We stood in the lines described by Gregor as a defensive line; I had decided to pull my cowl up over my head and glamour the hood to hide myself, the approaching people were an unknown quantity to us all and I did not feel like taking any chances, the swordsmen stood to the front of the double line of archers, Gregor stood in front of the swordsmen with one of his blades in his hands, Peitro and I were in the rear, the boys took their new duties very seriously and no one was going to get to me until they had passed through the three lines of defenders.

Finally, just as the air began to fill fully with the sounds of waking birds, a group of people who, by the look of their dress, were the owners of the hamlet, striding at the forefront was a large giant of a man, his face was bearded and showed a large amount of grey in his hair, he was broad of shoulder and, although he was aging, he would still be a force to be reckoned with.

On his lower legs were a pair of well worn grieves, his chest was covered with a bronze breast plate with an intricate design hammered into it, on his head was a helmet also of bronze with a tuft of red died horse hair running from front to back like the crest of a fowl, the rest of his body was covered with a dress of thin strips of leather adorned with bronze studs, in his right hand he held a short broad sword.

Behind the towering man ran another although this one was as far from intimidating as any man could get, he was shorter and wider than the man at the head of the group, his girth was that of a wine barrel and his face was flushed and sweating as his thick jowls flopped with every step he took, his breath came in short pants as he tried to keep pace with the giant in the lead.

In numbers, the villagers, if that is who they were, outnumbered us by almost two too one but were only armed with pitch forks and scythes, only the giant at the head of the group was armed as any soldier should be, for the sake of our safety, I decided to go into the head of the man and read what I could, at this stage in our travels it was better to be safe than sorry.

As I quickly read the mans thoughts, I was surprised to learn that he was once a soldier of high standing but, he had not started his life in such a way, he had been taken as a slave from the lands further to the North than even the Elvin lands when he was no more than a young boy, his master had been a fair man and, over time came to look upon the tall blonde youth as his own son, with this in mind his owner had begun to train him in the ways of a soldier until he had been allowed to enter the army of the Emperor, called Caesar.

The Norseman, for that was what he called himself, worked and fought hard for this Emperor until he became one called a, Centurion of the Emperors Guard, at the death of the Emperor he had asked for his retirement and had come to this village to work as the blacksmith for the peace and quiet of his later years although, he had not forgotten his skills as a soldier, I could also see that he was not enamoured by the fat man who was something called a Chancellor sent by the Senate to oversee the running of the village and the collection of taxes for the new Emperor, neither man was happy with the arrangement.

I whispered everything I had learned to Peitro and asked him to inform Gregor, it would let Gregor know who was who in this hamlet and how to deal with them, the blacksmith came to a halt some ten paces from where Gregor stood with his swordsmen at his back, altogether there were about forty men and youths in the hamlet, behind them were a large number of women and children, each man except for the Chancellor, carried either a pitch fork or scythe in his hands, I could not see Gregor’s face but his stance indicated he was not overawed by them, Gregor still had the streak of the bully inside him.

The large old warrior was the first to speak.

“I am Glaucus Flavius, retired Centurion of the Emperors guard, who are you all, I see you are but boys in a man’s armour.”

I watched as Gregor’s back stiffened at the insinuation.

“We are the Royal Guard of Prince Alexi of the Northern lands, and it was these boys that put paid to your enemies, which makes me think that we are not the ones who are boys in this sorry village.”

Yes, Gregor was in fine form, I was to find over time that Gregor had a very inventive streak in his young body, it was not to be the only time he used the title of Prince when it suited the situation, even though I had no entitlement to that title.

“My apologies to the head of the Princes Guard, I meant no disrespect, it is just that I have seen armour and weapons similar to your own but that was far north of this place, I would never have thought to see such so far south.”

“Apology accepted, the Prince is on a quest, we stopped here only for rest but were put under attack by those men, how come that with superior numbers you did not stay to defend your village, you are obviously a warrior of no little experience and I think no one could doubt your honour?’

“You are far wiser than your years, it would have been my desire to defend what is ours but, unfortunately, we are not always in charge, this man.” Glaucus pointed to the still heavily breathing man in the strange dress of long white cloth draped over his shoulder and around his waist, it also had a thin line of red along the border of the material.

“Is the representative of the Senate, it was his orders that we leave as he did not want any blood on his hands or any losses of the villagers.”

I could hear a sense of contempt in Glaucus voice; it was at this point the stout man stepped forward to take over the discussion, much to the hidden anger of Glaucus.

“My name is Frenius Dasius, I am the Emperors representative in this area, now that you’ve had your rest and rid us of the brigands, you may leave and be on your way with our thanks for your help, I will take over from here and have the brigands burned in a pyre.”

I watched as Gregor’s shoulders lifted and his stance became firmer on the dirt street of the hamlet.

“Do you really think we are just going to be used by the likes of you, fat man, there is now a price to be paid for our help, had you not interfered with the talk with this Warrior, we may have walked away satisfied in helping a defenceless people, but now, there will be a charge, if it is not paid we will raise this village to the ground.”

“But...but you can’t do that, no one charges the Emperor for their services, you are outnumbered and only boys, I suggest you move on before we have to take action.” The man was red in the face as he spluttered out his indignation.

Gregor almost ignored him as he turned around and called for one of the archer boys, he was a slim lad of about fourteen.

“Fennis, it would be nice to have some hare for our supper, see over there, by the small bush, now there is a fine hare, why don’t you take it for us.”

Fennis smiled and looked at the hare, it was well out of range of a normal bowman but, these were not normal bowmen, they were under the protection of the Guardian, Fennis drew back his bow and, after a few seconds, released the arrow, it tracked straight and true to finally pierce the hare through the shoulder and bring it shuddering to the ground, Fennis slung his bow and trotted off to get his prize as the villagers looked on in confusion and some fear, Gregor turned back to the Chancellor.

“Does that answer your question, fat man, and now the price has doubled.”

From the corner of my eye I was sure I saw a smile on the lips of Glaucus, this one time warrior knew more than he was telling.

“What...what price, we have nothing that does not belong to the Emperor.”

“The price for your life is quite reasonable, for each of the brigands you will now pay two gold coins, the horses will belong to us and you will see that they are fed and watered before we leave, you will also provide rations for our continued travels for five days, failure to do this will result in the raising of your village and the loss of your life in particular.”

Gregor certainly drew a hard bargain, in response to the look of outrage on the Chancellors face, I could see and hear the drawing of every bow and the swish of drawn swords, the Chancellor folded immediately he saw that he could not win, it was with very bad grace he turned to the villagers and told them to do as Gregor asked, he himself was sent under the guard of two swordsmen to collect the required gold from the tax coffers of the surrounding farms and of the village.

As all this was going on, Glaucus stood immobile and watched me closely, even though he could not see past my glamour, he still had the look of a man who knew more than he was telling, as the crowd dispersed, Glaucus approached me with empty hands and a smile on his face.

“I presume you are the one that is called the Prince; I did not know that the Elvin people had Princes.”

I turned towards him and kept my glamour intact but spoke quietly.

“How did you know I am of the Elvin lands?”

“It was not hard to guess, I have seen those weapons and that armour only once in my life, I have travelled and fought for the Emperor over many lands, the Sians in the east, the Huns of Germanicus in the north, the Woad warriors of the west and the soldiers of the Pharaohs in the south, there is only one place and one people that could fashion those types of weapons and armour.”

“And did you ever meet these people?”

“I had no need to meet them to know they are truth, I was once a Norseman, it is our legends that tell of the Faerie Folk and of Trolls and Elves, like any legend, there is always a grain of truth somewhere, however, do not fear, I will not tell any of your presence, I am sure it would do no good anyhow, knowing what I do of the legends and what an angry Elf could do, but, tell me, that is if you have a desire to do so, what is such a young Elf doing this far from his lands?”

I liked this plain spoken warrior, he had more honour in one finger than the fat Chancellor will ever have and so, I had little hesitation in telling him some, but not all, of the story.

“As my Captain of Guards has said, I am on a quest, as you have worked out I am not a normal Elf but it is better I do not tell you what I am as yet, perhaps one day, if I return this way, I will pass on that information for your ears only, we are under the protection of the Guardians, as a Norseman you will know whom I mean, we do not want to cause trouble but we will not be stopped, the quest is far to important.”

“I fully understand, your secret is safe in my breast and I will guard it with my honour.”

Peitro had not left my side and was watching the large warrior with slitted eyes just in case of betrayal, Glaucus looked down on the smaller figure and smiled.

“Have no fear little warrior, your Prince is in no danger from this warrior, you can rest your fears.”

Peitro visibly relaxed but only a little as he stayed close to my side, both his hands close to his daggers. It was a half hour before the Chancellor returned carrying a leather bag full of coins, by the bulk of it he was doing well on the taxes of this small hamlet and the surrounding farmlets, with a look of distaste, he threw the bag at Gregor’s feet and crossed his arms in an attempts to look superior, it didn’t work as Gregor had seen far more in his few years than this overfed, self important, little man had ever seen.

Gregor stooped and picked up the bag, weighing it in his hands, it was at this time that the sound of horses being walked towards the square caught our attention, some of the youths of the village led the horses to us, they had been cleaned, brushed and fed, there saddlery was clean and had been oiled, on the backs of two of the horses were panniers filled with food and water, there was now only the difficulty in teaching some of the township boys how to ride, most of the country boys already knew but there were a small number of town boys, Gregor took over and began to inspect each horse.

It took time but in the end, and by the middle of the day, each horse had been denoted for the suitable boy, the non riders were given the quieter horse so they could learn at a slower pace, once we were all mounted, Gregor looked around the hamlet one last time, I turned and smiled at the Warrior in thanks for his understanding and we moved out of the hamlet, again towards the south.

Gregor said he had asked about the next town of some size, it was ten days walk away or about seven days on horse if taken slowly, this gave us the chance for the non riders to get used to long periods in the saddle and to learn about caring for their horse, by the end of the seven days, they were all competent horsemen, they even took to practising with their weapons on horse back.

At midday of the seventh day, we came out of a narrow defile to see in the distance, a large fortified town, the walls were of solid stone and as high as five men, the main gates were open and tended by six heavily armed men in red tunics with the same armour as Glaucus had worn all those days ago, the road leading to the gateway was of cobble stones and the traffic of large heavy carts and men on foot with bundles on their backs, showed that this was the centre of trade for the area.

The weather had steadily improved and grown hotter the further south we went, the land around us was dry and a little parched, the grass was yellow and dry and the dust kicked up by the hooves of horse and oxen in their cart shafts, filled the air until it was almost hard to breathe. Along the top of the stone wall we could see other soldiers as they walked back and forth while they watched the scene below.

I was immediately alert as we approached the gate, our column of young boys with their armour sparkling in the bright sunlight, made a sight to see but it did not infuse confidence in the guards of the town, as we neared the gate, a sudden loud trumpet sounded and the gate was filled with many armed soldiers with large shields and swords drawn, they formed up in ranks of four and stood at the ready as we got nearer.

Gregor put his hand up to halt the column, the boys had lifted their bows from their shoulders but had not notched any arrows at this stage, the sword boys had only loosened their weapons but not drawn them, Gregor walked his horse slowly forward until he was about ten paces from the obvious leader of the town guard.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Asked the man.

“We are the guardsmen of Prince Alexi; we come in peace and only ask for lodgings for the night, in the morning we will move on.”

“Do you have a pass from the senate that allows a foreign Prince to travel through our lands?”

“A pass, no I’m afraid not, we know nothing of such passes, we were not aware there was a need for such things.”

“You are in the lands of the Emperor, everyone must have a pass to travel on these lands, and without it you can go no further, if you accompany a Prince then where are your banners?”

“The Prince travels without banners; they are not used in his lands, everyone knows who he is there, we ask only for safe passage and a place to spend the night.”

“Without a pass you can not enter the town, if you wish you may spend the night outside the walls and move on in the morning but, I warn you, you will meet the same laws wherever you go in the Emperors lands.”

“We wish also to replenish our supplies; can you not assist us in this some way?”

The head guard looked us over once again, after a short pause to consider his options, he finally said.

“You may select two of your boys to enter and get your stores but, no others may enter, you will have to find a place out here for the night.”

I could almost feel the tension building in Gregor but also realised that he was capable of making the right decision, we were after all, outnumbered badly by the guards, this was not a time to fight although trying to understand the thinking of the Emperor in denying entry to travellers was hard to understand.

To avoid further trouble, Gregor decided to take Peitro with him into the town, they would look for supplies and anything else we may need, while they did this, the rest of us looked for a good place to camp for the night, we would have to have guards out and keep in a tight group, the horses would have to be tied and also kept close.

It was close to sundown when Gregor and Peitro returned, they had obtained supplies in the town and they were begin hauled out in a small wagon as we watched, we would have fresh food tonight and there would be plenty left to fit into our panniers for the next few days, I was a little worried about what would lay ahead if we met this sort of opposition everywhere we went, we had to somehow obtain a travel pass.

After we had eaten our fill of the fresh supplies and were sitting around the fire for warmth from the night time cold, Peitro moved over beside me, Gregor watched and only nodded to Peitro to continue with his objective.

“Alexi, while we were in the town I used the surrounding area to disappear as I was shown, there is to be a raid on us during the early hours of the morning by the town guards, one of them saw the bag of gold we were carrying, I think also they want our armour and other goods.”

“Thank you Peitro, you may have just saved our hides, Gregor, have you got any plans for this eventuality?”

“Yes, as soon as Peitro told me what he had heard I began to think about what to do.”

“And what’s that, Gregor?”

“We let them come for us.”

As I was about to ask why we would let a fully trained army come for us, Gregor held up his hand and continued.

“We will use some scrub and grasses to make dummies sleeping around the fire, the horses we will load ready and move them into those trees over yonder, we let the fires burn low so they can not see it all clearly and then we pull back and wait for them in the dark, we can account for a lot of them from ambush before they even realise what is happening, by the time they can reform themselves, we will be away on the horse, if we do enough damage to them they will not follow.”

I thought over what Gregor had said, we could certainly devastate their ranks in the dark of night and escape, but I had to think of what lay ahead of us if we upset the Emperors guards, every town or city would be closed to us as we ventured further south, and I did not know how far the lands of the Emperor stretched.

“What if we just slip away earlier than they think that way we won’t have to fight or cause them to make more trouble for us?”

“Alexi, look at what we have, if we stay, they will take everything we have, probably including our lives, if we leave in the dark of night, they can send messengers ahead to the next town to way lay us, or worse still, ambush us on the road, I don’t think we have much option but too fight, perhaps even leave the town in some ruin to teach these Emperors men a lesson.”

“You are becoming a real blood thirsty soldier Gregor, in truth I can’t just destroy a town because of a few greedy soldiers, and there are innocents that live behind those walls.”

“Ok, why not take as many of the soldiers that come after us and then just destroy the walls themselves, that would give them something to work on and also give us a chance to get well away, if they call their Emperor for help, they will have to explain how they lost so many men and how the walls fell, either way they will have to lie about our numbers so when others see us they will think it is someone else, perhaps even the Goths, they are always raiding this far south.”

I gave it more thought and came to realise that perhaps Gregor had a point, I did have the power to bring the walls down although it would weaken me for a number of hours, the boys were efficient enough to be able to thin the ranks of the soldiers in the dark of night, so there was little to fear from there, with little else to work on, I finally agreed with Gregor’s plan, it was going to be an interesting night, I would have to make sure that Peitro was by my side to assist me after I threw the destruction spell, he would have to put me on my horse and tie me down until I recovered.

The night progressed as we thought it would, the dummies were set out as though we were all asleep around the fire, the horse were lead into the small copse of trees where they were saddled and loaded ready for our escape. The archers took up places among the trees and were protected by the swordsmen, as asked, Peitro stood by my side, this time the spell had to be set properly or I could raise the whole town.

After searching for the ley lines, I began to slowly pull in power from all around, the hardest part was holding it until I needed it, any small mistake and we could all end up as burnt offerings to the Guardians, the stillness of the night continued until the early hours of the morning, even if we had not been warned, the sounds of weapons and armour clanking in the dark would have woken us, I think it was the thought of their superior numbers that gave them such bravado.

We all waited in hiding, from the smudged images we estimated that they had brought about thirty soldiers, we watched as they formed a cordon around our supposed camp, their shields were held in front of them and their swords glistened with the reflection of the stars and the waning moon, as the leader was about to give the order to charge the camp, Gregor whispered to the two ranks of archers.

My ears picked up the soft swish of the strings being drawn back just as the order was given, the soldiers, thinking we were caught unaware, charged as one, they even lowered their shields so they could move faster, they all wanted to be first to the plunder, when the first confusion of finding the camp was only a decoy was understood, it was already too late, the archers released the first volley of arrows which was quickly followed by the second, as the first arrows bit into flesh, a third volley was sent off, the second still in the air, the boys had learned well.

As the soldiers were quickly reduced to only a few, I let go of the power I had been struggling to hold back, as Gregor lead the swordsmen out of the trees and the archers continued with their decimation of the few soldiers that were left, I directed the power at the walls, even in the dark I could see huge stone crumble and sections of the wall tumble to the ground, the sound of clashing swords and scream of wounded, filled the night air.

The archers had put away their bows and were now working with the short swords at their sides, just before I passed out from the magic, I saw the last three soldiers trying desperately to fend off the attack of the fast moving blades of the boys, even at this stage I could see it was a wasted effort, and then all went black, I was to awaken hours later with the hot kiss of the sun on my back as we rode along an empty road.

Gregor was close by my side as we rode, he began to fill in what had happened when we were attacked, the last three, including the leader, had quickly fallen, the speed of the swordsmen were too much for their heavy equipment, the walls had tumbled and would take years for them to repair, only two of our boys had been wounded such was the surprise on our side, both boys I would heal as soon as we stopped to camp later in the day.

Peitro had some cold water for me as I was thirsty and hot, even with the aid of my cloak it was still a hot and dry day, in the late afternoon, Gregor found a narrow defile where we could camp for the night in safety, with the supplies we now had, we could avoid towns and cities for some time, we did not fancy being the target of the whole army of the Emperor, true we had magic on our side but, against an army it would do little good, we had to now use stealth rather than brute force.

All the helms were put into the boys packs, their armour was once again under their clothes and hidden from view, their weapons they hid under horse blankets or by other means, the bows were the only thing that could not be hidden but, they were not Mythral and looked little different from a normal bow apart from being longer.

Gregor instructed the boys to ride in a loose pack rather than in the orderly ranks, we hoped that this would put people at ease and not make us so obvious as the ones who destroyed the walls of a town, it took little thought to realise that the townsfolk would send riders off to the Emperors court to report the great disaster.

With the problem of the Emperors soldiers, we made careful plans each night, we would look for a place that was easy to defend and also had an escape route so we could disappear into the dark with haste, we avoided all habitats and kept ourselves supplied with wild game and fruits, on the odd occasion that we had to enter a small town or village, only one or two boys would go, they purchased only bread or wine or a small amount of salt or other spices, we travelled this way for well over a month.

At each nightly stop, the boys would continue with their practices, they were now a very efficient fighting force, I felt that only numbers would account for us now, their skills were way above that of ordinary soldiers, this also had to be with the help of the Guardian.

The land we were now travelling through was even more parched and arid, many farms we past were left derelict, their ability to produce goods had been destroyed by the hot searing sun, we had stayed well away from the normal routes that might have held people, too all intents and purposes, we had disappeared, we now looked just like an unruly pack of boys moving around the country side.

It was a strange tanginess in the air that brought me back to the here and now, it was somewhat salty and the usual dry arid and dusty smell seemed to retreat, it was Gregor that answered my unasked question.

“It’s the ocean, I can smell it, we are almost at the coast, if we can find a sailors guild we can continue over the water, if that’s where you have to go.”

The pull of the Thread was still southward and so I told Gregor.

“Yes, it is still southward; will it be safe to cross the water?”

“As long as I can find a guild member we should have little trouble, they are experts at traversing the oceans and my Fathers name maybe known, even this far south.”

We rode on in silence although with a certain amount of anticipation, none apart from Gregor had ever been near or seen an ocean, what dangers it held was beyond us all but my path was clear, the Thread said southward and that was where I had to go, my little troop of loyal boys was now used to the need to keep moving, they all now had the look of maturity beyond their years.

It was as the sun sank into the horizon and we came over a sand dune, slipping on the loose sand as we descended, that we caught our first sight of the vastness of the ocean, to our right and far away so that it was barely visible, sat the tall stone walls of a fortified city, to our left it was just open shore, out on the water in the lessening light, I could barely make out the strange white sails which Gregor told me were used to push the boats with the aid of the wind, others used slaves with oars, as far as the eye could see there was nothing but the vastness of water, it was a chilling sight for boys who knew nothing but the land they walked upon.

That night we set a subdued camp back in the dunes and out of sight of the far off fortified city, it was decided that once again Gregor and Peitro would make their way to the city to find us a means of moving on and away from the influence of the Emperor, the two boys would walk to the far off city while the rest of us remained hidden in the dunes, we had enough food for a few days and, with a little searching the next morning, one of the archers found a small fresh water stream for our thirst and that of the worn horses.

We decided that, if we found a suitable boat, we would sell the horses and use the coin for the passage, we would be back to walking and carrying our goods and weapons, it all depended now on Gregor’s ability to find us a boat of the seaman’s guild.




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