The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter VI - Movements in War

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

It had been far too long since Duke Thomas Hassan had last been in the saddle. The last time he’d even come near a saddle had been more than six months ago, and then, he’d been the one wearing it. And the person who had been atop his back treating him as a common horse was now riding next to him, changed by the curses twice over – first into a woman, and then into a Flatlands donkey.

And as he felt the rush of air course through his mane and the forgotten sensation of a steed moving between his legs, the Duke of Metamor was thankful for it. He smiled softly as his chestnut eyes regarded the long equine ears and face of Alberta Artelanoth. Her face was alive with the pleasure of the ride. Her war horse Povunoth thundered across the fields of Ellingham, snorting vigorously. Her nostrils flared as if it were she who was crushing the grass beneath her hooves and not the stallion.

They were both dressed in riding outfits; light shirts and trousers that were sewn to fit closely but not too tightly. As they were both equine, their collar’s came down in a V to account for their larger neck, but upon Alberta it only helped to shape her breasts, a quality of hers that Thomas found himself staring at unseemly from time to time. If she had noticed his gaze, she did not seem to mind. He wondered if she was staring back at him too when he wasn’t paying attention. Thomas certainly hoped so.

He could not deny his feelings for this woman, and the rumours of their romance had spread about the keep like wildfire. Alberta had complained several times at the large number of favours and requests being made of her by people she did not even know. Thomas was relieved at the reception that the Flatlands knight received from Metamorians, but more so from the acceptance that Malisa, Raven, and the others of his court had for her. Only Thalberg his Steward had proven difficult, but his reluctance was also beginning to melt the more he saw Thomas and Alberta together.

The idea to ride had been Thomas’s. Alberta had been complaining that she felt cooped up in the city and that her horse was feeling restless. For once, Thomas had found a day in which he didn’t need to negotiate a treaty or barter with some southern merchant, and he meant to enjoy it with this woman. It was only after he’d suggested the ride out to Ellingham, that Thomas realized it had been a very long time since he’d left the city too.

Ellingham was a small farming community an hour southwest of the Keep. They had once been part of the Loriod fief, but after Altera Loriod’s death, Thomas had elevated one of the local farmers to the rank of mayor. It brought in little in the way of taxes or food, but the new mayor was improving the winery and hoped it would prove profitable.

To the northeast of Ellingham the ground became too rocky to farm and so they were left as open fields of grass. Nowhere else this far north in the valley was the land so free to gallop. Thomas took a deep breath as he and Albert rose up a short incline. The air was rich with the scent of grass, fresh flowers, and horse. Truly what a lovely day to be alive.

Alberta slowed Povunoth as they reached the top of the dell. She smiled warmly to Thomas, her dark eyes soft in the noon day sky. Long ears lay back against her head, framing her tough, black mane. Her whip-like tail flicked from one side of Povunoth’s flanks to the other, and she let out an exuberant bray.

“Ah, I hath missed this,” she said heartily. Her eyes stayed upon Thomas for several seconds before she looked across the wide field. In the distance they could see fields of wheat and barley being tended by teams of men and oxen – one of the farmers looked to be an ox-morph at that.

“Povunoth looks to have missed it too,” Thomas said. He rested his hand on his steed’s neck, a proud roan named Hengest. The charger’s neck trembled with excitement.

“Aye. I hath taken him on runs in the Killing Fields, but ‘tis not the same.” Her eyes cast back to him, and there was a small smile upon her equine lips. “Thou dost look good in a saddle.”

Thomas chuckled lightly. Not that long ago, all that he wished was to be Alberta’s horse. He still had the scars in his hooves from where she’d shod him. He’d become quite attached and devoted to her during those nightly rendevous when she would curry him and make him cart onions. Though his desire to be a beast of burden ceased when the spell that had twisted his mind was removed, his burgeoning love for the Steppe-born knight did not. He could no longer imagine the rest of his life without the company of Alberta Artelanoth.

“Sitting and wearing, or so I am told,” Thomas replied. He smiled widely. At first, such remarks had shamed Alberta. But she knew that he did not hold her responsible, and loved her all the more for the gentle way she had treated him. Now, she could laugh, albeit tentatively.

“And you,” Thomas continued, his smile widening, “look exquisitely radiant in the saddle. I feel like a clumsy brute when watching you ride.”

Alberta’s ears pulled in more tightly to her head, and her snout lowered in an equine blush. “I hath been riding all of my life, Thomas.”

“As have some of my knights here at Metamor, but none of them are as beautiful in the saddle as you.”

Alberta brayed merrily, and shook her head. “Thou art teasing me.”

“Nay, my lady, I would rather look upon thee than all the riches of this land.” They were near enough together that Thomas was able to slip his thick fingers beneath hers. He pulled her hand upwards, and brushed his heavy lips against her soft hide. Again, she blushed helplessly. It was hard to imagine that this endearing lass had once been a burly man.

Thomas’s ears turned at the sound of more horses. There were several riders coming out to meet them. The Duke of Metamor straightened, but gave the donkey one more smile before turning to see who it was.

Malisa and a small compliment of guards accompanied her down the road to Ellingham. When they saw Thomas and Alberta, they veered onto the grass and rode up the sward. At least Thalberg wasn’t there. Although it was hard to imagine a horse the alligator could ride, his Steward would have surely lectured him on leaving the city without at least an honour guard. Malisa might still do the same, but she’d at least be more understanding.

“Good day, Father,” Malisa called as she brought her bay mare to a stop. She smiled politely to Alberta, “And good day to you, Lady Artelanoth.”

“Good day to thee, Malisa,” Alberta replied, though it was obvious that she was a bit uncomfortable now.

“Good day, Malisa. What brings you out to Ellingham?” Thomas rubbed his hands along Hengest’s neck to hide his irritation.

Malisa frowned in apology. “I know that you wished to enjoy this day away from affairs of state, but I felt this could not wait.”

“I wilt exercise Povunoth for a few minutes, Thomas. If thee must return to the Keep, I wilt understand,” Alberta offered with a disappointed smile.

“If I must, I must,” Thomas agreed. Alberta nodded to each of them before giving her war horse a gentle kick to either flank. Povunoth trotted down the hillside a few determined paces before galloping through the grass. Thomas watched her ride wistfully. He sighed, and turned to regard his Prime Minister with confidence. “What news do you have for me?”

“An envoy from Lord Jaran Calephas arrived an hour ago. He brought with him a detailed report on the fortifications along the Marchbourne and what it will take to fully man and defend them. In short, he is asking for us to supply him with the money he’ll need to hire the men to repair some of the fortifications, especially along the eastern border, and to man them once complete.”

“So Jaran Calephas wants more money. Why doesn’t that surprise me,” Thomas muttered. The Lord of Giftum had always been willing to listen to whoever would line his pockets. While Jaran lacked the despicable tastes of his older brother Garadan, he could still prove to be a thorn in Metamor’s side. That Giftum was the first line of defence against an attack from the South made it essential that Thomas could rely on him.

Malisa bore an unpleasant moue. “The envoy did bring with him sketches of what Jaran intends to build. He wants to build a fortified wall in the five mile stretch between the river and the mountains.”

“There’s an old Suielman fort at the base of that ridge,” Thomas mused. “Does he mean to repair that too?”

Malisa nodded. “That is his intention. He’s had a small force of men there for years, but only enough to warn Giftum if an army decided to pass that way.”

“And the only other way into the Northern Midlands is to cross the Marchbourne, or to sail across the Sea of Stars.” Thomas rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, he will need more money, I suppose. But I think we can do better. Do we have enough men to spare to maintain that fort?”

Malisa shook her head. “Not by ourselves. We lost too many in the assault.”

“True. But I do not want to rely solely on Giftum to defend the southern pass. Let us make a show of good faith. Inform the envoy that we will send a compliment of pikemen, archers, and knights each to help defend that pass.”

“He may not like that. He’ll say that his soldiers will not be comfortable standing with Metamorians.”

Thomas waved his hand negligently. “After our men and his fight side by side, it won’t matter what we Metamorians look like. Further, he can hardly refuse the offer of more men along with the money.”

“Jaran will believe it is because we do not trust him,” Malisa cautioned.

“And he is right, we do not trust him. He has for too long entertained envoys from Kelewair. He has sworn fealty to the House of Hassan, and I will make sure it is in his interest to keep that vow.”

Malisa nodded and bit at her lip. Her eyes wandered down to one side, obviously ruminating on everything her adoptive father had said. Finally she met his gaze and asked, “Would you like to meet with the envoy before he returns to Giftum?”

“Yes, tonight. Have Thalberg arrange a private dinner. I will want to see the plans that he brought from Lord Calephas too.”

“It will be done.” Malisa looked across the field and narrowed her gaze. Thomas followed her eyes and smiled. Alberta had taken a long, fallen branch and was practising a tilt with Povunoth. “I am sorry that I disturbed you both this day, Father. I know it has been some time since you have been outside Metamor.”

Thomas shrugged. “The defence of our home always takes precedence. Speaking of which, has there been any word of Habakkuk and Matthias? It has been almost a month now since they left, and I am eager for any news.”

“Sadly, there is no news.” Malisa sighed heavily. “I fear it is too soon to hear anything at all. If they all perished in the mountains, we would never hear of it. We can only hope that they are all right.”

“And pray,” Thomas agreed sullenly. “In the meantime, we will do the best we can to protect Metamor.”

“That we shall.” Malisa stared across the sward towards Dame Artelanoth. A small smile played on her lips, one of bittersweet yearning. “She is quite lovely, Father. I can scarcely believe that is the same woman. But she is quite lovely.”

Thomas smiled and let a pleased sigh escape his snout. “That she is. I have never seen a finer lady than her.” And for several minutes, neither Malisa nor he said anything more.

Eldwater was a moderately prosperous city in northern Pyralis. Malger had been there before in his youth and had little difficulty in directing them to a welcoming Inn. The Innkeeper was a reasonable man who was only too glad to trade the entertainment of a travelling bard and his apprentice for a few warm meals and a cozy room in which to spend the night.

The trio had arrived in Eldwater shortly after the noon hour. Vinsah had never been in Western Pyralis, and so found himself marvelling at the pleasant homes built with wide balconies and open porticos. And those were the modest homes of the merchants. The prosperous built their homes in the inner part of the city on the largest bluff. Wide terraces and Suielish arches dominated their façade.

At first he was surprised to see such open air construction. But then he drew his tongue back into his snout to stop panting. Ever since they had crossed the Silvassan river, Vinsah had noticed the air becoming very warm, almost unbearably so. He embarrassed himself several times when Malger had noted that he panted like a dog. The marten was no better, as Vinsah caught him doing the same from time to time.

The Inn was blessedly cool, and while Vinsah reclined in their room organizing their equipment with Sheyiin’s assistance, Malger went to the dockyards to find a ship that would agree to transport them down the river. After making sure their belongings were in good order, the raccoon Bishop had settled down to read from the Canticles. Malger was gone so long that he even secreted a look into Akabaieth’s journal. He opened the journal to the beginning, but after a few minutes, he began to feel uncomfortable. There had been nothing enlightening in his dead master’s words, at least nothing that he’d been able to understand.

Malger returned shortly before dusk bearing news that he had charted passage upon a small vessel that was heading downstream in the morning. With that good news in mind, the two of them went to the common room and played a few songs for the other guests. Malger changed instruments between each song, while Vinsah was left to keep the beat on the drums, or to attempt to carry a tune with the piccolo. He felt far more confident about his rhythms than his tunes.

After an hour or two of keeping the many people who had come for an evening meal happy, Malger and Vinsah ceased their performance to take a bite. The Inn keeper served freshly poached bass and a plate of warm noodles, and they both ate heartily. Sheyiin had been told to remain in the room upstairs, so Vinsah had brought her a plate before starting his own meal. It was going to be difficult enough making the trek through Pyralis, but now they had to worry about hiding one touched by the curses of Metamor. They were both grateful that they had come as far as they had. On the boat it should be safe enough.

“Ah, that was a fine repast,” Malger said with an air of satisfaction. He was picking a bit of fishbone out of his teeth with one claw. The illusion made it look as if he were rubbing his teeth with his fingers. He’d grown accustomed to understanding what was being hidden by the skunk’s magic.

“Indeed. It has been some time since I’ve had fish cooked so well.”

Malger laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back. “It is one thing that Pyralis is known for, its fish. There are only a few landlocked cities in this country. Everywhere else you can expect to have fish at some meal during the day. It is one thing that is lacking at Metamor. The river has enough, but unless you caught it yourself, it is far too expensive.”

Vinsah patted his belly and pushed his empty plate forward. One of the servants would see them and collect them soon. “That is the way of things in Yesulam too. The Yurdon river abounds with fish.”

Malger frowned and stared across the common room. With the evening meal done, many were now beginning to drink deeply into their cups. In another few hours, Vinsah could play the most hideous discords imaginable and nobody would notice. The raccoon did not like playing for inebriated crowds. They were far too rowdy, and they wanted the most licentious songs that Malger could conjure up. It always embarrassed him to hear the marten singing about maidens laying with several men at once, or soldiers tricking innocent women into bed. But he had to admit, they worked better to keep the drunk amused than an Ecclesia hymn would.

“We’ll want to start playing again soon. Another fifteen minutes so our bellies can settle, and then we should warm up. The crowd is quiet enough we can start with a few Pyralian ballads I know. You won’t have any trouble keeping the beat with them.”

Vinsah nodded and drummed his claws on the table. “That’s good. You aren’t going to sing the Lass of Pallowtree again are you?”

Malger flashed him an lecherous smile, though one that Vinsah knew was for show around the priest. “Why that’s one of the best! We’ll wait until their good and drunk.”

Vinsah laughed and shook his head. He wondered exactly how much penance he’d need to do for participating in this ruse, but at the moment he wasn’t worried. Though he would likely never travel in this manner again, he’d always look back on these last few months with nostalgia.

The marten made a face and shifted about in his seat. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to attend to something.” He did not wait for Vinsah’s reply, but shot up from his seat and went for the stairs. From the way that Malger walked, Vinsah knew that he was looking for a chamberpot.

He sighed contentedly and leaned back in his chair. The main doors of the Inn opened and allowed a group of knights still dressed in oil-smeared mail to enter. They were laughing, and Vinsah could tell from their gait that they were already drunk. Vinsah watched them move through the room, nearly knocking several chairs over in the process as they found an unoccupied table. They shouted for ale. From the scent of grime they carried with them, Vinsah surmised that they had just returned from a patrol. Despite their inebriation, the priest felt a little more comfortable when he saw the green Yew tree upon their tabards.

The sound of the plates being collected brought Vinsah’s eyes to his own table. Sheyiin was very quiet, and he had not heard or seen her coming down the stairs. The raccoon wondered if Malger had seen her on his quest for intestinal relief. But he could certainly smell the soft vibrance of her musk. It was the only thing that gave her away. He smiled to her. “You don’t have to do that you know.”

“I have finished my plate, and you have finished yours. It is my place to collect them,” Sheyiin replied. She was always straight forward. She saw her place in life as that of servitude. Whether her chosen master liked it or not. Vinsah had met people like her before, and knew that the best thing that one could do was to allow them to serve.

“In that case, just leave them on the bar.”

She nodded, and he could see past the cowl of her cloak to the narrow pointed face within. She did not smile, but she didn’t have to. Her satisfaction came in the smile of her master, and that was now the marten.

Vinsah reclined comfortably in his seat. His tail was drawn between his legs to keep a passerby from accidentally brushing against it. He ran one paw along the end, feeling that which he could not see. He then rested his paws at his side and just listened to the sounds of a prosperous Inn at night. Overhead bright lamps swayed back and forth as if they were already sailing on the sea.

The Inn was filling up with people. Many were sailors enjoying a night on land, while there were several merchants who kept in the corners of the room to discuss their plans privately. Vinsah could hear their whispering voices over the din, but just barely.

The loudest were the four knights that had just arrived. They laughed and shouted for ale, all the while making rather lewd remarks about the barmaids. Nearly as loud was the Innkeeper who was shouting at his staff to keep working hard. His voice was professional though, with none of the cruelty that they had witnessed in Master Aq of Aghen.

Thinking of that hamlet only made Vinsah wonder what had happened to Kozaithy the disfigured woman that they’d directed to Metamor. He hoped that she had been able to find her people.

Vinsah sat up sharply when he heard Sheyiin’s yip. “Let me go!”

He turned and saw that one of the knights had grabbed her by the wrist. Her cowl had been knocked back and he was laughing. “Look at the beast I found! A spy from the monsters she be, and we know what to do with spies!”

“Unhand her, knight,” Vinsah declared in a loud voice. He felt a great anger swelling within him. “She is no spy, let her go.”

The knight was a man in his late twenties, with a scraggly black beard and tight curly black hair. His eyes were coarse and full of bile. His three companions were getting up from their seats, mazer’s of ale knocked over, the froth spilling onto the floor. Everyone had turned to watch them. One of the Innkeeper’s servants ran out the front door.

“Shut up,” the knight snapped. He gave Sheyiin a firm shake. She slashed out with her other paw and the claws raked against his face. She drew blood, but only a shallow cut. The man let out a shriek and backhanded her with his free arm.

“Don’t you dare touch her!” Vinsah shouted, standing up to his full height. The yew tree pendant was visible around his neck. “In the name of the Ecclesia I demand that you let this woman go.”

“Woman?” the man blurted. “This is a demon from the North! We should kill her!” Several of his knights chorused him, and Vinsah felt the hackles rising on the back of his head.

“She suffers the curse of Metamor,” Vinsah said. “She is no demon, but an innocent woman who serves her master faithfully and with devotion. You are a knight of the Ecclesia. You are supposed to show mercy to the oppressed and downtrodden. Now let her go. If you touch her again...” Vinsah stopped because he realized he could not make any threats of reprisals. He was a Bishop without a flock travelling as an apprentice minstrel. He had no authority whatsoever to do anything to these men.

“Who in all the hells are you? Her friend?” The knight gave Sheyiin another shake, but the vixen was no longer responsive. Her head slumped against her chest, and Vinsah feared she’d been hurt by the blow.

“I don’t want any nonsense in my tavern,” the Innkeeper declared from behind the bar. “Take that thing outside.”

Vinsah spun and stamped his boot. “You promised us lodgings in return for our performance. She is our bonded servant and must stay with us.”

The Innkeeper frowned uncomfortably but could not think of what to say next. He eyed the fox warily, grunting unhappily. The knights laughed drunkenly, and the first pushed Sheyiin to one of his friends. He then stood before the priest and crossed his arms. “Now who are you little man to tell me what to do?”

“I am Elvmere of the Ecclesia, travelling as apprentice to Malger the minstrel. And you will let her go.”

Vinsah saw the man’s arm move for only a moment before he felt the sharp lance of pain in the side of his head. He fell backwards against the floor, the sting racing through his mind. The world spun and he blinked away spots of white and black that flashed in his eyes. He could hear gasps around the room and startled cries. As he stared at something blurry that lay on the ground before him, he felt a fear building in his chest. That was his yew medallion lying on the planks a few feet from him. He’d lost his illusion.

Vinsah scrambled backwards even as he heard the knight cry out, “He’s a demon too!!” Vinsah snagged the medallion in his hairy paws, his tail bunched around his legs. He snarled in bestial anxiety, the side of his snout smarting from the blow.

“I’m no demon! I’m cursed from Metamor like her,” Vinsah declared hotly. In his heart, he knew they were in terrible danger.

The knight drew his sword, a sick gleam filling his eyes. “Time to die, demon.”

And then, the sparkling tip of a slender blade found a home nestled against the knight’s exposed throat. A second blade was pressed beneath his mail shirt into his side. The wielder of those blades hissed as he spoke. “Let her go, or you will die before your body hits the ground.”

The knight snarled, his sword still clutched in his right hand. But Malger was at his left, and there was nothing he could do. The knight who held Sheyiin pulled out a dagger and pressed it against her throat. “Oh you really don’t want to do that,” Malger said, his voice low and ominous.

“The way I see it,” the first knight spat, “there are four of us, and three of you, demon. Put your swords away or she dies.”

Malger pressed the tip more firmly against the knight’s throat. Blood began to bead at the tip of his blade. “No,” Malger said, his voice so menacing that Vinsah feared he would witness anew the slaughter at the travelling sideshow that had left Sheyiin in his service. “You let her go now or you die. If she dies, your friends will lie next to you.”

The knight held his breath, his face a mix of hate and rage. But there was something new in it – fear. Vinsah scrambled back up to his hind paws, the yew pendant clutched in his paws. He could not even think straight enough to put it back on. He wondered how many seconds Malger would give them, and whether these knights were clear-headed enough to do the right thing. He still could not believe that he’d been smacked – he a man of the cloth!

The door to the Inn was flung open and several soldiers bearing swords with the Eldwater crest on their tunics rushed in. They eyed the scene before them warily. Into their midst stepped a broad shouldered man whose shoulders sported silver epaulet. “Sir Danel, this is twice in one month I have been called because you cannot handle your ale. Put your swords away now or I will risk the Ecclesia’s ire when I bring them your head.”

The knight snarled, eyes never leaving the minstrel. Malger remained calm, pushing the tip of his blade into the man’s neck. A little more blood began to run down the sword’s length.

The Captain of the city guard crossed his arms. Some of his men exchanged their swords for crossbows. Vinsah tensed as he saw them levelled across the room at Sir Danel and Malger. “I don’t know who you are stranger,” the Captain said in a measured but commanding voice, “but if you do not desist, I will have you skewered before Danel’s blood touches the ground. All of you, sheathe your swords now.”

The first to relent was the knight clutching Sheyiin. He let the fox woman slump against the table as he backed up several paces. He put his dagger into its sheath and then held his hands outwards. The other two knights backed off along with him, trying to get out of sight of the Captain and his men.

Malger took a deep breath, and then sheathed his second sword. His eyes never left Sir Danel as he stepped back, the tip of his sword still nestled against the knight’s neck. On his third step back, he lifted the tip from the knight’s neck. After the sixth step, he wiped the bit of blood along his trouser leg before returning the blade to its scabbard.

“Sir Danel?” the Captain called. Already the tension in the room had begun to wane. Vinsah took his first breath in what felt like minutes.

The knight stood up straighter. He spat citral and glowered at the bard and the raccoon behind him. He sheathed his sword and then turned on the Captain. “I was just doing my duty to protect this land from demons, Cap’n. You can see we’ve got two of them here, and I bet that man over there is one of them as well.”

The Captain examined the fox who was stirring and shaking her head to clear it, and then he gazed at Vinsah. “What manner of creature are you?”

“I am a man just like any of you,” Vinsah said. “I have suffered the spells of Metamor, and that is what has made me appear as I do. But I am no demon. Nor is she.”

The Captain nodded slowly, but his voice was hard. “I have heard of the curses of Metamor. And because of that, I do not believe you to be a demon. Nevertheless, I want you three to leave Eldwater.”

“We have chartered passage on a boat sailing down the river in the morning,” Malger said pointedly. “We have no intention of staying.”

The Captain glowered at the knight before turning that glare upon the minstrel. “You do not understand. I want you to leave now.”

“But our supplies!” Vinsah barked, surprised at this man. First he had saved them, and now he was driving them out of town.

“You may gather your supplies, but I want you out of this Inn in five minutes. You may board your boat, but if I find you on the streets of Eldwater in an hour’s time, I will arrest you. Is that understood?”

Malger nodded his head. “We will leave and trouble you no more. Come Elvmere, Sheyiin, let us collect our things.” Malger stalked back towards the stairs at a fast gait. There was a carefully masked look of fury upon his features.

Vinsah looked back once to watch the Captain accosting the knight one more time. “Men, Sir Danel will need help getting to the stockade.”

“The what?” Danel blurted, his eyes wide.

“You heard me. This is twice in one month. There will not be a third. Now move. The rest of you return to your barracks, unless you wish to join your friend at the stockade.” The other knights looked at each other and then rushed for the door as quickly as they could.

The three of them went up the stairs to their room. Vinsah realized that he was trembling. “I’m sorry, I tried to stop them.”

“They were drunk, there was little you could do.”

“But they were Ecclesia knights. They aren’t supposed to do that! They... they struck me... a priest!” Vinsah realized a moment later that he was chittering like a frightened animal.

“Men are men no matter who they serve, your grace,” Malger replied as he pushed open their door. “Whether in Sathmore or in Pyralis, they are all the same.”

“I am sorry,” Sheyiin said, her voice quiet. “It was my fault. I thought to return my plate, and they stopped me. Forgive me, master. I did not listen to you.”

Malger grunted and closed the door behind them. “There is no time for this. Get your things. I only hope we will be able to board tonight. I fear we will not find any beds quite as comfortable as these for some time.” He slung his pack over his back. “And Elvmere, you might want to put your pendant back on.”

The raccoon looked down at his paw and saw that the yew tree was still clutched between his fingers. Still chittering anxiously, he draped the necklace over his head. Looking like a human gave him no comfort. His cheek was already bruising.

The morning dawned free of clouds over the Southern Midlands. The army of Duke Titian Verdane woke with the rise of the sun. Broad grassy fields which were once the home of sheep were trampled beneath the boot of the red-breasted soldiers under the Duke’s command. Red banners bearing the black mask of the wolf flew on poles around the camp. Nearly a thousand men clustered on those rolling hills south of Kelewair. Some were boys fresh from the farm whose heads were full of grim tales of blood and battle. Others were seasoned veterans who had no love for what was to come.

And some, like the Duke himself, were just frantically trying to keep the pieces of their lives together.

Titan Verdane had been awake for a full two hours before the sun had risen. He rarely slept well when on a campaign. His red hair was dishevelled and his clothes were not much better. While he poured over a map of his lands an older page was furiously trying to redo the badly tied lacings of his surcoat.

His tent was spacious, with embroidered curtains to wall off three rooms from the main audience chambers. In one was his personal bedchambers and belongings. A second held his private food supply and wine with which he could entertain the other nobles that rode in his column. The third was for planning strategy, and it was in this that he now stood with two other men.

The first was his elder son Jaime. Jaime also possessed bright red hair – the birthmark of a true Verdane – though his was in better shape than his father’s. Jaime served as the Lord Mayor of Kelewair, and he brought his own compliments of horsemen, archers, and pikemen. The third figure was Lord Barruw Grenholt of Mitok. Mitok was directly east of Kelewair, and Lord Grenholt had responded immediately to Verdane’s request for assistance in putting an end to the feud between the Guilford and Dupré families.

Mitok’s chief contribution to the prosperity of the Southern Midlands was her wool. They were a city of shepherds and merchants, and sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between the two. Even the house of Grenholt had once been a family of shepherds, but Verdane’s grandfather had invested Barruw’s grandfather to keep the city loyal to Kelewair. Barruw himself had spent many days learning the trade of the shepherds, as one could see by his strong callused hands and sometimes coarse speech.

Barruw was not able to bring as many soldiers to join their army as Duke Verdane would have liked, but being so close to the border of the Outer Midlands, to leave Mitok defenceless would have been an act of folly.

But now the army was riding south towards Haethor. They had sent messengers to Lord Marion Thrane too, but messengers from Lord Dupré had arrived first. The word that Verdane had received was that Thrane was readying his soldiers to join the Dupré household in their war with Masyor. Haethor was a week’s ride south of Kelewair, and Verdane could not afford to have an army at his back that he could not trust.

“Our scouts have said that Thrane has not yet moved his troops,” Jaime said once the page had finished with Verdane’s surcoat. “If he is really preparing for war, he is taking his time about it.”

“Maybe he reconsidered after your messages arrived,” Grenholt suggested. He stood taller than either Verdane, but the way he hunched forward made him appear shorter.

“No,” Titian murmured thoughtfully. “If he reconsidered, why did he not send a message acquiescing? No, he still plans to fight. For whatever reason he has not left Haethor. The question is, do we wait until he has left his walls to meet him, or do we trap him in the city?”

Both Jaime and Barruw frowned as they considered that question. “He may leave with his troops today,” Barruw pointed out.

“Maybe,” Verdane admitted. “But if we near Haethor before he has left, he will stay behind his walls. How many days yet do we have before he will be able to see our forces?”

“A few more days,” Jaime replied as he drew a line across the map north of Haethor. Between Haethor and Kelewair were fields for sheep and cows like the one their army was camped within. Like Mitok, Haethor was a land of farmers, shepherds and merchants. Though the city was set against the northern border of the old Herstal Forest, none expected it to produce much lumber.

In the days of the Suielman Empire, the forest had stretched all the way to the Sylvan mountains in the east and the Godswood in the South. It had been named for the last Proctor who had ruled those lands before the Empire’s final collapse. The trees that lived there were old and large, but in some cases they appeared sickly and deformed. Many had suggested the trees had been twisted to encourage men to ignore what remained of the forest. Voices haunted those woods, and little game was to be found under its boughs. Whatever the reason, the Thrane family had never sought to cultivate the woods, and all roads passed around the forest.

And this meant that if Duke Verdane’s forces caught Thrane outside his city, he’d have nowhere to go. And it would save them the trouble of threatening a siege. But he would not wait for Thrane to move if that meant keeping his army waiting another week while other lands flocks to the Dupré and Guilford banners.

“A few more days,” Titian muttered. “And he has his own riders that will bring him news of our approach.”

“We’ve already waylaid four such men,” Barruw pointed out, pride leaking into his voice. “If there are any others, they will not outrun my horsemen.”

Jaime shook his head. He leaned over the map, resting his elbows on the table as he studied the land. “I fear that unless he leaves his castle today, we will have to face him in his walls. We did not bring enough engines to mount a proper siege. And we dare not risk making any when we arrive.”

“Because of the spirits in Herstal Forest?” The Duke asked, surprised that his own son would believe in such fairy tales. He had brought him up to be a practical Follower, not one given to superstition. Not that Titian did not believe in evil, malicious spirits; he just did not fear their power. No Follower ever should.

“The soldiers will not want to go into a haunted wood,” Jaime pointed out a trifle defensively. “And the last thing we wish to do is sow dissension in our own ranks before Lord Thrane.”

“Your grace?” the page’s voice called from one corner of the curtain.

Titian buried the sigh of frustration in his throat. “What is it, Alen?”

The boy of eleven swallowed and replied, “There’s a messenger here to see you, your grace. Messenger from the Steward.”

Titian nodded. “Send him in.”

A young man of sixteen years entered the small room in the Duke’s tent. He was covered in sweat from a hard ride and stank of horse. In his hands he held a brass scroll case bearing the wolf crest of the Verdane house. “Steward Apollinar told me to deliver this to you with all haste, your grace.”

“Thank you,” Duke Verdane took the scroll case in his hands. His signet ring unlocked the one end. The scroll inside was on fresh parchment. He could still smell the ink. With a flick of his eyes he dismissed the messenger. The boy slunk back outside bowing the whole way.

“What does he say, Father?”

Titian felt his hands tense as he read the message. In only the last few days his servant had received word from several other cities in his lands. And the news was worse than he’d feared. Fury filling him, he let the scroll drop to the map. It curled up tightly and rolled back and forth over the Midlands.

“We are too late. Civil war is breaking out, and all we can do is stop the bleeding. I fear that in another month, the western lands will be rife with blood.” He met the shocked gaze of his son and Lord Grenholt. “Llarth has already sent its troops north towards the Marchbourne in support of Lord Dupré. Weislyn and Brassem are siding with Lord Guilford, and will be sending their armies south. They will not be able to cross the Marchbourne with Llarth’s army on its shore. If Ralathe sends its troops to aid Dupré, then Lord Guilford will be crushed in a month.”

Both Jaime and Barruw remained silent for several long seconds as they digested this news. Barruw ran his fingers through his beard. “Well, if so, the civil war will be at an end.”

“Yes, at an end, and Lord Dupré will have under his control an army capable of turning on Kelewair. He knows I will try to stop him. He may feel he has no choice but to turn on us. We cannot stop the forces heading for the Marchbourne. But we can keep Ralathe from siding with Mallow Horn.”

“How?” Barruw asked, his face perplexed. “We cannot risk showing Thrane our backs while we march to Ralathe.”

“And we won’t,” Verdane replied, feeling strength fill his words. “Lord Thrane will have an opportunity to join us in this fight. If he does not, I will make him regret his choice of allies. Give me quill and parchment. I am going to send a rider to Haethor telling Lord Thrane that I am coming and I expect him to be prepared to join me. Send orders to break camp immediately. We are going to march south as quickly as we can. I expect to be in Haethor in five days. Another day more and Thrane will join his army to ours or there will be a new house in the Midlands.”

Lord Grenholt sucked in his breath. Even Jaime appeared distraught at his father’s suggestion. “How can you hope to have him arrested or killed while he holds his castle?”

Verdane smiled, but there was no pleasure in it. This was a grim smile, one that was set on its course, but knew that it would take him to a dangerous place that few men would ever dare tread. “I do not believe Lord Thrane would surrender by my order, nor am I foolish enough to believe his men will obey my orders. I am a man and they will see what arms I have, and know that they may be able to wait me out. In fact, if Thrane is traitorous, he may wish to do that very thing. But there is one thing that his men will fear worse than me or worse than their lord’s punishment. They fear the unknown.”

Jaime began to smile too. “The forest! I see it now father, Thrane will surely join you rather than risk what you will do. But what then?” Jaime asked, his eyes glancing between the map and his father.

Titian stood a little taller. “And then we march on Ralathe.”

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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