns and create terrible repercussions for the whole countryside. But the Foul one doesn't care much for nature. Still, if this is his doing he surely have grown greatly in strength." Roland studied her quizzically, not really believing her at all. Just one of those lightning strikes he had seen he esteemed to be quite enough to drive a whole city with energy for a year. Nah, he thought, she was definitely wading in murky waters here. "Well, Is there a better place we could try to ford?" he asked. She shook her head hopelessly. "Not without making a large detour, and that would take us days, even weeks." She said. "It is here or nowhere Roland. Even though I don't see how we can do it." He took a long look at the river, suddenly moved back in time. "You know Mari, one of the final tests for being a corps-medic was that we had to walk under water dressed in a heavy suit, carrying a full backpack. We had to make it fifty meters there, then come up for a little air and go back again. That walk became the last straw for many medics trying for the Special Forces." She looked at him wondering what in the world he was talking about. She knew that in theory there was said to be a lot of adjacent realms to theirs, but he was the first person she ever had meet from such a one. They truly had strange tests for their healers she thought.

"How was your wars." She asked. "Terrible wars Mari." He answered. "I can't remember much of them, but I know that we had weapons of incredible destruction. Weapons so strong that we had to make tractates in where we agreed not to use them, as they otherwise easily could extinguish all humanity." She looked at him incredulously, surely he was exaggerating she thought. "So why are you talking about walking under water? I might be able to do so with the help of our Lady, but I can't include us all Roland." He looked at her surprised, then laughed. "No need too Mari, I mean that I might be able to ford this stream with a rope. And you keep another, then we tread them to the wagons, one on each side, and use those ropes to keep the wagons in their place when fording, do you see how I mean?" He drew a simple diagram showing her. "Roland, you're a genius." She exclaimed clapping her hands together. "But do you really believe you can swim this, this thing." She said making a disbelieving sweeping gesture taking in the bloated sullen river with trees raging down, twisting in the stream like coming alive.

"No Mari, I won't be able to swim it. It would just flung me aside as some trash" answered Roland. "I will have to walk it." They slowly rode back finding themselves in their first quarrel, he having decided to try, she arguing against it. Rejoining the wagon train they saw one of the scouts come riding towards them in a ragged trot, it was one of the youngsters that Mari had asked to keep an eye to their rear. As he told his story they realized he was coming with bad news, it seemed as if they weren't the only ones planning to ford that river. "There is a whole regiment coming Sir." He told Roland breathlessly. "Very strange looking they are too Sir." And yes, he said, he was pretty sure they were enemy's. As Mari asked him why, he leaned forward to tell her in a hushed whisper. "Their pikes milady, they bore severed heads milady." Hearing it Roland reacted directly. "Not a word to the others, not a word you hear. But well done all the same, Wilfred, right?" "Yes Sir it is and mum's the word Sir, thank you." Roland now did his best to smile encouragingly at both the boy and Mari, who by now had recovered a little from her nausea. "Don't worry, we will be over that ford in no time." He promised thinking to himself that they better be. "By the way, did they see you?" "No Sir, not a chance." said Wilfred instantly offended. "They seemed to be settling down for the evening, they were starting up their cooking-fires as I left." Ahh, thought Roland, at long last some good news. "You're a good man Wilfred. Get going with the others now, and find yourself something to eat, there is no need for you to watch our backs any more. We will move directly for the ford." Instructing the others to move as fast as they could, Roland and Mari decided to become their rear guards for a while.

Riding back Roland even climbed a tree, in vain trying to spot any enemy's but without luck. Although that was just as good, he decided, better not to see them at all. Coming back they found the wagons waiting for them in front of the ford. The Sun was sitting low on the horizon now and the chilling rain gusts seemed all to be aiming for Roland, the weather was taking another turn for the worse he thought as he dismounted. Roland sat there staring at the mad rush of water, losing himself into the grey swirling currents haunting the swollen rivers passage, overhead the darkening sky ripped the wind torn clouds apart to the sound reminding him of a freight train getting up to speed. Finally deciding he shook himself out of his gloomy thoughts and turning to the others asked them for a light strong rope. Securing it around him he proceeded to carefully weight himself down with stones until he finally seemed satisfied, Mari looked out at the river, now feeling really worried. "Are you sure you want to go through with this?" seeing the raging river. He tried to smile reassuringly. "No Mari, I don't particularly want to go through with this but I'll do it just the same, it's either this or those pikes." He looked over the distance again, as a fair guess he estimated it to be around seventy meters across and just barely possible to traverse. "We can't postpone it any more Mari." He told her. "This storm is building up pretty fast, if we wait any more I think it will be impossible to ford it ropes or no ropes." Studying the river he said. "At least I will be safer under it than over it Mari." Pointing to a tree floating past with its roots slowly rotating. "If I got snagged by one of those I wouldn't have a chance in hell." She looked at him once more confounded by his sayings. "Which mortal is it that has a chance in hell Roland?" She asked still mystified. Roland had to admit that her question was a good one. "Just a saying Mari, doing it now I still have that one chance though."

She looked at him stupefied at first, then she got it and gave him a weak smile. "I see, I will send my prayers with you, our lady of mercy will surely help." Seeing her faith in him and in her lady he suddenly felt as if his chance of succeeding had been raised a notch. "Thanks Mari, I need all good wishes I can get." She nodded. "Yes, I think we both do." She answered quietly. He stood with water up to his neck now starting to hyperventilate to oxygenate his bloodstream, the water although cold wasn't freezing at last. "Yep, I'm sure one lucky guy." He muttered before he dove under. The real problem here was to keep him self in a straight line he found, he used the water streaming bye him as a pointer and tried to keep it to the same angle, there was no idea trying to look as the water was all to muddy. It was easiest to move in a half-swimming, half-crawling position, sort of dragging him self over the bottom. The rope was becoming a bigger problem than he had expected, it wanted to follow the stream downwards dragging him with it and as it took in water it became increasingly heavy. At home they used synthetic materials and he hadn't counted on the drag and weight those old-fashioned ropes would get when swelling. Having been under no more than a minute he already had started to doubt his chances of succeeding, his heart going faster and faster as the seconds ticked away and he wasn't really in any peak condition any more. Knowing that he didn't have any real choice he kept thinking of Mari as he dragged himself over the bottom, clinging to the riverbed fighting the streams, drawing new strength from his thoughts. Finally, with colors appearing in his vision he realized he no longer had a choice, he would either have to surface or perish. He came up mixing water and air in big rasping breaths just some fifteen meters from the other side.

Somehow he succeeded in making it in all the way to the riverbank, falling down to rest there he reckoned himself lucky indeed to have survived. On the other side he could see Mari jumping up and down, waiving frantically and shouting his name. He waved back and then sat up to empty his boots from water and getting rid of his stones. After hauling over a thicker rope the real work could start, two guys came over and together they hauled over two horses to help them with the rest. Two horses he left on the other side as a sort of counterweight to keep the ropes straight and tense, not letting the carts drift away. It took them quite some time to get it all arranged and the afternoon was coming into dusk before they were finished. Somehow lady luck had decided to be on their side this time though so in the end they all found themselves on the other side, none being the worse for the experience. They went of the main road again, feeling safer in the knowledge that their enemy was to numerous to follow those, even if they succeeded in fording the river they surely would keep to the main roads finding that faster. Roland, who felt very tired by now, found himself slumping forward, his head rolling with his steed's steady gait. His mind slowly wandering of into bleak dreams he suddenly remembered. "Have I told you that I have kids Mari?" He said turning to her with wonder in his voice. "A boy and a girl." He smiled, happy with his remembrance. Then his face caved in as he remembered more. "But they're gone Mari, my children is gone."

He turned his head looking straight ahead as he said that not seeing anymore, still walking inside those memories with a small wondering smile slowly forming. "And they were the joy of my life" he told her. His face that by now had frozen into a calm unfeeling mask said. "All good things must end, isn't it so Mari." She felt as if he had disappeared although he still was there beside her. "I can't understand how I could forget them." He asked wonderingly. "Can you Mari? What does that make me." Mari hesitantly spoke up. "Human Roland, it only makes you human. Did you love them?" Roland's eyes lost their far away look for a second as they came to rest in hers. "Yes, I did." he said quietly. "Very much." She smiled sensing his inner turmoil. "Good." She said. "And they loved you Roland, they would never want you to fare ill." His eyes aimlessly wandering over her face like hot pinpricks she heard him mumble. "Can one start anew Mari, is there such a thing as a clean slate? Won't it just be another betrayal then." She smiled, moving her horse nearer so that they almost touched and so that she could touch him. "Not if you keep their memories alive Roland. In the end I think that those will be all we have, our memories." Grateful for her words he bent his head as if in silent prayer closing his eyes, remembering his small ones and the love. After some time of silent contemplation he looked back at her saying. "You are a pillar of strength Mari, like a spring, my summer and life." She smiled at him keeping his hand in hers. "Love is very much a spring for ever flowing, fragile like a budding flower but hiding strong roots that drinks deeply. I too trust to love." So saying she touched his face, caressing away the tears that unbeknownst to him had fallen, travelling together into the deepening dusk.

They arrived at the pass hiding the stronghold sometime around midnight calling up to the guards to ask them to open up the ports for their little group. After some confusion a man came out to take a look at them, to their surprise it turned out to be Captain Lance. "So we meet again then healer." He said to Mari. "And those must be your seasoned troops then?" He asked as he looked at the ragged mass of tired women and children making up most of their numbers. "What in the world are you doing here?" Asked Roland but finding himself secretly relived added. "Not that I mind much, see." Captain Lance answered courteously "That is so good of you Roland, not minding I mean." Then the Captain kept on a little sourly. "Ah well, the boys and I thought that we all might feel a little better getting some nice clean mountain air, it is said to do wonders for your health." Saying so his face cracked up in what could have been a lopsided smile. "But please, don't be strangers now you hear, come in and make yourself at home friends." As Roland stepped through the gate he soon found it just to be the first of a number of gates, one after another as the road winded upward through the pass, the cliffs surrounding it were high and jagged. Mari started to lecture him about the stronghold laughing at his surprise. "This is the 'Eagles nest'" she said. "Those first palisade's is new to me but that" And there she pointed to the last very fortified wall they just had left behind them. "one I do remember, there will be two other like that before we come to the caves." "The caves?" Roland said feeling more and more confused. "Yes, the caves." Answered Captain Lance, that had chosen to accompany them vouching for their status, not that anyone in his right mind would worry about this ragged flock coming in.

"The caves are truly a marvel to rest your eyes on, don't you worry son, you will see them in a minute or two." It took them longer than that though, as there still were two more ports to traverse before they came to that last massive threshold opening in to the caves. Stepping through the entrance Roland found himself in a large hall lighted by great wax-candles and situated on each long-side by two enormous hearths warming and lightening it up. "Behold." Said the Captain. "The wonders of our eagle's rest." His face cracked up in another lopsided smile as he made a grandiose sweeping gesture with his arms. And it was truly a wonder, there was crystals growing both from the floor and the roof reflecting and diffusing and refracting the light into a shimmering haze. It was somewhat of a otherworldly experience for Roland and his little band of refugees to find themselves inside it, but all to soon it seemed to Roland they were efficiently directed to their allocations for the night. Some women just couldn't wait and went directly in search for their loved ones, but most still kept together, talking in hushed voices as they peered at the wonders of those caves and tried to keep their kids calm. And Roland noticed that there was tunnels leading away everywhere, Mari told him that there still were unexplored tunnels and to go astray exploring them could be rather dangerous.

"There is just to many of them here Roland, it's easy to get lost here, there are stories of whole units disappearing, taking the wrong turn somewhere never to be heard of again." Roland could see how that would be possible, just walking for some minutes he already had became lost in this maze. But there was way-signs posted at every crossing giving directions to such things as 'pantry' 'shower section' 'mess hall' 'dormitory one' and so on, all with a crude painting beside depicting the message. "It's very impressive." Said Roland who now secretly had started to believe in the possibility of them being able to withstand a siege. "I start to see why it never have been conquered." "True." Answered Lance. "And it also guard the only way into the valley of Richmound. It lies to far from the normal trading routes to be of any real interest to anyone, except in war of course." He smiled briefly. "But here we can survive for decades if it comes to that friend Roland." "This place is so rich in magic." Said Mari awestruck. "I can feel it everywhere here." She looked back at Roland.

"Every time I come here I get reminded what a great source of power there is here. There must be a geas of forgetfulness laid on it from ancient times. That's why one cant remember its real strength." Lance nodded thoughtfully at her comment. "It seems the same to me Lady, although I've been here before I had forgotten the immense strength of this stronghold. But here we are, those are your quarters my friends." Shoving them a series of interconnected rooms he begged them goodbye informing them that he would be pleased to have them as his guests at his table tomorrow. There were pelts on the floor and small cubicles of wood creating private rooms enough for everyone, and there were even bathrooms there with their own running water. Roland bent over to drink it but found it to warm for his taste. "It's warm?" he told Mari sounding surprised. "Yes." she said laughing at him. "It comes from under ground Roland, it's mainly for washing up, although it is said to have healing properties, but that I think is mostly superstition. To drink you should try that spigot instead." And there she pointed to a tap sticking out directly from the rock, from it came a steady stream of water falling down in a little basin under it. "I don't know who constructed those" she said "but they have been here forever, and that water comes from above us, not from under."

He tried it and found it clear and good, it also seemed to transfer some energy to him as he suddenly felt most refreshed. But it was very late and time to go to sleep he thought. He and Mari wished the others a good night and without further ado went into the room the Captain had assigned to them. It was a fairly large room containing its own fireside with a warming fire already lighted. There was also a table and a smaller vanity for Mari, with its own little silvery mirror built in. There was even some fresh fruit in a bowl, apples and something that looked as grapes but with the size of apples. "Have you ever tried those?" Asked Mari, "they are a specialty of this valley only due to its soil and warm temperature. They are very nice and refreshing, you should try one." And so he did, and he had to agree with her too. "Taste just like the grapes where I come from" he mumbled, his mouth filled with the juicy fruit of the grapes. "But bigger, and sweeter too." After eating some they both went directly to bed, rapidly falling into a deep sleep. But in his dream they still seemed to be together,

Roland looked at Mari first and then around. They were standing on a hilltop and from it seemed that they could see the whole earth. Roland found it all fair at first but then he found himself turning to the west. Far away at the horizon there seemed to be a shadow looming over the land. "Listen" said Mari, "can you hear her pain." He listened and thought he heard something, it was as if the Earth itself cried, and looking he thought he saw the shadow ravenously laying itself over the land suffocating its screams. Feeling unclean he turned to Mari. "Why is this? And how can the earth be crying." Mari only smiled at him, making a gesture as if he should sit himself down. As he did an apparition became in front of him, looking into it he found it to give an illusion of both depth and colors, in it he could see that same Earth but now without that disturbing shadow. Smiling at him she started her tale in a low melodious voice. "There was once, at a time when worlds still were young and time itself wasn't sure of its purpose a young man. Fair of countenance and filled with great pride he strode amidst the different realms never having heard of pain or evil. To them living at that time all was experiences, new ones to be toyed with until one got bored and the very idea of dying was unknown. Great magic existed at this time, the magic to create universes but as time found its furrow it delivered its child, the arrow of time. As that was happening the young man gradually found his usual paths closed to him and so he started to wonder. If time became harnessed where would that leave him and magic. Not happy with this new notion of everything wandering from a birth to a death the young man looked for a way to solve this problem. Causality who was another child begotten from Time and brother to the Arrow of time had by now grown strong and only allowed things to happen in a certain order."

"What does it mean." asked Roland feeling quite confused. "Think of a cup falling down, splintered against the floor Roland. That cup and the events building up to it have a flow and that flow only goes a certain way in our world." She said. "You cannot play the sequences backward and from its splinters get the cup back." Roland nodded now seeing her thought. "But this young man decided to stop times arrow." Mari studied Roland thoughtfully. "Too proud of his magic to accept this diminishing he fought back. So he started to bring the old ways back but at a great cost to our world." The screen showed a world in war with destructive forces wandering the continents flaming up at times killing whole continents, rearranging them as if they were just toys. "This war against time went on and on leaving Earth in great pains not knowing from moment to moment if she still existed. At long last other forces succeeded in placating the young man, promising him that at the end of time he would be the one reigning. Waiting for times end he drew back into a realm of his own, but he too had become marked by Causality and slowly his magic changed into strange and unrecognizable patterns." She smiled sadly. "Thinking he had been lied to and that his enemies still were attacking he started to bend all realms to his will again. He can no longer come in here Roland but he can manipulate those already here. He is a Master of Chaos and no one can take that away from him. In a way he still is reigning, even though Arrow of Time and Causality rules our lives now he is there too, manipulating and waiting for our bauble of order to disappear."

Roland who had listened in silence now took a new look at Mari, although she seemed to be the same to him there seemed to be a certain radiance in her now that couldn't remember from before. "Whom are you?" he asked. "You seem as my Mari, but you're more than that." She laughed. "Oh, I'm the same as always. I'm Mari and Mari am I, but I'm also a caretaker off all things young. Mari and I share the same responsibilities but in different places and times." Roland then thought about that young man waiting to destroy it all. "He must be a very evil man, doing as he does." Hearing him Mari shook her head. "Roland, he was here long before good and evil. Those words fit this realm but in his they were yet unknown. Love and Justice comes out of growth and he has always been here. Growing was no concern of his. Now time have put its mark on it transforming and distorting all he once loved and he just can't accept it. The most you can condemn him for is misguided pride, not acknowledging anything except those needs and aims that is his. But now I feel it's getting late." She said. " I'll take my leave for now Roland, but know that it's been a pleasure meeting you." Slowly fading in his mind he felt the dream dissolve into more normal patterns showing him things once lost, now found again.

Part Three

Lessons of despair.

The morning came, not that he was sure of the time anymore but it felt like a morning to Roland. He went up to wash himself and meet the new day. He looked back at Mari as he walked through the door, looking so innocent, she's mine he thought triumphantly. He smiled at this primeval need of owning, but he also knew that she was his in the best way possible, by her own consent and free will. Singing softly he went to the to the bathrooms to take care of his needs. When he came back he found Mari sitting in front of the vanity arranging her hair. "Ah, madam." He said. "Showing off, are we?" Trying to look jealous he then asked. "And for whom might this beauty be?" Mari smiled at him. "Well Sir, if you must know there was this devilishly handsome Captain yesterday." Roland took to his chest. "Awh." He said. "If words could kill milady you would cleanly have taken your first prey." "And whatever makes you believe that you would be my first prey Sir?" she asked imperiously with her pert nose proudly elevated at the skies. "You do Mari, you do" Roland quietly said as he bent down to kiss her a good morning.

After Mari finally was satisfied with her attire they joined the Captain at his table. he seemed to have been waiting for them to come even though the time was somewhat late for a breakfast. With him was the a gentleman of obvious lineage, perhaps a noble thought Roland. There was also a man dressed in what almost looked like a kimono, it was only the wakisashi and katana missing there to make the appearance of a mediaeval samurai perfect he thought, but what surprised him most though were the dwarfs. They looked just as he always had imagined dwarfs to look, short but broad of a rugged build having large stomachs. He whispered to Mari. "Are they for real?" "What?" she asked. "The Dwarfs, are they real Dwarfs?" She started to laugh, then she leaned over to the closest sitting dwarf. "Excuse me Sir, My friend here would like to know if you would happen to be a genuine dwarf?" The man peered first at her, then under bushy eyebrows at Roland. "Should I take offence Sir?" he asked. "What do I look like, hmm?" The other dwarf's started to harrumph too and Roland found himself reddening as he tried apologizing for his uncouth manner. "Sir please, it is just that you are the first true dwarfs I've ever have seen. I come a very long way from here, and to be honest, most everything seems to take me by surprise nowadays. But we have tales of your like Sir, tales of great cunning and courage." The dwarf calmed down slightly and answered in a gravely manner. "Well Sir, that indeed have a better sound to it. Yes, I'm indeed a dwarf and so in fact are my esteemed companions." Gesturing as to include the tables other dwarfish occupants. "We couldn't pass this wonder by as we already were so near, handling our affairs."

The Captain jumped now into the conversation stating. "And most welcome you are too Sire Amus, even though it's quite some time since I had the pleasure of being in your service I still remember it fondly." The dwarf tried a small bow back at the Captain. "The same to you Captain Lance, the same can be said of you." Roland continued. "I want to take this opportunity to apologize beforehand if I unknowingly give offence to any of you, as I don't know your ways I probably will again." The whole table now seemed to appraise him, it was just like that stint he had made with the British he thought. The silent evaluation kept going for, as it seemed to Roland, a small eternity before the man wearing the kimono at last broke the silence. Drawling out his words in a slightly effeminately manner he said smiling coldly. "Well Sir, we'll do our best to accommodate you then, won't we? And try our hardest not to take offence." Turning back to Roland he asked. "So, tell me Sir, where exactly did thy reside?" Roland who wondered just how he would explain was glad that Mari decided to jump into the discussion again. She smiled at the man, saying sweetly. "Well Sir, if you must know, he's recently from my village coming to be betrothed to me. And yourself Sir, whatever makes a gentleman of your refined tastes detour to such a simple holding?"

The gentleman in question studied her for a moment, then he started to laugh. "A good riposte in deed." He mused. "Well milady, I'm here on the invitation of my esteemed friend Sir Lance. We happened to meet and found our goals to be similar. Will that satisfy milady's curiosity?" Mari smiled back. "For now Sir, for now." She answered all graciously and then turning to Roland said. "I'm sorry about the slip Roland, your question took me by surprise, that's all. I thought that dwarfs were known everywhere?" Roland smiled. "As I said Mari, all civilized Countries have heard of the might of Dwarves, but it's been a very long time since we had any residing at my home. So those caves then, are they also a legacy of your race Sir." He asked Sire DA'mus. "Ah young man, call me D'am, all my friends do, and I do think that it is what we are becoming here." Here he smiled at Mari. "Please feel free to do the same milady." trying for that short bow again. "No Roland, if I may call you that, my 'race' as you see it didn't build this stronghold, we are widely known for our understanding of masonry, mortar and stone but this is a very old artifact. Built long before man I think, and if I may say, most excellently so." He nodded slowly as he took up the briar pipe laying aside him. "In fact we still have things to learn from this structure, it is worthy of a visit all on its own." "hear hear." The other dwarfs agreed, also starting to ply their briars.

Soon the roof over the table was shrouded in a aromatic smoke coming from the dwarfs and the conversation turned to more amiable things. They shared a meal consisting of fresh fruit, bread and ham, and the same blend of nuts honey and milk that he had eaten at Mari, but this time he had a bowl of his own to devour. Normally the smoking would have ruined his appetite but here it somehow seemed to fit, so he ate to his hearts desire. "This was good." He said to nobody in particular as he finished his meal. "Yes." said D'am. "The food is most nutrient. Although I still find me missing the kleal we used to have with our breakfast at home." "hear hear" the other dwarfs could be heard mumbling, gnawing on their briars. "So, Mari." said C. Lance. "How was your journey?" Mari told them some about their experiences coming to the stronghold and ended it with telling about the regiment Wilfred had said he had spotted, and also about the way they seemed to use their pikes. "So, the real war is here then." Commented the gentleman in the kimono looking at the Captain. "Yes, it most unfortunately seems so." answered Lance. "Do you think they saw you?" He asked Roland. "No, I don't think so, but they might be coming here anyway." said Roland.

"No, I don't think so." answered Lance. "There is other places that will be of more importance for Lord Fouls ambitions." He stood up and asked them to join him in the adjoining room. On the walls there hung a row upon row of cylinders cast in what looked as bronze to Roland. Lance lifted down one and took it to a round table standing in the middle of the room. "This is Agor." He said. "And here are we." There he pointed to the west of the map, where Roland could see the mountain chain that held Eagle's nest. "As you can see Roland we are at the side of all major trading roads and not really of interest to none, here on the other hand." Saying so he pointed to the east of Eagles nest. " Here you can see the Emperor Sergius the fifths castle, that's where I expect Lord Fouls regiment to march. From there and Kingstown they can command most of the east provinces." He stroked his chin studying the map thoughtfully. "As you can see Kingstown is to the sea, and the harbor there will give them control of our sea-lanes too. It makes good strategic sense to me." Roland studied the map thinking of how much like a toy it looked to him, used as he was with his own times strategic maps and satellite-photos. But the reality hiding behind it was timeless he thought. And that reality was, as always, measured in life's and logistics.

"Yes" he agreed. "It makes good sense logistically, especially as they will be able to get in soldiers from both land and sea." Captain Lance looked at him, his eyes narrowing. "A military man, are you Roland." "Well Captain, I've done some military work I admit." Answered Roland. "But mostly limited operations though, and this is, if I get it right, a full-scale war?" Now the dilettante in the kimono leaned in over the table, looking at the Captain he asked. "Do you think they all will come from the west then Lance? Or do you think other Agor's neighbors will see their chance here too? "Ahh, that is the question." Answered the captain. "It all depends, wait a minute." He went to the wall lifting down another cylinder that rolled out into another map of bigger scale. There you could Agor in the middle surrounded by what looked as five other kingdooms. Although Agor seemed to be the largest kingdom Roland couldn't really be sure on that. He knew that the mapmakers at old times had a tendency to exaggerate what they knew, diminishing what they didn't. "Is this maps scales correct" he asked looking at the Captain. "To my knowledge they all are." Answered Lance. "look." Said Mari pointing at the first map. "There is our hamlet."

Looking at it Roland got a sudden understanding in how to read the distances on it. It had taken them two and a half day to get to this stronghold, and making a rough guess he made the distance to be somewhere around forty miles. So Kingstown was approximately 250 miles away. Looking back at the other map and comparing the distances between the stronghold and the Capital, he used his newfound knowledge about the distance in day-marches between Mari's hamlet and the stronghold to find a new sense of understanding for the distances involved here. Captain Lance and the dilettante, who both had studied him as he had measured out the distances, looked at each other knowingly. "I see." Said Roland finally satisfied. "Those states surrounding Agor then, how many can we count on to help us?" The Captain shook his head. "As you can see to the east is Awia and bordering that is Eor to the south. We've had a uneasy Truce with them both for over twenty years now. Awia is mostly populated by nomad's and there the tribes is the real deciders. Eor is more like us, a place mostly settled by farmers. But none of them is to be trusted.

To the north we have Lokgard settled since ancient times by the race of Avians. They are a secluded folk, not given to hobnobbing with their neighbor's. We have had good relations since a long time with them, and if we just could get some messengers there we might be able to raise some help. And then." And here he pointed to the west where a very large Nation bordered to Agor. "we used to have Grundhem. It's gone nor, conquered by Lord Foul. No big loss to us though, them and us have been on each other's throats for a long time. They used to be a slave state. And now they all are, I think, Thralls that is under Lord Fouls command. And here." Now he pointed at the north side of that map which mostly seemed to consist of desserts and mountain chains interspersed with a few small green valleys. "Here you also will find the republic of Trellheim. That is difficult country and sparsely populated. Theirs is said to be a race of magicians and hermits. We don't really know much about them, thy keep themselves rather secluded but their border touches Lokgard. The Avian's do seems to have a lively trade with them. It's possible that we could negotiate an alliance with them too with the help of Lokgard. Ah well, there you have it Every."

So that kimono guys name was Every then thought Roland sourly, he stowed it away for later use, and concentrated on the maps again. "It seems to me" he said. "that we can't do anything about what Awia and Eor might choose. That seems more of a problem for your Emperor. But we could try to warn Lokgard, and perhaps Trellheim too, it seems to me as if Lord Fouls forces will prevail for some time longer. What is it with that guy anyway? Why did he start this war and what are his plans, what do you know about him?" Captain Lance nodded. "Reasonable ideas Roland, and yes, Lord Foul you ask. Who is he and what does he want. Well, we don't really know whom he is. It seems he came over the Sea with a legion of strange looking foes ten years ago. He seems to rule by magic of a most powerful kind, dark and terrible. There are a lot of strange stories circulating about him, according to some of them nobody is allowed to see his face. He wears a mask at all times keeping his appearance a secret.

What we do know is that he never slowed down his conquering ambitions. He don't seem to care for the lands he already got, he just exploit their resources to build an ever-increasing number of armies. He also sets no limits on their behavior, the cruelty of those forces is already legendary. Some of his creatures are even said to thrive on human flesh, As for how much of that is truth and how much of it is old wife's tales I can't really say. But I know from our own experience that he leave the land in ruin and desolation wherever he comes. And it has to end. He stopped talking to look at Roland who now was concentrating on the maps again. "So how are you going to stop him then?" he asked. "You won't be able to do it on your own and to me it seems only a matter of months before you will be overrun by his superior forces. You will have to fall back on guerilla tactics to fight him and that will only slow your destruction, not stop it. Also it seems as if his goal is not so much conquering, as it is to destroy. You need to break his forces and make them run, and to do that you will need allies. Am I right so far?"

"Yes, you are right Roland. We need all help we can get. That's why we invited you and you Lady Mari, we want you to take a message to Lokgard asking for their assistance. Avery will accompany you and the time for it is quickly shrinking, will you do it?" Roland looked at them wondering again what it was they knew that he didn't. "And whom are you really Mr. Samurai, a spook?." he asked, looking hard at Avery. "Spook?" asked Avery drawling out his words. "No Sir, I don't know what that word means but it do sounds unsavory." He looked around the room for a moment and then seemed to make up his mind about something. He smiled, this time in a friendlier mode. "Although I freely admit to be a friend of the Emperor as well as of the Avian's, You will need someone like me with you to take you seriously when, or rather if, you arrive there. This wasn't your call originally, I know that, but as my unit was overrun days before I reached this stronghold. I will need new people trained in scouting and wilderness survival and you do seem to fit my bill.

As for your Lady I would say that she will be more needed here, there will be a siege no matter how unimportant this place may look at the map. There is a considerable source of power inside this stronghold and I have a feeling that Lord Foul will find dark uses for them living here." "Nobody will separate me from Roland" stated Marie, with a voice as cold as steel. "Where he goes, goes I" Captain lance smiled at her. "Lady." He said, it's yours to decide, yours and your man." He looked at Roland. "So, what do you say, do you think it's possible to reach Lokgard?" Roland who had been studying the maps with a furious concentration looked up, his eyes having a chilled far away look. "You wouldn't happen to have a better map covering the territories." he asked quietly. "No, but I have." said Every unbinding the sash around his waist. Draping it over the table, almost as a silk tablecloth, it unfolded into a detailed map covering the territory from Kingstown all the way to Lokgard. So you are a spook after all, Roland thought. I just hope we have the same goals here. "And you have something better than that" came the booming voice of D'am. "You have us. We know each stone and ground, and behold, we are hardy men." Roland studied them smiling slightly. "Yes, I believe you are." He said. "But how is your wood-lore?" he asked vaguely remembering tales from home. "We need to move fast and quietly. There will be little fighting, but great hardships before we arrive." D'am smiled. "What you do we can, but better." And that was all he wanted to answer to that.

"There but for the pride of dwarfs." Mari muttered darkly under her breath. "Good." Said Lance, sounding pleased. "It seems as if we have ourselves some rangers after all. It will take some days to arrange the logistics though, I suggest you take some time to aquatint yourself with each other and arrange your affairs." With a small bow he then gave them leave, asking them to keep themselves available though to plan their further moves when he would call. Well back in their room Roland took hold of his Mari and lifted her up in his lap. "I don't want you to stay either." he said. "But this will be hardships like nothing you ever known Mari, and there can be no favorites in a mission like this, you see?" Mari looked up on him somberly. "I know that Roland." She said. "But I would rather die with you than without you." He became silent on that, looking down at his hands reliving long gone memories. The meeting had unexpectedly jolted out more memories from his time in the Special Forces. "Let me tell you what I mean Mari." He said. "Remember that river we crossed?" She nodded. "Yes Roland." "The next time we need to cross such a thing it may be you that we will depend on. Do you really think you will have the strength for it?" She smiled again. "With the help of our Lady I will take my chances if it comes to that Roland. Remember that this is a land of magic too and there you will find me of use. Wood-lore won't handle everything in this realm." As Roland listened to her perceptive remarks he had to agree. "You got me there Mari, I'd totally forgotten to take that into consideration. And I want you with us too, but we may both die on this mission Mari, here you have a fighting chance I think, and they will need you." "Yes, but you need me more." Mari said, not knowing herself how she could be so sure about that, just knowing that it was the truth.

Later they went back to the mess for their evening meal, there they found a lot of different people milling about, mingling with each other, exchanging words and laughter. Roland almost forgot to eat as he watched them, there were dwarfs over there discussing with others reminding him more of elves, and that was just the half of it. There were some races here he just couldn't find words for, beings with great wings folded at their back and cruel beaks instead of mouths, Those seemed very proud and sat mostly by themselves. He nudged Mari and asked her in a low tone whom they might be. "Why, that's Avian's she said surprised. "They are seldom seen away from their homes. Would you like to talk with them?" "They seem very aloof." He answered, "But yes, I would dearly like to talk with them." "Well, come on then." She said as she took his hand. They went over to the Avian's table and Mari said some strange sounding words. The Avian's looked at her and answered in the same tongue, then they made a gesture for Roland to sit down. One of them bent over and said haltingly, "So you have never meet an Avian before, friend?" Roland smiled answering. "No but I'm doing it now, and a real pleasure it is." The Avian clicked with his beak making the rest stop their conversing with Mari to look at them curiously once more. "And a good thing it is to make new friends, wouldn't you agree?" Roland studied the Avian's countenance finding no lies hiding in it, his eye's deep and dark in knowledge. The avian had a dark coloration around them with dark green scales covering his face. "Yes, it is good making new friends." He answered. "My name is Roland, what is yours?" "Friend Roland." the Avian answered. "The best translation of my name I believe to be "Winds over mountain." "Would it be okay if I shortened it to Mountie then?" Asked Roland. "It would spare us some time." Mountie clicked his beak making the others become quiet again. Mari leaned to him whispering. "You've made a friend Roland, he's laughing." "I have?" said Roland surprised, so that was what the clicking noises meant then he thought. Ah well, when in Rome and so on.

"So, what are you doing so far from your own lands?" he asked feeling curious. "We got caught in the storm." Mountie explained as he munched, "We drifted for almost a week in it, finding ourselves here as it broke up, luckily for us your friends have taken good care of us, giving us great hospitality. But, tell me my friend, I have a feeling that you too have traveled farther than you expected, your bond with our mother is a new one it seems?" Roland looked at him feeling totally bewildered. "I'm sorry Mountie, you lost me there for sure, what do you mean by 'bond'?" The Avian who now politely excused himself turned to Mari talking with her rapidly in his own language. Mari first looked confused then elated and in the end she was talking with him reverently, acting as if almost awestruck. She turned to Roland excitedly. "Roland dear, do you have any idea with whom you're talking too here?" she asked breathlessly. "Sure I do." Answered Roland nodding graciously to the Avian. "Why, It's Mountie Mari, a old pal of mine." He smiled at her. "Not just any which 'pal'." She chastised him, "This is Sire 'Winds over mountain ', The most respected scholar in Trellheim, I read his tractate on 'charming potions in the new moon' in Hedge-school, it's a obligatory standard-work for healers, and it was absolutely brilliant."

The Avian seemed very pleased with her views. "So very nice to hear you my young lady and I thank you from all my hearts, but please, explain what I told you so that Roland can understand me fully lady Mari." Mari's blushed furiously. "Sorry, I got carried away for a moment Sire 'Winds over mountain '." She turned to Roland explaining. "Ah, Roland, Avian's have a close connection with what they see as their mother, our Earth, they see things differently from us. What he meant was that we all have a sort of 'navel cord' connecting us to our world, a bonding if you like. He was telling you that you didn't. Oh, don't get me wrong now lover, he said that there was a strong one growing but it was so new, he says. And that tells him that you must be new to this world." Roland smile turned into a relieved laugh. "I thank you friend 'Winds over mountain '" he said. "You are absolutely correct and as you are the first to recognize it too, would you like to hear my tale?" Mountie nodded and Roland began his story. As he had a very dim recollection about his time before his trek he could only make crude generalizations about his former world, but otherwise he told the whole story about what had happened to him, beginning with the day he came down the mountain into the glade." Mountie listened to it all in silence taking a bite now and then from the grape he held in his hands. As Roland finished his story Montie seemed both fascinated and serious. "Do you still have the map" he asked. "I think so." Answered Roland who had forgotten all about it until now. He looked at Mari, "I found no map," answered Mari, "only the locket, and that one I couldn't open." she admitted somewhat shamefacedly. "So maybe it's in there then?" asked Mountie and then continued. "That map is of a uttermost interest and weight to both you and me, friend Roland. It seems to me possibly to be a map over traveling between planes. I will have to meditate on this, but please, from now on make sure to keep it safe my friend. It's a priceless gift given to you. And possibly your only way home, should you choose so." Roland looked at him incomprehensibly, a gift? He had just been lucky to find it he thought, but then again he reconsidered, there was this matter about that laughing eye, and this world too?

Ah well, it was time to get some rest anyway, he decided. Raising from the table he gave Mountie his solemn promise to do his very best to take care of it now knowing its importance, and he also promised to meet up with him the next evening. Well back at their room he started to look for it, rooting around in his backpack he found the locker in one of the inside pockets. "Was it you putting it there by any chance?" he asked Mari. "No I didn't." She answered, telling him that as far as she remembered it had been lying on the table in the cottage the last time she saw it. So, it may not be all that easy to lose then, Roland thought to himself studying the locket with renewed interest. The next day they all meet up again in the same chart room to discuss what other preparations they might need. Captain Lance told them that he had gotten special provisions promised to keep them going for quite a while, also the best steeds this fort had. "No bother for us." Said D'am, "We will trust to our feet." Lance smiled at him. "I know Sire, all to well." He said apologetically. "Horses and Dwarves is normally a bad mix. But I'm afraid you will have to adjust to the needs of the times Sire." Now the dwarfs started to harrumph. "Outrageous Sir, are you expecting us to actually, ride!" exclaimed D'am. "Sire." Answered Captain Lance proudly. "We are so lucky as to have some of the descendants from the original mountain Ponies that used to work the Belten mines. Those mines have been abandoned for over two hundred years now but their ponies are still thriving and living here." D'am suddenly became animated. "Belten ponies?" he exclaimed barking a short incredulous laugh scrutinizing Lance from under shaggy eyebrows. "That is over two hundred miles from here Sir." He said "And how exactly would you account for those horses being here Sir?" he asked sounding stern.

The Captain had to admit that he had found no good explanation for it. It seemed as if they just had came trotting in from one of the unexplored mineshafts leading to the valley some ten twenty years after that mine had been closed down ... How they had survived, and what ways they had found from the Belten mines to this valley nobody knew, or if someone once did, that knowledge was now long dead and gone. "That puts a new light to the matter" muttered the D'am greedily stroking his beard. Turning to his fellows he said. "Think what we could ask for original Belten ponies at home boys." Turning back to Captain Lance he explained that those ponies nowadays only was a legend for the Dwarves, but that they were said to have been true friends and companions in the mines, never freely giving harm to any dwarf. "Why." Starting to sound quite enthused with the idea. "Only the sky will be the limit here. Why didn't you tell us before Captain Lance?" Now Lance had the decency to seem a little embarrassed. "Well, I'm afraid nobody knew Sire. It might have been a legend to you, but men and dwarves have different interests and the matter never came up I'm afraid. It was as I started to search for other means of transport I came around to them. Here they are mostly used for the children I'm afraid. "Sacrilege, bloody sacrilege that." another dwarf muttered under his breath. "Hear hear" some dwarves agreed. "Not necessarily." Said D'am turning again to his comrades. "Belten ponies thrives with children, it is well known that once every dwarfing got his own pony at the tender age of thirty-three. "Ah, those were the years." Roland heard another dwarf mumble under his breath. He started to wonder just how old a dwarf could become.

Looking at them he would have guessed them all to be around forty with the exception for D'am who seemed nearer to fifty. But that was a later question he thought as D'am continued. "Captain, if you are correct and those are the descendants from the Belten mines we have no problem taking them of out of your hands, it will be our pleasure. In fact it is a priceless gift for us dwarves, and it warms our hearts to know that there still are Belten ponies thriving on our green earth. We will do our best to repay it in turn, perhaps we could strengthen the fortifications for you. Ah, not now I mean but later perhaps?" Captain Lance bowed at the stout old dwarf watching him, saying. "There is no repayment necessarily Sire D'am. Knowing that you will accompany us to Lokgard lending your irreplaceable experience to this mission is payment enough. It is with pleasure we relinquish those horses in your care. They may be somewhat small in seize but their sturdiness is incomparable and they are a valiant breed, as used to walk over as under earth. I can't think of any better steeds to take with you at this quest into the dark." Hearing this Roland couldn't help but start wondering exactly how they were thought to make their way toward Lokgard. "Under the Earth you say?" he asked. "Are we going under the Earth too?" D'am looked at him. "Friend Roland, most of the passes we need to overcome will be blocked or watched. Our first problem is to get out of here undetected. There is already watchers placed out side this stronghold. It seems as if Lord Foul is finding this stronghold interesting after all." He smiled, a darkly cunning smile. "We are after all Dwarves Sir."

It was a very unbalancing thing thought Roland, just as he had reconciled himself to leading this party finding that he wouldn't. "So what use am I then?" He asked slightly irritated. "You will be of great use to us Roland." The Captain answered him. "We all know that you seem to have an extensive wood lore, also that you have been in this kind of situations before. Above ground you're a natural but when under it, the guidance of stone-lore is a must. And we are lucky indeed to have found such respected guides as our friends here." he made a polite bow towards the dwarwes. "And naturally, their esteemed leader, Sire D'am." And there he made an even deeper bow at D'am. "It will be our pleasure guiding you through the mountains Roland." Said D'am also bowing. "Think of it as a possible extension of your wood-lore." Yeah, thought Roland darkly, if we survive it that is. He had always had a problem with confined places, and what could be more confined than being in a dark shaft thousand of feet's under a mountain. On the other hand, if what they said was correct there really didn't seem to be any choice. "How can you be so sure that they are watching us?" He asked. "Well," answered the Captain." yesterday we got back some scouts that we sent out on a reconnaissance mission. They came back, in bits. We believe we still have some passages out, but there is no guarantee anymore."

"The tunnels it is then." Said D'am decisively. "Lord Foul may be aware of all things over the ground, but I doubt he knows the extensive net of tunnels leading from Eagels nest. As those Belten ponies prove." Here he turned to his compatriots smiling. "We may yet see if the saying is true." "Hear hear" The other dwarves now seemed in a most exuberant mood. "What saying?" asked Mari. "That they never have lead any dwarf astray, at least not knowingly." Answered D'am, smiling reassuringly at her. "So there is really nothing to worry about." Hearing that Roland mumbled, 'nothing to worry about, my ass' under his breath, but decided to keep quiet for the moment. Avery who until now had listened acting rather blasé suddenly smiled in a most fetching manner. "Ahh, that's one problem solved then." Sounding most pleased with himself. "And think what exiting and gay times we will have under this Roof over the world." He's just like those thickheaded dwarfs thought Roland as he sourly looked at him. Mari on the other hand almost seemed to find him amusing. "So there is a lot to look forward too then, Sir, is it?" She asked smiling beguilingly at Avery. Then she continued not waiting for an answer. "Now Sir, in what capacity will you accompany us, pray?"

The Noble, as that was what he must be, to become so absolutely stupid thought Roland, smiled charmingly at her and then in a most gay and unbuttoned manner answered. "Milady, please consider me thine bosom companion and even champion if that need ever arise, I can promise to do my best amusing you in what little capacity I might have at this most probably tedious journey." Now Mari looked in even parts confused, irritated and amused. "Ah, Sir if I may, I'm sure you will do your best, but with all due respect Sir Avery, I really would like to know exactly in what manner your contributions might be, except amusement Sir?" "You might ask Milady, but the answer will have to wait." Captain Lance now broke in with. "There are certain aspects to this mission that we won't discuss I'm afraid, state-secrets if you will. But I can tell you all that it's crucial for Sire Avery to reach Lokgard. And that much hangs on your succeeding in that endeavor." As it was almost time for supper they agreed to call it 'a day. Roland and Mari went directly to the mess for some long awaited supper and a talk with 'Winds over mountain.', Mountie that was. The Avians were sitting at their usual table when Rolandand Mari arrived so after getting their plates filled they went directly there. "Ah, my friends Mari and Roland." Said 'Winds over mountain '. "Please sit down and join us." and so they did. The Avian's left them to eat their meal in peace and quiet before starting any discussion with them and Roland for one was grateful for that.

But after a while the worst hunger was gone and they started to talk. Roland was surprised over how much Mountie seemed to know about the journey that they were planning. "Nothing to worry about." Mountie assured him, "We are going there too, although we won't take the exact same route though." There he clicked his beak amused. "Not the same way?" Roland asked. "Don't you know that all roads are watched?" The big Avian looked up to the roof, "Roland, there are many paths leading to the same goal, don't you know that?" Then he let his wings fold out into one mighty stretch. They were large and the muscles and tendons moving them seemed both strong and sinewy. Roland suddenly understood. "You are planning to fly?" he asked sounding incredulous. Mountie nodded sagely. "We are flying at the same time you leave." Roland shook his head unbelievingly. "But they told me that there are hidden watchers spying on us all, won't they see you." "Maybe." Answered Mountie clicking his beak in a amused manner. "Although we leave in the night and there will be diversions that we think will confuse those watchers. But we have to take our chances, our Lords must learn and be warned about Lord Foul as soon as possible. If Agor is to fall we think us to be next in line, and even if we're wrong we know our turn will come. So we have no choice really, the sooner we make ready for war the better for us."

Roland looked at him. "I will wish you good speed and fine winds then my friend." He said. "And I hope that we will meet again in Lokgard." The avian clicked again. "Rest assured in that we will meet again." He said. "I conjured last night and saw it so ordained." He then became serious. "Did you bring your locket friend Roland? And, if so, may I hold it?" Roland smiled at this great Avian he so quickly had come to see as a friend. "Yes and yes Mountie." He said and lifted it up from where it was hanging around his neck. He laid it in the Avian's hand, and waited for Mounties reaction. "As soon as it was resting in 'Winds over mountain's' hand it changed. The worn outlines of the unicorn seemed to take on a glow of its own and behind the noble head another image was coming to life. And Mountie sat as if he had became a statue, not twitching a muscle. It seemed a image of a human face, Roland thought, but so much more beautiful and sterner than any face he ever had seen. It seemed to look up from the locket straight into Roland's very soul, and he felt it demanding a terrible price for its unlocking. "Leave it be Mountie." He almost begged as he took it out from 'Winds over mountain's' hand.

As he did so Mountie seemed to be released from what spell that had held him petrified again. "I'm so sorry friend Roland, there seems to be a heavy burden laid on you." Was the first thing he said as he could talk. "This locket" He said as he continued studying it, almost in revulsion, as it rested once more around Roland's neck. "is alive. How this has been done I do not know, but it seems yours to wear and you alone can release the spirit held inside it. If that release will be for good or bad I do not know though. I only know that it was not mine to touch and I ask you not to let any other that yourself touch it." He seemed as if he couldn't find the words to explain himself, unsure as if standing in a minefield as he continued. "Be aware that the locket comes from the original realm, the one beyond ours. It should by all principles not be able to exist aside this world, that it does worries me. More than anything I've learnt so far this worries me. I must travel home, only there can I find the proper tools to scry deeper for its truths." He excused himself turning to the other Avian's and an animated discussion now took place. Suddenly the Avian's all rose from their chairs as one, turning to Rolandand Mari, Mountie most apologetically asked his and the others excuse, explaining that they now found it of utmost importance to impress Captain Lance with their need for a swift return. "We will meet again Roland, have no doubts about that. But for now we can only wish you a safe travel and a happy return." suddenly he seemed to remember something. "Ah, and Roland." He said "A word of caution friend, remember that not all friends comes fair." Mari and Roland, now feeling as if a storm-wind just passed them by, watched dumbfounded as the Avian's in great haste made their way out of the mess-hall.

"Whatever did you do to him?" Wonder Mari almost accusingly. "I was getting on famously with them, they were telling me all kinds of interesting things when 'Winds over mountain ' interrupted us saying that you had shown him something. I couldn't get the hinge off what it was, but the others seemed to understand him right off, and suddenly they all just left. What on Earth did you do Roland?" Rolandshook his head, not knowing what to say. "He wanted to see my locket." He said. Then he told Mari what had transpired as Mountie got his hands on it, and also what Mountie subsequently told Roland. Mari looked at the locket and Rolandsaw the same expression of swiftly fleeing revulsion as he had seen on Mounties face just before. And when she lifted her eyes to his hers had grown very cool. "What is it?" he asked wondering what new error he might have made. "What makes it so revolting all of a sudden?" Mari just couldn't get a grip on it. She realized that she should have made a much more throughout examination of that locket when she first saw it but Roland needs had been her first priority, and then, well then there had been this personal chemistry between them confounding it all. She started to question the whole situation. "Whom are you?" she whispered. "A thaumaturge perhaps, molding my perceptions, casting truths out of lies?" Roland stared at her uncomprehendingly. "I'm the guy that you slept beside last night." He answered looking bewildered. "Aye, that you might be." She said as she made some intricate signs with her hands. "But I demand a answer, what are you, what purpose steers you." The locket suddenly gave of a wave of heat, as if letting of energy. "What is it Mari, I've told you what I know. I'm Roland, remember him? That guy you woke up beside this morning."

Suddenly he thought he knew what her hand signing meant. "You didn't put a spell on me now, did you?" He asked incredulously. Mari while having the decency too look discomfited didn't allow herself to become distracted by his question. "Tell me whom you are Roland, Why are you here and where did you come from." Roland who by now had become downright disgusted by the whole situation stood up coldly telling her. "Mari, you don't trust me now, I don't think you will trust me later. You're perfectly free to find yourself new quarters. In fact I believe I must insist on it." He brusquely excused himself and left, once more walking in the company of that old friend betrayal. Mari knew that she had let him down, but did she have any choice she asked herself. No human should own, even less wear such an accursed thing. And if he just could walk away from her bewitching, what stopped him from feeding her lies the whole time? She had trusted to her own abilities and her Lady's powers for so long, to suddenly find them of no significance were a most disconcerting thing. She didn't know what to believe any more. I must talk to 'Winds over mountain ' she thought, she had developed a great trust in his abilities in what short time they had together. Although, for some strange reason, Roland's idea of separate quarters somehow presented a greater threat to her wellbeing than the question of what powers he might possess. Roland who felt very alone now had just wandered around by now succeeding in becoming quite lost, he found some stairs leading upwards that he decided to follow. He needed some fresh air badly, those chambers of stone was beginning to press him down, diminishing him into nothing more than a mirage. Maybe I'm imagining it all he thought depressed. I could still be lying on that patch where I fell down not rational anymore? But it was so real. If he touched the stones he could feel their rough cold structure and his anger was real too.

What's the use he wondered as he climbed the stairs, nothing ever change. I'm still cursed with this loneliness, perhaps it's meant to be then. He felt weary with climbing now and this stair seemed long unused, there was no any signs anymore and if he hadn't taken that last torch with him he would have climbed in darkness now. It was dangerous as the stair winded itself up around a cylindrical abyss, clinging to the wall, leaving a great drop in the middle for the unwary, how far down that drop stretched he didn't dare to guess. When he had found it those stairs already went both up and down. He doubted he ever would be able to traverse it back if that need might arise. Then again, he thought, the steps had to lead out somewhere, hopefully. Yes, that's what I need, some fresh air he thought getting out of this oppression of stone, looking at his torch again he esteemed that it wouldn't burn for more than ten fifteen minutes now. He looked up trying to spot some end to this spiral but none was to be found. Mari whom by know had gone to their room wanting to explain why she had reacted so strongly found it empty. The only thing reassuring her was that his backpack still stood there untouched. He wouldn't want to leave without his backpack she thought relaxing a little, perhaps he was with 'Winds over mountain '? She decided that her best course would be to wait for him, she was badly in need of some rest, and also she didn't want to miss him in the case of him coming back to get his belongings. She fell into an uneasy sleep waiting by the flickering fire, still holding his backpack in a firm grip.

The torch was burned out now, he continued up just by feel, the real danger was not loosing the stairs. It could all to easily happen as there were openings leading away at all levels. Somehow he had succeeded in following the stairs though. His eyes whom by now had adapted themselves to the darkness seemed to catch some weak light from above and it had became gradually chillier as he climbed, it couldn't be to far now he hoped as he continued up the stairs. He had thought of throwing down the torch once it only glowed just to see how deep that abyss really was, but then had decided against it. There could be someone or something down there, he thought a little uneasy, and he didn't really need anyone more getting mad at him. At last he could see that light more clearly, but it was different from what he had expected. It wasn't daylight and neither was it moonlight, it had a eerie specter to it as if not being here at all and emanated from the inside of a room opening to the left of him. In its weak light he saw the stair still carrying on its endless spiral upward. He decided to take a look at whatever it could be giving of the light, God knows I need something to light my way with he thought as he stepped into the chamber. It seemed well furnished but very old, it was clear that no one had inhabited it for a long time. The eerie specter he had noticed was coming from a arm ring resting inside something looking like a sphere of glass, looking around he saw a row of cylinders looking very alike those he had seen in the chart room. On the other side beside a bed there stood some strange contraption looking almost like that helicopter Leonardo da Vinci had drawn so long ago. Stepping forward to the bed it seemed to him as if there was something resting under the cover. Carefully pulling it away he found the withered remains of a man falling into dust as he looked. It shook him up badly and he couldn't move.

Staring down he saw an old leather-bound book laying there, caused by some unexplainable impulse he lifted it from the remains, in the process finding his locket warming up again. "So, you're magic then?" he muttered as he pocketed it. "You have no further use for that my friend, I hope you'll excuse me for taking it." He said to the remains, then he moved around curiously to get a closer look at the room. At one corner there was this drapery, looking behind it he found a odd sculpture created out of two triangles slowly rotating one inside the other at a pedestal, and behind that mounted to the wall there was a simple curved sword reminding him of that dilettante Avery. It was beautifully made with wavy watermarks on its blade reminding him of mountains and plains. Of all he had seen here this was the most beautiful thing he thought, and he found his hand lifting it down as if of its own volition. The triangles seemed to become agitated, they started to whirl around each other at an increasingly faster pace, also somehow going up in each other and changing places constantly. They made a weak tingling sound as he lifted the sword down, and his locket become unbearably hot, like a battery suddenly discharging. While felling a terrible need to leave this gruesome crypt he knew that he still needed that light. Going over to the table he tried to lift the strange glass sphere containing the arm ring but when touching it disappeared. He felt like a sudden burn at his right arm, looking he found the arm-ring, looking as if it always had been sitting there.

The sound which grew in an ever-increasing volume now also had gotten a strange vibrating pitch to it, greatly disturbing the dry still air. One of the old bronze cylinders fell down with a loud crash and when moving to pick it up he saw thin cracks appear in floor, startled he looked up just to find the same happening to the ceiling. Realizing that he was in imminent danger of getting crushed he desperately made a rush for the opening, the last thing he remembered running for it was a feeling of the whole room caving in and then all became black. Coming to he found himself laid out back on the stairs again but with his head and shoulder outside, floating above the abyss. He crawled back to terra firma as fast as he humanly could and well there he tried to find where the opening had been but there were no traces of it to be found, only unbroken rock meeting his hands wherever he placed them.

Part four.

Of hope and obstacles. are we magic.

Mari woke up in darkness finding the fire almost burnt out, only some embers glowing and smoldering in the fireplace, she decided her first priority was putting some more wood to it and stoke the fire back to life. Feeling something heavy in her hand she looked down, ah yes, Rolands backpack. Seeing it brought memories back of the break up and suddenly she started to worry as to where he could have gone. But she couldn't wait here forever, she wanted, no, she needed to know what 'Winds over mountain ' had meant. After all, this 'thing' wasn't only concerning her and Roland, it involved her whole world. Writing a quick note, she asked him to have a last talk with her, writing that she would be at the mess waiting for him. leaving it on his backpack she went to find out where the Avian quarters might be.

Getting her directions form some soldiers at the mess she went directly to see them. She found the Avian's in a great hurry, making ready to leave, but 'Winds over mountain' was nowhere to be found. She asked them to tell him that she had been there looking, and would wait at the mess needing his advice. "Could you be so kind as to inform him that this matter concerns us all." She asked graciously before leaving for the mess again. As she was getting hungry she took some soup and bread with her, to sit at the Avian's table and then sat herself down to wait. She had to wait a considerable time before her first guest appeared. It was 'Winds over mountain ' looking both tired and harassed as he sat down beside her.

She smiled at him putting forward a bowl of grapes. " I believe those are your favorites Sire." The Avian clicked his beak amused. "You are correct Mari." He said as he took a judicious bite. "I will certainly miss those." He mumbled thoughtfully while munching. "So, are you leaving soon?" She asked. Mountie nodded. "As soon as possible." He answered gravely while taking another big bite out of the grape. "I think I need to thank you again Mari, with all this mad rushing about I quite forgot to eat, I hope you don't mind?" "Of course not, I'm just pleased to been have of some assistance Sire. But why this rush? Is it that revolting 'thing' Roland showed you?"

'Winds over mountain ' laughed again. "As you well know Mari and where, if I may ask, is your Roland?" Mari looked down at the table feeling terrible. "That's the problem Sire, I'm not so sure he is 'my Roland' anymore. We had a quarrel over that cursed 'thing' you see, and I think I made a unforgivable mistake. Mountie now gave her his full unwavering attention, letting the grapes be. "Yes, I understand it being a most unpleasant surprise, finding out what that locket was. So tell me, what exactly did you do?" Mari told him in great detail what had happened ending it with Roland disappearing for the rest of this day.

At the end of her story Mountie shook his head. "So, your charm didn't work then, well, no surprise there. That locket should be able to neutralize most anything thrown at Roland. But Mari, treating him as the culprit wasn't the wisest choice you've made, was it?" Mari felt confused, her eyes starting to tear. "I wish I hadn't, but tell me, what could I do, such artifacts have terrible power over their possessors. How could I trust his innocence, knowing that he had such means of destruction at his hand." The Avian nodded again. "I do see your point Mari, but you as well as I know that not all glowing is gold and that not all hidden is wrong. You shouldn't blame the bearer for the tidings"

He studied her thoughtfully as he continued. "It is not of our world Mari, it's afore it and as such it is wrong to label it cursed or evil. But its aims needs to be resolved, that's why I have to go home so much sooner than I expected" Mari stared at him without seeing as she wondered. "How can Roland resist it, it must warp him so terribly." Mountie thought about for a while and then answered. "Roland is also out of this world Mari. He might become bonded to this Earth, and us, but his essence is out of elsewhere. If you ask me I would say that this was meant to be from the beginning."

Mari listened, slowly overcame with wonder. "Are you meaning what I think you're meaning Sire? That there is more powers than us moving here?" 'Winds over mountain ' nodded slowly. "There is some things we decide over and there are others that we don't. In this case I believe that there is other powers than ours involved." He said as he took the last grape from the bowl on the table. "Try not to be to hasty in your judgement of Roland, he too is moved by more than him self."

Mari looked around feeling as if something had changed with those last words of his but it all looked the same as usual to her. But it felt different, it was if some cold wind silently had moved right through her making her cold to her bones. "I don't know where he is." She said quietly sounding suddenly young and vulnerable. "I wish we had had this talk before I tried to find the truth out of him Sire. I doubt he will trust me after this."

Now Mountie clicked his beak, most amused. "Don't you worry, you won't get rid of him that easy I think, but I'm afraid I'll have to leave you now Mari, know though that both you and Roland will be present in my thoughts and hope." Mari smiled at him, oddly warmed by his words of comfort. "And so will you, Sire, in mine, if you happen to see Roland Sire, please tell him that I'll be waiting for him either here or down at our room." Promising that he would do his best 'Winds over mountain ' left Mari to sit waiting, staring down at the table with her worried thoughts as her only companion as he went to help his comrades finish their preparations before leaving.

Roland who by now thought that he never should have tried those stairs mumbled to himself. "At least there could be some light, I want to see." Saying so he felt a tingling sensation in his right arm and the arm-band started to glow with a eerie green light. "Come on, can't you glow normally." He said to his arm without thinking." obediently the light changed color and became white. He sat there dumbly staring at the arm-ring for a while, then he cautiously touched it with his other hand. It felt normal to his touch until he experimentally decided to take it off. Doing so he found it refusing to move, clinging to his arm as if being glued to it, no matter how hard he tried. In a spite of anger he said. "Get of my arm you blasted thing."

Saying so he to his surprise suddenly found he could remove it. As he did though its light went out, so after some further pondering he decided to put it on again. But now it wouldn't light up anymore, and neither did it fit his arm. "Come on, get the light on you, you thing." He muttered as he tried to bend it into shape, to his surprise it lighted up just as he said it, but again with that same eerie green light. "And fit my arm will you." He told it and suddenly it fitted his arm perfectly. "This is so strange." He said to himself wonderingly. "Do you understand what I'm saying? Oh shit, I'm talking to a arm-ring" But somehow it seemed to be able to understand, as it changed its light to white as he told it so.

Somehow it reminded him of a computer, albeit a very strange one. It seemed to get its power from being on his arm and when losing touch it just went out. And also, he noticed after some more juggling, just as a computer it only did what he told it to do, not what he wanted it to. Roland rapidly decided that this was good enough for him though and while feeling not a little elated with his newfound toy he still found himself in something of a puddle. "I wonder which way is right here, up or down?" He muttered to himself, considering it the anger he had felt with Mari seemed a petulant thing compared to his experiences here. "Can you show me the way." He asked his arm-ring feeling somewhat silly. The arm-ring just glowed at him with a steady white light.

Wait, he thought suddenly, it's just like a computer isn't it. "Please, show me the way back to Mari." He said politely looking at the arm-ring, not really believing in it, more for the hell of it taking a chance. To his surprise there was a sudden gentle tug at his arm, as if someone was holding it trying to lead him on. He followed the tug guiding him down the stairs which he now with the arm-ring lightening up his way found a piece of cake to traverse. The way back wasn't as long as he remembered it going up, on the other hand he had been fumbling without any light for quite a while then he thought as he walked down keeping very close to the wall. "Why couldn't they use railings." He muttered fretfully under his breath as he happened to look down at the abyss waiting to the left of him. "This is the last stairs I ever will walk, from now on it's elevators or nothing." He swore to himself as he on shaky legs carefully picked his way down the abyss.

After what seemed as an eternity the tugging changed direction into one of the openings, after walking for another eternity taking turns he didn't remember himself taking before he came once more out in a lightened area. It seemed as he came out at a different place from where he got in, but he wasn't certain, the tunnels seemed all the same to him he thought. After a while he thought he recognized himself though and when looking ahead he spotted the entrance to the mess hall. "So she's still there, poor child." He muttered to himself feeling guilty over him deserting her like that. Inside the mess he only saw a few people and no Mari at all but the arm-ring still tugged on him with that same gentle grip so he kept on walking.

Coming up to what he thought was the Avian's table he saw something dark half sitting, half resting over the table. the fires was dimmed down, as they usually did when it was nighttime outside, so he had quite some difficulty discerning what the shape consisted of but on arrival he found it to be Mari. She had apparently fallen asleep sitting there, her light brown hair floating down in gentle curves framing her face, framing it as the priceless jewel it was to him. She seemed to feel remorse even in her sleep so he just sat down quietly at her side lightly stroking her face. Saying. "Wake up Mari, I'm back for you." He propped his arm under her head as a pillow against the table. She slowly woke up mumbling. "I had such a terrible dream Roland. I was alone in a room hearing your voice, but I couldn't find you, I found only shadows laughing at me."

Roland shook her gently as he tried to console her. "No Mari, listen to me please. I will never leave you, not as long as you still want me to stay, haven't you noticed that I'm not that easy to get rid of girl." Mari who now was coming up from her uneasy doze took hold of his arm. "Don't you ever walk out on me like that again Roland. I felt so terrible and I'm so sorry love." She rambled on haltingly. "When you told me about that thing you frightened me badly. I didn't know what to think of it, or you. But I've talked with 'Winds over mountain ' afterwards and I see what he meant. I should never have done that charming on you, I'm so sorry about it." He took her into his arms and smiled. "You have charm enough for a regiment as it is girl, I'm a grownup Mari, I just did what most men do, looked for somewhere I could rant in peace."

She lightened up into a weak smile. "so you're not mad at me any more?" She asked shyly, still unsure. "I felt so alone Roland, and so confused about us." Roland took her up in his arms as if she had no weight at all. "Mad at the girl that saved my life? That cares for me and is as breathtakingly sweet as you?" He shook his head wonderingly. "That would be a daft man to see, wouldn't it? And one that definitely would need to have his head examined." Mari relaxed in his arms. "Good man." She said with a sudden glint of mischief in her eyes. "Then you can carry me to our room now Roland, We both need some rest." He started to laugh as looked down at her with her impish smile. "Your wish is my command milady, allow me." So saying he proficiently turned her over into a fireman's carry, bearing her like that all the way to their room, not heeding her weak protests.

It was a night to cherish, they found great solace in each other's arms and feel asleep entwined as Siamese twins. When Roland woke up he found she was lying beside him with his left arm still asleep under Mari's neck. He carefully disentangled his arm taking great care in not waking her and after having seen to his needs he came back to find her still asleep. Sitting down by her side he looked at her wondering what good he could have done to deserve a girl as she, not that he had that good remembrance of his earlier life, but he was pretty sure that he hadn't been that perfect. Leaning over her to give her a light kiss he said quietly. "Why don't you stay here Mari, I'll go and get us some breakfast, okay?" She smiled at him sleepily. "If it's between that or being carried I think I can wait love." He smiled back. "Good on you girl." Leaving he heard her whisper. "Yes you were, good on me." He smiled the whole way to the mess hall.

After enjoying their breakfast Mari hastened to make herself presentable, knowing that they were supposed to meet up in the chart room with Captain Lance soon. Roland who already was ready relaxed on the bed wondering when he should tell her about last night's adventures, somehow he felt no overbearing need to do it yet though. "Ah well, it can wait I suppose." He said as stood up to escort her out. "No it can't" said Mari misunderstanding his words. "We are already late, come now Roland, we better hurry." He had left the sword in the corner last night but somehow he felt naked without it, so he fastened it to his belt before leaving.

Mari saw him doing it without commenting which made Roland wonder just how much magic was hidden inside it. But as she didn't seemed to mind he felt quite satisfied as it was. The book he found he had put inside a leg pocket where it seemed to fit just snugly. He found the phenomena to be just as true when arriving to the chart room, nobody mentioned his new sword resting in its mat-black scabbard and nobody seemed to find anything odd with him. It must be the same with the arm-ring he guessed, now that he thought about it. He had it covered by his shirt now, but last night when they made love Mari must have seen it. But she hadn't said a thing about it, not that he had cared overmuch of anything except her then he thought feeling her lithe body next to his.

As they sat down he felt something pressing on his leg, feeling what it was he found it to be the bronze tube. I must have picked up just before getting out of the cave he thought to himself, I wonder what it is. Deciding to take a quick look before they went down to serious business he screwed of the small cap plugging it tight and shaking it carefully, a little piece of what seemed as silk came out unfolding into a map. Strangely enough, just as with the sword no one seemed to take any notice of his doings even though he now had it draped all over the table. As he took a closer look he recognized it as a map over the stronghold.

Deciding he had to call it to notice he said. "Look, I found this last night." Showing them the map. The dwarves whom he had showed it first too seemed rooted to the floor as they were studying it and Captain Lance became quite agitated to when seeing what it described. "Where ever did you find this?" he asked looking dubiously at the other cylinders hanging in the corner. He seemed to assume that Roland had been over to them last evening finding it, and Roland, without knowing why, found it simplest to allow him to draw his own conclusions.

The only one starting to wonder was Mari, there had been something odd with Roland the whole day she thought, and she could swear to him not have been anywhere near those cylinders. Also this one looked different from them hanging. For one it seemed a little thinner and very finely made and she had noticed that the bronze was badly eroded too. She decided that she definitely needed to have a little talk with him, as soon as possible in fact, to find out where he had been when he had disappeared. For now she satisfied herself with making a rune protecting her from undue influences of the mind and body. Not that she didn't trust Roland, no, it was the locket she distrusted.

The dwarves whom had been discussing the map between themselves now turned as one to Roland, D'am asking. "Is this you map Sire? Would you be interested in selling it, not now of course, not now Sir, but later after all this is cleared up and forgotten." Roland looked at D'am. "What is it that is so special about this map Sir?" he asked. The dwarf harrumphed a little and then told Roland that it was a map not only of the tunnels but also of the locations of all the holds of precious metals under the Eagles nest.

"It is worth a fortune Roland, that map." He said adding. "if those holds still contain anything of course. But it also shows a extensive strange holding far under us that we think could be the legendary court of Alain foD'm." Seeing the need to explain it further he told about the legendary dwarfen King that once was said to have ruled a large part of this mountain range.

He is said to have been a great metalourge creating casts of seldom seen hardness. Swords of such might that they could clove the hardest rocks. And then he suddenly disappeared from our knowledge. "Only a few artifacts now exist reminding of him. and to find out more would be a treasure more valuable to us that any new mines." He finished.

Captain Lance whom by now had became quite impatient with the dwarves found it for god to break in there. "This is all very interesting my dear Sir D'am, but we still have some small matters to see to before that, don't you agree?" D'am seemed somewhat embarrassed as he answered. "I'm very sorry my dear Captain but to find such a treasure at your hands happens once in a lifetime, and yes, we are all overcome with its inherent possibilities."

One of the other Dwarves whom studied the map using a magnifying glass now exclaimed excitedly. "Alain, the map is made by Alain himself, come and see." Showing them the rune marks he explained that this was the mark of the King himself. "It might have been his private map." the dwarf whispered stupefied not daring to touch it anymore. "Beware if it is." Said D'am soberly.

"If it is it will contain clever riddles and traps, in case of it ever falling in the wrong hands. Also it should be protected by charms and incantations protecting it from the eyes of all mortals." Now the Dwarves turned to Roland with newfound interest. "It was you opening it wasn't it?" "Yes?" Roland answered finding it all rather confusing.

D'am stepped closer to him. "Do you feel strange in any way." He asked as he leaned very close, suddenly sounding at his most solicitous. "Strange colors, runes perhaps apparitions appearing in front of your eyes, a sudden need of mumbling strange-sounding syllables? A extreme tiredness, as if you only want to lie down to your, ahh, sleep perhaps?"

Roland hastily and with no little anxiety made a self-examination of his state of health, to his pleasure he couldn't find any of D'am signs relating to him, well, except for a sudden need for some contemplation in splendid isolation. As he related his findings the dwarves shook their heads unanimously. "No." Muttered D'am doubtfully. "A spell binding one to a bathroom? Although Alain is well known to have had a rather odd humor? No, even so I doubt that this would be his way. Although, thinking of it I can see all kind of intriguing possibilities"

"Thank God for that." said Roland knowing that he at last didn't have to add bathrooms to his growing list of phobias. "Now, if I may be excused, I need to visit the bathroom." Once finding himself there though he much to his chagrin noticed nothing happening at all? That really worried him, was it a spell after all, forcing him to forever after haunt bathroom's? Would mothers then scare their little ones with. "If you're not nice you will find yourself as that unlucky man, Sir Roland." Thinking about it, pondering its wider implications he slowly found himself smiling and after a while his plumbing worked as usual.

With a deep feeling of relief he went back to the chart room in where a heated argument seemed to have broke out in his absence. It was Captain Lance and D'am arguing about what should have the uppermost priority, getting away directly or to take as D'am described it. "A very small and quick detour my dear Captain, just to see what that strange holding might contain. It will take no time at all I promise, no time at all Captain Lance." While listening to them Roland started to wonder where that dilettante was, what was he called, ah yes, Avery wasn't it? "Begging your pardon Sires." He asked. "Shouldn't Sir Avery have a say in this decision, after all, it seems to me that it is him we are to escort to Lokgard?"

Both parties quieted down at that, then the Captain nodded sharply. "You are of course correct Sir, in the end it is his decision, would't you agree Sir D'am?" Until now it seemed as D'am had thought victory to be within reach but hearing Roland and the Captain he seemed to slowly deflate, like a balloon losing air. "Forgot all about him I'm afraid Captain, but of course Sir, you are correct. Ah well, maybe later then." He said philosophically turning to his fellow dwarves. A sense of gloom had materialized, magically hanging like some cloud over them and the dwarves chewed their unlighted pipes in frustration, not even being able to smoke as the maps were all to easily ignited.

Everybody acting fatigued Mari found it for good to suggest that they adjourned the meeting for now, in favor of refreshments and rest instead. "And a good smoke." One of the dwarves exclaimed joyfully. All being in favor of her idea they agreed to meet the next day instead, although this time with Avery present, to finalize their plans. Lance promised to send them a message in good time as to when it would be and with that decided they all went their separate ways. Mari and Roland sat down with the dwarves to eat, the dwarves now having their pipes going for full machine. "Ah yes." said D'am. "Take good care of that map son. Its value is priceless." The other Dwarves harrumphed "Hear, hear" one of them saying. "That map alone Sir, might bring back the glory of when dwarves metal and stone lore was at its peak. Priceless indeed Sir."

Mari seemed to mull over something in her mind, hesitantly she turned to Roland as if on the brink of asking him something but then changed her mind saying instead. "I need to talk with you. But it can wait a little longer, let us enjoy the meal first." And a most proper meal it was, there was venison floating in a brown creamy mushroom sauce with jam potatoes and bread to it. They could choose between a brown foamy ale and cold milk, and for the bread there was farmer's cheese or pork sausage with garlic, there were also slabs of creamy butter floating in large wooden bowls filled with cold water.

Sitting there looking at the people, enjoying the food and company, Roland suddenly realized that it all felt so homely to him, he thought in wonder about how fast one got used even to the most extraordinary circumstances, and also about the adaptability of the human mind. "You know." He said turning to the others. "Had anyone told me a month ago that I would be sitting here today, in the company of you most charming dwarves, with a beautiful hedge-witch as my closest companion I would have laughed at them and asked what strange weed they might have been smoking.

But it feels very natural and right, so, to you my friends and to my love." He lifted his tankard of beer. "A long and prosperous life for us all. And to friendship and love" He emptied it in one mighty draught whereupon the others soon followed suit. The dwarves seemed pleased with his words "Hear, hear." He heard them mutter as they puffed at their pipes. Mari laid her hand upon his caressing it. "I too am pleased to found you." She said. "There is hardship and sorrow's in this world but I sense that as long we are true joy still will reign." One of the dwarfs spontaneously stood up hearing her and started to recite something in dwarfian, something that to Roland's ears sounded like a poem. It had a stanza reminding him of the sea, rising and sinking like waves against a shore.

The other dwarves listened in respectful silence as he told them, and when finished he bowed first to them and then to Roland and Mari. D'am leaned over the table. "What Le'am spoke here was an old dwarfish ode telling about our first journeys when the world still was young. It's a story of a young dwarfen prince leaving his country and his passion for laughter and music to find love. It goes something like this." He stood up. "My summer home was green and fair, but nowhere was my love, I left my home and stead to search as dreaming steered my way. Autumn came with leafs in flames of red and yellow shades, still nowhere I could her find. Chill winters breath on tired bones yet leaving me alone. In spring my hope rekindled was to hold her in my arms. But from land to land by foot or sea my search was still in vain."

There he stopped clearing his throat. "Friend Roland, I'm not that good at translating it, but it is a tale of great hardships and dreams following the prince around the world." He harrumphed and lighted his briar, which by now had gone out. "It's rather long I'm afraid and ends with the prince coming home, still alone, to his home where he gives up his search as he loses faith, becoming a reclusive. Years later one early morning he walks out to listen to a bird singing, following the song he comes upon a little cottage from where the song comes. Telling his manservant to wait he then walks in through the door. As he opens it a golden light encompasses him and the cottage and the prince disappears."

He puffed contentedly on his briar. Mari asked. "And what happened to him? The prince I mean." D'am smiled as he shook his head. "That the tale does not say I'm afraid. But for to me it seems to say that the best things in life is closer than one think, and that no matter how far one go one shouldn't forget to search where ones heart is. Maybe also that one needs some distance between a dream and its fulfillment to be able to appreciate it for its full worth." Roland who again felt like he was caught in some old dream nodded. "What you say makes sense." he said. "It seems like Mari is very near my heart. Even though I have this feeling of having traveled an immense distance to find her she has always been there in my heart." Mari gave him such a hug that he thought he was going to be divided into two as she whispered. "Just you wait, I'll show you your hearts desire, I will."

"But it is a tale right?" Asked Roland. "It's a poem isn't it, not any real occurrences?" The dwarf peered at him closely from under his bushy eyebrows, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "We like to think it has happened friend Roland. For us it's a tale grounded in real history and the prince was real, as to the ending being true? I at least like to think so." Roland shook his head in disbelief. "Where I come from we have stories similar to this, the difference being that we don't see them as true, well, most of us don't. I'm still learning how to believe I'm afraid. Our land is more of a cold logic containing little magic of this kind and seldom do we find people of your ilk. But I'm learning, albeit slowly I admit." D'am chuckled as he stopped his pipe. "That is called living Roland, to never stop learning. But come now, don't you have any songs from your country? Or poems? Give us something back to listen at my friend."

Roland tried hard to come up with something appropriate to the occasion, he had never considered himself to have anything near to a singing voice but somehow the story made him think of that old song ' Tennessee waltz'. Making up his mind he stood up and bravely, or perhaps as some saw it, foolhardily started to half-sing, half-recite it. They listened to it with a deepening interest and Mari smiled as she saw him loose himself in the tale of love found, then lost while dancing a waltz. Finishing it Mari looked at him sadly. "That poor poor man." She said, and even the dwarves seemed touched by it. One of them disappeared momentary only to come back with something that looked suspiciously close to a cross between a lute and a guitar.

The dwarf asked Roland to sing it again, as well as he could, to see if he could pick out the melody. Between them and some more ale they at last succeeded in creating a rather respectable replica of the original. As the evening moved on it ended with all of them singing it, accompanied by the lute and a flute, with Mari's clear melodious voice leading them on, all in all making it a very special occasion for Roland. There were ale and wine freely flowing, as well as some strange weed that some dwarves enjoyed, amongst them Be'am who had been the guy playing the lute. "Ah." He said puffing. "Festive weed this is my friend, care for a puff?" Roland who had his suspicions thanked him for the offer but said that the ale was quite enough for him. "Next time then." Said Be'am puffing away in peace.

"First a patient, then a surgeon, a scout and a magician, and now, a musician? Roland, when will the surprises end." Mari asked, laughter in her voice as they walked back to their room. "Did you see how there came more and more people to listen? They loved that song." Roland bent over to kiss her. "And so they should love, I just wish I could get the royalties." He continued. "It's a beautiful song isn't it, even if a little sad." Mari sighed contentedly. "Yes, it's truly a royal song Roland." She answered misinterpreting his words slightly. "Sad, but so nice all the same." She then said softly as they came upon their door. "Come, I promised to show you your hearts desire." And he found she was right, it was his hearts desire she offered him, her and him entwined losing themselves together in their glory of love. That fragile flower opening so few times in any mans life he thought, once more surprised over his sudden eloquence, while drawing her closer to him, slowly drifting of to sleep.

When Roland woke up the next morning he knew he was blessed, how else could he explain him and Mari finding each other. Thinking it over he decided that he didn't want to do anything that day, he was just going to stay in bed keeping her with him. When she woke he explained the devious plan to her, involving a lot of caressing and kissing to make sure that she understood it fully. In the beginning she mumbled something about needing to go to the bathroom but as he continued explaining her protests became more and more incoherent and in the end they seemed to have reached an understanding with her agreeing on it being a most sensible plan.

So he became rather disappointed when she somewhat later started to insist on them getting up. "But Mari." He said nicely succeeding in sounding both hurt and surprised. "If we stay her nothing bad can happen girl, it will be just you and me" He thought for a moment. "I'm sure we can get a decent room-service too if we ask." He added hopefully, shuddering as he thought of the sheer waste of time it would mean, loosing time getting out of bed to eat and such worthless doings. Mari stared at him. "'Room-service'? What do you mean by 'room-service'? And decent? Don't you mean indecent? Am I not enough for you, what depraved taste do you hide behind those innocent eyes of yours?" He, in a sudden haste, explained the idea hiding behind the expression most verbally, urging her to see the beauty of not losing any more time to insignificant trifles of life, like getting dressed.

"We only have so much time you see." He explained patiently as if to a child. "In fifty sixty years I'm afraid that I will be to old Mari, all my stamina gone, we don't want that sweetheart, let us do continue to do what we do best." To his genuine surprise his eloquence didn't move her as much this time. Although she did seem to enjoy his cautious advances, he thought, she still insisted in needing to go to the bathroom, and also to have her breakfast elsewhere than the bed. "And so do you if you think about it." She told him, his protests notwithstanding.

Then she remembered, glowering at him. "And you better stop those weird sayings you have, not all people are as forgiving as I am, ' indecent room-services' indeed." Finishing she in a most regal manner raised herself from the bed, proudly heading for the bathroom. But Roland was on to her. "Oh no, you little minx you." he said under his breath as he rushed over to hold her. "Not without a kiss you will." She now raised her pert nose to the skies while studying him in a most disdainful manner. "Let me go pervert, or I'll have the guards on you." She almost made him believe her there, but when she kissed him back his doubts went away, as if in smoke, leaving him with a calm certainty that she was meant for him.

Part five.

Patterns of war. And questions

Sitting in the mess hall they found it to be remarkably empty, it seemed as most of the soldiers was on duty and those few that was there was discussing something it seemed, seriously amongst each others in low voices. All of a sudden Mari remembered, turning to Roland who with a enchanted expression on his face just was readying to gorge in on a sandwich filled to the brim with crispy slices of bacon and fried tomatoes with cheese. "Roland." she asked interrupting his bliss. "Where did that map come from. You still have to tell me where you disappeared after that terrible scrap?" He looked at her the sandwich suddenly forgotten, feeling once more that strange resistance to telling the truth, like something tugging on his mind trying to turn him from it. What is it with me he wondered worriedly, I'm sitting with the love of my life and already I'm contemplating lying to her. But then again, it all seemed as a dream to him, the room, and the remains on the bed and all unexplainable things that happened there.

He started to tell her, it was one of the hardest things he had done in his life though finding himself to have to fight over every true word he uttered. "I found something in a strange room Mari." As his tale unfolded she suddenly seemed to notice his sword for the first time. "And that is that sword you're telling me of." She asked looking at it. It seemed as a ordinary sword to her without any apparent embellishments to it but then appearances could, and often did, lie. As she stretched out her hand to touch it she suddenly felt as if some unseen presence's were coolly evaluating her, debating whether to allow her to do so. That simple movement of hers seemed to take a very long time to Mari, almost like trying to move in syrup. Then suddenly the matter seemed resolved and everything became normal again.

Roland laid his hand over hers as she was starting to draw it from its scabbard. "Mari." He said sounding very serious. "I know this type of swords from my home. It is remarkably similar to a Japanese katana. They had a saying that you never should draw such a sword fully in company, the only time that it should be drawn would be in a fight where blood was spilled. To draw it is to promise it blood Mari, and I don't think you want to do that." Mari's hand froze on the swords haft, was Roland serious she wondered, but looking at him she felt nothing but sincerity from him. "You know what, it feels just as if the sword is agreeing." she said disbelievingly a moment later. "What is this sword? And whom was its owner. Roland, there is so many strange thing happening with you."

Roland took his hand away from hers saying. "I agree Mari and I can't explain it. But I believe that I'm its owner now, it calls to me somehow and won't be left without me anywhere." He smiled and then seemed to play her words back. "Did you just say you could hear it?" he asked sounding incredulous. Mari shook her head. "No, not hear it really, but it seems to have moods and a presence." Describing her experiences when reaching for it before she ended with asking. "But there was more than one presence there I thought." Looking expectantly at him as she said it. Roland had to agree, he pointed at his arm. "The arm-ring seems to have a life of its own too." He admitted almost sheepishly. "You know, nobody seems to notice them, not without me calling them to attention anyhow."

Mari nodded thoughtfully thinking about how she herself had accepted them without questions before. "Perhaps whoever made them laid the same enchantment on them as there seems to be on Eagles nest. It's not before you're here you understand just how grandiose it is, I guess if people would remember it would have been occupied by some great lord already and not just by our Captain Lance." She said. "But I don't like that compulsive need of not mentioning them. I can see that they are of strong magic and in their own ways without comparison, but they shouldn't decide your actions, only you should do that Roland, and me of course." She added, as if being hit by a sudden afterthought, smiling impishly.

Roland agreed with her. "Well, they couldn't stop me from telling it to you anyway." he said. I just wish that there was some way I could talk with them." Mari studied him. "I think you already can." She said thoughtfully. "It may be that they are a little overprotective of you. Their former master must have been dead for very long now, and if they sensed time like us they might have been increasingly alone without their master. There must have been mighty spell's woven into that room and you surviving naturally made you their new master. Give them some time to know you but be firm. It's you that are their master, not they that are yours." Thinking of them she could feel those presence's again, giving off a feeling of loss mixed with something very alike elation over the new life that they now had been offered.

She concentrated on them and communicated as strongly as she could. "You protect him you hear, you stay true with him and help." She got a fleeting impression of them intently listening promising to do their best. She decided that this was all she could do for the moment and turned to Roland again. "I think they will listen to you Roland. But remember who is in charge here." Roland smiled at her guessing what she had done. "Yes, you Mari, boss, Sir." He said suddenly remembering his sandwich. "Can I have my sandwich now Ma'am." He asked, sitting most politely to attention. Mari shook her head. "Will you ever be serious." she asked frustrated. "Yes." he answered. "After my sandwich Ma'am, Sir." Listening and seeing his infuriating attitude she finally gave up on correcting him allowing him his time of bliss.

After half an hour's hard work Roland contemplatively leaned back in the chair unbuttoning the uppermost buttons of his trousers. "Ahh, a work well done is the half the pleasure you know." He said meditatively as he started to pick his teeth's with one of the slivers of wood serving as toothpicks. "Yep, a mans work is definitely a mans work." He decided at last. Mari who had listened to his philosophizing increasingly agitated now told him. "That's all clear and true dear but we need to find out more of that room. Let us take a closer look at that map of yours and see if we can localize the room." Roland gave her that infuriating smile of his and said. "Yes Ma'am, will do Ma'am." Seeing Mari's frustration he snapped out of his complacent mood realizing her seriousness. "Sorry Mari, wait a second." He said contritely producing the bronze cylinder from his leg pocket. Unfolding it over the table they started to reconstruct his way from where he had left her at the mess.

"That could be the stairs." He said pointing to a cylindrical staircase looking to go from down under whatever bottom there was all the way up ending at a platform situated on what seemed a very steep cliff. "How long do you think that spiral stairway stretch Mari?" He asked. "A mile, two, or more?" She studied some strange signs at the map. "According to this it is called the stairs of infinity stretching for more than three miles." She said. "If that level is the one I think, then you started one third of the way up. How long do you reckon you walked those stairs?" As Roland and Mari tried to make sense of his memories they at last agreed on a possible educated guess about what level he might have found the room at. But looking they found no reference to a room ever being there. "Either we are totally wrong." Said Mari. "Or there was such a room but hidden even from this map." She was lost in thoughts for a moment. "There is said to have lived a great sorcerer here a long time ago. He is thought to have helped the dwarves develop their secret lore of metallurgy in exchange for learning their stone lore. But there is not much known of him. Just that he was a great magician of that time and also a very solitary man."

Noon was already knocking on the door as they decided to get out of the hold to breathe some fresh air. The sheer oppressiveness of that mountains weight raising to unknown heights over him pressed heavily on Rolands sensibilities. He didn't enjoy heights and now it seemed to go both ways he had to admit to himself. He suddenly remembered his first jump at base training, he had been scared shitless to tell the truth. Although he had learnt to enjoy parachuting and was considered an expert with several badges to his person, that atavistic fear still remained a part of him in a secluded corner of his mind. And by now he had learnt that he didn't particularly enjoy being enclosed under the earth too. They came out at the side wending towards the valley of Richmound. They must have been over a mile high, above the valley and from there they could look down at it all. They had a magnificent view over the valley and could see it stretch out for miles and miles. Some of it was prosperous farmland but mostly it seemed inhabited, a fact that stroke Roland as rather odd, studying the fertile valley.

"What a beautiful scenery." Said Mari dreamily. "I would like to ride out and explore it some day. Wouldn't you too?" she asked Roland. "Yeah I guess. I would also like to know what other passes there might be." "But there is no other passes." answered Mari. "Didn't you hear what Captain Lance said?" Roland had to admit that the Captain had sounded pretty sure on his views. But, 'who dares win' was a concept proven to work on numerous occasions in his world. He thought it had a good chance of working in here too. "Well Mari, I won't know until I look, will I?" He asked ingeniously. Over them they saw a falcon circle and some way to the east there was some strange birds of a kind that Roland never had seen before, they just seemed to hover in the air he thought. "What birds are they?" he asked Mari pointing to them. "I've never seen their like." She answered both feeling a little uneasy about them. "Could be some new species migrating." Roland suggested. "It happens." He said conclusively.

Mari studied him silently realizing that there was so much she didn't know about him, his former life and experiences was a mystery to her and him both, he seemed to remember things at times, but only in situations resembling his own experiences. But she knew that this was not unique, she had read about several other amnesia cases where the patients couldn't remember anything until confronted with their past. "Yes Roland." She said. "That's the veritable truth my love." They had a pleasant day up there at the pass finding a welcome shade under some blue ash trees beside a small natural pond who seemed to spring from the ground. They even had a dip but as the water was to cool they made it a fast one. Just before the sun finally was setting behind the mountaintop a messenger came bidding them to the chart room. They gave themselves time for a small supper before they joined the others already waiting.

Well there they found the others in a serious mood. "Could we have a look at that map again." Captain Lance asked politely. Roland unfolded it for the second time that day and they all started to study it. "Yes said one of the dwarves, pointing at what looked as a underground passage. "It says 'main Northern route' there, I believe that one should be our starting point Sire D'am." "Do you now?." D'am answered slowly studying it great detail. "Most probably so." He muttered to himself. Then suddenly decided he turned to the others. "I believe L'am to be correct in his estimation Sires. That road seems our best bet from here to Lokgard, what do you say?" Avery who had studied the map with great interest nodded slowly. "I do believe you are correct Sire D'am." He answered. "Any objections?" he asked looking around not really expecting any.

The rest of the evening considered of a division of responsibilities. Roland found that he would act as a 'point' guard of the company accompanied by a dwarf by the name of S'am. Hearing the guys name he suddenly remembered that old book he used to love. 'The tale of the ring'. In that book there also had been that guy named Sam, would that then make me into a Frodo, he asked himself smiling. But thinking it over some more he started to question if that book ever had been just a tale, perhaps there was more truth to it than he ever could have imagined. "So have we set a date yet." He asked nobody in particular. Avery answered languorously. "A good question my dear Sir Roland. In deed we need to set a date for our departure. Would tomorrow fit you gentlemen and milady?" Roland looked at Mari who looked back on him. So there would be no explorations of the valley then he thought as he nodded to her. "Yes, it will fit us just fine." He answered for both of them. The dwarves seemed slower to come to a decision, but after some serious discussion in-between themselves they told Avery that it would fit them fine too.

"Ah, good, good." Drawled Avery in his leisurely way. "I'm sorry I couldn't be with you yesterday but I went to have a chat with those chaps from Trellheim before they left us for good, a nice bunch of people, don't you think? We needed them to understand our situation and what help we could use best." He must mean 'Winds over mountain' thought Mari feeling relieved. There must be more to Avery than just the surface, she decided as she studied him with newfound respect. Roland who also had got the implications started to worry instead, what clever tricks is the bastard up to now he couldn't help but wonder as he listened to Averys drawling voice laying out where they should meet tomorrow.

The dwarves who already had aquatinted themselves with the ponies would act as their general caretakers. "And a most beautiful breed they are," said D'am almost lyrically. "Shaggy and sturdy, and of just the right height, if all horses was built like that the world would have been Dwarfian." "Hear hear." Muttered the other dwarves as they listened. The only thing missing here, thought Roland a little sourly listening to D'am's inspired revelation's of those horses abilities, is them ponies smoking pipe too. The evening went fast after that and after the Captain finished it all with a joke, surprising Roland who never had expected the Captain to possess such an ability, they all left in a good mood...

They had some trouble falling asleep that night, Mari moved restlessly in the bed as if she was haunted by dreams waking Roland several times under the night. He too felt a tightening in the stomach as he thought upon the dangers they might meet down there. But somehow he knew that it all had built up pointing him just there. So, is it all predestined then he asked himself once more, do we really have any choices? Still pondering it as he fell into an uneasy sleep. The next morrow he found everyone to be in a great hurry. He learned that there had been an enemy patrol spotted some miles from the stronghold, and the defenders were now hastening making their last preparations expecting a siege. He found Captain Lance up in an archer's turret perched over the uppermost parapet.

From there one had a good view of the pass from where they once had arrived. Looking down Roland could see a frenetic activity as the men fought to get ready and looking over the other walls down to the woods he could see people setting different types of traps for the enemies. "So it has begun then." he said as he turned to the Captain. Lance nodded gravely. "Yes it has." he said. "We have sent messengers asking for reinforcements but I doubt any to be able to arrive before the siege." "So how long do you think you can hold out?" asked Roland looking out over the fortifications. Even with modern tactics and weapons this place would be a hard nut to crack he thought as he studied it. The last two walls protecting the entrance were built of massive blocks of stone, the masonry so perfect that you couldn't even press in a knife blade between them.

Each one of those blocks he guessed weighted somewhere close to ten metric tons or around twenty two thousand pounds. He had great difficulties imagining something strong enough to move or destroy them in this place. "Tell me Captain." he said. "Have you ever heard of something called firearms? Things that can throw projectiles like round stones or iron balls by the force of explosions. Cannons perhaps?" Captain Lance turned to him expressionlessly. "There have been rumors of such things, so yes maybe Lord Foul have such devices. Do you think they will be able to harm our walls?" Roland studied the walls again. "Nah, he said at last decidedly. They will leave marks and clip the stonework but they will not be able to crush those last two walls. You will find their sound more strong and frightening than their actual destructiveness I think. If they have what we call cannons those first three palisades might be in danger, as those shoot balls that can weight a fourth of your weight Sir, and as they also move around three times as fast as an arrow."

He studied the stonework some more. "I would be sure to try to create a lot of hidden landfalls and other traps using the natural elevation of the land leading up to here, and not put all my men at those first three palisades Sir. Have you ever heard about floating fire?" Captain Lance looked at him askance. "No, can't say i've have." he answered. "There are balistas of course, but those other things you speak of, cannons and floating fire seems new to me." he said almost apologetically and then asked. "But tell me more of this burning liquid Roland." Roland explained how one by mixing oil with some other combustible substances and metals could make a thick liquid reminding of syrup, that when once lighted was very hard to put out. He had also spotted what he thought to be deposits of sulfur in the mountain. Using that he explained in some detail how one by blending it with charcoal and ester, or salt or any acid in the right ratio, could produce the gunpowder to throw those balls.

The captain listened to him quite captivated, but in the end they agreed on Greek fire as being most productive in the short perspective. "There is no time left for lengthy experimenting." said the Captain. "To make those guns we would need to have big forges and dwarves to help us with the metal-lore. It would take us a year just to produce the tools for creating the fire arms, but this 'Greek fire' though seems possible to make at a short notice. I will consult on it with my lore masters." Roland nodded pleased. "Do that Sir, but remember. Save it for those last two walls made of stone, you don't want to burn down your own palisade's, or do you?" Suddenly Roland started to wonder, explaining his wild ideas to the Captain they both started to laugh. "Why not?" said the Captain still laughing. "If they have those cannons you are talking about it will at the very least create a diversion, as well as some protection for us when we pull back to our next line of defense.

And your idea of rolling down burning logs has a certain, shall we say, warlike charm to it I think. I wish we could have discussed this the first time we meet though." Roland smiled. "Sir there would still had been no time for it. As far as I can see you have made all arrangements you can in this span of time. I would not like to be the one attacking your stronghold." Captain Lance nodded looking almost pleased as he heard Roland's praise of his fort. "Yes. We have done as good as we can under the circumstances I think." he agreed in a lighter tone, visibly relaxing. Roland now thought of one last thing. "Sir, do you use crossbows? No? It's a bow fixed transversely on a wooden stock grooved to direct the arrow in a straight line Sir." Captain Lance nodded "Yes Roland, we know of them of course but we haven't found any need for them as yet."

Roland now explained his ideas about them. "Well Sir, you could make some big ones on your bastions I think. Then you might be able to hurt the cannons, or at least those handling them, as they will be placed outside your ordinary arrow reach. And if you put Greek fire on the arrows and light them you might be able to set fire to their gunpowder, that should hurt them a lot Sir. It's most probably stored in wooden kegs to keep it dry." Captain Lance whose smile had became increasingly feral as Roland drew on his diagram explaining the parts making a crossbow said. "Thank you Roland, you have given me food for thoughts here. I will definitely try to use both the Greek fire and those crossbows you mentioned. But now I think it is high time for you to join your unit, your departure has drawn close indeed my friend."

Part six.

Arms of hell. Learning the ropes.

Leaving the stronghold for the tunnels under it was the hardest thing Roland ever had done. More than once he turned to Mari, almost but not really, begging her to reconsider her idea of riding with them. And riding they were, even though those horses was the most unlike looking steeds he ever had ridden on. He suddenly remembered himself with the partisans in Afghanistan when the Russians had occupied the Country. He had been young then he thought wistfully. They too used those small horses, not ponies though. Ah well, if they ever would be unfortunate enough to meet a war party those men would probably laugh themselves to death before even getting to attack he tried to comfort himself. By now they were following the dwarves deeper down the tunnels with him and S'am acting as their point. S'am never hesitated when choosing what passage to take, leading them steadily deeper down into the heart of the mines. The dwarves seemed to have an uncanny sense of direction he thought, and S'am also seemed gifted with an exceptional visual memory allowing him to memorize parts of Roland's map without problems. Under the two days since they left the stronghold he hadn't needed to backtrack once.

But then there was this constant sniffing he thought, all the time they sniffed, like sailors smelling land but those guys smelled tunnels instead. To be totally honest it had started to drive him up the walls, it felt as if he was locked up in a influenza ward, forced to listen. They used some type of dwarven lantern's that S'am had told him would burn for days to light up their way. They were needed soon enough as the normal throughways ended only some hour's away from the stronghold. He didn't want his imagination to take rein as he already could feel the massiveness of the mountain pressing on him. He decided he needed to think about something else so he tried to think about Mari instead, soon lost in memories of that night they had after their reunion he stopped paying attention to the dwarves. The suddenly S'am stopped again and lifted his hand, the dwarves promptly stopped their sniffing and all became very quiet as they stood there listening. After a while S'am nodded and they rode on again.

The stops had became more frequent the lower they came, and once when Roland quietly asked S'am why they were halting he answered. "It feels like if we picked up company, as if something or someone is watching us Roland, but every time the feeling becomes overhanging and I stop it seems to disappear. I don't understand it and it makes me feel very itchy." Listening to him Roland had started to feel it too, as if something were watching them. It was a very disconcerting feeling. I've been away too long from the service he thought to himself. Letting phobias distract me from my work. I'm here as a point-guard, not as a lovestruck hypochondriac straying inside his mind. It's time to take it seriously. "I wonder." He said turning his thought to his arm-ring. "I wonder if you could help me my friend." S'am who heard the last words asked. "Help you with what Roland?" "Oh nothing, just thinking aloud." Answered Roland, once more turning his mind to his arm-ring, asking it if it could pinpoint from where that feeling of watching came. Suddenly he got what best would call tactile sensation of something reaching down from the ceiling to observe him. Something cold without emotions, just curiosity and hunger.

He reached over to S'am and whispered. "We need to find a place to rest." S'am studied him for a moment and then without questions led them to a cavern he had memorized. "Time for some rest and food." He told them as they got of their horses, the chamber was quite roomy with a airy feeling to it. It seemed to have served as some sort of odd storage room, perhaps for seed stowage thought Roland as he unsaddled his pony. "Do you think we could get some more light in here?" he asked S'am. With the lanterns turned up to their full strength Roland left two lanterns outside the chamber lightening the tunnel outside and kept the rest inside the cavern. He turned his thought to the arm-ring again. 'Is the watcher here' he asked silently. He got a feeling of something still watching but now further away, disturbed by the lights perhaps. 'good.' He thought, warn me if it approaches. They made a small fire place with the dwarves seeing to the needs for the ponies, water and grain that was of course, the dried jerk the others now were turning over the fire was reserved for them selves. Together with bread cheese and ale it made a most satisfying meal, the meal done the dwarves tended to their briars soon creating a small cloud of aromatic smoke over their heads.

Roland turned to the others. "I would like to apologize for my poor vigilance." He told them. "Without S'am here I think we would have been in dire trouble already. There is a something watching us, almost as if herding us and S'am was the man noticing it, not me." "So that's why we were stopping all the time?" Mari asked. "S'am nodded. "Yes milady, there was something I couldn't set my finger on, but every time I halted there was nothing. I'm still not certain what it was but I'm sure it was following us." Avery spoke up. "But how could it follow us?" S'am shook his head. "I'm not sure." He answered. "There is nothing strange to it S'am." answered Roland. "If we use deduction I'm positive we will reason it out. I say that it wasn't stalking us by ground, then we would have noticed it, no matter from what direction it came. That leaves us one of two things, the air or the roofs. My guess is the roof and that's why I wanted the lamps turned up." Avery looked at him his eyes narrowed, he suddenly seemed far away from the effeminate dandy he had presented at the stronghold. "By the roof you say Roland?" he turned to D'am. "Ineresting isn't it Sire, you wouldn't happen to have some knowledge of cave dwelling creatures now, would you?"

D'am didn't answer directly, instead he tuned to L'am, "You read all the notes we could find on this place L'am. Did you see any hints towards what creature this might be?" "Well Sire." answered L'am. "Can't say I did, although there was a note in one of the old scripts about something believed to live in the deepest recesses of the mines. There was cited an instruction stating that under no terms anything less than a full company should be quartered at each mine. But other than that I didn't find anything Sire." D'am stroke his beard thoughtfully. "But we don't know if there was only one they were guarding against, do we." One of the other dwarfs now hesitantly spoke up. "Sire." He said hesitantly. "My old nanny loved to tell me tales about Alain foD'm, she had one describing a bitter fight deep down as the wizard and Alain fought what they called 'the Keepers of the mines'. According to the tale there were not a lot of them, but they were ferocious beasts remindful of dragons." "So they can fly then." Said Mari. "No milady." Answered F'am as was the dwarf's name "So far I remember they couldn't, but just as dragons they were hoarding creatures and the mines were theirs to hoard before the dwarves. They were also said to have a poisonous breath, able to corrode even the best armor in minutes."

Avery spoke up again. "Yes I can see that such a creature might pose some problems, But they were said to be living only at the lowest levels, where they not. If so I suggest we look over the map again to see if there might be some way that doesn't take us there." Roland found himself in full concord with those views. "I agree." He said as he unfolded his map to see if where they were and if they could find a better way. They all studied it trying to find another way leading in their direction. Suddenly S'am pointed to another tunnel. "This one." he said. "It states 'old road north'." I think it this might have been what they used before conquering the lover levels." That settled they now studied the map for the fastest route back up to the level from where the road started. The only solution they found was to turn around, and even though it meant to retread their steps loosing time it still seemed a better approach than to find themselves outnumbered and outfought by those 'Keepers'. Finally folding the map together Roland turned to Avery. "Let us get this show on the road then." He said rising from the floor.

They all made ready, the dwarves getting their small crossbows tightened resting at the pommels of their horses. The arrows was small but compact looking with nasty looking arrowheads. Mari turned to the dwarves seeing the crossbows. "Wait." she said rooting inside one of the saddle bags. Finding a small glass box she turned to the dwarves again. "Dip your arrows in this." She said. "but be careful, it will put you to sleep very fast if you nick yourself. It will add to your arrows strength." The dwarves thanked her and did as she asked, after they all had sat up on their horses with their weapons ready they left the chamber. Roland who already had his handgun ready could feel his sword's eager anticipation of an oncoming battle, this time the lanterns were left on full strength lightening up the tunnels. Roland and S'am were still riding point but this time keeping closer to the main group. Roland turned his mind inward again. 'can you find it, how many are they.' He asked. He got a distinct impression of them being no more than two but also that they were quite near, one before them and one behind.

'Warn me immediately if any of them comes closer' he directed his arm-ring as he drew his sword from its scabbard to place it crosswise over his saddle. It seemed to be happy, the feeling he got from it was very like joy. 'There may be no blood involved here' he tried to warn it but the sword didn't seem to mind what those Keepers used instead of blood as long as it got its battle. Kzay who silently slithered behind the small group they were hunting now hung upside-down in the roof, knowing that her mate was before them. She was getting hungry, they were somewhat too puny for her liking, but she well knew the delicacy of dwarf-meat, they also made very good incubators for her egg. She had hoped they would have kept to their former path though, now they had to attack without help. There were so few of them left, they needed incubators to lay their eggs in and those they normally preyed on was slowly dying out making it hard to breed. If she could keep some of those alive she might even get a chance to grow a tribe of her own she thought, finally deciding she started to stamp out her message.

Her mate listened to her instructions vibrating through the rock and then dropped from the roof, looking like a very large white grub turning himself over falling. They all heard the sound reverberate through the rock, it sounded almost like a drum thought Mari. Then it suddenly was there, coming so fast at them and shimmering in an unearthly glow. It was like a living nightmare, where the eyes should be there were only black holes. It reminded her most of a cross between some sort of worm and something that once might have been a dragon, but instead of flying it seemed to be moving on thousands of small protrusions materializing and disappearing all the time making her dizzy just trying to see them. Rolandwho had reined in his horse started to shoot at it the shots echoing in the tunnels. Now he heard shouts behind him turning his head to look he saw another night mare coming up at them from behind. Charging the Keeper before him he lifted his sword slashing at its body. As the sword sliced into the worm he felt the sword singing in joy.

Not knowing how he found himself on his back, his horse dying beside him. He saw the monsters tail, it was formed as a sting similar to a scorpion and the thing seemed to use it much the same. The horse died, its carcass black and putrid. He struggled weakly to get up on his feet's again, hearing Mari screaming behind him. Looking to the side he found S'am lying in a silent heap beside him, his battleaxe smeared with some yellow stuff smelling horrible. Somehow the worm-thing had seen him struggle to get up and with its blind head slowly turning at him the glistening black sting stiffened into a tense bow above it. He desperately turned his thoughts inward. 'If you have some magic left friends, unleash it, now' he almost screamed. The monster slithered closer smelling like death walked over, its quivering tail suddenly whipping forward. He desperately started to roll even though he knew it was to late, especially as he didn't want let go of his sword. Then all seemed to slow down, he saw the sting slowly closing, now almost touching him.

He frantically rolled coming up behind monster where he with a two handed stroke cleanly split its blind slimy head in two. Everything becoming vague a strange battle rage unleashed itself in him as he went for its stinging tail next to hack it of, then he found himself cutting the rest of its body into small shivering pieces like some mad logger chopping wood. When he at last woke up from his rage he looked for Mari just to find her still running towards him holding what looked as a cleaver in her right hand but moving impossibly slow. The dwarfs who had released their arrows now seemed to be closing in on the other monster with battleaxes raised over their heads and on the other side Avery was coming to Rolands help. His sword held in a two-handed grip over his head and with his mouth wide open in a battle cry, more felt than heard. He could even see one of the last arrows hanging there in the air, impossibly still, on its way to the worm. Then everything speeded up again as he felt to the floor with his sword drenched in some yellow goo and when waking up it was all over. Mari was leaning over him her hair tickling his face saying. "Drink this Roland. It will help for your pains." He drank most of it, slowly finding the world returning to something resembling normal again, "Did we kill them" he asked, not remembering if they had. "You killed one and we killed the other" Mari answered. Suddenly he remembered the worms 'tail' unleashing itself on him. "How ever did I survive that?" he said wonderingly, remembering the pony's death.

"You didn't." He heard a voice say behind Mari, it was D'am looking down at him laughing shakily. "You're in heaven now, can't you see the angel?" Mari turned around quick as a whip. "Get away you, you spawn." She said madly, then just as quickly her mood changed. "By all that's right you should be dead now, you know." She said, almost conversationally her eyes large and a little scared. "Why ain't you?" starting to cry. "Roland, I thought I lost you again seeing it." She said her tears falling on him. "And then, the next time I looked the worm was just dying, bits of it quivering everywhere, leaking slime." She shook her head unbelievingly. "And you, you fell beside it your face white as a sheet." Roland tried a smile. "I'm still here girl, I told you I was rather hard to get rid of, didn't I." Remembering more by the minute he looked around searchingly. "S'am?" he asked with doubt in his voice. "He's dead." Answered Mari quietly. "He died while standing over you fighting of the worm. He was a very brave man." Roland felt suddenly tired. "I would have felt better if he was a alive coward." He said quietly. "He was becoming a good friend to me." D'am who had stayed, Mari's words notwithstanding, added quietly. "And he was my daughters betrothed." He bent his head. "She wanted him home you know, it was him insisting saying that they needed the money. At the time I found it a good idea, but now my heart is heavy."

Roland stood up on shaky legs. "If there is anything I can do to help you or your daughter you only have to say so D'am." He said. "Nobody counted on any soldiering when starting their journeys, I damn well didn't. Sometimes life just takes a turn for the worse. This seems to me such a time, but neither you nor I is to be blamed for that." D'am bowed his head. "You speaks words of comfort Roland. But I'm not sure my daughter will see it so. Be that as it will though, we need to move now before the rest of those Keepers arrive" Roland studied him incredulously. "How do we know that they are?" D'am went to the wall. "Listen." He said pressing his ear against the wall. "Mari's idea, she was wondering how they spoke. She remembered the drumming we heard just before it started. It seems as if we have awakened a hornets nest here." Roland pressed his ear to the wall, there was indeed a drumming sound coming through the rock having a spooky quality of talking as it changed rhythm, stopped and then came back again, some of it louder and some weaker. "Yes." he said listening. "You are right, the quicker we get out of here the better."

D'am told him that they had more trouble coming. "We have another problem, we need another man to memorize the route now that S'am is gone. He was the best mnemonist we had, it will be difficult to replace him." Roland thought fast, either he kept quiet about his arm-ring and then they would spill precious time or he told them and the secret would be out, was there a third choice? "Ah, D'am?" he said. "Actually I have a rather clear memory of the way, just put whoever you think is best as point with me and let us leave now. I'll know the way." 'And you better do know it' he thought firmly to the arm-ring. 'If you want to keep your master, that is, alive.' He got that feel back of something reassuring him with a little tug on his arm. He looked at Mari. "Are we ready to leave Mari?" he asked her. Mari took a quick look around, the only one killed was S'am in that first lightening attack. The poisoned arrows had slowed down the other worm enough for them to kill it without needing to lose any more. With S'am's body resting over a skittish pony they were all good and ready to go. "Yes." she said gesturing to the others to get moving. "We be moving now." Riding point once more Roland now found himself partnered with Be'am. "So Be'am, where is your instrument?" he asked, making small talk, as the arm-ring tugged him into the maze of tunnels. Be'am told him that it was a too delicate instrument for the road, but then again he said. "I do have some smaller instruments with me if we ever get out of here to a friendlier place, perhaps?"

"Yes." said Roland wistfully. "Some nice music in a friendly place, I sorely miss that." After that they rode on in silence both thinking of S'am and being constantly on guard. Having the help of his arm-ring it turned out to be a surprisingly short trip to the old northern way, not more than six hours riding according to his watch and to their relief nothing more happened. Roland had asked the arm-ring to localize a good cave with several exits for them and there it was that they took their nights rest. The company was mostly silent, the fight and the loss of their friend all to close in time. They made a hasty supper without any fire, and the dwarfs went to bed without any pipe to comfort them with. They had good discipline Roland thought. Avery and D'am took the first watch with Roland and Mari getting the last. They had just been gone for two days thought Roland and already lost one man. It was turning out to be a hairy one, this one, he thought as he drew Mari closer in his embrace. They were awoken just as he had felt asleep, at least it was how it felt to him. Waking them was Be'am and L'am. They silently dressed and drank some cold tea. The doors to the chamber was all barred from the inside by heavy planks placed crosswise resting in holds on each side of the doors, opening inward. "This must have been some sort of barrack." Roland said quietly to Mari. "Yes I think so too." She answered. "I wonder what happened to them, Alain and his kingdom." "The annals of his reign have very little to tell about how it ended it seems." Answered Roland. "perhaps that guy, what was his name?" "F'am you mean?" asked Mari. "Yes him, perhaps he has some tales he could tell us as we ride." Then they became silent Mari half lying, resting her head against Roland's breast starting to breath deep and evenly as she slumbered, he thought of waking her but then decided against it. She wasn't a soldier, she was a healer needing what sleep she could get he thought, and he had better guards with him anyway.

Roland silently took count of the men they had left. Him and Mari, Avery and D'am, Be'am and L'am, Le'am and F'am. It made eight men, well, seven men and one woman if you wanted to be absolutely correct and they would probably need each and everyone of them. He decided it was high time to have another conversation with his hidden friends. He turned inwards asking his arm-ring. 'Do any of you have own a name?' He was tired of not knowing how to address them. The feel he got back was one of mixed wonder and excitement. 'Would you like a name?' He thought. Now he felt like if it was an eager Pup answering jumping up and down in excitement, the sword that also had started to take a interest seemed more reserved though. 'I will give you the name Pup.' He told the arm-ring feeling smug 'And you friend, he told the sword, the name Dragonbite. Would that be satisfactory to you?' Pup seemed to jump around ecstatically while Dragonbite reacted in a more restrained, but still satisfied, mode.' Roland felt quite nice. 'Good. Now Pup, is there any worms near us?' he asked it, taking one question at a time as he had noticed Pup's inability before to handle anything more complex. 'No? Good. Is there any worms coming at us then?' The wait was longer now, but in the end a mixed answer came. The feeling he got was that some seemed to be moving their way but on a lower level and with no worm being at the same level as they. 'Very good.' He thought. 'Is there any way you can teach me about your abilities?' now he felt a animated discussion taking place just out of reach of his hearing, it ended with a iMage of himself sleeping. 'You want me to sleep?' He asked surprised. 'Do you mean like dreaming?' Now he felt Pup starting to jump in excitement again. 'Okay Pup, I see. Let us start with you then and give Dragonbite some rest before his turn. He deserves some rest after killing that worm, don't you think?' Both Pup and Dragonbite seemed to agree on that, so after asking them to be ever vigilant he instructed them. 'Warn me as soon anything approaches us closer than a three hours march, can you do that?' sensing their reassurance he took a closer hold of Mari, thoughtfully leaning against his saddle to wait the others out.

Falling into a strange mood somewhere just in-betweens sleeping and being awake he saw Pup coming. She presented herself as a young girl, around eight or nine years in his dream, and she was most definitely a jumping one. She took him to a small spring, where she directed his gaze into its running water. Seing it mist over he watched their images laboriously shaping forward. It was not that unlike watching a movie he thought fascinated but a movie with the added effect of him feeling it as it untold itself in front of his eyes. He saw how the Dwarf's once came to the Caves of Eagles nest, and how they stayed, forever deeper searching after their precious metals and stones. For the first time he got a image of what he believed to be Alain foD'm. The Dwarf was wide of girth, and taller as well as older than the other dwarf's. Although the brow was heavily wrinkled and his hair snowy white, his eyes still seemed to be sparkling with life and youth. He was standing waiting in a chamber with some other dwarfs around him, a broadsword fastened to his back and a broadax hanging from his belt. Then there came a hooded man to him, of tall stature wearing a emblem of power around his neck. The emblem was blurred to Roland and hard to see, but studying it Rolandgot a feeling of something alike his locket hanging there. They now seemed to discuss something and suddenly Rolandfound himself at those stairs he had been on when finding the room. Coming into it again he now saw the Wizard bent over a small stone altar. He was chanting something while making strange signs in the air, there became a jagged rip in the air in front of the altar and out of it she came, this little sliver of a girl that had lead him to the stream.

The Wizard now took a lump of some strange metal and another that Roland thought might be silver. Placing them on the altar he spread some strange powder over them. Now Roland saw the girl, while bitterly fighting against it, getting drawn into what now seemed to be a melting lava, there was a brief flash and then both the lumps and the girl was gone. All that was left was an arm-ring, his arm-ring. The next image was one of Alain receiving the arm-ring from the wizard. Then there were a lot of images rushed together, like him being exposed to a great span of time. In them there were great battles flashing by, as well as travels both under and over the earth and stranger things too but it all was a blur to him. Then he seemed to wake up from his light slumber feeling a vague sense of unrest. "What was that?" He asked Pup. He got back a vague imagery as if something dark was coming at them from high above, searching and craving for them. "Do you mean the hold?" Now he got an image of something dark waiting impatiently outside its walls not caring for the stronghold at all but only for the power hidden under it and him. The air around that thing seemed denser than syrup as he watched the shadow stretch itself out into a thin thread that while drinking the light around it blindly seemed to move in their direction. Pup was definitely a very scared Pup now, and wanted them to leave immediately. "Why?" He asked. He got another image, this time of Alain surrounded by a formless shadow that seemed to flow into him like some river of darkness. The king's eyes were open but where they once had been clear and strong there were only shriveled black raisins left and wherever that shadow touched the king was as opening a rift into hell. Rolandfelt a great dread and sense of loss accompanying that last image.

'Are you saying that it can it feel me, or is it you two it seeks?' he asked, wondering what he could do if it was them it sought for. Pup's answer seemed to be a mix of both. That need searching for him was steered by a terrible purpose, a purpose rooted in old magic so strong that this realm just would be a mere shadow by comparison. And this kind of power apparently refused to let itself be stopped by any ordinary means, neither men nor stone only distance and great magic could make it loose its direction. 'So what magic can you do to confuse it?' he asked. Suddenly he saw himself leaning over, studying himself in the same pool he had dreamt of before. But this time there was no reflection at all to be seen from it. 'You mean that I could do it? Make me disappear?' he asked feeling both surprised and confused. But by now Pup became all exited again just like the first time when they had meet and he couldn't make any sense from her jumbled answers. Waking up he didn't dare to wait, he woke the others telling them that they had to leave immediately letting them draw their own conclusions which they did knowing about his magical artifact. As they got ready he told Mari some of what he and Pup had shared. "Yes, I think I've heard of something like it." She said. "It reminds me of some Tantric techniques used to reach enlightenment, but you will need a lot of practice before it will do you any good." She told him how he by manipulating mental images, going into them and making them as real to him as life itself, could influence his and others experiences." Most have it naturally to some degree." She said. "Those wanting to avoid trouble by any mean usually have it developed to a larger extent, but that doesn't seem to fit you does it? But you should try it as you ride methinks, I will tell the others about your dream." Now they both went to quicken up the leave-taking as best as they could before that searcher would find them. But before they left they held a short ceremony for S'am leaving him swept in his robe his battle-ax at his side in a small chamber adjoining theirs. D'am talked long and good about what S'am had meant to him and the others finishing. "There is no need to mourn overmuch, his death had more meaning than most. He died as a hero saving life's, but we will miss you S'am." So saying he left the chamber leading the others in a silent procession to their horses to ride again.

The succession of tunnels and caves seemed never ending to Rolandas they twisted their way down and deeper into the innards under the mountains. By now they had been traveling for three days, hopefully leaving the Keepers and that other thing shadowing them long behind. Rolandwasn't sure to what degree he had succeeded in his lore but Pup seemed appreciative of whatever puny results he had made. And Mari had told him that it was a time-consuming technique craving lots and lots of training before ever becoming practicable. "That is the beginning we are talking about though." She also said. "It's a little like making images by your eyes, the more you look the more there will be as the sage say." "Thanks for that one." Muttered Roland a little sourly. "You know Mari, that saying makes no sense to me." Mari rode in silence for a while. "When you come into a bright room from the darkness there is some time before the eye adapts, the same is the matter here Roland. When and if you find it in you it will come to you effortlessly, but the practice leading to you finding it is indeed time-consuming and tiresome. As it also is a question of degrees not all succeeds the same, and for the best practicians there is a real danger of losing themselves in it. But reaching that degree of practice takes more than a lifetime it is said. " Listening to her he started to worry if he really would like to master this ability at all, if he now had it in him that was. "So I haven't disappeared from your eyes yet then?" he asked taking some small comfort in it. She squezzed his hand saying. "Nah, and I'll find you Roland no matter where you hide." At that he smiled and squeezed her back. It was really only him and Be'am that was expected to ride point guard now but Mari often rode with them, acting as a sort of go-between linking their party together as well as lightening Roland's mood. As she rode back to the main group Roland tried for that 'invisibility' cloaking she and Pup kept encouraging him to do. He decided that instead of him imagining himself staring into that pool again where he had no reflection he would try for another image. That first one made him think to much of Count Dracula and it badly broke his concentration getting flashbacks to those old movies he had seen "A roll in the hay, is it." He muttered to himself smiling. Instead he decided to imagine himself peeling of layer after layer, like an onion, and with the last layer gone he would be gone too.

This time it felt different, it was as if he really was losing layer after layer, he didn't know if his eyes were open anymore but suddenly it was as if he could see everything around him. Be'am who rode beside him stopped his horse asking "Roland? Where are you?" Rolandwho was brutally thrown back to reality asked. "What?" seeing how Be'am almost fell of his horse as he twisted around to look at Roland. "Where were you my lord?" he asked. "You were gone just a moment ago." Rolandlooked at him, not understanding a thing. "No Be'am, I've been riding beside you the whole time. Perhaps you were daydreaming?" Be'am muttered something under his breath as he fretfully combed his neatly trimmed beard with his fingers. "No Sir, daydreaming I have no time for here and gone you where." Trying his best to calm Be'am Roland explained what he had been occupying himself with as he had disappeared. As Be'am told him it seemed as if Be'am gradually lost sight of him and when suddenly realizing that he was alone had called out for him. Roland felt both elated and scared as he pondered the possibilities of his new achievement. At the next turning, finding an alcove with some stone benches following the u-shaped wall, they stopped the party. Having their tea Roland started to describe his and Be'ams adventure before, and while doing so he noticed Awery becoming increasingly interested. "Marvelous tidings my boy." Said D'am. "Does that mean we at last will be rid of your sayings then?" It seemed that it wasn't only Mari that found him outlandish at times Roland thought as he tried to make a sour face. "I don't really know Sir." He answered. "How about it Mari? Is it dangerous doing it?" Mari found herself of two minds at this question. On one hand it was of great significance and importance discovering a new Mage. On the other hand there was the question of laboring with magic without guidance.

She was a hedgewitch firstly not a Mage, using different lore's than them even if at times overlapping. "What you are doing Roland is only known to me theoretically." She said. "I know there is a danger of losing yourself in it and I've heard that the gateway is easily lost. But you should know that this is hearsay mostly as little is known of this today." Avery who had listened standing in a corner now stepped forward. "As I'm somewhat of an aficionado of old lore's I might be able to give some insight in this question, if you don't mind milady?" He said bowing politely to her. "Not at all Sir. Please tell us." Mari answered. Avery turned to Roland seeming quite serious and rather far away from the effeminate snob he betrayed himself as. "Roland." He begun. "If you want to succeed in this matter you need a anchor, something that leads you back. This lore induces a state aspired by few Mages due to the inherent danger of loosing ones identity. There is few practicing it and no one mastering it in our time. If what Be'am tells us is true you seem to have an innate disposition for it though." Yep, a spook indeed thought Roland as he listened, that's why he's so well informed on this matter. "I do not have any intimate experience of the state myself." Avery continued. "But as far as I've heard from those few dabbling in it your anchor must be clearly defined in your mind, being so set that no matter what it will hold. I should point out that just like true names that anchor must stay your secret. If you allowed it to be known others could use it to lead you astray." True names? Thought Roland. But the gist of it came through anyway. "Thank you Avery. Not that I'm sure what true names is but your anchor seems to me as a sort of mantra keeping me focused on what I'm doing, am I correct." "Just so." Avery answered. "An anchor binding you to us, from what I understood this state if accomplished might open up to strange possibilities, and while in it your ideas might become your reality. Please bear that in mind when experimenting."

Mari who had started to remember a discussion she had overheard at the guild studied Avery with newfound suspicion as he spoke. As they went on the trail again she came up to Roland and told him her remembrance. "It was a visiting Mage and the prefect discussing and I couldn't leave without them noticing. The Mage was informing the prefect of the upcoming need for a cadre of specially trained Mages for securing the realm. I'm starting to wonder about Avery Roland." Roland just looked at her. "I think he may be a member of that cadre, and if so he must be a accomplished Mage himself. " Roland nodded to himself. "Yep, a spook." He muttered sourly. "You're missing the main point here Roland, he said that thoughts are real there, that is indeed dangerous. You must be careful when practicing, you might change both yourself and us if you're not careful Roland." Now Roland looked at her as if not believing his ears. "Come on Mari, you can't be serious. I can believe in it helping me to cloak myself and us but I do not believe in it being able to change reality. That is a matter left to what Gods there might be, not to us Mari." He said disbelievingly. Mari took hold of his hand saying. "That might be Roland, but let us say you thought up something and coming back found it to be true. How would you be able to separate if it was us being changed or if it was you being lost in your mind?" Roland started to think about it, the more he thought the less he found himself wanting to have anything to do with this cloaking ability. It dawned on him that it didn't really matter if it was a true change or not. To him it would be true either way and as Be'am actually had experienced his disappearance so it might be true for them all. "You're right Mari. This is like no dream I've known before, in this I seem to have all the reality there is down to my saddle sores. I want to believe in it but now I learn that I might be able to alter it all at a whim and it scares me Mari. It scares me badly." Mari who hadn't considered it from his perspective now realized how fragile her reality must seem to Roland as he rode beside her. "Roland, I'm real and so is you. Do you remember that I once told you that in this realm magic too is a reality? Well Roland it is, and that's why you must tread so carefully where you go. You are a natural Mage it seems and the powers you bend to your will is here as real as you and we all live together with them, they form us as we do them." Roland who by now felt another headache taking shape, not any little headache either but a mother of them all asked plaintively. "Mari, why can't life be simple for once? I'm no Mage, I have no use of it. What I need is you and possibly a good fishing ground. Is that to much to ask for?" Mari smiled inwardly as she heard him. Lucky that he is what he seems she thought a man like him with a craving for power would be scary indeed. "I agree." She told him. "I too would have liked it otherwise, but life to me seems much like that river we forded, filled with streams and muddled waters and you can't see what waits before you. You just have to do with what you have and make the best that you can of it. Still, there are us, that's a gift too isn't it?" Roland found himself agreeing wholeheartedly as he leaned over to hold her, the dimly lit tunnel softly echoing their horses steady gait.

It was as they were finishing a late supper getting ready for sleep he first thought he heard someone whispering, but looking around all seemed to be readying themselves for the night, not that it was any day or night down here he corrected himself. But the whisper stayed with him, it was as if someone had been trying to get his attention being just out of his hearing. He queried Pup if they too had heard it but got only a negative back. Falling asleep he started to dream, in it he fund himself standing in front of a open portal leading to a building of immense proportions making him feel like an ant trespassing. He tried to see what was behind him but found that he couldn't turn his head, and in front there was steps beckoning him to thread. Without any own volition he now found himself threading them, one by one going up in a spiral motion. As he became higher the portal receded beyond him out of his sight but the ceiling never seemed to come any closer. Looking to his sides he thought he faintly could make out hints of old murals on the walls but they all seemed to flee from him when looking directly at them. At last he found himself on a tiled floor of black squares laid together in a sinuous spiral pattern and at last free to turn his head he searched for the staircase finding none to be found, just that floor seemingly stretching forever. The whispering that had grown in volume as he climbed now seemed to become almost intelligible. "Soo glad you could make it. Now come forward and present yourself." He felt himself shuffled forward as pushed by unseen hands, finding him in front of an empty throne. "Yes it's mine, but I'm otherwise occupied for the moment. So whom might you be then?" He got a distinct feeling of that need of stepping carefully here as Mari had instructed him so choosing his words carefully he answered. "I was just passing through Sire when I happened to stumble upon this magnificent Palace." The voice that until now had sounded almost disinterested came to life. "Stumble upon, one doesn't stumble upon my Palace young man, unless one are a giant of course, are you?" "No sir, no giant, only a human." The voice now said with a sound of finality to it. "No no, so few are welcome here and those only by invitation. But you have managed without haven't you?" "Yes Sire, I'm truly sorry if I offended you by coming unannounced." He heard a slithering sound slowly coming nearer as the presence came closer to him. "Now, don't be hasty, no need to scare him I say, no need at all." He heard the voice murmuring to itself as the slithering sound stopped. "So you haven't come in search for me?" The voice continued slowly. "But here we are, meeting even so, strange tidings indeed." Another moment of silence came and went. "I've decided to welcome you wanderer, freely to learn what you might in exchange of what you are and where you be." Roland who had listened feeling more and more agitated hearing the voice's promise of keeping him once more tried, but without luck, to free himself from this beings strange hold. "I'm sorry your Majesty, but I too have errands to do and responsibilities to see too before we can meet." "Don't worry human." The voice said with a faint sound of laughter in it. "We will meet again and I promise you will wander my realm for good or bad, once here always here as the saying goes. But I will not make you a oath breaker though, I hereby give you permission to freely visit me at any time you wish." Roland now totally lost asked. "And how can I do that? I don't know how I found you the first time?" It seemed to laugh having a strange rasping sound to it. "It's been a long time since I meet someone like you." It said. "At times it gives me pleasure to do something unexpected. You are here and so you will be, I will leave you a token of my friendship wanderer, use it well. With our linkage made and me its master. Methinks we both have things to learn, or unlearn as the matter might be." Then the dream if that was what it was left him staring into the darkness of the cave on a cold floor but feeling as if something monumental just had happened.

As he couldn't go back to sleep he decided to make the best of a bad situation, he went over to the sentries suggesting that he should stand guard for the rest of the night, "Can't sleep at all, get some rest you two." He told them as he relieved them, leaving them to their sleep he sat besides the door watching, wondering what he just had encountered. It had been so vivid and real, and what was that thing about a token? What had the voice meant by that, he went back to search through his bedroll just to be sure, but there was nothing to be found and nothing left on the floor either. At what made up for daybreak he had laid out a breakfast for the party with a pot of strong tea to go. As they finished it and was packing up their gear he noticed Mari looking at him in a peculiarly fashion. "What?" he asked. "I don't remember that sign." She studied him fascinated. "What sign?" "The one on your neck." Using his pocket watch he studied his reflection. He found a serpentine shape that seemed to eat itself situated at the left side of his neck made in black and green and strangely attractive to him, having a strong resemblance of a tribal tattoo. So that was the token he thought as he told Mari what had happened while she had slept. "You were right Mari, warning me of magic." He said thoughtfully as they later rode side by side. "This world is like nothing I ever known before. Now I've been tattooed by a dream, where will it end?" "That is what we are trying to find out, isn't it." Said Mari. "You know, I can't believe it, you've found yourself a Provider and a very selective one at that." She shook her head disbelievingly. "That sign, or tattoo if you will, is both a calling sign and a protection. You are honored indeed Roland, there are few Mages having the friendship of a Provider. It's a widely sought after prize but as your art of Cloaking it comes from a dying art." He listened warily once more amazed over her ability to accept what he would deem madness. "It is said that before when magic still was whole all Mages knew how to go in between, but as chaos loosed ground to order it all but disappeared." There she goes again he thought, She seemed to find it normal and either he accepted it or he would have to declare himself mad. "You know Mari, This is strange beyond comparison, and I still don't know what a Provider is?" "A Provider is probably the best thing that could happen in fact. It will be able to explain cloaking better than any Mage living today. As for your question, they're named Providers as they give Mage's knowledge of the hermetic lore's. To know the hermetic lores is as powerful as having real names, you see?" Damn, and there she blows again thought Roland. Just when I thought I'd made some sense out of it. "No, sorry Mari, I don't see at all. What the hell are real names. Are you saying that I should make a secret of my name?" Hearing him Mari once more realized that she took too much for granted, I keep forgetting that he's a stranger she told herself reprovingly. "Look Roland, a real name is having someone's essence. If someone named your essence they would have a mighty tool to steer you by. By lore and practice Mages have tried to name things through history gaining much strength when succeeding, but it is a dangerous endeavor as it warp their minds. There is a similar danger of losing your true self in it as there is to your cloaking."

But thinking over what he had said before Mari realized that Roland was right, she too had started to wonder where this might end, it was as if long buried truths had started to rise from their graves to shape their world again. "Remember though that Providers don't play by our rules. What you find important they might find uninteresting and that you laugh at they might consider being of the highest importance so think twice before choosing." "But why would it want to teach me such things?" asked Roland. "To me it seems more like they would want to keep those to themselves." "The lore's are indeed powerful Roland, but here more than there. It reminds me of your own world. You told me about mathematics and, what did you call it, physics? With those lore's you can create strange and terrifying things. Like that atomic bomb you said to be strong enough to kill a whole province, to me that sounds just like a dark and powerful magic,. If you were to introduce it here our world would be much disturbed and great strife would occur. Isn't that the same? It could also be said that what we see as great lores to them might be as water is for the fish, something natural and unseen that they live by. And as their values are unlike ours there might be other reasons too, be careful Roland." Roland listened gravely pondering what this world might come too if he could share his worlds knowledge, the images coming to his mind made him cringe. He realized that he had to become much more selective, still, between letting people die or sharing knowledge he still thought he had made the right choice but all the same he found her to be in the right. "Yes, I see what you mean, I will tread carefully Mari, I promise." As they left Mari wondered again where it all would end, as if finding Roland that fateful day somehow had sealed both their faith's with them caught in the periphery of a gigantic maelstrom inexorably taking them closer to its eye. She didn't enjoy finding herself confined in those caves and tunnels either but at least she was not alone. They had known each other for such a short time she thought wonderingly, yet she couldn't even bear to consider going back to living on her own. With his Sandy hair grey eyes and average length he wouldn't directly stand out in any crowd she thought, well with the exception of dwarves, a wry smile on her lips. Herself was a proud five feet five and he at the very most a four inches taller, with a physique reminding her more of a runner than an athlete. But there was something intangible drawing them together as surely as if they were some human magnets. Also there was the mystery about his former life, he seemed to have been some sort of soldier and she had by her own two eyes seen just how competent a field surgeon he could be, but his past was still shrouded in mystery. But it seemed just as her mother had described it to her. -One day Mari, when you the least expect it you will meet someone, just like me, and when you do nothing else will matter.

Remembering the sadness that had been hidden in those words Mari mourned anew for her mother, thinking about the man that so mysteriously had came into her mother's life, sweeping her of her feet just to disappear without a trace. "A penny for your thoughts Mari." Rolandsmiled at her. Mari tried to smile back, she hadn't really told Rolandabout her mother and her life, there had been too many things happening for her giving that any priority but suddenly she felt the need for it. "A penny? I miss my mother Rolandand I worry for her." She said simply. Rolandnodded wondering where it was leading "She is alone now and hasn't got any letters from me since we left my home, I just wish my father had been with her." As she told him how her mother came to be alone Rolandwondered what kind of father it was that would take his leave of love and child like that. "And you haven't heard from him since then?" "No, but mother won't give up on him returning." They were still going downward finding the temperature and moisture constantly rising. 'How long do this keep on Pup.' he quietly asked. 'It will make the horses footing difficult on this slippery ground.' He had started to worry about the Keepers too but Pup quickly gave him a assurance that it should level out soon enough, leaving him a crude iMage of the tunnel in his mind. Faith, he thought that's what we are going on here, faith and trust. From what memory's he could muster that was a condition rare enough where he came from. Most people found those attitudes rather impracticable as he remembered it, finding 'enlightened' self-interest to be a far safer bet. Considering it all he still found faith and trust to leave him a cleaner conscience though. "You know Mari." he mused loud. " I'm glad to be here, magic and all." The tunnel they were traveling seemed to bring forth a light all of its own now, a greenish weak light coming from veins of some phosphorous material. "You see the light coming from the walls, I think it's phosphorous, that's what we used to call the morning star. Once it was thought that there was two stars, the evening star that was called Vesper and the morning star called Lucifer or Phosphorous but now we know that they are the same, Venus we call it." "We call it the Egress here and to us it brings promise of things to be. But phosphorus is new to me, I have a weak memory of some substance like this being discussed at the academy but alchemy was never my strongest subject." Now they found the tunnel leveling out at last making the travelling easier on them all. Be'am who had been riding slightly before them now turned to Roland. "Sir, why don't you try it again, now that both Mari and me are here to see. I would dearly want to know if I was imagining it or not."

Roland looked searchingly at Mari who for a moment seemed in doubt but then nodded encouragingly. "If those 'friends' of yours are right we will need that lore." She smiled. "Better you try it with us beside you than alone Roland so go on, do it." Roland while agreeing in principle still hesitated, what about that anchor he wondered but looking on Mari he suddenly knew what his anchor was. "I will try not to get lost." He said quietly to her as he turned inwards once more to find himself diminishing. It took him some time to find that mood but suddenly he was there again able to see everything before as well as behind him, it was just a matter of directing his interest for the scenery to become clear to him. He found that the parts of his vision he didn't concentrate on tended to become like some sort of vague background, there without really being seen by him. He watched amused how the dwarf and the woman woke up to him being gone, the woman looking around her bewildered. He listened to them discussing his disappearance for a while before turning his interest to other things. There was a certain flow like a slow rippling appearing on the rocks surface and concentrating on that disregarding the material aspects he found he could make it all dissolve into something not unlike water having both riffles as well as different streams in it. Experimenting he discovered how he by somehow stretching his mind could release himself inside that flow. Immersed in the flow for quite a while he almost forgot about the man and that woman, what was her name again. Mari was it? Now where did those two go? He started to look for them but by now there were no traces of them to be found. Never mind he thought lazily as he traveled the flow, I'll see them again I'm sure. He found constantly new and sensuous sensations to explore as he learnt better how to manipulate it. But as she kept invading his mind his findings seemed to loose much of their luster at the same time as he found her becoming imperceptibly clearer. In the end her face was everywhere he looked and finally acknowledging her calling he found himself inexorably drawn back.

As his surroundings slowly solidified into a cave he thought he heard someone crying silently, getting of his horse he looked around for the sound and finding it to be Mari he hastened over to her. "What is it Mari?" She looked at him, no he thought stared at him, as if seeing a ghost. "Roland, is that you?" "Of course it is, why are you crying." She flowed into his arms. "Roland, it is you, you were gone for two days, two days Roland. I started to give up on you ever coming back." "We all was." He heard someone rumble behind her. It was D'am. "Son, that was a mighty dumb thing to do." Looking at them shaking his head disbelievingly Roland answered. "But it was only moments, I took a little tour exploring, that's all." Avery who hearing the commotion had came over to see what it all was about said. "I'm are glad you found your anchor at last. I didn't stress its importance enough, it seems." He added the last in a reproachful voice coldly inspecting Roland. With his legs becoming as jelly Roland found himself unable to stand. "Two whole days." He said wonderingly to nobody in particular as he found himself suddenly sitting on the floor. " Was I gone for two days?" "You were gone lad, leaving your lass to cry her heart out." D'am said disapprovingly. "Mari, I didn't know." Roland told her. "Had I known I would have came back much earlier. I don't know what happened in there but I changed, and, I think I'm still changing." The last part he whispered to himself as he looked around. It was as if he had gotten a second pair of eyes, just by looking in a certain way his eyes seemed to be able to pierce the wall seeing the tunnel behind it. Mari made a grab at him hearing his last words. " Don't you ever disappear on me again Roland, you hear, I forbid it." She sounded both scared and angry at the same time. "I won't disappear Mari, it's just that things happen to me." Leaving those thoughts be he concentrated on consoling her, the others soon left them seeing how they needed their privacy but not before making Roland promise to tell them what had happened though. Mari started to tell him about how he had disappeared without them noticing, just as that time before, and how she had waited for him to return, and waited, and waited some more until the others had said that they had to move on. At first she had refused to go with them, afraid that he would come back just to find himself alone in the tunnels but then Avery had informed her that their localization wouldn't matter as long as Roland had his anchor clear in his mind.

Listening to him she realized that they still had a mission to fulfil, and as her company refused to move without her she found no choice but to accompany them. But as that first day went into night and the second day came she started to doubt her decision, she had almost made up her mind to travel back to search for him once more when he had appeared in their midst again. "You silly goose." He whispered to her as they lay enwrapped in his sleeping bag. "You never ever leave your company, you hear, they are there for you as much as you is for them. Didn't I tell you I was hard to loose. Like a stone in your boot Mari, that's me." He kissed her. She looked at him dreamily. "Yes you are." She whispered back pinching him hard. "And don't you ever pull that stunt at me again. Or I'll start pinching something else next time." "What, no babies?" Making his best to sound affronted. He felt a smile in her voice as she answered. "Oh, there are plenty of fish in the sea, you better behave yourself Roland." Now that was a oxymoron if he ever heard one he thought to himself, as not even him was sure where he came from any more, but in a way she was right he had to admit, wherever that was there probably were more. "Not as fortunate as me though." Caressing her gently. "I have you." As she burrowed in to him he felt her warmth encompass him slowly bringing him to that place where no sorrows rest. Waking up the next morning the first thing he did was to interrogate Pup and Dragonbite as to why they hadn't been there to help him. It showed itself to be him that had made himself incommunicado there, it seemed that as he became essence only they had no way to speak to him, and yes, they had tried. Pup in particular seemed shaken about it, apparently none of them had been in such a situation before and she behaved almost as if he had tried to abandon them. As far as he understood this connection he had with them up to now always had involved a corporeal form and he guessed that this substitution while cloaking was unknown to them. Pup had told him that without him taking an active interest in them there was no way for them to communicate and he had to admit to himself that he indeed had forgotten them. Roland who by now fully had realized how easy it was to lose oneself wondered how he ever would dare to go 'in between' again. As he discussed his fears with Mari later that morning she came up with a suggestion. "Perhaps you better discuss this cloaking with your Provider." She suggested. "But I told it I was no Mage." He complained. "Be that as it will Roland, you still need to find some control. He will see that you are new to it anyway, just be careful with what you tell him." She admonished. "Say that you are on a quest, that is as honored a task there as it is here and no lie either."

Even though admitting that her idea made as much sense as anything he could think of Roland still found himself of two minds here. "You know Mari." He said. "I've never felt myself so lost as when I thought myself trapped inside that place." Touching his tattoo. "How can I trust someone able to do this just at a whim." Mari studied him with a serious expression, their horses holding to a steady rhythm slowly leading them upward again. "It let you go the last time didn't it?" She asked. "To have a bond like yours implies trust on both sides, but in the end it's up to you to decide." Thinking of it some more Roland agreed to try it at the next stop. He discussed with D'am and Avery too as they took their tea break and both seemed to find it a sensible decision. "But wait until dusk." Said D'am. Roland smiled hearing that, down here he had lost all sense of time, it was only by the help of his watch he was able to keep time but the dwarves seemed to have an uncanny feeling for it no matter where they were. As they had finished their march for the day and settled down to sleep he told Mari that he was ready to try. But before trying he asked Pup if there was some way they too could follow or help him, just in case. The answer he got was the same as before, they might be able to follow but just as long as he remembered to take them with him. "How." He asked. "How do I do that?" To that Pup didn't have any good answer, it was the same way he talked to them now she seemed to mean, remembering and communicating. As he lay down to rest he decided to concentrate on his memory of the palace and that dry whispery voice he had heard in his dream. He got the weirdest notion of his tattoo expanding at the same time as it got hotter and being more aware of it this time he noticed that it wasn't like he was falling asleep at all, more like he was having a daydream. Never noticing when or how it happened he found himself there again. Instead of coming to the portal he was standing beside what looked like a marble statue seeing a colonnade of statues marching into infinity on a floor of some highly polished obsidian rock. Looking down he could see himself darkly reflected in it while above him an indigo sky stretched into oblivion containing neither clouds nor any sun. Just as before he had found himself unable to move at first but after a little while getting released as if something recognized him. As he could move he started to walk around looking at the statues, he was in a bowl shaped place reminding him of that dream he had experienced once for so long ago as he thought he had fallen into that spring. The statues was as nothing he ever had seen before, some brutally twisted as if they had been placed under enormous pressures, others just like elongated lines unmoving when he looked straight at them but as soon as he turned away seeming to flow into other shapes.

He found it quite unnerving, walking with this dim indigo light suffusing the air without any source to be seen, while sensing the statues constant mutations, but they still held him in their thrall conveying a unearthly fascination on him. At last he found a statue he could relate to, vaguely resembling a dragon although unlike any dragon he ever had seen. It was more delicate as well as graceful and had a eldritch beauty to it as it stood pierced to its pedestal but still ready to take flight at any moment. "You are quite lovely my dear." He said as he admired it. "I wonder if there was a real model to mould you from." He involuntarily took a step back, for a moment thinking that it had moved. "And eerie." He muttered under his breath. At first he had though that it was made out of a dark blue hue but as he studied the dragon closer he noticed its colors changing, it was as if they constantly adapted itself to the light around it. He decided to move closer to see what would happen if he cast a shadow over it but to his surprise there was no shadow to be seen. He felt quite lost as he sat down beside it, deciding to wait for the lord of the manor to show himself in this world without shadows. as he sat there, resting his back against the dragons foreleg he remembered his promise to Pup. "Most probably a study in futility." He muttered to himself as he concentrated on bringing them forth, but without success. Losing track of his environment he dwelled deeper yet, battling those realms that distanced him from them, drawing his power back into mind-numbing concentration as he visualized Pup to bring him forth slowly feeling the barriers giving way. It was as if he could see Pup slowly inexorable materializing when he felt something breathing down his neck. He threw himself away from the statue landing on his shoulder, turning as he rolled to see what it was attacking him just to find the snout of the dragon inches from his face. With Its fiery red eyes looking at him it opened its mouth giving him an unparalleled opportunity to count its razor-sharp teeth. "Master." It said. "You've set me free." Roland took the chance to cast a quick glance behind him thanking the gods that the Keeper finally had shown up. "Master, I'm yours to command." He heard its voice say. Roland gazed up momentarily bedazzled by the overpowering vision of all those teeth's so close to his throat, slowly he realized that the creature was speaking to him. "I'm nobody's master." He finally succeeded to wheeze. "Could you back up a little so I can get up?" The dragon obediently backed up to give him some space. "Do you know that you scared me shitless doing that." He asked suddenly having a strong urge to find something hard to bang in the dragon's head. "What? I did nothing Master?" "I wouldn't call all that 'heavy breathing' nothing." Roland muttered sourly as he got up.

He looked at the apparition standing before him with something almost amounting to awe. "Are you for real." The dragon seemed to check himself over, at the end of each of those delicate wings he had appendages that almost resembled hands but with its digits more slender and being without joints, he then nodded. "Yes master, semi-protean once more. Are my earlier transgressions forgiven then, are you the new master of the household." Roland now started to feel quite out of his depth, he took a deep breath. "Perhaps we could start with introducing ourselves?" He queried. "My name Sir, is Roland not master, and yours would be?" the dragon gave him a gracile obeisance as he answered. "Master Roland Sir, I would be pleased to, my name is." And there he uttered something so utterly unpronounceable sounding in between a screech and a mad hyena's laughing how that Roland involuntarily took a step backl. Roland who almost jumped out of his pants slowly collected his wits again. "Sorry my friend, but that's not pronounceable for me." He studied the dragon thoughtfully, the willowy strength of the creature reminded him of a foil but one without that button tipped to its end. "Foil it will be." He muttered to himself. "I will name you Foil if you don't mind." Foil now almost crawling on the ground as he made a even deeper obedience happily chirped. "Ah. A new name, my turpitudes must surely be forgiven master. I thank you for your name giving and swear that I to you will be forever faithful and shun all that you shun and love all you love." Roland who quietly had listened to the oath, as an oath it had to be, suddenly realized that the situation had escalated from being somewhat of a nuisance to becoming something much more serious. "Foil, for your oath swearing I'm most gratified but I'm not your master. That honor I believe solely to belong to the real master of this mansion. I'm just a guest." Foil who now was busy grooming himself didn't seem much taken back by his words though. "Oh." He said complacency as he licked the wing membranes. "Oh, you are my Master." He said. "You gave me freedom and a new name as well, as I have given you my oath. Those things as well my un-bonding is not easily undone master Roland. Sir" Here he uttered another strange incomprehensible screech. "will most assuredly recognize the principle being in play here." He leaned over to admire his foot-claws. "I'm in dire need of some clipping master, could you excuse me for a moment while I see to my needs."

Foil looked at Roland with his eyes blazing into a whirling kaleidoscope of colors. "Of course I will, take what time you need." Answered Roland as politely back. "I still await the Lord of this manor to come." Foil bowed and then lifted to the skies letting his full wingspan out, truly a sight from a storybook thought Roland as he saw the dragon swiftly disappearing melting into an indigo haze. Left to his own thoughts once more he sat down on the pedestal now bereft of its dragon. "I guess I'm in a pickle now, for sure." He mumbled under his breath as he tried to envision the possible effect this unplanned release might have on his host. Thinking of it he started to feel as if he might think of going back not that he felt that it was his fault, well, not entirely at least. He had just tried to do what he promised to Pup never expecting this to happen in vain trying to console himself. He heard something coming from the sky and looking up he found it to be Foil hovering above him darkly silhouetted against the indigo sky, his wings fully stretched out to break his descent. Elegantly folding in his wings Foil landed noiselessly beside him. "Sir." He said. "Come, let us search out for the Lord of this manor." He crouched down slightly as if inviting Roland to climb his back. His tail was as all dragons heavily serrated with the teeth's continuing all the way over his back to his head ending just before his snout. Roland shook his head at the apparent impossibility of riding Foil. "And how did you expect me to ride?" he asked more out of curiosity than out of real interest. All his para's were left at that other place and he had no death-wish, as he knew of at last. Foil seemed to look him over once more. "Ride? I beg your pardon Sir. I'm no horse, not that I imply to find equines of necessarily lower standard, I've known quite a few unicorns proving that Sir. So I take it that you can't then Sir?" He now studied Roland in a most frank and inquisitory manner,. "I see." He said more thoughtfully. "You are then perhaps not familiar with the tomes of Niglard of thirtf? I'm thinking especially of the tome in where he discusses vertebra as the psychic out-sprouts of wings? 'Vertebras in flight, practical dragon magic.' Oh." Roland shook himself awake with a feeling as if lulled to sleep by the words flowing at him from Foil. "No Foil, sorry I must have missed that one." He said. "In fact I haven't had much chance reading anything since I, ah, dropped in, might be the word of choice." He finished somewhat sourly as he realized that Foil too seemed to take him for some sort of a wizzard.

"Foil, I think you will have to scout for us until I get a chance to read that book. Or do you know where the nearest library is perhaps?" Foil shook out his wings openly admiring their iridescent glimmering as their paper thin scales broke the indigo light into a thousand shimmering waves. "Ah." The dragon mumbled to himself as he folded his wings again. "So god to be flying again." He turned his head in a snakelike motion and thoughtfully started to groom himself, his tongue flickering at some sore spots as Roland heard him mumble. Library, what a quaint idea." He stopped his grooming for a moment as if startled by a sudden idea. "Well Sir, now when I think of it. Perhaps at the castle, would you like me to guide you?" Roland who by now had a strong urge to do something, anything, nodded sharply. "Yes my dear Foil, the castle will do fine." So in the end he found himself walking in that indigo haze with a dragon complacently strutting beside him constantly appraising the strange sculptures with the flair of an slightly addled art critique. He once more vainly tried to understand how he had come into this situation as they made their way the darkly glassy floor mirroring distorted reflections of their slow advance. "Have you ever visited my realm Foil." He asked after a while as he desperately tryed to break into that ongoing stream of. "Ah, a masterpiece Sir. And there Sir, can you see how that line lifts forward the gracile length of that pompor, and the sheer weinality of that stalking. See how it floats into a new winability. Truly a masterpiece is it not" He secretly started to suspect that he wasn't the only one demented as he found himself forced to listen to the dragons incessant prattling "Sorry Sir, a 'realm'? Why would I need another realm Sir?" "Well, you're not saying that there are humans here too?" asked Roland disbelievingly. The dragon stopped admiring the artwork turning an inquestive eyestalk at him. "Well Sir, you are here, are you not?" "Yes, so I am Foil, but I'm only here at a invitation." He carefully continued his explanation how he had meet the Lord of this place once by mistake, and how he had been invited his way back. As he noticed how Foil slowly started to take interest with both eyestalks increasingly focusing on him Roland found himself quietly thanking what Gods there was for the sudden quietude. Foil walked beside him lost in thoughts as he finished his tale. Then, one eye suddenly turning to the sky he leaped up in the air as he hollered. "Sir, a most intriguing tale, if you excuse me I believe I've spotted a friend, by your leave Sir. Back in a flurry, just you wait." With a mighty frenzied beating of wings he once more took to the skies screeching. "Arre'e dear. It's me. Yes it is. Meee. I'm free and a new name and all, waiit." Leaving Roland openmouthed, staring at a hastily diminishing speck dissolving into the haze.

"Well." Roland grumbled under his breath as he sat down to wait some more "As a wise person said 'At least evil forces always go afoot. They're lousy fliers.' Awh shit." He could feel his headache growing as he tiredly closed his eyes letting his thoughts dissolve into sleep. Opening them he found himself back with Mari in the dimly lightened cavern. She lay there peacefully slumbering, one arm protectively wrapped around him and with her breath whispering in his ear. He gently pushed himself free of her arm as he sat up to get his bearings. "Was it only a dream then?" he muttered as he made his way to the small fireplace to get some of the tea they had brewing for their sentry's. He could see the silhouettes of the two guards, sitting at the opening so they had a free view out to the tunnel but he didn't really want to talk with anyone. Turning inward he asked Pup if she had noticed him disappearing as he slept but she hadn't noticed a thing. "I just wish I knew if it was real Pup." He muttered as he went back. The next day they rode on again, him and Be'am at point with the others trailing behind, they had now been riding for three weeks and the road had started to climb again. Asking Pup how long it would take to get out of those depressing depths into the daylight was no use. She seemed to have no inkling toward what time was for them, the only response he got out of her was a 'soon' but that answer he had gotten the week before too. He heard Be'am clear his throat beside him. "Roland." He said. "Have you had any premonitions about the Keepers?" "No. They seem to have lost their interest," he answered. "I think they gave up on finding us some time ago but I can check again if you like?" Be'am hawked again. "Do that my friend." Be'am said quietly as he cast a brooding look around, easing his axe from its scabbard. "I have this nagging feeling at my back, as if something stalking us." Roland who now also had started to feel uneasy turned to Pup. 'Pup girl, is there someone near us.' As Pup disappeared to search he and Be'am slowed down their pace to let the others catch up. Suddenly she was back in his mind sounding both worried and ashamed, apparently they hadn't given up at all. Somehow they had guessed where they were planning to go and instead of searching they had amassed at the last crossroad opening to the portal. And as they apparently was quite near now the Keepers once more seemed to be able to feel their approach.

While Pup told him about her findings he franticly started to search for some place to talk in. The tunnel they were in had became increasingly steep and slippery and he knew that their position was quite undefendable. He finally found a small cavern into which they could withdraw to discuss their situation. "You were right Be'am." Roland said as they got of their horses to talk. "They are waiting for us at the next crossroad and there are much more of them this time. I can't see why they want us this much though, we are just passing. It's not like we try to take the tunnels away from them." D'am leaned over to fill his mug. "Son, they don't want humans here, especially not dwarves. To know that we once more have traveled their lair is to them an act of war. They may not be humans but don't mistake them for having no intelligence." Mari looked at D'am speculatively. "Would there be any possibility of us negotiating with them then?" she asked hesitantly. D'am studied his steaming mug thoughtfully, stroking his beard as he carefully formulated his answer. "Nah my lass. I highly doubt that we can beseech them to let us pass. They do not care for our race at all and they have all to long memories. It is said that Alain foD'm once learnt to talk with them but that art is long gone from us. Now I fear we have nothing to offer them except our flesh." Mari shuddered as she realized his implication. "But do they know where we are Roland?" she asked hurriedly. "No, I don't think so but they seem to sense us Mari, but how they do it I don't know. And we either move on or we turn back, there is no third way I know of." Avery leaned over the fire to warm his hands. "Can you tell how many there is?" He asked. Roland shook his head. "Sorry, the impression I get is that there are a lot of them but better than that I can't do." "Well." Muttered Le'am. "At least there will be a song to tell, if we survive that is." Now Roland felt Pup wanting to say something, looking around sensing the gloom settling over his friends he said. "Well, let them wait some more. I don't see how rushing into battle will help us. I say we have a rest and get something to eat for both us and our horses before we decide." D'am nodded. "Aye lad, something to eat and some rest will do us a world of good methinks." And with that decided they all went to take care of their respective chores. Mari and Roland sat down some way from the others with their food. "Maybe you could use cloaking to see them?" she suggested doubtfully. "Maybe, but I don't know how to control it Mari. The last time I tried I was gone for two days." He answered as he laid his arm over her shoulders holding her closer to him.

"It seems so wrong." She said. "We are almost there but now it seems as if we would have been better of not trying at all." Turning her head to look into his eyes. Seeing how she worried, not about herself but about him, made him smile. "Look girl, you know that all tales worth telling have moments of despair and grief. That doesn't mean that they need to end that way thought, comes time comes advice, I will talk with Pup. She is anxious to speak with me and perhaps she knows some way out of this." "There you go again." She muttered as she relaxed against him. "You and your sayings." "Well you know, the day is always darkest before the dawn." Roland answered as he bent over to kiss her. "Give it some time Mari. We haven't lost yet." He felt Pup figuratively jumping as she impatiently waited to speak with him, leaning against the wall he closed his eyes, shifting his weight slightly to find a more comfortable position with Mari head resting in his lap. Dozing he found himself in front of that little girl again. 'What is it Pup?' he asked. 'I'm sorry.' She said shyly with a downcast glace. 'I wasn't looking where we would go.' Roland smiled at her. 'We all make mistakes girl. Nobody's perfect' He answered. 'Was that what you wanted to tell me?' No she started to jump again. 'No. I know what you can do, get Foil to come and help, he's a dragon and they are Keepers.' Inside his dream Roland shook his head. 'And just how would I do that Pup?' he asked. 'Whistle?' she looked at him consternated. 'Why should you whistle Roland? You call for him just as you call for us. He gave you his oath, didn't he.' Roland tried to make sense of what she said, so she thought that Foil really existed then. 'But how can I get him here?' he asked. 'And even if I did succeed what use would he be. He is only one more Pup and I'm not sure that battle is his thing either.' He added, thinking of how Foil more had seemed as some sort of scholar and art critique than as any dragon he had heard of. Now Pup had started to spin around as a dervish as she impatiently waited for him to finish. 'They are cousins Roland, cousins I say. They are not friends but neither are they foes. As dragons is to the air so are Keepers to the earth, he will be able to parley for you. And you are wrong in believing him to be harmless. When angered Dragons make mighty warrior's Roland, filled with power and lore, just tell him to come. Me and Dragonbite can do just so much, but with a dragon at our side we can do so much more.'

While listening to her entreaty Roland couldn't help but study the glen he found himself in, he had a queer feeling that this wasn't the first time he had been there. That pond seemed disturbingly familiar to him he noticed as he went to get some water. It was very clear, cold and refreshing, and when he looked down into its mirror he saw the deep blue sky shining back on almost as if he was falling into the air. He shook of the feeling with some effort turning back to Pup who now had quieted down sitting beside him. 'Can you tell me how I can bring him forth girl?' She nodded enthusiastically her pigtails bopping the air. 'Yes yes yes. You do it the same way you call for us. If he is bound to you by oath he will come, come rain come storm.' 'Ah.' Muttered Roland. 'So you have sayings of your own too then Pup. Now, why doesn't that surprise me.' she looked up at him almost shyly again. 'We want to help Roland, but we have forgotten. It's so long since someone called for us, we think that Foil will help us all.' 'Do I need to go to sleep to call for him, or can I do it awake Pup?' 'We don't know, but we think that it doesn't matter. If your need is great enough he won't refuse your call, sleeping or awake.' Roland looked around again still having this disturbing feeling of recognizing the glade. 'I will do it here then Pup. Will that be okay with you?' Now she patently started to shine of joy as she flew up and started to jump around again. 'Now, do it now Roland.' Rolandlaid bare his memories of Foil once more calling on him. As his image became clearer he felt as if Foil became more and more solidified in his mind, taking both weight and texture. Suddenly he felt someone bumping into him. "Ah, Sir. Sorry I quite forgot. It was such a joy meeting old friends again but here I am, at your service Master Roland. Is there anything wrong with your sight Sir?' Roland studied him as he confusedly wondering what he meant. "Why?" "Well Sir, your eyes are closed."

Opening them Roland wondered how it could be that he hadn't noticed, another inexplicable fact of this realm he decided. "Hush Foil, let me see what this is." He said as he closed them again. This time though it was only darkness meeting him and opening them again he shook his head bemused. "Ah, can't make neither heads or tails of this." He muttered to himself, turning to the young girl at his side he said. "Allow me to introduce, ah, prince Foil of the hidden realm and," as he turned to Foil. "this my friend is my dear guide mademoiselle Pup of the glen." He felt quite satisfied and no little gleeful as he introduced them so. Both Pup and Foil seemed to inflate as they warily studied each other. Pup genuflected as she said. "a pleasure meeting you valiant prince." And Foil at his side bowed back mumbling. "most enchanted in deed my dear lady." Yes, thought Roland triumphantly, why not make the most of it. After all, here he was enclosed in what to his eyes most likely was a feverish dream, in a fantasy land, step by step leaving the shores of reason. Why not indulge a little he thought sourly musing as he observed his two fever apparitions making small talk. "Master, now you're doing it again?" Foil said as he stared at Roland. "What? Doing what." Roland asked. "Standing with your eyes closed Sir." "So I am!" said Roland surprised, this time keeping them closed so not to lose this new experience. "But I see you as clearly with them close as open?" he said. Foil looked mighty impressed. "Ah Sir to see awake with your eyes closed, most impressive master. Will you teach me?" Roland smiled. "Give me time to learn myself first Foil, this is all new to me." He thought for a moment and then nicked his finger mumbling to himself. "wonder if I still will have that mark when I wake up?" Turning to Pup he asked her. "Are we really here little one or is it all a dream?" she looked at him wonderingly her eye's growing big. "Oh," she answered. "This is my home Roland, and Dragonbite's too. Of course we are here." "So where is he?" asked Roland wanting to meet his other companion of dreams. "Is he shy?" Pup laughed. "No he's not shy but sleeping, he's much older than me and resting most of the time. But I'm sure he would like to meet you and Prince Foil both, wait." Roland suddenly heard a steps coming from the side of the glen and into the glade came a old man. "What is it." He grumbled. "Here I was resting in all comfort, why did you wake me?" Studying them his eyes widened and he fell down on his knee. "My liege." He said. "A pleasure to meet you at last, and whom might you be Sir?" asking the dragon beside Roland. "A pleasure both ways I'm sure." Answered Roland genially as he looked Dragonbite over for the first time. Old he might be Roland thought but there was nothing decrepit over him, he seemed both hale and vigorous. "Allow me to present my friend Dragonbite." He said turning to Foil. "And this is a friend of mine, Prince Foil meet Sir Dragonbite." "A strange name that one." Mused Foil surreptitiously as he gave him a bow. "Tell me, what exactly do you bite?" he asked Dragonbite warily. "Those who craves it mostly." Answered Dragonbite slightly surprised. "I hope it doesn't include me then." Said Foil, now sounding almost amused. "A friend of my lord is a friend of mine." Answered Dragonbite solemnly. "On the other hand." He said if recommencing. "At times I forget, my age telling on me I'm afraid." With a wintry smile he continued. "We just have to hope, don't we?" Foil seemed to draw in into himself as he considered the old mans word, then he relaxed slightly. "A jest I see. Well let us both find other things to bite then." He said.

Roland who by now had succeeded in collecting himself from his first surprise of something he wanted to work actually working as expected answered. "I'm sorry Sir Foil, it's not my wish to involve you in this but it seems I have no choice. Me and my fellow travelers seems to be facing a battle, and Pup" Here he turned to the young girl. "here thought that you might be able to parley in the matter for us. You see they are Keepers." "Keepers?" Said Foil. "Confound me to the last Sir, doing battle with Keepers you are? A battle magican, Sir Roland, I'm truly impressed at your skills. That's a truly long time since I had a chance to make battle with Keepers. You will give me a shot at it, please master." Richard dazedly looked at the dragon, here he had thought that it would take both patience and cajoling to get the dragon interested but this guy seemed as he was more afraid of being left out?" "Well Foil, far it would be from me to hinder you to take part in our, ah, enjoyments. But we would like to see if we could talk our way out of it first." "Talk? With Keepers intent on prey, Sir that's not possible, unless they have changed mightily since my last time. Have they?" The last he asked with a poorly hidden curiosity as he looked in turn at first Roland and then Pup."Oh, you are so brave Sir Foil." Cried Pup as she started to dance around again. "Brave brave Sir foil." She sung as she stated to dance around the dragon who leaned over to Roland and in, what Foil thought, a low conspiratorial whisper warned him. "Those sprites master, lovely to watch but a little unstable on their tail, if you catch my drift Sir." Roland whom by now had started to feel that what to him was a most serious matter slowly was crumbling into something more reminding him of badly written sketch at last succeeded in getting a hold of Pup as she danced pass him. "Sorry Pup, be still will you. No Foil, it's a most serious matter and you are right. This is not my realm, I was going to ask you if you would talk to them but as you have told me there seems to be little chance of that. So, I have no choice but to ask you if you would consider joining forces with me and my friends, your help would be much appreciated." The dragon seemed to inflate as he started to prance, not unlike what Pup had done just a moment before. "So right my child." He said, Roland wondering if they all had gone mad, a child he was not. "Brave brave Sir Foil indeed. Have no worries Sir. One of the things I've missed the most on my pedestal Sir that was, and that as your first gift too. I'm totally in your debt Sir, there wouldn't." And now he bent over again whispering at Roland. "by any chance be any, ah, any maidens involved Sir? Would it?" Roland was now sure that the world had turned mad, A dragon asking for maidens? Awh, now he remembered some more old folklore. "And just what would you do if there was?" he asked suspiciously starting to feel that this might not have been such a good idea after all. The dragon seemed almost embarrassed as he answered. "Well Sir that was the second thing I've missed most, they're such good company you see, but the unicorns have all the luck it seems."

He finished sounding vaguely offended. Roland decided to accept the explanation as it was. "Ah, Sir Foil, so they are." He looked down at Pup who was jumping impatiently up and down in his grip. "Calm down girl, we are going. So sir," turning back to Foil. "You will accompany me then?" the Dragon bent his head. "Your humble servant Sir. But tell me, how exactly am I expected to accompany you?" Roland found himself on weak ground again, he looked at Pup. "Master can do it, he can." She said impatiently. "He will do the same as he did here, you'll see." Roland looked at foil. "Well, I will try at least." He said somberly. "Can I come too?" Asked Pup suddenly, sounding excited, I will behave master, I promise." Roland weighted the alternatives in his mind, he wasn't even sure if he could handle one of them in his realm and two? Well, on the other hand he didn't know if he really knew how to transport them either, and she seemed so eager. "If you promise to listen I will give it a try." He said at last. "I'm going to return now and inform the others that we might have some visitors, there is no need for anyone to start shooting at you, right? Please stay here while I do it." Hearing them solemnly promising him Roland felt free to once more concentrate on returning to his more normal surroundings. As he awakened he found himself on the floor with his head resting in Mari's lap. Slowly raising himself up still feeling a little woozy after his experiences gathered the rest of his company around the fire to inform them. There were some sounds of surprise as he laid out his new plans, but no outright protests to theirs possible sharing the cave with a mythological being. It seemed that most of them had more knowledge and acceptance of his magicing than he himself he thought sourly as he studied them over the flickering firelight. Pup he just presented as a companion to the dragon but without implicitly stating it, friendly enough he said and young, but a girl of no great importance. They seemed to accept what he said on face value, so when he in the end asked them to stand at the corner leaving the middle of the cave free for their new 'guests' they all went meekly enough. "I'll try to summon them now." He said as he and Mari returned to the same corner where they had been before. He found it quite hard to relax this time though, with all eyes intent on his smallest moves. "Jezzes, a movie star I'm not." He muttered apologetically to Mari who looked up from her position on the floor shielding him. "If you could arrange something to eat and drink I'm sure they would be thankful." she said pointedly to those looking, sending them into a flurry of self-aware embarrassed activity finally leaving Mari and Roland to their own. "So love, do you think you can do it?" she asked softly. "I will try, I did it with Foil at least." Roland answered still feeling dubious about his abilities, no matter what Foil and Pup seemed to think he could do.

As he called them he seemed to move into a white fog blinding him, on one level he was still aware of being in the cavern, leaning against Mari. If he tried he could even perceive the others huddled together at the other side, the fire in between them. Somehow it didn't seem to matter that much, it was as if observing was just an added effort. As he walked into the whiteness he felt an increasing awareness of both Pup and the Dragon. He lost count of time as he concentrated on their images, calling out for them and in the end they were so real in his mind as if they were beside him, yet still avoiding him. He fought his minds increasingly sluggishness as he tried to hold to them finding it harder and harder to remember why he was there. As he realized that he was losing them he suddenly remembered that old tale about how to catch up to that fast satellite. Not by increasing your speed as that only would throw it into a higher orbit but by slowing down. He relaxed this willing of them to come and instead tried to invite them to find him. Losing himself again he suddenly woke up to a muted clap of thunder and a sudden sharp wind blow passing him by, it was almost as if a bolt of lightning had struck nearby. It took him some moments of scared remembrance to once more get his bearings and as he tried something threw itself upon him destroying what tranquility of mind he had succeeded in collecting. "You did it. Oh master, I knew you could, you did it..." There was this joyous voice exclaiming it over and over again, opening his eyes he found it to belong to a little girl newly glued around him. Slightly embarrassed he sneaked a look at Mari but she just smiled back. Foil, as equanimous as ever, was standing in the middle of the cave curiously studying the huddling heap of assorted persons trying to accept their eyes. "Quaint little place you have Sir." He remarked in a suave voice. "I must say, almost like home but the colors Sir? Dull, dull, dull, ever thought of tapestry?" Roland, while still dazedly trying to equate his friends sudden appearance with the thunder, suddenly realized that it must have been displaced air making the sound and wind effects. "No, no my dear Foil." He said trying to sound as equable as the dragon. "This is only a cave, not my home by any means." He slowly disentangled himself from Mari and that little winsome huddle of energy wrapped around his neck. "Will you allow me to introduce you to my companions." As he presented them for each other they all seemed to relax a little, with Avery still with one presumptionary hand resting on the hilt of his sword going so far as to make a sweeping bow when being introduced. "A most pleasant surprise Sir. I have to admit to you being the first Draken I've meet, but not the least I hope. And that charming familiar of yours Sir, another most pleasant surprise, My lady." And here he made yet another smooth bow directed at Pup whom now almost seemed to swoon under the impact of his flattery. Roland shook his head, a born courtier and sweet talker that one he thought darkly as he continued his introductions.

Finishing them they once more found themselves sitting around the fire sharing some tea and bread while discussing what to do next. Roland who sat with Mari next to him and with Pup in his lap looked at Foil as he ate his sandwich neatly, almost daintily holding it in his talons. He looked down on Pup, she was like a miniature of what she would look when grown up he thought as he smiled at her, seeing her for real for the first time, whatever real was he had to admit to himself. He could well understand the gravity which with Sir Avery had treated her. Even though she was a bundle of nerves, high-strung and restless as quicksilver, she also had some indefinable timelessness to her belaying her apparent age. "You happy Pup?" He asked her quietly, looking up at him and then on Mari she nodded. "I didn't knew it would be this good." She whispered as if to herself, a sunny smile on plastered all over her face as she took it all in with her eyes wide open. "It's been so long master." "Please Pup, I'm no master, I'm Roland and this." Here he turned to Mari. "is my Mari. We are both very pleased to meet you girl, but no more master if you please." She nodded somewhat shyly. "Mari, Roland, yes I'm happy." She mumbled as she tried to hold the cup steady in her small hands. "It will take me some time to come to terms with it all but all the same, I'm very happy." She said, her chin nodding decisively as she bent over her cup inhaling its rich flavor. Mari looked down at her feeling almost motherly as she caressed Roland. "We need to do something with your hair Pup." She said, laughter in her voice. "As sweet as you are, you will be lovelier still with your hair done, don't you think?"

Pup smiled back a little uncertainly as she burrowed into Roland's embrace. "Did I make it wrong?" she asked as if slightly uncomfortable. "No, you didn't." Answered Mari, once more reminded that this was no ordinary little girl. "It just need a comb, drink up your tea and eat something first. I'll show you what we will do." Pup relaxed and smiled. "Oh, can I have a sandwich with honey please. I love honey." Mari started to fix one for her as Roland turned back to the now free-ranging conversation that had gone on with the others and the dragon. "Yes, as I said." He heard Avery comment to the dragon. "There used to be some more of your kind around, but those last, oh I'm not sure, handspanns of years they just seems to have disappeared?" The dragon blinked lazily as he stared into the fire. At last he spoke up. "We dragons enjoy our solitude. And we have had some bad experiences with trespassers too." He said solemnly. "And of course there is our habit of hibernating. We have found that a good sleep may clear a lot of the obstructions one find disturbing ones inner peace." There he slowly winked at Roland as solemnly as he had spoken. "So how long is a 'good sleep' then." Asked one of the dwarves sounding a little piqued. The dragon turned to the dwarf. "That good friend, ah, Be'am was it? That depends in deed. I remember Grandpa. It's like yesterday to me but by now I think his snozze have been for quite some time. Yes quite some time." He mumbled forlornly as he with renewed interest watched D'am filling his pipe. Watching the first gustatory aromatic clouds becomming he suddenly leaned over to him eagerly asking. "You wouldn't happen to have an extra pipe to lend, would you?" D'am who had shrunk back under the looming appearance of Foil chuckled. "Aye lad, I might, I just might. So how long have you grandpa been snoozing then? Foil seemed to count in his head for some while. "I'm not sure, I've been preoccupied the last hundred years or so, me becoming a statue and all. But as far as I know it's been quite some time. Then again, it will all be new and interesting when he wake up, won't it. Thank you most kindly Sir." The last words was directed to Be'am who just offered him a newly stuffed pipe filled to its brim with aromatic pipe weed. "We don't count years as you do, and me with me being just out of the nest makes it hard for me to account for your time keeping." Roland whispered to Mari. "No surprise that they are scarce then." and Mari agreed silently.

Back at the stronghold two weeks had passed. Captain Lance stood at the parapet staring down the two last gates seeing their enemies milling about, carefully out of reach from their longbows. He had yet to see those outlandish guns that Roland had warned him about and so had spared their newfangled crossbows from being put to use, better the host believed itself out of reach than to use it prematurely warning them of. The Palisade's had fallen though. all except that last one he was standing on, one after another but the cost for the enemies had been considerable due to the diversified traps they had created hindering the host at each step. He was now down to this last wooden palisade, after that there was only two solid stone-barriers standing between the host and defeat. He still believed he had some aces up his sleeve though, the idea of letting burning logs roll down the pass and his crossbows, but those he saved for the appearance of cannons and also because he didn't wanted to squander his resources until he reaped the highest yield. And that wouldn't come before the host believed itself victorious, finally attacking in full strength. A guardsman standing beside him remarked. "There sure are a lot of those buggers down there Sir." The captain silently agreed, he could see tents and even what amounted to stables erected all the way down, and with more reinforcements pouring into the host by each day. It was like a human. No, the right expression he thought sourly should be inhuman, flood slowly rising up in front of his unbelieving eyes, threatening to rip the dam he stood upon at a moments notice.

"Yes there are Magnus." He answered thoughtfully. "But all the better for us when we let our own flood loose, don't you think?" His smile becoming a grim grimace as he imagined what havoc that final assault would reap. "Fire and water Magnus, that and the incline will make wonders for us. Remember that this stronghold have never been defeated, and with the grace of God, won't be this time either." The water was his final surprise he thought, his sappers had worked day and night with that, redirecting the springs into a dam ready to be let free at his command. "In fact." He said thoughtfully. "Without Roland's idea of the logs I don't think I would have thought of that last one Magnus." He smiled grimly again. "But now I feel that we are as prepared as we can be my friend, the rest we will have to leave in the hands of the Gods." "Aye, them buggers are in for some surprises, and I don't mean no Gods." Magnus agreed under his breath as he warily studied the crowds gathering down that twisting green path, the pass gleaming under the suns last slanting rays. There had been no parley before that hosts first attack, it was as if they didn't care for speech at all, they just came on like sickly mutilated parasites reaping the flesh out of the land. As Magnus looked further back he could faintly see that big red construction where they seemed to hold their rallies, intermixed with human sacrifices to what gruesome deity's they worshipped. He shuddered as he remembered the screams from those unlucky ones sacrificed, it made bad memories and made them all restless. And as the sacrifices mostly was made at night it left ones imagination all to widely open too. And those seemed to have increased with every foot the fiends had gained through the palisades, slaughtering at a feverish pace those last nights. The unclean smell spread by the horde of the host intermingled with the suffocating smell of roasting human flesh, as well as the way they spread their dung without care or privacy, made it a hard task just to keep on breathing when the wind turned Magnus thought. As the darkness finally descended upon them Lance saw how the priests once more turned to their gruesome tasks lighted by those putrid smelling torches that they burned every night, it wouldn't surprise me if they made them out of human lard he thought darkly, as the stench at nights was even worse. "Yes Sir, they sure seem to be gathering." Mumbled Magnus as he assayed the growing mass of beasts and men with the cold sure eyes of a veteran. And now the drums started to talk again, gathering the crowds, rolling in over the narrow cliff-walls slowly swelling into unending waves, echoing and gaining strength as they told their story of mayhem and doom.

The discussion now started to turn more serious with Avery taking the lead. "Sires, my Lady's, we need to decide how to solve this puzzle of ours, the Keepers are gathering as we speak and every minute counts." Roland nodded and then D'am spoke up. "From what I remember they are said to go into feeding frenzies when being together in large numbers, known to lose control, even attacking their own. Could it be that we might be able to use this?" Foil spoke up. "Yes, I've heard the same. They are cousins to us I admit, but so far back into the tides of history that I scarcely remember, but you're correct my good dwarf. Perhaps there could be some way to induce a feeding frenzy in them." Now their eyes all seemed to turn to Roland. "I'm sorry but I'm not sure what to contribute here." He said hesitantly. "I have a very limited experience of Keepers, and from the one I had I don't remember much. Correct me if I'm wrong, but from what I've just heard they start to sound as if they were on the brink of extinction?" S'am nodded. "To the best of my knowledge they are." He said. "And you're sure they can communicate?" asked Roland. "I mean, they're more than just animals?" Turning this question to Foil who answered. "Yes Sire, it is said that they speak an old tongue of dragon, but as I've never spoken with them myself I don't really know. Between themselves they are said to have other methods of communicating but there is little lore on that." I'm probably going to sound as an idiot now thought Roland regretfully as he opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn't help it, somehow he found it wrong to kill of a species leaving them decimated when they already was starting to disappear, no matter their savagery. "Would you be prepared to parley for us if we could get them to it." he asked Foil formally, trying to sound as if he knew what he was doing. Foil looked at him surprised. "And spoil a good fight Sir?." He asked sorrowfully. "Sorry, of course I could try Sir, but to my knowledge they usually ignore the messenger, just finding him a tasteful morsel before their dinner." "But would they find you so, Sir." Asked Roland considerately, studying the dragons horned hide and his sinuous muscles, starting to smile for the first time since their talk had turned serious.

Sir Foil smiled back the dragon way, his mouth closed so not to bare his fangs in enmity. "Now, as you ask Sir, I don't deem they would. They still should have some remembrances of dragons left in their boneheaded skulls. But why?" As Roland explained his tentative ideas, starting with his reluctance being the one to further the demise of, as he saw it, a endangered species the other just listened flabbergasted. "There are just so much genetic material on a world." He finished. "And we don't know what the loss of theirs might mean." Some of the dwarves started muttering, shaking their heads disgustedly at those newfangled concepts of knavery, before Le'am who had listened hard and good found it for good to speak up for him. "Friends." He said. "We should remember that our Lady is merciful first, vengeful only when all other means are gone. There is wisdom in what he says, as strange as his ideas might be. To kill without care ruins a land, would you chop down all trees just because some are rotten. We should try parley first, if that won't work we still have to fight, but I for one would much prefer to let bygones be bygones and go my way in peace." D'am who also had listened thoughtfully nodded at that and slowly the tide of resentment seemed to turn around. "So who should we send?" Asked Avery, for ever the practical one. Roland looked around searchingly in the flickering light from their fire." I think it fittingly if we would go, one from each race." he said slowly. "I will go, as it was my suggestion and our friend Foil of course, but then? Would you walk with us Le'am?" he asked questionably. Le'am stood up bowing at them. "I will go." D'am, nodded in recognition of his henchman's resolution. "You do that son, and the pride of Dwarves will walk with you." He said. Now Pup started to move restlessly in Rolands lap. "I will go to too." She said decisively. "I know the tongues of many species and perhaps I could be of assistance." Mari started to object to this but as she saw both Foil and Roland agree she decided to keep her silence, instead giving Pup a big hug whispering to her. "But if it turns bad daughter, you come back to us as fast as you can, you hear." Pup smiled at her saying in a low voice. "I will Mari, I promise. I'm not happy about this fighting either, but I believe I'm here for a reason, I must do my best not to shrink that duty." Mari, once more reminded of how Pup was like no ordinary child smiled warmly at her, trying to hide her concern for the young ones safety. She also would have liked to stand with her man, but knowing that Roland's thoughts then would have been taken up with his concern for her, rather than with the Keepers, she wisely had decided to let this 'councils' decision stand. There were also those warding's and charms she wanted to prepare before worst might come to worst she thought. As she realized that her time would be taken anyway she just nodded, gracefully raising to go to her saddlebag to search out the ingredients for her preparations and healing potions, whilst silently praying to her Lady for all their protection.

The drums had been going the whole night now, and the offerings made seemed to have driven the horde into a screaming madness down there. Captain Lance had only gotten some hours sleep this night, the smell and the noise had made it very hard to sleep. As he stood on the inner rampart he could see the masses starting to organize themselves into some sort of ragged fighting formations, and how his soldiers on the palisade before him was starting to get restless. He had given them strict orders to fall back as soon as they found their position untenable, he had no fondness for useless sacrifices himself, unlike some officers he could have named. Magnus who stood at his side acting as the go-between noticed how his Captain seemed to draw within him self preparing. So it starts, he thought, as he studied the mingling crowds of beast and men. "Sir, would you mind us getting a fast bite before the feast?" he asked nodding to the small band of men ready to release the stocks waiting. "Not yet Magnus, let them take the palisade first before we release those." Answered Lance sounding surprised. "No sir, sorry, I just meant if we could get something to eat. I think some of the lads might have forgotten it in all this excitement, Sir." Lance stood there for a moment weighting between keeping the men at hand or allowing them some rest. Giving their foes a last judicious eye, studying their preparations, he reluctantly agreed. It was better to have them keep their strength than to spend it waiting. "But tell them to eat light, you know what the healers and field-surgeons say about stuffing yourself before battle." He told Magnus as they parted. It was a truth that it could make especially stomach wounds fester and go septic very fast, but if he himself would choose between going in hungry or fed Magnus easily found himself preferring the later, and so he knew did most of his men. "Okay lads, breakfast before the feast?" He gave them a grim smile whilst indicating the host behind them. "Come on lads, but be quick about it." Showing them to the mess-tent they had put up before the last bulwark, that which defended their last door leading into the stronghold.

As Mari made her own small fire under her copper brazier at a corner to prepare her potions she could watch Roland and the others making themselves ready. The concentrated silence in which they did it just added to her misgivings. She could understand Roland's hesitations and see the worthiness of trying to parley before a fight, but she, unlike Roland caught in that battle-rage, remembered their last encounter all to well. She had strong doubts to Roland's idea of parleying with them, and no trust whatsoever in them keeping to their promises if they did. "They may talk." She muttered to herself. "but they're still beasts." Hearing herself she felt slightly ashamed. "You're a good one to talk." She admonished herself. "not even trusting your own man." Roland came to embrace her. "Don't worry Mari, if I notice any deceiving we will back up to you. And they are all ready for a fight too." Thinking to himself that those might be his last stupid words he decided to give her something better to remember. He leaned down to kiss her, his love giving it a fervent strength taking them both by surprise. "I will be okay." He whispered in her ear. "and you better wait for me, don't do anything stupid girl." She hugged him a last time then to watch the four of them leave, and a strange sight it was too she thought. A man and a dwarf and a little girl with a dragon lumbering over them, all walking jauntily and discussing carelessly as if on their way to a picnic. If she hadn't been so worried about them she would almost had started laughing at the sight. "I'm not sure that those Keepers will be all that impressed." She mumbled sourly to herself. "perhaps they will die laughing though." Pup who seemed to be able to feel where the Keepers were gathering took the lead with the others close by. They hadn't walked far before she stopped them. "Behind that cross section I think." She whispered. "Let me and Foil go to talk with them first, there's little they can do to me and even less that they can do to Foil, you two can act as our rearguard as we find out if they would be prepared to parley with us all."

Roland looked at her surprised, he kept forgetting that she wasn't human. Felling a strange kind of pride in her courage he never the less countermanded her offer. "We go together or not at all Pup, but it was very brave of you to offer." He lifted her up to give her a hug and then sat her on Foils back before they went out into the crossway to show themselves, a white flag in Roland's hand. Standing there looking around Roland first thought that Pup had been wrong as he couldn't see anything moving but then Pup whispered "the roof" and as he looked up he saw them. White like some wormlike larvas with heads reminding vaguely of Foils and stings like scorpions they were sitting up there watching them. Foil Cleared his throat and took a step forward. He almost sounded as if he sung as he made some incomprehensible noises at them. At firs there was no response but then there came some thumping from the roof and one of the Keepers slowly slithered forward. Pup who listened whispered to Roland. "Oh, so that's how they talk, by beats, how quaint." She didn't sound in the least impressed or scared by them Roland thought. Himself he had to admit to a sudden urge to turn back and make a stand instead at the cave as he now realized just how many that it was gathered there waiting for them. But now it seemed as if Foil and the Keeper had got down to some serious talking with Pup interpreting for her friends. "The Keeper is surprised to find a cousin of them so cravenly allied with their foes, oh, and he thanks him saying that we will make good incubators." Roland and Le'am fearing the worst at those word prepared themselves mentally for the fight back. "Yes, they will parley." She suddenly said. "But they crave blood price for their slain." Roland started to relax slightly as he heard that. "Foil?" he interrupted as he got an sudden inspiration. "Could you ask them why they need us as incubators?" As the parley went on Roland and the others learnt some of their mating rituals and how their young grew, it sounded not unlike some insects thought Roland, like the praying mantis. "Tell them that if they would let us by." He said at last. "We would offer them a lot of hosts for their young." Now his friends stared at him revolted. "tell him." Roland insisted. Foil turned to the keeper again, Pup stared aghast at Roland. "Those poor ponies." She said. Roland looked at her surprised. "What?" he asked. "isn't you going to give them the ponies?" she asked. Roland shook his head. He though he had a much better plan than that. "No I wont." He said shortly. "listen and learn girl."

As the parley kept on Roland's plan slowly became clearer for the others. They all knew that something had been trying to follow them even before the keepers, there had been that shadow creeping after them. Richard planned to make use of that placing himself as bait hoping to lure that shadows minions down the tunnels. "Tell them that there will be a lot of prey." He said. "And that their kindred will grow in numbers once more. Tell them that, also that we will keep their borders." As the parley kept on the other Keepers had crept closer almost as if trying to surround them, but now the Keeper discussing with Foil thumped some more and the Keepers backed off. A good sign that thought Roland relieved as he loosened his grip of dragonbiter. The parley drew on and on with Pup finally becoming sleepy lifting her arms to be cradled in Roland's arms. "The Keeper say that he need to talk it over with the others." She mumbled sleepily at last. "He tells us not to come back until we hear him calling." With that the keeper abruptly left them turning to his own, leaving Roland and the others to warily back of into the tunnels from where they had came, back to their cave.

The sound of the drums had changed now, instead of that crazed strained pulse it had it now started to sound a waves rolling in against a breaker. Ponderous large waves forcing themselves through. The crowds had started to arrange themselves once more into formations, and this time Lance expected that the fight would go on, until one of the broke. The last skirmishes had been just that, skirmishes stopped as the daylight weaned and their priests started calling, but this time, this time they meant it. And from further back he could see immense wagons staring to pull forward, drawn by immense beasts that he hoped to be animals as if they were warriors he had severe trouble seeing how they would defeat them in lone battle. Magnus came up to him. "Feed and ready Sir." He said. "All of them is, or will soon be Sir. And not a moment to soon too." He added as he saw their foes. "Sir, those beasts? Could that be their 'guns'?" "I don't know Magnus, possibly. We will see soon enough, I doubt they will use it on the palisade though. They are probably saving them for our last fortifications, but we will see." Magnus nodded as he studied the strange beasts drawing them. Walking on two massive legs they were, and with maws and snouts of lizards but red, flaming red with immense sharp teeth's, now and then snapping at their handlers. Lance felt much relieved as he to noticed that. "Perhaps we could help them to get free later, don't you think?" he said to Magnus as he gave the crossbow mounted beside them a little slap. "I'm sure they would be mighty thankful, huh Magnus?" Magnus started to smile as he imagined those beasts running loose through the massed thongs arranging themselves down there. They had tried out the crossbows before and measured their flight and whilst they were at it put up markers on the cliff-walls defining the length and elevation needed to reach them. The host had ignored those not guessing their true purpose which both Lance and Magnus found themselves secretly glad for, not guessing the others thought. "And the water and fire, Magnus? Is the men ready?" "Yes Sir, ready as can be. just standing by waiting for your orders Sir." "Good." The captain saw how the first attack now started to roll in like a wave with the drums slow beat now changing pitch to a slightly lighter more frenzied tone building up to a crescendo. His men were repelling it though, giving back as good as they got, using their bows and a few small arbalests at longer range and then their pikes and swords for the close range. Moving disciplined and coordinated they slowly succeeded in pressing that first wave back, finding their hidden traps and pits to be of good help breaking up the enemies positions. As the wave broke up and started rolling back Lance turned to Magnus. "Get down and exchange them, tell the new ones to keep a close look at the wimple that I've bound to my pike. When I blow the horn and sinks that wimple they are to turn back as fast as they can, you hear. Let them breach that palisade Magnus, it will go down soon enough anyway. I want them to feel victorious. I want them to storm us, as many as possible before the logs are released. Do you understand?" Magnus nodded eagerly. "Yes Sir. Relieve the men and inform them to keep a close watch at you. No problem Sir" He disappeared leaving Captain Lance to watch how the undisciplined horde once more slowly trying to form themselves into that hammer crushing down at the last palisade standing before them.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Romantic /