The Guild-lands of East Jaltan have been at peace for many years...but that cannot last
| In the most northern of the Guild-lands, Isthelian of the fleet and wild horses, winter was beginning to threaten. The nights were cold and it was the wind that lulled both horse and man to sleep at night. A few weeks past, in the shelter of the valleys and gentle hills, the horses had ranged comfortably away from the villages in pastures edged with stone walls and flowering hedges. Now they bunched together beneath roofs and behind walls, their coats growing thick and shaggy against the impending storms. A gentle but heavy rain was falling this night, its soothing musical cadences and tones punctuated by the occasional rumble of thunder. The gentle roll of the sound, from the sky to the hills beneath, seemed to belie the painful coldness brought with the weather. But despite the sharp chill of the air the countryside slept in quiet peace beneath the touch of the storm.
It had not always been so here. There had been a time when the hills had been restless and tormented by the memories of the wild folk and the ancient spirits of the land. Their discontent had often stirred the land with terrors, driving human and creature to panic and wildness. Now the memories of those times were dim. This land was one well protected and guarded. Its folk were wise, content with their free and simple lives; brave when they had to be in order to protect what they held dear. The land was led by honorable folk who dwelt in the ancient fortresses left by the Ageless Folk who had lived here before. From their wise old stone walls and towers, they looked after the land with the sober grey eyes and clear voices that were the legacy of their ancestors. And the wild folk and spirits of Isthelian were quiet beneath their rule, turned once again to their given task of blessing and tending their keep.
Tonight was different. Isthelian and the spirits that guarded it slept in peace except in one place. There was a rippling unease among the shades and stones of Trievermorn. Old spirits sheltering in the shadow of the weathered fortress murmured their worries into a gusting wind and whispered at door and window. Something from far away had come to this land; something that had no place here and brought with it the sounds of pain and desperation. A horse stood beneath the shelter in front of the stable, waiting as the sleepy groom was summoned from his blankets by a guard. His gusty breaths fogged in the air as he stood in weary relief, sweat mingling with the rain and mud of the road coating his sides. His night’s ride had been long and fast; his rider in a great hurry.
The rider. Not a man. The spirits whirled in agitation. Such a one as he had not walked here in ages with the wild music of battle swirling around him. Anxious and wordless guardians sought for the rider. Still outside in the rain? No. He was inside. The stones beneath his feet chilled with disapproval. He stood inside with his beast uncared for. Unforgivable.
And impatient. Unwilling to wait and warm himself by the fire in the great hall, he swept through the halls of Trievermorn. His steps were certain. He knew his way. A shade following at his heels tugged at his shadow but dared do no more. The master had forbidden it.
The sound of other footsteps drew the shades’ attention. Another? Awake at this hour of the night? The steward, summoned by the guard no doubt. He stopped the rider. The stones warmed. Yes. Turn him away. We wish no news of him. But no. The dark swathed rider continued inexorably on his way after but a moment. Wordless and distraught, the shades and spirits pulled at his shadow, stretching and contorting his shape but slowing him not at all. The stones moaned and cracked beneath the cold, grumbling ominous threats which would never be carried out. It was forbidden. But night was when memories of the old days rose closest to the surface. Once there had been a day when Trievermorn, oldest among the ancient fortresses, would have swallowed up such a rider. But not this night. He stalked behind the yawning steward toward the heart of the fortress, going to rouse master and mistress from slumber though the wolfing hours were yet deep upon the hills.
Paulo Avitras yawned and winced as his jaw cracked bringing tears to his eyes. He wiped at the moisture in his lashes and tried to focus on the smooth undulations of the stone floor as he shambled through the halls. The floor was appallingly cold beneath his feet. He could feel the cold radiating upward even through the soles of the boots he’d donned when the guard had told him there was a visitor approaching the fortress.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Might I ask what your business is?” He addressed the shadowed face within the cloak hood.
“My business is with the general.”
The deep voice was devoid of the music of an Isthelian accent though it was undoubtedly northern, the aged steward thought. He shook his head, annoyed his thoughts were moving so sluggishly. “Which general?”
There was a heartbeat’s pause before the reply and then it came, touched with faint amusement. “Both I suppose.”
“And it cannot wait until the morning? I assure you, this household rises early.” Paulo barely managed to finish speaking before another yawn cracked his jaw. Regretfully he pressed one hand to his cheek. His skin was cold beneath his fingers and he felt real annoyance flicker to life. It was too cold a night for folk to be dragging around Trievermorn. Anyway, folk were tired these days. The Muster had just been finished and it had been hard work. It always was hard work to gather and sort the ranged horses by family and clan, settling them so that each would be fed by those who claimed it. And then they’d seen to the stores of fodder and grain, ensuring there would be enough at each shelter to last the winter through. Folk deserved to rest in their beds at this time of night at this time of year. Whatever the news, it couldn’t be that important.
A sudden chill sharper than that of the stones beneath his feet suddenly struck through him. “The young masters…” His voice was a whisper, very unsteady. “You have word of them? Are they…?”
“Not them.” The reply was quick. The man’s tone managed to remain vaguely threatening even while he offered his rough reassurance. “Crafter’s will, I bear no news of them this night.”
Fear alleviated, annoyance returned. “And yet your business cannot wait ‘til a decent hour?”
“No.” The reply was flat and drove Paulo further down the stone hall. “It cannot.”
For a moment, Clarsah Eillyl, the lady of Trievermorn, was unsure that she had really heard anything. She opened one eye just far enough to confirm that there was no predawn light falling through the wide windows. That done, she closed her eye again and tugged the blanket farther up to protect her face and ears from the biting chill of the midnight air.
The knocking came again, persistent and yet not obtrusive. When it stopped they could hear murmurs and whispers break out on the other side of the door. Their steward’s voice raised a little, just enough to be recognizable, protesting against the disturbance of his lord and lady. The other voice was low, too low for them to identify or understand through the wooden door. It seemed familiar but it was difficult to know if that was the truth or merely the sleep clinging to her mind. In bed beside her, her husband grunted, then pulled his arm from around her, rolled over and sat up. He clumsily tucked the blankets back around her before he left the bed. A low hiss and dire mutters about the chill of the stone floor reached her ears as her husband moved toward the door.
“What is it, Paulo?” Despite being woken, Ban Eillyl’s deep, throaty voice was clear, hiding any irritation he might be feeling as he addressed the person interrupting his sleep. His voice was quiet enough that Clarsah could barely hear it but she relaxed and started drifting back to sleep, comforted by the mere sounds of his presence.
“Beg pardon, sir,” The house steward’s voice was profoundly apologetic. “You have a visitor here. It seems...he considers it quite urgent that he speak with you.”
A grip of icy cold tightened in Clarsah’s gut. She rolled over and came up straight in bed as sudden dread bolted through her. “Our sons-?”
“No, my lady. It is not about them.” The steward’s voice was immediate in soothing her maternal fears, present ever since the day that her eldest son, and then his younger brother, had gone to the service of the Guilds.
Ban, the latest heir to the powerful Eillyl name, returned swiftly to the bed and drew his wife into his arms. Her cheek pressed against his shoulder and he could feel her heartbeat thundering beneath his hand. She was trembling and her skin was chilling quickly. Ban pulled her back down into the bed, tugging the blankets back up over her shoulders and using his touch to ease the tension that had gripped her body. For a moment he forgot about the steward standing outside the door and the messenger waiting as he comforted the fears of his wife. However, he was soon reminded of their presence by a muffled thump on the door. He sat up sharply when he heard what sounded like a scuffle out in the hall.
“Paulo, what is going on out there?” Now he sounded irritated.
“I’m sorry, my lord. He- Stop you! No!”
The doors fell open and lantern light stabbed inward. Clarsah grabbed for the knife sheathed beneath her pillow but, as fast as she moved, her husband was faster. By the time she’d sat up and turned to face the door with blade drawn back to throw, her husband was reaching out to grab her hand and still the knife, already sure of whom the man was.
“Talon.” Ban’s voice was flat, caught between uncertainty and surprise.
Clarsah stared, realizing only then that she knew the dripping man their steward was trying to drag backwards out of their room, as ineffectual as a banner tugging on a flagstaff. If his absolute immovability hadn’t told her who he was, the glimpse of piercing green eyes in the light from the lantern in the steward’s hands would have. She only knew one man with eyes like that.
“What is so urgent, Talon?” Clarsah quickly slid back beneath the blankets, yawned and sheathed the knife as Ban started looking for a lamp. “It can’t be more than half past the second moon.”
“Forgive me but I couldn’t wait.” Deep green eyes bright with the unearthly fever of his kind, Talon held out his left hand with the palm out as he shook back his hood. Though the darkness of the room was too deep to illuminate his hand, the circular mark on his palm was familiar enough they didn’t need to see it to know the authority behind his visit. “I’ve word from the Lines.”
Ban gave up on finding the lamp and the taper to light it and pushed back the blankets. He grumbled sleepily as he felt for his clothes in the darkness. “You should come on occasions when need doesn’t press so urgently, Borderer, and then perhaps I wouldn’t have to stop my dear wife from knifing you each time you appear.”
“Your dear wife is one of the very few who might survive the attempt so no worries, eh?”
The grin that crossed the Borderer’s face as he turned back toward the door was touched more than a little with the wild abandon of a forest in the grip of a violent storm. The steward was the only one who saw the smile and he felt a chill grip his spine. That was not a kind smile, Paulo thought. Had he seen it when they were alone together, it would have left him frozen and terrified. Like a hare neatly captured by a rough-coated, highland wolf, he reflected with a chill.
“Dear Talon, you should not flatter me so. And right before my husband.” Her voice held all the dry sarcasm she could muster in the middle of the night.
Clarsah sat up in the middle of the bed, keeping the top blanket tucked around her neck. She truly hated the cold. “So, tell me,” She stopped to yawn and then continued. “Why does a borderer knock on our door this night?”
Talon turned back to face into the room and the flare of the light in Ban’s hand showed the smile sliding off his face like the rainwater. A bedraggled forelock of black hair slipped forward to shadow his eyes as he shook his head. “It is never good news that wakes the captains in the wolf dark. Hurry and dress; full armor, sword and sling. I've brought a summons to the Citadel along with my news.”
Paulo watched his master and mistress as the borderer spoke. He’d known what, though not specifically who, this man was from the moment they’d met in the hall and he’d been confronted by the mark of a borderer. Every Guildlander knew someone bearing the circular brand of the border defenders had leave to go where they needed to go, even into the home of the master of the Eillyl, the judge of Isthelian, in the middle of the night. But Paulo had never expected that his message would be so urgent. They'd had true peace for so many years now. The days when the Borderers burst into the homes of the mighty to call them to their duties were long past. Or so he’d thought. But as Talon's words fell into the stillness of the wolfing hours, Paulo saw the ease that had shown in his master and mistress’s eyes throughout the long years of peace disappear. Their backs straightened and their eyes became sharp and wary. Sorrow bit at him as he perceived the times changing before his very eyes. The welcoming and kind lord and lady of Trievermorn were gone. In their places were soldiers, cautious and cool eyed, silently preparing for the work that lay before them.
Now wearing his trousers and carrying a tunic, Ban took an extra cloak as he stepped toward the door. He left the lantern on the table for Clarsah “Come then and we’ll be to the work.” He tossed the dry cloak to Talon. “I know you don’t need it, wild man, but put it on so I don’t get cold watching you. I’m amazed you didn’t kill your horse on your way here. The roads are terrible.”
“You know me better.” Talon plucked at the soaking folds of his own cloak ruefully before he flipped the dry cloak around his shoulders. He looked pointedly at the tunic in Ban’s hand. “I wasn’t speaking lightly about the armor.”
Ban’s eyes narrowed speculatively but his answer was light. “I will get it when I have heard why you have invaded my room to drag me from my sleep and my wife’s pleasant company.”
Talon’s low chuckle was almost a surprise as he walked out of the room ahead of the lord of Trievermorn. He glanced back and his amused expression shifted to regret. “I wish it was good news that accompanied my arrival. As it is, I am sorry to bring bad news to your door.”
Ban closed the door so Clarsah could dress and gave Talon a gentle punch in the back. “I am sorrier it was necessary. It’s good to see you again, Talon.”
“And you Ban. It’s been too long."
"So this news," Ban inquired cautiously as he waved his aging steward back to bed. "What is it?"
Talon's voice was morose. "As bad as any news I've ever had the displeasure of bearing. Let’s sit in your kitchen while I tell you the news, Eillyl. And light all the lanterns while we are there.”
With a definite curl of trepidation in his belly, Ban moved to follow the warrior through his home. The shades were restless. He could feel them fretting and whispering, anxiety shivering through the cool and shadow of the fortress. The stones were apprehensive around him and they moaned their concern to him.
“Your home does not like me tonight.”
Talon’s wry observation made Ban blink. Then he shrugged and watched a shade flickering around Talon’s booted heels for a moment before yawning. It had been enough years since an urgent summons had come that he’d lost the knack of coming instantly awake and then staying awake.
Talon turned to look at him when he got no reply. He stared at Ban’s unshod feet in astonishment. “Doesn’t the cold fairly bite at you?”
Ban yawned and began pulling his tunic over his head. “As you said, Trievermorn doesn’t welcome you tonight but the stone always warms to me.” He paused in the middle of tugging the tunic straight out of habit that had lingered past the end of his military service. “Except when it tried to warn me of your presence tonight. Trievermorn feels you have brought me a threat, Borderer.”
“Only news of it. The threat isn’t mine.” Talon regarded the old stone of the fortress with true respect. There were only a few of the ancient fortresses left standing in the northern Guild-lands. Trievermorn was the oldest of them and it was the most alive.
Laying a hand against the stone wall, Ban trailed his fingers along the slightly rough surface as he walked. He let his mind whisper into the fortress, things to command and to comfort. He reminded the stones of his own power and sent a touch of his strength to calm the shades. Talon Borderer was a friend, he whispered and then commanded. Save your strength. It may soon be needed for other things.
Talon led the way to the spacious kitchens of Trievermorn with familiarity earned from many previous visits. Once there he dropped his still dripping cloak near the fireplace and quickly set to building up the fire from the slumbering coals kept ever alive in the cook’s hearth. As his friend roused the flames, Ban found a set of cups and ushered the cook's young assistant, who stumbled in clutching a broom handle, back to his bed. By the time that the fire was roaring, throwing its dancing light throughout the kitchen, Ban had set out cold meat, bread and a basket of harvest fruits from the storeroom. A dark, strong tea was warming in a kettle over the fire and Talon was lighting every lantern and lamp he could find by the time the lady of Trievermorn joined them. Clarsah’s arms were full of material, which she pushed into Talon’s arms with a yawn and a menacing scowl. Meekly Talon accepted the clothing and slipped away to change.
Clarsah dipped a cupful of fresh water from one of the covered barrels in the corner of the kitchen and sat down on the hearth to drink it. Distastefully she scooted Talon’s soaked cloak a little farther away. Then she nodded at all the lighted lamps and lanterns and raised a questioning eyebrow.
Ban shrugged wearily. Talon hadn’t said much while they were working, half in acknowledgement that Ban was still waking up and half because he was brutally tired from his long ride. He knew the man very well though; they’d been friends since before they’d both been proven, so he thought he could make a reasonable guess. “He’s been riding in the dark with bad news for hours now. I’d say he’s had enough of darkness and shadows for a while.”
Clarsah swished some of the cool water through her mouth and nodded. Then she got up and went looking for the pot of stew the cook kept ready for the purpose of dispelling the hungers of any who might visit her kitchen between meals. It was sitting in one of the alcoves built into the stone sides of the fireplace and the stew was bubbling sullenly beneath the lid. Clarsah sniffed judiciously. Just a touch scorched but the cook’s knack for savory spices and broths would more than make up for that. She dipped some of the stew into a bowl and set it on the table to cool for Talon before settling back onto the hearth.
Her husband came to sit beside her. “Did you look in on the little ones?” His inquiry accompanied the arm sliding around her waist and she leaned against him comfortably.
“Still sleeping.” Their youngest children were beginning to be old enough to resent being called little but Ban was not a man who changed quickly.
Talon appeared back in the kitchen as she finished speaking, his footsteps so quiet that neither one of them heard him approaching. He sat down at the table and drew the bowl of stew toward himself with an expression of gratitude. “Clarsah, you are a queen among the princes of the Guilds. These past years of peace have caused me to forget the truly priceless nature of dry clothing and hot food.”
Clarsah arched one eyebrow high with an impish twinkle in her eyes. “You are full of compliments tonight. What shall I tell your wife?” Her face relaxed into a smile. “Thanks to the Crafter for the quiet years we have had to forget the value of simple such things, I suppose.”
She waited until he had drunk most of the broth out of the stew before asking, “So, what has roused the borderers enough that they sent you all the way to Isthelian tonight?”
Talon set aside the bowl and turned to look at them. Talon Borderer was wild folk of Kialra. Like the rest of his folk, he did not show the years that had passed over him in the same way that humans did. This combined with the fact that he was enough smaller than Ban that Ban’s tunic and leggings hung off of his shoulders and puddled around his bare feet made him look just a little like a boy not quite grown into himself yet. The absolute sobriety in his green eyes ruined the effect, Clarsah thought just after laughing inwardly at the thought of describing one of the most dangerous warriors of the East as a half grown boy. A moment later she had completely forgotten her amusement and she longed to have it back.
“Hibaccus was held siege and fell. The dungeons have been emptied and all of our men who were there are now dead. Haldarim’s armies gather; the dragons awaken.”
“The dungeon at Hibaccus?” Ban asked just to be certain that the situation was as bad as the chill running up and down his spine indicated.
"How? We had the news from the Citadel just the day before yesterday and there was not a single word of siege. Hibaccus cannot have fallen just so quickly!"
Clarsah felt as though she couldn't breathe. Her heart was thundering like the hooves of a dozen horses flying before a rider. Beside her, Ban was utterly still. His breathing was measured as he absorbed the shocking news with all the uproar of a foundation stone and she was relieved. She'd never been a flighty or nervous woman. She wasn’t given to overreaction but even so, his absolute stability was a comfort, something she could draw her own strength from.
Talon scowled and the green kindled to flame and gold in his eyes. "I don’t know how our greatest fortress came to fall in less than two days time." he growled. "All we know is it has. The maiges are free. The Summoner is unbound. I was bade to give you these words from the Citadel along with the summons to your posts: Take up your swords, generals. The time for peace is past.” Talon took a cup and walked to the fireplace, reaching past Clarsah to pour himself some of the caustic tea Ban had made. “I trust your blades are as keen-edged as they ever were?” He inquired dryly after a moment of near silence and a cautious sip of the tea. It was exactly as he remembered it and made him recall the times and places they had shared it in the past. As black as the stormy sky outside, it was thick, strong and bitter. Camp brew. How many times had the three of them huddled around pathetic flames with nothing but this vile stuff to fill empty bellies?
“Aren’t yours?” Ban replied in a similarly dry tone.
Talon’s grin disappeared behind his cup as he drained the rest of the tea. Ban’s eyes noted the dangerous edge of wildness in the glimmer of Talon’s green eyes and in his smile, the lolling smile of a stalking wolf. The inborn mastery of the Eillyl surged within him in response and his eyes silvered with power. But there was no delight in it for him now as there had been once. His fingers found and traced the ridge of a scar in his wife’s side. It marked the path a sword had taken eighteen years ago, one of many scars she had earned as a cavalry master in the struggle to win the peace that had just been shattered. She shifted a little as his fingers tightened and he immediately loosened his hold. If that stroke had been just a little bit deeper it would never have had the chance to scar. If this time the swordsman were just a little more skilled, more determined, more ruthless, what would he do?
Beside him, Clarsah took a deep breath, trying to shake off the haze that had fallen over her mind. She knew why Talon had wanted light now and was glad he had lighted the room before telling them the news. She looked down and laid her hand over her husband’s, lacing her fingers through his. The sword stroke of a Laochian horseman had left that side permanently numb and she needed to feel his comforting arm right now. Her heart beat at its usual rhythm, the frantic pace set by shock and the sudden onset of old, once-forgotten fear gone. But the shock lingered, like lightning in her veins and the fear had settled onto her shoulders with the same old familiarity as her armor.
Over twenty-five years before a rebellion that had become a war had brought them together: a Wild borderer, a young cavalry captain and a warden. How strange it was that the same danger should come back again so many years later after all they had done to stop it then.
Clarsah got to her feet, forcing Ban’s hand to slide reluctantly away from her waist. She met his dark gaze and calmly began fastening the buckles on the leather vest that would protect her skin from the unforgiving ridges of her armor. She swallowed to drive the pain in her throat away. It did not become a general famed for her professional clarity and detachment on the battlefield.
“Well and truly you said it, Talon. It is never good news that wakes the captains in the wolf dark. It seems there is business for us to attend to. Let's be about it gentlemen."