Travelling to a distant land to find help for a war ravaged country is not a simple task
Melondthera of Darkenfell
Fenlin Bodren, the village elder, stood nervously looking around at the gathering crowd following the exotic looking woman; as she strode through the dusty village street towards him. He tried not to stare, as some of the other villagers were doing, but found it hard to take his eyes off her. She stood a head taller than any woman he had ever met. The way she was attired drew appraising looks from the men of the village. The women, however, were less impressed and gave her cold stares, which she ignored along with the calculating looks from the men. Her clothing consisted of a tight-fitting blue sleeveless top, laced up at the front which barely contained her ample bosom, a diaphanous full-length blue skirt which thinly concealed her underclothing, and calf length black boots. She wore matching blue dyed leather armbands, with lacings tied to her upper arms. Long flame red hair blew around her in the warm breeze and partially covered with a winged helm. In her right hand, she carried a staff.
Following close to her were a company of soldiers who looked ready to attack anyone who got to close. Never in his life had he seen such a strange woman. He could only guess that she came from a distant land. Indeed, the garb the soldiers wore was weird also. He realised immediately that they were her men at arms that alone would set her apart; even if she were plainly dressed. No woman from Rinydal save for the king's wife was allowed such power nor would any man also choose if he was entitled, to take service with a woman it was unthinkable. Even before she drew close he could tell she was a woman of striking beauty; her fresh, face, delicate skin and lightly tanned, with full red lips. However, It wasn’t till the woman stood to face him he noticed the weariness in her stance and how dusty and travel-worn her clothing appeared her blue eyes looked haunted.
"Greetings you are the village elder, so I have been told," the woman said with a firm voice in spite of her apparent weariness. She looked at Fenlin levelly her eyes daring him to look away, pointedly ignoring her men as they formed a protective circle around her.
"I am, lady, Fenlin Bodren is my name," the elder replied casting a nervous look at some of the young men of the village who already began to take exception. He didn’t want any bloodshed in his village. He had a suspicion this woman was well able to take care of herself. Even without her men at arms to help her; she seemed to radiate power and looked used to being obeyed. She noted his nervousness but remained calmly at ease.
"I am Melondthera Xalipha of Darkenfell a land over yon mountains,” Melondthera pointed to the snow-capped mountains to the north. ‘We seek rest and shelter before travelling on to seek an audience with the rulers of your land. We will gladly pay in gold for our keep," Melondthera concluded.
One of the village men pushed forward "You’ve never come over those mountains they’re impassable and dressed like that, bah! It looks like you just got out of man’s bed," the man said snidely.
"Fat chance you have of seeing king Justin, even if you were allowed to get that close, his Queen is the jealous type one look at you, and she’d have you thrown in the dungeons to rot," another taunted laughing.
Fenlin realised matters would soon get out of hand if something, weren’t done to stop the gathering mob. He heard steel drawn as Melondthera’s soldiers drew their swords to his amazement Melondthera turned and gave the soldiers a withering look. Begrudgingly they all re-sheaved their swords.
"What I choose to wear is of no matter, and indeed we did travel over the mountains, there is a way through avoiding the higher passes that is quite warm this time of year," Melondthera explained; staring her hecklers down. It was, in fact, a distortion of the truth there was a way but not one that these people would believe. Neither did she want them to know the truth as yet; or maybe not at all if things did go wrong.
Fenlin let out a nervous breath Melondthera had put to rest some of the villager's suspicions calming the situation at least for now. Not that he believed any of it himself; by whatever means Melondthera travelled here it had not been over the mountains. In his youth Fenlin had tried to cross those same mountains unsuccessfully there was no lower passes and no way over the top of that he felt confident. "No, they didn’t come by way of the Kajadyn Mountains," Fenlin belatedly noticed she had turned back to him expectantly. He realised she was giving him time to take back control of the situation. A very bright, and dangerous woman indeed and to his surprise, he found he was beginning to like her.
"Lady if you will follow me we can discuss arrangements for your stay and payment," Fenlin said with a wry smile. He beckoned her towards his house and waved to the onlookers to return to their affairs. Noting at the same time that not all of her warriors were men some were women also. More relieved now, that most of the villagers were dispersing before they noticed this other oddity. Fenlin suspected in spite of Melondthera’s polite words he had no choice in the matter; if he refused her men looked more than capable of taking control of the village. He had seen their like before these were elite soldiers, highly trained killers and dedicated to the protection of their lady it seemed; more than a match for any of the village bravados.
Sometime later after settling in and shown around Bodren’s house. Melondthera sat sipping a glass of water at a wooden table next to the only window in the living quarters. Sunlight flooded the room through the open window, and a breeze stirred the air in the otherwise stifling midday heat. There were two adjacent rooms a dining area and sleeping quarters of which the living quarters being the most prominent room and quite pleasant in spite of the heat. It was also the largest house in the village Melondthera had seen so far. Fenlin lived alone, so agreed, that she would take the living area along with captain Gerna. Captain Andry would share the sleeping quarters with Bodren. The rest of the men billeted outside the village. Captain Andry had protested vigorously that her men would be too far away if needed but he also knew as did Tanya Gerna that Melondthera was well able of looking after herself.
.Melondthera looked across to where Tanya sat on a worn wooden chair rocking back and forwards in a provocative manner she still wore her sword and scabbard, her leather jerkin partly undone at the top showing ample cleavage. Melondthera smiled at the under captain, Tanya had been with her for quite some time now while captain Andry had only recently joined her forces. The gallant captain Andry, however, had quickly proven himself a most capable and experienced warrior. Melondthera had feared the rivalry between the two captains would get out of hand, but Anson Andry had played down Tanya’s hot-headedness and treated her most deferentially so much so that Tanya had begrudgingly admitted for a man as she put it he was okay.
"I don’t like these people," Tanya said bringing her chair to a standstill she tilted her head to face Melondthera.
"Never the less I want you to mingle with them find out more about this land we have come too. We need to garner all the information we can before we seek help from this king Justin or whatever his name is. Oh, and cover yourself up these people seem to have fragile sensibilities," Melondthera replied still smiling.
"You don’t need to talk," Tanya teased as she stood fastening her jerkin and brushing the dust from her, britches. She threw back her head, gathering her black hair into a knot. She reached for her helm placing it on her head so that most of the hair was, covered
"I have a certain status to maintain if I dress like an ordinary woman in these parts no one would pay any attention to me," Melondthera answered with a slight edge to her voice.
"I doubt that Mistress." Captain Andry appeared in the open doorway brushing back a lock of brown hair from his face, he smiled and bowed as Tanya stuck her tongue out at him before leaving and closing the door behind her.
"Captain Andry," Melondthera said.
"I believe that is my name Mistress," the captain replied with a cheeky smile
"You rogue you will be the death of me yet can you not learn respect for your betters," Melondthera said with good humour.
The captain stopped smiling and stood straight. "I have nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for you, and I have sworn to protect you no matter the cost,” he stated unreservedly.
Melondthera swallowed she wanted nothing more than to fall into his arms and thank him for his unswerving loyalty and support. Men like Anson Andry were few and far between even in her homeland, but the task before her demanded that she must stay strong. There was no room to let her emotions go astray, not now she must remain focused on her mission. Though at times she found it hard when Anson Andry was around he was so handsome, charming and full of life.
She remembered the first time she saw him when they were fleeing the doomed city of Darken she admired him from afar, though circumstances contrived that they never met formally; until they started in the search for the portal that led them here. Her grandsire had said that Anson Andry was the most accomplished young man he ever met a deadly foe, a fiercely loyal friend, highly intelligent with a quick wit to match.
"Captain, what do you make of our friend Fenlin Bodren?" Melondthera asked changing the subject
The captain considered the question a moment weighing up what he had seen and heard of the village elder so far. "He seems a bit jumpy, but in spite of that, he doesn’t miss much. He is more intelligent than he lets on I think,” he paused considering for a moment. “He didn’t believe a word of what you said about travelling over the mountains. He has probably travelled a lot in his day, done his share of fighting too I’d guess. Oh, and I think he likes you." The captain concluded, grinning once more.
“I’d thought him much brighter than most of the locals around here also, somehow he reminds me of an older version of you… an old rogue," Melondthera smiled. Impishly at her captain, she had come to learn that the captain’s judgement was never far wrong either.
."The gods forbid Mistress, is that what is to become of me, then I‘d sooner die now," captain Andry replied with feigned mortification.
Melondthera couldn’t resist the burst of laughter that came in spite of her efforts to contain it. “Do you think he might be persuaded to go with us when we leave as a guide?” Melondthera asked after her laughter subsided.
"I’m sure we could persuade him," the captain replied meaningfully his hand resting on the hilt of his sword
Melondthera scowled. "No, not like that," she said shaking her head.
"Then you can always..,’ he began gesturing with his hands.
"Not like that either, I may be an Archmage, but I will not abuse my power or use it needlessly we must win the trust of these people not frighten or bully them into submission," Melondthera stated with conviction. She frowned seeing the captain nodding approvingly, so he had been testing her. Did he think she had become that desperate, that she would consider using her power to force the people of these lands to help them? “It may yet come to that if they don't help willingly,” Melondthera thought bitterly.
“To get back to what I wanted to say earlier Captain, can you send some men to guard the portal until tomorrow. I don’t want any of these villagers getting curious about how we got here, and go looking for our back trail. If they stumble across the portal and it is still active. I’m not sure what might happen, it should no longer be open, but I can’t be sure until I take a look myself.” She paused considering “In the meantime find Bodren, for me, wherever he may be and tell him I wish to speak with him." Hoping she had covered everything and trying to keep the tiredness she felt from her voice.
"Aye Mistress, but what about you here alone,” captain Andry frowned he didn’t like the idea of Melondthera being alone in spite of her capabilities. She still could be overpowered if taken by surprise, her powers not at their peak; he doubted if she had the strength to cast a spell at the moment.
"I’ll be fine, now go, the sooner you are gone, the sooner you’ll be back," she sat back in the chair as the captain left. Alone, at last, she had time to contemplate the events that led her to the present situation. Her homeland ravaged by a war instigated by the rebel Archmage Dozyark.
Dozyark, once one of the first mages in the College of Magica sitting on the council of six along with her grandsire Archmage Caphlar. Situated in Darken the capital of Darkenfell the College was the real seat of power of Darkenfell. Empress Juliana like many of her predecessors before ruled in name only though loved by her people. She tried to take back some control from the College; believing the mages held too much power. Some mages like her grandsire agreed with the Empress. Dozyark and his supporters, however, were incensed by this and demanded the Empress removed, and her palace levelled to the ground. The college split in two for the first time in its long history and because no decision could be, reached, Dozyark saw this as an excuse to try and seize total power of the College for himself. His attempt failed, and for his audacity, the other mages exiled him to an island in the northern hinterlands of Darkenfell. Before he left, however, he vowed to return to wreak such vengeance that would lay waste to all of Darkenfell.
Most of the mages scoffed at him calling him a madman, feeling secure in their power; they returned to their conceits, this all happened when she was but a child. Her grandsire told her this when she was old enough to join the College of Magica herself. He had warned then that Dozyark’s threats were not to be taken lightly. Melondthera also learned that her grandsire sent spies to watch Dozyark as had the Empress they reported back that Dozyark had insinuated himself amongst the barbarian tribes of the north and united them under his leadership as well as combining the fell races who used to fight amongst themselves and the barbarian tribes. The greenskins, orcs, ogres, and trolls, all came under his banner. Time and again her grandsire tried to warn the College of the impending danger, the Empress too decided to mobilise the army in preparation for war, but the mages in their arrogance overruled her. The last report from the spies said that Dozyark was practising dark magic and summoning creatures from the netherworld, after that they never heard from the spies again. Her grandsire and the Empress began to make their plans in preparation for what they felt sure was to come.
The Empress commanded the palace guard a company of elite women fighters known as the Angels of which Tanya was their captain. Her grandsire had control over the veteran guard, that belonged to the College of Magica. These would be their last line of defence if things came to the worst with the Angels and Guard for protection they would flee to the old citadel of Malinfor. High on a cliff top, with the ocean on one side, Malinfor was near an impregnable fortress.
They had underestimated Dozyark though, for he unleashed soul stealers into the world. One touch on bare flesh from these creatures of shadow consumes the soul taking possession of the victim’s body; when Dozark’s army finally marched on Darken, about a quarter of the mages turned on the rest slaughtering them out of hand. It wasn’t until one of the mages killing others himself was slain, and the soul stealer left the body to find another victim, that the mages realised what was amongst them. Melondthera shuddered of all the foul creatures Dozark let loose the soul stealers were by far the most terrifying and insidious she had yet come across. So they fled the once proud citadel of Darken looking back they could see fires burning and hear the screams of terror and desperate battle for survival.
Melondthera wept bitterly wanted to turn back to try and at least save some of the poor souls. The Empress too unashamedly wept begging her grandsire to try and save more of her people. He had shaken his head sadly without saying a word he knew like they all did there was no hope for those left behind. They would only end up joining them in death, and there would be no one left to stand against Dozyark.
Melondthera dosed, lost in the nightmare of past events; she recalled the flight overland to Malinfor. On the southern outskirts of Darken, they came to a portal that would save, a day’s travel; there were teleport portals all across Darkenfell maintained by the College of Magica which needed activating by a mage trained in their use. Her grandsire was well versed in the use of teleport portals, Melondthera knew the theory but hadn’t any real practice. So they travelled from portal to portal fighting roaming bands of Dozyark’s minions in between. They came across bands of greenskins and orcs travelling the portals with mages in their group. Naturally possessed by soul stealers until they finally reached Malinfor.
Malinfor was, chosen because there was no portal within two days of travel. No enemy could use a portal to get close they had to travel overland where they could be seen well in advance. From Malinfor they organised themselves, sending out scouting and raiding parties against the enemy. Bringing back any wandering survivors they could find. Melondthera led many such attacks on the enemy with the Angels which the Empress willingly assigned to her. Malinfor became a beacon of hope for the beleaguered people of Darkenfell. Her grandsire knew, however, it was only a matter of time before Dozyark turned his attention to them; once he consolidated his hold on the rest of the country.
Ancient texts her grandsire told them one day as they sat in conference with the Empress considering what to do next; confirmed that there were other lands and peoples on the other side of the Kajadyn Mountains. In the distant past mages travelled there through a portal now long forgotten this he surmised was no ordinary portal for the power needed to go such a distance would be great, and some other means may be required to activate it.
So in a desperate bid to seek help elsewhere, the Empress gave her blessing for Melondthera, her grandsire the Angels along with a contingent of the elite guard led by captain Andry to find the portal that would take them to the other side of the mountains and find it they did, but not without cost. Of the fifty Angels and one hundred and fifty guards, only twenty Angels and sixty guards remained, and her grandsire killed when they managed to activate the portal. They had to pass through the gateway in small groups, unsure of what awaited them on the other side. Melondthera thought it wise to leave the general area of the portal as soon as possible and make their way to the nearest habitation; the village proved to be less than a half days march. Melondthera woke from her dark dreams aware she was no longer alone in the room.
Fenlin had decided to go fishing after he had settled Melondthera in at his home it helped him unwind and think the day’s events through more clearly. He hadn’t done himself any favours by letting Melondthera stay in the village, carrying his fishing rod Fenlin walked along a leafy path that led to the nearby river and found his favourite fishing spot. He made himself comfortable sitting on a moss covered rock by the river bank and casting his line into the gently flowing waters of the river Ril. Fenlin had a feeling that his world was about to be turned upside down with the arrival of Melondthera whoever she was. Fenlin knew for a cold certainty that she was a power to reckon with and that would not sit well with most of his fellow countrymen.
In his younger day, he would have felt the same, but having been well travelled in his time, and seen places beyond Rinydal now past his sixtieth year; time and experience altered his perceptions. Fenlin reeled his line in and was about to cast in a different spot when from the corner of his eye he thought he saw something move. He turned but could see nothing, shrugging he returned his attention to the river. The sun slowly set behind the trees, casting shadows everywhere as Fenlin re-cast his line. He sat patiently almost in a half doze, then he saw the movement again, and the hair stood up on the back of his neck. Someone or something was stalking him. Fenlin reeled in his line, turning he stood up holding his rod in both hands ready to use as a weapon.
The creature that padded slowly out of the nearby bushes towards him vaguely reminded Fenlin of a wolf but much but larger, heavier and muscular built. Its large paws held cruelly sharp claws; shaggy jet black fur covered its body the hate-filled eyes glowed with an eerie light. Snarling the creature opened jaws that dripped saliva, revealing its most frightening aspect long pointed fangs that looked strong enough to snap a man in half with a single bite. Fenlin stood transfixed with terror unable to move; still gripping his fishing rod which he knew would be useless against such a nightmarish creature. He heard the young captain approach before he saw him emerge from the trees along the river bank the way he came himself; at first, the captain didn’t see the creature but knew something was amiss. Drawing his sword, he stepped up beside Fenlin, at seeing the creature he cursed but gave no other sign of shock at coming face to face with such a terrifying monster.
"Stay still," the captain whispered tersely.
Fenlin numbly nodded his head; he had no trouble with that he couldn’t move even if he had wanted to. The captain stepped away from Fenlin waving his sword in front of him he shouted at the four-legged monster, the creature turned and in one fluid motion leapt at the captain jaws wide, its claws extended. Fenlin thought the beast would rip the captain’s head off, but the captain anticipated the creatures attack as it leapt he dove to the right of the animal coming to a crouching position. The creature passed harmlessly over him landing heavily. The captain sprang up before it could recover sword in hand and with practised skill drove the sword to its hilt through one of the creature’s eyes. The monster thrashed a few moments as the sword pierced its brain and emerged at the back of its head covered in gore before laying still the light in its remaining eye dimmed and faded out. Fenlin, at last, recovered himself though shaky he stared at the captain as he removed his sword from the dead creature and cleaned it on the creature’s hide. The fact the captain killed the beast with seeming ease that denoted prior experience hadn’t gone un-noticed by Fenlin.
"What by all that’s holy was, that thing? What have you people, brought down on us?" Fenlin raged feeling the need to let off steam as a means to unwind overstressed nerves.
The captain stared at him coldly before speaking, "My Mistress wishes to speak with you, Fenlin Bodren. If you wish answers ask her," captain Andry answered he gestured for Bodren to follow him. As they walked back towards the village Fenlin walked behind still trying to get himself together and calm his jangled nerves; finally he came up beside the captain.
"I’m sorry captain I owe you my life if you hadn’t come when you did…" Fenlin shook his head not wanting to think about what might have happened.
"You are most welcome, besides if I let anything happen to you before my Mistress has a chance to speak with you again, she would probably make my life not worth living," captain Andry replied with a grin.
"That is... reassuring," Fenlin answered sardonically.
Melondthera opened her eyes three men had entered the house; she suspected something like this would happen sooner or later. All three looked like they had been drinking the first, and apparently the leader held a dagger in his right hand, the middleman was unarmed and looked as if he might have come along reluctantly; the third had a sword and stood watch at the door.
"Make no noise missy otherwise, we’ll be forced to cut you up a bit," the leader said slowly licking his lips as he looked Melondthera over. Already thinking about how he was going to enjoy taking his pleasure at her expense. Melondthera sighed there would be no reasoning with this man his mind already made up, but she had to try at least.
"And then what?" Melondthera asked calmly as the man took a step forward, the calm way Melondthera spoke, gave all three men pause. She could see in the leader’s eyes however he knew exactly, what she meant; the second man looked puzzled. She couldn’t see the face of the third to see what his reaction might be but she guessed they were both either too drunk or too stupid to understand the possible consequences of their actions.
"Do you propose to rape me and walk out and carry on as if nothing happened," Melondthera said reasonably.
“There isn’t anyone in this village will take any notice of you, missy, they’ll think you got what you deserved,” the leader replied sneering.
“Don’t know Verly, Bodren wouldn’t be to pleased especially in his home and all and what about her men they didn’t look as if they’d take to kindly to anyone touching her,” the second man said nervously.
“Bah! Bodren’s an old goat we can handle him, and her men have probably laid with her plenty, already they surely won't mind us having a turn,” The leader scoffed. He took a few more steps towards Melondthera.
“If you think my men will do nothing you are wrong they will take it most personally and hunt you down and kill you like dogs,” Melondthera said scathingly. She had heard enough and didn’t propose wasting her breath anymore on the likes of these men
“I think we should leave now…” the second man began
“Oh shut up Han you, really think that we intend to leave her alive afterwards. We’ll be long gone before her men can catch us. They won't be able to find us even if they tried their strangers here remember,” the third spoke for the first time his tone coolly matter of fact.
Melondthera felt herself go cold at the casual, offhand way the man spoke of killing her at least the second man seemed to have some scruples his face turned deathly pale, and he looked desperate to be elsewhere. The leader ignored the exchange between the two men as he strode almost to within arm's length of Melondthera his dagger ready in case she tried to escape. Melondthera waited until he was within arms reach she could hear his excited breathing, smell his foul breath; he grinned evilly at her.
She looked into his mean lecherous eyes, outstretched her right hand until she touched the man’s chest with her fingertips; sparks of energy blossomed from her fingers. There was a brief moment when the man bemused looked to where she touched him seeing smoke rise from his chest then the room lit with a flash of light. The man was lifted off his feet screaming and thrown back to the far wall near to the second man, flame erupting from his chest enveloping the doomed man and searing flesh to the bone. All that remained near the terrified Han was a husk of blackened flesh and gobbets of burnt meat still hanging from it. The room filled with the sickening smell of burnt flesh. The man with the sword, seeing what happened panicked terror-stricken he started through the door just as captain Andry entered followed by Bodren. The captain’s reaction was instinctive and lethal in one fluid motion he drew his sword and thrust forward stabbing the man through the heart. The man sighed and fell backwards dead before hitting the ground as the captain withdrew his sword. He stepped over the dead man bloody sword still raised ready to kill the luckless Han who stood wide-eyed and trembling at the smouldering skeleton wisps of smoke rising from it.
“Are you all right Mistress?” The captain asked turning to face Melondthera ignoring the quaking Han. Fenlin Bodren stepped over the corpse his face ashen though he didn’t look entirely surprised as he should have been, Melondthera thought.
“I'm fine Captain, you better get some of the men to clear this mess up before anyone else comes looking for Bodren and sees it, Melondthera commanded
“As you wish Mistress,” Andry said, sheaving his sword. “Our friend here came across a jawulf; one of the villagers told me he saw Bodren with his fishing rod heading towards the river, I was able to pick up his tracks and got there just in time,” the captain reported.
“There may well be more,” Melondthera paused thinking. “I must get back to the portal first thing tomorrow, and we can take Fenlin along so I can talk to him,” she concluded.
“What about him?” The captain asked gesturing towards Han
“He’s no threat, I think he may be slightly unhinged it was all too much for him, and he hadn’t wanted to come with the other two men in the first place. I think we better keep him with us though; we don’t want him running around telling all and sundry what he has seen,” said Melondthera. Looking across to where Han sat and felt pity; she had seen that look he in other men it was a look of someone who had become to believe in something with an insane fanatical zeal.
“I need some air, Fenlin will you walk with me a while, I have to something to ask of you,” Melondthera said.
Bodren nodded, “Of course lady, I would welcome some air myself,” Bodren replied grimacing at the lingering smell of burnt flesh.
“Captain take this man and have someone guard him,” Melondthera said nodding towards Han, as she turned to leave with Bodren.
“Right away Mistress,” captain Andry roughly grabbed Han leading him out after Melondthera and Bodren.
“So what is it you want to ask of me, lady?” Bodrin asked as they walked along the dusty street. The sun low in the sky now, the heat of the day gone and the air feeling fresher. He suspected he already knew the answer his whole world began to change when Melondthera arrived.
“Firstly call me Melondthera,” she began stopping to face him, “What I would like to ask of you is would you accompany us as a guide. Your experience and knowledge would be much appreciated,” she stated.
It was as he suspected he bowed his head in thought as Melondthera waited patiently for his answer. He could say no, but then he still thought he didn’t have much choice, she could easily force him to go with them; looking up again into her eyes he suddenly doubted it. Would she force him to go with them? He sought to test that possibility.
“And if I say no?”
Melondthera sighed, and a troubled expression crossed her face. “Then we would have to manage without you, but I would prefer if you said yes.”
“You are not making this easy for me are you,” she began. Bodren smiled and nodded. They started walking again before she answered, “because I trust you, I believe you are a good man, and good men are hard to come by,” she gave him a beguiling smile.
“Lady..., Melondthera when I first set eyes on you I knew my life was about to change,” he paused considering. “I will come with you willingly, mayhap at my age it may be my last adventure... and best,” he said smiling.
Melondthera gave a small sigh of relief she meant every word she said to him. She could’ve given him no choice, but as she told captain Andry, it's better if the people helped willingly instead of being forced which only led to resentment. Somehow she knew that Bodren would come anyway; he reminded her of her Grandsire.
“The next question is!” Melondthera began, Bodren rolled his eyes. “Where can we get some horses?"
It was dark when they returned to Bodren’s house her men had removed the bodies and cleaned up though there remained a faint lingering smell. Tanya Gerna waited her mood not good.
“That man you have captive why are letting him live when he tried to assault you,” Tanya began her expression grim. “You should ’ve killed him like the other two, or at least cut off his manhood,” She concluded with venom. She gave Bodren a look that made him shrink back thinking she considered him the same as the men that tried to attack Melondthera.
Melondthera sighed, “calm down Tanya they didn’t manage to assault me and the man wasn’t like the other two he didn’t want to be with them,” she paused. “There has been enough death for one day."
Tanya let out a shuddering breath and went to Melondthera clasping her hands in her own. “We should not have left you alone, without you there is little hope left of saving our homeland."
A lump rising in her throat Melondthera swallowed and shook her head. “That’s an exaggeration Tanya, others are willing to sacrifice for the sake of our country like the Empress and just as capable if I fail.”
Bodren stood listening and felt humbled by the loyalty of those close to Melondthera that somehow they depended on her to find help to save their homeland, but she couldn't do it alone. He wasn’t sure if she would get any help from king Justin from what he knew of him, but there might be others willing to help.
Shortly after sunrise the next morning they headed south, the morning air felt cool. Melondthera rode side saddle on a small chestnut mare, Bodren, captain Andry and Tanya also rode horseback. Having obtained four horses from the stables, Bodren took Melondthera to the day before. The rest of the soldiers marched behind.
“I suspect you didn’t believe me about travelling over the mountains Fenlin,” Melondthera stated rather than asked as she looked over at Bodren shrewdly.
He shook his head. “There is no way over the mountains I tried in my youth,” he paused in thought. “Call me Fen, now that we are friends... We are friends aren't we?” he added grinning.
“Indeed we are,” she paused, scrutinising Bodren, “But how can you be so sure that you didn’t miss a way to crossover the mountains?” She asked, an answering grin playing across her face. The more she got to know Bodren, the more he reminded her of an older version of captain Andry, he reminded her too of her grandsire as the captain and her Grandsire were alike in many ways. Her grin suddenly faded, remembering her loss, a moment of melancholy crossed her face.
“I’m sure you are about to show me how you managed, a way over the mountains,” he paused, noticing her changed expression. “Are you feeling all right?” He asked, dropping what he was about to say his expression, changing to one of concern.
Melondthera gathered herself ruthlessly crushing the sadness she felt; there would be time to grief later. Once again she reminded herself to stay focused on her mission a lot of people depended on her.
“I’m fine, just a momentary lapse, thank you for your concern though Fen,” she paused, and her grin reappeared. “You were about to tell me something?” she asked in conclusion. Briefly looking around at the landscape, the dusty trail wound through a sparse woodland of trees and shrubbery.
Bodren frowned there was a fleeting look of sadness to Melondthera’s features somehow he knew it must have cost her dearly to get here, and he believed he had an idea how. They were heading towards an overgrown grove, where he remembered playing in his youth.
“We are nearing a place I used to play as a boy, overgrown now and forgotten,” he paused. “I always wondered about those standing stones and the strange markings on them.” Again he paused with a sigh of remembrance of a time when life was much simpler. “I believe that is how you got here,” he concluded.
Captain Andry listened to the conversation intently without speaking he finally looked to Melondthera. “I told you he is a lot smarter than most,” he said, as they approached the grove where two of her men stood guard.
“You did, indeed Captain,” she answered smiling at him, as they dismounted.
“Mistress, the only new tracks nearby are of another jawulf leading east from here,” one of the two soldiers reported.
“We can hopefully track down the jawulf later, I want to make sure the portal is not active first,” Melondthera said.
“The beast that attacked what you call it a .... jawulf?” Bodren asked as they made their through to the centre of the grove. he noticed bushes recently trampled and cut back apparently this was the way Melondthera and her men had cut there way out from the grove. Melondthera nodded. “Is it a native animal of your country?” he further asked. As they finally reached the centre.
“The gods forbid no, it is a fell creature from the netherworld, summoned by our enemy,” Melondthera said as they stood in the centre. Five huge granite-like stones stood in a circle with symbols engraved into their ebony surface. In spite of their age, no moss or algae grew over the surface of the monoliths. The air hummed with electricity giving Melondthera a headache.
“It’s only partially closed; I will attempt to close it,” Melondthera began. “You better all stand back I’m not sure what will happen,” she said. Bodren and the others stood well back as Melondthera studied the symbols.
“Is this wise Mistress,” captain Andry began worriedly breaking her concentration. “Maybe it would be better left as it is.” He concluded.
“He has a point, remember what happened to your grandsire,” added Tanya equally troubled.
“I have to try; we cant leave the portal as it is more jawulfs might get through.” Melondthera Ignored further protests, she focused on the engraved symbols casting the required spells in sequence; each symbol began to glow one after the other. The symbols lit up, sparks of energy surged between the stones with a flash of light and a concussive burst of energy which lifted Melondthera of her feet and sent her back near to where the others stood. They all rushed to Melondthera as she groggily got to her feet.
“Melond… Mistress are you okay,” captain Andry said being the first to reach her he helped her to her feet. “You should’ve not risked yourself like that I don’t know... we would be lost without you,” he finished with a worried look and a slight flush to his cheeks as the others gathered around. Tanya gave captain Andry a stern look.
“I’m just fine Anson, please don’t fret,” Melondthera said with a wane smile she held on to the captain a little more than necessary, feeling disorientated, not realising she let her guard down. Bodren glanced between the captain and Melondthera as she stood to shake the dirt from her clothes and mentally noted the exchange. Melondthera turned to inspect the portal; her expression turned to one of dismay.
“What’s wrong?” Captain Andry asked with concern
“Didn’t it work?” asked Tanya equally worried by Melondthera’s expression
“It worked alright, but I’m not sure if I can open the portal again,” she paused looking at Andry and Tanya. “We might never be able to return home,” she stated forlornly.
“Don’t give up hope; I’m sure given time you will find a way Melondthera,” Bodren said trying to reassure them. In the short time, he knew Melondthera he had never seen her so uncertain and vulnerable as she did at this moment. He felt sure she wouldn’t give up trying though. All she needed is a little time to gather her wits after having been knocked off her feet. He felt ashamed of the thought that crept into his head that it wouldn’t be a such a bad thing if Melondthera couldn’t re-open the portal. She could make such a difference for the better here in his country of that he was sure.
“Fen, is right Mistress; you will find a way we believe in you,” captain Andry said, Tanya gave a nod of affirmation also.
“Thank you, my loyal friends and you Fen, for lifting my spirits at a time when most needed,” she paused giving them a warm smile she grasped Bodren’s hands in her own. “Though I have known you a short time I have come to trust in you as much I do Anson and Tanya,” Melondthera said. Bodren flushed at such praise and felt even more guilty for what he had been thinking..
They made their back out of the grove. Melondthera stumbled not fully recovered from the backlash of the portal closing. The captain judiciously supported her as she mounted her horse.
“What now Mistress?” The captain asked once Melondthera was settled comfortably on her horse.
“We need to track the jawulf down first, you have a man good at tracking I believe,” Melondthera said.
“Yes Mistress, Abel Kol, do you want him to track ahead of us?”
“Yes, there is one more thing,” she paused regarding the captain. “Drop the Mistress I’m getting a little sick and tired of that now,” she said, feeling grumpy.
“Yes, Mistress,” Anson said.
Melondthera threw her hands in the air in exasperation and glared at the captain. Then she noticed Anson with a cheeky grin on his face his eyes full mischief.
“Oh, you. you... devil you,” Melondthera said, she laughed leaning over she punched him on the arm.
“Ouch!” he exclaimed
“When you two have finished horsing around we have jawulf to track,” Tanya said disapprovingly.
Melondthera was thankful for the handsome captain for once more making her laugh and forget her troubles. She still held doubts she could re-open the portal, and she was sure that both Tanya and Anson secretly were concerned also. That was one reason why she wanted to dispense with titles. If they couldn’t return, they would have to get along and blend in with the people. She put aside such thoughts as they rode along the dusty trail. She turned to Bodren once more.
“Do you get much rain here Fen?” she asked, seeing how arid the land seemed.
“We have had less rain than usual this season, but hopefully we should get more once the autumn solstice begins,” he paused. “If we don’t get the rain soon crops might start to fail."
Melondthera turned forward to watch the tracker as he scouted ahead of them. Thinking of crops made Melondthera think of farmlands, “Is there any farm close to where we are now?” she suddenly asked Bodren.
“Why yes there is one not far away north-east of here,” Bodren replied.
“You want to head straight for the farm Melondthera?” queried Anson picking up on Melondthera's train of thought. If there were livestock there, it would attract the jawulf, and anyone that lived there would be in danger.
Melondthera nodded, “Yes call the tracker back, Fen lead the way lets get there as quick as possible.” She commanded.
They started off at a gallop her men marching double-time behind them. It wasn’t long before they came to a field of grain, and ahead Melondthera could see farm buildings. As they got closer to the farmhouse, Melondthera saw a sight that made her blood turn cold. The jawulf stealthy stalked a child who played nearby oblivious to the danger. Tanya suddenly spurred her horse towards the jawulf pulling the animal to a halt close to the jawulf she jumped to the ground unfastening her bow and notched an arrow aiming, just as the jawulf made a run for the child.
Melondthera headed straight for the child dismounting grabbed the fair-haired girl enfolding her protectively in her arms. Tanya’s arrow hit the jawulf it momentary faltered before continuing. As it leapt, Melondthera raised a hand suddenly the jawulf was enveloped in fire. She dove to the ground still holding the girl tight to her as the jawulf passed over them. Anson Andry arrived breathing hard sword in hand he put the still writhing creature out of its misery.
“I wish you wouldn’t risk yourself like that Melondthera,” Anson said still breathing hard.
As Melondthera stood with the girl, the child began to tremble tears running down her cheeks. The girl's parents heard the commotion arriving just in time to see Melondthera save their daughter from the creature. Melondthera bent down wiping the girl's tears from her eyes she smiled reassuringly. “It’s all right now your safe,” she began in a soothing tone. “Your parents are here now see” she paused turning towards the girl's parents. “I’ll bet they will have a nice glass of milk for you seeing as how you’ve been such a brave girl.” She finished, stroking the girl’s hair she guided her to her parents.
She turned to look over her shoulder at Anson Andry and smiled, “So something does scare you after all,” she said. Anson shook his head sheaving his sword he grinned.
Sometime later after the girl’s parents thanked Melondthera several times and Bodren introduced Melondthera and her companions to them they sat having a midday meal in the farmer’s house. The girl’s mother explained how surprised but how grateful she was that Melondthera could use magic. It was a subject that hadn’t come up before in the talks she with Bodren, but it explained a lot. Magic was unheard of in Rinydal and feared by most. The girl, who couldn't be more than six or seven years old was called Melony; which Melondthera thought was a lovely name. She smiled watching her play; Melony suddenly came to Melondthera and climbed on her knee.
“Get down Melony don’t bother the lady,” her mother said.
“She is fine I don’t mind, she reminds me of myself at her age,” Melondthera said smiling. Melony turned to look at Melondthera.
“I want to be like you when I grow up and protect people from monsters,” Melony said. Melondthera stroked the girl's hair and touched her cheeks affectionately. She felt sparks pass between herself and Melony and felt momentarily drained.
“I’m sure you will,” Melondthera said, recovering herself and smiling at Melony. The girl wrapped her arms around Melondthera’s neck. “Thank you for saving me,” she said.
“I’ve never known her to be that friendly with anyone before she is normally timid,” her mother said, a little surprised.
“The lady has that effect on most people,” said Bodren smiling.
As they got up to leave thanking the farmer and his wife for their hospitality, Melondthera bent down regarding Melony smiling. “Goodbye Melony maybe one day we will meet again.” She said the girl threw arms around Melondthera hugging tight.
“Then we will fight the monsters together won't we,” Melony whispered. Melondthera smiled nodding.
As they were about to mount to leave one of her men came having an apologetic expression.
“What is it?” asked Anson.
“My apologies, Captain, Mistress but the prisoner escaped we only noticed that he was missing a while ago,” the soldier said.
“He could be anywhere; we have more important things to consider than waste time searching for him.” Melondthera twisted strands of her hair around a finger scowling.
As they rode along the dusty trail, Melondthera, appeared lost in thought. Several days since they left the farmhouse. She threated over the time taken and worried what was happening back home. Their pace was to slow having most of her men on foot. She glanced skyward seeing dark clouds gather.
“It seems that the rains will soon be here,” she thought despondently then another thought occurred to her turning she lent over to Bodrin.
“You mentioned there is a town west of here Fen?” she asked.
“Yes Harben it’s not far if you want to resupply,” Bodren replied with a nod of his head.
“Captain lets go to this town we can get more supplies and maybe more horses,” Melondthera called to Anson Andry.
“As you command Melondthera,” the captain answered turning his horse he rode back to inform the men. They arrived late afternoon as the sun set on the horizon in Harben. Splitting up Melondthera went with Tanya to inquire about rooms to spend the night while Anson went with Bodren to see if they could buy more horses. They gathered after dark as the men billeted outside the town.
“I’ve got two rooms for the four of us,” Melondthera began. “It's all that was available, so Tanya and I can have one room you two the other,” Melondthera explained brushing back a wayward strand of hair from her face. “How have you got on with obtaining more horses?” she asked in conclusion.
Captain Andry nodded “We have obtained more horses, but we are still a few short Melondthera,” he paused brushing a hand through his hair. “However after some asking around, we found there is a horse master north of here who has plenty of horses. I and some of the men can go there early morning while you breakfast,” he concluded.
“Okay then that’s settled I’m tired so I’m going to retire,” Melondthera began. “You men can stay up if you wish,” she gave a tired but cheeky smile. Leaving with Tanya as the men bade them goodnight.
Captain Andry entered the Inn walking over where Melondthera sat with Tanya finishing their breakfast. Melondthera put her knife and fork down on the empty plate; looking up at Andry. The captain stared back at Melondthera his mouth curled into a small smile. “We have horses for all the men now Melondthera.”
She nodded trying to keep her expression blank but couldn’t help smiling back as she spoke. “Good, we should make better time,” pausing she looked away to hide the flush that came to her cheeks. “Get something to eat; we will leave as soon as you’re finished.” Melondthera stood with Tanya going to the room they hired to collect their belongings and gear.
The rains finally arrived as they rode out of Harben later. No one spoke the gathering gloom damping their spirits. The trail became clogged their horses kicking up clots of mud as they rode. Melondthera was glad they managed to obtain enough horses for everyone trudging through this on foot would have slowed them to standstill. Late afternoon the rain stopped though the sky still looked threatening and more rain likely at any moment. “We should find a place to stop, rest and water the horses,” Melondthera called. “Not much point in going further today in this weather.” She added tilting her head looking up at the grey sky
Anson studied their surroundings. “Agreed,” I’ll send a man to scout ahead for a good place to make camp.”
The scout reported back a while later as it began to rain once more. He found a place near a stream with minimal shelter against the elements. It looked to be a well-used campsite for passing travellers. The rains stopped as they made camp.
Melondthera and the other women found a secluded spot to change and dry their clothes. She felt better to be in dry clothes again. Sitting at the campfire she stared into the fire dreamily the warmth permeated through her. Lifting her head she looked across to where Bodrin sat. “What more can you tell me about your king Justin Fen?”
Fen scratched his beard absently considered his reply. “He is a weak king, besotted by his queen and panders to her wishes, so I’ve heard. It's her you have to be careful of,” pausing he sucked his lips in. “She is the real power behind the throne. Anybody that gets on her wrong side usually ends up regretting it one way or another.”
Melondthera brushed back a strand of her flame-hair from her face closing her eyes. Her eyes narrowed like slits as she opened them again staring at Fen. “How so?”
“I’ve heard one noble that went against her disappeared never to be seen again,” he scratched his beard again. “Of course it may be just a rumour. There is one thing I know for certain though.”
Melondthera rested her chin on her hands considering. She already decided this queen would be a problem. “That is?”
“She’s doesn't like anyone with more power than her,” he looked straight at Melondthera. “So she will certainly perceive you as a threat.”
Melondthera nodded, “Hmm, well we will deal with that problem when the time comes. Time to get some sleep,” she stood stretching her arms yawning. “Goodnight Fen,” she left going to her sleeping bag.
Rising to a damp, misty morning, with grey clouds overhead with the threat of more rain as they as they set out on the trail once more. They encountered few travellers as they rode. Stopping for a break at midday to water the horses Melondthera felt restless as she surveyed the surrounding countryside. There were no signs of habitation nearby only a rolling rocky landscape with stands of trees and unkept fields as far as the eye could see.
“How far to the next town?” Melondthera asked Bodren
“At least two day’s ride may be more,” he answered.
“What are those forests to the west?” captain Andry nodded towards a mountainous region interspersed with swathes of dense forests growing on the slopes.
Fen chewed his bottom lip. “That’s the Night Forest not much is known about the region.”
“Oh, why is that?” Melondthera let her gaze fall on the distant hills, surveying the dense forests curiously. “Not much known -- but you have been there right,” Melondthera turned to Bodren. Her head tilted as her eyes fixed on him
Bodren nodded. “You don’t miss much do you,” he paused his mouth curled up with a faint grin. “I’ve been a few times. A very secretive people known as the Elvin live there who don't take kindly to strangers. There have been stories of people entering the Night Forest and never seen again.”
Melondthera pursed her lips thinking for a moment. “Maybe they just got lost, and couldn't find their way out again.” she mused.
“That’s one possibility, I’ve traded with the Elvin on one or two occasions you don’t find them they find you if they want to,” his brow creased thinking. “It is possible they may be willing to help if you can win their trust.”
“I will take that under consideration first we need to see your king, Justin,” Melondthera mounted her horse. “Let's go,” she patted her horse as the others mounted.
Three days later they rode into a small town a crowd gathered around hailing Melondthera as a savour or god come to save them. There were a few who proclaimed her as devil.
“What’s going on?” Melondthera asked although she was afraid she already knew the answer.
“It seems there is a prophet going around preaching that you have come liberate them,” Tanya said after asking a few people
“You believe this prophet to be the escaped prisoner don’t you?” Anson asked as he riding beside Melondthera as they left the town behind them..
She nodded and sighed, “ Almost certainly, I saw the look in his eyes after seeing me use magic to most of these people magic is something beyond comprehension,” Melondthera paused; closing her eyes a moment. Opening her eyes again she gave Anson a troubled look. “They will see me as some kind of saint or the devil incarnate.”
Anson reached over taking her hand he held it a moment. “You are neither."
“Then what am I?” She asked downcast.
“Don’t be like this Melond, don’t take on all the troubles yourself,” he tightened his grip on her hand looking into her eyes. “You are a good person trying your best to save our people and to do what is right for all those around you.”
Melondthera sighed, giving a weak answering smile. “You always know the right things say and do to make me feel better. Thank you for that Anson.”
Anson smiled letting go of her hand. “My pleasure Melondthera.”
They passed several small settlements and another town. Every time the reception the same people came out to greet her. A few to ridicule most, however, cheered her and wanted to touch her or hold her hand. They had no problem finding places to stay. Melondthera began to notice most of the people who cheered for her were poor and impoverished. The further they travelled the more poor there seemed to be. She wondered was it mainly the drought they had recently experienced or as she began suspect a deeper rooted problem that made so many people miserable.
They came to a narrow bridge over a wide stream Bodren drew up beside Melondthera. “Beyond this bridge is baron Kalin’s lands and beyond the baron’s lands the city of Rind and castle Ryd only another three days,” Bodren said.
“What about this baron will he mind us crossing his lands?” Melondthera asked.
Anson looked ahead pointing to approaching forces. “I think we are about to find out. I see horseman and foot soldiers approaching on the other side.”
Tanya’s expression darkened her hand resting on the sword hilt in her scabbard, “How shall we proceed?”
Melondthera sighed shading her eyes as the sun sank low in the sky behind the forces facing them. “We want to avoid a fight if possible.”
Anson gave Tanya a stern look shaking his head, "Agreed let's not act rashly."
Melondthera frowned pursing her lips, “Fen ride beside me. Anson, Tanya keep close behind the rest a few paces back.”
Tanya lowered her hand muttering to herself before turning to pass the order back to the men, cautioning them to be ready for anything Melondthera nudged her horse forward with Fen at her side. The hooves of their horse's clattering on the wooden bridge as they slowly rode across. Drawing near, Melondthera looked over the forces facing them. Three horsemen waited in front, the horses nervously moving sideways and stamping their hooves — the horsemen pulled on the reins to bring the horses under control. The rest, about a dozen foot soldiers stood to attention behind armed with shield and sword at the ready. Melondthera stopped a safe distance from the three horsemen.
Fen leaned across speaking in a low voice to Melondthera, “The one in the middle is the baron on his right I think is his son the other probably the captain.”
Melondthera nodded. “I guessed that to be the baron. They do look alike.” She calmly looked the baron over. He was as far as she could tell a tall man with greying hair a short cropped beard and moustache. Sitting upright on a black stallion he reminded Melondthera of a commander leading his troops into battle. His expression appeared stern as he gazed casually studying her forces avoiding eye contact with herself. The tension palpable as the two armies faced one and other. The son seemed to be on edge fidgeting in the saddle. Unlike his father, he stared directly at Melondthera with an arrogant and belligerent air.
The baron still avoided looking directly at Melondthera. Instead, he addressed Bodren. “I recognise you did you not once work for me,” he paused still holding the reigns. He rested his hands on his horse’s nape leaning forward in the saddle. “It is inappropriate to cross my lands with an armed force without seeking my permission first.”
Melondthera bristled with anger that the baron ignored her, but then she caught the look in his eyes; he was testing her. Bodren nodded and was about to speak. She leaned over, grasping his hand and shook her head, then nudged her horse nearer to the baron. The two horse’s almost touching one and other. Melondthera, spoke in a clear voice as she held eye contact with the baron. “I am the leader here; speak to me if you wish an answer.”
The baron was about to speak when Melondthera, caught from the corner of her eye. The son outraged spurring his horse towards Melondthera hand raised as if slap her. “How dare you speak thus without permission to my father woman.”
Before he could reach Melondthera, she raised a hand “Lif Ahn!” She didn’t usually cast a spell in this manner so all could hear. In this case, she considered it would demonstrate what she was capable of and who she was. As the spell hit the son, he felt a sudden wrench as an invisible force lifted him out of the saddle propelling him back to land on his side on the grass. He gasped, the wind knocked out of him; groaning as he got to his knees rubbing his left shoulder grimacing in pain. Tension mounted as Melondthera’s forces drew weapons, Tanya and Andry moved up on either side of Melondthera. The baron’s captain drew his sword in challenge his men raising their weapons stepping forward a few paces.
The Baron finally locked eyes with Melondthera, raising a hand to call a halt to his men. A slight twitch of his left eye the only indication of any kind of fear. “So it's true you are a witch.” He paused looking down at his son and sighed. “Get up Jaron and apologise to the lady for your rudeness.”
Jaron got to his feet and bowed to Melondthera, “My lady, I apologise for my behaviour, please forgive me. No matter what I heard about you I should not have presumed or acted in such a manner.”
Melondthera reappraised her opinion of the son, looking at him as he remounted. Perhaps it is concern for his father that made him react in such a way. She nodded letting a smile cross her face “How I can I refuse such a contrite apology. I hope I didn’t cause you any lasting harm.” Seeing him rubbing his shoulder she leaned over silently casting a spell. Jaron gave a surprised look feeling warmth course through his shoulder. She locked eyes on the baron again, “I’m no mere witch as you put it, baron, I am much more - an Archmage.”
The Baron frowned, “Forgive my ignorance, my lady, we from Rinydal know nothing about the magic or practitioners of the art.”
Melondthera gave a small bow of her head. “No need to apologise, my lord, I understand,” she paused. “I should apologise for intruding on your land without permission.”
The baron’s eyes sparkled with amusement and his face lit with a wry smile. “Enough of the apologies already. I invite you and your captains to dine at my table the hour is late, and I’ve worked up quite an appetite. I’m sure you must be hungry by now as well.”
Melondthera smiled, “You are most gracious my lord we will be grateful to share your table.”
As they rode towards the keep, Melondthera noted the well-maintained fields and crops. The workers finishing their work for the day looked well fed and content unlike some of the places they passed through. The baron looked after his people it seemed an idea began to form in her head. It would depend on how things went with king Justin. As they rode through the gates, she noted the baron’s keep was neither a castle or a palace but something in between the two. There were stables at one end where they dismounted. The stable hands rushed to attend their mounts leading them into the stables.
“This way my lady,” the baron held a hand out indicating which direction to go. “Your men can billet in the barracks with mine.” He paused noting not all off the soldiers were men. “Ah... The women can bunk in the servants quarters,” he added.
The baron led the way as they entered the keep with the baron his son, and Fen with Tanya and Anson close behind. The baron barked orders as servants rushed to attend to their needs. Melondthera once again noting the baron ran the keep as capably as the rest of his holdings. Later after freshening up, they all sat around the table with the baron, his wife, son, Fen, and the captains. Melondthera enjoyed the meal and found the baron’s wife pleasant and a good conversationalist She already liked the baron for his warmth and humour. The baron’s son, however hardly spoke during the meal. Melondthera did catch him staring at her a few times; as did the baron's wife who smiled at her son
“Can you perform some of your magic for us? I’m curious to see what more you can do?" Jaron finally spoke staring intently at Melondthera.
“Jaron! Forgive my son; he is young and impetuous with much to learn Melondthera.” The baron’s wife gave her son a look that made Jaron, squirm in his seat.
Melondthera smiled then took a thoughtful expression resting her elbows on the table and clasping her hands. “My lord, lady, may I speak freely?”
The baron nodded while his wife spoke for both of them. “Off course Melondthera you are among friends here.”
She fixed her gaze on the son; her expression unchanged “Jaron, magic is not something to be taken lightly for one's amusement.” Melondthera paused as Jaron face turned red. “It is a tool that has many uses. It can heal or can be used as a weapon to injure and kill amongst other things.” Once more, she paused, leaning over her expression, becoming deadly serious. “An inexperienced mage can unintentionally kill anyone close as well his or herself. Even an experienced magic practitioner like myself has to be careful, one mistake, and I could level this keep to the ground killing everyone, including myself.”
The room fell silent as the baron, his wife, son and captain stared at Melondthera in shock.
The room fell silent as the baron, his wife, son and captain stared at Melondthera in shock. The baron coughed, breaking the silence, “Surely you jest?” He could see by her expression; however she was serious. “That much power?” His ruddy complexion turning pale as he stared stony-faced at Melondthera
“Well, maybe a little exaggerated, but don’t worry, my lady rarely makes mistakes.” Anson put in with a cheeky grin. The good-humoured mood restored thanks to Anson Andry/.
Melondthera needed to get across to the people of this land how dangerous magic is especially in the hands of the inexperienced or those who seek to abuse its use for their own ends. Also, she wanted to make the point she was not to be trifled with; she felt at least the baron had some idea. He didn’t appear that shocked by what she said compared to the others as he looked to be considering something as they finished the meal. He caught up with Melondthera as a servant showed her to her room. “I and some of my men will accompany you to the capital tomorrow.”
“I thank you, baron, but is that is necessary?”
The baron looked troubled as he spoke, "Maybe not, but I would feel more at ease if you have added protection. Also you may need me to ensure you get an audience with the king. I fear a lot may depend on you maybe even the future of my country.”
Melondthera slept in a comfortable bed for the first time since their arrival in Rinydal; she breakfasted with the baron and his family. Before setting out on the road once more, accompanied by the baron and a small contingent of his men. Making the overall compliment now under her command and the baron’s an intimidating force. She hadn’t wanted more men to travel with them because of what she learnt about the queen. Who would surely be aware of them now and feel threatened; this is what worried Melondthera the most.
On the other hand, she couldn’t refuse the baron’s generous offer of help, and she would need the baron to help get an audience with the king. So Melondthera believed there to be no choice in the matter. Perhaps this queen is not as bad as they say she is? She mused somehow Melondthera doubted she would be that lucky.
The baron riding beside Melondthera leaned across in the saddle. “What you said last night about accidentally levelling the keep! You were exaggerating, yes?”
Melondthera nodded with a small smile as she glanced towards the baron. “Yes, a little, I actually believe it may be possible for a magic practitioner to be that powerful.” She paused, pursing her lips in thought. I’ve read of incidents in the archives of my country of apprentice mages accidentally killing themselves and all those around them when a spell went wrong. None in recent memory that I’m aware of though.”
The Baron frowned studying Melondthera carefully, “You do not think of yourself as being that powerful, though?”
“I’m more powerful than you think, but not that powerful... no mage knows how powerful they may be not even I until they are put to the test." Melondthera said, in conclusion, her expression becoming serious. She glanced skyward shading her eyes from the sun in the distance clouds gathered with the threat of more rain to come. She sighed, looking at the baron once more, “Tell me more about your country, are they more like you – baron’s, I mean?”
The Baron rode his black stallion swaying easily in time with the motion of the horse; as they rode along the narrow winding road. He narrowed his eyes, looking ahead as he studied the landscape in front. He pointed forward, to the left and to the right. “The land to the west and east as well as the city of and Rinyd and beyond that to the south is divided into three baronies.” He paused, continuing to look ahead as he spoke. “A long time ago there was only the three baronies, everything else uninhabited and uncharted country. The three barons fought for overall control of the baronies with one and other for many years. Their feud past on to successive generations.” The Baron paused again, sighing. Melondthera waited for him to continue fascinated by the history of this land.
Turning to Melondthera the Baron changed the subject as he spoke, “I think it will rain again before the day’s out, I’ll tell the rest of the history when we make camp later,” he said teasingly. His eyes held a mischievous glint that made Melondthera smile.
As the baron predicted, it began to rain shortly after midday, not the heavy rains they previously experienced but a steady drizzle that clung to their clothing. Later they made camp as the rain stopped and the sky cleared once more — the stars began to appear in the night sky. The baron busily organised the men along with Captain Andry and Tanya as Melondthera sat with Fenlin by the campfire. She sensed the seasons on the change. The night air felt colder than previous nights since she arrived in this land. Fen, sat opposite Melondthera warming his hands over the fire. Melondthera held a mug of honeyed tea in her hands lost in thought she gazed into the flames.
“You’ve worked for the baron in the past?” She said looking up at Fen
He nodded, with a brief sigh staring back at her. “Yes, in my youth, I took service with him for a while. Like me, he was younger then and less experienced, but I could tell even then he was and still is a capable and fair-minded man. I’m surprised he remembers me, after all, this time.”
Melondthera nodded, “Good leaders never forget those that served under them for they are the ones that helped to make them who they are.” Fenlin stared at Melondthera a moment struck once again by the wisdom and strength of character of the young woman. He held some doubt before now that she wouldn't be able to handle the king and his scheming queen without abusing her power. That would surely lead to a significant loss of life; which he feared the most. Not anymore though he felt certain Melondthera could and would be able to outfox queen Amera and anything she may plot with a minimum of force.
The Baron and Anson Andry strode towards where Melondthera and Fen sat having settled the men and tended the horses. Tanya went to the angels who all sat at a separate fire close by chatting. The Baron glanced over his shoulder at the women. “That was a bit of a shock to see women fighters it's unheard of here. Is it common where you come from?” Looking forward again, he asked to no one in particular.
Anson answered with a smile, in his usual relaxed manner, “It’s rare, but as you can see not unheard of.”
The Baron shook his head, slowly stroking his bearded chin lost in thought for a moment.. “Interesting,” he finally said.
Melondthera catching the Baron’s eye wanted to hear more about the history of this land she found herself in, “Can you continue what were telling us earlier about your history?”
The Baron glanced down at the fire gathering his thoughts, “Well let's see, Ah yes the barons there is my family, of course, the Kalin’s we own most of the land to the west of Rinyd, Baron Modir to the east and Baron Terny south covering the city of Rinyd itself.” He paused. “Anyway our forebears finally decided on a treaty and got around the table to come to a settlement that the three could agree on.” The Baron paused again clearing his throat before continuing. “They would make a king who would be neutral at least that was the theory. Sick of all the fighting and desperate for a solution because their lands and peoples suffered from ages of fighting. Baron Terny’s eldest son was finally chosen, having the least to gain. There was no city at that time, just a small keep and a few settlements. The eldest daughter, out of the two remaining barons, was picked to marry the king.” The Baron took a breath, “So here we are today,” he finished.
Melondthera frowned pursing her lips, “What if the Terny’s have no elder son or you or the other Baron have no daughter?”
“The ones with a son and daughter old enough to be king and queen would be next in line or the nearest relative to one of us. It has happened before,” the Baron stated.
“So from which of the barons do the present king and queen come from, I hope the queen is not from your family,” Anson put in with a feigned look of alarm.
The Baron grinned, “Fortunately not, the present king is a Terny and queen Amera a Modir.”
After that the conversation turned to the mundane, and Melondthera excused herself feeling tired deciding to turn in for the night.
They broke camp after a light breakfast, the sky overcast. A weak and watery looking sun broke through by midday. The nearer they got to the capital, the more populated the land became, Melondthera noticed the people seemed indifferent and less friendly, some were openly hostile towards them. They heard no more word about the prophet until they reached the outskirts of the city on the third day. The baron sent one of his men ahead to find out what the mood was in Rinyd. The scout reported back that a rumour was going around that the so-called prophet had been arrested and thrown prison. He also heard there was an unusual amount of military activity around the castle.
Melondthera stood in the horse's stirrups as she surveyed the city before her. Rinyd spread out across both banks of the river Ril. A single wide stone bridge spanned the river connecting both halves of the city. The castle lay on the far side, across the bridge which looked to be the wealthy part of the city. As far Melondthera could judge from the type of buildings and how they were built; in neat rows, some even treelined. The near side consisted of a sprawling jumbled mass of buildings that varied. Some looked like they belonged on the other side, others less so; many on the outskirts were to no more than shacks. Several roads led into the city from differing directions. Melondthera reflected comparing the city before her to the splendour of her home. Darken was a walled city with towering spires, gleaming domes and palatial buildings. Yes it had its poor quarter to, but nothing compared to Rinyd. Thinking about Darken, she wondered how the city faired now a feeling of homesickness washed over her.
Melondthera sighed sitting back in the saddle she turned to face the baron, Anson and Tanya, “We will proceed as we discussed last night.”
They all nodded in agreement and divided up into groups entering the city separately. Melondthera, the baron and most of his men, rode together at least one of the baron’s men were in each group to help show the way. The angels were split between the groups so as not to draw any attention. Captain Andry lead the final group along with Fen.
Melondthera, guided her horse along a broad street, the baron riding alongside with their men following behind. The crowds gave way as they saw them coming. Some cursed having to move aside others just glanced, letting them pass before continuing about their daily business. They turned onto a narrow and dirty street, leading to the market square. A cacophony of noise and smells assailed Melondthera’s senses as they weaved their way through the market. On the far side of the market; they came to the bridge. Once across the streets were less crowded and much quieter. The people were better dressed and walked at a leisurely pace. To Melondthera they seemed to have an arrogance about them; once again it reminded her of home. Were my people seen like this to outsiders as well? Melondthera asked herself frowning. She never gave it a thought, until now, but many ordinary people must see those better off than themselves in that way. They passed a small group of people stood talking who looked up with startled expressions to see them ride pass. Others glared at them in outrage, as they rode by. There were many secretive looks and whispered conversations as they travelled onward.
The baron leaned towards Melondthera with a serious expression, “The king and queen will surely know we are here now.”
Melondthera nodded looking ahead she could see the castle stood on its own, beyond the castle on the horizon a shimmering streak of blue could be barely seen. Could that be an ocean or sea? She turned to the baron. “Is that an ocean I can make out beyond the castle?”
The baron frowned turning to Melondthera, “Ah, yes that’s the Dreaming Sea by all accounts no one knows what may lay beyond except maybe the few fishermen that live near to the sea.”
Melondthera’s expression became pensive as she considered this new tit-bit of information. She finally turned her attention back to castle Ryd, now looming large before them. She studied the castle carefully taking in the structural design her grandsire instilled in Melondthera some knowledge of military tactics and of the art of siege craft. Although she was no expert, she knew the basics this castle appeared purely built to impress on an aesthetic level. She believed it would not withstand a sustained siege of any kind. It was surrounded by a wall of medium height with a single gate being the only entrance into the castle grounds. The castle itself had few defence towers along its ramparts and only a token number of arrow slits for defenders to shoot from at anyone attacking the castle.
Two guards stood to attention outside the gate on either side armed with pikes as they came to a halt in front of the gate. The baron dismounted nodded to Melondthera and stepped forward to speak to the guards. After speaking briefly to the baron the guards gave a polite bow before opening the gates to let the party ride through; the baron led them to the stables were they all dismounted.
Melondthera looked around the stables and the outbuildings curiously “Is there somewhere where I can change?” She retrieved the formal dress she wore when she first set off to come here from the saddlebag and unhitched her mage staff that was tied to the horse's flanks.
The baron waved to one of his men to show Melondthera a place where she could change in private. “I will go and meet the king and request an audience for you in the meantime, “ he paused with a stern expression. “I think you already know Melondthera that you should remain on your guard at all times.”
She nodded giving a brief smile, “I know baron thank you for your concern and all you have done so far.”
A while later Melondthera returned attired in her formal dress finding it a little cold she dug out her long cloak from her saddlebag wrapping it around herself she held her staff in her right hand composing herself as the baron returned. The baron appeared worried as he spoke, “The king has granted you an audience a little too eagerly for my liking,” he paused. “However you must come alone, he will be in the throne room; there are some nobles there, and I can only see a few soldiers about.” He paused once more, lifting his shoulders he let out a pensive breath as he lowered them again. “Be careful Melondthera I fear there is something not right about this whole situation.”
Melondthera nodded with a reassuring smile as she put a hand on the baron’s broad shoulder, “Do not worry, baron I’m prepared for any eventuality.” She gathered herself accompanied by the baron, and a few of his men walked towards the main door to the castle. The baron looked on with concern as Melondthera entered the castle alone.