RPG #14 - The Children of the Crimson Sea

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Despite his pompous nature, Berran had some wits stored behind his blank faces exterior. at the moment he was working on a flank, with a mild hint of subtlety, barely enough to fool a commoner. Orlan hoped it was a feint, but Berran was no tactician.

Orlan Moved one Block forward. "You are getting better at this. Are you sure there is no similar game in your lands?"

Blinking a moment, and coming out of focus from the board between them, Berran looked up, one eye cloudy and swollen from his earlier beating. "No, They play some similar ones in the North I think, but I have never been fond of them, I prefer hawking."

"Reading?" Orlan pondered, but Berran shook his head.


"How is it these people have such a dullard for a king? To rule one must have a sharp mind, and a sharper blade. Perhaps if your subjects had had a wiser king, not all of them would lie dead. You remind me of my late regent, a brash man."

Setting his mind back to the game, Orlan watched as Berran moved a Soldier piece forward towards his back line, the last two fingers on his hand broken and bandaged. He had learned days ago that even if Orlan was insulting or rude, outbursts to someone above him never went unpunished.

The giveaway to Berran's ploy wasnt in his eyes, or his face. The man hid his thoughts well. Yet his moves were open enough in themselves to the slightest insight. An Open book rife with illustrations.

Orlan was beginning to grow bored by Berran, Moving his General forward he decided to spring Berran's trap, and as the man moved his next piece forward in anticipation of winning the game, Orlan struck.

In the gap left open by Berran's last move, Orlan moved his Blade Piece forward and Took Berran's General.

Berran seemed stunned for a moment, on the brink of tears but never failing his wounded pride. The once red and yellow bruises lining his face had become a sickly purple, and the bandages over his temples were caked in dried blood. He was silent as the guard escorted him from the room and down to the dungeons, Rolan was grateful the man no longer wailed as they took him away.

Berran had confessed all his knowledge the day the city was taken, but each day he was pressed for more, something new or to confirst what he had already told. Pain was always needed to assure he gave absolute truth, and each day some new piece of interesting information came forward, ready to be worked into that already discovered.

Between his suffereing Orlan had Berran brought to see him in the king's former study. Orlan wanted to judge what kind of a man he was, and to find out more under the guise of kindness. The day before Orlan had retrieved his Conquest board from his stores on the ships, and invited Berran to play. Berran had been quick to learn, and welcoming of the sense of civility, and while the man played worse than a child, it helped Orlan in his judgements.

In the academy they played Conquest daily, often for hours on end. It was an intuitive way to learn strategy and tactics. To understand the mind of your enemy, and the subtly complexity of the battlefield. Orlan himself promoted even his footsoldiers to practice the game, and he himself had been undefeated since he graduated from the Military Academy.

The day he had introduced Berran to the game he made a wager. If the dethroned king were to win even once. He would be free to leave the city and flee to wherever he wished. With whatever family he had left amongst the noble prisoners of the city. Orlan gave his word and so Berran played, and each time he lost and would be forced to endure pain and suffering untill his captors were happy with his pleading responses. And each day it would begin again. The only respite he was allowed was his bed of straw in hthe dungeons and his sessions with Orlan in the early afternoon.

A weaker man would pity Berran, Orlan was bored by him.


When left alone in his chambers, Orlan poured himself some wine from a decanter from the side. The local vintage was pleasing enough, and it would be a while before the finer things began to come through the supply routes from their homeland.

Sipping slowly he looked over the papers on his desk, and went through the reports there. The fifth legion was suffering minimal losses on patroling the countryside, though making little progress in finding their foes. Orlan would have to remind their commander to take a more serious stance in patroling the outlands.

A detatchment from the second legion had finished exploring the southern districts of the city, every faced put under the utmost scrutiny. even th sewers had been thoroughly mapped. A third of the city still had to be covered, but progress was good.

The Shadow Legion had dispatched agents deep afield, and the first reports were expected back inside the next two days.

Brawling had occured after the victory celebrations but there was no lasting troubles, but in precaution the first and twelth legions were to change their housing arrangements and the eighth was to be next on rotations for shorline duty.


When he had gone through the day's relevent notices and finished his wine, Orlan donned his sword and cloak and left to go about the day's business, to see to the new supplies arriving on the docks and to check in with the outriders that would come in during the afternoon.

Some generals complained of complacency, and that the army stagnated in the city. But Orlan was happy enough. they took it in a day and fortified a stronghold for themselves, with an easy supply route and the close lands mapped to perfection. They had made their first move, which still resonated across the land. The next move was for the opposition, and all Orlan could do was wait in anticipation for what would come.
 

Liadan

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The army had been riding for almost a week when word came from the West. The bedraggled youth who reached her was shouting for anyone of authority, and by luck, Niamh had been closest. “I am Queen Niamh of the North,” she said as Anran approached, “and the North rides to your aid. Speak your news.” She gave him her own waterskin to drink from, and he gulped at the water before wiping his mouth.

“Lady, can you and yours ride in time to save King Berran of Somerind? I think not.” His eyes were almost unfocused, and Niamh wondered what had frightened him so. “Not when all of them down to the last babe-in-arms were savagely slaughtered by foreign strangers we have never seen the like of.”

It seemed that the youth – one Weylin by name – was an orphan who trapped and hunted for a living with his brothers. Preferring to live outside of the city, he and his brothers were virtually the only men to escape unscathed. The foreign soldiers had rounded up the farmers, and the three boys had hidden in the woods until darkness had fallen – then had set off in different directions to seek aid. The youngest had gone to King Agi of Thondin, while the middle brother had fled to the South. Weylin had been chosen to run to the North.

She estimated that it was about sixty leagues from Somerind to where the Northern army was now. Weylin’s feet must be sore by now, and she signaled for someone to bring one of the healers to her as he continued his story.

Weylin reported that the invaders were something altogether outside of Amryn knowledge. Black-haired and golden-eyed, they also rode huge eagles. I need the Rasvan, she thought, refusing to show her fear to the rest of the world. I cannot face winged creatures without some on my own side.

But there were ways to counter the eagles. They would rely for the most part on arrows, she knew, and raising shields on their heads would deal with that. If they tried to swoop down, she would use fire. But what could she do against stones, if they dropped those? She needed Rasvan to counter them.

And yet… she did have her own Rasvan, even if there were only two of them. She stood up abruptly. “Anran, I need to think for a while by myself. I’ll be at the tail of the army.”

“When will you be back?”

“In a few hours.” She remounted Smoke and kicked it on its way, brooding on this unexpected development.

While the Northmen did use bows, it was the Southerners who were famed for the longbows and the short horsebows. She needed Prince Khai and his armies here now. More importantly, she needed an army of Rasvan.

Asking for some paper and ink, she wrote out a quick missive to Prince Khai, asking for his assistance and informing him of the latest developments. I should send Zhirran to the South, she decided as Truth and Seer both joined her. Jynariel will be of more use as a scout. She observes far more than her brother does.

After the two assassins had completed their mission, she had told them to remain close by, but hidden from detection. When the army had set out, she knew that the Jynzhi followed behind, walking with a skill that most Rasvan lacked.

She found them after she had ridden out from the confines of the army. Zhirran was rubbing his feet with some sort of salve, and his eyes flashed angrily as he caught sight of the queen.

“I have a new task for you,” she told them without dismounting. “Zhirran, you’re flying south and finding out where Prince Khai and his armies are. Tell them that the invaders have giant eagle-riders, and that we need them here fast. Jynariel, you’re to scout ahead and find out more about these eagle-riders. Remain hidden as much as you can. The invaders probably don’t know about Rasvan, and I’d like to keep them in the dark as much as possible.”

“We never separate,” Zhirran stated.

“You do now.” She took the missive and placed it in a message-tube before handing it to Zhirran. “Before you object, you swore on your parents’ graves.”

That silenced him, although his eyes were shot through with streaks of gold and green. “If he asks who you are, give him a false name and say that you are in my service. Now go.”

The young Rasvan wasted no more time in questions and walked away, his back stiff with indignation, no doubt looking for a clearing to take off from. Jynariel was still awaiting her further orders, but her eyes were still solid black. Evidently, she had adapted to her life of service better than her brother had.

“Spy as much as you can on any sign of enemy forces, especially the riders. Again, be careful; I don’t want you sighted or caught. If it’s possible, lure a rider towards here and kill it. I’d like to see what arms they have.”

“Anything else?”

Niamh shook her head. “You’re intelligent enough to know what I want. But one thing, Jynariel Namadrin,” she said, stopping the girl from taking off as her brother had done. “What do you want? Really want?”

The blackwinged girl stared at her. “No one has ever asked us that before.”

“I do now.”

Jynariel dropped her eyes and said, “What we truly want, no one can give us. And of what you can give us – we want to stop this life of service.”

“And what is this I cannot give you?”

“We want to stop being hunted by Rasvan for our mixed blood. We want to be part of a clan.” She laughed bitterly. “It will never happen. Tell me, Queen Niamh – what will you do with us when you have no more use for us? Uncle Jaereth said that you were a good ruler – ”

You’re Jaereth’s niece? she wanted to blurt out, but managed to restrain herself. Instead, she raised one eyebrow. “I had no idea that Jaereth Andzyl was your uncle.”

Jynariel just shrugged.

“But you are right. I have no power over the Rasvan; I cannot force them to accept you as part of the clan.”

“I knew that,” she said, still sounding disappointed.

“If you want to succeed – and more importantly, survive,” Niamh said, her voice a little distant, “you must remember that life is a game. Some of us are players, and others are pieces. Needless to say, pieces are far more numerous than players. I am a player; you and your brother are pieces. It is for you to serve, and to be used.

“Yet I will tell you this – as long as you serve me faithfully, I will give you a chance for another life. Perhaps it will not be to your liking, but you will no longer be required to kill at my orders.” Before the Rasvan could reply, she turned the horse and left. She did not look back, and Jynariel did not call after her.

A few moments later, when she glanced upwards, she saw a black speck, spiraling upward into the sky.
 

Senekha

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ANKE

Anke had several excursions planned for the following fortnight, the first of which was paying certain nobles a visit. She now flew high above sighting range of the earthbound bearing a course northeast, to the vicinity in which she hoped to find this queen that sought to unite the kingdoms.

After three days of flight, the army in question was finally becoming visible. Standards and pennons of different kingdoms rippled in the light breeze, proof that this queen had had some success in rallying her neighbours.

Anke made no attempt to hide her approach, and when she came within sight of what must be the queen’s tent due to the number of guards surrounding it, she saw something that she had wholly expected not to see.

Black wings pumped into the sky, and the Raven seemed to notice Anke just as Anke noticed her. The stranger continued to rise, but when she was level with Anke, she hovered within a wingspan of her. She said nothing, but her black eyes bore into her own red gaze, and after a moment the Raven continued on her flight.

What was a Raven doing in the earthbound’s camp? She knew the Clan hadn’t agreed to anything with the earthbound, or she would have heard of it. The only way to discover the truth lie in attending the camp herself.

As she began spiral in a descent to the ground, soldiers and commoners alike looked up, whispering to each other warily. By the time she landed before the tent, a regal, somber woman awaited her. On either side she was flanked by snowcats and great wolves, who eyes her suspiciously.

Anke stood silently, her red eyes peering intently through windswept hair. He red and golden feathers fluttered in the breeze. No one spoke, save for several murmurs exchanged between curious guardsmen. The queen broke the silence.

“I am Queen Namh. State your purpose.”

Anke waited for several moments, letting the silence expand into uneasy shuffling among the gathered onlookers, and spoke only when she felt the queen grow in impatience.

“I’ve noticed that you mean to attack these invaders.”

“Since that is obviously not a question, I must ask you to get to your point.”

Anke looked at her darkly, and ruffled her feathers. “You’re ill prepared.”

Niamh’s brow furrowed. “We are prepared as well as we can be, under the circumstances.” When Anke didn’t answer immediately, she frowned and said sarcastically, “I suppose you have a plan that will better benefit my army?”

“I do.”

Niamh raised an eyebrow, but this time refused to respond to Anke’s lack of words. So it was that Anke continued.

”Even with your combined army the invaders outnumber you. In addition, they have the great advantage of the air.”

“We do not have the luxury of wings, as you may have noticed.”

“I can get you these wings, if you will postpone your attack for s few months.”

“How can I trust that you do this? I know the Rasvan generally despise the Children, yet you say you can convince them to help us?”

“I am the first legate of the Red Eagle Clan, and I know that my clan-leader will listen to my words.”

“And how can I be sure you are not acting as a decoy, to give the enemy more time to gain a larger and stronger foothold than they already have?”

“You can trust me, or you can die in battle. I think the choice should be clear.”

“How far can the help of one solitary clan go against such an adversary?”

“Farther than you would survive without us.”

Niamh put a slender hand on the head of a snowcat, and one of the wolves growled, sensing his mistress’s irritation. Anke glared at it, and before the queen could answer, she added, “Do not think you can frighten me with your pets.”

“Oh, but they do enjoy humbling your kind,” the queen snapped.

“They could try.”

“You seem so sure of yourself.”

“Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Do you think that that Raven flies for me of her own free will? She thought as you did, before I had her swear her allegiance to me.”

“Then she was weak.”

The wolf openly snarled this time, and one of the snowcats rose and circled her mistress. “I do not have time to bicker,” she said. She studied Anke for a long moment, then beckoned with her hand. “Come inside, and we will discuss this in private.” She turned and disappeared into the tent, followed by her pets, who didn’t take their eyes from Anke until they were inside the command tent.
 
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Liadan

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Niamh wasn’t as irritated or as shocked as she had pretended to be. All Rasvan were arrogant, and looking at this one, it seemed that she was more arrogant than most. So long as she believed that she held the upper hand, Niamh held something of an advantage, little though it was. She needed the Rasvan; the Rasvan did not need her.

How interesting, though. She classifies Jynariel as weak, but in truth, the girl is strong for being so young. Much more so than her brother.

“I am Queen Niamh Ca’ernin of the North,” she said coolly, “and one of the commanders of the Northern army. I offer you my hospitality for as long as you care to take it.” Beside her, Truth moved restlessly, and she hid a tiny smile. The Rasvan might boast that the greatwolves and snowcats did not frighten her, but in truth, they were the only creatures that were known for killing Rasvan. A single wolf or cat by itself was dangerous enough; a pack was even worse.

“I am Anke, First Legate of the Red Eagle Clan.” Anke sounded as though she begrudged every word.

Dangerous, tough, and skilled in the use of weapons. A pity she’s not as good with using words to manipulate people. Arrogant as well; I’d guess her age to be a hundred or thereabouts.

“You ask me to wait for three months, three months during which more of the people of the West will die. In any case, what can one lone clan of Rasvan do against thousands of these great eagles?”

“More than what you can accomplish alone.”

“It is true that we land-bound need the Rasvan to survive. But the army is assembled; should I then disperse them, send word to both the South and East to disband their men, to leave the West to its fate?” Niamh shook her head. “I cannot and will not do that.”

“Then you will die.”

“Then, Anke, can you ascertain whether these enemies are willing to negotiate with us?”

Anke stared at her, then gave a bark of laughter. “The Children of the Storm live for war, Ca’ernin.” Children of the Storm; she had a name to call her enemies now. “They want only to conquer our land. He wants only to conquer.” She paused before adding, “Their general is not an opponent to be underestimated.”

Fleetingly, Niamh wondered if there was a simpler solution to this war. If she bound herself in marriage to this conqueror, would he stop this madness?

No. I won’t bind myself to a husband, not when it means that the man will have power over me, and that I will be considered only chattel. Never that. Never a marriage, not after Gorin.

Aware that the Rasvan was waiting for a reply, she said only, “They have a canny general, and the advantage of numbers. You tell me that the Rasvan can match his eagles, and we at least know the land.” The Children of the Sun aren’t exactly a straightforward army, now that I think of it. We learned to adapt our tactics to the land. Why not start a guerilla campaign, at least until the Rasvan get here? If we send back the cavalry until later, keep only the foot… “How many Rasvan can you bring in a month?” she finally asked.
 

Senekha

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How many Rasvan could I bring in a month? She knew her clan-leader would listen to her; he always had, and she was his first legate, the one he trusted most, and second-in-command to the entire Red Eagle clan. He had turned his sight from her when she left, giving her an un-spoken, unofficial leave to do as she thought best.

Besides, the Red Eagles always loved a good fight.

So, assuming she could rally the better part of the warriors of her clan, leaving only enough to protect the eyrie…

“Three hundred warriors, from my clan alone. Perhaps more.”

“Three hundred. And the Storm Children have perhaps one thousand eagles, at least.”

“We can defeat these eagles and their riders.”

“You sound quite confident in your clan’s abilities.”

“I know my warriors, and what they can do.” Anke paused. She could count the times she had spoken so much to one person on one hand. Words were not her strong point. She preferred matters that could be settled with a simple dance of swords. “I might convince the Golden Eagles or the Falcons to join us, but not both. One won’t fight alongside the other, but both have good relations with the Reds.”

“There is no way both would join you?”

“No. A few warriors from each clan, maybe, will fight together, but the clan-leaders will not agree to have the clans fight alongside each other. The Golden Eagles are the larger clan, so I will go to them first.”

Niamh seemed deep in thought, then finally gave her answer. “I will wait one month for a full-out attack. However, I will not agree to do nothing during that time. In one month’s time or less, you will bring me your winged support. Those are my terms.”

“The Rasvan will take orders from none but me when they arrive.”

“Very well.” The queen looked slightly annoyed. “But you will listen to my…advice and battle plans, then relay them to your people.”

“We have our own way of operating. We will take care of the eagles, you will take care of the ground troops. Or try to.”

“We must work in coordination.”

“We will tackle that storm once we get to it.” She turned to leave. She heard a growl behind her, and a wolf slunk before her, barring her way. She turned to regard the queen.

“We must work in coordination,” Niamh repeated.

“So be it.” Anke strode around the wolf and left the tent.
 

Crusader

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Mulling over the numerous reports he had, Orlan returned to the map he kept in his study. The large sheet of leather had been painted by a Cartographer from the Academy who had adjoined the return to these lands. Upon the leather was painted the outline of the Land before them, with the city in exquisite detail. All maps in Orlan's army were done to a specific set of guidelines, with a common key, and important strategic areas noted as prominently as cities.

Daily the man would return to start working on adding in what had been mapped by the scouts and the infrequent reports from further afield, as well as details from other maps acquired. Orlan would sit and watch the man paint, each stroke of his brush made victory all the clearer. Orlan found it therapeutic.

It was now, looking over the map he began to think again. The late hours of the night were not to be wasted; epiphanies came and went regardless of the suns position. The Shadow legion's latest word was promising, and as their scouts brought more information to Orlan's study his plans grew. Placing one finger on the map he traced out the troop maneuvers, nodding to himself.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door to his chambers, loud on long. Composing his thoughts and putting away his more important documents he walked into the solar as the knocking continued.

"Enter" He said loudly.

The doors creaked open, letting in the dim light of the torches in the corridor, flanked by his personal guards was Davian, Commander of the Shadow Legion, the part of the army responsible for the darker aspects of a military force. Espionage, assassination, subterfuge, sabotage and in this case, torture.

"I expected you sooner" Was all Orlan said to the man before proceeding to the chair by the balcony.

Davian bowed and followed. "I thought you would want the utmost certainty Lord General"

"Yes, and you have it?"

"Without a doubt, Berran was hours in the chair, admitting, denying.....screaming. By the end....well the gruesome details are unnecessary, what is important is his tales of the winged people are true, not some fantasy concocted to appease us." Davian smiled that wicked smile of his.

"The man is too much of a fool to be making it up, is he still in condition to talk?"

Davian's eyes narrowed. "He should be, I would recommend allowing him to rest for a few days, the work could still fester if he is put to too much work."

Shaking his head, Orlan eyed the man before him. "No, this news is important, bring him here, along with anything you need to keep him lucid and cooperative. Bring Commander Shara too, best she knew of this too."

With a curt bow, Davian left the room swiftly, disappearing into the shadows of the night as he was renowned for. It was near and hour later when he returned with Berran. While the old king told his tale again Orlan watched his face and posture for signs of falsehood, Davian nodded and toyed with a dull knife, and Shara listened intently, as commander of the army's eagle riders she would need to help combat these Rasvan, if they ever faced them.

Berran's eyes constantly watered, likely from pain and torment, but his face was still but for the occasional twinge of pain. Half way to the elbow his left arm was a raw ruin of bare flesh. One of his fingers had been taken off with the skin, the stump twisted and blackened. When Orlan required certainty he would have it, and nothing would stand between him and what he needed to know. Davian has stripped the skin off a bit at a time with his dull knife, with another knife, red hot, to staunch any bleeding. Seawater was also used to agitate the flesh. A strong man would buckle under that, Berran had screamed until the end.

With his tale done, Davian escorted the former king back to his cell, leaving Orlan and Shara to converse.

"Almost unbelievable" was the first thing she said, the 'almost' added by their mutual confidence in Davian's work.

"How do you think our eagles will fare against them?" The main concern on Orlan's mind.

Shara frowned, rubbed her chin once or twice before speaking. "It is hard to say until we see these creatures for ourselves. That man obviously knew very little. Its at least clear that they don’t pose a major threat, their numbers and alliances mean in the unlikely event we face them, we will overwhelm them."

Orlan didn’t like guesses, nor unsupported confidence. "Still, we will need to work on how to combat them specifically; our current tactics are based against a ground based foe."

"Yes, of course Lord General" She pondered again. "In practice at the Academy we would pitch one bird against another, and in mock wars both sides would always have eagles, so we are not unprepared.........We may have some in one of the supply ships, bolts for crossbows with modified heads, used for slaying enemy eagles, the head is like one designed for piercing steel, but with hooks. They go into the eagle and obstruct the flight muscles, or they tangle and shatter the wings. A few good shots can kill an enemy eagle, one should do for these winged people."

Orlan remembered the technique, he had fought in several such mock wars, staged at the Military Academy, though they had not used them then, the principal was sound, but still, they were facing the unknown, and he needed more.

"That should be adequate, but I will not risk mere adequacy, we will need to adapt our forces to combat these Rasvan if they come against us, we cannot risk bad shots and evasion foiling out aerial advantage, we need more."

He didn’t wait for Shara to respond he had it already. "How many hatchlings do you have?"

"Few at best, we brought mainly trained beasts with us, with the untrained ones to come later, we have a few hatchlings, though they are mostly just here as a precaution. Seven? I believe."

"You are to begin training them at once, pick the strongest and fastest. We will need to train these birds to fly riderless, perhaps lead by a mounted bird. Without their riders they should be agile and fats enough to combat the winged peoples with ease."

Shara nodded. "Without the weight of riders we may be able to add some leather armour too, and some addition to their talons to make them more formidable. It is possible, but the hatchlings will be years before they will be ready for battle. Maybe if we brought in some of the birds already in training?"

"Yes, and send word back on the next ship to start the same on larger scale back in the homelands. I want the birds ready as soon as possible."

"At once Lord General."

After that he dismissed the woman and returned to his work. Each day a new layer was added to his plans, and each day they drew closer to fruition.
 

Morgan_of_Salerone

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It was dark when Soasan awoke. Her entire body was stiff and sore, and a faint headache pulsed behind her eyes. She opened them slowly, a brief flash of panic gripping her momentarily before the memory of her capture returned.

She had awoken once already, but had been too exhausted to do more than accept a drink of water and fall back asleep. Thankfully, her captors had noted her exhaustion and allowed for her to continue to rest. Now, however, seemed a different matter, as she noticed the disappearance of one of her two guards. She supposed she should have felt honoured, meriting two guards, but right now she felt more like smacking something. Or crying. Or eating. Maybe all three.

Soasan sat up, rubbing her eyes with hands bound together by a rough length of rope. Her stomach growled audibly, and she felt a flush of embarrassment. Princesses did not have growly stomachs.

No, not Princess, she thought. Queen. Soasan sat a little taller, trying to muster some dignity before she met with any of her captors. It was only a little difficult, especially when the delicious smell of food hit her and made her mouth water uncontrollably and her stomach growl even more.

She was being held in a little lean-to made of a wool blanket stretched from ground to tree branch, and it was from behind this curtain that the missing guard returned, along with a man carrying the source of that magnificent smell. Soasan swallowed, her eyes fixed on the homely bowl of broth the man carried in his right hand, and the loaf of bread in his left. Only as he sat down across from her did she realize it was the trait orous Storm Child who had captured her. She steeled herself against her anger, trying to remain cool and collected.

“I command you to release me,” she said calmly, lifting her chin in defiance.

“I am afraid I cannot do that,” the man replied, breaking off a piece of bread.

“Than I must inform you that I will not cooperate, and there is nothing you can do to change my mind.” Soasan fought back the urge to snatch the bread away from him, if she could. The man began to eat.

“That is a pity,” he said between bites. “Because I was hoping to have a little chat with you, maybe offer something to eat... but if you are truly set on being uncooperative, I suppose you will not take anything I offer, will you?”

Soasan had to bite her tongue to stop herself from contradicting the last part of his statement. When she felt she had control again, she lifted her golden eyes to his.

“I would not wish to be a burden on your humble camp,” she said sweetly. “Nor do I wish for any food at the moment. I have little hunger.” Her stomach, always a rebel, chose this particular moment to growl louder than usual.

“So I see,” replied the man, a small quirk in the corner of his mouth. He was silent for a few moments, obviously enjoying his meal. “Now, there were several interesting things you told me when we first met,” he continued after swallowing. “But one thing you failed to mention was a name. I can't call you “Queenie” all the time, can I?”

“'Your Highness' will do fine,” Soasan answered, ignoring his jibe. “Not that you do not know my name. Every Storm Child does.”

“I am not a Storm Child.”

“Oh, forgive me!” she exclaimed, eyebrows raised. “I did not realize there was a race upon this land that shared the looks of my people.” Although her words were spoken calmly, her mind races away at the thought of that possibility. Could she have really mistaken a native for one of her own? If so, she had given away much, much more than was safe. The man looked at her, silent, an unreadable expression in his golden eyes.

“I have given you something to call me,” she began, taking advantage of his silence. “But I am afraid that I am now at a disadvantage. I still have no name for you. I cannot simply continue to call you... I believe 'Stormie' is the name given to people like you and me?”

Soasan watched the emotions play across the man's face with a small feeling of satisfaction. Perhaps now this "little chat" would get a little more interesting.
 

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Jaereth had known for some time that someone was following him.

Well, two someones, to be precise. He had no idea, though, whether they were working together or trailing him separately.

So the question is – who are they? Rasvan who saw a Raven, or Rasvan who saw Jaereth Andzyl? Because the answers to his questions might threaten his safety, he took steps. Accordingly, once he had landed for the night, he built a tiny fire, ate a meal, then banked it before walking a short distance back the path he had flown before. The glow of the fire should fool his pursuers into thinking that he was asleep.

Most Rasvan, he knew, had great difficulty walking. And most Rasvan did not do much business by night, save for the Owls. He thought that perhaps the gods had not been able to breed that instinct from the Rasvan; when the sun set, birds went to sleep. They wouldn’t suspect that he was sneaking around in the dark on foot.

He was careful not to make a sound on the rocky soil, but he needn’t have bothered; he could see his quarry lying on the ground, wrapped in his or her wings to sleep. He had to squint to make out the shape, for it seemed like another Raven. Black wings blended into the night.

Moving quietly, he crept to the sleeping Rasvan and slammed a fist into his head. As the body slumped, he slung it over his shoulder. Only then did he notice that the Raven was a girl.

She still hadn’t stirred by the time he’d reached his camp, grunting with effort. Lowering the girl to the ground, he rummaged about for some rope then began binding her to a nearby tree, keeping the wings restrained. As his fingers supported her head to bind her neck as well, a light metal object brushed his hand. He bent closer to look at the tiny ornament dangling from her right ear, a black-and-silver feather – a sign that she was one of the Legates of the Raven clan.

So I’ve caught a Raven Legate – Third Legate, judging by the fact that she has only the one feather. Female, too – huh. Oh wait, there was that outrage over the girl who became Third Legate – younger than me, isn’t she? Maybe this is her. He chewed on that for a while as he kicked sand over the fire, deciding that the less the girl saw of him, the better.

Hmm, if I hurry, I can run back and get her belongings too. Without further ado, he set off, and by the time he returned, bearing her weapons and a small pack, she had begun to wake.

“Sun god’s b***s, but that hurt,” she swore with admirable clarity, given that he had just knocked her out an hour ago. “And you’d be Jaereth Andzyl, I assume?” He raised an eyebrow, wondering at her calm when she’d been captured by an infamous outlaw and trussed up to a tree in the dark.

“Third Legate of the Raven Clan. What can I do with you, I wonder?”

She laughed, a free, easy sound that rang with mirth. She’s laughing, with Jaereth Andzyl, when she’s at a distinct disadvantage. She’s crazy, arrogant beyond imagining, or just plain stupid. “Sadai Jhastin, Third Legate of the Raven Clan. If you thought to gain ransom by capturing me, I’m afraid I’ll have to disillusion you. Not many would care whether I lived or died. Most, in fact, would be happy.”

If she already knew who he was, there was no point in concealing himself any longer. Squatting down across from her, he asked, “Why were you following me?”

“I wanted to see what you were up to.”

“And it did not occur to you that I might be – unhappy – at such inquisitiveness, Sadai Jhastin?” He stumbled a little at pronouncing her name, when it sounded like sa-die jas-teen; it was an unusually lyrical name for a Raven. I’ve heard the name before, but attached to someone else. Who?

Sadai shrugged as much as her bonds allowed her. “Well, yes, it did occur to me, but my bro – my family always said that my curiosity was as insatiable as a cat’s.” Why did she change from brother to family, I wonder?

“And you risked your life to satisfy it.”

“I saw the Swan following you, and wondered why. Besides – I never liked Jorv or Halsad anyway.” Another piece of information to tuck away – his other pursuer was a Swan, and not in league with Sadai. At least he thought so.

“You’re too young to remember Jorv.”

“I remember the day they killed Keira Ronsin,” she said quietly. “I was fourteen when Jorv and his men came flying back, laughing about how the Swan girl had gotten what she deserved.” That makes her four years younger than I am – not much of a difference at all. “I remember him for the butcher he was.” The anger in her voice was evident to him, even fifty years later.

“And Halsad?”

Sadai laughed again. “Everyone knows Halsad took the leadership only because everyone else was too frightened to. Frightened of you, I might add. And after you killed him, well – ” She broke off yet again, and Jaereth finally fit the pieces together.

Sadai Jhastin, Third Legate and younger sister to Malyn Jhastin, clan leader of the Rasvan. Jaereth was smiling as he stood up and loomed over the other Raven.

“Tell me, Sadai Jhastin – what would your brother be willing to give me for your safe return?”

Sadai did not so much as blink, but he knew he had her now. Not many would care whether I lived or died. Her brother, he thought, was not to be counted among the ‘many.’ She did not try to bluff her way out, either. A canny strategist, to know when she was defeated.

“What do you want?” she asked steadily. “Gold? I can give you that myself. If it is to be allowed to return to the Rasvan, I can speak with my brother about it. It is more than likely that you will be allowed to do so.”

Briefly, he toyed with the idea of taking the Raven leadership for himself, then decided against it – it was far too risky. Most Ravens would not accept him, anyway. Far better to strike a bargain with Malyn Jhastin. Although Sadai Jhastin might be Third Legate and a seasoned warrior, she was no match for Jaereth. It would be easy enough to blackmail the Raven clan leader into doing as he desired and keep Sadai as surety.

“What I want is for the Ravens to fly to war against the Storm Children and aid Niamh Ca’ernin, Queen of the North.”
 

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For years Julian had brushed off the oddity of his appearance as a freak of nature, as if it didn’t bother him, but the Storm Child’s words brought back a flash of confusion and discomfort. For years he had endured jibes that claimed he was not the son of his father, that he was adopted. Others claimed he was a bastard and thus procuring his colouring as a sign of disloyalty from the gods.

It was one of the reasons he left his household, abandoning his family and noble life for the life of a mercenary.

“’Stormie’”, he said, “is a name we call the invaders.”

“Invaders?! We are not invaders; we are coming home.”

Julian snorted. “Your people then have interesting methods of homecoming.”

“A group of my people came across the Crimson Sea fifteen years ago, in an attempt at peaceful negotiations. Before they reached land they were attacked by a fleet of the sun-haired people, and nearly destroyed.” He voice shifted between heated and regretful. “My brother was among those who died. He sacrificed himself trying to save a boy. Both were lost to the sea.”

She continued to speak, but her words were lost to Julian as he remembered vividly the strange dreams that had haunted his sleep for as long as he could remember: the smell of salt, the feeling of a thousand pounds crashing down on him, and most of all, the sense of complete and total helplessness. Then darkness followed. Always the darkness.

“Are you even listening to me?” The woman’s voice jerked him back to the present.

He grit his teeth, forcing away the unwanted thoughts. “I was born and raised here. I know nothing of your people save for some details of how you fight, and how you die.”

The young woman gave him a strange look, and finally said softly, “So you really have no idea who I am? You truly did not come with us across the ocean?”

“Truly.”

The woman shifted her position, then asked in a curious voice, “Your accent does sound strange to my ears, so perhaps you are telling the truth. You also speak like a noble; who are you in this land?”

Julian gave in. “I am Julian Tranahan, though I left my home years ago. This,” he gestured around, “is my home. I live on the road, with my men, and it is a good life.”

“Julian,” she said, as if testing it as a wine connoisseur does wine. “I am Soasan ro’Avrheini, Queen of the Storm Children and true heir to our throne.”

“Queen. As I have given you my true name, I must assume out of respect to your honour that you speak the truth as well.” So her rave earlier on was not completely staged. He still resented being called a tr****r, however. “Pray tell, what was a queen doing, flying all by her lonesome in such condition as we found you?”

She narrowed her eyes at that, and he braced himself for another explosion.
 

Liadan

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Jynariel had managed to keep calm until she was in the sky, but once she started flying, all of her rage came to the fore. Yet the sight of a Red Eagle streaking by her shook her from anger. Exchanging cold stares, Jynariel assessed her as a dangerous warrior – but unlike her, the Eagle would do her fighting in the open; she was no assassin. With a tiny nod to acknowledge another predator, she surged upwards into the sky, wondering exactly how she was supposed to fulfill this mission when her other half was gone.

Zhirran. Brash and impulsive he might be, but he was her twin brother, her only friend and confidant. She felt strangely bereft without his presence at her side, and once again cursed Queen Niamh for sending them apart – but more than that, defeating and outwitting them.

Nonetheless, she had sworn an oath, and she intended to keep it until the day Niamh Ca’ernin died. It never crossed her mind that she might die before Niamh did.

All right. My mission is to gather information without getting killed. Simple enough. I’d better do most of my flying at night, though. She doubted that the eagle riders had the enhanced vision that Rasvan had; although the Owls had the best night-sight, all Rasvan could see far better in the dark than other races. Besides, she was less likely to run into the eagles this way.

Come to think of it, she had left quite a few useful supplies in Uncle Jaereth’s house – and that was only an hour’s flight north from here. Veering off to her right, she let the wind smooth away her irritation until only resolve remained when out of the corner of her eye, she saw a red speck rising from the Northern army.

The Red Eagle. Who can it be, I wonder? Although Red Eagles and Ravens were ancient enemies, she was curious as to who this Red Eagle was. Besides, she wasn’t technically a Rasvan anyway, given that she belonged to no clan.

Wait… did I or didn’t I see a blue tattoo of rank on her jaw? Although Ravens wore an ornament in their ear to signify rank, she knew that the Red Eagles, at least, used tattoos, little though she might know of Rasvan custom.

Overtaken by a sudden recklessness, she turned towards the Eagle. Perhaps she would have information that she did not. In any case, she was interested in meeting another Rasvan that she had no intention of killing – at this time, anyway.

A few minutes of hard flight put her within hailing distance of the Eagle. Apart from raising one red eyebrow, the Eagle did not respond save to slow down her speed. “Jynariel Namadrin,” she called out.

“You do not name a clan?”

“The Namadrin are part of no clan.” Despite the fact that she truly did want to be part of a clan, there was a sense of pride in it as well. Most Rasvan relied on their clans to help support them. She and Zhirran lived alone, and were truly independent of inter-Rasvan politics.

Her lip curled a little in disdain. “Anke, First Legate of the Red Eagles. What business do you have with me?”

Jynariel smiled just a little. “How much do you know of these eagle riders?”
 

Morgan_of_Salerone

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“Pray tell, what was a queen doing, flying all by her lonesome in such condition as we found you?” Soasan narrowed her eyes at this, noting – to her annoyance – that Julian seemed to brace himself, almost as if for a wind.

“That would be a condition I am still in, thank you,” she snapped. “And seeing as we have been having this “little chat” for quite some time now, an offer of food or drink would be most appreciated!”

"And I would appreciate a little more background on the hostage I'm about to feed, in the event that a horde of angry Stormies swarms my camp in an attempt to get you back. I don't know what scheme you have gotten yourself into, your highness, but I will wager it's a political mess I'd rather not be involved in."

Soasan laughed, a mirthless sound.

“You are in this mess whether you like it or not, Julian Tranahan. You look like one of us. If he finds you, he will kill you for desertion, and if not, he will kill you simply because you live here.”

“Who is 'he'?” asked Julian, his eyes narrowed.

“Orlan Silvermane,” Soasan replied simply. “He killed my father and now he is trying to kill me, before the nobles who still may be loyal to the royal family discover I am here.”

Julian gave her an incredulous look as if he couldn't quite believe what he was hearing.

“You're the queen of your people, and they don't even know you're here?”

Soasan shrugged.

“My father forbade me from crossing over with the soldiers. I was to remain in our land, safe, should our return fail.” She glanced up at him and flashed him a smile, her golden eyes gleaming mischievously “As you can see, I chose to disregard that order.” Her smile dimmed a bit, and she looked away.

“I joined the army as close to the hour of departure as I dared, masquerading as a man. We lost one of the eagle riders to the sea, and I was promoted because of my size. My father also rode a great-eagle and led us in our first battle, so I was not far from him by its end. When I saw him fall, I ran to him. Only the people nearby discovered I was a woman. I was dirty, I was smelly, and I was dressed in soldier’s clothes and covered in blood. Even if they realized I was a woman, how many men would think I was the princess? To me, it seems more rational to think that one would have believed I was simply some mistress brought along, or a love-sick woman. Regardless, Orlan hid my presence from the rest of the nobles without my knowledge. To those that heard me call the king 'father' I know not what happened. I only realized something was wrong when his men tried to capture me as I walked among the army. He had murdered my father who lay wounded in his bed, and he wanted to me to assume complete control over the army. Even before, he could exert great power over the army as its general, and from what I have seen of him, his ambition knows no limits. Regardless, I do not truly know if it is him who is behind all this. My source was… delusional.”

Soasan banished the memory of her last encounter with Torren, his life draining with terrifying speed from his broken body as she interrogated him. A wave of hopelessness washed over her. She was alone in a hostile land, with no allies to speak of. Everyone had failed her, and now she, in turn, was failing everyone.

“All we wanted was to come home,” she said in a small voice. “We just wished for a chance to live.”

There was a moment of silence, and Julian shifted uncomfortably.

“Soasan... would you care for something to eat?”

Soasan looked up, surprised.

“That,” she said slowly, “would be most appreciated.”
 
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”The Namadrin are part of no clan.” Anke curled her lip in disgust. There were several such families of Rasvan, living apart from the clans. It was selfish and foolish, as Anke saw it. They were those who gave the Rasvan their bad name among the earthbound, making their living from the scraps the earthbound gave them.

But then again, she herself had deviated from the norm in personally taking to the fight against the invaders. As first legate her duties were only to her clan-leader, with whom she should be with always. However, her clan-leader, Jaktin, and she had come to an agreement, of sorts. He had not specifically given her permission to leave, but he had made it known that her leave-taking would be duly ignored, should she return within the year.

Anke looked hard at Jynariel. “Follow me,” she said emotionlessly, and without looking to see if she was followed, she turned to land. Nearby was a rocky crest overlooking the surrounding lands, and it was there that Anke landed.

She heard the other Rasvan land softly behind her, but waited several moments before turning around. As she turned, she leveled her gaze on the Raven – rather, the rebel Raven, for no one outside the clan could truly be called a Raven. She waited for Jynariel to speak.

“What can you tell me of the eagle riders?” she repeated.

“What do you want to know?”

The Raven’s answering grin was hard and fierce. “How they die, for one.”

Anke shrugged. “They die as easily as all men do. I’ve killed over a dozen myself.”

The girl sighed and rolled her eyes in an exaggerated manner, and she suppressed the urge to challenge the Raven. Anke held back a satisfied grin at the girl’s response. “Specifics, Anke. I need specifics. More to the point, how can groundwalkers kill them?”

“Why do you care so much about whether the earthbound live or die? You could leave if you are frightened of these invaders.”

Rage flashed in her face before an icy mask settled over her features. Oddly, her black eyes had grown streaked with silver and blue; it was quite a disconcerting sight. “Big birds don’t frighten me. Besides, we swore an oath and we’ll keep it.”

So that’s why the girl was at Ca’ernin’s camp. But… why we and not I? Tucking the question into the back of her mind for now, she said, “Why did you swear an oath to Niamh Ca’ernin?”

“It’s a long story.”

Anke stared at her for a moment, then said, “It’s your own business, but it’s a disgrace for Rasvan to serve groundwalkers. You should just kill her and be done with it.”

“An oath is an oath.”

Anke shrugged again. “You said you wanted specifics. Stormies – ”

“What?”

“Storm Children,” she clarified. When the Raven stared at her blankly, she said, “You didn’t even know what they were called?”

“We haven’t seen another Rasvan in weeks,” Jynariel said, “and the Children of the Sun know next to nothing of these invaders.”

We again. “Their general should not be underestimated,” she warned. “He’s a cunning opponent, and what’s more, he has the advantage of numbers. They have double the men of the Children of the Sun, if not more. I don’t know how good a general Ca’ernin is, but were I she, I’d seek another land and flee.”

Abruptly, the answer to her question came up. Namadrin, Namadrin – it’s whispered that there’s two of them, the girl and her twin brother Zhirran. Why isn’t he with her? She continued, “They use weapons of all kinds, light ones – a good arrow could kill any of them. A Traian longbow would work – or the Southern armies of the Children of the Sun. As for Rasvan, I wouldn’t close in, not unless you’ve got another twenty Rasvan with you.” Anke had rarely spoken so many words to so many people as she had in the past several days. Shaking her head, so made a mental note that she should return to her clan soon, if only to speak with her clan-leader.

Jynariel nodded. “Are you going to ally with Niamh?”

“We’ll see.” And that, Anke felt, was enough information for the Raven. She might be outcast, but Ravens and Red Eagles didn’t have the best of relations anyhow. “Good luck, Jynariel Namadrin.”

“Fair skies and clean winds,” Jynariel responded with the archaic farewell.

“And the same to you.” And with that, Anke lifted off into the sky.
 

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"perhaps it was the damp" Davian concluded to himself, looking over the madness in front of him, never wavering for a second.

On the floor of the dank cell, against the wall, Berran lay, the blood covered flesh of his hand sprawled to one side. He was deathly pale and shaking, vomit trailing from the corner of his mouth, pooling around his head. The only sign that he was alive was the slow steady rise of his chest and the tears running across his deathly face.

His wound had taken a fever, the camp surgeon had done little, as little could be done, washing his hand in boiling wine, usage of some of the stock of medicines, but it seemed berran had given up the will to live. Orlan couldnt blame him, but he was still dissapointed.

Davian snorted, the air in the room was foul. "The last compresensible mutters he made are in a report on your desk Lord General, he was a useful source but now he's finally cracked" A smile blossomed on his face. "Usually theyre uselss after this, only real torment can shake them back from madness, though its a rarety. I would love to try though."

As twisted as Davian was when it came to his work, he was immensely useful. However, Orlan did see one last use for berran to fulfill before he was done with him. Then the man's pitiful existence could be ended, to the pleasure of all.

"Do your worst, but keep him alive"

He swept from the room then, to see to his errands.

-------------------------

Today Orlan had to see to the inspection of several quarters of the city, his personal command of the army never ceased. A good general always knew his men as well as his enemy. A great general never forgot a thing.

Surrunded by his personal guard, he rode down the cobbled streets on horseback, keeping an eye out for the mood in the air. Here and there soldiers wandered the streets, carrying equipment or running in haste, somewhere else they trained in a yard.

Despite having the majority of his men stationed within the city walls, he made no room for idleness. Training was the mainstay of the soldiers day, besides administrative work and fortifying the defences, in the recreational time they were left with, it was strongly encouraged that they played Conquest, to sharpen their minds. However not all soldiers were as keen as that. a passing glance in an alley revealed a footsoldier and a female eagle-rider exploring alternative means of entertainment.

Ahead the docks were heaving with men. Today another ship had arrived from the homland carrying supplies and reinforcements. The slow trickle of support making their victory ever more certain.

Orlan decided to exend his inspection to the ship and its cargo, trotting his horse down to the gangplank and dismounting.

On first inspecion there was an array of indistinguishable boxes, climbing up to the deck Orlan approached the captain.

"Lord General!" the man saluted, Orlan put him to ease with a nod.

"What cargo are we unloading today captain?"

Blinking the pan produced a roll of parchment from under his arm and unrolled it, hanind it to Orlan to be read, yet he recited the contents as well.

"horse armour for newly aquired mounts from this land; three crates. Arrows, bolts and darts, Five crates. Assorted oils, candles and tools; Two crates. Two ingots of high grade steel, four of iron. We also have an abundance of dried fruit and meats, casts of liquers and wines. those are going up to the palace immediately my lord."

Orlan nodded along blocking out the rest, a glance at the sky showed the sun creeping down from its apex, he had an appointment to keep.

Slapping the captain on the shoulder with a heavy hand Orlan nodded tot he man. "Good work, see personally to the delivery of your goods to the palace, I hope you will join me in testing out the new vintages you'e brought us." It always paid to reward good soldiers.

After that Orlan retured tot he streets, making a quick ride north to the city gatehouse, officially to inspect the newly added fortifications and reinforcements made to the walls. In truth Orlan had paid close attention to their consturction since day one, another visit would be pointless, today he was going to do something else.

Within the gatehouse, up the stairs in the winch room for the portcullis, Assian, Orlan's squire awaited. He looked nervous, orlan was dissapointed.

"I take it you havent found her yet."

"No my Lord"

"And why is that?"

"She made it into an isolated forest some distance away, there we lost her. Several of my patrols went missing as well as eagles under my command. It seems the place is a nest of vipers, guerillas from the nature of the attacks."

The boy was observant and sharp, of that at least, Orlan was pleased.

"What are the chances that the princess has been slain by these guerillas?"

Assian paused a moment. "Now very likely, but it may explain why my patrols were unable to find her."

"Dead or alive, find her, Falure will not be tolerated. Orlan left then.

---------------------------





As the sun set Orlan enjoyed the sweet wine brought up from the docks, a small taste of home. The captain had since retred back to his lodgings and Orlan, Shara and Davian stood around the courtyard.

Davian smiled with satisfaction.

Shara was stuck somewhere between a frown and revulsion. Eyes narrowed. "What......Is this?"

"A message" Orlan commented, turning to enter the palace. "Send it"
 

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Surprisingly, Sadai Jhastin proved to be a pliant captive. She did as she was ordered and bore the restrictions Jaereth placed on her with good humor. She did, however, draw the line at providing information on her brother. Jaereth supposed that she knew that he might one day use it to kill Malyn Jhastin.

Although he had considered forcing her to talk, he had for some reason balked at raising his hand to a girl near ten years younger than he was. You’ve grown sentimental, some voice inside him whispered. Time was that you wouldn’t have cared who you hurt.

Their progress was slow; he dared not bind her arms or legs if they were to fly, and it would be all too easy for her to flee in the air unbound. So they walked. Sadai was unused to walking so much, and frequently stumbled or caught her wings on the bushes. Jaereth, who had trained himself to be as adept on the ground as the air, had far less trouble, and often had to slow his pace for his captive.

Sadai made not a single attempt to escape or to kill him. Perhaps she was wise enough to know when she was outmatched, for she never did anything that could be taken as remotely threatening. She answered his questions to the best of her knowledge, and he sometimes asked questions that he knew the answers to, to see if she was being honest. He never caught her in a lie.

Yet if he asked something that might pertain to Malyn, she shut her mouth and refused to even look at him. The moment he changed the subject, she started talking again, but on this, she held firm.

It took them five days of hard travel to reach Raven lands, and during that time, he learned far more of the Ravens than he had ever known. Jorv and Halsad had been terrible leaders, but Malyn, while no genius, was a good clan-leader. The Ravens had grown from a clan of roving thugs to a disciplined one of warriors. It helped that all three of his Legates were personally loyal to Malyn; when Sadai mentioned the other two’s names, he recognized both as strong opponents to Jorv.

More importantly, Sadai told him that Ravens had already sighted the eagle-riders and that Malyn was calling a meeting to discuss it. Jaereth, determined to make their decision for them, pushed Sadai to her limits to make it there in time.

Along the way, he sent silent prayers of apologies to the wraith of Keira Ronsin. Had everything gone as planned, he would have been able to observe the full one-month rites. Still, the rest of her family was there to do so –

They aren’t the ones who killed her.

Jaereth stuffed that thought into the back of his mind and kept walking.

The night before they reached Raven lands, he asked Sadai as to how they would react towards him. “You’d do better to send a message to my brother,” she said after a moment. “I’ll write it out for you.”

“Why are you being so unusually cooperative?” he asked warily. There was a faint possibility that she could code her letter, asking for help.

“Because the Ravens are likely to sit on their hands and do nothing, and we can’t afford that,” was the surprising answer. “Eagle riders attacking the Children of the Sun? I couldn’t care less about your Queen Niamh, but what will they do afterwards? The Rasvan are too few to battle them all, especially when we’re estranged by our constant conflicts.”

“Heh.” He could tell that Sadai was telling the truth. “And Malyn?”

Sadai sighed. “I love my brother and I’ll give him all my loyalty, but in some ways, he’s blind. He’s likelier to leave the Twenty-four kingdoms to their fate.”

“And if I threatened to kill you?”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

He had a knife out and at her throat before she could blink. “Make no mistake, Sadai Jhastin. You’re an interesting girl, and I’d regret killing you, but I’d do it without a second thought if it was necessary.”

He could tell that that shook Sadai; perhaps she had not expected that he would willingly kill another Rasvan for the sake of a Child of the Sun. “I quite understand,” she said in a steadier voice than he had expected. “I’ll write that letter if you’ll give me ink and parchment.”

Malyn,
To make a long story short, I’ve been captured by Jaereth Andzyl, and he’s holding me hostage. He wants the Ravens to fly to Niamh Ca’ernin and fight those eagles we’ve been hearing about. I know that it has never been our wont to do so, but we must fly Lukylo’s winds and do as Jaereth advises, for at the end of the long battle is the burning river.
Sadai


“Lukylo’s winds and burning river are two of our codewords,” she explained. “Malyn would be upset if I told you, but invoking both together mean that the entire clan is in trouble, and I gave him the instructions to avert disaster for the Ravens.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have tie you up again while I deliver the message.”

She shrugged resignedly. “Whatever’s necessary, I suppose.”

After securing her bonds to a tree, he took off with the message. Slipping past the guards with ease, he went directly to the clan-leader’s cave. He knew where it was, after all, given that he had assassinated its two previous occupants.

The Ravens were asleep, but Malyn was awake. When Jaereth entered the room, he said without turning around, “What is it, Aya?”

“Don’t make a sound,” Jaereth warned. “I’ve got a knife pointed straight at you, and you’re nowhere near good enough to take me on your own.” He paused. “Put your hands up in the air, then turn around.”

Stunned, Malyn did as he ordered. “Jaereth Andzyl?” he asked, all color draining from his voice.

“Yes. I’ve got a message for you.” He read it aloud to him.

“Lukylo’s winds and burning river?”

“Yes. Sadai explained what those mean, so you’d better do what I tell you. Now you’re coming with me, and you can talk to Sadai yourself. Don’t try anything funny,” he said as they took off in the air.

“I value my sister’s life too much for that,” Malyn said stiffly, and then only a few minutes later, they had landed in the clearing.

Sadai was smiling when they reached her. “Hail, brother,” she said, sounding cheerful. “Did Jaereth read you my note?”

“Yes.” He moved a little closer to Sadai, but she said, “Don’t do that. I’m fine, and Jaereth’s treated me kindly. I’d rather not die now because you’re too close to me.”

Malyn nodded and drew back. “So you think I should do as Jaereth wants?”

“Yes. Not because he’s threatening to kill me, but because the Rasvan could be annihilated if we don’t do as he says.”

“Then I’ll do it. My other two Legates want to go to war anyway.” He turned to Jaereth then. “We’ll be there in a week’s time.”

“That’s fine. You’d better go back now,” he added. Well, that was easier than I’d expected. I guess Malyn wanted to go to war himself, and he just needed an excuse.

“What about Sadai?”

“She comes with me,” he said at the same time Sadai said, “I’m going with him.”

Both of them turned to her in surprise. “What?”

“I said I’m going with you,” Sadai said calmly. “My brother will need a report on these invaders, and as Third Legate, I’m qualified to do that.”

“Then I have your word that you won’t try to kill me?”

Sadai shrugged. “Why would I try to kill you? I don’t want to die yet, myself.”

Malyn seemed unhappy. “Is this what you’re determined to do, Sadai?” he asked.

“Yes, brother.” She stared at Jaereth then. “Well, do you trust me enough to release me?”

Jaereth crossed to Sadai and squatted beside her, his blade cutting through her bonds. Rubbing her wrists with her hands, she said, “You’d better get back before anyone notices you’re gone, Malyn.”

With a short jerk of his head, Malyn flew off without further ado. Sadai stared after him. “That was easier than I’d expected,” she said at last. Walking to her packs, she picked up her weapons as Jaereth stiffened. But all she did was sling them over her back, and he relaxed.

“Oh, and by the way,” she said as Jaereth gathered up his own belongings, “that girl who was trailing you came to visit me while you were gone. Her name’s Sahira Ronsin, and she’s out to kill you.”
 

Liadan

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When they found him, the greatwolves Courage and Terror were the first to start howling, and the snowcat Patience added his peculiar shriek to the din only moments later. As Niamh had been busy in a conference with Mhari, Aoife, and Haldan, Prince Anran had ridden ahead to investigate, and galloped back with a gray face. Excusing herself, she went to go find Anran and ask him what was wrong.

Unable to shake a coherent answer from him, she whistled for Truth and Seer and touched her heels to Smoke. Courage, Terror, and Patience finally quieted when they scented her, and rubbed their heads against her when she dismounted.

Niamh was stunned when she saw what was left of what had once been a human being. The only reason why she was able to identify the mangled wreck was because of the crown – and even then, it was uncertain. About the only thing she could be sure of was that Berran of Somerind needed a healer. “Courage, find Cerwyn,” she said, staring at the wolf in the eye. “Where’s Cerwyn? Find Cerwyn.”

Repeating the command several times, he finally understood and with a pleased yip, bounced off. All of her beasts knew the healer, and the acerbic woman held a curious affection for Niamh’s creatures. Courage would bring Cerwyn soon enough.

Glancing down to examine Berran, she wished she hadn’t. Berran’s arms were stripped of skin and nailed together, with the lower half of his body ripped to shreds and bone so that he was barely more than a torso. He was a morass of scars and opened flesh, and for the crowning touch – she winced as she realized the grotesque pun in that – they had nailed his crown to his head.

She realized that there was very little that even Cerwyn could do, and crouched down beside Berran, trying to ignore the putrid stench rising from his body. “Niamh,” he managed to croak. “Listen.”

She only nodded, trying not to say things like, You’re dying, Berran.

“Somerind – captured. Enemies. Orlan. Storm Children.” His eyes were flickering open and closed. “Army – outnumbers you two to one. Have eagles. Well-planned, well-led. Should run, Niamh. Better to run before Orlan – ” He stopped to wheeze a little, and Niamh wished that she dared to give him water. “ – catches you. Invading Amryn is – challenge for him. But Amryn – home for his army. Storm Children – were here long ago. Read histories – learn.”

She couldn’t resist asking the one question. “The Storm Children were here long ago, and then they sailed across the sea? And now they’re coming to claim our land for their own?”

“’S.” The almost childlike shortening of “yes” angered Niamh, for some reason. “I – was only message. Only lesson. You – he captures. Dunno what he wants.”

“How much did you tell him?”

“Everything.” He looked pleadingly at her. “So sorry. But had to.”

To tell the truth, she couldn’t blame him at all. Anyone would have broken under the torture he had been put to. On the other hand, Berran, as King of Somerind, knew quite a bit, and it would give this Orlan access to information that she would rather he didn’t have. Even worse, Somerind was one of the centers of trade in the Western Kingdoms.

She supposed that she was lucky that the Western people knew little about either the Rasvan or the Traian. Orlan’s knowledge of Amryn would have more than a few gaps in it. But Berran’s knowledge of the Twenty-four Kingdoms could be disastrous.

“Go beyond mountains,” he whispered. “Safer there. Better to run away. He said – ‘Tell them that you’re a message.’ ”

“What message?”

“Dunno. Interpretation – is up to you, I think.” He started wheezing again. “Want to rest now.”

She nodded. One last question before I leave him to the long night. “Who did this to you?”

“Davian. Orlan’s orders.”

“You will be avenged,” she promised him, holding the dying man’s hand as his breath slowed. “Go in peace.”

By the time Cerwyn came, Berran of Somerind was dead.
 

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