Status

Recent Statuses

9 mos ago
Current roleplayerguild.com/topics/… In case you ever wanted get revenge on your political nemesis!
2 yrs ago
Well shit, I'm bored as fuck.
4 yrs ago
I am Spartacus!
1 like
5 yrs ago
"Stay awhile and listen!"
2 likes
5 yrs ago
God bless.
2 likes

Bio

I'm not really a bird.

Here is the rest of the poem in my signature:

Where did I play,
A land of twisted branches,
A kingdom of clay,
A swamp of memories,
A never-ending day,

Where did I run,
Across the dawn,
Through the sun,
Across the sky,
Through laughs and fun,

Where did I walk,
Pristine grass green,
White cliffs of chalk,
Pools of sky so blue,
Orchard stones that talk,

Where did I sit,
By the gates of silver,
Near endless pit,
By forever horizon,
You may remember it.

Most Recent Posts

Ha-Leothe


All day the survivors of Ha-Leothe have toiled to rebuild their town after the fires, and all day the mighty Western Army sharpened their weapons, mended their armor, and prepared for the coming war. It wasn’t until the moon started to emerge from the dusky sky that the tent of the Tsar was suddenly lit with candles - a meeting of commanders.

Darragh stood alone to represent the Fakir, and next to him stood a few Boyars of equal rank and commanders that often wore the yellow mane in battle. Along with the military men stood Dmitri, the Auspice. They all stood around a table, a map of the region splayed across it. Jjonveyo alone was sitting, a large wooden chair wrought with carvings of old tales under him. He sat with his beard in his fist, dark eyes brooding over the map.

“By now our agents would have made it to a few towns and villages with our messages and promises,” He grunted, “The war of the mind has begun, and our scouts have already picked the next settlement to approach. Ha-Tinn is close by and no better fortified than Ha-Leothe was, not that I think it would come to bloodshed -- a spy has relayed their interest in joining the Tsardom peacefully.”

“Cowards.” Darragh said. Loud enough so everyone in the tent could hear it. His eyes were roaming across the map. He didn’t care for what villages decided to surrender peacefully. What he needed was blood.

"You chose the same path, Darragh," Jjonveyo rumbled without looking at the man. "There are, however, reports of cowards -- or at least fools -- burning the land and retreating to Ha-Dûna; I wish to see this scorching myself, I think it could provide us with a great boon." He sniffed.

“I wasn’t at war with you.” Darragh returned, but remained quiet for the rest. Jjonveyo looked over at Darragh for a moment, a blank look upon his face.

“Speak your mind,” The Tsar grumbled.

For a second Darragh remained silent. But seeing as the Tsar was insistent he simply said: “You know my mind.” One in ten men should be dead. The price for the peace they so desperately desire. Of course, the merciful Tsar wouldn’t do it.

"Speak your mind," Jjonveyo insisted heavily. The eyes of the other officials fell to Darragh.

The Fakir didn’t care about eyes. His own were fixated upon the Tsar. After a tense pause he finally let out a sigh and said: “They’re only surrendering now because they know what happened to Ha-Leothe. If they were first then they would’ve made us bleed. Yet now you’re letting them kneel. Is that your price for peace?” He looked around to the officials staring him down. Did they know nothing of who they’re fighting? “Dûnans crave war. Conquest. What’s stopping them from rising up in ten years? What if they’re just biding their time. Staying strong until we are weak?”

Jjonveyo rolled his jaw, the silence palpable. Finally the Tsar spoke, "I appreciate your concern, Darragh, but it is much easier for them to rise up against me when they don't already have my soldiers integrated into their settlements -- soldiers spared needless battles. Do you see what I'm saying? Unrest comes no matter what route you take, it's better not to waste resources making more than necessary." The Tsar tugged his beard, "Does this not satisfy you?"

Silence reigned. Darragh was not about to break it. It wouldn’t be his own people that would be stationed in the deathtrap. If Jjonveyo was so keen on having his own men slaughtered then so be it. For a while he kept his eyes locked on the Tsar, but after a while they fell upon the map again. Scouring it for prey.

Jjonveyo narrowed his eyes, a deep growl rumbling from his throat, "You dare show such disrespect?"

Darragh let out an exasperated sigh as he looked up. “As your Boyar, I would advise you to drop this matter and focus on what counts right now.”

Jjonveyo stood up, "I have done nothing but given you a platform to advise and speak and be a part of the Celeviak Tsardom, but I increasingly notice your spite and sarcasm. Dissent has no place on our journey, if you do not wish to be treated as Celeviak -- fine." He looked at the yellow maned soldier. "Round up the Fakir." He looked back at Darragh, "I will see the root of this matter cured before another step be taken with the Cenél."

“Dissent?” Darragh said. Perhaps the first time giving a hint of some heated emotion brewing in his heart. “We burned the walls of Ha-Leothe for you. We fought beside you. We have followed every order! Is this how you treat anyone who disagrees with you on any matter?”

Jjonveyo folded his arms behind his back, "No, but as you said -- I should keep my eyes open against those who simply bide their time."

A tense moment passed before the yellow maned soldier returned, "They are lined up outside." Jjonveyo looked at his council.

"Come."

The group shuffled outside the tent, the Fakir waiting outside. Jjonveyo looked directly at the first one on the left. "What is your name?"

“Faas,” He said, then looked at Darragh standing behind Jjonveyo. “, my Tsar.” He quickly added. He was younger and his showed it.

"What do you think of my decision to spare the children of this settlement," Jjonveyo asked quietly.

“Children...sir?” Faas asked. He looked at Darragh, then back at Jjonveyo. “I-I… a merciful choice my Tsar.” He said swallowing deeply.

"Why are you looking at him when I'm the one speaking?" Jjonveyo asked.

Blood drained from Faas’ face. “I-I wanted to be sure I wasn’t speaking out of turn, my Tsar.” He quickly said.

"It's just you and I speaking," Jjonveyo said deadpan, "What of the women, Faas, what should I do with them?"

Something shifted in the young man’s eyes. He swallowed again. “Sparing them is a merciful decision, my Tsar.” He said, but it was strained. It was almost too obvious he did not agree with it.

"Is that what I should do, then?" Jjonveyo asked a little louder. He pointed at another Fakir, "Do you agree with Faas' judgement? Should the women be spared?"

“Yes?” Said the next Fakir. Quickly added: “My Tsar.”

But Darragh set a step forward. “Tell him Faas.”

The young man’s head dropped in shame and he looked down at the ground. “They have the one I was supposed to marry.” He said. “Right now I can’t even imagine what they’re doing to her. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see her again. I-I’m not a leader. I may never be. But why should they get mercy when she doesn’t?”

"Oh I see..." The Tsar's voice rumbled thoughtfully, dark eyes scanning the fakir before snapping to Darragh. A crude smile formed and he paced along the line of Fakir. "So this is the root of all the grumbles and stares and snaked eyes? You all have felt loss and now you wish for revenge, for them to feel it too?" Jjonveyo spun on a heel to face Darragh, "Do you agree with my assessment, Boyar?"

“I do, my Tsar.” He said. The other Fakir gathered were growing more resolute in their agreement by the second.

Jjonveyo nodded, "Would you go as so far to say that these feelings may be the true purpose of your advice rather than care for future uprisings against my banner? Do not be ashamed if that is true, but correct me if it is false, please."

“No.” Darragh said. “I’m not blind to the future. Dûnans are warmongers. Greedful and spoiled. Five years ago they raged a war here as well. Killing and massacering through these lands. When they were beaten back they professed their love of peace. Yet five years later they chant for war in their arena again. I have no desire to fight this same war every five years.”

Jjonveyo nodded once again, "Would you say the Dûnans in this settlement are already, then, guilty of conspiring and unrest?" He stood up straight, "I will not stand for it, if they are."

“I know for a fact that mothers are already whispering in their children’s ears to avenge their fathers. Lose a battle, look as if you can be beaten after all and those in Ha-Tinn will murder those you’ve left behind there in the streets.” Darragh spoke with a venom he had never used before in the presence of Jjonveyo.

"So you," Jjonveyo jutted a chin at Faas, "Want revenge. And you," he looked at Darragh, "Tell me the people of this settlement are already guilty of treason." The Tsar pinched his beard in thought, looking away and towards the horizon. After a moment of contemplation, Jjonveyo tipped his head at Faas, "Thank you for voicing your concerns to your Tsar -- clearly -- it is communication that will lead us to unity, not passive grumbles. Know I have heard your words, and will now consider them with your Boyar." He waved a hand, "The Fakir are dismissed."

The Fakir walked away. Often looking behind their backs at Darragh. Who remained motionless. Though he had eased up. A little. “Know that I will accept it if you choose to not believe them. And I will make them accept it as well. This is why I did not want to raise the issue further. It wasn’t disrespectful. It’s the fact that you are merciful… and we are not.”

Jjonveyo considered Darragh thoughtfully for a moment before looking towards the tent. "Have any of them ever killed someone defenseless before?" He asked idly as he walked back into the privacy of the tent, the council following.

“A handful.” The Boyar said as he followed Jjonveyo in. “They killed thieves and criminals. Cenél laws are as harsh as winter.” He then further explained. “But they will stay in line.”

"The penalty for treason is to be nailed to a tree," Jjonveyo explained as he sat back in his seat, "Usually through the stomach, sometimes upside down. It's not very quick but serves as a reminder to others. It helps denote the traitor to be too dishonest for an honest demise." He paused and his brow fell in thought, "Those found guilty of treason will be given this punishment, and I wish for the investigations and execution to be done by the Cenél. There is a place in unity for those who seek justice fervently, seek it through the authority of the Tsardom."

A smile cracked upon Darragh’s face. “We will be thorough.” He said. In his mind he was already devising the ways to flush out the traitors. Some would be fools and whisper to all who’d listen. Others would be too clever and would first pretend to be a friend. Offer their services. Burrow into whatever they wished to fight.

“Ha-Tinn will give us ease of passage then.” Darragh continued. Truly wishing to know the battles soon to come. “So who is stupid enough to stand against us then?”

"Before we get into that," Jjonveyo cleared his throat. "Take as many men as you need from your own Boyardom to form the investigative force, they will be a permanent mark until mentioned otherwise. They will be present in all captured Dûnan settlements even if by rotation -- but the investigation will begin only after we take Ha-Tinn or if they change their minds towards aggression. Expecting Ha-Tinn to submit willingly, we will clip their claws to prevent future uprisings by conscripting their able-bodied men and women into the front lines. They will have little choice but to comply at that point, and the recruits will be spread evenly to prevent clustering. Does the council agree to this course of action?"

Thought lingered for a while, as if the commanders and boyars were digesting Jjonveyo's words -- thougj some admittably were just trying to make it seem like they weren't just going to agree with everything the Tsar said without thought. Finally a wave of agreement came in. Jjinveyo looked at Darragh for his final say on the matter.

Darragh bowed down. “A wise choice. It will be done.”

"Great, our generals will conspire a war path moving forward," Jjonveyo nodded over the nap, "Demtri should be meeting up with us within the month on top of it all." He mumbled, "Everyone is dismissed - except you, Darragh, I'd like a private word with you. Dmitri you stay as well, shuffle the copper cards."

The Fakir was one step turned to walk away as well when Jjonveyo bid him to stay. And then ordered the soothsayer to start shuffling his metal cards. Darragh frowned for a second at Dmitri. The Cenél had no real faith in such practices. But then his attention turned towards Jjonveyo. “My Tsar?”

"I fear a divine presence actively works against us," Jjonveyo explained.

Dmitri nodded slowly. “That may be the case, my Tsar. Earlier this morning, I turned over the Priest in upside-down position - indicating that the enemy has been speaking actively with the Divines. Just what sort of foe is this?”

"I'm unsure of her origin, but a Goddess who named herself Celestine has spoken to me," Jjonveyo looked at his Auspice. "She spoke against our cause, I can only assume her power will be used against us."

“By Thaa,” mumbled the Auspice. “W-well, I’ll see what the cards say, then.” He shuffled the copper plates carefully and laid out an array of five cards. Slowly sucking in a breath, he turned the first card, frowning. “... The Commander in upside-down position… It would seem that they summon help not only from the divines. I can’t say anything about the size of the force, but they have gathered a force, that’s for sure.”

He turned the second card. “The Ambassador, upside-down. This… This is an odd draw.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “... I… I think it’s not meant to represent them sending a peace offering, as it would normally be. In all honesty, this is the first time I’ve turned the card in this manner - never before have I ever seen an upside-down Ambassador.”

Jjonveyo hunched over the cards, completely invested. His face turned to a snarl, "Then what does it mean?"

The boy hesitated. “Uh, uhm… It’d-it’d have to depict something the enemy is doing. M-maybe they’re sending out messages asking others for help? Do they have allies? Do we know?”

"A blind spot," Jjonveyo grit his teeth. "We will send spies and learn every faucet of their capabilities and support and I know just the spies to do it." Jjonveyo looked away from the cards. "Jonathan?" The name was funny on Jjonveyo's accent, but a previously unheard voice popped up seemingly out of thin air.

"Yes sir?"

"Take leave at once and report on the aid Ha-Dûna has received."

"Sir!"

Jjonveyo pinched his chin and looked back at Dmitri, "Do the cards speak of anything else?

Dmitri quickly flipped the third one, blinking quickly. “The Wolf, upside-down once again. We will be attacked by something and it’ll cause us terrible losses. It, it won’t be human - some sort of animal. We should have scouts on the lookout for beasts.”

The fourth card. “The Uncle. We, too, will receive aid from somewhere we did not think about. How far away is Demtri?”

"He should be on his way south soon enough," Jjonveyo nodded..

Dmitri shrugged. “I think this indicates that he is bringing aid from the north. I think.” He blinked. “I will just read the final card.” He turned it over and pursed his lips. “... The Cave… Someone close to you will perish, great Tsar.”

"In what form?" The Tsar was hovering once again, eyes picking the art of the card apart.

Dmitri shook his head. “The cards cannot reveal that much. For now, all they can tell is that someone will perish. It might be a close relative, a close friend, a close rival…” He paused. “... It, it might even be you, great Tsar,” he whimpered carefully.

"Not before I'm finished," Jjonveyo grunted. "While the small ones gather intelligence required for mortal assault, I'm placing you, Dmitri, in charge of leading the Auspices and Wise speakers in finding favor with the gods. I will meditate on Thaa tonight, myself. The machinations of this unknown Goddess cannot jeopardize the liberation of mortality from suffering. I will also send word to Demtri..." He trailed off, eyes on the map.

“M-me?! I’m just a novice, though! I’m-I’m sure Master Bradislav would be better suited to lead!”

"Then delegate to him but never question me again." Jjonveyo moved away from the cards, "I shall retire to prayer now."

Dmitri swallowed and bowed silently, shuffling his cards together in a hurry so he could leave as fast as possible.

"Darragh." Jjonveyo didn't even look at the man, "I have a final word for you before I retire."

The Fakir had no time or interest in soothsayers. For most of the reading his mind was somewhere else. He almost left with the others when Jjonveyo stopped him: “Of course, my Tsar. What can I do for you?”

"I fear that the enemy's use of the divine and unnatural put our physical superiority in jeopardy," Jjonveyo began. "This may be beyond your scope but it is no secret that magic won us Leothe and that it is your people who have a stronger covenant with violent magics. Do not tell me if it isn't possible, but tell me you'll look into it when I say; we may need to devise such a devious spell, such a dangerous magic - as to level the playing field. I do not know what form this will take, but I put it on you to bring me solutions to this query."

“This is a dangerous request my Tsar.” Darragh’s expression grew even more grim than before. Yet he spoke with a tone of extreme caution. “Magic is offered to us by our own gods. And if it’s what you say – that some of the divine have turned against us – then crafting such a spell might only insult them further.” For a second he closed his eyes. Contemplating the idea. “I will do my best to bring you what you seek but it will cost time.”

"Of course," Jjonveyo agreed, "Take what time and resources you need."

Darragh gave a short bow of acknowledgement before he left the Tsar alone.





A Visit from a Farmer



Year 30AA, late Autumn, on a hilltop outside of Ha-Dûna...

There was a gentle, harmless breeze on the air coming from the northern sea, the horizon a palette of blue, yellow, red and green. The treeless hill atop which Boudicca sat gave an extraordinary good view of the surroundings, and she found herself moving up here with growing frequency. She had taken to planning the coming battles in isolation - the pestering mórthéins, lesser théins, hildargeach and other military folk - they were too busy arguing among themselves to see the big picture; the foreign chiefs and kings weren’t much better. Fights kept breaking out whenever the Doserung would open their mouths and say something much too honestly for the fragile Dûnan ego, and the Constabulary were almost too busy quelling riots against the strict enforcement of shared housing to shelter all the refugees from the countryside, to actually do their job policing the ministers. Finally, rumours had reached her that the mysterious disease that had broken out in the Temple of the Night had somehow escaped the facility of its quarantine, having been registered in the household of a Mother stationed at a waystation a distance down the Misanthir. She couldn’t wait any longer - at the first sign that the elements of the world were in her favour, she had to charge and destroy Jjonveyo’s force so she could refocus her attention on keeping Ha-Dûna from ripping apart at the seams again.

She cursed under her breath. Nothing was going the way she had planned last year!

Out of seemingly nowhere she felt a tickle on her hand. Turning to look, the tail of a red fox was whisking back and forth as it sat next to her, dull brown eyes looking outward from the hill. The woman skipped to her feet and turned to regard the fox in disbelief.

“A wild fox? Approaching me?” Curiously, she held out her hand towards its snout. “... Might it be that even the animals of this world see Ha-Dûna as a place of peace and harmony?”

The fox sniffed her hand cautiously before violently sneezing all over it, a booger splattering her hand. Boudicca retracted her hand and grimaced at it, kneeling down to wipe it clean in the dry grass. “... Be thankful that I have children who have dirtied my hands with worse.” She squinted into the fox’s eyes. “... Is this some sort of sign? I cannot recall any farseers presenting this exact event… One did mention a coughing bull, but that’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose.”

The fox yawned wide, snapping its mouth shut - a voice echoing around it. "You prayed for me, Illyd Dyll, God of Weather and Agriculture."

For a moment too long, the woman stood as frozen. She then tossed herself to the ground and pleaded, “Great Lyd! Forgive my uncouth tongue - take it if you wish! Had I known I was in your divine presence, I would not have been so arrogant in my speech!”

"Ah, well -- oh well," The voice hummed, the fox snuggling back into the grass. It yawned again and closed its eyes. The voice turned to a soft breathing for an uncomfortable while before Illyd coughed. "So what's up?"

Boudicca peeked up. “Uh… Pardon?”

"You prayed for my presence, it's not very often a human does that," Illyd answered, "So I figured I'd come see what you needed to tell me."

“Oh.” Boudicca sat up and collected her legs in a cross, her arms following suit across her chest. “Well, if that’s the case, I feel like I should start from the beginning: My people are under attack from the east - the Chelevyaks are advancing on our homes and I reached out to ask humbly if you could give us aid in the matter. The manner of aid, if you wish to provide it, is of course up to yourself and your convenience - whatever be granted by your holy will, we will accept it wholeheartedly.” She bowed her torso.

The fox lifted its head, "I have a feeling I'm not the first god you asked for aid."

Boudicca nodded concedingly. “Your guess is true, great one. I have asked everyone, and those who wished to gift us something that could aid us, did; others did not answer, and we understand that the will of the gods is not one and the same - lest they would not be many.”

"What sort of aid are they giving you?" Illyd wondered, nose sniffing the air.

“Oh, their gifts are many. Macsal’s lieutenant, the Lady-in-Waiting, offered me this collar.” She touched the inky belt around her neck. “... I confess I do not know its exact potential, but it has focused my mind since I received it. I feel clearer now - fastened on a purpose.” She then reached into a satchel hanging from her shoulder and retrieved a pearl that fit perfectly in her palm. “The mighty and generous Claroon gifted me this, a tool that taught me the tongue of the seafolk and the oceanborne.” She then pointed back down to Ha-Dûna. “Cadien offered us three banners with powers to enhance strength, stamina and accuracy, all necessary components of battle.” She then tapped at her temple. “Naya took upon herself the burdens of our tumult now, too, so we can sleep easier.” She paused. “... So some may sleep easier, anyway… Others have, have been finding it harder to rest. That’s not Naya’s fault, of course, but… Anyway, finally, Selesta has promised her support when battle is met.”

"That's all so generous of them," the fox stretched, "Why did they grant you these things?"

“The gods are kind and generous,” Boudicca nodded. “We ask not why or why not - we are merely thankful that it happened.”

"Maybe you should ask why," Illyd suggested. Sitting up the fox looked around before continuing, "Gods are insidious creatures, usually without realization. It's the harmful by-product of their security in immortality - suddenly their opinions are law and their actions sancrosanct - consequences be damned... Literally. Have you heard this from a God before?"

Boudicca blinked uncomfortably. “W-well… No, but… But we would rather not upset any gods. As you said, their opinions -are- law, after all. If they - if you - would ask us to do anything, we cannot say against it.”

"It's true, I could destroy your entire civilization and ensure that not a single generation exists beyond the second I do," Illyd mentioned idly, "All the gods could, and every mortal knows it, and they know that this is far from the worst we could do to you. Terrible things - a mortal once suggested at least death could be an escape, but no - not from us." The fox put a paw on Boudicca's knee, "Do you know why I, the God of Agriculture and Harvest, speak of such things to you?"

“N-no?” It was incredible the tremors that the fox’s paw sent through the giant warrior of a woman.

"Because I planted the seed of mortality myself, long long ago, and I aim to see my garden grow," The Fox smiled a toothy smile, "Free of biting insects and gnawed roots. In your war and in your pleas I smell the stink of invading rot. Gods slowly forcing their hands stronger and stronger on mortality, pushing them and pulling them into the cages of their own desires. Their many conflicting ideals ripping the mortal plane asunder." The fox looked away for a moment, "If you want my aid, I can aid by keeping the Gods away from your war, on both sides - so you and mortality can solve it to your own desires and ability. And after, I can keep them from meddling in whatever peace is born."

Boudicca’s wide eyes hardened into a frown. “But… I asked them for help. Please, I do not wish to confuse - we are happy to be watched over by them, come what may. We have only grown as prosperous as we have because the gods have kept us in their plans, and I believe I speak for all my people when I say we feel safer with them than without them.”

"Well okay," Illyd put his second paw on her knee so as to lever himself high enough to look her in the eye, "Look to my gardens to see what it looks like in a world I offered, I'll always have my ears open."

She stared deeply into his eyes. “Your… Gardens?”

"There are corners of this world that don't know the pain your people have gone through, and even among your people there are pockets of paradise bent to the law made before the gods," Illyd nodded, "The harvest, the wild meadows, the deep groves misted in rain -- places I call home. They have been untouched by the other gods, and as such they are in a pure and pristine state without tugging conflictions projected upon them. Think on this: you have great tools of destruction gifted to you by the gods, but if your enemy is also gifted such things then all the gods have done is made a larger wound - and even if they don't - eventually something will match that power, and then either side will escalate and escalate. Ah the Gods," Illyd shook his head, "They don't go away. To give blessings is one thing, but to make ordenances of war - I question them."

As if to punctuate his point, there came a sudden explosion to the east. The mountains, so distant that they were not visible - only known thanks to one’s sense of place and direction - were in a flash overshadowed by a ball of flame, and the sky above seemed to blacken like soot. Boudicca rocketed to her feet and gasped. “By the gods, what-... What on Galbar is that?!”

"Oh dear," Illyd whispered, a sense of frustration in his voice. "I can feel the loss of an extravagant number of lives." He snarled, "with more to come."

Boudicca’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “Was… Was that the work of a god? And, and was that aimed at the Chelevyak homelands?!” She descended to her knees and looked up at the sky. “... Is this what you meant, great Reiya?”

"You wouldn't call it great if it had struck here," Illyd stared at the horizon, "Then again I feel a lot of our talk would be different if you didn't, in serendipity, align with divine machinations. But who knows how long that'll last."

“Hah! Triumph for--” Boudicca was knocked back by the sudden blast of air and sound. Tremors rocked her off balance and out of the corner of her floored eyes, she could see Ha-Dûna below filling with dust and smoke from fires. She blinked dizzily and tried to push herself to her elbows. “... By the gods, what force…”

Illyd Dyll stood unaffected, coat untainted by dust. He looked over at Boudicca, "Force is one word for it." Boudicca blinked up at him, coughing harshly as she forced herself to rise.

“I, I need to run home. Smoke from fires is rising from within the walls--” She coughed again and staggered a few steps forward before needing to stop to restabilise herself.

"No they aren't," Illyd Dyll said, pointing his snout back at the city, the dust and smoke already being washed away by a seemingly gentle rain -- licks of fire already dying down. Boudicca blinked.

“As expected of divinity…” She finally recovered her balance and smeared some dust off her face. The clouds in the far east grew blacker by the second, and they were expanding with violent speed. Boudicca paid them only a glance and turned back to the fox. “A mere movement of your nose just saved several families, parents and children alike, from burning alive inside their homes. I state once more that we are eternally at the mercy and in service of the gods, for without them, how would we thrive as we do?”

Illyd blinked, "Consider this, I only just canceled the damage caused by another god." He looked out to the east, "And now I will cancel that - the clouds are mine."

Boudicca squinted. “... But hold on… The clouds may sour the weather for the advancing Chevelyaks… This could be an opportunity to turn the battle! Oh, please, great Lyd!” She descended to a knee and folded her hands. “I realise the insolence of my request, but all I ask is that I’m given a week. A week in such weather and the morale of the Chelevyaks will be shattered - no sun and only ashen rain for days! It’s a golden chance to end this war and bring peace to these lands once more!”

The fox whisked its tail past Boudicca's nose, the fuzzy hairs interrupting her request with a sneeze. Sitting up on her lap, Illyd studied the mortal. "Could have ended the war by letting you all burn as well, no?"

The woman blinked. “W-well…”

"Could end your mortal war so many ways and not all are pleasant to you - but that's not my place, not now at least." The fox held its stare, "I will rejuvenate these lands as I always do with my blessings, regardless of who will feast of my harvest and dance in my rains, I'll guard the garden of mortality." He hopped off, a goofier tone tinting his voice. "But seriously thanks for all this, I don't talk to humans enough it seems - I'm always available by prayer."

“Oh.” Boudicca appeared somewhat deflated and remained kneeling. “But of course. Your will is ours, great one. We cannot thank you enough for your aid in growing our crops and feeding our soil. I hope our druids may reach out come sowing season and ask for your blessings so that we may feed ourselves for one more year, then.”

"Oh but of course, I already planned your winter and spring schedule," The Fox seemed suddenly excited by the topic.

“O-oh, you have?”

"Yes!" The fox all but hopped in place, "Tell your farmers to plant rooty vegetables with tap roots in the late winter after haying, the snow will be mild enough - trust me - but your soil is starting to shelve from use and could use the roots to break it up for your true spring rotation like wheat and the like."

“Oh! Yes, of course! When, when should we plant the peas, leeks and onions?” She seemed to move her hands in a writing manner as though scratching in notes on a fictive tablet.

"After the beets and deep roots," the fox was actually hopping now, "Make sure the ground is warm though!"

“Of course. I shall pass this on to the druids as soon as I return so they may write it down and start distributing seeds. Thank you for this, great one. I shall have a bull slain in your honour come the solstice.” She bowed her head in respect.

"Cook it with rosemary and give it to your farmers -- oo make it a potluck." Illyd was prancing around spouting ideas.

Boudicca’s lips flattened out, but she nodded politely all the same. “We shall make it a ‘potluck’, then,” she responded as though the meaning of the term was as clear as water. “Hopefully, the druids of the Temple of the Woods will have some sprigs left over from this year’s herb harvest.”

"They'll have double!" Illyd Dyll seemed determined, eyes focused on nothing in particular as he pranced around Boudicca in circles. It was unclear if he meant he would make sure they had double, if they already had double, or if he was just wish-listing. The warrior struggled to keep up.

“That-that’s awfully kind of you, great one! Thank you! W-we’ll need it for the coming winter, for sure, especially if the Chevelyaks…” She seemed to stop herself as though returning to such a subject would be taboo. “... When should we forage for mushrooms and berries, then?”

"Chevelyaks," The fox stopped prancing, "Do you think they would want to come to a potluck?"

Boudicca frowned. “... We would rather not have them come for anything. They belong in their mountains and have no business trekking beyond them.”

Boudicca couldn't be sure, but she coulda sworn the fox rolled its eyes, "Have you ever talked to one?"

“I’d rather not. First, they demand a senseless tribute from someone else with whom they have had no history; then they burn Ha-Leothe to the ground and ally themselves with the wicked Cenél - these actions speak loudly of the quality of this barbarian Jonwayo and his people.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “The fact that he keeps on marching west tells me all I need to know about him.”

Another whisk of the foxes tail, and another sneeze. "You're coming with me," Illyd said almost happily.. Boudicca pursed her lips.

“Where to, great one?”

The fox shimmered away and from the sky, a great fluffy cloud came zipping down to the hill. Sitting on top was a young man wrapped in white robes, brandishing a goofy smile. He patted next to him, big brown eyes sparkling, "We are going to go meet Jjonveyo together." Boudicca looked like she was about to suffer a heart attack.

“The enemy himself?! What if he seizes the opportunity and stabs me down the moment he sees me? Then who will lead our defenses against him?”

Illyd pinched his chin in what looked like deep thought, "Oh I got it!" He wiggled his fingers and a steaming apple pie formed in the palm of his hand. The earthy yet sweet aroma wafted from it as Illyd quickly explained, "Just hold this pie, nobody stabs anyone offering a pie."

She eyed the pie skeptically, but took it nonetheless, switching grips every now and then to not burn her hands. “I, uhm… I don’t think a pie will dissuade him from murdering me. It, it might confuse him, though! You are wise, great one.” She smiled politely.

Illyd nodded and smiled, "Glad you agree! Climb aboard, we have a secret surprise encounter to... Encounter." Boudicca cast a quick glance down the hill to Ha-Dûna.

“I hope we’ll be back by sundown,” she mumbled and climbed aboard. Illyd seemed to snicker before with a bang of thunder - the cloud jetted off into the dusty sky.





Cadien

&
Illyd Dyll




Cadien had decided to go on a routine walk of Antiquity, when he came across something unusual: another god was present. Such a thing was rare, these days.

Even more unusual was that it was a god he already knew. One he thought was gone.

“Illyd?” Cadien asked, eyes wide, stopping just short of the Farming God.

The god was leaning against the bulletin board, gnawing happily on the remains of a once plump apple. A sly vulpine smile formed after a heavy gulp.

"Cadien!" Illyd stood up straight, "Hello!"

The armoured god paused, as if not quite believing what he was seeing. Wordlessly, he began to approach, before finally they were close enough to touch and he threw his arms around Illyd. “I thought you were dead.”

Illyd froze up on impact for a moment before offering a "there, there" accompanied with a gentle pat on the back. "Not dead, yet anyway." He snuck in a wink and detatched from Cadien, "and how are you?"

Cadien took a step back, appearing somewhat embarrassed by the lapse in composure. “I am well,” he nodded. “Where have you been? I could not access your realm.”

"Oh I was just taking a moment for myself," Illyd explained. "Everyone needs a little quiet hour or two. Prayers never stop though." He gave a goofy grin, "I recently got quite the desperate prayer, even. Or well two pretty desperate prayers."

“An hour?” Cadien furrowed his brow. “You do realize that it has been decades?”

"Oh what's decades to someone who remembers when time began," Illyd waved a hand dismissively. "What have you been up to?"

“Watching over mortalkind,” Cadien answered. “Answering prayers, moving pieces. I must say, it is a relief to know you are still well. A number of other gods have disappeared, or sealed off their realms. It was quite alarming.”

"We are all rebels to entropy, I suppose -- can only expect some to fall victim to it," Illyd offered grimly. "How is mortalkind doing in your eyes?"

“Some areas fare well. Others poorly.” Cadien shrugged. “If you don’t mind me asking, how is your situation with… Diana?”

"Long solved," Illyd patted his own chest. "Her personality is back woven into mine, as is Joab-Balaam's."

Cadien blinked. “Who?”

"Oop," Illyd chuckled, "That must have been before your time. Don't worry about it, friend! I'm all set and healthy." He tapped his chin, "Say do you know Boudicca?"

He nodded. “She is my champion in Ha-Duna. Why?”

Illyd's nose twitched for a moment, a smile forming, "She had prayed to me of course! But not before attempting to control the weather and harvest of her region on her own." There was a disappointment in Illyd's voice, "Oh icy rain and barren fruit. Tsk."

“And what did you do in response?”

"What do you mean?"

“How did you answer the prayer?”

"Oh I haven't, not yet," Illyd explained.

“Hm. But you intend to?”

"I do, she seemed rather desperate." Illyd paused, reflecting. "Very desperate."

Cadien nodded again. “Her people are at war. And they’ve already endured much hardship these past few years. I offered her what aid I could, for the purpose of defending her lands.”

"Oh I know," Illyd admitted. "There has been a lot of war in that area for quite some time - when she prayed to me directly, expecting my voice -- well I at first found it a little odd. Usually prayers are hardly so personal on my end, at least from humans. Her enemies also prayed to me, you know?"

“She and her people are used to communing with the gods,” Cadien explained. “From what I understand these druids have a special connection with a certain few, even if half of them do not answer. Elsewhere, I suppose many mortals pray more out of habit or tradition than anything else.”

"Oh trust me I know -- I'm one of those gods you're talking about. Even still, the druids who have dedicated themselves to my worship rarely desire a conversation -- usually trying to make rain or blessings in bountiful harvest." Illyd shrugged and leaned against the bulletin board, another apple appearing in his hand. "So you can see why I was surprised that a human would call upon me so personally, to most I work behind the scenes." He took a bite, and chewed for a while before continuing past a gulping swallow, "So I'll hear what she has to say, I am awfully curious about it." He pointed a finger. "Say you seem to know a great deal about that end, know anything about the other?"

“I cannot say I do. From what I understand, they’re one of many minor factions Ha-Duna has clashed with in the past, and they refuse to overlook past slights. Their grievances may have merit, but all they’re doing is continuing unnecessary conflicts that should have ended long ago.”

"I never took you for the judgemental type," Illyd seemed surprised. "But then again, I can't blame you if you have such a tie to the conflict. Either way they pray to me often, as do most civilizations feeling a little down."

“Hm. Say, I don’t suppose you would be interested in visiting Meliorem?”

"I don't see why not!" Illyd agreed.

Then the two left together, away from the prying eyes of Antiquity.





The Second Knight.




Celestine was occupied with Cadien and Neiya when she received a tugging sensation upon her divine senses that someone was a viable candidate for Knighthood. Splitting her attention from the task at hand she followed the tugging sensation down to Galbar. She found her senses within a dimly lit woodland. She wasn’t aware of where exactly this woodland was, but paid such an unawareness no heed as it wasn’t all that important. Celestine’s divine senses were soon pulled towards a man hiking along alone. Pushing her divine senses forward, Celestine began to manifest an illusion before the man.

He would see wisps of sudden silvery mist begin to swirl together before him, slowly taking on the shape of a seven foot humanoid figure. After a short amount of time they would disperse slightly to reveal a tall elf woman clad in steel armor and a cloak of red and gold. Her outline was loose and made up of fragmenting mists. Looking down at the man, the illusionary form of Celestine would begin to speak. As she spoke the illusory nature of her appearance would be further reinforced by a slight echo surrounding her voice. ”Greetings, Jjonveyo. I am the goddess Celestine. Your actions are in line with my chivalric code and have earned you a piece of my favor.”

Celestine’s illusion would pause for a moment now. The first time she had knighted someone upon Galbar they had been quite devout and had reacted quite energetically to the appearance of the goddess before them. Would this be a similar situation? Or was this mortal perhaps a bit more used to the interference of the divine in his affairs? Celestine did not know, though the actions that followed her appearance would answer these thoughts well enough.

Jjonveyo tipped head and bent on one knee. Though his face didn't change much, surprise was clear in his eyes. He shut them and held his position of respect. "What actions have I committed?" His voice was low.

The illusion of Celestine drew itself closer to Jjonveyo as he knelt. This mortal appeared to be following the same sort of course as The First Knight, but he was far less energetic about it. Placing its right hand on a scabbard hanging upon its right hip, the illusion of Celestine would use its left hand to draw the sword that lay within slowly. The noise that it made sounded quite real and possibly gave Jjonveyo a start, but he was not in danger.

A few moments later, he would feel a gentle tap upon his right shoulder. Then a gentle tap upon his left. As these taps were felt, Jjonveyo would feel a trickle of knowledge enter his mind as Celestine blessed him with the knowledge of her chivalric commandments. As this went on, the illusion of Celestine would explain what he had done to receive such a blessing. ”You have shown mercy where it was requested, and have been humble about your deeds. You keep yourself and your equipment in good condition and you are an honest and genuine person. These actions qualify you for the title of Ser, and a gift to recognize your deeds. Rise Ser Jjonveyo, The Second Knight.”

When the illusion finished speaking it would lift the sword up from his shoulder before gently placing it back into the scabbard hanging upon its right hip. The hand holding the scabbard would then extend and turn horizontally, revealing it to be a very real object. As it left, Celestine’s actual sword would manifest in place upon the illusion. Once the sword was within easy reach of Jjonveyo the illusion of Celestine would speak again. ”My gift to you is a sword wrought from steel. May it serve you well in the coming battles.”

"I do not spite your gift, Goddess," Jjonveyo stared at the sword, "But any actions I have done that are deemed acceptable have been done for my people, as such it is they who should reap any reward, not myself."

Celestine’s illusion gave a nod before speaking briefly. ”Ah. Just as The First Knight requested. Very well, speak your wish and I will do my best to grant it.”

Since the sword had been rejected, the illusion pulled its hand back and placed the scabbard back at its side. Once it was there it vanished immediately as soon as the illusion let it go. The illusion would then place its right hand upon the pommel of Celestine’s actual sword while it waited to see what request Jjonveyo would make. This knighting played out just like her previous one so long ago. Celestine couldn’t help but wonder what Jjonveyo would request. Would it be tournaments like Boudicca, or would he wish for something else to bring a more direct form of prosperity to his people?

Celestine could only wait and see.

"A great center of learning," Jjonveyo rose from his knee, "A place where ideas are farmed much like wheat, so that we can improve our ways: indeed even learn better ways to farm, raise crop or cattle - build our structures and bring amenities to them. A place where we can learn how to work the materials of Galbar, create new tools and devices. Engineering," He slapped a fist to an open palm, "Architecture, Philosophy, learning. Give us a place where we can unite and learn together new ways to end suffering and enhance the lives we live." Jjonveyo tipped his head, "Let it be a gift that keeps on giving long after I am gone, perhaps even long after the Tsardom itself is gone, made way for something even better, more advanced. So long as it benefits my people and annihilates the suffering of life."

The illusion of Celestine would remain silent for a moment before speaking once again.“I cannot grant you the building of which you seek. But I can grant you the next best thing.” Weaving its hands together, the illusion would produce a hefty tome that was roughly the size of Jjonveyo’s torso and as thick as his arm. Holding this tome forward, the illusion would speak again. ”This tome holds the information that you seek. Take it to your people with care, for it is as vulnerable as any tome that mortals produce.”

As Jjonveyo would take the book, he would find its cover to be made out of a tough leather with a simple longsword adorning the cover of the book, surrounded by a simple circle of silver.

"Hoomph," Jjonveyo strained, the book being heavy even for his impressive build, "I --huff-- thank you, Goddess." Jjonveyo tipped his head again. "I shall have this book brought back to the capital at once, where --huff-- WE shall build a building around it to attract those who wish to learn and teach."

The illusion of Celestine would nod as Jjonveyo took the tome from her and spoke once again. ”Very well, Ser Jjonveyo. Do with it as you wish. Did you have anything else you wished to know?” As Celestine’s illusion handed the book off, it would place its right hand upon the pommel of her sword once again, clearly waiting to see what Jjonveyo would say.

"Do our efforts in our conflict hold your favor?" Jjonveyo asked from behind the massive book.

Celestine’s illusion remained silent for a few moments before it gave an honest answer. One that would likely not please Jjonveyo, but it did contain a revelation that would likely startle him slightly. ”No. They do not. You stand opposed to The First Knight, and seeing as their war is defensive my preference for peace leads me inclination to support the ones suffering a defensive war rather than ones leading an aggressive war. My neutrality is rapidly developing a limit, and you may find me on the opposing battlefield depending on what is asked of me. Know that even if I stand against you, I will not revoke your knighthood.”

"If you oppose me, you oppose my actions," Jjonveyo explained, "Ha-Dûna no more fights a defensive war than an arrow in the liver is simply making a home. They are on the defensive, but not because they are lambs. In the same way a doctor may destroy a disease, is our aggression - let it sit and the tumor will grow." Jjonveyo gently placed the book down and squinted at the Goddess, "If you are so against our efforts, then all you need do is strike me down now - and spare my people from your wrath and suffering." The man paused and shook his head, "But that wouldn't end the issue, I suppose - another people and another leader would replace my own." He closed his eyes, "Oh the tumor."

Celestine’s illusion shook its head before speaking. ”When I dubbed The First Knight, they asked me to teach them of tournaments so that their conflict-hungry warriors would have something to expend their energy into and a reason to keep themselves in shape. Then, in the first tournament ever held, one of the warriors present was cursed and turned into a demon. They lay blame upon someone they captured trying to escape, but I do not personally believe that the person they hold is truly the culprit and I will likely need to secure their release when my avatar returns to them. The body of the victim's son was found upon a rock some distance away. His throat was slit and he was bound. I have been shown by another god that this death was the catalyst to cause that transformation. If my attention had not been brought to this region by this offense I would likely not be involved at all, but I am here because The First Knight requested my aid. They said that this action was a declaration of war and here you and your people are: Making that war. Unless the absolute truth of the situation is brought forward then I am siding with the overall victims in this war: Ha-Dûna. And even beyond that I would most likely side with them anyway as I know that they were striving to become a peaceful society. I do not dislike you or your people, but I do dislike aggression. No matter the resolution of this conflict, I have a plan in place to see to it that the end of the cycle of violence will happen within the lifetimes of the people involved.”

Celestine’s illusion would cross its arms across its chest as it finished speaking, though its face held a neutral look. It waited now, to see what Jjonveyo would say.

"How do you plan on achieving this goal?" Jjonveyo pinched his chin, "With respect, Goddess, this story you have told me persuades me to believe that you had bet on the wrong number once and aim to do it again in hopes for a different result. Do you think I attack Ha-Dûna because I am opposed to peace?"

Celestine’s illusion shook its head again before speaking once more. ”My plan for achieving this peace will be seen by all when it is realized. As for your intentions with attacking Ha-Dûna If they do not align with those who insulted me and my tournaments by meddling in them then I will ask you plainly: What are they? Speak them without deceit and I may have a solution for you that is much simpler than a bloody war with divine involvement.”

"Ha-Dûna is a nest of oppressive behavior, greedy nobles, and the champion of stagnation. They know only their pride and bend their will around it, taking the world and by the sounds of it even gods along with it," Jjonveyo started, "They were offered a place in the new world, a chance to change and give back to the people, but they refused it - nay, they murdered it. The Tsardom has united mankind under a common goal of peace and prosperity, there is no room for cities who oppose this unity for their own gain. If blood must be spilt in this life, let it flow at least for the purpose of creating a better future."

The illusion of Celestine furrowed its brow in thought before asking a simple question in response to the information that it had been given. ”Prior to this war, how was Ha-Dûna a threat to you and your people?”

"Neither of us can stand here and deny that the Dûnan culture and influence travels far beyond their borders." Jjonveyo explained, "They are a landmark, powerful even. Should they oppose the reforms, then they actually have the means to reverse them as well and then we are back to the first square. They were first approached to accept the reforms by my own nephew - who never returned." Jjonveyo clasped his hands behind his back, "They are an opposing force, I serve the force of the reformation -- they are a threat and will be dealt with as such."

The illusion of Celestine would be frowning by this point. Shaking its head and giving a sigh it would speak once more. ”Your peace is a flawed peace. It exists only because you and your people seek out and destroy any culture that will not submit to your will. If you had simply left Ha-Dûna alone, what scenario do you think would cause them to become aggressive? What could not be solved by a simple exchange of words or, at most, a duel? And even beyond that, what will you do when you are on the defensive of someone who claims that you are in need of reform?”

"What indeed," Jjonveyo agreed. "By what tape does a society measure it's ethic -- is what you're asking me." Jjonveyo sat on the book and looked up at the Goddess, "I have spent my voice foolishly, only to now understand that I am but a mortal talking to a Goddess when I should be a mortal hearing a Goddess. Thaa understands the suffering of my people and so we wear his crest upon our shields, does Celestine - and do we wear hers?"

The illusion of Celestine would tilt its head before shaking it once again and giving another sigh. ”Peace is not easy. Neutrality is not easy. You have not wasted your words, for if I did not want to hear them I would not have. You have a difference in cultures, and your cultures are clashing, but it was you who decided to march upon Ha-Dûna. You have decided to achieve your view of peace by leading your people into a war. How many of your people will be dead by its end? How many of theirs? How many lives will be ended prematurely to achieve the goal you set out? How many people will cry out for vengeance because of what you have done? Violence is a cycle, and such a cycle carries with it a great deal of momentum. It will take time for that cycle to stop, but it cannot be stopped while it is actively being perpetuated. Do you understand the weight of the choices you have made?”

"If this was my vision, my goal and my choice -- then I dare say I'd be walking to Ha-Dûna alone," Jjonveyo raised a brow. "You are divine, but are you also a leader? The answer to your questions is all and it weighs on my heart more than it could yours, because I am mortal while you are immortal and hold more sway over the coming suffering than I ever could. It is not my fault if you decide to make the war longer and harder by going against the grain of mortal progression -- I dare say you should be asking yourself the questions you're asking of me." Jjonveyo pinched his chin again. "Did you try and convince them to pursue peace, or merely me?"

The illusion of Celestine lowered its arms and once more placed its right hand upon the pommel of its sword. Speaking once more, it elaborated on an event from the past. ”Recall that I told you about teaching The First Knight of tournaments. They were moving towards peace already, and through tournaments sought to give those who wished for conflict a means to vent their bloodlust. Recall that the first instance of this tournament was disrupted. They have never had the time to truly try and engage wholly with peace-”

"-I recall a failure," Jjonveyo interupted, "And a second failure to engage in peace when offered by the Celeviak people. Bring me my nephew Wojeck, so he can tell me what happened, and the war will be over until diplomacy has been truly given a chance. If you cannot bring him, then Ha-Dûna already answered your desire for peace with their own ambitions."

The illusion was silent for a moment before speaking once again. ”I will have my avatar attempt to bring him, but if he is deceased as you suspect then you will need to speak with Thaa as he is the god of the dead, not I. You do wear his symbol upon your shields, after all. Speaking of that once again, you may not wear mine.”

"Why bother Thaa?" Jjonveyo pushed, "Surely your peaceful first knight and their people did no harm to my nephew? Bring him, I'm sure he is fat on their hospitality." The Tsar shook his own head, "I will be in Ha-Leothe for three days, surely enough time for the divine." He paused, "And for the sake of the lives you lament about, I truly hope the Dûnans are as eager for peace as you suggest. And just to conclude: this war of ours is simply a symptom of the suffering in the region, and by defending the status quo you are merely prolonging the next conflict. If everyone else is asking for change, who are you to deny them out of favoritism towards your own personal ethos? I'm a leader; as Tsar I have done things Jjonveyo would never do, because I understand that while there is a cycle of violence, there is also a cycle of peace and suppressing the voices of those who clamor to end their suffering through positive change just makes more suffering." He touched his fingertips together and frowned, "If a Goddess cannot see that, and if a Goddess will oppose the forces intended to end the suffering of mortals by defending the status quo..." Jjonveyo fell silent, a stoic look taking his face. A long moment passed and his face grew sad.

"Well wasn't it your job to first ensure there would be no suffering before placing us in torment?"

The illusion of Celestine would once again shake its head and sigh. ”I will answer your questions with a question of my own: Who are you to change people who do not swear fealty to you? If you bring about the change that you want through war and strife then it will only sow the seeds for more war and more strife to come later. You recognize the cycle of violence, but at the same time you perpetuate it. Your people might have clamored for this change, but is that too not a symptom of the suffering in this region? You speak of being an effect of mortal progression, but do you realize how much progression you are destroying by conquering as you are? If all are united under your banner, is that not also stagnation and maintaining a status quo?”

"No." Jjonveyo squared his elbows behind his back and turned from Celestine. He hefted the book back into his arms, not bothering to turn around, "Any more words, Goddess?"

For the last time, the illusion of Celestine would shake its head and vanish wordlessly to leave Jjonveyo alone in the woodland with the tome he had gained. He would likely be in for quite a surprise when he learned of the identity of The First Knight.







The First Skirmish



Year 30AA, autumn, Ha-Leothe, hilltop village east of Ha-Dûna...

The midday sun cast a golden light over the brown, fallow potato fields, raw still from the harvest days, and the orange leaves of wintering trees floated gently on the wind as miners entered the palisade gates of the hilltop village of Ha-Leothe with baskets of crudely mined copper ore and malachite from the tunnels in the crags and valleys around the town. Elk- and cattle-drawn carts of lumber occasionally joined them, all of the resources collecting by smoking kilns, smelting the ore into bars readily transportable for the journey to the capital. The early hints of winter were visible on some of the taller peaks, so production had to be sped up to reach the quotas before the valleys would seal with ice and snow and force the traders and taxmen to go all the way around for two weeks. In his longhouse, the théin Valix of Leothe, legendary victor of the Reconquest and champion athlete of many games and sports at festivals, carried his mask with uncharacteristic discontent. He eyed his wife Muine with a frown and gestured to his bowl, full as it was of pea and potato stew with onions. Coldly, he mumbled,

“You burnt it again.”

Muine huffed and gave her own bowl a sip. “What if I did? Do you think you could do any better?”

“What I think, woman, is that I, at least, would not be so daft as to burn stew - it’s stew, for gods’ sakes! It’s at least six parts water!”

“I will throw this in your face if you do not shut up, you know that, right?” she replied threateningly and tested the swing of her arm. Further down the table, there came an exhausted voice.

“Mom, dad, please don’t fight,” said Garix, their oldest son. His four sisters wore equally tired expressions, though they sipped their stew silently as usual. Muine sighed and sat down.

“They’re right, dear. Dinner time is peacetime - if you have something on your heart, we can discuss it afterwards.”

The théin scoffed, but gave his burnt stew a slurp regardless. “Then so we shall.”

At that moment, there came a knock on the door frame. The théin sighed, put down his bowl and stood up. “Come in.” The many tapestries functioning as their door were pushed aside, revealing the panting, red face of a young woman, gasping as she was for her breath. The théin and his family eyed her curiously and Valix asked, “Gods, Pinya, what’s gotten into you? Where’s the fire?”

“There’s--... Ugh, there’s no fire, chief!” Pinya gestured madly over her shoulder. “You, you better come see this.”

Valix blinked, shifted his glance around the table and sighed. “Alright, fine. This had better be worth it.” He stepped over to a wooden chest, opened it and took out a finely sewn fur vest, a hat, woolen mittens and a cloak. Putting them on in a hurry, he followed the woman out into the courtyard of his estate, then out into the broader village and onto the battlements of the palisades. There, many more people had gathered, chattering and spying at the horizon. Pinya offered a final exhausted breath as she pointed at the woodland border below the hill, where there was an unmistakable host of people on the march - some mounted, some marching. The théin squinted and leaned himself on the palisades, rubbing his eyes to make sure what he was seeing was true, indeed.

“What do you think? Sigerans?” asked another guard. Valix pursed his lips.

“Could be, but judging from the runners from the west, I’d say they are more likely to be Cenél raiders, here to finish the job after their betrayal.” He counted the numbers he could see under his breath. “Stromvarde, how many túnskioldings can we have ready within the hour?”

“The shifts in the mines should be switching any moment, sir - we could have them all armed and armoured as soon as you need them to be.”

“Good. Make it so. Teagan, find my hildargeach - tell them to take to elkback.”

“Understood, my théin!”

“Say, théin? Have you seen those banners before?” One of the guards pointed to the host and Valix leaned over the battlements again.

“... Is that a snake?” he asked uncertainly. The guards around him tried to get a better look, some moving further along the wall to see if they could get closer.

“... Could be. Could also be a rune of sorts. Hard to tell from this distance. Can’t say I’ve seen Cenél fly those colours before, though.”

Valix pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Has Kaer Jane come back yet?”

“No, théin, she is still in the woods. Should we send someone for her?”

“Bah, knowing her, she will be back by the time we are routing the enemy. Focus on getting the people armed.” He turned around and clapped his hands for attention. “Alright, people, to spears and hauberk! There are foes on the horizon and we are not going to let them reach Mother Dûna so long as we still live! Sound the horns!”




The echoing song of baritone horns came booming from the distant hilltop fort. Jjonveyo squinted upwards at his goal, ears perked. He looked past Darragh, who rode next to him, and to a soldier with a unique golden mane trailing down his helmet. "Set the troops into a spaced anvil position with wings, space it two for archer bleed through, then hold rank." The Tsar then looked at Darragh, "I have a feeling pride will send them straight into us - you and your warriors will remain with me behind the anvil formation."

“Not warriors.” Darragh corrected. There was a stark difference between the warriors and the Fakir. Though he could understand why the mistake was made. Some of the Fakir carried stone great axes, massive mauls and shields. Though the majority walked with their gods-given objects. Slates and staves. Through which they channeled their magic.

The Fakir and recently made Boyar had no desire to stay behind though. “Allow us to prepare the circles at least.” He eyed the forming front line of the Celeviak. Then they rose towards the village. “It is time the Dûnans learn to fear the power of the Cenél.”

"Prepare as you need," Jjonveyo gestured. His own soldiers were nearly done with their organization - spearmen in neat columns spread wide with archers funneled in front of them in a thin line, cavalry on the far flanks and set at slight angles inwards. The whole formation looked to engulf the flats that laid before the slope of the hill.

The Boyar kept his grim expression as he pulled his stag around. With a single nod the other Cenél made their space and started carving out circles in the earth. Filling them with swirls and patterns only the Fakir knew. Ancient knowledge had been retrieved from the caves already. Sacred stones were put at corners and edges and large candles were lit as well. Darragh turned to face the front again. “When the lines clash you can let us loose.”

"Very well," Jjonveyo looked towards the hill again, "If they can make it to the line."




“We’re not riding out against -that- are we?!” boomed Pathalix, hildargeach and bloodsworn soldier of Valix’ clan Leothe. The théin’s expression, too, had gotten visibly more skeptical.

“It is true that their numbers have grown--...”

“Numbers have grown?! They’re three times as many as us! And they’re in formation! The Cennies’ve obviously gotten help from someone! Someone powerful!”

“But who on Galbar’s got this kind of manpower in this region?” asked Tvínn, another bloodsworn. The théin grumbled quietly.

“... Didn’t a runner come by some weeks past with news of a warlord from the east? Some Chelevyak fellow…”

“Jonwayo, you mean? Are you telling me a damn mountain goblin has this kind of force and he just happened to bring it all the way over here without our scouts noticing?!”

“Prepostorous!” snarled some of the other bloodsworn. As debate broke out, the théin distanced himself from the worst of it by moving to another section of the wall, analysing the approaching formation. After him came the dutiful Pinya, biting her nails nervously.

“S-so… What’s the plan, chief?”

“If you shut your mouth for one second, maybe I’ll come up with one.” She quieted down as the théin gave the battlefield yet another scowl. “How far away is Kaer Jane, you said?”

Pinya swallowed. “W-well, we didn’t send anyone after her, so--”

“Have her summoned here this instant - carry her here if you must. Take my elk. Only divine power can help us level out the odds here. Hama! Take all the unburnt timber from the kilns and shore up the gates and walls! Stromvarde! Find me every arrow we have and bring them to the battlements. Yes, even the ones reserved for the winter hunts! Move it, people, if you want to live to see the sunset!”

Within the hour, the battlements filled with archers and javeliners, the defenders evidently taking a much more defensive approach than initially signalled. The horns sang different signals - taunting the enemy into attacking if they dared. The théin on the battlements found himself biting his nails, too. They had not at all been prepared for an attack - much less a siege. He prayed they would move on - see Ha-Leothe as a needless target and give them time to prepare. A fool’s hope, maybe, but hope it was.




Jjonveyo's dark eyes scanned the hill fort. He looked at the mane crested soldier again, "Instruct the twelve swiftest riders to slay anyone who attempts to leave that hill, four stationed on every cardinal save ours. And have our scouts circle the area in warning of any exterior aid."

"At once my Tsar," The soldier rode off again.

The Tsar turned to Darragh, a rumble forming in his throat, "Darragh!"

The Fakir approached Jjonveyo. “Yes?” He said, his quiet voice contrasting the rumble of the Tsar.

"What is the nature of your magic?"

A grin formed on Darragh’s lips. “It turns our strongest into the wrath of the forest.” His eyes then looked out towards the palisade. Dead wood dreadfully bound together. “I’m assuming you want that torn open?”

"Yes, but first - we need to disarm them," Jjonveyo looked at the Fakir, "Can you create illusions?"

Darragh looked around him. It was a pretty bare hill. No dampness in the air. “Not here. Not now.” He said. “By dusk… perhaps.”

"If at dusk you could trick them into thinking we have charged, and they loose their projectiles - we can then tear into them safely," Jjonveyo stated almost as if questioning Fakir on the possibility.

“By dusk we can create the illusion.” Darragh said. “Whether they fall for it will depend on who their leader is, and who is advising them.”

"Plan for that," Jjonveyo commanded, "In the meantime I will gauge their leadership myself. Bannermen!"




As the foreign leader and his bannermen came riding up to the gates, they were greeted by knocked arrows and groaning bowstrings. However, the bark of a man relaxed those strings swiftly, and a head appeared over the gate, a brown-bearded face topped with a cone-like bronze helmet. He clicked his tongue disapprovingly, but nodded his greeting and spoke,

“Gods’ blessings upon you, stranger. Pray tell, what has compelled you to bring this many armed men to my gates on this lovely autumn day?”

"I fear that if I am but a stranger to you, the rumors are true and your leader has left you in the dark," Jjonveyo replied thickly, "I am the Tsar of the Celeviak nation and who are you?"

“I am théin Valix, patriarch of Clan Leothe, and on behalf of the Dûnan people, I say that we do not recognise the authority of any ‘zar in these parts. Whatever you are after - blood, land or wealth - it shan’t be yours so long as these lands belong to the people of the Stone!” He hammered his chest proudly; some of the warriors on the battlements made known their agreement.

"Maybe," Jjonveyo sniffed, "Know that I am merciful and offer you a deal -- you see you do not look at a man of the living." Jjonveyo drew a knife and held it to his wrist, digging the blade in deeply. A dark red oozed out of his arm, only to slowly patter out and seal, flesh mending as if the knife never entered it, "You cannot kill me nor will my army be any easier, but we can you, so here is my promise - concede, or it will be known that it was Valix of Leothe who authorized the brutal execution of every child of this settlement. His pride, the crime."

There came a scoff from the battlements. “Your threats do not scare us, foreigner! The gods are on our side, and their wrath is swift on those who attack their chosen people! Now go back to your men and tell them to come at us! We will stand against your waves like a rock at sea!”

Jjonveyo looked down at the grassy hill, then back up at Valix, "I'll offer a peaceful capitulation once more, but then judgement will be sealed as covenant."i

“Here’s your peaceful capitulation, ‘zar!” shouted one of the archers and then proceeded to lift up his kilt and wave his member around for all to see, inciting a roar of laughter from the others. The théin snickered agreeingly and left the battlements.

Jjonveyo remained silent, and turned back down the hill.




"Darragh," Jjonveyo approached the magician, "The air, it is dry today, no?"

Darragh was in deep discussion with the other Fakir. They spoke in a regional accent. Too thick for the others to understand. The words flung around were spirited. Some even shouted. It was clear Darragh was trying to keep the calm. Then the Tsar approached. The Fakir stepped away. Avoiding the two now.

“It’s not just that.” Darragh said. “Our illusions work in the forest fog. There’s no forest and there is no fog. One we can summon with time.” But even then the illusions would be pale imitations of what they could create around their own villages.

"The air is dry," Jjonveyo continued, "Our enemy is elevated on a grassy hill - fire climbs, Darragh."

The Fakir’s face grew grim. Grimmer than usual. “Fire is unpredictable and ultimately uncontrollable. It might climb up or it could burn underfoot until it reaches us as well.” His eyes stared into those of Jjonveyo. The question hung in the air. Both of them knew it. Are commanding me?

"That's where you are wrong," Jjonveyo answered, "If we dig a trench around the hill, the fire will only rise in elevation and even if it is unsuccessful in sealing a tomb for our enemy, the trench will serve us as a defense against any escape or counterattack." Jjonveyo paused, "You asked to see Dúnans razed to the ground."

A melancholic smile flashed over Darragh’s lips. He hadn’t expected it this way, but if the Tsar wanted to play with fire he would get it. “Very well. We’ll light the fires in such a way that the Dûnans won’t expect. If you would excuse me now though, I will go convince my brethren.” The Fakir passed Jjonveyo. In a breath the other Fakir were surrounding him. Quite calmly he was explain something. Again in the local dialect. The other Fakir grew wide eyed and then spirited. They began to shout and yell and wave their arms.

“Enough!” Darragh yelled. The Fakir all fell quiet. He said a few more words and then pushed onwards towards where the stags were gathered. For a second the others just looked at each other. Each and every single one of them had pure fear in their eyes as they followed their leader.

With a gesture, a segment of Celeviak soldiers began to ring the hill, shovels and other digging tools in hand.




“What in the world are they doing?” one of the watchmen asked. The théin and the other onlookers were about as clueless. They had never seen anything like it.

“Why would they dig trenches that slow their charge?” asked another. Ponderous murmurs rolled through the people on the well.

“Maybe it’s for arrow cover?” proposed a third. It received some supportive hums until one archer knocked an arrow, pulled the string and loosed. The arrow didn’t even land close, and the support quickly turned to disagreement.

“Nah, if they were building for cover, they’d’ve come closer. No archer in the world can hit anything at -that- distance, even if the height’s on our side.”

“Are you sure you’re not just a weak shot, Béona?”

The woman scoffed. “What, do you think you’re better, Stromvarde?”

“Quiet, both of you!” the théin barked. He leaned over the palisades again and squinted. “... What are you up to, you hill trolls?” he whispered to himself. “Pathalix, have Pinya and Kaer Jane made it back yet?”

“Not that I know of, chief,” the bloodsworn confessed. The théin clenched his fists impatiently.

“Damn it… Where are those simpletons when I need them?”




From atop the palisade, the Dunans heard an order come out in Celeviak far below and a half circle of spearmen marched to cover the bottom of the hill, archers in between columns. Cavalry winged the sides in thin lines able to change direction quickly. It looked as if the army was preparing to collect a scattered charge from the entrance to the fort.

Silence rang after that, the awaiting army well behind the wide dirt trenches. Another order came out and the archers readied their bows with barbed arrows, but kept the strings relaxed and pointed down. The whole scene was baffling from up on the hill, until a shout came from the opposite side of the fort.

"Fire!"

“Fire?! Where?” The théin and the rest of the guards on the wall spun around, seeing indeed the late afternoon sky flare up in the distance. Panic and incomprehension spread throughout the guards.

“Wh-... Are they setting fire to the mountain itself?!”

“Have they no respect for the stone, for the hill?! By Boris, may they all be buried in sand until death!”

Valix felt the bubble of fury light its own fire in his chest. He tightened his cloak around himself even tighter and roared, “Stromvarde! Hold this side with your archers! The rest of you - to the well! Bring pots, buckets, your gods-damned hands - put that cursed fire out! TEAGAN! Where’s Kaer Jane?!”

The fearstruck archer hastened over to the chief, struggling through the crowd of repositioning soldiers heading for the well in the town centre. “Not yet seen, chief! Neither Jane nor Pinya have--... Wait… Wait, look there!” She leaned over the palisades and pointed at the edge of the forest, where a panicking elk was carrying two women atop its back, trailed by a multitude of enemy riders. “It’s Pinya! And she’s got Kaer Jane!”

The théin veered. “All archers - ensure the safety of the druid at all costs! Get those elkmen off of them!” The archers did as instructed, showering the ground behind the druid and scout’s elk with copper-tipped arrows. Pinya and Kaer Jane kept their bodies low against their mount, which was running in a mad panic up the hill. However, it spotted the fire making its way towards them at alarming speed, and suddenly, it veered, running away from the gates.

“Gods, stupid animal!” shouted the théin. “Do not let them get into enemy range! Keep someone ready at the north gate!”

“Yes, chief!”

The Celeviak elks stopped at the trenches, leaving Pinya and Kaer Jane alone on the hill - stuck between the fort and the Celeviak army. When it became clear the scout and druid could no longer control their elk, they jumped off, leaving it to sprint off in any direction that seemed to bring it to safety. The pair crashed hard into the grassy hill, and it took time before Kaer Jane lifted her head - she looked to be bleeding from the forehead. She slowly crawled over to Pinya, who seemed to have landed much worse than the druid had. Nearby, blood had splattered a sharp stone. Atop the walls, the théin seethed.

“Kaer Jane! Get over here before they capture you, damn you!”

The druid looked up from her dying saviour to behold the Celeviak forces by the trenches. However, none of them moved, patiently aware of the incoming fire sweeping the hill. Kaer Jane tried to wake her saviour back up with magic, but the fires approached too quickly for her to cast anything significant. Besides, Pinya seemed far, far gone.

“What are you doing, you fool?! Get over here!” shouted the théin, and eventually, Jane had to concede, picking up her thinks and limping up the hill towards the wall. The fires were hot on her heels, and she would have been dead if she had had to run through the north gate. Luckily, the people atop the wall tossed rope over the side and hoisted her up. The west side of the fort had long since began to smoke, and the palisades were beginning to catch fire as well. Kaer Jane had hardly gotten a chance to sit down before the théin stormed over to her and pointed to the walls.

“Make it rain, druid! NOW!”

“W-wha--”

“Otherwise we’ll burn to the last man!”

Kaer Jane pushed herself to her feet with the help of her staff. “I-... I can ask no such thing! I haven’t the necessary support from Claroon to demand such!”

Valix sucked in air through his teeth and paced around stressfully. From the west side of the village, he heard screams and calls for more water. “What -can- you do? What gods will answer a demand for protection? Any protection!”

“P-protection, uhm…” She flinched as her hip burned briefly with leftover agony from the fall. “G-Gibbou can help! I’ve, I’ve offered her plenty of offerings this month.”

“Then make it so!” The théin spun around and lifted his bronze-tipped spear to the sky. “Worry not, soldiers of the Stone! We may triumph yet! The gods are with us today--!”

Suddenly, he heard a gasp behind him. The warriors who had begun to cheer were silenced as swiftly as they looked at Kaer Jane. She was quivering, and she lifted her hands to behold them as they turned white as chalk. Then, as the paleness moved along her limbs, the outermost parts crumbled away on the wind, like white dust. She screamed; the onlookers screamed, too. Deafening them all, however, was a loud, cranky voice.

”You wake me up in the middle of the day to ask something as ridiculous as that? Fight your own damn battles! Shoo!”

With that, the druid Kaer Jane turned completely to moondust, leaving only her cloak and staff in a heap of dusty white on the ground. With the cacophony of the increasingly desperate and failing efforts to put out the fires in the background, the théin and his closest stood in silence.

“Did… Did Gibbou just abandon us?” asked one of the bloodsworn carefully. There came no answer. Valix’s face had lost the colour of rage and his lips parted and closed with incomprehension. A runner came sprinting and shouted,

“Chief! The western wall has burned down! We’ve lost control! What should we do?”

Valix didn’t respond. The runner shouted again,

“Chief!”

“Wh-... What?” asked the théin and turned slowly. The runner studied him desperately, seeming to grow more and more anxious the longer he looked.

“What should we do?! The walls are burning down and the fire is spreading through the town, too! The children and their guardians, they-- they must be kept safe!”

“Safe… Yes… Safe…” He looked back down at the heap. “... This was our only hope. Without the support of the gods, we’re finished.” A mighty fist struck him in the jaw and he jerked back. “Who dares?!”

“Wake up, chief!” roared Pathalix. The théin blinked. “We have yet to meet the enemy in battle! They resort to cowardly, blasphemous tactics such as burning a hill of Boris for the sake of victory! One god may have left us, but surely, the others are still with us! The Goddess of the Night is blind in the day, so she cannot see our struggles - however!” He pointed to the smokey sky, at which edge shone the afternoon sunset. “THERE! The sun is with us yet!” He stomped on the ground. “The mountain is with us yet!” He grabbed his horn from his belt and shook it before the théin’s face. “Macsal is with us yet! We are the chosen of the gods, and in this darkest hour, they will not abandon us!”

Colour returned to the faces around, and even Valix slowly cracked a smile. “Yes… Yes… The people of the Stone, of the great and mighty Dûna, have never once lost in battle. The gods have been with us every time, and they will surely follow us this time, too!”

“YEAH!”

“Take the children and their safekeepers and hide them in the old mine - hack open the old seal if you must, but beware of the old beams - do not cause a cave-in. They must be kept safe at all cost. The rest of you - find places to hide. We will have guests soon.”




By nightfall, the fires were beginning to die down on the hill itself, continuing in certain hotspots around the town. A loud blast of a battlehorn sounded from the bottom of the hill, jolting the Dunan soldiers on edge - waiting. Nothing came, and a few hours went by, until another blast and the sound of metal moving to the north - but nothing ever came. Throughout the night, false starts and terrible sounds kept the people of the town anxious and awake. It wasn't until the fake calls and shouts became routine, exhaustion was settling in, and the twilight of the morning became a reality, that everything changed.

Through the smoldering ruins of the palisade, a long dark line of spearmen came marching into the burnt out remains of the village, spears leveled. The town was silent at first, but in the smoke came the hurrying approach of steps. It was a young woman, copper axe hefted high above her head, recklessly running at the first in the line of spearmen.

”KUN IONSAI DAAAA, IHRI LAUSÓGAN!” she shouted, clearly not having slept throughout the night. From behind her came another shout,

”TOSKA! Kóme anseo!” It was too late, however. Her charge had revealed them all, and in the dissipating smoke, it became clear that soldiers were hiding all around; however, their ambush had been completely unveiled. In the confusion, more soldiers charged out of their hiding spots despite the fact that the Celeviaks hadn’t made it into the village centre yet. Archers fired at will into the spear ranks, and the officers tried hopelessly to shepherd those who hadn’t charged yet into some sort of formation.

But the well rested Celeviaks were already upon them - the soldiers charging uniform through the streets, tight so no one could go past them. Small pillars broke off to weave through the buildings.

From down the hill a loud, thumping noise came. Several heavy things were running across the ashen hillside. Faster than humans could normally run. They were Cenél, but looking as if trees were wrapped around them. These things came sprinting for the breach on bark-skinned, vine-muscled digitigrade legs. The green muscles and bark crawled upwards across the right shoulder. From which a second arm sprouted. Both the human and branch-like arm were holding the heavy weapons of the Cenél. Helping to carry the weight so their left hand could still hold their shield.

Like a storm they fell upon the ambushing Dûnans. Moving through the street with unnatural speed, their low numbers offset by the cheer brutality of their charge. They fell upon pocket after pocket of archers. The Dûnan line didn’t break, for it hadn’t even had time to form. As soon as the charge began, half the soldiers on the Dûnan side ran for their lives, while the other recklessly and zealously threw themselves at the enemy with neither plan nor skill. The only warriors who proved to be a challenge to the Celeviaks and Cenél were the hildargeach, veterans of many years of battle, and théin Valix himself; however, what could fifty men do against an army like this?

The bloodsworn formed a wall around their chief, but without their levies, they were hopelessly outnumbered. The flood of enemies split around them, spilling into every nook and cranny of the village. The bloodsworn's heads were spinning, never knowing where the next attack was going to originate - and then a mighty axe came crashing through.

The wide blade of the weapon bit into one of the bloodsworn, sending him clean off his feet and into a spray of blood. The axe came spinning down onto another of the bloodsworn, the maestro of the massacre being Jjonveyo himself. With beastly black eyes, the Tsar looked past his current victim and directly at Valix. The théin shouted upon seeing his clansman cut down, raised his spear and stepped forward to jab at the Tsar’s waist.

To Valix's surprise, Jjonveyo didn't seem to make the slightest effort to get out of the way. He walked forward, the spear tugging as it punched into the Tsar. With a terrible look in his eye, Jjonveyo walked through the length of the spear - a foreign prayer on his lips until finally his large hand shot out and gripped Valix by the throat. A deep rumble formed from the impaled Tsar.

"Did I not tell you?" The axe came crashing down, splintering the spear and leaving a slowly closing hole in Jjonveyo's gut.

Valix caved to one knee. “... You… You Sigeran devil. You burn the holy stone of Boris; you fraternise with witches and heretics; and worst of all… You have the powers of death itself.” He spat on the ground by Jjonveyo’s boots. “I curse your filthy ilk. May the black cough take you all!”

No words met his, and the silent Jjonveyo suddenly lifted the théin from his feet, and back down to the ground below, hard. The théin’s head bounced off the cobble, only to regain enough consciousness to see an axe blade dropping down - and then there was nothing.

Valix's head rolled away from the scene, Jjonveyo turning from the corpse. His eyes scanned the battle - or what was left of it. Ha-Leothe had fallen.




An hour burned past the end of the battle, with the Celeviak troops rounding up the surviving townsfolk who were either too young, sick, or old to fight - as well as the women who were excluded from fighting. The spears of the conquering Tsardom brought them all to the townsquare where the bodies of the Dûnan soldiers still laid. Flanked by Darragh and the yellow maned soldier was Jjonveyo, blood spattered over his breastplate. He stood calculating as the survivors were put into rows and pushed to their knees.

“Valix had sealed your fate before the battle began,” Jjonveyo explained slowly, “I had offered peace and life but he swore war even at the cost of every child of this settlement.” Jjonveyo pointed his axe at a terrified mother who was clinging to her baby, “But know that the Tsar is one of mercy and I decree this oath struck by Valix to be nulled by his death as well as his inability to lead. He was not competent enough to strike such a deal - unless of course you all disagree.” Jjonveyo sniffed and stamped the butt of his axe into the ground, “I will ask each of you this, and listen closely and ponder the words for it will determine your fate.”

A pause.

“Do you want to live?”

The survivors exchanged looks. Then a mother with a babe on her arm crawled a little closer and, still on her knees, lifted her free arm in the Tsar’s direction. “Hail the ‘zar of the east, Jonwayo,” she said submittingly, respect in every word despite her botched pronounciation. Others quickly followed in her steps, submitting themselves to the Tsar’s leadership.

Dark, unforgiving eyes stared down the people as they praised their new Tsar. The tree-wrapped Cenél were standing each at least a head if not two towering over the Celeviak soldiers and watched the people kneel. Some exchanged glances, others looked at Darragh. Their faces began to sour. Their Boyar, their Fakir leader looked anything but pleased. After a few minutes it turned his back to the spectacle and walked away. The tree-kin Cenél trickled away. Following their leader.




The Eastern Front


In the valley of Karalieuski, an army of round shielded axemen stood opposite the Eastern army of the Čeleviak Tsardom. The scene was quiet, and if not for the occasional chatter of metal idly moving, it wouldn’t seem like a battlefield at all. Lazy clouds drifted overhead and even songbirds peeped louder than the armies. A uncaring wind snaked through the warriors and soldiers, apathetic to politics or war.

The scene was broken as the lines split, a single entity coming from either side. From the side of the Karalieuski axemen, came an elderly man with a long white beard and the muscular vigor of a man twenty years younger. His body was tightly wrapped in bronze chains and cured leather, giving him the look of an armadillo. His opposite, the entity from the Čeleviak army, was a much younger man who stood a whole head taller. He had the dark features of his older brother, but a crooked smile unlike Jjonveyo’s stoicism. In his hand he held a long spear that ended with a wavy bronzen blade and sharp point.

“Demtri of the Čeleviak,” The old Karalieuski man greeted, eyes on the spear.

“Siabar of the Karalieuski,” Demtri tipped his head.

“I had heard of your brother’s reforms, but I didn’t expect to see one of the Fangs of the Snake at my doorstep so soon.” Siabar admitted. His eyes trailed the weapon, “Speaking of, is this the Tongue of Thaa?”

“The very same,” Demtri tipped the spear proudly.

Siabar exhaled sharply, something between a scoff and a laugh, “Well I can’t help but admit that your father would be proud to see it in your hands, prouder still of you and your brother’s ambitions.”

Demtri faked a bashful face, “And of Siabar?”

“I heard the demands of the reforms, the purposes and ambitions of it all,” Siabar sniffed. “What it entails...” He lifted his axe from his belt loop and held it high. Demtri kept his eye on it as Siabar tossed it into the dirt below, blade first. “The Karalieuski have seen it as righteous and offer our allegiance freely.”

“Then by the power of the Tsar,” Demtri tipped his head, “I name you brother, Boyar, and my equal. May the Boyardom of Karalieuski prosper.”




“We got them now!” Vorah of the northern valley tribes shouted, his rowdy band of warriors cheering loudly. In front of them, a small detachment of Čeleviak spearmen stand wedged between their berserkers and the thick trees of the approaching forest. On either side of the armies stood the arms of the forest, putting the groups on a peninsula of field, the northern valley tribesmen blocking any escape for the spearmen.

A Čeleviak soldier wearing a strange golden mane on his helmet turned to the warriors in the distance and shouted something in Čeleviak that Vorah recognized:

“ANVIL!”

A loud “HOOAH!” sounded as the Čeleviak spearmen faced the warriors and packed in tight, spears leveled. The tight formation spread to cover the length of the field.

“SAW!”

“HOOAH!”

Every other spearman dropped a pace back, giving the line a serrated edge. Vorah’s eyes widened in confusion, then the rumbling behind him tipped him off to what was going on. The warriors of the northern valley began to shout in fear, a devastating horde of elk riders pounding down towards them. Demtri lead the charge, the Tongue of Thaa leveled as a lance. Panicking, the warriors began to scatter, breaking formation - but they had nowhere to go.

With an incredible smash, the Čeleviak cavalry slammed into the mob. Screams and warcries split the air as mists of blood permeated the scene. Those who stood in the way of the elks were trampled and cut down, those who tried to run were impaled on the wall of spears. Vorah stood in complete shock as he watched his resistance fall to slaughter around him, only when he saw an elk riding right at him did he snap back too.

Demtri was already half off his mount as he approached Vorah, leaping off the moving creature and towards his victim. Vorah managed to duck under the lunge just in time, but it was punished as Demtri landed square on his feet, spear twirling under arm - smacking Vorah with the butt. Another swing, the pole of the spear smashing into his throat, then another as the long reach tripped him -- the cold earth below catching Vorah. In a moment it was all over, the Tongue of Thaa thrusting into his chest and poking into the soil behind -- a quiet prayer to Thaa spilling from Demtri and onto his fallen foe.

The Northern Valley tribes have fallen.




The Cenél stepped out from under the shadow of the forest’s canopy. To Darragh it felt like stepping out of a completely different realm back into the wretchedness of the real world. Behind him, on a highland stag as well, stepped the young woman carrying her gnarled staff. Her raven hair and tanned skin marking her as outsider. Yet somehow she had come attached to Darragh. Part of his retinue.

In front of them was a hill on top of which a single lonethorn grew. The tree had long ago been struck by lightning. Splitting it open, but it failed to kill it. Now the split tree was the mark of the elsewise insignificant hill. In total only five stags walked out of the forest, but throughout the forest, spread laid the Cenél. Ready with both the tithe promised, and bows and arrows should the meeting turn sour.

“We’re early.” Keyleigh said, looking up at the sun and then at the split lonethorn tree.

“Best to be early for dealings like these.” Darragh said. His eyes were affixed on the horizon as they walked up the hill. Trying to see the Čeleviak. The tension felt far too similar to meeting the Dûnans for the first few times. As the hill began to peak, Darragh got his wish: the dark line of an army spreading far to the left and the right. It was an impressive sight, with more soldiers than he had ever seen in one spot - and deathly quiet too. It stood as a silent forest of spears.

Breaking away from the army and stealing Darragh’s attention was a chestnut elk, a massive man riding atop it. He alone approached and mounted the hill, a heavy metal circlet on his head. He wore thick quilted clothes dyed red, and had a dark black cloak thrown over his left shoulder. In short time the tall man was already at the meeting tree, dismounting. Keyleigh grinned from atop her stag. “He’s ambitious.”

“He is.” Darragh said as he dismounted as well. He tasted something bitter in his mouth. Still he walked up towards the tree. Alone as well. “Hail Jjonveyo of the Čeleviak.” He said as hit his own chest with a fist.

An immensely thick accent rumbled from Jjonveyo, "I am glad we are speaking." He mimicked Darragh's salute. Reaching under his cloak, Jjonveyo procured a copper flask, corked. Without explaining it, he continued, "I apologize for bringing an army behind me; your message found me already marching - though if this meeting goes as we both want - you have no need to fear your own army, or shall I say 'our'."

Darragh faked a smirk. Though it confirmed both his greatest fear and deepest joy. The Čeleviak were already marching for Ha-Dûna. A lesser leader would’ve offered the tithe and started marching with him. “Before we start saying ‘our’, I need to ask you a question first. Why are you marching for the Dûnans? They’re blessed by the gods. Many times over.”

"So are we," Jjonveyo said simply, "but what's more, is we are marching for a better life for all; to end suffering in this life through unity and charity. The Dûnans stand in the way of this great reform."

They weren’t the same words but they carried the same sentiment. Boudicca had almost told him the same. No more suffering. Unity. Charity. That charity now paid a tithe and an ally in a time of war. Life and time had suddenly turned into a very small wheel. For a second Darragh looked behind him. Towards the four other stag riders and the forest beyond. Which itself became part of a greater woods which housed the Cenél. Last time he accepted those words, war followed less than five years after. Yet the same words kept floating in his mind. You don’t have a choice. His people were already spread too thin.

For a while he kept quiet. Weighing options. Feeling out ideas. “I offer half the tithe.” He finally said as he turned to face Jjonveyo. “In return to let us keep the other half I offer up myself and the Fakir for your war.”

Jjonveyo sniffed and slowly, very slowly, sat down onto the grass. He placed the flask in a gnarled tuft to keep it standing and looked up at Darragh. "Sit with me."

Darragh did as bid and sat down. Keeping a distance that might be seen as either respectful or safe. Jjonveyo kept his stoic feature, but something in his eyes glistened approval. His voice grew low, as if the words were meant just for Darragh, "Why are you offering me a tithe?"

“We’re not deaf. We know what you ask from your subjects. Those who don’t, get the rod.” And the Cenél weren’t in a position to get the rod.

"So you are my subject?" Jjonveyo raised a brow.

"As hard as it might be to believe, some in this world know their place in it.” Darragh said.

"Then that makes me your Tsar," Jjonveyo lifted the flask, "and the Cenél, Celeviak." He pulled the cork from the flask, "Keep your tithe this season, use it to enrich your people so you may give a full tithe next season. You are the Tsardom, every appendage must be well." He offered the open flask to Darragh, "And as yTsar I request that you and your Fakir do accompany the march west."

Generous or pragmatic? The question stayed on Darragh’s tongue but he never uttered it. They’d find out soon enough. Darragh took the flask and took a swig. He wasn’t a stranger to the beverage. Some years ago – something that felt like a lifetime ago – the two people used to trade. He handed it back to Jjonveyo. Who sealed the deal with a drink of his own.

“The Fakir you will have.” He said. His words gaining an edge. “But you always had me.” The fire he hid in his eyes shined through now. This was personal for him. “You’ll always have me if you promise me one thing.”

"Speak your wish," Jjonveyo commanded.

For a second Darragh remained quiet, looking the ground. Clearly going over the words. Then finally he looked up. His eyes intense, yet his body calm. “No mercy. No peace.” he said, his voice that of Ynea, the ice-queen herself. “Thirty years ago I cast my vote to spare them when they were still small.” Now look where that got me. “I chose peace after their civil war again. Now I’m sitting here.” Selling my people so they could survive. “They’ve done enough to this land. To my people.” And to my apprentice. “I come with you if you promise to raze Ha-Dûna to the ground.”

Jjonveyo rolled his jaw, eyes dark and calculating. After a pregnant pause he spoke, "No." It was a simple reply, "It is not the way of the Celeviak to make oaths they are unsure if they can keep. Those who stand in the way of the Tsardom will perish, though I take no joy in massacre and give life to the deserving." He paused, and began to stand up, "You are the leader of this Boyardom of the Celeviak Nation, you must set an example away from blind anger. Fear, sure - punishment, of course - I as any leader will not spare those deserving of it, but I shall not mark a soul I have yet to discover as one way or the other." He paused again as he now stood tall, voice grim, "And know that your wish is possible many times over and has been granted to those who have stood in the way -- this is why I do not agree lightly."

The Fakir and now Boyar remained sitting. It was a mistake, to refuse it. Darragh was already thinking about the war that would come after again. The third one. Would he still be around to see it happen? Would he want to? “Then I will make my peace with that, my Tsar.” He finally said as he rose up as well and looked straight into Jjonveyo’s eyes. “And I’ll sate my thirst on the blood that we can spill.” It wouldn’t be enough but it would be a start. In truth Darragh had no real interest in leading his people after the war. Malgog remained silent to him but Ynea’s whispers were upon him.

“My people will start joining you in the next few days. Look for stagriders coming for the forests.” With those words Darragh extended his hand towards Jjonveyo. The Tsar gripped it, his hand rocky with callousness.

"Good." Jjonveyo said, "Ha-Dûna will capitulate be it under a new name or fire. Then, let a new covenant with the gods be struck in its place." He released Darragh's hand, "I will see your riders shortly." The Tsar began to turn back to his army.



Juniper and Shae and Boudicca


It was still the middle of the morning as the two women walked through the flows of Ha-Dûna and towards the former Hall of the Weary, now Hall of Chiefs. Unlike before though, the day had enough time to settle -- meaning the honest and healthy were off working or studying. It was peaceful, or would be if it didn’t remind Juniper that she was skipping out on her own work to be out doing this. Scrunching her nose, she broke the growing silence between her and Shae.

“Did you ever hear the story of the spider and the apprentice?” Juniper asked, eyes stuck on the glare of someone who definitely recognized her (and recognized her out of place even).

“No, I don’t think- oh, no thank you Maera, I’ve had apples today- I don’t think I’ve heard it.” The song waved at friendly passersby and patted curious childrens’ heads as they walked. It was quite difficult for helgens to be subtle in Ha-Dûna. “Though it sounds like another one you might have made up.” Shae smirked and gave the other woman a sidelong glance.

Juniper squinted her right eye at Shae and continued through the comment, “The apprentice was a gifted student of a well known painter, but as gifted as they were, they had to follow the instructions of the master painter.” Juniper looked at Shae, “Simple enough. The master painter would inspect a room and then give the tools to the apprentice and have them work on it while they themselves worked on more difficult tasks... or so they say.” She waved a hand, “But that isn’t that important -- what is important is that one day while the apprentice was preparing to paint, they came across a spider. Now-”

Juniper paused suddenly as she lurched forward, nearly tripping over her own feet. Pretending that didn’t happen, she continued, “Now as the apprentice was scraping and cleaning the old corners of the room, he came across a spider - wait I already said that. Shit.” She paused, “Right! So anyways the spider was directly where the apprentice needed to work and eventually paint... it was quite a simple issue -- if the spider were to remain in its cozy little home, it would be destroyed alongside it by paint and scrapes and what have you... so in kindness, the apprentice picked the spider up and removed it from its place, destroying the web in the process. The spider obviously was scared and worried and horrified, but the apprentice paid that no mind as he knew he had saved it from much worse trouble than the trouble they themselves gave the spider.” Looking forward, Juniper finished, “So the apprentice went about their day, finished the job, and left. No human was any the wiser of what had happened and the spider, though deeply troubled that day, was spared a worse fate that it didn’t know was even possible, and still doesn’t.”

“Well, that was an incredibly thoughtful apprentice. Perhaps if he could communicate with the spider they could have come to some kind of agreement and any misunderstandings would have been avoided, but seeing as that was the next best he could do…” she pursed her lips and exhaled, “but the poor spider would just go on living thinking that humans are terrible and arbitrary things. If it was made to understand why it had to be moved, then perhaps there would be greater harmony between humans and spiders - perhaps spiders would not bite as often, and humans wouldn’t kill them.” Her melodious sigh came long. “Oh anyhow, it seems that no human was the wiser about all this… other than you. Did this noble painter’s apprentice tell you the tale himself?”

“It’s an old story,” Juniper used her usual defense, “Just to say that when you don’t know the perspectives beyond your understanding, even a positive can seem like a negative.” She scuffed her boots and stood still, the Hall of Chiefs only a few steps away from the pair. “Maybe you should trust in the wisdom of things greater than yourself, or maybe not -- who really knows.” Juniper dropped a corner of her mouth into a frown, “I don’t know.”

“I, for one, think wisdom might be a tad bit overrated. Sometimes you just need to live a little unweighed by grumpy wisdoms and their needless mysteries.” She said easily. “Everyone manages well enough either way.” She stood by the great bearskin curtain and listened in for a bit, then raised her hand and knocked on the doorframe. She did not seem to strike too hard at all, yet the knock came unnaturally loud and somewhat off from where she struck. The usual murmurs inside quieted, then approaching steps heralded the arrival of the doorman, who pulled aside the curtain and unleashed the rolling avalanche of pipe smoke out of the entrance. He regarded them with groggy eyes, though was quick to recognise Shae and offered a small bow with his free hand cupped over his head.

“W-welcome, good helgen of the Dancing Théin. What brings you to our humble house?” The man made quick efforts to straighten out his shirt, plaid and kilt, and tugged at his beard to keep his hands in action.

“That’s a good question,” Juniper said, realizing she didn’t really have a good answer. She looked over at Shae for support.

Shae stood up tall and any childishness she may have exhibited before seemed to melt away. “I must speak with the sanndatr,” she intoned dolefully, “on a grave matter.” The pipeweed air seemed to tighten, her voice darkening what may have been a light and merry gathering before.

The man blinked as realisation dawned upon him. He stuck his head a little further out of the doorframe, looking left and right, and then ducking back inside, pulling the curtain with him. “Alright, come on it. Boudicca! The Song has come to see you.” The inside of the longhouse seemed permanently stained with the tangy stink of pipeweed, though the smell fought bravely against the musk and rank of cows and sheep; foreign and local carpets decorated every wall and the floor, not arranged by colour and pattern so much as by place of origin; exposed parts of the wooden walls held imported shields, weapons, jewelry and artistry. Despite the overflow of wealth around the room, however, the central hearth around which sat three figures seemed most humble - the most precious object being a bubbling ceramic pot at which the faces of the figures had been looking before they shifted to the newcomers.

“Ah, Shae, Daughter of the Dancer. Come on in,” the sanndatr’s voice called and the shadow of her beckoning could be seen against the light of the fire. “Brought a friend, have you?”

The song cleared her throat and nodded as she made gracefully for Boudicca and, removing her cloak, seated herself by the hearth. “Yes,” she spoke, placing a hand on Juniper’s arm and nodding for her to sit by her, who with wide and uncertain eyes, did. “This is Juniper the Twiceseven’s daughter. Orator and storyteller of great renown, purveyor of wisdoms and knower of ancient truths.” Shae bit her upper lip and maintained an altogether serious visage. “And witness to dire happenings that may only be spoken of in strictest secrecy.” She glanced at the two figures sat by Boudicca, then back to the sanndatr.

The shadows on Boudicca’s face danced with less vigour as her chewing mouth came to a stop, turning to regard Juniper with a small squint, who sunk in her seat. “The Twiceseven’s daughter, you say?” The sanndatr placed her spoon back in her bowl of porridge and set the bowl on the floor. She looked across the fire at the two other figures and then over at the doorman. “Brian, would you take Materix and Zelda outside?”

“Mother, can’t we stay and listen?” Materix asked with a twinge of what almost seemed as surprise.

“When mother asks us to leave…” Zelda started. Materix’ stare shut her up.

“Oh! Materix,” Shae exclaimed, “my, you’ve changed quite a bit since I last saw you. When did you get back?”

The young théin offered her a polite smile. “A month and a half ago or so. I’d love to tell you all about the journey, but…” She gave her mother a frown. “... It seems that secrecy will be taking priority.”

“It most certainly will, young lady,” Brian said soothingly and took both the girls’ bowls, setting them aside, before shepherding them out of the house. Shae gave the young woman a knowing glance, an I’ll find you later. With the young women gone, Boudicca gestured for the bench upon which they had sat and mumbled, “The heat’s better on that side if you’re cold. Today’s a cold autumn day, after all…”

“I have my cloak,” Juniper tugged her white plaid as if showcasing it, “But thank you.” She leaned slightly to the side and behind Shae’s ear, whispering, “What am I a witness of?”

Shae seemed completely relaxed now, all seriousness gone. “Oh Boudicca. If I didn’t know any better I’d think you were avoiding me,” the song pouted as she took up Zelda’s bowl of porridge and picked at it with the spoon. “When did I see you last? It was when you… ah, that nasty business with Hilda.”

Boudicca’s eyes darkened. “... Yes, and we both know well not to speak of that day. Our city has hardly recovered from the terror…” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “... I have hardly recovered… Thank the gods farmwork keeps the people busy...”

Shae sighed, little inky moths fluttering out and dying on the flames with audible fizzles as the flame licked angrily and hissed at them. There was a heavy silence for a few seconds, and then Shae looked up, “anyhow, Boudi, I’ve got a little problem. Or rather, we’ve got a little problem. Probably more you than me… or maybe just me, I don’t know.” She sat back and put the bowl to the side. “It’s those bald druids.”

“The Seekers? What about them?” Boudicca rubbed her hands together over the flames.

“I don’t know how to put this but… they don’t seem to like me very much. They’ve been following me around for months talking about my ‘serial untruths’ and how the ‘stench of falsification echoes in the footsteps of your mind, so-called Macsaldatr’. Juniper here saw their latest bout of creeping on me. We were minding our own business at the college this morning, sharing songs and stories as you do, when they came along with their blue stares and continually constipated countenances.” She huffed and grabbed at her cloak, “isn’t that right Juni? Tell her how we had to escape through the window and nearly got caught by that smelly… whatisface.”

Juniper blinked a few times and sat up straight, "Uhm." It took her a few seconds but she managed to push through her nervousness and into a storyteller’s mood. She found her smile and nodded, "Yes! A group of older men had burst into the courtyard of the school looking for Shae. It was apparently so dire a situation, we needed to take an alternative route through one of the professor's private offices and through the window. Not only that, but we later had to convene outside the limits of the town to plan safely our next step."

The sanndatr squinted. “If that’s what happened, it is concerning that I was not informed until now. Were you seen on your way here? By them, I mean - were you followed?” She got up, walked over to the doorway and tugged gently a piece of the curtain away to glance outside.

The song looked back at her and shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. But they’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure. The people make it quite hard to be discrete.”

“Ever since that horrid day, the théins have been breathing down my neck… Tensions haven’t been higher since we retook this city.” Boudicca continued, and Shaeylila rose and came up beside her, placing a hand on the other woman’s shoulder.

“Things would no doubt become even worse if these Seekers were to uncover our little... “ she paused, “repurposing of the truth.” She turned away and sighed. “What can we do? I can’t go on with them following me around like a second shadow.”

Juniper cocked her head, "Repurposing of the truth?"

Boudicca turned and made hard eyes at the Storyteller. “You didn’t tell her yet brought her along?”

The song raised an eyebrow at the sanndatr. “It wasn’t my tale to tell. I brought her along because storytellers know things - I thought she could help us deal with this in the least damaging way.” Turning away from Boudicca she looked at Juniper with a slight frown. “But maybe I was wrong.”

“Ouch,” Juniper squinted her right eye at Shae.

Boudicca heaved a slow sigh. “Forgive my frustration… I haven’t slept well of late.” She gave her nose bridge a comforting rub as Shae moved softly by her and looked out of the small window. “So, daughter of the Twiceseven, you ‘know things’, is that it?” She hunkered onto her elbows and collected her fingers in a twine under her nose. “What do you know of Macsal’s promise?”

“The curse, you mean?” Juniper pinched her chin.

“If you’d like to call it that,” the sanndatr responded and shrugged passively. “What do you know of it?”

“War and death, or peace and art,” Juniper replied simply, “That’s the word around town at least, no?”

“That’s the gist of it. Did you see Shae’s performance that day? What did you think of it? Convincing, right?”

“I wasn’t there,” Juniper scrunched her brow, “But I obviously heard the stories -- where is this going?”

Boudicca spied over at Shae by the window and studied her distant expression. Then she heaved another sigh, eyed the doorway and whispered, “What if I told you that it was all an act?”

“I’d say you have great foreshadowing,” Juniper arched a brow, “And now I’m hooked.” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, eyes staring intently at Boudicca, “Tell me the story?”

Boudicca shrugged. “Not much to tell, if I’m being honest. It was Shae’s plan, in truth - I needed public support for our city’s shift to peace and diplomacy after years and years of war and battle. Our solution was to depict it as a divine imperative - Macsal’s imperative. If we went to war, there would only be death and abandonment - we would never become the cultural capital we dream to be.” She heaved yet another sigh. “We gained their support that time, but then those cursed Scawicks rioted and then the Clennon Fen purists and then…” She shook her head. “I’ll be frank, Shae, I have lost faith in our lie - lost quite a lot, in fact. It has all but faded already, anyway - what will the Seekers hunt you for if what you are accused of is no longer a reality?”

“It’s a shame that things happened this way.” The song sighed and turned back to them, leaning against the window sill. “But it would reflect quite poorly on you if it’s discovered that our bout of creative output was misinterpreted by the people. You could just say you were misled by little old me, of course. That would work. But then what will become of little old me? Living here has grown on me.” She turned her head to the side and looked out of the window again. “And I don’t get the feeling that those bald druids would be satisfied to just unveil my ‘falsifications’ as they say. They seem to have taken it all awfully personally.”

The sanndatr didn’t answer. Her face harned and she hammered the bench she sat on with her palm in frustration. “Why did everything go so wrong? Why? What have we done to incite the gods’ wrath upon our city time and time again… War, threats, terror. For what? We want peace, same as everyone, and not even the Seekers will allow it.” She hung her head in defeat. “... My hands are tied - if I do something onto them, they will suspect me, too, and sending you away is…” Her voice trailed off. “... You could go into exile for a time, just until I can send the Seekers away.”

Shae was silent for a few seconds, a stillness and terrible silence hanging about her. And for all the crackling and flickering of the fire, there was suddenly a coolness to the place. She glanced over at Juniper, her eyes seeming to glisten with liquid ink. “Y-yeah.” Came her dirge. “I…” inken eyes turned to the ground, “I’m sorry Boudi. It was my stupid idea.”

“Oh, don’t apologise. Had it not been for that idea, this town would’ve been on the warpath again months ago. It’s… It’s like Hilda said: We’re a warring people. Maybe it was foolish to think that we could keep them in check with a lie.” She tugged sniffingly at her nose with her hand. “Either way, you aren’t safe here. I cannot protect you against the Seekers - not anymore. My support from the people has been replaced with suspicion and skepticism.”

“What are you going to do? Are you just going to…” Shae approached the sanndatr, looking into her tired eyes, “give up? Are you going to let it all wear you down? You stood before them like a mountain once and bore the full brunt of the heavens, and when their waves crashed against your steep cliffs you batted them aside and put them back down - that was you, Boudi. You tamed them and directed them, not the other way. Isn’t that what being sanndatr is all about?” There was no bitterness in her melancholy melody, only a plucking at the strings of Boudicca’s morale, a gentle blowing into the embers of her great flame.

Juniper squinted her right eye and looked between the two. Finally she wiggled her nose in thought before speaking, "I'm going to be honest: this is extremely uncomfortable. So what you're saying is that you two lied about divine punishment to keep the city from going to war, and now a bunch of old men are out to getcha?" She looked up at the ceiling before shifting to Shae, "I did say leaving was your best bet, remember? It sounds like a web of politics that has no winner." She pauses, "Then again Boudicca has a point.. What's the lie if war comes anyway?"

The sanndatr shrugged. “I can sway the druids by saying Macsal is with us in this war - they will no doubt agree under the circumstances, but… The Seekers are of a different circle - I don’t understand them like I understand the Long Strides.” She paused. “All I know is that they are pursuers of the Truth, whatever that means to the servants of Fìrinn--” She halted to lift her hands to the sky and whisper a short apology, likely for uttering the god’s name with insincerity. “... Shae’s targeted because she claims to be a messenger of Macsal, unless I’m mistaken. In truth, she’s just a Song, after all. I beg forgiveness that you need to hear all this Juniper; I trust you will keep this secret in good confidence, yes?”

"Well wait," Juniper held up a finger, "If you don't understand the Seekers, why are we hashing out these thoughts? I say we should learn their story and how they tick before trying to counter their plays." She leaned back, "You're a strategist, no? You are in my stories."

“Taking an interest in them now of all times will raise suspicion, especially if I lead the initiative… However…” She pursed her lips. “You said you weren’t seen on the way here, correct? Twiceseven’s daughter - could you learn their stories on our behalf, perhaps?”

"I dunno, I've never been very good at remembering stories," Juniper said deadpan. A silent moment passed and she frowned, "It's a joke - of course I can. Oh! But work..."

“I don’t know if you can learn things from them the normal way.” Shae spoke out. “They just…” she looked around and exhaled with a frown, “they know things. Their song is full of other people’s songs, it’s really weird. When they come near me, I’ve heard my own song in theirs. It’s like they can… look into you, siphon your song.” She convulsed in disgust and took a few steps towards the fire, holding her arms in silence. Before either of the two could say more she raised her head and looked Juniper dead in the eye. “I think you were right before. And I think it’s the answer we’ll arrive at in the end. I need to leave.”

Boudicca sighed and stood up, pacing thoughtfully between the heart and the doorway. “Then so be it. Whatever provisions you may need for the road, you shall have. I will make certain none of those Seekers follow you, and my daughter will guide you to the river and have a boatsman take you southwards--”

Suddenly, stomps thundered on the doorstep. Within the following second, the pelt over the doorway was pushed aside, revealing the face of Brian, pale with shock and red with warmth. He was panting, having much exerted his full body’s ability to sprint. Boudicca frowned over gritting teeth. “Gods, Brian! What is it that brings you here with such speed that you can’t knock first?”

“Iss-...” He caught his breath just barely and held on with a feeble grip. “It’s Aifric!”

“Of Sûr-le-Mont? What happened to her?”

“She--... Ugh…” He leaned forward and retched. Boudicca groaned and stormed over to straighten him up.

“By the gods, hadn’t you been my brother I would have had you whipped for wasting my time. Now spit it out! What has befallen the théin?!”

“She-she killed a man! Three men!”

Boudicca recoiled and blinked. “She killed three men?”

Brian nodded. “She and her constables - it was by the South Gate Hall. They, they were Chelivyak, a young lad and two older men. They, they made some odd demands for tribute to their ‘zar’ or something and then drew blades when the théin told them to leave!”

The frown of Boudicca’s face hardened with every word and her eyes slowly shifted towards the doorway. She walked over, pulled aside the pelt and looked outside. “Chelivyak, Chelivyak…” She closed her eyes and turned back to the others. “Mountain clans, correct? Like the Uirda?”

"[C]eleviak," Juniper corrected.

They both ignored her. “More or less,” Brian agreed. “However, I stopped by the Hall of Pilgrims on the way and consulted the visiting Kaer Hrothgi, an expert on the eastern clans, explained that that part of the mountains is the home of death worshippers.”

Boudicca raised a sharp brow. “Sigerans?”

“Very similar, supposedly,“ Brian agreed. “Sister, what should we do?”

"Not close at all," Juniper said under her breath.

Boudicca pursed her lips in annoyance, tossing a glance back at Shae and Juniper. “Have Aifric come here this afternoon. She will be given a stern talk and then go free. As for the Sigerans, you will have them sent to the Temple of Sorrow to be properly burnt in sight of Naya so their spirits may pass properly into the afterlife. They will not be returned to the worshippers of death, for their own sakes.”

Brian blinked. “D-do we dare do something like that? What of their families? What of this supposed ‘zar’ demanding tribute?”

Boudicca scowled. “We do not deal with Sigerans, and according to my daughter, the mountain peoples of the east have heard nothing of cavalry, tactics nor food other than goats. If they are foolish enough to challenge the might of Ha-Dûna, then all they will prove is how fond they are of death.”

After a second of silence, Brian nodded slowly. “Yes, sanndatr…” He then hurried back out the doorway.

"With respect," Juniper piped up again, "The Čeleviak's aren't Sigerans or death worshippers."

Boudicca turned and raised a brow. “Come again?”

“My mom was a Čeleviak,” Juniper explained, blinking her eastern brown eyes, “They revere the process of life and understand death to be the equalizing end of it, and as such show reverence and respect to their God of Death. They bury their dead -” Juniper suddenly paused, “Usually in the soil near where they were born.”

“So they worship death, then?” the sanndatr replied stubbornly.

Juniper looked helplessly at Shae. The song pursed her lips. “This is the first I hear of these mountain people - uh, Čeleviak, Uirda? Are they the same thing? Anyway, from what you’re saying…” she opened her palms and and two jets of ink arose, one bright white and the other obsidian. They curled around one another, forming a bi-coloured circle. “Death and life are two parts of a circle. They complete each other. Without death,” the black side of the circle slipped away, “life would be incomplete. And so, like life, death is not evil and is to be honoured and worshipped.”

The white circle transformed into an idyllic scene, with little figures running around and enjoying life’s delights. “But here: life is honoured and loved and worshipped because there is good in it, pleasures and delights and goodness to be had.” The black ink arose and swept the white scene away, leaving nothing but darkness there. “Why would anyone worship or honour death?”

"It's easier to admire the stars than the backdrop that contrasts them," Juniper pointed out, "Or the words on the tablet rather than the tablet, but without the negative, you can't perceive the positive. One reason to honor death is as a reminder that you're alive, the other reasons are to ensure a good one, to prepare for whatever comes next. It keeps you humble, as well, knowing your fate isn't different than any other creature."

“Fine! Fine! So they differ from the Sigerans, to the extent that acolytes of death can differ from one another.” She rolled her eyes and approached Juniper with arms crossed over her chest and shoulders squared authoritatively. “Our objective right now is to get Shae somewhere safe before the Seekers find out - afterwards, you’re invited to tell your stories about these people over midday meals. For now, though - Shae, when can you be ready?”

The song looked thoughtfully to the side, glanced down at herself, and then smiled wistfully. She picked up her cloak and wrapped it around herself. “Before that question left your lips, Boudi, that’s when.”

"Then where to?" Juniper dropped her arms, "I know plenty of fabled sanctuaries." the song shrugged in response.

“Wherever those Seekers aren’t, I guess.” She looked at Juniper. “So you’re coming? What about all this mountain people stuff?”

"I figured that's why you snagged me here in the first place," Juniper admitted. "Besides, I'm sure I know some places of legend that the seekers wouldn't think to look, or even know to."

Shae smiled. “This mountain people stuff seemed like it had shaken your resolve for a second, just making sure.”

“I will go find Materix, then. Wait here. Pretend you’re not here if anybody knocks.” With that, Boudicca exited the longhouse. The song sat back down and stared into the flames.

“So, what places of legend are these that you’re thinking about?” She asked.

"Ever hear of the Fortress of Yalin?" Juniper crossed her arms.

“Nop,” the song said simply, stoking the fire. “Where is it?”

"I'm not entirely sure but I have a good idea -- either way that's another reason the Seekers wouldn't even think to go there." Juniper nodded.

“Well, I guess if we don’t know where we’re headed they definitely won’t.” Shae chortled, though there was little mirth there. “So your mum was from these mountain people? No one mentioned that - always the Twiceseven’s, never the mountainwoman’s, daughter. Did you ever live among them?”

"No," Juniper said simply, "My mother ran away from the mountains to be with my father. Stole her heart really."

There came stomps at the steps leading into the house and in came Boudicca once more, followed by her daughter Materix, who in truth took much more after her father, slenderer in the face than her mother’s broad jaw. She was already fully armed and armoured, and Boudicca clapped her on the shoulder proudly.

“Materix will take you to the river - there, you will meet with Grum Ferryman. He has been paid to keep quiet, so we only need to make certain you, Shae, stay hidden. Now hurry - the Seekers have no doubt sensed that something is happening.”

“We leave when you are ready, helgen,” Materix said dutifully.

Shae rose and brought her hood up, darkness enshrouding her face. She was still for a few moments, and then she approached Boudicca and looked her in the eye. She took her by the hand and rubbed her finger across the back of the sanndatr’s hand, leaving behind a small flame of ink on the back of her right hand. “Be well, Boudi. Don’t let your flame go out.” She stepped back and brought her hand to her chest as she had often seen them do, and then followed after Materix without a backward glance. As the two of them left, the sanndatr raised a brow at Juniper.

“What about you? Staying or going?”

"Going," Juniper didn't hesitate, "By the gods I'm going."

Boudicca nodded and thumbed at the doorway while she walked over to the dying embers of the fire. “Well, better hurry if you want to catch up. I told Materix to keep a high tempo, and Grum’s not the easiest fellow to find.” She tossed another log on the fire.

"You don't have to tell me twice," Juniper nodded thankfully, "Good luck with everything!" With that, she was gone as quickly as Shae.



[*]

Dadomu, Capital of the Burgeoning Čeleviak Tsardom


Inside the great hall of the Tsar, loud drinking strumming bounced off the thick walls alongside dense laughter and the clinking of cups. Musicians with far from sober eyes played with lids half closed, and scantily dressed dancers could barely walk straight. The Auspices themselves, the wizened elders and the eager youths, both alike were soaked in the festivities. A bounty of food laid picked and nibbled on the messy table, and booming chants of old Čeleviak songs ricochet everywhere.

Over the noise, one of the young Auspices -- a man named Niamy -- tugged on the sacred beads of his friend, another young Auspice named Dmitri. Wine dribbled down Niamy’s white woolen robes, matching the red tattoos stark on his pale skin. “Hey... HEY!” He tried to get his friends attention. Dmitri sounded a sleepy hum with his lips on the rim of his drinking horn.

“Wha?”

"Look," Niamy said conspiring, eyebrows bouncing in the direction of the Tsar's seat. It was empty, plush with feather down and carved out of a gentle wood. It sat on a dias overlooking the feasting table. Without waiting for Dmitri, Niamy made his way over and slowly sat in it. He let out a groan of relaxation as he sank into the cushions. Dmitri nearly spat out his wine and laughed, shambling over and nearly tripping on the flat floor.

“Man, you’s in-SANE! Shih, we gonna get caught!”

"Caught by who!?" Niamy nearly shouted, "I'm the Ts..Tsar, you can tell by my seat, what I say guh-goes." He burped. Dmitri’s nose and eyes were running like rivers over his laughing face, the guffaw overpowering him to the point of collapsing to the ground, where he rolled around on his back, fumbling for his spilled horn.

"Concubine!" Niamy shouted at a nearby dancer (who scowled), "My feet are sore and require a rub!" He shifted "Muh-misewell get my back while yer at it too, this chair isn't as comfy as you'd-"

The doors to the great hall wafted open, slamming against the metal door stoppers with a massive bang. All color drained from Niamy, Dmitri, the dancers, and all the other party goers as the sight of Jjonveyo filled the doorway. His height alone made him look like a giant, but the terrible glare in his dark eyes made him look like a fragment of the god of death himself. His retainers, terrible and powerful as they were, seemed meek behind him.

Niamy fell flat on his face scrambling out of the chair, but it was too late, he was seen. Jjonveyo remained silent as he slowly walked through the scene. He picked up a cup off the table as he walked towards Niamy, spilling its stale contents to the floor with a look of disgust. Walking by a stunned dancer, he pushed the empty cup into her hands and continued. A scowl grew on his face as he stepped over sleeping drunks and out of commission Auspices, until finally he stood towering over Niamy and his friend Dmitri.

Niamy immediately stood up, suddenly frozen by Jjonveyo's booming voice. "Kneel."

Niamy fell back to his knees and bowed his head. Jjonveyo walked behind him. "Do you think yourself Tsar?"

"No-"

"I would hope not," Jjonveyo growled, "To use the tithe and resources of this hall for your own pleasure while your kith and kin pay for our salvation with their very lives. Chest bared to swords and axes, while your mouths gape at wine like thirst driven fools. Worthless fish, snapping its lips at any and all - even undeserved." Jjonveyo put his boot on Niamy's back. The Auspice squirmed but Jjonveyo barked again, "Do not move!"

The command bounced around the fear struck room, a cold adrenaline in everyone's chest as the moment stood still. Very slowly and almost gingerly, Jjonveyo pushed his boot against Niamy, slowly toppling him to his side - the Auspice daring not to move during the whole ordeal. As soon as he was on his side, Jjonveyo scowled and made his way to his throne. He sat with a heavy fall, now once again facing the scene from his chair of leadership. Eyes snapping to Dmitri, Jjonveyo pointed a finger, "What is your name, Baby Auspice? - I said do not move!" Jjonveyo slammed his fist against the arm of his chair, Niamy flinched but otherwise remained toppled over on the floor like a gutted pig.

“D-d-d-d-d-d-d…” was all the boy’s stupidly inebriated tongue could force out when faced with such terror, the rest of his body looking halfway ready to sprint for the hills any second, standing about halfway facing the exit.

Jjonveyo's stony frown was unwavering, "It is every brother's duty to ensure that their sibling does not stray from the path of charity and care for our people. Can you do that?"

“Yuh-YES! Yes, Zz--Tsar!” Dmitri thus hastened to kneel down and reach out to help his friend back to his feet. “W-we won’t do it again!”

"Don't move!" Jjonveyo roared. Niamy fell back to the ground, a wet spot forming under him. "If you hold the loyalty to the people in your heart and are unwavering to the cause..." Jjonveyo stared directly at Dmitri, "Strike your friend, beat him. Realign him with punishment, since you forgoed prevention through advice and council. He will not move or protest his punishment."

Dmitri blinked down at Niamy and held up his hand. “B-b-but I can’t! H-he’s m-m-my fr--!” Words came even less easy to him now as fear began to overman the alcohol in his body.

"Do you insult me? Was Alexseij not my own brother?" Jjonveyo growled, "Your hesitation to commit to your words of loyalty is disturbing." The Tsar waved a hand, "Piotr, drag the fallen fool out of here and strip him of his place as Auspice." The old retainer nodded before roughly pulling Niamy to his feet, all but lifting the whimpering man as he hauled him out of the hall. Jjonveyo turned his attention back at Dmitri.

"So not only have you drank the tithe for yourself and failed to stop your brother, but you spoke of loyalty and then refused to act upon it once it became unfavorable to you personally," Jjonveyo sat back in his chair, "From your perspective, how valuable of a unit is that in the sum of the whole?" The other Auspices and the retainers all looked at Dmitri in anticipation.

Dmitri was almost flat on the floor at this point, facing to the ground and holding only up his folded hands. “F’give me, midy Tsar! W-we just--... We didn’t mean anythin’ by it! Jus, jus don’t hurt my friend!”

Jjonveyo reached into a pouch tied around his waist, procuring a small deck of copper plate cards tied together by a ribbon. Printed into the metal were different symbols. The Tsar tossed them at Dmitri, the deck landing in front of him. "Divine." The young man squealed and covered his face to defend himself from the threat that never reached him.

"My Tsar," An older Auspice protested, "He isn't yet experienced-"

"Oh there will be punishment for you as well," Jjonveyo said, "I have not forgotten the elder Auspices here doing the same as these youths." He looked at the older Auspice, "Your young kin must have some use, no? Let's give him a chance to give back to his people." Looking back at Dmitri, Jjonveyo's dead serious eyes focused, "Tell me of Wojeck and Ha-Dûna."

Dmitri lowered his hands and licked his lips nervously. “I-I-I’ll need--... I’ll need--...” His eyes locked with the Tsar’s and one could practically see him weighing his options. Slowly, he gathered up the cards and shuffled them into a deck, light metallic scraping sounding between his fingers. He closed his eyes, heaved a deep breath and began laying five cards out face-down in a circle, in the centre of which he placed the fifth one. While he did, he nervously whistled a tune that seemed to reverberate with the fabric of the world, and through the walls one could hear sparrow song. He opened his eyes again and took the card furthest away from him, turning it over.

“The M-Messenger - Wojeck’s journey to Ha-Dûna went swiftly and with-without issue. He might have gotten there earlier than usual - the roads were most likely clean, thank Wandering Fsyot…” He turned the next card, frowning in surprise.

“The Jester…” After dismissing his surprise, he continued, “... He-he and his men ran in-into someone other than who they were looking for, or maybe someone like that person, or someone pretending to be them. The-the cards aren’t, aren’t…” He shrunk as he looked back up at the Tsar and continued. The following card hastened his breath.

“The Brother. There arose some kind of argument. I, I think he didn’t find the right person and, and something, something happened.” He turned an ear to the ceiling and nodded slowly. “The sparrows, they… They say something happened to the west.” He flipped the fourth card.

“The Warrior - weapons were drawn.” Impatiently, he turned the final card, gasping at the result, though nodding with silent understanding.

“The Snake…” He paused and looked back up at the Tsar. “Wojeck and his men didn’t make it out alive.”

"If this is true, baby Auspice," Jjonveyo seemed unmoved, but the keen eye could see a flicker of anger on his face, "Then Ha-Dûna has committed more crimes than pride and circumstance. Demtri will be heartbroken." Jjonveyo stood from his throne. "We march west. Piotr!"

The old retainer poked his head in from outside, "My Tsar?"

"Keep to my hall and overtake administrations, I wish to personally collect the body of Wojeck." His eyes wandered to Dmitri, "Living or dead." Piotr nodded and Jjonveyo waved another command, " Send correspondence to Demtri."

Pointing a finger at Dmitri, Jjonveyo said, "You're coming with me." Fumbling while picking them up, Dmitri ended up leaving the cards behind on the way to his feet as he hastened to keep up with the Tsar.

The newly acquainted pair stepped from the hall, an amazing sight facing them both. Through the streets of Dadomu, Jjonveyo’s host awaited their Tsar. Like a flood of metal and warriors, the newly reformed Čeleviak army stood. To the left, Dmitri saw the almost solid formation of spearmen, to the right -- a forest of archers, and straight ahead the dreaded cavalry that made waves the day it smashed through the tribes of Alexseij.

“We will rain the fury of our kin upon all who stand in our way to salvation, boy,” Jjonveyo said with a sense of pride in his voice.




© 2007-2017
BBCode Cheatsheet