Chapter 7
The Mindwalker

The Road to Dragova, Byrn; Anno Regis 1285

"Confrontation... Some people go to great lengths to avoid it. Others are all too eager to embrace it. Confrontation is the essential first step to challenging the evils of the world, but it is a double-edged sword that can also serve those very evils."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

After a full week of pillaging Arita and the surrounding farmlands, the Marauders set out to attack the soldier city of Dragova. There the bulk of the Dragon Guard was stationed and there was where the back of the Byrnan resistance could be broken. If Randwulf pushed his men hard enough, they could get there in three days, but there was no need to rush. Sating his men with plunder was more important than the element of surprise.
Spread out in two ranks over a mile long, the Marauders were free to take whatever they wanted. Since there were no supply lines connecting them with Gladius, they had to live off the land. It was already past harvest time, but the Byrnans had only recently stocked up for the winter. In no small touch of irony, those provisions would now be used to fuel the invasion.
Randwulf rode in the center of the formation along the main road. The sky was overcast and a light snow was beginning to fall. He barely heard the faint padding of footsteps coming up alongside him. Glancing out the corner of his eye, he saw that it was Algernon the Shadow, his top spy. Even though he had just returned from Gladius, Algernon was already disguised as a Byrnan peasant in preparation for his next assignment.
"What tidings do you bring?" Randwulf asked.
"Ill tidings, sire," Algernon replied, "or good ones, depending on how you see things."
It was never the spy's habit to give a straight answer, but Randwulf had learned how to parse Algernon's words. He was not going to like what he was about to hear, but there was something to it that would make listening worthwhile.
"Go on."
"Well, sire, there's been a major disturbance in Corinth. A lot of people are dead, including Count Juvenal."
Randwulf did not allow himself to be stirred by the news. He did not have any warm feelings for the Count, but it was no trifling matter when the scion of a major patrician family was killed.
"Tell me everything," Randwulf insisted.
"A patrol of Guardsmen captured a foreign swordsman in Cruz several days ago. He was taken to Corinth to have his turn at the Square when his gang came to rescue him. And they didn't try to sneak him out in the night either. It was a full-fledged attack in broad daylight. That's how Count Juvenal got killed. Arrow to the heart, they say. It's actually a rather complicated story."
"It will be a long while before we get to Dragova," the King said, "and I told you to tell me everything."
Algernon bobbed his head obligingly. "Right you are, sire. Well, this is as best as I can make out the situation. About three weeks ago, this swordsman shows up in Stormtree. He gets involved with the Drunken Prince and some minstrel. We're guessing it's that 'Singing Bandit' everyone's been talking about the past year or so. Anyway, they head eastward and get in a scuffle with Lieutenant Svenson in Watercress."
"Svenson? General Leifson's boy?"
"One and the same, sire. Captain Terentius gave him a special assignment to hunt rebels and it seems the swordsman got in the way. Lieutenant Svenson's report says otherwise, but I've heard eyewitness claims that the swordsman bested the whole detachment. Lieutenant Svenson pursued the swordsman and his band to Rowan, where he got beaten again, only this time him and men were stripped naked and marched over to the garrison post by a bunch of villagers. The official report says that they fought a gang of thirty men led by another foreigner and that they killed a dozen before being overwhelmed. It's hard for me to get information out of the villagers in Rowan, but I've got one fairly reliable contact. If his story's true, it wasn't any gang of thirty." A grin crossed Algernon's lips. "It was just two. Two women."
Randwulf could not help laughing aloud. True, his authority was undermined when the Guard blundered, but the thought of two women beating the son of Sven Leifson, stripping him naked and marching him to the garrison post was too funny. He never had much occasion to laugh, so he allowed himself to enjoy the rare humor while it lasted. Regaining his composure, the King gestured for Algernon to continue.
"Right, sire. The foreign swordsman, the one who's a man by all accounts, showed up in Cruz a few days after the incident in Rowan. A detachment of the Road Patrol was passing through and found the Drunken Prince in the tavern. They were sporting with him out in the streets when the swordsman showed up and picked a fight with them. I couldn't find any eyewitnesses to cross-check the reports, but I do know three of the six patrolmen were dead before they left Cruz."
"With the swordsman as their captive?" Randwulf asked.
"Yes, sire. After that, the patrolmen ran into Lieutenant Svenson in Eagle. He merged them with his unit and went on to Corinth. The swordsman was brought before Count Juvenal before he was taken to the Square. The Count was in the middle of his little act with the throwing knives when that arrow got him. The swordsman's gang must have set out right after he was taken. From what I heard, they were laying into the crowd something fierce. Guardsmen, the Count's bodyguards, even regular citizens... Made quite the bloody mess."
"So they escaped?"
"The whole city was in a panic. Can't ask for better cover. Corinth's garrison had its hands full trying to put down riots all over the city and from what I understand, they were just starting to mount a search when I headed back here."
Randwulf leaned forward intently. "This foreign swordsman at the root of all this trouble, does he have a name?"
"According to Lieutenant Svenson's reports, he's called Mark, son of Luther."
A surge went through Randwulf's body. The son of Luther was alive. The Eagle in the East had already landed in Gladius.
"Mark?"
The voice was not his own. It came from behind him. He turned to see the Byrnan monk Tariq had taken captive. The King motioned for Tariq to come forward.
"Bring him here."
While the Assassin was bringing his captive to the King, Randwulf turned back to Algernon.
"Good work," Randwulf said. "I'll have you return to Gladius soon, but for now, go ahead of the formation and reconnoiter the city of Dragova to the northeast of us. Find out everything you can. Troop strength, supply stores, strong points, weak points."
"Yes, sire," Algernon replied with a bow and went on his way.
Randwulf turned his attention to the Byrnan monk, addressing him in Bannish.
"You know of Mark, son of Luther?"
The monk averted his gaze. Randwulf drew his sword and held the blade close to the Byrnan's throat.
"If you want to live, you will tell me what you know."
The monk clearly found his own life too precious to protect the son of Luther. It was fortunate for him, because Randwulf would have stopped at nothing to extract any information he had.
The monk's words were faltering at first. "I, I knew him... Mark Luterov... Brother Mark and I both transcribed texts in the Archives."
Randwulf raised an eyebrow. "'Brother' Mark?"
"Yes, ah, Majesty. He joined the order eight years ago. I had heard he was a Gladian by birth, but he never spoke much of it. Not surprising, really. The Gladians are still hated here."
The monk stopped abruptly, realizing only too late that he might have made a fatal insult.
"I'm a Titian by birth," the King said. "It will take stronger words than that to cost you your head." Randwulf sheathed his sword. "Now go on. Tell me more. What sort of man is he?"
"He was always reading, even when he was doing transcriptions. He seemed to love books more than people. It wasn't that he was unfriendly, but he generally avoided other people. He liked to keep to himself. It must have had something to do with his past..."
"Can you imagine him wielding a sword?"
The monk paused. "I would say no if I had not seen it for myself. I was up late one night and I saw him in the orchard with a stick fashioned in the shape of a sword. I knew that his uncle taught swordsmanship to the Dragon Guard, but I swear Brother Mark surpassed even the best of them. He would practice with that wooden sword every night, late enough that most everyone was asleep and deep enough within the orchard that no one was likely to see him. I spied on him a number of times before finally giving it up. If his past drove him to cloister, I could believe the sword was involved.
"When he was ordained to the diaconate last year, I worried less about him. I was certain he was finally moving beyond his past and truly becoming a part of our brotherhood, but he only seemed to grow more and more troubled. Then just after the Feast of the Cross I saw him speaking with the abbot. He was no longer wearing his vestments and had a sword strapped to his hip, a real sword. I can hardly believe he is gone, but surely his is the better lot."
"I would not be so certain," Randwulf said. "You will not suffer much longer. His pain has only just begun." He looked to Tariq. "Take him away."
Tariq nodded and pulled the monk away from Randwulf's horse. The King took a moment to digest all the new information. The son of Luther was no longer in Byrn. He had gotten into Gladius before Randwulf could get to him.
You will not take him, Randwulf, King of the Gladians.
It was a woman's voice, but Randwulf had not seen a single living female since he had left Darkwall.
Do not bother to look around. I am miles away.
"Who are you?"
A native of this land. That is all you need to know. You came here for the son of Luther, but he already beyond your grasp. You have failed.
"They caught him once," the King said. "They can do it again."
You underestimate him... and his friends. They will destroy you.
"We will see."
I already have. I have seen your ambitions crumble.
"You know nothing."
On the contrary, there is little I do not know. Your mind is well guarded, but not beyond my power. I have learned your greatest secret. You have done well to hide it all these years, but I can expose it to all Gladius in a heartbeat. If you want to stop this from happening, seek me out.
The voice went silent. Out of the corner of his eye, Randwulf saw the warlock's apprentice hovering beside. Startled, his horse reared, but the apprentice continued to glide along as if nothing had happened.
Angered by the apprentice's sudden appearance, the King reached for the hilt of his sword. "What did I tell you about approaching me, wretch?"
The apprentice bowed pliantly. "Forgive me, sire, but I did not break your order. You were in a trance, mumbling to yourself for quite some time." While Randwulf was trying to think of the most prudent answer to give him, the apprentice supplied his own. "I would say you were visited by the mindwalker."
"What did you hear?" the King asked cautiously.
"Not a thing, sire."
Randwulf doubted his honesty, but there was nothing to be done about it.
"What can you tell me about her?" he asked.
"She is quite powerful," the apprentice replied. "A formidable opponent to be sure."
"What else?"
"She belongs to the Fioran aristocracy, one of the most powerful families in the whole kingdom."
"A mindwalker and a noblewoman?"
"Yes, sire, but not to worry. Her political influence will be destroyed when the Marauders level Fiora. Also, you have a secret weapon against her mind powers."
"And what would that be?"
The apprentice grinned. "That would be me, sire."
"What do you mean?"
The apprentice tapped the side of his head. "I am immune to mindwalkers. It's a rare ability. They say only one in a thousand thousand has this immunity, maybe less. With the powers my master has bestowed on me, I can thwart her easily enough." He eyed the King with carefully restrained eagerness. "I could go now if you like."
"No," Randwulf said. "No need to rush. We will move on Fiora last. It is the richest city in this land, yes?"
"That is correct, sire."
"Then it will furnish the provisions for the journey home." Randwulf paused for a moment, crossing his arms. "This mindwalker... If she wanted a confrontation, she would have acted by now. She is trying to bait me into moving according to her design. The Dragon Guard and the King are our first priority."
"As you will, sire."
The apprentice withdrew, leaving Randwulf to his thoughts again. He dwelled on the mindwalker. She knew how much he wanted to claim the son of Luther. His first instinct was to speed back to Gladius and take the reins from the incapable Terentius. However, he knew it was better to finish the job in Byrn first. It would be sheer folly to provoke Gladius' traditional enemies and then leave them free to ally with the son of Luther to overthrow him.
The mindwalker fed this rationale with the threat of revealing his dread secret. She was willing to sacrifice her homeland and all the people in it just to buy time. Whatever bond connected the mindwalker to the son of Luther, it was clearly a strong one. The King's mind filled with possibilities. Perhaps she would be the leverage he needed to secure his prize.