The six-seated stagecoach made one final turn along the Halcyon-Vedrys Highway before descending eastward into the valley of the Dragontail Canal. But it was not the majestic channel that captured Cora’s attention. Hanging her head out the window, she stared wide-eyed at the gleaming city on its far banks. The city walls and towers glinted with the rays of the setting sun as if they had been set ablaze. Shining even more brilliantly, the sprawling mass of magnificent structures covered the hillside rising up behind the ramparts. Towering and stately, each was a statement of affluence and a testament of power.
Somewhere within the jungle of multi-storied buildings, temple spires, and exquisite manors was the Little Red Flagon. And Cora O’Banion was going there to meet with the man who held her family’s heritage in his hand.
It had been quite a difficult negotiation. Cora’s father initially had accepted her offer of compromise, that she would simply meet with Huxel to inquire about how to obtain the Sword of the Coast.
But her mother had been adamant in opposition. Lady Kathryn had watched her husband’s sadness nearly consume him when he lost his mother to an untimely death. The “adventurer’s demise,” people called it.
“Do you want to put your father through that again?” she had asked, and Lord Bain, predictably, had reconsidered his permission.
“I’m not leaving to be a songsage,” Cora had insisted, “I’m only going to ask about the terms.” That had been true enough, as far as her mother needed to know, but Cora wondered even then whether she was being completely honest.
Several days had passed while Cora’s parents reconciled their differences and developed a plan for her, during which time Devin Rhynn had left Lorenvale, likely for good. She had missed his departure due to her parents’ ban on any further contact, a matter that had greatly vexed her. I should have at least been allowed to see him off.
Despite her many concerns, Katy had finally acquiesced, and Bain had announced over dinner one night, “We arranged for ye to take passage to Cer Halcyon to meet with Huxel. He will tell ye all ye need to be a-knowin’ ‘bout the Sword. We know ye feel as if ye have to be a-livin’ up to yer Gramma Cora’s name, but ye cannot pursue her path. Ye can visit with Huxel to learn of the terms fer yer obtainin’ the Sword by some other means. But that be all; ye need be a-comin’ right back home, with or without it.”
“I…I…don’t know what to say,” Cora had stammered, astonished that they had given assent. “Thank you.”
“Ye leave tomorrow,” her father had said simply, making it clear he wanted no further discussion about it.
That had been three days ago, and now Cora felt like she was reveling in a guilty pleasure for a forbidden indulgence.
“Cer Halcyon!” she whispered reverently into the wind that was tossing her hair behind her. As the coach descended into the valley, they fell into shadow where the temperature was already beginning to drop. She chilled and slid the window shut.
A middle-aged woman sitting across from her smiled. “I take it you’ve never been to Cer Halcyon?”
Cora shook her head. “No, madam, but I’ve heard plenty about it.”
“This will be my fourth trip in as many years…to visit my late husband. He’s buried in the crypts with his parents. The Nexus rest his soul.”
Cora suppressed a desire to screw up her nose. Ah…The Nexus. Revelers in death. Such a creepy, morbid way to worship the Maker, who gave life and light to all. Instead, she shuddered and rubbed her arms briskly. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she responded politely. She didn’t know quite what else to say. Death happened, but followers of The Nexus seemed to celebrate it. There were many ways to approach the Maker; Cora greatly preferred to focus on the beauty of art, song, and love. Death was just ugly.
“Cer Halcyon really is the ‘Pride of Arelatha,’” the woman piped up again, calling to mind the city’s most oft-used moniker.
As the last vestiges of sunlight illumined the city’s splendor, Cora agreed. The whole landscape, much closer now, sparkled with color and light. “Yes, it’s beautiful,” she said.
“So, Miss…” the woman resumed.
“O’Banion. Cora O’Banion, from Lorenvale.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Miss O’Banion. I’m Adelaide Carostar. So, do you have family in Cer Halcyon?”
“No, I am to meet a liaison in the city and then…” she paused, contemplating, “…maybe join with some freeblades.”
Adelaide seemed to recoil. “That’s no place for a lady.”
“Really?” Cora replied with a cocked eyebrow. “I could rattle off the names of many famous women who braved the wilds and—”
“How old are you, anyway?” Adelaide interrupted. “There is an age requirement for penny paladins.”
“Nineteen.” Cora felt herself growing irritated at the woman.
Adelaide frowned sternly. “Young ladies, especially those of means and heritage, should not squander their lives by gadding about the countryside.”
Cora heard her mother in that response.
“And freeblading should be illegal,” the woman added.
Cora paused before answering. Find a way to turn this positive. “I think it actually is in most of the cities,” she replied, “but since the Wars, the militaries of most nations have been gutted. They patrol the cities, but in the vast stretches of open country, there is no one to enforce the laws or to protect the landowners from vandals and thieves. Or dragonkin. That’s why they hire out freeblades—legal, commissioned and highly necessary.”
“Dragonkin…” Adelaide said with an air of skepticism. “If you say so.”
As the stagecoach neared the canal and began to fall into a queue of travelers waiting to board the ferry, Cora squinted at the woman. I know not everyone shares the same beliefs about the Maker and his eternal enemy, the Great Dragon, but for the love of Beauty…everyone knows about dragonkin. “Do you not know about the dragonspawn, offspring of the Ancient Five, or the dragon-blooded corruptions of Creation?”
“I know what I’ve been told, but frankly, I think it’s all religious propaganda designed to control the masses. There are dangerous creatures, to be sure, but the religious spin put on it is a bit oppressive.”
Cora gave a dismissive “ahhh” and grew silent. She’s a real Agnostic.
The ferry rang its bell, signaling that it was ready for additional passengers. The coachman snapped the reins, and the stagecoach ambled forward onto the deck. While they silently ferried the canal, Cora felt a growing guilt wash over her, not because of what she was currently doing, but because of what she was contemplating. The farther she traveled, the easier it became to renege on the commitment to her parents. Let me just follow through with seeing Huxel…
On the other side of the Dragontail Canal, the weary travelers overnighted in one of the many inns that occupied the half-mile stretch between the waterway and Cer Halcyon’s outer walls.
By morning, a steady stream of travelers poured through the outskirts into the city through the Canal Gate. After a half-hour of creeping forward, they finally reached the gate, paid their toll, and entered the grand Free City of Cer Halcyon, Pride of Arelatha. And as they passed through the massive stone walls and the city finally came into view, Cora fell reverently quiet.
The road was packed with citizens and foreigners alike: people of every race and from every land, fair Elandrans, proud Kedethians, gaudy Yilasans, militant Lothanians, diminutive Dareni, uncouth Ogri, and even a few of the stately Vashanti.
The crowds were not the only wondrous thing in Cer Halcyon, though her mind staggered at the thought of such a population. Cora gaped at the splendor and fine craftsmanship of all the architecture. Each building was brightly painted and meticulously decorated. The landscaping was immaculate, especially around Earnest Creek. But once they had crossed this creek, the crowds grew increasingly denser, until near the heart of the city, where the road widened into an enormous plaza fully two hundred feet across in any direction. The coach slowed again to a crawl. Cora sat stunned, speechless at the immensity of everything. Slowly, she was beginning to comprehend the scale of eighty thousand people.
Adelaide rapped on the window to the driver’s seat. The coachman, not having much driving to do, turned fully around and slid the window open, “Yes ma’am?”
“This is fine, porter. I can walk the rest of the way,” she said, handing the driver a silver coin. “Well, Miss Cora O’Banion. I hope you find your stint with the ‘penny paladins’ disagreeable. Be that as it may…have a good roll of the Bones.”
Inspired by Adelaide’s actions, Cora also rapped on the driver’s window to let herself out. Moments later, she was standing near a lamppost beside a chandler’s shop, clutching the handle on her wheeled trunk, just one face in a constantly moving, ever-changing mass of creatures.
Suddenly, she felt alone.
Looking down at the directions her father had drawn out, she wended her way through the teeming Market District, continuing north until the crowds thinned markedly, the road narrowed, and the buildings gained some space between them. Grass grew in actual lawns, giving a spacious feel to the area. She soon crossed Earnest Creek again at a point further upstream. She knew she was getting close.
Some distance to the right she saw the University of Magical Arts, a pyramidal building of all glass and steel. Hovering over the apex was a constantly changing illusory image, sometimes a likeness of a member of the Trithemius, sometimes a dragon in flight, sometimes a battle scene with arcane energy in abundance, sometimes an arcanist wielding a powerful staff, but always an image showcasing the awesome power of high magic. Magic…so amazing, so powerful. And so dangerous. People die trying to harness that kind of power…spellsongs are so much safer!
The sign to the Little Red Flagon was small and unimposing, and Cora nearly walked right past it. But the inn itself was certainly not small. Nor red. It took Cora a minute to realize that the little sign, black letters on a dull red background and partially hidden behind a patch of wild roses, actually belonged to the three-story forest green building. It wasn’t until she asked a dapper young man who was walking by—he smelled of sweet spices—that she discovered its location.
She thanked the dandy, then closed her eyes and sniffed of the air behind him. Ah, the smell of riches! When she opened her eyes again, a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man stood inches from her face, his deep brown eyes probing. Cora startled and bit off a scream. An ornately carved and studded club was hanging at his hip, lending an air of violence to his stance. Besides short leather breeches and the black fur from some animal draped over his shoulders, he wore nothing else. His long, glossy black hair tossed in the light breeze. His dark eyes, so serious, seemed filled with confusion and pain. The high cheekbones, wide nose, thick arms, shirtless… He’s…he’s an Audric savage! They don’t roam freely in the mainlands…do they? Is he going to kill me?!
“Ek-scuse me, female,” the savage said awkwardly, “I look for dees place called…Pathway. Do you know where eet ees?”
The question set Cora back on her heels. He had just called her “female,” which set her teeth on edge. Does he view me as an object to be conquered? And yet, he said “excuse me,” which might mean he has been civilized. Politely, cautiously, and dismissively, she pointed and said, “Just up the street there.”
The Audric savage reached into a pouch, held two silver coins out to her and thanked her in his thick accent. With a touch of bewilderment, Cora refused his offer. Then he continued on his way.
Cora shrugged and continued to the inn. It was a stately building, with banners hanging from poles attached at the tops of the second-floor windows and extending nearly ten feet out over the street. Each one bore a crest of one of the noble houses of Cer Halcyon’s domains.
With a labored push of the heavy oaken door, Cora stepped inside the Little Red Flagon and was immediately overcome with confusion. Nothing inside looked like a tavern. It was clean and neat; the air smelled of lilacs and women’s perfume, not grease, hot spices, and ale. A soft refrain filled the common room with musical ambiance, but she couldn’t locate its source. The melody seemed to be emanating from all sides at once, almost as if coming straight from the walls themselves, but she could not find the source. Is this place a tavern or not? Did I walk into the wrong building after all?
As she pondered this, a middle-aged man approached from a nearby alcove. His brown hair was slicked back, his eyebrows neatly trimmed, and his beard shaved to a thin line that ran along the edges of his jaw. But his suit grabbed Cora’s attention more than his meticulous hairdo. Made of silk and dyed a deep violet—almost black—the fabric seemed to flow like liquid with his every movement. Tails flowed down his legs nearly to the floor, and a half-cape draped over his left arm. Clothing like that only came from Trelini, and it required a year’s wages for most people to obtain it.
Cora’s eyebrows rose involuntarily; her father, a noble in Lorenvale, didn’t even own a suit like that. Clearly, this man was wealthy beyond imagination, extremely powerful, and likely wanted to help her find her way back to the street. But to her astonishment, the man introduced himself with a perfectly executed formal bow. “Greetings, young maiden, and welcome to the Little Red Flagon. I am Sardus, and I will be your waitron. Would you like to see our menu?”
Cora’s mouth fell open. A waitron? The waitron wears a Trelini suit?! She shuddered to think how this waitron must view her: underdressed, inconsequential, and…she felt her mouth gaping open. Embarrassment colored her cheeks as she wrestled to regain her poise. “I…I think…perhaps I have come to the wrong place. I was…I was supposed to meet someone…a Mr. Durk Huxel? Is he here…perhaps?”
“May I ask who is calling?” the well-heeled servant responded.
“Cora O’Banion…from Lorenvale.” She didn’t know if adding her hometown would make a spit of difference to this man in his Trelini livery. For the first time in her life, Cora was out of her league—way out—and the feeling was unsettling. She had assumed Cer Halcyon would dwarf her quaint town of Lorenvale, but she had not counted on being outclassed by a server!
Without a hint of prejudice, the waitron bowed and swept an arm to the side. “Yes, of course. Right this way.”
Sardus led her up to the second floor, which contained three private dining rooms for those who were of even higher rank and influence. On each door hung an ebony plaque inlayed with gold letters, spelling the names of the trio that made up the Trithemius, the world’s most powerful cabal of magicians and ostensibly the controlling organization behind every political entity. She could only guess the purpose of the third floor.
Midway down the hall, Sardus quietly extended his arm toward a door labeled Boedy Drackip. Cora dipped a small curtsy, handed Sardus a pair of silver eagles, and turned the knob.
The room was dimly lit by a pair of candelabra in either corner of the wall opposite the door. A man sat alone at the far end of a dining table large enough to seat sixteen comfortably. Flanking him were two hooded figures, standing immobile on either side, their faces silhouetted by the candles burning behind them.
The door latched behind her, and Cora’s heart leapt in her chest. Nothing about this looked good, and she hastily turned to leave, but to her great dismay, the door was locked tight. Several frantic jiggles on the handle returned the same result. Oh, cripe…
“Cora O’Banion?” an elderly man’s voice asked.
A lump began to form in Cora’s throat as she turned around. Fear raced through her, and she did the only thing she could think of. With a quick flourish of her fingers, a soft melody slipped quietly past her trembling lips and a pulsing ball of light began to glow in the palm of her right hand. She quickly reached up and slapped the crossbar of the doorframe behind her, flooding the room with light. Now she would at least see who was about to rob her…or kill her. She started making mental notes. Perhaps if she survived, she would be able to identify these men to the Crimson Guard.
The man at the end of the table was well advanced in years with white hair and a mostly white scraggly beard. His face was all serenity and measured patience. The sentries on either side of him were stern-faced, square-jawed men, strongly built and ready to spring into action. Worse, they each bore a sword and had a hand at the ready. No doubt, if the old man said “kill,” she would be dead before she could cry out.
“Is that you, Cora the Younger?” the man asked again, “Please, I need to know.” There was no threat in his voice, no sting, and no bark. Only pleading.
Cora thought hard for a moment, considering her few options, then nodded. “Yes, I’m Cora O’Banion. Are you Durk Huxel?”
“Do you have the letter?”
Cora retrieved the crumpled letter from a pocket. “Yes, I do.”
With a single wave of the old man’s hand, the two sentries stepped around the table.
Her eyes grew wide and her heart raced faster with each step that brought the armed men closer. When they reached her end of the table, Cora gritted her teeth. She knew it would be pointless to resist, but if she timed it right, she might be able to jump onto the table and elude them for a while. Maybe I can slide across the table to that old man and hold him hostage…what am I thinking?! But instead of directly approaching her, the two hooded sentries stepped past her, unlocked the door behind her, and left the room. She stared and blinked twice at the door as it latched. Then she turned back to face the old man, cocking her head slightly to one side and placing her hands on her hips.
The old man smiled and chuckled softly, “Now…yes, I am Huxel.”
“Cripe!” Cora exclaimed in exasperation, throwing her arms in the air. “You gave me a rinkin heart attack!” And Mother would wash out my mouth right about now… “Sorry about the language, but what was all that about?”
But Huxel only smiled. “Come. Have a seat next to me, Cora. I assure you it was all necessary. I think you are here to see this.” He leaned over with a grunt and retrieved a long, narrow mahogany box. As he set it gingerly on the table before him, Cora’s eyes grew wide with anticipation.
“The Sword of the Coast!” she whispered excitedly. Forgetting all that had gone on before, she gladly sat next to Huxel and eagerly waited for him to open the box.
“I had to be sure it was you,” Huxel explained, “and you had to be alone. You understand there are certain precautions I must take before revealing this weapon.”
Cora nodded, gazing keenly at the closed lid.
“Good. You realize that this is a moderately intelligent weapon, that it bears a shard of Althea’s sentience?”
Cora gazed expectantly at the box, not hearing a word Huxel said.
“And you realize that it always sings when drawn, and that no man may touch it?”
Again, Cora nodded. She had heard the stories. Would you just get on with it?
“Well, then,” Huxel said with a satisfied smile, “you will understand why there are certain conditions that you must meet before I can deliver such a sword into your hands.”
Silence fell upon the room as Cora replayed that last sentence in her mind. Slowly, she removed her gaze from the mahogany box and onto Huxel’s gray-blue eyes. “So…you’re not going to give it to me?”
“Not yet, Cora the Younger. But when the time is right, it will be yours.”
“When the time is right? When will that be?”
“To bear this sword is to bear a legacy, Cora,” Huxel explained, “It’s not just a family heirloom; its history goes back to the days of Carolan’s independence. I doubt you’ve studied any of that proud little nation’s history…ah, I thought not. Well, perhaps on another occasion I can educate you in that regard. For now, suffice it to say that during their war for independence, the noblewoman Althea deRankin gave her life to see that nation freed. They say her soul was captured in this blade when she died, for it was this very blade that struck her down. With her dying breath, she cursed any man who would take it up again. This sword has since known no wielder but brave women of Carolan. Through the years it has changed hands many times until your grandmother took it up in her adventures. And now, after you have satisfied the conditions, it can be yours.”
In reverent silence laced with a hint of childlike excitement, Cora watched as Huxel pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the box. When he had lifted the lid, she felt a jumble of giddiness and dread fluttering about in her heart.
Nestled in the box was an end to her father’s lifelong search, the very sword wielded by his mother, Cora the Elder. If only Father could see this! To have this over the mantelpiece would be his greatest treasure. The hilt was wrapped in a basketweave of green leather. The pommel, a lustrous gold, was hollowed out into a four-sided frame. Inside of this was a single pearl larger than a man’s thumb, shimmering in nacreous pinks and blues. The cross-guard was fashioned of a similar gold alloy as the pommel and inset with black enamel. By contrast, the scabbard was rather plain, well-crafted but unadorned. It had darkened over the years and showed the signs of heavy use and probably some abuse.
Cora reached out, then she remembered her manners. “May I?” she asked, looking up at Huxel.
The man nodded, and with trembling hands, Cora took the sword from its case. She gasped in surprise, for it seemed to weigh very little.
“Don’t unsheathe it, Cora. Just pull it partway out if you want to see the blade. It’ll sing, as you know—eerie, mournful tunes—and it’s none too quiet.”
Cora admired the featherlike weight, perfect balance, and exquisite craftsmanship before finally slipping the blade a couple of inches from the scabbard. The blade, etched with runes, glistened with a greenish tint, and she felt a faint energy in her hand, as if it desired to be free.
Without realizing it, Cora was slowly pulling the sheath away.
“Ahem…” Huxel said, his eyes narrowing.
Quickly, Cora slid the blade back in place. “Sorry. It’s beautiful.”
“Yes, but I think perhaps it’s time to return the Sword to its case.”
Reluctantly, Cora handed the Sword to Huxel, her heart heavy as he put it away and relocked the lid.
“So…what are the conditions?” she asked after the mahogany case was placed out of sight.
Huxel pulled a pipe and tobacco pouch from his vest pocket, and prepared to smoke a dark weed steeped in brandy. He then recited what certainly must have been a well-rehearsed speech: “These are the requirements as set forth by Cora O’Banion, the Elder. To take possession of the Sword of the Coast, you must lead a company, as did Cora the Elder. And, you must participate in the slaying of a dragon, as did Cora the Elder.”
Cora just stared at the man, incredulous. “Kill a dragon?! A…a real, true dragon? Are you serious?”
Huxel shrugged and blew a smoke ring. “Those are the conditions. How you meet them is up to you. But when they are satisfied, we will meet again, and I will gladly fulfill Cora the Elder’s final charge.”
“But…” Cora slumped in her chair and put a hand to her forehead. But what? Then she sat suddenly forward and jabbed the table forcefully with a finger. “That sword belongs in my family, Huxel. It would go to my father except a man cannot wield it. Thus, it should go to me.”
Huxel sat stolid and unflappable, silently puffing on his pipe.
Cora frowned. “What happens if I don’t meet the conditions? What if I really want to meet them, but I can’t, or I die trying? Where will you take the sword if I fail? Will you sell it, trade it, or bury it somewhere in a forgotten cave? What happens if I don’t jump through these hoops? What if I just…refuse?”
Huxel raised one eyebrow slightly and regarded Cora.
“Well…it’s not like I would refuse, naturally. But, hypothetically, let’s say I did.”
Removing his pipe and pointing at Cora with its stem, Huxel said bluntly, “Your grandmother’s instructions are that if it cannot be delivered to you, it will be stored in a museum in her home country of Carolan. But if you’re Cora’s granddaughter, I won’t have to worry about that.”
Cora thought long and hard about it. Leading a company I can do. Well, maybe. They have to be the right kind of folk, brave and courageous, well-mannered and not too full of themselves. But even if I could get the perfect company, I’m not supposed to do it. I’ll dishonor my family if I don’t go straight home. On the other hand, I have a famous grandmother to live up to. I should be able to honor my father’s name by leading a freeblade company just as much as going back home, right? …I have to kill a dragon. I don’t want to kill stuff; I studied song, not war. I just want the Sword for a trophy above the fireplace because—well—it’s mine by right. I can show it off and regale dignitaries with tales of my grandmother’s heroic deeds. I could delight them w—
Huxel scooted his chair back and rose. “Well, I’m sorry to have wasted your time, Miss Cora. I see you are not interested…”
Cora shot up and grabbed Huxel’s arm. “No…I’ll do it. Whatever it takes, Durk Huxel, I will have that sword. For Gramma Cora’s sake, it belongs with me.”
Huxel nodded. “As I thought. Now, since your grandmother’s day, things have changed a bit; folks don’t just meet up in a local tavern to go out and kill a bunch of hodekin anymore. It’s much more organized. You should register a team at the Mercenaries’ Guildhall for legal freeblade status. Most nations recognize the need for freeblades in the outlands to deal with dragonkin uprisings or roving banditti. At least, that is, until they restore their militaries to full strength. So, sign a simple commission and complete it. From there, you will have to make your own way.”
Cora breathed deeply and sighed. So, I do have to become a songsage. Mother’s not going to like this… “Where will I find you when the task is done?”
“I live in Cer Halcyon now. Once you have met the conditions, your reputation will precede you, and I should have no difficulty finding you.” With a small grunt, Huxel stooped to pick up the mahogany case holding the famed O’Banion sword.
Cora sat back down and stared across the table. It was simple in concept: lead a group and kill a dragon. So simple, and yet not bloody likely. Why not play before a king, write a theatrical production, and compose a hundred-piece orchestral composition? But no, I have to kill a dragon. Cripe…
Huxel rapped twice on the door, and it opened. Without so much as looking back, he left the conference room with Cora sitting alone at the table. Cora’s eyes remained on the door as it closed, but her thoughts were distant. Mother’s going to kill me…
Sometime later, Cora O’Banion slipped into a booth along the wall of the Little Red Flagon and ordered an ale. She listened again for a while to the music emanating from every unseen corner, but her thoughts were never far from home.
It occurred to her as she sipped her drink that she was on the verge of her first major decision in life. What should have been a simple choice felt immense and weighty. Truly, it was not all that complicated: she was supposed to board the next stagecoach heading west for Cer Vedrys, which was probably available every thirty minutes, get off at the Lorenvale stop, and report to her parents on the Sword. Easy, really, but also impossible.
Cora drew a finger through the foam on her ale. There is only one solution. She signaled for a waitron in flowing Trelini livery and asked for a sheet of parchment and a quill. When it arrived, she quickly jotted her thoughts in the form of a letter.
Dear Father and Mother,
I have visited with Durk Huxel and viewed the Sword of the Coast. It is mine by inheritance; however, I am required to satisfy certain conditions laid forth by Gramma Cora before taking possession. If I refuse to accept or if I fail in the attempt, the sword will be locked away in a museum, gone from our family forever.
Because I know the importance of this sword remaining in our family, I have made the decision that I will comply with Gramma’s wishes. I must, therefore, pursue life as a songsage and lead a freeblade company. I do not know where I will go, but I will write to you often so that you may know where I am and how I am doing.
This is no easy decision; I know there is conflict over this. My purpose is not to increase this conflict but to resolve it. Please know that I am not pursuing this out of selfish ambition but for the honor of our family.
Cora took a long draught from her ale.Not entirely true, but it will have to do.She sighed heavily and pushed the empty mug aside.“The Sword of the Coast belongs to me,” she said to the mug, “and I aim to have it!”