As if on cue, the door burst open and a flustered Aglaral rushed in. “Forgive my tardiness, Great Sage, but I have urgent news of the greatest import. Word has just been received from Rhakotis that a large fleet of ships, brimful of fighting men, has entered the Middle Sea. It is believed to be heading for Rhakotis. It flies both the pirate and wolf flags. The Mayor of Rhakotis seeks our help. Specifically, he urges that we send the Hero and the Sword to save the city and its treasures. Time is short; we must leave immediately if we are to get there in time.”
“It seems that once again events define a course of action for us. It is strange that the enemy has made a move so soon after their last defeat, especially when they know the Hero is here. Or perhaps they know he isn’t here? That’s the only reason they would risk an attack. There must be a spy in the camp. But why Rhakotis? It has little strategic significance. Unless there is important information in the Great Library that they don’t want us to find? Or perhaps there’s information there that the enemy needs?” Manfred mused aloud. At least Kris had the decency to blush when I mentioned a spy click to investigate.
“Perhaps they wish to destroy the Great Lighthouse before Simon can visit it and fulfil his destiny?” Kris commented. Manfred sensed that he wanted to say more, reassure them that he was no longer a spy. Manfred knew it to be true. Words were not necessary.
“Yes, that’s possible too,” Manfred replied. “We must send help to protect Rhakotis. The elves are closest, but no longer an option. The dwarves are too far away and too small an army. The Hero is missing in action when we need him. Perhaps there’s enough power left in an old wizard’s staff to hold them at bay for a while until help arrives. Aglaral, you must leave immediately for Kartage. Take the fastest horse available and ride like the wind. You must convince Velacourt to bring his army to aid Rhakotis. Take some time to visit your family, too.”
Aglaral bowed to Manfred. “Yes, my Sage, I’ll leave immediately.” He hurried towards the door and turned before leaving. “Good luck, everyone. We’ll all meet again soon.” With that, he was gone. Manfred felt the wave of sadness that emanated from the others and felt bad about what he had to do next.
“We can’t abandon Simon, even though our hands are full here. I have a worry in my gut that he needs our help. Jhamed and Kris, you must follow him and make sure he comes to no harm. Get him back here as quickly as you can. The settings on the portal will take you to the same place. You must pick up his trail and follow him. Prepare yourselves quickly and leave within the hour. Be careful.”
Jhamed and Kris hurriedly farewelled their friends and left the room. Manfred felt the morale slip even lower. He looked at Taran and Dawit. “We represent the old order, we three. Perhaps it’s the last time that an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard will ride into battle together. Will you join me in a ride to Rhakotis and another battle in the war to save FirstWorld?”
The two friends looked at each other and then at Manfred. They spoke as one. “Try stopping us.”
Manfred smiled as he felt the excitement rise from his companions. They had a purpose again. “We must prepare quickly and leave within the hour. Pack as light as you can. Taran, find a strong mount that will carry you both, we can’t be slowed by Dawit’s pony.” Dawit was clearly about to complain about being treated like a child, but Manfred cut him off with a fearful glance. “We cannot take the quickest route though Elvenhome, the penalty for attempting to cross the closed border is death. We must either head to Tar and pass through Erech and Sumar or head south, across open country, and cross the River Eden at Ur. I will think on it while you pack. Meet me at the gatehouse in one hour, with my horse.”
Manfred pondered the elven problem as he collected items that might be useful and stowed them in his many pockets. Ceridwen had been badly spooked by all of the so-called omens, most of which had been created by their own actions. The appearance of the Lost Tower, however, seemed more than coincidental. He again wondered whether it was a last roll of the die by Destiny. He sighed; only time would tell. Ceridwen’s actions, though, had been inexcusable and had put their entire strategy at risk. At least, he liked to think that he had a strategy. More importantly, it had put Simon at risk. What hurt the most, he supposed, was the fact that Ceridwen had made all the decisions without consulting him. He was supposed to be the Leader of the Wise. His pride was hurt. He toyed with taking the quickest route to Rhakotis and using his magic to secure passage through Eden. It would restore his pride but probably irreparably damage relations with the elves. He sighed once more and stowed his new staff inside his cloak. He was ready to go into battle again. He was old and tired and wondered how many more battles he would have to face. By rights, he should have died at the Battle of Elannort. Weylyn had broken his staff and he was waiting for the coup de grace when Simon had arrived and saved the day. Fate had intervened that day. Now he was on his own. How would he manage without both Fate and his hero? Thoughts of Simon made him sigh again. Something nagged at him, deep inside. Simon was not safe. He hoped that Jhamed and Kris would get there in time. He left his apartment and descended to the gatehouse. He must clear his mind, put thoughts of Simon to one side, and focus on the problem at hand. He took a swig from an elixir bottle from his breast pocket. It would be a long night ahead.
Manfred called on all of his magic skills that night. He gambled that they would get to Rhakotis in time for him to rest and recover – for he would be next to useless otherwise. The two horses flew, faster than if the hounds of Hell were after them. It seemed that their hooves barely touched the ground. One was a huge white stallion that carried a rider all in white with flowing white hair and a white beard. It passed by as a flash of lightning in the night. The other was a black stallion, almost as large as the first, which carried a two-headed creature, cowled in an elven cloak that made it almost invisible. It followed the white flash as thunder follows lightning. They left Elannort in mid-afternoon and swept through Tar at dusk, sending the locals scurrying home in fear. By midnight, they crossed the Buranan and swept on into Erech, frightening the few drunks still on the streets into sobriety. They stopped briefly to rest and water the horses. Dawit had to be prised off Taran and the horse. His muscles had frozen in terror and he had been riding with his eyes closed throughout. It got worse as they set off again.
Manfred plotted a course by the stars and they set off across the country, taking the shortest route to Rhakotis. Manfred used magic to guide the horses and keep them safe. They passed through mainly scrubby, marshy country unfit for farming and therefore with few inhabitants. On a normal ride, horses would have had to travel slowly, picking a foothold through the treacherous country. On this night, they ran on a perfect racetrack. They met no people and disturbed only an occasional fox. As the sun rose, red and angry, they approached Rhakotis from the north and Manfred saw the Great Lighthouse reflecting the dawn light like a huge red sabre bleeding the sky. They stopped on the outskirts of the city, in the shelter of a copse of olive trees. The horses hardly seemed to have broken a sweat. The same could not be said of the riders. Manfred was completely exhausted. He rolled off his horse and fell to the ground. He fumbled for another drink of elixir. As he lay on the bare earth, he saw Dawit stumble from his mount and collapse against a tree. He appeared to be shivering and trembling like a man with a fatal fever.
Only Taran seemed unaffected. He dismounted normally and patted the horses, while securing their reins to a tree. He approached Manfred and Dawit. “That was a ride that must be entered in the annals of history. It’s a shame that our Bard was not present to witness it. I’ll wager that Dawit will have plenty to tell him the next time we meet. Come, Manfred, let me get you comfortable; you’ll need a long sleep to recover your strength.” Taran helped the old wizard into a more comfortable position and covered him with an extra cloak from his pack. As Manfred drifted into a deep sleep, he heard Dawit complaining about his sore body.
When Manfred awoke, it was dark and a small fire was burning. The smell of cooking made him salivate. Dawit was still complaining. He sat up and stretched his sore muscles. If he had moved during his sleep, he hadn’t noticed.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Ah, you are awake.” Taran stepped into view and gave the pot on the fire a stir. Manfred was ravenous. “It’s just past midnight; you have slept the day away. Here, you must be hungry.” He ladled a rich stew of meat and vegetables into a tin bowl and handed it and a spoon to Manfred. He moved away and returned quickly with a huge hunk of fresh bread that he also handed to the hungry wizard. Manfred ate greedily while Taran filled him in on the details of the day. “I spent some time in Rhakotis, while Dawit remained on watch here. I tried to hide my identity. While elves are not unknown or unwelcome here, I felt that it would be wiser to travel incognito in the current circumstances. The news of Elvenhome’s closed borders has already reached here. There is a story of a group of Karoan traders who tried to cross the Ford of Uruk. In normal times, they would have been politely turned away. They received no response to their hails and so tried to cross the river, which rose up and washed them away. They lost all of their horses and goods and three men were drowned. I was glad that I had hidden my identity, when I heard that. The elves are no longer held in high esteem. There is talk in the taverns that humans must stand alone now and drive the old races out of FirstWorld. Even Melasurej is not exempt from criticism. The destruction of Weylyn has made men think that meddling wizards should be removed from their affairs.”
Manfred paused in his eating – both to get a second helping and to absorb Taran’s words. “The world is changing. The time of humans is upon us. The old races become less and less relevant, and yet we may be the saviour of humankind if they did but know it. Hurry up with that refill. What did you learn of the invaders?”
Taran handed Manfred a refilled bowl of stew and produced a bottle of local ale to wash it down. “The fleet has terrorised Dar-El-Beida, but only helped itself to food, wine, and women without destroying the city. Fang Mouth was not so lucky. The population has largely fled, mostly to Erech, though some have gone to Fang and the few dwarves have returned to Devil’s Mouth. The pirates must have been angry that there was nothing to plunder and have today razed the town. A pall of black smoke was visible across the bay all day and has made the residents here even more fearful. The authorities are torn between fleeing to Sumar and waiting for a response to their call for help. They fear leaving the old city to be destroyed by the barbarians, and they fear for their wives and daughters if they stay to fight. The pirate fleet is again at sea. It seems to be holding position off Rhakotis as if waiting for a signal.”
“Let us hope that it doesn’t come tonight, for I must sleep again before I am capable of defending the city. Thank you for the food, it was delicious. Let us sleep now and we will enter the city tomorrow and seek out the Mayor.” Manfred slumped back to the horizontal position. Within seconds, he was asleep. As he drifted off, he thought he heard Dawit complaining about there being no stew left.
Next morning, after Taran had produced another hearty meal, they followed the main thoroughfare into the city. A steady stream of people on horseback or in carts was leaving the city, heading for Sumar. They paid little attention to the three travellers, being wrapped up in their own fear. Manfred observed that they were mainly young women and girls, with a few old men providing protection. It seemed that the council had determined that a compromise position should be taken. After Elannort, Rhakotis was probably the most revered city in FirstWorld. It had a long and varied history and its treasures reflected that.
Manfred always enjoyed the gradual descent of the Sumar Road into the city. The view was spectacular. In the distance, the glittering blue of the Middle Sea, here named the Great Harbour of Rhakotis, framed the ancient buildings of the city that stretched into the pale blue sky. Yesterday’s red dawn had not been repeated. It would have been classed as a beautiful day, if it were not for the fleet of ships that were moored just in view on the horizon. They were too far away for Manfred to view any details it seemed likely that they were the remnants of Weylyn’s old fleet out of Cap Ghir. He wondered again, why they were being so brazen.
His eyes were drawn back from the horizon by the city’s predominant architectural feature, which reflected the morning sun’s rays into his eyes, making him blink and squint. Rhakotis had a double harbour, the Great Harbour being the inner, safe berth. A dike ran from the mainland to a small offshore island, providing a barrier to entry into the Great Harbour. Local sailing conditions were notoriously difficult, even without the harbour barrier to circumnavigate, and a huge, white-stone lighthouse had been built to guide the ships into port. At night, it was lit by fire, and during the day, its huge mirrors reflected sunlight. The lighthouse was the tallest building on FirstWorld, taller even than the tower at Wizard’s Keep, extending over one hundred and twenty metres. It was comprised of three sections. The bottom section, which made up more than half of its height, was square, with a hidden cylindrical core. The middle section was much narrower and octagonal in shape. The small, top section was circular and carried the light and the mirrors. The internal core was used as a shaft to lift fuel to the top. The dome of the lighthouse did not reduce to a point, but rather a flat plinth upon which stood a huge statue, facing the open sea. It wasn’t clear from here what the statue was but Manfred knew that it was of Adapa, the Greatest of the Wise. In his outstretched right hand, he raised his great staff to welcome ships home to port and to ward off evil. Manfred wondered whether he, the least of the Wise, could live up to that legend today.
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