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Army of the Dead [Red Knight Chronicles Book 1] [MultiFormat]
eBook by Ray Morand

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Fantasy filled, science Fiction based with sword and sorcery In Book One of the Red Knight Series, Judicator, Gwendolyn the Celebate, is kidnapped to join an "army of the dead" led by Victor. She embraces the future and her new identity as Captain Isobel. Isobel revels in her acceptance by the other warriors, and tries not to be too disturbed by some shady areas in Gwendolyn's past. She is impressed by the Army's domestication of dragons, and the sophisticated magical powers possessed by some of them. Though "Gwendolyn" has died and Isobel has taken her place, it soon becomes clear that someone is trying to kill her, or Victor, or both.

eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, Published: ebook, 2005
Fictionwise Release Date: January 2008


9 Reader Ratings:
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CHAPTER 1

On the day that changed her life forever, Gwendolyn the Judicator dragged herself toward the small, stone cottage she shared with her brother, Sigfried. Shared, that is, whenever one or the other of them happened to be in town. Sigfried was a bard, and since he was a bard, he often traveled far and wide seeking to discover the perfect song. Because of her brother's wanderlust, Gwendolyn often had the cottage to herself and she looked forward to a quiet night. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt so frustrated with the nobility, and their inability to see things as they were--not just from their own lofty world view.

Gwendolyn was a Judicator, presently assigned by King Sebastian to work from Duke Erikson's capitol city of Valegard. She had been promoted to that position after serving in the Ducal Guard for about two Winters protecting Duke Erikson, his Family and holdings. She traveled among his Lands serving as an enforcer of the King's Law, being judge, executioner, and occasionally serving as a scout, or spy, among the neighboring allies' and enemies' territories.

She pulled the deep, black hood of her woolen cloak over her curly black hair as she watched the looming, gray storm clouds rolling in from the east outer ring wall as she left the keep proper and nodded to the Guard on duty at the Inner Ring wall before continuing on. The duke's capitol city of Valegard had several such walled partitions between the keep and the main gate to make it difficult for invaders should the city ever be attacked. No one could remember how long it had actually been since anyone had challenged the duke let alone put his capitol city under siege.

Her white stone, thatched cottage was within the Third Ring of Valegard, where visiting nobles were generally housed if they had not been invited to stay within the Keep Walls. If was definitely a step up from the sod house in the backwater village she had been born in, and left as soon as she got her siblings apprenticed off so she could join a passing merchant train as a guard. She learned sword craft on the job as a merchant guard, whether under attack by brigands, fighting for her life against orcs or goblins, or when being trained by veteran guards who didn't mind passing on what they knew. Once she finally made it to Valegard, she took her earnings and bought a cottage near the Outer Ring. After receiving her commission in the Ducal Guard she soon had enough money to move a better home, closer to the keep.

The recent visit to the duke had not gone as well as she hoped. All the information she had been gathering for him along the border with Ludnikan disturbed her more than it had him. The details she gave him of the gruesome murders, violence and corruption occurring in many of the outlying villages showed some kind of organized effort, maybe a new group of bandits or warlords possibly from across the border. It definitely was humans, for goblins and orcs would have been more random in their violence and no goblin would have been able to encourage local officials to look the other way. No one could be that corrupt to deal with the chaotic, primal nature of goblins or orcs. He merely brushed off her concerns and asked for her to handle another matter. Her routine Judicator duties for a local village council seemed more important to him, than a possible problem on the border.

Gwendolyn fished the key to her home out of the small, soft leather pouch she had stuffed in her right knee high boot and opened the door. She had not been home for over three weeks so the air inside was a bit stale and musty but nothing appeared to have been disturbed inside. She draped her saddlebags on a wooden chair at a table made of thick polished hardwood that was set off to one side in the main room near her fireplace, and placed her backpack and satchel on the floor next to the chair.

She glanced around the room again and chanted a few arcane words her sister Aryn, an Adept of the 5th tier, had taught her. When she was done all the strategically placed candles in the room were suddenly lit. It was one of only a few spells her sister was able to teach her. Gwendolyn really didn't have an aptitude for magic beyond simple cantrips but was happy to at least be able to cast a few that made some mundane tasks a bit easier. Aryn was much more attuned to the weave of magic and had an aptitude for the mage arts. She was said to be on the fast track to one day being the top of her field, maybe even a 1st Tier Mage if she kept her focus on the arcane arts and not on the boys.

After a cursory glance around the main room she relocked the front door, hung her cloak by the door, and headed toward the only other room in the cottage, the bedroom. Again nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary so she sat down on the down filled mattress of her bed, a real bed, one that she had been dreaming about climbing into on the way back from her last mission. It was one of the few luxuries she had, and spent quite a bit of coin to get. She quickly pulled off her boots and sword belt before lying down on the quilted covers. She said the spell to extinguish the candles and was asleep almost the moment her head hit the pillow.

Gwendolyn didn't get to sleep for long, a few candle marks later she heard a metallic click that jerked her awake. She silently rolled out of bed, her sheathed sword was in her left hand, the right pulling the sword free with only a slight hiss of metal against leather.

A brief creak told her that the front door was being opened and the intruder was in the cottage. She didn't risk lighting the candles, for she knew the cottage and its furniture location better than her intruder, so she would use the darkness to her advantage.

Gwendolyn heard words of magic being chanted off to her right in a feminine voice and lifted her sword in a two handed stance hoping to strike the mage before she could finish casting the spell. However, before she could complete the swing into the dark space she suspected the mage to be, the room suddenly flared with a magical, heatless illumination, almost blinding her . When her vision returned she saw her sister wearing the embroidered red and black robes of her school of magic, standing near the empty hearth. Gwendolyn sighed and lowered her sword.

"My, is that any way to greet your sister?" Aryn commented calmly, then sat in the most comfortable, cushioned chair in the main room that was close enough to the hearth so that one could warm their feet against a fire if one had been present.

"Aryn, you should know better than to break into someone's house, my house, in the middle of the night," Gwendolyn retorted.

"I did not break in--" Aryn started.

"You magicked the lock--" Gwendolyn wiggled her fingers for emphasis on the word magicked.

"And you said I was always welcome to stay with you when I was in the area," Aryn reminded her. Gwendolyn sighed, conceding the point and sat in the chair across from her. Aryn was barely sixteen Winters and yet she still made Gwendolyn feel as if a lummox whenever she could.

"And you are welcome to stay with us," another voice added and Sigfried stepped through the doorway, closing it behind him.

"What is this? Did the carnival come into town?" Gwendolyn asked, as she laid her sword across her lap.

"Well sort of, Harvest Festival is tomorrow, everyone is coming to town for the celebrations," Sigfried told her.

"Already? I had completely forgotten. No wonder the duke seemed so preoccupied," Gwendolyn commented, "and so apologetic."

"Apologetic?" Aryn asked. Her sister seemed preoccupied. Something was bothering Gwendolyn, something Aryn's magic could not divine.

"She's got another mission from her duke," Sigfried answered.

"And how would you know that?" Gwendolyn asked suspiciously.

"I am a bard, a student of human nature ... and people have a tendency to gossip and talk freely around me," Sigfried told her with an impish grin.

"People shouldn't talk about the duke's business," Gwendolyn retorted and turned to look at her sister, "So why are you in town, Aryn?"

"Oh, I wanted to talk to you and I heard you would be in town today," Aryn said.

"I am leaving in the morning. I just stopped here to get some sleep. Can it wait for a couple of days?" Gwendolyn asked.

"Yes, I am staying for the Festival. Are you sure you will be back in a couple of days?" Aryn wanted to confirm.

"Yes, why?" Gwendolyn asked suddenly concerned that maybe her sister had divined something about the mission. Gwendolyn had already felt the instinctive pangs of something wrong about the mission from the moment she had heard about it, and couldn't figure out why, it seemed rather routine to her.

"Oh, nothing, I just need to talk something out," Aryn said.

"Well I have a bit of time while I repack. Sigfried, go cut some wood for a fire or something."

"The sun is not up yet!" Sigfried retorted, as he closed a cabinet he had been looking through to see if there was any food in the house.

"Well, I have some out in the yard, bring it in," Gwendolyn ordered and waved him off, knowing her sister wanted some privacy. He stomped out mumbling to himself as he left.

"So, what's the secret mission you are going on?" Aryn wanted to know.

"I just have to judge a criminal, nothing secret or ominous about that. Don't banter around, what did you want to discuss?"

"Have you ever been in love?" Aryn asked sincerely.

"What kind of question is that?" Gwendolyn tried not to get angry at the insinuation, as well as in response to the painful reminder of an old wound.

"Well you never married and I know people call you the Celibate Judicator," Aryn commented meekly.

"Is this going somewhere?" Gwendolyn demanded, sheathing her sword and dropping it on the bed, upset that her sister had heard that nickname.

"Well I need to know, it's kind of relevant to my situation..."

"Yes, I loved once. He is dead. What is your point?" Gwendolyn tried to squash images of Lord Donal, Knight of the Sword, from coming to mind.

Lord Donal had been one of the duke's most trusted advisors and had fought beside him in several battles early in his reign. Donal had once been a Guardsman, that is how she had originally met him. They became fast friends and had fought on a few missions together. It was he who brought the duke's notice on her.

Then she remembered vividly the day when he and several of his Guardsmen left on a mission to find a den of orcs who had been harassing the Merchant Road leading along the eastern border of the Elvenwoods. She had been forced to stay behind, recovering at the Valegard Temple from an arrow wound that almost killed her after she had been ambushed while tracking the orcs to their lair. She almost killed her horse in order to get to the nearest Guard outpost to pass on the location of the lair, before the poisons in the wound could kill her and take the information with her to the grave.

Once word had reached the duke, Lord Donal had quickly organized a hunting party to kill the orcs. She remembered him astride his horse, looking back briefly at her, armored and ready for battle. Lord Donal and his hunting party were never heard from again. The scouts sent to find them occasionally found traces, ripped clothing, saddlebags, miscellaneous equipment and bloody remains. The duke held a grand funeral for Lord Donal and his men several Moons later when no new leads or evidence about survivors turned up and when his Oracles gave them up as lost.

"Well, well, I think I may be..." Aryn admitted, softly.

"Oh? I thought the mages frowned on that kind of 'emotional attachments'," Gwendolyn commented trying to focus on her sister's feelings and not her own.

"They do, they say it interferes with our study and concentration. Most 1st Tier mages avoid any type of emotional attachments," Aryn said.

"So, you have to decide what's more important to you ... and make sure he feels the same way," she told Aryn and opened her clothing chest to find some clean clothes.

"That doesn't help much," Aryn told her and crossed her arms as she pouted slightly.

"I cannot make the decision for you," Gwendolyn said, "this is a decision only you can make. I'll be here for you, whatever you decide."

"So, you will be back in time for the Festival, right?" Aryn wanted to know.

"Depends on the situation, more than likely though. Why? Will the man you are interested in be there?" Gwendolyn asked, folding some clean tunics and pants to put in her pack.

"Thought you could, maybe, give him the once over. I was told Judicators can tell if someone is lying to them," Aryn said, referring to their almost magical ability to question witnesses and discern the truth from them.

"Not a problem," Gwendolyn answered.

Aryn grabbed her arm as she pulled a jingling belt pouch from her robes. "Do me a favor, take these with you." Aryn handed her several rings held together with a piece of twisted wire that had been in the velvet pouch.

"What are they?" Gwendolyn asked, noticing that each ring looked different, but all were well crafted.

"They are magical. I made them for you for the Harvest Festival," she said, then picked one up. "The one with the vine pattern makes you able to pass through brush or woods as if you walked on a road, but leaves no sign of your passing and you will not make any sound," she held up a ring that appeared to be a simple silver band, "this one makes you invisible to undead, lower undead creatures mind you, my magic isn't strong enough yet for more powerful enchantments."

"The one with the diamond has spell storing capabilities. I have put two charges of multiple images, that you activate by saying 'mirror image', one lighting bolt spell, one levitation, and one sleep spell. Say the spell type in the arcane to activate them. After you use them it will have to be recharged, any 7th tier mage or better can charge the ring or I can do it for you."

"The ring with the ruby protects you from fire, the onyx ring from poison, and the black steel ring from normal projectiles. You can only wear one ring on each hand at a time or the magic will conflict with each other, so think about what you need most when you pick which one to wear."

"Excellent, you are getting pretty good at this magic stuff," Gwendolyn told her, putting on the black steel ring on her left hand and the onyx on the right.

"Yes, but I have to pick my specialty soon if I am every going to advance to the next Tier."

"Look, that's it!" Sigfried called from the main room, "I am a musician and a singer. I am not going to carry any more wood like a common laborer! I need to be able to perform tomorrow and I am not going to risk hurting my hands!"

"Fine, go sit down and rest then, you big baby," Aryn teased. Sigfried snorted in derision and flopped into the chair Aryn had vacated.

"So Gwen, I meant to tell you ... there have been some suspicious looking men asking about a Judicator named Gwendolyn in some of the local taverns, particularly the ones the Guard frequent. Someone is checking you out or looking for you," Sigfried said, flippantly, as if the news was not even noteworthy.

"Oh, and you just happen to remember I might have someone stalking me? Thanks Sigfried," Gwendolyn said, as she buckled on some vambraces, grieves and a banded chest-plate made of strips of blackened metal, each piece of armor with the Arms of the Judicator's sword and scale etched on, it.

"Hey, you are a big girl, you could have taken them easily," Sigfried retorted, "It's not as if it would be the first time someone was looking for you because of a judgment."

"What did they look like? Any Arms? Any hint of who they are?" Gwendolyn asked as she examined her vambraces.

"Hmm, they kind of looked like mercenaries that used to be knights, had that sense of 'nobility' to them. They wore no Badge, Arms or signets though," Sigfried told her and she knew she could trust his bardic observation and memory even if he might 'forget' to mention things to her.

"Maybe you should tell your duke, get an escort?" Aryn commented with concern apparent in her voice and etched on her face. She was almost beginning to worry Gwendolyn over it, but she quickly suppressed the uncharacteristic fear that began to sink into her soul.

"As Siggy said, this isn't the first time a Judicator was threatened because someone wanted revenge. The Assassin Guild no longer accepts contracts on me, so it's understandable that someone might have hired mercenaries," Gwendolyn answered and buckled on her sword belt, "I should head out early then, get a head start before they realize I am on the road."

"You know, come to think of it, one of them kind of looked familiar. He was a tall but slender man, dark eyes, and dark hair. Something about his voice and the way he carried himself..." Sigfried muttered as he thought about the man again. He felt he knew the man but couldn't recall from where.

"With all your travels, you might have run across him before. The local muscle wouldn't think of challenging me again after last time."

Sigfried only nodded. His sister was well known for her sword fighting ability but even more notorious for her no nonsense way of dealing the King's Justice. No one faulted her though, since she was always fair and impartial regardless of rank. That still left many people who might have wanted to avenge the fate of a loved one, and she had upset many a noble who couldn't buy her judgments on numerous cases she had been involved with.

Sigfried moved to help carry Gwendolyn's saddlebags, that made Aryn scoff at him considering his early outburst regarding manual labor, but he followed Gwendolyn to the door with the well-used bags over one shoulder.

Aryn got up and stopped her though to give her a quick hug, and with a flash of hand gestures and chanted words, she cast a spell for added protection. Gwendolyn smiled at the gesture.

"Just a little something for the road," Aryn said, with an apologetic expression as the blue light that twirled around Gwendolyn had begun to fade.

"It's all right. I just wish I had a better aptitude for magic sometimes," Gwendolyn told her.

"Just be careful," Aryn warned and watched till Gwendolyn and Sigfried could no longer be seen as they walked toward one of the gates leading out of the residential area.

Sigfried walked with Gwendolyn all the way back to the Ducal Guard's stables where Gwendolyn kept her horse, not a warhorse like many of her peers were apt to own, but rather she preferred a fast hunter of about 15 hands. She saddled it herself and climbed astride with the easy of someone who spent most of her time around horses. She fiddled with the badge of her office, a red enameled brooch pin emblazoned with the silver sword over scales symbol of the Judicators, that also served to hold her hooded cloak secure at the neck.

"Well, you keep an eye on Aryn ... maybe it would be best if you both stay in an inn closer to the Inner Ring while I am gone, just in case someone comes to the cottage looking for me," Gwendolyn told her brother.

"Agreed. Watch your back," Sigfried answered and watched as the black horse his sister had owned for several Winters, sped her off down the road leading out of town.

He watched until she was no longer visible, then flinched as he saw some shadows move through the timberline after she disappeared into the woods. The shadows soon formed into three armored men also on horseback, and to Sigfried there was no doubt as to their intentions.

A chill settled deep within his soul and made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He had to find a way of contacting Gwendolyn and contact her fast. Sigfried ran back to the cottage knowing at least one mage who could help him out. He slammed the door to the cottage open in his haste causing Aryn to flinch awake as she jumped from the chair next to the hearth.

"Aryn! We have to contact Gwendolyn, now! There are men on horseback following her! I do not have a horse or else I would have chased after her! Can you do a spell to reach her?" he demanded, almost out of breath from the run as he bent over slightly to regain it and stop a stitch forming in his side.

"Wait a moment ... does she still carry that hand mirror I gave her last winter? The one with the silver frame?" Aryn demanded, trying to calm him down and not panic as well.

"I--I think so," Sigfried answered.

Aryn slid a hand sized mirror from a pocket in her sleeved robe that seemed identical to the one she had just described. She threw a pinch of white dust over it and blew on it. She moved her hand in a complex pattern over the gilded frame and chanted in that archaic language only mages could decipher.

Sigfried watched the mirror surface ripple, as if it were the surface of water, then it glowed an unearthly blue. The mirror reflected nothing on its surface, showing only blackness.

"Gwen!" Aryn shouted so suddenly that Sigfried jumped in surprise at the unexpected exclamation. Aryn shouted out their sister's name again several more times as Sigfried bounced nervously from foot to foot, wanting to be on the road, to be there at their sister's side, not standing in her cottage listening to his younger sister yelling at a mirror.

"What the--?" he heard Gwendolyn's voice exclaim, then saw her face in the mirror.

"Aryn? You scared the--what kind of game are you--?" Gwendolyn tried to demand, trying not to lose her temper as her heartbeat finally began to slow after the sudden scare of hearing her name shouted on the lonely road.

"Gwen, listen. Siggy saw a group of men break off from the woods after you passed them. They are behind you right now! What do you want us to do?" Aryn hurriedly interrupted her sister's tirade.

"How many?" Gwendolyn asked, almost sounding bored by the prospect. Aryn looked quickly at Sigfried.

"I only saw three, but there could be more," he answered.

"That shouldn't be a problem ... however, tell the officer in charge, he should be at the inner gate leading to the duke's castle. Tell him what you told me and tell him to send a clean up crew," Gwendolyn told them, "thanks for the warning."

* * * *

Gwendolyn reined her horse in, bringing the hunter to a trot. She looked behind her, down the trail back in the direction of Valegard noticing the occasional shadows caused by trees in the predawn light but nothing too out of the ordinary. She almost stumbled right into a merchant wagon train coming towards her, she was so preoccupied on scanning behind her. She mentally berated herself for her lapse in not being aware of her surroundings. She smiled and called out a greeting to the wagon master as she went by. She received congenial nods and half bows by those she passed, noticing not one of them looked her in the eyes.

She sighed, wondering if she was just being paranoid by Sigfried's concerns. She heard a sound above her that sounded oddly like the displaced whoosh of air of a large bird of prey when they descend upon their prey. Gwendolyn looked up quickly and saw an incredibly large shadow cross above her blocking out the red tinged clouds peeking through the trees above her, and heading in the same direction she was.

Gwendolyn pulled the reins to stop her restless horse and turned to head back. If the shadow was what she suspected it to be, the merchant train would be a tempting target.

She had not heard of dragons coming this close to civilization in a long time, especially after so many knights had made a name for themselves hunting them, but she was not taking any chances that she may be over reacting. As she approached the merchant train though, they had moved their wagons to block off the entire road. Several armored men stood around them and more were climbing out of the back of the wagons with swords unsheathed and kite shield in front of them. She stopped her horse so fast it reared and its hooves skidded on the packed dirt road. Gwendolyn stayed in the saddle but knew she was still in trouble. These men didn't seem interested in the possible dragon overhead, their eyes were focused on her.

Gwendolyn heard the sounds of several horses heading toward her from the way she had been traveling, effectively blocking off her escape to the east. Gwendolyn cursed herself angrily for falling into such a simple, but well executed ambush. Without warning she suddenly spun the hunter toward the woods, trying to obscure her silhouette in the underbrush. The brush began to get too thick for her to continue by horse and she had to duck several times to avoid being unseated by low branches of the evergreen trees. She found a small game trail and did her best to follow it as she traveled further from the road and deeper into the foothills of the Piaras.

Her pursuers were not going to give up on her that easily though, and were already racing after her on foot and horseback. She soon found they were trying to herd her back to the road rather than lose her in the forest. The problem was the road was going to be the only way she could put some distance between her and them. She worked her way back to the road further in the direction she had been heading to begin with. The hunter seemed relieved to get back on the road and put on a new burst of speed once his hooves touched the hard packed Merchant's Road.

Gwendolyn thought she had finally gotten a decent lead on them when she heard the swooping sound overhead again and saw a large red dragon suddenly thud to the ground on its hind legs, its massive leathery wings buffeting the air as he landed. Its scales seemed to shimmer in the dawn light, from the smaller scales on its massive head and snout, which had a mouth that could have easily swallowed her horse in two bites, to the large scales that travel down its flanks and the length of its tail. Its sinuous neck leveled its long, lizard-like snout with two dominant nostrils almost level with her horse's head and opened it mouth revealing menacing teeth longer than a short sword. It sniffed once as if it was taking their scent in.

The hunter couldn't take the sudden fear that raced through its body and overpowered its brain. It reared this time, throwing her from the saddle, then raced off into the forest, trying to get away from the giant winged predator it was sure was going to eat it. She honestly couldn't say she blamed the horse, wishing she could do the same as a wave of fear emanated from the dragon and tried to overpower her thoughts.

Gwendolyn rolled as she hit the ground, her sword clearing the scabbard as she came to her feet. Her other hand fumbled to her pouch of rings, slipped off the onyx and slid on the diamond ring as fast as she could, as she backpedaled away from the dragon. All she could think about was how dead she was about to be and wondered how her enemies had managed to get a dragon to fight for them. No one in their long history, or in the history of the Elves, had anyone ever been able to domesticate the ancient, long-lived great lizards of the sky. In fact anyone who tried normally ended up a puddle of goo. Dragons had been hunted almost to extinction and seldom waited to listen to questions.

The dragon merely watched her curiously, his green eyes focusing on her with what looked like a glint of amusement.

"Mirror image!" Gwendolyn called out and twelve doppelgangers popped into existence around her. Gwendolyn and her copies all glared at the dragon before they ran into the woods.

"Stop her!" a masculine voice yelled, from what seemed to be near the dragon. She quickly glanced back and swore she saw a figure clad in armor astride the dragon's shoulder ridges.

"Which one?" a black-armored man on the back of a large gray warhorse called back to the dragon, as he gestured to the armored foot soldiers to overtake them.

She ran into her first bit of resistance at the tree line. Several armored men carrying tower shields interlocked their shields together to create an impromptu wall as they marched toward her along the wood line. She also heard the dragon's approach from behind her, the vibrations in the earth pounding beneath her feet telling her it was getting close as it ambled toward her. She quickly slid on the ruby ring replacing her ring that protected her from projectiles and turned to face the dragon hoping that she would at least score one hit before she went down, but at least she wouldn't be consumed by his fiery breath before she did so. Better to die by the claws and teeth of the dragon then be captured by the men chasing after her.

"Go on and kill me, beast! Let's see what you are made of!" all thirteen Gwendolyns yelled defiantly at the dragon, her long sword held in a two handed stance in front of her. She still felt the trickle of the dragon fear trying to permeate her thoughts and fought the urge to run away. Apparently the dragon was surprised by her holding her ground, and seemed to smile in response to her bold words.

The rider then slid down one side of the dragon, stepping on an upraised, front leg which lowered the armored man to the ground.

"Please, we do not wish to harm you, Judicator," the dragon rider's voice told her, "We just want to talk to you."

Gwendolyn heard movement behind her and all the copies turned with her, their swords swinging in an elaborate guard pattern as she spun in a circle to face the advancing men.

"She is the second one to the right." The helmeted dragon-rider sighed and turned to nod to his dragon.

Gwendolyn glared angrily at him and spun again as the men advanced in a circle around her. The black-armored man jumped down from his warhorse to face her, spinning his sword as he approached her with a smirk barely visible behind his visored helm.

She realized she was grossly outnumbered, that meant they were not taking any chances. Since the dragon didn't finish her with its breath or those deadly talons, they no doubt wanted her alive. They wanted her to know that there was no way she could take them all on and to encourage her to surrender willingly into their hands. She decided she wouldn't make it easy for them, but how she could fight back against these odds she really didn't know. They would be able to over power her with their shields before she could land a hit on one of them.

"What do you want then?" she yelled at the dragon-rider, figuring he had to be the leader since everyone deferred to him and he had the dragon under his sway.

"All in due time, Gwendolyn. Please drop the sword, remove your cloak, and both the sword, and all your pouches." He removed his helm in courtesy. A vague charming smile appeared on his face as he evaluated her. She took in the clean-shaven face, hazel eyes and dark hair tied back in a warrior's queue and felt somehow he seemed familiar to her.

She glared at him and the assembled shield men, her heart racing. But, threw her cloak on the ground, then dropped her sword and its belt, followed by her other belt with its pouches on top of it.

"What next, a strip search?" she retorted, as the black-armored man came over to her to do a quick check to make sure she had no hidden weapons concealed on her person, by patting down her shirt, pants and checking her boots. Gwendolyn was sure he seemed to be enjoying the discomfort he was causing by placing his hands upon her, knowing she could do nothing about it. The men holding the shield wall around them remained silent, watching her suspiciously. The black-armored man removed her rings causing the copies to disappear. Her boot knives and pouch with her house key soon joined the pile of her belongings.

"She's clean, Captain," the man finally said, as he stepped back.

"Hmm ... are you sure?" the captain, who was the dragon rider, commented and walked over to them. He looked at Gwendolyn squarely in the eyes, standing only a few feet away from her. She continued to glare at him defiantly, meeting his gaze, that made him smile again.

The captain moved his gauntleted hand as if he was going to gently touch a loose curl that framed the left side of her face but she flinched away her hand coming up to slap his hand away. The black-armored man stopped her attack, grabbed her arms from behind, and pinned both her arms behind her back. The captain then pulled loose a hair comb from her cascade of curls revealing a disguised dirk. He held it in front of her eyes before he turned and showed it to his men, and then turned back to face the black-armored man.

"This one is a dangerous woman. Do not assume because she is female and appears to be helpless that she is not still capable of killing any one of us, even if she appears unarmed," the captain warned them all, though he seemed to address it mostly to the black-armored man. The captain then removed the other hair decorations and pins dropping them to the ground as she struggled with the man holding her still during the whole ordeal. Her long, curly black hair framed her face and fell past her shoulders.

"I am a Judicator on a mission for Duke Erikson, as such he will have all your heads for interfering with his justice," she yelled at them all, but focused her anger on the captain.

"Lieutenant, will you please release the Judicator," the captain said, and held out an open hand to her, "If you would please come with me, milady."

"I am not going anywhere until I know what is going on," she retorted as she shrugged off the Lieutenant's hands and backed away from both men.

"I had a feeling you would say that. Stormchaser, if you would..." the captain asked as he turned to the red dragon, but Gwendolyn figured she could make one last break for the woods if only she could get past the shield wall.

Gwendolyn spun quickly and stabbed her hand into the throat of the Lieutenant where his helm and gorget didn't fully cover. A gasp barely escaped the man's lips, as he fell to the ground on his knees as he tried to breathe. She had his sword out from his scabbard a heartbeat later. Then she had him in a headlock before he could regain his breath or anyone else could react, pulling his head back for the sword held against his throat.

"Back off or I will kill the man!" she ordered the assembled men. They glanced from her to the captain then back at her.

The captain merely nodded his head in response. The dragon let out a resounding roar that chilled the blood in Gwendolyn veins as she fought the sudden surge of incoming waves of fear coursing through her, but she didn't buckle to it. The dragon then made eye contact with her for merely an instant and she felt her will suddenly drain from her body. She felt herself sink into the liquid green of its eyes and couldn't pull away from its thrall. She felt her grasp on the sword slip, the sword clattered to the ground and she soon followed it, losing her grasp on consciousness.

The Lieutenant angrily got to his feet, coughing, still trying to breathe without pain as he rubbed his throat. Once he was on his feet, he kicked Gwendolyn in the side. She grunted but never regained her awareness of the world around her. The captain stormed over to the black-armored man and shoved him away angrily.

"What the hell do you think you are doing?" the captain demanded, and appeared as if he was going to strike the man.

"Milord! She--I--I am sorry, Milord!" the man stuttered in shock.

"Collect her belongings and meet me back at the Lair," he ordered and bent over to pick up the unconscious woman in his arms. She was soon draped over one of his shoulders and then turned to head for the dragon.

"What about her horse?" the Lieutenant wanted to know.

"It will find its way home. It will serve our purposes best that way," he answered and proceeded to climb back on to his dragon companion's back with his captive.


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