Border Crossing

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
Here's another story with Dana Illwind and Sorcerer Lord Jayden, who were first seen in Not Quite a Hero. Fair warning, there's a cliffhanger ending.

Submitted: April 15, 2019

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Submitted: April 15, 2019

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“Explain why I’m not allowed to use my own sword,” Dana Illwind said.She raised her right arm, wrapped in a thick layer of cotton, and added, “And this is extra ridiculous.”

“Both measures are for good reasons,” Jayden promised as he wrapped cotton around her other arm and tied it in place.He stepped back to study his work.“There now, nice and snug, and unlikely to injure yourself.”

“I’ve done some impressive stuff in the last few months, and you’ve got me wrapped up like a mummy.”

“Mummy wrappings are thinner, dirtier, smellier and frequently contain noxious parasites,” Jayden replied.

“Missing the point entirely!”

The morning had started well before degenerating into Jayden playing a demented game of dress up with Dana.Dana’s brand new sword was finished, a horn from the goat head of a chimera, forged into a weapon by a renegade dwarf, infused with a magic metal called uram, enchanted with magic by both the dwarf and the world’s only living sorcerer lord, it was a sight to behold.Dana had little experience with weapons, few peasants did, but the short sword was a thing of beauty.In the few minutes she’d been allowed to see it, she marveled at the black blade edged with silver, serrated ridges going down one side, runes cast into the base of the blade and hardwood hilt stained black.

The weapon was impressive, and Jayden wasn’t letting her touch it. She’d jumped at his offer to train her, only for Jayden to wrap her arms and legs in cotton.Then he handed her a wooden sword, more like a branch with aspirations.

“This is for your protection,” Jayden told her.The sorcerer lord was a handsome man even if a bit disheveled with his long blond hair a perpetual mess.He wore black and silver clothes and carried no weapons.Traveling unarmed was normally an invitation to being robbed, but few were stupid enough to challenge a spell caster, especially one with a list of accomplishments like Jayden’s.

“How?” Dana demanded.Dana was fifteen, sixteen next month, with brown hair, brown eyes and an athletic build. Her clothes were simple peasant wear including a skirt, blouse, leggings and fur hat, all of it durable and cheap, and a knife tucked into a sheath.

Jayden took both her hands and placed them on the wood sword.“Training with weapons is like learning any skill.It takes countless hours of practice and you will make mistakes.The difference is how much those mistakes cost you.Accidentally hitting your leg with a wood sword will leave a bruise.Do the same thing with a real sword and you suffer a crippling injury.Do it with a magic sword and you no longer have a leg.”

Dana hesitated.“Oh.”

“Training with a wood sword gets the mistakes out of the way early on without injury or death, and we’re doing it with padding on your arms and legs to make those mistakes less painful.”

“How long is this going to take?” she asked.

“Months.There are two kinds of fighters, the competent and the dead, and I wish to keep you out of the latter category.Nor is time an impediment.The king and queen are planning a war, but we’re too late in the year for it to start. You can practice during the winter months and be ready for the conflict in spring.”

“It’s coming that soon?”

“Depressing, I know, but the signs are there.The king and queen have amassed a sizeable army, gathered supplies, and men in their service have tame monsters like the chimera that donated a body part for your sword and the gargoyles we recently defeated.Others doubtlessly have followed this example, and monsters are extraordinarily dangerous.”

Dana looked at her wood sword a bit less disparagingly (just a bit).Jayden was right that war was on the horizon. She’d seen it growing up, when taxes in her hometown to the north were raised again and again with no cause in sight. Then her father the mayor was ordered to send her eldest brother to the capital, a prisoner in all but name to ensure her father’s support.After that the town’s militia was called up for military service.Other towns had suffered likewise, and she’d seen as bad or worse since following Jayden.

She’d joined him in appreciation for saving her town, but also to keep him out of trouble.Jayden’s hatred of the king and queen were legendary, and he struck at them any chance he got.Dana didn’t understand the root of this hate, for even after months traveling together there were still things he didn’t talk about.But she’d come to understand his feelings were well earned.She’d seen too much suffering and too many wrongs originating from the royal couple.

That was what brought them to their current location.They’d made camp in a grassy clearing in the woods.Fall was coming, trees were decked out in reds and oranges, and the morning air had a touch of chill.Pretty as it was, their camp was close to the border city of Edgeland, a likely invasion point for the Kingdom of Kaleoth.

“We’ll start with basic sword fighting techniques,” Jayden told her.“You’ll need to practice them daily before we move on to more advanced fighting styles.”

Trying to sound casual, Dana asked, “Who taught you to fight?”

“A man with considerable talent and valor, if a touch too fond of women and wine.”

“Gee, that’s vague.”

Jayden smiled.“It was meant to be.We’ll do this every morning before breakfast.You’ll find it intolerably dull, but the reward is worth the effort.”

They heard laughing in the distance, and a man call out, “There has got to be a story behind this.”

Dana and Jayden looked over to find a group of men exiting the woods.Dana counted ten of them armed with spears, axes and swords.They had no armor or shields, and their clothes were dirty and ragged.

Jayden stepped away from Dana and moved closer to their baggage and a campfire they’d made last night.Dana tried to follow him since her sword was in those bags, but Jayden held up a hand for her to stop.

“I’m not a storyteller by profession, but I think I can entertain you,” Jayden said. “Once upon a time there was a sorcerer lord known for being short tempered, ill mannered and impatient. Not surprisingly he had few friends, but he had fewer enemies than you’d think.They didn’t survive long.One day the sorcerer lord met armed men in the woods, and they, well, why spoil the ending?”

The men spread out to surround them.One said, “Oh no, do go on.”

“The ending depends solely on you.Over the years I’ve introduced a good many men to the graveyard.Whether you’re added to that number is on your head, not mine.”

One of the men snickered.“You’re a sorcerer lord?There’s but one man foolish enough to walk that road, and word is he’s in Fish Bait City.”

Another man pointed a spear at Jayden.“I think this fellow is borrowing another man’s reputation. Dress up in a silly costume—”

Jayden raised an eyebrow.“Silly?”

“And he figures men will let him pass,” the man finished.He leered at Dana.“And you have things worth taking.”

“Dana, is this your first experience with bandits?” Jayden asked.

“I’ve helped bury a few after sheriffs and soldiers caught them.”

A spearman said, “I prefer to be called a highwayman.It’s got more dignity to it.”

“I call you a thug, a fool, a coward, and rather shortly no one will call you anything,” Jayden replied.

The bandits laughed.The spearman said, “He’s sure keeping this show up longer than it’s worth.”

“Dana, would you mind putting out our campfire?” Jayden asked.

Dana rolled her eyes at Jayden’s attempt to protect her.Admittedly he wouldn’t need help.“Try not to kill them.”

As the bandits formed a wide circle around Jayden, a spearman said, “Whoever kills him gets the girl.”

That stopped Dana in her tracks.She looked at Jayden, who was now snarling mad, and told him, “You know what? Go nuts.”

Jayden cast a short spell, drawing shadows from across the clearing and nearby woods.The shadows whirled together to form an ebony clawed hand as big as a man in front of Jayden. He reached out with his right hand and the shadowy hand mimicked his movements.The bandits’ chuckles died away.

“Oh sh—” one began before the giant hand slapped him, sending him flying through the air.The hand swung back the other way and bowled two bandits off their feet.It grabbed another and hurled him into a pine tree.

“Flank him!” a bandit yelled moments before the giant hand formed a fist and hit him like a battering ram.

There was a time when Dana would have watched the spectacle, but she’d had months to get used to Jayden’s magic and bad temper.Instead she pulled off the cotton on her arms and legs while bandits screamed.She’d gotten the last of it off when a broken spear flew by her head, followed by its owner.

“Sir, ah, clearly there’s been a mistake!” a bandit called out.“We should have taken your introduction more seriously, a failure to show respect, I’ll grant you, but the matter’s now clear to see.Surely we can call off this dispute before—Jenkins, duck!”

Wham!A bandit landed at Dana’s feet, clutching his stomach.Dana tapped his head with her wood sword and said, “Do us both a favor and stay down.”

One of the bandits still standing pointed his sword at Dana.“Take the girl hostage!”

A bandit with an ax charged Dana.He threw his ax aside as he neared her and reached out with both hands in an attempt to grab her by the arms.Dana stood her ground as he came, and at the last second ducked under his grasp and drove her knee between his legs.The man cried out in agony as he fell to the ground.Dana swung her wood sword at him again and again, striking him across the face, arms and shoulders.

“I don’t think he’s a threat anymore,” Jayden called out from across the clearing.

“You’re not the one they were going to give away like a prize!”

“Point made,” he replied.Dana hit the bandit three more times, stopping only when her wood sword snapped in half.

The last two bandits fled for their lives.Jayden reached out with his monstrous hand and grabbed one by the heels. He swung his screaming victim at the last bandit, clubbing him repeatedly until both men were beaten senseless.

“I broke your sword,” Dana said.

“And by the look of it both that man’s collarbones,” Jayden said as he allowed the giant hand to dissipate.“Our foes are still breathing, as requested.I believe we have enough rope to tie them up.My map of the area shows a sheriff’s outpost not far from here where we can leave these fools.”

Dana kicked dirt on their campfire to put it out.“The punishment for banditry is—”

“Exceedingly painful, I know.”Jayden collected the bandit’s weapons and added them to his baggage.“I detest turning them over to the same authorities I seek to overthrow, but the alternatives are letting them go to menace others or killing them myself.Faced with three bad choices, I intend to let the crown do its job for a change.”

It took an hour to bind the bandits and in some cases bandaging their wounds, but they were on their way soon enough.They came across a major road and not long after that a low stone building with a heavy door and attached tollbooth.An old man manning the booth paled at the sight of Jayden.“I only have ten copper pieces and never hurt anyone you like.”

“Looks like he’s heard of you,” Dana said.

“And he possesses the common sense our friends lack,” Jayden added.“Good sir, as your pockets are so woefully empty allow me the chance to fill them.These men made the poor career move of attacking me.”

The old man stared at the captured bandits.“No one is that stupid.”

“We thought he was bluffing!” a bandit protested.

Jayden pulled the bandits along and handed the end of the rope to the old man. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s typically a bounty placed on bandits.”

The old man grabbed a sheet of paper tacked to the wall and tore it off. “They’re wanted men, all right, with a reward of fifty silver pieces, but you’d have to present them in person to get the money.Some folks might take offense at that.”

“No doubt true given my history, which is why you’re taking the credit.” Jayden handed them off and smiled. “There you go, fifty silver pieces worth of vermin, a good addition to your salary.”

“They’ll put us to death!” a bandit cried out.

“They’ll put you to work,” the old man corrected him.“Baron Vrask doesn’t kill men he can use in his granite quarry.” More softly, the old man said to Jayden, “Do yourself a favor and keep a low profile.The city is in a terrible state these days, and there are folks who’d come after the price on your head.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Jayden replied.He left with Dana as the old man placed his wounded prisoners in a cell.

The road led through hilly country heavy with farms and ranches, but Dana saw signs of distress.Many houses were in poor repair.A few were clearly abandoned, with missing windows and doors, and some had caved in roofs. People they met on the road were simply dressed and paid no attention to them.That surprised Dana, as Jayden’s garish clothes normally drew looks wherever he went.

“We’re coming up on the city of Edgeland, which has numerous dubious distinctions,” Jayden began.“It’s on the border with the Kingdom of Kaleoth and was once a center of trade before high taxes strangled merchant traffic.The city is on Race Horse River, which should add to its value as a trade hub.Sadly the river flows so fast no boat can travel it without being destroyed.”

“Wonderful,” Dana said.

“There is the city of River Twin on the other side of the river, a pleasant part of Kaleoth that used to benefit from trade.I’m told today it’s nearly as poor as Edgeland and boasts an army contingent to keep the king and queen on their side of the border.”

“The King of Kaleoth knows a war is coming?” she asked.

“King Brent of Kaloeth is a man of great years and keen wit who can see what’s happening as plainly as we can.If the king and queen mean to surprise him, they’ve seriously underestimated the man.”

“How old is he?”

“Old enough he might shatter if he tripped.Nevertheless, he is a formidable foe and has the allegiance of a large ogre clan.”Jayden walked on in silence for a moment before adding, “He is also a man to be pitied, as he outlived his family.He has one grandson still alive, but the youth is untested.I think King Brent is staying alive out of sheer force of will to give the boy time to learn his job.”

They crested a steep hill to find Edgeland before them.It was a large city that could house fifty thousand people. Buildings were made of granite to survive merciless winter storms, and the streets were paved with cobblestone. East of the city was a wide chasm with a single bridge across it, and beyond that was a smaller city.Edgeland had a wall around it, but there were clusters of buildings outside.

“Edgeland got too big for its britches?” Dana asked playfully.

“Most cities do.Wise leaders build walls around their cities, but few leave room for expansion.When cities grow citizens build their homes outside the wall’s protection.”

Worried, she asked, “What happens to them if the city is attacked?”

“They flee inside the walls if they can and are locked outside if they move too slow.”Jayden saw her horrified look.“Grim as that possibility is, those homes are our best choice to find help.Prosperous and respected citizens live inside the city. Poor residents live beyond the city wall and are more likely to help us.”

“Hopefully they can get you new clothes.”

Looking annoyed, he said, “I wasn’t pleased when bandit questioned my taste in fashion.”

Dana waved at the distant city.“You heard the old guy who took those bandits, people here are desperate. Do you want them coming after you the moment we go in?”

Jayden frowned.“Discretion may be warranted.”

A brief tour of the homes and businesses outside Edgeland turned up furriers, cobblers, fishermen, hunters, and a pawnshop where Jayden sold the weapons he’d taken from the bandits.At long last they found a tailor who gave them a skeptical look when they approached his small shop and said, “No credit for strangers.Pay in cash or leave.”

“A charming start to the conversation,” Jayden replied.He took two silver pieces from his pockets and held them up.“I need clothes, simple, warm and functional.”

The tailor took both coins.“I might have something in your size.Let me take your measurements.”

The tailor went through his limited stock until he came up with a gray overcoat, gray shirt and black pants.An hour of stitching shortened the legs and sleeves to fit.Jayden tried on the new clothes and nodded in approval.

“A good fit, and I like the style.”

“For tax reasons I never saw you in my life,” the tailor replied as he slid both coins into hidden pockets in his pants.“Now get out of here before someone sees you.”

“You don’t get much repeat business, do you?” Dana asked.

“As far as the king and queen are concerned I don’t get any business.”

Jayden packed his old clothes into his bags, and he led Dana toward the city gate. “Now then, I believe we’re ready to go on.”

“Hold on,” Dana told him.She put her hands on his shoulders and sat him on a nearby barrel.“Wanted posters show your face.If I change your hair it might help you go unnoticed.”

“Will this take long?”

Dana took a comb from her bags and went to work.Truth be told, she’d wanted to do something about Jayden’s messy hair since the day they’d met.In minutes she had it combed and tied into a ponytail she tucked into the collar of the overcoat.

Jayden stood up and asked, “How do I look?”

“Like the kind of man my mother warned me about.Let’s go.”

With Jayden disguised they headed for the city’s main gate.They found the gates open and heavily guarded by men wearing the blue and gray of royal soldiers.The soldiers collected a minor toll without inspecting carts and bags brought into the city. 

Once they were inside Edgeland, Jayden led her through the streets.“Our first priority is to study the bridge.”

Dana took a deep breath and exhaled.“You know, this is the first city you’ve brought me to that didn’t smell like a dung heap.”

“You can thank Race Horse River.Residents of Edgeland throw their garbage into the river and let it carry their filth away.”

Dana grimaced.“That’s disgusting, and could poison the water and kill off the fish.”

“That’s not a concern.”Jayden brought her to a stone railing running along the river and pointed down.Dana leaned over the railing and gasped.

Race Horse River lived up to its name.The river flowed so fast a galloping horse would have trouble keeping up with it.It was wide, too, at least eighty feet across and who knows how deep.Countless years of fast moving water had cut deep into the bedrock until the water’s surface was fifteen feet below street level.

“Race Horse River moves too fast to host fish,” Jayden explained.“Dana, look at the bridge and tell me what you see.”

Dana looked to her left and saw an engineering marvel.“It’s about a hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. I see eight columns holding it up. I think it’s made of granite.”

“Go on.”

“Guards are stationed on both sides of the bridge.Men on this side wear blue and gray, so they’re soldiers and not militia.Men on the other side wear green and gray.Who are they?”

“Kaleoth frontier soldiers,” Jayden replied.“They’re very good.”

“Two of them have staffs, so I’d pretty sure they’re wizards.”Dana kept staring at the bridge.“Jayden, no one’s crossing the bridge.”

“No, and that’s curious.I’d heard cross border trade was down, but there are no wagons, pack mules or pedestrians crossing.The guards don’t make sense, either.This is part of Baron Vrask’s territory.His men should be guarding the bridge, and they wear white and black.”

Dana looked at him and asked, “If this is Baron Vrask’s territory, why are royal soldiers guarding the city gate?”

“Another good question.This is going to be hard.I’d heard dwarfs built the bridge back when they did quality work, and it doesn’t disappoint.So many soldiers won’t help.I need time to plan my attack.That means we need a place to stay.I’ve never visited the city before, but I’m told there’s a credibly good hotel by the river.”

They walked along the river, passing a few pedestrians and one man on horseback.They found the hotel in minutes, except the building was boarded up and its sign lay on the ground.

Dana walked up to the nearest man and asked, “What happened here?”

The man spit on the street.“A law came out that hotels have to report their guests’ comings and goings to the throne. No one stayed here for months until the owner closed shop and left.”

“That leaves us in a bit of a situation,” Jayden said.

“You’re fine.”The man pointed at a nearby signpost covered in hanging wood placards.“Those are advertisements for people renting rooms. Technically they’re ‘inviting’ guests to stay out of the kindness of their hearts, no charge, so the law doesn’t apply.Of course honest God fearing folks like you might feel inclined to lend a hand with the bills, or ‘accidentally’ leave a few coins.Get the picture?”

“You paint it with such vivid colors,” Jayden said.

The man laughed and walked away.Jayden and Dana went to the signpost and studied the placards.They were small, homemade and covered in spelling errors. Each one offered one or more rooms, with cheerful descriptions of where to find them and the amenities they offered.

“Many to choose from,” Jayden said as he picked over the placards.

Dana handed him a placard.“Let’s take this one.It’s got two rooms, warm beds, a bathroom and they allow pets.Plus it’s a lady’s house.”

Jayden took the placard from her.“How can you tell?”

“The handwriting is nice, and guys don’t mention ‘super keen’ views.She even printed directions to her house.”

 “It’s as good a choice as any,” he said as they walked through Edgeland.Dana was surprised how sparsely populated the city was. In ten minutes they saw only twenty people.Maybe residents were out gathering the harvest or working in mines and quarries.

Dana turned a corner near their destination and ran straight into two spearmen dressed in white and black uniforms.She cried out in surprise and backed up, quickly bowing and saying, “Sorry, sir.”

“Sir, eh?” the spearman asked.“You hear that, Nate?She called me sir.”

“Bill, don’t,” the other spearman said.

Jayden’s muscles tensed and his eyes narrowed.Dana put a hand on his arm before he could take action.

“No, I’m going to say it!” the first spearman shouted.“I’ve served ten years, fought bandits, monsters, animated skeletons, and after all that the king’s soldiers call me boy.I’m good in a fight, I know these streets like the back of my hand, I’ve upheld the law, and I get treated like a punk.”

The second spearman looked away in embarrassment.“Bill.”

“A girl, a stranger I’ve never met before, calls me sir, showing me a little bit of ulmixin respect that I can’t get from our own army!This is why people quit, Nate!This is why good men walk off the job!”

The first spearman stomped off.The second one looked down and said, “I’m sorry about that.He’s a good man, it’s just he’s been pushed too far.”

Once the second spearman ran after his friend, Dana said, “Wow.”

“Not surprising,” Jayden told her.“We’ve seen loyal men treated poorly before.Let’s get off the street before we draw any more attention.”

“What does ulmixin mean?”

Jayden reached the house described on the placard and knocked on the door. “It’s a gnomish word I’d prefer not to translate.Theirs is a language rich in obscenities.”

“Coming!” a muffled voice called from inside the house.The door opened and a young woman in a plain dress came to greet them.She looked like she was in her early twenties, with brown eyes and short brown hair, pretty in a simple sort of way.She smiled, took one look at Jayden, and froze.For a second Dana worried the woman recognized Jayden from his many wanted posters and was terrified of him.Then Dana saw the woman blush and look down.This wasn’t terror.

Dana stepped in and shook the woman’s hand.“Hi!I understand you’re renting rooms.My uncle and I need a place to stay tonight.”

“Perhaps longer,” Jayden added.

“Uh,” the woman managed.Jayden had this effect on women.Even Dana had been at a loss for words the first time she’d met him.Still, most women shook it off faster than this. “Rooms.Ah, yes, I, uh, have two rooms, ah, not technically for rent.”

“A passerby was kind enough to explain the loophole in the law,” Jayden told her.He took a gold coin from his baggage and pressed it into her left hand.“He was vague on how large a donation to make.Is this sufficient?”

“Money?” the woman asked.It looked like she was still dazed.“You’re not offering barter?I mean I’ll take money.I need money! It’s just other borders paid in flour, or eggs, or turnips.I hate turnips.”

Jayden smiled at her, making her blush again.“We’re out of turnips at the moment, so hard currency will have to do.”

“Yes, currency, money, good.That’s enough to cover a month’s stay,” she said as she led them inside.The house included plain furniture and white pillows. In stark contrast to this simplicity were the paintings hanging on the walls.Most were landscapes, including gorgeous pictures of Race Horse River, but there were also portraits of children and their pets.The house had three bedrooms with the doors open to show clean if simple furnishings.

Dana followed the woman to the rented rooms.“So, what’s your name?”

“Ah, my name’s Maya.Um, what’s yours?”

“I’m Dana Illwind.”

Maya looked puzzled.“And your uncle, who’s not following me?”

Jayden hadn’t gotten far past the door.Instead he’d put down his bags and was studying the paintings.“Uncle craves his privacy.I trust that won’t be a problem.”

“No.No, no, no, not for paying customers it’s not,” Maya said.

“I see an easel in the corner and canvas not stretched over a frame yet, so this must be your work,” Jayden said.“You have considerable skill as a painter.Clearly the lady has an eye for beauty in addition to beautiful eyes.”

Maya looked so shocked she could’ve been knocked over with a feather.Dana just rolled her eyes.She wondered if Jayden was doing this on purpose or if he didn’t even notice the effect he was having on the poor woman.

“I, um,” Maya stammered before words flooded out of her.“Dinner is at sunset, I lock the door an hour later, please don’t make too much noise after dark so the neighbors don’t complain because I need them to like me.”

“How many sentences was that?” Jayden asked playfully.

Dana got between Jayden and Maya.“We’ll be the best behaved guests you’ve had.Isn’t that right, uncle?”

Jayden picked up his bags and headed for his room.“You may count on our discretion.Come along, niece, let’s store our belongings and let the young lady go on to more important tasks.”

Dana followed Jayden to two bedrooms in the back of the house and went into the same room as Jayden.She closed the door behind them and said, “Don’t tease the landlady.”

“I complimented her, nothing more.”Jayden set down his bags and looked out a window facing the river. “Nor did I lie.As long as we’re admonishing one another, stop mentioning your name.We’re not in a small town, nor are we among friends like in Pearl Harbor.Our hostess could say things about us to the authorities. Should the king and queen learn your identity, they could go after your family.”

Dana froze.“I didn’t think of that.”

Jayden checked the window.“We can go out at night through the window without Maya noticing if we must.My hope is we can study the bridge at leisure over the next few days and look for weaknesses.I didn’t see any earlier, which worries me.Bringing it down is going to be difficult.”

“You seem really sure there’s going to be an invasion across that bridge.”

Jayden took a map out of his bags and unrolled it on the bed.“This shows the border with Kaleoth.The ground is hilly to mountainous, with only a few crossings easily blocked by Kaleoth frontier soldiers.Edgeland’s bridge over the Race Horse River is the only way to bring in large numbers of troops.”

“What’s in Kaleoth worth taking?”

“It has good pastures and a few mines, although no precious metals.” Jayden pointed at the map and said, “It’s not a large prize, but could be easily taken by a clever enemy.The capital city is only three day’s march from the border.Seizing that could be enough to end the war if they take the king and his sole heir prisoner.”

Dana pointed at a kingdom to the south.“Your sort of friend Reginald Lootmore thinks the king and queen are going to invade his home of Zentrix.You think he’s wrong?”

Jayden frowned.“Worse than that, I think he’s right.Kaleoth is a small prize.The king and queen couldn’t divide so little land among their nobles.So many ambitious men would demand a greater reward for their loyalty than Kaloeth could provide.The only way to satisfy them would be to conquer more land, and Zentrix is the next logical target.If that’s not enough, the Kingdom of Brandish will be the third and last to be invaded.”

“You think they’re going to take over three kingdoms?”Dana didn’t try to hide her surprise.

“All three have small populations, few soldiers, no strong allies and not enough money to support long campaigns.”Jayden rolled up his map and put it away.“It wouldn’t be easy to beat them, but it’s possible.Destroying that bridge may be enough to save Kaleoth from destruction.”

“That would force the king and queen to move to their backup targets,” Dana replied.“You’re saving one kingdom and dooming the other two.”

“I know.”Jayden stared out the window for a moment.“Dana, I’ve been grasping at straws since I vowed to defeat the king and queen.My blows against them have been annoyances at best.Defeating the wizard Green Peril, killing the chimera, stealing some armor and saving those girls from slavery, they were pinpricks.”

He turned to her and said, “This is my biggest strike against them, and even that leaves lives in peril.I can’t save everyone.My only hope is if I hit them hard and often I can weaken them until the armies of Zentrix and Brandish can fight the king and queen to a stalemate.That’s a brutal, bloody outcome that can’t possibly be called a victory, but it’s the only chance we have.”

There was a soft knock at the door.“Dinner’s almost ready.”

“We’ll continue this conversation another time,” Jayden said.

Maya greeted them at a small table, where she’d placed hardboiled eggs, a loaf of bread, fresh apples and a pitcher of milk.“I’m sure you’re used to better than this, but it’s what I could find at market.”

“Don’t apologize,” Dana told her.“It’s good food and more than we were expecting.You’ve got a very nice house.”

“Oh I don’t own it,” Maya said as she served Jayden.“I rent it from Baron Vrask.Lots of people rent from him.”

“How did he come to own so many properties?” Jayden asked.

Maya served Dana while she answered him.“I guess you wouldn’t know if you’re not from here.Not that I’m accusing my neighbors, but, ah, you know how taxes have gone up recently?Some families couldn’t pay.Baron Vrask takes labor or barter when people can’t pay their taxes.Royal tax collectors don’t.”

Worried, Dana asked, “What happened to them?”

“Some went to Kaleoth for a few days to buy wool or visit relatives. Lots of people here have family over the border, you know.But, um, a few days turned into a few weeks and a few months and now a few years, so I think they’re not coming back.”

“Which left empty houses that could fall into disrepair if not occupied, so your baron took ownership and rents them out,” Jayden said.

“It’s a very reasonable rent and I can pay it, sort of.”Maya looked worried when she served herself last.“I sell paintings, not as many with the bridge closed, I babysit, and I give painting lessons to a few boys, but, ah, I have to take in borders to make ends meet.Not that I’m against it!They’ve all been really nice people.”

“Surely your family can offer assistance,” Jayden said.Maya’s expression went from worried to sad.Jayden put down his food.“My apologies, I’ve upset you.”

Dana asked, “What’s the matter?”

“I, um, I’m a foundling.Baron Vrask’s men found me on the street when I was a baby.The baron takes in orphans and foundlings, and he supports them until they’re adults.I had a very good upbringing!He’s a nice man, and I learned a lot about cooking and cleaning, and his artisan taught me how to paint.I’m friends with the girls and boys I grew up with at the baron’s castle.The girls are nice, and the boys are loud and messy.”

“Sounds like my brothers,” Dana said.“Boys are like that the world over.”

Jayden was silent for a moment.“When Dana introduced herself, you gave only a first name.”

“I can’t have a family name if I don’t have a family.”Maya looked miserable.“I’m sorry, I’m not being a very good host.I shouldn’t babble like this.”

“You’re not babbling,” Jayden told her.“You’re being honest, and far friendlier than I expect or deserve. You’ve also earned my respect for Baron Vrask for treating you with such kindness in your youth.”

Maya smiled at him.“Thank you.”

* * * * *

Dana and Jayden left Maya’s house early the next morning.It was a cool, sunny day, and Jayden headed for the bridge. They found it guarded by ten soldiers dressed in blue and gray.No one approached the bridge, and pedestrians went to the opposite side of the street when they neared it.Jayden took a seat at an outdoor café and ordered breakfast.

“Glorious morning, isn’t it?” he said as a waiter served them.Once he was gone, Jayden added, “We have to thank Maya for more than lodging when we’re done here.Her painting of the bridge was most informative.”

“How’s that?”

“The bridge is made of fitted blocks of granite, too hard to break with the spells I’ve learned, but her painting showed mortar between the blocks. I might be able to cut through it and bring down the bridge piece by piece.Still, I need a closer look to make sure her work is accurate before we begin.”

“Speaking of Maya, she’s at the end of the street,” Dana told him.Maya was standing by a wagon loaded with fresh produce. It looked like she was buying food, and quite a bit of it.Two women walked up to her and smiled.That made Dana happy.Maya had seemed so lonely before.It was good to see her cheerful.“She’s talking with friends.”

Jayden kept his eyes on the bridge.“Really, what about?”

Dana was about to scold him for expecting her to hear a conversation so far away, but then she saw one of the women point to Jayden and give Maya a predatory smile.Whatever she said made Maya blush beet red.The two women laughed, and one patted Maya on the shoulder.

“You,” Dana told him.

“A worthy topic of conversation,” Jayden said.He finished his meal and stood up.“I need you to distract the guards so I can take a look at the bridge without being noticed.This could be dangerous based on the way Edgeland’s residents avoid those men.”

“I’ll keep a healthy distance.”

A short walk brought them to the bridge.Jayden stayed back and looked like he was studying the nearby abandoned hotel while Dana came closer.She smiled at the nearest soldier and said, “Hi there.I was wondering if there’s another hotel in town.This one’s closed and I need a place to stay.”

The soldiers leaned against the bridge’s support columns and barely reacted to her question.“We’re not tour guides.”

“You must have been here longer than I have.Have you seen anywhere I—”

“Do I have to repeat myself?” a soldier demanded.He took a step closer to her.“You can sleep in a ditch for all I care.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t care!Nobody does!” The soldier pointed his spear at her and shouted, “You’re not fooling anyone!The bridge is closed to traffic until the king and queen say otherwise. Nothing’s going to change that, not begging, not bribes, not whatever sob story you’ve come up with, so bug off!”

Dana ran.She made sure not to get too close to Jayden so the soldiers didn’t guess they were together.She stopped when she was a block away, and was relieved when she felt a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Sorry about that,” an unfamiliar voice said.Dana yelped again and bolted from the strange woman trying to comfort her. The woman looked startled and held up her hands.“I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

Dana pointed at the bridge guards.“What’s going on?”

“I wish I knew,” the woman answered.“Baron Vrask’s men used to guard the bridge.They’d let through people they were sure would come back, but these men won’t let anyone cross.I was supposed to get a wool shipment from Kaleoth weeks ago, but they won’t let the wagon across or let me go to them.” 

Jayden walked up alongside them and asked, “Are you all right?”

“Just a little surprised,” Dana told him.

“We shouldn’t stay here if the guards are so hostile,” he told her.He took her by the arm and led her away. The woman waved goodbye and went on her way.They’d traveled a few blocks before Jayden said, “Maya’s attention to detail is exceptional.There is half an inch of mortar between the granite blocks, the bridge’s only weakness.”

“When are you going to destroy it?”

“The guards will be at their worst at midnight.Darkness will limit their vision and the late hour will leave them tired. Until then we’ll occupy ourselves studying the town and looking for potential threats or sources of aid.I don’t expect to find either, but we’re not in a rush.”

Edgeland’s markets were sparsely populated and had little to offer.Many shops were closed with signs saying they were out of stock.Others were open but offered only the most basic supplies.Dana and Jayden attracted little attention from shopkeepers and customers.

“Why do you think they closed the bridge?” Dana asked.

“Possibly to keep Kaleoth spies out of the kingdom.It’s a draconian move that costs the kingdom far more than it benefits, but paranoia seems to be the rule of the day.”

“What’s the point of doing it now?You said they won’t invade until springtime.Keeping the bridge closed all winter is going to make people in Kaleoth suspicious, maybe enough for them to double their guards on the bridge.”

Jayden frowned.“It’s certainly odd.I’d suspect such a move closer to the advent of war, but for that to make sense the king and queen would have to invade almost at once.Kaleoth is mountainous and has many natural chokepoints.Enough snowfall would close those for months and produce a serious avalanche risk.An invading army would have to make excellent progress in the face of determined opposition or be bogged down.”

“The king and queen must know that.They’re evil, but they’re not dumb.”

“So what are we missing?” he asked.

Dana and Jayden returned to Maya’s house late that day to find her busy cooking. She blushed when she saw Jayden, but she seemed a bit more at ease with him.“Dinner will be ready in a little while.”

Dana caught the scent of spices and cooking meat.“Is that mutton?”

“I paid my rent for the year with the money you gave me,” Maya said.Dana was shocked one gold coin went so far, and was amazed when Maya added, “There was some left over, so I splurged on groceries.”

“Which you’re sharing with us,” Jayden said.“Your generosity as a hostess knows no bounds, and that smells incredible.If you’ll excuse me, I need to work in my room.”

Once he was gone, Maya asked, “I noticed your uncle doesn’t wear a ring. Does he have a girlfriend at home?”

Dana stopped to admire one of Maya’s portraits.“Him?Ha, ha, no, I haven’t met one.The only woman I think was interested in him was Suzy Lockheart, and that didn’t turn out well.I think she came on too strong.”

“Nothing happened between us!” Jayden shouted through his closed door.

“Really.”Maya tried to sound casual and failed utterly.“What’s, um, what’s he like?”

Dana froze.Jayden’s casual flirting had more of an effect than he’d realized.This could end badly.Dana tried to come up with an answer that was polite and still make it clear there was no chance for a relationship.

She struggled for a response and briefly let an honest answer cross her mind. Jayden is a man on a mission.At some point he was hurt so badly it left scars across his soul that might never heal.I think he wants a family to replace what he lost, and that’s probably what I am to him, a sister or daughter.If you’re his friend there’s nothing he won’t do to help you.If you’re his enemy there’s nothing that can save you.He’s the world’s only sorcerer lord, and powerful as he is, he’s going to get himself killed taking so many risks.I’m terrified that I can’t save him.

After much thought, she said, “He can be difficult.”

“I wouldn’t say that.He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met.”

“Come on, Maya, a pretty lady like you must get lots of attention from men.”

Maya blushed and redirected her attention back to the cooking pot.“Um, yes, well, there were two men.Um, one joined the army to make his fortune.He said he’d come back for me once he became an officer, but that was three years ago.The other one, ah, he likes me, but he likes beer, too.Lots of beer.”

Dana sat down at the dinner table and faced Maya.“That’s not husband material.Uncle has been getting better about how he treats people.He can still be harsh at times.You’re seeing him at his best.”

“He’s on his best behavior for a failed artist?”Maya sounded hopeful.

“You’re not a failure,” Dana said.She got up and pointed at the nearest painting.“This is gorgeous.My mom would pay good money for this, if she had money, good or otherwise.”

Jayden came back from his room carrying a bag.“Excuse my interruption of your no doubt fascinating discussion. Niece, we’ll need to talk about coming activities.”

Dana was happy to exit this awkward conversation and warn Jayden about Maya’s interest in him, but her joy was short lived when the bag he was carrying tore. It wasn’t surprising since he’d loaded it with stone tablets inscribed with spells of the old sorcerer lords.The heavy tablets landed with a thud on the floor, followed by a few dozen gold coins and a jeweled ring.Maya stared in amazement at the bag’s contents.Her jaw dropped and she took a step back.Dana got between Maya and the tablets.

“I can explain,” Dana said as her mind raced.“My uncle is a historian.”

Maya looked puzzled.“Historians are paid in gold?”

“Historians explore ancient places.Sometimes they find things…nice things.”

Maya put a hand over her mouth.“You looted this stuff?”

“Looted is such an ugly word,” Jayden said.“Tragically accurate, though.”

“That’s why you came here!” Maya exclaimed.“I was wondering why you were by the bridge the other day.You found this neat stuff and you’re trying to get out of the kingdom before it gets confiscated.”

“Um,” Dana began.Maya’s guess was illegal enough that she might go to the authorities.

Maya ran over and clapped her hands.“Ooh, let me see what you found!That’s a gorgeous ring!Can I try it on?”

Dana watched as Maya, giddy as a schoolgirl, gushed over the treasure and marveled at the designs on the spell tablets.Dana whispered to Jayden, “She’s an adult, right?”

“Physically, yes,” he whispered back.Louder, he asked, “I hope we can trust you with this secret?”

“Oh!”Jayden’s question dragged Maya’s attention back to him.“I won’t tell a soul.If I had half as much as you I’d keep it a secret, too.Lots of people have had their money confiscated.Tax collectors show up and suddenly you owe twice as much as you should.”

Jayden got another bag from his room and repacked the spilled goods. Maya handed back the ring and smiled at him.“I don’t think you can get to Kaleoth from here.Soldiers aren’t letting anyone come or leave.There are other places you could cross, but they’re guarded, too. You have to walk a long time to find someone to sell this to.”

“An unfortunate situation, but one that lets up enjoy your hospitality awhile longer,” Jayden told her.He smiled and looked like he was going to keep flirting with her when panicking men ran past the nearest window.More men ran by.“That’s rarely a good sign.”

Dana stuck her head out the window and saw men and women racing by.“What’s the matter?”

“There’s an army coming!” a man yelled before he turned a corner.

Dana, Jayden and Maya went outside to find every nearby street in a state of confusion, with men, women and children fleeing like their lives depended on it.Maya pointed to a nearby street corner and said, “That’s the highest point around. We’ll get the best view there.”

The sun was beginning to set as they reached the street corner and looked outside the city.The city wall made it impossible to see anything close by, but in the distance they saw what was undeniably an army approaching Edgeland.Dana guessed there were over ten thousand men in blue and gray, maybe more. It was divided into dozens of companies carrying flags and beating drums.Some companies had their own distinct flags with gruesome images like ram skulls and bloody swords.

“Why is everyone scared?” Dana asked.“Those are our soldiers.”

“Only some of them,” Jayden said.He pointed at one of the unusual flags and scowled.“Those flags are for mercenary companies, foreigners fighting for pay.Such men are known for brutality and robbing anyone they meet unless their officers keep them on a short leash.If they pass through quickly then Edgeland’s people should be safe.Otherwise they’ll suffer attacks.”

That worried Dana.If Jayden’s plan worked then the army would be stalled her for weeks or months. There was no telling how much damage they’d do, and a pretty girl like Maya with no family to protect her would be in great danger.

“Jayden, we can’t leave Maya here.”

“No, we can’t.”Jayden took Maya’s hands and said, “We’re going back to your house to collect our things. Pack whatever essentials you need. We’re getting you out of here before those men arrive.”

Maya stammered, “L-leave?Where? That many men will fill the city.”

“Please, trust me.”Jayden led Maya back to her home.They hurried to pack supplies including food and Maya’s art supplies and then left the building.There was no way to carry all of Maya’s paintings and they were forced to leave them.

Still in shock, Maya asked, “Why is an army coming here?We’re not in danger.”

“Their stay is intended to be temporary,” Jayden explained.“I was wondering why the baron’s men were removed from the city gate and the bridge.The king and queen must have worried that spies would see their army approach, so they closed the bridge to prevent Kaleoth receiving a timely warning.”

“I know people in Kaleoth!” Maya cried out.“They’re good people.They’ve done nothing to deserve this.”

Jayden put a hand on her shoulder.“No, they haven’t, and we’re going to save them.”

“Dana called you Jayden,” Maya said.Dana paused for a moment and winced when she remembered the mistake she’d made.Maya pointed at Jayden and said, “You, you’re the sorcerer lord.”

“I am.”Jayden picked up one of Maya’s bags.“I’m a wanted man with a staggeringly high price on my head because I want to stop our kingdom from invading Kaleoth and possibly other lands.Dana is helping me prevent that invasion.Maya, I need more help, a person to give the people of Kaloeth a warning.”

“I’m just a painter,” she pleaded.

“Then today is worth remembering, because a painter is going to save thousands of lives.”Jayden wasted no more time and led them to the bridge.They avoided panicking people, but doing so still slowed them down.

It was getting dark when Dana, Jayden and Maya reached the bridge to find the soldiers yawning and inattentive.Two of them were even asleep.Jayden snuck closer and hid behind a parked wagon before casting a spell.Shadows wrapped together to form an enormous clawed hand.The hand was nearly invisible in the darkness, and it came as a surprise to the soldiers when he hit them like a battering ram.Men cried out as they were tossed about.Two tried to fight back and stabbed the hand before they were bowled over. Their leader tried to run and got thirty feet before the hand threw one of his men into him.

“Subtle.”Dana’s word dripped with sarcasm.

“Tonight is going to be loud, flashy and time consuming,” he countered as he used the hand to carry defeated men to the closed hotel.“Subtle isn’t an option.Dana, help me tie these men up.Maya, cross the bridge and tell the soldiers there what you’ve seen.”

Maya hesitated.“What about you?”

Jayden cast a spell and formed a black sword edged in white.Maya gasped at the sight of the magic blade and backed away.He told her, “I’m going to slow down the enemy for as long as I can.Go.Lives depend on you.”

Maya ran across the bridge, leaving Dana and Jayden alone.It took more time than Dana liked to secure their prisoners. Once that was done, they walked onto the bridge and stopped where two large granite floor blocks met.Jayden placed the tip of the sword over a thin gap between the panels filled with mortar and drove the sword in.It bit into the mortar and sank in slowly.With a final thrust the blade went through to the bottom of the bridge.Jayden walked forward, pulling the sword with him.His magic sword cut through the mortar so slowly a snail could outrun it.

“Keep an eye on our adversaries,” Jayden said as he inched forward.

The nearby closed hotel had spaces between the bricks wide enough for Dana climb onto the roof to get a better vantage point.“The army is still coming, but they’re not rushing.It could be an hour before they reach the city gate and longer to reach us.Why aren’t they hurrying?And why aren’t their knights on horseback?”

“Why would they when they think friendly soldiers hold both the city gate and the bridge?” Jayden called back.“There’s no need to exhaust their men with a fast march before battle when they believe they can catch Kaleoth’s soldiers unaware.As for the knights, Kaleoth’s steep hills and mountains aren’t the place to send horses.The king and queen will save their cavalry for the flatter countryside of Zentrix and Brandish.”

Dana spotted movement outside the city.“I see people with carts and wagons fleeing into the countryside. Looks like Edgeland’s population is going to drop even more.”

“And on the other side of the bridge?”

Dana turned around and frowned.“Men are running around.Maya’s talking to one of them and pointing at us.Jayden, you said the king and queen wouldn’t attack so late in the year. Avalanches, passes closed by snow, stuff like that.”

“All good reasons not to attack rendered invalid by simple fact it hasn’t snowed yet.Campaigning will be impossible in a few weeks, giving the king and queen a brief window of opportunity to make a surprise attack and seize the capital city of Kaleoth.If they can win every battle for the next week they’ll take Kaleoth before winter comes.”

Dana watched the approaching army.“They certainly have enough men.Wait, I see something big in the front of the army.Jayden get up here.”

Jayden let his magic sword dissipate and climbed onto the closed hotel. Dana pointed at a dark towering figure leading the army.Jayden’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped.“That’s Wall Wolf, an iron golem that guards the king and queen. It’s served the royal family for centuries and has never been beaten.It could have won the civil war singlehandedly except it was too slow to reach most battles in time.”

“Can you stop it?”

“I won’t even be able to scratch it!”Jayden climbed down from the hotel and went back to the bridge.“If the king and queen have sent Wall Wolf then they’re totally committed to this war, even sending their personal bodyguard for the task.”

“The army is getting close to the city gate,” Dana said.She climbed down and joined Jayden.“That many men are going to close off any chance for us to escape.”

“When I’m done we’ll cross over into Kaleoth,” Jayden told her.He reformed his magic sword and drove it between two granite slabs.“We’ll find another way back into the kingdom later.”

They heard noises behind them.Dana turned to see Kaleoth soldiers gathering on their side of the border.Soldiers rolled wagons across the bridge and then overturned them to form makeshift barricades.More soldiers armed with crossbows arrived and took up positions on rooftops.

“Following Maya might be harder than you think,” Dana said.

“The bridge is open!” a man yelled.An older man ran by Dana and Jayden to Kaleoth, then two more.Soon crowds of frightened people fled the coming army.They avoided Jayden, but a man slowed down long enough to say, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but do it faster.”

Dana heard a woman cry out, “Crimson Reapers are coming!Hide your daughters!”

“Mercenaries?” Dana asked Jayden.

“Among the worst, and as brutal to civilians as they are to their enemies.”

Dana retook her place on top of the abandoned hotel.“The army reached the city gates and are coming through.We’ve got more people headed our way.”

The stream of frightened humanity turned into a river. Dana saw men and women flee into Kaleoth and clamber over the barricades.Kaleoth soldiers helped them across.She also saw Kaleoth soldiers point at Jayden as he hacked into the bridge. Some men followed suit with pickaxes and hammers.

“Ten minutes until they get here, maybe less,” Dana called out.“How far did you get?”

“Not enough by half,” Jayden called out.He’d cut far enough to reach where two large granite slabs came together. He made a ninety-degree turn and began cutting out the mortar along another side.

Dana watched the fleeing crowds shrink to a mere trickle.She’d been wrong on how long it would take the army to reach the bridge.Their pace slowed to a crawl once they were among the buildings, and she saw mercenaries breaking into homes and shops.It took a lot of effort to get them moving again, and more than one officer resorted to using a whip on his own men.

Terrifying as they were, Wall Wolf was far more frightening.Dana could make out more details as the iron golem came closer.It stood twelve feet tall and looked like an enormous knight, even if the arms and legs were far too thick and the shoulders too broad.The golem carried no weapon, not that such an enormous monster would need one.It took slow steps but never stopped marching forward.The golem kicked over a wagon in its way and stepped on it, crushing it to kindling.

“They’re two blocks away and closing,” Dana told Jayden.She climbed down and joined him.Jayden had cut a gash fifteen feet long in the bridge and still hadn’t done significant damage.

Jayden kept working.“Get ready to run for your life.”

The vanguard of the army came onto the street ahead of them while Wall Wolf was a block away but still visible above the rooftops.Soldiers and mercenaries saw Jayden and stopped a hundred feet away.Every tenth man carried a lantern, lighting up streets.Officers soon came, and following them was a man in plate armor and a purple cape.

“As I live and breath, the sorcerer lord,” the armored man said.He watched Jayden inching along and laughed.“Spitting on the bridge would be just as effective.”

Jayden drew his black sword out and raised it in a challenge.“Judging by your armor you’re from the Rendmal family, likely their eldest son Kyver.Your father served with distinction during the civil war and was known for justice and mercy, traits you clearly don’t share if you’re invading a friendly state.”

Kyver shot back, “They’ve no right to such a title.”

“Kaleoth could have sent raiding parties to loot our farms and villages during our civil war.Instead they sent food to starving families.Your father held them in high regard.”

“My father is not in command of this army,” Kyver said as Wall Wolf smashed through a house on its way to the bridge.“I am.Kaleoth is an enemy state because the king declared they are enemies, and the king’s word is law.If he said the sky is yellow and not blue then his word makes it so.Loyal men understand such things.”

“If that’s an example of your keen wit, I see why you use it so rarely,” Jayden quipped.

More soldiers and mercenaries came but stayed well back.Kyver also made no move toward Dana and Jayden.Instead Kyver held up an iron baton with a black pearl on the end.“I’ve heard tales of the damage you’ve done.I could kill you with a word, sending a thousand men after you until one of them strikes you dead, but a more efficient means is at hand.Wall Wolf, hear me and obey.Kill the sorcerer lord.”

Soldiers scattered as Wall Wolf stomped toward Jayden.Cobblestones shattered under the iron golem’s feet. Jayden let his magic sword dissipate and instead chanted words Dana recognized even if she didn’t understand them. Jayden held out his hands and a tiny spark formed between them.He kept chanting as Wall Wolf drew closer, a hundred feet and then fifty.When the spell was finished the spark flew out and stopped inches from Wall Wolf’s head.

Boom!The spark exploded into a blazing fireball that washed over the golem.Soldiers cried out in panic and fell back while Kyver stood his ground.Seconds later the flames died away and Wall Wolf took another step toward Jayden. Jayden’s most powerful spell hadn’t even scratched the golem.Kyver laughed.His men rallied to his side and laughed with him.Jayden backed away as Wall Wolf came ever closer.

Dana asked, “I’d say he weighs twenty tons, wouldn’t you?”

Jayden reformed his black sword.“At least.”

“How much weight can this bridge take?”

Jayden stopped retreating.“That’s a fascinating question.An hour ago I would have said there’s a fifty-fifty chance Wall Wolf would be too heavy to cross it.”

Dana looked at the deep gash in the bridge.“If we walk back ten steps and two more to the right, and Wall Wolf comes at us in a straight line, that would put him right here.”

Jayden and Dana backed away while soldiers and mercenaries cheered on Wall Wolf. The iron golem marched relentlessly forward, slow but never stopping as it closed the distance between them.Jayden smiled wickedly when Wall Wolf reached the damaged section of the bridge.

Crack!A slab of granite ten feet long broke free as the last bits of mortar shattered.The slab tilted up and Wall Wolf slid backwards until both the golem and bridge section fell into the raging waters below. Water shot up high into the air and rained down onto the bridge and riverbank.Soldiers cried out in rage and Kyver’s look of smug superiority vanished, replaced by shock.

“That was entertaining,” Jayden told Kyver.“What else did you bring me to play with?”

“Fetch long timbers!” Kyver yelled.“Tear down the houses to get them if you must!I want that gap covered!Archers forward!”

Dana gripped Jayden’s arm.“That’s our cue to leave.”

“It is at that,” Jayden agreed.He and Dana ran down the bridge, with Jayden grinning like the cat that caught the canary.“This will slow them down long enough for me to bring down the bridge from the other side. Kaleoth will be safe now and forev—”

Wall Wolf came up from the river, climbing up a support column to stand before Dana and Jayden.Soldiers and mercenaries cheered when the iron golem stepped in front of them and clenched its huge fists.It blocked Dana and Jayden’s escape, and the bridge was destroyed behind them, trapping the pair.

“The show’s not over, boys!” Kyver shouted to his men.“Watch the king and queen’s enemies fall!”

“Go left,” Jayden told Dana as he went right.The bridge was wide enough that Wall Wolf couldn’t fully block it, nor could the iron golem go after both of them.Wall Wolf pursued Jayden, as ordered, ignoring Dana entirely.“Dana, you’re clear, run!”

“I’m not leaving you!”

Wall Wolf stomped after Jayden.Jayden swung his sword at its heels, only for the magic blade to bounce off. His next swing was equally useless. Wall Wolf swung its right fist and missed by a wide margin.Jayden slashed his sword across the fist without effect.

“Staying won’t help!” he shouted.“Run!”

Crossbow bolts flew over Jayden’s head and hit Wall Wolf.Dana spun around and saw Kaleoth soldiers peppering the iron golem with accurate crossbow fire.Their aim was impressive, awe inspiring, and totally useless.Bolt after bolt shattered against the iron golem’s tough skin without leaving a scratch.

Wall Wolf tried to stomp on Jayden.It missed, but when Jayden ran out of the way the iron golem swung its left hand and landed a glancing blow.It was enough to send Jayden flying twenty feet farther down the bridge.Soldiers cheered and Dana screamed.Jayden struggled to his knees before falling down.

Dana tore through her bags until she found her magic short sword.She hadn’t had the opportunity to practice with it in Edgeland because it would have drawn attention.Dana didn’t know how much good it would be without training, but trapped between a raging river and an iron golem meant there were no other choices.She raised the blade high and charged.She felt it warm up as she ran, then it began to glow.She was five steps from the iron golem when the sword lit up like a bonfire. Dana screamed and slashed at Wall Wolf’s right leg.

The sword hit, no surprise when her target was large, slow and not paying attention to her.Magic blade met magic monster and produced a shower of sparks so strong Dana had to clench her eyes shut.When the light died down she stepped back and opened her eyes.She’d wounded the golem, leaving a cut eighteen inches long and a quarter inch deep.

“That’s it?” she yelled.

“Is that all you’ve got?” a soldier jeered.

Kyver looked more impressed.“Wall Wolf has never been hurt before.Only a powerful weapon could make such a scratch.Wall Wolf, hear me and obey.Kill the girl and bring me the sword.”

Wall Wolf turned to face her.Dana backed away.“Oh boy.”

More crossbow fire hit Wall Wolf as the iron golem closed in on Dana.A Kaleoth wizard shot magic flame and hit the golem in the back.Wall Wolf ignored them and kept after Dana.

Dana ran around the golem.She swung at it again, but this time it was expecting the blow and pulled away at the last second.The golem swung its fists at her and missed, but more attacks quickly followed.It was all she could do to avoid the monstrosity.

Wall Wolf raised its right foot and tried to crush her underfoot.For a moment it looked like it might do just that before a clawed black hand as big as a man wrapped around Wall Wolf’s head. The magic hand pushed forward and tipped the iron golem over.Dana looked over and saw Jayden on his knees, his right hand held forward.

The fall did Wall Wolf no harm.It grabbed the huge hand with both its hands and pulled hard.Jayden screamed in pain as his magic hand was ripped apart and evaporated.Soldiers and mercenaries laughed all the louder as Wall Wolf stood up.

Dana raised her sword as Wall Wolf advanced on her.She knew it was pointless even as she did it.Her sword had barely hurt the iron golem when she’d hit it.If she struck a joint like the knees or ankles maybe that would do actual damage, but Wall Wolf had brought down Jayden with one hit.It would need no more to finish her.

“You stupid sword, you were supposed to be special!” she screamed at it. “You barely did anything to that monster!We paid good money for you!”

Wall Wolf came closer and raised both fists over its head.Dana backed away, briefly lowering her sword.The tip of the blade grazed the bridge, cutting a groove an inch deep with the barest touch.Shocked, Dana fell back further and let her sword slide against the bridge.The sword sliced through granite blocks as if they were made of sand.

Dana gasped as she gathered her thoughts.Jayden’s sword had been able to damage the bridge but not Wall Wolf. Her sword could damage the iron golem, if only just, so it should have no trouble finishing the work Jayden started and do the job faster.Wall Wolf had survived one trip into Race Horse River.Dana intended to give it another bath.

Dana ran around Wall Wolf, staying just outside its reach.She found where two granite slabs connected in the bridge and slid her sword into the mortar between them.The blade went in easily, and she ran between the slabs, hacking through mortar like it was nothing.Wall Wolf followed her to the cheers of soldiers.Dana heard men betting on how long she’d live.Wall Wolf was beginning to catch up with her when she followed another line of mortar in the bridge, hacking through it effortlessly.Wall Wolf pursued her as ordered, not understanding the danger it was in.

Crack!Another section of the bridge gave way.Dana jumped onto the nearest stable part of the bridge as the slab underneath her tipped and slid backwards.Wall Wolf was on the opposite end of the sinking section.It was reaching for her when the slab fell into the river and took the iron golem with it.Soldiers shouted in outrage, none louder than Kyver.They cheered again when Wall Wolf climbed up the nearest support column. Dana was waiting for it.

It was hard to hurt Wall Wolf, in part because of the iron golem’s long reach. That advantage disappeared when it was climbing.Both hands held tight to the support column and had to stay there until the golem got its feet back on the bridge.That left a few precious seconds where the golem couldn’t avoid her or attack.

Dana saw Wall Wolf pulling itself up and aimed for its fingers.Sparks flew when her sword hit the thinner armor at the iron golem’s knuckles.Wall Wolf pulled itself higher up until Dana saw it eye to eye.She swung again, hacking off four fingers.Wall Wolf fell into the river again, but when it tried to climb up it couldn’t do it with only one functioning hand.

The screams of unruly mob of soldiers and mercenaries were deafening as they saw their champion fail, none louder or more horrified than Kyver.The enemy general howled like a wounded animal and beat his breasts.He regained control of himself long enough to bellow, “Archers, kill her!”

Any elation Dana had felt vanished as dozens of archers took aim at her. Magnificent as her sword was, it couldn’t stop arrows.

They didn’t get the chance to fire.Kaleoth soldiers had been helpless against Wall Wolf, but they had no problems fighting men.Crossbowmen rained down fire on the soldiers and mercenaries.Wizards in Kaleoth’s green and gray shot streams of flames and ice javelins.For a moment the soldiers held their own as archers returned fire.That ended when a single glowing ember drifted toward their side of the river.Kyver saw it coming and ran screaming from the fight with his men following suit. The spark floated lazily to the opposite side of the river before it detonated in a fireball that swallowed up nearby buildings.

Dana ran to Jayden.He was sitting up, but casting that last spell had taxed him beyond his limits. Dana reached him as he began to sway back and forth.She grabbed his shoulders and steadied him.Jayden looked at her only briefly, saying only two words before he passed out.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said softly.Dana put her sword away and checked Jayden’s wounds.He had several broken ribs and his right arm looked awful.Moving him could do serious harm, but she couldn’t leave him here.Dana grabbed him by the shoulders and slowly pulled him toward Kaleoth.

She’d only gotten a few feet when another set of hands took Jayden.It was Maya.She had one of Jayden’s bags over her shoulder and helped carry Jayden. Between the two of them they pulled Jayden to safety while crossbow bolts and magic flames soared overhead.

“He needs a healer,” Dana said.

“There aren’t many in Kaleoth who can treat wounds this bad,” Maya told her. They reached the other side of the bridge and soldiers helped them through the barricades.“I know a witch who might be able to help, but she charges a lot.”

“I’ll pay it,” Dana promised, “no matter the cost.”


© Copyright 2019 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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