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The Guardians

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 A collection of stories that follows the events of a family that shapes
a kingdom, The Guardian Series is a continuing look into the lives of true
heroes. The Recipe, an inherited list of instructions to a secret and
mysterious magic, is passed on and protected by each generation of
Guardians. Guided by their inner strengths and the mystic abilities
invested through Essence magic, the Knights of Virtue struggle to
maintain a precarious measure of good and evil and thwart those who
seek to tip the fragile balance. Though their enemies number more and
more, the Guardians find hope and strength in each other, doing all they
can to uphold the Oath of Virtue. Through endless time and countless
plight, some dark force seeks to steal the secret of Essence from the
Esrald family, and with each powerful foe and shadowy scheme comes
the heirs to Nature's magical Essence:
 A new generation of Guardians.

 Samuel Esrald, Guardian of Strength, has decided the time to pass
on the Recipe has come and calls together his six children to tell the tale
of how it all began. While Magarius, Advisor to King Marik, pursued his
experiments to unleash the power of Essence, the Esrald brothers sought
to fulfill their father's dream of creating the one flavor of cookie that would
satisfy the King. When the two endeavors are thrown together by a
mischievous Faerie Dragon, Flicker, the result is a series of mishap,
adventure and the Recipe. The virtues idealized by each of the six
brothers are: Truth, Courage, Honor, Strength, Valor and Humility. As
Essence magic amplifies the core of a person's being, the Guardians were
created, but if one whose purpose was not so pure should ever be
affected, the results could be disastrous. Realizing this, the brothers swear
the Oath of Virtue, a promise to keep others from harm by keeping the
magic hidden safely away. With their ancestral story told, the new Knights
of Virtue then take the Oath as well.
 And the waking of old powers begin.

 Looking to the past for guidance, the children gather together and
read the Chronicle, an enchanted book that records the history of all
Guardians as it occurs. Jonathan Esrald, Protectorate of Luddwelyn and
Guardian of Honor, journeys into the trees of Luminarron to visit the city of
Sylvan Elves. Normally a deterrent to any invaders from the east, the
long-eared foresters were being pushed again from their homes. One of
the Barbarian Clans, the Deer, was moving farther into the trees, and it
was Jonathan's duty as Protectorate to look into the matter. His
adventures through Luminarron lead him to discover hidden powers within
himself and take him deep into the land of Faery.
 Where Lady Shimarra and her Host await.

 Daren is a boy thief and friend to Cornelius, the Guardian of
Courage. While on his way to meet the ex-mercenary turned Knight,
Daren overhears a plot to assassinate King Marik. He rushes to Cornelius'
side and is there only long enough to be kidnapped by assassins from the
Brotherhood, the Assassins Guild. Chasing the dark shapes of trained
killers through the sewers of Luddwelyn, Cornelius races against time to
rescue Daren and escape from the murky tunnels. Retreating into the
Undercity, the two must fight through monster and man to save their lives
and stop the Guild of Assassins...
 ...Before they kill the King.

      ONLY THE STRONG (#4)
 Commissioned to forge a great number of swords and armor for
one man, Stephen decides to verify the Lord's credentials and satisfy his
nagging suspicions. When the Guardian of Strength discovers the false
use of a Lord's name, he and Duncan - the true Lord of Hubreys - join an
army of mercenaries to get to the bottom of things. Forced into leading an
attack on a small village, Stephen is faced with more problem than he first
thought to seek. Once he learns the Iron Ring's purpose, the true objective
behind the small army's training attacks, he does all he can to thwart the
hired swords.
 All of Luddwelyn was depending on him.

         TRUE MAGIC (#5)
 A malignant thing begins to grow inside of the sage Magarius, but
he is able to cast the abhoration from his body, creating the Shadow
called Magus. While Magarius struggles to fend off the Wizards Guild and
their attempts to take the secret of Essence from him, Tristan fights off the
renegade Magicians attracted by the powerful explosion of magic that
created the Guardian of Truth. King Marik and his men ride through the
streets to try and bring some order back to the city, but a greater evil
brews outside the city walls as Magus leads an army of monsters from a
Portal into the land of Faery...
 ...While the Lords of Faery watch on.

      A HUMBLE HERO (#6)
 A troubling dream sends the Guardian of Humility towards the blue
expanse of ocean, where he is met by a magical dolphin. Jalamai, a Sea
Elf, leads Humphrey down into the coral and crystal city of Reokralai to
meet with the Council of Elders. The Hurel Serentil, High Sea Elves, live
off the magic that emanates from the Pillar of Life, but for some reason
unknown to the Elves, the magic was slowly dying. As Humphrey does
what he can to help, the Davar arrive as whales and sharks to place
blame and make war on the ones they believe are stealing their magic.
Seeing no way to placate the Deep Elves or make them see reason, the
Hurel take to the waters in their dolphin and whale forms to defend their
crumbling city. Tapping into the Pillar of Life shows Humphrey the source
of all that is wrong with Serentil, but can he put aright the problem before
the two races of Elves destroy each other?
 The Shadow Dragon seemed not to think so...

 As General of King Marik's armies, Valoran rides to the outlying
villages and towns to inspect their means of defense. As a Gladiator and
the Guardian of Valor, the skilled warrior is ready for all types of battle and
has his abilities tested as nearby villages fall under attack. Each battle
holds stranger clues for the Weaponsmaster, and a note from his brother
Stephen sends him back to the walled city as fast as his horse can carry
him. Stopping off at the Gladiatorial Arena to bolster his own troops,
Valoran rushes to inform the King of a threat to the Crown and well-being
of Luddwelyn. Leading his army into the Poor Quarter, the Guardian
hopes to end a bloody war before it begins...
 ...And stop the Iron Ring.

 Each of the stories listed above can be obtained by sending a
check or money order, made payable to the Cookie Brigade, for $2.50 per
story. Please address orders to P.O. Box 10742, Scottsdale, Az. 85271.

                     The Guardians, Keepers Of The Magic

                                  Part I

                           by Joseph A. Giunta
                            Copyright Ф 1994

 Samuel was a man in his late 40's, sporting the salt and pepper
hair that arrives with age, and kept himself in good shape with a rigorous
daily routine. An unfortunate side effect to his strenuous activities was his
love of sleep. He always managed to pull himself from the warmth of the
bed, thanking his alarm clock as he did so, but still enjoyed the days when
he allowed himself to sleep in.
 Just one such day found Samuel waking not to his alarm clock but
to the incessant chittering of two love birds having a spat outside his
window. Opening an eye and feeling sympathy for the little fellow, he
turned over and let the blue and green female berate its mate in privacy.
Rays of sunlight shone through the open window, casting a silhouette of
the two lovers against the far wall. From the garden below came scents of
blue magnolia, wild roses and yellow jasmine, his wife's pride and joy.
 Through the lids of his eyes, he could see the glowing red light from
the clock pushing its way into his thoughts. Opening his eyes once more,
he could see "9:03" staring back at him. A calendar rested beside the
clock with rows of X's leading up to a circled date, and then Samuel
remembered why he hadn't been woken by the obnoxious alarm.
 It was the anniversary of the Oath of Virtue.
 He sat up in bed as memories flooded his mind, his hand
unconsciously reaching for the steel amulet hanging from his neck. His
thumb played over the surface as a smile crossed his lips, and he shook
his head at the youthful adventures he'd taken part in. The amulet,
hanging from a steel chain wrapped in leather, depicted the emblem of the
Guardians: two men in Royal livery, shouldering large cooking spoons as
weapons, each standing on either side of an equally large cauldron.
Underneath the emblem were inscribed the words "Cookie Brigade," an
affectionate name given the Knights by the peasants and commoners of
an older day.
 Samuel stood and stretched, seeing the empty space in bed where
Laura had slept, and could smell a breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast
being prepared downstairs. He went to the top drawer of his dresser and
opened it, revealing five medallions identical to his own. The beginnings of
tears reached his eyes when he touched them. A soft glow emanated from
each emblem, a white radiance that carried with it the memories of
previous owners.
 He could feel his brothers there, though they'd been gone for
several years now. His fingers traced the worn edges of each necklace,
touching once more the brothers he loved so much. It soon became
harder to fight back the tears, but Samuel drew his hand back and blinked
them away. His was the virtue of Strength, and it was upon his shoulders
the responsibility rested.
 Samuel was the last Guardian of the Recipe.
 He took a deep breath and grasped the medallion around his neck,
drawing strength from its reserve like a snake of light coiling about his
hand. There would be more time for contemplation later that night, when
he could gather all six children together for a discussion. The anniversary
of the Oath of Virtue had come and with it the time for a new generation of
Guardians. All six virtues needed to be represented, lest the Recipe fall
into the hands of those without the knowledge or character to use it wisely.
There were far too many stories of people thinking themselves able to
control the magic, only to go mad when faced with their true essence.
 All would need to be explained to the children, but he would do it
later. What Samuel needed most was a warm shower and a hot breakfast.
Since Laura was graciously working on one of those, he closed the drawer
and said a prayer for his fallen brothers. Turning towards the window once
more, he saw the love birds now nestling together, chirping the melody
they were meant to sing. He gave the two a smile and headed for the
 Samuel was soon whistling a tune of his own.

*  *  *

 After dinner that same day, Samuel was ready to talk with his
children. Laura gave him a hug and wished him luck.
 "You'll be fine, Sam," she whispered in his ear. He ran his hand
through her long, blonde hair, feeling its softness while looking into the
comfort of her crystal blue eyes.
 "I know," Samuel replied and kissed her. "I just like to hear you say
 She gave him a playful shove as if to say, "Go on." He then called
all six children into the living room, directing each to a seat on the couch
or in a chair. It's going to be a long discussion, he thought, so they might
as well get comfortable.
 Before speaking, though, he was truly taken back by the three boys
and three girls. Had it been so long since he'd stopped to look closely at
them that he could only now see how much they'd grown? His children
had become individuals - there was no doubt in his mind about that - each
with diverse needs and interests. He could literally see the essence of
each virtue emanating from his sons and daughters.
 Trudy was the oldest of the six, being 17 years old, and had the
long, flowing blonde hair and deep blue eyes of her mother. Her ready
smile and softness of voice put people at ease, often gaining her the
confidence of others before it was even asked for. Her love of poetry and
music only added to her honest and trustworthy character. Samuel didn't
have to look too far into his eldest daughter to see the virtue of Truth
staring back at him.
 Sitting next to Trudy were the twins, Courtney and John. Both were
nearly identical in appearance, were 16 years of age, had short dark hair,
slate-gray eyes and a love of the physical endeavors. Courtney and John
shared an unusual bond that linked the two together in ways that amplified
each other's strengths and lent support to the other when needed.
Courtney held an air of authority and undaunting stance, but the young
woman of stone would melt when around those she loved. John was a
more outgoing person, but he spent as much time with his sister as with
any group of friends.
 Though the two were younger than Trudy, they both stood inches
taller than her 5'7". Courtney's interest in gymnastics and swimming, as
well as John's interest in weight-lifting and wrestling, left the two with a
muscular and athletic appearance. Courtney was the walking image of
Courage, and her empathic brother that of Honor.
 Beside the twins sat Stephany, a petite girl of 15 years. Her long
hair of deep chestnut and amber eyes with flecks of gold made the small
girl adorable and endearing. Standing barely 5'2", her small frame and
fragile appearance only served to hide the enormous strength of spirit
within. Her love of horseback riding and medieval fantasy stories often left
the girl to daydreaming, but the fire that sparked her soul shone bright, to
those with an eye to see, and marked her with the virtue of Strength.
 In front of the couch and on the floor sat Alan, a 13 year old boy
with hair so black to seem almost blue. Piercing eyes of azure and a bold,
outgoing attitude made the boy a pleasure to be with, but he lacked the
forethought and restraint needed to accompany such qualities. He
possessed an enthusiasm for all sports and activities but quickly lost
interest in them, only to return later again on a whim. The boy's entire
being screamed the manners of Valor.
 Sitting off by himself in a chair away from the others was the
youngest boy, Morgan. At ten years of age, he was just old enough to
enjoy doing the things his brothers and sisters did but also young enough
to be excluded from them. Left to himself more often than not, the boy with
short brown hair and soft brown eyes occupied his time with books and
Nature. Seeming almost reclusive, he found friends among the trees and
foliage, discovering a strange affinity to animals. It would not be
uncommon for Morgan to disappear for hours at a time on long walks
through the woods, conversing with its denizens or studying herbs and
other plant life. It wasn't difficult at all to see the virtue of Humility
the youngest of the six.
 Placing a wooden box on the coffee table, Samuel opened the lid to
reveal the five medallions resting atop a velvet interior. The amulets began
to glow with a hazy luminescence that spread to encompass the room, as
if searching the hearts of each present. Taking the necklaces from the box
and passing them among the children, Samuel smiled at the looks of
wonder on their faces, the shock of first feeling the magic within the warm
 "These," he explained, "are your birthright and family heirlooms
passed down for over twenty generations now." He removed his own
amulet and gave it to Stephany, the rightful holder of Strength. Samuel
beamed with pride as each of his children took the medallion intended for
them without knowing why or how and passed the remaining ones on.
 Each of the six felt the tingling sensation rush through their bodies,
felt the storm of emotions and memories from the medallions'
predecessors, the unexplainable impression of rightness and could only
let themselves be swept away in the flood. Alan, overcome with curiosity
and delight, lifted the necklace to his head but was stopped at his father's
 "No one put on their medallion until I say, alright?" Samuel looked
each of his children in the eye, seeing their nods of acknowledgment
before continuing.
 "I need to explain what all this is about, and it may seem a bit
far-fetched at first. Just bare with me, and I'll answer any questions you
have once I'm through.
 "In each of these medallions is magic. I know," he said, holding off
their looks of disbelief and comments with his hands. "Feel the amulets
with more than your hands, and you'll know it to be true. What it is you
sense, that electric awareness of events and emotions not your own, is
magic. The medallions themselves are not magic, but they store a magic
put there by my ancestors...your ancestors.
 "Our family has undertaken the task of protecting the ingredients to
a special kind of magic, a spell if you will, called the Recipe. The magic
itself is called Essence, but what we protect is the formula to unlocking
that essence, that inner core of being that taps into the very Nature of
things. Think of yourself in terms of emotions and how they sometimes
help or hinder you. Essence magic intensifies those emotions to
immeasurable limits, creating a great potential for both good and bad.
 "It's for that reason that the Guardians, your Great-Grandfathers
twenty times over, first took the Oath of Virtue."
 Samuel watched their reactions and was pleased to see he had
their full attention. Perhaps it was the medallions that made the story more
acceptable, the memories of past Guardians first taking the Oath lending
strength and plausibility to the tale of their heritage.
 "We keep others from obtaining the Recipe because of its danger,
to those who would have it and those affected by them. The danger lies in
the intensity of the magic, the enhancing of a person's being rather than
the manipulation of external energies. It would not be unlikely for someone
to be literally burned up, exhausting their life force by overdoing things.
Nor would it be unlikely for someone to go mad when made to see the true
nature of their souls, the very core of their hearts and minds.
 "Each of you has within you one of the six Virtues, the moral
essence of man," Samuel went on, pointing to them one at a time for
emphasis as he spoke aloud their corresponding virtue, "Truth, Courage,
Honor, Strength, Valor and Humility. It is this that sets you apart from
others and makes you more able to protect and defend the Recipe.
 "But before you can do that, you must know and understand
yourselves and the story of your ancestors."
 Samuel then closed the box that once housed the medallions and
touched his hand to the golden band along it side. Reacting to the touch of
a Guardian, the band slowly dissipated. In its place, as if hidden beneath
the precious metal, were the pages of a book, yellowed by time but
preserved by magic. Samuel opened the book to the beginning page,
where the faces of six brothers, the original Guardians, stared back
through the vellum.
 "This is the story of your ancestors..."

*  *  *

 Luddwelyn was a small kingdom on the northern edge of England,
but it's size was not what made it enviable. Thick, lush grasslands
stretched across its girth as a sea of emerald, the blades of grass
reaching chest-high at times. Its winding valleys of the deep greenery
seemed like an ocean when the wind passed through to make waves
transverse its length. The rich soil that accounted for the unusual growth
led to the most fertile grounds in all the kingdoms, and the most beautiful
forest known to man: Lightwood.
 Also known as Flamegrove to some, the forest was said to look as
if the skies were on fire when the morning sun shone through its tops.
Named so for the light bark of the Birch that made up the majority of its
trees, the woodland held others that lent to its worth. The Alder were
prized for their bark, as well as their use in building, and were sold to
tanners from every kingdom. Providing much of the shade in Lightwood
were the heavy Elm trees, treasured for their hardness. A good many
people, moreover, would go hungry if not for the nuts supplied by the
ruddy Hazel. And lastly the Hornbeam, of which its polished white wood
was used to make handles for tools and weapons.
 The fact that Luddwelyn was a coastal realm furnished it with a
bountiful fishing craft, one that afforded lucrative trades among the
neighboring kingdoms. Many alliances and favors were gained by the
delicacies procured in those fishing beds. Kings may prevail upon their
subjects to forgo some of the finer things life has to offer, but few were
willing to do without variety in diet.
 Immense cliffs of jagged rock, with only ocean to its back, served
as a buttress for the kingdom's castle. As if the precipice were not
protection enough, the dense forest and deep hollows offered sufficient
defense for any attempts made by presumptuous neighbors or brazen
brigands. While no kingdom is without highwaymen or gangs of ruffians,
Luddwelyn was amply guarded. Each of the townships, villages and
hamlets that comprised its domain had its own force of soldiers and
trained militia according its size and need. The culmination made for a
well-managed, highly secured and greatly desired kingdom.
 All of which King Marik was exceedingly proud.
 Rising the ranks of the mercenary band he was born into, Marik
became a Masterswordsman and tactician by the age of fifteen. Wanted
by any who could pay his heavy price, the young man learned the ways of
books and men by the greatest of sages - an unusual pastime for a
sellsword. With his gained knowledge and abilities, Marik led his own
band of hired soldiers until he had accrued a sizable army.
 As payment for various excursions and completed tasks, the
mercenary leader would accept land in place of gold. Establishing a home
for his men and their families was a new beginning for Marik. Governing
the property and its people came easy, and his borders increased with
each additional hire. Whether by gold or guile, the growing boundaries of
his land worried the surrounding Kings. It was only a matter of time before
he set his sights upon governing a realm.
 Using the peasants' discontent and the poor ruling of King Jaril II to
his advantage was a simple task. Marik's prosperous and well-maintained
home, Mercenvale, sparked envy in the eyes of Jaril's subjects.
Implementing his studies in philosophy and government, Marik skillfully
interjected the question of inherited rulership by way of his men. It was the
duty of his soldiers to pass through each hamlet and village with word of
the young successful ruler to the south. The challenge of Jaril's ability to
reign only served to enrage him and drive his mind to foolish acts - a
behavior adeptly foreseen.
 When the King's soldiers tried to take Mercenvale, they were sorely
beaten back and taken all the way to the heart of Luddwelyn. Marik was
determined to oust Jaril from his throne and wasted no time in doing so.
During the entire skirmish, not one life was lost, though many suffered
injuries. The mercenary leader was strict in his orders that none should be
killed, and his men were skilled enough to succeed under the constraint.
The last thing Marik wanted to be viewed as was a tyrant. Instead he was
considered just in his reaction and supported by the neighboring Kings.
Jaril and those of his Royal blood were generously exiled and his soldiers
allowed to remain under the new Monarch, once their loyalties were
 The commoners were only too glad to accept Marik as King.
 Ten years had passed since that brilliant exercise of skill and tact
had gained him a kingdom, and Marik was satisfied to watch Luddwelyn
prosper under his reign. Having lived through thirty winters, he could feel
the weight and burden of rule upon his shoulders. Though still strong in
body and mind, his raven hair was graying at the sides. He still possessed
a large and powerful body, vigorous for any young man, and he was
considered by many an incisive and thoughtful King. Earning his realm by
cunning and skill, Marik was the most respected man in all the lands.
 Nonetheless, the man who seemed to be without flaw had but one
failing. The marketplace within his castle walls housed a bakery that
concocted the most unusual of confections, a pastry of which originated in
that very bakehouse. Marik's love of the sweetcakes, as well as every
common man's in Luddwelyn, led to the specialization of their make.
Leaving the baking of breads to other merchants, the Esrald family made
a point of perfecting their creation. Cookies, named simply for their
cooking process, were crispier than the average sweetcakes and came in
a wide variety of flavors - one of which included the grounds of cacao
beans, an expensive treat more generally known as chocolate.
 Gerard Esrald, the elderly baker who carried on his father's craft,
was made Royal Baker just six years before his passing away. His weak
heart had finally given out after enduring forty-three harsh winters, a
reputable and fulfilling number of years. The loss of his wife, in one of the
many barbarian raids before Marik's rule, left the diligent man with the task
of raising his six sons. Of the six, however, only the oldest was made an
apprentice, and it was Tristan who inherited his father's position among
the King's staff. Allowed to continue his shop in the marketplace, the hardy
baker visited his liege once a week with a new flavor of cookie. Though
Marik enjoyed all of the different tastes produced by the Masterbaker, it
was Tristan's unending goal to find the one savor Marik could truly be
contented with. Entire leather-bound volumes were dedicated to that end,
as the Royal Baker made a point to ask his King precise questions about
flavor, texture and crispness. Marik's capricious tastes were difficult to
chronicle, but Tristan was up to the task.
 The other five sons followed their pursuits to fruition and never
strayed too far from Luddwelyn or the father they dearly loved. When
Gerard was upon his deathbed, weary from his many years, he asked his
grown sons for one last wish.
 "Help your brother whenever you can," he whispered, feeling their
youthful hands upon his own more aged ones. "I won't ask you to give up
what you have...there was never a man more proud than I at what you
boys've become!" Moisture tinged his gray eyes and ran into silvery locks.
"I only ask you give a hand when needed. Ours is a proud line, fair and
strong! Don't let our good King down..."
 With one last smile, he closed his eyes forever.
 Keeping his promise, Tristan worked hard at his craft. Over three
hundred entries were made in his journals, each with a different ingredient
for the vague taste Marik sought.
 There'll be twice that many if need be, the baker thought to himself.
So long as King Marik sees fit to pay for the exotic herbs and spices, I'll
continue to try new variations.
 Wagons carrying the strange packages of precious ingredients
arrived on a regular basis. As both baker and Court Magician required the
imported fare, they often worked together in placing orders with foreign
merchants. If the reclusive Mage could be said to have a friend, the
Masterbaker would be he. Marik was charitably free with his coin, but he
rarely placed price with his one fault. Magarius, the King's Advisor and
Magician, was allotted any coin he requested. Marik trusted him utterly
and always saw merit in his unusual experiments - with their doubly
unique necessities and results.
 Neatly stacking his newest parcel of spices, placing them upon
sturdy shelves in the dry storage room, Tristan prepared for his trip to the
castle. A simple carrying basket, filled with the most recent batch of
cookies, rested atop the table of elm. Past experience, through trial and
error, showed that Marik should be amenable towards the mixture of
crushed walnut, shredded coconut and ground cacao beans. There were
other variations in the cooking procedure, but the sable-haired baker felt
confident of his choice. If he should meet with disappointment, the usual
procedures of recording the results would ensue.
 Tristan was a plain man in his tastes of clothes, so the
charcoal-purple jerkin and leggings he wore were not overly expensive.
The Royal colors fit him well though, being as used to an authoritative
position as he was. Standing six feet tall, with a fairly heavy build - a trait
he and all his brothers shared - the Masterbaker had a formidable and
unquestioning air about him. Few could look to the hard gray eyes with
 Taking up the basket of his latest endeavors, he closed shop for the
day and headed up towards the castle entrance. Countless vendors lined
the cobblestone streets, hawking their wares with the trained voices of
peddlers. The morning sun had barely begun to creep over the castle
walls, its rays warming the Autumn wind, and yet the avenues were
bustling with activity. Rising with the glowing orb, the villagers were quick
to start their day.
 Accepting nods in passing from many passersby, Tristan took the
silent salutes with dignified pride. Known all throughout the marketplace,
he was respected and well-liked, though few knew him close enough for
more than polite conversation. His crisp attitude always bespoke a busy
man with little time for chatter, but he was the epitome of discretion and
courteousness. It was the public opinion that a woman once broke his
heart and fear of it crumpling again kept him distant and circumspect. But
neither would he let his customers go hungry, for the man was fair in his
price and equable in his portions. The Masterbaker was a trusted
merchant and a credit to his Royal position - despite his guardedness.
 As the shops and carts melted into the background, a handful of
houses and other buildings moved to fore. One of the wooden structures
in particular caught the baker's attention, and he strode purposefully up
the walk. With a quick glance to either side of the weathered edifice, he
took from his basket a package, trimly wrapped with white paper.
 He bent to lay the packet down on the creaky porch when the
wooden door opened to reveal a tiny, golden-haired angel. The polished
steel cross over the door glittered in the sunlight, reflecting off her
dazzlingly bright blue eyes. Seeing the bundle caused her face to light up
with wonder and joy, and she looked on the verge of calling her orphaned
brothers and sisters to the door.
 Covering his embarrassment with a cough, Tristan quickly
explained, "This was sitting on your porch...I thought it best to call on you
before some cutpurse could pilfer it." Having expounded his intent, the
Masterbaker quickly handed over the cookies.
 Caring little for justifications, the sprite-like child gave a broad smile
and mouthed a thank you. She took the treasured treats, and the door
closed behind her as she ran to deliver them to her Nana. The Royal
Baker beat a hasty retreat back up the walkway and turned towards the
castle doors without looking back. After a minute's brisk walk, he began to
breathe more easily again as his heart ceased its pounding in his chest. It
could then be heard the whistling of a happy tune, though Tristan would
deny it if any accused him of it.
 The Royal Baker does not whistle.

*  *  *

                The Guardians, Keepers of the Magic
                             Part II
                      by Joseph A. Giunta
                      Copyright (c) 1994

 "You've outdone yourself this time, Masterbaker," King Marik
commented with relish. "This is a very tasty morsel."
 Tristan crinkled a brow at the comment, awaiting the minute
exception that must soon follow. Whatever the imperfection, no matter
how small or imperceptible to the normal human palate, he would mark
them in his notes to be later chronicled in the leather tomes. Thoughts of
other avenues began to clutter his mind before the King could determine
the cookies' deficiency or voice his displeasure. The Masterbaker had
another recipe in mind as he began meticulously prodding his liege.
 Marik grinned like a rogue.
  He knew Tristan could read his face as plain as any scribe reads
his work. Shifting in his cushioned seat, the King looked about the room as
if searching the plain gray stones for an answer. He leaned forward and
took up a quill from the polished table, holding the downy black feather to
his cheek to help him think.
 "It is not so much the texture," Marik began. "You truly have
mastered your craft on that account."
 "The flavor seems too familiar, as if I have tasted it only a short time
ago." Looking much like a connoisseur tasting a fine wine, Marik savored
his third cookie slowly. "An exceptional batch of cacao, but something
about the...walnut?...poorly complements its counters. Would not our own
hazelnut, or perhaps some pecans from Dunsbury, be sufficient to the
task? I think we may have been cozened on these shredded coconuts as
 Taking notes with chalk and slate, Tristan duly nodded with each
intimation. "Pecans are closely related to walnuts, Sire, in genus and
taste. Would a mixture of cashew or pistachio not work equally well?"
 "Perhaps," the King replied, deep in contemplation. The regrettably
small amount of time allotted these visits was drawing to an end, but the
break from incessant decision-making was a welcome one. If his schedule
would allow it, Marik would have the Masterbaker visit him more often.
 The sudden appearance of Flicker, a multi-hued Faery Dragon,
reminded the King that his Advisor, Magarius, awaited him in the Throne
Room. Named so for his unique ability to flicker in and out of existence,
like the snuffing of a candle flame, the two-foot long Dragon was
remarkably excitable and often causing mischief. With whirling eyes of a
luminous blue, the tiny reptile chirruped his delight and darted towards the
baker. Though startling the man at first, as the abrupt emerging from thin
air frequently did, the Masterbaker calmed his heart and welcomed his
companion. Claws bit into the thick material of Tristan's tunic but caused
him no pain as the spiny tail wrapped around his neck. Resilient scales
changed from their intermingled cast of rainbow to a deep and mirthful
orange, the saurian head looking about for spare treats.
 Tristan chuckled when the Dragon crooned into his ear, a warbling
that shook his whole body with diminutive vibrations. He reached into his
pocket and drew forth a cacao bean, the solid exterior of the seed no
trouble for Flicker's strong jaws. He held the gift up for his little friend and

placed it gently into the waiting mouth. Careful not to let the needle-sharp
teeth touch his fingers, the Masterbaker took the opportunity to scratch
behind the elfin ears.
 King Marik suppressed a smile. "It would seem our conversation
has just been concluded. Would you please keep him occupied while I
consult with his Master? You have my gratitude...I cannot begin to explain
the mishaps that haunt that little fellow."
 "There is no need to explain," Tristan remarked and bowed. Flicker
grew red with indignation but was soon soothed to a placating blush at the
baker's ministrations. "There, that's better now, little one. Why don't you
and I go for a walk in the Royal Garden?"
 The small Dragon sang out a trill in response and disappeared from
view. A perplexing look fell over the King, but he was none too put out by
the absence.
 "In his excitement," Tristan clarified, "he went to the Garden without
me. He should be back as soon as he realizes I'm not there with him."
 "That could take some time, I would imagine." Marik smiled at his
own quip and stood from his chair. Though glad he could hold these
visitations away from the Royal Chambers, he didn't want to keep the
wizened Mage waiting too long. He extended his arm, and the two
grasped forearms in farewell.
 "Until next week, Sire?"
 "Just so. Fare thee well, Masterbaker."
 Then King Marik was through the door and down the stony corridor.
Listening to the retreating footsteps, Tristan headed for the Royal Garden.
He was nearly past the glass double-doors when Flicker appeared in the
air before him. Flapping his leathery wings, the Dragon showed his
distress with twirling shades of white and green. Once the fear had
subsided to a relaxing earthen tinge, the balmy admonition began. A
predominantly forgiving creature, Flicker promptly left the deed in the past
and was shortly crooning an enchanted descant.
 The high-pitched melody soon filled every corner of the Garden.

*  *  *

 A lighthearted song escaped through open windows in the Esrald
bakeshop, a baritone rich in timbre that possessed a taste no less than
bawdy. With practiced humming to fill the missing gaps of words, the lyric
attested the joys discerned from one plying his trade. While baking may
not have been Cornelius' original craft, the ex-mercenary found more
satisfaction in a day's worth of creating cookies than he ever had as a
hired sword. He no longer felt the nagging sense of being dispensable,
nonessential - no more could he be easily replaced with coin and a sword.
There was a perception of contentedness and gratification in performing a
task necessary to those around him, to provide happiness in any
measurable degree.
 Wiping a smatter of flour from his cheek, managing to smear more
on than take off, Cornelius resumed the stirring of his cookie batter. The
heavy wooden table before him was littered with countless ingredients.
Small glass phials with costly herbs and spices were set aside for the
King's special charge, but the veteran warrior couldn't help but flavor the
batch from time to time with the precious stuff. It was his task to make
enough of the crispy sweetcakes to ensure absolute efficiency. No
customer should have to go without the freshly baked goods, but neither
should there be an abundance left over at the end of the day.
 The ex-mercenary with tawny-blonde hair did exceedingly well at
his task, though he sometimes surpassed his mark. Engrossed in his work
as he customarily was, an extra tray of cookies would occasionally find its
way into the stonework oven. Tristan was judiciously lenient at such times,
virtually condoning, and he invariably dispensed of the excess fare in an
unknown, save expedient, manner.
 Throwing his one long braid of hair back over his shoulder, the
seasoned soldier worked the batter while keeping a close eye on the
falling sands of the hourglass. It was nearly time to pull another tray from
the oven, though each batch was subject to his skillful eye and not any
unbending time interval.
 "Cornelius!" a young boy's voice called from the window. "You're
scaring all the cats away with that terrible noise!"
 The big man's eyes brightened, and a smirk cut across his tanned
complexion. Wiping calloused hands onto the front of his apron, he
nodded for the dishevelled boy to come in.
 "Serve's them right," he said and put down his bowl and spoon.
"Those bloody cats do naught but mischief in our refuse box. With them
hanging about the place all day long, it's no wonder any customers
manage to stumble inside here at all!"
 The small boy nodded and licked his lips as he came through the
front door. His grimy tunic and torn leggings gave him an overall squalid
appearance, but his muddy bare feet better implied his lack of coin. This
was no dirtied son of a noble in search of grand adventure within the
cobbled avenues. He was a street urchin, living day to day by his wit or
luck and on the generosity of those like Cornelius. Whether or not he was
orphaned mattered little in the alleys and streets, where the only one to be
trusted was yourself - and sometimes not even then.
 "You just like to complain," Daren accused, his eyes locked upon
the cooking spoon. "You would have made a poor Captain of the Guard
with an attitude like yours."
 Cornelius raised an eyebrow at that and snatched the boy's hand
before it could take up the spoon. "Would I have now? I know someone
who would've been spending a night in a cold cell if I did take that job." He
crinkled his nose and ruffled Daren's ruddy locks. He then hung the large
metal spoon from a rung on his belt - one specially designed by his
brother the Blacksmith - assuming the old position of his sword.
 Taking a tray from the oven with sturdy metal clamps, the veteran
asked over his shoulder, "What happened to the coin I gave you for
shoes? I realize the changing fashions among you scamps, but..."
 "I lost them," Daren explained with a shrug. He reached for a
cookie but cleared his throat for permission before taking. With Cornelius'
assent, he bit into the steaming morsel and closed his eyes to cherish the
taste. The luscious chocolate burned the roof of his mouth and lips, but he
hardly noticed the distraction.
 "You mean someone took them," Cornelius corrected and took out
the remaining trays. He slid four new trays into the oven and closed the
iron door. "I thought you could defend yourself better than that, Daren.
After all the hours I spent training you, I'd think you should be running
these streets - not running from them."
 Daren feigned a wounded look. "There are some fights even I can't
win, Masterswordsman. I was sorely outnumbered at the time, though I did
manage to give a few of them a lasting memory."
 A lump welled up in Cornelius' throat, and he blinked away some
haunting memory. "My door is always open to you, lad. You can hole up in
the Library for only so long before you're discovered. It'd be good for you
to stay with me for a bit, and I'd enjoy the company."
 "I appreciate that, but I think I'm doing rather well on my own. I've
lived in that Library for a long time now, and no one would think there's a
thirteen year old boy living in the rafters. Besides, I may lose an
occasional battle, but I won't lose the war!" The little rogue chuckled and
took another cookie. "Do you think we could start training again? I spend
more time reading books in that damned library than I do scouting for
 The Masterswordsman nodded mutely as the memories of
vagabond children invaded his thoughts. The number of campaigns he
fought left his heart broken and his sword arm useless. He was done with
fighting, but he could help some of those children to help themselves. No
matter the cost, he would make a difference in Daren's life and any other
street-bound child that would let him.
 "Day after tomorrow," Cornelius answered. "My brothers and I will
be done with our weekly undertaking by then. After that I'm all yours."
Seeing the appreciative smile exceeded any purse of coin he gained from
 A thought struck the ex-mercenary, and he grabbed up some
packing paper. "Would you do me a favor, Daren? I need these cookies
delivered to the Merchant's Guild."
 Eyes widened in surprise, Daren couldn't find the words to answer.
He slowly regained his composure and calmly asked, "You would trust me
to do that?"
 "Of course I trust you," was the response. "Here's five coppers for
your trouble. Just be careful that string doesn't come undone, if you catch
my meaning? That's a good lad. Oh, hold on a bit." Cornelius reached into
the leather purse on his belt and drew out a silver piece. With a wink, he
flipped it to the rapscallion youth.
 "Get some new shoes, eh?"
 The coins disappeared somewhere onto his person, and Daren
held the package under his arm. "Thank you, Corn'. I'll see you day after
 The Masterswordsman gave a proud smile and a nod. "Take care,
friend! My offer still stands if you should change your mind."
 Daren gave a wink of his own and turned, disappearing into the
crowds of people with the skill of his trade. Cornelius took the big spoon
from off his belt and went back to stirring his batter. The sands in the
hourglass continued to fall without relent as the work was resumed - and
the memories faded away.
 The deep baritone then played out its song once more.

*  *  *

 The forest of Lightwood was called by yet another name but one
not so commonly known. Deep in the heart of the dense forest lived a
mythical race of people, ones who were recognized only in the legends
and stories of small children throughout the realm. The foresters were tall
and fair, slight of frame but stout in strength. Their almond-shaped eyes
were softer once and pointed ears no more than a dissimilarity, but alien
beliefs in God and life roughly separated them from mankind. Driven into
seclusion by persecution and hatred, their physical differences became
the marks of an enemy with irrefutable distinctions. The long-lived
woodland people retreated deep into the darkened forest, to areas only
skilled woodsmen could reach. For centuries they resided there, until the
only memories of their existence among man became flights of fancy and
fireside tales. Generations came and went with a mutual peace and
distance maintained, but humans are scarcely satisfied with their lot. The
expanding villages and merchant exploits cut deeper into the woods on a
daily basis, and a barbarian clan saw fit to make a permanent dwelling of
the trees in Luddwelyn. The Sylvan Elves were being pushed once more,
but this time there was no retreat left for them. Their home and lives were
slowly being taken away.
 The woodland, Luminarron, was their only home.
 King Marik was aware of the Elves' existence and met with them
whenever the need arose. Though the busy King could not take the time
to travel through the depths of the forest, he allowed emissaries into his
Court to speak on their behalf. Having found such needs of late, the
Sylvans called upon the man for aid. Cloaked to hide their physical
dissimilitudes, they gained entrance to the castle and met with Marik
shortly after.
 An agreeable relationship had grown over the years, since the
foresters first approached the King at the beginning of his reign. With the
Elves protecting the southern borders from attack through Lightwood,
Luddwelyn was able to focus its defenses in other areas. This was the
basis for Marik's plan to lessen the raids on his people, to drive the
barbarians and renegade highwaymen out of his realm. The plan had
initially worked without flaw, but the strategy could not have foreseen the
incredible growth of the barbarian clans. Possessing some semblance of
civility - or at least intelligence - the savage tribes prospered in the woods.
Treating them as a separate entity had only provoked their expansion, and
their alien ways made them unapproachable for continued talks. The Clan
of the Deer had become unmanageable, even for the skilled
woodsmanship of the Elves.
 "I am afraid I have not been kept abroad of the situation," King
Marik said in a stern voice.
 Sitting atop his polished wooden throne, he had the overbearing
appearance of an indomitable man. Magarius stood to his left, the grizzly
beard of gray a stark contrast to his salmon colored robes. The sagacious
Advisor listened with intent to the Sylvan emissary, hoping to find a
plausible solution to the problem at hand.
 To Marik's left stood Jonathan Esrald, Protectorate of Luddwelyn.
The third of Gerard's sons stood over six feet tall and weighed nearly
fifteen stone. Were it not for the full plate of shining armor he wore, he
might have only seemed intimidating. He was, however, a towering mass
of steel that brooked no argument. Under a disciplined brow, his crystal
blue eyes absorbed all around him. With his short blonde hair and neatly
trimmed mustache, as was the current style of the Knights in England,
Jonathan was an emblem for the Code of Knighthood. Since the kingdom
possessed no Order of Knights as of yet, Marik was swift to create the
Royal appointment when meeting the unique individual. The King was so
impressed with Jonathan that he sent to London for twenty Knights, in the
hopes he might have his own men trained in the honorable ways of the
Order. Nothing was so precious to the King as Honor.
 The Protectorate was the living embodiment of that virtue.
 "We thought the situation well under control," the Sylvan replied.
Straw-colored hair did little to hide those tapered ears, and his piercing
eyes of jade were flinty with resolve. An ornate long sword was sheathed
within a leather scabbard on his belt, and only deerskin boots showed
from under the heavy fabric of his dark robes. With an unapologetic air,
the forester continued in his thickly accented English.
 "More of the barbarous ones have migrated north, joining with
those of the Deer. Their painted masks are new to the trees, but their
minds are not. They live as ones accustomed to the woods, and they hunt
endlessly. We can no longer keep them at bay with bow and arrow. Their
numbers have grown beyond the hundreds, and more are seen entering
Luminarron with each sunrise."
 Marik sighed deeply as his stony features visibly softened. "What
do you think?" he asked his Advisor. "Is there naught we can do to keep
these heathens from our land?"
 "I do not know, your Majesty." Magarius then asked the Elf, "They
do not group together very closely?"
 "The Clan is divided into smaller tribes that have spread
themselves all throughout the forest. Luminarron is large enough to
support such numbers, but it will not be long before their eyes turn
 "Indeed," the Protectorate said gravely. "There have been reports
of raids in Tillsbury, Dunshire and Varengrove. Though easily repelled by
their militias and appointed soldiers, the attacks would have had dire
results if the watch were at all lax in their duties. I believe the assaults may

have been to determine the village defenses, to test their mettle."
 "What you say is true," the Elf replied. "The Deer is trying its bonds
and stretching its legs."
 "Before anything can be done," the King uttered decisively, "I will
need to be better appraised of the situation. I would like to send my
Protectorate along with you to survey the circumstances." The emissary
nodded his solemn approval. "When would be convenient for you, Sir
 "The day after next," he answered. "I will come to the forest and
look for you at break of day."
 "No," the Sylvan smiled thinly. "I will look for you."

*  *  *

 A billowing cloud of ivory steam hissed its way upward, the glowing
iron of angry red cooling to a lifeless charcoal-gray in the wooden bucket
of water. The incessant ringing of hammer on steel echoed all throughout
the smithy, the resonant cries of metals being wrought. Numerous blades
of various size and shape lined the stone walls, awaiting handles and the
finishing process that will ready them for the market. Dull shields of
steel-blue lay ready to be embossed with the insignias of their purchasers
and burnished to glossy perfection. Mismatched pieces of armor were
strewn about the worktables in preparation for the required suits ordered
by King Marik's borrowed Knights. Once the pieces were fully shaped and
hardened, the plates would be sent to the Leathersmith's. There they
would be joined together with straps and buckles, forming the plate mail
armor that would be given to each squire at the completion of their intense
training in the virtues.
 Standing before the burning embers was one of the largest men in
all of Luddwelyn, deeply bronzed from the fires of the forge. Though not
very tall, the burly man was a mountain of corded muscle and sinew, with
a heavy barrel-chest that delivered merciless hammer blows upon the
malleable, heated iron. His shoulder-length black hair was tied back in a
leather thong, to keep it from his sweaty brow, as sparkling green eyes
directed his hand and hammer. A scruffy beard and mustache did little to
hide the toothy smile that was ever present upon the Blacksmith's face,
and a childlike mirth played behind those jasper eyes. Though no one had
ever described the hulking smith as jolly, he was an amiable sort and a
pleasure to do business with.
 And Stephen Esrald did a lot of business.
 Only a year younger than Jonathan's twenty-eight, the fourth son of
the first Royal Baker was an amazing craftsman and expert with metals.
His sword brand was known to all soldiers and mercenaries within Marik's
realm, and his skillful reputation was spreading into neighboring
kingdoms. Having sworn fealty to King Marik, Stephen would never sell his
wares directly to another Monarch, but still some managed to fall into the
hands of the nobility and upper crust of society. Merchants who could get
a hold of the special swords were rewarded a sizable purse, as the
Blacksmith's stubborn loyalty to Marik drove prices even higher.
 Being trained by a fastidious Mastersmith, Stephen continued his
inherited task of particularity and the careful choosing of apprentices. With
the King's growing needs for armor, the brawny smith was hard pressed to
take on more help. Three fledglings labored diligently under his
demanding tutelage, acquiring invaluable knowledge and experience - as
well as the tanned skin and stout frames that correspond with the plying of
that trade.
 "Take care with that blade," Stephen warned a young,
blonde-haired apprentice. "Keep the folds steady, or you'll have yourself a
fine looking play toy. A brittle sword is rarely appreciated," he chuckled
and patted the novice on the back. "Good, that's much better, lad. That's
going to be a keen edge. Now drop it in the water, and let it cool before
putting it back in the coals."
 Wheezing steam swelled up from the drum, a surge of vaporous
heat that stole the glowing fire from the blade. When the reddened center
lost its gleam, the iron was stabbed back into the bed of fiery coals. What
may have seemed a tiresome procedure to some, Stephen saw the
forging of iron as a steadily creative process with a multitude of
opportunity for mistake and greatness. Each sword was unique,
exceptional, and designed to the specific needs of its wielder. While such
craftsmanship in itself was rare, the results were unequivocally so. With
every sword, shield or piece of armor made, knowledge and skill expand
until a definitive character of style breaks free, and a Mastersmith is born.
 Such was the lesson Stephen tried to instill in his pupils.
 As the three apprentices worked tirelessly on producing the heavy
plate mail, a customer entered through the great Elmwood doors. He had
the short cropped hair of the soldier's style, but his slicked raven locks and
haughty chin bespoke the burdens of nobility. Adorned in black riding
pants, with a silken doublet to match, the man looked as if he was torn
between his duties and a day on horseback. Fresh straw bent under his
dark riding boots as he strode up towards Stephen, his hawk-like nose
protruding under calm, gray eyes.
 "How do you, good sir." He spoke as if one used to the comfort of
command. "Are you Mastersmith Stephen?"
 "I am," Stephen replied and offered his arm. "And how may I be of
service to you, sir?"
 An almost imperceptible frown creased the nobleman's brow but
was immediately erased and restored to polite joviality. He took the
smith's forearm in perfunctory greeting, his leather glove stretching in
 "I wish to commission a fairly large order from you," he said in a
smooth voice. "I have a list with all the necessary arms." He removed a
small scroll from his belt and handed it to Stephen. While the hefty smith
perused the contents, his eyes unrevealing, the nobleman studied his
every reaction.
 "This is quite a list you have here, my Lord. May I ask for what
purpose you require so many blades? I don't mean to be intrusive, but I
have certain obligations that restrict what tasks I may undertake."
 "Perfectly understandable! I wouldn't want to endanger any
relations you have with our Majesty. My soldiers number many, as you
can see by that list, and I wish to replace the older weaponry. The shields
are a gift for exemplary service, and the rapiers are for my sons - and
various other relatives who will soon be visiting." The man paused and
forced a sigh for effect. "You see, my daughter is to be wed two months
hence. Since I am not on very good terms with my neighboring Lord, I
want to ensure safety for my guests. Your reputation for fine quality is
impeccable, so you were the natural choice for this charge."
 Stephen took note of the slower, more cautious speech. "Which
lands are yours, my Lord?"
 "I hold the lands of Dirkemshire and Laudley," was the crisp
rejoinder. "I am Lord Hubreys, of the Jondra Line. You may be familiar
with the name. If it will alleviate your mind, I have publicly sworn fealty to
King Marik the day he was crowned. My reputation is, likewise,
 The Mastersmith visibly brightened at that, his doubts allayed for
the moment. Something bothered him about Lord Hubreys, but he
shrugged it off as a character flaw and not any traitorous intent.
 "This will be a costly endeavor," Stephen warned. "Three gold for
each blade, two for each shield and five for each rapier." Lord Hubreys'
eyes widened in surprise but quickly resumed the noble disregard for
expenditures. "Numbers are not my strong suit, but that comes to a great
deal of coin."
 "Five hundred and fifty gold, if I'm not mistaken. Don't worry
yourself, Mastersmith. Your skill is worth every last copper, and I'll spare
no expense for the protection of my daughter. My coin is well spent, I
assure you."
 Nodding assent, Stephen placed the scroll into his own belt.
"Everything will be in readiness a week before the wedding. You can pick
them up anytime after that, though I dare say you'll need a large wagon to
carry it all."
 Lord Hubrey's gave a wink and a grin. "No need to worry about
that! If anything, I'm well prepared."
 With that being said, the Lord turned on his heel and walked out the
doors. As he was untying his horse, Stephen wondered if he should send
one of the lads to inquire at the castle about the good Lord Hubreys. Most
customers were required to pay half the commission in advance, but in the
case of nobility, an exception was always made. The upper echelon of
Luddwelyn too often took offense at such things. Chiding his suspicious
thoughts, the Mastersmith went back to his craft. The workload had just
dramatically increased, while time remained ever rigid.
 Feeling rather pleased with himself, the so-called Lord Hubreys
rode his charcoal mare down the cobbled venue. The Gladiatorial Arena
loomed ahead as a devious smirk crossed his thin lips. Laughing to
himself, the dark man began to mutter.
 "What does price matter when I intend to steal the blades anyway?"

*  *  *

                  The Guardians, Keepers of the Magic
                               Part III
                        By Joseph A. Giunta
                         Copyright (c) 1994

 The Arena was a circular-shaped structure of unimposing gray
stone, capable of holding well over a thousand spectators in its Alderwood
stands. The lack of covering made the Games susceptible to weather, but
there were rarely any empty seats to be found. What was typically a fatal
match in earlier days had evolved into a show of fighting prowess and
practiced skill, no longer the barbaric contest it once was. The Gladiators
were highly trained warriors whose sole duty was to entertain the crowd.
Though death was strictly frowned upon, it regrettably did happen at
 The majority of Gladiators were soldiers from the Barbarian Wars or
bandless mercenaries trying their resolution and battle skill. Each win
drew a percentage of the attendance, a considerable amount of coin, and
a certain amount of fame. Matches were scheduled everyday, with a small
army of combatants to choose from. The bouts were a great source of
gambling and provided a hefty tithe for King Marik as well.
 For those Gladiators that were slaves or criminals, freedom was the
ultimate reward. Once a week, an elimination contest took place to see
which man would earn his liberty. Those gaining such a prize usually
continued to perform in the Arena, accruing an income able to sustain a
comfortable life. Those who left defeated could only persevere, for such
competitions had only one victor.
 The greatest of these Gladiators was a hero, a soldier whose
bravery stood above the norm. The Barbarian Wars began twenty years
before Marik took the throne but lasted only four years after he began his
reign. Entering the fray at the age of thirteen, this courageous warrior rose
through the ranks at a rapid pace and was appointed the position of
General by its end. A fierce and dauntless man, Valoran Esrald earned
respect both on the battlefield and in the Arena. His name was legendary
to the folk of the realms - and a source of nightmarish stories intended to
scare barbarian children into behaving.
 Valoran was only four years old when his mother, Larissa, was lost
in a raid on their village. King Jaril II's idea of protection for his subjects
was less than adequate, and Gerard's wife paid the price for the King's
insufficiency. Though young and unable to avenge his mother's death,
Valoran swore that one day he would. He trained with dogged
persistence, never faltering in his practice with any weapon he could lay
his hands on. Seeing no other way for his son to vent his anger, Gerard
encouraged the boy when he could. Keeping a tight rein on his son's
passion was difficult, and in the end he could not keep the boy from
becoming a soldier. No one anticipated the Barbarian Wars lasting such a
long time.
 Six years had passed since the end of the wars, and the champion
of Luddwelyn kept his skills sharp by participating in the Arena. Wealthy
nobles travelled from distant realms all throughout England to view the
renowned Weaponsmaster, some hoping to persuade the young man to
join their ranks. Although he only fought on occasion, Valoran practiced
indefatigably with the others. He trained each man and woman as best he
could and offered special attention to those who sought license from their
enslavement. He would have nothing to do with the criminal Gladiators,
but he could not refuse a man whose only crime was his place of birth.
 Standing just under six feet tall, the youthful General was sleek and
muscular. He had the grace of a feline, a supple range of controlled
motion that was liquid in manner and frightening in usage. His body was
completely lacking in hair, shaved from head to toe, and the application of
oils before a match made him impossible to engage without weapons. He
simply slipped out from any attempted grasp, and that made him a
dangerous wrestler. His grim, dark eyes gave many cause to rethink their
strategies, but no choice of attack could conquer the man.
 The Weaponsmaster was insurmountable.
 While stretching his legs out under the sun, Valoran let his mind
wander to the tune of a mandolin being played by the training grounds.
The local bards would often show their appreciation for the Gladiators by
coming out and playing to them. The practiced warriors would, in turn,
move to the thrumming cadence. An elaborate production of song and
sword would result, and a tempo was set for the matches to follow.
 Valoran enjoyed the festive music and was well-nigh tempted to
join in the singing when he saw a man in black approach from the corner
of his eye. He paid the man no heed but went about his business of
loosening muscles cramped from sleeping on the Arena bunks - if the
stone slabs could be named such. The Gladiator granted himself no such
luxury as a soft bed with feather pillows, since he was sure his mind and
body might be softened by the indulgences. Neither would his conscience
allow him to leave the Arena while his comrades did not have that liberty.
 "You look familiar," the man in black leggings and doublet remarked
when he was close enough. He took a seat in the stands a few feet away
and watched the General flex his limbs.
 "I have that sort of face," Valoran replied emotionlessly. His
instincts told him to mistrust the facile voice, though he wasn't sure why.
He switched legs and grabbed a hold of his outstretched foot, pulling his
bald pate down towards his knee.
 "I see you have the mark of a Gladiator," the dark-haired man
pointed out. The lightning bolt tattoo upon the left shoulder was clearly
visible. "Perhaps I've seen you perform from time to time. Yes, I'm sure of
it now! You're name is Torren, isn't it?"
 Tiring of the man's voice, Valoran stood and fixed his gaze on him.
As other tattoos became perceptible, the nobleman blanched and took on
a ghastly pallor.
 "Oh my," he remarked as apparent recognition dawned on him. His
fear was somewhat forced and dramatic, almost theatrical.
 The tattoo of crossed swords over the Gladiator's left breast was a
mark from the Barbarian Wars, depicting the clashing of two mighty
armies. The neighing Unicorn upon the right breast was the insignia of an
elite soldier outfit, a band that Valoran led for two years. The small flame
over his sternum was a symbol of unprecedented valor, an honor
bestowed by the men serving under him. The joining of all three in a thick,
unbroken triangle was a representation of unity in body, mind and spirit.
 He was the incarnation of Valor.
 "Quickly speak your peace!" the Gladiator commanded. As a
General, he was inured to giving orders, and his tolerance for the seedy
nobleman had grown thin. "I have neither the time nor the patience for idle
talk, and you did not approach me by chance!"
 "You are correct," the wheedling man acceded. "I am seeking those
of a talent for the sword...for a task that will prove most rewarding. Your
skill with the blade is legendary, and your fellow Gladiators are practiced
swordsmen as well. I have heard that some will sell their swords if the coin
is rich enough."
 "I do not speak for the others," Valoran said with steel in his voice.
"I only speak for myself. My sword is not for hire, nor was it ever! You
would do well to stay clear of my path."
 The austere Gladiator turned on his heel and walked towards the
training areas where others awaited his guidance. He could not put his
finger on it, but something about the oily man invoked great uncertainty
and unreasonable anger. Valoran's intuition had never failed him, and he
trusted it implicitly.
 Lord Hubreys simply shrugged and looked for other Gladiators.

*  *  *

 Humphrey was three years younger than Valoran's twenty-five, but
his soft and caring eyes were ageless. A lighter shade of cacao, those
eyes lay placid beneath a brow unused to sorrow, and a small but arrant
nose sat fixed above the slender lips of a nobleman. Chest-length hair of
dusky brown ran free down his leather jerkin and matched in color the
playful squirrel atop his shoulder. Chittering fondly in his ear, its long
bushy tail caressed his neck in a loving embrace.
 He walked through the green blanket of foliage that was
interspersed with groves of Birch and Alder. A white palfrey walked by his
side, its dark eyes attentive and spotted ears raised in curiosity as thick
rays of sunlight broke through the treetops to guide their way. Humphrey
stroked its neck and downy mane as they walked through Lightwood,
softly playing a reed pipe while listening to his friend's unending stories. In
time to the delicate melody, the squirrel gave its exaggerated narration
with all the skill of a Masterteller. The little fellow could drone on for hours

about his forays in the forest, his epic adventures and near-fatal
encounters. The gentle horse soon lost interest in the musically borne
recounting and nudged the Mastertrainer to resume his ministrations.
 "I'm sorry, Ivoren," he told the reproving horse. "I lost myself in
Harper's tale. His details are so vivid that I nearly saw myself being
attacked by a fire-breathing Dragon and running for the safety of the
Elves! And all for the sake of some hazelnuts!" He chuckled and winked to
the palfrey, who nickered its amusement in turn.
 Harper recognized sarcasm when he heard it.
 "Ow!" Humphrey yelled and grabbed for his ear lobe. The bantam
squirrel had nipped the fleshy fold, careful not to cause injury, but enough
to express his dislike for laughter at his expense. He turned up his
glistening nose and twittered something about learning a grave lesson in
 "You little devil!" he laughed and rubbed his ear. "I don't know
which hurts more, my ear or my pride. Either way, I'm sorry for poking fun
at you. You're not still angry with me? Good. Now, what say we return
Ivoren to his Mistress Celena and head back to the stables. Maybe we can
prevail upon Merchantman Lodren for some of those hazelnuts you're so
fond of."
 The squirrel heartily agreed and fluttered with anticipation.
Humphrey only shook his head at the tiny one's excitability, and reached
up to scratch its furry head before putting his lips to the pipe again. A
following of songbirds saw fit to join in the music, and the ensuing
corollary was one of a summons that all who could hear felt obliged to
defer. They soon led the forest in a gathering of song, where rabbits and
squirrels came out from hiding to meet. Sparrows and starlings swooped
from their branches to sing into the cool breeze as deer stepped
cautiously out into the open. A fawn walked tremulously behind its mother,
nuzzling the Mastertrainer's leg as the others pranced to the tune.
 It was not long, however, before they came to the edge of the
wood, where the others did not feel safe to tread. With the song at its end,
Humphrey simply waved to his friends and headed for the marketplace. It
gave him time to reflect while entertaining his companions with a tender
 Humphrey's uncommon affinity for animals made him the perfect
Mastertrainer, and King Marik was sharp to note it. He shrewdly put the
young man in charge of the Royal Stables, an onerous task for one body,
but he performed splendidly with help from the stablemen and
apprentices. Schooling the mares and stallions of Merchants and King
alike, the eremitic youth found little time to himself. Fortunately, the time
spent instructing was pleasant and not at all laborious.
 What spare time he did have left was whiled away in the forest. The
discomfort he felt around people seemed but a distant memory when
among the likewise modest animals. Humphrey knew each one by name,
and he went out of his way to make new friends when one was unfamiliar
to him. He lived in a simple cabin of his own design - though a number of
grateful soldiers showed up to lend him a hand.
 Lightwood was his humble home and the animals a second family.

*  *  *

 The Advisor to King Marik, the wise and venerable sage, was
known simply as Magarius. A direct descendant to the line of Merlin, the
aged counselor had weighty expectations to fulfill. By far surpassing the
might and magical strength of his ancestor, Magarius was a modest man
with little in regards to fanfare. He was an astute individual, tempered by
an unusual number of years, and was rarely moved to passionate
displays. His fascination for his work often kept him from the company of
others, but his duties as Advisor to the King took precedence.
 The work that so consumed the white-haired Mage was an
untested theory in an area of the Art he discovered: Essence. It was
nothing like the other known realms of practical magic, for it dealt with the
nature of all things, the very core of the item in question. Magarius did not
limit his studies to the living but strove to discover the inner being of
inanimate objects as well. This one aspect is what set his realm apart from
those of Druidic, Sympathetic and Spiritual magic - the more commonly
practiced Arts at the time. An Essencian Mage sought to draw from the
intense energy of all that was in Nature, in the trees and people
surrounding him. The true danger involved was in over-extending the pull,
which could drain the entirety of life force from the directed subject.
Magarius was unable to prove the existence of Essence magic up to that
point, as none of his experiments could yield conclusive results.
 His colleagues in the Wizard's Guild held little belief in the theories
of Essence, but none would discredit the enormous mastery Magarius
held in the Arts. His perceived eminence made him a difficult man to
address, which contributed to his already reserved manner. Knowing the
feelings of uneasiness among his peers, he decided to abstain from
Council meetings until more solid evidence of Essence magic could be
 That was eighty-seven years ago.
 Having no one else to confer with on his findings or failures,
Magarius found himself talking with his familiar, Flicker. The Faery Dragon
was notably helpful at times, understanding in its limited capacity, and
always a soothing relief in times of distress. Though Magarius had lived
well over three-hundred years, he had the strength and wit of a young
man. Not even Flicker's illusory pranks could unsettle him - and the
Dragon was known expressly for his mischievous antics. The impish tricks
that time and again would set the castle astir were tiresome and amusing
only to their maker, but they were not the cause for the Wizard's frosty
gray hair.
 Sitting at his disorganized worktable, penetrating blue eyes peering
down upon pages written in his own hand, Magarius toiled away the night
with little more than lighted tallow to aid his burden. The flowing silk robes
he wore, colored the orange of a Summer sunrise, were appropriate in the
Royal Chamber when addressing an emissary from the Elven people, but
they were not up to the task of keeping out the biting chill of Autumn.
Flicker crooned softly in his Master's ear, sensing the cold that nipped at
his tired body. Slipping his tail around the Mage's neck, under robe and
beard, he quietly warmed the seemingly fragile man - quietly inasmuch as
casting spells creates a special resonance that only Magicians can hear or
sense. A faint glow emanated from his florid scales, a rosy luminescence
that lulled the sage to sleep.
 Magarius woke the next morning to the persistent calls of lively
sparrows bent on disturbing his rest. Noting how much time he'd wasted
by sleeping, he chided the whims of aging bodies and set about his work.
A single leaf lay upon his table, its brown edges dried by time. Resembling
the hand of an elderly man, its veins ran like a map over its surface. A
chalky-white powder clung to the bottom and rim of a stone mortar to the
left. With pestle in his hand, Magarius sprinkled a final ingredient into the
rounded bowl and proceeded to mix the two together. The last element
had just arrived by wagon from London, though the shipment originated
across the ocean in the Far East.
 When the exotic spice was indistinguishable from the whole,
Magarius dotted the leaf with the resultant compound. An immediate
change took place, one both surprising and anticipated at the same time.
 The once dried and dead leaf sprang to life, a myriad of coruscating
colors that vibrated with magic. Almost blinding in intensity, the light filled
the room like a second sun, a radiance of heat the Mage could feel as he
shielded his sensitive eyes. Flicker hid behind the protection of his
Master's shoulder until the brightness began to fade.
 Then the true Essence was revealed.
 As if it had never fallen, the leaf was full of life. Its deep emerald
hue gently shifted to match Magarius' robes, and then again to a spirited
red before blending to a tranquil cast of brown. The cycle of changing
earth colors continued without variation, the true nature of the leaf
released, and forever would that magic be free. What little force the blade
drew from the life encircling it was not enough to cause concern, though
an entire tree might cause some distress. Many more experiments would
take place before anything of such size would be tried.
 Just then it dawned on Magarius what the inner being of a leaf was:
the changing of the Seasons. By watching the colors shift and blend, he
could point out each one to Flicker. The tiny Dragon was overjoyed at the
sight of the leaf - and his Master's happy tone - and jumped down onto the
table to stand beside the fickle blade. He sniffed at the displacing shades,
hearing the light whisper of magic, and his eyes whirled in a restless sea
of blue. Throwing his saurian head back in delight, he trilled out a song to
rival the leaf. The warbled descant set the Mage to chuckling at his little
friend's elaborate show of emotion, but he was thoroughly pleased to see
Flicker so lighthearted. Scraping a small amount of the powder into a
vellum packet, Magarius touched his finger to the stuff.
 "Looks like flour, don't you think?" he asked the Faery Dragon. Elfin
ears perked up at the query, but the song still vibrated down his neck like
the purring of a cat. "You be sure to keep out of this now! Yes, I realize the
pretty colors are quite entrancing, but I am warning you for your own good.
I care a great deal about you, little one" - his eyes softened at the corners
as he resumed his cautioning - "so I don't want to see you nosing about in
there. You change colors as it is, and they're already very beautiful.
Enough said? Good."
 He sniffed at the powder on his finger but could discern no odor. He
nearly placed it on his tongue to try for a taste, when he felt the Dragon's
icy stare bore through his inquisitive thought. His bushy eyebrows
furrowed in defiance, but he eventually shrugged in surrender. Wiping the
powder from his hand with a washcloth, Magarius was careful to make
sure he removed every mote. In theory, the powder could only affect a
person by ingesting a fairly large quantity. However, he didn't want to take
any undue chances before solidifying evidence to present to the Guild.
The others would be greatly surprised, and deeply chagrined, that his
theories were sound from the start.
 The magic realm of Essence truly did exist.

*  *  *

 The morning of Magarius' success dawned with equal luminosity
over the Esrald bakeshop. Tristan busily prepared for the day ahead while
the sun was peeking its flaming top over the castle walls. There was still a
chill wind wending its way through the marketplace, and the dark mass of
clouds overhead forebode a possible storm.
 "Morning, brother!" Cornelius said cheerfully as he walked through
the open door. "Looks like we're in for some rain this day. Did you sleep
 "As well as can be expected," the Masterbaker replied with a sigh.
"Those cats outside were calling to the moon all night. I barely got in a
wink of rest." Tristan had the worktable arranged in an orderly fashion,
with spices to one side and herbs to the other. His leather-bound annal
was opened, and he ran his finger along the scrawl as he read.
 "You do look a bit tired. Why don't you go and get some rest before
the others arrive. I can take care of all this without any problem," he
shrugged. "It's not as if I've never done it before."
 Tristan waved a hand in refusal. "I'm fine, Cornelius. Do I seem so
terribly old to you already?" He raised a brow as he smiled, awaiting his
younger brother's response.
 Cornelius simply bowed. "Far be it from me to imply such a thing!
You wear your many seasons quite well, dear brother. Were that I could
be as strong, or the time nearly as gracious, when the years come wearily
upon me!" His grin was roguish as he poked his spoon at Tristan.
 "TouchИe, my droll brother. Do you suppose we could get about to
working this morn?"
 The ex-mercenary winked and set about his task. The burlap sacks
of flour stood nearly half his height, but it was their weight that caused him
to groan. Ignoring Tristan's remark about just who was aging with all due
speed, he carried the coarse bags from the storeroom to the front. Just as
he lay them unceremoniously against the far wall, Jonathan appeared at
the door.
 "I hope I'm not late," the Protectorate said in apology. "I was up
most of the night making plans for tomorrow."
 "You're never late," Cornelius accused.
 Tristan rolled his eyes and settled some bowls onto the table. "I see
you're not wearing your armor," he noted approvingly. The homespun
tunic and plain leather leggings were far better suited to baking than the
iron shell most Knights wore.
 "I could always fetch my cuirass if you so long for the sight." He
smoothed his long blonde mustache to hide a smile.
 "Please, Jonathan," the Masterbaker sighed. "We already have one
jester among us. Must we have two? Come look at this, and tell me what
you think. You may know more of Marik's taste than I do, with all the time
you've been spending in his castle of late."
 The Knight clasped one of the long iron spoons to his belt as he
moved behind the table. He scanned the latest entry as the rest of his
brothers arrived. Greetings were exchanged and the usual clamor
commenced. The bakeshop was one of the larger buildings within the
marketplace, which left plenty of room for six grown men to adequately
perform their task. But for some obscure reason, the Esrald brothers
bumped shoulders and bowls as they moved about their various chores.
 For that one day a week, the six brothers worked in unison to
concoct the perfect cookie for King Marik. They put their heads together
and thought out each possible course, drawing from Tristan's neatly kept
journal for reference. By day's end they had baked hundreds of cookies,
all of a different variety and style, texture and taste. The last tray of
cookies would be the one mixture chosen to present to Marik the following
week. The remaining sweetcakes would be sold at a fair price or given
away to those of a need. Since Tristan would bake fresh cookies before
visiting the King, the last tray was set aside for the brothers. At the end of
those weekly gatherings, the six would sit by a fire at the Talon - a local
tavern of sorts - and partake of their labors with a warm mug of cider.
 This day, however, posed a dilemma for the bakers. The empty
burlap, where once was an abundant source of flour, lay flaccid in the
corner. When Cornelius went to the storeroom for another sack, he cried
out in shock and doubled in laughter at what he saw.
 The last two sacks of flour lay strewn about the room, fine white
powder clinging to every square inch of the place. The wooden shutters
swung back and forth in the wind, and a faint mewing could be heard in
the mountain of snowy dust. Trails of tiny paw prints were scattered in
every direction, some leading to the culprits responsible for the careless
 A dozen ghost-like kittens meowed in protest.
 "Good God!" Tristan bellowed. "Look what they've done to my
shop! It's going to take a lifetime to get this place clean again!" His flinty
eyes surveyed the disaster and came to land on the once-black furry
felines. A chuckle escaped his lips. "They are cute, though, aren't they?"
 "That they are," Cornelius laughed. "Why don't you go and borrow
some flour from Masterbaker Ferran, and I'll see if I can't get a cupful from
Merchantman Gerod."
 "Yes," Valoran said and took up one of the kittens. "We'll clean this
mess up and find a skin of milk for our little friends."
 Humphrey was holding three in the folds of his apron as he
whispered to them calmly. "They've been abandoned," he remarked. "This
one says she hasn't eaten for days."
 Holding two in each hand, Stephen asked, "Is that so? Well, I'm
sure we can find something for them to eat!" Placing one up to his scruffy
beard for a nuzzle, the burly smith looked as if he would eat it whole. One
of the slippier fellows broke free and jumped for the wall of heavy tunic, its
claws taking hold in the material. Stephen simply walked back outside with
the mewling kitten still hanging precariously to his front.
 "Go on, you two," Jonathan said. "We have this situation under
control. Don't we, little ones?" he asked the four he took in hand. Sticking
one on each shoulder, the Knight carefully joined the others by the
worktable for milk.
 While Tristan and Cornelius went after the flour, the deserted
kittens were cleaned and fed. Once the layer of stubborn powder was
removed, a shiny coat of coal-gray fur was unveiled. After the twelve were
contentedly full, they drifted to sleep with ease. Jonathan grabbed a pillow
from Tristan's bed and stuffed it into a basket. With unexpected delicacy,
he placed each one in the basket and used a soft cloth as a gentle blanket
for warmth. The Protectorate then headed for the door with the basket of
sleeping kittens in tow.
 "I know an orphanage not far from here with a number of children
who will be happy to see these little fellows." The others nodded their
approval to the Knight before he added, "I'll be back in no time."
 As Jonathan disappeared from the doorway, Flicker appeared with
an excited trill of salutation. His eyes shone a twirling blue upon seeing
the humble Mastertrainer, and he flew to Humphrey's shoulder to croon in
his ear.
 "He says his Master has gone for a while, and he has no one to
play with." Humphrey scratched the tender eye ridges and whistled a trill
of his own.
 "Doesn't Magarius take from the same shipments as Tristan?"
Valoran asked in agitation. "Maybe he has some spare flour." The General
was unused to waiting for things to be done.
 Stephen pulled at the sticky batter that begrimed his scraggly
beard. "Would a Magician keep flour about?"
 "I could ask," the Mastertrainer offered. "Well, Flicker? Does your
Master have any flour?" Humphrey projected an image of the fine white
powder, since the Faery Dragon did not think in terms of words. Fluttering
his translucent wings in a frenzied delight, he warbled a positive reply.
 The Gladiator smirked at the antics. "I take that as a yes. Tell him to
go and get a cupful of the stuff. I'm tired of sitting about here, waiting to do

work that we could be getting on with."
 Humphrey conveyed the message to the Dragon and watched in
amazement as Flicker vanished from sight, only to reappear a few breaths
later with a large stone bowl in his claws. Without its pestle, the mortar
looked like any other bowl a baker might use. Flicker was extremely proud
of himself and elated at the praise he received from the three brothers
who quickly set to work. The others returned in time to help mix more
batter, but Tristan was a little upset at having to disturb the other
Masterbaker when it wasn't entirely necessary.
 Flicker was more than happy to console him.
 Valoran heard the Dragon's mellow humming, and an idea struck
him. "Why don't you play us a tune on that flute of yours, Humphrey?"
 "Anything in particular?"
 The others trusted his judgement, so a simple melody of working
men soon filled the busy bakeshop. Flicker threw his rhythmic notes to the
song, while Valoran - of all people - cleared his throat and began to sing.
The General had a surprisingly good voice, a flamboyant tenor versed in
the hymns of war. All six brothers joined in, with whistling or singing, and
carried the notes with lighthearted speed. When the music had finally
stopped and all the work was finished, Humphrey became the victim of
warm applause and appreciation.

*  *  *

                   The Guardians, Keepers of the Magic
                               Part IV
                         by Joseph A. Giunta
                         Copyright (c) 1994

 A low rumble could be heard as quiet descended on the bakeshop,
and the rain that threatened the skies since early morning began to fall.
The first droplets were far and few, splashing heavily against the dusty red
cobbles with the indifference expected of weather. Brilliant flashes of
lightning joined the chorus of distant thunder, lighting the way for those still

in the marketplace to swiftly head for shelter. What warmth the fading sun
could offer was hastily stolen away by a storm that strained the horizon.
 "Let's hurry," Cornelius said through pelting rain. "This chill will be
the death of us all!" His breath streamed out in a frosty mist as his words
were drowned out in the thunder.
 The others waited for Tristan to lock the door before moving at a
brisk pace for the Talon, where steaming mugs of warmed cider anxiously
awaited. The bakeshop had been cursorily cleaned with a promise to do a
more thorough job the next day. With the settling of Autumn came also the
earlier nights and biting cold that inspired many a speedy trip to the
fireplace. The basket full of well-deserved sweetcakes was an added
incentive for the brothers, but Cornelius could smell the rains creeping up
at a rapid pace and urged the others on. Before consenting, Tristan made
each give his word to lend a hand in the morning straightening the place,
and in exchange they made an early start for the fireside drinks.
 When the six arrived in the poorly lit tavern, their bodies steamed
and dripped as the warmth of the room fell over them. They shook off as
much of the storm as was possible before moving directly for the fire. A
handful of patrons sat at their heavy wooden tables, with foaming mugs to
ease the wintry grip. Known for its King-sized hearth, the Talon was a
welcome escape from the storm. The blazing fire outlined their bodies as
they wound their way towards the great square table reserved for them.
The stocky Birchwood chairs were already scorched by the fire, but the
heat was a pleasant relief for tired bodies.
 "This is more like it!" Stephen said cheerfully as he rested his bulk
into a creaky chair. He threw his legs up onto the stones of the hearth to
let the fire seep into his boots. "Only one thing missing."
 "Here ya go!" A plump barmaid dropped six hefty mugs of steaming
cider onto the table. "Just call fer more when ye need it."
 Cornelius took one of the earthenware cups and downed half the
fiery drink in one swallow. "Don't you worry about that, lass! I've never
been accused of being bashful!"
 "Uncouth, maybe," Jonathan dutifully pointed out. He continued to
tick off each detriment, "Unmannerly, crude, surly, impertinent -"
 "Ahem!" Cornelius cut off his refined brother before he ran out of
fingers to count on. "Is this the sort of thing you learn at Court?"
 Tristan smiled at that. "Cookie anyone? I'd like to offer an early
congratulations to you all on a job well done. These are fine looking
 The edges were crisp and perfectly baked, the center soft and
moist. The combination of melting cacao, diced cashew and roasted
almond - along with other various spices - was sure to win the King's
heart, if not his choosy taste buds.
 "Just a sip!" Humphrey told the Faery Dragon on his shoulder.
Flicker reached his serpentine head down to the steamed cup and drank
some of the pale-looking liquid. "That's enough, little one. You don't want
to get tipsy, now do you?" The whirling shades of adventurous violet were
not the answer he sought.
 "These are good," Valoran admitted. He ate a cookie in two bites
before reaching for another. "Do you mind if I take some of these back to
the Arena? I know some hard-working people who haven't had a treat in
weeks, and this may be just the thing to lift their spirits."
 "By all means," Tristan agreed.
 Stephen lazily held out his giant hand for more cookies, his other
hand busy raising and lowering a nearly depleted mug. Mist continued to
rise from his drying boots, but he was too busy to notice. The carved face
of a Dwarven warrior upon his cup - hence the name mug - held him in
thrall, its thickset features proud and defiant with a hint of recalcitrant
humor in the eyes.
 Humphrey took a second cookie as well and saw the pleading look
in Flicker's eyes. "Is it alright for Flicker to have some cookie?" he asked
Tristan. "Or do you have some cacao beans for him instead?"
 Tristan reached into his pocket and came out with a handful of the
maroon-colored beans. Flicker vanished from Humphrey's shoulder and
reappeared perched on Tristan's wrist before he could toss the beans
across the table. His claws were sharp, but he was careful not to scratch
the Masterbaker as he casually chewed his treat.
 The others laughed and shook their heads at the little Dragon.
Cornelius was wondering what it would be like to flit in and out of places in
less than the time it takes to breathe when a sudden ache in his stomach
stopped his drinking half way.
 "What's wrong?" Valoran asked the ex-mercenary. His eyes were
sharper than most, even by the dancing light of a fire. "You look like
something doesn't agree with you."
 "I don't know," Cornelius said with a tinge of alarm in his voice. "I
feel strange...and it's not  from the cider!"
 Stephen had his hand out for another cookie, when he suddenly
dropped his mug. The shattered pieces of earthenware crunched
underfoot as he stood with a peculiar look on his face. He opened his
mouth as if to say something, then doubled in what appeared to be pain.
 "Stephen!" Jonathan cried and reached across the table. His hand
never quite made it, for some intense force strained his body. Muscles
tensed uncontrollably and left him immobile as his body underwent a
metamorphosis that only one man could explain.
 The others stood and tried to help their kin, but soon they were in
the throes of change as well. Bent over the table with muscles tightened
by pressure, each brother clenched his fists and roared aloud his struggle.
Every mug and tankard in sight burst into countless shards of baked clay,
the flying pieces embedding into the tables and walls. A preternatural light
encompassed the brothers, an unearthly cast of iridescence that struck a
scene in the Faery Dragon's mind: the shifting colors of a leaf.
 Flicker disappeared in search of his Master.
 Moments later, when Magarius came crashing through the front
door of the Talon, he saw the barkeep hiding behind the bar. Other
patrons had joined him there, fearing for their lives and cowering
unabashedly until the turmoil could be resolved. In the meantime, the
eerie brilliance continued to grow until the hearth was little more than a
spark of light. Fingers of electricity played along the edges of the luminous
sphere, striking the chairs and tables and splintering them with its force.
The floor was scarred black with burn marks, and wraith-like smoke
clawed its way through the air in wispy tendrils.
 "Dear God!" the Mage shouted, but his voice was drowned out by
the sizzling crackle of power and the hoarse cries of the six men held in its
iron grasp. "Sustraff!" he commanded, calling his roanwood staff to hand.
 The gnarled length of grayish-yellow wood materialized in his right
hand, and he tapped its stolid end against the floor while speaking in the
arcane language of magic. A surge of crackling energy spread from the tip
of the staff to the blazing globe of radiance, attacking it in a swirling
onslaught of electricity. Like the forked fingers of a skeleton, the globe
responded with thunderous alacrity. The two forces waged a battle about
the Esrald brothers, but Magarius was indeed the stronger. Walking
forward, the stalwart Mage disbursed the sphere and absorbed its magical
power, a rushing wave of incandescence flooding his staff.
 All six men collapsed onto the table in exhaustion.
 Flicker rushed to Humphrey's shoulder, nuzzling his cheek and ear.
The vibrant thrumming invaded the Mastertrainer's senses and brought
him from the dark of unconsciousness. The Dragon stretched forward his
head and pressed his scales to cheek with a twitter of delight.
 Humphrey managed a weak smile. "I'm alright, little one! What
happened? I feel as if my head might explode."
 "Hmph!" the Mage snorted. His eyes were stern with disapproval as
he surveyed the brothers. "Explain yourself, young man. What on earth
possessed you to take an experiment of mine?" He picked up a piece of
broken cookie from the floor. "I see," he said critically. "Thought you might
improve upon the taste of your confectioneries, eh?"
 The others were groggily waking, and the Advisor's steely voice cut
like a knife into their brains. "Could you keep it down, please?" Stephen
asked gruffly, pulling himself from the floor. "I think I've cracked my skull
 "Be grateful yours is thick," Cornelius offered in consolation. "Mine
feels like there's a Dwarven smith inside, pounding without mercy." He
held his aching head and groaned.
 "There could be one pounding on the outside as well," the grizzly
Mastersmith warned. "And mercy never was my strong point."
 "If you gentlemen are through," Magarius chided, "I'd like to get to
the bottom of this. What could you have been thinking when you took that
powder from my chamber? You're all lucky to be alive!" His penetrating
gaze fell upon each in turn, wilting their shaken bodies.
 "I don't understand," Tristan whispered raspingly. "We only
borrowed a cup of flour-"
 "Did you say flour?" The Mage perked his ears at the word,
recalling a certain conversation between he and his familiar the night
before. "Flicker! Did I not warn you to stay away from that mortar?" The
Dragon shriveled in fear, his scales fading to a milky green as he buried
his eyes in Humphrey's hair. "You could have seriously injured these
innocent men, you know. This better not have been one of your
mischievous pranks," he warned. "Come look at me."
 The Dragon reluctantly pulled himself from the solace of
Humphrey's shoulder and flew to his Master's outstretched arm. He slowly
raised his fearful eyes to the intense scrutiny of those crystal orbs,
unwavering in severity. With a chirrup in defense, Flicker redeemed
himself in the eyes of his Master and nestled his body in the folds of his
 "I'm sorry, my friend," the Mage said softly through his ruffled
beard. "Your heart was in the right place, but you must learn to think more
clearly in the future."
 Flicker heard the remonstration but could only snuggle closer. The
others numbly rose at the urging of the Mage and followed him out the
door. The rain had lessened to a bothersome mist, with the far away
rolling of thunder looming to the East. Jonathan was kind enough to leave
a few gold coins on the bar, nodding in apology to the barkeep as he
followed his brothers outside.
 Magarius brought the six men to his chamber in the castle. There
was much to discuss and a great deal to explain. The foundation of their
beliefs might be threatened by what the Mage had to say, but there was
no other way to broach the subject of their future. The six had been
inexorably changed, magically transformed to epitomize their inner beings.
They would need to be taught how to control the intense powers housed
within them and channel the energy freed by their essence.
 It was time for them to learn about magic.

*  *  *

 "You've been exposed to one of my more recent experiments," the
Advisor began to explain. He hadn't said a word the entire way from the
tavern, and the others were more than anxious for a rationalization of what
just occurred. They sat in chairs by a struggling fire, the stuffy room
smelling of burnt spice and incense. With aching heads and weary bodies,
the brothers settled in for a long talk.
 "Regardless of what you may believe or what you hold as truth," the
Mage went on in a voice that brooked no interruption, "you all were victims
of your own spell this night." Looks of disbelief and question were
exchanged, but no one offered to argue with the Magician. "Good. Digest
that for a bit, while I describe just what sort of magic you worked tonight.
 "I call it Essence, and it is by far the most powerful of all
enchantments I've ever worked. There is more to Nature than any man
may know, but you six may have added insight to that mystery. You see,
the essence of a man, or anything for that matter, is the very core of his
soul, his strengths intensified and magnified in a concerted end. Be it good
or evil in a man's heart, Essence will free the magic that resides there. As
we are all a part of Nature, we hold a certain amount of power we may call
upon to aid us. Some are better at it than others, and those like myself,
who devote their entire lives to the perfecting of it, are more practiced than
normal men. But that inner strength can only be scratched at the surface,
for it is bound to the spirit and not the flesh."
 Magarius sighed at the confusing looks he received in answer. "In
simpler terms, you have freed the magic of your spirit form and joined it
with your physical bodies. You are unity of body and soul, the embodiment
of your inner self. I do not know in what way this unleashed magic will
manifest itself, but I can guess that it will be very difficult for you to
You'll need help, I'm afraid."
 The Mage looked markedly older just then, lines of worry etching
the corners of his eyes and creasing his brow. He took up a
black-feathered quill and dipped it into an ink bottle, his hand a little less
steady than might be expected of one so tenacious. After he scrawled a
list of instructions onto a thick sheet of vellum, he handed it to Stephen.
 "I have a task for you, Mastersmith." Magarius put the dark quill
back in its holder and took his seat by the fire again. "I want you to forge
six medallions, measuring the ore to those specifications. They need not
be anything extraordinary, for they will serve but one purpose: the metal
will store and release excess magic when the need arises. If you feel a
surge of energy come over you, and you will, simply channel it into the
necklace. I shall instruct you as best I can, but the effort must fall on your
 Stephen read the list over, and a puzzled look crossed his face at
the bizarre directions. The speaking of alien words, the gestures of hand
and exposing of metal to the four elements were ridiculous enough, but
the mixtures of ore were what held his eye. "Are you sure about this?" the
Mastersmith asked incredulously. "If I follow these steps, the iron will be
so poorly tempered that I won't be able to shape it. It'll crack at the first
blow of my hammer!"
 "I assure you," Magarius said with confidence, "what you hold in
your hand is a mixture for the strongest iron known to man. You must
understand that magic works differently from what you know, and it may
sometimes seem contrary to what you deem logical."
 Listening with all the attention he could muster, Jonathan found his
mind wandering to more comfortable thoughts, ones where his existence
was firmly rooted without the vagaries of magic. His hand drifted down
towards the spoon at his belt, and he chuckled inwardly as he saw he
wasn't the only one who forgot to leave the utensil at the bakeshop. He
secretly wished his sword was with him, instead of the long iron spoon.
Leaving his armor to help bake was one thing, but not wearing -
 The spoon began to grow.
 Slow enough to see but fast enough to disbelieve, the metal
cooking spoon elongated to a sharp point, its dull edges expanding to a
keen sharpness. The muted gray surface smoothed to a silvery sheen.
The handle rounded and changed to a leather wrap, while the pommel
formed an eagle's head in the midst of a shrill cry. Sir Jonathan,
Protectorate of Luddwelyn, stood holding the sword of his inner heart, the
weapon with which he faced all odds. He held the Sword of Honor.
 "What in God's name!" Stephen gasped. "How did you do that?"
 "I-I have no idea!" The Knight held the sword for the others to see,
as if it were completely at fault. "I was thinking about my sword, and it just
changed!" The look in his eyes spoke of the divine, but Magarius was
merely intrigued by the sight.
 Valoran stood and took the sword, testing its edge with his thumb.
"It's real alright," he said and sucked the wounded digit.
 "I didn't think we were imagining it," Cornelius smirked. "Well?" he
asked the Advisor. "Is this part of the magic you were talking about?"
 "Yes, but not your own. Tell me, did you mix the cookies with these
spoons?" Understanding dawned on each of them as the Mage resumed
his train of thought. "I guessed as much. This proves that inanimate
objects are subject to Essence as well. If you cleaned out the bowls you
mixed the batter in, I doubt they would be altered. I wonder what sort of
essence a bowl might have," he began to wonder. His mortar was
magically protected, so it couldn't possibly be affected.
 Tristan cleared his throat. "Proves? You mean you weren't sure
about all of this you just explained to us?" Nervousness is quite an
infection, and it spreads with the speed of a thought. "What's going to
happen to us? I mean, will we begin to change like these spoons?" The
Masterbaker held his own spoon up, the thought of shifting swords in his
mind, and gaped in awe as the metal enlarged of its own volition. The only
difference between his and Jonathan's was the pommel. Tristan's had the
spiraling horn of the mystical beast of Truth, the Unicorn.
 "Please," Magarius implored. "All of you be seated, and do calm
down. You're not in any immediate danger, not so long as I'm here with
you. Mastersmith Stephen will forge your medallions at his earliest
convenience" - the burly man muttered he'd be on his way if the Mage
would quit his jabbering - "but the only dangers I can perceive are the
ones that will arise when all of this spreads. Whatever changes your
bodies have undergone are permanent but finished. What will happen
next, however, is that every Magician within earshot will flock to this realm
in search of the magic that was unleashed tonight. Magic makes an
unavoidable amount of noise that only Wizards can hear, and yours was
loud enough to reach the ends of England."
 Valoran crossed his arms as a stern look came over him. "Will they
pose a threat to Luddwelyn? I still rank General, you know."
 The Advisor staved off their questions with his hand. "No, no, not in
the way that you see danger. No wars will come to this kingdom, but the
influx of aspiring practitioners might be unsettling to the populace. The
Dark Arts usually are, in any case. I will give you all the instructions on
how to perform Essence, a recipe if you will. By adding the tiniest portions
of the spell to your cookies, you would be lifting the spirits of our people
immensely - and be doing the King a great service as well. They will not
be changed in any way by the magic, but they will be affected. Being able
to touch upon the source of their being, the nature of their soul, will give
them insight into themselves they could never have otherwise achieved.
And I guarantee our good King will have finally found the one flavor he
can be contented with," he added with a wink.
 Humphrey, quietly holding a restful Flicker in his arms, posed a
question that was similarly on Tristan's mind. "Would that not adversely
affect those whose hearts may not be as bright?"
 "Indeed," the Mage replied fervently. "Perhaps they would see
something to their dislike and strive to modify their lives for the better. You
cannot force a man to change. You can only show him what he is and
hope he changes himself. Think of it as enlightening the populace!"
 Cornelius snickered at that. "Sort of like an unwanted conscience."
 "How long," Valoran cut in, "before we can expect these Wizards,
and how should we prepare?" The mind of a tactician never rests.
 "You need only protect the Recipe I give you, and keep it from the
nosy spell-casters who will find you. Open attack on your person would be
doubtful, but use your heads! You know when someone intends ill will
towards you, and surely you all know how to defend yourselves."
 "And the cookies?" Tristan asked.
 "Bake away, my dear fellows. Make our kingdom a happy one!"
 "Alright then," Stephen asserted and stood. "I'll go make the
amulets, while you all go bake some cookies."
 "Coming?" Cornelius asked the Mage. "Or would being seen with
us after tonight's display tarnish your illustrious reputation?"
 "Don't be droll, Cornelius." Magarius held the door open for them. "I
must go wake the King and tell him everything that's happened. Take
Flicker with you," he told the Mastertrainer. "If you need me, just send him
along to fetch me."
 The brothers then filed out of the chamber and headed for their
respective tasks. Valoran accompanied Stephen to help forge the strange
necklaces, and the others set to baking tray upon tray of cookies. It was
just before dawn when the six were ready to head back to the castle, to
where Magarius and King Marik awaited their arrival in the Royal
Chamber. With the medallions complete and hundreds of cookies baked,
the brothers were set for whatever came their way.
 The Keepers of the Magic were ready.

*  *  *

 It wasn't until much later that an insignia was embossed on the
magical necklaces, an emblem that would forever represent the six
brothers and the cause they would champion. The two soldiers in Royal
livery, proffering the enchanted baking spoons and standing guard over a
cauldron with the initials C B engraved into the surface, were models for
future Guardians to follow. The passing on of the medallions to the
generation of Protectors that would follow was easily foreseen and readily
 For the time being, however, the medallions were plain and
seemingly ordinary. Each wore his own hanging from a makeshift leather
thong, rushed as they were to see the King, and had not been tested for
the use they were designed. It would be up to Magarius to decide if the
work was adequately accomplished.
 "My Advisor has been busy of late," King Marik said to the
assembled brothers. "He tells me you have been equally busy, and that
these related matters may or may not have an affect on my kingdom.
What say you, Protectorate?"
 "The night has held many wonders, your Majesty." Sir Jonathan
was solemn as always, standing beside his brothers with straightened
backs and attentive eyes. Though they should have been tired from their
taxing experience, none of them felt the nagging pull of sleep.
 "As King, it is my duty to ask what your intentions may be. I am a
generous and understanding man, with full knowledge of what passes
through one's mind when trying the reigns of new-found power, but I do
have a kingdom and subjects who look to me for guidance. You have all,
at one time or another, pledged your loyalty to this throne. I feel, however,
that a renewal of those vows may be in order."
 Without being told, all six men fell to one knee and bowed their
heads. Even the quipster, Cornelius, had the sense to restrain his humor
before the ruling Monarch. Humphrey, unaccustomed to the presence of
those unfamiliar to him, knew the King well and was versed in the
somewhat precarious etiquette of Court. The General and Protectorate
had a slight advantage, as well as the Masterbaker with his informal
weekly visits, but Stephen performed with laudable acumen.
 Marik gladly accepted their fealties in turn, then went on to other
business. "About this Essence," he began. "The Advisor has thoroughly
explained its meaning and implications to me, and I have come to a
decision regarding your future in this realm." The King stood from his
lustrous throne of Elmwood and drew his ornately bejeweled sword. He
stepped forward to stand before Tristan, the first of the brothers in line,
and spoke in his imperious voice while touching his blade to the
Masterbaker's shoulder.
 "I dub thee, Tristan Esrald, Knight of Virtue and Guardian of Truth."
Tristan kept his head bowed low in the sedate manner befitting a Knight.
 King Marik went from brother to brother, bestowing the rank of
Knight and additional titles to each, varying only in what virtue each was
made a Guardian. Magarius played a large role in discerning that aspect
of the change, but Marik knew long before the suggestion what each
brother held most dear in life.
 Cornelius was given the title Guardian of Courage, Valoran that of
Valor (could his father have known from birth?), Stephen that of Strength,
Jonathan that of Honor and Humphrey, in all his modesty, that of Humility.
The virues of Knighthood were amply represented in the six men kneeling
before the King, and Luddwelyn could not have asked for a purer Order to
defend her.
 "Rise, my Knights," Marik commanded. "From this day forth it will
be your duty to protect this kingdom and its subjects to the best of your
ability. I have your allegiance, and you have my blessing. Your acts shall
reflect upon this throne -" the King smiled suddenly "- and I will rest easier
for the knowing."
 "And now," Magarius hesitantly interjected, not wanting to spoil the
proud moment, "there is much to be learned. We have little time, so let us
make the best of it. I'll see you all shortly in my chamber," he said in stern
dismissal. A blow to the head might have been less direct, but the six
complied to his wish.
 "One last thing, Sir Jonathan," Marik called.
 "Yes, your Majesty."
 "You have a meeting this morn with a certain emissary. Please
keep it. Your duties as Protectorate will remain unchanged."
 "Yes, your Majesty."
 Waiting until the brothers had gone, the King asked his Advisor,
"What are your thoughts? Will their judgement be affected by this sudden
 "I think they'll do splendidly, Marik. I seem to recall a younger lad,
much like each of these men all rolled up into one, who saw fit to shake
the world and sieze a kingdom from the pieces. You turned out fine," he
accused with a slender finger. "I'll keep a close watch over them, but I'm
confident they'll follow their hearts."
 "In that case," the King of Luddwelyn smiled broadly, "consider the
discussion concluded. My kingdom is in good hands."
 "That it is, young one. That it is."

*  *  *

 When Magarius entered his chambers, he found the newly
appointed Knights of Luddwelyn in a heated discussion over the taking of
another vow. At his bewildered expression, Tristan offered, "We feel that
another oath may be needed, one that would more specifically describe
our task and sufficiently outline our duties."
 "I see," the Mage said patiently. "Have you decided what this oath
shall be, or is that the source of such fervent talk?"
 Stephen settled a chilling gaze upon his brothers. "It is," he said
and stood, taking the spoon from his belt. "But we have come to an
agreement on the matter, haven't we?" His icy tone indicated that things
may not have been settled to the satisfaction of all, but their rising to join
him showed the lack of importance on the point.
 Each spoon elongated to form the swords of their virtue, the only
notable variance being in the accomodating length and silvery pommels.
The head of a roaring grizzly Bear, with a conspicuous likeness to the
Mastersmith, adorned Stephen's two-handed blade. Cornelius, having the
heart of a Lion, possessed the proud bearing of one on his broadsword.
Jonathan's Eagle and Tristan's Unicorn spiral remained the same, though
they found their blades could alter to whatever design they imagined. The
Masterbaker opted for a long sword, while Sir Jonathan kept the hefty
broadsword of his trade in hand. The Gladiator and war hero, Guardian of
Valor, was not surprised to see the saurian head of a great Dragon
bedeck his sword, for the magical beast was often praised for its bold
gallantry. Humphrey, Mastertrainer and friend to all animals, was puzzled
at the feline crown that embellished his pommel, as he always associated
the graceful Panther with one of enormous pride. Further reflection
granted the understanding that what he saw in the feline was not pride but
a confidence gained from the knowing of one's shortcomings. It was the
striving for perfection, without the need for admiration, that evoked the
presence of modesty.
 "And this vow?" Magarius asked. He stood clear of the
sword-wielding brothers but was curious nonetheless.
 "The Oath of Virtue," Tristan replied and put the tip of his sword
against the others'. With the Guardian of Truth leading the pledge, the
brothers took their solemn oath in unison.
 "That which gives us strength shall give all strength; That which
empowers us shall empower all, for this day we pledge our hearts to
Nature and the preservation of life, to keep others from harm or harming
themselves - From this day forth, we are The Guardians, Keepers of the
Magic and Protectors of the Recipe."
 The Advisor could only smile his approval.

*  *  *

                    The Guardians, Keepers of the Magic
                                 Part V
                          by Joseph A. Giunta
                           Copyright (c) 1994

 "And that's how it all began," Samuel said to the gathered children.
Their mouths were open, absorbed in the story as they were, and looks of
wonder became smiles of pride, an esteem for their heritage.
 "But," Stephany started in protest, "you didn't finish the story! I want
to know what happens next." Her lashes fluttered in a girlish display, as if
blinking away the disbelief that her father would stop so suddenly.
 John brushed back a dark lock of hair and sat forward in his seat.
"What happened to Sir Jonathan and the Elves?" He felt Courtney's frosty
stare bore into his side, and he muttered an apology before sitting back
out of her view.
 "Oh, relax," she whispered to him and sat forward also. "I want to
hear some more about Cornelius. He's funny. Is there anything else there
about the little boy, Daren?"
 "Wait," Alan cut in. "What about the guy in black? Lord Whoo-bies,
or whatever ya call 'em." His eyes were strikingly blue in the fading light of
evening, and his bold manner spoke volumes for one so young. Calling
him outspoken would have been an understatement.
 "I liked Flicker," Morgan said to no one in particular.
 "Me too," Trudy spoke up. "Just hearing what he looks like, I can
picture him in my mind. I wonder what his crooning really sounds like?"
She exchanged smiles with the youngest brother and gave him a wink.
Hearing about Tristan and the relationship he had with his brothers made
her realize just how alienated Morgan must feel at times. Though no one
else could see it, Trudy grew up in that instant and assumed the mantle of
 Samuel rolled his eyes and laughed aloud. "And here I thought I'd
have to tie you all down just to get you to listen." He closed the book and
ran his hand along the edge, leaving the golden band in its wake. "There
is a very detailed account of all the stories taking place afterwards. The
stories are in chronological order and more or less follow right after the
others without breaks in time." His smile grew wan and a serious tone
crept into his voice. "Our family has been very busy throughout the years,
and its been bleak at times."
 "So now it's our turn," Alan said excitedly. "When do we start? I
wanna see my sword!"
 "Right!" Courtney snickered. "Why would anyone give you a sword?
Dad, you wouldn't really, would you? He's just a kid!"
 "Courtney," Samuel cautioned, "you're all just kids. I want to make it
clear that none of you has to go through with this. I'll love you just as much
as I do now, no matter what you decide to do. If you're scared, that's
alright too. This could be dangerous, and being frightened comes with the
territory." He ruffled Alan's hair, messing the shiny black lengths. "You'll be
a little different if you go through with it, though. You won't be like anyone
else in the world, little kids or not, and you'll only have each other to rely
on. If you have any  doubts, don't be afraid to say so."
 Morgan looked up to his father with inquiring eyes, but no hint of
fear could be seen within those brownish orbs. "Is Flicker still alive, Dad?
Have you ever seen him?"
 Seeing that all six children intended to go through with the Oath,
Samuel visibly relaxed. A grin cut his broad cheeks as he reminisced the
times of his past. "I've seen him and heard his song but not in person. It's
hard to explain, but those medallions bring about some realistic dreams.
The memories stored inside sometimes come out."
 Laura stepped quietly into the room with a silver tray in hand. Six
ordinary-looking cookies adorned the surface, and she knelt beside her
husband after depositing them on the coffee table. "What have you all
decided," she asked in a musical voice. "Morgan?" Laura felt Sam's hand
on her shoulder, and she covered it with her own. "What have you
decided, little one?"
 "I'm ready. I'm not afraid, if that's what you mean. I think I've been
waiting for something like this for a very long time." His eyes took on a far
away cast as his thoughts began to wander. He came back from the
daydream suddenly and blushed with a smile of embarrassment.
 "It's alright, dear." Laura looked to her other children and a glisten
of admiration touched her eyes.
 "Why don't we go ahead then," Samuel said decidedly. "I want you
all to put on your medallions now. OK, good. Don't be afraid of the
feelings. Just let them come to you. This is much easier than it sounded in
the story, because you have a slight advantage over your predecessors."
He pointed to the necklaces, and each child held tightly to the emblem
with a smile of elation. "Once you feel in control, take a cookie and eat it.
The Recipe has improved over the generations, so you'll only need one.
Just remember to be confident."
 Alan was the first to grab for a cookie, but the others soon followed
until only crumbs decorated the ornate platter. Watching Morgan for any
signs of trouble, Samuel crossed his fingers for his children. He didn't
have any sincere doubts, but the memory of his transition was a difficult
one. The power released is so intense that all track of time is lost, and
channeling into the medallion no longer seems the easy task it sounded.
He readied himself to help if any should falter.
 The light that encompassed the six began as a faint glimmer,
almost a reflection of some unseen dancing flame. The luminous
shimmering intensified within the medallions, and a single beam of thick
iridescence exploded from the metal. The ball of glowing power sent a
shock wave of energy out from its center that threw Samuel back in his
seat and pressed Laura against the cushioned chair. A high-pitched keen
rose from all four corners of the room as the scorching heat intensified.
The tendrils of blue-hot electricity appeared then, threatening to take hold
with bony fingers of light. The menacing energy passed over each new
Guardian, repelled by the hurtful medallions, but two were not so
well-protected. With deliberate slowness, the convalescing tendrils
snapped and crackled as a single band of vibrant azure loomed before
Samuel and Laura.
 "No!" Alan said in an unfamiliar voice. He stood with medallion in
hand, a sense of presence unearthly in a child. "No," he repeated with
more determination, gritting his teeth with exertion. The energy wavered
for an instant and then struck like a bolt of lightning, fully hitting Alan in
chest. Like a writhing snake, the light was absorbed into the necklace,
taking with it the fading globe of power.
 "Alan!" Laura cried and grabbed her son, hugging him close while
still kneeling. She pressed her head to his chest and felt the warmth of the
emblem on her cheek.
 "It's alright now, Mom." He draped his arms over her shoulders and
endured the embrace with stoicism. "I thought that's what I was supposed
to do," he said in defense.
 "You did just fine," Laura whispered with her eyes closed. She
reluctantly let him go, realizing the days of babying her children had come
to an abrupt end. She wiped the tears from her eyes and sat back against
her husband's leg, her composure somewhat restored.
 "Thank you," Samuel told his brazen boy. "That's something new
on me, but then again, I've only seen one of these in person." The others
still hadn't grasped the fact that something went wrong. "All that's left now
is the taking of the Oath. Unless one of you has something to say?"
 "Well," Trudy sat forward. "What about the spoons?"
 Alan stamped his foot. "I was going to ask that!" He turned to his
father with a furrowed brow. "You said I could have one, didn't you?"
 Samuel could not have sighed any deeper. "Yes, I did, Alan. Don't
make me regret it, though. The spoons are inside the medallions. Some
time after the original Guardians took the Oath, it became a hazard to
keep them anywhere else. You see, they were stolen at one time, and the
power within the spoons is almost as great as that within each of
 "I don't get it," Courtney was saying when a large iron spoon
appeared in her hand. "Oh, you have to think about them. Ha! That's a
neat trick!"
 Alan took his sister's advice and had a silvery short sword in his
hand before the others could hold him down. He parried and thrust with
some unseen foe, dancing the swordsman's shuffle.
 "Be careful," Samuel warned. "That is not a toy, nor is it to be used
unless absolutely necessary. I'll be more than happy to show you, but
you're going to have to learn respect for a weapon before you can wield
 All six children had the argent blades to fore, closely examining the
different pommels and details of each symbol. It was Trudy who first
stood, extending her sword so that the others could touch points like in the
story. She had a certain flare for the dramatic.
 "That which gives us strength," she began reciting the pledge as
she heard it, each word burned into her mind. Her brothers and sisters
followed her example, and the Guardian of Truth took pride in leading the
Oath of Virtue for the new generation of Protectors.
 Samuel and Laura clasped hands, their love for each other as
strong as ever. Their children were taking on an age-old responsibility,
one that ran through Samuel's bloodline for centuries. The sight would be
forever etched into their hearts and minds, the feeling of unrestricted love
a force not even time could hope to conquer. A sigh of relief then passed
through Samuel's body, the lifting of a burden that only his children could
ever begin to understand.
 The family obligation passed on once again.

*  *  *

 Martin looked up from his book, a huge leather-bound volume with
tracings of worn gold spreading across its surface in an intricate webwork
of archaic design. He felt an unusual buzzing at the nape of his neck, and
a chill ran from the top of his blonde head to the tips of his bare toes. He
pulled off the wire-rimmed glasses and laid them on the tree stump he
used for a table. The fragile young man blew a lock of pale hair from his
eyes as he waited expectantly for...something.
 The explosion of noise was enough to send him flailing from his
three-legged stool. Though nothing around him could have been affected,
his keen Wizard senses heard the release of raw power as clear as if a
building had fallen on him. There was no telling where the source of magic
was, but he was sure he could trace it. After all , he'd say, what good was
a Magician who couldn't trace a spell? What worried him was the
immensity of such a casting.
 Sensing the alarm in his Master's eyes, a concerned little Dragon
awoke with a start, with whirling eyes the milky azure of disquieted
thought. Spreading leathery wings of transparent blue, he disappeared in
the wink of an eye, reappearing on Martin's thin shoulder as he lay
sprawled on the earthen floor of his tree home.
 A familiar crooning soon filled the hollow bole.

 This concludes The Guardians, Keepers of the Magic, but not the
adventures of the Esrald family. Watch for the ongoing tales of magic and
lore, both past and present, in forthcoming stories.

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