The smell of the ocean hung thickly in the air as water rushed along Northline Canyon, eddying and swirling over the rocky seabed. Barely fifty paces apart, the cliffs at either side gazed at each other over the waters, their flanks a mottled canvas of greys and lichen green, skirted with seaweed and overhung with leafy beards of foliage.
While no ship could moor for long in the narrow, fast flowing chasm, there were brief windows of opportunity at high and low tide where a hardy skipper might pull up for an exchange of goods or passengers, and several stepped footpaths had been cut into the sheer cliffs.
At the top of the cliffs, barely above the masts of even a small sailing vessel, Fort Fortitude spread out on either side of the Northline.
Named by a founder with an odd sense of humour, it had nonetheless proved an appropriate name, for the town had endured the ebb and flow of wars long past with resilience and unity. Being built along the border between Lordenor and the Freelands, it was unique in its vantage point over both states. It was also unique in that it had been built around not one, but two military strongholds.
Ostensibly designed to enforce security against any aggressive force who might attack Fortitude, the castles were, as the locals well knew, more importantly a show of strength from nation to nation. Equally matched in size, thoroughly mismatched in design, they were perpetually manned by garrisons of precisely equal numbers.
Upon the west bank, sat a mere two hundred feet from the cliff edge, Ironguard Keep. Commissioned by, and partially named after an ancient ancestor of the royal house of Irontooth, its squat, square and black form was designed to look as menacing as possible in order to inspire pride and courage in the hearts of the brave sons of Leonan that manned its battlements. If it happened to do the same for the other races among the defenders, so much the better, but few others felt that they had been particularly considered during the fortress’ construction.
At each end of the forward wall, turrets rose like the horns of some great stone beast, their outer edges sloping inwards so that the twin towers tapered to a narrower peak. Between them, no less than three ranks of battlements, each set fifteen feet higher than and back from the previous, a staircase for giants to ascend. Set at the each end of the forward wall, two great gates, designed so the defenders could swiftly exit the castle in order to subdue an attacking force before they ever reached the walls. Overall, those who manned the keep thought that it displayed the rather unique take on defence that only a leonin would truly understand.
On the east bank, in strange contrast to its competitor, Freeman Spire rose high above the town. Designed for occupation by all the varied races of the Freelands, it revelled in every iota of skill its architects had possessed. To the front, a curved wall without a single break or gate, merging smoothly with the turrets at each end, then sweeping backwards to form a great, rounded triangle of stone. The towers on each corner displayed two levels for the defenders to occupy, the lowest a balcony to be manned by archers who would provide short range cover for the great weapons of war that were mounted above them, ready to rain rocks and fire upon unwelcome visitors. At the base of the rear tower, a double portcullis blocked a passageway that was already behind a heavy steel gate.
Behind the outer wall, at the centre of the triangle, the Spire rose to twice the height of the surrounding battlements, providing a further three levels of balcony for archers to rain arrows upon any foolish enough to launch an attack. Between each level of the Spire and the three outer towers ran rope bridges, an intricate web allowing light and agile soldiers to move unhindered, high above the heads of those in the courtyard.
Entrenched on opposite sides of the canyon, the castles glowered at each other across the divide, locked in an eternal staring contest as the come and go of the tides surged in the water between them, each side daring the other to make the first move.
Caught in the middle of this battle of nations, the townsfolk, quite sensibly, declared neutrality, ignored both fortresses, and continued about their business, happily moving back and forth along the two bridges between each half of the town and profiting from supplying provisions to both garrisons.
It was this tendency for cooperation despite the odds that had caused Fortitude to become the site of the twice-yearly meetings between the rulers and landowners of Lordenor, and the elected representatives of the Freelands. Sadly today cooperation was in short supply.
“This behaviour is unacceptable and will be stopped immediately!” An echoing bang came from the tabletop as the middle aged man beside it slammed his fist against the wood. Standing behind him, a younger man winced as around the conference room voices hushed, and eyes concentrated upon the irate speaker, the various small tables for minor issues watching the centre dais intently.
The large leonin across the table sat back in his chair, regarding the man opposite, surveying the rich clothing, the heavy gold amulet around his neck, the greying of hair at his temples, and the shrewd and calculating expression. Born to one of the most prosperous families in the southern Freelands, there were few who were surprised when Tarwin Goldwood had first stood for election a member of the local County Council. There were also few who failed to see the strength of determination in the man’s eyes, or to hear the conviction in his voice when he spoke. It was these same qualities that had paved the way for him to become head of that County Council, and then the First Minister of the Freelands Council itself.
It was just a shame, the leonin reflected, that the forceful personality which made the man such a formidable negotiator and leader, was now directed towards accusing him of committing an act of war.
“As I have told you,” the tall feline rumbled, his face giving no sign that he was at all put off by the man’s outburst. “That this is nothing to do with me, or anyone in my kingdom.”
“Who else then? Who else would raid our farming communities? Who else would sink our ships?” a few drops of saliva landed on the wooden tabletop as the man shouted, his hand clenched tight around a piece of parchment – parchment upon which were listed the names of three devastated townships, and seventeen missing vessels. Every name on the list had been added within the last two months.
“It wouldn’t be the first time our nations have had trouble with the highland barbarians,” the leonin inclined his head, frowning slightly.
“Who have never had the guts or the ships to strike so far along our coasts,” the lutrani sitting at the First Minister's right elbow said loudly, folding his arms across his chest.
“Then pirates,” the kingly leonin responded, voice a low rumble.
“My people would know if there was any pirate force on the water large enough to do such damage,” the lutrani said dismissively. “Tell me, Irontooth, do you still pride yourself so much on your naval might as you did at our last meeting?” Tarwin nodded in agreement with the sentiment, frowning.
“That has nothing to do with the issue here,” a female sciurel spoke up quietly, two seats beyond the lutrani, her large tail casting her face into shadow as the sunlight hit her from behind.
“It has everything to do with the issue here!” Tarwin thundered, rising to his feet. “You,” he stabbed a finger in the leonin’s direction. “Have, as Silverwater says, on many occasions expressed open pride in your naval forces. ‘The strongest navy in all the world,’ you boasted to me once.”
“Nothing to do with me,” the leonin stated again shaking his head, the slender golden crown upon his brow in strange contrast to the solidity of his features.
“I think we should remember that neither Maximilian nor any legal representative of Lordenor has ever made a hostile move against the Freelands in living memory,” the sciurel woman said softly, her large gold earrings glittering as her head moved. “Our relations have been amicable for over a century. To accuse him of such acts would be…”
“To suggest a less likely source of trouble than pirates or the highlanders?” Tarwin turned on her and she hesitated. He turned back to the leonin. “Tell me, Irontooth,” he said, lowering his voice somewhat. “You seem to be missing a few of your regular attendees. Why is this?”
“I might ask you the same,” the leonin frowned. “I am told you signed in thirty four of the forty delegates expected with no apologies offered by those in absence.”
“That is beside the point,” the lutrani said before the first minister could speak, making a gesture to sweep the comment aside, the rings on his fingers glittering.
“Is it indeed?” eyes turned to Tiernach, one of the two sons of Maximilian, slighter of build than his father, but still as tall as the human minister, even while seated at the king's side. “I should have thought you wiser than that, First Minister. Every senator or representative we have missing, we have accounted for. You have not... Can you be certain that none of your missing people are involved in your troubles? Can you guarantee that this is not the beginnings of an attempt to overturn your leadership from within?”
The lutrani hesitated, looked at Tarwin, who apparently couldn’t find anything to say either.
“I see,” Tiernach said softly.
“Blasted fools!” Maximilian growled, marching into the royal suite in Ironguard Keep. Tiernach followed him, posture straight and dignified, expression placid.
“Father?” Seated by a window, Maximillian's first son, older than his brother by some fifteen minutes, looked up from a game of chess he was playing against a human girl in her mid teens. She raised her eyebrows at the king's words, but remained silent.
“Stupid, stupid idiots,” Maximilian strode across to the table under the window, pouring himself a drink from one of the numerous crystal decanters that sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. Holding the glass up to the light, he gazed into it, the muscles at the side of his jaw working visibly.
Face composed, Tiernach explained quietly. “It is as we have heard; several towns in the Freelands have been attacked and ransacked. Casualties are high, rumours are rampant, and solid information is non-existent. Father offered them our aid however they–”
“Threw back in my face!” the king thundered, dashing the glass upon the cold stone floor, a myriad of crystal shards scattering around his boots. “Decades of peace since my father passed away, and yet still that old fool Goldwood cannot accept that I wish our nations to be friends!”
“It would appear,” Tiernach said softly. “That rumour and speculation has caused us to fall out of favour with the Freelands' government.”
“Well, tell them the truth!” standing, the leonin walked over to stand between his father and brother. By his mid twenties, he had inherited his sire’s solid figure, filling out his shirt impressively, and could comfortably look the older feline in the eye. “Tell them that we are nothing to do with the matter! Offer them our help!”
“I have, Kaja,” Maximilian looked bitter, and his son fell silent. “Goldwood took it as an insult.”
“He believes we have implied his nation is weak, brother,” Tiernach clarified. “His decisions are clouded by unjustified preconception. He has many times voiced objection to rule by monarchy. In his eyes, father is... a dictator. Do not ask what he thinks of you or I.”
Maximilian snorted, folding his arms and turning to glare out of the window. “Insults me, insults my sons...” he rumbled. “I shall not offer our aid again! Let him rot in the grave he has dug for himself! Perhaps when a barbarian horde breaks down the door to his council chamber he will see truth!”
“Perhaps you should let the matter rest for a day or so, father,” the young woman spoke at last, rising from her chair and approaching with light footsteps.
“Aleana?” Maximilian turned to her, looking at her properly for the first time since entering the room. Slight of build, and no more than average height, she had a delicacy of face and voice, with large, liquid green eyes that seemed to look deep into the onlooker’s soul.
Despite the way she addressed Maximilian, Aleana was not, of course, his daughter, or at least not biologically. She had however been born to a noble of the royal court, and a great friend of the king’s. Upon her parents’ deaths in service to the crown, Maximilian had taken it upon himself to raise the infant child in their memory, granting her every title, power and status that came from being of his own bloodline. It was an act he had never regretted, her gentle demeanour and calm head often cooling the fiery heat of his own leonin blood.
“Think about why they have accused us,” Aleana went on quietly, her expression sincere. “They have lost many good people, and they don’t know why. They’re angry, hot headed, and public pressure will be demanding action. Remember that they are an elected government. They must be seen to do something, lest they lose their support, and whilst we have done nothing to harm them, they are very well aware that we could if we so chose. Their people also know this.”
The king paused, rubbing his solid chin. “You have a suggestion?” he encouraged. Young as his daughter may be, he knew she had a knack for seeing the answers that blindsided those twice her age.
“Wait until tomorrow, then invite the Freelands’ representatives to dinner. Socialise with them, ask them to join you and your delegates in archery, lawn sports, or hunting. Talk with them informally, off the record, and be humble. Remember you are not their king. The Freelands ministers see you as an equal, not an authority figure. Remind them that you are also a person – a good person. Let tempers settle a little before you speak once more as king of Lordenor.”
It was blunt advice, Maximilian thought – so blunt that his own father would have silenced her half way. Maximilian was however, not his father, and he regarded his adopted daughter thoughtfully.
Tiernach also looked thoughtful. “I think that it might be worth the attempt,” he said slowly. “But I also think we should proceed cautiously. Goldwood is not the sort of person to remain inactive when he perceives a threat. If we cannot identify the real attackers soon, I have no doubt he will organise a ‘retaliatory’ strike against us.”
Maximilian nodded. “I agree. I intend to send a messenger back to the capital. I want more soldiers at all towns near Northline Canyon.”
“Which the Freelands will interpret as us building up to an attack,” Aleana said softly, and all three leonin looked at her.
“It’s a point, father,” Kaja conceded.
“On the other hand, if we do not react to his threats, he may be more willing to listen,” Aleana continued.
Maximilian frowned. “Bringing in more soldiers will be a risk,” he agreed, voice a deep rumble. “But increasing our military presence is less of a risk than leaving our border open to a strike from the Freelands. We must prove to them that we can respond to any threat they may make, and trust that they are not foolish enough to threaten anyway.”
“The decision is made, Aleana,” Maximilian said gently, but with firmness, and the girl bowed her head, knowing better than to push beyond this statement. Leonin decisions were not easily reversed, and never in the same debate in which they were made. “Lordenor protects her people, and I shall not dishonour my fathers by failing to follow their lead.”
“Quite right, father,” Tiernach nodded. “Besides, the Freelands’ military is disorganised and slow to mobilise. I do not believe that Goldwood could deliver on any threat he makes. He is bluffing, and increasing the protection to towns on the border will call that bluff, and force him to deal with us honestly.” Maximilian looked approvingly at his son.
“And to think I once feared that you would lose your head for military matters,” the king smiled.
This need not be a military matter at all, Aleana thought, but didn’t say anything. She exchanged a glance with Kaja, who just shrugged. Aleana had a feeling she would need to keep a close eye on the situation.
“He’s lying,” the First Minister stated flatly, entering his chambers in Freeman Spire, heels of his well-made shoes clicking sharply on the floorboards. The window opposite showed a view of a large courtyard, with past a dozen flagpoles, each bedecked with multiple flags to signify each of the Freelands' counties represented at the summit. A handful remained at half mast, mounted on smaller poles, a reminder of the existence, if not the immediate presence, of other county leaders. The elected County Keepers in attendance would be expected to bear witness to the high level negotiations between nations, as well as work out their own trade agreements with their peers from Lordenor.
“What makes you say that, father?” his son asked, taking Tarwin’s hat and hanging it upon a rack at the side of the doorway, his eyes flicking over the rich furnishing and the thick velvet curtains.
“Simple deduction,” Tarwin scowled. “Only Lordenor has the military force necessary to do so much damage so quickly.”
“I see…” the younger man sounded dubious. “Are we still talking about three small villages?”
“It’s only a matter of time, Troy, only a matter of time, and I’ll prove it,” the older man didn’t seem to be listening. “And as soon as I do…”
“As soon as you do?” his son asked hesitantly, hanging his own coat next to his father’s and moving to take a seat by the fireplace.
“We’ll bring him down,” a ferocious grin spread across Tarwin’s face. “The Freelands will rally behind me, and we will finally topple that obscene dictatorship,” he spat the word, clenching his fist and thudding it against the top of the mantelpiece. “It is more than time that the oppressed people of Lordenor were given a voice as to who rules them.”
“I always thought that the people of Lordenor seemed to be doing quite well…”
The older man glared at his son. At twenty-some years of age Troyston Goldwood was taller than his father by several inches, handsomer, and slimmer of build, seeming somehow gracefully delicate in his movements. The grace of his appearance carried over into his voice and words, so much so that as a child his teacher had once described him as having ‘the face and tongue of an angel, and the mind of a devil’ – the latter part due perhaps to the young man’s tendency to play practical jokes on those around him. There were times however, when his father wondered if his son’s grace and soft manner of speaking weren’t signs of weakness rather than of good upbringing. This was decidedly one of them.
“A nation held under a non-elected ruler is never ‘doing quite well’, Troyston,” he growled, knowing that the use of his son’s full name would goad him into listening. “They’re nothing but hereditary dictatorships, enforced by the wealth and power of the family in charge, whether or not they are the best people for the job. It was only a matter of time before Irontooth showed his true colours. Aggressive and arrogant, just like his father. Probably looking for lands to claim for each of his boys so's they won't threaten him in future years.”
Troyston opened his mouth as if to say something, a crease appearing between his eyebrows, but he was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Yes?” the older man turned away from his son. “What can I do for you, Silverwater?” he asked curiously as the lutrani entered.
Hanging up his hat and coat by the door, the lutrani did not answer immediately, first moving over to the table by the fire, helping himself to a drink from the selection of decanters before sitting in the nearest armchair. Tarwin watched him carefully. As the lutrani minister for the Freelands, it was not unusual for Romon Silverwater to display a slower, more thoughtful appearance than others of his race, and this was obviously going to be one of those times.
Tarwin couldn’t blame him. It was difficult to rise to the position of minister of the Freelands without showing some sign of the weight of that responsibility. Unlike the regional councils who governed the day to day affairs of their counties under the leadership of their county keeper, the ministers were geographically impartial. With the founding of the Freelands, the principle of equality and representation had been established, such that there would always be eight ministers, providing a voice at the highest level for each of the eight races, irrespective of whether that race were the numerous vulpani and humans, or the sparser ursai and often repressed muscai. It was a position of great power and responsibility, and not to be taken lightly.
Tarwin remembered the days when both his power and responsibility were only those of a minister, and couldn’t help feeling slightly wistful. Over his time as council aide, councillor, county keeper, and minister, he had seen three first ministers come and go. Teandal Batworth, a wise if eccentric ursai, and one of the most popular, possibly because he had a habit of introducing a new public holiday every year, and two during his re-election campaign. Sevinyan Greymane, the headstrong leonin first minister, largely elected because the voting masses and councillors felt the need for a firm hand during a spate of piracy on the major shipping lanes, declining to stand for re-election and instead retiring from office and the public eye. Finally, Yventanya Brightbark, the sciurel first minister, serving six years before recommending that the baton of leadership be passed to Tarwin, while she, blushing but smiling, returned to the rank of minister after an overwhelming vote and the nervous breakdown of the current appointee.
“It’s a dangerous game you're playing, Tarwin,” the lutrani said at length, and breaking the man out of his reverie.
“If you’re here to tell me I should sit back and do nothing, Romon,” Tarwin glared at him. “You can leave.”
“No, not at all,” the lutrani said softly. “I know the problem as well as you, and I think you are right to take action – but are you quite sure you are taking the right action?”
“It’s him,” Tarwin growled. “I know it’s him. He’s been waiting for a chance for years.”
“A chance for what?” Silverwater asked.
“To take the Freelands! Don’t you see it, Romon? Irontooth will extend his lands into ours if we allow this to continue.”
“Father, we don’t know…”
“Troyston, shut up!” the older man snapped, and his son fell silent, looking down at his toes, his lips compressed to a thin line.
Expression thoughtful, the lutrani took a sip of his drink. “It is possible,” he admitted at length. “Maximilian would gain much in the eyes of his people, were he to add the Freelands to his kingdom. It would make Lordenor the undisputed dominant power on the continent. I find it hard to believe he would risk open war, however…”
“As yet, he hasn’t. His war is covert and subtle – trying to demoralise us before issuing an open declaration. Enough public panic and his job is easier, while ours is harder. He’s probably back with his generals now, plotting where to strike next…”
“You may be right,” Silverwater nodded slowly. “But some of the council do not agree with you.”
“What’s new there?” Tarwin harrumphed.
“The fact that this road could lead to war, old friend,” the lutrani smiled sadly.
“Do you think I want a war with Lordenor? That I want a conflict that will cause loss of life to both our nations? A conflict on this scale could set us both back decades...”
“No, of course not, and I understand your position, Tarwin, really I do, I just wanted you to be aware that you don’t have the unanimous backing of the council. Should a war result from this, then you need to be very careful. More than one would see failure as reason to call for your resignation.”
“More than one would rather lie down and accept Irontooth’s rule than fight for their freedom!”
“Not all of them have your grit. You have my backing, as always, but if enough ministers were to vote against you…”
“They have no grounds for doing so.”
“As long as they believe that you can live up to any statement you make, no,” the lutrani agreed. “But be careful what you promise… or threaten. If you cannot carry out an action, do not state that you can. Be very, very sure before you allow Irontooth to draw you into a fight.”
Troyston watched the debate with concern. Despite the urge for caution in the lutrani’s words, Troyston had caught the gleam in his eye. It was no secret that many among the Freelands opposed the monarchic rule of Lordenor on principle. Troyston wondered if there weren’t those who saw not a threat, but an opportunity. Wars that claimed to liberate were much easier to justify with the voting populace than were those motivated by power and land – and yet both usually resulted in the same thing.
The Whitesands beach was a well known landmark in its corner of the Freelands. Facing out towards the Westchain islands, it stretched unbroken for several miles. Smooth, sandy, and broad enough that the waves never climbed as far as the grassland beyond, there were many among the richer inhabitants of the county who had made their second homes at its edge. From here, they could enjoy the sea air, the open view, the freedom of the beach, and of course, a goodly quantity of varied seafood.
Despite the panoramic view, an unfortunate turn of weather meant that not one occupant of the mansions along the beach was looking out of their windows at the storm tossed waves, nor was anyone taking a walk along the rain drenched beach. This was a pity, for had someone been looking, they might have noticed the armada that landed on the sands. Twenty heavily armoured battleships hovered at the edge of the shallows, while dozens of longboats ground up on the sandy beach, disgorging over two thousand armed soldiers onto the sodden shore as the sailors struggled to roll in the drenched sails.
Had there been an observer, they might have noticed – after the initial panic had faded – that the invaders seemed to be quite a rag tag bunch. The armour only roughly fitted the soldiers, looking as if much of it had been scavenged second hand. Troop discipline was poor, several small fights breaking out with the simple task of getting the rank and file onto the beach. The higher ranks, notable only by their better armour and the crest on their helmets, had more of a tendency to point and laugh than they did to break up the scuffles. The only notable similarity between the soldiers was the colour. All the badly fitting uniforms were the traditional scarlet and black that marked the Lordenor army. Every flag that flew bore the Irontooth crest.
Order did, eventually, prevail, as the officers decided that their men had had quite enough time punching each other, and that the time had come for them to punch people wearing different uniforms – ideally while wearing brass knuckles, or even better, while holding a sword. Several minutes after landing, a rough semblance of ranks had formed, the soldiers in groups of one hundred – though some groups seemed larger than others – in a ten by ten square. Roughly.
The driving rain wasn’t helping. Bouncing of shield and weapon, dripping down necks, it strained tempers, escalating several pushes and shoves into more minor skirmishes that required intervention by the officers. Only when these were resolved did a single figure emerge from the largest of the longboats, two attendees hastening to hold a large waxed canvas parasol over its head.
Katrina growled as her boots sank into the wet sand, looking out over the loose formations in front of her.
“Pathetic,” she muttered as several officers followed her down the ramp. “This is the control you have over them?” she glared around the nearby faces, and they scurried off, barking orders at the troops, threatening, swearing, and occasionally beating people over the head until eventually the ranks were suitably ordered and numerically correct.
As much as Katrina could appreciate the genius of using hired barbarians to pose as Lordenor troops, it was not something she enjoyed watching. Compared to the well trained, loyal, and obedient army she had become used to commanding, this motley collection looked like little more than what they were. Damn savages.
“Sorry, mistress Katrina,” one of them said as they returned to her side.
“I should hope so,” she sniffed. “I have been tolerant so far, but if you cannot control your men then your usefulness to us will end. Do you understand?”
Nods, and downcast eyes. Chiefs, indeed, Katrina thought. What a joke. Not a proper warrior among them. That those who did not nod and agree with her tended to end up in painful and lethal situations did not occur to her as a good enough reason for their lack of fortitude.
“The sooner this is done the better,” the leonin muttered under her breath. “Why we couldn’t have done this in good weather I don’t know, it’s not like a warning would help them,” she continued, peering up at the leaden sky as it continued to empty itself upon her troops, the wind blowing her blood red cloak tight against her back, its corners whipping and snapping around her legs. “All right,” she said more loudly, looking at the ‘officers’ around her. “You know the plan. Surround the city, and wait. Attack only when the trumpet sounds, and not before,” she added, with emphasis. “Any man who breaks ranks is going to be responsible for his own death, and that of his commander, unless both manage to die in battle. Clear?”
While the barbarian tribes had little fear of a fight, courageous death in battle was not part of their culture. Each man before her had no greater goal than to take his share of the spoils of victory. They nodded as one.
The officers hurried off towards their various – and varied – commands.
She strode purposefully towards the nearest platoon of soldiers, her attendees hurrying to ensure that no rain fell on her. Well, at least that made two of the rank and file she could trust.
“We will make for the road one hundred paces from the city gates,” she informed the officer in front of the soldiers. “Then wait for the rest of our troops to take their positions.”
Settled at one end of Whitesands beach, the city of Deepsby huddled down under the storm, the guardsmen on the walls taking shelter where they could as the general populace stayed firmly indoors. Above them, the skies continued to darken, casting the city into gloom. If it weren’t for the lightning flash, the approaching army might not have been noticed.
Trumpets blared as the call to arms rang out. Men scrambled to their places upon the walls, the city ringing with the clash of steel on stone as the defenders looked out over the rain drenched fields to dark army that surrounded them.
Those manning the main gate watched as a disturbance formed at the front of the massed ranks before them. A column of black and crimson clad soldiers broke away and marched along the roadway to stop but yards before the great wooden gates. A single figure stepped forward.
“Master of the city, show yourself!” the leonin folded her arms across her chest and stared upwards. She was dressed in armour of dark leather and metal, her blood red cape fluttering behind her in the chill wind as her feline eyes lit up with the lightning that flickered overhead.
The figure that stepped out onto the battlements above was both impressively large, and impressively dressed, fully protected by shining steel plate mail. The lupari gazed down calmly at the speaker, inspecting first her, then the ranks massed behind her. Returning his gaze to the leonin, he found it captured by an icy glare that unnerved him more than the size of the army behind her.
“May I assume you are the commander of this army?” he asked, his voice controlled, betraying no hint of emotion.
The leonin looked up at him, one hand going to her mouth. “Oh I don’t know, let me see now.” Turning to the ranks behind she barked a command. “Attention!” A slight moment of hesitation, just enough to turn the heads of the officers, then every soldier on the road within earshot stiffened, arms going straight by their sides, eyes locked forwards. The motion continued down the column, a ripple across the dark tide.
Only when every soldier within view was motionless did the leonin turn around once more. “Well, what do you know?” she asked, her voice full of false innocence. “I do believe I am.”
“Don’t mock me, lady!” the lupari’s fists were clenched upon the stone battlements. “What are your intentions?”
“Well, I thought we might have a little chat, then I’d bring my troops inside for tea and crumpets.” Her smile did not reach her eyes.
“I think not, lady.”
The leonin sighed. “Captain... it is ‘Captain’ isn’t it?” She took the lupari’s silence as an affirmative. “Captain, take a look at the situation.” One muscular arm gestured to the surrounding army. “We outnumber you five to one, and we have more troops on the way. Now, we will occupy your city. You can fight us or not, it’s your choice, but let me assure you the end result will be the same.”
“My suggestion is that you surrender, willingly and immediately. Perhaps then, we could work out a more pleasant future than the one now facing you. My army could always use the services of a brave, strong warrior like your good self. The same, I’m sure, would go for many of your troops.”
The lupari leaned forward, placing both armoured hands upon the wall. When he spoke, it was with the calmness of one who knows his fate. “I will not surrender this city to an unknown power, lady. There is only one way you will set foot inside these walls.”
“Very well, Captain, very well.” Katrina shrugged. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I think you would have been interesting to know. Perhaps, if you survive, you will reconsider what I have said.” She turned and walked back to the ranks behind her.
“Mistress Katrina,” her senior officer – one of the few genuine officers in the entire army – bowed as she approached.
“I think it is time to begin the attack,” she said, looking thoughtful. “Though that wall will be a bother...” she looked back at the city, seeing the light from those few buildings that rose above the encircling stone. “And I’m really not in the mood to lose any troops today, even if they are barbarian scum. Saddle the dragon. I'll deal with the wall myself. Order the charge once there's enough room to break through.”
The officer nodded. “Understood, mistress.”
Katrina looked over her shoulder at the city, and the figures watching her from atop the wall, favouring them with a lopsided smile. “This will be fun.”
The midnight watch came on duty in Ironguard Keep with no particular fuss. They exchanged greetings and reports with the evening shift, who were now looking forward to a warm meal, a warm bed, and if they were fortunate, a warm spouse. The moonlight shone coldly upon spear and sword as fresh guardsmen deployed along the wall. It shone coldly, too, upon the windows of an inn in the town behind the keep. The innkeeper peered out of one and yawned. How inconsiderate of his guests to insist upon using the meeting room so late at night…
“Dammit, where is he?” the vulpani growled, pacing back and forth before the window. During the day it would have provided an impressive view of the town, but at the moment the darkness merely served to frame the short, stocky figure of Lord Alginon Redclaw.
“I am sure he will be along in his own good time, Algy,” a sciurel answered blithely from the depths of a large armchair. Short and slim, his russet fur blended with the red leather as he reclined upon the chair, while his bright orange suit practically glowed in the firelight. In one hand, he held a large glass of brandy, the rich amber liquid casting glittering refractions across his knees.
“Undertree is correct, he’s always late,” the lupari standing by the fireside remarked. His dark grey attire made a strong contrast against the light of the flames. “You’ll get used to it, Redclaw,” he turned to favour the vulpani with a glance. He wore a black patch over his right eye. A nasty scar running from above the eyebrow and down his right cheek suggested the reason. A rapier hung from his broad leather belt. The lupari was well known for being an excellent swordsman and was happy to demonstrate on any who crossed him. Many had lost an ear as a result of an encounter with lord Kerwin Blackwood.
“I’m tired of waiting,” a deep voice growled. It belonged to lord Lennan Greyfang, a leonin with an attitude, and arms thicker than most people’s thighs. “I’m going to find him…” he stood up and began to cross the room.
“Greyfang, sit down,” the fifth occupant of the room said quietly. The man sat in a relaxed position in an armchair near the fire. His words were unhurried, but behind his thick eyebrows his mind worked rapidly, ever planning. “He will be along when he chooses and that is the end of it. I for one have no intention of crossing him.”
The leonin looked back at the man with a sneer that showed one sharp canine tooth. “You’re afraid of him, De Lance!”
“Correct,” the man nodded, the firelight catching the grey streaks at the sides of his dark hair. “And well I should be. Perhaps you have failed to notice the power our young prince has at his command these days?”
Greyfang paused for a moment. “No,” he grumbled, subsiding back into his chair which creaked under his weight.
“I thought so,” Lord De Lance nodded in satisfaction, folding his arms. “While he may work for the Brotherhood as do you or I, that leonin has more power in him than I care to cross. Not to mention influence with those in front of whom I do not wish to be disgraced.”
“Gentlemen.” The voice was quiet, but made them jump nonetheless for none of them had heard its owner approach.
“Good evening, your Highness,” Undertree recovered from his surprise quickly, standing and hurriedly putting the brandy glass down.
Tiernach looked at the group with a sense of disgust, but allowed no trace of his feelings to show in his expression. How was it, he wondered, that the Brotherhood's First had so effectively bent these nobles to his cause? It could not have been only when the need arose, Tiernach felt sure, which meant that these men had been in contact with the Brotherhood for some time. Possibly all their lives. He wondered how many more such men might he not know about? How deep did the corruption within Lordenor go? Was it a phenomenon of recent years, or had there been generations of double dealing, of smiles in court and shadowy activities when the king's back was turned? The thought made his stomach tighten with anger. As soon as he had the knowledge he needed from the Eye, he would cut the First and all his brothers loose. To think that he was reduced to such company…
But needs must.
“About time,” Redclaw muttered under his breath as Tiernach approached the table at the centre of the room.
“This meeting is at my convenience, not yours,” Tiernach said sharply, taking a seat at the head of the table. His shirt and trousers were of a deep red, over which he wore a black overcoat, reaching from his broad shoulders to but a few inches above the floor. The effect was a striking use of Lordenor's traditional colours, Tiernach’s keen mind never missing an opportunity to press his authority onto his subordinates. His eyes shone in the lamplight, seeming to glitter more brightly than they had any right to. “Now sit!” he gestured at the table as the door slammed closed behind him. He hadn’t pushed it closed. Theatrics, he admitted to himself, but very effective when employed carefully. His old master would probably not have approved of such a trivial use for the art.
“Yes, your Highness, at once, my apologies,” the vulpani said, quickly taking a seat. The others did the same, though with less of the urgent haste.
“Now gentlemen, let me update you to the situation. It appears that attacking the shipping lanes and villages has been quite successful. The Freelands' people are angry, and their leaders are not thinking past their desire to be seen to act and stand for re-election. It will not take much more to push them into an open declaration of hostility.”
“Katrina should be doing her job as we speak. I expect her to report nothing short of complete success, and the news to reach the Freelanders within a week. In the meantime, gentlemen, your jobs are to keep tensions high. Nothing foolish,” he seemed to look at Greyfang in particular. “Do this subtly.“
“How?” the other leonin asked, and a flicker of annoyance crossed Tiernach’s face.
“Use your wit, Greyfang,” he said caustically. “Or if that fails, use De Lance’s wit,” he glanced at De Lance, who nodded his acknowledgement of the compliment. “My father will soon try to resurrect relations with the representatives from the Counties at a number of informal functions. I intend that these will not go well. Make sure you take a bodyguard to each with you, make it known you do not trust the Freelanders, that you are not sorry about what has happened to them, and that should they accept our aid you would render it grudgingly.”
“We understand, highness,” Redclaw nodded and Tiernach eyed him shrewdly.
“I hope so,” the leonin said quietly. “Because if this does not work, I will have no further use for you.”
Redclaw swallowed nervously, leaning back in his chair as his large ears lowered. Being useless to both the Brotherhood and Tiernach would not be a pleasant place for any of them, having come so far.
“Remember, gentlemen,” Tiernach continued. “We need a war, and we need one big enough that nobody has time to think about anything else. We may not get a second chance.”
The sound of Tiernach’s quill upon the parchment was the only noise in the darkened room. A book lay open by his left hand, from which he was taking notes. Lit by the flickering fire, his eyes glittered yellow, his shadow dancing and leaping upon the wall behind him as he focused upon his task. “If you ever enter my chambers unannounced again,” he said softly, not looking up from his desk. “I will have you hung.”
The First chuckled, stepping forward from the shadows beside the rich drape. “You forget, Prince Tiernach… I have something very important to you. A little inconvenience is fair exchange for that knowledge, is it not?”
“Fair exchange?” Tiernach barked, staring across his desk at the black robed man. “A fair exchange would be to ask for my wealth as second son of Lordenor – you however ask for even more!”
“As I said, for what I will provide you, a fair exchange.”
Tiernach’s eye twitched.
“How are the preparations?” the First asked, sitting in the chair opposite.
Refusing to give him the satisfaction of a swift answer, the leonin regarded him thoughtfully for a few seconds. “I doubt the Freelands ministers will tolerate the invasion of Deepsby by an army bearing Lordenor flags.”
“That is excellent.”
“It may be premature. I do not approve of your schedule.”
“How so, Prince Tiernach?”
“We are not yet at our full strength. Only two dragons are under our control, the others remain sealed. The magic binding them is powerful and ancient.”
“Ahh,” the First sighed. “I see. You believe there will be difficulty involved?”
“I cannot release them from the magical seal with the fragments I have.”
“You have not been able to locate any more?” the man asked.
Tiernach shook his head. “The Dragon Staff was very thoroughly, very randomly broken over a very large area. Locating the fragments is not a simple matter.”
“I see. Perhaps I can offer some assistance… A number of my flock have been asking for a way to prove themselves to the Eye. You can, of course, give them any instructions necessary without arousing suspicion... as you would if you used your soldiers for such a task.”
Tiernach looked thoughtful. “There are certain places,” he said at length. “Where pieces of the staff would have been taken, should they have been recovered in the past. I have not had time to investigate them yet, and I will not trust this matter to common soldiers. Even separated, the fragments contain considerable power. Any misuse could be disastrous. The men sent must be above the temptation of such.”
“Then, Prince Tiernach, that sounds like an excellent place to start. I can have my flock investigate them swiftly, if that is your recommendation. I assure you, they are quite trustworthy. They want Tenebrae, nothing less.”
“Very well. I will provide you with the location of one such place – I do not guarantee you will find anything, but do not imagine your people can lie to me if they do.”
The First smiled thinly. “As you wish, Prince Tiernach, although I assure you there is no reason to doubt my followers. Fear and avarice together are most effective motivators. Have you given further investigation to the matter of converting the public at large to our cause more easily? I believe there was information in the books I furnished you with on the matter.”
Tiernach shivered involuntarily, his eyes going to a book that rested on a shelf across the room. Conversion… well, that was one term for it, he supposed. The subjects certainly changed throughout the process…
“I have looked into it,” he said carefully, not really wanting to discuss the matter.
“And?” the First insisted.
“I have not met with great success.”
“But you have met with a degree of success?” the man looked at him intently. “The results have been…?”
“Erratic,” Tiernach said, his fists clenching with the memory. It had been a loathsome experiment, and one he deeply regretted performing. “I do not believe you can implant them into a sentient host.”
“Then, what?” the man leaned back, frowning.
“Animals. Dogs, and others. They survived the process, at least, though not all seem… sane.”
The First raised an eyebrow. “Curious. Those that seem ‘sane’… can we make use of them?”
“Only if you need guard dogs,” Tiernach snorted.
Nodding slowly, the First looked at him. “I would consider it an interesting demonstration, and I think the Eye will be pleased to see that you are making good use of the information we have provided.”
With the man’s gaze fixed on him, Tiernach couldn’t help but shudder slightly. Just for a moment, he wondered if this deal was going to be worth the price.
Seven hours after the attack on Deepsby began, Katrina lifted her feet to place her heels firmly on the desk she had commandeered. Leaning back in her seat, she lifted her wineglass to her lips, took a long drink and smiled. The battle had been short but bloody. The city defenders had fought valiantly against the army that poured like water through the gaps in its walls, but finally succumbed to shear weight of numbers.
By the early hours of the morning, the city belonged to Katrina and her army, and she now sat in the mayor's office. His house was large, comfortable and just right for savouring the taste of victory. Too bad she couldn’t stay long. It would take some time to reign the brutes in from their looting spree in the streets outside, but the army must be ready to move again soon, lest the Freelands have time to observe them closely. An experienced officer might see through the disguise with which they had cloaked the barbarian thugs currently tearing the city apart.
A gesture caused a middle-aged vulpani – who seemed to have come with the house – to hurry towards her and clear away the remains of the meal she had been eating. A few moments later and her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of many footsteps on the stone floor. Three of her personal guard approached, two of them dragging a heavy weight. The trio stopped before her, the man in the lead saluting.
“As you commanded, mistress, we found him.” Stepping aside, he revealed what the other two had been carrying.
The lupari was in bad shape. His armour was gone, his torso was covered with minor wounds and blood flowed freely from a deep cut along the side of his muzzle. When his escort released him, he dropped to the floor like a sack full of sand, clutching at an arm that was obviously broken. Katrina got up and leisurely moved around the desk to stand before him.
“I did warn you, Captain,” she said, surprisingly softly.
The lupari barely managed to lift his head to return her gaze.
“You fought well, I am impressed. My offer still stands. You can still save your own life, and those of any who would still follow you.” She reached down to caress the undamaged side of his muzzle, watched in amusement as he shied away from her touch.
“There, there, little puppy. No one wants to hurt you anymore, not unless you cause trouble. A warrior like you could do well for himself, if he knew which side to fight on. All I ask is your allegiance. Give me that, and I promise safety for you and for any who follow you.”
The lupari looked at her, gritting his teeth. “You'll spare my men?”
“I never waste a useful resource. Give me your loyalty, lead them in my name, and they live. Otherwise I have no choice but to execute them all at dawn.”
The captain barely had the strength left to nod.
“Such a good little lupe,” she purred. “But, oh, how can I be sure you’ll cause me no more trouble? Will you devote yourself to my service? Will you attend my every need? Will you do anything I say, without question?”
Exhausted, crippled, defeated, the lupari nodded once more.
Katrina purred. “Show me how devoted you are, puppy,” she said softly, raising her foot towards him. Something deep inside the lupari hated him for his next actions, but charged with the survival of his men he knew what he had to do.
Smiling broadly, Katrina purred sas he kissed her boot. She loved it when they broke.