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. “

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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.

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.”

Roux

Under a hood forest green
Her eyes were kitten copper
Hidden under hair goblins red
Her smile was like a moon sliver

Her mood not the trio mean
Of help she needed an offer
Lost she waited to be led
Not knowing to follow the river

When to her aid came
A black beast with horn and mane
It ushered her back to home
With all due haste

Gone it went lest she tame
Out the wild and made so plain.
There she met the gnome
Who laid her lands to waste

With bow at the ready
And an arrow filled quiver
Questions of the little one asked
Answers he had none

She took an aim, holding steady
The gnome did give a shiver
He replied he had done as tasked
A request, he made one

That before his passing he may
Place the blame for blood spilt
To mighty warlords upon high
Who ride to neighbors and destroy

Her shot did she stay
So others may hear his guilt
Bound and gagged he would lie
Left under watch of neighbors boy

Departing the neighbor said
Roux where will you go
She was quick in her reply
To save our kin from fate most foul

In high hopes she forged ahead
A small band of fighters in tow
Quick work was what she imply
When warlords on high heard the howl

Across a valley green did they meet
Light glistening over Roux’s back
Golden warlords high replied in charge
Volleys answered thunderous hooves

The thick air turned rain sweet
As man fell in the attack
Roux lay no longer at large
Incompatible to warlords moves.

Lightning flashed from high above
As black beast emerged from cloud
His desire to aid in her need
Shocked back the victors in surprise

Landing gently as a dove
Horn bowed to Roux’s shroud
His life hers now did feed
Warlords shot down the noble prize

As red haired woman rise
Warlords fell in disbelief
What magic had been wrought
Made them tremble and stumble

She looked in each one’s eyes
Of their courage she was thief
Bowed in submission each one sought
To her whim they now humble.

Formula of Eternal Life

All the riches could save us
My child collect and discuss
Silver for a disease or curse
Pestilence gone with Jade in your purse
Gold against enchantment
Pearls for containment
Emeralds keep a spirit safe
Agate keeps away the wraith
Moonstone to keep your dreams
Lapis will focus you schemes

A few more to help you keep score
Affordable if you don’t mind a dirt floor
Rubies help against haze
Jasper prevent your daze
Opals to clean the eyes
Turquoise to find a prize
Tin to clean up your ail
Platinum for where others fail

A shipment of each
There is nowhere out of reach
Fetch each I beseech
Together their power I will teach

Wealth will misery end
Smell the future down wind
With each precious acquisition
You ascend to a new position
Choice you are now granted
Bias toward you they are slanted
In your days give each away
Regaled will your name stay
Upend the class to which you rise
But give too much and meet demise.

Departure – Final Chapter

Kit knew where they were going; it was beyond the Anjin Col.  It was far beyond the forest on the other side of the mountain.   He was charged with helping the Jaspert take the caravan to the city of GornStan, in the lands of the Fifteen Earls.  Those that signed on to the caravan had hoped to leave Saj-Graf behind.

Ertle was in a luxurious carriage with a young man by the name of Siwaldh.  The driver of the carriage was Zahar, the fallen.  The three had met one night at Ermore Inn after the days of the cloudervan.  They had agreed to leave Saj-graf and chase their fortunes elsewhere.  Though not a one revealed their past, they were certain they knew each other and the capabilities that dwelled within.

There were several lesser carts of goods from merchants Ertle had convinced to buy in to the venture and cover his cost of needing guards on the road.  Traveling in this class was Deylin Greyston, off to Pigback Pass to build another watchtower for the city.

As they got ready to leave the city two men approached the caravan and spoke to Kit.  One seemed to struggle with the light of day, and told Kit he had been a shut in and was now ready to see the world.  The other limped a bit but assured he could pay enough to convince Ertle to make space for him.  After giving them a quick assessment, Kit admitted them to the group.  It would be a long ride out and a few more hands would be nice with the troubles they may encounter on the road.

The wagons started to roll out of town by midday.  Kit looked back at Jit tower, it was the first marker of Saj-graf he had seen and would likely be the last.  Its majestic rise over the city would leave a lasting impression.  In his heart he would feel peace once he moved himself from the outskirts of town, past the farms and outlying ruins.  If he could shirk his duty and run once more off to the woods he would do so.   He looked down the length of the caravan and then back to the city one more time.

These cities were living beasts that he feared.  They grew without conscious and bread contempt amongst those that dwelled within.  Somehow they made people feel safe and secure, but for Kit, he was happy to depart and be free.

Demise

Nyo-ji watched as he entered his house.  He grew more uncomfortable with each passing moment as his guide lead him further inside.  The place was cleaner since he had last visited Nyo-ji.  There had been much planning for this moment and Nyo-ji was not above savoring justice in the rare times he could administer it.

“Just wait a moment, here,” his guide commanded. He missed the smirk that followed the order.   Nyo-ji had paid the guide handsomely for her part and it was now done.

As soon as his guide stepped outside the building the door slammed shut.  A voice from the shadows spoke up, “Sartow, you came looking for power.  I shall show you it.”

Sartow watched as little sparks of lightning started to bounce from timber to timber on the ceiling.  He could smell the burning in the air, though he saw no fire.  The dirt in the floor started to rise up like a thousand ant mounds forming and then collapsing.

Sartow ran to the door to make an escape, but it would not budge.  He ran to the window to try that and again it would not move.  The lightning now jumped between the mounds and the rafters, making audible crackling noises with each jump.  The smell of burning air made Sartow sweat with panic.

A large bolt coming down on him was the last thing that Sartow saw.  There was not time for him to scream, no time for him to feel, no time to repent.   The corpse was struck by numerous bolts as Nyo-ji’s anger was unleashed.  Nyo-ji knew Sartow would feel nothing from each successive blow, and yet hit him once for each person he had seen his scars upon.

Outside the house Cerridwen heard thunder from inside, but it was the least of her worries as she could not recall why she was at the house, let alone out in the open streets.  She quickly bolted to an alleyway and out of sight.

Prison

The Saj-graf prison was one of the original buildings of the city.  It had been expanded over the years to accommodate the growth in population.  Its proximity to the single room court had not changed in that time nor had the size of the court.  The oldest parts were made of well-aged wood, slowly being patched with stone and mortar. The newest additions had been the second subbasement that was under construction.  This new addition had resulted from finding several attempts to dig out from the prison and finding another purpose than simply filling them in.  The top floor, which was the third, was meant to hold people temporarily and was often crowded with multiple occupants per cell.  The few lucky ones were deemed in need of solitary confinement on this floor.  Commonly it was those sleeping off their vices or those that were not fit to socialize with the common residence.

Justice in Saj-graf was doled out by two judges, appointed by the mayor. The process was so whimsical that if a spat of good weather or a feast day came up you would wait that much longer for your hearing.  The judges heard cases as they saw fit.  The hearing usually consisted of whichever judge heard your plea and accounts from the town guard.  Naturally witnesses were allowed to be presented, and given the haphazardness of the hearings, only those with coin to spare or dear friends would you be guaranteed their appearance.

It was on a cool late evening that Cerridwen sat at one of the cell doors. It was through the its small window she could see Sartow sleeping in a corner.  “That the one m’Lady?” asked a sleepy guard.

“Oh yes, that is him.  And this if for your troubles,” she slipped him a small pouch. “Now it is probably best you find a corner to curl up in.”

“Yes, that sounds like a lovely idea,” the guard yawned.

“Sartow, darling, how did you end up in here?” Cerridwen said in a sweet voice.

He rolled over on to his side and looked at the door. “I don’t have time for wenches,” he snipped.

“Oh dear is that who got you stuck in here?  I am not here to offer my services; rather I am in need of yours.  Yet in here you serve no purpose, perhaps you would like for me to let you out so we can discuss business?”

“I have no business, just my time till they set me free.”

“And that would be when?  Has it not been thirty days since you took up residency here?  You know a certain lord has some say in the courts and I do not think it best you go to trial.”

“Speak quickly or I may call for a guard to bring me water.”

“The job is outside of town and as a leader of men.  They aspire for your renown and your skill.as a leader.  I can take you to them, but only tonight.”

 

Calm

The building week of tension had broken last night in chaos, and now quiet filled the air. Order won the battle and was set to reclaim the rule. Its serene reassurance was to be embraced by those that had survived. As the panic in people’s hearts to escape from the cages that had been built, there was still much work to be done. Those brave enough, were out in the field tending the wounded or confirming that the large beasts were indeed dead. The Ardent order had been decimated, but their casualties looked minor to the slain cloudervan lying strewn across the field.

Artron followed Corvus as he made show of his kills to the record keepers. He wanted his share of the bounties on these beasts from the mayor. Collaboration was key and that was where someone honest like Artron came in. Artron felt no moral qualm signing off as a witness as long as Corvus kept a blind eye to the valuable metals and gems the silversmith pocketed. It was not as if there were not nobles out in the field doing the same, it was how money was made. Arton was also busy counting the total number slain in the field, he would later gather with the other counters to make sure no corpse was unclaimed or disputed. Those lower in the pecking order stood near their kills to chase of the profiteers and show their mark on the corpse. Once all was tallied the gold would be split and the only ones who lost out were the fallen.

Martell walked the field with Kit, studying the bodies of the cloudervan. Kit worked in a sketch book, while Martell collected samples from the dead. “Looks like these are an Enchanter’s experiment gone awry. That or they have some inherent magical inclination as now their bodies come apart with any of my blades,” commented Martell.

“Nothing natural about copper being a weakness…at least on the skin. I could see it being an issue with something like blood, but copper is not that strong,” Kit commented. “You ever hear the formula of eternal life?”

All the riches could save us
My child, collect and discuss
Silver for a disease or curse
Pestilence gone with Ruby in your purse
Gold against enchantment
Pearls for containment
Emeralds keep a spirit safe
Agate keeps away the wraith
Moonstone to keep your dreams
Lapis will focus you schemes

A few more to help you keep score
Affordable if you don’t mind a dirt floor
Rubies help against haze
Jasper prevent your daze
Opals to clean the eyes
Turquoise to find a prize
Tin to clean up your ail
Platinum for where others fail

A shipment of each
There is nowhere out of reach
Fetch each I beseech
Together their power I will teach

“I had not heard that one,” replied Martell
“There is wisdom in there somewhere, or so my master says. I find it just a list of wealth without the context in which it was written.”
“I think enchanters would be able to do more with it. They are all crafting items for talismans. Yet some of those items are not used for what is listed. Maybe it is a code or done to intentionally mislead outsiders.”