Dragon Fire

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            I could see the dragon’s deep red scales on his tail in the small portion of the opening visible from this spot in the back passage. Two other leather clad soldiers crouched behind me and I could feel their fear. The spy lay gagged and tied not far back towards the distant entrance, which bales of hay from the wagon now covered. No breeze would pass through the tunnel and carry our scent.

            A racket of metal shields as the remaining eighteen soldiers moved steadily down the main entrance into the cavern preceded the dragon, with a deep belly laugh, saying, “yes, come to me my snacks! I will eat for weeks!”

            “Remember,” I say so only the other two soldiers could hear, “don’t let your shields touch the walls or each other or anything that will cause them to ring out.” Carefully I move forward and silently lift the tall piece of metal horizontal to the ground and pad forward softly. The others come too slowly for my liking, but it was better than banging the huge pieces of steel on the rock walls.

            The huge red dragon, his body alone the size of a two story city house, steps a little closer to entrance then lifts a head with a dog’s snout and two horns protruding from a flat forehead. An organ where his neck met the body glows bright enough to change the scales, hard as steel at that junction, to a bright tomato red from that of nearly dried blood. He prepares to breathe fire on the approaching men.

            All this signals our turn to slip into the cave behind the dragon as undetected as possible, and I take the opportunity to see how the other soldiers fare. By now they should be overlapping shields, ten across the bottom and eight over their heads to resist the blast as a group. There is a saying that is true, I’m sure, on almost any world, that battle plans only last until the first blade is swung. As I watch six of the soldiers flee in fear, three more die from it and another four stand petrified, I realize the remaining five have little chance.

            In the remaining incredibly small amount of time I have before the full heat of the dragon hit the chaotic scene I drive my blade, as long as my leg, in between the scales where the right rear leg met the body and don’t stop until the scales trap the handle and nearly my hand. As Ghorin roars in pain and breathes fire on the ceiling and walls to his right, I sprint across loose coin, chunks of precious metals and other stolen goods behind his legs and under his massive tail. I see the two other soldiers with me, just feet from the back entrance, properly crouch behind their padded shields.

            Ghorin continues to swing around to see who had stuck him. I hope the scales stop some feeling, especially with a huge longsword jammed into his body, as I lift my feet off the ground and let the force of the turn carry me against where the tail emerges. As I let the movement push me through the air, I see it. A two-handed blade, as tall as any of the other soldiers, yet only to my breasts, is exposed by the dragon’s movement. Seven soldiers now spread around the room as the dragon comes to a stop facing the entrance again.

            “You will all burn!” bellows Ghorin. He once again breathes and sweeps left to right without moving his body. The four soldiers standing motionless in the entrance, paralyzed with fear, burn up like bundles of kindling, the stench of burning leather and flesh immediately filling the air. Their screams don’t last long and I proudly watch the other soldiers crouch behind their shields. As the flame moves away from them, each one charges and tries to stick blades between the scales, with varying success. The dragon whips back against them with his head, sending two flying into the wall, the impact probably fatal.

            One thing Ghorin and most other dragons have is incredible intelligence, and he predicts the soldiers on his right would now try to come from that side. Two soldiers did just as I trained, lifting their shields and jumping just as the tail crashes into them. They turn in the air and use the same padded shields to lessen an impact that still stuns them.

            The dragon starts to turn his head to the right and his tail back to his left and I make my next move. Dropping my shield, I sprint along the dragon’s left side to the now close two-handed blade. As Ghorin prepares to burn the four now helpless bodies, two of them probably dead already, I drop to my knees so my calves straddle the blade, its handle now pressed into the middle of my back. “Stop, Ghorin!” I shout.

            The huge red head turns to look at me, fangs as long my leg on either side of razor sharp teeth as long as my arm. “There you are, Aquendar. Do you think to sacrifice yourself to save the rest of your men? I will eat you, and these in here and then go hunt down the ones that fled!” he bellows, the hot breath nearly unbearable.

            “Just tell me who asked you to lure me here and destroy me. You were so coy about it earlier,” I say loudly, keeping my voice as calm as possible otherwise.

            “Come now, Aquendar, you know the answer to that. Only one is mightier than a red,” answers Ghorin. As he ended saying this, the red whipped with his tail at the remaining soldiers and snapped his head towards me, jaws spreading. He must not have expected a man as big as me to move like I do. The only thing that stops the huge blade from exiting the top of the dragon’s head are the scales there. Standing on treasure with my feet between the front top and bottom teeth, I dive over the giant fang as the head falls to my left.

            “Is he dead?” asks Angin, now standing next to me.

            “Yes, that sword is through his brain,” I answer.

            “What now?” asks the soldier, a light burn on his exposed skin making it a light shade of red.

            “Go tell the wagon driver, if he’s still here, to bring the wagon in. If the wounded are stable we’ll load up treasure. If not we’ll get them loaded and race them back to town.”

            “Yes, Commander,” says Angin, as the two soldiers knocked across the room by the tail begin to stir.

            I walk over to the stunned soldiers, now holding their heads, while their shields and swords lay on the ground. “Give yourselves time to recover. You very likely have concussions,” I say to them as I reach them.

            “I have no doubt, sir,” croaks one. “But it’s better than being roasted alive.”

            “Yes it is,” I say over my shoulder as I walk over to the two soldiers flung off their swords into the wall. Seeing their heads are at impossible angles to their bodies, I close all four eyes. The wagon finishes its loud journey to the cavern and stops as I step up next to the driver’s bench. “Nine dead driver, though only two have anything left to take back. We’ll wrap the bodies and load as much of this treasure as we can, the part of it most useful to the townsfolk. I and the soldiers will take what’s useful to us and load that up to,” I say, as I turn back to the bodies.

            While rolling one body up in white linen brought along just for this need, my spirits are buoyed by one thought: If Rangdor is sending red dragons to kill me, my wandering and waiting to prepare for the child of prophesy is over. Fifteen years, half my life, has been spent cultivating my intelligence network all over Li. It is time to use it to make sure I am found.

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Catching a Spy

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As I execute my new plan, I hope the dragon still underestimated me. I made sure the town saw twenty one men on horseback ride out the morning after our tavern meeting, dressed head to toe in plate mail. For a part of the treasure a dragon hoarded there were always citizens willing to spy on their neighbors, even when the lizard was making some of them into meals. Heading out of town in a direction just north of northeast, we ride hard into the sparse forest across low hills that got higher as we travelled.

            Satisfied that we had passed completely out of view and would not be seen by a hard charging spy headed to the dragon, I let out a shrill whistle. All riders pulled their horses back to a walk and rope ends were passed to the front rider, now no longer me. As soon as twenty ropes had been secured to the lead rider’s saddle, I lead the others in dropping off the moving horse onto the hard packed ground as gently as my huge size would allow. The soldier chosen by straws to fool the spy galloped off leading the empty steeds into the distance.

            I led the sprint into a dense copse on a nearby hill and we immediately began stripping off the plate mail to get down to the loose leather. “Take a bit to cool off. We’ll watch for the spy to go by and then the cart with the shields should be close behind.”

            “Yes, Commander,” came the quiet replies. The more time that passed since my encouragement on the road to town and fighting the dragon, the more the fear would build in them. I know I need to get them to the dragon.

            As a breeze rustles the dry but still green leaves of the trees around us, I spot him. Two hills over, on a path where he would never have caught us, a hooded rider on a hot day kicks up dirt. He’s too far away to see us at that speed, and I smile at the damage his speed is doing to the dirt, leaving a clear trail for us to follow. In moments he passes behind more hills and I stand. “Time to move. The shield cart will be following that spy’s hoof marks, and it’s some distance south.”

            “What about all this armor?” asked one of the soldiers.

            “We’ll come back for it. For now, take a swig of your water and follow me,” I answer as I start jogging towards the hilltop I first saw the spy on.

            With only canteens, longswords and leather armor, we cross the few hills between us just as the cart comes into view from the west. “Angin, go watch for that spy to double back far enough that he won’t see us before he sees you. Hide and take him off his horse when he comes by, but don’t kill him.” A lanky blond soldier nods at me and sprints off down the clear trail in even this hard soil. The grass under our feet has struggled to get halfway to our knees in the summer heat and a galloping horse leaves a lot of it crushed. The spy was sprinting his horse, trying to beat us there.

            “Take a seat and rest. We need to save what energy we can for the fight ahead. We’ll join the shields on the cart for as long as it makes sense,” I said.

            As the sun hits zenith the cart, carrying nineteen of us, arrives at Angin standing over the spy, the spy’s dagger in Angin’s hand. I jump down from my seat next to the cart driver and squat in front of the seated man. “What did you tell the dragon?”

            “It won’t matter, you’ll all be dead soon. I told him you were on your way, wearing plate mail. Clearly that was a ruse,” said the brown haired, very pale man. His loose fitting cotton garments hid a well fed, but dirty body, from the smell of him.

            “Maybe we’ll be dead, maybe not. But whether you survive the day depends on your answer to this next question. Where is the dragon’s back door entrance?” I asked.

            “Back door? What back door?” the man stammered.

            “Every dragon cave has two entrances. The main one for them to go in and out in dragon form, and a smaller one for, let’s say, other passage. Surely he’s sent you out the back door to avoid detection, probably at your request. You’ll take us to that entrance, or you’ll be the first target of his flame,” I said with a snarl.

            “Ah, you don’t scare me Aquendar of Concrof. You would never kill me. You can threaten me all you like but I’ve heard about you,” said the spy.

            “Or maybe it is that none of the traitorous, greedy men like you ever live to tell anybody how far I will go.” I stood and turned to Angin. “Get him up and we’ll lash him to the front of a shield. May take two of you to force him forward, but he’ll be that much more protection against the dragon’s first breath attack.”

            “Yes, Commander,” replied Angin, with all the excitement I’d hoped he would muster.

            As Angin hoisted the still doubting spy up by his collar, I turned to the others. “Just remember the last time we did this men. Some of you forgot to hold your breath the smell of the burning traitor cost you lunch!” Catching on to the ruse, the men started to laugh, fake retching and hold their noses.

            “I’ll show you! I’ll show you!” shouted the spy. “Ghorin did have me go in and out the back entrance to try to protect our secret.”

            “Ah, so you even know his name. Put him up there next to me on the driver’s seat and we’ll go see if he’s telling the truth.” Angin tied his hands behind his back and forced him onto the seat. The driver cursed slightly and quietly at the crowded bench, but held his tongue knowing he had the option of waiting here between the hills for a cart he didn’t think would return.

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I lost all doubt about Vedelbred’s sincerity when the shields were complete in a week and twenty young soldiers stood in front of me holding them. Arrayed in the courtyard of the castle, they looked a formidable group in their plate mail, but there stood the issue. “Commander,” I said to the soldier on my right, one of those who refused this task, “they all need leather armor, loose fitting. It has to have room to shrink without cutting off their circulation.”

“That makes no sense, Aquendar,” answered the stout blond soldier.

“Ever try to boil water in a leather pot, Commander. If this meeting with the dragon gets dragon breath hot, metal armor will conduct the heat straight to their bones,” I answered.

“Yes, I suppose you are right.”

The sun had moved considerably in the sky by the time we all sat astride horses, the huge shields strapped to the sides opposite long swords. As we rode out the southeastern gate of the castle I could feel the fear and nervousness but I pressed on until we had passed well beyond the city and the sun had reached zenith. “Dismount,” I called out as we reached a clearing in the already sparse trees. “Eat your rations for lunch, then we’ll review this mission,” I said.

The meal was silent, but for the chewing and noises of unwrapping dried meat and fruit from their parchment. Emotions had all twenty soldiers deep in thought. It also made them slow eaters, so I finished first and stood. “I’m guessing you all took this task for the extra pay, but that really doesn’t make you any less brave. A red dragon is formidable. It would have a hard time turning around and moving in one of the four story houses in Rambestak. Each claw is as long as my sword, nearly as tall as many of you. There are spikes on the wings and back, and horns on his head, a head that is bigger than a large cart and filled with fangs. However, all of those things pale in danger compared to his breath weapon. The flame from a red dragon’s mouth is hotter than any fire you’ve ever seen and if it touches you directly it won’t matter what material your armor is made out of. I had you change armor to protect you from the indirect heat.”

All of the soldiers had stopped eating and even the brown skinned soldiers had turned white as a sheet. “Then it’s hopeless,” said the youngest soldier, barely old enough to serve at all.

“No, it’s not hopeless. I told you all of that so you have no illusions that we’re going to walk into a dragon’s cave and in a short, simple battle, kill it. However, a red dragon can be killed by humans who can keep their courage, not flee at the dragon sight. If it goes to sweep at you with its tail, drive your sword between the scales and use your shield to survive hitting the wall. When the dragon breathes at us, get as small as you can behind your shield and hold your own breath so the hot air doesn’t burn your lungs. Focus on not getting hit by claw or tooth or tail, and not being in the direct flame, and together we can take him.”

“Sir, you sound like you’ve fought one before,” said another soldier.

“Fought? Yes. I managed to defend myself long enough that he grew tired of it and gave up. He didn’t realize how broken he had me or I’d have been food. The burns under my plate mail took weeks to heal. What I did learn is that gaps do open up between the scales as they twist and move. I also noted that the underside of their heads is soft so they can pass food through. It’s a small area, but a long blade driven up through it should finish them. If, while avoiding getting hit, you have a chance to plunge your sword between scales or into exposed soft tissue, do it and return to defending yourself. Let go of the sword handle or the dragon turning to see who stuck it will fling you around.”

“So, we’ll spread out,” said a soldier.

“Yes, quickly give him twenty one directions to worry about. We can do this, survive this, if you remember to protect yourself first at all costs while you wait for an opportunity, when it’s safest, to deal a blow,” I finished, then looked at them as they seemed to grow in courage. “Now clean up, and we’ll keep going until dark.”

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I rarely enjoy meeting with the kings. If it wasn’t so necessary to my cover job and my secret work, I would avoid it like I avoid riding into low tree branches at high speed. So here I am, the sun beating on my face as I tower over every other person on the crowded street, making my way to the castle. I don’t usually have to weave through the people as they see me coming and give me room, as is the case today. I’m built like I could scoop any two of them up, one under each arm, and carry them with me. The handle of my two handed sword shows up above my left shoulder and daggers nearly as long as butcher’s knives hang around my belt. All this is why I wear only leather armor in the city. I get enough stares without wearing my plate mail.

“Perhaps you could shorten your stride just a little, Sir,” said the soldier walking next to me. He comes up to my shoulders and is being a bit more jostled by the crowd than I ever am.

“Sorry, soldier, I almost forgot you were there.” I slow my steps a bit, and notice everybody going about their business also suddenly seems calmer. They know me, I think. How can they fear a man who’s served so visibly in Rambestar for two years now? The breeze picked up and the canvas that makes up most of the walls on Rambestak’s two to four story homes and shops flaps even more loudly.

I slow even more as the cobblestones on the street grow noticeably in quality, much more even under the soles of my boots. Moments later we’re passing by the guards at the entrance of a sprawling castle. Standing only two stories tall at its highest point, Rambestar’s castle covers an entire city block, with open courtyards and gardens between buildings linked by covered stone walkways. Interior walls are almost entirely fabric or canvas, taking advantage of the constant breeze in the warm climate.

Striding straight south from the front gate I quickly reach a large square structure that peaks in the center and is covered with wooden shingles. Three wooden stairs lead up to the wooden floor standing a few feet off the ground. Otherwise, only the supports for the roof are wood, but the canvas is extra thick and held with steel cables that can be quickly tightened against colder weather.

This morning nobles and soldiers mill around the throne room in this unique castle, entirely different in design than in the twelve other human kingdoms. King Vedelbred stands from his cushioned throne when I enter, slightly raised on a dais and covered in gold fabric striped with gray. “Ah, Aquendar! Don’t bother bowing,” His Majesty begins as he makes his way to me, “I need you to follow me.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” I answer as I follow the otherwise ordinary looking man with his pale skin and slightly graying hair. The soldier that fetched me has vanished as the king and I reach another small building.

As he sits at the head of the small conference table, Vedelbred gestures I should do the same. My curiosity is definitely piqued. “Aquendar, I’m ashamed to admit it, but my other commanders in Rambestak have refused to take on the task I’m about to assign you,” Vedelbred shook his head but I waited for more. “Oh, perhaps Commander Xin would but he’s on the coast and there’s no time to recall him.” Another pause, but I wait again. “We have a dragon problem. It has been reported that a very large red dragon is causing trouble southeast of here, attacking towns and stealing children away.”

“You know I don’t come here to serve in your military, Your Majesty. I am friendlier with you than most kings of Li, so I have told you I will only fight with a gray army. What is it that you are asking?” I answered.

“I want you to go take care of this dragon problem, Aquendar. Yes, I realize you will only do training, of both horses and men, when you work for kingdoms, but I am asking for an exception. I know of no more capable warrior in all of Li for a problem such as this.”

I pause in thought for a moment before saying, “Yes, dragons are a unique problem, Your Majesty. Besides the fear they induce, their breath weapon and huge size make them quite formidable. Part of the reason I’m alive is I’ve never challenged one.”

Vedelbred sighed. “Dragons usually do no more than steal livestock either. It’s rare to even see one, but it happens often enough for everybody to know they’re real. Do you think they can be negotiated with?”

“I’ve heard legends of people talking with them. There were stories of a magician training with a gold dragon long ago,” I answered.

“Then, I ask you, no, I’m at the point of begging you, to go see the situation, see if this dragon can be reasoned with, and if not, try to kill it if you can,” said Vedelbred. “I can’t have that kind of terror in the kingdom. It’s bad enough that evil infested forest covers my southern border.”

“See if you can get twenty soldiers to sign up at quadruple pay to join me and have twenty one shields made of steel. The shields should completely cover a crouched man and have cushioning between the metal and straps to protect from heat. Once that is done, I will lead them to go find out what this lizard is up to,” I said.

“Thank you, Aquendar, I will get the smiths working.” King Vedelbred stood. “We will be forever in your debt.”

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I never thought I’d feel relief to be back in the fort in Seftrel, surrounded by human and neftir officers, but I did. The surviving kids back in their homes, we gathered to discuss next steps. Prince Zif looked at me and said, “Tell us what happened please, Ofeldar.”

“I won’t bore you with the fighting our way out,” I began. “Apparently Captain Hundle had been duped into thinking he could get his child back by helping the credarils capture me.”

“You believe this whole kidnapping of children tactic was to get to you?” asked Zif.

“Me and other people Rangdor fears. The sorcerers told me Rangdor is trying to take potential commanders off the field, the ones with reputations. They arrogantly felt sure I would never escape,” I answered.

“This has to mean the child of prophecy is close to being revealed,” said Tendelbro. “We have to warn the others.”

“Do we even know who they all are?” asked Zif.

“You and Ofeldar are two of them,” answered Tendelbro. “You are legendary for your mountain command skills, Prince Zif, and Ofeldar has proven herself as well, in many conflicts. This escape from the credarils will only enhance that. Those kids she rescued couldn’t stop talking about her killing credarils in the dark, without being able to see them.”

“The other two I know of are Aquendar of Concrof and Sir Xalt of Polentair,” I said. “If we warn them, they may know others to pass the warning on. I’m sure the mendar, thrandrils and endarils are all aware of the prophetic birth.”

“And safe in their enchanted homes,” said Zif. “I will have messages sent to Aquendar and Xalt. From now on I’ll approach each encounter as an attempt to kill me.”

“I am going to disappear and be near where I expect this prophetic warrior to appear. If Rangdor wants to kidnap and kill children to get my attention, he’s going to get my skills used against him,” I said.

“The credarils retreated with the death of their sorcerers and the neftir have secured the tunnels. The attacks won’t come from there. I’ll make sure my fellow commanders are informed of this new effort by Rangdor,” said Tendelbro.

“Since their failure to capture Ofeldar the xadineft have begun migrating north, in huge packs. We’ve harried some of them over the last two nights, but they come in numbers from as far south as the thrandril haven. That doesn’t mean I’m safe, but it does confirm what the sorcerers said, that Rangdor believes his last battle is coming,” said Zif. “I will prepare Seftrel to be there when that happens.”

I stood. “Then let us get to it.” The others all stood as well and just like that, the meeting was over. I returned to my rooms, packed, and headed for Polentair, the kingdom closest to the endaril’s hidden valley.

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I whipped two arrows out of my quiver, behind the fletching, one on either side of my middle finger. In the same motion they were on the bow and flying. The credaril wizard heard one bow twang and burned one arrow to ash. The second took him in the chest.

As blades came out of scabbards in the dark, two more arrows left my bow and I dove to my left. Short crossbow bolts screamed past my ear, but two bodies made a thudding sound in the dark. I knew they could see me, at least the heat shape of me. The children with me had slid into the tunnel Josha had disappeared down, silhouettes in the light of her bobbing torch as she returned.

I could sense them, like the ripples in the air or the vibrations of their step told me their location. Only four left in front of me, but dozens of neftir to my right. “Run to Josha,” I shouted, then dove towards the tunnel, bow in my left hand, my next arrow in my right. The children reacted out of fear, fortunately not freezing. They sprinted away from me.

Leaving the bow and arrow where my hands landed, I stood up and drew my blade. I placed my back flat against the wall of the tunnel where the credarils couldn’t see me until the turned the corner and looked left. Men who would not stand as high as my shoulder leaped over the running wall of kids. In the brief light I saw thick brown and black beards, scaled metal armor flapping as they jumped. Dangerous looking axes glinted in the torchlight.

The first credaril turned the corner and my sword cut him in half with my swift stroke. An axe flew close enough to my face to feel its breeze and the second credaril fell. The neftir could see heat too, but now the credarils knew they faced more than children and one human. By the time the short, powerful warriors reached me, I could hear the feet of the remaining credarils fading away back up the other tunnel.

I used the cloak of the credaril I nearly cut in half to clean my sword. “Just in time, though you proved some credarils are more honorable than others.”

Reichet looked at me in the light of the torch, Josha now standing behind the dozen neftir. “They have no honor, Ofeldar, don’t be daft.” The neftir pulled his axe out of the dead soldier.

“A credaril got us to this tunnel. Yes, he did it knowing he was going to die, but he did exactly what he promised. Knowing he was going to die he could have led us into a trap, and let me finish him.”

“If it was any other human telling me this, or even a neftir, I would think it a lie,” said Reichet. “Did you find out anything? Why are they doing this?”

“Rangdor wants anybody who could command troops out of the way, according to my torturers. They underestimated me while Rangdor does not,” I said.

“You? No offense, but you’ve never wanted any command,” said the neftir commander.

“If Rangdor is trying to kill those he thinks would do a good job commanding, then the one prophesied to end him is getting ready to do so. And I would gladly serve under him. I hunt xadineft better on my own than answering to some prince or lord, but the one to end Rangdor would be worth serving under,” I said.

“He already pulls on the credarils to return to the light then, at least some of them. Come, let’s get you to the surface. We’ll help these children get someplace safe.”

The other neftir lit torches. I followed lost in thought. What should I do now? Is he ready for me to come to him? I barely remember the rest of the trip to the surface. As the neftir grew in number and then led us to a town near the tunnel we exited on the surface, I still struggled in my mind.

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A couple of the kids turned out to be teenagers, so I had them walk in back of the sixteen of us. I figured their nerves would be steady enough to not be on the edge of panic, therefore able to listen for anything behind us as Shan’tar led us out what he claimed to be the back side of the dungeon. I didn’t trust the credaril, nor did I want to be using the torch, but every time I turned to look at the young faces following me, I knew darkness would scare them even worse than they clearly were.

We came to another intersection, our third in the seemingly unbroken maze of gray stone tunnels. In a few places beams held up dirt with long planks of wood or steel between them, but for most of it we only saw gray. I made sure to nick the wall at a height and spot I knew without the jet-black skinned soldier noticing, in case he merely led us in circles to keep us trapped. “How much further?” I asked quietly.

“This is as far as I can go,” he replied. “Walk down that way,” he pointed right, “for one thousand paces and you’ll be in neftir territory.”

“Unless you encroach more than ever before, that doesn’t seem possible that they should be there after such a relatively short walk,” I said.

“It is the neftir that have grown toward us. That is a debate that would rage for days between our races if negotiation was even possible. It’s not under Queen Lotha, may she live forever. I am ready,” he finished.

I looked at the credaril for a minute trying to figure out what he meant. Then it dawned on me. “Josha, take the others down the tunnel until you run out of light.” The oldest girl began quietly herding the children around the corner. I held the torch to light both their tunnel and the one Shan’tar and I remained in. “I will remember what you did if we make it to safety. If we land in a trap, I will personally peel the skin from your body.”

“I would expect no less,” he said, barely flinching as my right, leather gloved hand struck him across the head, while wrapped around my sword hilt. The credaril slumped to the floor.

For the first time in a while the children had stopped moving, and I heard it. Faint shuffling reached me from far down behind us. No, I corrected myself, running, but still far off. I sprinted to the kids. “Follow me at a run, try to run quietly, make no other noises. We must reach neftir soldiers or a good place to make a stand.” They all nodded.

I jogged at a pace that would be running for the younger ones, I knew they couldn’t take much distance at their speed, but if the credaril told the truth we didn’t have far to go. We ran past a tunnel to the left and I stopped, kids crashing into me and each other. I waved Josha over.

“Yes, Ofeldar, what is happening?” she asked.

“I need you to take this torch down that tunnel. Count your steps. When you reach a turn, go down it fifty steps, prop the torch against a wall and come back. It will be dark, so remember how many steps back. Can you do that?” I asked.

“I’m scared. What if credarils are down there? Why don’t you do it?” she asked, her voice trembling. I could see her brown eyes wide in the dark.

“If you see credarils, don’t scream whatever you do, but do turn and run back here as fast as you can. I’ll know that means I need to help you, but I need to stay here with the younger kids in case what I know is coming reaches us. I need you to be brave,” I said.

She slowly took the torch. I’m not sure a man could have convinced her, but seeing a woman like me taking charge and being brave inspired her. With one eye I watched the black haired girl walk down the tunnel, while using the rest of my senses to monitor the tunnel behind us. The children shuffled, but made me proud how otherwise silent they stayed, even the ones crying into their sleeves in fear.

Long moments passed and I feared I’d lose sight of that small light before she reached a turn, but suddenly it went left and vanished. I counted it out in my head and listened. I prayed to the One God that Josha’s footsteps would be the next ones I heard.

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