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Comes a Traveler

Posted on Thu Dec 15th, 2016 @ 2:20am by Mikhael Stormdanovich & Laryn Stormdanovich & Hawke Windwalker & Richard Coyle & Brychan Emrys & Aereth Archive

Chapter: The Thinning Veil
Location: Tegwyn Tor, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: October 3550

The day was fair with a crispness to the early morning air that warned of the coming of colder weather in the near future. Brychan Emrys, recently promoted to First Marshal of Cymeria although still commander of the Stormholm Garrison, reined in his big bay and held a hand up, fist closed, to signal a halt to the patrol and caravan he led. The patrol was small, just a few outriders for safety and the caravan consisted of two empty wagons which had been requested by a farm owner for the transport of contracted produce goods to Stormholm Caer. The road wound along the base of a high forested, rocky conical hill called Tegwyn Tor. In the old language of the Cymry, Tegwyn was a name that meant blessed and fair. It was also the surname of the family that had lived in the vale for longer than most could remember.

Opposite the rise and on the far side of the road was a wide rushing creek or small river. From previous trips to the farm, Brychan knew that it originated somewhere in the mountains beyond the small valley. He also knew that the road they were on would crisscross the water several times. The road’s route meandered through the valley, intersecting the river at the points where it was easily forded although here and there were sturdy arched stone bridges. The small vale itself sloped gently from the hill to the river making for easily irrigated farmland and it had been blessed with a rich and fertile soil, a legacy of the area’s distant volcanic past. Beyond the quiet vale with its sloping hill crested by a rambling rocky tor lay the towering peaks of the Harkanian Highlands, beautiful, majestic and forbidding.

Despite the beauty of the area and the fairness of the day, Brychan was uneasy. It was quiet, too quiet. Usually, the wind carried the sound of Yorath and his workers out of the vale or the laughter of his younger children at play, the lowing of the cattle, the harsh braying of a mule. Today, there was silence. Even the birds that usually sang in the trees or fluttered about were not to be seen or heard.

Turning in his saddle, Brychan signaled one of the patrol, “Ride ahead, signal if all is not well.” The man nodded curtly and broke line, kicking his mount into a brisk trot. Like most patrol scouts, he wore a small wooden whistle that could be used to alert the rest of the party over a considerable distance. Skilled scouts could actually use various whistles to mimic natural sounds. As the man disappeared from sight, the First Marshal signaled the party to resume its progress with a quiet warning, “Keep alert. The farm may just be late to its morning meal, but let's not take unnecessary chances.”

It was unlikely that y Carthu would attack a Celtic farm and very rare for a band of raiders to risk setting on a farm this far into the heartland of the highlands where the might of the High Lord held full sway. Still, prior to the Ceremony of Oaths at the Gathering in D’hassa, Brychan would have said that Templars would never aid Cymeria nor that such things as the Black Templars even existed.

They had ridden perhaps another ten minutes when the scout’s whistle pierced the early morning air. The signal was an alert only, a warning to proceed with caution not one of imminent danger. Moments later, the scout arrived and reined in next to Brychan, “One dead, Yorath Tegwyn and his eldest son are badly injured.” The scout paused and frowned, “Sir, it appears to have been a wyvern attack but nasty as those things are, I don’t recall ever hearing of them attacking several people in an open field.”

It was Brychan’s turn to frown as he indicated the small column increase its speed. Wyvern were indeed nasty animals with a mean temperament. They had no sense of odds and if it moved, they believed it could be eaten. Yet, he agreed with the scout. Wyvern were cunning and wily hunters rarely given to suicide attacks unless they were truly starving or had gone into a hunting and feeding frenzy. He scanned the countryside, sharp eyes noting the hill with its distinctive rambling tor on the top, a perfect breeding and nesting site for the larger wyvern known as Hogofs which literally meant cave or grotto. But, he thought, Hogofs tended to not create large groups or hunting packs as the smaller wyvern did and as cold as the night had been, why were they out hunting so early? Brychan shook his head. He was not a scholar, let alone one that specialized in the natural world.

They soon reached the field where Yorath lay moaning, his tunic shredded by a wyvern’s razor sharp claws. Nearby, his eldest son, Tren, lay still and unmoving. Further away lay another body. Even at a distance, it was easy to see there was far more gore spread on and about his body. It was evident that he was dead. Brychan’s concern returned. There was no sign of Yorath’s lady wife or their two youngest children. As the patrol’s medic dropped to the ground next to Tren who was deemed in the most need of tending as he was unmoving, Brychan once again signaled the scout. “Ride to the farmhouse, check on Tesni and the little ones. They may not have been in the fields.” As the scout wheeled his horse and galloped toward the farmhouse that could be seen in the distance, Emrys glanced at the men and women still grouped about the wagons.

Spotting the uniform he wanted, he called out, “Rider!”

Laryn had been assigned to accompany Marshall Emrys and his caravan through their patrol in case a Courier was needed and she’d been the only House Courier available at the time. It had bothered her none as she had not been given an assignment at the time and she’d ridden with Brychan on a couple of previous occasions. She had always thought him to be a proper and competent Commander, so when she heard his voice call out for the Rider, a quite common call name for a Courier, she immediately turned her mount out of the caravan and trotted over quickly to him.

Pulling up along his side, Laryn nodded respectfully to him. “Yes Syr?”

“Well met, Courier Stormdanovich,” Brychan said. He knew the girl as he did most of the ruling House and official members of the household. And, Stormdanovich or not, she had to be at the top of her game to be assigned to the High Lord’s detail. He’d asked for a Rider of the House that day in case they needed to send word back to the garrison which lay inside the keep. It would do no good to have a courier that was not allowed access to Stormholm and security had been doubled since the attempt on young Vasily’s life in September.

Before Emrys could say more, the Guardsman he had dispatched to check the farmhouse rode up. He nodded respectfully to the Courier, “Marshal, it appears the two smaller children are missing. The good lady says they were out with their father and brother. I persuaded her to let us handle the search.”

It was Brychan’s turn to nod as he considered his options and how best to serve the family who would be desperate for the children’s safety but, at the same time, could not afford to lose the produce they had put aside for the keep. So much for an easy and pleasant day in the country!

“Load Farmer Tegwyn and his son into one of the wagons and take them to the farmhouse. Go ahead and start loading after you see them taken inside and made as comfortable as possible. The Lady of the Hearth can show you where the goods are. Reassure her that we will start the search for the children and send for more manpower to help. Prepare to bunk down here for the night just in case.”

As everyone moved to obey Brychan’s orders, he refocused on the patiently waiting courier and the Guardsmen that had just ridden back from the house. Ordinarily, couriers rode with a four horse patrol that often also led a couple of riderless spare horses. Now, he felt rather stupid for having dispensed with the extra riders with the feeling that the day was pleasant and the task routine. “Take the following message back to the Seneschal or the High Lord at the hold.” Brychan told Laryn. Couriers were trained and skilled in delivering messages verbatim, but it was still incumbent upon the person composing the message to make it as concise as possible. “The Tegwyn Farm has suffered a possible wyvern attack. Type of wyvern unknown. Children, aged eight and five, missing. Need additional riders for search party and a healer.” Glancing at the Guardsmen, “Varick, ride with the Courier.”

Laryn was indeed patient, waiting for the Marshall to give his orders to the others before turning back to her. While she waited, she couldn’t help but feel sorrowful for those involved in the attack. Wyverns were a nasty, vile creature and all she could think about was that of her young nephew Vasily. He was the same age as the younger missing boy, and she knew she’d turn mountains upside down herself if he were missing. She could only imagine the grief that their mother must be feeling.

She replied to Brychan’s orders to her with a nod. “I will return as soon as possible.” She stated, turning her mount back in the direction they’d come. With another nod to Varick, Laryn clicked her tongue and nudged the horse with her heel, taking off into a fast gallop, the guard riding closely behind.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It was still quite early when Mikhael led his big dapple gray stallion into an outdoor saddling enclosure. Ceffyl was the last in a long line of horses of that name. Never mind that Ceffyl actually meant horse in the Cymry old language. Ceffyl was a powerful war horse but of a far different temperament to Mikhael’s favored Wraith. At least, he did not show a predilection for red meat unlike Wraith. Instead, Ceffyl whuffled softly and nosed at Mikhael’s tunic hoping for an early offering of dried apple slices.

“No,” Mikhael informed the horse as he let the tack slide from his arm down to the ground and picked up a bucket with grooming tools in it. Ceffyl then rolled his eyes at the bucket, making Mikhael shake his head and laugh. “It does not bite.” With that settled, he set to work brushing the stallion’s silky coat and untangling the long mane and tail. Mikhael was looking forward to a quiet ride along the river and maybe an hour or two’s fishing from the bank. He would not mind smoked trout for dinner.

Leaning down, he picked up Ceffyl’s near foreleg so he could pick the hoof clean and grunted as the big horse leaned on him letting Mikhael take his weight in lieu of having all four feet on solid ground. Mikhael elbowed the stallion with a sharp admonishment to stand up! The horse also grunted, but shifted his weight again while giving his owner a sour look.

Hawke stood nearby, rubbing a hand along Snake’s nose. “I know their personalities are part of what make them good warhorses, but one of these days I worry they might kill us.”

Mikhael straightened and stretched the kink out of his back that was the result of Ceffyl’s aborted attempt to use him as a fourth leg. He slapped the big horse’s neck affectionately and grinned at Hawke, “This one is not so bad but sadly his good nature makes him less effective in battle. Still, he is well trained and a good ride even if I would not choose him as my first battle stallion.” The High Lord sighed and moved around to quickly finish up cleaning the stallion’s hooves before reaching for the saddle pad. “I am looking forward to getting out of the keep for a few hours.”

“I know you love doing this but I keep telling you it’s not safe or wise. You may think you’re just one man but you are this land. If something happens to you it affects us all.” Hawke straightened from tightening the cinch on Snake’s saddle, one gloved hand moving without conscious reflex to block the head as it angled around like his namesake. “Shouldn’t I call a few more for an escort?”

Settling the saddle on Ceffyl’s back, Mikhael thought about Hawke’s words. “If we can make it the minimum you feel comfortable with and if they will hold back a bit so I can pretend to enjoy the ride.” He slanted Hawke a glance and slight smile to take any sting out of his words. He waved a hand toward the far distant wall of the keep. “I plan to only ride the trail along the river, closest to the keep. Maybe stop at the Three Pools to fish for a bit. Not that it matters because of getting to and from the caer, but we will be in sight of the keep the entire time.”

Hawke nodded as he shrugged Ravencall over his shoulder, then reached and climbed up onto the saddle. “Fine...as you wish...but if you get killed I will take great pride in telling you ‘I told you so…’.” Hawke tugged rein and sidled his mount around, sitting his horse as he waited for Mikhael to finish getting ready.

Mikhael laughed as he slipped Taranau into the back scabbard he wore and slid his duty sword into the scabbard attached to his saddle before vaulting lithely into the saddle, “You and everyone else…”

Wheeling the horse around, Mikhael started to set his heels to the stallion’s flanks only to pull him up short as the sound of clattering hooves moving at a gallop reached him…

The ride back from the farm to the Keep felt like it took an age longer than it actually did, but that was how things seemed to go when danger was involved. Fortunately, as they rode hard and swift, Laryn and her escort, Varick, reached the Keep with no further problems. Laryn only slowed her mount to inquire the whereabouts of either the High Lord or his Seneschal. Hearing that Mikhael was closer, Laryn turned in that direction, soon riding up quickly behind them, Varick still on her heels.

“My Lord..” She spoke, greeting both Mikhael and Hawke with a respectful nod of her head. “I have an urgent message from Marshall Brychan. The Tegwyn Farm has suffered a possible wyvern attack. Type of wyverns are unknown. Two children, aged eight and five, are missing. He’s requesting additional riders for search party and a healer.”

Mikhael’s big gray sidled restlessly as he held the horse in check. He was aware that Brychan was riding with an escort to ferry back produce purchased from the farm but the last thing he expected was a report of trouble. “Get a fresh horse,” he ordered Laryn. They might not need a courier, but if there was a lengthy search involved, they might need to move messages rapidly and taking ravens would be problematical. Besides, it was likely the farm had a rookery and a few birds homed to Stormholm.

Without another word, Laryn simply nodded to Mikhael and Hawke and turned her horse to head back into the stables where she could trade out her mount for one that had been at rest. She understood by the High Lord’s words that she was accompanying them back to the farm and even if she hadn’t been told to do so, she would have requested to take a rested horse, just in case.

“Hawke, we will want to ride fast. Order us a small escort with a larger patrol to follow in our wake with a physician.”

Hawke glanced up at the people who had wandered over on Laryn’s arrival. Obviously her demeanor indicated something was going on. His eyes fell on a guardsman who had been feeding his mount nearby. “Turn out the guard troop! Have them meet at the main gate as soon as they are mounted!” The man turned and took off at a run. The guard troop would bring two dozen riders immediately ready for trouble within minutes. Hawke looked around then his eyes fell on Laryn’s escort. “You! Ride on into the keep and find the Day Captain...have him assemble some wagons, some Healers, and another two troops for escort. Once assembled guide them back to the farm! Make haste!” The man had already been moving toward a fresh mount and he swung into the saddle, spurring it out to do as he had been ordered.

Mikhael dropped from Ceffyl’s back as men scurried to obey the Ryndar’s orders. Handing the reins off to one of the men, he called out, “Hold for a moment, Hawke. We will need supplies should we have to eradicate an entrenchment of wyvern.” Turning, he disappeared into a nearby doorway, emerging a few moments later with long flat wooden boxes which he slipped into the saddlebags hanging over Ceffyl’s flanks. Springing back into the saddle, he waited only long enough for Laryn to join them on a fresh horse before spinning Ceffyl on his haunches and setting the horse off toward the entrance to the tunnels that led from the keep.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The hill rose gradually from the gently sloping valley, gradually becoming steeper and more sheer. On the far side of the valley’s meandering river lay a thick forest. Thick woods also covered the sides of the rise gradually thinning to clumps and copses before giving way to the stark rocky outcropping at its crest. The tor stretched for miles in either direction and was riddled with rock falls and small caves. Wind ruffled the grass on the upper slopes and flowed through the trees to the valley below. Other than the sounds it made, signs of life were sparse.

Richard remembered an old adage, if you’re lost, walk down hill. Making his way down he soon found himself in a lush green valley, following a stream hoping to find something that might pass for civilization along it’s banks. He had seen the occasional foot print and other signs of activity, but so far, no people. Pressing on he paused at the edge of a clearing and when he did something that looked like a large bird took flight from the middle. It had been perched on the chest of a corpse. Approaching the body Coyle was incredulous. Had he stumbled into a ren fair? The man looked like he was straight out of one with tunic, cloak, tall leather boots, the whole nine yards. “I guess you can’t tell me where I am now can you?” Coyle addressed the corpse. He was eyeing the man’s boots. It was against the laws and rules of land warfare to loot the dead, but his feet were already bleeding despite his best efforts to wrap them.

As he pondered he heard a loud screech and turned just in time for the bird to be clawing at his face. Grabbing it he pulled it off and then stared at in disbelief as it clawed frantically at him. It wasn’t a bird, but a tiny dragon, probably the size of a large crow. He had gotten lucky and managed to grab it by its thin neck. It hissed and bit down on his hand. Coyle yelped in pain but did not let go. Instead he swung it downward, smashing it against a rock. Swinging it up and down he repeated the process until it went limp. Panting heavily and bleeding from his face, Coyle looked at the corpse. “What, in the name of hell, is that thing.” Drawing his knife he decapitated the small creature, as if to make sure it was dead.

Slumping into a sitting position beside the corpse he cut up his t-shirt for strips to bandage his bleeding face and hand. “I don’t know where I am or how I got here, but this was not what I signed up for. Recruiter never said anything about tiny fucking dragons… though when I say it that way it does sound pretty awesome… Join the Rangers, you’ll fight dragons...” Now without so much as a shirt he shivered in the cold, and was apparently just a bit punchy from blood loss. “Sorry buddy, but I need these more than you do.” He said apologetically to the corpse as he pulled off the man’s cloak, tunic and boots. “If this is just a bad dream, now would be a lovely time to wake up…” he muttered and stood, preparing to continue his search for a local that would prove more talkative.

Two small children hovered at the edge of one of the many clearings within the forest that covered the sides of the hill, gradually thinning and leaving the crest bare except for the tor itself. Both faces were tear streaked and the older child, a girl of some eight years of age, gripped the smaller boy’s hand tightly. They had been told to never go to the tor alone as it was not safe. Tors attracted predators such as the land’s great sabertooth cats, wyverns and even Kels, massive carnivorous flightless birds. A kel, their father had told them many times, could swallow either of ye in one bite! So they never ventured to the tor unless it was to hunt for plover’s eggs with their mother or father. But now, with the horrors behind them, the tor looked like a safe haven.

As instructed, they had kept running when the wyvern descended on the workers in the field. Carsen, one of the farm’s hands had followed, urging the children into the shelter of the towering trees. They had heard his screams when several of the big flying creatures had taken him down. Terrified, Kesslyn had dragged her brother into the hollow of a fallen tree and they had crouched there, shaking in fear and trying to block out the noises in the copse. When the sounds died down, Kesslyn crept out and, along with Corvin, her brother, made her way back only to see a stranger taking the clothes from Carsen’s ravaged body.

The children’s resemblance to one another was unmistakable. Both were sturdy and sported short cropped shaggy haircuts and a smattering freckles over small upturned noses. The girl, taller than the five year old boy, had hair the color of midnight and very blue eyes. Corvin’s eyes were also blue although a shade darker than his sister’s and his hair seemed layered in shades of brown much like the rich soil of the vale. Both faces were tear streaked although Kesslyn’s lips were compressed in a tight determined line while Corvin’s trembled as the small boy was on the verge of sobbing. Carsen had been a particular favorite as he had always taken time to make little toys for the children and spend time with them. He had been kind, often saying he could not wait for his own babes to grow to an age so they could play with the Tegwyn children.

Richard had been fumbling awkwardly with the clasp on the cloak, not exactly sure how to connect the damn thing so that it would stay on and not strangle him, when the screeching of those miniature dragons reached his ears. Standing up he scanned the sky, looking for them. “Of course, there has to be more than one. One mythical creature that doesn’t exist just wouldn’t be friggin enough.” Giving up on the cloak for the moment he rolled it up and tucked it under an arm. He had taken a few steps when the sound of a small voice reached his ears.

The loud screeches of the wyvern carried eerily through the dead silence of the forest and Kesslyn started. Quickly, she made a decision. The stranger was a safer option than tangling with the wyvern. Besides, if they did not warn him, he would be attacked too. “Syr,” Kesslyn said firmly, stepping from the shelter of the trees into the clearing and pulling Corvin with her, “syr...they are coming...we must hide.”

Looking over at the two children that materialised out of the woods, Richard shook his head as if clearing cobwebs. He immediately regretted it as the wounds on his face lit up with pain. Narrowing his eyes he looked them over. They weren't Afghanis by the look of them and it took him a moment for his brain to catch up. “You speak English? Where the hell am I?” Though the second question was directed more to himself than the little girl. “Where are your parents?” He asked and then instantly regretted it as his eyes flickered back to the corpse, fearing that he was one of them. “Is your home near here?” As he spoke though the screeches were getting louder. “Right where exactly do we hide from baby dragons?”

Kesslyn chose to home in on the man’s last question. She looked around frantically but did not see anywhere that would put them out of the reach of the bigger wyverns. She had heard enough about them to know that, fortunately, when the Hogofs arrived in an area, smaller Rocs tended to flee. Kess pointed at the broken body of the dead one, “Those will have fled. The Hogofs are bigger,” she mimed the size by spreading her hands wide. “We need to find a place where they cannot reach us.” Turning slightly she pointed, “Our home lies that way but it is all open. You cannot outrun wyverns.” Corvin simply shrugged closer to his sister and nodded his agreement to her words.

“Of course they're bigger, wouldn't be any challenge in it otherwise.” Richard muttered sounding somewhat exasperated. He hadn’t understood all the words, but was sure enough that the girl was talking about the dragons. Since when had Scotland had dragons? And how did he get to Scotland from Afghanistan. Coyle shook his head, he would worry about that later. Right now he had to keep these two children safe.

Though once the girl had pointed the direction of her home Coyle closed his eyes to visualize the terrain. He had gotten a good view of the surroundings from up at the cave mouth. Though he had not spotted any buildings at that distance, he was pretty sure he knew the open area she was referring to. The woods tended to stick to the hills around the edge of the valley, but following them should cut the open terrain they would have to cross down from over a mile to a few hundred yards.

“Alright. We can't stay here. If we follow the woodline over that way we should be able to stay under cover until we get close enough to your home to make a break for it.” Richard then took a knee and gestured the children closer. “We can move faster if I carry you. Hop on.” He gestured for the girl to climb on his back and the boy he would carry in his arms. “If I say jump down, jump down right away and while you're up there keep an eye on my six.” he added, speaking to the girl.

As the children came up he tried to smile. “I’m Sergeant Coyle by the way, what are your names? And don't worry, 75th Rangers can take care of anything.”

Kesslyn obeyed the man’s instructions. Now, looking around as best as she could from her perch on his back, she asked, “What is your six?” She had looked Sergeant Coyle over but saw nothing resembling a six on him. As an afterthought, she answered his second question, “I am Kesslyn but people call me Kess. That is my brother, Corvin. Our father is Yorath Tegwyn. This is our farm.”

Once the children had clambered on, Richard set out at a jogging pace. It was quick enough that they would cover the distance in short order, but not so fast as to risk crashing into tree branches or make too much noise. “My six o’clock?” He replied to the girl’s question, though remembering she was only a child, probably ten years old at most he shouldn’t be annoyed that she didn’t understand. “It means to watch behind me, I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.” The names she gave were a bit unusual, sounding more northern European than anything, though they were hardly common names. “Well Kess, Corvin, I promise to get you safely home.” Richard left off the follow on bit about or die trying. The little boy clinging to his chest was frightened enough as it was.

Fortunately for Richard, the children weighed a whole lot less than the usual 70 plus pounds of gear he would take into battle, so he was able to make good time through the woods, paralleling the tree line about a hundred yards in. His feet ached from the wounds he had suffered before managing to commandeer a pair of boots, and the fact they were the wrong size didn’t help much. Pain, though, was nothing new to him, he had once done a twelve mile ruck march with a hairline fracture in his ankle. That had been an unpleasant day. The occasional screeching of the wyverns was all the motivation he needed to keep up the pace.

After close to an hour Coyle made a sharp right hand turn and made his way to the edge of the trees. Taking a knee at the edge of the woods he nodded. His dead reckoning had been pretty damn close. The farm was there a bit off to their left and only about three hundred yards of open terrain separated them from safety. Pointing, he spoke to Kess. “That is the right house isn’t it?”

Kess resisted the urge to state it was the only house. For one thing, it was not strictly true. Carsen had a small home a short distance away and Neith lived in a cottage that was part of his wage as a farm hand. Instead, she nodded and said quietly, “Yes...our mum is there.” She figured it was not necessary to point out that there were also strangers there as evidenced by a couple of wagons, several horses and men stirring about.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Brychan stood near the door of the barn where the family had stored the produce set aside for the keep. A few of the horses were loose tied near the farmhouse, but the rest had been brought inside the barn for safety. After the immediate issue of settling Yorath and Tren had been seen to, the Marshal had changed his orders. Tesni, the farmer’s wife, had looked on the plight of her husband and son with fear on her face and confirmed the commander’s fears. The farm’s two young children had been playing in the field when the attack occurred and their current whereabouts was unknown. Adding to the fear for the little ones was the fact that Brychan and his unit had located the body of the other farmhand, Neith, about halfway between the field and the farmhouse.

He had dispatched four men to start a cautious search near the farmhouse but ordered them to stay within range of their contact whistles. Tesni agreed that the children would have tried to make their way home and he had too few with him to start a productive search further afield. This would mark the last time he would take less than a full dozen men with him, even for a routine errand such as collecting supplies.

There was another concern. Near Neith’s body, they had found that of a large wyvern with a knife protruding from its gut. Brychan had had the thing brought to the barn for inspection although admittedly learning anything from it was unlikely. It had been one of the larger variety and a female as evidenced by the lack of a stinger in its tail and of the type that were generally called a hogof because of their tendencies to make their dens in caves. Yet while the hogof were dangerous to people, they were not known to form larger hunting units that could pose a threat to multiple grown men. The most logical explanation was that the smell of blood had attracted more of the beasts but it did not address the reason why they were remaining on the attack. Also, other than the dagger wound, the wyvern’s body was intact showing no signs of predation by the notoriously bloodthirsty and cannibalistic creatures. That other wyvern had left their fallen comrade in peace was unheard of.

Brychan’s speculation on the nature of the attack was interrupted by a movement several yards distant near the forest’s treeline. At the same time, silence once again fell over the land...except for the loud and angry shriek of a wyvern.

Richard was making his mental calculations, figuring how fast he could cover the open ground when the loud screech interrupted his thoughts. It sounded far too close for comfort, it was now or never. “Hold on tight.” He told the children. “We’re making a run for it on three. One… two… three!” With that Richard set out at a full sprint. His head was tucked down and he extended his stride as much as he could, ignoring the pain in his feet and face as he went.

“Look out!” Kesslyn shrieked in fear followed by another loud shriek, closely above and behind them. Looking up Coyle could see they still had some fifty yards to cover. They wouldn’t make it. “Jump Down!” He yelled to Kesslyn as he set Corvin on his feet and gave him a push in the direction of the farm. “Run! I’ll hold it off!” The two children obeyed and continued their dash for safety as Coyle turned to meet the threat.

This dragon-thing, hogwarts or whatever the girl had called it, was much bigger than the last one. He needed a plan, or at least a strategy. Glancing down at the cloak he thought he found one. Shaking it out he held the cloak in his left hand and his knife in his right. “Here! Here!” Coyle shouted and waved his arms to draw the creature’s attention onto him and away from the children. The creature shrieked and banked towards him, circling initially out of reach. “Come get some if you think you're hard enough!” Coyle shouted.

Though he doubted that the creature actually understood him, it made a banking turn back towards him and shrieked as it dove towards him talons first. Waiting until the last moment Coyle swung the cloak out in front of him, creating a momentary wall of fabric that the wyvern collided with. It didn’t stop the creature’s momentum, however, and it crashed into Coyle, leaving both he and the wyvern tangled in the cloak. Coyle wasted no time, and as the creature struggled to free itself from the cloth enshrouding it, he stabbed repeatedly at the thing, the knife punching through the cloth and into the wyvern’s body. He couldn’t be sure where he was hitting it, so he just kept stabbing as he tried to wrestle with the thing. Terrible shrieks were coming from within the cloak, but so far no claws or teeth had found a way out. Suddenly Coyle felt a searing pain in his shoulder as something sharp pinned the cloak to him. “Damn it!” Coyle yelped but his knife continued to rise and fall despite the searing pain that was beginning to spread. After a moment though the creature went limp, still on top of Coyle.

Pushing the wyvern off of him Richard howled in pain as the stinger twisted as it came free. He let loose a stream of profanity as he staggered to his feet, pressing his hand to his wound. While the farm was only fifty yards away it seemed to take him forever to slowly plod his way there, his breathing labored and his heart racing. Leaning against the wall he stared at the soldier, his eyes seemingly unwilling to focus. “I don’t feel so good.” He muttered before slumping down in a dazed state.

Brychan and two of his men had started for the treeline as soon as the commander realized what was happening. By the time they reached the house, the battle was over and the children safe inside with their mother and the stranger collapsed at the doorway. Shrieking and trills from the forest told the First Marshal that the odd attack was far from over. “Get him inside,” he ordered his men while standing ready should the creatures attack again.

A short while later, the injured man had been made as comfortable as possible. The field medic reported that he had been stung by the big male wyvern and also had a few other injuries. Scratches and claw marks indicated he had encountered a smaller wyvern of some type. Wounds had been cleaned and bandaged all around and treated to hot compresses which would help denature some of the elements in the venom. It would help although those wounded were still in for a fairly horrible forty-eight hours as the poison ran its course. Brychan had taken note of the man’s mismatched clothing and the unusual nature of his garments, but forcing the man awake just to ask him who he was and why he was dressed oddly would have been cruel considering the amount of pain he was going to be in.

Richard’s state of consciousness fluctuated between an insensible daze and agonizing pain. He was only vaguely aware of being carried inside the building, though the moment they began to treat his wounds he mercifully blacked out from the pain. His rest however was far from peaceful as he tossed and turned from time to time and occasionally mumbled incomprehensibly. He was not sure how much time had passed when he regained at least a little lucidity, though he still could not seem to make his eyes focus. He was soaked in sweat and his skin burned fiercely. He was also terribly thirsty, his throat parched. “Water.” He managed to croak horsely, barely above a whisper. With a great deal of effort he was able to repeat the word slightly louder, hoping someone would hear him.

“A few sips only for now,” the young medic said, responding to the injured man’s request for a drink of water. She also checked the temperature on the compress that rested on the sting. It had cooled very little so she chose not to change it. With luck, support would arrive soon along with a healer that would have a full measure of medical supplies.

Richard reached for the cup though his fingers felt swollen and clumsy, unwilling to obey his commands. The medic had to help him hold the cup and guide it to his lips. The water was a great relief, though all too soon the cup was taken from him. Richard also became vaguely aware that the person tending to him was a woman. At least her voice sounded feminine, it was hard to be sure with his eyes unwilling to focus. After nearly eight months on the front lines with nary a woman in sight the thought made him smile, or it would have anyway if he was not in so much pain. Richard was also aware of others in the room, talking and milling about, but between the pain and their accent he could not really understand them. Raising his head, which was no small effort, he looked about, trying to spot child sized blurs among the crowd, but could not locate any. Reaching out towards the blur that was the medic’s arm he managed to catch her sleeve. “The children? Safe?” He managed to ask, his voice slightly better for having had the water. Another wave of pain hit him and he slumped back into the bed. Why hadn’t they given him anything for the damn pain? “Morphine.” He said, his tone half question, half demand.

“The children are safe,” Rhysa informed him. “I do not know who Morphine is,” she stated and then added gently, “I know the pain is bad and it will likely get worse. I will make a merasha tea for you but can only administer a small amount until after the meddyg can assess you.”

When told that the children had made it to safety Richard relaxed visably. At the very least he had succeeded in his mission. Though as the woman continued to speak he looked at her like she had suddenly grown an extra head. How the hell did she not know what Morphine was? Even illiterate Afghani peasants knew what morphine was, though that may have to do with theirs being an opium growing country. He never believed he would think this, but he almost wished he was back in Afghanistan. If he was he’d be on a chopper to Kabul right now pumped full of enough painkillers to tranquilize a horse, then a plane to Germany for more advanced care. Plus he wouldn’t have been attacked by fricken dragons in the first place. Turning to look at the woman he spoke, both tasks a great effort. “Where am I?”

Rhysa raised her eyebrows at the query thinking it was passing strange. Then again, she had been told that wyvern poisoning addled the thought processes sometimes. “Harkania March, Cymeria. I will be right back…” She started to turn away and then stopped as the sound of wagons and horses reached her ears. She had overheard the High Lord say that the caravan and support troops were right behind him. Cymeria’s Guard was a highly mobile force and they had likely used the sturdy but lighter built wagons constructed for rapid travel. “The meddyg is here,” Rhysa stated and glanced down at the man realizing that in trying to tend the three wyvern victims, she had forgotten to ask, “What is your name?”

Coyle looked confused when the place name was given. It sounded… Welsh? Maybe? But how the hell did he get from Afghanistan to Wales. Heh. Wales had a dragon on its flag. It seemed fitting, but Coyle had never heard of there being real dragons there. “Could you be less specific?” Coyle asked, though the woman tending him started to turn away. A moment later though she turned back and asked for his name. “Sergeant Coyle, Richard. Need to get a message to my unit. Alpha Company, Third Battalion, 75th Rangers. Need to tell them I’m alive.”

The man’s words were even more incomprehensible to Rhysa but the Chief Battle Surgeon would tell her to not unduly upset a patient. Unit and company made some sense but the designations did not. Rhysa was within a couple of months of completing her mandatory service so felt she would recognize most Guard units and even where they were stationed. “I will send one of the Guardsmen to you, Sergeant Coyle Richard.” Odd name that. “Perhaps they can assist you with your message. Rest now.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

The wagons were drawn safely inside the cavernous barn and all the horses had been secured inside as well. Two wyverns had made an aborted attempt to bring down one of the soldier’s on horseback by attacking the man’s horse. Tesni had just served tea when the thunderous sound of hoofbeats reached Brychan’s ears and he headed for the doorway, stepping outside but staying close enough to duck for cover. He was not surprised to recognize the two lead riders.

Mikhael slid his big gray to a stop as Brychan stepped out of the farmhouse. They had ridden at a steady pace although not at a rate that would overtax their steeds. “Marshal!” The High Lord greeted the man as he dropped lightly from his horse’s back.

“High Lord, Ryndar,” Brychan replied, respect mixing in his tone with his easy manner. “Let my men get your horses out of the open and I will brief you inside.” His eyes nervously scanned the skies as he spoke. The trilling and shrieks of the wyvern had increased with the arrival of the High Lord and his escort.

Hawke followed close behind Mikhael, his back to the High Lord as he watched the skies, Ravencall held warily in both hands in case a wyvern tried for a swooping attack.

Wyverns made the hair on the back of Laryn’s neck stand straight up. She despised them to no end, nasty little beasts that they were. Even though most of the commonly used routes she took as a Courier, she and her guards were always on the lookout. Always expect the unexpected. She slid gently from her mount, keeping a loose grip on the reins and her senses alert.

Drawing the High Lord and his party inside, Brychan held up a hand, signaling to one of his men. “Ride to meet the support party, inform them of the situation, the odd behavior of the wyverns and the unusually large numbers of the hogof that are attacking. Ride fast and remain with them. You can ride back in the healer’s wagon and let your horse rest.” The man nodded and darted past the First Marshal and new arrivals, heading quickly but with wary caution for the barn. Moments later the massive door rolled open and the soldier shot out toward the road, urging his horse to full gallop.

As soon as the man seemed to be safely on his way, Brychan signaled everyone inside, leading them toward the back of the house where a kitchen addition had been added in recent years. The home’s main room was serving as a makeshift infirmary so the lone medic did not have to make repeated trips up and down the stairs to tend her three patients. It was also being used as a gathering area for the men not tending to the horses in the barn and loading the produce wagons.

As they settled around the large, well-made yet serviceable kitchen table, Tesni set another serving of tea, bread and cheese on the table. Brychan smiled at the woman who had been tirelessly and uncomplainingly caring for everyone under her roof. He had already told her that if their sojourn was taxing her pantry, he would see her resupplied at the first opportunity. The woman had waved away his words with a smile and nod toward her two children who had been busily feeding themselves at a smaller table set in a small alcove nearby.

“May I present the Lady of the Hearth, Tesni Tegwyn,” Brychan said formally feeling he should facilitate introductions in the absence of her husband.

“We have met before,” Mikhael replied with a pleasant smile. “Hawke, Stasya and I were often detailed as escorts with supply convoys that rode to this farm and others nearby. We were always assured of a warm reception here.” Tesni dipped her head in acknowledgement before slipped out of the kitchen to go and assist the medic. Once she was gone, Mikhael slipped into a chair and stripped off his riding gloves before helping himself to a cup of tea and some of the bread and cheese. “I am guessing that since you are not rushing us out of the door, the children have been found...unharmed I hope. That being the case, Brychan, what have you gotten us into this time?”

“Aye, the bairns are safe.” Brychan said affably but then feigned outrage, “But, ye’ll not be blamin’ me for the behavior of yon beasties!” He also helped himself to a cup of tea and then leaned back in his chair. “It is the bloodiest bizarre thing I ever recall seeing or heard tell of…

Hawke sat straddling a chair in reverse, his chest leaned against the chair back as he looked at the floor in thought. “There has to be a nest or lair or whatever somewhere nearby. I don’t know of any other reason for them to be quite so persistent. I know they can be just plain mean but even for a wyvern this is taking it too far…”

“Tesni says that there have always been wyvern in the vale, but mostly just the little Rocs. They occasionally lose a farm fowl to them but mostly they just survive hunting small game and scavenging.” Brychan blew on his tea before taking a sip. “She says that the big ones, the hogof, will den up in the tor but never stay long and have never made this concerted an attack on anyone or anything beyond the odd sheep, cow or goat.”

“Even if there is a nest of them,” Mikhael said, “they would have been seeing more aggressive attacks on a routine basis not one that seems to be out of the blue like this one. They also do not tend to work cooperatively. A few might come together in a hunt or feeding frenzy, but they do not maintain the association very long.” He downed the rest of his tea, “Whatever has caused this aberrant behavior, the only way to drive them away is to burn out their lair. Hawke, we’ll need to put together several search and destroy teams.”

Hawke looked up and nodded. “True enough…” He crossed his arms on the chair back and rubbed his chin as he thought. “Considering the size and numbers of wyverns we have seen, we need to find the nest fast. Several small fast groups. They go out, find the nest, hurry back here where the rest of the men will wait, and then a concentrated force goes to deal with the nest. While the scout groups are out looking the men here should try and find all the oil and pitch to be had....it might be a large nest.”

At Hawke’s last statement regarding the oil and pitch, Brychan looked doubtful but Mikhael grinned, “Ahead of you on that one, my friend. I requested a large quantity be loaded on the caravan following us. We will have the supplies to do the job. Also, the cave wyvern, the hogof, tend to den up at night to conserve warmth. It will not be easy, but I suggest once the lair or lairs are located that we rest up here until full dark has fallen and the things have settled for the night.” Mika shook his head, “Considering their odd behavior, this assumes they will follow their normal behavior and go to ground for the night.”

 

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