Commander Bolinor d’Arcy walked slowly through the old hill fort. His booted foot kicked something buried in the ground. He bent and cleared away the layers of grime and found a four-inch metal figure. The uniformed man was slightly rusted. Bolinor brushed away the dirt from the surrounding area and found five more of the little soldiers. The wind in the exposed ruins blew in sporadic bursts. Tiny dust devils chased each other around the man’s boots. Bolinor’s shoulder length blond hair danced along with the tiny earth creatures. The Commander smiled as he remembered his best friend, ten-year-old Drury Gains. The Commander’s family had owned the estate, while Drury’s family was workers in the vineyards. The d’Arcys came to the estate a number of times during the year. Matthew, the Commander’s eldest brother, never liked the place so he was not there that fateful day. Bolinor straightened, suddenly sad. His towering frame stiffened as he headed down to the remains of the winery. The once lush thriving grapevines were withered and dead. The main house had been burnt, and time had not been kind to the out buildings; the beautiful estate was lifeless.
In idyllic summers, the three children spent hours together. They explored the area, rode horses in the hills, swam in the sea and fished in the lakes and ponds. Much to the two boys’ disgust Bolinor’s tomboy sister, Elizabeth, was the better rider and seemed to know the secret places the fish hid in during the hot part of the day. It was more than once that she taunted the two boys with her booty, and ended up being thrown in the water with an indignant squeal. It usually finished with the two boys jumping in as well, where they all would laugh and shriek. They would sit in the apple trees eating the juicy red fruit. The boys had pretended they were soldiers in the fort fighting off countless attacks from numerous pretend antagonists, more often as not commanded by the infamous General Lizzy.
Bolinor’s sister had dogged the two boys. Elizabeth Jane was one year younger, and she had followed the two everywhere. She had inherited her mother’s fiery red hair, and her temperament, easy going but if you crossed her she would explode, making everyone in range duck for cover. Bolinor remembered Lizzy well; her hair hung down to her shoulders and was silky and bouncy. Of his three sisters, Bolinor got along with her the best. They had the same interests, swimming and riding, and the love of the wild unexplored places. Like Bolinor, Elizabeth was a quick learner with all manner of weapons. Even at nine years old she showed promise with a bow.
In Bolinor’s mind’s eye he could see everything from that fateful day. The two boys had been hiding in the old ruins being stalked by Lizzy. Suddenly, they were aware of screaming, and wailing echoing up to them. The three horrified youngsters watched with stunned disbelief as the smoke started to curl from the estate roof.
“Look! Raiders in the cove!” Elizabeth exclaimed in shocked incredulity.
Bolinor was off and running down the hill, his short legs pumping frantically, pushed on by the growing fear, that his family was gone. That thought made his heart roar like thunder; Drury’s bare feet fell rhythmically close behind. Both boys still had the wooden swords they were playing with. Squawking with indignation, and fear at being left by herself at a time like this, the girl was off. Running hard, at times struggling to maintain her balance in the head long dash, he frequently stumbled as thorns and pebbles bit cruelly into her bare feet, or scratched her skinny legs. As they charged into the compound, a good ten minutes later, some of the tall blond, bare-chested men were already loading loot and captured women into their long boats. Bolinor heard the screams from his two sisters as they were being dragged away by a giant. As the trio stopped to take stock, Elizabeth was grabbed from behind; a raider picked her up by the waist, and started for the beach. The girl kicked backward with hard brutal force. He dropped her, and his sword, then clutching his groin, fell into the sand gasping for breath. Bolinor jumped for the fallen sword, kicking the raider in the face as he passed the squirming man on the ground. He desperately swung the heavy sword at the raider that was carrying his two sisters toward the long boats; the sword bit deep into the giant’s side. The wounded raider yelled out in agony. Dropping Jasmine he drew his sword, and swung instinctively, reacting to the attack. Bolinor dodged most of the strike but the tip of the weapon caught him along the face, drawing a thin line from his ear to temple. Bolinor cried out in pain and fell to the ground as blood gushed from the wound. The youth lay there defeated, shamed as he watched the two girls carried off. Soon there were cries from behind as Elizabeth and Drury were dragged forward, completing Bolinor’s sense of disgrace. It didn’t take long for the rest of the women and children to be captured and loaded into the boats.
Bolinor wearily sat down thinking about the disaster that day. When the Commander had founded the new kingdom, he had named the place Amberwine, the name of the old family estate, in memory of his missing mother and sisters. It seemed the natural choice. Bolinor looked into the storage shed and could see barrels stacked there. The wine was a golden color and looked to be like clear honey; hence the estate had been dubbed the same name as the wine.
It was three days later that the raider fleet ran into bad weather. The holding cells had been smashed open by the mast that broke and fell to the deck demolishing some of the looted cargo. Bolinor and Drury, along with the three sisters, made a break for the side. The crew jumped forward and grabbed the children as they scurried up on deck. The only two to make the sea were Drury and Elizabeth.
For the next seven years Bolinor was worked hard, cutting wood, carrying stones and lugging buckets of water. The hard work toughened the youth, and soon he stood over six feet tall, a rival to most of the raiders. The giant he had stabbed had been attracted to his mother by her beauty and shapely body. He took her to his lodge and bed, thus as far as the rest of the clan was concerned, she was under his protection. So it was natural that over time he befriended the resentful young man. As a result Bolinor grew strong and learned almost everything there was about combat. Bolinor’s thirst for knowledge was never sated. He wanted to discover all he could, so when he did escape, the revenge against these men would be all the sweeter. It would be the giant’s own training that would be used to kill him. Bolinor was livid that his mother would share the bed of their captor so freely. It was only a few years after their capture that Jasmine tried to explain that she did what she had to keep them all alive. However, the sub-chief he had kicked hated the young man and took every chance to belittle, torment and sometimes beat him unmercifully. The barbarian chief knew Bolinor would have to grow up strong and didn’t interfere much with the harsh treatment, only when it became life threatening.
One evening the sub-chief drank himself senseless. He attacked Bolinor and in self-defense the teenager killed the drunk. The man’s brother not content with what had happened waited for his chance for revenge. And then one day, with two friends they trapped Bolinor. The boy fought as best as he could, then he ran. The two men still standing, followed him. Bolinor was cornered on a high suspension swing bridge. Rather than go back and face more torment and abuse, the boy jumped. Three months later, he joined a mercenary group headed south.
Bolinor had no word about his family for years until a few weeks ago when, as part of an allied army defending the Grand Duchy of Cr’Mere they had helped an Imperial Penal Battalion desert. The force concerned had been made up of slaves and convicts. Bolinor had found two of his sisters there. Jasmine was in command of the army, and his youngest sister had been a common soldier.
* * *
The sun sank below the horizon and the Commander sat near a burning fire. The Koldorian Pathfinder, a cat man, who rode a griffin, had dropped him off, and would not be back till late tomorrow. He had taken a huge personal liberty coming here when the Imperial army still in retreat, hadn’t even cleared the BurningDesert. The wounded were even now being teleported to St. Stevens Abbey where the healers were being gathered. Cassandra should be at the Castle now. No doubt word had spread about him being crowned King. Bolinor grinned wryly remembering when they had fought the Lich in the dragon’s cave and King Argon had been literally incinerated by the Lich’s own fireball. Cassandra had put the Dun-Lyn crown on his head. Bolinor had to admit it had felt good. He sighed, pushed himself to his feet and cast around for some firewood.
Commander Bolinor leaned against a broken tabletop in the gutted estate and absent-mindedly chewed on the jerked beef he had brought with him. His mind wandered in various directions. One minute thinking of the first day he had meet Cassandra, when her ship had barely escaped south from Prince Hayden’s manor. That in turn, lead to the horrid tale she had told him only a few months ago, of the vile and brutal treatment the youngest son of the King of Jasper had inflicted on her. This led the Commander’s thoughts to Harold’s death, when the Brotherhood of the Black Dragon had made a play for the throne of Jasper. In the end, Jeremy DeMonfort, the Queen’s lover had gone with Bolinor to the defeated kingdom of Dun-Lyn looking for Gerald Hiller, the General commanding the army that had invaded Blackwell. Bolinor had flown to Cr’Mere with two hundred Pathfinders, to find his kidnapped wife. The Commander followed his train of thought to the forgotten realm of Koldor. He had been standing on the battlement wall watching as Cassandra destroyed the catapults pounding the dying city. Her intervention, however distasteful to herself, had given the Slavers pause for thought, and enabled the mages time enough to finish teleporting the population to the safety of this world. Now the two rulers, Te-Nar and his mate De Nera, were two of their closest friends.
Then he literally found himself thinking of the Lich Devron. He was a fallen elven paladin, or holy warrior. He had been injured in an attack on the Mystic Isle, thousands of years ago, and had nearly died. Now, consumed with the need for immortality and returning his people to the land he had once ruled, he hunted for three Swords of Power. The weapons were immensely old, even when they were given to the Elven Kings; each sword gave the heir access to a wish spell, one of the most powerful spells a mage could use. The three Elven Kings had left the GreyKingdom and went on a great adventure with most of their court and retainers. Hundred of men and women had crossed the RainbowBridge into this reality. When the Chaos Army attacked the Grey lands, the evil they carried with them corrupted everything elven; their land, the cities and even the elves themselves. They were turned into Chaos spawn. But all this was unknown to the adventurers except that the Bridge, a magical gateway, and the only way home had been despoiled as well. In its place, a destructive whirlpool that destroyed any ship trying to pass, or had the misfortune to be caught in the summer hurricanes and driven south into its mile wide maw, where nothing escaped and where very few survived.
Bolinor looked into his bag and found more jerky and a flask of ale. He heard a faint snap of a twig. Pretending not to have noticed, he slowly inched his hand to his sword where it lay a foot away.
“Hello the fire!” a voice from the dark called.
Bolinor stood and picked up the sword calling, “If you’re a friend you are welcome.”
The old man shuffled into the ruined room, moving slowly and with a bit of difficulty, then emerged into the light of the fire. His blue robes were dusty and his bearded face looked worn and tired.
“Greetings, I am Bolinor.”
The man paused for a second, his head twisted a little in thought. “My friends call me Joshua.”
He settled and Bolinor handed him the jerky and ale he had just fished out from his bag.
“Not your dinner, I hope?”
Bolinor smiled and settled back. “No, I was just thinking about a bit more, but feel free if you’re hungry.”
Joshua grinned and bit into the meat with strong even teeth. “Now, let us get introductions right. You would be King Bolinor, formally of Jasper, now living in Amberwine with your lovely wife, Cassandra.”
Bolinor felt a stab of alarm. He looked into the darkness to see if the man had friends that might be up to something. Cassandra’s kidnapping was still very fresh on his mind.
The old man laughed, a rich vibrant sound. “No Commander. I’m not here to hurt you. Think of me as your conscience. You and your friends have been through a lot. People who have relied on you have died, your family, or what is left of it, reunited. You are wondering if everything is worth it.” Joshua leaned forward, his eyes burned with a strange intensity as e looked into Bolinor’s piercing blue ones, and his voice deepened significantly. “Everything you do is important. My Master heard you call for help, after you became stuck during the attack on the Keep. You were hiding in a small watercourse from an unknown rider. He gave you the courage to carry on, eventually finding the dragon’s lair.”
Bolinor sat back down stunned. His mouth opened but no words came out.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. But know this. Our world, our very existence is threatened. If you fail, or even if the other two fail in their quests, good will be destroyed and banished from this land. Evil will reign a thousand years. Devron is only one link in a chain of events. I assure you that this is no joke. I have watched you. Bolinor, you are a man of honor, a man true to his convictions, and will stand by his friends. I assure you that the time is coming. Trust in yourself, and know that it is worth it. Everything.”
The old man settled back, waiting for it to sink in. Bolinor sat thinking on what the old man had said, for nearly fifteen minutes. He knew in his heart what Joshua claimed was true.
“Commander, if you’re wondering if we have done anything to you, the answer is no. You have made all the choices of your own free will. That is something we would never interfere with.”
“There is something?”
“My other sister, Elizabeth, and my friend Drury. They made it to the side of the ship, and went into the stormy sea. Did they survive?”
The old man looked at Bolinor intently for a minute.
Finally he said, “The girl is safe, she made it to land. The lad, I’m sorry to say, died. A creature of the deep attacked them. He gave his life so the girl could get away.”
Bolinor sat quietly and stared at the fire. Then softly he said, “Drury always wanted to be a hero. We played at it time and time again.”
Joshua patted him on the knee. “The lad certainly was a hero. You would have been proud of him.”
Bolinor grinned sadly. “I am.”
They heard the sounds of men calling a name from the darkness.
The old man sighed. “It seems as if I can’t get any time for myself nowadays.”
The Commander commiserated. “I think I can understand that.”
The old man stood. “Just remember, good must win. Don’t doubt yourself. Your instincts have served you well, and they will continue to do so. Now I must go.”
Bolinor walked with him to the edge of the ruined wall. There they shook hands, and the old man was swallowed up in the dark as if he had never been there. But the feeling of peace that permeated Bolinor was not something he could ignore.
* * *