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«Kings, Queens, Heroes, and Fools», Michael Mathias

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She nodded that she would and hurried out the door. The old man’s gaze settled back on Lord Gregory. Their eyes met, and the old man’s look was serious, yet reassuring. “It will be no small task to get you walking again. We will see if you truly have the heart of a lion beating in that chest of yours.”

“That his heart still beats at all, after being dropped from the sky by that evil beast, shows that he has a lion’s heart,” Harrap said.

It didn’t escape Lord Gregory’s notice that Harrap had spoken of him, but not to him. Maybe his eyes had been closed, or maybe he’d been lying there so long that he didn’t seem like a person anymore to Harrap. Before he could think much more about it he slipped back into a deep and heavy slumber.

The young man named Tylen came later that day. He and Lord Gregory spoke for a while of the legendary brawl from a few years earlier, when Lord Gregory beat a fighter called the Valleyan Stallion. He won his place on the Summer’s Day Spire that year. The great needle-like projection of polished black stone rose up out of the sacred Leif Greyn Valley and the names of each year’s winners were carved into its base. No one knew who built the Spire or why, but for as long as any man could remember, on the first day of summer each year, men from all across the realm gathered there to trade and compete in the spirit of fellowship and peace. The winners of events such as archery, brawling, hammer throw and various foot and horse races won a bit of immortality and heavy prize-purses of gold and silver, but it wasn’t the honor of having his name engraved into the Spire twice that drove the Lion Lord to battle again last year. He’d been there for far more important reasons.

King Balton, the king of Westland, had been poisoned just before the festival. From his death bed he had ordered Lord Gregory to attend. The Lion Lord had done so, and was poisoned himself, beaten half to death, and left to watch helplessly while most of his men were killed by the Blacksword soldiers of Highwander. The whole festival had turned into a battlefield. It was all too much to think about.

Tylen eventually took the covers off of the Lion Lord’s legs and manually worked his ankles and knee joints as his grandfather had instructed him to do. It was agonizing for the Westlander but, with clenched teeth and many curses, they got through it. When the young man was done he fetched the Lion Lord a strong drink of some horrible tasting liquid and helped him get it down.

That night, Lord Gregory dreamed of the regal lady again. When he woke, her identity and the vision of her most beautiful face were fresh in his mind’s eye. She was his wife, the Lady Trella. She was his best friend, his lover, and he found that he missed her dearly.

Later in the day, just before Tylen started his exercises, Lord Gregory asked for the Eldest. He was ready to hear what the old man was keeping from him. Somehow he knew it involved his wife. In his dream she had been fleeing something and he couldn’t come to her aid. As he waited for Halden Skyler, he prayed to the gods that his wife was safe. He swore to get his legs working again so that he might find a way home to her.

“There’s much to tell,” the old man said, as he took a padded stool and sat on it near the hearth. “Are you sure you’re ready to hear it all?”

“Sooner or later I’ll hear it, sir,” Lord Gregory said. “I’d prefer to hear all of it now.”

“Well then, as you know, us clansman are not kingdom men. We only ventured down from the mountains a few times a year. Two of my sons, Harrap and Condlin, made one such journey in the fall. They went to the city of High Crossing to purchase animals and other provisions like they do every year before winter sets in. Only this year the town was nearly empty.”

This grabbed Lord Gregory’s attention.

“Harrap and Condlin continued south to the city of Castlemont. I guess I should say where the city of Castlemont used to be.” The old man leaned forward on his stool, took up a poker and began prodding the fire back to life.

“Used to be?” Lord Gregory asked.

“What few folk they came across told them that the city was sacked by your new king and then was destroyed by his wizard. The ones that didn’t hide well enough were rounded up and herded to that slaver city by the sea.”

“O’Dakahn,” Lord Gregory said. “But…but that’s impossible.”

“Oh there’s much more to tell,” the Eldest said. “While your Westland king was herding the people of Wildermont to the south, and his army was making passage through the Wilder Mountains to attack the Red City, a dragon rider led an army out of the swamps and took Westland for herself.”

“But-”

The Eldest cut Lord Gregory’s protest off with a wave of his hand and a healthy harrumph. “Walking lizards from the marshes, the zard, Harrap called them. Huge man-like beasts that aren’t true giants, but wild half-breeds from beyond the Giant Mountains hold Westland under the Dragon Queen’s rule. They destroyed the bridge at Castlemont. That alone amazes me. I’ve seen that bridge with my own eyes and it would take powerful forces to tear it down. I wouldn’t believe these things had my own two sons not told me of them. They are good fathers, and good men. They have no reason to lie.”

Lord Gregory had crossed the magnificent bridge that led from Wildermont over the Leif Greyn River into Westland at least half a hundred times in his day. A spectacle of archways wide enough for five, maybe six, wagons to cross abreast, it was the only land passage from the eastern kingdoms into Westland. If this Dragon Queen really existed, then she wasn’t planning on giving Westland up anytime soon. The fact that she had destroyed the only land access into Westland showed that she meant to isolate and defend the territory. He could only hope that his lady wife was alive and well. Surely his friend Lord Ellrich, or another of his peers, had seen to her safety.


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