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The Heart of the Dragon Chapter I - the Beginning


A faint noise coming from the enemy lines signaled another catapult shot. A big boulder hit the ground leaving another ugly mark on the land spreading between the two armies. This time it was even closer of the first line of defense, spraying with dirt and little pieces of rocks the palisades that covered several dozen soldiers of the Eastern Empire. Just a few yards back, three army generals framed an emperor burdened by the events of the last several months. They were angry, frightened by the possibility of a lucky shot from the enemies. Nashad, leader of the riders, expressed his thoughts:

“My lord emperor, we should go back; it is too dangerous here”.

His intervention passed unnoticed. High emperor Adalhard, ruler of the Eastern Empire, was trapped by his gloomy thoughts. It began only ten months ago. First, the rumors about changes in the politics of the Shade Empire regarding their neighbours. Then, severance of diplomatic relations. Most of the diplomats of Eastern Empire who were in the mission in the Shade Empire were banished and few of them imprisoned and probably killed by now. They had of course couple of spies in several key positions in the Shade Empire but the peace that lasted for more than a century between the two nations and the prosperity gained from economic relations led to the assumption that it wasn’t necessary for the Eastern Empire to maintain a vast espionage network in the Shade Empire. In the present circumstances that proved to be a huge mistake. To make the matter worse, the spies that still activate in the enemy territory used to convey information through diplomatic channel, so now it was needed a new way to deliver their message. This of course took time so currently Eastern Empire was blind regarding the enemy’s strategy.

Finally, a few months ago, the war was declared. It wasn’t officially, just that several groups of heavily armed troops crossed the border and started to pillage villages from the Eastern Empire. Until they were ready to mount a proper defense, a territory about fifty square miles was lost. The savagery of attacks was another aspect that puzzled Adalhard. Villages burned to the ground. People slaughtered blind, no matter they were old or young, rich or poor, noble or peasants. It wasn’t a customary war it was like the main purpose of their enemies was total obliteration of the Eastern Empire.

They couldn’t do something anyway. Eastern Empire was smaller than his rival, his troops outnumbered about three to one and poorly equipped compared with enemy troops. The only small advantages were superior tactics, better generals and terrain. The territory that was conquered so far was a plain area, without any defense points. Their army was no match there. So, assessing the situation, they strategically retreat, leaving them without defense. It was a sound tactical choice. Morally though wasn’t. Adalhard could swear that in the middle of the night he heard moans of pain and cries of horror from his people. He let those people to die, prey to their ruthless enemies. It felt as if this was a personal failure and he was haunted by his decisions. His nights were shorter and painful as more news about atrocities from the area that was lost reached his ears.

Another catapult shot hit one of the fences that guarded a pocket defense zone filled with pikemen. One was killed instantly, his head smashed into a bloody pulp by the boulder. Another was hit in the leg by a piece of wood from the fence. His right leg was pierced from side to side and his horrendous cries distracted Adalhard for a little while. He needed couple of seconds to harness his horse who became very nervous from the screams. Then he urged Nashad to send help to the wounded pikeman who was about to collapse from his injury. After that, he returned to his thoughts.

Two month ago they succeeded to stop the advance of the enemy.

Their defensive position was established based on the terrain. They were in an area called Horseshoe because it’s distinct pattern. The two sides of the Horseshoe consisted in two hills that were about a mile away from each other in the open side of the area and narrowed to about one hundred yards in the close side. Between the two parts were about five miles of open terrain where the Eastern Empire camped. On both hills they had two forts filled with archers who provided excellent support for the troops on the main ground. The first line of defense in the open terrain consisted in couple of thousand pikemen supported by additional archers. Swordsmen were located behind pikemen and advanced only if the first line was weakened by the assaults of the enemy squads. Several light cavalry units were used to inflict as many damage as they could to their opponents while they were retreating.

It was an excellent defense zone mainly because of the support of the forts and they had won several battles so far. Better yet, it was the only direct way between the two empires so the enemies had to pass through here if they wanted to avoid a battle on the sea where the Eastern Empire had the upper hand . Still, Shade Empire hadn’t engaged so far with all the forces in a decisive battle. Adalhard suspected that his enemies are waiting to consolidate their army before they try a full scale attack. It was a difficult task to gather such a large army. Until then they settled to harass the Eastern Empire forces gathered in the Horseshoe.

Adalhard sent his first born, crown prince Ghaldan, to lead the army. He was a brilliant strategist and one of the best swordsman in the empire. He wasn’t satisfied staying in the defensive, weakening the enemy forces in several boulder attacks. He was in the lead until a month ago when they were drawn into a trap. They received some false information about an unprotected convoy carrying food for the Shades, several miles away from the enemy forces. Ghaldan decided to attack them using a company of light cavalry. They discovered the trap too late to retreat.All but one died fighting valiantly. One of the raiders felt unconscious from a blow in the head. Their enemies thought all were dead and retreated. Late in the night he regained his senses and dragged himself, half dead, toward his lines. From him they found out how their beloved prince died.

The emperor touched his face to hide a grimace of pain. His first son, pride and joy of the empire, has fallen. A small tear dropped from the corner of his left eye. Just one. He reached to the end of his tears in the last two weeks, after he received the dire news. His wife, Helena, was almost mad with grief. He decided that he will not sacrifice his other son, Khadar, in this war. Instead, he took command of the army himself.

So now, he was watching to the enemies who appeared to mount another attack, this one more serious taking in consideration the amount of troops massed in front of them. As he could see, the enemies followed the same tactical approach as ever. First, couple volleys of catapults shots in order to create disorder in the defense line. Then, first wave, consisting in poorly trained foot soldiers, liberated slaves or drafted peasants, used mainly for drawing the fire from catapults and archers. The second wave consisted in heavy swordsmen used for breaking the pikemen line followed closely by support units. It was a fairly good standard tactics that usually worked in their favor. Although enemy losses were usually higher, they consisted mainly in sacrifice troops and on the long terms, a war of attrition was in Shade Empire’s advantage because of their superiority in numbers. Adalhard knew that if he somehow loose his pikemen the best cavalry in the world, Shades cavalry, would trample his army to the ground.

Today though, it wasn’t a standard day as Adalhard was about to experience. After the catapults shots they heard the trumpets announcing the commencement of the attack. However from the enemy lines emerged only couple of dozen men who started to walk towards them, pushing in front of them several carts filled with hay. Adalhard frowned trying to understand the enemy game. It was very peculiar. He pulled the reins of his horse towards his generals and asked them:

“Have you ever seen this particular move from them so far?”

They looked questioningly at each other. Nashad, leader of riders. Strong tactician. Very good with a horse. Loved by his men because he often proved that for him every soldier who was under his command counted. Yirsk, leader of pikemen. Brutal and honest. Easily recognized because of hideous face obtained in battle from a mace blow that shattered his nose and his left cheekbone. Arual, leader of swordsmen. Tactically undisciplined. Extremely courageous. Probably the best men in the empire with a blade in his hand. At the end of the day more battle were won then lost under his command and that was decisive in Adalhard eyes. Still, there were days when Arual battle decisions gave the emperor major headaches.

This time it was Yirsk who spoke on their behalf. He cleared his throat and said:

“No, my lord emperor, we haven’t seen this so far. It is a novelty for us too.”

“Well, Adalhard said, new tricks usually mean trouble. Instruct your troops to stay alert. We will play our hand depending of enemy game, so we will have to act fast on this one. Arual, instruct the chief of archers to take positions in the front. I don’t like the look of this so I would be very happy if we can thin out a bit those men before they could play their game. Nashad go and ask Archmage Zatal if he is so kind to bless us with his presence.”

The stiff posture of Nashad adopted when he heard the command of the emperor as well as the ironic tone used by Adalhard revealed the tension between the warriors and wizards. The leaders of mage guild acted as it was beneath them to share their knowledge and power with the rest of the Empire. The commoners used to say that they walked through the world breathing a different air as the rest of them. They were always shadowing their activities and protecting fiercely their knowledge about magic. They were highly undependable and the only reason that kept Adalhard to take strong actions against them was the hope that they could somehow turn the tide of the war with their magic skills. So far though they weren’t able to cope with that and his patience was about to end.

Archmage Zatal arrived in front of the emperor several minutes later, while the archers began to take positions in the first line. He was a tall man, with a long white beard that he used to stroke with his right hand whenever he was nervous. He wore a long black robe that swept the ground while he was walking.

“Archmage Zatal” greeted him shortly the emperor.

“Emperor Adalhard” said with a metallic voice Zatal. “How can I be of service?”

As usual the sound of Zatal voice made Adalhard uncomfortable. He felt like the mage insulted him in some way but he couldn’t say how. He overcome his urge to snap at him and said politely:

“Archmage, it looks like Shades are trying to prepare us a nasty surprise. Do you have any idea what’s their intentions ? Could it be some sort of magic involved in this?”

Archmage Zatal looked intently at the battlefield. The enemies that pushed the carts filled with hay advanced just about in the range of Eastern Empire archers. Already the archers prepared their bows waiting for new orders.

“I don’t know what they are trying to do, emperor. It is not something I’m familiar with. I’m not sensing anyone using magic so far. I must warn you though that there are many forms of magic and I’m familiarized only with some of them. I’m going to tell you if something change in the process.”

Adalhard breathed heavily, disappointed by Zatal response. As usual, he didn’t learned anything from the mage. He turned towards the battlefield to follow the progress of the battle, just in time to see the first wave of arrows shot by his archers. Although his archers were fairly good ones, the carts provided excellent shelter for their enemies so the impact of the salvo was insignificant. Only two enemies were wounded, none in such a degree to be incapacitated. Next wave had pretty much the same faith except this time one enemy fell dead. At this rate it was pretty obvious that the damage inflicted by the archers was not enough to disrupt theirs intentions. All of the sudden Zatal moaned, grabbed his arm tightly and said to him with a transfigured face:

“We are in grave danger, Emperor. I sensed couple of mages in their armies and they are extremely powerful. What happens on the battlefield is part of a larger plan and I suspect that is a deceptive maneuver.“

“Deceptive in what way Zatal?” asked Adalhard obviously troubled by the haunted look of the archmage.

“The mages that I felt are specialized in a form of magic that once mastered give you the power to corrupt and control animal minds. It is a dark twisted art, forbidden to use due to the terrible effects it has on the creatures that have been corrupted. The stronger they are the more complex and powerful animals can control. As I felt them, I fear that they can control almost any creature known to us, beside the dragons of course. Once they control a creature, they can command it to do whatever they like and the poor beast won’t stop until its death. Probably they will try to use the surprise effect and that means to conceal their actions until the last moment. I think the carts with hay will be used exactly for that.”

As Zatal finished speaking, a breath of wind hit the emperor in the face and the last piece of the puzzle fit in the place. All of the sudden Adalhard understood the plan of the enemy. Fire he thought. They will set the carts on fire and the smoke will obscure our vision. We won’t see a thing until they will be on top of us. With that in mind pulled his horse reins in order to reach Nashad who was in the back with his light cavalry. As soon as he was in sight shouted to him to attack with his light cavalry the approaching enemies but it was already too late. Fifty yards from their position Shades placed the carts on fire. As it turned out, besides hay, at the bottom of the carts were pieces of coal. In couple of minutes the whole battlefield was littered with a choking black smoke that was creeping towards Eastern Empire lines. Adalhard moved towards the front line followed closely by Nashad. “Archers, regroup in the back” cried the emperor trying to restore order. “Yirsk take your pikemen and form the defense line. Arual, stay close and be ready to support Yirsk. We don’t know yet what we will face. Be prepared for anything.”

His generals began to dispatch orders to their men. Two men wearing combat armor appeared in front of Zatal. One was armed with two light curved swords and the other with a battle staff reinforced on both sides with steel. “Emperor Adalhard, said Zatal, those are Piro and Zuni. They are battle mages. Usually they serve as my bodyguards but today I’ve instructed them to protect you.”

“Thank you Zatal but it is not necessary. Keep them in your service. I have a whole army to protect me”

“Please, humor me Emperor. I’m pretty sure that you will need them, if I’m just half right about what will emerge from the smoke. As for me, I’m quite capable to defend myself.”

Before Adalhard could respond to the Archmage, they heard several wild roars. Soon enough they started to see through the smoke feline creatures moving slowly towards them.

“Shadowcats” said immediately Zatal. I feared they will try to use shadowcats.

“Shadowcats”? asked Adalhard with a surprised look.

“Very rare beasts. Panthers that live only in the Dark Cedars, an ancient forest from the middle of Shade Empire. Big as a full grown horse, ten inches tooth, razor sharp claws and a very thick fur that is extremely hard to penetrate with normal weapons. That makes shadowcats almost invincible. For all I know the eyes are the only weak spot. One more thing: instruct your men to aim for vitals organs. If they only wound the panther, it will trigger a natural response, a bloodlust that will make the animal even more dangerous that it already is.”

Only good news, thought bitterly Adalhard rushing to share the information with his generals and to organize a response. His next thought was that Zatal became in this particular occasion almost garrulous and that managed to put a smile on his face even as he arrived in front of his generals. Their look seeing him smiling while sharing the information received from Zatal was precious, a mixture of disbelief and fear that the Emperor finally gone mad. Somehow that cheered him even more up to the point that he had to fight with himself not to laugh hysterically.

He knew that he was intoxicated. It was the expectation of battle that started to raise his blood pressure and made his hands tremble. After years of peaceful reign it came to this. And now he was responsible not only for himself but for an entire army and country, facing an enemy that was virtually unknown. His head roared and his fist clutched the sword, wanting to feel the blood of his enemies dripping hot on the blade. It was a dangerous state of mind and he knew it. But in this moment he didn’t care. Finishing his exposure he demanded from his generals a viable battle plan. Nashad scratched thoughtfully his beard and said:

“If this panthers are as big as Zatal said, I propose an even match. We have a squad of heavy cavalry, dressed in full steel armor and armed with two-handed swords and fifteen feet lances. That should be enough to deal with the beasts.”

“No Nashad” said Arual fast. “We could use them as a supplement for heavy infantry, but on foot. After the smoke will reach to our lines we will be happy to see even the tip of our swords. A cavalry charge in this condition is madness. We will trample our own troops. Let’s face the beasts on foot, in square formation. This is our best option if you ask me.”

Nashad and Yirsk agreed after a moment and started to dispatch orders. Heavy infantry started towards the front line to replace the pikemen that took positions there. The emperor dismounted and patted gently his magnificent stallion on the neck. “Settle down Breeze. I’m going to be fine.” The mare snorted and violently shook his head sideways. I’ve managed to upset even my horse. I wonder if there is someone left in the entire Eastern Empire who is not angry with me right now. thought bitterly the Emperor. Then, the wind started to blow furiously in their direction, no doubt with some unnatural help from their enemies, and the smoke filled their lines. Adalhard left his bitter thoughts to rest and focused on the battle. Amongst swirls of smoke he saw his worst nightmares coming to life. The description of the shadowcats faded in the face of reality. First one that arrived attacked a group of pikemen who haven’t retreated in time. A seven feet high killing machine weighting about three thousand pounds jumped right in the middle of them and started to deliver blows with the front paws. The strikes were so powerful that blew apart the unfortunates that were hit. A head flew gracefully through the air leaving behind a cloud of blood like a comet while the body twitched spasmodically on the ground. Another pikeman fell to the ground with his rib cage shattered with a sickening sound. The third one was split in half by a deadly bite. Within seconds the ground around the animal soaked with blood, dead bodies started to pile up while the living tried to escape fleeing in disarray. The sheer ferocity of its attacks began to sow panic in the ranks of the army.

So far, the pikemen that were attacked failed to deliver any serious blows to the panther. The first one that arrived in the area was Arual followed by an elite swordsmen group. They had light armor made from ox boiled leather and a small steel helmet covering only the top of the head. They were expert in fighting with one hand swords using a small round steel shield for protection. Just as they approached the panther a pikeman managed to sink his spear in the animal right back leg and a black stream of blood gushed from the wound. The shadowcat roared in pain and its big round eyes filled with blood, entering in a frenzy state. Focusing on the unlucky warrior who managed to wound it, delivered a devastating blow that opened his abdomen from top to bottom. Then, because its claws remained stuck in the lifeless corpse, shadowcat smashed the dead body to the ground repeatedly until it was torn to pieces. In its frenzy the animal paid attention only to its prey and Arual seized the opportunity. Dropped his shield and with a daring leap covered the distance between them, landing crouched just below the jaw of the shadowcat. Grabbing his sword with both hands he straightened and burrowed the weapon through the animal’s jaw up to his brain, then jumped to his left to avoid a blow from the mortally wounded panther.

The animal stiffened and dropped dead to the ground. Arual placed a foot on panther’s large head, recovered his bloody sword and raised it in the air in a gesture of triumph that triggered cheers from his men. It was a brief success, much needed in order to restore moral of the soldiers confronted with the dreadful beasts . Shortly after, other panthers appeared from the smoke and a bloody battle began. This time, the panthers had to face heavy infantry which arrived in the front lines, much better protected in their full steel armor than the unfortunate pikemen. Still, the armor bearers had the distinct disadvantage of being very slow compared to the agile animals. Their swings very often missed the panthers that were in a state of perpetual motion, while the heavy blows of the panthers, although failed to penetrate their armor, were strong enough to cause concussions and break the bones of the soldiers.

Adalhard was in front of a group of swordsmen when a shadowcat appeared in front of them. Its huge fangs were bright red, soaked in human blood. With a deep growl attack them, his massive front paws barely missing the emperor. Piro and Zuni appeared in front of him, waving their hands in an intricate way. The emperor noticed that around him and the two mages appeared a protective air bubble. Inside the bubble the air was dense and the emperor felt clumsy due to the sudden change of the air pressure. His movements were slower as if he was under water. The shadowcat tried again to hit them but its blows were deflected from the protective bubble. Couple of missed hits later, hissing with frustration, the animal was forced to direct attention towards the other warriors that threaten to overwhelm it. Piro and Zuni breathed with relief. Their foreheads were soaked in sweat and their hands were shaking. The effort to sustain the protective bubble was very high. Couple of seconds later the shadowcat attacked them again after it killed all the fighters around them. This time the big cat changed the tactics and simply threw itself into the bubble trying to break it. The force of the blow was tremendous and the two mages felt unconscious to the ground as the bubble was shattered. Adalhard found himself alone facing the horror. He raised his sword and waited fearless the deadly attack of the beast. The shadowcat ran his tongue over his thick lips and started to move around the Emperor, prolonging the outcome, playing with him like a cat play with a wounded mouse before the fatal blow. Suddenly Zatal appeared from behind. Shadowcat stopped for a moment, facing the new threat and that hesitation proved fatal. Without slowing Zatal lifted his hands above his head, towards the clouded sky and in response a dreadful lightning stroke his palms. Zatal harnessed the power of the lightning and used it to strike the animal. The panther literally burst into flames, the smell of burnt flesh making Adalhard sick. He dropped to one knee trying to recover from the shock of the battle while Zatal went to Piro and Zuni and placed his hands to their foreheads. Shortly after, they opened their eyes, looking refreshed .

After that, the battle was soon over. Another three panthers were found dead on the battlefield but the price of their victory was quite high. Nearly a hundred dead soldiers and twice as many seriously wounded. Still, the smoke on the battlefield worked in their favor afterwards. Without seeing the outcome of the fight enemy commander assumed that the panthers managed to overcome the Eastern Empire defense line and launched a general assault. Their defensive positions enabled them to withstand the assault and to launch a counterattack that turned into a bloodbath once their enemies broke the formations and run. More than a thousand from the shades forces died in battle, over two thirds with wounds in the back during their hasty retreat.

While reports from the battlefield were gathered and army leaders congratulated themselves for the outstanding victory obtained against all odds the Emperor found a moment and called Zatal. As the Archmage arrived Adalhard said to him:

“I’m in your debt Zatal. You helped both me and the army tremendously with your actions. For that I thank you. Also I want to thank Piro and Zuni for their valiant efforts to defend me that almost cost them their lives. Tell me if I can do anything for you or your order.”

“Thank you Emperor”, said gravely Zatal, but it was our duty. You owe us nothing as well as you owe nothing to your soldiers who only did their job. We are part of the Empire, we care about it and we will do anything that is in our power to defend it.”

“Speaking about power, said smiling Adalhard, from what I saw today I would say that you and your mages are pretty powerful.”

“Unfortunately Emperor, it is not exactly true. Most of our powers are limited because it relies on natural events. For example, I’m able to use the force of lightning. As you could see, is quite a powerful spell, but requires a cloudy sky. My magic consists in attracting, modeling and redirecting the lightning, not creating it. If outside would be a clear sky, I couldn’t perform this particular spell more than you could. Very few spells have no limitation of some kind and most of them are forbidden, precisely for that. “

Adalhard found the subject fascinating and wanted to ask Zatal more about it but their discussion was interrupted by a very tired messenger who insisted he had urgent news for the Emperor. He apologized to the Archmage ending their conversation and called the messenger to him.

“My lord emperor” said the messenger with a trembling voice, “I’m coming from the capital with grave news.”

Adalhard felt a wave of tension surging to his body. “Is something wrong with my family?” asked with an angry tone.

“No my lord emperor, both our queen and the prince crown are fine.” said the courier while Adalhard breathed heavily with relief, “but our southern border was breached. Three villages were raided and pillaged by armed parties. Our troops camped in the south arrived too late to prevent the attack. They are too few and spread too thin to cover effectively all the southern border. Only few escaped from the bloodbath . Some of them recognized the distinctive marks of the enemies. They were berserkers from the savage tribes that dwell in the Black Mountains. After the attack they retreated back in the mountains.”

“I don’t understand” said the Emperor frowning, “the savage tribes from the Black Mountains swore allegiance to the Kingdom of Vigorien. They are our allies. Why would they unleash their dogs on us?”

“Hello Adalhard” said a girl that suddenly appeared in their vicinity and the Emperor attention diverted from the courier.

“Hello Renata” said with a sarcastic voice. “Where have you been all this time? I thought you supposed to be my bodyguard or something. If you haven’t noticed so far, we have just gone through a bloody battle”.

“Oh, mighty Emperor, greatest man on earth, do forgive your faithful subject.” said with a mocking voice the frail little girl, “As soon as I found out that you left to war to punish with your mighty arm our feeble enemies I came as quickly as I could to place my humble services in your favor but alas you were too quick in your anger and destroyed our enemies before my arrival. Nevertheless I will ….”

“Oh, that’s quite enough, you little rascal” interrupted her Adalhard shaken by laughter, “please just tell me where have you been before you create an irreparable damage to our empire by killing his mighty leader with your jokes.”

“It is better that this part of our conversation to remain private” said Renata on a serious tone, “I can promise you that it will be an interesting conversation that will respond to some of your questions”.

“Oh, fine, my favorite buffoon, if you feel the need of a private conversation, you will have it” said Adalhard then instructed the courier to inform in detail his generals. After the departure of the courier he placed his hand on Renata’s back with an affectionate gesture while both entered in his tent.

After he was assured that nobody could hear them he started: “Now, Renata, tell me where have you been and what is going on? “

“I was in the Kingdom of Vigorien Adalhard”, said the little girl. “The Alarites have thoughts of grandeur. They want to restore the glory of their kingdom as it was in the days when Vigorien walked on this earth. As you know, their kingdom stretched over the Black Mountains, up to the Barren Hills. That means almost half from Eastern Empire as it is today. They seized the opportunity and struck a deal with the Shades. Basically, they agreed to attack from the south while the Shades attack us from the west. According to the deal, Eastern Empire will be split in two between the Alarites and the Shades. In my opinion the Shades won’t respect this part of the bargain but at that point it really doesn’t matter for the Eastern Empire. We will all be enslaved, spending the rest of our lives laboring for the Shades and placing bets on the results of the war between the Shades and the Alarites that will probably follow after that.”

“How do you possibly know that Renata?” asked with a choking voice Adalhard.

“Because I was right there, in the grand hall of the mighty cathedral of Vigorien or whatever the name of their castle is these days, when their king, Vigorien the sixteenth, forged the alliance between them and the Shades. Don’t you think that their habit to rename their kings after their only true leader they ever had is somehow stupid?”

“Then we are doomed.” Said Adalhard ignoring the joke of Renata, “we can’t possible handle two wars in the same time. Most of our forces are here and even so we barely resist in front of the Shades.”

“Correct, but I have some good news too”, smiled the little girl. “See, the Alarites hadn’t anticipated this so their army is not assembled. Normally they need about three months to raise the army and another three to train it in some measure. In order to raise and train the army they need someone to command it. Their only competent general was Vespree the Great. Since you weren’t there I thought what would you do to delay the preparations of war and I came up with an obvious answer. You would kill their general. Fortunate enough I found myself in a good position soon after they closed the deal so I killed Vespree before my departure. In their good tradition, the other generals, rather incompetent I might add, will start a small war of assassins. The survivor of this ugly war will be declared by the Emperor commander of their army. The whole process should add another four to six months to their preparations. Unfortunately before I was able to kill Vespree he sent orders to the savage tribes from the Black Mountains to raid our villages from the frontier in order to force you to split your forces. That’s why they attacked us. Still, they are too few to be more than an annoyance to us. So there, you have almost a year to prepare for a total war. I suggest you use this time wisely Adalhard.”

Adalhard looked with a perplexed face, clearly having difficulties in understanding the message delivered . He knew of course the true identity of the girl, a secret that very few carefully selected members from the Eastern Empire knew. She was head of the empire espionage network and one of the best assassins that he knew. Still he often found himself surprised by her actions. Like now when she gleefully declared that she killed the commander of the army of their neighbors that was probably protected by a dozen men at all times, without a plan or additional help. She truly was unbelievable. Once more he was glad that she was on his side.

“Fine”, he said, making up his mind. Then he stepped outside from his tent, followed by the smiling girl. In front of the tent found Arual and Zatal speaking on a low tone. “Gentlemen I received some disturbing news so I have decided to ride toward the capital. Arual, tell Nashad to take command of the troops here. Stay in the defensive position but be alert. If it is required, be prepared to retreat fast. That includes the garrison from the forts that guard our flanks. Zatal, I will have to ask you to stay in the area to aid our troops both with advice and your magic skills.”

“No problem Emperor”, said Zatal. “You should take Piro and Zuni with you though. In dangerous times one can never have too many guards.”

Adalhard was tempted to refuse, thinking that Renata would be more than enough, but he couldn’t reveal the true identity of her so he nodded in agreement then he threw himself in the saddle. We are going home Breeze. Are you happy? he waited a while but the mare stood quiet. Only the harsh winds coming from the sea answered and their voices weren’t comforting him.

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