First Minister Tarwin Goldwood
24 Day, 10 Moon
I have recently read, with regret, the Freelands Chronicle from last week. Please pass on my sympathies to Minister Silverwater. I met Gero once, and found him to be both friendly and courageous, and I am sure his friends, and his company will miss him.
I have in the last week travelled across the counties of Eastmarch, Ridgedale, Mistvale, and Woodlund. You will be pleased to know that three of the respective county keepers have been largely cooperative regarding your request for more troops, although Woodlund are still being somewhat reluctant. Nonetheless, you can expect a further three hundred men to arrive at Elmswell some time within five days. You may already have some of them.
My travels may be curtailed for the next few days – the staff at my current lodgings kindly kept me waiting outside in the rain for over half an hour, with the result that I now have a truly stunning cold. Fortunately, the maid seems to have a secret recipe for such, some herbal drink that tastes horrible but does at least clear my nose.
I am, I should perhaps mention, currently a guest of the keeper of Woodlund (you will remember him from the council meeting, I am sure – the slim lutrani with the soft voice, not to mention that hat!) and am thus writing this from one of the numerous guest rooms in his mansion. It is, I must admit, a wonderful place to stay. The bedroom is about the size of our dining hall, and the whole mansion is full of pictures, tapestries, and suits of armour. One of them rather reminded me of your old suit, though this one looks like it was actually worn – there is a dent in the helmet and a rather nasty stain on the inside.
For a man with so much affluence, ‘Lord Riverwell’ (as he likes to be referred to) seems remarkably stubborn about committing any of those resources to something other than wine, song, and... well, perhaps I should say no more. It might be worth having words with him at the next council meeting – he will listen to you, I am sure, more than he does me – and perhaps mentioning that there have been occasions in the past where we have had to strip the title of keeper and force an early election.
I must say, it is rather a shame that my visit is marred by uncooperative behaviour, in all other respects, Woodlund is a very pleasant place, even outside Riverwell’s mansion. They have some fine architecture here in the city, and the people are remarkably friendly. You might consider bringing mother here for a holiday some time, I think she would enjoy it very much. They also do a very good blackberry ale, which I highly recommend.
Before I forget, I should say that there seem to be a lot of rumours flying about regarding the war – apparently the only thing that travels faster than news is nonsense. One that has been passed on to me by several of the shopkeepers in the city is that the commander of the Lordenor army has a ‘pet dragon.’ Given that the original sources of these reports had likely had no more than a near brush with the Lordenor soldiers, I suspect that they have seen a battering ram or catapult that is carved like a dragon, and allowed the fear of the moment to run away with their imaginations. I thought you might like to know, just so you can be on the lookout.
Other rumours that you might find amusing are that Irontooth doesn’t sleep, prefers his meat raw, only has half a tail, and actually has iron teeth… I am considering starting one that he has a glass eye, just to see whether it really does reach the next county before I do.
I’ll leave a note to where I’ll be heading next with each household I visit, should you need to get a messenger to me.
I hope things are going well back in Elmswell, and please give my love to mother,
Troyston signed the letter, rolled up the parchment, and sealed it with candle wax, impressing his ring into it to mark its authenticity. Putting it on one side of the oak desk, he got up, and looked out of the window. Beyond the diamond-cut pane, the gardens of the mansion shone in the early autumn sunlight. He could see two gardeners hard at work keeping the maze trimmed to shape.
“Hypocrite,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “Nothing but a hypocrite. Still, at least it should keep dad happy, and me out here where I’m supposed to be.” He leaned his forehead against the window. “Not that it’s helping... most of them don’t even bother with a security force beyond their police, let alone have enough troops to be sparking hostilities... Oh, what am I doing here?” he asked his faint reflection, thumping his fist softly against the windowsill.
There was a quiet knock at the door, and the maid’s face peered around it, neatly framed by dark hair that matched her black blouse and skirt.
“Everything all right, sir?” she asked.
Troyston looked at her. “Why am I here?” he asked.
The maid looked slightly confused as she entered the room proper. “Because you are looking for more military support for the war with Lordenor?” she asked, sounding as if she suspected a trick question – which it largely was.
Troyston raised his eyebrows. “Very good,” he said quietly. “I didn’t know that was public knowledge.”
She blushed. “Well, Lord Riverwell does tend to talk quite freely when he’s drunk, sir...”
“Ah. Given that he seems to be drunk a lot...”
“Indeed, sir,” she shrugged. “I’m sorry if I’m not supposed to know.”
“No, don’t be,” Troyston smiled. “There’s little enough harm.”
“Yes, sir,” the maid nodded. “Sir?”
“Why are we at war?”
Pausing, Troyston looked back at her. Good question, he thought. A very good question, and one that he wasn’t quite sure he was qualified to answer yet.
“Because Lordenor attacked us,” he said simply.
“Why, sir? Did we do something wrong?” She appeared genuinely confused.
“No, I don’t think so. Power perhaps... land... wealth... who can say?” Troyston shrugged.
“I don’t understand,” she said in a small voice, looking at the floor. “Surely King Irontooth has enough land and wealth?”
Troyston chuckled ruefully. “Be glad you don’t understand,” he said softly.
“My... my brother, sir... He’s... one of the city guards... I don’t want him to be sent to the army. I don’t want him to get hurt.”
“No,” Troyston sighed. “No, nor do I. Look,” crossing the room to stand in front of her, he took her hand, holding it in both of his, and she looked up at him with large eyes. “I really can’t say too much, but I don’t want this war any more than you do. I’m just here because... because there isn’t much else I can do right now. I don’t know how this war started, and I don’t know how to end it, so this is the best I can do to protect the people of the Freelands.”
“I see, sir...” she looked at the floor.
Troyston sighed. “What’s your name? And your brother’s name?” he asked.
“Daisy Cartwright, sir, my brother’s name is Jovun.”
“All right, Daisy,” Troyston said with a smile. “You listen to me. I may not have much else I can do, but I think I can put in a word with the captain of the guard and keep Jovun on a local posting, all right?”
Daisy’s face lit up as she clasped her hands in front of her short apron. “Sir! You’d do that for me? Thank you, sir!”
Troyston nodded. “I'd do that for everyone if I could, Daisy Cartwright,” he sniffed. “But unfortunately then someone would notice I don't actually want a war. You will keep quiet about that, won't you?”
The maid nodded, glowing happily.
“Thank you. Um, could I possibly have some more of that drink...?”
“Of course, sir! Oh, sir, I almost forgot!” she stopped in the doorway. “There was a gentleman turned up at the front door asking for you. White hair and beard, name of Forester. Would you like me to send him up?”
“Master Forester, here? Strange, wonder how he knew where I'd be... But yes, please do Daisy, that would be fine.”
“Righto, sir!” She vanished so quickly that Troyston briefly wondered if she had fallen through the floorboards.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Now I remember. That’s what I’m doing here.”
“Oh, so it's like that is it?” Kaja asked with amusement, peering over the edge of the stone parapet. Some fifty feet below, the capital city sprawled out around this old watchtower in the corner of the palace grounds, streets snaking their way between buildings that often bore no resemblance to their neighbour. The curse of an old city, Tiernach had once called it, the way nothing fitted together sensibly and just sort of coexisted in a chaotic mass of stone and timber. Kaja rather liked it this way, the sense that everything had been done on the spur of the moment, according to the whims and requirements of the day, and yet somehow – somehow the capital of a great nation had grown out of it.
Sitting atop the battlements, his legs hanging over the far side, boots dangling over the sheer drop, Tiernach turned his head, regarding Kaja for a long moment, then shrugged. Grinning, Kaja placed a boot between the crenellations, and hoisted himself up, adopting a similar position. It was an old test of courage between the brothers. Sit longer, sit closer to the edge. Risk falling, and pretend you aren't doing.
Tiernach had always had a tendency to win.
Kaja glanced at his brother, as he turned his head back to the city. Not too far away, the great clock tower on the church said it was just past seven in the morning. Kaja always thought it a bit of an oddity to have a church so close to the palace. Typical leonin had no need for such a building, with those who did follow the path of Leonan, or even Persica, preferring solitary prayer and meditation to communal worship. Leonin were more likely to build a shrine on the grave of a particularly honoured warrior than they were to build a church.
Still, the great house of Irontooth had never been accused of unfairness in its treatment of other races, and the New Church of Light, to whom this building belonged, was heavily supported by the human population of the city – and Kaja knew very well that therein lay the majority of architects and builders who had raised the capital from the ground and made it stand above all others.
Understanding how all the races slotted together was one of the keys to being a good ruler, he had learned as a child. Knowing the uniqueness, strengths, and weaknesses of the peoples of the land enabled a wise ruler to balance them against each other, rewarding them with what they prized most for accomplishing the tasks they were best at.
The leonin of course, were the first choice for warriors, guards and soldiers, with their natural strength, speed and agility. If you needed a navy, ask the lutrani, for no finer sailors, swimmers, or fisherfolk were to be found. If you need fast travel by land, or rare goods, talk to the lupari, whose natural stamina and resilience were unrivalled and whose trade caravans ran from the Southern Desert to the Northlands, from the Eastern Kingdoms to the western tip of Lordenor.
Or if one wanted a scribe, a mathematician, or a bookkeeper, one would look to the meticulous vulpani, who excelled at such academic tasks. If a delicate job needed doing, from maintaining fragile works of art to ageing library collections, the small and unobtrusive muscai could be trusted to tiptoe softly through the surroundings, their light touch hardly noticeable except for things being cleaner and more orderly in their wake. The ursai... were more of a problem, since they were few in number and often chose to remain away from population centres, but when roused into action their great strength and methodical intelligence made them capable of most tasks, and their proficiency at battle was enough to make even a leonin think twice before engaging.
And then the sciurel – in fact, Kaja could see one of their folk now, hanging from a rope running over the roof of the church and polishing the windows. That wonderfully light and agile race of climbers and jumpers, excelling at all tasks involving heights and growing things, often found as foresters, groundskeepers, and farmers.
And humans, Kaja had to admit, got everywhere and tended to influence their surroundings more than other races. Put unkindly, they were very good at occupying land, or phrased more gently they were very good at changing grassland into farmland, and at building homes, towns, and cities on open spaces. They seemed to be in a constant state of flux, on the one hand driven to explore new lands, often in partnership with lutrani and lupari, and on the other they loved to spend years making right where they were exactly how they wanted it, constructing ever more elaborate dwellings, then surrounding them in carefully sculpted gardens.
Indeed, over the decades, much of the inner city had been rebuilt by human architects – largely because they were the first race to consider putting one room on top of another. While sciurel might prefer a wooden house in the limbs of a large tree, and where the lutrani and vulpani often dug downwards to produce their shelters, humans had made the unique jump of building vertically upwards, and that just plain made sense where there was high demand for living space in a small area.
And thus it was that most of what Kaja could see on this foggy morning comprised of several decades worth of classic human architecture, including the church opposite, which he suspected was an age old agreement with the palace's – human – architect.
Despite the early hour shown on the church's clock, a few people were already beginning to move through the streets below, fetching water from the river, hidden behind the fog, or making their way to their offices and shops. Even at this height, there was a faint smell of baking bread wafting up from somewhere below, and Kaja's stomach growled.
“So, what's up?” he asked.
“Other than us?” Tiernach didn't turn to face him, but Kaja could see a slight twist of a smile on his muzzle.
“Other than us,” Kaja nodded wryly.
“Just thinking. It helps to be away from people sometimes.”
“Thinking about...?” Kaja pressured.
Just for a second, Tiernach considered actually telling the truth, about letting Kaja know every painful detail that had been weighing him down for so long now... but that would only end badly. He had no desire to alienate his brother, whatever the brotherhood might say. A diversionary topic was in order.
“About why the Freelands is so determined to blame us for their troubles that they were willing to declare a war,” he said, glancing at Kaja for a moment.
“Indeed…” Kaja sounded thoughtful. He paused for a moment, watching a cart laden with root vegetables trundle along one of the streets near the palace. “It does seem strange, doesn’t it? I mean,” he said, looking at his brother. “Our two lands have never been close knit, I admit that. Hell, besides the yearly meetings, I don’t even know if we have any contact at an official level, and I know that there are probably a few fisherman and farmers near the borders who have their disagreements… but we’ve not come close to war for the last five generations!”
Tiernach sighed. When he next spoke, his voice held a note of sadness. “It was never a relationship that we truly tested. There have been no serious threats to either of our lands for nearly a century. It appears that what we thought might be friendship, was in fact merely a lack of interaction. As soon as the Freelands felt threatened, we were the enemy, as we were very long ago.”
Kaja nodded slowly.
“Not to mention,” Tiernach said, adopting an expression as if he were just figuring things through. “That Tarwin Goldwood has never lost an opportunity to confront father about his rule.”
“True,” Kaja conceded.
“In fact,” Tiernach continued. “He is actively opposed to our entire kingdom. He is, from what I know, an avid advocate of the Freelands’ democratic method of government, and is vehemently opposed to a monarchy. A very convenient thing to have a reputation for, as he leads the Freelands against us, and their council grants him emergency powers, such that one man may make swift decision in behalf of the nation...” he let the sentence trail off as Kaja looked pensive.
“In any case,” Tiernach stated. “I fear have matters to attend to. Will you excuse me?”
Kaja nodded absently as Tiernach left, not even noticing that he had won the contest of bravery, his mind now on Tarwin Goldwood – the man with a reputation for disliking centralised control, who had now gained exactly that over the entire Freelands.
“Three days,” Maximilian stated, looking out of the window onto the city below. Rain gusted against the diamond cut glass, smearing his view, splintering the buildings beyond into a thousand liquid fragments.
“Yes, father,” Tiernach stood a little behind his father, watching the older leonin with interest. “In a week, perhaps, we will know the outcome.”
“With the weight of troops we sent, we know the outcome,” Maximilian bumped his fist gently against the window. “One third of our army is committed to this strike! Goldwood cannot possibly mobilise enough to repel them.”
“Better to be certain of the victory, than risk defeat.”
Sighing, the king nodded. “Of course. It would do little to raise me in the eyes of my forefathers were I to allow this challenge to go unanswered. And yet... somehow, I feel uneasy, Tiernach,” he turned from the window, pacing over to his desk, looking down at the map upon it. Finely worked, and taking up most of the width of the desk, it encompassed all the known nations, labelling every city, and every town of note. Almost unconsciously, one of Maximilian’s fingers grazed over one of the cities on the coast of the Freelands.
“Three days,” he said softly. “We will have this city under our control before the Freelands even know our fleet has launched. It will give us a foothold, and we can drive out those barbarians who overran it originally”
“The Gareki clan,” Tiernach added.
“Yes, quite. Why they flew our banner, or even if they flew it, I do not know, but I tell you they had the right idea. Deepsby is a strategic advantage, no doubt about that.”
“Agreed. And I did some research into that clan. They purposefully fly scavenged banners, an attempt to confuse the enemy and make them hesitate. It would have been quite possible there were some of our banners on the field, and perhaps even some from the Freelands themselves, but an easy mistake for a nervous watchman to make.”
“I see,” the older leonin sighed. “You poor fool, Goldwood. If you had waited for that information yourself...”
“Then much may have been different,” Tiernach said sadly. “But he did not, and his troops have already made moves against us. I do not believe he will change his mind now.”
Nodding, Maximilian tapped the table with a finger. “No. We aren’t that dissimilar, he and I, are we? We both look out for our people, and we won’t tolerate a threat against them.”
“The Freelands appear to be more than just a threat, father,” Tiernach’s voice was quiet. “Their actions are quite real, as are our casualties.”
“Not for long. I will ensure the safety of this kingdom in any way necessary.”
“An attitude worthy of a son of Leonan.”
“Maybe,” Maximilian looked up. “Maybe not.” With a sudden motion, the large leonin swept the map off his desk, crumpling it upon the floor. “But my actions certainly aren’t worthy of the Hunter. I should not be here, tracking fleet progress on charts, and maps! I should not be waiting to be fed news a piece at a time, like some invalid grandfather having his food cut up for him!” He growled, striding back to the window, feline tail lashing behind him in agitation.
“The battle is no place for the king, father...” Tiernach started, but was cut short.
“It is every place for the king!” Maximilian burst out, anger suddenly etched upon his features. “Have I become so soft that I will not stand beside our soldiers? Can I do nought but disgrace myself by sending them into a battle that I will not take part in?”
“You do no disgrace to yourself, father. The kingdom must come first. It would suffer without you.”
“The kingdom does not need me here,” the older leonin made a slashing motion with his hand. “The kingdom does not need me to see to the supply lines, or to push models around on maps. The kingdom needs to see that I lead them only to where I am willing to go myself. I cannot sit here while our troops risk their lives for our people. I must fight with them, Tiernach, and they must see that I am willing to do so. I did not start this war, but it is upon us nonetheless, and by Leonan I will answer the challenge in person!”
Tiernach nodded slowly. “I understand, father. Will you at least wait for news from Deepsby? Katrina will report swiftly, I am certain. I would not wish for you to arrive to find the city remains hostile.”
Maximilian smiled slightly, his posture relaxing as the anger left his face. “I have no doubt that the city will fall, but yes, I will wait for confirmation if it eases your mind. Besides, there will be matters to arrange here before I leave. Much as I would wish it, I cannot walk away at a moment's notice.”
Tiernach nodded. “You will need someone to maintain order here while you are gone. The nobles are loyal to you, but without a nominated figure of power the petty squabbles that arise can easily degenerate.”
“Are you volunteering?” Maximilian asked shrewdly.
“I am... suggesting that my talents, father, are not with war, but with words. I feel I can be of little use to you on the front line, but I can maintain order here. If you wish it, I would be by your side, but I believe that we must divide our efforts for the good of the kingdom.”
Maximilian nodded, looking pleased. “You have a good head on your shoulders, my son. I had been planning to ask you to remain, although I shall miss you on the battlefield. As for your brother… I would like him to deal with military movements here, I think it will be good for him to have something important to do. I think shall give him a good talking to, and put him in charge of sending out whatever reinforcements are required.”
The younger feline nodded. “Understood, father. Kaja, I am sure, will prove to be an excellent commander in the fullness of time.”
The king eyed his son for a moment. “Well, at least you still try to protect your sire’s feelings,” he chuckled, and Tiernach smiled back. “I have no doubt it will be a challenge for him, at least at first, but I will trust you to keep his attention focused.”
“Of that you may be certain, father,” Tiernach nodded again. “Don't be too hard on him. His heart is good, his intentions right, he's just... a little too easily distracted by amusements.”
Maximilian nodded thoughtfully a few times, then seemed to rouse himself. “In fact, I shall talk with Kaja now,” he said grimly. “The sooner he understands his responsibilities the better it will be for all of us.”
“Indeed, father,” Tiernach inclined his head as the king headed out of the chamber. “I wish you luck.”
Tiernach followed more slowly, heading for the council chambers. Arriving in the doorway, he watched a number of nobles in discussion around a meeting table with several high ranking military officers. Tiernach beckoned to one of the nobles, who, upon noticing, swiftly stood and walked over.
“Highness, how may I be of service?” Lord Blackwood asked, removing his black plumed hat as he spoke.
“Walk with me,” the leonin turned and began walking down the corridor as the sound of discussion resumed behind them.
“It seems my father wishes to lead from the front.”
“Fortunate,” Blackwood remarked.
“For us,” Tiernach nodded. “Less so for him. Left to himself, he could easily lead us to a major victory against the Freelands.” For a moment, Tiernach’s eyes seemed to lose focus. “And what a victory it would be... perhaps even...” he shook himself. “But that is not how it will be,” he said, a trace of bitterness unconcealed in his voice. The brow above Blackwood’s patched eye twitched, but went unnoticed. “I need you to get several men close to him, keep them there, make sure he is only supplied with the right information.”
“Greyfang would be easy to excuse – he's quite the fighter, so I'm told. A bodyguard, at your request.”
“I agree. Find him and brief him. De Lance too, he has military experience, and will make an able commander, as well as thinking for himself. I am going to recall Katrina.”
For a moment, the lupari seemed hesitant. “Is that necessary, highness?”
Tiernach raised an eyebrow. “You have an objection to her?”
“Not as such,” Blackwood said carefully. “I just don’t see why we need her here.”
“More accurately, you are afraid your efforts will be overshadowed.”
The lupari flushed, his white furred cheeks showing ugly blotches.
“I assure you, Lord Blackwood, your contribution is not being ignored. Katrina has, however, proven herself in battle, and is not going to be needed in the Freelands now that my father is going to take her place. I think I can make better use of her here.”
“Very well, your Highness.”
“In the mean time... keep yourself available. I will have other work for you. And choose carefully which troops to send out – I want only those loyal to me remaining in the city by the end of the week.”
The black hatted lupari smiled. “I am sure there will be plenty of volunteers to aid in the cause, highness. I shall merely absent myself from military discussions, and the ranks will be filled by others. My men will support you.”
“You are certain?”
“If they don’t, I will have them killed,” the lupari shrugged.
Tiernach eyed him with distaste. “An effective, if not ideal motivation. Very well. Now I suggest you return to your meeting – arriving as it ends, of course,” he smiled thinly.
“Of course, highness,” Blackwood bowed as Tiernach continued past him and along the corridor.
Clever, the lupari thought. Tiernach was slightly too clever for comfort. Even his father seemed to be unwittingly doing his bidding. The rewards, however, were likely to be worth the effort. The resources of the Brotherhood of the Eye grew daily, and Tiernach held a great deal of sway over them. Yes, it was worth following him – for now, at least. Later... well, that would have to be seen.
“Away! Away with you!”
Aleana’s attention turned sharply away from the view before her, shortly followed by her head as she heard the commotion. She had been enjoying a quiet walk along the river estuary in the absence of a beach proper, trying to clear her mind with the sea air and the gentle wash of the waves. A few minutes ago she had paused at a rocky area, perching on a large boulder and looking out over the ocean whilst she tried to order her thoughts. Now however, she had been interrupted when her guards intercepted someone getting a little too close for comfort.
“What is happening?” she asked, as two of the four guards that Maximilian had assigned to escort her everywhere grappled with a stranger.
“This gentleman wouldn’t keep his distance, your highness,” one of the guards, a lutrani, said, firmly grasping one arm of an elderly man. He was dressed in simple white robes, and currently hitting the second guard feebly across the legs with a staff that seemed to be bent in at least three places. The second guard, a broad shouldered leonin, grabbed hold of it.
“Begone I say!” the man said loudly, fighting a losing battle to regain control of the battered length of wood, inadvertently treading on the feet of the lutrani as he tried to pull away from the leonin. “Stoppit! Off! Honestly, is this any way to treat your elders?” the old man managed to get both hands onto the staff as the lutrani lost his grasp, flinching in reaction to the man’s heels landing hard on his toes. The other two guards started moving towards the old man.
“Do-do not hurt him,” Aleana said, somewhat amused as she slid off her rock, watching the tug of war that had set up between the old man and the leonin – the latter clearly quite able to win the battle, but not wanting to damage his opponent. “Let him have it,” she told the guard, who promptly let go. The old man fell over backwards, landing in the sand with a thud, the hood of his robes flopping over his eyes.
“Blinded!” he shouted. “See what you’ve done to me!”
Aleana giggled in spite of herself. Moving forwards, she knelt down by the his head, and gently tugged the hood back into place. The old man’s face adopted an expression of wonder.
“Only to have my sight restored by an angel,” he pronounced, his voice hushed.
Aleana felt the blood rush to her cheeks, and knew she had gone pink.
“Not quite, sir,” she said gently, helping the old man to his feet. “Can I help you with something?”
“Me? No, nothing you can help me with, my dear.” The old man frowned. “At least I don’t think so, but then I hadn’t planned on being assaulted on a public beach. All I wanted was to return to my ship, but these ruffians accosted me!”
“Ship?” Aleana turned, looking over brown sand and silt to an empty blue ocean.
“Yes, she’s right over there,” the old man pointed. The young princess followed the gesture, finding herself looking along the rocky outcropping to the point it almost vanished into the water.
“Um, there is no ship there…” she said uncertainly, not quite sure what else to say.
“Nonsense, nonsense,” the old man said. “She’s right there in plain view.”
Aleana looked again. “I do not see a ship, sir,” she said quietly. Her guards exchanged glances.
“Bah. Follow me,” the man said, sounding a little put out. He tottered down the beach, leaning heavily on his staff, leaving a trail of footprints and circles in the wet sand. After a pause, Aleana followed, her eyebrows raised, her guards close behind.
“Ah, there she is,” the man stopped as he reached the very edge of the rocks. Leaning over, and reaching down into a small rock pool, he pulled out a small model ship, turning to hold it out to Aleana. About six or seven inches in length, it was intricately made. Double masts, tiny cloth sails, and fine cotton rigging. “The finest vessel on all the seas,” the old man pronounced proudly.
Aleana smiled. “She’s a lovely ship, sir.”
“That she is,” the man beamed. “Would you care to sail around the bay, young lady?”
It took a moment for Aleana to work out a suitable reply. It was with some relief that inspiration struck. “I would love to, but I am afraid I get rather seasick.”
“Ah, of course, of course,” the old man nodded. He sat down on a rock by the edge of the pool, gently setting the little ship onto the surface of the water. It floated just right, moving gently across the pool as he blew gently into the sails. He pulled it back again, and repeated the process. After the fourth repetition, Aleana decided that he wasn’t going to say anything else.
“If you will excuse me, sir,” she said politely.
“Of course, of course,” the old man waved his hand, and she turned. “Oh, but before you go, do let me give you one thing...” he added, and she turned back to find the man rummaging in a pocket of his robes.
“No, that’s not it,” he muttered, examining a small red pebble. “Not you either,” he put back the miniature sundial. “Ah,” he produced a scroll of paper and handed it to Aleana. “Troyston asked me to give you this,” he said too quietly for the guards to overhear.
Aleana’s mouth opened for a moment, then shut without saying anything. She looked at the scroll, realising it bore the Goldwood wax seal. Hurriedly, she moved her hand to cover the insignia, realising as she did so that the old man was giving her a meaningful look, the apparent confusion he had been operating under since he first appeared vanishing for a moment.
“Good sir,” she said, thinking quickly. “Would you be so kind as to join me for afternoon tea?”
The old man straightened. “Why, my dear young lady, I would be delighted, nay honoured to do so.” He returned to the pool, carefully scooping his model ship out of the water, before dropping the entire thing into a pocket. Aleana wondered how he had kept it in such good condition since it seemed to be sharing living space with numerous solid items. She didn’t have time to wonder long however, as the old man looped his arm through hers.
“Your Highness?” one of the guards began as she started up the beach with the old man. “Are you sure you…”
“I do believe,” she said icily. “That it is my decision who I invite to have tea with me, not yours.”
“Yes, highness,” the guard quickly fell back into line.
“I don’t think they like the idea of you being alone with me,” Aleana said quietly as she closed the doors to her chambers.
“Oh nonsense, what harm can an old man like myself do?” he said, reclining in one of the soft chairs that flanked the fireplace.
“I wonder.” Aleana moved to stand in the middle of the room. “May I ask why Mr Goldwood sent you to deliver this?” she held up the scroll.
“But you said…”
“I said he asked me to give it to you. He didn’t send me to deliver it, I was planning to come to see you anyway, I just stopped off to see how he was doing while I was en route. That letter I suspect says everything he has already discussed with me,” as he spoke, Aleana realised that his eyes had changed their earlier expression of befuddlement for one of intense clarity.
“To see… me?” Aleana found herself thoroughly off track. She rubbed her left temple. As if the last few days had not been difficult enough already!
“Precisely. Please sit down, you look as if you need to,” the old man said gently. Feeling very confused, Aleana did so, taking the chair facing her visitor. “Now, why don’t you read that first,” he nodded to the scroll she still clutched in her hand. “And perhaps it will make things a little easier to understand.”
Somewhat baffled, she broke the seal, and unrolled the scroll.
“Dear miss Irontooth,” it began simply.
“I hope that this message reaches you intact and unread. Should it be otherwise, I am deeply sorry, for it occurs to me that our actions are in contradiction to the wishes of your father, and may land you in considerable trouble should this be discovered.” Aleana nodded to herself. She knew her father would not punish her greatly for this covert attempt to secure a peace, but should news get out… Her actions were tantamount to treason, or at least, that is the word that would no doubt be bandied about among the nobility. The resulting scandal would almost certainly see her influence diminish considerably.
“In the short time since our meeting, my situation appears to have undergone considerable change. I am now, officially, the Freelands Minister for Military Mobilisation. Whether this is quite legal, I am not sure, as the post has been appointed to me by my father – who at this time is currently operating with the full emergency powers granted to a first minister in times of war – rather than by vote as such posts are usually granted. Legality notwithstanding, it has fallen upon me to travel the Freelands in search of additional troops to bolster our defences. While this is hardly a responsibility I would wish to accept, it does give me a reason to visit each and every county keeper in the Freelands, performing routine inspections of their estates, police forces, and militia.
“Though I am only now setting out on my inspections, I believe I have already accounted for one absent councillor – a note of apology has reached me, with a date of writing some two days before the Fortitude talks. It would appear that at least one county council is going to spend the next month voting for a new chairman.
“I will of course proceed as planned, and attempt to seek out any hostile faction that might exist within the Freelands. I greatly fear that should I succeed, it will not be before my public role of FMMM has been put to the test. I can only ask your forgiveness should my actions in this escalate the inevitable conflict between our lands.”
“It is your duty,” Aleana murmured. “I could expect no less of you.” She read on.
“I am sorry to say that as you may have expected, the Freelands Council itself seems no less bent upon war than at the end of the Fortitude talks. I have almost no doubt that by the time you read this, there will have been several more attacks on towns within your borders, although I will not be privy to the choice of targets. There is little I can say that will express my sorrow for this shameful deed, should it come to pass. Once again I can only beg your forgiveness, and ask you to remember that these are frightened people who believe that you are threatening their homes and livelihoods. They do not realise that they are becoming no better than the enemy they perceive you to be.”
Aleana bowed her head as she read this last paragraph. As yet, nothing had been confirmed, but there were certainly rumours floating about the city, whispers of towns burned, crops destroyed, townsfolk sent scurrying into hiding. Nor, she thought angrily, was it entirely uncalled for. Lordenor's fleet would soon arrive at its destination.
“I am, miss Irontooth, feeling increasingly trapped. I do not wish to fuel aggression against your kingdom by making more manpower available to the Freelands Council, but if I perform this task unsatisfactorily I will lose my authority, and no longer be able to investigate freely. At this time, it appears that I can only work to minimise the damage. The only hope I see now is that we find those responsible for initiating this conflict, and bring that person or persons before both King Irontooth and the Freelands Council, and make them understand that they have been intentionally set to each others’ throats.
“The man now with you,” the letter continued, changing the subject. “Is Master Fellirion Forester, a representative of the Council of Magi. If I said I knew why he had been sent, or has chosen to, assist in this affair I would be lying, but so far I have found him a source of sage advice and council. I am not sure why he wants to see you, but I am convinced that he can be of use.
“I bid you farewell, miss Irontooth, and I hope that your news is better than mine.
Aleana finished reading the letter and paused, staring aimlessly at the parchment.
“Milk?” the old man enquired, and she looked up to find that he had poured tea from the pot on the small table, filling a china cup that she wasn’t quite sure had been there when she sat down.
“Please,” she said softly. Fellirion lifted the small jug, adding just the right amount of milk, and setting it down with a musical clink.
“Here,” he prompted, holding the cup out to her. Aleana took it, sipped it automatically, and felt the soothing liquid warm her throat.
“So, Troyston Goldwood has found nothing?”
“No,” Fellirion shook his head sadly.
“You believe this originates in Lordenor?”
“Possibly,” he nodded. “But I cannot be certain. I know that you have been doing much the same as Troyston. What have you found?”
“Not a lot,” Aleana said, setting her cup down. “I have as we agreed, spoken with as many of the nobles as I have been able to locate. Most of them are in the city as we speak. There seems to be almost nothing unusual about their attitudes.
“Almost nothing?” Fellirion raised his eyebrows.
“There were a few,” Aleana said thoughtfully. “Who were a little evasive about what they would be able to supply to the army. One even said he had lost a number of troops due to a raid by the highland barbarians... but I have heard of no such raid and it has not been reported in any of the news pages, though every single publisher sends a copy of each issue to the palace. If it happens on the record, we have an archive master who knows about it.”
“I see... is there any other reason why they might send their troops away?” the old man asked quietly.
Aleana sighed. “We are after all, at war,” she said sadly, her voice falling to a whisper. “It may be that they have already committed many men to the army. My asking them, bluntly, about what they could supply, could have seemed quite insulting...”
“Or it may be that they have another use for those troops,” Fellirion said softly.
Looking reluctant, Aleana nodded. “Potentially.”
“Can you give me a list of those nobles?” Fellirion asked.
“Why are you here, Master Forester?” Aleana demanded suddenly, changing the subject.
“To offer advice where it will be listened to.”
“No, I mean… why have the Council of Magi sent you?”
“Ah,” Fellirion sat back in his chair, putting his palms together and drumming his fingers against each other. “The rest of the council will have my head if I tell you too much. All I can tell you safely is that we believe the troublemaker, the traitor if you will, is someone with magical knowledge.”
“Do you know anyone in a position of power who might fit that description?” Fellirion asked shrewdly.
“I…” Aleana paused, suddenly reminded of the past. It had been years ago – many years ago, in fact, she was very small when Tiernach had left to study with the Order of Magi. She remembered him as he left – tall and imposing, even then, or at least he had seemed so to the young Aleana, but always smiling. Aleana remembered the smile most, a broad, feline smile, one that had read her stories at night as she went to sleep. Yes, that was Tiernach then, intelligent, kind, and occasionally mischievous, but always meaning well.
That had changed suddenly one day though. She was never sure why, but there was one day when he returned from his training without warning. He hadn’t looked very well, Aleana remembered thinking, his face gaunt, his eyes unfocussed, but every time she had asked he assured her that he was fine. Tiernach had spent a lot of time hidden away after that, barely emerging from his chambers to speak with anyone for weeks. Eventually he left again, with as little warning as he had arrived.
At some point, he must have decided that he had studied enough, because he came back for good, some four years ago. It was hard to be sure why, but Aleana never quite felt he was the same person who had left when he was just a boy. He was still intelligent, still kind to her, but that smile had gone, replaced by a thoughtful, serious expression. He seemed to have become particularly broody in the last eight months or so, but again had proven unwilling to discuss the matter, and Aleana hadn’t pressed him. There seemed little harm in it, after all, Aleana knew he studied things of which she had little comprehension. Perhaps he was simply puzzling over something that preoccupied him.
Maybe, she had thought with a smile, he was working on something that would change the world. She was sure he could, if he tried. He had his father’s determination, and a power that was the envy of many older magi... and always a faint sense of disquiet. Shadows that fluttered about him, hiding his light from the world.
“No,” Aleana said, shaking her head. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with Tiernach anyway, there was no point in troubling this old wizard about the matter.
Fellirion nodded, a slight glitter in his eye. “Of course, it would seem an unlikely combination.”
They sat in silence for a few moments.
“It might be useful to talk with your father,” Fellirion said quietly.
Aleana sighed. “You will not be able to change his mind. He feels that he must do as he does for the protection of our people, and is in no mood to debate the matter.”
The old man nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose he is rather trapped... perhaps it is better not to interfere. I have no doubt he would avoid this conflict if he felt he could, and I don’t really need the Council of Magi breathing down my neck because I’ve been talking to too many people.” His expression turned grim as Aleana looked at him questioningly. “Let us just say that if you thought your politics are complicated, you should try dealing with the Order,” he shook his head ruefully.
Aleana nodded, not really understanding. “I should write back to mister Goldwood,” she announced. “Can you…?”
“I can, but for now I must go. I have some errands I must attend to promptly.” He removed the model ship from his pocket, not even slightly damaged. “Marvellous little thing,” he said. “Look, they even put a little hatch so you can keep things in it.” With one finger he nudged a catch at the back of the model, a tiny door opening. He showed Aleana the hollow inside of the ship, then closed it, setting the model on the mantelpiece over the fire. “I should very much like that back,” he said. “Perhaps tomorrow at noon you would be so kind as to help an old man find his lost ship?” he smiled and she nodded.
“Oh, before I forget...” Fellirion paused and rummaged in another pocket. “I should like to give you this,” he held out a small stone, green, and highly polished.
Aleana looked confused as she accepted it.
“It’s a locator charm. A wonderful invention,” the old man said, reaching into yet another pocket, and withdrawing a roll of parchment. “And such a shame I only have the one, they are remarkably hard to make,” he unfurled the scroll. Upon it, a map of the continent was drawn. On the southern coast of Lordenor, a green X glowed in bright ink. Fellirion touched it with his finger.
Aleana gasped as the map on the parchment shimmered for a moment, the ink seeming to become liquid as it ran across the surface, reforming into a map of much smaller scale, now showing only the central quarter of Lordenor. Numerous black dots appeared, as if ink were soaking through from the other side of the map, as the names of various towns inscribed themselves in delicate handwriting underneath them.
“The marker,” Fellirion indicated the green cross. “Will move with the stone. It will allow me to keep an eye on your progress, and hopefully lend my assistance, in the unfortunate circumstance that it be required.”
The man noticed Aleana looking at him in awe. “I must admit,” he said. “I did consider giving this to Troyston, but I had a feeling you would end up being more difficult to find, so I thought it best to save it for you. You might want to have it made into a bracelet or a necklace or something you can keep with you. Please be sure you don’t lose it, I would rather appreciate it back when we have all this straightened out.”
Aleana nodded, holding the pebble tight in both hands, feeling it slowly warm in her grasp.
“Well, now that that’s sorted, I shall bid you good day,” Fellirion smiled.
Collecting his staff from where it leaned against the mantelpiece, the elderly man made his way to the doors, pushing them half a dozen times with a loud rattling before pausing for thought and finally pulling them open.
“Out of my way, out of my way,” he grumbled testily at the guards who turned to look at him, an expression of puzzlement on their faces. Somehow as he passed, the end of his staff managed to land hard on the lutrani’s foot, making him yelp.