The seething dragon crouched, quivering with pain and rage. His red-tinged eyes tried in vain to watch every figure moving around him. Another lance bit into his flesh and he twisted like an enraged cat, snapping at the offending object with jaws powerful enough to crimp the steel.

The attack stopped short as shining chains as thick as his legs jerked tight, halting his retribution. He roared with frustration, bloody froth dripping from his jaws. He had always been treated gently, talked to kindly, until this day. He was confused, frustrated, and enraged that he could be treated like this.

The two-legged demons circled him, lances carried at the ready, dark blood—his blood—staining the blades and the thick wooden handles. Each man wore a mask that covered everything but the eyes. The masks were useless as protection against his wrath, but they frustrated him.

He would always remember this experience, and he tried desperately to see something of his attackers that would allow him to hunt them down. He could not see their faces, and every whiff of his human attackers burned his sensitive nostrils with a stink that was obviously intentional. If he could find something to identify them, he would hunt them down if it took his entire lifetime. Such was the persistence of his species.

A sharp pain and a gush of warmth burst on his shoulder as another lance penetrated his young, soft armor plates. A small flood of steaming blood splashed down his scales and was immediately chewed into mud by his churning claws. If it weren’t for the chains he could end the punishment. In mere seconds the mismatched fight would be over.

Then the command came. To him the words of the Master were a feeling more than a sound. They washed over his consciousness like a warm caress, calming the pain of his wounds and closing his gaping jaws. There was no question of his obedience; he did as the command said as quickly as if it had been his own thought. He stood calmly, his head bowed, his eyes closed, waiting for his Master’s touch.

He waited, trying not to quiver in anticipation, until the touch came. The Master touched him on the shoulder, next to a deep lance wound that was still seeping blood.

Another command and he was lying on his stomach, his Master standing next to his horned head. He had already forgotten about his attackers, the frustration gone. His entire world was his Master and the spoken commands. In some corner of his mind he recognized that the attacks had ceased, but it was a trivial detail.

He heard a sound above him, but it was not a command, and while his Master stood near him only the commands mattered.

The saltwater mixture was too thick to splash, but the murky flood bathed his entire body with scalding, burning liquid. He wanted to roar, to scream in outrage and pain, but that was not allowed of him—the command was to lie still, not to react to pain. His muscles locked solid with pain, the pressure pushing more blood from dozens of wounds.

When the flood ceased, he lay shaking violently, dripping with blood and salt sludge. His entire body was burning, tearing with pain.

Another command brought him to his feet, and one more allowed him to rest his head against the breastplate of the Master himself. He felt a slow hand rub the side of his head, and he hummed with pleasure, a sound that rumbled out of his massive chest like distant thunder. His armor scales warmed from a solid, inky black to a dark red as he hummed in happiness.

The Master was smaller than he was, in fact the top of the Master’s head would not have reached the top of his shoulder, but none of that mattered.

Human screams warned him of another man’s approach a moment before the scream’s owner landed on his back on the floor. The newcomer struggled to drag himself back toward the wall from which he had been thrown. The man’s screams had stopped with the impact, whether from injury or terror, no one would ever know.

A mask, like the one his attackers wore, had been bolted in place seconds earlier.

The stroking stopped and the Master stepped away. The humming in the dragon’s throat stopped. He knew not to question, not to be frustrated with the end of the Master’s affection. Still, on this very trying day he wanted very much to stay with his Master. With the Master everything was always okay, always nice.

The man in the mask was talking from the ground, meaningless human mumbling. The Master responded with the same. The words were not commands, and therefore gibberish to him.

He stood waiting, watching the man in the mask and listening to the Master’s voice. Then, a moment later, he heard the command he was hoping to hear.

With a baring of teeth that looked eerily like a smile, he launched his bulk forward with the speed and agility of a massive panther, and the first strike of his tail tore the man in the mask into two pieces.

Chapter One

Artair traced a massive footprint with a gauntleted finger. The clawed print had been left in the mud next to where water had pooled during the rain the night before. The edges had only begun to dry, and the nearly continual wind had not yet blown any grass into it.

His men stood around him, blocking the wind and throwing shadows across the dragon tracks. The group was so perfectly camouflaged that anyone watching would have a hard time keeping track of them against the backdrop of the plains.

Then, as if talking to himself, he said, “The beast was here less than an hour ago. We’ll catch up to him as he gets into the middle of those hills, I think. Shall we?” He grinned up at the men surrounding him and there were a couple laughs. They had been fighting since childhood, as their fathers had since their childhood. This day would be no different. As a farmer would go out to the field for a day of plowing, they went into combat.

Artair stood up, and with his foot deliberately scraped the footprint into a muddy smudge, then trotted off in the direction of the tracks. His men followed close behind, running in his footsteps in single file. The dragon slayers made no more sound running than the wind that rustled their green cloaks, playing the thick fabric across their scaled armor.

The broiling afternoon sun was beginning to fall toward the horizon as the warriors finished creeping into position on the brink of a hill a couple miles from their previous location. The knee-high grass afforded them some cover. It was still green enough to allow them to move through it without a sound. The hill was not truly a hill, but they were used to that.

Centuries ago this had been a smooth valley stretching between distant mountains. A series of rivers had supplied lush grasslands that stretched for miles. The ruins of innumerable wars had since scarred and marked the landscape far more than nature had ever intended or desired.

The grasslands were no longer smooth, no longer pristine. Instead, the land was pockmarked and hilly, ridged with stone brought from faraway quarries. The hill they were on had once been the outer wall of a fortress destroyed more than a century before. The final battle for control had continued for all of ten years, changing hands half a dozen times until there was nothing left to fight over.

They earned themselves a nickname during that time period, one which had no direct translation from the old language. The vak-halhatatlanok.

The closest they could come was the Blind Immortals. After another two years of fighting the nickname lost some of its appropriateness, as their mortality was proved beyond question. Few of them lived long enough to pass their bloodlines on to the current Helveti.

Over time, the mighty stones of the wall had loosened and fallen, crumbling until the ground reached up to reclaim them. After all its grandeur, now the only thing that was sure was that it had existed, and that it was once again a battlefield.

They heard the dragon long before they could have seen it, and smelled it not long after. They had taken great pains to ensure that it wouldn’t see them before they were ready. For more than half an hour they had been flat on their stomachs, hoping to keep out of sight, silent, and away from the wind that could carry their scent to their prey.

Crawling in the heavy dragon plate armor was not something any man would do willingly, but for them it was essential. Their plan depended on surprise and coordination, and without either one they would be lucky to survive at all. A year did not go by without notice of a team that had been utterly decimated by a bungled ambush.

Men had been known to survive a solo fight with a dragon. There were two in the party who could boast such a thing if they chose to. None could say for sure that they would survive another such encounter, however.

The four archers had already taken their positions, in two sets of two, twenty yards from each other. A lancer lay next to each set of archers. The three Sword Bearers eased into their positions at intervals between the two groups. Still, none of them had seen the animal, but they could hear it growling and could smell its stench. Dragons always smelled like the rotten meat they favored; almost as if they were rotting while still alive. They smelled of death, and it was fitting.

When everyone was in place, Artair locked eyes with the swordsman closest to him. Calum, his best friend, returned his gaze and gave a short nod. Artair grinned at him through his visor and in one smooth motion rose to his feet, putting himself into view of the small valley below and its monstrous contents. The pocket was deep, a part of a moat at one point undoubtedly, and their quarry took up almost half the floor.

The dragon faced away from him, its head low to the ground as it rooted in the dirt, grunting loudly. Twice it flicked its tail into the hard-packed loam, slicing into the rock-like earth with movements so quick that only the practiced eye of the Sword Bearer could see that it was the tail doing the work.

A long-dead animal, a deer most likely, had drawn the beast. Only the bones remained, but the smell of death was irresistible to the large reptile. It had not noticed him and Artair had a moment to look at the magnificent creature.

As dangerous as they were, there was no one who would say they weren’t beautiful. A rainbow of colors when not agitated, the dragon stretched nearly ten spans in length, and was over two spans tall at the shoulder. Very few were any taller than this one. He had seen one that had been much larger, but that was long ago.

The dragon’s tail had a single fixed blade, like that of a sword though twice as wide, protruding from its tip. There were two other blades sheathed inside the tail that would appear only when the dragon decided to use them. This three-pronged weapon, at the end of a whip-like tail, was one of the most dangerous parts of the monster.

A half dozen curved blades at the top of the dragon’s neck worked the same way, turning the massive head into a spiked battering ram that moved as fast as a man could blink. Artair had seen a dragon battle for several minutes with a man hanging from those horns. In the end neither man nor beast had survived. Artair had taken the dragon’s head home to his friend’s widow. She hadn’t appreciated the gesture as much as he had hoped.

There was not a soul amongst them that was not afraid of what the dragons could do. No man who could claim sanity would say he was not, but for Artair there was a stronger emotion at work.

A wicked smile growing on his face, the swordsman’s armored hand reached up to his helmet, moving slowly in order to remain undetected. The oiled links in the armored gloves flexed and moved without a sound. Ignoring Calum’s hissed protest, he delicately removed his headpiece and, after holding it a moment, drew his arm back and threw it at the dragon’s scaled back.

The creature whipped around, alerted by the sudden motion. The helmet missed and landed on the ground with a puff of dust. The triple-bladed tail curled, cat-like, in front of him. The murderous red eyes bored into Artair’s face as he slid and jumped his way down to the floor of the pocket and stood to face his opponent. Staring back at the dragon, he spread his arms and roared at the creature. When he finished he was smiling, realizing how ridiculous he must look to the monster.

Not another muscle in the massive animal moved as the blades around the dragon’s head slowly slid from their hiding places, locking into place soundlessly. It was as obvious a mismatch as could be imagined. Artair, formidable though he was by human standards, could not compare by strength or size with even the smallest of the dragon’s four legs. He was prey, not a fellow predator.

A terse half second later the dragon leapt soundlessly toward him, the gleaming eyes never leaving its intended victim. For the dragon, this was a simple decision: another animal was within sight, and that meant that it had to die. There was no hesitation, no deliberation, and no doubt of its success. The largest animals known to exist, the dragons were nonetheless as quick as animals a twentieth their size. It was their speed, above all else, that made them so dangerous.

As the creature’s back legs left the ground, Artair’s sword slid from its sheath across his back, the steel scraping musically as it came free. The dragon’s jump took it straight at him, and the beast uttered a frightful scream as razor teeth and claws prepared to meet human flesh.

A ringing clang of steel on armored scale met the dragon’s premature victory cry. Artair, rolling under the leaping creature, slashed upward at the animal’s belly as its bulk sailed over him. The Sword Bearer rolled to the right and lay still, his face in the dust. The tail blades pounded a trench in the hard ground an inch from the end of his nose, filling his face with dirt.

As the dragon whipped around to find its lost prey, Calum leapt from the hillside and, airborne, swung his sword at the spiked head. The animal ducked, dodging the blow, and he landed in a crouch right in front of it. Spinning as he landed, the warrior sliced at the animal’s chest as the scythe-like tail cut the air directly above him. The blow of the sword rang like a hammer on steel, armor plates of the dragon withstood the attack without damage.

Calum rolled forward under the huge beast as arrows filled the air above him. The first arrow bounced off the back of the dragon, but the second lodged itself deeply into the beast’s heaving flank. The monster roared in anger and, leapt at the source of this new attack. The archers dropped down out of sight and the lancer stationed next to them stood.

Not once had a lancer ever been solely credited with killing a dragon, but many times they had saved their archers from certain death, often sacrificing their own. The lances they carried were heavy and long enough to allow the tip to contact the dragon before the deadly jaws were able to reach the holder. Their effectiveness, though not their survival, depended on them being able to hold their stance even though they died in it.

The beast’s lunge carried it over Artair, who thrust upwards at the dragon’s belly as it passed over him. The sword penetrated the weaker armor on the underbelly but the speed of the attacking reptile tore the weapon from his hands. Spinning once more, the creature roared in pain and frustration.

This was a new and unpleasant experience for it. Its prey always ran from it for the brief period of time before it was ripped down by tooth and claw, and for a dragon there was nothing that moved that wasn’t prey. That these insignificant creatures would dare to act the way they did was confusing.

Lying motionless at the dragon’s feet, Artair’s searching eyes found his sword, now lying between the back legs of the enraged beast. He had no illusions about his chances if the dragon spotted him. He was wearing armor, of course, but that would only protect him against glancing blows, not a full attack.

Dragons had one flaw that made fighting them possible. Probably due to the fact that all creatures ran from them, the dragons couldn’t see what was holding still. Whether it was their eyesight or simply a lack of attention span or memory, a still form was safe from everything but being stepped on. Artair needed his sword to continue the attack, but could not move without being seen and likely killed.

At that moment, one of the archers positioned in front of the dragon stood and fired his shaft at the enraged creature. The archer was new, and if he didn’t learn patience he would not live to become experienced. Until the dragon was turned away from them, they were supposed to leave it to the Sword Bearers. That was their job.

The gleaming, horned head caught the arrow in its jaws and crushed it to splinters. The beast leapt to run along the upper edge of the hill, closing on the standing archer, obviously deciding that the bottom of the trench had become too dangerous. Its clawed feet dug into the side of the hill, giving it purchase on the steep slope.

The third Sword Bearer, Moray, exploded from the hillside with an inhuman roar and rammed his sword to the hilt between the monster’s ribs. The hilt tore upward as the force of the powerful attack and the surprise of the dragon sent both man and beast rolling together down the hill.

A human scream joined the roar of the reptile as Moray was pulled from his perch on the monster’s side and torn by razor claws. True to his craft, he pulled the sword a sideways down the side of the monster as he went, leaving a gaping wound that fountained steaming blood.

As they hit the bottom of the hill, the dragon threw Moray to the ground, its bloody claws still gripping the wounded man as Calum rushed in. With a metallic clang the Sword Bearer flew back as the heavy tail blade caught him in the chest, tearing away his breastplate. He hit rolling, but dazed, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

The dragon’s head whipped down to strike Moray’s writhing body, but halfway down the dragon’s lethal jaws closed on the blade of a sword. Their tumble had brought them within reach of Altair, who had used the moment of distraction to roll over and regain his sword.

From the ground, he drove his heel into the dragon’s eye while ripping his sword back out of the monster’s mouth. Grunting at the blow, it swung its head around to glare at its attacker through its uninjured eye as teeth and blood dropped from his injured jaws.

Jumping to his feet, Artair watched the beast from just outside the reach of its jaws. He could smell the fetid breath of the predator as it struggled for breath. It desperately wanted to hold on to the one enemy it had succeeded in capturing, but hatred burned in its eyes for the men who encircled him. Moray’s sword, meanwhile, remained buried in its side, promising to bleed the animal to death.

For the Sword Bearers the fight had now changed. The task of killing the dragon had been accomplished, it was as good as dead. Now they were fighting to get Moray out of its grasp. If they could get him free, they could retreat until the sword had finished its work.

Without taking his eyes off the beast, Artair nodded, using a slow, exaggerated motion. As his head lowered, the four archers fired simultaneously, striking the dragon on both sides. Roaring, it reared up on its hind legs, releasing Moray. The wounded man rolled out of the way as Artair rushed in close to the creature and drove his sword up into its underbelly.

The silver blade disappeared through the scaled armor and Artair angled it upward and shoved again. The stench of the animal made him want to retch as a flood of dark crimson blood gushed from the wound, covering the sword and splashing onto his hands.

A pinprick of pain turned his head as Calum’s thrown sword sank deep into the body of the monster, slicing the top of his ear as it flew past. The dragon screamed a shrill cry, its back legs buckled, and it started to fall.

Artair continued to shove at the huge animal as it toppled, trying without real effect to push it farther from his wounded comrade. The impact of the fall shook the ground, causing dirt and rocks to cascade down the crumbled wall.

Rolling away from the thrashing creature, Artair tore his sword free from its body and retreated from the beast’s death throes. The amount of blood pouring from the mammoth monster had already turned the dirt at the bottom of the pocket into reeking mud.

The dragon’s roars weakened, and the claws stopped tearing at the bloodstained ground. With one last, futile effort, the great beast collected its legs under itself and, amazingly, lifted its bulk off the ground almost a foot before falling back down into the growing lake of its own blood.

Stay down, old man. You’re done!” Artair growled. Slowly circling his dying opponent, he finally stood next to the monster’s great head. The animal was done thrashing, but its one good eye still glared at him from the ground as the horns around its head retracted into its skull. Swinging his heavy weapon, the Sword Bearer severed the dragon’s head from its body. The huge animal convulsed once more and then went limp.

Artair stared at the dragon, and then watched as the red stain of blood on his sword spread to the rest of the blade, turning it to a dark crimson. The blade would stay that color for about an hour, at which point it would slowly return to its original silver sheen.

They had no idea why the swords did that, but all weapons from the Olden Times did. They also did not know how they were made, only that they could not make them anymore. Nor could they even scratch them, no matter what tool they used or how they tried to heat them. Whatever they were made of, they were the only weapons that could consistently penetrate the dragon armor, and that meant that everything else about them was unimportant.

Artair returned his weapon to its sheath and looked around as silence descended on the battlefield. Calum stood a few feet from him, blood dripping from a cut on his chin. He was breathing hard and stood holding his ribs. The archers and lancers jumped and slid down the steep walls of the pocket, and though he could see them coming, the sound of the rolling rocks and sliding dirt did not reach his ears. He was still in the light state of shock that always came after a battle.

Turning, he gaze landed on Moray, who lay motionless where his roll had taken him. He was alive, but even from a distance it was clear that he would not be for long.

The rest of the team gathered around as the two Sword Bearers took off their friend’s helmet and breastplate. Moray’s hair was wet with sweat and there was a bloody froth on his lips. The pain was clear on his face, but he was trying to keep from showing it.

Watching him struggle was harder for the team surrounding him than fighting the dragon had been. As the armor came free Calum and Artair exchanged a glance over their blood-soaked friend. The lethal claws had caught Moray in the side between the armor plates, almost as if the animal had known how the armor was made.

Well, that doesn’t look so bad, does it?” murmured Moray with a small smile. Even weak as he was, he could see the blood spreading across the front of his shirt and soaking the ground beneath him.

You never could resist a good wrestling match, could you Moray? You always want to get in close and grapple these big things!” Calum said. The wounded warrior winced as he tried to laugh at the comment. The three men had been together for almost fifteen years and had seen many men and dragons die. Death was always with them, they lived it in an irony they continually tried to forget. Every time they left home they knew that death would be with them all the way. It was their purpose, and the goal of their training. There were times, though, when death decided to take one of them along with the dragon.

I had him right where I wanted him until you guys came barging in!” The dying man’s smile was weak, but sincere. Artair squeezed his hand as best he could through the gauntlet.

Well fought, old friend, well fought.” Calum spoke softly in farewell.

Moray nodded weakly at the statement. “Ahala’l.” Until death. The rest of the team repeated the sentiment softly.

The group watched in silence as the Sword Bearer gradually relaxed and was gone.

Chapter Two

Artair wrapped his cloak around him and settled back against the trunk of a large tree. The team didn’t sleep around the campfire anymore, ever since the mate of a dragon they had killed tracked them back to their camp.

They’d lost several men that night before driving the animal away,. Now they slept apart and in the dark. They all agreed that they preferred the cold to fighting dragons in the dark. Artair’s fingers traced the hilt of his sword for a few short moments, pondering the strange nature of the weapon. Each of the ancient swords was unique, beautifully crafted as if for display instead of use. Upon first seeing one, you had to assume that a master craftsman had once presented each of the swords as his crowning achievement. Just by looking at them, you would never guess their true potential and power.

Most Helvetians knew about the sharpness of the swords, their durability that bordered on invincibility. Very few, however, knew how unique the blades really were. He had tried to explain it every time a new Sword Bearer was brought onto the team, but in the end it worked out better to let the newcomer discover for himself.

The swords were, at very least, temperamental. It started there, to be sure, and sometimes would graduate to something more complex. Nearly all of them seemed lighter or heavier depending on the person. His own sword, for example, was as heavy as three regular swords to almost any other man. It was heavy enough to be almost unusable, except to him. To him it was as light as a practice foil, the kind given to children when they were first taught swordsmanship.

That was where it began, but some of them had other attributes. One was said to actually hum while in combat, especially after a killing blow was dealt. The blade hummed loud enough to be heard two paces away.

What was more troubling is that everyone agreed it sounded like a happy humming, almost a purring. Other swords seemed to have either a moral compass or a lazy streak, and would suddenly become heavy to even their masters when the cause was suspect or it was early in the morning.

His own sword was never stubborn, and did not hum, but it had its ways of telling him when it was pleased or disturbed. It warmed in his hands when in combat, and cooled to an icy frost if he stayed too long in town, even in the heat of summer. In essence, his sword enjoyed the heat of battle, and was displeased if kept from it.

His fingers continued to stroke the handle of his sword as sleep slowly overtook him.

two dragons stood side by side, watching the men run at them. Although they had never seen such creatures before, it was obvious what they were. The animals were motionless as they were surrounded except for the catlike twitching of their tails.

On signal, the men surrounding them attacked. Their actions were smooth and fluid, displaying long practice and instinctual obedience to training. For several seconds, dust clouded everything except a general sense of violent movement, but the roars of the dragons and the screams of the men reached and terrified the watching youth.

The battle stopped suddenly, and the dust slowly settled. At least half the attackers now lay on the ground, crumpled heaps of blood and dust. The remaining men huddled in a small group several yards from the beasts. Fear marked them plainly, and several were already bleeding from gaping wounds as they struggled to stay standing.

The reptiles again stood still, waiting for the men’s next move. The group moved abruptly as they ran in pairs straight at the big creatures and then broke away to either side as they came within reach of them. The maneuver was designed to pull the animals away from each other and allow the men to get in close to the dragons’ flanks.

It worked.

The creatures spun in opposite directions, tearing the first two men down with tail and claw. The town’s blacksmith ran in beside the bigger of the two monsters and thrust his sword up into the belly of the reptile.

Or, at least, he tried. The blacksmith’s sword bounced off the dragon’s armor and skidded across its pebbled skin, barely scratching the great beast. The dragon whipped around and cleaved the man off his feet with one slicing swing of a paw.

The surviving men gave up and ran desperately for their homes, but this time the reptiles attacked, running down the fleeing villagers with dumbfounding speed. The last man screamed as he died, and then there was no sound. The dragon’s bloodstained jaws gaped wide as it roared…

Artair awoke with a jerk, sweat beading on his forehead. He was breathing heavily, the sound of it loud in the night air. The Sword Bearer switched from panting to holding his breath as he realized that, other than the noise he was making, the night was silent. He had fallen asleep to the sound of insects and other noises of the night. All those were now still. He rose to a crouch, his eyes probing the darkness. Brutally awakened by the dream, all sleep had fled from him.

A twig crunched a few feet to his left and Artair pivoted toward the sound. Motionless, the Helvetian was close to invisible to the man who walked into his sight and stopped within a few feet of him. The stranger was dressed in dark greens and browns, like the Sword Bearers themselves, but not in dragon plate armor. The clothing was not that of a Helvetian. He was looking toward the long-cold site of the campfire. It seemed that he had not yet seen Artair as he took another slow step in his direction.

The warrior stayed perfectly still, both swords still in their sheaths, waiting. He knew exactly what he would do when he decided to attack. He would try to disarm the stranger, but would kill him if necessary. Above all, he would keep the man from raising any alarm. No matter who he was, he wasn’t likely to be alone. He did not worry about his own men. As skilled as they were, fighting men was not a challenge.

Another step and the man stood almost within arm’s reach of the Sword Bearer. The stranger took another half step toward Artair and then pivoted to face him and yelled a word in a strange language. The Helvetian could see the shine of the other man’s eyes as he reached for his sword. The other man’s shout meant he was truly not alone, and he no longer had the choice of holding back.

Artair’s sword was half out of its sheath when a heavy, shapeless force hit him from above and to the side. The weight of the net staggered him and forced his sword back into its sheath. The stranger dove at the Sword Bearer and hit him in the stomach with his shoulder.

Artair fell back and instinctively rolled to the side, gasping for breath while further tangling his arms and legs in the net. As he attempted to stand, his attacker jumped onto his back, forcing him to the ground with his knees on his shoulder blades.

Hearing someone else rush from the trees, he turned his head in hopes that it was a member of his team only to see the newcomer swing something in the darkness. Then bright lights exploded in his head and he saw nothing…


Calum’s eyes opened at the sound of the foreign yell, and he rose to a crouch. The sound had come from the other side of the campfire, where Artair had headed to sleep. There were sounds of a brief struggle, and then silence.

He started moving, skirting the edge of the clearing as he came closer to where the sound had originated. He was sure that it had awakened the others, but he did not expect to see or hear the practiced woodsmen in the dark. They were all alive at least in part because of their ability to move without making noise—even in the dark.

The men running from the trees were almost as quiet as the Sword Bearers until they got close. Calum stopped short, his sword in his hand without a thought. He didn’t have time to shout before the first stranger swung a heavy weapon at his head. He diverted the blow, stepped back, and barked orders to his unseen men. There were clangs of steel as the Sword Bearers engaged their attackers all around him. His attacker swung again, a ponderous blow that had no hope of connecting.

Then, as quickly as they had come, the strangers were gone, melting away into the forest.


“Who were they?” Calum demanded, the light of the fire dancing off the hard planes of his face. They had chased the strangers into the trees, the trained warriors instinctively trying to finish the fight.

When there was no answer, Calum looked around for Artair. Not finding him, he looked again.

“Where’s Artair?”

The rest of the men looked around them, puzzled.

“Wh-where’s Iain?” Another man asked. Without another word, the men faded into the trees, searching for their friends. They found Artair’s helmet, and Iain’s bow, but nothing else.

The rising sun found the Sword Bearers still searching, trying to track the strange attackers—but to no avail. As the sun was setting the next evening, the team finally conceded defeat and headed for home. This was to be a somber day in Greenock. Two Sword Bearers were gone, but even worse was the fact that they had lost two of the swords. New men could be trained, but the weapons were irreplaceable.

Calum’s head bowed low as he pulled Moray’s litter, and the team traveled in silence.

Main Menu