Mickey Reichert: Dragonrank master

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Mickey Reichert Dragonrank master
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    Dragonrank master
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Mickey Zucker Reichert

Dragonrank master


Northern winds battered a mud-chinked log longhouse in Kiarrmar, carrying the promise of a fierce Scandinavian winter. Inside, Taziar Medakan huddled beneath his bearskin cloak, a stranger to Norway's fouler weather. The cards in his small, callused fist felt brittle. He studied the faces of his four Viking companions and smiled as Kolbyr Hansson threw his cards to the rickety table which served as the only piece of furniture. Four pairs of grim, blue eyes settled on Taziar.

Ignoring the Vikings' stares, Taziar shook a comma of black hair from his eyes. He flicked cards from his hand to the table in groups. "Two Vikings, two kings, and three dragons." He looked up. "Guess I win again." Leaning forward, he swept a pile of coins from the center of the table into a larger stack before him.

Kolbyr went silent. To his left, Torben grunted. Bothi muttered a phrase to Hamar which Taziar could not decipher. He had spent a harried month learning the Norwegian tongue from barbarian friends in Sweden. Bothi's accent and civilized dialect rendered his words unintelligible, but their intention seemed all too clear. Suddenly, Taziar felt acutely aware of being the shortest man in the room by a full head and the lightest by again his own weight. Irony seared through him. Eight years a thief in Cullinsberg and I'm going to get killed for winning a card game honestly. He rose. "Friends, your Fates were kind to me today…"

Torben opened his mouth to speak.

Taziar dropped formality and finished in a rush. "It's not much fun spending money alone. Anyone for dinner and drinks? I'll buy."

A tense hush followed Taziar's invitation. The Cullinsbergen waited expectantly, his hand sliding near the sword at his hip. He could never hope to best even one of the huge warriors before him, but he knew a display of crazed boldness might be his only means of regaining the Vikings' favor. He seized his hilt and twisted his face into a feigned snarl of offense. "Too good to drink with me?" His words rang with challenge, yet his eyes measured the distance to the door.

Bothi growled. His sword rattled from its sheath, spinning wild highlights through the longhouse.

Taziar held his breath and his ground. He kept his expression unreadable, but sweat spangled his brow.

Hamar clapped a palm to Bothi's shoulder. "Enough. You've always preferred drinking to fighting. Don't begrudge the little man his winnings when he's offered to spend them on us, eh?" He gave Taziar a reassuring half smile. "Besides, Bothi, he'd probably kill you. Then you'd be embarrassed."

Hamar's logic was lost on Taziar, but it seemed to calm Bothi. Hostility vanished beneath a rush of camaraderie. Bothi sheathed his weapon. Hamar opened the door, and the Norsemen filed through the portal into a snow-blanketed forest of evergreens. With practiced skill, Taziar flicked a handful of gold coins into his pocket and swept the remainder of his winnings into the pouch at his belt. From habit, he paused to pull his cloak more tightly about the black linen shirt and britches which had become his trademark from his days as a master thief, known as the Shadow Climber, in the southern barony of Cullinsberg. Though less fierce than the squalls farther north, the cold winds bit at Taziar unmercifully. He followed his companions, pulling the door closed behind them.

As Taziar wound through stands of pine, he recalled easier days among innocent Swedish barbarians to whom kindness and honesty came as naturally as breathing. As a thief from one of the most decadent baronies on the continent, Taziar found the barbarians' way of life a comfortable change. Yet, soon he had become bored by its simple perfection. He had no wish to deceive trusting barbarians who were also friends, and his keen mind seemed dulled from disuse. His body craved the rushes of elation inspired by outwitting men and obtaining the impossible. So Taziar had traveled to Norway, seeking Astryd, the woman he loved. She was a sorceress, forced to spend eleven months of each year, without visitors, at the Dragonrank school. Older, more experienced men than Taziar deemed the wizards' training grounds impenetrable. But the immensity of the challenge served only to fuel Taziar's interest. En route to Astryd, Taziar had passed eagerly through Scandinavia's more civilized lands only to find that most of its citizens were only poor farmers. Since his arrival in the town of Kiarrmar, Taziar had uncovered nothing more exciting than a card game called g'mish.

The forest broke to a plain crusted with frost and crisscrossed by boot tracks. Less than ten strides ahead of Taziar and his Viking companions, a rainbow rose like a column from the earth. Its multicolored bands arched across the clearing, their farther ends obscured by distance. Highlights of red, yellow, and blue winked like gems from the delicate lace of ice. Taziar gasped in awe. "Aga'arin's fat priest! I've never seen a rainbow end!" In the past day, he had noticed neither rain nor snow to explain its striking magnificence. It seemed too solidly real, more like a structure than the illusion of light he knew it must be. He crept tentatively toward it. The archway quivered in the breeze, obviously no work of man.

Kolbyr slapped his legs, speaking between low-pitched snickers. "Small man, small brain." He held up a hand and spread his thumb and forefinger slightly.

The Norsemen howled.

Shocked by his companions' levity, Taziar whirled. His face flushed scarlet. A month in a village without cruelty had made him careless. He had forgotten the heated pain of ridicule.

Gradually, the Norsemen's laughter subsided. Bothi gasped for breath. "Little dolt calls the Bifrost Bridge a rainbow.'' This inspired a fresh wave of mirth at Taziar's expense.

Taziar scowled. His gaze followed the perfect sweep of the rainbow bridge. In his youth, he had run with a gang of street orphans. The experience had ingrained the need to preserve self-dignity, to remain collected and in control at all times. To lose face before a group of unforgiving rogues was to become outcast, to lose the shared companionship, food, and plunder, and, perhaps, to lose one's life. Taziar's slightness had made him even more sensitive to humiliation. Now, he struggled to regain his composure and the Vikings' respect. "Bridge?" he asked, hoping the brevity of his question would keep him from sacrificing the Norsemen's attention to another round of searing laughter.

Hamar fought a smile. "The Bifrost links our man world, Midgard, with Asgard, the realm of gods." He fidgeted. "Let's go now. I think we've paused here long enough."

Taziar chewed his lip, intrigued by Hamar's obvious discomfort. Suddenly, the promise of adventure beckoned, reminding him of past feats which had earned him his pseudonym and his reputation: the boasts of youthful companions which inspired him to climb the highest, slickest walls architects could design; the theft of the greatest artifact of the baron's church which condemned him to Cullinsberg's dungeon, brutal torture, and a sentence of execution; and the lure of the impenetrable Dragonrank school grounds. "What's it like across the bridge?"

Kolbyr stared incredulously. "Across it?"

Bothi's voice acquired a patronizing tone. "You call yourself a climber, Shadow. Why don't you find out?" He smirked, glancing at his companions for encouragement, but the other Vikings became strangely silent.

Hamar seized Bothi's forearm with a hand as large and furred as a bear's paw. His gray eyes went cold and all amusement left them. "We're here to spend Shadow's money, not get him killed by gods." He addressed Taziar directly. "You can't cross the Bifrost Bridge. No mortal can."

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