The NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. All you have to do is write a 50,000+ word novel in a month.
This is the ninth and suitably epic final installment of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series. Like all good series finalιs, it calls back to many incidents and people that the series has encountered before - some of which are included here.
Book IX of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series.
It took most of the day to arrange all the necessary transport for the Company, so Alys decided they would depart at first light the next day. The men were annoyed at having to have their Westnight celebration on the road, but Alys really did not want to waste another day, nor march at the head of a column of hungover troops.
The road north out of Hadin was relatively good and well-maintained. Nevertheless, it was winter, and the weather deteriorated the further they went. The Company's speed consequently worsened, and by the time they reached the border with Turnobae, sixteen days had passed. The road had been running through a large forest for the last four days, and the border was marked by a shallow ditch either side of the road. There was a clearing where the road actually crossed the border, to leave room for the border post. There were tents beyond the border post, where a platoon of extra troops were encamped to help guard the border. The irregular pitter-patter of rain through the branches gave way to the steady hiss of rain on open ground.
The guard captain came out of the border post at the sound of hooves. "Halt! Identify yourselves!"
"Captain Alys and the Burning Rose Armed Company, returning from a mission in Ras Natara."
"The Burning Rose? We've been told to expect you." He turned and shouted towards the tents. "Hoy! Alvyssa! Your guests have arrived!"
A figure emerged from one of the tents. She was wearing an arming doublet and boots, and she shielded her long red hair from the rain with her arm. She glared at the Company briefly, then called back to the guard captain. "Let them in to the border post, I'll be out in a minute!"
She disappeared back into her tent, and the guard captain turned back to Alys. "Alright, you heard. Officers into the hut, the rest can wait out here. On our side of the border, if you please."
Alys nodded, and turned to address the men. "Alright, everyone over the border! Stay in the clearing!"
The Company filed across the ditch and dismounted, as Alys led the officers into the border post's hut that served as both office and barracks. A few minutes later they were joined by Alvyssa, in full plate armour. She sent out all the border guards before speaking to Alys. "Captain Alys? I'm Captain Alvyssa of the Order of the Fox. King Dashell sent me to meet you." "New orders?"
"Only insofar as to escort you to his position. The army is assembling south of Marisenne, and they will move south through the mountains into Demona before the end of the month. Forces from Yalkat and Inpokkar are travelling by boat down the coast to Doronatha, and the Moratian army is marching through Galorndan and northern Turnobae directly into Doronatha. The Chalgan army is split, half coming by sea to Cholbug, then upriver to Marisenne before following our army through the mountains, the other half is marching overland to Marisenne and likewise going through the mountains."
"So, King Dashell is at Marisenne?"
"Yes. But we are unlikely to reach him before the army begins to move south, so we are to follow the border east until we reach the road that has been built leading into the mountains from Marisenne."
"A new road? When was it built?"
"King Dashell ordered construction to begin four months ago. Progress has been good, but the road is still narrow, and does not quite reach the border. However, it will speed up journeys between cities in Turnobae and Demona."
"Good. Do you know if my father and his men have arrived?"
"I understand the Doronathan cities are assembling their armies separately they are not part of the Alliance."
"Yes, we know they're self-interested fools, but my father was coming to Darash before the invasion. Do you know whether he's arrived?"
"I do not. Lots of mercenary bands are seeking employment with the Alliance, though, many of them deserting their Doronathan contracts to do so. Your father's may be among them."
"Oh, that's not good," Cullan said. He others looked quizzically at him. "If Doronatha's not joined the Alliance, nor even uniting against the invasion, they'll be walked right over one-by-one. More than half of Doronathan military strength is in mercenaries in one form or another, so if the mercs are leaving their contracts to join the Alliance, it means the Doronathan cities are going to be even worse off."
"Why would they do it though?" asked Morgan.
"Mercenaries don't like to lose," Kenyon answered. "They'll see the Alliance as having a better chance of winning and even if it doesn't, it's a bigger army than the ones employed by the city-states of Doronatha. If you're in a big army, there's less chance of you personally getting killed."
"So the Sword Bearers will just march up the Doronathan coast, rolling straight over anything in their way, and anchoring the line of their advance deep inland, probably on Beyol," Cullan continued, thinking aloud. "By the time their right flank has reached Akallmil, they'll have taken care of Beyol and started pushing up to Madrada. If Hadin keeps out of it which they will they don't even need to watch their left flank. They could push right through Demona without worrying about being flanked, and by then their right flank will have probably got to Oryan. They'll probably think those mountains will secure their right flank, and they'll start swinging round to push west. Probably even concentrate so the Alliance does the same, and draw a big battle somewhere between the Forest of Akallmil and the Ridgeback Mountains. And that's where the dragon will hit them, finish them off."
"How do you know all that?" demanded Alvyssa.
"I know the shape of my homeland," Cullan replied.
"But that's almost exactly the campaign plan His Majesty is counting on!"
"He is? He's counting on Doronatha being walked over?"
"I don't know. But if you can work it out, it means the enemy will be able to do so as well."
"Fat lot of good it'll do them. With the shape of the country in Demona and Doronatha, they don't have much choice on how far and how fast to advance where, the only variable is how much the Alliance can slow them down without being too big of a target for them to send in the dragon. You said the army's assembling at Marisenne before marching south?"
"Yes. The armies are remaining separate, but in constant communication with each other via the Mage Corps. His Majesty is conducting the overall campaign, and will direct troops to where they are most needed, but I understand the initial objective is to reinforce Madrada, and to put up enough opposition in the Gottamar Forests that they slow to a crawl."
"So that's where the Inpokkari and Yalkatian armies will be landing. And presumably the Moratian army will be following the main trade road, then spreading out to cover the gap between the Doronathan plains and the Forest?"
"I wouldn't know," Alvyssa said.
"But Dashell will," Alys added. "Where does He want us? We're a small company, but we'll go wherever we're needed."
"You'll have to ask Him," the knight replied. "We really should be going soon, it'll be a tough slog to get to the Ridgebacks and still be in time to meet His Majesty."
"We'll depart after lunch," Alys agreed. "Thank you for filling us in on how things stand."
"His Majesty said you would want to know, so he directed the mages to keep me updated."
"Do you know how far the enemy has come so far?"
"Panadua, Doronatha and Teret have fallen," Alvyssa replied. "Beyol is under heavy siege, and is not expected to last the month."
"The dragon burned most of Beyol the day after Westnight. Two days later, it burned Doronatha, and the next day, Teret. Those cities surrendered, but Beyol held out, mostly due to the Knights of the Green Cross. We expect that Cassa has already fallen, and we will hear of it any day now."
"Shit," Kenyon muttered.
"Today's victory was easier than most in the future will be," Dashell told the room full of envoys, advisors, officers, and nobles. "It has also made us a target. I am reliably informed that the dragon is attempting to burn out the last pockets of resistance in Beyol the Knights of the Green Cross have a formidable headquarters within the city, and they are refusing to yield like the rest of the city. I have reason to believe that Princess Isabella has taken refuge with them as well.
"The Sword Bearers' stubbornness in wanting to eliminate the Knight of the Green Cross is both expected, and a boon to us, as it ties up valuable numbers of their troops who otherwise would be advancing across country to conquer elsewhere. However, as soon as they become aware that the siege of Madrada has been lifted, they will likely send troops or more likely, the dragon to neutralise the new threat to their north.
"In as little as two days, the dragon could be here. The army must not be concentrated here at that time. Anywhere the dragon is, is where the army cannot concentrate, for the dragon can kill or maim hundreds of soldiers in a single pass, and suffer no harm in return. The dragon must not be allowed to destroy the main body of our forces in that way. Until we have something that can counteract the dragon, we must strive to avoid it, not confront it.
"Tomorrow evening, I will take my troops who are here, and begin advancing along multiple paths towards Beyol. If it is at all possible, we will lift the siege on the Sanctum, but I doubt it will be. We will function chiefly to distract and draw the dragon away from the other contingents of the Alliance Army who will be coming through the mountains to the north of here. It is essential that they be given the opportunity to deploy against the Sword Bearer army in the field. If they head directly east from here, they will be striking directly at the Sword Bearers' advance through Doronatha, and making their way across country to meet other Alliance forces marching in from the coast. I do not believe that they will be able to do more than slow the advance of the Sword Bearer army, particularly if they need to disperse to avoid having the dragon called down upon them. It should, however, be safe for them to retreat to join up with yet other Alliance forces coming from the north as long as they do not concentrate."
"And what of You and Your forces, Majesty?" asked a female voice echoing with centuries of breeding. "Will you allow Yourselves to be cut off here in Demona?"
"It should not come to that, Princess Elena, and We will take every care to ensure that it doesn't. Myself and my forces will attempt to relieve the situation in Beyol, and if we cannot, we will fall back to Madrada and defend it as best we may until the time comes to abandon it."
"Abandon Madrada?" the question came from two dozen lips, in various tones of shock, disbelief and anger.
"Yes, abandon Madrada," Dashell confirmed. "I have just told you that we cannot remain concentrated unless we want the dragon to destroy us. We will need to hold this city in force concentrated if we wish to hold onto it for any length of time. Since we cannot do that, the best we can offer is a dispersed screening action to delay and deflect and Sword Bearer forces that are sent in this direction. Eventually, Madrada will fall. Before that happens, you may begin evacuating civilians and those who cannot fight through the mountain passes into Turnobae and Galorndan. I have already ordered refugee camps to be established throughout eastern Turnobae and provisioned If all goes well, it will be safe to return within six months-"
"And what if all does not go well?" demanded Princess Elena. "You seem incapable of even planning to retake the cities that have already fallen to the Ras Natarans that are more than a few days' march away! How are we to have any confidence in your ability to defeat the dragon and rout the invading army within six months?"
"You were warned, Princess, some months ago, both directly and indirectly, if memory serves. Your beloved city of Doronatha will be retaken in time, but as you and the other members of the governing council declined to involve yourselves in the organisation of this Alliance, I see no reason to be in a particular hurry to over-extend our limited forces attempting to capture objectives that cannot be held."
"How dare you! I would never betray my city by neglecting its' defence!"
"Elena, you are a disgraced petty noble who only carries the title of Princess as a courtesy to your ancestors!" Dashell reminded her. "Your machinations regarding Lord Panacles' son landed you and your cousin in disgrace, as if you weren't in enough trouble after that business with Juntor and Cajon four-and-a-half years ago! You are only here as a courtesy, due to your honorary rank and the intelligence your brought about enemy troops in Doronatha, so unless you have something useful to say, I will oblige you to shut the Hell up!"
Princess Elena tried to glare back at Dashell, but she just wasn't in his league. She shrank down into her high-backed chair and tried to be inconspicuous, not an easy task given her bright yellow-and-blue livery surcoat.
"Thank you," Dashell said, and continued. "As I was saying, if all goes well, refugees should be able to return home within six months, and by the time we are required to abandon Madrada we should have been able to fortify the mountain passes so that they will be impassable to any enemy. Refugees from Doronatha will also be welcomed into Turnobae, and Galorndan if necessary. I have sent missives advising citizens of Akallmil mainly the Elves in the south to take refuge further north in their country, and to forget that those who are providing their refuge are Dwarfs.
"It is likely that southern Akallmil will also be invaded by the Sword Bearers before we can neutralise the dragon and subsequently bring the Sword Bearers' army to battle. At the moment, despite the few victories we have had, we are still outnumbered at least two-to-one overall. With commitments to holding the passes through the Ridgeback Mountains, and maintaining a front line across six hundred miles of countryside, I doubt that when we bring the enemy to battle at midsummer that will have changed much, although the forces that will be heading into Doronatha should be able to reduce their numbers somewhat. I also do not believe that the Sword Bearers make as extensive use of mages as we do, so that should be another factor in our favour."
There was a long moment of silence as the plan sunk in, and then people began shouting questions. General Kael bellowed for silence, and got it. He looked at Dashell, who gestured to someone at random, inviting them to speak.
"Your Majesty, what if you lose the midsummer battle?"
"That depends on how badly it is lost. I am hoping to inflict sufficient defeat on the Ras Natarans that their main strength is broken however, should they inflict similar losses on us, we will be all-but wiped out. The worst-case scenario is annihilation of all Alliance forces, leading to an eventual total Sword Bearer victory. The best-case scenario in the event of losing at midsummer, is to draw the enemy north towards Morat, and be able to offer battle again at another strategic choke-point."
"But what if they ignore you and head west, through Turnobae to Chalgan?"
"Then we will keep engaging their rearguard until they do follow us north. Next question," he pointed at someone else.
"What of Hadin? What is their part in all of this? Will they join us, or will they side with those that share their religion, the Sword Bearers of Ras Natara?"
"Hadin has pledged neutrality every single time I, or any other ruler, has sent representatives to determine their allegiance. Caliph Gygax is much less devout than the Sword Bearers, and must balance the wishes of the various nobles that make up his court. Go too far one way or the other, and he will not be Caliph or breathing for very long. I am advised that his neutrality will be permanent, unless one side or the other invades. We have no wish to initialise a second front in this war, and the Sword Bearers will be reluctant to attack another nation of M'hushtlamites, as it may cause morale problems with their troops. The only reason I can foresee that the Sword Bearers would invade Hadin for, is if the Alliance gives them a cause such as sending troops through Hadinese territory on purpose, with or without the Caliph's permission. And in order to maintain neutrality, the Caliph will not grant such permission, either to us or to the Sword Bearers." He selected someone else. "Yes?"
"You keep implying that there is a plan to destroy the dragon," said a man in the livery of Panadua's City Guard, "yet you won't tell us what it is."
"And you wish to know what the plan is?"
At Manvil's prompting, the four of them bowed, and stayed down until Enola came to each of them and lifted their chins. With Alys and Morgan she was perfunctory, firm, and dismissive. With Cullan and Kenyon, she was languid, teasing, sensual. She turned her backs on them and walked to her chair, hips swinging, as Manvil signalled that they could stand straight again. As Enola folded herself into the throne, she beckoned with a be-ringed hand, and a zombie near the wall shuffled over.
"Bring the Master of Horse and the Mistress of Calfs to me. Take your time." The zombie executed a stiff bow and headed down the steps. As soon as it was past the humans, Enola spoke again. "So, who are you, and why are you trespassing in my realm?"
"I am Alys, a mercenary. These are my companions, Cullan, Kenyon, and Morgan. We were unaware that anyone claimed these lands."
"Oh dear, so tiresome." Enola sounded snippy, and her eyes were narrowed. She turned her head so that she addressed Cullan. "Can you not speak for yourself?" she asked in a far more pleasant tone of voice.
"Your pardon, milday. We did not realise this was anyone's realm."
"It isn't. The surface world above for leagues around is no one's and nothing's." She laughed melodiously. "The one place where my realm and the surface world collide is in the ruins of the city above us. There have been so few visitors these past centuries, and suddenly there's practically a deluge. I had to create more servants just to deal with them all."
"They may be fleeing the war, milady, or seeking treasure."
"War? Has war come to the upper world at last? Oh, but there have been plenty of wars in the surface world over the decades, but none have spawned such an increase in visitors until these past few months."
"It's a very big war, milady. Religious fanatics in Ras Natara are intent on subjugating all of the North, and have woken a dragon to assist them."
"A dragon!" her eyes gleamed, and she unfolded enough to lean forwards in anticipation, hands braced on the arms of the throne, legs parted. "So my cousin was right, they did sell the egg!"
"If they did, it was some time ago. The dragon that the fanatics call the Sword of M'hush is no hatchling, not by a good few centuries."
"'The Sword of M'hush.' What a pretentious name. And you say they are making war with it?"
"Yes, they are."
"How many men?"
"A hundred thousand answer to the fanatics, another fifty thousand to the North."
"Oh, it shall be glorious!" She sat back, breathing heavily. "I wonder who I can persuade to remember it for me?" She jerked forward again. "You say they come seeking treasure? Why?"
"There is little that is known of this place, save that it used to be a great city and capital of an empire. They maybe hope that when the empire fell, some of the treasures it had accumulated were overlooked by the victors."
She laughed again, a cackle this time. "Oh, there are no treasures that were overlooked! My mother collected them all!"
"Do you know what she did with them? If you tell us, maybe we can stop the treasure hunters and afford you some privacy?"
Enola returned to her lounging position, her right foot absently kicking the air. "Ohh, you are a clever one. Here for treasure yourself, but not expecting anyone to be home. Do you know anything at all about where you stand?"
"Only a little about the city on the surface, and of the empire it ruled."
"Then you know nothing truly nothing of the history of this land."
"Maybe Your Ladyship would care to enlighten us?"
"Yes! Yes, I would care to do exactly that!" She let her head loll back and hummed a brief tuneless dirge to herself. "To begin, then! My great-grandmother had this fortress built over two thousand years ago. She was a very great sorceress, far beyond even my abilities which are great indeed, I warn you. Of course, back then, there were very few people here to help her with it, so she ordered her family to help, and together they raised an army of the dead to dig out this underground city. The task complete, my family returned to their far-off homes, and my great-grandmother settled in, with her apprentices and servants and soldiers.
"In time, the abominations that walked the land were exterminated, and both my grandmother and great-grandmother learned how to cast the seal that kept them away. My great-grandmother took a liking to the holy knight who sealed this area, and so she kept him. Once he had taught her the sealing spell, she planned on draining him and adding him to her entourage, but his piety saved him, and he escaped. My great-grandmother pursued, and neither were ever heard from again.
"So my grandmother became ruler of this demense, and she encouraged the living among her servants, and those who lived on the surface nearby, to join together and build a great collection of dwellings above her palace. My grandmother's name was Syllika, and so they named it in her honour. In the time it took for the rest of the world to be sealed against the abominations, the city grew to impressive size, defended and maintained not only by the inhabitants, but also by the followers of my grandmother. And one day, there was no need to re-cast the seal, and my grandmother divined that it was because the last abominations had disappeared, and the whole world above was sealed against them forevermore, save when someone with talent and the right persuasion chose to Summon one back.
"She told the inhabitants of the city above the good news, and they held a revel to celebrate. Oh, such a revel it was! Processions, feasts, orgies, executions! Everything! And at the end, the man who called himself their leader declared that they would take their might on an armed expedition to the rest of the world and bring back the choicest meat to sacrifice in my grandmother's honour.
"My grandmother was flattered, but forbade them from mentioning her or the hidden city. 'Declare I am your God, and this place your Paradise,' she told them, and they obeyed. Their armies swept the world clean, and for half a century, men and women were returned to this underground sanctuary to be used by Syllika however she wished. And then, the rebels came.
"My grandmother did nothing to help her people. After all, was she not their God? Could not these people, who sacrificed to her, who killed for her, who copulated for her pleasure, defend themselves? And would not every man, woman and child who died, on either side, would they not ultimately die in her name? Of course they would, and they did, in glorious massacre after glorious massacre!
"When the rebels reached here, we discovered that their leader, their so-called military genius and saviour, was none other than one of my kin? Not direct family, but a Bael-folk nonetheless, and one who knew the truth and was jealous of the adoration she was held in both above and below ground. She allowed the city to fall, giving not one morsel of aid to the defenders. The great city built in her name was burned, and unable to face the humiliation, my grandmother chose to burn with it.
"And so my mother became ruler here. She secured the borders and sealed the gates, and rescued those few faithful servants of the surface-city's nobility who had pleaded so strongly for my grandmother's assistance. It was my mother who founded the underground community that Manvil here currently leads. It was small at first, but over the centuries it has grown, a functioning, flourishing, underground community, just as dedicated to the Mistress of the Realm as their ancestors were.
"My mother grew pleased with her success, and indulged in ever greater pleasures for herself. Such was her depravity, her last five births were single children, and had to be killed for the good of our kinfolk. Almost all of the others fled their home as soon as they were able, and set up their own communities to serve their needs elsewhere. In the end, I and my brother tired of her excess and killed her. We impaled her on a trident and my brother set a slow fire in her toes, and I set a slow rot in her head. She took a full day to die, and we burned the ashes and scattered them in a pit. To celebrate, my brother and I fucked each other for a week, and then I killed him, so he wouldn't entertain any foolish ideas of ruling jointly. I was young then though, barely two centuries of the world. If I had the chance to seize power again, I would not have had my skeletal legions cut my brother into bits and burn them all. I think if I did it not, I would seal him in a cell and never feed him, just wait for him to starve! Pity."
She leaned forward and looked brightly at them. "What do you think?"
With barely a hesitation, Cullan replied, "I think it was most informative and enlightening, Your Ladyship. We are in the presence of a master orator and skilled governor."
Enola simpered and leaned back on her throne again. "Good. It is so pleasing when people know who is superior and who isn't."
There was a commotion from one of the side galleries, and several figures burst in. "Mother! How dare you not invite me to meet the guests!"
A young woman dressed in the style of a Turnobanian noblewoman came down the stairs at the head of a group of skeletal warriors, and a couple of burly young men in leather armour.
"Ynroh! What do you mean by bursting in like this! What would your brother think?"
"If I hadn't followed in your footsteps and killed him last summer, he would asking why you didn't invite him to meet them as well!"
Enola sighed and theatrically pointed at the mercenaries. "Fine! Ynroh, these are the new guests, Cullan, Kenyon, Ally and Mog. Now get out!"
"No, I won't get out, mother! This is my home too, and I am your heir, so I have just as much right to meet guests as you do!"
"My heir?" Enola sprang to her feet. "What makes you think that, young miss?"
"I'm your oldest child still living in this rats' warren!" Ynroh stopped in front of the throne and deliberately turned her back on it. She smiled sweetly, and at this range they could see her cat-eye pupils and hexadactyl hands clearly (as well as some remarkably intricate tattoos on skin that, had her dress been true to the original design, would not have been visible), and greeted the four of them by name, before spinning back around to confront her mother, who had not stopped their argument.
"You're my only child still living in this labyrinthine underground palace, girl! And I've a good mind to cut your head off and have some peace and quiet for a dozen years until the next one pops out!"
"Oh please! You need someone of the blood living here in case you manage to get yourself torn to bits, so that the place keeps working and your grandmother's legacy is kept alive. You won't even try to kill me until I'm thirty!"
"I can see to it you'll be dead by my own hand before midnight, you ungrateful brat!"
Ynroh snapped a hand up and flames coruscated over her fingertips. "And I can see to it you'll be dead by my own hand within a minute! Shall we have a race?"
The two of them glared at each other in baleful silence for several long seconds. Finally, Enola sneered and broke eye contact. "Fine! You can have a private audience with them after the Master of Horse and the Mistress of Calfs have had a look."
"Acceptable," Ynroh sniffed. She turned away. "I'll be waiting in the games room," she said, and with a signal to her escort, stalked away.
Enola waited until her daughter had left. "I'm sorry about that, the little slut-bitch is only nineteen, you know what they're like at that age. Now, where were we? Ah yes, the history of this settlement! And you said you liked the way I told it, and I was about to ask you if you had any questions?"
"Well, ma'am," Cullan began, "I did ask if you knew whether there was any treasure to be found, so we could tell the treasure hunters where it is and stop them trespassing?"
"Oh, no, there isn't. Any treasure that might have been saved by the dwellers of the surface city are all now safely down here."
"Oh? Then it would be best if we made it known in the surface world that there is not treasure to be found here. If you would be so kind as to re-unite us with our equipment, we will not trespass further on your time."
Enola tittered as she sat back down. "Oh dear, what an awful impression you must have of the place! No, my dear, there's no need for you to return to the surface. The more people disappear, the fewer will come here. It's as simple as that, really. No, dear, you and your friends will spend the rest of your short lives here, serving me."
"That may not be possible, Your Ladyship, King Dashell requires us to report back to him regularly."
"Report back? Whatever for? What are you doing here in my realm, anyway?"
"We are hunting deserters from his army. Every soldier counts in the war against the fanatics."
"Really? Well that's his problem then, isn't it? Now that you're here, you'll stay down here. You'll get to like it, I promise." A door near the bottom of the main stairs opened. "Ah, and here's the Master of Horse and the Mistress of Calfs. They'll help you settle in."
They turned to look. Following the zombie that had been sent to get them were a man and a woman. The man was wearing leather sandals and a giant brass codpiece, the woman a long plain dress of grey wool, with a finely-embroidered pattern around all the hems. They trudged up the stairs, the two humans stopping at the top and dropping into bows, the zombie shambling off to where it had been standing before.
"My Lady," the man said. Like Manvil he was tall and pale, but had not of the refinement of Manvil's manner. The woman just bobbed a curtsey.
"Ah, Silas, Elata. Here are four new residents, two for each of you. Your assessments?"
"Assessments? Assessments for what?" Cullan asked as the two newcomers looked them over, including occasional grabbing.
"For where you are to serve, of course," Enola replied, waving a hand airily. "You're only guests for the first day, after that you have to contribute to our community."
"What happens if we don't?"
"Then you go back to prison, and I and my daughter take it in turns feeding on you until you are dead. It means the Stock gets disappointed, but they last longer, and that means they have the chance to breed more."
"I think we'll be co-operating for now," Alys told them quietly.
The two officials completed their examinations and stood to attention in front of the throne. "My Lady," Silas began, "we have here two excellent specimens. The large one is strong and sturdy, and will be of excellent use in the forges or mine. The small one is in very good shape, and would be an asset to the Stock unless you have your own plans for him?"
Enola looked Cullan up and down. "Not yet, Silas. He may be of use as a plaything later, but for now just give him light duties."
"Very good, Milady." Silas stepped back, and Elata began to speak.
"My Lady, these two are very different. The red-haired one is strong and agile and of fiery temperament, she will be an asset to the Stock. The dark-haired one is not as pliable of body, but she seems quick of wit and is the younger of the two she has room for development. The Stock will enjoy her, but I recommend improving her physique before she is placed there."
"Very well," Enola said. She stood again, and swept her hair behind her back. "Master of Horse: The large one, Kenyon, is to go to the forges. The other, Cullan, is to be given light duties among the Stock until I send for him. When I tire of him, he will join the Stock in full. Mistress of Calfs: The angry one, Ally, will join the stock give her to Cullan to practice on. The small one, Mog, will be exercised and fed until she can join the stock full time." She sat down again. "Now take them to the games room, my daughter wants to see them."
All three servants bowed, and the mercenaries quickly followed suit. Then Manvil led them off towards the left gallery, with Silas and Elata following.
They took Ytemiah and Pargella's supplies with them, as well as all their money and Powerstsones. Then they headed quite some way into the woodland before mounting up and riding hard for the coast. They only stopped when the light faded, and started travelling again at dawn. The short night and the long day meant they reached the coast around lunchtime, then they turned right and headed for Segurida. They decided to stick to the coast as much as possible until they reached at least Bizen, to save time. It took them three days to clear the forest and the hills, and another day-and-a-half to get to Segurida. They decided to skirt the city and not risk entanglements, and therefore delays, with the outlaws. They arrived in Bizen the next day, and found lodging and stabling. They had been riding hard since the day of their escape, spending at least fifteen hours in the saddle each day. They were exhausted and sore, and their horses were pretty much good for nothing after more than a week of long hard days. They spent the entire next day resting, and in their second morning in the city, Cullan managed to exchange the horses for fresh ones, in addition to nearly all their money.
They now had four good horses and twelve dollars between the five of them. This wasn't nearly enough to keep them alive on an eight hundred mile journey, and since Salazia had lost all her equipment when she was abducted, she had to come with them, and without a horse she would slow them down against an already-tight deadline. Midsummer was only three weeks away, and they had to travel across the full length of Turnobae to meet with the Alliance's army near where Dashell wanted to draw the Ras Natarans into battle.
"We'll just have to steal another horse and any supplies we need," Cullan said. "Foraging enough for us and the horses is going to slow us down too much."
"Agreed," Alys said. "But if there's a noble's estate we can rob on our way, that'll make things easier."
"Do we want to be hunted for lots of little thefts from people who can't do anything about it, or do we want to be hunted because of one big theft from a nobleman who can afford to raise a hue and cry in every town from here to Dentrassi?"
"Rob a mansion, Cullan that's an order."
They were riding northeast across country, heading for the road to Marillion. From Marillion, they could follow the main road along the River Rune right up to Esoultou, where the road split to Darash one way, and Marisenne and Neuor the other. Dashell had told them he planned to bring the Natarans to battle somewhere between Neuor and Lesab on midsummer solstice, and it would take them about twenty days to get to Neuor if the dry weather held and they were not slowed on the road.
While still riding hard, they took it easier than they had on the first leg of their journey, only ten hours in the saddle instead of fifteen. That meant there was still a few hours of daylight left when they finished riding for the day. They used the time to forage what they could, and look for places they could steal from during the night. On the second day, the reached the road to Marillion at mid-afternoon, and they took full advantage of the packed earth surface to get as many miles under their hooves as possible. That night, Cullan and Kenyon rode back a few miles to a noble's country seat they had passed, and, in the light of a moon two nights after full, liberated a horse, a large sack of oats, another of hay, and a full set of silver cutlery and plates. The next night, Morgan melted into invisibility the coat of arms that was engraved on each piece so that they had anonymity enough to sell them without raising suspicion.
It took them another two days to reach Marillion, where Cullan was able to get a good price on the silver. They spent a good portion of the proceeds on sending a magical message to King Dashell, informing him that the Tiara had been retrieved and was being brought to Neuor by road, and was currently in Marillion. They did not leave their names, just in case Dashell was still after them. They then left the city in the evening and got another dozen miles before sunset, to try and catch up on the distance they had lost with having to stop in the city.
The road between Marillion and Trion ran along the north bank of the River Rune. Trion provided a crossing point, and eastwards from there the road ran on the southern bank of the river. After Esoultou, the road no longer followed the river as closely, but they didn't want to follow the river, the main branch of which turned northeast, and Neuor was due east. They reached Esoultou in ten days from Marillion, and since it was the evening before a night with a new moon when they saw the town walls, they decided to spend a few of their dollars and stay the night at an inn.
At this point they had a decision to make. Neuor was due east, but the road went northeast to Setipiors and Darash, but after twenty miles branched southeast to Marisenne, before going on to Neuor. They would undoubtedly be able to go faster on the road, but it would add about fifty miles to the distance they needed to travel. Even with the higher speed they could go on the road, that still meant an extra day's journey at least. Also, they were starting to see refugees on the roads, which would only get more clogged with them as they got closer to the war front, which would slow them down. However, the roads had a token guard against bandits, and there were lodging houses and travellers' inns along them, which would be invaluable if one of the horses threw a shoe or went lame, an ever-increasing possibility the longer they rode them without break. In the end, Morgan pointed out that midsummer solstice was now only seven days away, so they decided to go across country, as there would be tracks they could follow which, while not providing as good a surface as the main road, would still be quicker than crossing fields, and would save them valuable time. That night, just to be on the safe side, Morgan privately Mind-Sent to General Kael their position and plan of approach.
They set off early the next morning almost directly east, and carried on riding until they crossed the road to Marisenne. They camped by the side of the road, just outside the refugee camp they found had been established in a roadside village. The villagers were not happy, and the refugees were scared, hungry and bewildered. There was not enough food in the area, there was only a token guard on the camp to ensure it was safe, but nowhere near large enough to police it, and the mercenaries' camp was disturbed at least three times by people attempting to scavenge.
They rode on at dawn again, and kept pushing hard. Near the end of the second day after crossing the road, they came upon it again, now heading due east, towards Neuor. Their fears were justified the roads were packed with refugees heading the other way, and they found the only way to make decent progess was to have Morgan ride at the head of their group, casting the Illusion of an angry wizard throwing jets of flame around to clear the way the refugees cleared out of the way themselves rather than staying on the road and forcing the party to a crawl as they pushed against the tide.
They started riding long days again, fifteen hours in the saddle. The flow of refugees dropped to a trickle during the second day, and their speed picked up again. They managed to get to Neuor by mid-afternoon of the fifth day since leaving Esoultou. Their horses were completely spent again, and they were physically drained themselves, and the midsummer solstice was tomorrow.
© Brian Wakeling. GURPS® is © Steve Jackson Games.