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Breaking Bread

Year 30AA, early Winter, Ha-Dûna...

Clement du Pierre stood alone in the dark of twilight, dressed in his finest clothes and equipped with a basket of fruits, vegetables and small pots of spices. He wore a magnificent white cloak of wool, treated with felgar oil to make it resistant to the winter elements. His green linen shirt, coloured with the juice of mashed grass, needed help from a wool-reinforced vest of buffalo skin, gifted onto him by a Nubveian friend. His pants were of borak skin: thick, heavy and well-suited for the snows that would be here any day. His boots were expertly cobbled from the skin of bearfish, oddly elastic and soft despite years and years away from the sea. Atop his head, a finely waulked bonnet of goat’s wool imported all the way from the distant land of Cúibarsear, brought to Ha-Dûna through great Fìrinn’s mirror. Somehow, it sat more majestically atop his bronze-haired head than any hat of local wool.

He was alone. He had been escorted here by his cousin and her siblings - brave members of his hildargeach, but he had been asked to come alone, after all, and his word was his chain. He stood before a great door fashioned from wood - a rare sight even in Ha-Dûna. Its frame was carved beautifully with imagery depicting the tale of Jeanix Blanche’s battle of wits against the troll sorceror Mysticka, a favourite around clan Blanche hearths. Clement studied the details of the shining woman’s face and its contrasts to the demonic troll hag’s mug in the scene where Jeanix solves the sorceror’s riddle. He pondered whether he should have his own clan’s myths enshrined in wood in this manner.

The bar on the other side scraped against the inside of the door and it was pulled open, revealing the bald, smiling, mustached face of Charlix of Blanche, who took a bow and drummed his chest in salute. “Clement, my prestigious colleague and friend - welcome to Maiseonne Blanchease.”

Clement returned the gesture and bowed a little lower, though his movements were rougher than his counterpart’s. “Charlix, my fellow mórthéin and brother of different blood - thank you for the invitation.” He tilted his head up to study his host - at first glance, one could make the mistake of assuming that Charlix wore poorer clothing than Clement, dressed as he was in a simple shirt knotted together at the collar, a blue and yellow tartan kilt and long, woolen stockings under a pair of wooden shoes. However, the shirt had a sheen to it unachievable with both wool and linen; the kilt was held up by a belt buckled with gold tied into intricate knots; the stockings were of felgar wool; and the shoes were fashioned from an exotic sort of lumber that few in this area even knew the properties of.

“Please,” said Charlix with a grin. “Come inside. You must be freezing.”

“Oh, no, no,” Clement replied politely and kicked the first snows off the underside of his boots before he stepped inside. The inside of the Blanche tún longhouse, the legendary Maiseonne Blanchease, was a wonder of architecture: Three decades of ceaseless timberwork had resulted in a hall large enough to house twenty people comfortably, kept warm by not one, but two hearths. All along the walls hung colourful carpets and animal pelts; many such also decked the floor. The house was so large that, in addition to the main hall, the two ends of the longhouse were their own separate rooms - to the south, the largest room, the laird kept his animals in the winter, and already, Clement heard the grunts and bleats of curious sheep; to the north, Charlix had built a separate storage for food, which combined with another hearth into its own kitchen, allowing for the main hall to exclusively be used for feasting and, for the guests, sleeping. The host and his family would sleep on a sort of second floor, which had been built above the storage room. Clement marvelled at the structure and passively said, “I’ve been quite fine, but thank you.” He gave the air a sniff. “Oh, what are these smells?”

“Do they draw your interest?” chuckled the host as Clement’s cape was taken by a young lady dressed in a beautiful blue and yellow, tartan-patterned linen dress, topped with a woolen vest around her torso and a kerchief around her neck. She offered the guest a smile and walked off. Clement blinked.

“Was that your Beatrice?”

“Not quite,” answered Charlix and guided him over to a decked long table between the two hearths, full as they were of dancing flames. “It is my Enguerrand’s wife, Aranrhod, though I can see how they resemble one another.”

“Enguerrand’s wife, huh…” mumbled Clement as he placed his hands on the back of one of two chairs, each situated on opposite ends of the long table. The table sported a wooden plate for each of them, a linen cloth, a spoon and gilded drinking holds. The table between them was decked to the brim with bowls of fruit, pots of porridge, plates of meat, baskets of cakes and jugs of drink. Clement swallowed at the sight. “What, uhm, what clan does she hail from, then?”

“Leona,” answered Charlix. “That old vixen Branwen sure knew how to ensnare my boy with her daughter, that she did. She wasn’t cheap on the bridal gifts, either.” He sighed and pulled out his chair to sit down; Clement did the same, though he naturally let the host be seated first. “But alas, as a father who loves his son, who would I be to deny him the love of his life?”

Clement nodded. A young man came over to him with a bowl of ash and a small basin of water. Clement briefly dipped his hands in water, then pinched some ash and rubbed it over his hands before quickly washing it off again. The young man bowed and returned to whence he’d come. As he tried his washed hands on his kerchief, he asked, “I couldn’t agree more, my friend. So, will your son be moving to the Leona tún, then? I seem to recall Aranrhod is the oldest of their flock.”

As the young man returned to pour them drinks, Charlix shook his head. “Nnnno… No, I don’t think so.”

Clement raised a brow and lifted his now-steaming horn, filled three-quarters full of something warm. “Oh? Well, why not? I’ve heard the Leona tún is a most satisfactory estate - I’m certain your son will be blessed to live there together with his wife and children-to-come.”

“Oh, certainly, certainly,” Charlix agreed, “but my Guiscard has said he would be willing to offer him the other house - the one on the hill - should he choose to stay and become hildargeach.”

Clement nearly spilled his drink before he could take a sip. “And Branwen agreed to let her oldest and heir marry into a different clan?!”

A smirk lifted one corner of Charlix’s mouth as he dipped his lips into his drink. “As I said: The bridal gifts were not cheap.”

Clement put down his horn, left fingers catching his forehead ponderously. “Does that mean that their tún will pass unto--”

“Gods, Clement!” scoffed Charlix and chuckled. “Of course not! Do you mean to assume that I am out to unite all of Ha-Dûna under the Blanche? No, no, the estate will pass to little Conall once Old Branwen passes on, I reckon.”

“Conall? Oh! Yes, yes, of course… Right, since last winter…”

“Aye,” Charlix nodded solemnly. “Shame about that cough. Cian would’ve been a worthy second choice after Aranrhod. Alas, the Bone Serpent must have his due, as the Mink say… Try the wine, by the way. It is most exquisite!”

Clement blinked down at his horn and picked it up again, giving the rim a sniff. A warming scent amplified by the rising steam and vapours of alcohol filled his nose with memories of autumn, of wandering aimlessly through berry bushes and sneaking whiffs from the spice boxes of foreign merchants at the market. He gave the drink a sip and felt himself grow light. Such sweetness and fullness had he never before tasted in, well, anything - it was magnificent, a work of culinary art. Affording himself a second, longer sip, he eventually lowered his horn and stared wide-eyed at Charlix. “What in the gods’ names is this?”

“You like it?” snickered the host. “Marvelous - I have been dying to share this cask with someone for ages. This, my friend, is Caefirite grape wine from the Gold Coast - bought it from an Arraki merchant some weeks back. You can tell it was made by artisans using only the finest ingredients.” To illustrate his point, Charlix savoured intently his following sip. Clement, on the other hand, seemed to have fallen off at “grape”, for he had never heard of such a fruit, as he presumed it was. He decided not to pry, though, and sipped his horn again, the flavour forcing him to close his eyes in pleasure.

“Mm… Oh, by the gods, your clan has come a long way since you drank curdled milk and muddy water back in Old Brasforts.”

“Hoho, my friend - we are miles beyond that now. After all, this city is meant to be the Jewel of the North, is it not? The former sanndatr was archaic in her understanding of wealth - what we need is a proper aristocracy, someone with means to invest and develop this land!”

“Hear, hear,” Clement mumbled passively into his horn, eyeing the food hungrily. Charlix followed his gaze and chuckle.

“O-ho! Where are my manners! Please, my friend - eat, eat your fill! Everything on the table is for us, after all.” He helped himself to an oatcake and some stewed meat. Clement blinked.

“A-all of this is for us? Charlix, this could feed a warband.”

Charlix raised a brow at him. “Point being? Come on, eat now.”

Clement furrowed his brow to the point where it fused together into one flat line, but he wasn’t the kind to stare a gift horse in the mouth. He scooped some stewed meats onto his plate, helped himself to some potted carrots, grilled onions and oatcakes. He gently dipped a cake in the stew, topped it with a piece of onion and carrot and took a bite. A million sensations assaulted his tongue simultaneously and he had to block his mouth shut with his fist as his body had almost instinctively assumed such flavours and textures couldn’t be natural. Chewing slowly, he savoured each and every one - the cake had a wholesome warmth and roundness to it, a theatre of flavour compared to the dull ash loafs he ate at home; the meat stew offered salt and umami, followed by a burning sensation that made him reach for his drink; his hand was stopped, however, as the sweetness and acidity of the carrot offered respite; and the onion finished off the experience with the sort of gentle, sugary flavour and jammy texture only hours of cooking could achieve. He struggled to swallow, for his mouth wanted to preserve the flavour for as long as possible. Across the table, he caught Charlix’ smirk. At last, he managed to swallow and said,

“... This, this food…”

“A product of the labour of this world’s many peoples and cultures, my friend,” the man answered with calm and satisfaction. Charlix snapped his fingers and Aranrhod came out into the room again.

“Yes, Father?” she asked politely and bowed.

“Bring the spice box, would you? The mórthéin is curious about the flavours.”

“Yes, Father.” With that, she walked off again, turning the corner to enter the kitchen. Clement pursed his lips.

“The spice box?”

“Why, of course! A meal like this would be unachievable without the gold of the west, as they call it.” Aranrhod returned swiftly with a box of similar dimensions to a sheet of cowhide used for writing. It was about as deep as a regular drinking cup, and she carried it with both hands. Stepping over to Clement, she opened it, revealing to the guest what Charlix had meant by “the gold of the west”. Inside the box was a four-by-six grid of separated rooms, each containing its own little pod, bead, grain or twig of spice, herb or flower. While all of it had been dried for preservation, they still had an aroma unlike anything that grew in these parts. They had all been neatly sorted so that each spice had a room to itself, though it was clear that Charlix and his family favoured some over others. Clement picked up a roll of what appeared to be bark and gave it a gentle whiff. The sensation was so unfamiliar to him that he had to sniff it again. Charlix chuckled. “Do you like it? A Doserung merchant brought me that - said he had bought it from the Hacuáins from the Prairie Sea. And that’s not all - supposedly, the Hacuáins acquired this from a distant continent, further away than any Dûnan has ever travelled - the mythical land of Mithia.”

“Mithia,” mumbled Clement. Charlix nodded.

“Supposedly, there, the men and women walk in the night and sleep in the day; their skin is as blue as the sea, and they have ears like frightened rabbits. They tattoo their skin to frighten their enemies and divide society by this very same ink. There, insects as large as the terrorwasps of the distant east have formed a great empire. There, all employ magic similar to Bastian sorcery to fuel great slaver empires which grow plants such as these. That one there - he said they call it ‘zeenahmon.’”

Clement gave it one last whiff before putting it back. “Remarkable… To think I have lived my whole life without ever knowing such fragrances - without knowing such stories.”

Charlix grinned. “Right? The world is a book, my friend, eager and waiting to be read. Oh! Speaking of books! He snapped his fingers again and the young man came out of the kitchen, carrying a large tome with him. It looked like a stack of three bricks, being about as thick as a grown man’s forearm and as long and broad as one, too. The covers were two sheets of elephant skin, connected together with a spine of quillat quills. Between the covers were thick sheets of cowhide pages. In golden Dûnan letters on the front page, a title read, “The Hundred Journeys of Tillis: A Collection of Stories and Tales by the Famed Explorer of Harbiuré”. Clement was speechless.

“For… For…”

“I know your son, Claude, has been shirking his lessons. Well, these are, supposedly, some of the most intriguing stories in the land - eyewitness accounts of everything this beautiful world has to offer. With this, he’ll hardly want to stop reading.” Before Clement could continue, Charlix added, “By the way, I had it all translated into Dûnan for him. Would be best to keep with the times, would it not, so he, too, would leave Ketrefan behind?”

Clement cracked it open and turned the pages. Writing on cowhides was a very recent trend in Ha-Dûna - they were easier to write on than the more traditional wood tablets, but cowhides were so expensive that they were only reserved for the most valuable documents. Additionally, the Dûnan script had existed for less than a year. This translation was not only written beautifully - Clement admittedly could not read most of it, though - but it was complete with illustrations, colouring and much more to make the stories come to life. He could practically see them before him without reading a single word. “How, how did you have time to--”

“Oh, time was no issue. With enough scribes, one could translate a book like this in a week.”

“What on Galbar did that cost you?” demanded Clement.

Charlix said nothing, but he winked playfully back at his guest. Clement felt a pang of fear in his chest as he laid aside the book. He had known that Clan Blanche was rich, but this was insane. The clothes, the house, the spices, the gift - these things must have cost the equivalent of Ha-Dûna herself, should you sell her.

The table went quiet for a moment as the two returned to eating. After savouring another serving, Clement could no longer hold back something that had been irking him ever since he had received the invitation to come. Of course, he already suspected what the answer may be, but he needed to hear it from Charlix’ mouth. He scraped the last spoonful of stew off his plate and took a sip of wine and said, “Charlix, my friend… This is… This is all so kind of you…”

“Oh, ‘tis my deepest pleasure,” the host replied proudly.

“Still, I… I must ask: Why? Why all this? What is the reason for this feast?”

Charlix chuckled. “What, can I not invite a friend and colleague to dinner and give him gifts like any other?”

Clement wrinkled his nose. “While I appreciate the implications of your words, I know you well enough to see that there is another side to this. Yes, we have been colleagues for a few months now, and we have met for feasts and the like for many, many years. But you know as well as I that our families have never been on the friendliest terms; at best, the two of us have maintained a sort of mutual agreement to remain acquaintances and only acquaintances. Even as we both were made mórthéins, this agreement persisted - we have hardly exchanged a word - until that silence was broken this evening, and ‘broken’ does the situation little justice - ‘shattered’ is more like it.” Clement studied his host as he paused; Charlix maintained a small smile, his hand hovering movelessly in the air while holding his drinking horn. The guest continued, “I do not wish to offend by being direct, but understand me correctly when I say that I would prefer if we could do away with the false pretenses and flattering words. Tell me, so, Charlix of Blanche - what are you planning?”

For a twenty seconds, the host said nothing, and the air snapped sparks between them. However, he eventually offered a small chuckle and said, “I should have expected as much, Clement. You have always made an effort to make others think you are slower than you actually are. I admire that about you.”

Clement made a small smile. “What did I say about the flattery just now?”

“Oh, no, please do not misunderstand! The compliment was genuine. It shows that you have a knack for intrigue - trick your opponent into underestimating you, and the upper hand is yours.”

“Why, of course. A viable strategy in combat, that,” Clement agreed.

“A subject that you know quite a lot about, in fact. The songs about your deeds before and during the Conquests are still sung in the taverns here and there, I hear.”

“I am humbled.”

“Yes, I can imagine. However, it is a competency that I, myself, do not possess. As you have probably both heard and seen, I am an abysmal fighter.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say abysmal, but--”

Charlix grinned. “See how easily the flattery comes?”

Clement stopped himself and chuckled. “Must be the wine… Please, do go on.”

“Yes, well - I am not only an abysmal fighter; I have also never had a knack for strategy in battle, at least not when it comes to fighting in real life. The planning phase is all well and good, but, well, the sound of battle tenses me up - makes me tight in the chest. Surely, it must be the ghost of Naya overtaking me with the thoughts of the tragedy to come.”

Clement nodded along slowly. “Not all were made to swing the axe…”

“Surely, my friend, you can see where I aim to take this,” continued Charlix as though the subject had grown too personal to discuss further. Clement took the hint and nodded.

“You want me to take command in this war.”

“Precisely. The druids will need some time yet to find the next sanndatr. In the meantime, governance of this city falls to us, the mórthéins. By breaking bread together this way, I propose an alliance between the two of us - one that plays on each of our strengths to combat our weaknesses.”

Clement put down his drinking horn and folded his hands under his nose. “I’m listening.”

Charlix smiled. “Starting today, my hildargeach are yours to command. With both my warriors and yours backing your claim to leadership, you should have no issue making even the most loyal of Boudicca’s followers fall in line. Should anyone give you trouble, refer them to me, and I will do my best to persuade them to fight for the city’s cause.”

Clement nodded. “... A very alluring proposal. What will be your role in this?”

Charlix had another sip of wine. “Well, as we both know very, very well, among the two of us, it is clear that I have a somewhat better grasp of, well…” He gestured around. “Finances.”

Clement frowned. “... Noted.”

“Anyway, I will remain here, as it were, and ensure that the city remains functional during this war - I will ensure that your army’s supplies do not run out, all while maintaining trade with the north, west and south to make certain that Ha-Dûna does not starve.” He plucked an oatcake from a nearby basket and dipped it in some stew remains on his plate. “I have already reached out to the King of Bast. He has agreed to sell me two ships which can sail up along the coast for the whole winter given that the sea does not freeze. This should speed up trade with the reindeer herders, seal hunters and reef-folk.”

Clement blinked and swallowed. “You… You’ve certainly thought of everything, haven’t you?”

“Well, that is my job, is it not?”

The guest nodded slowly to himself and then squinted one eye suspiciously. Charlix caught the expression and frowned. “Is something the matter?”

“How can I be sure your word is true?” Clement hardened both eyes now and studied his host intensely. Charlix pursed his lips and licked the inside of his upper lip.

“A laird’s word is all he has, Clement. Who knows what would happen to me - to my clan - should I betray your trust in this?”

“Do not take this the wrong way, Charlix,” Clement started, “but ask yourself - would you have trusted yourself with your word?” There was a long pause. Eventually, Charlix chuckled once again and poured himself some more wine.

“Certainly, my friend, you are as quick as they come.”

“You must have had abysmal expectations of me if you thought I would be so dense as to outright trust you,” retorted the guest. The host nodded in quiet agreement.

“So be it, then. What must I do to earn your trust in this? Understand, my friend, that I am genuine in my words - I am doing this for the sake of our relationship as friends and co-rulers-to-be. Whatever you may want, you shall have.”

“Then…” mumbled Clement. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and then said, “Your eldest son and heir. He will join me as my lieutenant.”

“My eldest,” Charlix replied as though it was just another word. “Guiscard?”

“Unless he has a twin I don’t know about,” Clement replied jokingly. “Guiscard is a worthy and mighty warrior, trained by none other than Frode the Enduring to become a young legend among the hildargeach in every clan. His aid would be irreplaceable at my side.”

A moment to ponder later, Charlix uttered a single, “Done.”

Clement frowned. “Really? Your son and heir?”

Charlix shrugged. “He is part of my hildargeach, after all, so he would have most likely come along to fight anyway, and at your side, he will be much safer than at the front. Furthermore…” Clement felt himself grow somewhat intimidated as his host’s mouth curled into a smirk of almost malicious quality. “... If he is your lieutenant, he will be your responsibility, and news around here travels fast - should anything happen to him, I will know days before you can return to your side of the story.” He rose to his feet and held his horn out in a toast. He smiled, but behind his teeth, Clement saw a spirit of vengeance like few others he had seen before. He joined him in the toast, a ball of uncertainty pushing uncomfortably at his windpipe. “And know this, Clement du Pierre,” Charlix continued, “if I receive a certain kind of news, you can cover it up all you want; you can try to flee the country or attempt to kill me yourself; no matter what you do, you will not know peace, and you will be punished for your treachery against me.”

The room was momentarily silent as the grave pyre, only the hearths chittering in the background. Then Charlix broke it: “In that respect, you could say this is a reassurance for both of us, wouldn’t you agree?”

“... Y-yes… Certainly.”

“Well, then,” said the host cheerfully. “A toast - to the formation of a new and fruitful alliance between our two houses. Cheers!”

Clement forced a smile and lifted his horn. “Cheers!”

Face to Face

Year 30AA, late Autumn, in a hidden grove outside of Ha-Leothe...

Incense burned. The smoky trail from a sole dark stick wisped around the prone Jjonveyo, his arms stretched in a bow and his knees tucked under him. He was without a shirt, the jagged scars of life making a webbing map across his body - a brand new one on his stomach hidden from view as he whispered sacred words in prayer. Beneath him was a plush carpet of moss and above him was the reaching canopies of beeches and maples. All around him was silence.

His nose twitched, he smelled... apple pie? He tilted his head up from the ground and caught the boots of someone. Quickly he scrambled to his knees, a quizzical look overcoming the beast of a man. In front of him stood a woman of clear Dûnan descendancy, and in her hands was a steaming apple pie.

“Who...?” He trailed off, eyes flickering to a young man of unclear ethnicity lingering in a nearby tree. His eyes snapped back to the woman, “...are you?”

The woman appeared momentarily frozen, looking down at the pie then back at the Tsar. In a reflex, she grabbed her hip when her sword would be, but found nothing as she had left it at home before her walk. “Curses!” she snapped.

Jjonveyo slowly crept to his bare-feet, standing tall. "Explain yourself."

Boudicca frantically looked around for somewhere to set the pie down and ended up kneeling down and placing it neatly on the forest floor. She then rocketed back to her feet and pointed a rough log of a finger in Jjonveyo’s face. “Be grateful that I was brought here without preparing! Lest I would have struck you down before you would have had time to stand!” She slammed her chest with a curled fist. “Brought here by Lyd, I have come to meet you at His recommendation. Where He went, I do not know, but know that this visit is not one of my own will.” She hardened her eyes. “I am Boudicca of the Dûna, matriarch of Clan Metsep of the Gaardskarl tribe, and speaker for the Eight and the Seven gods.”

"Boudicca," Jjonveyo's eyes widened. His brow dropped into an angry scowl and his murderous fingers curled -- around a warm plate. A look of shock brightened his dark face and he looked down at a steaming pie that had made its way into his hands.

"She also made you this pie," Illyd clapped a hand on Bouddica's shoulder, his other hand gripping Jjonveyo's as he stood between them.

"You?" Was all Jjonveyo managed to stutter.

"God of all the good stuff." Illyd winked. Jjonveyo sucked in a breath and hardened his eyes at Boudicca.

"You're shorter than I expected." Almost involuntary, Jjonveyo lifted the pie and soaked in its flaky aroma - eyes still suspicious. "But just as loud as I expected."

Boudicca scoffed. “Funny. You’re about as fat as I expected.” She inexplicably received a very dull cake spade in her hand and menacingly started cutting Jjonveyo a juicy slice.

"Oh thank you," Jjonveyo whispered as he received a fresh plate to house the slice. Clearing his throat he jabbed a finger at Boudicca, "As blind as your people I see!" He put the remaining pie down on a -- oaken table that seemed to have sprung up off to the side. A steaming kettle occupied the center as he poured her a drink into a stone cup, to the sound of a mumbled “oh, thanks”.

“HAH! -I- am blind?! I wasn’t the one who seemed to lose sight of where the mountains end and the lowlands begin!” She grabbed a warm pitcher of egg custard and poured a small dollop on top of his pie before putting one on her own. “What’s your goal here, exactly? Die a glorious death so you can join your ancestors in whatever place the wicked Sigeran sends you to?”

Jjonveyo angrily took a bite of his pie and chewed violently. After a hard swallow he closed his eyes. "Well wait," His voice grew calm, "Firstly, I'm not Sigeran. Secondly, this is absolutely delicious." He turned to Illyd, "I mean completely."

"Oh stop," Illyd blushed.

"Go ahead," Jjonveyo nudged a chin at Boudicca. "I can do the honor of pausing our hostilities long enough for this treat to be appreciated."

Boudicca kissed each of her fingers on her right hand free of apple juice and custard. “Fine. I can agree to those terms. This is very good, after all. Very good. If it is not too much to ask, great one, would you send the recipe to my cook, Scot?”

"And to my cook!" Jjonveyo interjected, "Skottoslav."

"Yeah no problem," Illyd smiled at the two.

There was a long pause, and Jjonveyo sighed. Any burning hate was too interrupted to flow freely. He sipped at his tea and nodded, "Well my enemy, since you are here and inexplicably knew the Celeviak tradition of bringing food to a foe you wish to talk to - we misewell make use of this truce and speak on level terms."

“Hmph. Fine.” She swallowed another piece. “You must realise that your people are not welcome in these lands. If you value the lives of your men, you are to turn your armies around by midday tomorrow. We outnumber you, the gods are on our side, and the first snows will soon begin to fall. You cannot win this.”

"I've already won," Jjonveyo shook his head and poured Boudicca a fresh cup before sipping his own. "My army represents an idea, a change that is coming to this world. All the souls that may perish, including my own, shall be replaced by the next generation and the next. The way of mortal life is changing..." Jjonveyo paused. "Although, there may be a way for us to both take this journey without blood to be spilled. If you'd be interested in hearing out the barbarian from the mountains."

A scoffing snicker. “I’ve won, he says - like the rabbit seeking refuge from the hawk by hiding in a foxes’ burrow. Still, I…” Her face seemed to twitch slightly, as though a fit of uncertainty cracked at her stern demeanour. She tugged uncomfortably at the inky brace around her neck. “Fine. Say your words, but expect them to fall on deaf ears. I will accept no compromise, I’ll have you know.”

"A union," Jjonveyo said simply. "I propose a union."

The sanndatr frowned. “A union?”

"Yes, it is when two entities unite under a common cause," Jjonveyo explained slowly, careful in his pronunciation of Dûnan words.

“No, I understand that - but what sort of union? Don’t tell me that, after slaughtering the defenders of Ha-Leothe, you are proposing that we break bread as though nothing has happened?”

"They were given their choices same as we are," Jjonveyo frowned. "And it is our choice to use this unique situation we find ourselves in as we choose. The world is changing, Boudicca, you cannot deny that; and as it changes, it grows. Eventually our people will be thrust against each other, or if not ours - two other groups. But if they were all of the same population, of the same charity - such problems would rather be a boon. To be crowded by allies rather than strangers." Jjonveyo rolled his jaw. "Spin the tale however you wish, but I am offering a peace through diplomacy"

The sanndatr pursed her lips thoughtfully. “... Alright. Say I accept - I accept, ignoring the immense damage to my own face and the honour of my court of priests and théins caused by not only allying with a warlord who has burned down one of our towns and butchered its people, but one who has actively allied themselves with the cowardly Cenél and fights alongside them, all while clearly having the upper hand in terms of numbers, defensive advantage and supplies - what then? What can your people, starved as they are for both resources and civilisation, offer the Jewel of the North?”

"The tithe," Jjonveyo pushed Boudicca another cup of tea. "I studied your tax system, you know? Same as I did your language. I learned about your resthouses and the disparity between those who farm, and those who eat." The Tsar seemed to consider something for a moment. "Think even as we drink our tea, if I were to pour my cup from your own, we'd both drink so little, but we don't do that - we pour from the kettle. So too does the tithe work similarly. The vast holdings of the Tsardom thrive by each pouring a little into a larger kettle, for that resource to be redistributed among the tithers to ensure health and happiness. It's cheaper than your current taxes even and much more efficient. It's how we are able to field our large armies - for surely you know that the mighty host at Ha-Leothe is but a small fraction of our forces. Join the tithe, unite for the future."

“And do you know why we keep our tax system as is? Do you know how we can feed all the thousands of people who swear fealty to the Stone?” She paused for effect and to eat another piece of pie. “The druids are the only reason the soil in these parts can be worked as intensely as it can. We have studied our neighbours - all of them, nomads, hunters and gatherers, moving with the bison or the reindeer or the seacattle and caproshrimp. If they are lucky, they can burn off the lands and sow for a season or two, but then they will have to move again soon. There is no stability - nothing that allows people to stay in one place; the land is that of Boris the Stone Hog, and to till it is to work the mountain. Only with the aid of druids channeling the generosity of Reiya, Jennesis, Lyd, Claroon and Boris can Ha-Dûna exist, and only by supporting a caste of priests who can fully dedicate their time to appeasing the gods and maintaining this growth, can this generosity be given.”

"Is it really generous if you're keeping it to yourself?" Jjonveyo looked confused.

“If the druids cannot work all the time, then no one will have anything. How hard is that to grasp?”

Jjonveyo pursed his lips. "Regardless... The point of this is resources. By joining in on a union we stave off war, border conflict and scarcity."

"Especially if you had my holy grail," Illyd nodded in the corner.

"Especially if we had- what?" Jjonveyo looked over at the god.

"Oh yeah, long time ago I made this trinket that blesses the land it sits upon so incredibly, it would put all of the druids to shame." Illyd wiggled his fingers. Boudicca’s eyes went wide as saucers and her hand froze halfway through grabbing another pie piece.

“A, a trinket that puts druids to shame? W-well, where could we find it?! What does it look like, this, this ‘grail’?”

A smug look overtook the god and he strutted over to the table. "Was that a 'we'?"

Jjonveyo eyed Boudicca but stayed quiet. The sanndatr blinked and looked away.

“-Not- one in which this one’s included, of course. He attacked us! Why would we share such glory with him?”

"Because it would end the war," Jjonveyo stated, "And put you in a better position than if you had won it through violence." He scrunched his brow, "Don't think I won't have some upset subjects of my own, but should this grail prove as... Well."

"Oh it could easily provide for both nations." Illyd poured himself some tea, "Though I imagine retrieving it won't be too easy."

Boudicca raised a curious brow at Illyd. “What would it take, if I may ask?”

"Well, last I checked an avatar of another god swiped it from the tomb of my saints," Illyd tapped his chin, "So it's likely in the possession of some other 'god-chosen' civilization -- lot of them about."

"Indeed..." Jjonveyo shot a look at Boudicca.

Boudicca shot a look back. “... And what am I supposed to tell everyone at home? What am I supposed to tell Selesta? Claroon? The Lady-in-Waiting? That all their efforts and aid have been for naught? Am I supposed to tell my people, who have suffered a month of rationing and riots, that their patience and perseverance will be rewarded with an even longer wait and the possibility of sharing a legendary artifact which we may never find, with death’s slave from the hills and his army of bloodthirsty retainers? How would they accept that? Tell me, how would anyone think these were good terms?”

"Spin it like that and absolutely no one would think so," Jjonveyo agreed. "It wouldn't be much easier on my side either. Turns out a lot of people want Ha-Dûna to burn into nothingness."

"See now this is interesting," Illyd hid a smile under a hand. "You're saying that one of the chief reasons you couldn't take this peace is because of the already intrusive involvement of other gods?" He looked at Jjonveyo, "Let alone the mundane reasons, which are much easier to work out than the ire of a spited god." Illyd put on a straight face and looked past Jjonveyo and into Boudicca's eyes, "Think back to my comments before I brought you here, are you starting to see what I was lamenting?"

Boudicca didn’t answer, but rather frowned down at the crumbs on her plate. “Selesta will be furious. Ha-Dûna may very well break apart once again… You know, we were just beginning to recover when you sent that boy to claim that ‘tithe’ of yours. Had you just stayed in your hills or gone anywhere else, none of this would have happened. If I choose peace, my chain of command will break - there will be chaos in the Dûnlands as théins who have lost sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, sons, daughters, cousins, will mobilise all whom I cannot command and march east; our allies who sent valuable warriors to join our ranks will mock our cowardice - the Swadi archers have all sworn blood-oaths and -will- demand it be paid, be it with Chevelyak or Dûnan blood, lest they will have to kill themselves, such is their custom. I don’t even want to imagine what the common people will do…” She grit her teeth. “If I choose war, however…”

Jjonveyo closed his eyes for a moment. "It would seem to me that your lands are as fractured as ever, if one 'boy' could cause all this..." The table fell silent and Jjonveyo spoke again, "Is that boy alive?"

Illyd poked a head in, "Curious, why would Selesta be furious?"

“W-well, we’ve been planning this war for almost a month and a half now! She’s--...” She scowled over at Jjonveyo. “... I cannot say what she will do when the enemy is here with us, but know, old man, that you cannot win this war. The Master’s wrath will be unlike anything the Dûnlands have ever seen, possibly worse than the wrath of the gods striking your home this afternoon.” She cracked a smug smirk. “By the way, have you received any word from home about any survivors yet? Would be a shame to fight for a kingdom that no longer exists, wouldn’t it?”

"My home is untouched," Jjonveyo raised a brow, "The innocent tribes of the eastern plains however, are no more. Saibar of the Axe relayed the information through... Well how is not important. It would appear your gods missed, if they were truly doing such terrible deeds in your name."

Illyd propped a brow himself, "Not to add salt to any wounds but any and all wrath wraught by any gods against either side will be met with my own of the most ancient and terrible variety." The god stretched, "This conflict is of mortals, so decree Joa- myself." He coughed. "Feel free to tell Selesta that the God of Weather opposes any direct and violent intervention in this war, and you might want to remind her that it is also I who owns the crops."

Jjonveyo looked to Illyd, "So you side with us?"

"No," Illyd answered, "I side against the gods who are imposing and no one else. If you want my council, you'll have it - but I've already done so much just letting you two meet and hopefully have enlightened either of you to the complexities of this situation."

"Complex is one word for it," Jjonveyo hissed to himself.

“Indeed…” Boudicca sighed. “However, I will not go back to her and tell her not to intervene - I invited her after all, as I invited all the Eight and the Seven gods to aid us. I have made an oath to rid our lands of those who are a threat to the Dûnan way of life, and I do not intend to break it. These are my terms, therefore: Turn back, Jjonveyo, to your homelands, and seek out the grail on your own. I will swear to you that I will keep its existence a secret to the grave, so none of my people will ever follow your trail. If you someday find it, then I will applaud you, and maybe we can prosper side by side once more if you can quell that lust of yours for conquest; but for now, you are not welcome here, and if you march any closer to Ha-Dûna than you already have, even if you believe your intentions to be peaceful or co-prosperous, you and all who follow you will be killed to the last man and your corpses will burn in the cleansing flames of Naya the Crying Crone.” She held forth a palm. “If you accept, then let us part in peace, and perhaps speak again in some time as acquaintances.”

Jjonveyo hesitated, "Boudicca - grant me a measure of patience as we are using your language and not mine..." He paused in deep thought, "Are you proposing a white peace?"

“Not what I will call it when I share the news with my allies and people, but… In essence, yes. Mind you, this tithe of yours is out of the question; you will not be afforded even a shred of the Dûnan harvest. However, if you and your soldiers leave, I can devote myself and my resources to stabilising my realm once again, which, in turn, will allow me to leash whomsoever would dare to stake to the east on their own, looking for homes to pillage. You would have peace to search for this grail and would not need to worry about the safety of your realm. This, I vow.”

"I cannot leave the lands already entrusted under the tithe," Jjonveyo added. "Further, there are settlements and people who wish to join of their own reason. I won't unleash my forces, but I also won't turn down those who wish to join through peace. Let them, and then there would be no need for armies..”

“Whatever lands you have conquered outside of what you had before does not belong to you nor your tithe. It is not a white peace if you keep what you have taken - that is conquest. You will withdraw your ‘Zardom’s influence completely and allow those who out of fear have sworn fealty to you to come to their senses once more and remember their true allegiances, their true family. This is my demand.”

"Your demand is currently unreasonable," Jjonveyo gestured. "Let us call it a ceasefire instead of a peace then, and there is also the matter of my nephew."

“A ceasefire when only you have taken and I have lost? You are the unreasonable one here. And what’s this nephew of yours? Was he the boy you sent some months ago to demand your outrageous tithe?”

"He was," Jjonveyo picked at the remaining pie flakes on his plate.

Boudicca nodded. “Then he is dead and his corpse, burned so his spirit may be free of Sigeran’s grasp.”

"Boudicca." Jjonveyo pushed more tea towards the Dûnan. "Boudicca," He repeated, more clearly. He cleared his throat, accent swooping and then clearing, "Boo-dekka."

“What, ‘Jonwayo’? What are you rambling about?”

"I'm just making sure I'm speaking clearly," Jjonveyo sniffed. "Do you have any children?”

“I do, actually - three of them, all exemplary Dûnans both of breeding and upbringing, if I may say so myself. Look, I see what simile you are drawing here, but know that your nephew was no more loved than any parent loves their child. When you sacked Ha-Leothe, you robbed hundreds of parents of their children, and hundreds of children of their parents. What are three deaths compared to a village?”

"You speak too quickly," Jjonveyo sipped at his tea. "Give me your eldest daughter and the entire war will be over and you may have Ha-Leothe as it stands."

Boudicca glared. “Again with the hopeless terms - you have already taken more lives from my people than any hostage trade can ever make up for. Let me inform you--”

Jjonveyo held up a hand for Boudicca to stop. "The war will be over and thousands of lives spared, you will be given your land back and will have saved your people. All I ask is for one person. That's it - it'll avoid further battle and fighting."

Boudicca leaned over to the side and spat on the ground. “That’s my answer. If you want anymore Dûnans beyond the ones you have taken from this world, you’ll have to come and get them.” She rose from the table and finished her tea. “If your senseless greed cannot be reasoned with, then I say we’re done here.”

"And as always your word is law," Jjonveyo didn't bother to look at her. "Unless you wanted to duel for it - but I have a feeling the Dûnans wouldn't respect the outcome should it not be in their favor."

“Duel, you say?” In a shift of demeanour, she tugged her chin thoughtfully. “A duel between two knights of Selesta. How dreadfully poetic and appropriate.” A brow rose.

"I'm not a knight," Jjonveyo looked disgusted, "Vile creatures born of a goddess that reminds me more of expired milk than a leader. But I'll duel one to spare lives."

“No matter what you consider yourself to be, Jonwayo, the Master’s mark is on you - I can tell, as I am marked as well.” She smirked and put her cup back down.

"Gross," Jjonveyo growled passively.

“Either way,” Boudicca dodged, “I admire your selflessness, I will give you that. The one runner you allowed to escape from Ha-Leothe, however, made very sure to thoroughly explain that your very body is infused with the strength of Sigeran, granting you unmatched resistance against anything that could kill you. I would know, for I, too, was foolish enough to pollute myself with his presence some years ago.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Still, are you confident your ability to cheat death will be enough to kill me?”

"No, but unlike you I'd bury my son to prevent a deathtoll in the tens of thousands - let alone myself." Jjonveyo remained sitting. "Life is empty, Boudicca, but I'd rather my people a happy one."

Boudicca scoffed. “Your philosophy makes no sense - life is empty, yet you try so desperately to live it. If you are so sad to be alive, then I will gladly do you the favour of uniting you with your heathen master. Leave the world to those who actually appreciate it and go on back to your holes in the hills.” She rolled her neck around her shoulders. “What would be the terms of this duel? Winner takes all?”

"Terms will be discussed two weeks from now," Jjonveyo moved past the other words. "You and I, plus any councillors can meet on neutral ground and set our plans out formally. Until the meeting, I'd suggest a cease of hostilities."

“... That can be done,” Boudicca agreed and held out an open palm. “Two weeks, then.”

Jjonveyo put a refilled cup of tea in her palm and lifted his own. "I'd also like to add that you speak as much extra as your master." With that, he took a large gulp of his tea and smiled.

“And you are about as dreadfully cruel as yours,” smiled the sanndatr back and slurped down her own. “Thanks for the pie and the tea. I will remember this time fondly as I carve out your windpipe a hundred times over.”

"Cut off my ears first, and spare me from your voice." Jjonveyo suggested.

“I’ll see you both in two weeks, then,” Illyd smiled.

The Rise of the Tamrat Empire

Hreelcii Isles, the Riverlands of Irtressi, on a hill overlooking the rice fields of Tamrat.

Nothing could quite beat the morning sunrise in the riverlands - the gentle buzz of insects echoing off of wetland trees; the sweet song of waking birds harmonising with the river’s rush; the gentle kiss of sunbeams on the early river fog; nowhere on Leligi could one find equal unity of natural phenomena into such a blessed whole. Tarik gosa Lencho aba Ifa aba Moti absorbed it all with every sense, feeding his nose and tongue with the warm, bitter sensation of freshly brewed coffee with grated sugarcane. In the paddies in the lowlands under the hill, the yeruzi were warming up their throats for the long song. Moti regarded the sky - the inken heavens were dancing eagerly today; it was a sign that the crops would grow properly today. There it started, the low, soft rumble of a hundred voices all across the rice fields, a reverence of the spirits in the mud and water, of the fish and birds in the paddies. Moti would wake up early every morning to witness this event: the world song rang out from the singers’ throats and the water and its inhabitants responded - fish picked lice off of rice stalks; the mud itself spat out weeds and had the water wash them ashore. They would be gathered and cooked along with fish and bananas and be served to the poorest in the city at the soup kitchen every morning. Meanwhile, the rice would be left to grow uninterrupted, allowing for a whole three harvests per year. The farmer’s song was an ancient technique among the Tamrat and its use had allowed their people to prosper for generations. Moti shuffled on his pillow so that he could look further up the hill behind him - there, his eyes followed the cobbled path up to the coffee, vegetable and cereal farms on the plateau, flanking all sides of Great Tamrat. He had another slurp of his coffee and waved his hand slowly through the air. A tapestry at his side weaved itself a little longer, threads interconnecting beautifully into images and letters.

“Nephew, your father summons you,” came a sudden call, and Moti nearly caught his coffee in his throat as he had heard neither steps nor breathing. He coughed madly and turned to regard his aunt Gadise, signalling with his hands that he would be right over once he’d gotten control of his cough. Aunt Gadise flashed him a smirk and then blinked down at the cooing babe wrapped around her chest. She gave her scaled cheek a soft caress and played with its fin-like ears, inciting gleeful giggles from her before moving on, picking up a basket full of clothes and moving down towards the rivers. Moti finally wrested command of his throat, chugged down the rest of his luke-warm coffee, took the tapestry and jogged off from his spot under the willow tree. His father’s estate was nothing short of magnificent, as one would expect of the head of the Tarik Clan: It was almost its own village, consisting of six lavish huts for all his brothers’ families and four lesser huts for servants and soldiers.

The whole village was built around a central plaza on which had been built the family jengo, the great obelisk tomb of the Tarik Clan wherein the remains of all ancestors had been stored for at least six generations.

Before the obelisk was an altar overflowing with gifts of gold, silver, figurines of people and animals, fabrics, pearls, fruits, spices, weapons and armour, all fogged over with a thick blanket of incense from smoking braziers. Moti stopped before the altar, put his palms together, bowed once, knelt down, let his forehead kiss the ground, stood up and bowed again, and then continued to a grove of trees some ten metres away from the obelisk. Under the grove of three trees sat four men atop colourful pillows, small tables in front of them with steaming food and cups of fresh coffee. The men were serviced by both slaves and family, and all of them expressed a most daunting authority that could only be matched by that of each other. Upon seeing Moti, the man in the middle nodded for him to approach the centre of the circle. “Ah, Moti, my son… Come here.”

Tarik gosa Sisay aba Lencho aba Ifa was stern by nature as though he had been a father from birth. He wore simple clothing today, a jaguar skin over his left shoulder and a green, red and yellow linen kilt was all he needed on a summer day such as this one; around his neck, he had several charms with bones and figurines to the many gods, the largest of which was a small human face with reptilian features and half-nelven ears. He gave his scaly neck a passive itch, blinked a pair of reptilian eyes at his son and asked, “How are you doing today, my boy?”

Moti waited patiently for one of the servants to roll out a beautifully patterned carpet for him, at which point he knelt down on it, brought his forehead to the ground, sat back up and answered, “Good father, I am very well today, thank you for asking.”

Ifa nodded approvingly. “Good. What have you been doing this morning?” The other men in the circle regarded Moti as well, sipping their coffee and picking on occasion pieces of food with their fingers to eat.

“I was watching the yeruzi in the paddies, good father - listening to their song, admiring their bond with the water and mud.” One of the servants came over to him with a small table that resembled more of an upside-down box with a tri-coloured, zig-zag-patterned tablecloth, topped it with a cup and poured it half-full of coffee. After the servant had poured, Moti picked up the cup with his right hand, sipped it once and put it back down. “I have been noting down their behaviour and rituals for my book, in fact.”

“Ah, yes, your book - do tell how that is going, my boy,” Ifa continued politely and beckoned over one of his daughters, whispered something to her and then refocused his attention on Moti. Moti smiled.

“Of course, good father. I have already catalogued the planting process from earlier in the spring - Zinabi Garungasa came so soon, after all, so the yeruzi could start earlier as well. In fact…” He took the tapestry he had brought along out from under his arm and rolled it out. The yellow background hosted pictures of meadows in shades of blue and green, populated thickly with dancing spirits atop water commanded by sitting sages. The tapestry was as long as two men were tall, and detailed descriptions next to the pictures explained thoroughly the processes of worldsong rice farming from planting to weeding to fertilising to irrigating, as well as treatment of the fish, birds and insects in the paddies. The people in the circle leaned in to get a closer look, nodding their amazement at the work. Ifa clapped approvingly, but without the vigour of his diction.

“That is splendid work, my boy. Your asimena has improved considerably since last year. How much more do you have left?”

Moti rolled the tapestry back up. “Just the harvest and fallowing of the paddies, unless I am mistaken. I also hope to include some stories from the yeruzi as well - something about their experiences and connections to the spirits.” He quieted down once he saw Ifa wag a finger warningly.

“Now, now, your eagerness is most admirable, my boy, but you know the law - only the ye Bontu may speak with the yeruzi, and unless you choose to accept the Bontenya’s daughter’s hand in marriage, you will never be able to speak to them.”

Moti blinked. “Has, has the Bontenya offered--”

“A joke, my boy,” snickered the father. The other men and some of the family members serving them joined in the laughter. Moti chuckled along politely, though his face couldn’t hide a shade of disappointment.

“O-of course, good father.”

Ifa’s smile faded and he lifted his cup, took a sip, put it back down and kept his eyes on his son as a daughter came to fill it up. “As much as I would like to talk pleasantries for the rest of the day, my boy, there is a reason I have called you here. I take it you are keen to know.”

Moti nodded. “Yes, good father. What do you wish of me?”

“It is not just of you, my boy - it is for all your brothers and cousins. However, as my eldest son and heir, you speak for them all, and thus you should know first so you may pass the message on.”

Moti frowned with concern and nodded slowly. “Of, of course, great father.”

“Do not flinch now, my boy. Remain stoic and stalwart if you are to inherit my seat.”

Moti flexed his muscles and sat up straighter, his face like stone. “Yes, great father.” Ifa nodded approvingly.

“Well, then, let us begin. A messenger came from the Bontenya’s palace today: Ekitili is dead.”

Moti recoiled in shock. “The warlord?”

“That’s right. The royal meklits all had a simultaneous vision sent by the Many Eyes in the Sky. His rule is no more, which means that the Bontenya believes the time has come.”

Moti blinked. “The… Time?”

“Indeed,” nodded Ifa. “I’m afraid your book will need to wait, my boy. The Bontenya has summoned every clan to Great Tamrat for a war council. He believes this is the opportunity the Wise Kings of the Past have been waiting for - the chance to lay all of Irtressi under Tamrat.” He paused brieflyto take a small pancake from a clay plate, pack it with some meat and vegetables from another plate and put it in his mouth. After swallowing, he continued, “What I need you to do is to gather your brothers and cousins, share with them these news and then send them to your uncle Desta. He has already journeyed off to establish a foothold and altar on the Lulit. Tell them to bring plenty of meat and chum for the crocodiles and jaguars. The last thing we want is tumultuous waters in war.”

Moti made a quick mental note. “Yes, great father. Is there anything else you wish of me?”

“There is, actually. While you and your uncle establish the warfront, you will be the only tenikwayi there. The rest of us are needed in Great Tamrat for Keni Yenigusi aba Bontenya.”

Moti swallowed. “Shouldn’t, shouldn’t I be there as well?” But Ifa waved dismissively.

“The Yenigusi aba Bontenya will understand. We cannot very well allow our warfront to be without the assistance of magic. However, just in case you are attacked before we can get there…” He nodded at one of the slaves, who brought over a gilded lidded basket to Moti. She placed it down on the ground before him, lowered herself to the ground along with it and slowly lifted the lid without looking into the basket. Moti gasped.

“G-great father, are you sure I can--”

“You will not use it frivolously, is that clear? It is a gift from the Bontenya himself and will be treated as such. If anyone in that camp sees it except for you and your uncle, be it stranger or brother, you are to execute them on the spot, do you understand me?”

Moti swallowed again and had the slave lower the lid onto the basket again. “Yes, great father. I… Understand.”

“That’s my boy. Now run along and tell your brothers and cousins to prepare. Me and your uncles here must ready ourselves to go to Great Tamrat.” With that, he and the three other men stood up. Instantly, the servants and family members hastened to clean up, dress them more properly and offer them basins of water in which to wash their faces and hands. Moti did the same and three servants came over to him respectively carrying a water basin, a clean cape and his barineta, dressing him as he washed himself. Once finished, he was handed his trusty bronze dagger, sheathed in a jade-speckled length of leather, and turned to his father once more.

“Alright, great father. I am off, then. May you and my uncles be at the best of health until we see each other again.”

“And to you, my boy,” said the patriarch and tugged his clothes into place. “Be safe out there, and do not let anyone see inside that basket.” With that, he walked off with his three brothers and almost all the servants and family in the village. The slaves carried chests and baskets full of gifts of grain, meat and metals, and Moti was left pretty much alone. Not quite alone, though - he heard voices coming from outside the estate walls. He tugged at his own cape and moved himself to the exit. As the eldest and heir of the clan, only he was permitted to speak to the patriarch in his fellow sonfolk’s stead. He never warmed up to that sort of pressure - on the occasions where he had misspoken or gotten some message wrong, his brothers had been the ones to be punished for it. Yes, in the eyes of the law, he could do nothing wrong, but all eyes were upon him, watching his every move and mistake. He halted by the corner of the exit, preparing himself quietly. He cleaned out his nose, tugged his clothes into place one more time and adjusted his hat as perfectly as he could. Then he rounded the corner and lifted his right hand in greeting.

“Brothers and cousins - the Hundred Rivers collect and bring us together on this occasion. I bring news from Our Father, brought onto him from the Bontenya, brought onto him from the Many Eyes in the Sky.” Around him gathered both eagerly and lazily a crowd of boys and men between the ages fourteen and twenty-five. Twenty-five in total, they were the sum of Ifa and his brothers’ kin, as well as spawn of other clans that had been adopted into the Tarik clan - a man as affluent as Ifa would have been considered greedy and selfish had he not taken in children of other clans; he himself had sent many a brother and sister of Moti to the other families of Tamrat.

A man five years Moti’s senior bent the knee. It was his cousin, Tarik gosa Lencho aba Lishan aba Workneh, a man destined to serve as Moti’s right hand in time. The bond between them flickered only with the smoulder of politeness that was considered the bare necessity between a patriarch and his close kin. Neither had made much effort to change this, despite their relationship going back over a decade. Still, neither could afford to lose face for selfish reasons such as rivalry, so Workneh knelt all the same and said, “The Thirteen Lakes flow into one as we gather to greet our master, Ifa aba Moti. The ancestors listen in anticipation - what word brings the son of the master of masters?” With Workneh’s pledge of servitude, the others followed, the internal hierarchies falling in place as the closest kin spoke for the furthest, the elders spoke for the younglings, and the fullbloods spoke for bastards and adoptees. Moti regarded them briefly and pondered who among them knelt for him and who knelt for his rank. He dismissed the thought and spoke,

“The Singing Warrior odes a call to battle, my kin. The tyrant Ekitili is dead, meaning the Itumasa are in disarray. It is known to all of us that Ekitili never spawned an heir - his eggs never saw the light of day on account of his weakness and impotence as a man. His decades of devastation wrought upon our kin and the kin of our kin shall be repaid in blood and bone. The Wise Kings of the Past decree it must be so - the Bontenya will unite all of Irtressi under Tamrat.” He scanned the faces of his audience. “We have been ordered by Our Father to bring arms and don armour and sail our canoes to the mouth of Lulit, where we are to meet with Lencho aba Desta. There, we will establish a warfront and wait for Our Father there. Any questions?”

One of the youngest, a lad by the name of Tarik gudi Gudina aba Dejen aba Dejen, whispered something to another boy next to him; that boy then shuffled over to Workneh and whispered something similar to him, and then Workneh spoke, “The youngest ask why we are going ahead - why does not Our Father travel with us?”

“Our Father must travel to Great Tamrat for Keni Yenigusi aba Bontenya - doing one’s duty to the ancestors comes first always, even before battle and glory in war. For what do we fight for if not to honour the wishes of those that came before us?”

Nods of agreement rippled throughout the elders in the crowd; the youngers seemed more aversive. Moti paid them no mind and continued, “The order has been given. Go to your huts and don your armour and grab your weapons. We leave at sundown.”

“Understood!” With that, they all returned home to prepare. Moti had his servants remove his long, white cape and armour him with a finely woven grassteel harness around the lower chest and belly, with another circular collar to protect his shoulders and upper chest. They gave him dexterous linen pants and packed them tightly into a pair of shin protectors, also grassteel-made, to serve as protection against waterborne parasites and leeches. On his feet, he put on agile sandals with frilly bottoms, made for allowing good grip on slippery surfaces while simultaneously exposing the feet to the open air to ward off fungal diseases that would thrive in closed off boots. Finally, they gave him a red cape - a symbol of the warpath - and a red barineta - denoting the rank of leader.

Once fully clad, he brought along his dagger, a water flask and a longer, flat-headed machete and headed outside. His followers had likewise prepared, all of them wearing grassteel imported from the reef lands by the Delta, armed with spears, blades and axes of bronze and bows with grassteel arrows. Behind Moti, servants carrying carcasses of slaughtered animals and pots of fresh blood followed in a line. Moti offered Workneh, his second in command as evidenced by his white barineta, a confident nod and led the way to the jengo to offer their prayers to the clan ancestors before departure. Moti offered the altar before the towering tomb one of the pots of blood and a shank of pork and spoke,

“Blessed aba Tarik - today, we will begin the work for your dream of old: The Itli will no longer enslave and pillage your sons and daughters. Today, the legacy of Ekitili will end. Please bless us with your guidance and wisdom so this may come to pass.” Then, as one, the men put their palms together, bowed once, knelt down, let their foreheads kiss the ground, stood up and bowed again, and then journeyed down to the canoes. There were four canoes in all, each capable of seating nine men. The twenty five warriors spread throughout all of them, the rest of the spots being filled with servants carrying equipment and goods or rowing. After leaving the first offering of blood and meat on the altar to the local crocodiles, they sailed off down the river. Moti had brought along his father’s gift, the basket with the secret content. He used is as a stool at the far back of the canoe from where he steered and kept watch. Reaching the Lulit would take the whole evening - he would have much time to plan.

Consider me very interested, fam! Happy this is coming back!

Grand Preparations

Year 30AA, autumn, surface reefs south of Ha-Dûna...

“There - that should do the trick,” said Boudicca upon tightening the knot. A linen scarf had been wrapped around a pack of cooked meat, juices soaking into the fabric. She had tied a thick fiber rope around the lined again and placed it neatly in the centre of their trap. She and thirty other experienced hunters had taken the day-long trip south to Seejentún, a large and well-exposed land reef full of life and resources. Here, they had corresponded and traded with the local Meike and Doserung peoples, exchanging ideas, stories and goods in good, fraternal faith. Boudicca had drunk honeywine with the Doseung chief and the other elders and the village had all feasted on delicious caproshrimp barbeque and shorecattle tartar, served with seaweed, shore apples, saltberries and many other fruits of the sea. Afterwards, the elders had gathered the children and the foreigners and shared stories from the sea, of great Vrool tyrants and their Akuan champions, of majestic Merelli beauties and sirens who would lure sailors ashore to the north, never to be seen again - the clever escapades of one they called “Gra’al” were told over and over with the intensity and admiration of a Gaardskarl sharing the story of Gaard Goldhair. It seemed uncanny to the Dûnans to hold a monster such as Grallus, but nothing that received the praise the Doserung gave it could possibly be all bad, could it?

The trip was as much a break for the sanndatr as it was a diplomatic mission: The flaming tensions in Ha-Dûna were too much to bear, even for her, and when she had received an invitation to travel down south to meet with the Doseung and Meike, she just had to accept. She found herself confiding in one particular Doserung chief, one Bonursan Chirrut, a man ten years her senior with open ears, a calming aura and small, black horns on his head - uncannily, though, he did not look a day older than his son.

“I… I feel like I’ve lost sight of our mission, our purpose - and only after one year! Ha-Dûna has been united for one year and we are already breaking apart at the seams again!” she had complained to him over the fire as she sat alone with the chief, his son Yip, ambassador of their people, translating for him. The chief never said much, usually nodding for her to continue whilst thoughtfully sipping his sweetkelp tea as she took him through the past year and all the horrors. Eventually, the sanndatr descended onto her forearms on her knees, head hanging hopelessly from her shoulder. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Normally, it would be odd for an elect such as herself to confide in a foreign chief; however, Boudicca had learned from Yip that the Doserung value honesty and the sharing of information as the highest virtue, and that secret-keeping was synonymous with lying. Thus, when the chief eventually spoke back, he would to anyone beyond his own people have sounded most rude and insulting - Boudicca confessed to herself that she grew furious at his diction, but the message itself was sound:

“The way I see it,” the chief had said through Yip, “you are showing your people your inability to make rational decisions for the good of all. Like the people, you allowed yourself to be swept by emotion and take the popular, but foolish road to vengeance. I realise that unpopularity is all you have reaped throughout this whole year, but a mighty leader faces the wrath of their people for the good of their people.” Before she could retort, the chief had raised his hand. “I realise my words may seem uncouth to outsiders, but know that I speak no lies. You have the potential to make Ha-Dûna the pearl of the north - my son tells me it already is a sight to behold; however, you must not let yourself stray from the path of Murr-shom-windo. Maintain stability at all costs, and you will be remembered as strong; give way to chaos, and you will only be remembered as its herald.”

The sanndatr had taken his words to heart, and after another few days in the cold, yet beautiful paradise between land and sea, she had returned home with a caravan filled to the brim with the fruits of the ocean and land reef. As soon as she returned to Ha-Dûna, she gathered all the théins and their hildargeach, their bloodsworn clansfolk, and had them all swear fealty to her under Fìrinn once more. Most did so without question, some did it reluctantly, and three took quite some time to convince. Their argument against the oaths was that this sort of behaviour was much too similar to what they were doing in Old Ketrefa - a queen demanding the loyalty of her subjects. If Boudicca wanted their loyalty, she would have to earn it.

And so Boudicca said, “Very well… I hereby declare that théin Aifric be given the title of Chief Constable, and that all her hildargeach be given the ranks of dlíling. From now on, they are tasked with policing this city and making certain stability reigns supreme. We shall not break apart again - not so long as I live!”

Initial reactions were unsurprisingly trapped between anger and shock - the act was compared to mad kings and queens of the past, and fears over the effects of this constabulary on freedom to act and live in the free, Dûnan way were voiced multiple times. However, they all grew silent as the constables took to the streets, their uniform a black leather armour and a silver talisman around their necks with two symbols: the eye, the sigil of Fìrinn, and the book, the symbol of Taeg Eit. However, the constabulary almost immediately grew much larger than its constables - in secret, Boudicca had permitted Aifric to recruit spies from all walks of life to make sure no one could plot behind her back.

She then summoned the three largest clans in the city to her hut: The Tegosep, traditionally a rival clan of her own, the Metsep. It was the largest Gaardskarl clan - not much larger than the Metsep, but still very large; the Blanche, the strongest Brasfortsian clan, and rival of Aifric’s clan Sûr-le-Mont, as well as the Metsep; and the du Pierre, an ally of the Sûr-le-Mont, rival of the Metsep, though not a rival of the Blanche. Common among all of them, though, was a shared disdain for Boudicca’s leadership. At first the Tegosep head, Ur-Dairl, had refused to come altogether. That had been a grave mistake, for neither the Blanche nor the du Pierre were particularly fond of the Tegosep, either. When Ur-Dairl finally chose to answer the summons, he was promptly informed that he was no longer welcome by order of the mórthéins, Charlix of Blanche and Clement du Pierre. Furious, Ur-Dairl returned to his estate, only to discover that his clan had been banished from it, and that agents from the Blanche and du Pierre already were dividing his lands between themselves. He questioned their mandate and was told that the Tegosep had been declared “agents of unrest” by the Constabulary and that his family had been arrested. His clansmen, meanwhile, had been given the choice - to submit themselves and take up work on another farm and be compensated for their loyalty to the Dûnan order, or to face arrest as well and be disinherited and disowned in the eyes of the gods. Ur-Dairl’s cousins, siblings and bloodsworn had joined his family in the Temple of Law, but his farmhands, cooks, scribes, druids… All had taken up office elsewhere, though with a guilty conscience.

It was at this point when word reached Boudicca of the terrible loss of Ha-Leothe. It reached her in secret at first, and she had spent almost two days inside the smoking house trying desperately to calm her nerves. With pipe in hand and lungs full of calming pipeweed, she pondered as hard as she could while cursing her folly. To think this was actually happening - a foreign warlord was making his way towards Ha-Dûna, and he was winning. The loss of Ha-Leothe and of théin Valix was tremendous - the village was Ha-Dûna’s main supplier of copper, and Valix had been a charismatic athlete admired by all; to see both vanish like smoke before an enemy they knew nothing about would surely devastate the Dûnan morale before it could even be built. Worse yet, while she was still planning her next move with her advisors, word came of songs of praise in the name of the foreign conqueror Jonwayo - the eastern théins and their villages were joining him one by one; the lack of loyalty was blamed on Valix’ arrogance, how his stubbornness in the face of impossible odds had gotten Ha-Leothe burned to the ground.

Immediately, Boudicca ordered the mórthéins and the Constabulary to send peacekeepers out to their nearest villages and spread a counter-message:

“People of the Dûna - hear the words of your sanndatr: A great many evils have tested our people of late, and this latest pest that plagues our glorious civilisation may be the worst yet. The foreign ‘zar is nothing short of a bloodthirsty villain - Valix tried to reason with him at the gates of Ha-Leothe, but Jonwayo, the incarnation of Sigeran himself upon this world, wanted to send the Dûnans a message written in blood with a pen of bone. Alongside his lieutenant of sin, the traitor Darragh, they water our lands with the blood of our people, slaughtering everyone to the last babe. I implore you, therefore, take what provisions you need, burn your crops and your storages, and make for Ha-Dûna as quickly as you can - here, we will shelter you and keep you safe from this evil menace. We will make it through this test of piety as we have made it through every other.”

With this message, naturally, came the news that Ha-Leothe had fallen, and Boudicca made certain to emphasise the brutality of the Celeviaks every chance she got. After this, she sent out diplomats to the five Ikdûni tribes, the Mink, the Swadi, the Nubveians, the Doserung and the Bastians, asking humbly for any help they could give. The first to answer was the Great Bull, mweweybutuWeymbierka of the Nubveians. He came to Ha-Dûna himself, as he ofttimes did to visit his sister, Greatmother Ugulele, and offered Boudicca forty of his strongest men, the legendary Buffalo Riders of the Prairie. His contribution was hailed among the Dûnan people, and the Nubveian king was showered in gifts of riches, clothing and jewelry from distant lands as thanks.

Second to come was chief Bonursan Chirrut of the Doserung. As the possibility of a great battle in the not-too-distant future grew loomingly, the chief had brought along stockfish and sea salt to preserve food with, as well as sixty hunters from his own tribe and his cousins’ tribes. Many displayed thick, black horns, a sign of their strong Merelli heritage, and many also had scaly skin and fins where there should have been hair, showing too their close ties with the Akuan peoples of the northern sea. The hunters were armed with land reef coral, brittle, yet frighteningly sharp - Chirrut himself wielded a frightening weapon fashioned from reeds and shark teeth, a gift from the people of the sea. He pledged himself and his men to Boudicca, vowing that he, himself, would fight alongside her for the fate of their mightiest ally.

Third to come was Pride-King Koisa the Leon of the Swadi, cousin of the father of none other than Hilda the Leoness. He proclaimed he would have been the first to pledge himself, and that the only reason he had taken so long was that he had been compelled to gather more soldiers than anyone else. He had been devastated at the news of his cousin’s curse, and had mourned for a fifteen days and fifteen nights, as was custom when such relatives would pass - afterall, it was to the children of cousins titles such as king would pass to, and Hilda had been part of the royal line, though not the prime heir. For months, the Pride-King had cursed the Cenél for their actions and had been eagerly waiting for the chance to annihilate them. He had brought no fewer than one hundred warriors, the finest archers on the Prairie. Armed with the Swadi foot bow, they would be a force to be reckoned with.

Fourth came Prince Olsanmaar of Bast, brother of the dûnanised scribe Ratinmaar, both sons of King Ki’ogmaar of Bast, followed by ten giant men - and these were truly giant; each of them stood two metres and three quarters and had skin as gray as stone. They had monstrous features the likes of which had never been seen in Ha-Dûna before: Noses like logs, hugely overbitten jaws that were as big as cabbage heads, hunkered, clumpy backs and arms and legs like pinewood trunks. Some had heard the legends, but only the most well-travelled druids had seen them before: the Bastian Troll-Men. Armoured in bronze with proportions that could fit no other human (if they could even be considered such) and armed with warpicks that could spear a wild boar. While nobody asked why he had brought so few, the prince read the room quickly and proclaimed that the Bastian Troll-Men were the greatest warriors in the world, and that one was worth at least ten normal footmen.

Last to come was Old Crone Svyetlana of the Mink, and it was evident already before she arrived that she had not wanted to come. It was understandable, too: The Mink had for generations been very good friends with the Cenél - they had exchanged both culture and marriages for centuries before the Dûnans had arrived. Furthermore, the vast majority of Mink, including the Old Crone herself, could trace their lineages out east into the distant mountains, so they felt a familial bond to the Celeviak, as well. However, Boudicca knew this well, and she had made certain to let the Old Crone know, in secret, that every Mink in Ha-Dûna could become hostages overnight if she did not cooperate. Svyetlana had many children, siblings and cousins in the city, and thus had no choice. She brought as many of her Death-Singers as she had to without seeming outright impolite, a total of ten.

With all the auxiliaries gathered, Boudicca had the théins drill them in defensive tactics for then the battle would come. The language barrier was surmounted thanks to the stellar work of translators, though some cultural schisms, like whenever Doserung uncouthly spoke their minds, would arise from time to time.

Boudicca then sent orders to the Brewer’s Guild, telling them to make as much light ale as they could. It wasn’t easy, but after gathering all the grain that could be spared them, plus any roots, fruits and vegetables that could be brewed, the Guild got to work. The first batches were done in a few days, tapped early to avoid the brew reaching a strength wherein the soldiers couldn’t drink it. Some batches were left for longer and sweetened with honey - this would become wine for medicinal use. After it was tapped on glass flasks, it was heavily spiced with caraway seeds and coriander to infuse it with their healing properties. Their hard work soon bore fruit - their skill and diligence had left the city with enough beer for everyone to quench their thirst. This would come in handy for a possible long siege.

Boudicca then went to the Circle of the Long Stride, seeking to enlist the aid of the druids to reinforce Dûnan morale and defensive capabilities. She ordered them to shore up the city’s walls and reach out to the animals and the spirits of the Highlands and turn them against the Celeviaks - the sheep, cows and goats should run away from them, and the weather around them should be cruel and cold to slow them as much as possible. Many druids were initially reluctant to do so, but as soon as Boudicca threatened to revoke their permission to use the resthouses, protests grew rarer and rarer. A group ventured out of Ha-Dûna and made preparations all around the most likely marching routes the Celeviak would take: They asked the trees to withhold their fruits; they asked the heavens to bring icy rain upon their enemies when they would approach; they asked the mud in the ground to give way and send soldiers down from their mountain passes and into the abysses. Many requests failed, but wherever the druids prayed in groups, traps could be laid, and they laid three grand ones which each would cause great detriment to the enemy’s advances:

At the northern shore, the druids beseeched the creatures of the surface reefs. After singing to them for days upon days, the first to come was the tidal jackal, intrigued by the druid’s promise that if they helped them, they could eat away at the enemy’s provisions as much as they’d like. Second to come was the barnacle flier, who was surprised to hear that the marching humans also had food that was small enough for even her to eat. Lastly came the bearfish, who had been reluctant to show up on account of the risk to her personal safety - she was no small creature, and if she were to be spotted, the beach would be her tomb. The druids promised that her efforts would be rewarded tenfold if she helped them, and that they would leave offerings for her cubs should she be slain. After much thought, the bearfish agreed.

In the central Dûnlands, the druids beseeched the heavens for rain - icy rain that would cause sickness to spread and make the ground slippery and hostile, possibly causing landslides. Here, too, it took long time for the heavens to listen, but after making sacrifices of ink and spending the days singing and the nights reading the ink in the sky and the lights of the moons, the heavens saw that the druids were sincere and agreed, though the rain would not last until the enemy would reach Ha-Dûna - it would last three days, and that would be it. Should the druids demand more, this would require additional sacrifice. The druids, stretched to the end of their capacity already, agreed and returned home.

For the southern Dûnlands where the crossing of the Misanthir would take place, Boudicca had a plan already. It was the most likely place the Celeviaks would cross, as crossing any further north would take them too close to Ha-Dûna. She prayed quietly that she had enough to negotiate with with the god in question and left her home to go to the Circle of the Gods. However, as she left her door, she was stopped by a constable who saluted her.

“Sanndatr! We have a problem!”

Boudicca swore under her breath. Tensions had never been higher in the city, with dissatisfaction with the new order already causing fights to break out multiple times per day. If any single thread were to snap, the entire web holding Ha-Dûna together would break into nothing. She turned and spat a little more harshly than she had intended, “What, what is it?”

The constable straightened up. “S-ser! The Temple of the Moon! We received word that there was a great cacophony inside during the night and went to investigate. The monks, nuns and druids all seemed livid and maddened, drinking and feasting as though tomorrow was the end of days. As we investigated, it would seem that this has been going on for a week!”

The sanndatr scowled. “Drinking and feasting? Do they not realise we are rationing our supplies?”

The constable shook her head. “Ser! They do not seem to be responsive to anything save for hedonism! It, it may be best for you to come see for yourself.”

The sanndatr looked over at the Circle of the Gods and cursed once more. “Very well. Bring seven constables more and meet me there as soon as you can. I’m going ahead.” Before the constable could respond, she had already stormed off, a dark scowl on her face. Nothing would break this city apart again - nothing.

They met at the Temple of the Moon where there already was great revelry inside. Crowds had gathered around to witness the craziness, and open windows revealed all sorts of debauchery going on inside. Boudicca glared and shook her head. “We are in the middle of a war and this is what our priesthood resorts to… Go inside and find the High Mother and have her explain what is the meaning of this.”

“At once, ser!” said the constables and hurried inside. Impatiently, Boudicca waited, her foot drumming the dirt road street. Carefully, a woman approached her from behind and asked respectfully,

“Sanndatr, what is happening?”

Boudicca regarded her and then the greater gathering with tired eyes. She sighed, closed her eyes and turned back to the temple. “We will know soon enough. Everyone, please return to your homes and your duties and--”

Suddenly, the door curtain was shoved aside, one of the constables sprinting out with another under her arm. The remaining six were nowhere to be seen. The crowd gasped as one and Boudicca felt her breathing quicken. “What’s going on in there, constable?!” she demanded.

“Madness, sanndatr!” the constable responded windedly. “They’ve all gone off their rockers - every single one of them!” The constable under her arm looked utterly exhausted, eyes rolling under the lids and breathing wheezing. He was laid down on the ground and Boudicca knelt next to him.

“Fetch a druid! Swiftly!” She blinked at the constable who had brought him out. “What happened? How did he get like this?”

The constable shook her head. “I, I don’t know! Firion took the lead, then we stepped into a dimly lit room wherein there was some… Some kind of, of sinful debauchery. We tried to arrest the deviants, but they were absolutely insane, as though under the effects of both weed, berries, wine and mushrooms. Worse yet, when Firion reached out to grab the High Mother, he… He changed.”

Boudicca frowned. “Changed?” She stood up to make way for some quickly approaching druids and pulled the constable aside. “What do you mean, changed?”

“They… They suddenly grew very quiet and still, much like him. And then they… They turned. Firion snatched a wine bottle right out of one of the debaucher’s hands and started drinking as though he hadn’t drunk for days. When the other constables tried to restrain him, they became like him. Only I made it out with Murion there.”

Boudicca made hard eyes at her and took a step away from her. “Are you saying this madness… Spreads? Like some sort of disease?”

The constable noted her movement and waved her hands defensively. “Don’t worry - I made sure not to touch anyone.”

Boudicca pointed at Murion on the ground. “How about him? I saw you carry him out.” The constable blinked over and swallowed.

“I… I don’t think I--”

“Sanndatr!” said one of the druids. Boudicca turned to her.


“He’s trying to say something…” Boudicca and the constable looked and one another and then hurried over to Murion.

“Speak, brave soldier. I’m here,” said the sanndatr. The man’s eyes looked lazily around, red and bloodshot; his tongue looked swollen and sticky; his lips looked dry and chaffed.

“... ine…”

The sanndatr leaned in. “Say again, would you?”

“... Wine… Please…”

The druid blinked. “It… It would seem he’s asking for wine, ser.” Boudicca raised herself back up, eyes wide.

“Everyone, step back from him!” Everyone kicked back in a flash, leaving the man alone in the middle of their gathering. Boudicca wrapped her cloak tighter around herself and pointed at him. “He is infected with some unknown disease! Do not touch him!” She eyed the temple, laughter, crying and other debaucherous noises roaring from the inside. “... This entire temple must be quarantined.”

“Wh… You mean to seal off the Temple of the Moon?! Hall of the Protector?!” shouted the druids.

“We cannot afford to let a disease spread throughout our city! We can only ward off the infected and wait for the sickness to pass. If this disease turns you into a maddened sinner such as those found in there, then it must not spread further! Bring wood and boards!”

As workers ran to and fro with building materials, the constable approached carefully. “Ser, if I may… How will the people inside survive if we board them inside?”

“We will funnel in supplies for them to live off of. It is all we can do in these trying times… Curses, why did this have to happen now?”

The constable nodded slowly. “Agreed, ser… What, what shall we do with Murion?”

Boudicca eyed the man on the ground who looked to grow increasingly livid at the absence of wine, twisting and turning as though in pain. She grimaced and looked at the temple. “We will have him put inside with the others and pray they will all survive.” She frowned down at the constable. “... You will bring him inside.”

The constable blinked. “M-me?”

“You touched him. We cannot afford to take the risk that you aren’t infected.” She pointed at the druid who had treated Murion. “That goes for you, too.”

The druid gasped and one of her colleagues stepped in front of her. “Kaer Liose is a most accomplished medicine woman! We cannot condemn her to imprisonment in a den of sin!”

With that, Boudicca drew her sword and protests fell silent. “It pains my heart that it must be this way…” She pointed her sword between the druid and the constable. “... But order must be maintained.”

The constable started whimpering. “Sanndatr, please…”

“Hold your tears, constable. Your unwillingness to offer yourself for the safety of all is shameful.” She quieted down, but her body broke down into a silent sob. She turned to the temple entrance, whimpered some more and stepped inside. Kaer Liose on the other hand, seemed furious. She took the body of Murion and helped him over to the doorway. Before she stepped inside, she turned to Boudicca and glared.

“Know, sanndatr, that I offer myself for the people of Ha-Dûna; the gods will judge which one of us is right in this.” Then she stepped inside.

Boudicca looked at the others who had gathered and furrowed her brow. “Alright, seal up the temple! I do not want a single soul entering or leaving. I must go pray.”

With that, she stormed off as hammers and planks knocked against each other behind her. She hastened over to the Ring of the Gods before anyone could stop her and knelt down before the statue of Caden the Brave. She folded her hands and whispered, “Great Caden, are you there? I come humbly before you in a time of great need… Our city, our civilisation is under attack, and our foe is foreign and wicked in his tactics. Please… Can this unworthy being ask for your aid once more, you who have aided me so many times before?”

For a minute, there was only silence. Then, there was a light crack in the air, the result of a small tear in reality, which slowly expanded until there was a swirling vortex between her and the statue.

Before she could get up, or reply in any form, three men stepped out. Their skin and hair were of varying colours, unlike that of any human, and textured in a way that reminded her of Shae. Each held a banner mounted on a ten-foot long silvery pole - one blue, one green, and one purple, and on each banner was a clenched steel fist. They assembled around Boudicca and, with theatrical precision, thrust the tips of their banners into the dirt.

Time is short, so I shall be brief, Cadien’s voice spoke within her mind, and any who might be observing. I gift you three standards bearing my symbol. The Blue Standard of Focus, the Green Standard of Vigour, and the Purple Standard of Strength. Each one will bolster your army in some manner, so long as it is kept pointed at the sky by one who serves a noble cause. Find three trusted individuals to carry them; those who would rather die before allowing their standard to hit the ground, for if it does, you will disrespect my symbol and its blessing shall fail until it is picked back up again.

The portal began to shrink. Taking that as their queue, the three Songmen let go of the banners, leaving them embedded in the dirt as they turned and retreated back to the realm from whence they came. The portal closed behind them.

That will be all. Choose the standard bearers well, and carry them into battle in my name.

Boudicca lowered her forehead to the ground, and all who witnessed the portal and the standards appear did the same. “Thank you, Great Caden, from the bottom of our hearts. Our loyalty is forever yours.” She sat back up and shouted, “Kaer Pier!”

The eldest of the druids hurried over to the extent that he could, arriving a small while after she called for him. “Yes, sanndatr?”

“Find me the champions Frode the Enduring, Kuhbelo of Swadi and Axe-Fist Leif. I choose them to be the carriers of Caden’s banners.”

“At once, ser,” replied the druid fraily and slowly hobbled along. Boudicca moved to the next statue, the statue of Boris, the colossal boar of the southern mountains. She drew her breath and asked with the same sincerity:

“Great Boris, master of stone… I come to you in our hour of great need. An enemy is on the horizon and I humbly ask for aid. Are you there?”

However, there came no answer. Boudicca nodded slowly and stood up. She had dearly hoped that the crimes against the hills of Ha-Leothe would have incited the boar’s ire, but it seemed that his long-lasting silence would last longer still. She moved on to Gibbou’s stone and repeated her prayer. There once again came no answer, not even when she asked about the outbreak of disease in the temple. The moon goddess’ silence irked the sanndatr, but she nonetheless apologised for the measures she had taken at the temple and moved on.

Reiya’s stone was as beautiful as ever, being the most well-decorated of them all. She repeated her prayer and was met with silence. However, after a short while, there came a promise: “You are not alone,” said that familiar silken voice. Boudicca found herself smiling, and though nothing physical had come from the heavens like Caden’s banners, it was ensuring to know that the Sun would protect them.

She moved on to Sirius. The star god hadn’t answered a Dûnan prayer in months by now, and Boudicca’s was no exception. She moved on to Jennesis - the tree goddess, too, was silent. The sanndatr deeply wished she could purge herself of the doubt created by this silence. Were they truly the gods’ chosen people if this many turned away from them in their hour of need? She slapped herself in the face. The gods had more important things to care about, too, of course! She couldn’t very well let herself think this way. She moved on to Fìrinn - no answer. Taeg Eit - no answer. Vandra - no answer. Artafax - no answer. Lyd - no answer.

She then knelt before the statue of Claroon, the tentacle-faced man surrounded with ornaments of coral and shells. She folded her hands and spoke, “Great Claroon… I come to you in a time of great need to humbly ask for your aid… Can you hear me?”

Silence permeated the air for a moment, which Boudicca soon realized was actual, legitimate silence. It wasn’t that the God hadn’t responded; sound had simply drained out from reality around her. In its place was pressure, the impermeable and immediate sensation of weight pushing down on the land-walker sanndatr. Before here eyes the tendrils of the tentacle-faced deity writhed and twisted, suddenly awake with recognizable sentience. The eyes of the idol rippled like liquid and Boudicca was struck with the unmistakable sense of being watched.

”Aahhhh,” came a voice like a storm heard from below the surface of a roiling lake, ”It speakssss. Thou hath called and We hath answered; a blessed joining through darkness that quenches desire most dire. We were beginning to think We were disdained. Time stretched as flesh in egg and We had lost fffffocus. It is gooooood to hear the mortal tongue.” There was a pause, followed by the divinely forced emotions of relief and excitement pouring across Boudicca in equal measure. The silence was broken once more, this time filled with all manner of sounds that turned it into a symphony of nature that broke like the peal of thunder.

”Nnnnnnngrahhhhh. Yes, dear Child, We most CERTAINLY hear thee.”

“The god of the deep speaks? Has he returned?!” came an excited outburst from one of the praying druids who had decided to follow Boudicca on her trip around the ring.

“The god of the deep speaks!” shouted another and more came to pray. Boudicca lowered herself further and said,

“We have missed you dearly, Great Claroon, He Who Masters River and Sea, and we pray we may continue to serve you as we have now that you have returned. Whatever we may offer you of the land, you shall have it so we may show we are a loyal and pious people; for now, however, I must be insolent and respectless and voice a request: We are under attack from another warlord to the east, and we cannot stop him on our own. I ask humbly for any aid you may be willing to give us - we will take anything.” She swallowed the last word. “If it pleases, however, I would more specifically ask for something that stops his armies at the Misanthir. Please, Great Claroon, hear our plea.”

“Aahhhh, a request! The Maiden of the One-Good-Orb’s children, her beloved horn, the Druids of Xa Duxna! No such insolence in the voice of children; spawn eat from their sires, as is intended. Life must teem, after all!”

Klaarungraxus, in his distant realm of Saxus, wriggled with unrestrained excitement; though this was an unseen action by the Druids, all manner of vessels containing water shook and shivered from the rolling waves that suddenly roiled their contents. The Idol seemed to dance in place as mirror to Klaar’s emotional outburst. The world itself responded to the nature god’s decree.

”This is a simple thing, beloved spawnling child, for the eternal Vo embraces thee. Make battle at the river’s edge and trust in the depths; worry not, for your All-Sire offers plenty! Speak again to Us, child, for thine voice is most pleasing.” In an instant everything stopped, leaving only sloshing water to slowly come to a stop in the assorted jars and pools it resided in.

It seemed the sanndatr assumed this was a pattern of speech and she spoke, “The All-Sire’s generosity is legendary. We are blessed to be in the good graces of the sea and its master,” answered Boudicca. “Where on the river shall we make battle? Can your power foresee where they will attempt to cross?”

Only silence met Boudicca as the tentacle-faced idol seemed to slowly lose life. The tendrils that hung from its face were the last parts left moving, evidently clutching something within their slippery embrace. False-flesh slowly parted to reveal a pearl perfectly sized to fit in Boudicca’s palm. It waited there to be snagged by her, seemingly humming with power. As Boudicca neared the object she could peer into its depths, the pearl seemingly darkening at its core. From within that almost liquid core whispered voicelessly the tongues of the tide; the Holy Vonu spoke from within, leading to some far and distant place the sanndatr could never go. The pearl called to her sonorously, offering itself wholly and utterly to the Queen-that-wasn’t now chosen by Klaarungraxus.

Boudicca blinked and reached out, taking the pearl carefully in her hand and admiring its beauty. She swallowed as her eyes scanned it thirstily and whispered, “This… This is magnificent.”

With the pearl held tightly in her hand Boudicca’s whispers poured from her lips not in the Dunan tongue but in a language far older. Vonu, pure and righteous as the day it was first uttered by Klaarungraxus, echoed from within with a voice not quite her own. The sanndatr’s voice was replaced with the sounds of the sea, of roiling storms and rolling stones. The very same vessels that shook with Klaarungraxus’ voice responded to hers, dancing into ‘magnificent’ whirlpools and coronas of misted white water. It seemed Klaar had gifted unto the Dûnan the truest tool to speak with him again; that of his own tongue. With the Nacrean Dragoman in hand, Boudicca found herself suddenly fluent in the old tongue of the world and with it all the command over nature that lay therein.

The sanndatr smiled warmly at the orb and prostrated herself before the statue. “Truly, your generosity knows no bounds, All-Sire Klaarungraxus” she spoke in the divine tongue, and all around her people spun and blinked at what they thought had been tremors in the earth and air hinting to quakes and storms. The waves of the sea in the distance seemed to rock with her syllables. “Thank you,” she finished.

From the depths of the dragoman came but one, single word in response.


Placing the precious pearl in a satchel brought over by a druid apprentice, Boudicca moved on to the statue of Naya, a veiled, weeping woman with her hands in her face, surrounded by empty cradles meant to symbolise the recent passing of children. There were six of them today, a morbidly high number for the Dûnans. Such was life without access to the Statue of Prolificacy. Boudicca sighed, knelt down and whispered, “O great Naya, thank you for accepting our sorrows as always. I come to you so more sorrow may be avoided. Enemies are on the approach, and Ha-Dûna begs humbly for any aid we can be given. Can you hear me?”

Silence followed, enough to instill doubt that anyone was listening yet again. As the breeze rolled in however, a sensation not unlike someone breathing against her skin overtook Boudicca. The air seemed to carry a long sigh as empty cradles seemed to rock and turn, and brought with it a stillness that sucked out doubt and worry - like a mother cradling her child. Boudicca sighed with comfort and looked up at the statue with a smile. Her eyes soon played tricks on her, the statue itself seemed to sway ever so slightly in the wind; her ears as well, as a soft lullaby slipped between the statue's fingers. It gained in volume until it rung out and drowned the area in it's melancholy melody. At once previous hardships and those lost flowed to the forefront of the mind, yet the sting of loss and bitterness did not come with it. The melody weaved into the wind, until it and the air were one and the same.

That seemed to be all at first, before Boudicca's eyes caught sight of a dark trickle between the fingers of the statue. The weeping woman wept blood, and the statue seemed to seethe with an intensity that it hadn't before. Just as the feeling became overbearing, she blinked, and the sensation was gone, along with the blood. A vision? Or something else? Boudicca touched her eyelids and swallowed. This would all be worth it.

“Thank you, Great Naya, for this gift,” she said quietly and moved on to the statue of Macsal. She got down on her knees, repeated her plea as she had done for all the others and waited for an answer.

The euphonious response did not sound like that of a grown man at all - more like that of a child, feminine even. The world around Boudicca sang momentarily and then grew silent and still. Only the voice remains. “Brave Boudicca.” It sang simply. “Stalwart sanndatr. You cast out the help I sent… and come asking for more. Macsal would dislike you indeed - queen that you are. Favoured as your people have been.” There was a moment of wide-eyed silence, the ether seemed grimace. “But you are in luck, he is asleep. Take, Boudicca. Take.”

About the sanndatr’s neck their grew an inken collar. Stone emerged, jade, gold, gems, and it hung there snug enough, but present. “Take, and inspire all else to take too.”

Boudicca patted the collar and frowned - something about it felt wrong. She tried tugging at it and found that its threads were of no simple, rippable material. She tried quickly to think of a response, saying, “N-no, there has been a misunderstanding! I, I did not cast her out - we, we just needed to keep her safe!” However, there came no response. Boudicca hung her head, disheartened, and moved on to the final statue, the pointy-eared woman Selesta, carven neatly in fine stone. There, for the last time that day, she knelt down and prayed for help.

A few moments after Boudicca began praying at the statue of Celestine she would realize that she was getting no answer to her prayer. Following this revelation she would hear the soft flapping of a cloak and the gentle clinking of armor as someone approached. The sounds steadily grew louder as Boudicca kept praying, and unless she got up to see who or what was approaching she would feel a gentle hand upon her shoulder and a familiarly calm voice would speak from just above her. ”You may rise, Boudicca. I have returned from my search, though not as I would’ve wished.”

It was then that the avatar of Celestine would take a step back from Boudicca to allow her to stand properly. As she waited, the avatar of celestine would take a moment to gently lower the hood that she was wearing so that her face was more visible. This would likely cause her to once again inadvertently summon a gathering of devout people to sing her praises, but that was something that she would just have to deal with.

The sanndatr offered her master a bow. “Welcome home, Great Selesta. Did you find the culprits in the end?”

The avatar of Celestine would shake her head briefly before responding. ”Unfortunately I did not. I searched the site where Brian was killed, but the small amount of tracks that I could find quickly faded as they moved onto firmer ground. Thus I decided to return. Do you have somewhere private that we could speak? There are some things that I wish to speak with you about that will not enjoy the company of prying ears.”

Boudicca hardened her face and tugged thoughtfully at the collar around her neck. “Of course. Follow me.” Together, they left the Circle of the Gods, druid acolytes and masters alike figuratively kissing the ground where Celestine stepped. They entered the Boudicca’s hut and sat down by the luke-warm hearth, barely smouldering after breakfast. The sanndatr pondered for a moment and patted protectively the satchel around her torso. She then said, “Alright, we should be safe here. What’s the matter, master?”

The avatar of Celestine would walk swiftly behind Boudicca as she led her towards what Celestine would eventually learn to be Boudicca’s hut. As Boudicca sat, the avatar of Celestine remained standing. Unfortunately, the look on her face was not one that indicated she bore good news. As Boudicca would likely notice, the avatar’s eyes appeared to hold judgement within them rather than their usual calmness. As Celestine began to ask after something, her voice was steely and firm. ”Ser Boudicca, my divine senses tell me that you have violated part of your chivalric code. Though I do not like to do it, punishment must be handed out. Kneel.”

Celestine’s avatar drew its sword slowly. Boudicca could get the distinct feeling that she was not in danger, but the look on the avatar’s face was not one of kindness just yet. Though at the same time one could suppose that she was still being quite merciful and protecting Boudicca’s dignity since she could’ve chosen to administer this punishment the moment she arrived. The avatar waited for Boudicca to comply.

The sanndatr recoiled. “Violated the code? By Taeg Eit, I have done no such thing! What accusation is this, master? Where have I wronged?” She stanced herself defensively, arms tense and ready to protect herself.

The avatar of Celestine blinked unerringly before focusing for a moment. It then spoke once more to educate Boudicca upon the code that she had broken. “My senses tell me that you have violated tenent three of my Chivalric Code. Who’s dead have you dishonored?”

Boudicca looked lost beyond words. “Dishonoured dead? I have never dishonoured the dead in my life. My respect for those who have passed into the afterlife is like that of all other god-fearing women and men of this city. They have all been burnt and their ashes spread onto the wind, soil and sea, as the singing nature demands.”

Celestine’s avatar furrowed her brow slightly as she focused once again. Then a revelation seemed to spark behind her eyes as she thought about what Boudicca was saying. Placing a hand upon her hip she asked a simple question of The sanndatr. ”What if the culture that those people came from did not decree that their dead should not be burned?”

Boudicca scowled. She licked her front teeth thoughtfully and shook her head. “To bury your dead is to show the utmost disrespect to their spirits. If I burned someone from a culture of buriers, then I have made up for their sins towards nature and their ancestors. If the body isn’t burned, then the spirit cannot break free and enter the afterlife. What, are you expecting me to support such uncouth practice?”

The avatar of Celestine would shake her head in response. Seeing as having her sword drawn was likely not helping the situation, she sheathed it gently. Placing a hand upon the pommel to show that she would not be drawing it soon, Celestine’s avatar spoke again. ”I do not expect you to support the practice, Boudicca. But it is something that deserves accommodation. Not all of these lands are cut from the same culture and believe the same thing. Part of respecting all you encounter, my first tenent, is to respect the cultures that they come from. You know that I do not seek to ask unreasonable things of my chosen knights. Who has perished recently?”

Boudicca scoffed. “Just because they do not believe the same thing does not mean they are right. If it was recent, I assume you are referring to the Chelevyak men who attempted to murder my chief inspector. They worship death, master, and Sigeran is a cruel and bloodthirsty master. We did their souls a great favour by burning them in the sight of the Eight and the Seven.” She sighed. “I mean no disrespect, master - I do not know how gods see the world, nor will I ever hope to; however, it is clear that you try to bridge gaps that simply cannot be bridged. If we had let people bury their dead, the afterlife would be empty and the world would be a place of the walking, vengeful unliving. Such is the working of the world.”

Celestine’s avatar remained silent for several moments. She simply stared at Boudicca wordlessly as various thoughts and considerations came and went through her mind. She recalled her debate with Jjonveyo and the stubbornness that he displayed. But she also recalled the Boudicca of the past, who seemed to be vastly different than the one that sat before her. Perhaps Boudicca was correct in that some gaps could not be bridged, but perhaps there was something more…

When Celestine’s avatar began to speak again, their voice had changed to one of compassion as she began to ask a different question. ”Boudicca, my chosen, what plagues your mind? I recall the day I knighted you, and you seem to be so different now. Is this merely a hardness in preparation for conflict, or is there something more that you have not been able to resolve within yourself?”

Boudicca seemingly grew smaller, more timid. She drew a long, slow breath and gradually lowered herself to a seat on a bench by the dead hearth. “It’s…” She caught her forehead in her palm. “... It’s been a tough year… Everything seemed to fall in place when we retook our home and now…” She sniffed quietly. “... It’s all breaking apart again. I can’t do this for another five years, master, I can’t…”

Celestine’s avatar nodded a few times. There was something that needed addressing more than her Chivalric Code. Stepping forward, Celestine’s avatar knelt before sniffling Boudicca and spoke gently. ”I understand that weight. I bear the weights of Peace and Neutrality. The weight of leadership is not an easy burden to bear, but you do not have to bear it alone. Even if I am compelled to punish you for a misdeed I have never ceased to be your friend. It is alright to show weakness to me. Let your stress flow. Let your mind be at ease.”

With that said, Celestine would gently wrap her arms around the shoulders of The sanndatr and pulled her forward gently into a hug. The sanndatr sobbed in response and slowly hugged back. After a while of silence, she whispered, “If you understand, then… Then please…” She tightened her grip. “Help me. Help me end this conflict and bring back peace once more… Please…”

The avatar of Celestine nodded once again before whispering a reply. ”I will.”

Letting her statement hang for a moment, Celestine’s avatar would gently rub the space between Boudicca’s shoulders before patting her back. Whispering once again, she would elaborate upon how she thought. ”My dominion over soldiers and overall neutral stance leads me to knight all who are worthy, but given recent events I have come to understand that even honorable people can serve a dishonorable cause. I will forgive your breaking of my chivalric code without punishment this one time. When you are ready, there is more news that I would share with you.

Celestine’s avatar would remain hugging Boudicca until she moved to push herself free, at which point the avatar would immediately let go. Boudicca held on a bit longer before eventually letting go. She swallowed and wiped her tears away, her face hardening the soft features of sorrow into her tired, stern, everyday expression. “I, I understand… Thank you. Well, since we already are here, it may be best for the news to be shared now. What is your message, master?”

Celestine’s avatar nodded once again before grasping at her cloak and offering it towards Boudicca to wipe her face with. Surprisingly, despite all it went through the cloak was almost perfectly clean. Once Boudicca had decided what she would do with the offer, Celestine’s avatar would speak once again. ”I have spoken to Jjonveyo, as I was compelled to knight him due to my domain over soldiers. He did make one demand that would cause him to stand down immediately and consider diplomacy: Do you know of the location of a man named Wojeck?”

“Wojeck? Wojeck…” Boudicca tasted the name while rubbing her face dry with the cloak. She then shook her head. “No, I cannot say I do. Is he a criminal they want caught or something?”

The avatar of Celestine would shake her head once again. As Boudicca would dry her face she would find that the cloak remained free of stains. When Boudicca was finished wiping her face clean Celestine’s avatar would speak once again. “He said that Wojeck was his nephew. Sent to speak to your people about reforms of some kind. Do you recall anything of that sort happening recently?”

“No, I-...” She then lowered her head. “... That must have been that Chevelyak man…” She snickered condescendingly. “‘Reforms’, is that how he phrased it? According to my inspector who was almost murdered by him in broad daylight, he came demanding an absolutely unreasonable tax in the name of some distant warlord whom we now know to be this Jonwayo. My good théin naturally refused his offer, thinking him a madman, he got violent, and the rest of the story should be clear by now.”

Celestine’s avatar nodded a few times. ”An unfortunate turn of events. Then this information may be useful to you: He informed me that he would be in Ha-Leothe for three days to await the return of his nephew. Unfortunately, he did wish for his nephew to be alive. You might be able to formulate a battle plan based on that information.”

Boudicca grit her teeth. “... They make camps in the ruins of my people’s homes, upon the bodies of the people they slaughtered. The nerve.” She collected herself again and nodded. “Thank you, master. This information is vital to bringing peace back to the Dûnlands. We will bring the man to justice and end this war for the good of all.”

Celestine’s avatar nodded before she began to weave something with her hands. As she did, she would speak softly. ”I am also preparing something to reinforce your numbers, though due to their massive diet and behavioral patterns I will only be summoning them when they will be fighting and will have to keep a tight leash on them regardless.”

Holding out a square of grey mist, Celestine gave instructions for its intended use. ”Gaze through this without blinking. You will see inside my realm for a few moments. There you will see what I might unleash in the coming battles.”

As Boudicca would gaze through the square of grey mist she would see Death Dragons and Virtus Elves intermingling in Celestine’s near paradise of a realm. She would also hear Celestine speak softly to admit to a small weakness that she possessed. ”Unfortunately, I have need of more time. I know that the war will not wait, but if you can stall things even a little my divine power will regenerate and I will be far more capable. I am sorry that my plans are not nearly as complete as I would’ve wished.”

Boudicca blinked with wonder and fright. “What… What are those creatures? The men and women are… So fair, so beautiful, like you, master. And the monsters behind them - what are they?”

Celestine’s avatar gave a small hint of a smile. It was not the first time that her Virtus Elves had been called beautiful. Speaking softly, she elaborated upon what Boudicca saw and what her plans were. ”The people that you see are echoes of myself, made in my image as I coalesced. The people behind them are not monsters. They are known as Death Dragons, made by the collaborative effort of many gods. I bargained with Thaa, the god of death, to attain a group of them. They are extremely powerful, but require a careful hand. While they’re active they can eat a large cow or a horse each day. Sometimes two. My realm is populated with such prey animals, and why I aim to keep them there until absolutely needed. I had to convince them to pledge themselves to my cause with words and promises, and one of those promises would be that I would see their every need met.”

Celestine’s avatar paused for a moment before deciding that it would only be fair to inform Boudicca of what else she had done in her time away. ”This realm is also where those that I knight will arrive when they pass onto the afterlife. Unless something or someone chooses to interfere. Rest assured that should something try and steal your soul away from the paradise that I try to make I will fight with steel and fury to correct that. It is the least I can do for my knights.

Boudicca hardened her eyes. “You mean… This is the afterlife?” She regarded it as closely as she could through the hole. “... So stellar. As expected of a goddess who can overpower the cruel god of death!” Boudicca saluted her. “Truly, your splendor and generosity are without equal, master.”

Celestine decided it would be best to not inform Boudicca of the trust she placed in Thaa, nor the fact that such a paradise was only granted because Thaa allowed it. Perhaps if or when Boudicca could stand before the full might of Celestine’s non-avatar form she would understand the complex politics that divinity was submersed in. Though she did feel the need to correct Boudicca on something important before too much of a false perception was made. ”This is an afterlife for warriors. I could not secure all of the souls from Thaa, as I am not a goddess of death. Cadien has made a similar bargain. It will likely not be everything that you believed the afterlife to be until now, but I will do my best to have it satisfy your desires. Look to the castle. There should be a large central chamber with a grand feast taking place. That is The Longhall. You will find my divine form there.”

“I see,” the sanndatr replied slowly. “It looks glorious. I…” She paused. “... I will be sad to be separated from my family when I go, then.” A sigh. “I reckon they cannot come along if they are not warriors?”

Celestine’s avatar placed an assuring hand upon Boudicca’s shoulder before speaking. ”If you can aspire them to greatness, I may be able to knight them. Those that are knighted by me are guaranteed to come to my realm. If that cannot come to pass… Then I might be able to speak with Thaa about pulling their souls to my realm. It will likely have a price that I must pay, but if it is your wish then I will see it paid. Though I will ask you of something so that you may mull over it: A passage exists for souls who wish to pass onto Thaa’s realm and enter into a final rest. I would ask you, when the day comes, to ignore its existence and stay with me as an advisor. I don’t believe I can make you into a goddess, but you will be an honored guest in my realm all the same.”

“I…” Boudicca blinked and looked away. Slowly, she licked her lips with a small tongue and then answered, “Since you are so kind to bring my family, as well, I cannot deny such a request. I shall consider it the greatest honour.” She bowed deeply.

Celestine’s avatar would nod and then pat Boudicca’s shoulder a few times before speaking. ”Thank you, my friend. Do not worry about it for now. You have a long life ahead of you, and it will not be important until you awaken within my realm. Did you have anything else clouding your mind that you wished to speak about? I would not wish to occupy your entire day by conversing with you until you were hoarse.”

Boudicca shook her head. “No, master, I have no more requests. Your help and counsel have both been most useful to me and my people. I hope I can be so shameless as to rely on you in the future, as well.”

Celestine’s avatar gave a smile before speaking with a slightly amused tone. ”You may indeed rely upon me, for my avatar will not be departing until the war is finished. There is one final gift I would give you today before I busy myself with whatever you think you might need me to do or assist with.”

Opting to not use her sword for this one, given the negative reaction to it that Boudicca had. Celestine placed her hand upon Boudicca’s head and spoke firmly. “I bless you with Chivalric Premonition, Ser Boudicca of Ha-Dûna. If the time comes where you might break my Chivalric Code once again, you will feel a tug upon your mind to reconsider your actions and prevent a mistake from happening.”

As Celestine spoke, Boudicca would feel a silvery light flooding her mind briefly before it would return to normal. With her blessing given, Celestine removed her hand from Boudicca’s head and spoke once again. ”Now. I am at your service. What do you need assistance with? Show me the way and I will try and see it done.”

Boudicca nodded gratefully. “Then… Help me, my master - help me win this war and bring peace to these lands once more. Our piety and will to fight for the safety of our children and our children’s children will not falter knowing you are with us, Great Selesta. We offer ourselves to you so that we together may triumph over the eastern threat.”

Celestine’s avatar nodded before speaking once again. ”I will. Come. Begin your daily duties. I will assist you as much as I can.” The avatar of Celestine would then stand aside and gesture towards the entrance of the hut. As she did, she would cease maintaining the misty window into her realm and allowed it to fizzle and vanish. Boudicca nodded and the two left the longhouse to continue the preparations.

Aching Conscious; Homeward Bound

Scawick, summer of 30AA...

Burud and Murtagh had walked homewards largely in silence. Many times, Burud had tried to convince his companion that their victory was a great one - that Ha-Dûna had been wounded in a way that no other enemy of theirs had wounded them before; however, Murtagh had never answered him - in fact, he hadn’t said a single word since that fateful day. Eventually, Burud had lost interest, and the two had slept under the stars with contentious distance between their bed rolls, their once-powerful brotherhood breaking into smaller and smaller pieces by the day. By the time they could see the village, they weren’t walking beside one another anymore - in fact, Burud had a fifteen minute lead. He lifted his hands over his head upon seeing the village people, shouting from the top of his lungs,

“I’m HOME, Scawick! We did it! We triumphed!”

Scawick for the most part looked much like it had when Burud and Murtagh had left… through there were some rather noticeable differences. What had been a small blacksmithing forge just large enough to handle the odd piece of metal work that had to be done had clearly been expanded, alongside the construction of what seemed to be a second forge.

The addition of this change would be easy to see as the guard that met Burud was wearing a set of armor made out of an unknown greyish metal that covered their chest that looked almost like fish scales in design. He even had a spear in hand tipped with a point made of the same grey metal. In fact, having a closer look around would reveal plenty of examples of tools made of the strange substance being carried and used for a variety of tasks by many of his fellow villagers.

The guard boy, young Ragni, beamed at Burud as he stood to attention. “Burud! Where have you been?! So much has happened lately and…” He paused for a moment as he looked around in slight concern as he asked “Where’s Murtagh? I thought you were traveling together.”

“Where’s Murtagh?!” shouted Burud. “I’m more interested in what’s happened here! Did I take a wrong turn somewhere?” He eyed Ragni up and down, the outfit clearly impressing him deeply. “My, oh my, did a trading caravan from the south come and gift you all this precious metal? What in the gods’ name…” He reached out and gently tried to squeeze at his studded leather shoulderpad.

Ragni seemed to be infused with a mixture of pride and slight embarrassment at having the older man squeezing his shoulder to test the leather out. “Oh no! No traders! After you and Murtagh left, Master Hamaar arrived as a messenger of Droka, the craftsdragon and master of metal! Hamaar took the blacksmiths, their students and a bunch of other students from those who hadn’t quite found their calling yet and taught them all how to work Iron!” There was actually a bit more pride and excitement in his voice as he tapped his chest. “That’s what this stuff is. We’re the first people in Westfold and beyond to be taught how to work it!”

The excitement… faded slightly as Ragni noticed something off. Namely, he finally looked at Burud’s hands… and noticed the lack of a finger. “What happened to your hand?” He asked, his excitement prior making the graveness in his tone all the easier to hear in contrast.

The older man eyed his hand briefly and hid it behind his back. “Oh, never mind that. How long’ve you got left of your shift? I’ve been missing aunt Leitha’s oat and onion porridge. Meet me there when you can!” He clapped him supportively on the shoulder and began walking away.

“Oh, I’ve got a little while to go yet.” Ragni answered, trying to get some of that pep back into his voice but… there clearly being something weighing on his mind as he watched Burud walk away. He didn’t leave his post or alert anyone to his private thoughts just yet through; After all, the message from Droka and the blacksmiths had been clear that there was a pair of people who would arrive in Scawick, not a singular man. So it couldn’t have been Burud, right?

Merely five minutes later, another figure appeared on the horizon - visibly ragged and beaten by weeks of sleeping in nature. His hair and beard were rough and unkempt, and his every step seemed to stagger him.

Ragni had still been at his post, so he clearly saw the figure approaching. It took a few moments to figure out exactly who it was, but figuring that with Burud having recently returned he could take a guess that this was “Murtagh? You look terrible.” Leaving his post in order to walk up to the staggered man, he wordlessly tried to slide himself under one of the larger man’s arms to help steady him.

The man looked up at him with dead eyes. Then, wordlessly, he started crying, collapsing forward and landing at Ragni’s feet, weeping into the ground while grabbing weakly at his ankles.

Looking down at the larger man, Ragni was completely confused… before his gaze fell on Murtagh’s hands. A finger was missing… and a chill went down his spine. It was a harsh thing to witness, as the message from Droka had come true and the meaning behind it was clear to see but… this was not the actions of a man who had done such a vile act as Droka had shared willingly.

Gulping heavily, feeling the need to confirm his deepest fears, Ragni softly asked “Murtagh… what did you and Burud do?”

“Please…” he wept. “Please forgive us…” He lifted his hands in surrender, and surely enough, the right ring finger was missing. “Forgive us…”


The Hammers of the Dragon had been expecting resistance when the men called out by Droka had arrived. This was not the case. Murtagh proved easy enough to bring before them without complaint or issue. Burud’s presence was also easy to get, if only because they had politely asked him to come so they could hear about his adventures and they could let him know about what changes in the village of Scawick had happened in his absence.

The two men were not kept in the same room, with Murtagh being offered the room that Hamaar had been using during his stay while the Hammers had decided that the best place to question Burud was in his own home. They did not let on that they were questioning Burud about anything beyond his trip; The remorse that Murtagh had clearly expressed over their actions had tempered the anger that had been created by the original revelation of their sins, and thus the Hammers had quietly agreed to let Burud have the same chance to come clean and express remorse.

So with a flask of beer offered to the ‘returning hero’, Annul and Rigna took their seats at the table as Rigna asked “So what was this triumph you were boosting about when you arrived? We had to have a healer look Murtagh over when he arrived because he looked pretty out of sorts.”

“He lacks resolve, is all,” mumbled Burud and accepted the flask and gave it a sip. He collected his hands around its neck and leaned forward onto elbows. “He’s been like this for a few weeks, letting himself be eaten by guilt over something no man should ever feel guilty for.”

Annul had always been a large boy and had grown into a large man, but when Burud had left he had still been an apprentice rather than a fully recognized blacksmith in his own right. His hair covered arms shifted slightly as he moved to make himself a bit more comfortable with his elbows on the table, a mug of beer resting for a moment as he asked “And what would that be exactly?”

Burud gave him a stern look. “Vengeance, my boy; making them pay for what they did to us, for all they’ve done to us.” He sipped the bottle again. “Murtagh couldn’t see further than the tip of his own nose, and now he’s lost as he tries to escape what he did rather than accept it.” He flexed his missing finger. “This, my boy - this was the cost of revenge for our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who all died that winter after the filthy Dunnies sacked our home. A small price.”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence from Annul and Rigna… until at last Rigna cleared his throat and pointed out rather pointedly, with a small degree of heat in his tone “You seem rather evasive as to what exactly it is you both did… and why it cost you both a finger. What did you do Burud?”

Clicking his tongue, Burud took another sip. “Have you two ever heard of Resla the Gray?”

Rigan glanced at Annul for a moment… before answering in a somewhat vague manner “I’ve heard stories… old tales.” and letting Burud continue.

“Yeah, you probably have. They’re all true - I know that now after having found her and met her… The natives in this area telling of the time she gave ancient chiefs terrible plagues or made parasites infest the game and wildlife to no one could eat - it’s all real. So we asked her to curse that most evil bitch, the Leoness… And by the gods, did she deliver.” He chuckled coldly and had yet another sip.

There was a moment. As Burud chuckled and drank where Annul and Rigan looked at each other again in silence. If Burud bothered to listen, he would have heard the creaking as Rigan’s grip on his mug tightened. Rigan had clearly heard enough as the words he spoke next were infused with a cold, seething fury. “And all your revenge cost you was a young boy and Scawick’s future.”

“Scawick’s future? We -saved- Scawick!” The man grit his teeth and smashed the flask to the floor, shards flying everywhere. “We were the ONLY ones who dared take the fight to them! They have never been weaker, yet none of you pussies dared stand up to them, because you are COWARDS! All of you!”

Rigan didn’t slam a fist against the table, or break his mug… or do anything he had instinctively wanted to do to express the anger that had bubbled up from his soul that was competing with the feelings of disgust trying to force its way up his throat. Instead his grip on the mug tightened to the point where the wood splittered and cracked, but his voice remained icy in its contempt.

“Droka spoke about what you did, Burud. Hamaar told us how you spilled innocent blood to summon a demon into this world. How you turned the Leoness into an inhuman creature of pain and suffering that will haunt the Westfold for generations to come… and how if we did not act to deal with what you have summoned, it will come here and destroy Scawick as readily as it would the warmongers of Ha-Dûna!”

Breathing deeply through his nose, he sneered as he ignored the blood dripping from his fingers. “Droka decided to give us a chance to avert the fate you and that witch-” The word was spat “- have tried to force upon us. You’re key to doing so.”

Burud spat back and rose from his seat. “What, all of you forget the meaning of sacrifice? Did you grow soft in my absence?” He lifts both hands into a guard and bit his teeth together. “If you’re gonna have me killed, then you’re gonna have to work for it.”

“What good is taking vengeance for those who died due to Ha-Dûna’s actions if it kills everyone you cared about?!” Rigan spat back, raising onto his own two feet as Annul slowly did the same. The look in Rigan’s eyes hardened as he gazed at Burud, but there… was still a hint of mercy within them. After all, just because his opinion of the man had been drowned in mud didn’t mean all he had done had been wiped clean.

“We’re not going to kill you Burud. What we need is your blood. You brought this demon wearing the Leoness’ skin into this world by spilling innocent blood, only weapons infused with your blood will cast it back to whence it came. If you give any damn about Scawick at all, you’ll help us undo your mistake… before it consumes us all.”

Annul watched the exchange for a moment… before he decided to speak in a somewhat more calm tone. “For what it’s worth Burud, regardless of if we kill her or not… the Leoness is dead. All we’re doing now is killing something that looks vaguely like her before it reaches our homes… and Droka promised us a boon for putting her down.”

Slowly, but surely, Burud lowered his fists slightly. He still appeared jumpy, but a shadow of defeat filled his face more and more by the second. Eventually, he dropped his arms down at his sides, his breath becoming like shivering branches on a winter night. “... I… I just needed one triumph… It’s just not fair. It’s just… Not fair…” Sobs choked him up and he slapped a palm over his eyes. “Gods, what have I done…”

The anger that had been building up in Rigna faded away as Burud started crying. It was easy to be enraged by a man who was celebrating the vile deeds he had committed while being uncaring of the consequences, but now that the barrier had broken and the full weight of what he had done had finally hit him, the rage departed.

As Annul walked around the table to offer a comforting hand on Burud’s shoulder, Rigna decided to speak up and offer… something on a peace offering to a broken man. “I… I know it’s not much but… there was some debate about what was going to happen after the demon was slain. A lot of people were discussing exiling the guilty parties but… If you want, I think I might have an alternative. Let you and Murtagh have the first chance of fighting and killing the thing. We were already planning on producing weapons able to slay it so… a couple more isn’t going to be a tall order.”

“It’s your call. I’m happy to let you think about it before I bring it up with everyone else. It is your life after all.”

“Hah, would that be right?” Burud sniffed and swallowed, lowering his palm to reveal flooding, red eyes. He pulled the snot from his nose and cleared his throat. “No… No, we don’t deserve to go after it - I don’t deserve it. Murtagh is a broken man because of me, and I will not go into the afterlife to be with my ancestors even if I should die fighting this creature I summoned. Find me a cell - take my blood as you need it and find me a cell, so I can rot there until I am to be banished or killed for my crimes.” He sank back down in his seat. “I don’t deserve to die in battle.”

There was… a brief look of disappointment, but Rigna would respect Burud’s wish. He might still run the idea by Murtagh to see how he responded but… only time would tell. “...I’ll give you some time to think about it. Ask again when we’ve got some equipment together and we’re better prepared to head out.” Because as much trouble as Burud had likely brought into the world… it was hard to condemn a man who had once been a leading figure in Scawick.

The Interrogation

Darkness, lit only by a single, circular beam of light was all the dizzy, exhausted Ciara could see in the room she had been locked in, so torturously concentrated as it was right in her face. She was bound to a chair by the wrists and feet - an uncomfortable one at that - and her throat was parched from a dry, waterless night. The walls around her were nearly invisible in the shadows around her, but she noted that they were incredibly odd, as though they were full of… Her - going on for miles and miles and miles into infinity. The floor felt like dirt to her bare feet - cold, hopeless dirt that licked freezingly at her toes in the morning dew. Everywhere around her was dreadful silence.

Then footsteps approached from behind. The sliding and knocking of wood revealed that the wall behind her was not like those she could see - there was likely a door of some kind there. Inside came flickering lights, nothing bright enough to outshine the sun, but enough to give her eyes a break from the terrible contrast of darkness. Shadows of people held torches around her, and then a bald head blocked out the bead of sunlight, forcing Ciara’s eyes to adjust.

“What’s your name?” said a female voice.

“You know my name!” Ciara yelled. For at least a year she walked the market. Helped people out and bought apples from the stalls! The people knew her. “Please, please I don’t know why I’m here. I didn’t do anything!” The bruises on her arms still felt sore and made her muscles ache but above all else, she felt tired. Tired from the fighting and crying and pleading.

Suddenly, she was drenched with water from a bucket splashed in her face with oppressive force. The cold shocked her just as much as the split-second suffocation. When the water fell her lungs sucked in the air as if she was just underwater for a minute. Ragged, panicky breaths took her back to when she was caught and beaten.

“What is your name?” the voice repeated.

“Please I just…” Her weak voice cut off. Afraid she’d get drenched in in cold water again. “I-I’m Ciara.” She answered with a trembling voice and a quickly shrinking heart.

“Where are you from?” continued the voice. The light of the sun formed an oppressive halo around her bald head, and out of the corner of her eye, Ciara could spot other women bringing in a table lined with… Something - it was unclear what it was.

Wild-eyed she looked around. Not understanding what was happening. Why were they asking questions? What was that table? Why was she being treated like the enemy!? She opened her mouth. Ready to let the questions pour out. But she swallowed the words. “I’m from the Cenél villages.” She said with a heavy sob.

“Where is Darragh?” asked the voice. The icing sound of a whetstone scraping over metal hissed in the background. A burnt smell filled the air and soon, the crackle of burning wood joined the background noises.

“I-I-I don’t know!” She tried to move but couldn’t. She would thrash, but her body was already exhausted. “Please, please why are you doing this? We’ve done nothing.” She repeated then, over and over, as she broke down further.

“The curse that befell our warrior Hilda was the work of ungodly magic - the kind that your kin is known to practice. I will ask again - where is Darragh?” The air filled with a different burnt scent - sour, sickening. It was a burnt plant of sorts, and it made the room unclear and hard to perceive, as though Ciara had been given a drug; however, the others seemed to be unaffected.

Things started to fall in place within Ciara’s mind. Her eyes grew wide. The quartz, it detected magic. “Wait!” She screamed out. As if her salvation dawned in her mind. Even though the room ws becoming blurred and her senses dulled. “Please wait! We didn’t do anything. Darragh… he felt it. Please I’m begging you, we didn’t do anything.”

“What did he feel, exactly?” The smoke had at this point grown so thick that it was getting hard to see. Slowly, but surely, it felt more and more like Ciara was alone in the room - and the world. The smoke appeared endless and quiet, and the only sound was the sound of her own breathing.

“I-I don’t know…” Her voice faltered again as her heart shrunk in her chest. She tasted copper in her mouth. The smoking was obscuring everything now. Was she still in Ha-Dûna? Was she still in the world? She wanted to beg again. Hope someone would finally help her. Instead, her lip just quivered as tears fell from her eyes. In her mind started praying to Seva to save her.

Suddenly, there came a burning sting, as though her skin was singed by hot coals. The pain coursed through her. She screamed at the top of her lungs. It pulled her up from a daze she didn’t know she was in. A moment later it was gone. Her mind blocked out the pain. Turning into a faint sense in the back of her mind. But she broke down crying. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” She kept saying, barely comprehensible through the sobbing.

Out of nowhere, a heavy-handed punch hit her in the cheek. Meanwhile, she could feel her mind begin to float - it was as though someone was forcefully opening up her consciousness and attempting to see the world as she saw it, like a pair of eyes behind her eyes.

“WHERE IS HE?!” came an ungodly, terrifying scream like a chorus of demons.

“Home!” She screamed. Her mind forcing out anything to stop the pain. To stop whatever was burrowing through it. That’s what he said. Go home. Go to the Cenél. She wanted to be back in her house. The roots and branches of which her grandmother had coaxed into their shape. Seva wasn’t coming. “Irra protect me. Irra protect me.” She kept muttering. The line between thought and speech blurred. Another punch, this one to the back of the head. At this point, her mind felt pierced, like something had driven a splinter deep into her brain. She couldn’t see it completely, but there was very clearly something staring back into her mind’s eye. It searched, forcing Ciara to see memories from her whole life, image by image, scent by scent, pain by pain. The joyful memories were somehow devoid of emotion, coldly analysed and tossed aside in the quest for the revealing detail. The eyes grew less patient by the second and the stream sped up, Ciara hardly having time to process each bypassing memory as more than a flickering image. It felt as though it lasted for hours, and whenever her mind threatened to regain focus, the stink of smoke intensified and sent her right back into trance, and every time she grew too exhausted to stay away, a surge of pain from either burns or punches would force her back into dazed wakefulness.

Finally, after what felt like a row of three sleepless nights, the eyes blinked and disappeared. She heard mumbles beyond the smoke, but nothing she could interpret. Just as she was about to keel over from exhaustion, ice cold water once again coated her from head to toe.

Her mind felt blank. Untouched. Her body reacted in spasms and gasps. It wanted to live and breathe still but her mind didn’t seem to care anymore. Did she want to die? Or to sleep? Was there a different anymore. She just wanted out. Away. Home.

But then she needed someone kind. Someone who cared. Someone good. In the back of her mind it felt as if light pierced through the fog. A name. “Boudicca.” She muttered. Her blank eyes still staring down at the ground. “Boudicca.” She said again. The glimmer of hope seemingly keeping her mind above water.

However, the voices were silent. Eventually, one of them said coldly, “Who do you think had you arrested?”

Who arrested her? Who took her? Who put her here? Her mind kept going over things. Memories laid scattered. Forced open and closed. Their order broken. Who took her? Who punished her? Not her. Not Boudicca. “Boudicca.” She said again. Still half breathless. Refusing to believe the kind and just sanndatr would’ve put her here. Darragh was long gone. The Cenél would not come for her. The gods had forsaken her but not Boudicca. She wouldn’t let her suffer here. Like this. “Boudicca.” It became her prayer.

There came a sigh. “Leave her here. She’s got nothing to do with the summoning.”

“So she spoke true, then?”

“Yes, she had no memory nor conception of doing the crime, and unless Darragh also knows the ways of the Truthful One, which is unlikely for his… Profession, then she is innocent of the crime.”

“Shall I inform the sanndatr?”

A pensive hum. “Delay that for a bit. There might be other parts of her memories we can use for the coming conflict.” With that, the voices faded, leaving Ciara alone in her cell once more.

High up the moonlight that would fall inside was partially blocked by a small, insignificant shape. From inside one could barely see its black, oval figure. With two icy, blue eyes that seemed to be glowing. When the men were done the creature unfurled its wings and flew away. Leaving behind three black-striped white feathers.

A Terrible Loss

Year 30AA, spring, Ha-Dûna...

The day had come at last. After weeks of preparation, discussion and offerings to the gods, the tournament grounds had been set up properly and all the gods had been invited to watch the sanndatr and anointed of Selesta, Ser Boudicca of Gaardskarl Clan Metsep and théin of théins, defend her honour as the chieftess against her good friend-turned-rival théin Hilda “the Leoness” of Clan Ur-Gaard, who ushered a challenge against her abilities as a leader. The arena was grand, and there were many games in which many others would participate to warm up the crowds for the great fight. Logging competitions, snow shoveling, spear-throwing, archery - all would be tested and competed over to please the crowds waiting for what was to come. Legendary athletes such as Frode the Enduring, Megan the Strong and théin Valix of Leothe all participated with great glee and stage presence, rousing up the crowds with their prowess in sport and sense of competition. Braziers with offerings to Caden and Selesta burned all day - in many ways, the tournament was much like a light version of Caden’s Test of Strength during the week of Helgensblot. Festivities raged around the spectacles, too, wherein the occasion was celebrated with fresh spring salads and berries, and some even slaughtered goats to grill. Nets of fish were hauled up from the Misanthir and speared onto sticks over the fire. The bards danced and performed elaborate dramas about the stories of old battles, of the likes of Gaard Goldhair and the Gaardskarl Rebellion, Charles du Pierre and the Battle for Brasfort, and the Herjingsaga. Children and grown-ups alike all took great pleasure in the bards’ work, and all joined in to sign the songs they knew.

When the hour of the battle finally arrived, the city was as wound up as a bowstring. The arena was filled to the very brim, and those who had not come in time to get a seat sat themselves upon the roofs of surrounding buildings or climbed trees. Everyone had to watch - this was possibly the greatest event of their lives, and no one knew if there would ever be a tournament like this ever again. The combatants were hidden away inside tents opposite of one another on each side of the flat wooden arena in the centre of the tribunals. Inside her tent, Hilda stood quietly with her family as a trell dressed her in her armour, bronze scale hauberk imported from the south over custom-sewn leather and linen underarmour produced on her own commission by the crafters in the city. She donned her tall, cone-like helmet and drew a slow breath, looking over at her husband, Fender. In truth, Fender was her second husband, one she was forced to marry by the druids in order to do her duty to the Sun. She had little love for him beyond what was required of her, her heart in all known truth still belonging to her dearest Vegard, dead and buried with honours by the Grimholt stronghold where he fell. However, in this moment, she felt affection for him - real, genuine affection. She reached out to him and took his hand, looking deep into his eyes. They said nothing to each other, but the smiles they exchanged said a thousand words. By his side stood her son Brian and her daughter Ailsa, none of whom were older than ten winters. She kissed them both on the forehead and caressed their cheeks. “Now you make sure to cheer mommy on from the rafters, okay?”

Brian sniffed quietly and Hilda smiled at him. “What’s wrong, Bry? Are you scared for mommy?”

The young boy nodded. “I’m scared that mommy will die,” he whimpered and closed in to hug her. Ailsa, reading the mood, joined in with a whimper of her own. Hilda felt that familiar burn in the nose and struggled to keep the tears from flowing.

“Now, now, my, my little babies…” She cleared her throat. “Mommy will be just fine, okay? She’ll kick that mean Boody’s butt so hard she’ll never come back again, and then we can have cheesy oatmeal for dinner today, what do you say?” She looked up at Fender with a small smile. “Think you can manage that, dad?”

Her husband snickered warmly. “Yeah, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.”

Hilda slowly pulled her children away. “Would that be okay?”

They nodded through the tears. Hilda smiled and gave them each another kiss. “Good. Cheer loudly, okay? There are a lot of people, so you have to make your voices extra loud.”

“Okay,” said Brian. Ailsa nodded.

Boudicca held out her arms while the trells dressed her in scale hauberk adorned with gems and sigils in honour of the gods. They wrapped her wrists in bronze bracers and her shins in bronze protectors; around her waist, they tied a belt with a great buckle displaying a boar’s head. Her shoulders were pauldroned with leather, and her many layers of cloth, skins and hide made for thick underarmour. She took a bronze spear and practiced a few stabs at the empty space before her. A curious hum sounded from her right and she turned to face her daughter Materix and the rest of her family. “What?”

“Why aren’t you using your sword?” asked her eldest daughter. Boudicca looked ahead again and went for another jab.

“The sword is Caden’s work - it cuts wood like paper and bronze like skin. I want this to be a fair fight.” She stabbed again, this time piercing the tent wall. Her husband Aethel sighed.

“Can you be sure Hilda will think the same?”

Boudicca pulled her spear back and wiped the first drops of sweat forming on her brow. The trells hastened to patch up the hole. “Hilda is many things, but she is no cheater. She knows that those who have come to cheer for her want to see her win under our shared rules. That would prove her strength over me.”

“But you’re not going to let her win, right?” Materix asked. Boudicca smirked and put on her coned helmet.

“Of course not. She will be defeated for all to see and then we can once again return to guiding this city in the right direction - we can finally put this squabble behind us.” She picked up a wooden tower shield emblemed with the symbols of the Eight and tested its weight. She nodded at her family. “Alright, then. Materix, you find your father, sister and brother a good spot on the benches, you understand? I wouldn’t want you to miss this.”

Materix rolled her eyes and stepped over to kiss her mother on the cheek. “Yes, mom.” Aethel sighed and cupped the teen Zelda and Boudin on their backs.

“We’ll be cheering for you, my love,” Aethel reassured her and Boudicca nodded again.

“You better.” Then she stepped out of the tent.

The applause was deafening. As the two combatants ascended the arena from opposite sides, sound thundered from the benches the likes of which had never been witnessed in Ha-Dûna before, not even during the Helgensblot competitions. The crowds were wild animals, nearly pouring onto the arena as they closed in around to get as good a view as possible. Neither contestant roused them on, however; both were much too occupied studying one another, the wolven eyes of Boudicca studying the Leoness’ scowl. They each stood still, testing the weight and feel of their weapons and shields, armour and forms. Atop an altar built tall to oversee the fight, the druids had prepared a large elkskin drum, and Kaer Pier, ancient as he was getting, was slowly making his way to the top to say a few words before the fight. Some in the crowd egged him on to hurry up, which he took with humour and tolerance, though others chastised the rowdy ones for hastening an old man. Meanwhile, Boudicca and Hilda continued to circle around one another.

“This didn’t have to happen, Hilda… Yield now and your honour will be spared.”

Hilda spat. “You know it won’t be - the gods know it; the people know it. If I yield before battle is met, I will lose all glory and respect.” She banged her spear against her shield. “This fight was your idea - live with it.”

Boudicca sighed and tested a battle stance, knees bent and shield held close to the torso, spear lifted above her and ready to stab downwards. Hilda tested the spear’s swinging momentum, did a spin attack at the air and then stabbed in Boudicca’s direction. The crowds cheered. Then sounded the drums and the arena quieted down. Both Hilda and Boudicca turned to face the altar, atop which Kaer Pier stood with his hands lifted to the sky.

“As every Dûnan should know, blood and tears are not the draughts of peace and friendship; however, there come times when peace between persons must be set aside so the greater society may continue to live in it. Hilda of Clan Ur-Gaard has committed acts that challenge the authority of our sanndatr Boudicca of Clan Metsep, and the sanndatr has requested a duel between herself and the offender to determine who has the right to rule in the eyes of the gods.” Before him were arranged one row of eight wooden boxes and one of seven leather pouches. He reached into each one starting from the leftmost of the boxes, took a fistful of its contents and sprinkled it on the wind over the arena: “Hear us, great gods, and give your champions your blessings. May the seeds of the Sun give them hardiness; may the mead of the Moon give them warmth; may the sand of Stone give them smoothness; may the salt of the Sea give them fortitude; may the colour of Ink give them beauty; may the splinters of Trees sharpen their edges; may the dust of glass make True their strikes; and may the dust of Stars give them hope to persevere.” He then moved onto the pouches. A few in the crowds were getting sleepy, though fewer still dared even pretend like they weren’t paying their fullest attention. The champions stood with their eyes closed, allowing whatever substances hit them to do so. The druid reached into the pouches and continued: “May teeth give you Endurance; may dried berries wash away your Sorrow; may ribbons tie you to your Promises; may mothdust give you Structure; may Metal dust grant you armour; may charcoal rile you up like Fire; and may the Bones of the fallen guide you on to victory.” The crowd took a moment of silence to finish their prayers before the druid lifted up the drumsticks. Boudicca and Hilda turned to face one another.

“Are the combatants ready?”



The drums thundered. “Begin!”

Hilda ushered forth her leoness scream and lunged forward. If she was to win, she would have to do so quickly; it was no secret that Boudicca had divine levels of endurance, and she would likely attempt to win by attrition. Hilda would need to overpower her immediately. The Leoness thus stormed in swiftly, absorbing her momentum as Boudicca knocked her spear away and turning it into a powerful shield bash, which the sanndatr had been less prepared for. Still, however, it wasn’t enough, and Hilda hurriedly kicked away to put distance between herself and Boudicca again. The two circled one another again, occasionally jumping to see if the other would flinch. Both upheld iron stances, however, until Hilda struck again, aiming for Boudicca’s legs, her height making those inconvenient to defend. Boudicca’s shield took the strike, so Hilda swung her spear around from the ground to necklevel, the sharp bronze blade whizzing past Boudicca’s collar bone and singing against her armour- a few scales flew off her hauberk. The Leoness didn’t let her rest for a second, and the sanndatr quickly busied herself with dodging the rabid hornet jabs. A few struck metal and leather, and one or two struck skin. However, Hilda was beginning to pant - she couldn’t keep this up. As her jabs grew sloppier, Boudicca found an opening, dodging around her spear and bringing her shield up to knock Hilda away; Hilda, more tired than she had anticipated, was knocked back far, nearly falling off the arena. There, on the edge, she tried to catch her breath while Boudicca patrolled in a crescent on the opposite side of the arena.

“Heh… Aren’t you gonna attack me? I’m right here, y’know!”

“It’s not right to beat someone who’s down.”

Hilda grit her teeth. “Oh, trust me. This is far from over.”

Meanwhile on the benches, Hilda’s family watched the fight anxiously. Ailsa kept pulling at her father robes, begging for him to head down there and help mommy; Brian, on the other hand, followed the battle intently, though the bench they had been granted didn’t necessarily give the most detailed view - sure, one could see everything, but they were far away, and Brian would need to get closer to study the battle closer. He rose from the bench.

“Going somewhere?” asked Fender.

“I’m going to get closer - I need mommy to hear me.” Fender sighed at looked at the moshpit around the central arena. Someone had brought in ale pots and horns, and the cheers were beginning to slur.

“Alright, but be careful, okay? Don’t walk into the middle of the crowd.”

Brian nodded and stepped down the rafters, disappearing into the architecture of the wooden colosseum. The inside was barren of people, as was to be expected - no one could see anything from within here. The boy hurried over to the staircase that would take him to the ground floor again, turning around a corner at which stood two hooded figures. He paid them no mind until he heard them whisper:

“Isn’t that…?”

“Sure is.”

Next thing he knew, four mighty hands gripped Brian’s arms, and the preteen kicked with futile ferocity as his mouth was gagged and he was stuffed in a sack. The boy kept kicking and screaming, but the cacophony of the arena made even his loudest yell just another tweet in a birdsong. His captors hurried down towards the exit, making sure to take the quickest routes. They bypassed the crowds unspotted, all faces facing the arena. However, as they were about to exit the arena, they spotted a pair of singing drunks stagger by. They had already exposed themselves, so hiding again would make them even more suspicious. Barely flinching, they continued walking forward, offering the drunks a nod.

“Heeeeeey! Where’z you goin’?” asked one of them, a fat, bearded man who spilled drink from his horn with every word.

One of the hooded men smiled and said, “Oh, we’re just taking this chicken here to be butchered! Hope you all are hungry!”

The drunks lifted their horns in the air. “Waaaaaaaayyyy! Chicken, chicken, chicken!” They kept chanting as they slumped back into the colosseum. The hooded speaker sighed his relief and the pair continued walking, further and further away from the arena and Ha-Dûna. Only once they had stepped completely out of sight of the city did they remove their hoods. They dropped the sack in the cold grass, whimpers sounding from the inside and panted their exhaustion away.

“That was way too close,” Murtagh quivered. Burud rolled his eyes and peeked over the hillside down to the city.

“You lack resolve, man. This couldn’t have gone better.” He then looked eastwards. “We should have enough supplies hidden away along the road to last the journey. Resla better keep her end of the bargain.”

“D’aaaw… Doubting me already?” Both men jumped nearly a metre into the air as the fossilised form of Resla the Grey seemingly appeared out of nowhere, dressed in more colours than her skin had had for the last hundred years. She smacked her non-existent lips and offered Murtagh a rotten wink, possibly taking a few years off his sane mind’s lifespan. Burud held out his hand warily.

“What, what’re you doing here?”

“Funny you should ask. See, I know I said you should come to me, right, but then you never showed up! Been waiting since winter here, come on. Anyway, since you took so long, I decided I might as well get out of the house and come over here - make a workout out of it, y’know?” She clapped her boney hands together at her own joke - neither Burud nor Murtagh joined in. “So,” she continued, ignoring their terror, “you’ve got the sacrifice?”

“Y-yeah,” Burud answered and kicked the sack, making it cry. “Right here.”

“Ooooo!” cried the witch and squatted down next to it, undoing the wrapping and pulling it away to reveal the bruised boy’s face. Brian stared up at her maggot-eaten face and screamed as loudly as he could into his gag, kicking and clawing at the rest of the sack still covering his body for freedom. “Oh, they’re so adorable in that age, aren’t they?”

“Can, can we just get this over with?” pleaded Murtagh. Resla blew a curt raspberry and rolled her eyes.

“You guys are so depressing. Hadn’t I known better, I would’ve thought you’re backing out on me. Just keep in mind that your fingers won’t be returned! I have a strict policy against refunds!”

“Fine! Fine! He didn’t mean it like that… We’re still determined to do this,” Burud snarled. Resla grinned.

“I knew you’d have the balls for this, man. Don’t worry. After today, Hilda the Leoness will never be at peace ever again.” Brian stopped screaming, shifting between the three faces in a mortified manner.

In the arena, the cheers had died down. After Hilda had failed to break Boudicca’s early defense, the fight had become so incredibly one-sided, with Hilda being pushed back after every strike. The attendees who cheered for Boudicca kept up their vigorous chants in her name, but Hilda’s supporters were silent with pity. Their most honoured théin, who had been one of the strongest and bravest fighters during the Conquests, and who had been one of the few who dared stand up to Boudicca’s dogmatic leadership, was dangerously close to losing. She had cuts all over her body; she had long since tossed her shield away, reasoning that she would be more dexterous without it. That had been a mistake, and while Boudicca had just begun to break a sweat, Hilda found that just the spear was challenging her endurance. The fight had gone on for almost a third of a thlénn, and the Leoness felt her ferocity fail her. She packed it all into one final lunge, one that was heavy-footed and predictable, and struck Boudicca’s shield. Her opponent punched the spear to the ground, planted a foot on its shaft so Hilda lost grip and then swung her own spear at Hilda’s neck, stopping a few brief inches from the skin. “Yield!” shouted Boudicca.

Hilda snarled and raised her hands. “Why? Why don’t you kill me where I stand?”

Boudicca snickered. “Killing is not our way. You have shown by losing this battle that you have been wrong, and so you shall serve in--”

“What do you mean ‘it’s not our way’?”

Boudicca blinked in curt confusion. “I, I mean that the Gospel of Selesta says--”

“Selesta! Another goddess telling us what to do! Hah!” Hilda flinched as Boudicca’s spear nipped at her neck. Around the arena, the crowd grew surly.

“What is she saying?!”

“Of course we do as the gods command!”


Boudicca held up a hand and they quieted down. “Hilda, you are walking a dangerous road - you know as well as I that to speak ill of the gods is to sin. Caden, Selesta - both tell us to show mercy when--”

“Mercy?!” Hilda pushed herself to her feet against surprisingly little resistance from Boudicca, speechless as she was to the point of being stunned. “What mercy is there in preserving my life? I am nothing if I lose here! Such is our culture!”

“False! Our culture is--!”

“Our culture is one of war, of battle! Gaardskarls have forever been warriors against the Ketrefans; Herjegallings are raiders in the hills; Brasfortsians, too, raided the lowlands when the mountain soil was meagre.” She gestured up at Kaer Pier and his fellow druids, among whom some ducked for cover to not be seen. “Even the Clennon Fen, peaceful as we think they are, have been some of the most warmongering among us throughout our shared history as tribesfolk!”

“You hold that tongue before I cut it off, you fiend!” roared the sanndatr, but in her rage forgot her stance and did not see Hilda squat down, pick up her spear and shove it into her leg. “AGH!”

“The Dûnans are a people of war, and the gods know nothing of our culture, of our needs and our wants! They see only our sins, and threaten us if we do not act as they wish, like we are children to them!”

“But we are the gods’ children!” shouted some in the crowd.

“We are their chosen!”

“Hilda’s right! Macsal, Caden, Selesta, Reiya - all have tried to restrain us from our destiny!”

“Shut your mouth, you blasphemer!” The drunken crowd, riled up after an hour of cheering, burst into blows. The druids and théins with their bruisers hastened to restrain as many as they could, but some of them were so angry themselves that they couldn’t help but join in. Boudicca snarled and took her own spear, raising it above her head. Hilda stared up at it, waiting for the strike to pierce her and free her from her wicked life.

“MOMMY, HEEEELP!” screamed Brian. His hands and legs had been tied, and his had been put on a flat rock overlooking the city. Next to the rock stood Resla sharpening a knife fashioned from a very special metal - it was silvery, but very clearly much rarer than silver could ever be. When asked what it was made of, she answered vaguely:

“Y’know, magic stuff.”

Murtagh sat a few paces away, covering his ears from the screaming. Burud eyed Ha-Dûna with hate in his eyes. He balanced a hand on the head of his axe menacingly and spoke, “Resla. What will this curse actually do to her?”

The witch creepily hummed a little tune. “Oh, you’ll see. There’s a lot of power in child’s blood. Just be patient.”

Burud groaned angrily. “How much longer?”

“Aaaany minute now, dearie, be patient, I said.” She ran the whetstone over the blade a few more times. The boy kept kicking and wheeping, trying his damndest to escape. Resla eyed him and shook her head giggling. “Now, now, my boy. This’ll take but a minute. You’ll feel an itty-bitty sting, and then it’ll be all over.” She tested the blade of her knife on a nail and nodded. “Alright, we’re set!”

Burud turned and sighed. “Finally. Murtagh, come over here. Murtagh?”

His companion faced away from them, whispering something to himself. As Burud stepped over, he heard it: “... can’t do this. This is wrong. We’ll be punished by the gods, for sure… My wife… My father, mother, sisters, brothers - all will hate me for what I’ve done…” Burud was about to reach out, but stopped himself. Instead, he turned back to Resla and said to Murtagh.

“You… You just rest for now, brother. Resla! Begin.”

“Oki-doki!” shouted the witch. She tossed her hands in the air and the boy was suddenly suspended from nothing, hanging by his hands as though from a rope in the sky. She handed Burud a wooden bowl fashioned with paint and carvings depicting skulls and demons. The man swallowed, but he had come too far to back down now - revenge would be his to exact finally. The witch smiled at him and the crying boy and asked, “Alright, you just hold the bowl riiiight there.” She guided his hands until the bowl pressed against the boy’s chest. “Ready when you are, chief!”

Burud swallowed one last time while staring into the boy’s tearful eyes. “Please… Don’t do this to mommy…” he whispered. The man steeled himself - he couldn’t let himself feel for this spawn of hers.


“And whoosha!”

A ring of metal, then all sound disappeared. Burud’s eyes trembled as beads of blood trickled out of the boy’s throat, joined immediately by growing rivers. The bowl began to fill, and as Brian coughed up the last of his life, Resla helped steer Burud’s hands so not a single drop would be wasted. Meanwhile, she chanted in a language that sounded like nothing the human tongue could utter - it was bestial, wicked and coarse, like the tongue of trolls if spoken by demons.

And from the bowl in his hands blinked red and black lights, showing that demons were exactly what had been summoned.

Boudicca had managed to spear her opponent through the belly, Hilda’s breathing becoming like thread. The crowd had quieted down again, oppressive silence weighing down on everyone. Hilda tried to speak, but a coughful of blood prevented her. Across from her, Boudicca was in tears.

Then Hilda suddenly retched. An echoing heartbeat punched through the air like a shockwave, and eyes went everywhere as people looked for the source. Anxious wariness spread through the arena, until someone pointed at Hilda and shouted, “The théin! Her skin!” Everyone looked on in horror as Hilda’s skin began to blister. Red pox filled her entire body to the centimetre, and some became large tumours which borders were black as coal and swelled up with menacing crimson. Boudicca dropped her spear in terror and stepped back, noticing that the Leoness remained standing - in fact, she seemed healthier than before. Her right arm grew monstrously large with blood-filled tumours, and the rest of her skin scorched over and became a charred, crusted black. Hilda didn’t sound human anymore - in fact, no one could say what she sounded like at all. Few had time to figure it out, too, because not too long after her transformation seemed to slow did she suddenly turn to the crowd and jump off the arena, her colossal, now-clawed arm massacring its way through to the exit. The crowd panicked, drunks, children and elderly falling over in the stampede to get to safety. Boudicca and the rest of the warriors tried to keep the peace, but the sight of those who had died only spurred on the panic.

Atop the hill, Burud looked down in glee. He could see people running for the lives away from the arena, and charging through the empty streets, he spotted a blinking, red monster, escaping for its life. He raised his hands in the air and shouted, “HAH! Victory! Vengeance for Scawick!” Murtagh, on the other hand, still hadn’t moved from his spot. Resla eyed the fleeing monster approvingly and clapped Burud on the shoulder.

“Good work, sonny. Couldn’a done it without ya.”

Burud grinned back, completely ignoring the bled-out Brian who had been left on the stone to rot in the sun. “We owe you our most sincere gratitude, Resla! Vengeance has never tasted so sweet before.”

The witch blushed, if one could call it that. “Oh, noooo, it wasn’t much.”

“So… If I may ask… What is that thing?”

Resla giggled and elbowed him playfully in the stomach. “Oh? Is my customer interested in the dark arts, hmm?”

Burud frowned. “No, it’s not that - I just wish to know what it is.”

“Pfft… Bummer. Alright, since you asked so nicely, I’ll tell ya. That, my friend, is a demon.”

“A demon?”

“A demon. But not just any demon - oh no! This one’s special, it is. See, normally, demons that feed on people eat their life away before killing the person. Sounds simple enough, right? Standard parasite stuff.”


“But this one - oh, ho-ho, this one - this one’s already fed. We gave it the soul of our little friend over there. So what we’ve done, essentially, is put a very fat, very full demon inside our friend Hilda there.”

Burud frowned. “Wait, what damage will that do? Won’t it just stay there and not do anything?”

Resla rolled her eyes and pointed back down at the bulbous monster. “Does that look like nothing to you? No, see, here’s the kicker - since the demon is full, it will eat very, very slowly off of her life, chipping away at it little by little. She will never be at peace from the pain, and the demon will have to eat its way through the entire kid’s life, which is at least ten years, before even beginning to consume Hilda’s. While she’s waiting for that, the demon actually makes her nearly unkillable, so she will go on rampaging through these lands for decades, killing everything and everyone she ever loved. Smart, right?”

Burud blinked. “I… I don’t know what to say.”

“No need to say anything. If you have anyone who, like you, wishes someone eternal pain and suffering for a small, small price, just send them my way and we’ll be even.” She then packed up her things, waved a hand and went, “Too-de-loo!” before seemingly vanishing into thin air.

Burud pinched his arm briefly to confirm he wasn’t dreaming. This was it. They had finally exacted revenge on the person who had brought them so much suffering, and made her people cower in fear of what the Scawicks can do. He hastened over to Murtagh and sat down next to him. “Murtagh, brother - it’s over! We won!”

The man was silent, his eyes as dead as those of Brian. Burud tried to shake life into him again. “Come on, snap out of it! Hilda has been punished and so have the Dûnans! Scawick is avenged!”

“... We killed a child, man… He was just a boy who wanted his mother.”

Burud felt his words stick to his throat. He swallowed and stole a moment to recollect himself, but Murtagh stood up before he could say anything. “Murtagh? What’s wrong with you? He was a Dûnan!”

Murtagh kneeled down next to the corpse, his eyes brimming with tears at the sight. Burud’s mind struggled to balance the flavour of victory with the ever-growing tumour of guilt. He hurried over to his friend again. “H-hey,. Murtagh, look at me.” The man was unresponsive. “Look at me!” Burud repeated. Slowly, Murtagh’s face turned to face his. “Listen… We did what was right… For my family and for yours. They can rest now.”

“And can we, Burud?” There was silence. “Can we ever rest? Can you?”

Burud swallowed. He couldn’t answer.

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