Blizzard and Belendale

PREVIOUS PART

Part Two

By R. Krommydas

Male Ratfolk Card Caster by Matt Morrow. Used under license. All rights reserved.

Lady Shadria smiled when the oversized woman made her move, recognizing many things in it that others would miss. The posture she adopted on her approach to the guards, the angle at which she held her head, the very rhythm of her pace. It was the walk of one who expected the obedience she had earned the right to demand of others. Lady Shadria used the walk herself when necessary, though here it had not made the desired impression. Yet she suspected that this bronze-skinned barbarian, who was clearly so much more than just that, would succeed where the emissary of the Luvam itself had failed.

This suspicion would be borne out swiftly enough. Whatever hostility had been shown her by the guards, Lady Shadria saw that it had been nothing next to that they showed to the barbarian. Blades were bared, arcane gesturings made, powers from beyond this plane invoked, and the chilling emptiness of a warrior ready to kill replaced the disdainful disregard formerly adorning their faces.

And when an arrow was loosed at her approach, embedding itself into the soft earth to mark the point beyond which none would be permitted to pass, the barbarian stepped over it as if it were no more than a tuft of grass. The insult, and its implications, was gloriously forceful to Lady Shadria's eyes. It was brazen and foolhardy and imperious and revealing all at once. It was also so unexpected that the checkpoint guards, who now for the first time in centuries of service had actually faced opposition, were wholly taken aback. Lady Shadria made no effort to hide her eagerness to hear what would be said, and she was not disappointed.

"I am Embla, Aslaug of Ylsmyr," the barbarian declared, in accented but clear Kingdom Common. "I speak for all of the Risarvinnae. I answer to no higher power in the realms of life or of death. I and my retinue were invited here by your master. For any one of these reasons, I am permitted passage. For them all, I demand it."

The guard captain, speaking in highly formal Altarian, instantly replied: "I do not understand your primitive mortal tongue."

This was a lie, Lady Shadria knew. A convenient one, enabling him to continue barring passage deeper into Belendale whilst also ensuring that nobody who could question him on it had the authority here to do so. Outsiders did not have such a luxury. It was one of the many outdated laws that Lady Shadria had read about beforehand. But it seemed as though this barbarian, this Embla, had anticipated just such a thing. She called out a name, and the hairless wizardly-looking type that had arrived with her responded.

"You have some who work the Clever Craft among you," Embla continued. "If one cannot use it to make my words understood, my learned companion Brokk shall."

As their captain did not move, the other checkpoint guards stood their ground also. Enough of them knew Kingdom Common to know what was happening here, but their course had been set by their commanding officer and there was no defying the chain of command. So the wizard, Brokk—a dwarven name, Lady Shadria was surprised to learn, though he did not resemble one of that race—began to perform his art. The mage-wardens observing him, ready to strike with their own prepared spells of destruction if he showed any signs of aggression, could not interfere with his merely benign magic.

This time, when the barbarian Embla made her declaration again, all heard it made in their own native language. There could be no denying a mortal invoking the Right of Representation, no matter how unorthodox it had been. By means of magic, it had even been spoken in Altarian, sort of. Where Lady Shadria had failed by virtue of immortality, this curious savage of an unknown land had succeeded by virtue of sheer lunatic bravado. The guard captain, defeated at his own game, slumped his shoulders for a fraction of a second before stepping to one side, symbolically clearing the way for the travellers.

Then, to Lady Shadria's utter delight, the barbarian added one more thing: "There are four people that nobody may disobey. Your lover, your mother, your god, and me. As my retinue is all those here, and I desire their presence, you shall not stop them from following."

For a few seconds, this nearly seemed to make the guard captain reconsider his action—as illegal as that would be at this point. His eyes darted over to meet those of Lady Shadria, who smiled back at him triumphantly. Their earlier battle had been decided in his favor, but the war had ultimately been resolved in hers by the arrival of reinforcements. That until a few minutes past she had not even known of those reinforcements' existence was, as far as Lady Shadria was concerned, wholly irrelevant.

She had been invited to attend the royal court of Belendale by the king himself. And now, along with others bearing the same invitation, she had cleared the final obstacle impeding her. Not exactly as she had promised to do, but results were results. It had been a long time in reaching this point.

♢♢♢♢♢

SECOND INTERLUDE

Shadria went into a fit of giggles as she pushed her friend off the branch into the pond below, to splutter and swear. In retaliation, he threw a handful of frogspawn up at her. It barely made half the distance before falling back into his face. Shadria pinched her knees against the branch to keep from falling off herself, and let loose with delighted hoots of glee.

She was thirty-seven and, as far as her family was concerned, still too much the child to be entrusted with responsibilities. That was fair. There was food for feasting, and music for dancing, and boys for teasing, and trees for climbing, and dresses for wearing, and poems for reading. How was she supposed to do anything of those things if she was stuck inside with dull accountancy documents and history books?

After a few minutes, Aurthelin managed to clamber back up, having shed most of his waterlogged clothing to make the climb easier. Shadria smirked as she stared at him. Much like what little he was still wearing, it was very transparent. It was also very funny for her when it worked. Aurthelin just leaned back against the tree trunk, showing no embarrassment. At least, not about that, but Shadria held out for a hope soon to be realised.

"No, I haven't noticed how they've been acting around me, " he answered at last.

"By Tal-Allustiel, you have eyes for none of them!" Shadria exclaimed triumphantly. "Not one. Eight charmers looking your way, five of them of other Council Houses, and not even for one of the sons. Yes, I know Leyinnin prefers the sapling to the flower, but you...oh you, Aurthelin, see none of either! So who is it?"

Aurthelin bit his lip, trying to think up a reason that would sound plausible, but his eyes darted away. Shadria seized on this at once. She turned her head to look in that direction. The sun warmed the back of her head. She gasped as she suddenly realised the truth, and looked back at her friend with new understanding.

"You sneaked westwards out of the woods!" Shadria said accusingly, noting with satisfaction the blush rising in his cheeks. "You paid a visit to a human village. You, Aurthelin, heir to your House, a potential Alder, have a thing for humans! You like them with all that hair and those stupid big fatty lumps. I am... I am shocked, Aurthelin, positively shocked."

"Not as shocked as I was when mother told me," he muttered sombrely. "My council nomination is confirmed. I will have actual duties even if I depart for Faerie before her. In two days I get my alder earring. It's inescapable. So I went walking. I walked all night and past the dawn. Then I didn't have the trees around me any longer. I'd walked out into uncivilized Orland. Thereupon a certain nameless terror took hold of me, and powerless before it I fell in a daze, insensate to the world."

Shadria snorted at his unrefined poetics. "And miraculously you came across a darksome human sow with a fantastical compassion for your trite melancholia, and embraced you warmly unto those ridiculous swinging udders of theirs."

"They are not udders!" Aurthelin protested angrily.

"Aurthelin, you have been my friend for just over three decades," said Shadria. "But even so, I know you better than that. You have a mind for the future. Humans barely give a thought to the now. What possible use could they be to you outside of some mild relief? You are, and will continue to be, under a lot of strain. A way to distract yourself from time to time, maybe a few years here and there with one of them, will only be healthy. Someday I might have to indulge in it myself, if my family tire of my childishness and force maturity on me. It means nothing, as well you know."

She laughed at his insulted expression. "No, my shock was not that you found yourself a little plaything out in the wilds, or even that it excites you in a way that your own kind does not. My shock is that you try to hide it, from me, your closest friend, as though it is somehow shameful. Aurthelin, it isn't as though you love the human! Now that would be truly perverse!"

Her amusement wavered as his expression only grew more wrathful. When she realized the reason for this, her amusement disappeared entirely.

♢♢♢♢♢

"Your concern is touching, Nominee Vantaiss, as is your unreserved support for the accused," the Councillor of Yew said. "However, I feel obliged to remind you that the evidence presented must take precedence over blinding loyalty to a close friend. It would not do for a valued young prospective such as yourself to succumb to the allure of emotional inexperience in any matter, least of all one so weighty as this."

At his condescending tone, Shadria assumed the Censorious Aspect. Her back straightened, her head tilted back, her eyes flared wide, her feet planted a fraction more widely, her hands now clasped behind to push forward her chest and accentuate her shoulders. The meek and inoffensive assistant was gone. Replacing her was a governess as fearsome as any to ever discipline a rebellious pupil.

"I was unaware of having mistaken the importance of this hearing," Shadria replied sharply, and Yew withered. "Though perhaps it is my emotional inexperience which clouds my judgement. Undoubtedly, were I to found myself in your position I would hesitate, councillor, to comment at all."

All three of Beech, Oak, and Willow managed to hide their smiles. The rest of the council either did not try, or failed so spectacularly that it seemed they had not bothered to. Yew was not popular. Ash and Elm had especial reason to dislike him following certain remarks he had been reported to make about them, remarks that were allegedly intensified after the defection of his entire female staff to the two ladies.

"Comments must be made, however," Beech said after a brief pause. "This is an extremely delicate case to consider and every side must be taken into the strictest account. The situation that has been brought to our attention is one that demands prosecution to the fullest degree."

"There is nothing to prosecute!" Shadria retorted at once. "It has been confirmed, multiple times, that there is no law prohibiting those activities explicitly described here, or any related to such. Quite why this matter of subjective moral implication has reached this court, of all places, is a mystery to all who are aware of it. Which only emphasises my aforementioned point that the secrecy surrounding this matter is particularly worrisome ethically as well as legally."

"The laws permit certain moral indiscretions," Oak acknowledged. "However, we must adjudicate on more than just the law. We must decide what is best for the safety of our people. Our histories show clearly what happened when our Unheeding kindred defied our warnings and mingled freely with the mortal races. A repeat of the calamity must never be allowed. We shall be Sundered no further."

As Shadria considered this, Poplar added a chilling: "The trial is secret. The verdict shall be very public."

Shadria turned the full might of the Censorious Aspect upon the councillor, but Poplar did not wilt like Yew. Poplar had been the one to take Shadria under his wing upon her nomination, instructed her in the ways of the council, and even set her on the path to understanding the Aspects. No matter her innate intelligence and charisma, no matter what skill or competence in these disciplines that Shadria had earned through intense struggle over the years, she was still the novice to his master. Poplar had, after all, literally written the book on the Aspects.

"Am I to infer your implications are to make an example of the defendant?" Shadria asked carefully.

"One way or another, yes," Poplar answered, and several other councillors had the good grace to appear shamed by this honesty. "What we decide shall set a tremendous precedent. The entirety of our people will be able to use this as a guide for their actions for thousands of years. It is not a judgement we can afford to make with our hearts. For the sake of all who follow us, we must judge based on logic and on facts. Have you any of those to offer us?"

Shadria continued her arguments for another seven weeks. At the end of it all, for the crime of meeting with a mortal, Aurthelin was banished to the edge of the Luvam Wood to live in semi-exile with his human wife and their half-blooded children. In response, Shadria published a letter denouncing the council and refusing her nomination. The council immediately, unanimously, confirmed her as the replacement of Poplar. This had, according to a letter of his own, been his last request of his peers.

He had journeyed to Faerie within hours of voting on the fate of Aurthelin.

♢♢♢♢♢

The earrings were laid out before her, each of a different wood, no two the same barring a very special pair. Slowly, Lady Shadria took each one, acknowledging it by name in the speech that had preceded the Sundering, and placing it in her ear with all ceremony. It was not a swift process. It gave the rest of the council plenty of time to make their arguments all the more effective before it was too late.

She ignored them all. She had assumed the Unswerving Aspect. It was a dangerous one, requiring a measure of conviction that could lead to total self-annihilation. Until she had achieved the goals she had set herself under the mantle of the Unswerving Aspect, Lady Shadria would be unable to abandon or deviate from them. Her objectives would become her whole reason for living. All else that she was, or could be, would fade to insignificance. This was, in essence, the last time the Lady Shadria of House Vantaiss could be just Shadria.

"The world falls ever deeper into darkness and we persist in doing nothing," Lady Shadria stated calmly. "This cannot continue as you wish it to. 'Beyond the shadow you settle for, there is a miracle illuminated.' I see it now."

"Poetry, from you?" asked Pine incredulously.

She did not need to answer. Lady Shadria picked up the last two earrings left, the largest of them all, and the only matched pair. They were her emblems of office, as personal to her as her skin. No earrings were passed down from one councillor to another, as much for the symbolism of it as for simple hygiene—something about which too few people outside of the Luvam seemed to know existed. Hers would go with her to Faerie in due course.

"Illuo, the poplar tree," she whispered to them, and placed them into her ears. "It is done. Our brethren reached out to us. I will reach out to them, such as our previous diplomats never have. Bear witness to this oath, my fellows, my peers. For I do swear, before Tal-Allustiel, before you, before myself, that I shall neither return to the Luvam, nor make the journey to Faerie, until the Unheeding and the Sundered become the Rejoined."

"I shall meet with their king, Baranwë, as invited to by his own hand. I shall see our splintered peoples unite against the evil that would isolate and swallow us whole. Our differences may never be fully reconciled, but we cannot allow them to keep us divided any longer. And I shall let no obstacle, even if it be the Walker-in-Darkness himself, impede me in my quest."

Shadria Vantaiss, the Councillor of Poplar, took her first purposeful step towards Belendale.

♢♢♢♢♢

Moving several dozens of people, from four disparate groups haphazardly and unexpectedly grouped into one, deeper into a country famous for its isolationism and defiance of an outside world—second only to its smaller but vastly more extreme cousin, the Luvam—that had long sought its total obliteration, was no simple or quick task. The gnomes alone took over an hour each morning just to complete their inventory to their satisfaction before they would even consider breaking camp and resuming travel along the road.

There was also the matter of quelling Anoldor's suspicions. As a blademaster, this would have been difficult enough at the best of times. As her protector, chosen specifically to safeguard her to Gloralion, it was essentially impossible. He had the right to overrule some of her judgements if he genuinely believed that they would threaten her safety.

Unfortunately for Lady Shadria, he was not just a common blademaster, if such a thing existed. Anoldor was also the second child of a Council House, specifically of Larch, and had received an appropriate quality of education. Though he had proven unsuited for a nomination, he was not stupid by any means. Most of his arguments were extremely good ones and she had to work very hard to defeat them.

Ironically his weakest argument, logically, was the one Lady Shadria privately agreed with the most. Any companion of a Gray-Child, no matter how recent or incidental their relationship, was inherently suspect. Even taking into account the infamous peculiarities of adventurers—for what else could such a motley collection of individuals possibly be?—there was only so much forgiveness that could be allowed.

It was some four days before Lady Shadria was finally able to take a few minutes purely for herself, and seek out the curious barbarian woman who had given her this sought-after access. Once again, she walked up to the expectedly unusual adventuring group and inserted herself bluntly into the conversation. Based on what she heard from them in the last few days, she chose to speak in Kingdom Common, correctly deducing that the one she was actually interested in held the most fluency in that language.

"I am Lady Shadria Illuo'Vantaiss," she announced, noting with interest that their half-elf recognised the council title in her name, meaning that he was of the Ranarim. "I desire introductions to the one whose retinue, apparently, I find myself belonging to."

"Embla Aslaug," the barbarian replied readily enough. "It is a courtesy to use both names until we are better known to each other. We shall share this courtesy."

Lady Shadria understood this perfectly well. After all, her own name was more than just personal and familial, and she would expect to be addressed with a certain measure of deference as a result. It was gratifying to see that even this barbarian had a basic grasp of etiquette. Lady Shadria was not exactly surprised by this, of course. Given that she had made use of the Right of Representation, in a manner of speaking, it was only reasonable to assume that the woman had some higher education.

"Well met, Embla Aslaug. Will you agree to walk and speak more privately? It is clear to me that you are a person of authority. I would speak freely to a peer of mine."

♢♢♢♢♢

"... and I even tried the Right of Representation," Lady Shadria spoke on, several minutes later. "But I was denied. A downside to immortality that I had not foreseen, I must confess. Regardless, you managed it when I could not. For that you have my appreciation, Embla Aslaug."

"And this thing of representing is what?" Embla asked.

Lady Shadria nearly missed a step in her surprise. "The Right of Representation? It is a privilege given to all mortals, as reward for fighting alongside us to destroy the city of Morclaenthur. The war did not concern you, yet you risked yourselves to aid us despite this. Invoke the Right, and you may pass through to the inner regions of Belendale. You invoked it. Are you saying you did not know of the Right?"

Embla shook her head. "I am Aslaug. If the least of us should speak, the world must listen. My people understand this, but in my time among you I have learned that yours do not. One day we shall teach you."

The certainty in her voice made Lady Shadria extremely worried. The tone had the same strength of conviction as that granted by the Unswerving Aspect, but the words implied that it was shared by an entire society. If by its power Lady Shadria, alone, was convinced of her ability to change a fundamental social truth—that the elves of Summervale and Luvam were irrevocably splintered from each other—then what might an entire culture manage, or dare to try, with the same?

"Do not worry, aelfarrir!" Embla laughed, seeing some hint of this in her face. "I will speak for you when I return. The Aslaug who come to teach will remember this and be patient. My hope is that many of you will need very few lessons, after we have finished teaching the Wintervale."

This time, Lady Shadria did indeed miss a step. Though her mind had translated the verb 'teach' in the same way, her ears had caught a subtle difference. In Kingdom Common, the second usage of the word was purely reserved for legal use, during the sentencing of criminals. It was euphemistic, implying that the person actually receiving the 'lesson' would be in no condition to learn anything, but that their punishment would serve as a warning to others. That which had been Embla Aslaug changed to her, as Lady Shadria suddenly became acutely aware of her proximity to this barbarous outsider, and her company with a Gray-Child.

"The Wintervale?" Lady Shadria managed to ask in a steady voice.

The savage turned her head and smiled at Lady Shadria, who flinched. There was nothing even remotely reassuring about that smile. It demanded subservience and threatened agonies in equal measure. A madness danced therein, a madness more forceful than any ambition and more consuming than any fanaticism. It was greater than even the terrible conviction of those soldiers and their Hoth marching under the banner of Wrath, for at the end Lady Shadria had seen them broken and begging in vain. This creature before her? No, it could only be killed, but never beaten.

In an instant, Lady Shadria saw the ultimate danger of the Unswerving Aspect reflected in that grin, and knew it to be a fate she risked—and more, she understood the fate, where previously she had merely thought she had. It was not worth it. There were other, less extreme Aspects that could grant her the same results. She did not need to walk such a grim path to fulfil her oath. She carried the authority of each councillor with her as it was. In an act of courage she once would not have understood, she cast aside the Unswerving Aspect, and became simply Shadria once more. The Councillor of Poplar, still, but no more than that.

"Yes, first the Wintervale," the savage confirmed. "The Imposter must be cast down. The Jailor must be undone. The others will be given a chance to submit. Only then may we Aslaug claim all nations and all peoples for Ylsmyr."

Shadria felt herself horribly exposed before this monster disguised in humanlike form. She fell back, sensing the approach of Anoldor—to think she had once considered him overprotective!—at her distress. The savage did not blink, or shift its gaze from her. Bereft of the reassuring strength of the Unswerving Aspect, Shadria had not the willpower to remain where she stood.

Swallowing a whimper, she darted away, nearly tripping over one of the gnomes and leaving him grumbling angrily as he tried to pick himself back up. Behind her, Anoldor sounded the alarm cry as battle became inevitable. She looked over her shoulder, certain she would see the savage in pursuit. Instead, she saw the fallen gnome fall back to the ground under the weight of a hunched shadow that plummeted from the branches overhead, landing where she had been only a moment earlier.

He was already spasming in his death throes, blood gushing from a dozen cuts. A burbling wheezing came, but not from his throat. Both his lungs had been punctured through his back to avoid the ribcage, and the sound came from the matching wounds. Shadria could see Anoldor's face twist out of concern for his ward. Beyond him, however, was a far more terrible sight, for the savage also wore a new expression.

It was, unmistakably, fear.

♢♢♢♢♢

Driven to act by their proximity to Therolan, he had been forced to strike before they entered the city. All he had to do was kill his target and make his escape. Naturally, this proved itself impossible. Several great threats were arrayed against him, creating such odds against him as he had encountered only once before. The first of these had to be put down at once if he was to survive this. He drew his first breath.

Ikit stepped forward as the ranarim blademaster drew close, ducking inside the arc of his sword. The blademaster was thrown off-balance as Ikit seized his thigh, but cunningly manipulated his fall such that Ikit would be entangled in his legs should he remain there. Instead of striking at the groin as had been his initial aim, Ikit climbed up onto the man's back and slashed at his throat. The dagger merely deflected off of the hidden metal collar worn to protect against such an attack, and Ikit leaped clear at once.

He landed and drew his second breath. The blademaster would need valuable seconds to stand again. He was briefly no danger. Ikit spun around to deal with the next nearest threat. This was the Risarvinni, and an Aslaug of that horrific race, no less. Already a gargantuan sword was in her hands, melting into a new shape ideal for piercing through the thickest of hides. Seeing this, Ikit did not hesitate, for he knew the intended destination of this weapon. He turned away. Behind him, the Risarvinni plunged the sword into the earth, kneeling with head bowed.

"Wo mien to'u ji-ang!" she called out. "Wo mien ken qun ni'in wa-chung nind ren wu'u, ranhu li kayi."

Her accent was atrocious, her tones laughable, and her cadence infantile. Ikit had heard worse Kunese in his time. He knew what she was trying to say—it was perhaps all she knew of the language. He did not need to kill her anyway, and was now honor-bound to refrain from doing so. Not even he, fallen so far from the Path as he was, would stoop to the murder of one who surrendered properly.

Another ranarim was approaching, sword in one hand and spell in the other. No doubt he had spent decades, or even centuries, training to deliver inescapable death with either. Ikit barely had to move to dodge the icy spear that was hurled at him, or to pluck the oncoming sword from its owner's hand and sheathe it in guts. He vanished behind the corpse as it fell. Confused shouts filled the air and Ikit could feel the ignorance of his location. On one occasion, he had stolen a potion of invisibility from a target. It had not been nearly so effective as his actual talents. Ikit had never bothered wasting his time with such mediocrities again. His whiskers trembled as a powerful spell of divination, one unfamiliar to him, attempted to discern his location and slid futilely off him.

He drew in his third breath as he beheld the threat responsible. The wizard looked somewhat like a gnome, but Ikit knew better. The immense age, wholly unnatural, of the dwarf was what gave that impression, having robbed him of all hair and given him a wrinkle for each sand grain in the Cen-Cenla. Ikit would not have balked at a target hiding in the Nameless City, but when it came to this individual, he knew himself outmatched. This was a threat that could only be evaded.

The blademaster had stood back up, and Ikit nearly felt pity for the ignorant elf as he approached the body of his brother-in-arms, still believing that Ikit was there. Even the blademaster could not hide his shock when he discovered the truth. He and the others whirled about, bewildered and fearful. Another divinatory spell impacted the area, perhaps intending to dispel the invisibility they clearly believed Ikit was taking advantage of.

Again, Ikit was impressed by the arcane might behind the otherwise simple magic, only reassuring him that his decision to avoid confrontation with the wizard was the correct one. Besides, he had managed to approach the fourth threat whilst they were all distracted. The salt-scent on this human, together with the peculiar leather he wore, marked him out as being of the Einar tribe. This one was a shaman of theirs, for he carried no weapon. Still, Ikit had heard of what he had done in battle, and knew better than to leave him standing.

Ikit drew in his fourth breath. His daggers reached out to caress the Anarian human. They were knocked out of his paws by a rival pair. An instant later, he felt another become aware of him. Somehow, Ikit had been spotted. It had not been the Anarian, who gasped in shock and jumped away. Ikit would need to deal with him later, if at all possible, but before then he had a far greater problem.

The hard-eyed hositan met his gaze. Here was the fifth and last of the great threats. Ikit drew in his fifth breath far earlier than he had intended. She brought out two new daggers to match the two he replaced. Her stance was perfect. Ikit had no choice. He shifted his own stance momentarily, pushing aside his cloak so that his tail could move freely when it was needed. The hositan saw this, if no other did.

Ikit moved in for the kill at the same instant she did.

♢♢♢♢♢

With the exception of the scurrying targets that had infested parts of Zel City's slums, Isolde had never seen such a creature before. It had not made an appearance even in the rumors and hushed whispers of the dark elves. Nonetheless, she knew exactly how to fight it. This curious thing with beady eyes and trembling whiskers, this bizarre ratman with dexterous paws and hidden tail, was just another gutter runner to her. Talented and practised beyond the norm, true, but so was she. They locked eyes on their approach.

When its left knife went low, she ducked to meet it. The blade hummed past her ear on its sudden rise, a trick that would have caught out many less experienced than she. Her own right knife moved to taste its guts. The ratman bent away from her like a reed, simple momentum skimming it along the ground, a leg raised as a counterbalance.

Its right knife went straight for her heart. She twitched on her ankle, implying that she would leap right and outpace the blade. The stroke went wild to the left, to where Isolde would have been had she actually carried through on the bluff. As she twisted to the right, her left knife swept at the ratman's lifted leg. The limb flicked back and then forwards at her elbow in a sharp kick, more reflexive rather than aimed, but enough to keep Isolde from pressing her attack there.

As they passed, its tail emerged like an angered snake, tipped with a cruel barb and lashing at her feet. Isolde was already off the ground, arching herself so that the barb could not hit her even though it tried to double back and slash at her hamstrings. The pair slid away, gracefully spinning on their heels even as they retreated so as not to expose their back to the enemy.

Their encounter had barely lasted a second. It was long enough for each to get the measure of the other. Several of the onlookers were visibly baffled by what had happened, having seen only the two hurtle past each other and, apparently, slash wildly at thin air nowhere near their target. Only the ranarim blademaster Anoldor appeared to grasp the exchange. His expression of professional concern had changed to a mix of horror and determination.

Isolde began to dance her daggers across her palms. She alternated whirling one skywards and to the left, and the other in the opposite direction. It was nothing more than a display of coordination and dexterity, a visual bragging competition of skill. The first bead of sweat appeared on her brow with the effort. Despite its inscrutable rodent face, the ratman seemed impressed. It took a step towards Isolde, and began to dance its own daggers in the same way. Isolde could not help but smile.

"Isolde Amero Ballussia," she announced.

"Ikit Gloryshadow," the ratman replied courteously.

Their daggers left their hands at the same instant, their leap into the air disguised as just another part of the dance. Instead of drawing new ones, Isolde and Ikit simply caught the airborne blades. Another bead of sweat trickled down Isolde's cheek, and Ikit was breathing normally again. For a moment, their eyes were no longer locked and instead focused specifically on each other's hands. No blood. The daggers had been plucked from the air by their hilts. Their eyes locked again.

"Elf-make?" asked Isolde, as she examined the daggers by touch.

"Elf-prey," Ikit explained, doing the same. "Orc-make?"

"Any-prey," Isolde answered.

A chittering squeak that was clearly a laugh escaped Ikit. The short claws on his hind paws tensed to grip the ground. He took one dagger by the blade, then sent it gently arcing skywards. Isolde matched his movement, planting her feet firmly into the earth. They waited patiently. Each caught the dagger as it fell within reach. Neither had to take a step to do so.

One of the Anarians dared to interrupt. Ikit flinched as the battle-axe descended. The Anarian mistook this as genuine, rather than as the disguising of a different movement. At his speed, the simple ball bearings scattered in front of him proved remarkably effective. The man lost his balance immediately and slammed face-first into the ground. With commendable stoicism, he barely grunted as his nose shattered and his jaw dislocated.

As he struggled to rise, swinging blindly in all directions, Ikit's tail lashed out again. The barb on its tip merely grazed the Anarian's hand, but the man screamed as though he had been set on fire. His arm spasmed furiously as whatever poison had been smeared on the barb did its work. The battle-axe was shaken loose of his grip. Ikit's tail wrapped around the shaft and gave the falling weapon a mighty twist. The Anarian had just enough time to widen his eyes before his own weapon cleaved through his skull.

♢♢♢♢♢

From where she knelt, Embla fought more to control herself than her sword, screaming wordless outrage at being sheathed in mere soil and demanding a taste of this strange new creature. Thoughts flowed between weapon and wielder as Embla tried to explain why joining the battle was a terrible idea, and slowly the bloodthirsty blade calmed itself with new understanding. But for Embla, subduing the sword was nothing to her own turmoil.

For the first time in her life, she had been trapped between opposing laws. This was not something meant to happen to Aslaug. It was one of their highest duties to know the laws so that they could properly guide the tribes to righteous action. One law even encouraged Risarvinnae to contest judgements if they truly believed they had the right of a matter, though even the fiercest chieftain was loathe to risk his life by overruling an Aslaug.

For all its rarity, Embla had had this happen to her once, and had afterwards personally bestowed the earned name to the man to mark his courage and wisdom. She bore him no ill will, instead praising him to other Aslaug. Though his defiance of her command, he had obeyed the greater imperative to protect the tribe. Indeed, had he obeyed Embla and thus led his tribe down a more dangerous path, she would have needed to punish him for doing so after the fact. The Risarvinni code of laws offered no protection to those who obeyed orders just because they came from a superior.

'Destroy your enemy, protect your ally' - such was the essence of the conflict now. Yet here were two of her allies trying to kill each other, and in this impossible nightmare scenario neither was the aggressor. Embla had never even considered such a thing, nor had any Aslaug to her knowledge. Due to ignorance and what little evidence had been shown, the arratti Isolde thought she was defending against some monstrous threat. The nidhgaraf, Ikit, was merely defending itself now that its escape had been stalled.

This was a horrendous loophole, and Embla frantically sought interpretations and exceptions that would allow intervention after she had recused herself...and could not find a single one. With infinite care, terrified to seem as though she was breaking her oath of surrender, Embla raised her head to watch the fight. The two duelled with astounding grace.

Isolde coiled and spun like smoke caught by wind, flashing steel sparking against its opposite to deflect a blow or have its own foiled. Her feet never touched the ground at the same time. Ikit was liquid flesh unhindered by lumbering thought, barbed tail lashing furiously as much against his foe as against the earth. As Isolde was forced to blink against the rising cloud of dust, the venomous tip drew first blood.

The pair fell back for a moment. Ikit did not seem surprised when Isolde twirled an empty glass vial across her fingers. That she was not already convulsing was proof enough. Of course, one who had been tutored in the ways of the rogue by drow would have been prepared for poison. She smiled at the nidhgaraf. His nose twitched in acknowledgement. So that was why she had not been able to find and engage him until he was behind the salt-scented Anarian.

Her daggers a blur, Isolde moved in again, trying to drive Ikit back. He responded by leaping clear over her, avoiding a pillar of flame that sprouted from beneath him. A bolt of lightning fell from a clear blue sky a moment later, but that too was not swift enough to catch Ikit. Embla heard matching disbelieving curses from both Brokk and Arlgand. Even magic was not enough against this foe.

The elven warrior that Ikit had first engaged now reappeared. His stance had changed, but Embla knew better than he. That was the perfect stance to adopt when facing an opponent like Ikit. Obviously, it would fail against one so skilled. She was wholly unsurprised when Ikit threw aside his daggers—noting, by Brokk's shout of surprise and Arlgand's cry of pain, that he had done so in such as a way as to delay these masters of the Clever Craft in directing their power against him—and changed his mode of attack.

Embla was, however, very surprised to see Ikit throw off his cloak and reveal the blazing metallic threads stitched into his skin. She was even more surprised when the elf hesitated to strike, so that Ikit was unopposed in hurling a small crystalline bead at him. The bead shattered against the elf with a sound like thunder, staggering him as blood poured from his nose and ears. Ikit crashed into his chest a moment later, sending them both tumbling in a confusing heap.

A small but dense fog erupted around the pair, and a hideous screaming came from within. When it cleared some moments later, only the elf was there, rolling in the dirt in a desperate attempt to extinguish the blue alchemic flames trying to engulf him. This was made more difficult by the way both tendons of his ankles had been neatly severed. A moment later, Aidan finally arrived, kneeling over him, his warhammer thrown aside so that he could beat at the flames with his bare hands. He was yelling in his own language, but whether it was encouragement or comfort or something else was unclear to Embla.

Only now did she stand up, knowing that the nidhgaraf had succeeded in escaping. It was galling to have to sit out such a battle, but necessary. Unfortunately, by the expression that Isolde wore, Embla would first need to answer for her inaction against Ikit. She wondered how she could possibly explain what she had learned about his race, let alone their unknowing importance to the Risarvinnae purpose, and justify that wounded glare now aimed at her.

♢♢♢♢♢

"Embla. Darling, sweet giantess, our lovely bloodthirsting brutalist of a warrior woman. One tiny little question. What in the absolute blue -"

Her voice vanished before it could unleash the cascade of invective that reddened her face and, unpleasantly, sprayed out anyway. Brokk winced when she realised what had happened and spat equally furiously at him, but the spell would keep her silent for several minutes yet. Now was absolutely not the time for Isolde to distract everyone by going verbally berserk—no matter how justified it might be. The chaos of the one-man (One-rat, he corrected himself) ambush had yet to settle.

The burned Ranarim, the fire finally extinguished, was receiving emergency magical healing from a gnomish priest and the Anarian shaman that Isolde had saved from a backstabbing. Arlgand had approached first, but the elves of the Luvam had immediately formed a defensive wall in front of their unconscious champion. This scorn, even in the face of imminent agonising death, seemed to wound Arlgand more than the dagger still piercing his wrist. Instead he turned his spells to Aidan, who had freely been crying as he held his blackened hands away from him, fighting the urge to cradle them close.

Elves, men, and gnomes hurried about in confusion, trying to look in all directions at once. There was no threat of a second attack, though Brokk knew he could not explain this to them. He had gone straight to the first casualty, the unfortunate gnome, and seen exactly what he had expected to. Depending on how cooperative Isolde was, he might be able to explain away the condition of the organs as a result of some rare poison. Brokk doubted that anyone else here had sufficient experience to understood the truth of the matter and contest the lie.

He met the eye of his counterpart, the Sag Zammaz—a true Loremaster in spite of his lowly caste, ranking as an equal to Brokk—and the scholars of the world's forbidden mysteries came to silent agreement. That two Loremasters were in the same place at the same time, in body and without agreeing to meet, suggested a deeper conspiracy was at work. That was a conundrum which would have to wait until more pressing business was dealt with. They could not cover this up, but they could at least try to prevent this unfortunate turn of events from worsening.

They walked over to where Embla still flinched before the inaudible fury of Isolde. The halfling had actually climbed up onto Embla and was screaming silently directly into her face. Seeing this, at that moment, Brokk felt more scared of the normally gentle and pleasant Isolde than of the colossal barbarian who had butchered so many at Mavarra—even after all this time, he shied away from this memory, and from the terrified faces of the villagers hacked to pieces as the compulsion forced their attack.

"I could not intervene," Embla finally said, pain in every syllable. "I was forced by law. I could do nothing to either of you. Or even for either of you. Even trying to stop one of you might have risked an advantage to the other. You were both...you are both...I had no choice, no choice at all. No loopholes. The trap had no loopholes."

She turned to her friend. "Brokk, you must know. This is a thing of the under-realms. You are the most learned man I know from here to the eastern ocean. Tell them, explain, you must know, you must!"

"We know nothing about the aberration," said Brokk and Zammaz as one, and the former added sharply: "And neither do you."

Embla froze to stillness and the light seemed to leave her eyes. In a jerky, toneless voice, she said, "I was mistaken. That beast is an abnormality. It is outside of my experience. Two masters of the Clever Craft say it is so. Thus it is so. I was merely so shocked that I could not fight. That is a shameful thing. I failed you all. I will not fail again."

That was a better result than could have been hoped for, but eyes turned to Brokk, and to Zammaz, nonetheless. There would be questions, too many questions. Far too many here were intelligent enough, cunning enough, wise enough to see through this part of the lie. Each would need to be persuaded individually. Brokk knew he would have to prepare his most potent enchantments in case of stubbornness, though he hated the need for such contingencies.

But the truth must stay hidden, Brokk thought to himself. It is too soon. For the good of all, the truth must stay hidden.

♢♢♢♢♢

THIRD INTERLUDE

If he had tried to explain just how he had come to his conclusion, the pair of them would still be in conversation long after the world had come to its end. In his opinion, the scholar was one of the finest of her generation, and yet hopelessly incapable of understanding a cipher of such complexity. Eleanor Moorschild had been named a Loremaster of the seventh rank, which meant only that those above had deemed her useful mainly as bait to the order's enemies.

No knowledge of true value was left entrusted to they who were openly told of their position, so that those who sought to destroy the Loremasters would think themselves victorious whenever they managed to track down and slay these distractions. It was a brutal, cruel, effective strategy. Because of it, the order had been believed destroyed many times, only to rise again with new lures to draw attention away from the upper echelons.

Brokk himself was now of the second rank, though he would claim a lower if ever asked. None of the fifth or higher would ever admit to this, adding to the enigma of the order. None of them had ever been less than that. To be a true Loremaster, to be a keeper of the elder mysteries, was to have already transcended the ordinary. His heart went out to this enthusiastic woman, for he doubted that she would live to see the next decade come around.

"There is reference to a dwarven hymn of old Wawmar," he lied to assuage her curiosity. "No human would know of it. That is why we were assigned together."

Eleanor nodded in false understanding, and Brokk hated that he had lied, and that she had believed him, so easily. In truth, the references were vastly more intricate. A Mordularian loan-word here, a mathematical pattern there, a sequence of rhymes (after he had transliterated the words into four different scripts) elsewhere, and much more besides. She should have spotted the flaw he laid out for her—no Wawmarian hymn would be referenced in an Ishian document written three centuries after the dwarfhold's fall. For all her potential, this alone showed that she could never have been inducted into the true heart of the order.

"So what do we do?" she asked, trusting in his greater experience.

"Report this to our supervisor," he answered, lying again. "We must reassign our spies from Ishia to Yrrkune. If what they seek is not in the desert, they are wasting valuable time there. Your young hand is steadier than mine. Prepare the message and the pigeon shall fly at dawn."

That night, as Eleanor slept, he burned the papyrus scroll on their fire and rubbed its ash across her brow, speaking certain words to her. When she awoke, the ash and all memory of what had been suggested by the scroll had gone. In its place was a surety that the ludicrous fantasies of a backwards nation of sand-dwellers had been conclusively disproved, despite previous evidence to the contrary, and were pointless to think of again.

Had Eleanor known Brokk was a wizard, she might have been more suspicious of him. With her own sorcery—inherited, she claimed, from a draconic ancestor several generations back—she might have established a protective ward around her dreams, shielding her from his interference. It would have made his work all the more difficult, and in the morning she would have noticed his paleness and slurred speech, and perhaps given thought as to what nightly exertions could produce such exhaustion. Exertions such as, for instance, cutting through mental defences to alter memories and beliefs without alerting the victim.

Three days later, Brokk left Eleanor with the claim that he needed to consult a source in the Far City. The body of a dwarf matching his description was shortly afterwards listed in the classified report of the Wia Humilis Riot casualties. To her own dying day, five years later and two months before the turn of the decade, Eleanor believed that Brokk had truly died in that massacre.

She never did think again of what they had together disproved.

♢♢♢♢♢

Seven weeks in the company of humans had taught him more than seven years of studying them had. At times, Brokk had started to think that maybe the Dark Folk had the right of it. Then he would see Tetsuo whittling a toy for his son back home, or catch Xun humming his fisherfolk melodies, and he would hate himself for wishing them all crushed underfoot.

The Kunese were wily still, despite centuries of slavery to the Wintervale. Some part of them knew that the life their people led was not as it should have been. There was no outright defiance, but just the tiniest spark of rebellion seen here or there gave Brokk insight. Because they obeyed their masters so completely, next to no attention was ever paid to the Kunese. This enabled them to thrive, not merely survive, under the Wintervale whip.

Which was ultimately why Brokk kept feeling such irrational hatred towards them. How dare they prosper when so many others suffered such horrors? Kunese culture was barely suppressed, at least when compared to that of the Farlandic nations; and Hoths prized their eunuch secretaries to such a degree that they could walk the streets of the Far City unmolested by the fiercest rivals of their masters—lest retaliation left everyone without these efficient and soft-spoken administrators.

Perhaps it was his disguise starting to affect him. Brokk had devoted nearly all of his magical energies to altering his physical appearance, size, and even voice for over two months. Pretending to be Ronn-Pogok, Senior Legionnaire First Class, 17th Gurz-Goi Imperator Engineer Corps, was not likely to engender positive feelings towards the lesser races rightfully subjugated for the glory of His Calamitous Fury, the Lord Wrath.

And there I go again with that supremacist ideology, Brokk thought to himself as he edited a warrant of summary execution and forged the signature, ensuring that at least two commanding officers would end up dead as a result—his record was seven—and that his own involvement would remain undiscovered. I wonder if anyone else has begun to experience personality shifts after prolonged deep cover?

His work here was nearly complete, however. At the rate of one, sometimes two, spells a day, he had at last severed the chain of gossip which had formerly stretched from the conscription halls of Shonmi to the Far City barracks. It was a pity that the Kunese as a people knew the truth, but mostly it was kept among themselves. Hardly anyone believed their primitive babbling anyway, so excising the willingness to believe from those few exceptions had not been the length task that Brokk had initially feared would take the rest of his life.

It was an irrational fear. He would admit that to himself in his darker moments. No such mercy for him, as the weight of that tablet, the weight of countless stolen years pressing down, always cruelly reminded him. Brokk was damned to life, not to death. The urge to return to the study of the tablet grew stronger every day. Eventually he would succumb, and that would be the end of his subtle influence on the world.

But until then, his duty as a Loremaster would keep him going. One more week, perhaps, and then his disguise could be allowed to die. Under a fallen tree, perhaps, considering the season. His preferred use of fire or metal would not work so well as wood. His Kunese underlings would superstitiously blame spirits that they were no longer supposed to believe in, and throw the corpse into the ocean with no further investigation, thereby hoping to avert bad luck.

And, of course, if any of them spoke about it, nobody would believe them.

♢♢♢♢♢

Brokk knew what it was that crouched in the shadows behind him, and did not presume to turn around. That would have been his death, and in the twelve years since his pretence in the Far City, he had grown paradoxically fonder of his life. Every day he continued to live gave him another day with the mysteries of the tablet, and another day closer to learning how he might die.

The jittery sentences, pitched almost painfully high, with words repeated at random, matched no linguistic rhythm Brokk had ever heard. It was like listening to an excitable mouse. Or, more appropriately, a rat. Whispered curses and spiteful oaths overheard from the Kunese levies came back to him now. He doubted that any one of them would have hesitated to attack, driven into unthinking frenzy at the presence of this ancient enemy, this obscene adversary to the conquering might of the Wintervale.

Yet even the Wintervale had all but forgotten about these defiants. The greater portion of the work had even been done by the Blacksun Legion, unyielding drow arrogance refusing to acknowledge the competition offered them when they had been sent to complete the vassalisation of Yrrkune all those years ago.

Others who followed, including Loremasters such as Brokk, had continued to conceal their existence as best they could. A power now swelled beneath Yrrkune, waiting to erupt and swarm over the minions of the Darkest God—minions who barely knew this power had ever existed, let alone its true potential. So to ensure this did not change, even their allies had to be kept unknowing.

Now, word had reached certain ears of Brokk's own part in this. A reward, of sorts, had been decided upon, since he had done exceptionally well. That which Brokk did not turn to see told him this and more. Some of it Brokk already knew, some he only learned now, but all of it was merely its own coded message. He was a Loremaster of the first and highest rank now, entitled to be handed the most secret knowledge freely.

A leather-bound tome, purporting itself to be an dissertation on the relative merits of various systems of administrative governance in pre-feudal autonomous dependencies (and therefore so monumentally dull that nobody would wish to look at the spine, never mind the contents) was placed by unseen hands next to him. Brokk did not move to take it. Instead he closed his eyes and went back to sleep, allowing his guest the courtesy of leaving as it had arrived.

Brokk needed three months to crack the cipher and learn the language. The chances of him ever needing it in future were infinitesimal, but all knowledge was precious even if it was never necessary. Another ten thousand years might pass before the Loremasters actually needed anyone who could understand this speech. It did not matter. Brokk would find his own ways to disseminate this knowledge to others of his standing so it was not lost.

The possibility that Brokk himself might be the one to need this language never occurred to him.

♢♢♢♢♢

Physically and emotionally spent from possibly the most exhilarating duel of her life, Isolde finally ran out of energy to scream at Embla with. It was not satisfying anyway, since thanks to Brokk's intervention, nobody could hear her demand an explanation for the apparent betrayal. She was not stupid—there was a reason behind both events—but it was difficult to think rationally when she had come closer to dying than any time before. Admitting that helped steady Isolde.

Her upbringing and education in Zel City had been brutal, but offered her a commensurate level of protection as her skill grew. The horror under Mavarra, born of a deranged cruelty beyond that of even the drow, had never truly been a threat to her life. Not even standing against Afej the Black, lich lord of Dessingrove, had come close to ending her—ironically because she and her friends were so completely beneath him that he barely paid attention to any of them throughout the encounter.

Whatever else that creature had been, it had been more than her equal. Not only had it matched every combat trick, seen through every feint, moved with grace surpassing her own; but it had done so whilst also evading spell-strikes, countering outside intervention, and escaping from being surrounded whilst in plain sight. Had it not been trying to get away, Isolde did not doubt for a moment that she would have eventually fallen to it.

Halflings are luckier than most, sometimes, so people say, she thought. I think I am alive now only because that may well be true.

Her side ached where the poison barb had pierced her leather. That would have been fatal in and of itself had she not taken a moment, seeing how her opponent had fought, to down an antitoxin just in case. A purely generic one, unfortunately, rather than targeted to that specific poison, so she was still going to suffer some. Regardless, Isolde was grateful for the fact that she would live to suffer at all.

But you know who won't be suffering? Isolde asked herself, then tried to ask a question of Brokk, but his spell was still silencing her. Instead, she walked over to where the dwarf, and that arrogant bastard of a gnome who had dared look down his nose at her when she suggested his questions could wait until they rested that evening, were once again hunched over the corpse of the first victim of the ambush.

She glared at the gnome again when he frowned at her, a dismissive sneer hidden in his eyes. She could see it, even if Brokk could not. It was more than just the age-old animosity between her people and his, but the patronising look of one who used magic towards those who did not. Brokk himself had been too damaged in their early days to wear it, and by the time he had started to heal the two were firm friends.

To her satisfaction, the wizard even seemed a little embarrassed to break the spell he himself had placed on her, and she was pleased to see that his gnomish counterpart was surprised at this. Evidently, the two did not see eye-to-eye on all parts of this affair, despite the fact that they were clearly trying to cover up something about it. That was made abundantly clear by the twisted innards of the corpse, and by what the gnome said next:

"Having examined the body, we conclude some kind of eastern poison is at work here. I recommend it is destroyed at once to prevent any kind of contamination."

Isolde scoffed, but reached over to turn Brokk to face her, locking eyes with him. She whispered: "No poison can do this. I know poisons as well as you know spells. Explain later, and I won't immediately argue whatever lie you tell the rest of them. I will trust you on this, Brokk. And since I recently had a bad experience with oversized rats, you can also trust me to cut out the squinty eyes of any offal-eater nearby who keeps looking at me like I got stuck on the underside of his boot."

"Your abilities would be exhausted before hers, Zammaz," Brokk warned the gnome even as he rounded on Isolde. "Since I would have to counter anything too effective you tried. Thank you, Isolde. We will explain soon. We cannot explain everything, but what we can...I hope it will be enough."

She growled at the pair of them and stalked away to mutter angrily at Embla some more. On her way, she stopped to retrieve a quartet of daggers lying by the roadside. Two of them were hers, fashioned by orc smiths back in Zel City. Two of them were of elf-craft, and had belonged to the ratman Ikit. Isolde knew a thing or two about lost items. It seemed only reasonable that she hold onto these so that she could return them some day.

♢♢♢♢♢

No suncaller could have done more, in his considered opinion, than the shunned light-elf when it came to healing the wounds suffered in the attack. Yet Tapio Sworn-of-Frosts, a winter's child of the Einarii, was invited in his place to work the magical arts on the hobbled green-elf thane, alongside a gnome whose frightened eyes exposed his inexperience. Whatever he may have done to earn their ire, to spurn him is this time of need was unwise—an act of pride surely too foolish for such as they to countenance. Tapio said as much to the green-elves, but met a silence as impenetrable as the blue bergs.

This annoyed him further, for whilst he knew his grasp of these southerner languages to be poor, it was not so terrible as to be completely unintelligible. And even if elves, of all peoples, had been confused by his words, they ought to have had the common courtesy to ask for clarification. Their high lady had slightly better manners, even if she also did not acknowledge the reprimand, for at least she gave him a nod of thanks.

"I expected better from them," Tapio muttered sourly as he rejoined his fellow tribesmen. "Did something happen in the last decade that I missed? Did we insult them somehow, or raid the wrong border? No? Nothing? I thought not. By the whiskers of the Seal, what thoughts are in their head?"

"Who knows the ways of elvenkind, and whose place might it be to question them?" asked Agnarr rhetorically, trying to sound authoratative but also mysterious.

Tapio reflexively gave the boy a clip on the ear. That was exactly the sort of insolent behavior which had gotten him assigned to Tapio in the first place, and whilst he showed promise as a student, there were days that Tapio suspected it would take another nine years to teach Agnarr his place. Implying, even through failing to be profound, that his master was deficient in any way was extremely improper.

Fortunately—a sign both of his growing wisdom and Tapio's ability as a teacher—Agnarr shut up. It had not been an easy journey to reach this destination, but Tapio was hardened to such and had only grown more determined as their days together became months and the months became years. Though he was of the Elk, not the Seal, Agnarr had exiled to the far north by an insulted Jarl Leif Olafsson seeking to rid himself of the precocious youngster. That doing so in such a manner risked the sheltered boy's life, allowing the jarl to declare a legal feud against the Seal Tribe and even demand recompense in blood for failing to protect him, was neither here nor there.

Especially since nobody would be so crass as to mention that the former jarl, Olaf, had gradually slipped into cruelty as he aged and finally been slain in self-defence by a Seal woman who had caught his wandering eye. Tapio had tried not to let too much of his knowledge of this history slip into the progress reports he sent back to land at each solstice, but unaccustomed as he was to the writing of letters...mistakes had been made, by sheer unanticipated accident, of course.

These were strange times in more ways than one, Tapio knew. Once he, or one like him, would never have been summoned south to the shores of the Seal, to walk on soil and stone again, to take on an apprentice with more mouth than sense to use it. Once he, or one like him, would never have found it to be an enjoyable and rewarding challenge. Yet Tapio was forced to admit, if only to himself, that he was pleased to be in the company of others again, even those foreign to his brethren and cousins alike. And all making the journey, by invitation only, to the very heart of the Summervale to meet with its king.

How many others will travel this way? he wondered. What strangenesses will they bring with them?

♢♢♢♢♢

"And you knowingly...paid money for that? By choice?" asked Hamling, sounding both nauseated and disbelieving.

Gareth du Rentes, appointed by royal decree as Marquis du Rentes, stuck his tongue out at the impudent halfling, and returned to admiring himself in the mirror. His companions and estate servants watched him closely, with undoubted awe and envy. His new cloak would make him stand out from the crowd and guarantee he was the talk of every assemblage—though he did not exactly need any help in that regard. Its extremely fashionable high collar cut painfully into his earlobes.

That is how you know its quality, he thought smugly, and wiped a speck of dust from its shining clasp.

A dwarven master whitesmith had, at Gareth's insistence, cleverly molded the silver to suggest a snarling vampiric face. All the better to remind a certain royal individual incomprehensibly focused upon petty matters of undeclared taxable income that a certain impossibly handsome member of the nouveau noblesse had—by accident, admittedly—ensured the Kalais throne remained his own.

"Sweet Bestra, just look at me," Gareth laughed delightedly. "Were I a woman, I'd be chasing after myself! Whenever I enter the room, all eyes will turn."

Hamling retched. "And I dare say, so will all stomachs. These are the solstice festivities of the Summervale itself we are talking about, not some ugly human get-together. Elves have standards. I don't agree with most of them, because, well, elves...but the point still stands! Hey, Tybalt, you looking forward to it? First time for you, am I right?"

The scarred, devil-like features on the great warrior's face twisted into childish worry as he thought on this. As with the rest of his brethren, Tybalt was a curious mixture of bloodthirst and innocence. The tieflings had carved a bloody path through the Wild Lands under him, their Horned Khan, after he had slain their half-fiend mother with her own axes and assumed control of the army she had hoped to breed.

Only a curious encounter at the frontier town of Covak had halted them and drawn Tybalt into Gareth's service. The tiefling followed in the hope of learning about altruism and heroes, honor and righteousness. Nobody else, including Gareth in his more honest moments, could work out why Tybalt thought Gareth was the person to learn of any of these things from.

After a long minute in deep thought, Tybalt gave his answer: "Belendale? I think I am not welcome there. I led my brothers and sisters to many killings when we hunted for those who called to Mother. We were angry and stupid. Many innocents died."

Gareth dismissed this legitimate concern away with a snort. "Tybalt, you are one of my party now. I promise, nobody will think ill of you when I am around! Hamling, shut your trap before I put you in one as bait! I don't expect anything short of a starving owlbear would be interested in you, though...maybe not even then. Hmm, what should I do with you instead? Malevoxa, darling, share your thoughts? You always have such grotesque suggestions."

The moment the words were out of his mouth, Gareth knew they were a mistake. The stunning and imperious woman he had sought to include, already turned on him with a glare to petrify a medusa, was also the most terrifying he had ever met. When you openly cursed by the God of Death in the Occupied Kingdoms where his name was a fatal taboo, and only had to flee the country of Farland after satirising the Lord of Wrath himself, ordinary mortal notions of propriety and restraint no longer applied. And as Gareth was about to be reminded, calling anything of hers 'grotesque' was a grievous error.

Over the course of the next twenty or so minutes, Malevoxa unleashed a storm of invective at Gareth that cracked the walls around him and shattered the mirror. He withstood the pain of her bardic magic whenever it surged into a true spell, knowing it was the safest option. His servants had already fled, and though Hamling and Tybalt had retreated to a slightly safer distance where Malevoxa's words were merely painful but not injurious, they stood ready to intervene if it looked like she might lose all control.

Privately, Hamling suspected that it was she who would be the least welcome in Belendale. Despite his concerns, Tybalt was a child at heart, for all that his hellish ancestry had driven him to evil acts. Even Arlgand, with his family's history, had the benefit of being one of them. Malevoxa, however, had not earned that name—'She of Evil Voice' in the Great Speech of Farland—through her volatile tempers and obscene profanities alone. Her music had killed people before, and no doubt would again, and this perversion of the art was doubtless an affront to the elves who had pioneered it.

Arlgand my friend, I hope things are going better for you than they are for us, Hamling thought. This is one invitation I think we should have all turned down. Endure until we join you, and we will do the same. I hope.

♢♢♢♢♢

Therolan, naturally, had walls. It was no squalid pile of mismatched hovels that presumed to call itself a city, in the manner of the humans. That the lesser races could not see the elegant design, weaving through the ancient forest like a river, was no fault of the Glimmerkin. From his elevated conservatory, high above the streets that swarmed with lowly altarim, Lord Jerroth Salpheran, First High Captain of the Therolan Wardens, let his gaze pass over the fortifications that were his responsibility.

Strange to think that they were the newest part of the city, relatively speaking. Only when long-vanquished Rothnog had begun to harass the borders of the Summervale had the altarim started to quarry and construct. Their increasingly distant, greater cousins granted the blessings of twilight to the developments, much to Lord Jerroth's inherited dismay. How many Houses of stature had been doomed to safeguard these and other walls since their erection, set apart from their true purpose in Gloralion?

Not for the first time, he ground his teeth unconsciously, fuming with the unfairness of it all. The petty world beyond Belendale had brought about this ancestral fall from grace - and yet not once had a king or queen of Gloralion agreed to punish those responsible. Lord Jerroth had argued often with the naive whelp Iorannor on this matter, trying to lure that potential heir to the side of reason, but to no avail. That was one of the few Houses which remained firmly mired in idiocy.

At his back, a number of squires stood awaiting messages to deliver to their own Houses. All save his own were of the galan, as centuries only House Salpheran had deigned to recruit from the altarim, which perhaps explained why they towered over their supposed peers in influence. Tommal was but the latest to prove this strategy the superior, and he moved through the politics of the Houses with a keenness of wit that shamed his opposites. There were some days, in truth, that Lord Jerroth wondered if Tommal held more authority in practice than he himself did in theory.

His musings were interrupted by the arrival of the presumptuous interlopers who polluted his nation. His eyes focused across the great distance to the walls where the mismatched throng of humans, gnomes, and coward-elves passed unknowingly into Therolan itself. They moved as if harried by some unseen enemy, and Lord Jerroth knew from this that the murderer of so many valuable allies had turned its attention to them. It pleased him greatly.

"Squire Tommal, I have need of your pen," he called, and his loyal servant approached before the last word had left his lips. "Dispatch notices to our colleagues. They must be informed that a Graysoul is returned, in the company of brigands and Sundered. Schedule a meeting for discussions and decisions. Make sure to emphasise the latter. I will brook no further delays."

Tommal bowed low, took the required three paces back, and then a more courteous further two before turning his back to communicate these instructions to the other squires. Lord Jerroth did not concern himself with the details. He did not need to. He was master of a Great House, perhaps the only true Great House remaining if the quality of the others was any standard by which to judge.

They were still needed as allies, of course, no House could stand alone, but their value should not be overstated. Nor too should the use of the outsider, which had been confined to long-sealed chambers to hide its presence from others less appreciative of dire necessity, and which sulked endlessly about it. Lord Jerroth had never seen a crow sulk before, but since the outsider was not a true crow, the oddity could be excused. The more time went on, interestingly, the more ways Lord Jerroth could find to excuse the presence of the not-crow in his home. He flatly refused to address it by its name, however. He had standards, after all, and they would only need to rise afterwards.

It was time for House Salpheran to resume its hallowed place at the pinnacle of culture and civilization. And if Lord Jerroth had to crush those incapable of seeing as such under his heel, then that would be just fine. His eyes alighted again on the distant intruders. He considered what repulsive histories they brought with them, hanging about them like flies around a corpse cart, and even less pleasant.

Yes, indeed, he thought, smiling coldly, teeth grinding again. That would be just fine.

TO BE CONTINUED