AFRANTIC PUSH went through the crowd when the Citadel bells began tolling and the guards moved to close the harbor gate. A scream hushed the clamor, halting the surge for one terrifying frozen second. Shouts rippled through the crowd, and the crush of bodies became a panicked rush to reach the closing gate.
“Plague Bringer!” the man behind me yelled, adding his voice to the horrifying shouts.
Shoves of thick forearms started hitting my back, and the bodies carried me forward while hands clutched at my cloak and cowl to pull me backward. More guards poured from under the archway, and the shouts of fear turned into shouts of dismay as the guards hurried to swing the heavy wooden doors shut on the advancing throng.
The momentum of the crowd was briefly stopped, and the bodies bunched tighter, teetering on the verge of a trampling stampede. I let my cowl be pulled from my head, and I squeezed between the shoulders and elbows in front of me in a desperate effort to reach a guard before their swords were drawn and the gate was closed, praying that one of them would recognize me.
I was tripped when I clawed through the front of the pack, and a guard grabbed my arm, using me to buffer himself against the crowd so he could hold his ground for a few more seconds. His other hand went to his sword, and when he looked over his shoulder at the closing gate, I knew he was preparing to break for the archway. I struggled to keep a grip on his jacket, but when he started throwing me to the ground, I let my fingers scratch into his neck.
“I am Avanian Triumon,” I screamed, as his arm lifted, poised to deliver a backhand across my face. “Please, help me!” I begged.
His blow never fell, and he flung me toward the closing gate. When I stumbled past him, I heard his sword pull free.
“Get her into the city!” he screamed at another guard. “Get those doors closed!”
A protecting ring of guards roughly collapsed on me as they broke for the gate, and I heard the trample of the crowd and the unheeded commands of the guards as I was swallowed by the shadow of the archway. The slamming of the gate killed the din of the hysterical crowd, and the sound of the guards delivering a few feverish blows became a pounding at the gate as they were pinned against thick wood by the doomed mob.
The last gate was now closed; escape via the sea was all that remained to the House of Fayersae.
I shuddered as I was pushed through the short tunnel into the city, knowing that there were many more behind me that had not made it in time. Finishing my errand on foot after I’d ordered my escort to assist the undermanned garrison at the Crossroads had almost been a fatal mistake.
The cluster of guards broke apart when we exited the tunnel, and I stood for a moment and looked out at the harbor crowded with Fayersae longships. An oily black smoke drifted across the water from another quarantine fire that blazed in the lower city, and the setting sun had bloated orange as it dropped to the southern horizon gone red. Reflecting on the wisdom that had seen Fayersae increase their fleet, I knew that if these ships did not sail tonight, by morning my fate would be the same as the crowd outside the city walls. I discarded my cloak and ran to the guardhouse.
“I need a horse,” I commanded, interrupting the confusion of orders as the soldiers were preparing to abandon this gate and move to the harbor.
“Saddle a horse,” a man at the back of the room barked when he saw the Triumon insignia on my jacket.
“Just the horse,” I said.
“Yes, My Lady. Move!” he yelled, pointing to a soldier by the door.
I ran after the man, thankful that a few horses still remained at this post. I leapt atop the animal, and began a hard gallop to the Citadel. The winding streets leading to the hilltop overlooking the harbor were deserted; those that still lived had fled to the wharf and harbor in preparation to evacuate the city. There were no longer any Fayersae soldiers manning the open gate, and the clatter of the horse’s hooves broke the deathly silence as I raced across the bridge.
Laedian was waiting when I rode into the courtyard and jumped from the horse.
“All the messengers left the Crossroads,” I said. “Is your father?” I asked, unable to complete the sentence.
Laedian shook her head, and I followed her as she ran into the Citadel.
We raced across an empty inner courtyard and climbed the twisting stairs to the south tower. The seat of the House of Fayersae was as deserted as the streets surrounding the ancient castle, and the sound of our boots on the cold stone as we ran became an echo of death; the Citadel was now nothing more than an immense mausoleum.
Laedian stopped and stood frozen with indecision when we reached the closed door to her father’s solar. Her hand was trembling when she reached for the latch. She closed it into a tight fist and her shoulders and back straightened as she steeled her nerve. When her hand steadied, she lifted the heavy latch and pushed open the door, its slow swing and creak seemingly mourning the fall of her father, mourning the ruin of a great House. Only the twilight of the setting sun lit the terrace in front of us.
Laedian took a single step into the room, and I brought my hands to my mouth, unable to move across that threshold; the cold decay of the Plague Bringers would consume us if we went any closer. A lone servant, his face white with the sickness, bent over a prone Segan Fayersae, whispering.
“Are you alone, daughter?” Segan’s weak but still proud voice asked.
“Yes, father,” Laedian lied, shaking her head at the servant who spied me standing in the shadow of the doorway. “Your final decree to the Houses has been sent.”
Segan lifted his head slightly.
“Then I name you Laedian Fayersae,” he proclaimed, his voice loud and firm for the last time. “Lead your people to safety, daughter,” he said more weakly.
“I will, father,” Laedian said.
I heard only authority on Laedian’s voice, the power of this simple rite of succession carrying more strength than the emotion of her dying father. The swiftness of our decline and the magnitude of our loss did not diminish her stature as a daughter of Fayersae; I knew that if she failed, we all would fall.
“There are a few more words you must hear before my voice goes silent,” Segan said.
“I am here, father,” Laedian said.
“There is a foretelling, revealed to me by Altan Triumon,” Segan said, struggling to make his voice heard. “Whan the Heye Meynee fallen, sechen constreinen on helen holt laude suthr. When the Houses fall into ruin, seek unity in the hidden land of shadow. By the sunrise, you need to have abandoned these shores.”
I stood a little straighter at the mention of my late uncle Altan Triumon, and I let the words of the old tongue linger in my mind. The translation did not seem accurate to me. I thought Suthr would become South in this usage, but without further context, it was impossible to know. My thoughts were interrupted by Laedian.
“Our newly built longships will have difficulty crossing that distance,” she said.
“Your desperate need will calm the wind and the waves,” Segan said. “We may have long ago abandoned the old God of the Wind, but Altan rekindled one of the ancient fires. It will be enough.”
It was fortunate that I was standing behind Laedian, as I didn’t hide my surprise quickly enough upon hearing that Altan had revealed that secret to Segan. Even though Altan had stood by Segan’s side as counselor for years uncounted, that secret should have been kept with Triumon.
“It is time for you to take a Triumon counselor as well,” Segan said, as if reading my thoughts. “But this advice must be heeded, and heeded well, daughter.”
Laedian glanced over her shoulder at me.
“Go on, father,” she said.
“Triumon’s words serve Triumon,” Segan said. “The truth on their voice will always cover the deceit of the words they choose to keep hidden.”
“I know, father,” she said.
“There is another Triumon secret that you must know,” Segan said.
I held my breath, and waited for him to finish.
“Fysan did not commit the murder so many accused him of; the death, however, was not an accident like I ruled. Also, Fysan is not the illegitimate son of Altan Triumon, and he has no claim to the Triumon throne. Only when Avanian reveals the details of these Triumon lies to you, will you be able to fully trust her counsel.”
I couldn’t see Laedian’s face, and I couldn’t tell if this revelation brought the same shock that I locked away on my face. This was certainly a secret that should have been kept.
“But those affairs will await a brighter day,” Segan said, his voice now barely audible. “It is time for you to lead.”
The room darkened at that pronouncement as the last rays of the setting sun disappeared.
“Goodbye, fair daughter,” Segan whispered. “May the memory of our House’s Ealders guide your steps.”
“Rest forever with the Ealders, father,” Laedian whispered.
She turned away from the dark terrace and rushed past me. With a hard visage of command set upon her brow, she left the Citadel.
The current age of Fayersae rule was ended, and a new one was beginning.
* * *
Fysan stood apart atop a shallow dune at the edge of the forest and the Torn River, watching and listening, his Captain standing beside him. This had been the spot where his longship had come ashore when they had fled the Plague Bringers, and he was surprised the harrowing experience of that crossing invoked so little emotion. Most of the Fayersae longships had landed along this section of the coast, and as he watched Laedian move with a detached authority between the groups assembled on the beach, he knew she was aware of the symbolism of this location.
All the negotiations had been completed, and the final outcome of the peace treaty with the Five Nations of Hauden was foreordained. Laedian let each of the Houses voice their remaining concerns, but Fysan knew that none of their arguments would be persuasive, and he noted how quickly each House reached this same conclusion. As he would have predicted, Westermon continued the debate long after it had become obvious that Laedian would not be swayed.
Fysan looked out to the darkening horizon. All the Fayersae longships were tied and anchored just at the edge of sight, and an overcast sky along with Westermon’s heated words seemed to further darken the water and the mood of many of the white men present. He, however, remained indifferent, choosing to accept Laedian’s decision to burn her fleet as a final precondition to peace imposed by the Five Nations.
If he had been asked, he would have provided different council, and sought a less permanent resolution to the native’s concerns regarding the longships; however, since his opinion had not been solicited, he’d remained silent. He also would have debated the wisdom of the provision that gave the Council Chiefs a dominant voice in the defense of the new Union, but since their red warriors greatly outnumbered Laedian’s white soldiers, he knew that this too had probably been inevitable.
Laedian’s long struggle to unify the red man and the white man had reached fruition. All he hoped was that the preconditions of the new Union wouldn’t just delay the day the Houses finally fell. He would not be part of this Union, he thought, cognizant of the contradiction his decision to leave represented; however, he knew the steps needed to keep the Houses from total ruin required it.
“Are our people ready to leave Ofst?” Fysan asked his Captain, ignoring the last heated words on the beach as Laedian listened, unconvinced.
“The preparations have been quietly made,” the Captain said. “All we await is Laedian’s decree giving the city to the House of Northmon.”
“Avanian will persuade her to do so, tonight, as soon as this treaty with the Five Nations is finalized,” Fysan said. “We will have our pretext to leave the Union. Northmon can die defending that city from the Shotak; Triumon is done dying.”
“Once this treaty is done, our new red allies will turn the tide in our favor,” the Captain said. “Laedian will have the numbers to force a peace on the Shotak.”
“But it will still be a forced peace,” Fysan said. “It doesn’t alter our need to remove ourselves from the discourse of the realm. The death of Altan and the passing of Segan Fayersae were ultimately my undoing. The force of Altan’s will that kept the hatred of the Houses at bay evaporated the day he fell, and all that remains is the Houses’ unending revulsion of me. Laedian has been unable or unwilling to defend my name. You know I can no longer serve the needs of our House openly.”
“And the needs of Fayersae?” the Captain asked.
“There is no distinction between the two,” Fysan said. “Avanian will speak for our House; Fayersae will receive all they require. This arrangement is preferable. Titles mean nothing without trust, and manipulation is impossible without trust.”
The pounding of a lone drum interrupted their conversation.
When the first flicker of flames flared on the horizon, followed by billowing black smoke, Fysan knew the debate on the beach had ended; the entire seafaring fleet of Fayersae started to burn. The final condition imposed by the natives had been met, and the Union of the Houses under Fayersae to the Five Nations of Hauden was done.
They watched Muran Westermon turn and leave the beach in anger, his two cousins falling in beside him, their final pleas having failed to convince Laedian to spare the longships.
“It may be a fragile Union at best,” the Captain said.
“Westermon fails to think beyond their hatred,” Fysan said in a low voice as the three marched past them into the forest. “Does Westermon think dead men can crew those ships? They walk into those trees seeing only burning longships aglow behind them; I look at the same forest and see future longships. Our knowledge to build them anew has not been consumed by those flames, and it will not sink into the cold depths with the ships.”
The sound of Westermon’s haughty retreat from the beach faded, leaving a quiet solemnity as the representatives from the Houses and the Nations watched the bright glow on the horizon.
“I do not presume to understand the native’s subconscious fear of the sea or their need to test our commitment by having us burn our ships,” Fysan said. “However, to continue this war just to keep our ships would have been folly. Too many have died, and our newly built cities now stand virtually empty; there are not enough white men left to survive without the natives. Laedian rightly sought unity from the moment her longship landed here on Hauden, and even though it took many years and many dead to finally form this Union, she has done well. Her father would have been proud.”
“However, I assume many in the Houses are still uncomfortable with Ashaer standing beside her, wearing a Fayersae uniform,” the Captain said.
“Again, blind hatred,” Fysan said. “I might have recommended against his promotion, but I also know that only the Ganien Nation has the strength to bend the other four, and only Ashaer has the strength to lead the Ganien Nation. Laedian’s foresight to have Ashaer standing at her side wearing the Fayersae uniform may save us all.”
* * *
It was a warm spring day when Ashaer and Blonhaft poled their small raft into a narrow fissure that split the bluff along the lower Bon River just south of Kahon. They had been to this part of the river before, but the sharp rocks and the shadows that were cast over the water from the opposite bluff hid the fissure, and they had not seen this opening before. They had expected it to be nothing more than a break in the ragged face of the bluff, but as they disappeared into the dark crevice, they realized that it continued deep into the side of the bluff.
The sliver of light coming in from the river wasn’t enough to dispel the darkness, and as the raft wedged itself into the narrow opening, Blonhaft fumbled to get a lantern lit. After a few missed strikes of his flint, the oil finally took the spark and the wall of darkness was pushed back. Their raft had become stuck between two slabs of rock that blocked the channel, but the water on the other side looked deeper, and the fissure looked to widen at the edge of the lantern’s light.
“How far do you think it goes?” Blonhaft asked.
“Should we swim or lift the raft over these rocks?” Ashaer replied.
Blonhaft sighed. Either one meant getting wet.
“Set the lantern there,” Ashaer said, pointing to a flat spot. “Climb out and help from there. I’ll lift from the bottom.”
He stripped to his loincloth and slid off the back of the raft into the waist deep water.
Blonhaft squeezed onto the narrow ledge and crouched to steady the raft as Ashaer crawled underneath it and pushed it out of the water with his back. Blonhaft ducked before slipping as the dripping bottom of the raft nearly hit him when it banged against the sides of the fissure, and he fell against the slab of rock to keep himself from falling into the water. The raft dropped with a splash, soaking him anyway.
Ashaer swam and pushed the rocking boat back to the ledge as Blonhaft jumped onto it with the lantern. Ashaer climbed up and shook the water off his brown skin before pulling his pants on.
“One of us has to swim again to get back out,” Ashaer said. “I don’t suppose you’ll take your turn in the water now that you’re wet?”
“I’m staying out of the water unless we capsize,” Blonhaft said.
He set the lantern at the front of the raft, and grabbing a pole, he started pushing them farther into the chasm.
They cleared the fissure as the opening to the river disappeared behind them, and the water quickly became so deep that their long poles no longer touched the rocky bottom. They drifted across the inky surface of a hidden lake, but even with the globe of light, they could not see the ceiling or the opposite wall of the chasm. Blonhaft lifted the lantern over his head, but his reach did nothing to illuminate the full size of the cavern.
“I would have gone into the water to discover this,” he whispered, turning a slow circle. “This lake is larger than some harbors I have seen.”
“The white men should never have burned their longships,” Ashaer said, his eyes following the arc of the lantern around the cavern.
Blonhaft lowered the light and looked at the tall Ganien standing next to him. At the insistence of the Five Nations of Hauden, the House of Fayersae had sent their entire fleet to the bottom of the sea to secure the final treaty with the red man. Only after the last charred ship had struck the rocky seafloor, did the Five Nations finally believe the white man’s commitment to make this land their home, and the Union of the Five Nations of Hauden to the House of Fayersae would never endure if seafaring longships were again seen sailing the southern seas.
“None of the natives made that argument before,” Blonhaft said, recalling that Ashaer had stayed silent as well.
“Too many sat at their fires, forgetting the stories of their ancestors,” Ashaer said. “However, not all the old tales have gone unspoken by the Mothers around the Ganien fires. In the old Ganien tongue, there is a prophecy which says: Ronoha Tiwakenonh Tsyowatstakawe; the seagull will be brought home from the sea.”
He took the lantern from Blonhaft’s hand and held it up.
“I would once again see the white man commanding seafaring ships,” he said.
* * *
“You have been living among the white man for so long that you are forgetting your own history, Ashaer. You must try one last time to convince Breanne to stay at Torence,” I said. “She is planning to leave for Kahon tonight, and she will leave to investigate the marsh soon after. We must keep her from traveling to the land between the rivers,” I said, wondering when he was going to make the connection between the disturbances around the marsh and the land between the rivers.
I let him pace away from me to contemplate my plea for a few moments, knowing that one last objection was coming, and I was thankful that he appeared to be reflecting on his history.
The oral traditions of the native tribes on Hauden were rich and varied, and each differed with the needs of the culture; however, when the oldest stories were told to fewer and fewer, they moved from legend to myth, finally slipping into the forgotten past. It was thus that time slowly erased the knowledge of the most important things, as was often the case with oral histories. In fairness, the ancient written history of the white man fared no better when yellow decaying volumes sat gathering dust, unread, in long unused archives, and I knew that in the end, ink and paper succumbed to the same hand of time that silenced oral history.
“But I’ve crossed the land between the rivers, many times,” Ashaer finally said. “There is nothing there. Nobody inhabits that land. It is an empty forsaken place.”
“If a white man walks through the Weltwood, how many Ganien villages might he walk past without seeing them?” I asked.
“That is different,” Ashaer protested.
“How is it different? Can only the Ganien hide in shadow? What stories do the Mothers of the Clans tell of the land between the rivers? Return to your Mothers if you must. Listen to your women,” I implored.
Ashaer grew silent again, and when I saw that he finally began thinking more deeply about the land between the rivers, I nodded my head, satisfied.
I knew bits and pieces of the native myths that referred to the land north of the marsh. The Ganien Mothers honored many of the old ways, and since he was one of only a few who kept the old tongue alive, I hoped that if he were able to recall any of the stories told around the Ganien fires, he would apply a little more pressure on Breanne to prevent her from leaving to investigate the marsh and the surrounding area. I also hoped it might be enough to turn his own attention away from the marsh and back to the Council Chiefs and the war that was coming.
We needed Ashaer to control the Council now more than ever but, sadly, his ability to sway them seemed diminished to the point where his entreaties were no more effective than the rest of ours were. As a native, if Ashaer were unable to convince the Council Chiefs to take the threat from the Shotak seriously, none of the white men were likely to sway them either.
I left him alone in his chamber, and I started climbing the winding stairs to the official Triumon residence, reminded that I too needed to turn my thoughts to matters other than Breanne’s intention to investigate the whispers that were circulating about the marsh and the rivers.
Despite my final plea to Ashaer to keep Breanne from going to Kahon, I knew that he was unlikely to convince her to stay away. I should have been more direct with Ashaer earlier, and my reticence to fully bring him into my confidence had been too subtle, a mistake that there was no longer enough time to undo, especially from Torence.
Reflecting on this, I knew my isolation at Torence was just a personal version of the real problem that bedeviled the Union: we were too few and too dispersed. After our first battles with the natives had ended, each House had tried to reclaim the glory of our abandoned cities on Hamlond; however, all we had really achieved was the building of large empty cities, none of which we were able to defend without aid from the others. I sometimes feared we were nothing more than a paper Union, an illusion to be swept away on the first march to war.
After reaching my quarters, I went to my balcony overlooking the South Sea, and standing in the cool evening air, I watched the bloated sun slip slowly into the fiery water to end the autumnal equinox. Autumn was the beginning of the wet season in Torence, and heavy gray clouds were rolling in from the east bringing more rain, and the short cry of gulls greeted the dusk.
As expected, I watched Breanne leave Torence via the harbor gate and ride down the beach. She would ride to the Torn River before angling into the forest, and after crossing the Bess, she would finish her ride to Kahon. My hope that Ashaer would have been able to keep her from returning to Kahon was gone as it appeared that he had no more influence over her than I did.
Blonhaft awaited her arrival at Kahon, and even though Ashaer had asked him to assist us in keeping Breanne out of the marsh, I knew Blonhaft had even less influence over her than I did. Like the sun that had just slipped into the sea, I knew she would slip through my fingers once she forded the Bess.
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