Book 1 Chapter 1

Chapter 1

….. The last rays of daylight shone through the colorfully paned glass window, illuminating the image of man in armor being knighted by an elderly priest. A young page lit a lantern hanging from the stone wall and quietly left the chamber. At the far end of the room was a single desk of dark mahogany behind which sat a stoic man with grey touching the edges of his black moustache. His dark blue tabard displayed the sword of Thamor thrust downwards through two golden circlets. He paid little attention to the woman who addressed him.
….. Alianna stood with her arms at her side, her fingers plucking the seams of her white gown. She was keenly aware of her youthfulness as she stood before him, and she imagined that he was not impressed at all by her priestly vestments. Trying to keep herself calm, she spoke, “Captain Geld, thank you for taking the time to see me again.” This was now the third time she had come to see him in as many days, and she was as nervous now as she was the first time. She waited for a reply but the Knight-Captain only dipped his quill in the ink vial and went back to his writing, “Three days ago I asked you for news of my brother. You had none and since then I too have heard nothing. I fear that he may be in grave danger.” She waited again, but he only continued to sign off on the ledgers piled on his desk. “My Lord, how much longer must he go missing before you will send men to search for him?”
….. Captain Geld finally looked up, setting his pen down, “Lady Alianna,” his deep voice echoed in the chamber, “it has been less than two weeks since your brother was expected back. I have some men overdo by three months now, and no rescue party has been sent for them.” He set down his quill and leaned back, sighing through his nose, “Do not think that your position within the church will afford your brother special treatment.”
….. “You know I would never expect such, Captain,” she said, her alabaster cheeks flushing with indignation, “but certainly your duty calls you to protect those under your charge. My brother, after all, was sent to the ruins of Karthain at your command.”
….. “Do not speak to me of duty, priestess.” He stood, his one wooden leg making dull thumps as he rounded the desk, “A knight’s duty is to obey, no matter the cost, be it life or limb. Your brother knew that and you would serve him better to remember it yourself.” He stopped just in front of her, staring down at her over his gnarled nose. She often forgot how beautiful she was until men looked at her so closely. She crossed her arms, though her priestly vestments hid her figure well. His brow furrowed with a look of a man insulted, but looked her directly in the eye, “Certainly, I will not bear the guilt of Sir Aradin’s death alone, if he does not return.”
….. Alianna’s voice caught in her throat. She lowered her head, her wavy black hair hiding her face. He was right, of course; her brother would never have left if she hadn’t brought that scroll to the Order in the first place. She knew he would want to seek such a holy relic, but she had imagined he would be part of a well armed troop with at least one or two more knights. Certainly such a relic might even catch the interest of a Knight-Captain. The knights were always seeking glorious quests. “No, Captain Geld, but it was not I who sent him alone into the forest of Metanmyr. You know as well as anyone the evil that lurks there in.’ He nodded and looked away. Steeling herself, she asked the question she’d been burning to ask, “Why Captain? Why did you send him alone?” Why had her brother been sent on such a mission without aid, when there were so many other men ready to risk their lives on such a quest?
….. “You said it yourself, my Lady,” he turned back towards his desk, “I am responsible for the safety of all men under my charge. I wouldn’t have allowed Aradin to go if had thought I could stop him. He's a stubborn as you. No, I will not send other men to certain death to pull him from his own folly.”
….. “Then I must go,” she said, swallowing the fear that threatened to well up at the thought.
….. A sharp scoff told her what he thought of that, “The Mother of the House of the Dawn has given you her permission to leave on such a quest?” The tilt of his head said he knew the answer, she didn’t need bother lie about it.
….. “I have not yet asked her,” she said, “but a good man’s life is in danger, my own brother, and I may be able to help. Certainly that will be enough to convince her.” It was unlikely though. Priestesses of Reahnyn were sworn to passivity and that definitely precluded wandering around some cursed ruins in a gods-forsaken forest. “Though,” she continued, “If I could tell her that the Knights of Thamor are sending even one Knight as an escort, then it may sway her mind even more.”
….. “My Lady, even if I would risk the life of one of my own men, I would not risk yours.” He pulled out his heavy oak chair and raised his voice, “Sir Bartal!”
The chamber door opened and a tall young knight with a broad face and crimson hair stepped in. “Yes Knight-Captain?” he said in a baritone voice.
“You will escort Lady Luran back to her temple,” the captain said with a certain finality that told her the conversation was done. He sat heavily in his seat and picked up his quill once again.
….. “Yes sir,” the knight said, holding the door for her.
….. Alianna took a deep breath and calmed herself. Wrapping her pale blue shawl over her shoulders, she turned towards the door, and cast a weary expression towards Bartal; a momentary break in her normally serene composure. He avoided her gaze, though, dropping his cool blue eyes to the floor. He knew the Knight-Captain had refused her once again.
….. They stepped into a long hallway with high arched ceilings, and he closed the door quietly. Picking up his helmet from where it sat on the bench, Bartal gave her a smooth bow, “My Lady, we should be leaving now if we are to return you to your temple before dusk.”
….. She nodded and began down the passage towards the doors at the far end. They walked in silence, save the sound of the knight’s steel plated armor rattling over his chain mail. Passing through the arched doorway, they stepped into a broad courtyard of smooth blue-grey granite, with green fields flanking. The yard was huge and encircled by tall stone walls. Here hundreds of men were training to be knights. Alianna spoke, “It seems so many years ago that you and my brother trained upon these fields.”
….. Bartal cast a glance towards the men. “Not all that many,” he replied, but in truth the hopefuls seemed younger every year. Most were nobles, who had entered into the Order as pages, and worked hard to be chosen as squires. This was a right granted by noble birth, but it guaranteed them little beyond that. They had to compete with everyone else to be accepted as Novitiates. Many of those training today were soldiers and some were acolytes in the priesthood. Anyone who demonstrated both an incredible faith and a strong sword arm could be tested. Few became Novitiates, but many hundreds tried every year. Bartal’s father had not been wealthy, though he had often worked for the Duke of Tharthin. Bartal had not entered as a page, but despite this he was chosen as a squire by a friend of his father’s, a rare favor indeed. For him, it meant that he spent most of his early years proving his worth to others.
….. Alianna’s family, though, was distantly related to Duke Moarlind and her father was a well known Lord of the Holy Crown. Though they had a large manor outside of the city, she and her brother had grown up in the church. Her brother was sent to be a page at the age of seven, and she didn’t see him again for years. When she was twelve her mother had her dedicated to the Priestesses of Reahnyn, and she went to the nunnery, also in Tharthin. Thereafter they rarely saw their parents, but Aradin, by then a young man, went out of his way to visit her whenever possible. He watched over her and was the only real family she knew outside the Temple. Now he was gone, and it was her fault, or so she felt.
….. As they passed through the outer gates, bells rang out the sixth arm. Alianna cast her eyes back at the bell tower that rose high above the cathedral, a pillar of stone lavishly adorned with marble statues of armored devanic figures bearing golden swords, horns and spears; their great wings spread out above them proudly. The entire Temple Complex was as ornate. Much of the inner chambers were gilded in gold, with walls and ceilings painted with elaborate scenes of the gods performing divine acts. It was a striking contrast to the Temple of the Holy Dawn which, though it had its own solemn beauty, was stark and humble.
A carriage awaited her here; an old man holding the reigns of two tired looking drafts. Alianna turned to look up at her tall escort. She wasn’t short, but her eyes barely reached the nape of his neck. “Sir Draegnaut, you are an honorable man, and I know you to be a good friend to my brother. He spoke well of you often. The Knight-Captain will not put forth a command; that is clearer now than ever before. I am left with no choice but to find someway to aid my brother on my own. The danger will be great, and I will need to find men who would not fear to put their lives at risk. I don’t want to hire mercenaries. They couldn’t be trusted, even if I could find some foolish enough to go.” She dropped her head and it seemed a wave of grief washed over her. She looked into his eyes again, tears glistening in her dark pools, “Sir Bartal, you are a Knight of the Holy Lance. Certainly you have the freedom to go where you will. Please, will you help me? If not for me, for Aradin, if you are truly his friend.”
….. Bartal’s jaw tightened and once again he had to look away from those eyes. He sighed, grumbling something to himself under his breath, then sighed again and spoke, “Lady Luran, Priestess…”, he seemed to be searching for words, “I…I only wish I could. I’m sorry Alianna, but my duty is to the Order first. Captain Geld has given me strict orders. I am assigned to the Royal Palace.” He rushed to explain, “There are emissaries, you see, and the Duke’s son. Their guards are stretched thin, and they need more men. Men they can trust. It will only be a few…”
….. She cut him off, “Thank you, I’m sure it’s understandable. You have your duty and your orders.” He was Aradin’s friend, but even that couldn’t overcome his sense of duty. These fool men cared more for their orders than they did for each other. She struggled up the stairs onto the carriage, “I’m sure my driver can bring me to the temple safely, you may go now.”
….. Bartal realized she was angry with him. “Forgive me, please,” he said as he climbed on board behind her, the wagon visibly lowering on that side, “My orders were to escort you to your temple. I will ride there with you, if you do not object.” He had to move his sword and shield to fit his legs in.
….. She nodded, “If you must,” and waved her driver on. The wagon lurched as the reigns cracked, setting the horses in motion. Their heavy hooves echoed in the courtyard as the wagon began down the cobblestone road. Alianna sat quietly, watching the tall houses pass by as they moved out of the temple grounds and into the wealthy eastern heights. It was a long ride to her own temple. Bartal was also quiet; running his hand over his thin scarlet beard. They passed the Fortress of the Silver Shield, which housed the Knights of the Holy Shield, the most pious of the orders of Thamor. Lord Luran, their father, had been a Knight-Captain of the Holy Shield before he was elevated into the Order of the Holy Crown, in direct service to the High Lord of the Holy Crown.
….. “My Lady,” Bartal asked, “how fares your father these days?”
….. She adjusted her skirt and tried a smile, “Camus treats him well. His victory at LeNaun has brought him much fame, I think. Mother wrote last month, saying they had been invited to a feast with the King and he has already become well acquainted with many of the nobles in the grand city. It seems he has taken to his new title with the same fervor he showed under the General here in Tharthin.”
….. “He is a man of great character, a true leader.” Bartal had served under him in defense of the J’miran city, and she could tell he respected him. “He led a decisive victory when everyone else thought the city would be lost.”
….. She nodded and a shadow of sorrow passed over her face once more, “I know, hundreds died and thousands more suffered to hold on to that piece of land.” Of course she didn’t approve. She had sworn an oath of pacifism when she joined the priesthood, and she held to those ideals with great conviction. To her any violent death was a wasted life, and that morale high ground often put her in contention with her father.
They fell into an uncomfortable silence. Bartal seemed about to speak from time to time, but aparently lost the words. They contented themselves to watching the crowd for any sign of trouble.

….. As they crossed a broad intersection into the common district, Bartal caught sight of the Duke’s castle, rising above the surrounding city from atop its high green hill. He would report to the guard-captain come morning. He sighed. It was against his nature to defy orders, but for the first time the thought seriously crossed his mind.

  • * *

….. Caliburn, the Castle of the Duke of Tharthin, rose above the surrounding city from atop its high green hill. The last rays of amber daylight glistened on its western towers as church bells rang out the seventh arm. It was Rhein, the season of renewal, and the days were growing long again. Most of the fishing fleets were coming into the northern harbor, bilges bursting with fresh bluegills, while a few night flyers were casting out for the Bay of Brynlinia hoping for a fair catch of their own. The city streets bustled with men covered in chalky dirt coming home from a long day in the silver mines, while others set out for a hard night’s work. The south-end markets were alive with the cries of merchants and the rattle of coin. The scent of fresh breads and spit-roasted hens wafted in the warm breeze, mingling with the sweet pollens of the beech and chestnuts that grew in the orchards a few miles southwest of the city walls. Carriages rattled over cobblestones as they ported wealthy lords and ladies from their lavish manors in the eastern heights to evening performances at the many theatres that marked the dodgy end of Southwall. No one minded coming to that filthy corner of the city for a little entertainment; it kept the unsavory kinds off the pristine central avenues. Lanterneers walked the slate sidewalks igniting oil lamps, while Ladies of Jana lit their own lamps to hang in the windows - letting both poor miners and rich aristocrats know that they were open for business.
….. A ruckus was carried over the rooftops from the western sprawls as a clutch of young men kicked a hardened leather ball around a small dirt lot, just one of many games that the children of the city played. The houses in this quarter were packed so close that many of the streets were too narrow for a carriage to pass through, and some of the pontalbas were as many as four stories high with families of six to a room. Tharthin wasn’t a poor city, but it was crowded; and it was home to as many fools as entrepeneurs.
….. Standing on a stone terraced balcony, Kalthanan Korianthil surveyed the city from one of Caliburn’s highest towers. The room behind him was gilded from floor to ceiling, decorated in the finest art from the far corners of Verosia, and filled with gaudy furniture; a chamber reserved for the most esteemed and royal guests. He shook his head. Humans would throw anything together and call it art. The fact was, Kalthanan wasn’t a denizen of this city at all. He was a Gelvani prince of Mirvia, sent here by his mother the Quel’Thena, their queen, to honor the birth of Duke Albert Moarlind’s first son, Aldrich. The day had been spent in merriment, lavishing the Duke with gifts. Kalthanan had brought gifts of the finest Gelvani make; shimmering silks, a gilded harp, a gracefully curved bow and a golden sul’lanyr, a light blade forged by a master smith, for the boy to wield in his youth. All meant to show his people’s commitment to the ages-old allegiance between the Moarik peoples of Rona and the Que’Gelvani, and to confirm Queen Korianthil’s intent to honor this pact when the Duke’s son stepped into his place. This was a ritual performed with each new heir to Tharthin, since the time when Kalthanan’s grandmother had first established this alliance over eight hundred years ago. At that time a different human family sat on the throne and Tharthin had been a power in its own right. Now, though, the great kingdom of Rona ruled over all of Verosia, the King’s Way connected all the realms, and the Triumverate dictated the governance of every duchy. The Moarlinds had risen to power only a century ago, when Kalthanan was just a boy. Aralon, his elder brother, had been sent when the first Duke Moarlind’s heir was born. Now House Korianthil only sent its third child, just a son, a far cry from the honor their ancestor received, but the humans wouldn’t know that. Of course, prince Korianthil wasn’t the only emissary honoring the birth of young Aldrech this day. The Duke of J’Admir had sent his nephew with the gift of a grand caravel for the boy to sail the seas, which the J’mir were so well known for. The Lord and Lady of Silverport had been in the city all week, wooing the Duke with fancy clothes and “exotic Gelvani jewelry”. They had been more than chagrined to learn that an actual Gelvani Prince was arriving. The Duervar of Tharaduum had sent a famed hero, Baim Baldorock, to bring an ornamented shield studded with rare stones from deep within the mountain mines, as well as a keg of their finest Duervan ale.
….. It had been a truly magnificent feast, but Kalthanan was tired of all the pomp and circumstance. Though born to royalty, he didn’t care for all the formality of courtly life. His eyes perused the city streets, and what he saw was an adventure just waiting to happen. Tonight there would be another feast, but he had other plans. Just then a flock of rock doves lit from their perch and circled the tower. He watched them spiral in the air, dancing on the breeze, and then fly in unison towards another tower in the distance. Dozens of wizard's towers and church steeples pierced the horizon as black silhouettes against the sunset, reminding him of the elegant spires and beautiful tree tops of his homeland, Mirvia. He was eager to leave, to go, but not ready to go home. He quickly swept up his cloak, girded on his swords, and slipped out the door.

  • * *

….. The caravan made its way eastwards along the King’s Way, wooden wheels treading over the broad smooth paving stones. There were over twenty wagons in all, and almost all had come up from Acari, a trade city to the southeast, bordering the desert of Vas-Meknor. Most carried goods to trade in the Tharthin markets: Mikanian spices and stoneware; clay pottery and ox hides from the nomadic tribes; palm nuts, linen, papyrus, and lentils from the fields that encircle the great Oasis of Jural; and even Kamoran ropes, gold vessels, and ornate jewelry. Leading the train was a large black wagon bound in iron bracings and guarded by twelve well-armed men riding regal steeds. It carried a horde worth more than any other merchant’s entire business; a fortune in Mikanian diamonds, dug from deep pit mines and brought to Tharthin to be polished, cleaned, cut and set in jewelry for resale.
….. Khazid rode as a passenger on one of these wagons. He too was Mikanian, slightly short with earthy skin and long curly black hair, kept up in a simple tan turban. His features were chiseled, refined, and his green eyes shone from behind his dark brow. He may have been called handsome by some, but his astute attention to details preceded anything that may have been personable about him. Thin stubble marked his age to be in his early twenties, but he was a man wise beyond youth. Khazid watched the horizon intently. They were passing through hilly pastures and farm lands, like most of the Duchy of Moar. To his knowledge Moar was in the north heavily agrarian and spotted with numerous villages and towns. To the south and west, though, was a vast swath of dark forest, bordering the Tharaduum, and broken only by the less traveled Southern Road. Beyond that were the dark fold lands, where some of the most ancient of the Moarik tribes still lived in a way much as they had for the past two thousand years. To the Southeast was the savannahs that bordered the desert, and at their cusp laid Acari. Tharthin was at heart of the north, bordering the Bay of Brynlinia and close to the mouth of the Sylvarin River. It had been a long journey from Kal-Mikan, slow going by caravan, but safer than traveling alone. It had been three moons since he set out, but finally his destination was in sight. The golden towers of Tharthin rose into view over the tall parapets of the grey stone walls. Even from here the Duke's castle was visible high above the city as a silhouette against the crimson sunset. Anxiously he began stowing his scrolls, ink and quills.
….. “Anozer arm or so yet mein lord,” said the driver. He was Moarik, though coming from Acari dulled his accent. Most of the horse-traders were men of the countryside and could barely speak the King’s Tongue.
….. Khazid paid him no heed, continuing to pack the few items he had out. From behind came the thunder of hooves on stone. Shouts from the other wagons told them to move aside and the driver followed suit, slowly pulling the wagon to the edge of the soft soil alongside the road. Khazid clenched his jaw in frustration at the delay. The din of horses grew louder, and a host of knights in full plate armor came into view. All wore the blue tabards of the Thamorian Order, with the white blade down turned through a golden ring. Their tall dark destriers were decked in steel barding and their caparisons bore the same holy symbol. Only their leader, a Knight-Captain of the Holy Crown, was dressed differently. He wore a white tabard, and his symbol bore two golden rings pierced by a golden blade. Each man also had a fine shield, adorned with the coat of arms that represented his family. They rode by at a fast trot, their heavy mail and arms clamoring as they passed. A couple raised their hands in a friendly salute, and some of the spectators responded with cheers and applause. The Knights of Thamor quickly passed, riding on to their temple hall in the city.
….. The caravan was soon on its way again, with Khazid anxiously waiting. The road eventually approached the south wall and then turned north towards the huge gates that opened into the city. The Golden Cavaliers loomed over them as they entered. A magnificent statue of two mounted knights, carved from a single block of gold-sand-stone, their horses rearing and their lances crossing, forming an arch over the gate. Rising above the wall the lance points became flag poles, and from one waved the green and silver flag of Tharthin, and above the other flew the red and gold flag of Rona. The gates themselves were reinforced timbers that opened outwards towards the countryside. The gatehouse was nearly twenty feet deep, with two portcullises providing additional protection from siege attacks. As their wagon rolled out of the shadows and into the amber glow of dusk he was greeted by the smells and sounds of the city. Kal-Mikan and Tharthin were nothing alike, but the musty stench of civilization clung to the air just the same, mixed with the sweet odors of fresh breads and roasting meats. Still, there was a strange saltiness to the air he couldn’t identify, that seemed to cut the stench and yet carry its own hint of decay. The wagons pushed slowly through the crowds of men ambling through the streets. They passerbys were covered in a grey dust as they trudged into the city. Khazid had seen this before; the diamond miners of Kal-Mikan bore that look perpetually. Most of them lived in or near the deep diamond pits, but these Tharthin men had a home and family to look forwards to each night, or at least a warm tavern and a stout ale. They finally pierced the throng and entered a huge market square. A small fountain marked its center, but the grey stoned yard was so wide that an entire circus could set up here. Some of the wagons ahead of them had already pulled down side roads to unload goods to shops whose back doors faced the alleys. Others had pressed on, seeking wealthier venues. The armored wagon was surely headed to the Temple Stores of Artagerus, god of wealth and merchants. Khazid’s wagon finally pulled to a stop outside a large four story building built onto a corner of two major streets. A large wooden sign hung over a side entrance; carved and painted, it depicted a traveler mounted on a horse but surrounded by dancing ladies, musicians, monks proffering ale, and a fat cook lifting a roasted pig on a platter. Above it in large red letters it said, “The Journeyman’s Waylay”, and below it, in smaller letters, it said, “A Traveler’s Respite” and displayed an icon of a bed. Many of the members of the caravan were heading here for a night’s rest. The main entrance to the building was a large wooden door facing the corner of the streets flanked by blazing oil lamps and a heavy brass bell hung beside it. Above this was another sign, also carved by the same artist, but this one depicted a dwarf, as humans called the Duervar, swimming in a huge glass of ale, his axe and shield sunk to the bottom, and the froth pouring over the sides. In large red letters above it said, “The Drunken Dwarf” and below it said, “Eat, Drink and be Merry” and displayed an icon of a mug and plate. Already a boisterous noise could be heard coming from the tavern, and as the door opened up for more to enter, a few stumbled out and wandered crookedly down the street singing incoherently in disharmony.
….. “Vell, this's it, ze best room and board in za town mein lord,” said the scrawny driver of their wagon, as he stuck his hand out. Khazid pulled the promised silvers from his pocket and set them in the man’s calloused palm. He grinned, offered his thanks, and wandered into the tavern to right the wrongs of sobriety.
….. Khazid avoided the tavern, instead turning towards the Inn. Opening the door he saw a woman coming towards the Inn, so he stopped to hold it for her. He took the opportunity to scan the streets, and concentrated on each face he found suspicious. Once he was sure there wasn’t anyone pursuing him, and the lady had entered he stepped in. A few steps descended into a small room with a tall desk and a couple oil lamps illuminating the place. Behind the desk was a wall full of cubicles in which were kept the keys. A set of stairs to the left of the desk led up into the halls. Beneath the paned glass windows that faced into this room from the street, was a wide bench with a warm cushion. He considered sitting there for now, but just then a tall balding man in a brown pants and vest over a white cotton shirt came down a hall on the right side of the desk.
….. “Sorry about that, a couple fools just arrived to drop off some Mikanian goods and didn’t know where to unload it.” The surly old man stepped up behind the desk and smiled a half-toothed grin that sported a few silver fillings, “Now, what can I do ya for?” He was much easier to understand, having a distinctly Ronan accent, even if his speach was that of a commoner.
….. “A place to rest, and a good warm meal is all I need.” Khazid said as he set down a piece of platinum. The man nodded and dropped it in the lock box beside him. He handed him a registry, which Khazid promptly signed and returned in exchange for a key.
….. “Have you a horse to bed?” asked the inn-keeper.
….. “No, it will only be me tonight,” he said sarcastically.
….. The inn-keeper smirked and pointed him to the first door along the hall, from which laughter and music could be heard, “You can show your key and get yerself something good and warm there. When yer ready to call it a night, yer room’s on the third floor, the second door on the right.”
….. Khazid slung his shoulder pack on and approached the door. The red letters read, “The Drunken Dwarf”. He sighed and pushed in, the sounds of the tavern and the smells of ale, mead and hot food permeated the air. He resigned himself to studying in the morning and went in to find a seat and a bit to eat.

  • * *

Claero leaned against one of the tall stone pillars lining the long hallway. She had a natural beauty, typical of all Gelvani, with long radiant golden hair that she kept knotted behind her sharply tapered ears in an intricate weave. Her eyes were a dark green and her skin was milky white with a touch of honey. She was thin, shapely, and supple, making her appear deceptively weak. The other guards stood near the arched openings that overlooked the gardens below. Each wore their Val’Nathour, the prestigious armor of the Royal Mirivian Guard. The long shirt of finely meshed silvery-steel links was worn over a white silk shirt with lacey cuffs and collar. They also wore a matching set of leather guard –cuirass, greaves, bracers, and epaulettes- elaborately adorned with the regalia of House Korianthil. Each wore a sheathed eol’lanyr, the long bladed swords of Gelvani make. They had tall thin shields strapped to their backs where they could be reached if needed.
Claero slammed her hard leather sole on the stone floor, bringing her men to a quick attention, and stepped towards the stairwell. The armor fit her snuggly, but aside from the golden cape with the blue knots of a captain on the shoulder, she was dressed the same as her men. Just then Kalthanan Korianthil strode down the stairs. A quick look told Claero that the prince had chosen elegant, if simple, attire for the occasion. His doublet was made of silk, the color of a fawn's newborn coat, and as he approached her she noticed subtle, intricate patterns embroidered in the same hue, so as to be visible only when light fell on them. His trousers were made of soft, light-brown leather and were tucked into boots of similar material. A sash of silver fabric was wrapped around his waist along with an intricate sword belt, from which were sheathed his two eol'lanyr. The elaborately decorated hand guards, typical of Gelvani artistry, betrayed only a few marks, though the worn and stained leather hilts showed well enough how often he had used his swords. As he adjusted the thick waves of his silver-white hair, which barely touched his low collar, Claero's eyes caught the only ornamentation the prince affected: his family's royal signet—the symbol of his station. Kalthanan noticed her look and smiled back at her playfully, his piercing blue eyes sparkling with mirth. He was handsome even by his race's standards. He was naturally bronzed which was not common amongst their kind and he was blessed with noble features; a thin face with a strong chin, high cheekbones and sharp eyes. He complemented these not with stiff regal bearing, but with the gracefulness of an elegant dancer and the casual and self-confident stride of a warrior. He probably thought she was admiring his beauty, instead of measuring his attire. Kalthanan approached his retinue and nodded cordially to each of his men in turn before standing before Claero, a smile still on his face. He was taller than most Gelvani, nearing six feet; at least six inches taller than his appointed guard-captain. Claero narrowed her eyes, clearly annoyed that she had to look up to him, and the fact that he found this humorous only served to infuriate her more.
“Thanor Korianthil,” Claero said using the proper Gelvani term for a prince, “the carriage you called for awaits us. Might I advise, though…”
“Lead the way Claero” he said interrupting her, and not nearly as formal as she.
That grated on her nerves. She had worked hard for the title of Keltanya and she deserved to be referred by it. He was only born into his title and she was required to use it. Clicking her heel to the ground, her men fell in around him and she led them down the corridor toward the courtyard. “Might I advise, if you will allow, my Thanor, that it is a dangerous city, Tharthin, and exploring its streets at this waning hour seems to be asking for trouble. The queen would want you to be preparing for the journey home, now that your duty here is done.”
“My duty, Claero, is done when I say it is. What kind of ambassador would I be if I only visited the local lord?” Kalthanan smiled dashingly at a maid as they passed by. Her eyes flew wide and she rushed past with a blush on her face. He often had the same reaction on courtesans. “Besides, I grow weary of these stone walls.”
Claero couldn’t deny that the castle felt like a tomb to her as well. Gelvani towers were bright and airy places, compared to these dark dank castles that humans built. They passed the castle guards at the entry hall and stepped out into a broad green courtyard outside the keep. The setting sun cast long shadows from the tall towers and walls. Numerous carriages were riding up the long drive that encircled the yard, guests arriving from all over the city for tonight’s feast. The clopping of hooves filled the air and the scent of roast mutton and veal poured out of the adjacent kitchens. Guards were changing duty now, men in green and silver tabards over shining banded mail handed off their tall halberds in a short ceremony to other men dressed in the same attire. A single carriage waited at the foot of the stairs, and Kalthanan strode towards it. Claero had to double step to keep up and she barely reached it before him. Interjecting herself, she opened the door and climbed in. Kalthanan sighed as he waited. A moment later she climbed out and held the door, “The carriage is safe my Thanor.”
Kalthanan shook his head as he climbed into the plush carriage. The seats were cushioned and the floors and walls covered in a rich red velvet. Claero climbed in with him, as well as Tellian, another of his guard. The other two guards took places on the carraige, one at the front and the other at the rear. Four white steeds, Moarik draught horses, were lashed to the shaft and dressed with feathery crests and bells. The driver, one of the Duke’s, snapped the reigns and the carriage set out. It followed the road out of the castle and down the narrow road that twisted its way around the hill, through rows of blooming dogwoods and flowering bushes. Passing through the gate at the lower-wall, they entered the city proper. Here, just outside the castle, were churches and temples to the greatest of Ronan gods; Thamor and Reahnyn, Kaladon and Kharthamus. From there they turned southwards, and made a gradual descent into the busiest part of the city.
The streets of Tharthin were just as crowded at dusk as they were by day. Fortunately, the main road they took was designed for wagons and carriages and the crowds stayed to the sides of the street, knowing they would likely be trampled if they didn’t. Kalthanan watched the passer-byes in the failing light. It was hard for him to focus on anything in particular as the warm glow of day began to mingle with the blue shadows of night. Still he could see the many people, rich, poor, noble and common, carrying on their daily duties. Shops were closing down and public dining-halls were bustling with patrons. The majority of the buildings had high gabled rooves with elaborate trim work. The walls were covered in white stucco, leaving only the brown support beams visible in crisscrossing patterns, and the windows had milky paned glass. Many such buildings were packed tightly together, while a few had substantial surrounding acreage with gardens and trees, usually behind a low stone wall.
The carriage passed a tall structure of dark stone with six towering pillars holding aloft an angular overhang. Merchants rushed into the gated entrance, past stoic men bearing crossbows and shields, under the watchful eyes of a stern looking statue of the god Artagerus, patron of trade and wealth. They would be depositing their day’s earnings, and exchanging any foreign coin for the common Ronan Gold Nobles. A large black wagon surrounded by a heavy guard pulled up and began unloading. Claero noticed Kalthanan check his belt pouch, it was full. She grew concerned as the carriage continued south, passing many streets that would have turned them towards the wealthy Eastern-Heights, “We are visiting a noble, you said, correct?”
“Yes, a noble.” Kalthanan smirked as he watched the street through the carriage window.
Claero’s eyes narrowed. She could always tell when the prince was hiding something, “and this noble lives this close to Southwall?”
“I never said we were meeting him at his home,” he countered, “and besides, we’re closer to the Gate of the Golden Cavaliers.” They entered a large market area and the carriage pulled up to a four story building of the same white stucco design. The sky was growing darker now, and only the tip of the roof was touched by light. The streets were already lit by pools of amber from the tall iron lamps. Hawkers were finally pulling their carts out of the streets and the shops were all closed. A long line of wagons was lined up outside the building, with a few armed men in studded leather walking the line. It appeared to be a caravan stopped here for the night. Kalthanan climbed out of the carriage and handed the driver a few extra gold, saying in the common Verosian tongue, “I may be a while, but keep ready.” Then to his guard he said in Gelvani, “stay with him Nerrelis. Noble’s carriages make plum targets for greedy thieves in a place like this.” Claero huffed in agitation as she swung down from the carriage. Kalthanan gave her his best innocent grin and offered her his arm. She scowled in return, but he only shrugged and walked towards the building. He approached the large wooden door that faced the market from the corner of the building. Two oil lamps to either side of the door illuminated the entrance and above the door a painted wood sign swung in the breeze. It depicted a Duervar swimming in a huge glass of frothy ale. You didn’t need either to know what this place was, though. The boisterous sound of laughing men and cackling women filled the streets on either side, and behind the murky glass of the windows the light danced with the shadows of people within. Somehow over this din you could still hear the minstrels playing their jovial tune.
“The Drunken Dwarf?” Claero read the big letters scrolled across the sign with a clear incredulity. “My Thanor, a tavern is no place for Gelvani royalty. As captain of your guard it is my duty to assure your safety. I insist that you return to the Duke’s Castle at once!” She tried to step in his way, but he quickly opened the door. The noise within poured out of the tavern with a thick sweet smoke and the smell of bitter ale.
“Call me Kalthanan. After all, you're off duty, as are your men,” and with a gleam of mirth in his eyes he was in before she could say another word. Claero glowered at the door in anger, but caught it just before it shut and followed him in. The other two guards smiled at each other and stepped in behind her.

  • * *

The din of conversation and the occasional burst of laughter competed with the rich notes of a mandolin and the constant beat of a bodhrain. Tables of polished oak were packed with the local rabble, chairs creaking on uneven floor boards. Clay mugs rattled as buxom barmaids tried to carry four to a hand over the heads of patrons, ale sloshing as they dodged groping hands. More than half of this motley crowd was local merchants and miners, willing to pay the extra copper for an exciting atmosphere, but the others were travelers and vagabonds from all walks of life. Large wrought iron chandeliers hung from chains, casting their warm orange glow over the crowd. To the far right Kalthanan spotted the bar; long, high and filled with a crowd of men. There was hardly a place to sit in the whole tavern; the few free seats were at a card game, which could quickly empty a man’s pocket. Seeing an open stool at the bar, Kalthanan made his way towards it through the crowd. Behind him Claero asked the pardon of the many strange men as she had to push her way past, some making inappropriate comments. Most here knew to keep their hands off a well armed woman. As they moved through the crowd he saw the expressions of surprise on the faces of many and heard the word “elf” muttered under the breath of not more than a few. He had never liked the slang word used for Gelvani, and he hoped none of his men would take offense. It was understandable. These people had likely never seen one of his race in their lifetime, let alone four of them entering their tavern. The Gelvani almost never left their homelands, and those who did rarely patronized human drinking halls. He realized with that thought that he was guilty of doing the same, as human was just a slang for Duneimen, not that any here likley knew the ancient name for their own race.
Kalthanan took a seat and the barkeep, a burly man with a shining bald head and heavily stained smock, offered him a broad smile and asked him what he’d have from behind the bar. If the man was surprised to see a Gelvani he hid it well, but by the looks of this place nothing would surprise him. Kalthanan ordered mead, one of the few hard drinks made here that was close to Gelvani wines, and surveyed the room. Many here wore armor, swords and axes still strapped to their belt or baldric. At least three Duervar sat amongst the crowd, as well as an extraordinarily tall man with ruddy dark skin. Two men in odd robes were likely wizards, the human name for shamorans. Claero stood close behind Kalthanan and his other two men were still by the door, looking as out of place as a pair of orcs at an Albhan Rhean festival, dressed all in silks and flowers to honor the new spring. He laughed at the thought and searched the crowd for the Duervar he was seeking.
A rough voice broke above the din, from a throng surrounding a table at the heart of the room, “so right then I hears this loud scream from o’er the hill. I turn back and there’s me brother runnin’ towards me carryin’ this huge egg over his head. ‘By Balderak’s Beard!’ I yelled, ‘put that thing back Dain!’ But ‘afore he can get a word out, dis huge wyavar comes up an o’er the hill and snatches him up in its claws. The egg goes flyin’ outa his hands, and the thing picks it up in its great maw and starts flyin’ away! ‘Hold on lad!’ I yelled and hefted out me trusty crossbow. Now, I be knowin’ I could not’a kill the thing, or even fell it with a single bolt, but I gots to do somethin’ before it be too far away. So, I took me aim and fired me shot. The bolt goes a’ soarin’ through tha air, right under me brother’s kickin’ feet and straight into the wood line.” The crowd around the storyteller moaned in concern. “He’s done fer, a sure, I be thinking.” Kalthanan stood up and made his way over as the deep voice went on with the story, “As it turns out, though, a great Roc, one a dem der huge raptors, was restin’ in those woods and my bolt sure ‘nuf hit it! The giant thing leaps up with a deafenin’ screach, and as it comes up out of the wood it slams straight into the wyavar!” The crowd roared with laughter. Kalthanan slipped through and got a look at the man speaking. “Well, the wyavar didn’t like tha’ none too much and starts clawing at this bird that’s twice its size.” The black bearded dwarf was leaning back in his chair, boots up on the table, splashing ale out of a mug in one hand and flourishing his axe in the other. “Of course, it drops Dain, who goes down like a sack a ‘taters, vanishin’ into the tree line with a mighty crack!” The crowd groaned in sympathetic pain. “So I goes runnin’ in dar, followin’ me brother’s calls fer help, and I comes up on this sprawlin’ web coverin’ many a tree; and there’s Dain stuck like a fly in the middle of this spider’s nest. Now, Dain’s too stupid to be afraid a most things, but spiders are a one thing that’ll send him running like a halflin’ from a hungry ogre, and here comes dis giant, furry, eight legged monstrosity climbing towards him across tha web.” A barmaid caught up in the story let out an eek as she imagined the nasty arachnid. “’Stop yer thrashin,’ I yells to Dain, but his wits done left him long way back and he’s just a squirmin’ like a worm on a hook. I aint got no other choice I figures, so I grab ahold a one a dem thick ropes of sticky web and start shakin’ it as hard as I can. When the thing turns to me I shoot it in one of its beady eyes with my second crossbow, and it comes at me. Heftin’ up me axe I took off one of its mandibles as it fell upon me. We goes rollin’ o’er the ground, its great legs wrappin’ round me and my axe hackin’ into its hard armor. A couple times it gets a good bite into me left arm, but I finally put my axe into its head and twisted that ugly ole face in twain!” The crowd cheered, clapping, “I cuts me brother down and as we headin’ outa da wood, I asks him, ‘Dain, what were ya thinkin’?’ I swear, he looks me straight in the eyes and says, ‘Well, wyavar eggs make good eatin’ ya know.’” Laughter carried over the crowd, “but that’s not all. As we gets back into the clearin’, there’s the wyavar, dead on the ground, and by the gods there’s the egg, not a single crack! So, we cracked it open and fried it up, and you know what? Dain was right, wyavar eggs do make good eatin’!” That was it, the crowd roared with laughter, and the dwarf joined them, followed by a long swig from his mug, leaving a frothy mess on his whiskers.
Kalthanan was just about to speak up when another voice cut in, “Might I ask,” a strangely robed man said with an odd accent, “is a wyavar related to a wyvern?”
“What was that?” the dwarf looked up with confusion.
Khazid, dressed in his dark brown robe and tan turban, stood across the table, “The wyavar you mentioned, it sounded like a wyvern. Was it, or perhaps a related species? I’ve studied Wyverns, you see, and I’ve never heard of a wyvern nesting in a forest. They prefer to nest on mountain cliffs or rocky outcroppings.”
“Wyavar is wyvern, young man, and if I say it was then it was.” he said with a growl “Where you be from lad? You speak funny.”
Khazid made a strange formal bow, “I am Khazid…. of Kal’Mikan in Vas’Meknor. I don’t mean to offend. I only thought perhaps it was a cousin of the wyvern, a species I had not yet heard of yet. Is it not true that some of your kind actually tame and fly wyverns?”
Baim looked at Khazid suspiciously, “That be the Bormdravar, of the hills. I’m of the Duumdravar, mountain folk.” He took another swig of his ale, “Yer a wizard, aint ya?”
Khazid’s jaw tightened and his smile faltered, “What if I am, dwarf?” His use of the common slang given to duervar could have been taken offensively, given his tone, but before the dwarf could say something Kalthanan stepped in.
Slapping Khazid on the shoulder as if he knew him, Kalthanan gave a charming grin and said, “Nevermind him friend, Baim Baldorock has never taken kindly to anyone second guessing one of his stories!”
“Kalthanan Korianthil!” the dwarf laughed heartily and kicked his boots off the table. “Grab a seat lad,” he shouted, kicking a chair out. “I was wonderin’ when you’d be showin’ that ugly face a yers. You missed good drinkin’ time!”
Kalthanan returned the laugh as he took his seat. The crowd around them began to disperse and Claero stepped in giving him a quick look that told him to make it quick. “This is Claero,” he said with a smirk, and slid another chair out for her, “have a seat Claero.” Claero narrowed her eyes like a falcon targeting a field mouse, but said nothing, instead taking a seat beside him.
Khazid began to turn away but Baim spoke up, “Hold it there, I’m not lettin’ ya off that easy Mikanian. Grab a seat. You at least owe me a drink for interrupting my story.”
Khazid considered for a moment and decided to give it a chance. After all, when else would he have the opportunity to converse with both a duervar and a gelvani at the same time, “I accept your offer, but seeing as how I did not actually interrupt your story, I don’t believe I owe you a drink.” He pulled out a chair, hung his heavy leather satchel over it and sat at the table.
“Fair ‘nuf. By the looks a ya, yas probably couldn’t afford it no ways. Poor boy can’t even afford a proper set a clothes!” He laughed aloud again and slammed his mug on the table, throwing what was left of the drink all over himself, “Wench! My mug’s empty! This place is called The Drunken Dwarf, you could at least live up to the name!”
About that time the minstrels began a livelier tune and a J’miran Horn joined in the ensemble. One of the barmaids got up on stage and sang along in a sweet and clear voice. Some in the crowd began to dance and others clapped along.
The crowd stayed late and the tavern was noisy and boisterous for many arms into the night. No one noticed a young woman enter, covered in a heavy dark cloak. She made her way through the crowd and found a seat in a corner, where she could see the door. While she waited she watched the crowd, listening to the tales the people told each other, but mostly she watched the door, waiting and worrying. Aradin never came through it, though, and when the clock towers struck the ninth arm, Alianna stood and approached the bartender. As she had done so many nights before, she asked him to give her note to her brother if he returned, and she left for her temple before the doors were closed for the evening.

Book 1, Chapter 2

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