Evil is growing once again in the world of Backyardia and the brothers, Gabe and Noah return to help Polos combat it and undertake the Quest for the Objects Triune.
The Bag, Bottle, and Box must be found to restore the ancient races but there is a problem. Polos has lost track of the Objects. The very power that he used to create them has transformed them and now they contain more power than he ever intended.
Can they find it in time?
Stephen Almekinder has a variety of experience as a writer. He received a finalist certificate from the Writers of the Future Contest for one of his short stories. He wrote a radio play, which was produced and aired. He adapted the science fiction novel Nova, by Samuel R. Delany, into a screenplay with the permission of the author. One of his short stories was published in a science fiction/fantasy magazine, Once Upon A World, in 1997. Winterhold, Blood of Winterhold, and Lost Empire of Winterhold have been published by Hard Shell Word Factory. Winterhold was a finalist for an Eppie, an award given out by the EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection) group, while Blood of Winterhold was nominated for the Frankfurt eBook Award. Hard Shell Word Factory has also published Backyardia, a fantasy novel for young adults. And it is safe to say that the Winterhold series is not yet finished.
Late summer lingered in the Deep Forest of Backyardia. Warm breezes stirred leaves on the verge of turning color. A sense of peace pervaded the land.
Early in the morning, one of those warm breezes finished playing amongst the fading green leaves of the great oaks and mighty maples and raced along the edge of the cliff that stood opposite the free standing tower of rock upon which was built Castle Winderoc. It passed lightly over the gulf that yawned between cliff and castle and skimmed across the rough surfaces of the thick walls. The zephyr wafted up and over those walls, dipped into the still quiet courtyard below the main keep, and then rose to where a small but finely constructed terrace crowned the top of the highest tower.
Kaibyl, wife of Prince Cidroc, stepped out from beneath the heavy arch of the tower stairs and onto the terrace. It was her habit to visit the terrace when she first arose in the morning. The hot, still air within the castle had driven her out earlier than usual and she greeted the playful breeze with a sigh of relief.
Castle Winderoc stood at the head of a valley which was filled with the mammoth trees of the Deep Forest and which swept majestically down toward the Inland Sea. The grand sweep of the forest-choked valley lay before her as she moved in a languid fashion to the railing of the terrace. She stopped and gazed down at the trees whose leaves were still except for a quiver here and there as the breeze eddied through their depths. She stretched her arms above her head and gave a great, satisfying yawn.
She smiled as the dancing wind stroked the tight curls of her dark hair and tugged at her gown of blue and silver, the colors of Winderoc. The moving air refreshed her without dispelling the soft indolence created by the heat.
Her journey to that terrace on the heights of Castle Winderoc had begun far away and a number of years ago. Beyond the Deep Forest, across the Inland Sea, and on the other side of the Long Plains, lay the Wide Desert where Kaibyl, only a child at the time, had become separated from her family when their caravan had been attacked by robogres of the Desert. Never certain whether or not the others had survived the attack by the robogres, those part man, part machine creations of the evil Warlock of the Wraith, Kaibyl had wandered alone until taken in by the People of the Wall.
The People had inhabited the top of the gargantuan wall that surrounded the abandoned city of the Giants of Dhru where it lay nearly buried in the desert. It was there that she had met Noah and his cat, Prescott, who had come from a world beyond Backyardia. And it was from the ancient city of Dhru that they had set off on Noah’s quest, to find his brother Gabriel. Polos, the great white bear who was the guardian of good within Backyardia, and who was opposed by the Warlock, had imposed the quest. That opposition had resulted in frequent attacks by robogres and other minions of the Warlock as he had attempted, in vain, to keep the brothers apart. Despite the obstacles, Kaibyl, Noah, and Prescott had crossed the breadth of Backyardia until they had come to the shore of the Inland Sea. It was there that Kaibyl had first met Prince Cidroc.
She smiled at the memory of his knightly courtesy, which had made him call her Lady Kaibyl. However, that courtesy had been tinged with knightly arrogance, a trait common among the knights of the Deep Forest as she later learned. Captured by the corsairs, who were the hereditary enemies of the knights of the Deep Forest, they had all set sail upon the Inland Sea with the blind Captain Blizrod and his crew as they searched for the treasures which the captain felt certain that Noah, as a favorite of Polos, could lead him to.
In the end, Noah had led them to the island where a great battle between Polos and the Warlock had resulted in the defeat of the Warlock and the sending of Noah and Gabriel back to their own world. Upon that same island, Cidroc had declared his undying love for Kaibyl in his inimitable way, mixing arrogance and courtesy, and Kaibyl had found herself agreeing to be his wife. She had never regretted it. Cidroc’s foibles were dear to her and it was clear to everyone that he loved her for who she was, a strong and independent woman, who might now truly be called Princess Kaibyl but who remained simple Kaibyl at heart.
She breathed deeply through her nose to draw in the rich, layered smells from the Deep Forest still sunken in thick shadows below her. The scents of summer-warmed earth and the interplay of odors from the tangle of wild mint and blackberry bushes rose from the forest floor. Even though the purity of the desert still called to her at times, it was not hard to love the richness of leaf and branch, root and towering spire that was the Deep Forest.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs of the tower behind her made her turn from the railing. The footsteps were rapid at first and then slowed, as if the walker was engaged in some thought or act that required a divided concentration.
The soft glow of yellow orange from the shadows within the tower told her who had come to visit her upon her lofty terrace. With a final twist and a reassuring tug to the turban perched upon his head, a tall man stepped out of the shadows and blinked in the light from the red orb of the sun whose top had just then pushed above the treetops.
His name was Yizgurd. He had been the staunch companion of Gabriel and Sammy, Noah’s and Gabe’s dog, as they had traveled across Backyardia upon their half of the quest. Yizgurd was a member of the Kurghuz tribe, a hardy race of people who inhabited the high and wild regions of the Kushtin Range that contained the Mountain Ghuz. He had been an innkeeper upon the Mountain Ghuz until his encounter with Gabe and Sammy had catapulted him into their adventures. Sharing their dangers and helping along the way, he had fought robogres and had been instrumental in saving Castle Winderoc from a treacherous attack from within.
After the great battle upon the island, where the Warlock had gone down in defeat, he had returned to Castle Winderoc with Kaibyl, Cidroc, and Banroc, Cidroc’s brother, where he had lived ever since. But of late, feeling a certain longing for his distant mountains, he had told his friends that he wished to return to his own tribe for a time. With a certain amount of sadness, they had all urged him to do as he saw fit. Everyone liked Yizgurd for his Kurghuz bravery and for his wonderful stories of life upon the Mountain Ghuz.
The saffron of his turban was matched by a wide swathe of the same material about his waist. The brilliantly colored material was a family heirloom, passed down through generations and only now thoroughly cleaned in the laundry of Castle Winderoc. Yizgurd reveled in the yellow orange glow of the clean material and he could often be caught glancing down at his cloth bound waist or out of the corner of his eyes at a trailing piece of his turban in silent admiration. He had always been proud of his saffron cloth but he said that now he felt like a king when he wore it, and he wore it each and every day.
He settled his long knife more securely in his saffron waistband by tugging at the hilt. He then described a circle on his forehead, around his mouth, and upon his chest in the morning blessing of the Kurghuz and walked toward Kaibyl, a smile upon his round face.
“How does this fine morning find you, Princess Kaibyl?” he asked as he approached.
Kaibyl smiled herself and shook her head.
Yizgurd took longer strides to reach her side faster, somewhat alarmed at her negative response. “What troubles the Princess Kaibyl?”
“The ‘princess’ part. ‘Lady’ was difficult enough to get used to, but now this. Don’t worry, dear Yizgurd, I’m fine. It’s just I can’t get used to being called ‘princess’ anything.”
“But you are,” pointed out the tall tribesman. “If nothing else, you are a princess by marriage. And I, for one, believe that you have always been a lady; a natural nobility, if you will.”
“Well, I don’t feel much like a lady or a princess, especially in this heat. Do you suppose that princesses born are bothered by the heat?”
Yizgurd grinned at the thought. “I cannot truly say, never having had the chance to know a princess before. But I do see what you mean. And that is one of the reasons that I have for wanting to get back up to the Mountain Ghuz. I long for the coolness of late summer upon the mountain.”
“We will all miss you, you know that,” said Kaibyl with sincere feeling.
“I know,” said Yizgurd in a quiet voice. “And I, all of you. Including some of our friends who have been gone for some time now. I must admit that being here, with others who knew them, has kept them fondly in my thoughts.”
Kaibyl turned toward the Deep Forest again and gave a slight frown. “Noah and Gabe; I wonder where they are at this moment and what they’re doing.”
“They’re back in their own world. Perhaps even in their own backyard, that magic place they told me about and from which they came to Backyardia. As to what they’re doing, well, that’s more difficult to imagine. I would say that they’re having a fine time, whatever it is.”
“Yes, a fine time,” murmured Kaibyl.
Yizgurd joined Kaibyl at the railing of the terrace. With the trained eyes of a mountaineer he studied the distance from the terrace to the ground far below. He then frowned.
Kaibyl noticed it and asked, “Does the height of this terrace bother you, Yizgurd?”
Yizgurd smiled broadly at the thought. “Why, not at all. This is a mere hop for one who has lived on the Mountain Ghuz.”
“Why did you frown, then?” continued Kaibyl.
“Ah, the frown. That is for an obstacle of a different nature altogether. You have heard, have you not, of the greater numbers of robogres seen recently? Your fine brother-in-law, Prince Banroc, has been keeping a close eye upon such things and told me only yesterday that the number has doubled since the period just after the Warlock was banished to that other plane when he lost the battle with Polos upon the island. With the Warlock gone, the robogres seemed to have vanished also. But now they are back in larger numbers.”
“Cidroc did mention something about it the other day. But he didn’t seem too worried. He said they’ve not been hostile to anyone in the Deep Forest, as far as he knows.”
“Let’s hope that it continues that way,” said Yizgurd with a slight frown still upon his brow.
Kaibyl placed a reassuring hand upon his shoulder and said, with a grin upon her own face, “I have heard tell of something which might be feared more than returning robogres.”
Yizgurd’s hand flashed to the hilt of his long knife. “What? What is it?”
“Calm down, Yizgurd. Calm down. I was just referring to dear Banroc’s grand scheme to find the missing Objects of the three ancient races; the Bag, the Bottle, and the Box. He’s been telling anyone who would listen about them. He’s already deemed it a ‘Quest’ and has been trying to get his father to support the idea with knights and supplies. Perhaps it’s old age, but King Winderoc does not seem terribly enthusiastic about beginning any quests. And neither does Cidroc, for that matter.”
“I would say that Prince Cidroc has things other than quests for glory to occupy him just now.”
Kaibyl glanced up at her friend in the saffron turban and smiled. “You flatter me.”
“Not at all. Kaibyl, you are a princess now, whatever you may have been before or however you feel about it. Cidroc is the eldest son of the king. Someday you will be queen of Winderoc.”
“Yes. You’re right. And I suppose I’m getting more used to the idea. It’s just that some days I feel that I want to be off on an adventure instead of being cooped up in Castle Winderoc. I remember the adventures I had with Noah and Prescott and long for those simpler, if more dangerous times. Does that sound crazy?” Kaibyl asked as she turned to face her companion.
“Not at all. I find myself longing for those days also. That is yet another reason I have for returning to the Mountain Ghuz. I wish to visit the site of my old caravanserai. A pilgrimage of sorts to where it all began.”
“A return to what was,” mused Kaibyl. “It can’t be done, not quite anyway.”
“I know,” replied Yizgurd. “What is the ancient saying, ‘A person might wish for one thing but get something quite different, only to find that it was what was wished for from the beginning.’ Didn’t Polos say that at some point, somewhere long ago?”
“If he didn’t, he could have,” murmured Kaibyl. “It sounds a lot like Polos. I wonder where he is and what he’s doing.”
“Prince Banroc seems to believe that he will appear quite soon. Something to do with those Objects which the three ancient races have to recover in order to get back what they had taken away from them by Polos. The Giants were punished for their lack of compassion, the Aquonians due to their overwhelming greed, and the Avisians because of their overbearing pride.”
The heat pressed down hard as the breeze died away. Kaibyl leaned on the railing, dazed by the sudden lack of moving air. She lifted her fingertips off the stone and stared blankly at the small spots of moisture that gathered on the tips of her fingers.
“Banroc tries to find the reason for a quest in the smallest things,” said Kaibyl. “If it weren’t sacred objects, it would be something else. He’s a dear, but compulsive that way.”
“Yes,” agreed Yizgurd who leaned against the railing next to Kaibyl as the stale air pressed down upon them both. “I see what you mean. A fine knight but...” Yizgurd left the sentence unfinished.
Both of them were silent then. Lulled by the cloying heat and comfortable in each other’s presence, they simply stared down into the stillness of the Deep Forest. Their bodies were relaxed and their thoughts meandered here and there, from desert to mountain and many places in between.
Just as the sun fully cleared the trees and blazed forth with added heat, the breeze returned. It blew stronger, as if attempting to counteract the increased heat from the late summer sun. It surged down the valley, rattling the leaves of the giant trees as it went.
Kaibyl turned from the railing to let its coolness wash her face. Yizgurd remained bent over and watched the light find its way through the myriad tree trunks and light up the forest floor far below. When individual boulders at the base of the foundations of Castle Winderoc could be made out, he straightened up.
He turned to Kaibyl. She stood with her eyes shut and a slight smile upon her face, letting the wind sweep across her as it hurried on its way from the distant mountains to the faraway sea.
“A fine day,” he said softly. He did not want to disturb the sense of peace and quiet upon the high terrace. “I must be going. I shall return as soon as I can.”
Kaibyl opened her eyes and smiled at him. “Please do that, Yizgurd. We shall all miss you.” She closed her eyes, continuing to commune with the breeze that blew strong and steady across the terrace.
Yizgurd touched forehead, lips, and chest in one fluid movement, both as a blessing and a sign of farewell. He then hooked his thumb over the hilt of his long knife and sauntered toward the doorway to the stairs that led down into Castle Winderoc.
Reaching the doorway he paused and turned to look back at Kaibyl once more. She still stood there, rapt with the enjoyment of the cooling air. He reached up to tuck in a loose fold of his saffron turban and was about to turn and descend the stairs when a strangely shaped shadow flickered across the open terrace.
A large bird, thought Yizgurd to himself, a very large bird. Perhaps it was a mountain condor that had flown far from its rocky nest in search of food. And yet, he had never seen a condor over the Deep Forest.
The shadow darkened the stones once again and a second later another shadow followed. Yizgurd knew that they were two distinct shadows by their slightly different shapes. He raised his head to find the large birds, which had to be almost overhead. The fold of his turban came loose again as he moved his head and he grabbed it to tuck it up more securely. He stopped, a bit of saffron cloth between his fingers.
Swooping down toward the high terrace were what appeared to be two human beings with wings. They were silent, except for the faint creak of metal on metal. It was the sound that made Yizgurd search out their eyes. Metal and flesh were the hallmarks of the creations of the Warlock and the blue glow from their eyes confirmed it. They were robogres.
Yizgurd opened his mouth to shout to Kaibyl, but as he glanced toward the railing, he saw that she already knew of the danger sweeping from the sky. Her face was a blend of fear and anger and determination as she watched the lightning quick descent of the two minions of the Warlock of the Wraith.
The Kurghuz tribesman yelled anyway. “Kaibyl! Get down!” He dropped the bit of saffron cloth which he still held between his fingers and snatched the long knife out of his sash. He charged toward Kaibyl.
Kaibyl did not get down, but she did step back. That movement thwarted the flying robogres’ original intention, which apparently had been to sweep down, grab Kaibyl by either arm, and take to the air again with a minimal loss of speed and power. It quickly became obvious that that had been their intention, for as she retreated he saw both of the creatures drag their feet across the stones of the terrace before they realized that they were going to be forced to land.
A sharp snap of their wings raised them for a moment and let them get their feet underneath them. They then backpedaled furiously to slow their forward motion as their outstretched wings continued to drag them onward. They tugged at the controls of the wings which dangled in front of their chests, and with some hesitation and much creaking of metal joints, the wings folded up part way and dumped the air which had been caught beneath their canvas lengths. A faint blue fog, which emanated from leaky canisters strapped to their backs just below the mechanical wings, enveloped both of them.
They ran on through the mist and shoved Kaibyl back to the railing where they each grabbed an arm. She was overwhelmed by the sudden rush but tried to twist out of their grip. However, in what appeared to be a well-rehearsed movement, they wrapped her up in a harness of leather, which bound her arms to her sides and effectively imprisoned her, but also allowed her to be carried through the air without danger of falling.
“Yizgurd!” she yelled. “Help!”
Yizgurd did not need her voice to urge him onward. The look of desperation on her face as she was pressed backward and bound up made him leap across the terrace.
As he approached them, the robogres grabbed Kaibyl and shoved her up and over the railing where she dangled awkwardly high above the forest floor. The one on Yizgurd’s right held fast to the harness in which Kaibyl was bound even as he attempted to climb to the top of the railing himself in preparation for a jump that would get him airborne once again.
His companion turned to face Yizgurd. Yizgurd slowed but did not stop as he studied the stance of the winged robogre and tried to decide upon the best means of attack. The robogre snapped his wings once, as if to warn off Yizgurd. Blue fog, laced with the contradictory scents of sulfur and cinnamon, puffed toward the tribesman’s face.
Instead of drawing back, Yizgurd darted in closer. With a practiced move, the robogre swept his left wing down and in front of him. Yizgurd slashed upward with his long knife. Its edge was turned by the tubular steel of the descending wing, although its point did cut a neat hole in the fabric stretched between the hollow rods that formed the wing.
The wing swung past him and blocked his view of the robogre for a second so that he did not see the approach of the other wing. Its tip caught him full in the chest and knocked him back and onto one knee.
Yizgurd kept his blade out in front of him as he lurched backward and regained his feet. He leaned forward in preparation for yet another attack when the robogre snapped up both his wings to reveal him fumbling for something in his tunic. He pulled out a tightly rolled parchment, grinned mirthlessly at Yizgurd, and threw it with all his might at the Kurghuz tribesman. Believing it to be some diabolical weapon, Yizgurd ducked and the parchment flew harmlessly over his head. He heard it hit the pavement and roll toward the steps that led down into the castle.
As he ducked, the robogre turned and hopped to the top of the railing to join his companion who had been wavering up there as he tried to keep both his balance and a struggling Kaibyl steady. It was not an easy task for she kicked and thrashed about. But her efforts were to no avail.
The one who had thrown the parchment snatched up his side of the harness binding Kaibyl and nodded to the other robogre. Both poised to launch themselves into the open air beyond the railing of the terrace.
Yizgurd did not hesitate a second. He leaped toward the back of the robogre on his left, slashing downward with the long, slightly curved blade of his knife.
It all happened in a rush then. The blade of his knife smashed hard into the right wing of the robogre. It bit into a large steel tube and then stopped. Jammed between the two broken pieces, the pressure on both sides of the blade held it fast. Yizgurd held on to the hilt.
The robogres jumped from the railing. Kaibyl’s weight dragged them straight down. Yizgurd, still clinging to the hilt of his jammed knife, was dragged with them. His knees banged hard against the top of the railing as he went over. The sickening drop of the four ended abruptly as the outstretched wings of the robogres filled with air and snapped taut.
Dangling hundreds of feet above the ground, Yizgurd made a desperate lunge and managed to grab hold of a rod at the bottom of the wing. That, in conjunction with his firm grip on the hilt of his embedded knife, gave him a secure hold on the creature. Circumstances had taken him this far; the determined look on his face made it clear that he would not let go. He ducked his head to avoid being buffeted by the surging wind and hung on.
The bizarre group of captors, captive, and hanger-on performed a shallow dive, which the frenzied activities of the robogres and the apparent buoyancy of the blue gas managed to pull them out of just before they smashed into the tops of the tall trees below Castle Winderoc. Yizgurd’s feet dragged through the top branches of an oak until he was yanked upward as the widespread wings of the robogres caught the freshening wind blowing down the valley. They gained altitude and then banked to head along the valley and toward the Inland Sea far away.
Even as the flying robogres rose higher and set their course, Prince Cidroc mounted the steps that led to the terrace where he knew his wife first came in the morning. He had wanted to surprise her with a small gift, a finely wrought bracelet by her favorite artisan within Castle Winderoc.
As his eyes came level with the terrace, the first thing he saw was the tightly rolled parchment that had rolled close to the stairs. His passing thought was that Kaibyl had brought up something to read, although he had never seen any parchment like it in the castle library. He reached the top of the stairs, scooped up the parchment, and bounded up and onto the terrace with a broad smile on his face.
The smile disappeared in the second that it took him to comprehend what he saw before him. The terrace was empty and in the middle distance was a strange group of figures floating within a pale blue cloud, complete with flapping wings, a saffron colored turban, and a splash of silver and blue.
“Kaibyl!” screamed Cidroc. He dashed to the railing and leaned far over. “Yizgurd!” he yelled as he watched both his wife and his friend being carried away by what could only be two robogres. He thought he heard a faint voice call his name but the wind picked up and blew away the sound.
They flew low, just above the tops of the trees. Cidroc watched them until they were out of sight, his eyes squinting hard and his fists clenched about the parchment. He heaved a single sob when they were truly gone, and then straightened up.
“I will follow them. I will find them,” he swore under his breath and brought the parchment down hard on the stone of the railing.
It was only then that he examined the object in his hand. With trembling fingers, he pulled loose the knotted blue ribbon binding the scroll. He glanced toward the distant sky where he had last seen his wife and friend and their captors before he unrolled the parchment and looked down at it.
The paper had a metallic feel and tinge to it, as if it was composed of equal parts of wood and metal. At first, Cidroc could not focus on the words written there. He took a deep breath, blinked his eyes, and began to read the message upon the scroll.
“Prince Cidroc, this message is for you. To ensure the safe return of your beloved Princess Kaibyl, I demand that you have Polos return Gabriel and Noah to Backyardia and that you deliver them up into my hands. It is that simple. It is that dangerous for Kaibyl. I will give you thirteen days in which to accomplish it. After that...”
The signature at the bottom of the sheet, formed in precise, machine-like letters, read, Warlock of the Wraith.
Cidroc rolled up the parchment into a narrow tube and yanked the ribbon hard to tie it shut. He stared down the valley in the direction of the Inland Sea, the direction in which the flying robogres, his wife, and his friend had disappeared. The breeze, which had blown down the valley so steadily, dropped to a mere puff of wind. Cidroc barely felt the heat wrap about him.
“I will follow them. I will find them,” he repeated in a quiet tone. He turned and stopped for a moment. He crossed the terrace slowly at first but then at a quicker pace and finally ran down the stairs leading to the heart of Castle Winderoc.