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Chapter 1:- Prologue: The Guardian

            Ropes of green moss hung across his path and the trees that loomed over him cast unnatural shadows before him that set every fiber of his being on edge.  The Guardian settled his hand over the pommel of his sword, sworn and bred to protect and mediate.  It was not his choice or even his calling, it was everything that he was and had always been.  The air was thick, pained by the coming storm.  A winter was coming the likes of which they had not seen in generations. 

           His warhorse snorted and sidestepped, tossing his head when the closeness of the trees prevented him from turning around.  Squeezing his knees tighter to keep his seat,  he clucked and cooed to his mount.  His powerful beast was not shaken easily.  He had ridden through walls of fire and charged into a heated battle without thought of anything but the blood that would soon drip from his flanks.  There was something in the stillness and the cold that had his horse ready to bolt   A shift in pressure from his knee was all that was usually required to bring his beast to a halt.  This time he was forced to take his hand from his sword to pull back on the reins until his arms burned from the effort.

            He hopped down and pressed his hand into his muzzle until his horse quieted.  Then he turned his attention to the path they had followed in search for evidence of a trail.  It was the trace of something on the wind, the stench of drying blood and flesh rotting in jaws of a predator, that confirmed his suspicions and set his blood to boil. 

            "Dirus Hramn," he hissed. 

            He leapt back on his horse and exchanged his sword for his crossbow.  If he allowed just one of their cursed lot close enough to require he use his sword he would already be dead. 

            Raising his eyes to the heavens, he scanned the silver clouds for the black ravens.  These served as the eyes of the Dirus Hramn, spotting prey from on high.  Even as a boy it was never the bounty hunters themselves that he feared, it was hellish creatures that stalked their prey from above that filled him and every other Duessite with dread. 

            The Dirus wolves were another matter, black as a starless night and as large as a man.  These they used to rend their victims limb from limb before their brethren reached striking distance with their arrows. He had only ever seen one of those abominations. It was said that they would whisper in the ears of their victims over vast distances.  Once you had heard their call there was no escaping their vengeance. 

            Whatever they were after this day it was clear he was not their quarry.  The first of three ravens flew low over him and then passed him by without coming back.  He kicked his horse into a steady gallop and tried to keep pace with their flight.  His horse was no match of their wit but he had the eyes of a marksman and managed to keep them well in sight.

            They began to screech and dive bomb over an air near the sight of the original castle.  It was clear they had found something but it was not clear if they were alerting their accomplices or trying to prevent the escape of their mark.  With the arrival of several dark buzzards he began to understand.  They were calling their fellow winged creatures to a meal.  His heart beat a frantic pace as he kicked his horse into full gallop.

            He shot several of the buzzards straight out of the sky.  He narrowed the distance to a mile and the cold instincts of his hardened mind took over.  The sound of angry voices and the gravely cry of anger mixed with pain drifted toward him through the trees.  They were so intent on their prey that they did not notice his approach.  Whomever it was they had trapped had spurred their excitement to recklessness. 

            The cries grew louder and were accompanied by several epithets that were seldom heard even in a soldier's camp.  He admired the swagger of the man's language at such a time when most men would beg for their lives. 

            They had him down on his knees. His hand gripped a sword and over his grip were the jaws of one of the black wolves and he would not let it go.  The second wolf had him by the left shoulder and the third was nowhere in site. 

            This meant his approach did not pass unnoticed and the third wolf was not stalking him.  He backed his horse a way a step before drawing to a halt to listen.  

            "The old woman is dead but she was not the last.  Tell us what we already know and we will make your end quick.  You do not want to return and face the court of the Priómh.  His punishment for your crimes against us will be long.  We can spare you that if you will just tell us."

            "If you know it than why do you need me to tell you anything?"  The voice was fearsome in its calm reply.  There was only one man he knew capable of that in the face of their worst enemy. 

            His heart slowed with intent.  Was it possible that Engle remained sheltered away in Alendine, ignoring the cries for help of their people because she was not the last?  There was another heir after The Lady. The sons of King Archipest had long ago died off, if the Dirus Hramn did not find them their folly brought them to quickly to their ends.  If there was another as this bounty hunter believed, there was hope.  If there was another than it meant that his daughter given birth to a child. 

            If Engle allowed himself to be captured it must be that he was shielding the heir, providing a window of escape.   He could do no more for him.  Engle deserved a better fate.  He would have fought him face to face for his birthright as guardian.  For three long centuries he had searched, maligned by their own people for his role in Duessa's defeat but he was no traitor.  Engle may have usurped him in this lifetime but he deserved better than to die at the hand of their enemy's mad dogs. 

           The Diras Hramn were fierce but like most mongrels they were little more than cunning bullies who paralyzed their prey by the nature of their bloodthirsty reputation, a reputation established long before this pack of wolves snared Engle.  If they had come this close to finding Alendine and Engle, how long would it be before they discovered Duessa's true treasure?  First he would dispatch this triad, bring them down one by one, then he would have keep his oath, a vow he thought he would never have to fulfill. 

            Angry growls of the captive started him from his moment of indecision and strengthened his resolve.  He would claim what was his, even at this distance he felt the pull of the blood stone's power.  Through it their people would unite once again.  Possessing it, he would find the one true heir. 

            "First things first, one more sacrifice," he whispered as the arrow hissed through the air and put an end to it to one man's torment and a people's champion.

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