Excerpt of The Treachery of a Weasel (sequel to The Roar of a Dragon)

PROLOGUE

 

            Destiny is a very strange thing, now, isn’t it?

            After the victory my companions and I achieved over Sirak and the Dyn’osi in Delmar, one would think that I would long to be accepted back into my home country, into the good graces of the people I worked so hard to serve. 

            “One” would be wrong.

            To the surprise of even my friends, I had absolutely no desire to stay in that place any longer than I had to.  I left the city in short order, along with nearly all of my companions—only Derrick, my wise-cracking friend, stayed behind, serving once again for the White Army, the army I had once served in for several years.  He was offered the position of General, the same position as my mentor, Sir Garridan, by King Baladir, but he declined—he had never wanted that kind of responsibility.

            Once we all left the city, most of us went our separate ways.  Timor, the time-traveling apprentice wizard distraught over losing the Rod of Therl back to Sirak, disappeared shortly after our victory in Delmar.  Although he and I had never really seen eye-to-eye, I was concerned for him—he was stuck in this time since the time traveling jewel broke, and since he wouldn’t actually be born for several more decades, he really didn’t have anyone here except us.  But he left without a word, and therefore it was out of my control.

Kirra, the Queen of the Thieves (as she is called), returned to the criminal city of Knol, to do whatever it is she does down there.  Despite the fact that we had a natural dislike of each other—since she was a thief and I was a soldier—I couldn’t deny her skills.  She was exceptional at combat, and her infiltration skills had proven very useful in Delmar. 

That being said, Kirra not being around was good for my stress level.

All that was left were those who really had nowhere to go—myself, Iskandor the dragon, and of course, Lady Mirabelle.

            Mirabelle was a soldier without a home, just like myself.  But in dealing with her pain and loss, during the same time that I was dealing with my pain and loss, we found what we both needed to pull us through that difficult time:  each other.

            The legend surrounding Lady Mirabelle was that any man who met her fell in love with her at first sight.  It was rumored to be magic or an enchantment of some kind, and after the battle at Delmar, that was proven to be the case—it was revealed that a ring she always wore, given to her by a resident of Longchester that she didn’t know, was enchanted.  But knowing that I was confused over my feelings for her (not knowing if they were real or part of the enchantment), Mirabelle threw the ring into Lake Apera, and if anything, my love for her only got stronger.  We helped each other a great deal in getting through those first couple of months.

            Now we, along with Iskandor, were inseparable, and in keeping with my vision after the events in Delmar, we formed the Knights of Iskandor, a mercenary group gathered together to deal with dangerous situations, situations of evil.  We took only jobs of virtue, dealing justice to evil and bringing hope and peace to the good.

            Kirra joined us periodically—not only was fighting evil not her thing, but there was still a great deal of tension between her and Mirabelle, So the two co-existed, because both were very close to me, but it was a very tenuous relationship, at best.

           

            As for Iskandor, the dragon who had inadvertently caused my exile from Delmar, who had since become the greatest friend I ever had, he seemed to be doing very well.  He enjoyed his role in our Knighthood immensely, and was never too far away, a silent, but comforting presence.  But whenever we looked at each other, I could see behind his eyes—something was haunting him.  When I saw his looks of trepidation and fear, I knew exactly what he was thinking.

            The time is near.  We must find out what you have become.

            I knew it as well as he did, but I constantly put it off.  After my exile from Delmar, about a year later, I was killed by brigands who, I suspect, were attempting to collect on a bounty put out by Sir Norvin, my greatest (and I use that term very loosely) rival in the White Army.  Iskandor, a young dragon at the time, was there, but was too young to help me.  He had the guise of a little boy as I was dying, but it took too long for him to shape shift back into a dragon.  As a result, he carried that grief with him for three thousand years.  In the meantime, he attempted to save my life by bringing me to an elder dragon, who powers could resurrect me.  Unfortunately, it appeared that the dragon had gone mad, and instead of simply restoring me back to life, he put me in a deep sleep and performed foul magic on me.  As a result, I woke up three thousand years in the future with long, black hair, white eyes (which only served to terrify most people), and magical powers that not only did I not want, but I could not control at times.  Timor helped me a great deal, after my reluctance to even try, to harness my powers, and now I was very skilled at them, although I was still learning to use them.  But I still despised my powers, and I vowed never to use them unless it was absolutely necessary.  (I cheated at times, however—I found telekinesis to be very useful … not to mention fun.)

            The Knights began to earn a good reputation in a short period of time.  We traveled around the world, doing jobs in all parts of the world … and that is how we heard the first rumblings of trouble.  First and foremost, Sirak, who had escaped Delmar virtually unscathed (and regained the valuable Rod of Therl, used in the Sol-haleth ritual that was performed that changed the citizens of Delmar into the dreaded Ther-lor), had created a new kingdom, taking over the city of Min Lenoras, in the far west.  There were reports from scattered, nearby settlements that talked of strange happenings in the area, that the city was strangely silent, and that the gates of the enormous, mountain-top city had been barred shut.   

            We also began to hear of trouble with the Mage’s Counsel.  After the truth about Sirak and the Ther-lor spread across the land like wildfire, the people—nobles, peasants, and kings alike—began to call for control, and sometimes eradication, of mages as a whole.  They claimed that the mages should have had better control and more knowledge of what Sirak was doing.  The truth, however, is a great deal more complicated—many of the spells that Sirak used in the Sol-haleth ritual was already forbidden by the Initiatve, and Sirak was already a part of the Dyn’osi, one of the most secret of secret cults.  So it follows that if they are doing their jobs properly, no one could have ever known what they were doing until they did it … and even then, you still might not know it.  Honestly, there was little the Initiative could have done about it.  Timor once told me that the mages employ their own forces in dealing with renegade mages, or magic out of control.  These forces were often taken from the ranks of graduating wizards, (though a few mages out of every graduating class often volunteered), and were used strictly to deal with problems within their craft.  One would think that, even if it were only for damage control, that they would be called in to deal with the Dyn’osi situation shortly, if they hadn’t been already. 

            Internally, I also had personal problems to deal with—my nightmares about Garridan still haunted me virtually every night.  Sir Garridan Winslow, my mentor who had taken me as a farm boy and trained me to become the knight that I was, was turned into a Ther-lor by Sirak and forced to fight me.  The Ther-lor are mindless, soulless beings, who have one purpose—to listen to their master, Sirak.  Sirak ordered the Ther-lor Garridan to kill me while I was in the future, but it was I who killed him—but at terrible personal cost to myself.  I began having horrible nightmares and flashbacks.  After I and my companions infiltrated Delmar to save the city, I was forced to fight him again … and I killed him again, albeit accidentally.  In my attempt to use my powers to destroy the magical barrier that housed the souls of all the people of Delmar, Sirak used his powers to throw Garridan in the way, and the blast did terrible damage to him.  After the barrier was destroyed, and Garridan’s soul had been returned to his body, we were able to have a few final words with each other, and I had hoped that that would be the end of my nightmares, but it wasn’t to be.

            And then there was Norvin himself.  One of my other purposes in coming back to Delmar was to confront him, perhaps even battle him, gain some retribution for the crimes he perpetrated against myself and the city of Delmar.  It was Norvin who had struck a deal with the Dyn’osi that allowed them entry into the city, where they were able to perform the Sol-haleth and convert the city.  It was also Norvin, I suspect, that put out the bounty on me that resulted in my death.  But when I finally found Norvin in Delmar in the cathedral, he had been stabbed, almost near death, and I hadn’t bothered to finish him off.

            But weeks later, when the remains of the cathedral had been cleared, Norvin’s body was nowhere to be found …

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

            Lady Mirabelle … so beautiful, so deadly.

            I watched her from high above.  She truly was awe-inspiring, from a standpoint of beauty, as well as skill.  But she cared not for her looks, not at all.  She did not rely on her long, flaming red hair, or her violet eyes to get somebody’s attention.  If you didn’t respect her, a solid fist to the jaw would do the trick.  She didn’t need me to protect her—she was quite capable of taking care of herself.  She had been the leader of the Longchester military, and for good reason—she was every bit as efficient on the battlefield as she was captivating in appearance.  All of this just made me love her more … and she loved me back—a ghostly creature with long, stringy black hair, pale skin, and white eyes.  Perched on the tree branch I was crouched on, I couldn’t help but ponder how truly lucky I was.

            She caught me staring at her, and she put two fingers to her own eyes, then pointed to the building we were supposed to be watching—a direct reminder to pay attention to my job.  But even as she did that, she was smiling. 

            How?  How did such a shining light penetrate through my darkness?

            But, as Iskandor liked to say, “Questioning why is pointless.”  Things that have already happened couldn’t be changed, so there was no reason to wonder about it … and in this case, I certainly had no problem accepting my fate.

            Just then, sounds from the building … they were coming out.

            My mind finally snapped back into focus, I tensed, pulling my black hood a little lower down over my head.  With my vision that was enhanced by my powers, I could see everything in the dark night ahead of me.  The only sounds were the chirping of crickets nearby, and a light breeze blowing through the trees—along with the sounds of the targets, coming out through the window of the warehouse we’d been watching. 

            Three bandits had just hit the ground … time to move.

            I gave Mirabelle the signal, and she jumped out from behind the tree she was hiding behind, just as the bandits were about to pass her.

            “Ahh!” one of them screamed.  “It’s them!  Run!”  But before the nearest one to Mirabelle could get away, she swept his legs out from under him, and quickly held her dagger to his throat.

            The remaining bandits—two of them—were now heading in my direction.  I leapt down from the tree branch, some twenty-five feet in the air, landing hard in a crouch position right in front of them.  Lifting my head slowly, I glared at them.

            “It’s Aidan!”  The nearest bandit screamed.  At the glimpse of my white eyes, they reared back in terror.  One of them though, decided he was brave enough to try and take me down.  He charged at me, swinging his ax. 

“Whoa, easy there!” I said, mocking him.  “You’re going to throw out your shoulder if you keep flailing like that!”

The bandit didn’t acknowledge my taunts and kept on swinging fruitlessly.  Having not drawn my twin black shortswords yet, I dove into a roll past him, nearly rolling into a tree, drawing my swords and twirling them as I rose. 

The bandit charged again, had almost reached me before I could turn around.  He swung his ax again, a swing that he put all of his force into, as evidenced by the fact that the blade of the weapon sunk deeply into the bark of the tree, sending wood splinters flying everywhere and getting the ax stuck.  Cursing, the bandit tried desperately to free his weapon, but he was too late.  I stood quickly, kneed the bandit in the stomach, and hit him in the face with the hilt of my left-hand sword.  He sunk like a collapsing tent. 

            The remaining bandit was now utterly horrified.  In desperation, he ran the only remaining way he could … to his left. 

            “Stop him!”  Mirabelle yelled.  “He’s getting away!”

            “It’s taken care of,” I said with a smirk, sheathing my shortswords.  A few seconds later, the still night was shattered by the roar of a dragon, followed by an ear-piercing, high-pitched scream that was almost as loud.  Mirabelle smiled in realization.

            “Are you sure he won’t eat him?”  Mirabelle asked with a heart-stopping smile.

            “That won’t happen,” I said confidently.  “Iskandor knows our orders … ‘subdue and apprehend.’  Besides, he doesn’t like to eat humans—he says they have a bit of a sour taste to him.”

            “Well, that’s not nice,” Mirabelle replied, “but good for us, I suppose.” 

            With that, we all turned our attention to (likely) the one conscious bandit.  Mirabelle had tied up his arms and feet to keep him from escaping.

            However, that didn’t keep him from being quiet … the bandit began to yell and scream for help. 

            With a short right hand to the jaw, he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

            “Ouch,” Mirabelle said, glancing down at the bandit.  “You need to watch it, Aidan—you know your powers make you stronger than most people.”

            I smiled at her.  “I was in full control.” 

Then I heard sounds coming from my left, and I turned to find Iskandor, in human form, coming toward us with his right hand extended, guiding the unconscious form of a bandit, which was floating in front of him.

            “What happened?”  Mirabelle asked.

            Iskandor shrugged.  “Nothing at all.  He simply fainted when he saw a dragon in front of him.”

            I smiled at him.  “How come you’re not still in dragon form?”

            “I didn’t feel like taking down several trees just to walk over here,” Iskandor replied.  “So, I shifted.”

            I nodded in understanding.  “Let’s round up these bandits get them back to the sheriff in Traiss for the reward.” 

 

***

 

            The city of Traiss wasn’t that far away from the warehouse we were watching.  The sheriff of the city was concerned that there were robberies taking place there, and he proved to be right.  He was extremely pleased when we returned with the bodies; he paid a pretty good sum in gold for each bandit.  We divided it up evenly and left the city, back out on the road again.

            If we didn’t have a certain destination in mind, we didn’t travel in a specific direction, and this was one of those nights.  Most times, we would end up in a city where someone there would need help—thieves apprehended, beasts slaughtered, missing people found, and even in some cases, pets found.  If the cause was merited, we took the job.

            We were right on the Longchester border, and we knew we needed to leave quickly, before King Marion learned of our presence.  We journeyed south for a couple of hours, before settling in the Odieri Mountains, not far from a path that ran through the mountain range.  In any other place, we wouldn’t want to risk a fire, but it was much too cold not to.  Thankfully, when you have a dragon around, you need not worry about how you are going to start said fire. 

            Mirabelle took first watch, and I came to relieve her after a few hours.  Instead of leaving to rest, however, she remained seated on a fallen log, and looked up at me with worried expression.  “This is going to be the best time of our lives, isn’t it?”

            I just stared at her in shock.  “What do you mean?”

            “Right here, right now,” she answered, staring unseeing into the fire.  “Going around the land, working for the good, dealing with as many thieves and highway men as we can.  But it’s coming, I can feel it … Sirak has been quiet for much too long, to say nothing of King Marion.”

            I understood what she meant completely, and I put my arm around her as I sat down.

            “I don’t mean to make what we’re doing sound bad,” Mirabelle reassured me.  “Quite the contrary, Aidan—I love it.  I love being in the Knights of Iskandor, and most of all, I love being with you.”

            Her words sent a pleasant shiver through my body.  “As I do, my love,” I whispered, drawing her in closer.  She rested her head on my shoulder.  Her wavy red hair was in my face, but I didn’t care one bit.

            “The world is about to be plunged into war,” Mirabelle said, as if she had known this for quite some time, which she may well have.  “Though they are not working together, Sirak and King Marion are out to destroy the world, as well as each other—and they are going to endanger all of the free beings of world in doing so.”

            I sensed that there was something else bothering her.  “You know that peace never lasts that long, Mirabelle.  There will always be war.”

            “Of course I know that,” Mirabelle said.  “It’s just that … you, Timor, and Iskandor have been to the future.  You have seen what it will become …”

            “That future doesn’t exist anymore, my love,” I reassured her.  “We have changed the events, and the future will never end up that way.”

            “We don’t know that, Aidan,” Mirabelle said in response.  “Yes, the exact future you witnessed will never take place, but something very similar could occur.”

            I had to admit, I was somewhat shaken by her words.  I knew deep down that she was right—there was always the chance that the future I had witnessed would come to pass, as long as Sirak lived.  But that couldn’t happen—we would find a way to stop him.  We had to …

            “I still think about Longchester sometimes,” Mirabelle said, her words cutting through my thoughts.  “My parents are there, suffering.  I want to help them so badly …”  She paused and then went on.  “I think about the greatest days I had in the knighthood, how the people admired me so, and I loved them in turn.  Then I think about the entire city of people turned into Ther-lor, people who I knew and cared about … I don’t know how you dealt with it.”

            I sighed and paused before answering.  “Of course, my situation is a bit different.  I fought with it in my mind every day, whether I wanted to save them or not.  Right or wrong, that was how I felt.  It is also true that there was so much else going on that my mind was otherwise occupied all the time.  It certainly wasn’t the easiest time of my life.”

            “I know,” Mirabelle replied.  “I hope I was able to help out with your emotional turmoil.”

            I chuckled to myself, which alarmed Mirabelle at first, because she didn’t know what I meant by it.  But her apprehension changed into a beaming smile when I replied, “I never would have made it through that time without you.”

            Her smile nearly lit up the darkness surrounding us caused by the night, like it had lit up my life.  Just the image of her smile was enough to get me through any difficult time.  But even as I rejoiced in our newfound love, the dark clouds of my thoughts still periodically blocked that shining light.

            “As for your parents,” I went on, “we will save them.  I promise you that.”

            Mirabelle looked up at me hopefully, then smiled.  Then she snuggled closer to me.

            “Something’s on your mind,” Mirabelle said, matter-of-factly.  In a very short time, she was able to learn very quickly when something was bothering me.  I suspected that she had a great deal of practice, dealing with my moods.

            Caught off-guard, I scrambled to recover.  “I—I’m fine.”

            “No, you’re not,” she said, in a slightly sing-song voice.  She always had a way of completely disarming me, using a variety of tactics. 

            “I’m sorry,” I said with a sigh.  “I’m just … it’s difficult when you don’t know exactly what you are.”

            “It doesn’t matter,” Mirabelle said simply.

            I looked at her, confused.  “What do you mean, ‘it doesn’t matter’?”

            “You are who you are,” she said, “and that’s quite enough for me.”

            It was things like that that made my life of turmoil that much easier to deal with.

            “I know we discussed the Ther-lor’s existence after the Battle of Delmar,” Mirabelle went on, returning to her earlier subject, “but I can’t help but wonder what would possess someone to do something like that to innocent people.”

            “He’s crazy, my love,” I answered.  “That’s all there is to it.  He believes that he can save the world by turning it into something else entirely.”

            “But does he even know the effect it has on the people?”  Mirabelle questioned.  “Everyone we talked to in Delmar told us how horrible it was—that they were fully conscious and aware of what was going on, but they could do nothing to stop it.  Can you imagine?  You’re in your own body, forced to kill another human being.  You know it’s wrong—you would never do it if you were your normal self.  You see yourself doing it, you’re afraid and desperate to stop yourself—yet you have no control.  You kill that person and all you’re left with is the pain and mental anguish of what you’ve just done.  And you can never be rid of that.”

            It truly was a horrifying picture that Mirabelle had painted.  It was like you were in prison inside your own body.        

            That was what Garridan felt …

            I shook off that thought immediately and moved on.

            “And the children …” My voice was almost a whisper.

            Mirabelle nodded.  We didn’t find out until later, but Sirak had kept the children in the dungeons of the White Castle.  All of them, packed in there like rats.  It turned out that the effects of the Sol-haleth ritual were too much for the minds of the young to handle.  They became wild and unpredictable, almost feral.  Left unchecked, they could have done significant damage to city, let alone the adult Ther-lor themselves.  So Sirak caged them in the dungeons, where they screamed and snarled like monsters.  It was terrifying to think about.

            “He has to be stopped,” Mirabelle said in a low voice.

            “He will be,” I replied.  “We just have to figure out how.  We don’t know where he’s keeping the souls, and it’s not like we can just walk right in to Min Lenoras.  We’re not going to have the element of surprise like we did in Delmar.”

            “I know, I know,” Mirabelle said, and it was clear that she was flustered.

            And I knew why.

            “We’ll save them, my love.  I will not stop until Longchester is saved.  I promise you that.”

            She looked up into my eyes then, and I saw that they were dimmed with tears.  I held her tighter and stared into the fire.

            We will save them.  We will stop Sirak.  If it’s the last thing I do.

SMALL TITLE

CHAPTER 2

 

            Ten days passed.  We continued to travel south, staying as far away from the Longchester border as we could manage—not that we would have traveled through the country anyway, with King Marion in power, and undoubtedly looking forward to the day that he would come face-to-face with all of us again.  The elven forest land of Vidasel was almost directly south of Traiss, and we had headed there.  We received a very warm reception from the elves, with whom I had had a great relationship with for years, something not normally found in humans.  Lady Mirabelle, a knight of great renown, was welcomed with open arms.  Elves revere dragons, so they considered it an honor to be in Iskandor’s presence.   

            As the elves honored us with their hospitality, I couldn’t help but feel, as I always did, very anxious and apprehensive while I was visiting—the reason being that my sleeping body, from my previous life (after I had been killed) was residing in one of the southern most caves of Vidasel, guarded by a young Iskandor.  That body would wake up three thousand years later, in the form that I currently possessed.  Timor, the wizard, had made it clear to me and to the elves that my body was not to be disturbed—if something happened to it, there was a great chance that I would cease to exist, since my timeline would be disrupted.  It was all very confusing; the part I understood the most was not to disturb my sleeping form, and that was all I needed to know.

            As the elves and I greeted each other, I came across Nydel, the female elven warrior who served in the elven military, and who would be their leader in that future time, three thousand years from now.  She didn’t look any different now than she would then, with the life span of the elves that stretched thousands of years.  I didn’t speak to her much in this time, but every time I saw her, I couldn’t help but be appreciative of her help in the future, notably when she distracted Sirak long enough for Timor, Iskandor, and I to escape through the time portal and come back to this time.  She had put her life on the line for us, and I would never forget that—but it was difficult to not be able to express that appreciation, for fear of disturbing the future.

            After we had eaten a delicious elven meal, we were walking through the forest, just enjoying the peace and serenity of the elven realm, when we spotted an elf runner heading straight for us, sprinting all the way.  He was holding a scroll case in his hand.  Though he had probably been running for quite some time, he didn’t seem the least bit winded—elves had amazing endurance.

            “Sir Aidan,” the elf said with a bow, “we just received a message for you.”

            Confused, I looked around at the others.  “How does anyone know we’re even here?”

            “It was delivered by a falcon, my lord,” the elf answered.  I nodded in understanding—it was said that animal messengers could communicate with any other animal life they encounter, and therefore, find you anywhere.  But I was immediately apprehensive—a message delivered by a falcon could only come from one place …

            Delmar.

            I took the scroll case from the elf, who immediately departed.  I pulled the top off and pulled out the piece of fine parchment, sealed with red wax, embedded with the image of a falcon.  Using my dagger, I carefully removed the wax and unrolled the parchment, noticing immediately that it was from King Baladir.  I immediately began to get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

            I read the message to myself first—it was short and to the point:

 

                        Lord Aidan,

 

                 Your presence is requested immediately at the White Castle, in      response to a situation of dire importance.

 

                                                                     King Baladir IV

 

            “What does it say?”  Mirabelle asked.  I handed her the note to read.

            “‘Lord’ Aidan … you’re never going to be used to that, are you?”

            I shook my head.  In another gesture of extreme placation or sincere gratitude, King Baladir had awarded me a piece of land in Delmar.  I never did anything with it, but it still technically made me a lord.  It was all very odd.

            Mirabelle’s expression became grave.  “I don’t like the sound of this note.”

            “Nor do I,” Iskandor said quietly.  “I suppose the question is, is it King Marion … or Lord Sirak?”

 

***

 

            Leaving the elven kingdom of Vidasel was about as difficult as I imagined—despite telling the elves that I had an urgent matter and needed to depart immediately, there were too many formalities, as well as offers of assistance.  After I assured the elves that I appreciated their offer, and would ask for help if it were needed, and saying farewell to the proper dignitaries, we were finally cleared to leave.  Once outside the forest, Iskandor shape shifted into a dragon, and we all climbed on his back, myself in front, then Lady Mirabelle. 

Flying on dragon-back was always exhilarating, the thrill of flying amongst the birds and soaring amongst the clouds enough to feel like my soul was flying just as high.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t travel like this all the time—many lands in our world are anti-dragon territories, and also it is difficult to travel in secret on the back of a dragon.

After the initial thrill had settled, I found that it was also a good time to think about anything that might be on my mind, since the thrill of flying has a way of clearing the mind almost instantly.  In this instance, there was only one thing on my mind:  Sirak.

            The fact that Lord Sirak and his Dyn’osi had claimed an area of the world in which to start his new kingdom so quickly was unsettling enough.  Word of what had happened in Delmar and what he had done in Min Lenoras spread quickly, inspiring fear in the hearts of the people.  After all, nobody wants to lose their soul—and that was exactly one of the main parts of the Sol-haleth ritual that was required to transform people into the Ther-lor.  Word from the people of Delmar was that the process of performing the ritual was so draining to the Dyn’osi cult members that their recovery afterward took months. 

            The choice of Min Lenoras as the city overtaken by Sirak was intriguing to me, though not surprising.  Min Lenoras was the oldest city in Athania, as well as the most modern and civilized, and as such, the people of that city believed themselves to be superior to the rest of the world.  Any visitors from other lands were treated with apathy, and sometimes outright rudeness, no matter what their race.  As Lord Sirak himself had said, his mission was to “purify” the world of its greed and selfishness.  With that knowledge in mind, it wasn’t difficult for one to assume that Min Lenoras was a main target in Sirak’s crusade.

            We arrived in Delmar around midday.  Iskandor landed in the large, round, grassy field surrounding the White Castle.  The sun was peeking out through the cloudy sky, and there was a light, comfortable breeze in the air.  After I dismounted, I began to walk toward the castle, but after a while, I realized that no one was following me.  I turned around, seeing Iskandor and Mirabelle watching me leave.

            I gave them a quizzical look.  “You two waiting for something?”

            “The message only summoned you to the castle,” Mirabelle responded.  “We were not invited.”  There was no sour note in her voice; she was merely speaking the truth.

            I shrugged.  “We keep no secrets from one another.  If the king can’t accept that, then his message must not be that important.”

            Mirabelle nodded, and Iskandor shape-shifted into his human form, then we began to walk toward the castle.  The bright, peaceful atmosphere of the day was mingling with the mild pain of anxiety that I was feeling in my chest—what could King Baladir possibly want me for?  He knew, better than most, how I felt about being in this city—a city that was my home for years, a city that I had felt betrayed me (whether it was actually true or not) after listening to a pile of lies, without even bothering to hear my side.  Whatever King Baladir had summoned me for, it had better be important.

            He had better not even thinking of trying to convince me to rejoin the White Army again.

            I wouldn’t even consider it—I had been betrayed once, and I wouldn’t let it happen again.  Not by them, in any case.

            As we approached the gates of the White Castle, the guards maneuvered to stop us.  But once they saw it was me, they bowed in apology and allowed us to pass.  As a form of apology for the events prior to my death, King Baladir had made it clear that I was to be allowed access to the castle, at any time of the day or night.  I wasn’t entirely sure what that gesture was supposed to prove or accomplish, but I was a bit grateful in this instance—it avoided a great deal of hassle.

            As was expected, the Royal Hall was bustling with activity, with people running this way and that.  Members of the Royal Guard were present in the courtroom.  One of them, his back to me, was lounging around the throne—he actually appeared to be about to sit in it.

            Apparently he didn’t hear us approach, because when I put my hand on his shoulder, he nearly jumped out of his armor, unleashing the strangled yelp of a dog who had just been scared out of his mind.  He spun around, hand on the hilt of his sword, and his eyeballs seemed to be about to pop out their sockets when he saw who it was.

            “Sir—Sir Aidan!  I—I wasn’t expecting you … I mean … I didn’t know you were going to—”

            “Never mind that,” I muttered, not caring about such mundane matters.  “Pull yourself together.  I need you to summon the king right now.”

            The soldier was wide-eyed and was ready to comply.

            “There’s no need, Lord Aidan,” came a voice from the balcony.  I looked up, seeing King Baladir standing there..  He then glanced down at the guard, casting him a knowing look.  “There’s no danger, Samuel … return to your post.”

            Confused, the guard glanced at me, then at the king, then back at me.  “Of—of course, Your Majesty.”  With a bow, he scurried off.

            “How did you know I was here?”  I asked the king.

            Baladir smiled.  “A dragon with enormous wings just landed outside my castle … I noticed.”

            “My apologies for that, Your Highness,” Iskandor said respectfully with a bow. 

            Baladir put his hand up dismissively, beginning to descend down the balcony steps.  “No need to apologize, Iskandor.  I have been expecting you.”

            “I’m sure you have,” I muttered under my breath, with a note of derision.

            “How are the Knights of Iskandor?”  the king asked.

            “We are doing very well, thank you for asking,” I responded.  “We are building a good reputation throughout the land.”

            “So I’ve heard,” King Baladir said with approval.  “The deeds of you and your knights are on the lips of people all throughout the land.  I am sure that you do not seek my approval, but … I am proud of you.”

            I knew that he meant it, but to me, his statement sounded flat, hollow.  But I kept my irritation to myself.  “Thank you, Your Majesty,” I said with a slight bow.

            “I believe what you’re doing is a great thing, Aidan—” he began, but by now, I had had enough.

            “Look, Baladir,” I said, dropping the king’s formal title, and not caring about the consequences, “you didn’t summon us here for this.  If there is nothing else, we will take our leave—”

            The king was suddenly in front of me.  In his outstretched hand was a leather scroll case with what appeared to be magical runes imprinted on it.  “This arrived here a few days ago.  No one knows where it came from.  A guard reported that it wasn’t there one moment, and the next, it just appeared.”  In his other hand, he handed me a small, thin piece of paper.  “This was attached to it.”

            I unfolded the piece of paper, reading the small writing that was scrawled on it:

 

                        Aidan of Delmar

 

            Everything Baladir had just told me only made me more weary of what was inside that scroll case.          

            I pulled the top off of the scroll case, and pulled out a piece of very fine, expensive-looking paper.  The scroll was sealed with black wax, emblazoned with the insignia of a hand holding a fireball.

Using my dagger to carefully detach the wax, I unrolled the scroll, and read the very elegant handwriting:

 

                        Aidan,

              

               A matter of utmost importance has come to our attention.  A man came to the Tower of Magi claiming to be a mage apprentice.  When we inquired as to why we had never seen him before, he replied that he was not from this time.  He told us his story of how he came to be here, and even for the world of magic, we found his story to be quite fantastic.  He left the city before we could verify his story.  This man, named Timor, mentioned your name and we request your presence as soon as possible.

 

               Also, I know that you are quite aware of the controversy surrounding the mages during this delicate time.  Your presence in Longhaven would also be appreciated to help us deal with the threat of Sirak.

 

                                                                    Kindest regards,

                                                                    Narissara

                                                                    Head of the Mage’s

                                                                    Counsel

                                                                                                           

 

            After reading it once, I skimmed it through one more time, then sighed very deeply, feeling quite irritated.  I didn’t know exactly what Timor expected when he attempted to make his status known during this time.  As the letter said, times were delicate, especially for the mages, who had (justly or unjustly) come under fire for Sirak’s actions in Delmar.  No one could be trusted.

            I handed the letter to Lady Mirabelle, then turned to King Baladir, who was watching me with mystified intent.  “You didn’t read that?”  I asked him.

            The king shook his head. 

            After Iskandor was finished, he handed it back to me, and, after a few moments of reluctance, I handed the letter over to my former king.  Baladir accepted it with a look of gratitude, then read it over carefully—I watched as his eyes moved to the bottom of the paper, then back to the top, through to the bottom again.  When he finally finished, his eyes were wide with astonishment and confusion.  “This is the mage that saved my life?”

            I nodded.

            Baladir paused thoughtfully before continuing.  “If it will help, I will send a letter over with you, referencing his valor.”

            Just the thought of Baladir even attempting to help me made my skin crawl.  But I tried to remain as polite as possible.  “That is very nice of you, Your Majesty, but it is not needed.”

            “It is no trouble, Aidan.”

            I knew he was trying to be nice and help Timor, but there was also a part of me that believed that he was just doing this to curry favor with me.  His insistence was starting to make me angry.

            “Your help is not needed, Majesty.”

            Baladir sighed.  “I know how you feel toward me, Aidan, and I don’t blame you.  But I feel a responsibility to help this man that saved my life.”

            My anger level kicked up a couple notches.  Didn’t he understand the word, “no”?

            “My love,” Mirabelle said, suddenly beside me.  “The king just wants to help—”

            I nearly snapped on Mirabelle, but held myself in check.  “I don’t need or want anything from him.”

            “Aidan,” Baladir said, his voice nearly pleading, “Timor—”

            “That is none of your concern, nor anyone else’s but mine,” I said abruptly.  “I thank you for alerting me to this, and if there is no more, Your Highness, I will retire.”  Venom spewed from my voice, an invisible, poisonous, emotional mist formed the mental and emotional anguish I’d had to endure—all things I would have never had to deal with but for a decision made by this man standing in front of me.  A man I once revered, would have followed blindly to the ends of the world and beyond.  I gave a brisk bow, turned and walked away before even waiting for a reply. 

            Iskandor, apparently trying to play peacemaker, spoke with anger, the first time he had ever truly used that tone with me.  “Aidan!  He is your king!  Show him the proper respect!”

            I didn’t even turn around.  “He is not my king!  What is he going to do … exile me?”

            Silence followed me out of the royal hall.

 

***

 

            I marched right out of the White Castle and straight into the city.  I was infuriated at Baladir, at my friends, at everybody and everything.  How could anybody expect me to even be cordial to him after what he had put me through?  Because of him …

            I don’t even know what I am.  Am I human?  Some kind of demon?

            I’m an unknown …

            By force of habit, I walked with my hood up, keeping my ghostly white eyes covered.  The majority of the people in Delmar were enamored with me now, but I could still hear the occasional whispers of “freak” or “devil creature.”  It made me very subconscious, but I had no choice but to deal with it for the rest of my life.

            I was walking past the residential district when I heard the faint sounds of a little girl crying not too far away.  I hadn’t exactly made it a point to spend a lot of time around children in my life, but this didn’t sound to me to be the cry of a child who had been denied a cookie—this child sounded distraught. 

            I entered the residential district and headed down the street, my right hand reaching over my shoulder for one of my swords (I’m not sure why—it’s not like I heard any other screaming, fighting, or any other type of commotion).  As I walked by, several people who could hear the girl crying—and saw me moving to investigate—followed to see what all of the fuss was about.

            This particular district was one of the nicer living areas of the city—all of them were beautiful, built mostly for the upper class, but this one housed many of the middle class people of the city.  The buildings were connected in a large three-quarter square, and the surrounding area was pleasantly decorated with trees, bushes, and rows of flowers everywhere.  I remember thinking that it was quite something to walk into a living area and be a bit awestruck even by how the middle class lived.

            Once I entered the square, spotting the problem wasn’t difficult—a crowd of people had congregated around a tree on the right side.  I headed over in that direction, and as I approached, the crowd—mostly women and children, their husbands and fathers at work in one of the business districts—turned toward me, pointing and chattering.  I couldn’t make out words, but I could see a few scattered looks of fear.  I ignored them and made my way to … whatever was going on.

            When I reached the middle of the crowd, I found the little girl, sitting on the ground with her knees folded up to her chest, her arms wrapped around them.  Her mother was crouched over her, consoling her.  I knelt down beside them, and upon catching her attention, the mother gasped when she saw me before catching herself.

            “Lord Aidan,” she panted.  “I’m so sorry …”

            “What seems to be the problem here?”  I asked, ignoring her reaction.

            The little girl looked at me slowly with tear-stained eyes, still sobbing harshly.  She reached out with one tiny arm, pointing up into the tree.  “Kitty.”

            I followed the direction of her finger, and there, through the leaves of the enormous oak tree, I could see a small, gray cat, stuck about halfway up.  It had been crying too, but the cat’s crying had been completely drowned out by the girl’s.

            I smiled inwardly to myself, glad in a small way that the girl’s wracking sobs were the result of something that could be easily fixed.  Of course, to this little girl, her cat being stuck in the tree was the end of the world for her.

            But I could take care of that.

            I stood and unsheathed my swords, and for some reason, some of the people in the crowd jumped, gasping—like I was suddenly about to start hacking people to bits for no reason.  I couldn’t help but feel offended.

I turned the swords underhand, handing them to the mother.  “Would you hold these, please, ma’am?”

            The mother looked surprised, but she obeyed.

            I knelt down again beside the little girl.  “Is it a boy or a girl?”

            She answered between sobs.  “A girl.  Her name … is Mittens.”

            I nodded.  “I’ll get her down.”

            I could easily have leapt up to the branch where the cat was, but there were two issues with that:  one, I didn’t want to scare the daylights out of the cat, and two, I didn’t need to freak out the people any more than I usually do just walking down the street.

            Seeking out the lowest branch that could support my weight, I grabbed hold of it, pulling myself up to the next one, then another.  The bottoms of my boots were planted on the trunk of the tree, pushing me up higher and higher.  My armor, though it was light, dug into my flesh with each move, making my task quite uncomfortable.  The crowd below me murmured. 

            When I was about a quarter of the way up the tree, I reached for the next branch with my left hand, but apparently, I misjudged …

            Snap!

            The branch broke, and I lost my balance a bit.  Not as big a deal as it seems, since I had a firm grip on another branch with my right hand, and my feet were perched firmly on branches below me.  Being up in a tree, I couldn’t have been on more solid ground, but the people underneath gasped as I flailed backward for a moment.

            Well, I’m certainly making their morning … I smiled, shaking my head slightly.

            Finally, after some more climbing, I reached the point where I had seen the cat, only to find that the cat had moved. 

            To the other side of the tree.

            “So … you’re too scared to climb down, but not scared enough to stay where you are,” I muttered quietly.  “Well, you’re certainly making work for my gold today—which I wasn’t getting for this job in the first place …”

            Sighing in exasperation, I patiently began to maneuver my way across to the other side of the oak tree.  Thankfully, the branches on the tree were widely spaced, and my agility made things a great deal easier.  The trick was not scaring the cat away.

            I finally reached the branch where the cat was, still moaning in fear, the hair on her back standing up.  Mittens was a very pretty gray cat, with faint, black stripes—and white paws, hence the name. 

            I inched my way toward Mittens, taking my time so as not to frighten her.  I called to her in a quiet, friendly manner, hoping that she would come to me, but the cat didn’t agree with that idea. 

            Mittens had cornered herself on the branch.  Still, she tried to creep away from me—

            Then I lost my breath, as the cat slipped, clinging to the branch with her front claws—

            And lost her grip, tumbling toward the ground.

            Some of the people below gasped and squealed in terror—

            Instinctively, I thrust my hand out toward the falling cat—

            And she stopped falling, a few feet from the ground.

The people below cheered.

Not needing to worry about appearance or the cat’s fear any longer, I leapt from the high tree branch to the ground, managing to keep the cat hovering where it was until I got there.  I had to admit, I was proud of myself that I was able to concentrate well enough to do that.

I walked over to the cat and cradled it, releasing it from its magical hold.  Mittens still fought to free herself—apparently she still preferred a long free-fall to the ground than being cradled in the arms of a stranger—but I had a good grip on the flailing feline.  I attempted to console the cat, before she clawed my neck off.

            “Shhh … it’s okay, Mittens.  You’re alright.”  She wasn’t really buying it, but at least she wasn’t trying to tear my face apart.

            When I had her calmed down a little bit more, I handed the cat to the little girl, whose face was bright with glee.  She cradled the cat tightly to her chest.  “Oh, Mittens, I thought you were gone forever!” 

            I smiled as I took in the scene for a moment longer, then I retrieved my swords from the mother.  Her heart was in her teary eyes as she thanked me, then watched her daughter, overcome with joy at being reunited with her friend. 

            I sheathed my swords, and started to walk away, when suddenly something was clinging to my leg.  Startled, I looked down, and saw the little girl hugging the armor around my thigh.  “Thank you—thank you so much!”  Her body shook with a sob.

            Smiling, I put my hand—red and raw from all of the tree climbing—on her head in a gesture of embrace, then lightly unattached her from my leg and knelt down to her.  “You’re very welcome.  Now go back to Mittens … she’s had a very scary day too.  It’s up to you to calm her down.”  My tone was light, reassuring.

            The little girl nodded, and ran off to be with her cat.  I turned off and headed through the crowd, which seemed to be much larger than when I had first arrived.  Even those who had witnessed what I had just done stared at me with apprehension—no matter what good I did, there would always be people who would look at me differently based on my appearance

            After that, a wave of emotional and physical exhaustion swept over me.  It had been a long day, and it had taken its toll.  I decided it was time to retire for the night, to rest and think about things.

 

***

 

I awoke from a night of broken sleep to find a hulking beast standing over me. 

            Startled, I scrambled to stand on top of the bed, crouched, ready to use my powers.  Lightning crackled at my fingertips.

            But the beast, clad in heavy armor, didn’t move a muscle, only stared.  The dim light that flowed through the curtains of the window only slightly revealed the bright red falcon that adorned the armor of the White Army. 

            The beast chuckled … a familiar chuckle.

            “Lightning usually strikes outside,” the beast said with slight sarcasm.

            Recognizing him immediately, I lowered my guard.  “If you were anybody else, Derrick, it would have struck in this room, and you would be dead.”

            “Well, then,” Derrick said brightly, “good thing I’m not somebody else then, huh?”  He then chuckled in his usual jovial nature.  “I must say that it would have been quite a feat to kill somebody while standing on a bed—I wouldn’t think that happens too often.”

            “We’ll have to go to the Great Library and check out the statistics,” I muttered crossly.  “What do you want?”

            Derrick’s fun-loving demeanor changed instantly.  “I was … informed about what occurred yesterday—”

            “Derrick,” I said, cutting him off, “you are truly one of my closest friends—but if you came here asking me to apologize to him, you know where the door is—”

            Derrick angrily took a step forward.  I had faced down hordes of Ther-lor, as well as some monsterous beasts, and never batted an eye; but an angry Derrick was usually enough for me to second guess myself—he really was an imposing sight. 

            “I am not here to deal with your attitude, Lord Aidan,” Derrick said in a calm, but forceful voice.  “I know all about your problems with King Baladir, and frankly, I understand them.  I know that you’re not in a particularly forgiving mood toward him, and I don’t care.  But he is still royalty, royalty that I serve, and you should treat all royalty with respect, even if you don’t agree with them.”

            “You are right on all counts,” I replied evenly, intimidated (I admit), but not backing down.  “I refuse to reconcile with him, despite his attempts to patronize me.  He can try anything he wants, but I will not yield to him.”

            Derrick’s shoulders seemed to heave as got angrier, and he also seemed to somehow get bigger.  “I would have thought Garridan taught you better—”

            “Do NOT speak to me of him!”  I screamed, lashing out in anger, not realizing that I had knocked over a dresser with a flower pot resting on top of it.  I immediately became lightheaded, and I staggered back to the corner of the room, sinking down into the corner.  I rested my face in my hands, fighting back sobs.  “Do not speak to me of him …”

            Derrick was quiet for a few moments, then he spoke very lightly.  “You still have those dreams, don’t you?”

            My only response was a slight nod.  Derrick was silent for few more moments, but I knew he was thinking of a way to ask for an explanation.  I took a few deep breaths, trying to regain control of myself; it worked somewhat.  “After the city was saved, I had thought that I had found peace with what happened to Garridan.  I had that “vision,” or whatever it was, when I was unconscious, and I had felt that it helped a great deal, to know that Garridan didn’t blame me for his death.  But the dreams … they didn’t stop.  If anything, they got worse …”

            Once again, Derrick was uneasily silent for a while.  “I’m sorry, Aidan.  If I had known that, I wouldn’t have spoken about Garridan.”

            I took a few more even breaths, still trying to calm myself.  “For the record,” I said in a low voice, “Garridan taught me to respect only those to respect me in return … and the way I was treated my Baladir hardly conveyed any respect, Derrick.”

            Derrick was silent and thoughtful for a few moments, and then he sighed.  “I can’t disagree with that, Aidan.  He made a horrible mistake, one that he truly regrets.  I’m not asking you to shake his hand and forget it ever happened—I’m merely asking that you are respectful in his presence, at least in a formal preceding.  Behind closed doors, I don’t care how you act around him.”

            Still sitting against the wall, elbows resting on my knees, I hung my head and put my hands around the back of my neck.  Resting there for a moment, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being in Baladir’s presence, and trying to put the events of my exile in the back of my mind, and be respectful … even just imagining it, I found it very difficult to do.  But Derrick, one of the closest friends I’d ever had, who was like a brother to me, was asking.  I had to try, at least for him, if nothing else.

            I looked up slowly at Derrick, hands resting on the top of my head.  When I spoke, I had every intention of speaking calmly and complying with Derrick’s request; but the more I spoke, the more the anger built up inside of me, and I could not control myself.  “Alright, Derrick … as long as we are in a formal setting, I will do everything in my power to be respectful to the man who had me dragged out of my country like a dog, beaten and humiliated, and left to die in a river.” 

            Derrick smiled cheerfully.  “Good … that’s all I asked.”  Instantly, much to my annoyance, he was back to his happy-go-lucky demeanor.  Then he settled back into a serious state.  “So what about Timor?”

            I sighed.  “We leave in the morning.  What about you?”

            Derrick looked bewildered.  “Me what?”

            I sighed heavily, knowing full well that he understood.  “Will you be coming with us?”

            A look of mock realization spread across Derrick’s face.  “Oh, the king already gave me leave—I’m to accompany you as soon as you depart.”

            The look of shock on my face—oddly enough—brought Derrick back to full attention.  “I knew there was something else I was forgetting to tell you …”

            I grinned, sighed, and shook my head, which is pretty much all you can do when you’re dealing with Derrick sometimes.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you sometimes, brother.”

            Derrick shrugged.  “Well, I don’t know, but there’s one thing I do know …” a wide grin spread across his face, “your life would be quite dull, that’s for sure.”

CHAPTER 3

 

            The next morning came quickly.  I didn’t get much rest after Derrick’s unexpected visit, and soon thereafter, I was out in the city, walking around and concentrating on the task at hand.

            Of course, with everyone going, it meant that flying there on dragon back was out of the question, and that the length of our journey had been indefinitely extended.  I could have gone out there myself to deal with the situation, but we tended to operate as a group as often as possible, and besides, with the threat of the Ther-lor, traveling alone was not recommended.  Even though Longhaven was to the southwest of Delmar and Sirak had taken Min Lenoras in the west, we weren’t prepared to assume anything when it came to the Dyn’osi.

            Later in the day, I found out that Derrick had gone to King Baladir (much to my annoyance) to report that we were, indeed, leaving within the next few days, and he came back with great news—Baladir had offered to supply us with several horses, including pack mules.  I was slightly taken aback by this magnanimous gesture, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been—in one way, you could see it as high-class posterior kissing, and on another, you could see it as simply a grand gesture.  I was still extremely loathe to accept anything from the man, but there wasn’t just me to think about, and the overjoyed expression on the faces of the others at the news of the horses was enough to convince me to keep my mouth closed. 

            With the addition of pack mules, the discussion of provisions took another turn as we could add even more supplies, and even—gasp!—tents!  Those we ended up not having to purchase, either—Derrick, with permission from the king, got a hold of some old ones from the barracks.  Baladir tried to insist that Derrick take some of the newer ones, but Derrick was adamant that the older ones would do just fine. 

            With our horses and supplies set to go, and our route decided, the others retired early, wanting to get a good night of rest to be refreshed for the journey ahead.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t bring myself to relax; I left my room at the inn and sought out my spot on the castle wall, the one I always used to seek if I needed some peace and quiet.  It was also the same spot where Mirabelle and myself had proclaimed our love for each other months earlier, when Mirabelle had dropped her enchanted ring into Lake Apera below, proving once and for all that my love for her was real.  I wished that I could have her by my side for just a little while, but she needed her rest, just as the others did, and I would not disturb it, not for my own insecurity.

            My spot on the wall overlooked the kingdom of Delmar to the south, just over Lake Apera and into the plains beyond.  You could see for miles and miles, and the sight never ceased to give me a sense of peace for just a moment, no matter what turmoil I was currently experiencing.  On this night, a light rain had just begun to fall, and while other might view this as a disturbance of the peace, I have always loved the rain, and it only added to the much-needed peaceful ambiance. 

            I took a deep breath, took in the welcome atmosphere, and began to think …

            “I thought I might find you here.”

            My momentary astonishment quickly gave way further peace, at the sound of a musical and very welcome voice.

            “You should be resting,” speaking to the voice behind me, smiling.

            “Perhaps,” I could hear the voice shrug, “but I knew that you wouldn’t be, and I’m concerned for you … so here I am.”

            “My love,” I said, turning around.

            Lady Mirabelle’s violet gaze and bright smile were there to greet me as I turned, and I embraced her eagerly.  I really felt like I needed her at that moment—I was emotionally overwhelmed.  Taken by surprise for a moment, she hesitated before embracing me back.  “Did you miss me, dear?”

            “Always,” I said, smiling lightly, “but … I just … have a great deal on my mind, I suppose.”

            “And that—” she said, looking up at me, “is precisely why I’m concerned.  You should have come for me.”

            “I wanted you to rest,” I reiterated.

            “And yet, I’m not,” she smiled. 

            I released her from what I’m sure seemed like a death grasp and turned toward the wall.  “You’re not going to lecture me about Baladir too, are you?”  I asked.

            “’Too’?”  Mirabelle asked quizzically.

            “Yeah … Derrick paid me a visit last night.”

            Mirabelle chuckled.  “I shudder to think how that conversation went.”

            I shrugged.  “In typical Derrick style, he let me know how he felt.”

            We were quiet for a moment, and then Mirabelle spoke.  “I’m not going to lecture you, Aidan—you know how I feel, I’m sure.  All I’m going to say to you is that you can’t hold on to that hate forever.  It will eat you alive.”

            I sighed.  She was right.  “I know, my love.  But it’s far too early for that.  It’ll be quite a while before I’m ready to forgive.”

            Mirabelle put her hand on my shoulder.  “I’ll be by your side, no matter what.”

            I smiled at her, my heart warm with her love.  “I know you will, my love.”

 

***

 

            Mirabelle stayed with me that night, and her presence gave me a sense of peace and calm that I desperately needed.  The next morning was bright and cheery, and we decided to take a walk in the city.  People always stopped and stared at us as we passed by, and sometimes I found that to be irritating.  I always had the feeling that they weren’t gawking because we were well-known soldiers—they were staring because they couldn’t figure out why Mirabelle loved a decrepit freak like me.

            “There’s no one else around,” Mirabelle said softly in my ear, aware of my discomfort.  “Just you and me.”

            She always said that when we walked through crowds, and it always seemed to help a little. 

            Suddenly, Derrick crossed the path right in front of us.

            “Hey, watch it, you big lug,” I said with a smile.

            Derrick turned, and seeing us, a smile spread across his face.  “Look at the happy couple.  It’s just so adorable.”

            Mirabelle smiled and shook her head.  “Where are you off to?”

            “Off to see my mother and sister before I leave.  Want to tag along?  They haven’t seen you two in quite a while.”

            “We’d love to,” Mirabelle replied, and I nodded.

            Back before what happened in Delmar with the Ther-lor—in my previous life, one might say—I had saved Derrick’s mother, Mildred, and sister, Lydia, from an altercation with Derrick’s drunken father.  Derrick and I were able to force him out and get him to leave, and after that, Derrick considered me to be a brother.  Lydia was really sick at the time, and Derrick was trying to save money to get her to a healer.  After we had saved Delmar from the threat of Sirak, King Baladir had learned of Lydia’s sickness and sent one of his own personal healers to tend to her.  Derrick was somewhat ashamed, because he had never wanted to ask for help.  Baladir had chastised him for not making him aware of his sister’s condition earlier.  It was determined that Lydia suffered from some type of rare disease that I didn’t recognize, but with the right healing herbs and periodic visits from Baladir’s healer, Lydia recovered to a comfortable state.  Derrick always told me that Lydia had a bit of a crush on me, despite being in her mid-teen years.  When Mirabelle first started coming around, Lydia was clearly not fond of her.  But over time, Mirabelle won her over with her sweet demeanor and natural charm.  Now Lydia loved seeing Mirabelle as much as she loved seeing me.

            “How has Lydia been?”  I asked Derrick.

            “Good,” Derrick replied with a smile.  “She keeps asking when you’re coming back—every time I’m home.”

            “I’ll have to apologize to her,” I said, feeling pretty bad about not coming around more often.  “Just tough for me to be here, that’s all.”

            “I know, Aidan,” Derrick said softly.  “You don’t need to explain to me.”

            Finally, we had arrived at the small stone structure.  Derrick opened the door and called in, “Hey, we have visitors!”

            We all entered the small, yet pleasant home.  There was a very tantalizing aroma in the air—smelled like Mildred was making soup.  It was always nice to see Derrick’s house clean and tidy, unlike the first time I had met them—Derrick’s father had torn the house apart in a rampage.

            Lydia peeked around the corner, and her eyes beamed with delight when she saw Mirabelle and I.  She looked very much like Derrick, only her hair was much longer.  But her eyes definitely danced with life, just like Derrick’s did.  She rushed from around the corner and leapt into my arms.

            “Oh, Aidan, I’ve missed you!”

            What warmed my heart more than anything was that I was still loved and welcomed by Mildred and Lydia—even after my horrible change in appearance. 

            “How are you doing, kid?” I asked, calling her by the pet name I had given to her.

            “Good!”  She said, finally releasing me and leaping into Mirabelle’s arms.

            “Hey, sweetie!”  Mirabelle said, smiling almost as much as Lydia.

            Lydia released Mirabelle from her death grasp of love and looked at me.  “Why don’t you guys come around anymore?”

            “I’m sorry, Lydia,” I said, keeping my promise to apologize.  “After everything that’s happened … it’s very difficult for me to be in this city.”

            “Baladir is a jerk,” Lydia said with a frown.

            “Don’t speak that way of your king,” Derrick said in a stern voice.

            “Besides,” Mildred’s voice came from around the corner, “Baladir is not a ‘jerk’, as you say, dear … he simply made a mistake.  We all do.”

            Mildred was a short woman with gray curly hair.  Age had taken its toll on the woman, but she was still strong and pleasant to be around.  She walked up to me and gave me a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek.  She did the same to Mirabelle.

            “And we all know who was responsible for that atrocity,” she continued.

            “That weasel Norvin,” Derrick answered. 

            “Hey, no talk of him here,” I said, mock-chastising him.  “This is a happy environment—no need to let him soil that.”

            “Apologies,” Derrick replied with a mock bow.

            “Are you staying long?”  Mildred asked.

            “No,” Derrick answered.  “We’re leaving for Longhaven shortly.”

            “Ah,” Mildred said.  “Off to deal with the mages, eh?  Good luck with that.”  She then turned her attention to me.  “I’m glad you’re here, Aidan—come over here, please?  I have something to give you.”

            “Oh, Mildred,” I said, “you don’t have to give me anything.”

            “Aidan,” she said, her voice rising a little, “just because you’re a lord now doesn’t mean you don’t have to listen to me.  Come over here this instant.”

            “Yes, ma’am,” I replied sheepishly.  Derrick giggled as I went by, and I shot him a short kick to the shins.  I followed Mildred into the living area, where a small pile of miscellaneous items sat in a corner.  She rummaged through the pile a little and then turned around, holding a ring.  It was a plain silver ring, but it had the face of a tiger emblazoned on it.

            “There were plans for a third child,” she said softly, “but it wasn’t to be.  We had rings made for each of the kids to give to them when they got older—back when Derrick’s father was a more responsible human being.  Anyway, Lydia wears hers all the time—it has the symbol of a butterfly on it.  Derrick wore his until his fingers grew too big for it.”

            “What symbol did Derrick have on his ring?”

            “A lion.”

            “Should have been a hyena,” I said with a chuckle.  “He laughs like one sometimes.”

            “I heard that!”  Derrick yelled from the kitchen, his voice somewhat muffled—clearly, he had gotten into his mother’s soup.

            Mildred laughed, and then she extended the ring to me.  “I want you to have this.”

            I was taken completely by surprise—I didn’t know what to say.  “Oh, Mildred … you don’t—”

            “Don’t you dare tell me I don’t have to give this to you,” she cut me off.  “You have been a brother to Derrick, and I consider you a son.”

            I was choked up and speechless.  My body froze completely and I had no idea how to react.

            “It’s beautiful,” Mirabelle said from behind me, her chin suddenly resting on my shoulder.

            Lydia was suddenly next to me, head on my other shoulder and arm wrapped around my back.  Mildred continued, “You are family, Aidan.  Both of you.”  She nodded toward Mirabelle as well.

            “Bit too sentimental for me,” Derrick mumbled, and he turned to walk away.

            “Don’t you dare, young man,” Mildred said, and Derrick stopped in his tracks.  It was funny to me that this tiny woman’s voice could stop a giant like Derrick.

            Derrick sighed heavily.  “Fine.”  He walked over to the group.  “The two of you already know I consider you family.  Let’s not get all choked up about it.”

            I smiled at him and turned to Mildred.  “Thank you.  This means so much to me.”

            Mildred smiled in return.  “Just remember—no matter who may treat you badly in life, you always have a home and a family here.”

            I bowed—something I didn’t do very often unless I absolutely had to.  “I am truly honored to be a part of your family—even to a giant sourpuss like Derrick here.”

            “Keep it up, and I’m going to show you what a sourpuss I am,” Derrick responded with a smirk.  “Well, now that everyone’s all teary and emotional, we should probably be leaving.  The king will be waiting for us at the gates.”

            I sighed heavily—not because we were about to embark on our journey, but because I knew King Baladir would be waiting to see us off. 

               Oh, well—the sooner I got there, the sooner it would be over with.  We bid Mildred and Lydia farewell and left the house.  I followed Derrick and Mirabelle to the main gate, hood pulled low over my face, trying not to feel all the stares that were certainly burning a hole through me.

            Iskandor, in human form, was waiting alongside Baladir at the gates.  It still made me smile just a little to see Iskandor (even though he wasn’t in his true form) standing next to the king of Delmar, a symbol that Delmar was now a dragon-friendly country.  Whenever the two were together, they could be found engaged in conversation quite often, and it was clear the two had grown close.  One might think this would annoy me, but really, I couldn’t have cared less.  Mostly, I was just happy for my dragon friend.

            Baladir smiled as we approached, which made me grit my teeth in irritation.  Thankfully, it was mostly obscured by my hood.

            “Are you all ready to depart?”  Baladir asked.

            “I believe so, Your Majesty,” Derrick answered. 

            “And you, Aidan?”  Baladir turned to me.

            “All too ready,” I blurted out, then immediately realized my mistake.  Meeting Baladir’s gaze, I tried again.  “I am ready, Your Highness.”

            “Be cautious on your journey,” Baladir warned.

Now I just felt like he was patronizing me, but Iskandor spoke up before I could put my foot in my mouth again.  “I will protect them, Your Highness.”

            Baladir smiled back at Iskandor, then turned back toward me.  “May the Gods guide you on this journey, Aidan.”

            A scathing retort was on my lips, but I could feel Derrick’s eyes on me.  Keeping myself in check, I managed a slight bow and to utter, “Thank you, Your Majesty” in a very low voice. 

            After that, I just couldn’t stand it anymore—I had to get away from this city.  The more time I spent around Baladir, the more I remembered what could have and should have been.  I walked out of the gates without looking to see if anyone else was ready.