It was almost lunch-time when Horace found the books with a note.
Read these, you may end up enjoying them. But wait for all your friends to arrive. There will be some surprise visitors, even from Skandia. In the end, there will be 21 of you.
To say Horace was confused, was an understatement. He showed the letter to his wife, but she couldn't make any sense of it either. Sure enough, their friends from Redmont arrived, claiming they'd a letter from the King. But Duncan knew nothing. And later that day the Herons arrived, saying Erak had a letter from Cassandra. All pieces of the puzzle started to fit and Horace understood what he had to do. Everyone was in Duncan's study. It was crowded and everyone was speculating what could've happened.
"Everyone listen up." All heads turned to Horace. Some gave him sceptical looks. "This may sound weird, but I found a letter with some, well, a lot of books this morning," He read the letter to them. Stig started smiling.
"Well, then I guess we know what we have to do." Strangely enough, nobody complained. They went to the private dining room and had 20 chairs brought, and of course, a lot of food. Horace looked at the books. And saw a book with a one on it.
"I'll start." And he picked up the book. But Halt stopped him.
"Wait, I wanna know everyone's name. first." He said looking at the Herons. Hal nodded agreeing with him. He decided to introduce his crew.
"Good idea. I'm Hal. I'm the skirl of the Heron. This is my crew." He pointed at Stig. "That's my first mate Stig. The one with one hand is Thorn. The girl is Lydia." It went well until he came to Ulf (or was it Wulf?) "Then you have the twins Ulf and Wulf. Good luck figuring out who' who." After Hal's introduction Will did the same with the rest.
"Can we start now?" Horace said impatiently.
When he read the first line he cringed. He didn't know what the books were about. The others looked at him.
Morgarath, the Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, former Baron of Gorlan in the Kingdom of Araluen looked over his bleak, rainswept and, for perhaps the thousandth time, cursed. This was all that was left to him now - a jumble of rugged granite cliffs, tumbled boulders and icy mountains. Of sheer gorges and steep narrow passes. Of gravel and rock, with never a tree or a sign of green to break the monotony.
Thorn rolled his eyes. "This guy is dramatic. Who is he anyway?" Will started to explain, but realized it would take him too long so he just said.
"You'll find out." Thorn looked at WIll annoyed.
Even though it had been fifteen years since he had been driven back into this forbidding realm that had become his prison, he could still remember the pleasant green glades and thickly forested hills of his former fief. The streams filled with fish and the fields rich with crops and game. Gorlan had been a beautiful, living place. The Mountains of Rain and Night were dead and desolate.
Halt snorted, "Not much left of it now, though" Will and Arald nodded in agreement.
A platoon of Wargals was drilling in the castle yard below him. Morgarath watched them for a few seconds, listening to the guttural, rhythmic chant that accompanied all their movements.
"Wargals? What's a Wargal?" Lydia asked no one in particular. Everyone turned to her, even her crewmates. They'd heard the story before, well part of it. It made Lydia feel like an outsider. Halt looked at her.
"How can you not know what a Wargal is?" Halt said irritated. He had been grumpy all day, and was easily irritated. Lydia turned to him, giving him a sharp look. Halt hated to admit it, but he was a little scared of the girl looking at him.
"I'm sorry, Grumpy," There were a few snickers at the nickname. "That I didn't grow up in Araluen, or Skandia, to hear these wonderful stories about a guy named Morgarath and his Wargals." She turned to Horace, "You can continue."
They were stocky, misshapen beings, with features that were halfway human, but with a long, brutish muzzle and fangs like a bear or a large dog.
Avoiding all contact with humans, the Wargals had lived and bred in these remote mountains since ancient times. No one in living memory had ever set eyes upon one, but rumours and legends had persisted of a savage tribe of semi-intelligent beasts in the mountains. Morgarath, planning a revolt against the Kingdom of Araluen, had left Gorlan f ief to seek them out. If such creatures existed, they would give him an edge in the war that was to come.
"It would've been a lot easier if they hadn't." King Duncan said. There were nods in agreement.
It took him months, but he eventually found them. Aside from their wordless chant, Wargals had no spoken language, relying on a primitive form of thought awareness for communication. But their minds were simple and their intellects basic. As a result, they had been totally susceptible to domination by a superior i ntelligence and willpower. Morgarath bent them to his will and they became the perfect army for him-ugly beyond nightmares, utterly pitiless and bound totally to his mental orders.
"Great guy, that Morgarath. Totally would wanna be his subject" Hal muttered.
Now, looking at them, he remembered the brightly dressed knights in glittering armour who used to compete in tourneys at Castle Gorlan, their silk-gowned ladies cheering them on and applauding their skills. Mentally comparing them to these black-furred, misshapen creatures, he cursed again.
"He's a bit like you Thorn, cursing all the time." Thorn looked at Stig, but Stig wasn't done yet. "But you look more like a Wargal." Thorn stood up angrily, but sat down when he saw Stig's teasing smile. Instead, he looked him dead in the eye. He wanted to say that he at least had a wife, but realized that might not be such a good idea.
The Wargals, attuned to his thoughts, sensed his disturbance and stirred uncomfortably, pausing in what they were doing. Angrily, he directed them back to their drill and the chanting resumed.
"He's even worse than Sir Rodrick." Horace said. "And that's saying something.
Morgarath moved away from the unglazed window, closer to the fire that seemed utterly incapable of dispelling the damp and chill from this gloomy castle. Fifteen years, he thought to himself again. Fifteen years since he had rebelled against the newly crowned King Duncan, a youth in his twenties. He had planned it all carefully as the old king's sickness progressed, banking on the indecision and confusion that would follow his death to split the other barons and give Morgarath his opportunity to seize the throne.
"Luckily that didn't happen," Cassandra said, smiling at her father and Halt.
Secretly, he had trained his army of Wargals, massing them up here in the mountains, ready for the moment to strike. Then, in the days of confusion and grief following the king's death, when the barons traveled to Castle Araluen for the funeral rites, leaving their armies leaderless, he had attacked, overrunning the southeastern quarter of the kingdom in a matter of days, routing the confused, leaderless forces that tried to oppose him.
Duncan, young and inexperienced, could never have stood against him. The kingdom was his for the taking. The throne was his for the asking.
"I wasn't that inexperienced." King Duncan exclaimed.
"You were." 4 voices chanted, King Duncan huffed but said nothing. Cassandra smiled at his reaction.
Then Lord Northolt, the old king's supreme army commander, had rallied some of the younger barons into a loyal confederation, giving strength to Duncan's resolve and stiffening the wavering courage of the others. The armies had met at Hackham Heath, close by the Slipsunder River, and the battle swayed in the balance for five hours, with attack and counterattack and massive loss of life. The Slipsunder was a shallow river, but its treacherous reaches of quicksand and soft mud had formed an impassable barrier, protecting Morgarath's right flank.
Thorn nodded carefully. "He may be a bad guy, but he knows his things." Stig looked at him, not trying to tease him this time.
"We did the same thing in Arrida didn't we?" The rest of the Herons and Gilan nodded in agreement. None of the others knew what they were talking about but they went with it.
But then one of those gray-cloaked meddlers known as Rangers led a force of heavy cavalry across a secret ford ten kilometers upstream. The armored horsemen appeared at the crucial moment of the battle and fell upon the rear of Morgarath's army.
Everyone who knew the story looked at Halt. Most of the Herons didn't notice, Hal, Lydia and Thorn did. Lydia looked at the man with new-found respect but hadn't forgiven him about the incident earlier.
The Wargals, trained in the tumbled rocks of the mountains, had one weakness. They feared horses and could never stand against such a surprise cavalry attack. They broke, retreating to the narrow confines of Three Step Pass, and back to the Mountains of Rain and Night. Morgarath, his rebellion defeated, went with them.
Gilan knew a chance to tease someone, when he saw it. "A bit like the Skandians in our midst, isn't it?" Lydia nodded in agreement, but Hal saw a way out of it.
"Good thing I'm half Araluen, right?" People looked up at him and saw a smile on his face. Hal had embraced his Araluen side a long time ago.
And here he had been exiled these fifteen years. Waiting, plotting, hating the men who had done this to him.
Now, he thought, it was time for his revenge. His spies told him the kingdom had grown slack and complacent and his presence here was all but forgotten. The name Morgarath was a name of legend nowadays, a name mothers used to hush fractious children, threatening that if they did not behave, the black Lord Morgarath would come for them. The time was ripe. Once again, he would lead his Wargals into an attack. But this time he would have allies. And this time he would sow the ground with uncertainty and confusion beforehand. This time none of those who conspired against him previously would be left alive to aid King Duncan.
For the Wargals were not the only ancient, terrifying creatures he had found in these somber mountains. He had two other allies, even more fearsome-the dreadful beasts known as the Kalkara.
The time was ripe to unleash them.
"Well, that was the prologue, who wants to do the next Chapter." Horace said.
Lydia put her hand in the air. "I do,"