“And Yuu looked down upon the world, and its peoples, and smiled. But Shaiyra was displeased, for the souls of men lingered in the world after they died, and vexed the living. So Gorgus, father of the mountain races, stepped forward and offered a great hall within his mountains where the dead might sleep. And Yuu was pleased with his brother’s words and granted him power over life and death, and lordship over the souls of men. And so it was that Gorgus became the god of death, and passed the lordship over the mountains to Karzag, and the souls of men found peace.”
- Excerpt: The Book of Beginnings
I'm trying with my utmost patience to ignore the terrible growling sound coming from behind us. It's really more than I can endure, far more than I should be expected to tolerate, even as Seneschal to the House of such a barbaric region. Really, how can anyone concentrate in these conditions?
I’ll tell you how: by being first and foremost a professional! I marshal my defenses, take a deep breath and tune out the horrible noises from the corner. I focus myself instead on the great map unrolled on the table before me. Lady Pegason is frowning now, still seated in her high-backed chair at the far end of the table while the High Constable, Willith, points out the various villages that have fallen to the foul creatures in their brutal push south.
The growling from the corner continues.
Willith looks quite tired, and the tea I brought him a few minutes ago sits untouched. "We've still not heard from the border guards at Archus, and our advance scouts haven't reported in. The Yellow Company engaged some roving groups of the creatures here, and here." Constable Willith points his crooked middle finger at two points at the extreme southern edge of the map, just along the High Wall. His pointer finger was lost years before fighting the raiders in the north. In those days they never ventured far from the Archan foothills. Now…
"The fighting was vicious. A lot of good men were lost, but the Company routed the creatures and most were ridden down. Our guest here," he motions to the chained monstrosity on the floor behind us, "was a survivor of that encounter.”
It merely growls louder in response.
Pegason finally lifts her eyes to gaze at the creature. It sits, growling as I’ve said, slumped against the wall, tight chains wrapped around its legs and arms. I cannot believe Willith would have the indecency to bring such a beast into Her Grace's presence. The monster is shirtless, its pants as gray as the skin of its arms and chest. It's less muscular than I expected, but it is wiry, well defined, and if it weren't for the chains, I'd assume fast.
Its face is man-like, I suppose, but with two wicked fangs curving upwards from behind its lips. It's bald, but for a topknot, similar to the hair worn by the men of some of our most distant villages. Just more proof that everyone in this blasted land is a barbarian. Why my Lady has not moved her residence closer to a real city, like Orb's Rest, is totally beyond me. Who would willingly choose to live in a land like this?
Lady Pegason continues to stare intently at the creature as it struggles against its bonds. The beast glares around madly, growling and slavering and drooling all over the floor. Why do I have to be here? Why can't I be fetching more tea, or overseeing tonight's banquet or anything but standing within spitting distance of this creature?
My Lady has not dismissed me, and from the expression on her face, I am not about to ask.
Her house is an ancient and noble one, and not one known to tolerate nonsense. They wrested this land from the creatures that lived here hundreds of years ago, and even though there is no longer a king to grant such things, the Council of Lords agreed to let the first Pegason deal with the ongoing Kyzanthe problem in exchange for lordship over the Hyth-Tao. Villages sprang up, but never any cities. This is a sparse land, with no room for waste or extravagance. I complain, loudly and often, about missing the luxury of the big cities, but I have served this family for years, since my Lady’s father was still a young boy, and I respect their strength far more than I lament any inconvenience.
I do miss the luxuries of my youth, but I don’t think I’d trade service to my Lady to have it back.
My Lady takes after her father, and apparently after the first Pegason, both named Arsene. Her father taught her to always honor the traditions and duties of the western nobility, the usual forms and niceties and social obligations, but he also taught her to honor her obligations and duty to her people, their land and its defense. Because of the grant of the Council of Lords, the House of Pegason has the biggest standing army in the North, apart from Regotia. Those troops are levied not merely from the villages of the Hyth-Tao, but from the troops of the various small baronies and duchies that dot the western coast. Veterans see rotation up at the border near Archus, in the plains, and in the Lady’s house guard. Those that stay on past their first, mandatory, year, rather than going home to easier guard duties for fat Lords, are loyal and true to the house. The other Lords tolerate it, and the Pegason have never given them reason to fear the army standing between them and the monsters in the far North.
Today, my Lady looks tired. She itched to ride with her men, but was forced to remain behind, to deal as liege lord to the streams of refugees from her easternmost villages, and to promise them justice. The last several hours were spent listening to complaints, consoling the grieving and trying to arrange for food and housing for dozens of unexpected guests. It’s been a busy morning, and this war council with Willith, serious as it is, is almost a relaxing break from more unpleasant duties. Apart from the growling beast in the corner who just won’t shut up.
My lady rubs her temples with one hand, her eyes closed, absorbing everything Willith said. Then she opens her eyes, stands and rounds the table with purpose, motioning to theConstable to join her. She looks down, again, at the stoneskin bound on the floor.
"Can it speak?"
"Yes, Lady. It cursed at us easily enough as we bound it."
"Very well. You. Stoneskin. You can understand me?"
The horrible monster just growls louder.
"What is your purpose in our lands? Who is your leader?”
The growls become snarls, and continue to increase in ferocity.
“Speak plainly, and you will be treated fairly, as a prisoner of war. Is there someone with whom we can negotiate a truce?"
The growling stops. The beast looks up from under its heavily lidded eyes, and manages to shift around slightly to face Lady Pegason, despite its chains.
"Truce?" it asks, in barely comprehensible Hythian.
"Yes," her Grace answers. "For years we have lived side by side without conflict. Is your leader willing to discuss terms for ending this senseless invasion?"
The creature stares for several moments, in silence. Then it begins to laugh.
Willith scowls and turns away. "I warned you my lady, they're not open to reason. They've burned Zeg, Medrosa and Foh already and with their numbers they could very well strike west and come at the western villages whenever they want. They could even reach us here. We only beat them in the south because we caught some of their scouting parties by surprise. If they come west in force, we won't hold against them. They've just got too many men."
The creature continues to laugh, its chuckles devolving into choking grunts. I move away as quietly as I can, to the other side of the table.
My Lady ignores the laughing creature at her feet. "If they attack the Manor, how long can we hold out? Long enough to send for help to the other Lords on the coast?”
"No, my lady. By the time anyone could muster a force big enough to meet them they'd have burned us out and killed us, or worse. We might hold them for a few days, but this manor was never meant to hold back an army. That's what the northern patrol garrisons were for. With kyzanthe roaming free in the Hyth-Tao, I fear that those garrisons have already been destroyed.”
"Then what is your suggestion, High Constable?"
"Withdraw. Go west, to Cyrint or Orb's Rest, or even Haven, and warn them while there's still time. Come back with the strength of your friends behind you, and rebuild after you've driven the scum from your lands."
"Gathering forces will take weeks. What of my lands and people in the meantime? Do I leave them to be slaughtered wholesale?"
Willith looks down. "They're already lost. There's nothing else we can do for them, except avenge their deaths and rebuild for those few that escaped."
Pegason turns and throws her goblet against the wall. It’s uncharacteristic of her. Wine splashes everywhere, and I cringe. She’s furious, both at the creatures invading her lands, and also at herself for not being able to defend them. And goddess forgive me, in the back of my mind, my brain makes a silent note: “buy new tapestries.”
"Damn it, Willith! Arsene was my ancestor! He wrested these lands from these creatures when they were in their full strength! He burnt their cities and routed their armies with little more than a few hundred men! I'm not about to run with my tail between my legs and let them destroy the peace he established and that my family has worked so hard to maintain!"
The laughing creature suddenly goes silent, and then speaks again, but its voice has changed. The voice emanating from within the bound creature on the floor is deeper now, older, and nobler, with no hint of an accent at all. The creature's eyes are closed, its shoulders slumped.
Its mouth does not move.
"Peace?” says the voice. “Peace is what my children have been fighting for, thou Lady of a rotting dunghill. Your mighty empire of peasants has been decaying around you for generations. I will prop up your rotted foundations and erect an edifice that will withstand the turmoils to come."
The beast rises, its chains sloughing away into dust. Willith and Lady Pegason both draw their blades and step backwards as the creature stands, unimpeded and turns, stiffly, towards us. It raises one arm and, head still lowered, points directly at my lady.
"Here is your opportunity to grab an outstretched hand before the tide sweeps you away. Join with us, and survive and prosper. Your barbarian lands will know a strength they have not seen since before the time of the Cataclysm. Join with us and rule them in my name. Resist and be drowned in the onrushing flood."
Lady Pegason has already crossed the space between her and the kyzanthe, and has impaled the beast before the last syllable has left its lips. My Lady steps back, pulling her rapier free as the creature slumps back against the wall. She hands the blade to Willith, who turns and wipes it clean on the tablecloth. I can feel the blood leave my face. “New tablecloths”, I note. “Shut up,” I tell that part of myself. Tablecloths are the last thing to worry about now.
The beast stands for several moments, then topples to the ground, oozing red all over the fine carpet: an antique, I feel compelled to mention.
Lady Pegason turns to Willith. "I will make no deals with butchers of women and children. A sharp blade is all the answer I will ever need for such as that." Willith nods. “Well said, my Lady. I expected no less.”
They both jump backwards as the creature speaks again. "Indeed, thou Lady of a collapsed empire. Your answer is given, heard and received. Prepare then, for our coming."
And with that, the creature bursts into flames. Oily black smoke rises up, and I realize, with the sinking surety of despair, that the tapestries hanging high above, so ancient and timeless and priceless, will be ruined.
Forgive me, I really can’t help it.
Pegason grabs Willith by the shoulder and pulls him close. "Get everyone together in the courtyard. Get wagons, horses, as many as you can find by morning. Have everyone bring what they can, but they must hurry. We leave at dawn."
Willith nods and bows as he steps away. "Yes, my lady. We go west, then?"
Lady Pegason takes a last, long look at the great hall of her family, built by her ancestor hundreds of years before when this land was still unexplored and wild. She nods, slowly, but with assuredness. "They'll come for us now. I think I may have made them angry.” For a moment, the hint of a wry smile plays across her face before vanishing again. “We'll have to go to the coast and find whatever help we can there. I have some favors I plan on calling in. Don't worry, Willith, we'll be back."
Without another word, she strides from the room.
Servants are rushing in with buckets of water to douse the smoldering heap of monster flesh in the corner. Willith is rolling up the map and his papers. I reach across the table and grab up a loose quill and ink bottle, and one of the blank sheets of paper still on the table. I dip the quill in the ink and begin to write.
"It is with great sorrow that I must regretfully tender my resignation as Senechal of the House of Pegason..."
I laugh, crumple up the paper and toss it onto the burning body of the stoneskin where it blackens and curls. Willith raises an eyebrow at me, but I merely smile back. Grabbing a fresh sheet, I start writing a list of supplies we’ll need for the journey to the coast.
I glance up at Willith as he turns to leave. “You don’t think we’ll be able to buy new tapestries while we’re visiting the coast, do you?”
He stops and glares at me before stalking out of the room.
I sigh, dramatically. “No, I didn’t think so either.”
The gown has a mud stain on the sleeve, the headdress is missing, and the flowers are the completely wrong shade of blue. The wedding is tomorrow and nothing is ready and Kalisa is sitting there twisting wreaths and Dexeron is nowhere to be found and there's a hole in his suit (and don't ask me how it got there, probably the same way mud magically appeared on my gown) and I am going to kill Kalisa because she was supposed to keep him from wandering off. Again.
“Where in Gorgus' deep halls is he?” I ask, aloud.
“He's your betrothed” Kalisa answers, popping a lemoncake into her mouth. “He's probably off staring at clouds again.”
I throw a pillow at her face. “Eat another one and I'll slaughter you along with the prize hog. You'll serve at least four or five, easily. We'd have enough food to invite Lord Haven himself to the wedding.”
She sticks out her tongue. I throw another pillow. Bullseye.
I put down the flower arrangement I've been working on and sigh. “I guess I'd better go find him. That boy's harder to keep track of than my entire herd.”
Kalisa grabs up another wreath. “You know, you don't have to find him. There's still time to call this whole thing off. There are plenty of available rich men in Haven who'd give their right arm to marry you, and your late father's pig farm, goddess preserve his soul, is one hell of a dowry.”
We've had this discussion before. “There are lots of great men out there. I'm not in love with any of them.”
Kalisa snorts. “Love. I know you love him. The two of you have been closer than peas since you were kids. I'm just saying, a merchant could give you the lifestyle you deserve.”
I smile, and hurl another pillow at her face. “I deserve to be happy with the man I love, despite his low station and general cluelessness. Sorry, Kali, I'll just have to suffer through married life with my poor fisherman.” I stand and walk to the door. “But I've got to find him first. Can you finish up without me?”
She calls after as I step outside. “He doesn't deserve you!”
I can't help but chuckle. “Who would deserve a smelly, sunburned, orphan pig farmer?”
“That's not what I meant!”
“I know.” I close the door behind me.
I step out into the street and look at the banners and streamers and paper-chains stretched between the buildings. Everything should be ready in time. I think. Kalisa will make sure it's all finished before tomorrow morning. Now if I can just find my wayward groom...
I run smack into a large bear of a man and fall right on my ass in the street. He turns and I'm shocked speechless. It's Lord Haven, in all of his massive, corpulent heaviness. Oh, goddess forgive me, my first thought is that he heard my threat and that he’s hungry and that I'll have to slaughter poor Kalisa after all.
He frowns. “I say, are you quite all right miss?”
I rise and stammer an apology, then bow, low. “I didn't see you there, my Lord. I am so very sorry.”
“Not at all, lady. Perhaps you can help. We're looking for a lad who lives in this village. You may know of him?”
I notice his companion for the first time. Apart from his three guards, a woman stands nearby, tall, thin but not skinny, with a stern face. She’s regal, not pretty but striking. Her hair is black, streaked with the first hints of gray. This woman is also wearing a Lord's chain around her neck, but I'm not sure where she's from. Her dress is of fine cloth, and well made, and obviously expensive, as is the sword at her hip.
This strange Lady looks me up and down and then speaks. “We're trying to find a young man with the power to read the future,” she frowns as if in distaste, “in the clouds.”
I try to conceal the shock on my face. I suppose I fail, because Lord Haven brightens up immediately. “Ah! You know of him! Can you take us to him?”
“I wish I could, my Lords. The fool is my betrothed, and he's wandered off again.”
“Wandered off?” says the woman. “Again?”
“Yes, my Lord, my Lady. If you don't mind, I'm off to find him. When I do, I'll tell him you're looking for him. After I've beaten him thoroughly, of course.”
Haven looks aghast at my boldness, but the woman bursts into laughter, honest and brash. “And if we find him, lady, we'll tie him up for you! Maybe we'll put a bell around his neck. Good day then, miss.”
They move away, muttering to themselves. I catch Dex's name, and that damn word again. Cloudskrying.
Why does my fiancée have to have that gods’ cursed talent?
What do they want him for?
Oh, I hope this doesn't interfere with the wedding. I don't want to have to explain to the magistrate why I murdered not just one Lord, but a fine Lady as well.
I trudge through the mud up the hill and I am happy to be wearing my work boots. They belonged to my father, and seeing as he was much larger than I, the boots come up to my knees. I know I look a mess. My hair is matted on one side and my attempts to pull it back have failed. I keep pulling loose strands out of my eyes as I climb, but it's no use. Normally my looks don't really bother me, but a bride is supposed to look and feel beautiful. She's not supposed to be knee deep in mud, sweating and exasperated that her future husband is missing once again. I slip in some mud and go falling face first into the dirt. It's now smeared on my chest and face and my hair is firmly plastered to the side of my head; no longer golden red, but a nice shade of dung. I get up and continue climbing. A mile or so beyond the hill is the river where I hope to find him.I step off of the path as I crest the hill and duck behind the tree at its top. It's a massive banyan, with roots like the squids Dex and his father sometimes bring back when they sail down to the ocean. They twist around into a trunk like a gigantic braid, and then spread every which way, shading the hilltop. Everyone's always called this tree “Old Man”, and it's been here since before our parents’ parents were children. When we were kids, its branches were the perfect place to hide. It also gives the perfect view of the whole area.
I grab a hold of some roots and lift myself up. It's been awhile since I climbed a tree but the wood is instantly familiar to my calloused hands. I grip familiar hand holds and swing from perch to perch, higher and higher. Here's the crook where I'd sit while Kalisa would read to me from a blanket on the grass. There's the branch Dex would sit in, his back against the trunk while he stared at far away clouds and drifted into one of his trances. I half expect him to be sitting there now, but of course the branch is empty.
A sudden gust blows against me from the direction of the coast and I have to grab hold of the branches to keep from falling, and brace myself against the wind. There, on the far side of another small hill, about a mile away, is the small shady spot on the bank of the winding river that leads to the ocean.
It is Dex’s favorite place to Cloudskry.
I squint against the reflected glare of the sun on the water and can make out several figures there standing on the bank. Two of them look like the Lord and Lady I met an hour ago, Haven and that tall woman, flanked by their guards. The figure closest to the water can only be Dex.
He’s wearing the shirt I wove for him! That’s so sweet…
The woman suddenly draws her sword and steps forward, blocking my view of my fiancée. Lord Haven waves his arms violently, as if arguing with the other.
Dex falls to the ground, silently.
I’m already running down the side of the hill without knowing how I got out of the tree. It takes a minute for the shock of the jump I must have made to travel up my legs to my hips, and it nearly sends me sprawling, but I think about the sight of Dex lying there hurt, and suddenly I don’t feel anything but a raw anger that carries me down and then up the next hill, over its top and screaming down its far side to the riverbank. My fists are flailing as I leap onto the Lady who dared to attack my love.
The wooden shaft of a pike swings out and strikes me in the knees before I even get close. I forgot all about the guards. I flip and tumble and crash down and slide to a muddy halt at the feet of the rich bitch with a sword, screaming curses and vengeance and reaching out for anything within reach. The guard with the pike is already running forward, swinging the blunt end of his weapon around again towards my head.
The feeling, the sudden itch, wakes me from my dozing and almost literally yanks me to my feet, which is a mistake since I’m sitting in a moving wagon.
The driver, whose name I still don’t know, absently reaches out a hand and pulls me back into my seat before I can fall off onto the roadway.
I can feel Marjorique’s eyes on me from the wagon behind us, sitting next to the mercenary, Rogen. I want to turn around and explain but I… can’t. I have to look ahead, have to see, have to know what my mind insists on showing me.
And there, next to the roadside, is a man carrying a small pack on his back. Farther along is a woman, carrying an infant. A little farther along is another man, then two women, then a small child all alone, looking confused. They’re all walking north even as we pass. Dozens... no, more. A steadily thickening stream of people walks along the side of the road, more and more as we move southward.
Their faces are filthy; some of their clothes are tattered; some have arms in slings or bandaged heads or walk with crutches. All of them keep looking behind, as if in fear.
And without my even meaning to, my inner eye opens and I see.
I can see, standing behind each one of them, shadowy figures with swords, screaming and slashing at them and goading them on, like invisible cattle-drivers. This is what they fear, the memory that pursues them even here on the old Royal Road where caravans routinely travel and even bandits rarely bother. Each of them has escaped death, but cannot escape from the fear.
Worse, I can see that from which they flee, my vision ripped away from the road and over the grassy plains to the east, where fires, blood, smoke, battle all assail my eyes and ears and nose. Scenes flash before my eyes, scenes of murder and fire and death, battles and massacres, making my head spin. I grab the edge of my seat tightly, trying not to fall out of the wagon again, and it takes a supreme effort to shut my ethereal sight. I manage it, finally, and the flashing images fade away, slowly. I choke back on vomit, grab at the sudden stabbing pain in my right temple, and collapse back on the seat, exhausted.
I glance up, wheezing, to see Jyog, ahead, and the driver beside, looking at me in concern. I turn around, and Marjorique is already jogging up towards us.
Rogen stays where he is, watching me with narrowed eyes and an expression I can’t figure out on his face. He stares at me for several moments, and then turns back to his mule.
Jyog waves to us and pulls his wagon to the side of the road. Both wagons follow. I know his concern. These people are fleeing north, fleeing from something to the south, where we are headed. I know his question: is the road south safe? He climbs down from his wagon and approaches some of the people walking there. I know the answers he will receive, about the beasts to the east that came from the north and even now move west. I know the debate he will have with his wife about whether to turn around and flee back to Orb’s Rest, or to try to outrun the storm and pass through Cyrint to the safety of the Southlands before it breaks upon the coast. I know what his ultimate decision will be, to continue south. I know all of this because I can see it, see it in the dancing arrows floating above his head, above everyone’s heads. I can see it in the colors that dance around them, in the random words that seem to appear next to everything like labels on shelves in a shop, in the flashes of images that I think might have just happened, or are about to happen, or are happening now, but elsewhere.
My eye, the inner one, blinks wide open, and refuses to close. Things demand to be seen, and it must obey. Marjorique is shaking me, and I stare up at her. I see her flinging fireballs at charging monsters, slapping me and stalking away, holding me close, but that was last week, lecturing, old and wrinkled, berating what look like students in trainee robes, shaking her cane at them, now running, still a child, down a hill and tripping and tumbling down it, landing on her ankle wrong and twisting it and firing off a fireball in pain and anger, her first spell. She’s still shaking me. Her mouth seems to be shouting my name, but I cannot hear it.
She’s laying me down in the back of the wagon, I think, or maybe it’s on the ground? I see people I don’t know cut down by grey silhouettes, a house burning, and two vast and ancient eyes that look up from some ancient thought to stare at me. The voice behind those eyes is dead, and cold. “So, you would take them back?”
Rogen is holding me down, and I notice that I am flailing with my arms, struggling against Marjorique’s grip. They’re talking, but I cannot hear them over the sound of fire, a rushing burning wind that seems to cover everything, every person, even the wagons.
Marjorique lays her hands over my temples as Rogen holds me still, and I note, absently and approvingly, that she’s applying a basic, but effective, sleep spell. “That should curtail this”, I think. As if in answer, I feel my eye, the third one, the inner one, the one that exists only in my mind, close. The flames and images fade, and only the real world is left behind: Rogen’s firm and unyielding grip, Marjorique’s concerned and furrowed brow, the braying of mules, and the murmur of dozens of refugees milling past. Then that fades as well, and there is only blackness.
My head hurts. The light in here is too bright.
“Tara? Are you alright? Can you speak?”
I groan, raising my hand to my throbbing skull. I’m lying on a bed of some kind, and as my eyes slowly come into focus, I realize I’m lying in a large tent. It’s large enough for the bed, some chairs and even a small table. Some oil lamps hang from the supports, and a small flag with the crest of Lord Haven hangs limply across the entrance. Dex reaches out and places a damp cloth on my forehead, worry and alarm on his face.
I sit up and immediately fall back down, the room spinning. “It would be best if you lie still” says a familiar voice. “A concussion is no small matter.”
I struggle to open my eyes again and see a tall woman standing at the entrance to the tent, silhouetted against the light from outside. She chuckles. “It’s bad enough that you’ve taken a nasty blow to the head. You don’t want to accidently assault the honored guest of your liege Lord again.”
I swallow mutely, and Dex has turned as white as the sheets I’m lying on. I realize with a sinking feeling in my gut that this is the woman I saw with Lord Haven earlier, a woman who was also wearing a Lord’s Chain: the same woman I attacked before being beaten senseless.I note with despair the twin silhouettes of what must be guards against the canvas of the tent wall and the bustling sounds of what could only be an armed camp outside. I realize that I’m a prisoner here; there are laws against assaulting one’s rightful liege lord, even a Lord visiting from another realm. There’s nowhere to run, even if I could stay on my feet for more than a moment.
The woman is staring at me, her face unreadable.
“It might be wise, in the future, to not jump to conclusions before assaulting members of the nobility.” She toys with the chain around her neck, and I fight against a rising panic and actually manage to find my voice, but the woman lifts a hand before I can speak.
She slowly, almost deliberately, pulls up a small stool and sits beside the bed. Dex shifts nervously, moving out of the way, his hands balled up into fists. He hovers at the head of the bed, watching the woman with obvious distrust. Unspoken between us but understood is the knowledge that I’m in a hell of a lot of trouble right now. Equally understood, I hope, is that attacking this woman right now is not the way to get me out of it.
Oh goddess, Dex, please be smart just this once.
The woman looks at Dex for several long moments, then sighs and turns to me. I get a good look at her. She’s not particularly old, but she looks weary. She’s greying and her shoulders are slouched. She looks like a woman who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. She skewers me with that same piercing glare she just gave Dex and for a moment I get a glimpse of the iron behind it that’s kept her running despite her haggard appearance. Then she leans forward and begins to speak.
“We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot, miss. I have no desire to hurt your fiancée, and he collapsed while in the midst of some kind of vision. He was shouting about dragons, and in my haste thought he meant one was descending on us even then."
I relax, but only slightly. Now my crime is even more serious. There is no justification for what I’ve done now.
The woman is watching me intently, and I’m sure my emotions are all over my face. She frowns, and shakes her head before continuing.
"Let me introduce myself. I am Lady Pegason, Baroness of the Hyth-Tao."
My confusion must be obvious. I've never heard of Hyth-Tao; it wasn't listed on my father's old map that charted the route to Haven to bring pigs to market. I've never been farther from our village than that. Dex has been down to the sea, so maybe he's heard of it. I twist around and look, but he seems just as confused as I do.
The Lady, Pegason she called herself, pinches her brow, visibly annoyed.
"My lands lie several days ride far to the east, beyond the Dragonhome; you have heard of that, haven't you?"
I nod, mutely.
"Fine. I came here to meet with my old friend, Lord Haven, and to ask for his help. I was told that your fiancée could help me." She looks at Dex, and then back at me, as if that explained everything. I want to ask the obvious questions, but I'm in enough trouble as it is. I don't know how this woman will react to my questioning her intentions, so I just lie there, and she sits, watchful. She's not volunteering anything.
The tent's hanging door flap opens before I can muster the courage to ask what I want to ask, and Lord Haven heaves himself inside. He glares in my direction, as if I were a bug. He’s staring at my wrists, and I notice for the first time red marks there, and the loose manacles hanging from the headboard of the bed. He looks like he's about to explode.
Lady Pegason stands, heading Haven off. "I had her bonds removed before she woke up. She is no threat to anyone, and I’d consider it a favor if you’d write this whole messy business off as a misunderstanding."
Haven turns red and looks like he's about to protest, but Pegason merely stares at him, raising an eyebrow. Haven stares back, then arches his own eyebrow, puffs for a moment, glowers, then scowls, and then makes a curt motion of dismissal towards Pegason, before stamping out of the tent. Tents don’t have doors, but I swear on the name of the goddess that he manages to slam one anyway.
Pegason sighs, and sits back down again. "Young lady, you have no idea how many favors I had to call in to keep you from being thrown into the stocks, unconscious or no."I swallow the rising lump in my throat. "Thank you, my Lady", I manage.
She nods, curtly, and then arches that eyebrow again. "But you want to know what I plan to do with your fiancée."
I can only nod.
Pegason rises and paces away. Dex is still standing stock still at the head of the bed. He hasn't said a word. I can sense his terror from here. I know him too well.
Pegason suddenly steps back to the chair and sits down, her face determined. When she speaks, it's as if a dam has burst. She wouldn't normally share her problems with a peasant, but I get the impression that she's relieved to finally have someone to listen to them, even some crazy girl who tried to attack her.
"Have you heard of the kyzanthe stoneskins? Yes? Well, my ancestor Arsene drove them from the lands to the east hundreds of years ago. The Duke of Orb’s Rest and the Inner Circle of New Synon signed a treaty together granting those lands to him and his progeny in perpetuity, so long as they agreed to defend the kingdoms against the kyzanthe. Ever since then, my family has guarded your cities and lands from the stoneskins, holding them at bay and keeping them contained in the far north. Both of those great cities, and your lands of Haven, and all of the lands between have been safe from those marauders for generations because of my family.
"The stoneskins have kept the peace, only moving south once a year following their herds. Our strength of arms has cowed them into submission. They avoid our villages, and so we let them come south through their mountain passes into our lands for the winter. Every spring, they return to the north and we hear nothing from them until the next year.
"This year, they came south through the mountains, as usual, for the winter. As usual, they kept the peace. When the northern mountain passes started to thaw out in the spring, we expected the Kyzanthe to return to their lands in the north once again. Every year, I send my fastest messenger to my northern garrisons to confirm that the kyzanthe have left for the summer. He usually returns a couple of weeks after the Spring harvest, but this year he never arrived.
"Then, wounded villagers, half dead and starving, started streaming west, wandering onto the grounds of my manor dazed and delirious and rambling about monsters burning their homes, waylaying travelers, attacking their villages. I sent a small patrol east to investigate. A week passed without word, and I sent out the commander of my military forces with a hundred men. They found the patrol, all of the men dead, stripped naked and nailed to a tree.
"My commander also found villages burned, the people massacred, and rampaging armed bands of the stoneskins roaming throughout the plains. His scouts found some of their camps, and the trails they have left. They tell me that there must be some thousands of the beasts wandering at will on my lands."
Lady Pegason grows quiet. Her voice is almost a whisper. "My commander also found a trail of bodies leading northwards. The bodies of my people, the people I was sworn to protect."The iron behind Lady Pegason’s eyes seems to crack, just slightly, and she looks away. I’ve never seen weakness... humanity like that, on the face of a Lord or Lady before. They just don’t display that kind of emotion before commoners. When she looks back, her eyes are steel again. She continues.
"These monsters are rampaging through my lands even now, killing at will, and taking my people north to be slaves, or worse. It’s only a matter of time before they come west, possibly even as far as New Synon or Orb’s Rest. I knew that I had to bring warning to the Lords here on the coast, so that together we could marshal some kind of defense against these invaders before it’s too late to stop them. The middle cities have always been protected by Kazio to the north, and my lands to the east. They have never had to face the Kyzanthe in strength, not for over a thousand years. They’re just not ready for this kind of fight. If the stoneskins are able to bring their forces around from the east, through my lands, they’ll split the old Kingdom in half. That’s why Lord Haven brought me to your village."
She sits back again, watchful, waiting for me to ask the obvious question. Dex fidgets nervously, and I take a deep breath before asking it, because I already know the answer.
"So... what does my fiancée have to do with any of this?"
Pegason has the good grace not to smile. She actually looks almost apologetic. "Haven was the third Lord I approached, and the first one to take me seriously. The others are too busy squabbling over their mutual borders to worry about the Kyzanthe who may or may not come west. If you weren’t already aware, the great Kingdom of Eight has been broken for almost a thousand years. These petty fiefdoms are all that remains." She looks away. "I’m under no illusions that my lands are anything but a forgotten corner of that once great kingdom.
"The point is," she coughs, turning back to me, "There is no 'Army of Eight' to call upon these days. I need help to fight this enemy, and I can’t get the force of arms I hoped for, so I need to look elsewhere. Haven told me that your fiancée has a power, a gift of foresight and visions that might be of use against this foe. I need every possible advantage if I’m going to save my lands and my people."
And now the sinking feeling in my gut vanishes to be replaced by a core of solid, hot anger.
"You want to take him with you." It's not a question this time. I say it as a statement of fact.
Pegason at least has the courage to meet my eyes. "Yes. We are leaving tonight."
Dex tenses, and I very nearly leap out of the bed myself, but Pegason leans in closely, and the friendly look on her face is gone. The throbbing in my head returns, and I'm suddenly not very eager to challenge the will of this woman.
She glances up at Dex, and then back at me. "I’ll not fault you for trying to defend your fiancée, if you thought we were harming him, and I'm civilized enough to keep them from leaving you trussed to that bed until you could be brought to some sham trial, but make no mistake, I am taking your fiancée with me. Your marriage is simply going to have to wait. My people are dying and I do not have the time to wait on your convenience. Act reasonably, and I’ll smooth things over with Haven, and maybe we can even find someone to help plan your ceremony once we return. For now, say your goodbyes, and have him ready to leave in an hour."Without another word, Pegason turns and strides from the tent, with all of the assurance of one who expects her orders to be obeyed without question.
I collapse back onto the bed, the throbbing in my head intensifying. Dex comes over, and pulls up the chair, silently.
I chuckle, without really meaning to. "So, what did you see this time, love?"
He blushes, and looks apologetic. "I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize they were going to make me leave you! I should have hidden or run away or..."
I’m laughing out loud now, and I’m paying for it as my head continues to pound at my brain. "There’s nothing you could have done. We’re going to have to put everything on hold until you get back from... goddess... whatever it is you are supposed to be doing with these high and mighty Lords. Damn it. What did you see anyway?"
He speaks, subdued. "I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve always seen little signs... about babies and harvests and fish. You know how the old women would bring their daughters around for me to try and predict if their grandchildren would be boys or girls, things like that. This... it was bigger, and it hurt, and I couldn’t stop it.
"They asked me... the two of them, Haven and that Lady, Pegason. They told me to look into the clouds and try to see what Pegason should do to help her people. I told them I can't always control what I see, but they asked me to try anyway. So, I looked up into the clouds...
"I couldn't see anything, at first. The clouds were racing by and didn't look like anything special. The wind from the river was freezing, and I was shifting from foot to foot trying to stay warm and see something, and I think Lord Haven was getting impatient with me. And then, suddenly, I could feel the talent waking up again... that tingling in my toes I told you about before.
“I noticed one section of clouds in a thunderhead off to the west over the ocean. I thought it looked kind of odd, almost square, like a piece of parchment stuck to the side of the cloud, like a note pinned to the wall. Then I got the feeling that it looked more like a map, and then suddenly the river, and Lord Haven, and Lady Pegason were all gone and I was floating, and the clouds turned into a gigantic map, but it wasn't a map, it was the actual world beneath me."I saw the whole kingdom, I mean, all eight kingdoms, from the north to the south. I don’t know how I knew their names but I did. That Hyth-Tao she talked about? I saw it! And the Dragonhome, and Orb's Rest, and all of these cities and people and horrible creatures to the east killing everyone, and a woman in black to the south with a sword, and a man in the north, and Faeries, and monsters, and it was all too much and I had to close my eyes."
Dex is nearly hyperventilating and I reach out and grab at his hand, calming him. He blushes again. "When I opened them, I saw a mountain, standing apart, alone. A cloud encircled it. The cloud came to life, and it was a great dragon... green... long... bathed in fire. She saw me, she... I think it was a she... flew up into the sky, into the sun... and then fell to the earth with a crash. She sped along the ground, past a city on an island in a lake, along the road, right through our village... and the wind from her passing tore apart the buildings, your house... the town hall... and then she leapt back into the sky, and dove at us. Me, there on the riverbank again. She fell right among us, her jaws wide, and fire came out and consumed us, and I saw lord Haven and Lady Pegason consumed by the flames, and then they were around me and burning me and... I was screaming... and then I... I woke up... and you were on the ground."
That's why Pegason had her sword drawn. Dex must have been screaming his head off about a dragon, pointing at the sky. His talent has never been this... potent... intense... before. And with that realization I also realize that he's really leaving. His talent is far more powerful than anyone knew, and it's attracted the attention of powerful people. These Lords really are going to take him away. I sniff back tears. "Oh, Dex, what’s going to happen to you? How are you going to get along without me?"
He looks like he’s about to cry as well. "I’ll do whatever it is they want me to do and I’ll come back as soon as I can. I promise! I’ll hold that Lady to her word and I’ll make her pay for the biggest wedding ever!"
I chuckle at that, and my head doesn’t hurt quite as much anymore. It's always easier to be practical, or at least that's what my father always said. "You need to promise me to be careful, alright? Listen to them, be polite, don’t get into fights, or gamble, or drink, and be sure to bathe every day if you can. Do you understand? You have to be good, and come back to me in one piece. You have to! Do you understand?"
He takes my hand and just looks at me, nodding. I stare back, trying to memorize his face, to hold this image in my mind for as long as I can.
We sit that way for most of the hour, without speaking.
There was nothing else to say.
THE RED PILGRIM
Memories. And Time. Strange things, all of them.
They are sitting in the tent, now, saying their goodbyes. All matters are now coming to a head, and I’ll take my place soon.
It has been so long. So, so long.
My robes are the brightest red, my hood and mask brighter still, yet none can see me. I stand between two tents, ignoring and ignored by guards who walk past. I have learned my lessons well enough, it seems. It is almost time for me to make my appearance, but I wait, watching and listening.
Pegason and Haven walk past. I had forgotten the strength in Pegason’s walk, how heavy Haven is.
Pegason is speaking now.
“Understand? Yes, technically you could have her flogged, but we need the boy to come willingly. We want his talents unsullied, not hamstrung by stress and worry and fear. It’s enough punishment that we’re postponing their wedding. Be gracious.”
“Fine. Fine! You win, you old fool. I don’t have to like it.”
“You wouldn’t be you if you did” Pegason chuckles as she slaps Haven on the back.
They are gone. I hear whispers from within the tent. It takes all of my self-control to keep myself from rushing in now and declaring myself.
I must wait. All things in time. I must hold to the appointed course. I must trust in fate.
I shall wait, patiently, for death to bring us together, once again.
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