Chapter 20

Tabia lead the way toward Erridda. Out of the three, she was the only one that had been to the stronghold. The occasional breeze would shake the branches and make them forget that the snow had tapered off around midmorning. The sun stayed hidden between the clouds ruining hopes for a warmer day of travel. As they progressed, the trees themselves had gotten taller and the flora had gotten denser. About midway through the day, Oren picked up on the decline in both visible wildlife and signs of their presence.
A silence was growing as they continued on the path. Tabia and Martell agreed that there was something amiss. Martell did not sense any sprites when Oren asked her to check. Oren did not notice anything different in the spirits. Tabia agreed that something was off, but did not know what. As a precaution, Martell got on her remaining bits of armor.
The trio progressed cautiously with horse in tow. They took turns jumping at the most random of forest noise in anticipation of an ambush. The day ended with no encounter and everyone on edge. It was a restless night that followed.
The next day progressed much like the prior, with the sun remaining hidden all day. It was late afternoon when the menace reared its head. A lone figure emerged some distance ahead of them and spoke, “These are my woods; you must pay to travel through or turn back now.” The voice was gravelly and forced. Two flames appeared above him, they slowly morphed into the shape of ravens on fire.
Oren took in the man’s appearance; he looked as tall as an ogre but far less distinguishable characteristics. It was almost like Senkoo’s skill to hide, but the energy radiated from within him. He was not calling on spirits to aid him. There were two piercing red eyes that glowed at them. “What is your toll for passage?”
“Varelle’s servant.” This time the voice hissed out, its eyes growing larger.
“I am sorry but we cannot part with our companion,” spoke Oren.
“You can’t pass.” The voice changed to back to the more gravelly sounding. The birds of flame moved closer to Tabia. “You must now pay to leave these woods.”
Martell moved closer to Tabia, her swords drawn in a defensive stance.
“We will not pay you any fee or toll for movement from this place.” Oren spoke defiantly. He was trying to figure out his next move.
“Then you will all pay,” it hissed again. The flaming birds dove at Tabia and Martell.
Martell swung at the birds as the closed in, disrupting their flight, but other than that causing no harm to them. They flew past the ladies and then repositioned to attack from two sides at once. The pair dove in at them. Martell swung at one while the other zipped by and seared the Tabia’s robes.
Oren tried to push back whatever spirits were serving their foe, but it had no effect.
“You are the one who drew me to you,” it spoke to Oren. “You woke me from my sleep in these woods and reminded me of what I desire. Now you try to push me away without even a snack.” The voice did not sound like it came from the shadowy figure, but was talking to him in his head.
Oren moved away from the women, trying to have the man’s attention on to himself.
The flaming birds continued their assault on Martell and Tabia. Tabia knelt down and started chanting a hymn to Varelle. The birds dove again at the two but this time stopped short, as if the song was interfering with their desire to continue attacking. Martell took the small distraction as a moment to make sure Tabia’s robes were not on fire. She could see that Tabia’s song contradicted the pain she saw on her face.
The figure moved after Oren hissing, “If you called and have nothing to give us then we will take you.” Within a blink the figure moved next to him. As it raised its arm he saw the hand transform into a blade. The creature swung down at Oren. He countered with his staff, blocking the blade. The blade dented the metal band on the staff. Oren then took a quick step to give him distance to swing with a counter attack. The staff hit the mark, but felt to Oren as if he had hit a pillow.
The attacking birds were slowly weakening in defined shape. With each approach to Tabia’s song, their fire faded in intensity. Martell was uncertain as to how much longer Tabia would keep this up as she could hear breaks in her voice.
Oren’s adversary swung again at him, and Oren tried to call spirits to shield him but none answered his call. He blocked again with his staff.
“You want us sent away, then you call us to do your bidding. You are a confusing human.” The figure hissed. “We are already here, the others fear us. Now spill your blood so we may feed.” There was another swing at Oren. This time distracted by the words spoken to him he was hit in the right arm. The cut left behind was cold and painful.
The birds had dissipated. Before running over to assist Oren, Martell checked on Tabia, confirming she was tired, but okay.
As he looked down at his wound, Oren saw the ring on his hand. He focused as best he could on it, commanding his assailant to back down. It wheeled backward, as if something had pulled it off balance. It raised its arm to strike at Oren again, but Oren commanded it to halt. Mid swing the spirit creature stopped. “You will halt your assault and go back to your slumber.” Oren vocalized.
The creature shuddered as it started to lose shape. “You cannot banish me so easily. I will have my reward for answering your call.” The creature hissed and lurched forward at Oren.
Oren grunted, feeling fatigue from focusing. Blood started to flow from his wound and drip down his hand. “You will retreat back to your slumber and harm no more. No one here will be your payment.”
“Command him to rest in your staff Oren. It will obey.” Martell shouted. Oren looked vexed by the command from her. “Trust me on this. I will explain later.”
The creature looked at Martell, then to Oren. “Do as she says and I will feast on what you provide,” this time going back to its gravely sounding voice.
“I command you to rest in this staff. You will cease your assault and struggles against my friends and I.” Oren spoke as his staff came in contact with the creature. The creature slowly receded in size as Oren repeated his command. Tabia and Martell could see a greenish-white glow coming from the ring on Oren’s hand and the metal binding of the staff.
Once the creature was gone the two went over to Tabia to check on her wounds. Her skin was burned where the birds had touched, but otherwise she was not harmed. “What was that all about?” Tabia asked. “You were acting as if it was talking to you but I heard nothing.”
“Oren, would you care to explain what it was saying?” Martell commented. “I did not hear the words it spoke to you either. But I have read about beings like that.”
“I didn’t know you could not hear it.” Oren said with surprise in his voice. “Apparently it was a creature of spirits. Though, I have never seen one visibly like that before. He was asking for your life in exchange for passage through the woods. When I denied it, it then asked for it to leave the woods. If I understood Martell, it now resides in this staff.”
“You do not know as much as I thought you do Oren,” Martell responded. “When I saw you reading Penumbra of Nature, I thought you were further along than you are. In places where there are no wards there are spirits of great power. These types of spirits are one of the myriad of things wards protect against. In your practice one of your calls to summon spirits close must have reached this one’s ears. In exchange for answering your summons it expected payment. I think its language barrier was the reason it said toll.”
“That explains the conversation,” said Tabia, “But where did it go then?”
“The spirit is now in Oren’s staff. This is similar to an enchantment by an enchanter. I do not know if it is exactly the same. I had heard a channeler could request a spirit to assist him, but had not seen it done before. An enchanter would typically have to forge or craft the staff as he did the enchantment. Normally, this would be done with the assistance of one of a variety of Invoker’s lanterns available. They would then need the artisan or smith present to help with the crafting the final item. It would appear that Oren was able to add the spirit to an existing item and without the lantern. There is far more to enchanting than my summary, but that falls in to knowledge I lack.”
“Do you know how it was able to take a physical manifestation?” asked Oren. “It also may have been multiple spirits. There were two voices that it talked to me in. One was more chaotic and in search of blood while the other was slightly reasonable. It even agreed with Martell’s suggestion to have it rest in the staff.”
“It may have been the power from the multiple spirits that gave it form. But I do not know what allowed that,” responded Martell.
“Much is not understood of the spirits Martell,” spoke Tabia. “They are to be respected for their power according to the teachings of Varelle. It is my understanding that I was dwelling in their realm till you released me. Oren you seem to have an affinity or connection to them, is that correct?”
“Yes.”
“That connection is possibly the same as the first priestess of Varelle had and how she contacted her. Stories tell of her talking to shadows with red eyes, Servants of the Gods. To clarify, they were not the goddess Varelle, nor were they Casapaten, Latl, or Dahl. The gods transcend the spirits as they all use the servants. For the first several priestesses, this skill was mandatory, but things changed as the view of the servants changed. Somewhere around the thirty-fifth priestess, this ability was no longer sought out. It appears in the history that occasionally a priestess may be blessed to also communicate with the servants but for only short periods or times of need.”
“That continued with them after your time as well,” added Martell. “The one-hundred-eleventh priestess is the most recent one to have had the power. She was seen by many as the reason for the Temple of Avo being spared when the town was pillaged by The Mountain King when the Drémore Vales attempted to break from Iseb.”
“I would have guessed Varelle’s continuation in its use. I was never granted that favor of hers. I am still left with no knowledge as to why she has me guide you to Erridda. What I last recall of Erridda is the tall walls and the arrival of a fresh garrison of troops from Drémore Castle. I had been summoned to give Varelle’s blessing on the stronghold with the completion of construction. There was a kingdom to the southeast called Timus after the ruling family. At the time they completed the stronghold, Timus had a new king on the throne and he had already declared war on two of his neighbors. The Drémores were afraid they would turn north next.”
“They never did turn north,” Martell responded. “The kingdom of Timus was overrun with a plague from one of their campaigns south. It came back with the soldiers and spread from there. Drémore was so afraid of it reaching his kingdom that trade was cut off with Timus. There are accounts of anyone arriving from there being killed and the body burned. It was a sad state of affairs, if true. The kingdom of Timus fell apart from there. It is now several baronies and principalities, but they have not unified since that time. “

Advertisements

Byron Part 2

Byron spent the following morning retrieving money from various associates he had stashed it with. As he had suspected, a good number of his trustworthy friends had spent some of the money left to their safe keeping. He was not shocked by the lack in confidence they had in his ever coming to collect. He may have even done the same in their situation. To him it was but a set back,making the process take longer than the morning. After finishing up his collection and ducking questions about a fire at his manor, Byron headed down to the docks.

Byron made it with about an hour to spare. He was uncertain about the reason behind the schedule the captain kept. The Wind Farmer had a reputation for calm travel, all the way south down the coast. Odds were the ships enchantments went down to the boards themselves with the prices charged for travel. Yet it also meant that Byron was certain to be among a class of people that would benefit him in future business ventures.

As Byron approached, he was shocked to find Jorgan waiting outside the ship to board with him. “I did not know you had passage booked back to Siller Port.”

“I had not but when I inquired among the vessels in port, it took no time at all to find which you were sailing on. Besides at sea we should have better privacy to discuss our business. Briana and Koslo are on board. By the by, you are not planning any further fires?”

“Planning fires?” Byron asked.

“Koslo was quite put off by your lack of desire to save the manor. I explained it to him as just one of you eccentricities, brother.”

“Oh and do I have others?” Byron pressed

“Only one I recall is that you are not like other sane business men and have no faith in the banks, guild backed or other wise. There may be others but I doubt we need to talk in public about it,” Jorgan smiled. “Shall we board? We can head to your quarters and let the others know you have secured funding the expedition.”

“And you are certain I have?” prodded Byron.

“Quite, I know you and money. Never to far apart and never in short supply. I recall your first business went bust and yet you had convinced ten new people the following day to fund a new scheme. That one paid off and launched the series of events that got you where you are now. This all temporary set back as I have setup your next roll, as patron of the seer’s guild.”

Byron did not have a retort to any of this as Jorgan was right. Given a pocket of change, he would find a way to turn it into a growing business in a week. Prior to his brother’s arrival, he was off to the marches to become a salt trader, till he got the lay of the land. No doubt he could tap those he left behind here in the Hintort planes to setup some trade route of sorts. “You know me well brother. Let us meet my newest clients and be on with the venture.”

Arleth

It was a clear periwinkle sky
Cut by alabaster banners fly
Future fallen heroes marched
Crossing emerald fields and hills arched
Clad in shiny nickel armor
They indifferent to passing farmer
Hefting graphite lance and shield
They hunt amethyst dragon without yield

Captain on chestnut and milk mount
Pronounced in rousing shout
Promises of fortune and fame
And glory to those that Arleth maim
The salmon sun oversaw marching lines
On past pens of rosy swines

As time crept under tiring silver foot
They beheld the first of Arleth proud soot
Midnight char upon both structure and plant
The smell of dragon’s rage hardly scant
Soldiers’ scarlet heart than did race
As over ashen hill they spot her face

T’would not be so bad
If Arleth’s face did not look so glad
In dragon’s burning aurum eyes
Many man quaked in pending demise
Arleth next showed Ivory fang
Releasing fears of coming pang
Wings stretched out in taunting girth
Pushing adversaries to the earth
Arleth parted in fiery breath
Sending brave captain to his death

Spry sergeant backwards leapt
At survival he was more adept.
From honey bow did he reply
Letting ebony arrow fly
Would only take one shot
Landing in a narrow spot
But it would not be today
In the sky Arleth made her way

Byron part 1

Seek Varelle for your reward
Keeper of the glen and fjord
Rely on her to guide your path
Ease your fear of beastly wrath

It was all that was read before it was tossed on the burning pile. “Varelle, you have not guided me right in months,” Byron muttered. He looked around for anything else to feed the fire. While it was slowly starting to spread to the edge of the fire place, he was quite surprised how little his house actually wanted to burn. He had no particular dislike for the house and its contents. They were just casualties of his decision to burn it all down before disappearing into the night.

Byron had made the mistake many a merchant young and old do of investing in the wrong enterprise. In this case he had backed the wrong noble for ownership of a title. And though in his kindness Lord Forendide said he would spare the lives of those who had conspired against him, he had also proclaimed ownership of their possessions.

Lord Forendide would be by in two days and to take possession of his property from Byron. Byron, along with the several overs in the glen, had agreed to leave behind the worthless pile of ashes and head off at first light by ship to greener pastures. So now he stood vexed as to what he had to coax a flame to spread beyond the hearth to the walls. He had already drank his alcohol and the one book that had not been tossed on the fire was coming with him.

His concentration was broken by a rapping upon the door. Confused as to who would be calling at this hour, he grabbed his dagger off his desk and made his way out of his office.

There was a second knocking on the door, this time a bit more rapid and heavier. Byron made haste down the stairs and to the door. It was not as if there were any other residence to be disturbed by the late hour cacophony the caller was making. And yet he did a slight jog across the floor to hasten answering.

At the door, Byron called out before opening, “Who is knocking at this late hour?”

“Tis Jorgan, I have urgent news. Open up and be quick about it. I do not like standing out here in the night.”

Byron relaxed and unbolted the door. Opening it to find it was Jorgan, along with two others. flanking him. Standing a head shorter on Jorgan’s left was a stout balding woman. From her rust colored robes he could tell she was one of the seers, but not one he had met before. To Jorgan’s right, standing as tall as Jorgan, with a slender build, was a black haired man. Clean shaven and with a deep blue tunic depicting a hare, Byron took him as one of the Tuftom Knights.

“Sorry to call upon on you at this hour, and I will explain all to you as soon as we have a moment’s rest. I come with word from our brother Strom.”

“Come in then before someone sees you dawdling about out there.” Byron replied. “I have naught but water to offer you as I have finished the last of the wine with supper.” He led them to a room just off the entry and gestured for them to have a seat.

Byron went over to a pitcher and decanted drinks and continued, “I am planning on being out of town by morning so we had best make this quick.”

“Strom has come across a great opportunity, but it will require funding from you.”

“And this could not wait?” asked Byron.

“Um no,” replied Jorgan. “I know you are in a bit of a bind with current ventures and I had to talk before your credit was wiped out.”

“Go on,” Byron commented.

“We need a thousand, to fund an expedition to recover…”

“May as well be ten thousand,” replied Byron. ‘On that front you are too late. My accounts at the counting houses are closed and the merchants know the ass is coming to take what they could not.”

“But you have other ventures that have money,” pushed Jorgan. “And this is for the recovery of the seer’s staff. The oracle left at Da-kineth.”

Byron paused, before his mind went out on a hundred tangents of possibilities. This could be the sign he needed for way out of the pit he was in. “I have some funds available, it will take me all day tomorrow to get them and it may be short a few. Naturally we have to work out some finer points as to repayment will be for backing. Also I want to go along as there will little to occupy my time otherwise.”

The woman looked intently into Byron’s blue eyes. “You scheme, as all merchants do, and I sense no malice in your future. You will have your turn at the oracle’s benefits, but do not be dismayed when it gives visions of things you did not wish to see. I am Lady Briana of the seers. I look forward to our partnership. Also Sir Koslo over there and I shall be on the expedition.” Briana motioned with her hand at the Tuftom Knight.

Koslo sniffed the air, “Is that smoke? I think the house is on fire.”

“Yes, that would be smoke and I think it best we all leave the house.” replied Byron calmly.

“But surely we can put it out if it has not gotten far.” Koslo said with a confused look.

“No, I am certain it is a lost cause,” Byron Retorted. “Now out the door quickly.” He picked up a book from a table and started for the door. The other three took this finally as a sign he was serious and followed closely behind.

Tobin of Braques

He stood up on a four legs at the edge of the forest studying the silhouette of the city of Braques that lay before him. The moon had disappeared between the clouds hours ago, leaving him to find his way here more by smell than anything else. His ears perked up at the sound of the a cow mooing from inside the walls. He had been out in the woods for around ten days and was less than enthusiastic at the prospect of going to the city again. He enjoyed roaming the woods where he was lord over the wolves and only had the occasional tussle to maintain his rule. Despite all this. the city called him too. When he was there, he was lord Tobin of Braques, and also a loyal earl to the emperor. He could protect his lupine family from the deforestation that had once threatened them, while protecting the people’s livestock from them.

After a bit of contemplation, the he trotted on toward the city. Out in the open he could feel the tension in his shoulders growing, as if somebody may be watching. Glancing to his left, he could see the first pinks of sunlight creep through the tree trunks. As he got nearer the edge of the first farms, his shape started to morph, and by the time he was past the outer fields, he was walking upright. It was just a short distance further to where he had stashed his belongings. He hoped the curfew was still in effect and give him a few moments of privacy while he was exposed.

By the time he had gotten dressed, all traces of his feral attributes were gone. He now looked like any other a middle aged merchant from Braques. He left his clothes looking a little unkempt as it would play into his story of being lost in the woods, if his friend Stragove was not at the gates. When he knocked at the door, he was greeted by a young guard who was far more alert than the normal watch at this hour. He smiled when he saw Tobin and whispered, “I knew you were coming, I could smell you from the other side of the gate. You should really work a bath into your routine before coming back.”

“I will take that advice shortly, Stragove” replied Tobin he was relieved he did not need his alibi. “I take it all is well if you are on duty at this hour.”
“Yes, though the men still think it odd that a captain would take the gate watch at this hour. It is rather boring, and most of them want some interaction with people when they work.”
“If they only knew. I see you have the rotations setup right to. I got past without even one of them on the walls.”
“I followed your orders. I will cover that gap tonight. By the way, your sister is asking where you have been. You know she hates all the formal audiences you leave her to deal with, almost as much as she hates covering for your absence.” Stragove, had worked the gate open and let Tobin in.
“She could have taken up the offer to be the earl of these lands if she had married right.” Tobin entered the safety of the walls and quickly shook his head. “You smelled my approach over these odors?”
“Yes m’lord, only thing that smelled right for weeks.”
“I can imagine. Return to your watch, and see me when you are done. I have news from the pack to share with you. I will bathe and see where things now sit.”

Tobin sat eating a breakfast of dried meat and berries, when his sister, Tara, sat down next to him. “You better eat seconds this morning. We have a long day ahead of us, as tomorrow we leave for the Routh’s castle. I hope you got the wild out of your blood for a few days.”
“It is never out. This will never truly be home, and I do not know how you stand it.” Tobin retorted. “I will take your advice on the food, however. Forest was a bit scant on game. I think I am getting soft in the luxury here.”
“The people do not see you as soft. They do see you as fair, which is good. I heard over in Windclave, there was some inklings of revolt brewing. Seems the people prefer their Mistress to their Master.” Tara replied. “You enjoy your time out there with the boys, but do not know the amount effort I have to put in to keep them off me right now. I am in the prime of my life and they know it. I am much safer here, only have to keep Stragove and Klause at bay. They are far easier to handle in the wall s of the city.”

“Oh you still playing them off each other?”
“No, Klause is no longer interested. Stragove knows to keep his distance when you are here.”
Had Tobin not been so tired, he may caught something in her voice. “Do you know how many are making the trip with us? I know the normal twenty of the Emperor’s men will be there, but who else are we taking?”
“They are the only required people. I was thinking, some of the merchants may want to come along under our protection. It would make some good will for you with them. Also may give us a better network of connections.”
“Do you have a few in mind, ones we can trust?”
“Yes, I have scouted out three loyal ones. I know you are weary since the spy was found last year in our court, but I think these are ones we can trust.”
“They will not turn on us if they know our origins?”
“I cannot say that, but that is humans for you. I think Routh knew what he was doing when he reached out to you. It took him a couple years, but I think an alliance will be needed between all who call these lands home when the Emperor meets his demise.”
“Quite. So then, I take it you have the merchants set for a meeting today with me?”
“Silversmith Helena, Charles of trade house Wenthra, and Sabine the clothier. They are coming as a group, you are to put them at easy for safety and that the trip will be worth their while.”
“Will you tell me what you have already promised them?” Tobin prodded.
“Why, only that there is opportunity if they could spare some time,” Tara smiled, getting up from the table.
“So like always you rely on me to run with your scheme. And what makes you think they are loyal?”
“This,” she held up a small opal. “One of the treasures passed along by our lord. It is used for discerning intentions of others via the temperature and color it shifts to.”
“And you trust it? I do not accept these enchantments are all that we are told. I suspect spirits and demons at work here.”

Quiet settled in for the rest of breakfast, Tara was certain she had pushed a little too hard in her ambitions this morning. It was not her fault she saw the potential in a world beyond the forests they called home. If they stayed isolated here and the prophecy was true, who would ally with them if their nature came out? Her brother did not seem to worry about such things, and that bothered her more.

She looked out of the corner of her eye at him. He sat methodically cutting at his food, lost in his own thoughts. She gave it a few minutes more minutes before speaking, “We will join up with Earl Kanto and Herald in Hearthvale on the second day of travel. Have you given any thoughts to the proposal their envoys made?”

“You mean alliances in the case of unforeseen issues?” Tobin replied. “You know those two are the weakest of the earls. Kanto has at best another two years to live and Herald is a simpleton. Not to say I am a product of better breading than either.”

“Allies are allies, and it is not like you want to pick sides between Wilfred and Francis. Natalya and Flynn would be perfect for an alliance, but we have nothing to offer them. Johan, Byron, Robin, Garth, and I forget the rest, I know too little about to advise. Besides Kanto is who we make the alliance with, but I am putting the prize as his daughter. I saw her a few months back and I do see potential in her future.”

“I am surprised you forgot Timothy. His domain is productive farm land and near enough to the Ironblack Mountains to have a ready supply of metals.”

“Smallest in size after Wilfred, but none of the magic. What does it get us? We are fine here for food,” Tara replied

“And by size do you mean land? I am certain you would be auctioning your own hand in marriage if Routh had not forbidden the Earls from such actions among themselves.”

“My dear brother are you saying I have higher ambitions than a suite at the top of Braques keep?”

“Only socially,” he smiled. “But you must excuse me as I must go make ready for my audience with the merchants.”

Wilfred

Wilfred stood looking over the ramparts of Windclave. His hand was occupied with tossing a dagger up in the air and catching it. Despite the danger, he was not too keen on monitoring his success. He watched two farmers working their plow across a field. It had been three of them when they started, but since then one had left for some reason or another.

Casting his eye above them, he could see a winged beast flying toward them. It caused Wilfred to put down the dagger on the ground and pick up the crossbow sitting near by. He carefully loaded a glowing bolt into place and whispered, “Windclave needs protection.” The bolt started to glow a faint pinkish hue. Wilfred rested the crossbow on the wall to steady his arm. He took aim at the winged creature, and let the bolt fly loose. It flew across the sky with a whine in its wake till it hit its mark. There was an explosion of fire when the beast and the bolt made contact, and then nothing.

Wilfred put down the crossbow, and picked up the dagger. He went back to watching the farmers plow the field.

“Did I miss it?” asked a small boy running over to Wilfred.

“Yes, but there will be more. Not for a few more days, but there will be more.” Wilfred responded.

“Father, you promised I could see this time,” the boy stomped his feet and scowled.

“Reginald, be patient. When you are older you will realize this is not the type of thing to look forward to.”

Reginald crossed his arms, “You said the same thing about being an Earl. But now everyone refers to me as Lord Reginald. It is great!.”

Awarding of the title, Earl, had not changed much for Wilfred. He still was owner of the same lands, lord over the same people and commander of the same size military. He was pleased his cousin Routh let something trickle down to him, but wished it somehow had been something more than a title. So far it had come with more responsibility and an addition to the Windclave to accommodate the collections and dignitaries he was going to house. Wilfred was not keen that he now was the center for all the spies at Routh’s disposal. Then again who was his cousin to trust with as short a time as three months till his demise.

“I am sure it is, and in three years when you have more responsibilities you can tell me how great it is then.”

“Oh it will be fun, I can tell everyone what to do. And they won’t give you that questioning look as if I have no power.”

“That will not change my son. In the meantime, why not go check with the kitchen and see if they have prepared the bread I ordered them to make for you.”

Wilfred looked out over the wall as Reginald scampered off. He waited till he was out of earshot, then spoke “Fenton, no need to hide now. The boy is gone.”

“As always you anticipate my arrival,” A man covered in a red cloak spoke as he appeared from nowhere. The wind blew slightly at the opening of it letting the sun show a glint of his sword.

“I know you saw my shot, and that you were on patrol. Only a matter of time till you appeared.” Wilfred’s green eyes did not move off from the horizon as he talked.

“Right you are, guess I need to change my methods, becoming too predictable.” Fenton smirked,

“Perhaps. What do you think the odds are the manticores will try to find their friend?”

“I put the odd as not likely. They know our reach and better than to come this way anymore. I have to say I was surprised one showed up today.” Fenton looked out following Wilfred’s gaze. “You told your son another will come in a few days.”

“Sorry, thought I saw something.” Wilfred turned to Fenton. “I said that to keep the pup from complaining longer. Any word on more riders from the Emperor? I think we were shorted in the handouts of wealth some days.”

“Shorted is right, though it could be that you are a sorcerer or that you have a larger trove of enchanted items than the other earls.”

“Well I gladly would have given up some of it to trade places with another earl and have less of the manticores.”

“My Lord, would you really given up your brother’s lands he left you on his deathbed?

“He did this as a joke. My sister and Earl Fancy Pantaloons have the other half his lands on the other side of the mountain pass. That is nice fertile soil, and even has a few watch towers built outside the keep. We have to keep watch in the sky as we try to turn grain from the stone under our feet.”

“How many men do you think we need to take out the manticores?” Fenton asked, trying to steer the conversation.

“About a hundred more than what we got, if they are trained in that sort of thing. I estimate about ten nests currently up in the peaks, but we need to strike them all at once. If they get wise to us they will up and move their nests elsewhere in the same mountains.”

Wilfred and Fenton looked out toward the fields, where a white bird had just taken flight.

“There is lone rider from the Emporer coming. We had best make them feel welcome,” said Wilfred.

“You know it is a request for another item from our vaults,” Fenton teased.

“Always is,” Wilfred shot back.

Wilfred headed down to his chambers to properly receive the messenger. He winced with every step down the stairs as his left knee complained. It had been hammer during a fight two summers back that had caused the problem and still it showed no sign of improving. Wilfred had led a company of men to take on an ogre terrorizing some of his farmers. The ogre had brought along his goblin allies the day of the encounter and it was not a pretty outcome. Wilfred had escaped with only two others, while the ogre was slain with many of his goblins, he would hardly say either side won the encounter. So Wilfred slowly made his way down the stairs to his chambers, periodically cursing a long dead foe.

At the bottom of the stairs, Wilfred heard someone clear his throat. He turned to see an old man that came up to his chest. The old man’s grey hair was shoulder length and a mess, covering over one of his blue eyes. The man was clean shaven, and wearing long blue robes with a large golden vee embroidered on it with a dog or wolf above the right side and an owl above the left side. “Master Wilfred, a moment of your time, if it pleases you.”

“Be quick and walk with me as I am in a hurry,” Wilfred replied to the stranger.

“My name is Simon I represent a group of concerned people regarding the manticores. Is it not possible to slay the beasts and be done with the threat to the city? I saw you take down one today and it is not more than ten days since the last you took down by our accounts. And that is not counting for the attacks you or I may not be aware of…”

“Good Simon, I see you are from the Brotherhood of Osai, and I respect your rank. However I do not have a force at my command to go forth and deal with such things.” Wilfred did not make further eye contact, but did keep a pace to match his urgency, but still respect the mobility of Simon.

“I had heard rumors of such and would like to make available members of my order to bolster your abilities.” Simon smiled as he calmly spoke.

“How many do you have to offer and what is my cost, err donation to be?”

“Your donation would be use of land with in your fine city to build a new sanctuary. We will provide seventy able fighters and twenty scouts to help in the endeavors. This would also leave you to call upon us in the future should the need arise without further need of generosity on your part.”

“I see,” Spoke Wilfred as he got to the gate of the inner keep. “I must make ready for meeting someone else, may I contemplate your offer for the rest of the day?”

“Naturally, I understand your decisions cannot be made on the whim of the hour. I shall request a formal audience with you on the morrow and we can discuss then.” Simon bowed deeply his hands pressed together then spread apart by the length of his arms.

“As you can see my lord, the Emperor is not asking that you share the items in your vault, but give an accounting of them so he may divide up his resources fairly.” The messenger spoke as Wilfred looked over the papers.

“Yes, but the other Earls, are they giving similar accounts?”

“Of some, others like Herald and Natalya have no significant holdings coming from where they do.”

“My sister’s husband, Francis, is he giving an inventory of their lands?”

“The Emperor has made a request to them as well, my lord.”

“Can you give me an incentive to harboring more of his highness’s belongings here? So far I have part of a library, a score of archers, and some pretty pictures. Other than that I am at a loss as to what help I may expect by turning over a inventory of my vaults to him.” Though calm, the frustration in Wilfred was on the cusp of release.

“It is his desire for a fair division of power among the earls.” replied the messenger

“And he has advisors that can compare the value of a hundred men and mounts against a crystal that lights a room?”

“I am not privy to such knowledge, I am just the carrier of the message.”

“Yet you know he has made requests of the other Earls?” Asked Wilfred.

“Yes, as I am the one who delivers such documents.” The man replied, shifting his weight back and forth between his feet.

“And do you ride with their responses?” pressed Wilfred,

“My pardon, sir. I am humbly presenting that which I am asked to. If you would like I can return a message or request when I depart in the morning.”

“Very well, I shall draft something for your return trip. You, however, will be confined to the quarters for your stay, let your guards know if you need anything.” Smiled Wilfred. He motioned for one of his men to take the messenger away.

“Send in the next person,” ordered Wilfred

In came a bearded man cloaked in dark green clothing.

“And how can I help you today good sir?” asked Wilfred.

“It is I who can help you with your frustrations, Please listen to my suggestions” spoke the man. “I pose a way to assist you off of the emperor’s wrist. With short supplies you are in need of allies. I see manticore aboun’ but no help from the crown. I have legions in waiting for those who act without hesitating. Simply agree to follow plan and I will take nothing but loyalty from you clan.”

“Is it treason you speak in front of me and my men?”

“What men do you see where could they be?” smiled the man.

Wilfred looked around at the empty hall, “What magic are you pulling trickster?”

“I only show power so you know others will cower. You fret for your people as you feeble. I shall lend you my power to protect this tower. Mind you that if I am rejected your lands will go on dejected.”

“Yet you not introduce yourself?” Wilfred responded. “You ask me to name loyalty as a fee for your services and I already have made said agreement with the Emperor. I know the politics of his land, yet in yours I have the disadvantage. Could you ease my concerns on any of this I could contemplate an alliance.”

“Kelpie is my name and eventually you will know its fame. I honor my friends gift as it is their station I lift. Things take time I understand, tell no one else of this is my demand. I await your answer tomorrow’s eve, do not try me to deceive.”

Before Wilfred could respond, Kelpie was gone. The next thing Wilfred could recall was being roused in his chair, and told he had passed out after the messenger had left the room and only mere moments had passed.

Herald

Herald had not heard about the Prophecy of Routh till he became an Earl, but then again there was much Herald had not heard of. Herald was a curious fellow. He had somehow amassed a great fortune, been given the title of Earl and met the woman of his dreams in the span of four years. If you had asked anyone that had known him prior to that point if this would this happen to him, they would have broken down in laughter. The laughter was not at his ineptness to achieve any of it, but from his lack of drive to move beyond what was dictated by his parents. Prior to this, at the young age of thirty-two, Herald had not put forth the work to amount to more than the successor to his father’s dairy farm and maintain less than the status quo.

He was now Herald, Earl of Hearthvale. with a wife named Glinda twelve years his senior and more interest in running the land than him. She had originally accepted his proposal to improve her status in life, and had since realized a job governing suited her. Glinda accepted Herald’s faults as he somehow always lead her to a new discovery of what she was capable of. For example she took the birthing of two children as a challenge she was willing to take on in this time as well.

The appointment to Earl came as a shock to Herald, and was only his by luck of owning the land the farm was situated on. There was a big ceremony and some mumblings of it being in accordance with the prophecy. What he did know was he missed tending to the cows and roaming the pastures watching after them. Now he wandered courtyards slowly, listening to advisors updating on the status of his lands. Given the option he would have taken the cows.

It was now half a year till the prophecy was to pass and the Hearthville Keep was turning more into a castle as more activities were centralized here. Today he was to receive a company of the Routh’s elite men-at-arms. There captain, Yarden, was waiting in chambers for Herald to arrive. He had been briefed by Glinda on what was expected of him, but Herald still hesitated before entering.

He pushed open the doors to see someone standing in ceremonial silver armor waiting his audience. Herald took in the old fellow, noting the thick red hair on his head running down to his neck. From what he could see, he was from the Prowkin, a race of nomads with pointed ears on top of their head, light red hair covering the entire body, and a short pronounced snout. They were often found in service of the mercenary armies. Herald, had not been prepared for this to be his first encounter with one.

“My lord, I am here on behalf of his Highness, to serve.” Yarden bowed, then continued, “If you could direct me to the quarters my men and I shall be residing in?”

“Well met, Sir Yarden,” Herald responded. “Yes if you will follow me, I shall show you to the barracks.” Herald was aware he fumbled what should have been slightly more eloquently said. Also he was now aware he had taken on the duties of one of his pages, he looked for some way to recover. Then spoke up, “I trust your travel here was pleasant.”

“Yes, my lordship. The ride was very scenic, it reminded me of my homelands. I have not seen them in years, but still the vast fields bring back memories.”

Herald felt more at ease with that response; he noted Yarden seemed less tense. “I envy your adventurous spirit; I have never left these lands, as they do provide a certain peace and serenity. I hope the future does yield more of the same.”

“It was not adventure that leads my travels, but a desire to bring wisdom back to my people someday. In ten more years I will be expected to return and relay the wisdom life has handed.”

“What legacy do you leave to your children?” asked Yarden .

“I leave them this,” Herald gestured to the surroundings. “Also the lesson that life will surprise you in the ways you least expect. I had expected to raise cattle on this land. Then thanks to a prophecy I was unaware of, I was told Routh urged to build a keep on these lands. It went on to say something like elevate their owner as he will tend to the people as well as he did the lands. I did raise some of the best dairy cows here, and now with the right team I believe that I can do the same of the people I am charged with.”

The two continued their banter the rest of the way of the barracks. Herald felt that Yarden had warmed up to him and had dropped so many of the formalities he had started with. Bahn, one of Herald’s advisors, was at the barracks to take over the formalities. He politely took over the orientation, leaving Herald again by himself.

Herald walked over to the corral where the cows were now kept. He smiled looking at the small herd, he still knew a few of them from his prior life. It had been simpler then. Not so many names to remember, bargaining was which baker or cheese maker he would work with that year, and he had a nice simple roof over his head. Then the messengers came, followed by the representatives, and then the officials. The to do was beyond his desires for simple.

“Herald,” a voice called from behind him, “Did all go well with the commander?” he turned to see Glinda.

“Yes, my dear. We had a lovely chat. I suppose you need me to attend to another matter now?

“Um, no. I actually wanted to remind you of your riding lessons this afternoon. We must be able to present ourselves properly to the other earls and from what I hear they can all ride.”

“Well then I had best scamper off to do so,” Herald smiled and sauntered off. Glinda was trying to make him look good in front of the other Earls when they met in the next year. He knew himself clueless of such things and this was why he had sought out a daughter of one of the former Empress’s maids.

His thought process was interrupted by a loud crash, it came from over by the stables.

As Herald ran over to see what was caused, he heard the sound of hooves racing across the ground, and a weird light emanating from the direction of the stables. When he arrived he saw the roof caved in and a man cloaked in dark green floating above the damage. The bearded face was scanning the crowd, smiling as the number of onlookers increased. In a raspy voice he started to speak, “Be known that on this day, you are marked the first to fall. Try to get out of my way, And still I will come to call. Swear allegiance now to me, Speak not aloud. Your bonds I shall set you free, Come now, do not be so proud.”

“I Herald, Earl of Hearthvale, command you to leave,” Herald spoke up. “You need not make me cower in my own keep.”

“Well met Herald, lord. I see you choose not with Routh to cut the cord. Be known that you chose this fate. My forces make ready to destroy your state.” And with that the figure disappeared.

“What was that?” Many asked wondering still what happened.

“My lord, a word please,” Yarden made his way over to Herald. “Do you know who that was?”

Herald turned to Yardem, “I do not, other than he shall be back to attempt to take these lands.”

Yarden guided Herald away from the crowd before speaking. “I do not know who he is. I have heard word is he has visited at least four of the other Earl’s lands. Each reports to have declined his offer as you have. I suspect he will visit the other ten soon enough.”

“Does the Emperor fear he has something to do with the prophecy?” Herald asked.

“I cannot say his thoughts on this. I can assure you, he will reward you for making your voice heard by your people. Hopefully his favor will keep you and your people safe.”

“It is not his favor I seek, only the peace be kept in these lands as long as it may,” Herald replied.

“You are new to politics, aren’t you?” Yarden smiled. “You need his favor more than you know. Do not worry though, you have another half a year to get the hang of it. Just be a fast learner…and always watch your back.” Yarden politely bowed and headed off.

*****
“Herald, I would be careful of Yarden,” mused Glinda. “He already has the trust of his loyal men. Do you think it good to let him have your ear as well?”

“Do not worry about him, he is just keeping me apprised of things I am not. He has no ambition of rising to a trusted advisor. ” Herald leaned over and kissed Glinda, “Besides, as my lady you have say in such matters too.”

“As your lady?” Glinda snarked. “Herald I do not think you would handle all this without me. If I left it all to you, how would you handle all the daily quibbles? You cannot keep straight your own attendants.”

“You act as if I do not know such things? It is what makes me a great earl, I know my limitations and have those around me do what I cannot.” Herald replied smiling. “So will I be friendly with Yarden? I will if it fits. If he is there to advise when there is a call to arms, then he will advise. But to run the estate or make alliances, you are first.”

“You do not think I can send someone to their death?” Glinda poked playfully.

“Of that I am certain, but in the field of combat, I would not risk you.”

“So you rather I fight two against one with the boys? They do not make taking an audience easy. Yet you would rather coddle them than face seeing another messenger from Routh. I do wonder what plans the three of you concoct for me.”

“Nothing you cannot handle I am sure. Besides they won’t follow through on anything for at least another year.”

“So then what is this choice you made with our unexpected visitor?”

“I merely told him we are not betraying Routh. Though, I do not know if any of the townsfolk felt otherwise. Magician that he was with the show, may actually have been able to read minds.”

“And what if you were betrayed by some of them?”

“Alas, I think the time for worry of such things is past. I cast our fief’s vote when I spoke, and now we wait to see if it was really a show, a test or a bluff.”

Prophecy of Eristic

Nineteen years into the reign of Routh,
There shall arrive a rider from the south.
He shall be clad in colors of yellow and green
Preceded by a beast in flight, so mean.

This harbinger will slay the beast
In the heart where the Emperor does feast,
It will kill the Emperor.
But does not seek its treasure

Those loyal, the rider, they kill,
Rise in the deaths of three, dissent will
Though he did no harm.
Divide by fifteen ways the farm
Those Earls will guard their keep
Saving many from trouble deep

Reunite with champion in the night,
Clad in purple and white
Comes to set everything right.
Neither kith nor kin
Champion will reveal a sin

Ruby Gate

A screech pierced the air
It did give Hound Master Nikolai a scare
It had been his cause to flight
He legs now sore from running all night
While resting himself and pack
Again the air was cut with fear of an attack
A chance he could not take
His legs mustered though they did ache
Two celestial hounds him did accompany
The size of wolves and fur amber brown
With green eyes the combed the horizon
The third scanned the sky he flies in

With golden wings before setting down

These were the three in his company
Their adversary a falconer
With a flock as his reconer
They hunt for the master
Plotting his disaster
He holds the key to the gate
That holds back beasts irate
There is a wall that holds at bay
Beasts and creatures of fei
At its entrance is a keeper
But he is a deep sleeper
If he were to wake
His rouser’s direction he would take
To wake the keeper from slumber
Requires a potion of things in number
The keeper has one key component
A ruby his master handed in bestowment
In his haste he makes a path
Unaware of the cause for chase
The Hound Master does so race

To escape the falconers wrath

He entered forest deep
Where eyes of falcon do not creep
Making haste to inner keep in castle near
For guidance from Wilfreya the Muted Seer
Though much she spews is poison word
At times like this not all her wisdom is absurd
The hounds show the way
Till gone again is light of day
Outside stone walls grey and tan
He feels so small a man
Looking for entry way or door
He finds neither nor
Yet he recalls a chant from school
Then dives into the moated pool
Down he swims till under wall
Through smallest opening he then crawl
Up then to ascend
Out a well on the other end
In courtyard blue as water
He there saw an otter
It him did assess
before leaving the garden in a mess
From up tower a stone did sail
A message from seer it did mail
Advice against his own plight
Dour still would be his flight
Northward  he was to set
After a night in castle walls wet
Lightning and thunder cover gave
Falcons this weather did not brave
Till early morning broke in
Hound Master’s travel did then begin
The sun crossed a quarter of sky
When him she did spy
She the forest keeper
Ceased him from trekking any deeper
“What is your name and where you go
This among other things must I know”
With arrow notched near her eye
He paused forming a reply
“Hound Master Nikolai
On my way to the Temple Kinay
Prioress Thierry will I speak
She to advise on what I seek.”
“Through my wood you shall not pass
I, Alena, am not in agreement with the lass
To domesticate my land she tries
She offers open hands full of lies
If knowledge is what you seek
Go around like others meek”
It was then first hound did attack
Snuck from above at her back
Uncertain of what came from above
Alena held the second back with glove
The third bound came in for a bite
With dagger back she did fight
“Do you yield this fight
Away from the Falconer I make flight
Your politics I not my concern
travels beyond here I yearn
The trees cover do provide
In open field he will spy my hide.
“I yield you right of way
Be gone from my forest by end of day
Else, forest spirits you shall curse
If you stay is longer it will be worse
In my forest again, you be
Your end I will see.”
“Alena forest keeper
No harm I meant as I slinker
Yet my offense you did make
My hounds my defense did take
We flee now into the shade
Hopefully you are not too dismayed”
For two days they made haste
Out from forest into waste
Till on horizon seen
Snow-capped mountains gleam
And in the barren lands did find
A fourth hound in a bind
You jackal pup in trap
Its strength nearly sap
Nikolai did aid render
Jackal yipped thanks to him
Then followed the quartet on a whim
She lead them to water and food
To alleviate their mood
And then one day travel more
She lead them off wasteland floor
And now the Hound Master stood
Outside tall walls of wood.
From spire in the air
Came question of who stood there
A friendly rapport did follow
When by Nikolai foot fell swallow
A threat from up high
Delivered by Falconer’s ally
Sanctuary was extended
Inside walls to be defended
Prioress was Falconer’s foe
From family rival long ago
Prioress detailed Falconer’s goal
Of his want of stone red
And if need be Nikolai dead
Debate was had on action
But no plan claimed satisfaction
One night days later came
The Falconer to stake his claim
He brought other beasts of air
Giant gryphons with claws to bare
Lesser chimera with breath of fire
And trolls with machine of ire
He made demands of ruby bright
Prioress told him to take flight
Hound Master made his stand
With four faithful in command
Each an opponent did face
Not everyone won the race
One spectral hound did fall
Along with wings clipped to small
As Nikolai contemplated giving death

Falconer lay breathing heavy breath

“Heed my word young brother
After you come another
Your fight has just begun
She will chase you under next sun”
“Do not speak of kin to me
I give your final breath to thee.
There will be no other after you
Or do they see through birds too?
“No the bird shall no longer vex you sky
She is far more sly
With beasts shadow dark
That is how she will find her mark
I see you next when gates ajar
We both come from fae lands afar

Dragon and Troll

It was in the time of merriment
That the dragon and troll were sent
With flask of wine and mead
To throw smoke upon their lead
Though they sang us songs of praise
It was then they made fog and haze

Their goal to hide a fast decent
Breaking oath and covenant
Our bond and strength did fail
Concern with only where I sail
Rubble was all I saw
In a land without a law

When next I woke
With neighbor I then spoke
Yet he and I at odds
Whether to blame the two sods
Was it ours the shame
When we took the flame

Oft I went with no sound plan
Without company for some span
In search of Dragon and Troll
Who mocked and talked droll
They sought to make light
On my misery and plight

Where first alone I met Dragon
Offering me quaffs from his flagon
Wiser now I quickly declined
My poor judgment he opined
And flew away in hot retreat
His breath scorched my feet.

Then next I met Troll
His virtues he did extol
With wise words a path did craft
Yet this time I felt not daft
For if I followed to his den
No one shall I see again

With curse and howl troll did retreat
Telling me to rue my defeat
Yet lost I was in their land
Out in the open I did stand
I raise hand to my brow
And to return home I did vow

After oath then was silent
Rumbles across the field defiant
As goblins in shadow arose
What allies had I chose
Behind me in my need
Came not a noble steed

Yet weasels in number came
To protect my rebellious claim
For goblin they did not fear
No more than trepid deer
Weasel with razor paws
Made short work of toothless maws

Like they came the went
Weasels back to the woods bent
I left the field to improve my skill
With resolve to steel my will
Dragon and Troll I come for thee
Next time I bring aid with me

In days to town I came
Their leader a man so lame
Yet in his eyes there was a fire
For his people he had great aspire
He knew the Dragon and Troll
And their games not droll

Twas them that gave his lot
Vengeances for his family sought
Yet he could not join my quest
Sword he gave to face my test
I left his house rested and fed
Go south for help he plead

So for another twenty five
I searched and found one alive
Among the rubble of defeat
I met another suffering from deceit
To my cause did he agreed
To a master west he would lead

The learned one was Jason
My companion was Greyson
The two when met sized the other
It was when I learned they brother
Now three we made a scheme
For others to join our vengeful team

Then we gathered those to arms
who Dragon had stolen farms
Sophie a shield maiden with talent
Traveled with Barnabas the valiant
Eugene was tall and strong
leading ten more in his throng

Next were those who claimed right
To best the Troll in a fight
The wizard Wendell the grand
And Graham master of the sand
Then Aluna the ever huntress
Who ruled from the verdant fortress

Us nineteen brave and able went on stroll
Time for us hunt the Dragon and Troll
Through lands far and wide
We sought the two wherever they hide
Following tact and rumor
A swift end to it all we did humor

Three years on the quest
Off in a land far to the west
Dragon was confronted in a cave
Finishing a meal on countless slave
We snuck up much to his surprise
To land a deserved demise

Yet is us who were unaware
Of allied dragon residing there
The day went quick and long
And heat from them was strong
In the end we did succeed
Vanquishing one of renown deed

In the evening we laid to rest
Those that had not fared the best
Eugene said goodbye to seven men
Graham, Sophie and Greyson
Had passed protecting an ailing Jason
In all ten had fallen
The night left us all sullen

Up came the banner at morning light
It was time for Troll to face his plight
In Dragon’s cave we learned his stay
It would be over in fourteen day
In that time we would nurse our wounds
Venturing close to Troll in the dunes

Spirits restore we ventured forth
A little bit further north
Mile away we could smell the stench
Of where Troll’s hovel lay entrench
Over the dune Aluna surveyed
The lands themselves cried for aid

Lessons learned we crept ahead
Each not wanting and early bed
Down tunnel deep and winding
Lesser trolls were all the finding
Had he fled in approach
The question we chose not to broach

In lair deep in rock under sand
Is where Troll made his stand
The promise of reform he did spat
We did not accept such from the brat
Eugen and company did approach
Their spears on Troll did encroach

Aluna and Wendell guarded back
While Jason and I did attack
Troll our advance did repel
With brute force and many spell
To my horror I saw Eugene fall
As I lay pinned on the wall

The troll then acid spit
Taking away Jason’s wit
Then it was Wendell’s cast
Burning Troll’s arm to ash at last
And still Troll would not yield
Taking two more off the field

Free Barnabas took my blade
Cleaving till silence made
Then troll lay quiet now
No more deceit shall he vow
The last five of us there did stand
Taking in what was done at our hand

We parted ways the following night
I lost the spirit to fight
Aluna left to rule her land
A new follower in hand
Barnabas to his farm he went
Wendell off with his wisdom to be lent

Six year past the end
A note one did send
To my house it came
Three other received the same
Wendell wrote in hurried hand
Come east, trouble in these land