The voice belonged to Delir, the king's first administrator. Delir was short, had curly blond hair, and little, beady, black eyes. King Kal'ebb smiled silently to himself, he would have to ponder later in the day. Today was a special day, it was the day his grand scheme came together. It may even be the turning point in the War of the Seven Lands he thought, though he doubted it. He had been born in the mists of that war, and he would probably die before it was resolved.
"Even the islander, the one who killed four guards in Kirn?" the King asked.
"I granted his pardon myself, and personally made sure none of our loyal guards felt too patriotic," the first administrator said. He knew a few guards meant nothing to his king, and if this plan worked then Kal'ebb would have been right to spare the islander.
"Let's be off then," Kal'ebb said, leading the way through the Hall of History.
All of the halls in the Royal Palace led eventually to the Grand Hall and it was not long before the king and administrator reached the huge hall. The ceiling of the Grand Hall was decorated with a painting that depicted King Ry'mir, Kal'ebb's grandfather, fighting in the legendary battle of Dell's Port. The room was lit by two dozen torches each set in a special golden sconce. The floor was green marble and the room was split down the center by a red, veldt carpet that led to the king and queen's thrones. In the balconies above the floor of the Grand Hall, the usual collection of generals, nobles, and clergy sat to watch the day's ceremony. None of them knew exactly what that was, but it was rumored to be big.
Kal'ebb slowly walked down the red carpet followed by Delir. He casually stepped up the four steps to his ebony throne and instantly two of his loyal bodyguards took their places standing beside him. King Kal'ebb looked very dignified sitting on the throne with his short cropped gray hair and his soft blue eyes. He wore white silk pants, a white silk shirt, and a heavy red cape. Delir took the small seat reserved for him at the left of his king, while the palace wizard, Narhir, silently took the seat on the right. Narhir appeared to be very old; his white hair was thinning and his long beard reached his chest, his small hazel eyes silently watched the king. He wore simple blue robes and plain white sandals.
King Kal'ebb waited until all those in the Grand Hall were completely silent, then he spoke. He said, "Bring in the prisoners."
A few of the nobles and clergy groaned, only a trial, today was supposed to be important. The generals who knew were tight lipped, the ones who didn't respected their king with their silence.
The oak doors of the Grand Hall were thrown open and ten guards quickly marched into the hall, each taking a position on one side of the carpet. Two more guards came in, leading six men in chains to the king, the prisoners were followed by two more guards and a captain. The prisoners were placed in a line in front of the king and the captain made his way to the front. He bowed to the king and saluted the bodyguards before speaking. "My king," he said, "Your prisoners. Shall I present them, your majesty?"
"No," was the king's simple answer, "I will."
King Kal'ebb looked to the man on the far right. "Eljir Ravenhill, loyal captain in the army of my worst enemy King Thomir. I bet you don't feel loyal to that murderer now. Now that he left you to die, now that you know that his personal orders to your men were to leave you if you failed. If they would've waited, you wouldn't have fail though, would you?"
The king looked at the next man in line. "Porvar Landgrove, best archer in the Kojen Empire. Betrayed by your own greedy men. Only later did you find out they were working with orders from General Cape."
"Jono Waterwalk," the king said to the next man, "Best swordsman in all of Itair. But when you beat Prince Bovar at King Antor's birthday celebration, they tried to have you killed in battle."
To the next man, Kal'ebb said, "Li Chen, one of the greatest warriors in Monjapia. But you learned too much about Emperor Toshido, didn't you? He murdered your brother to quiet you. How dishonorable."
The king addressed the next man, "Halix Pathfinder, best tracker in the Northern Woods, and husband to the most beautiful woman in Trinir. That is until your good King Valnor fell in love with her and tried to have you killed, eh?"
"And last, but certainly not least. Carmbine Beastbasher, of the deadly War People, who could't assassinate poor Queen Alina for Warlord Marled. He stripped you of your honor, accused you of raping his poor wife then sent you to wander the lands. What do you think of Marled's honor now?"
The king looked at each one of them again before continuing, "You're all wondering, why? I can see it on your faces, so I'll explain why. You have all been betrayed by the kingdoms you served, and now you're bitter with hatred and seeking revenge. For over thirty years my kingdom of Synarin has been without an ally and the battles have been uneven. The highlanders of Scotarn have had the lowlanders of Itair. The mountaineers of Kojen Empire have had the woodsmen of Trinir. And the War People of Dethopia have had the islanders of Monjapia. Now I have one of the greatest warriors of each of my enemies and you are all bitter and seeking vengeance, what I have in essence is the best strike force in the world.
"You will do jobs for me. Jobs that allow you to strike back at your old countries where it hurts the most. You will work silently, like ghosts, in fact I think I shall call you my Ghost Riders. Since your kingdoms think you dead, I think it's a fitting name. To show you how much I need you, I will even send Narhir Blacksky, my personal palace wizard, with you on your missions. I know you can't refuse me, so I shall meet with you tomorrow to discuss the details of your first mission. Good day."
Before the guards could lead the men away, the highlander, Eljir Ravenhill stepped forward and said, "And if we refuse you?"
King Kal'ebb smiled crookedly at the man and said, "Don't refuse me. Take them to their rooms, guards. Feel free to speak with each other, you're going to be great friends."
With that, the guards led the six men to private, but guarded rooms and King Kal'ebb returned to his thinking hall with a smile on his face.
After the guards left them to their privacy in the small room with six rough cots and and a very tiny bath house the six Ghost Riders spoke among themselves. "What do we think?" asked Eljir, the natural born leader. Eljir was tall, had thick black hair, and deep green eyes. He wore the armor of a captain in the Scotarnish army, black leather pants, a white wool undershirt, black chain mail, and knee-high black boots.
"We can take care of these guards and break out of here," the swordsman Jono Waterwalk said. He was tall, but shorter than Eljir, had close cropped blond hair, and light blue eyes. He wore simple brown leather pants, a white silk shirt, and dark brown boots.
"No," said Halix Pathfinder, "It doesn't seem like it, but the guards are watching us. They can't hear, but they are watching." Halix was short and thinner than the rest, his skin was tanned like all of those from Trinir, his hair was black and stretched down past his shoulders and matched his eyes. He wore the traditional leather pants and jerkin of the Trinirians and simple leather moccasins.
"I agree with Halix," said Porvar Landgrove the archer from the Kojen empire. He was tall, had shoulder length brown hair tied back in a pony tail with a thin gray string, and gray eyes. He wore gray pants, a white shirt, and a gray cloak.
"We can't leave, think about the chance Kal'ebb is giving us, a chance to regain our honor," said Carmbine Beastbasher, the Dethopian. He was tall, taller and more muscular than Eljir, his silver hair hung down to his shoulders, and his eyes were bright red. He wore the golden armor of the War People, it fitted his form and was as light as cloth, but all those there knew that only a strong man with an even stronger sword could cut through the armor.
Beside Carmbine, the Monjapian whispered something in his own language. Li Chen was short and had the lightly tanned skin of the islanders and had wavy black hair and black eyes. He wore loose fitting black pants and a black shirt. On his feet he wore simple brown sandals. "He says that he agrees with me," Beastbasher said.
"So we can't break out of here," Eljir said, "Do we stay and fight for Kal'ebb?"
"Revenge can be a very sweet thing," Jono said.
"True," Halix said, "I could work for Kal'ebb if it gave me the chance to strike back at the good King Valnor."
"I couldn't care less," Porvar said rubbing his temples.
"I have decided to kill King Marled. To regain my honor. I want to fight," Carmbine said.
Li spoke in his own language and Carmbine translated, "He says that he wants to kill any of the warriors in the Monjapian army, any of them."
"What I want," Eljir said quietly, as if to himself, "is to return to Scotarn and fish the lakes of the south, as I used to, when I was a boy. But it doesn't look like we have a choice in this matter. So, I shall stay and fight for Kal'ebb. Until I decide I am finished."
With that the Ghost Riders became an official company. To celebrate, they were served dirty water, and steaming gray gruel. Then they kept to themselves, most slept, but Eljir stayed up late into the night, planning.
The next morning King Kal'ebb had the prisoners brought into his special mission room. Once again, the beady eyed Delir was with him, as well as Narhir the wizard, and a young woman that none of the Ghost Riders recognized. She wasn't the most beautiful girl they had ever seen, but her the sharp features of her face, her tantalizing brown eyes, and the brown hair that stretched just past her shoulder blades made her a very attractive woman. She wore a long white gown and white slippers and she sat by King Kal'ebb.
Two bodyguards could be seen behind the king. All were silent as Kal'ebb spoke, "This is my youngest daughter, Aras, She wished to see you great heroes before you left on your first mission. I hope it has been worth it, girl.
"Now, on to the mission. A few months ago a prize relic of Synarin history was captured by your former comrades," Kal'ebb said pointing to Eljir. "This relic is very special to me, the Chalice of Redarin was a gift from my mother to me. That is, before one of the War People so cruelly assassinated her," he said glaring at Carmbine.
"It is being held close to the southern border of Synarin, in the border fortress of Zarfed. King Thomir is keeping the chalice there to mock me. Zarfed is being guarded by at least two hundred troops, and there is a wizard watching over my beloved chalice. You six, along with my wizard, Narhir, will penetrate the palace walls and bring me back my chalice."
"And how do you plan for us to get in?" Eljir asked.
"That is not my problem my dear Scot, that is your problem. Oh, and just so we don't have fighting among the troops, you, Eljir, will lead the Ghost Riders, and Jono will be second in command," Kal'ebb said smiling, "Now, I have other business to attend to. Captain Farwir will give you your weapons back, horses, and supplies. Don't come back without my chalice. Come on, girl."
King Kal'ebb quickly exited the room followed by Aras and Delir. After they were gone, Captain Farwir turned his attention to the Ghost Riders and said, "Come on, let's get your things."
Farwir led them down a hall to the stables in the left wing of the castle. In the stables six boys busily groomed horses and prepared supplies and weapons. Each of the seven Ghost Riders had young brown mares fitted with black leather saddles.
"You first, Eljir," the captain said, handing the Scot his magnificent long sword, a small dagger, and a small battle axe. Eljir put the long sword in a scabbard fitted onto his saddle, then he carefully placed the dagger in his right boot, and finally he strapped the axe to his back, the handle sticking up over his left shoulder.
"Here, Jono," Farwir said handing the swordsman a long thin sword with sliver and gold wire around the handle. Jono slid the sword into the scabbard on his belt and thanked the captain.
"You're next, Porvar," Farwir said, handing the archer a long bow, a quiver of arrows, and a smaller crossbow. Porvar nodded at the man before attaching the bow and quiver to his saddle and hiding the crossbow beneath his cloak.
"Halix," he said, handing the Trinirian two small hatchets and a long spear. Halix walked past the captain without a word and put the spear on his saddle and the hatchets in loops on his belt.
"Your weapons, Monjapian," the captain said, handing Li Chen a long sleek katana and half a dozen throwing stars. He bowed at Farwir then put the sword in its scabbard across his back and the stars he hid in his loose clothes.
"And finally, here's all your things, Carmbine," the captain said with a sigh. First, he gave the War Person a long sword that Carmbine put on his saddle. Then, two short swords that the Dethopian returned to their scabbards on his back. Next, Farwir strained himself to lift up a huge battle axe that the tall Beastbasher easily raised up and put on the other side of his saddle. Then, the captain handed Carmbine a large war hammer that he held for a moment, waiting expectantly. Finally, Farwir gave the War Person a thick belt filled with small silver spikes that could easily be thrown. Carmbine wrapped the belt around his golden armor and slid the hammer through the single loop. "Thank you," the Dethopian said.
Jono and Porvar were both starring at the awesome arsenal Carmbine had just received when the wizard came up from behind and said, "He's a War Person, what'd you expect?"
"I have nothing here for you, Narhir," the captain said.
"That is quite all right, I have everything I need right here," the wizard said patting his small gray pack.
Farwir stayed a while to help the Ghost Riders finish packing their supplies then he bid them farewell and led the stable boys away. Eljir looked from man to man before finally he said, "Let's be off then. I know where Zarfed is, I'll lead the way."
They rode the whole day, seldom stopping, and talking even less. As evening came and the sun began to set, they came into the part of southern Synarin fearfully known as Wolf Country. It was said the wolves that inhabited this sparsely populated southern plain were different from other wolves across the land. It was rumored that these wolves were not only twice as large as an average wolf, but that they also shared a special mind link. What one wolf saw, the whole pack saw, what one wolf felt, the whole pack felt.
Both Eljir and Carmbine had been through this part of Synarin before and they knew that staying out in the open at night was a sure death. But for now the Ghost Riders had something else to worry about.
Halix rode to the front of the pack and evened his horse's pace with Eljir's. After a while, he spoke in a low, even tone, "Hey boss," he whispered, "We're being followed."
"Yeah, I saw him a few miles back," Eljir said, "Any idea of when he started following us, and where he came from?"
"He's been following us ever since we left the palace," the Trinirian said, "You want I should go back and find out who it is, maybe kill him?"
"Just find out who it is."
"It's your call, boss," Halix said, dropping back causally. Eljir checked behind him twice, the second time, Halix had vanished.
"Hey, wizard!" Eljir shouted, "Come up here a minute."
"I have a name," Narhir said, pulling past Porvar.
Eljir ignored his rude tone. The Scot kept his eyes ahead scanning the terrain while he spoke, "Do you think that the good king would've sent someone to follow us, to make sure we did the job right?"
"No," Narhir said, "You give King Kal'ebb too much credit. I don't think he is smart enough to realize that you might decide just to do your own thing, and if he did have some sort of insight, then he didn't tell me about it."
"That's all I needed to know, thank you."
Jono Waterwalk, the second in command and the only one of the Ghost Riders Eljir really trusted, brought his mare up as the wizard dropped back. The Itairan took a small silver flask from his saddle and took a sip. He offer some to Eljir who responded by asking, "Where did you get the flask?"
"Farwir gave it to me."
"You stole it," Eljir said, his temper rising.
Jono knew to fear an angry highlander so he quickly smiled and said, "Yes. But he wanted me to, the way it was just sitting loosely in his back pocket. What a fool."
"I thought you were such a good swordsman, why didn't you challenge him to a duel?"
"I didn't want to kill him," was Jono's simple answer.
"You seem quite arrogant," Eljir said, frowning.
"And you always seem angry," Jono said, between sips, "Where did good ole Halix go off to any way?"
"Someone's been following us," Eljir calmly answered.
"Oh, and when were you going to tell me?"
"Since Kal'ebb made you second in command, I had hoped you had already seen him."
"Hey, I'm a good thief and a great swordsman, but I'm no leader. I never was."
"I thought you were like the Grand General of the West or something like that."
"I was, but it was only a title, I didn't have any real power and I still fought like a soldier."
"What about you," Jono said, "King Kal'ebb seemed to think pretty highly of you, but - I mean no offense - I've never heard of you."
"I was a general and I commanded over thirty men, and each one of them was my mind, or so I thought. I worked personally for King Thomir, my platoon did all the dirty work for the big armies. We broke through enemy lines, got information, wiped out border guards, and some times we took fortresses," Eljir said wearily.
"And then he started using us as assassins and I became angry, I hated killing nobles and clergy along with generals. Then he asked us to kill nobles in Scotarn, because they disagreed with him or didn't share his views. I refused to do it, so he set me up. He bribed or threatened my men and sent us to capture a magical relic in one of the towns on the western border of Synarin. If my men would've stayed to cover me, I would've had it, but they didn't and I was captured," Eljir said, his veins bulging with anger.
Jono could see that the Scot wanted to be left alone so he dropped back to the end of the line and proceeded to pester Carmbine. Jono was an arrogant man, and apparently a good thief and a great swordsman, but Eljir thought that he would also make a good leader. He knew that arrogance could get people killed, but he knew that so to could anger.
Just as the sun was setting in the west, the company came to a tall hill that overlooked the surrounding countryside. From this hill, they could see if any of the wolves were coming, or any other threat there might be. Eljir and the rest set up camp but the Scot ordered the men not to start any fires, not even to smoke their pipes. Carmbine agreed, saying, "Unlike normal wolves, these devils aren't afraid of fire, and smoke attracts them. Twenty or thirty of them we can handle, but not a hundred."
Halix returned as the party was settling down to a cool supper. He ignored the questions of the others and went straight to Eljir. "Boss," he whispered, "It be the girl from the king's room this morning. The youngest daughter, she looks mighty scared and she's trying to start a fire."
"Did she see you?" Eljir asked suddenly.
"Take me to her, quickly. A fire will attract those hounds."
Eljir and Halix ran to their horses and quickly mounted them. The Trinirian led Eljir to a small clump of trees just east of the hill. Halix silently led the leader through the trees, making sure the clumsy Scot didn't make much noise, until they were right on top of the girls camp. "What do we do boss?" the Trinirian asked in a barely audible voice.
"Stay here, I'll speak with her," Eljir whispered back.
The Scot took a deep breath then clambered into the clearing. He startled her and spooked her horse. She stared at him bug eyed until he broke the awkward silence, "You're in danger," he said noticing that she had a small fire burning, "The wolves in these parts have a great sense of smell and could be here any time."
"So what do I do?" she asked calmly.
"You come with me," he said, being sure not to betray Halix.
"Wolves, you say."
"Yes," he answered angrily, "Come, there is no time."
But it was too late, already four wolves had found the clearing and Eljir knew that soon more would follow. Without thinking about it he leapt at the nearest wolf pulling his battle axe away from its leather straps. As he reached the beast, he swung down in an arching motion splitting the creature's skull down the middle. The young woman screamed as one of the wolves started to leap forward. The beast never made it as a hatchet flew from the brush around the clearing and hit the beast in the neck. It slumped forward into the girl's lap. Eljir jumped up and swung his axe at the wolf that was soaring through the air at him, he hit the creature squarely in the chest, cutting it in half. The final beast lunged at the Scot but never made it, a long spear dug its way into the wolf's heart.
"We have to hurry," he said, pointing at Halix, who was gathering his weapons, "Follow him back to our camp, I'll catch up with you."
After Halix and the girl had left the clearing, Eljir went over the wolf he had killed first. He rolled the beast onto its side and cut a line along its belly with his dagger. Then he reached in a spread the creatures entrails all about the clearing, over the extinguished fire, on the grass, and over the trunks of trees. The entrails would serve as a warning to the other wolves and maybe they wouldn't find it necessary to track down the people who had killed their brothers. With his task finished he ran as fast as he could back to his horse, and pushed the mare even harder until he was atop the hill.
Halix was standing protectively in front of the girl, shielding her from Carmbine. The Dethopian was growling at her in his native tongue and waving his war hammer around to make his point. "Calm down, Beastbasher," Eljir said understanding a few of the War Person's words, "She didn't know that the wolves could smell the fire from miles away."
Carmbine stared at the princess a moment more before reluctantly turning his attention to the surrounding plains. Eljir took some dried meat, bread, and cheese from his pack and handed it to the girl. He said, "You're Aras, the girl from this morning? I'm Eljir Ravenhill, and I'm the leader. No one will harm you and in the morning you can be on your way back to the palace."
"I'm not going back to the palace," Aras said, "I'm staying with you, I know you've got something planned. I could see it in your eyes this morning, and I see it now. Let me stay with you. I can use a sword, and I'm decent at throwing knives."
"Did I hear someone say that they can use a sword?" Jono said, walking over to them.
"No, you didn't," Eljir said.
"Yeah, I can use a sword as well as any man here, better than some."
Eljir buried his face in his hands. He knew what was coming next. He looked up at the Itairan and said, "Don't kill her, as a favor to me, don't kill her."
"All right, boss," Jono said, grinning at his commander.
The young woman walked over to her white stallion and pulled a shiny broadsword from her saddle. The blade was thick, but the handguard and the hilt fit her hands perfectly, and the weight of the blade seemed to suit her. She came back and found Jono just standing there with his arms crossed, waiting with a lop-sided grin on his face. "Aren't you going to pull your sword?" Aras asked, with a disgusted look on her face.
"If I need to, I will."
"It's your blood," she said charging the Itairan with her sword above her head. As she reached him, she swung down at his left shoulder. He side-stepped to the right and stuck out his left foot, tripping her and sending her flying. She landed face down in the soft grass that covered the hill and was quickly on her feet again. She brushed the hair away from her face and walked back over to Jono, holding her sword in one hand and beckoning for him to attack with the other.
Waterwalk pulled his long, polished rapier from its hilt and waved it in a circle in front of Aras's face. He continued to wave his sword until she became angry and slashed her sword down, pinning his blade to the ground. Jono stood there grinning for a moment before he slid his blade up to the handguard of her sword. He looked up at the princess and winked before twisting his wrist up and to the right. The broadsword slipped from her grip, sailed over Jono's head and landed at Eljir's feet.
Aras's cheeks flushed red and she stormed past Jono to pick up her sword. The swordsman turned and walked away from the scene. He looked back at Eljir ignoring the girl and said, "Lots of courage and potential, zero brains."
When the woman heard this, she lunged at Jono but found that Eljir firmly held her back by the hood of her cloak. He spun her around and grabbed her by the wrists. "Listen," he said, "Jono Waterwalk may well be the best swordsman in the Seven Lands. One on one, without tricks, I probably couldn't beat him. He's also arrogant like most of his countrymen, but you can't let him get to you or you'll never be able to handle riding with us."
"You mean it. You're not going to make me go back," she said, smiling a beautiful smile.
"I'm not real big on making anyone do anything. If you want my opinion, then I'd say go back and live the easy life, but then again, I know that you don't want or need my opinion. You can stay, but if we run into trouble, you either need to be ready to fight, or run," he said in a hard voice.
"Oh! Thank you!" she said, wrapping her arms around the Scot and hugging him tight.
She let go and looked up into his eyes. She was beautiful and he wanted to hug her back, but found he couldn't. Her high cheek bones were red as she stared at him with her soft brown eyes. He reached up and patted her shoulder feeling the soft fur of her cloak. "You fought well, your opponent was, after all, the best swordsman in the world," he whispered as the last rays of the sun bounced off her face, "You'd better get some sleep, you'll be expected to take a watch tonight."
He looked at her a moment more before stepping up onto a rock that was on the center of the hill. "I'll take first watch. Then Jono, the wizard, Carmbine, Halix, Porvar, and Li. Everybody meet the king's daughter, Aras, she'll be riding with us for the time being. Watch out for her and don't mess with her, or you'll answer to my sword. She'll take the last watch and everyone will get more sleep, be ready to set out early in the morning. And for tonight, keep a weapon handy in case the wolves come back."
As the moon rose into the night sky, the Ghost Riders settled down onto bed rolls or the hard ground in Carmbine's case. Eljir stood alert pacing back and forth on the hill watching the countryside and thinking at the same time.
Only an hour had passed since the others had gone to sleep and already he had heard something. He pulled his long sword out of the ground and waited crouching. "Just me, boss," Jono said, as he stepped forward into the moonlight.
"What?" Eljir asked expectantly.
"I just wondered what your plan was."
"The plan you've been thinking about all this time. Come on, you can trust me, it's Jono."
"The plan was we get to Scotarn, then we all split, go back to where we came from or whatever you would want to do. But now, with the wizard and the princess, I don't know," Eljir said.
"I say we get the chalice, sell it to the highest bidder then get the heck out of the Seven Lands. I've heard rumors of a land across the High Sea, they call it the Free Lands. That's where I want to go," Jono said.
"Go back to sleep Jono, give me time to think."
"Okay boss," the Itairan said walking away into the darkness. They woke early the next morning and after a cold breakfast, they set out for the border. Once again, it was quiet among the ranks and they sped on at a fast pace. Aras rode by Eljir's side for most of the day, dropping back occasionally to argue with Jono. The morning passed by quickly and soon it was midday; they ate on their horses trying to save time. And before they knew it, they were at the border. Unfortunately, so was a troop of Scotarnish border guards.
"I say we rush Ćem and take their skulls," Carmbine growled.
"Genius, there's twenty of them and eight of us," Jono said, looking at the War Person with disgust on his face.
"Both of you shut up and stay low, there'll be scouts around searching," Eljir whispered angrily.
They stayed low to the ground and watched as the six scouts returned and reported to the captain. They lingered a moment more unloading supplies, then they split themselves in half. Twelve of the guards stayed and began to set up camp, the rest moved on. "It's just standard procedure," Eljir said to their silent question. "Zarfed is just a few miles inside the border, and General Amden is probably expecting Synarin troops."
"So?" Halix asked, "Are we going to take them?"
"This fight would be more than fair," Jono said grinning.
"You've got to understand my dilemma, those are my country men down there."
The usually silent Porvar looked around at the way the wind was blowing the limbs of the trees, then he said, "I can pick off all twelve of them from here."
The words he said should have sounded arrogant, but they didn't. He was dead serious and the grim expression on his face spoke much louder than words. "Are you by any chance a betting man?" Jono asked, breaking the silence.
Porvar ignored the Itairan and waited silently for Eljir's answer. The Scotsman weighed the consequences of archer's bold comment. Finally the leader spoke, "You can try, but if you screw up, they'll know where we are."
Porvar only nodded and nocked his first arrow. Eljir gave a slight nod and Porvar let the first arrow go. It flew surely through the air and dug into the back of the first man. The archer quickly nocked another arrow and let it fly, this time it hit a Scotsman in the throat. The Kojen continued to string arrows and let them fly and one by one the border guards fell. As their numbers dwindled, the guards began to scatter about, but the sure hands of Porvar still cut down each one of them. In the end (in less than two minutes) every one of the soldiers lay dead or dying on the soft ground. After Porvar was finished he cursed under his breath and said, "I used thirteen arrows, my aim is going bad."
The others in the company stared open mouthed at Porvar as he calmly returned his bow and quiver to the saddle. Carmbine was the first to congratulate him, the tall War Person placed his hand over the archer's heart as was the Dethopian way. In a low, deep voice, Carmbine said, "I am glad to say I have served with you. Your arm is steady and your eye is sure, you deserve a War name," then switching to the tongue of the War People he said, "Dhyoglock."
"It means He Who Never Misses," Eljir said.
"My War name is Quyoupcal," Carmbine said, "It means Hammer of Blood."
"Thank you," Porvar said, placing his hand over the War Person's heart to satisfy the massive warrior, then he continued, "Shouldn't we be going?"
"He's right," Eljir said, climbing back onto his horse, "Let's go!"
They rode hard the rest of the way to Zarfed and as they went the ground slowly changed from low grasslands to the misty highlands. By late afternoon, the Ghost Riders had come to the outcropping of rock that overlooked Castle Zarfed. The tall towers that guarded the front of the fortress looked grim against the fog. But the castle looked almost deserted, hardly any lights were on. "Two hundred troops, my foot," Jono said, shaking his head.
"They must have deployed some of the troops to the campaign against Trinir," Eljir said. "I bet good General Amden is hopping mad."
"Do you know this general?" Halix asked.
"Yeah, I went to the academy with him. He was always a baby and he pouted when he didn't get his way. Sometimes I wanted to beat on him."
"Well, here's your chance," Jono said, grinning, "So, what's the plan?"
"I'm guessing that there's probably only fifty troops left, plus Amden, his bodyguards, and the wizard. I think we should just fight our way in, get the chalice, and get out," Eljir said, pulling his long sword from its scabbard, "Come on, wizard, you'll stay with me."
With that said the Ghost Riders grabbed their weapons and charged towards Castle Zarfed. That is, all except Porvar. He stayed behind to provide cover for the charging warriors. The Kojen did his job well. All of the guards that approached his mates he shot down and he picked off a few of the castle archers at the same time. After the rest of the company were safely at the door, he climbed onto his horse and said, "Now that's more like it, twenty men, twenty arrows."
When the Ghost Riders reached the huge iron gates of the castle, they stopped and waited for Eljir's commands. Finally, after Porvar's volley of arrows stopped, the Scot asked, "Wizard, can you use your magic to open the gates?"
"These doors," Narhir said, touching the iron he whispered a few words in the ancient tongue and the gates collapsed in on themselves.
"Once we're inside the wizard will stay by me. Aras, you stay with Jono. Carmbine and Li will watch each other's backs, and Halix you'll wait here for Porvar, then you both come," Eljir ordered, leaping of his stead, "Go!"
They charged across the open courtyard of the castle and found only a few guards waiting for them, waiting for death. As carnage erupted around him, Eljir shouted, "The chalice will be in the vault, upstairs and to the left. Stay close, Narhir."
As the wizard and Eljir disappeared up the stairs, Carmbine and Li came rushing into the castle to find soldiers packed in wall to wall. Carmbine stopped to let out a primal roar, then he charged into the battle with his hammer in his right hand and his long sword in the left. The first soldier to attack did so half-heartly and received a sword in the gut. The War Person quickly spun and cracked the skull of a charging soldier with his hammer. Li Chen had charged ahead of the Dethopian cutting and slashing all the way. A soldier tried to attack the islander from behind, but he spun out of the way and sliced down the man's neck, cutting his head off.
In the center of the fight, Jono and Aras stood back to back. The first man that charged Aras had died quite accidentally, she had simply stuck her sword out and he had impaled himself. Now she was calmer and she was handling herself well. Behind her Jono was showing the brutish Scotsmen how to use a sword properly, chattering at them as he did. One of the Scots charged him, sword above his head ready to swing down, but he never did. Jono struck first, slicing the man's sword hand off, Jono grinned at the soldier and said, "Now this is how you do it." The Itairan then stabbed the warrior neatly in the heart.
Halix and Porvar joined the party late, but when they did the tides started to turn. The archer dropped to the ground and began picking off soldiers left and right. The Trinirian stood over him, making sure none of the charging soldiers reached the archer. The first man that tried to attack the archer found one of Halix's hatchets in his chest before he was even ten yards away from Porvar. The Trinirian quickly retrieved his small axe and spun around throwing it into the face of Scot charging the archer from behind. All the while, Porvar calmly shot his arrows and, even though he missed once or twice, he still enjoyed the challenge.
As Eljir and Narhir climbed the long staircase to the vault above the main hall, few soldiers attacked them. The ones who did quickly met death at the sharp blade of either their countryman's axe or his long sword. When they reached the vault, they found two of Amden's bodyguards waiting for them. The guards stared at Eljir as he attacked, they knew him. Their hesitation gave Eljir all the time he needed. His long sword cut into the gut of one of the guards while his battle axe took the head of the other.
The doors of the vault were almost as magnificent as the treasures held inside of it. They were crafted out of solid gold, with long thin streaks of silver running through them. Eljir looked to the wizard who replied, "These doors will take a while longer, they have been sealed with magic."
Eljir waited expectantly as the wizard squeezed his eyes shut and began to chant ancient words. His chant grew louder and louder until finally he shouted one last phrase and threw his arms out towards the doors. The heavy golden doors flew inward off of their hinges and crashed loudly onto the vault floor.
Eljir rushed in past the wizard. When they entered the chamber, they found two more guards, General Amden, and a wizard. When Narhir saw the other wizard, he growled, "Belfidine." He raised his hands into the air, showering his foe in a bath of powerful wind and tiny bolts of green lightning. Belfidine did the same thing and soon the two wizards were locked in the grips of each other's storms.
Eljir ran headlong into the guards. The first man wasn't ready and the highlander sliced through his helmet and into the top of his thick head with his axe. Pieces of metal and flesh and bone flew through the air and splattered against Amden's face and the wall. "Kill the traitor," the general screamed to the other guard. The loyal soldier charged and swung his sword at Eljir's head. Eljir blocked this first attack and struck back at the man cutting his arm. The guard pulled out a second shorter sword and brought it down at Eljir's shoulder while he swung his other sword at Eljir's head. Eljir blocked the strike aimed at his head, but while he did so, the other sword dug into his left shoulder, cutting through the mail and the flesh and finally crushing his collar bone.
Eljir roared in pain and anger. His eyes became wide and he kicked his foe in the gut, sending him sprawling into the wall beside the general. Eljir slowly walked over to the guard and towered over him looking down for a moment before he drove his long sword through his countryman's breastbone and into his heart. Eljir spun around and looked down with fury in his eyes at the general cowering by the wall with his head between his knees and his hands over his head.
Eljir grabbed him by his long blond hair and pulled him up against the wall. He took the dagger from his boot and said, "I've been meaning to do this for a long time." He scowled at the crying general a moment more before carefully slitting his throat.
The Scot wiped the blood from his knife on Amden's tunic then spun around in time to see the wizard Belfidine crash to the floor and begin to shake uncontrollably. Narhir looked down with pity on the other wizard as his body exploded from the inside, unleashing searing heat into the small treasure room. "This is Kal'ebb's treasured chalice," Narhir said taking a small platinum and gold cup from a low shelf.
"Let's go, then," Eljir said, taking a moment to pry the short sword from his shoulder.
When the wizard and the warrior finally came back to the bloodied main hall, all of the soldiers in the Castle Zarfed were dead. "Did you get the chalice?" Jono asked.
"Of course he did," came a loud voice from the courtyard.
The Ghost Riders slowly walked through the door weapons ready, bodies weary. Outside, they found eight of King Kal'ebb's Elite Guards, wearing their traditional red and black armor. When Eljir saw that Kal'ebb had not trusted them, his anger exploded and he said in a grim voice, "So Kal'ebb didn't trust us, well he is smarter than I thought."
The Scot charged the man closest to the Riders and leapt into the air, slicing his left arm off with his battle axe. The man slumped and fell off his horse. When he hit the ground, Eljir swung the axe down, cutting the guard's head off. "I want one alive!" Eljir screamed as Carmbine and Li leapt into action.
The battle was short as the rage of the Ghost Riders was unleashed. Aras even released her repressed anger, slaying one of her father's men. Soon, only one of the so-called Elite Guards was left alive. Carmbine held his axe level with the man's face as Eljir interrogated him. The Scot asked, "What is your name?"
"Gerhi," the guard answered nervously.
"Do you know why you are alive?"
Gerhi shook his head.
"Because you are going to take this back to Kal'ebb," Eljir said as he set the chalice on the ground and swung his mighty axe down, splitting it down the middle. He continued, "With a message from the Ghost Riders. We no longer serve any nation, or any king. We are free men and if you send soldiers after us they will die, as you will. Can you give your boss that message, Gerhi?"
"Su- sure," he said, as Carmbine removed the axe from his face.
The Synarin soldier climbed onto his horse and Eljir handed him both pieces of the chalice, a grim smile on his face. Carmbine slapped the horse and the beast tore off through the gates of Zarfed. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Eljir asked, turning to Narhir and Aras.
"Without a doubt," Aras said, "The only reason my father was even halfway nice to me was because he used me as a whore whenever a great dignitary or general or war hero was without a date. I hate him as much as the rest of you."
"I believe I'll live longer around you people," Narhir said, "And besides how many men can say that they are free."
"And the rest of you want to ride together?" Eljir said.
"For the time being," Jono said, grinning a stupid grin.
"Battles seem frequent when you are around, Eljir," Carmbine said, placing his hand over Eljir's heart, "I give you the War name, Ryquintil. 'Angry Blade'."
"Where to, then?" Halix asked.
"I know a man who lives in a small farm town west of Zarfed. He will hide us and he is a good healer," Eljir said indicating to his wounded shoulder.
"Lead the way," Aras said, smiling her beautiful smile.
And together they rode off, free men, and woman.
"He said what!" Kal'ebb shouted, kicking Gheri the messenger.
"Well, we'll see what the great warrior Eljir does when I send my forces after him," Kal'ebb whispered with a fiendish grin on his face. Then he shouted, "Captain Farwir, prepare a battle team, anyone you wish will be on it. Find Eljir and his merry band of free men."
About the Author in his own words: "My name is Joe Gensweider, I'm fifteen years old and I live in Yates Center, a very small town in southeast Kansas. I became interested in writing in the second grade and I've been doing it ever since. This is my first fantasy work to be published. I became interested in Sci-Fi and fantasy through Star Wars and I've grown as a reader and a writer ever since. Right now I'm working on several short story series and two novels. I live with my mom and editor, Sharon Suske, my sister, Amy, and three cats and a dog. On weekends, my sister and I visit our dad and lawyer, Leo Gensweider."
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