By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

The Summit

The trio left Northspire quite early, and rode long in silence. The farewells had been brief, as most had been said the night before. Laranna was buttoned up tight as a clam, and had no words for Jacob whatever. Jaselle had given only a brief hug, and the empty promise that all would be alright. Apparently, hugs were socially acceptable among different genders in Travan, for Lady Adelin had offered the same, though she seemed oddly intense and sad. Lord Northspire had only bid them a courteous farewell and mentioned that he would see them soon.

The day was gray, casting a pall on the stony surroundings, and threatening a rain that so far had not materialized. The road was quiet with only three travelers on it. They had shrunken from a party to a few friends riding over dirt and stone. Athena was still reserved, less cold or angry than introverted, and so Jacob found himself riding near Daniel.

“How are you holding up, Daniel?” he asked, his horse next to the young man’s. Athena remained close behind, trying to stay ahead of the dust.

“I’m alright, Jacob. I’m not the one who’s about to pick a fight with someone who calls himself a god. I have to admit, though. I’m a little jealous. You seemed pretty popular at Northspire, and you’d been there barely a week.”

Jacob rolled his eyes, but tone was an amused one. “Fame is fickle. It’s harder to live with people than to make an impression and leave. You’re not still jealous because you couldn’t catch Jaselle’s eyes, are you? Don’t you think one pretty girl making eyes at you is enough for a single adventure? Or are you over Anginette already?”

Daniel raise his hands defensively. “Hey, you had two women interested: I’m only trying to keep up. No, I haven’t given up on Anginette quite yet, but what do I have to offer her, really? Maybe I should just be grateful for a spring crush.”

“As I keep explaining, Jaselle was just being friendly, and looking after her sister. For the rest, that’s up to you, Daniel, but there’s a reason I took you with me on my morning shopping in Northspire. You have an eye for art as well as gems. You’re still learning to be assertive with merchants, but I think you have it in you. You could travel with Thaddeus up to Thane’s place a couple times a year. Once we get rid of Innoken, that should work well for Ironwood. Interested?”

Daniel’s grin was almost too wide for his face. “Well, damn. Yes, of course, Jacob. That would be wonderful, and not just to see a girl. If you want me along, of course.”

“Why didn’t you ask, then?” Jacob replied with a wink. “I think you’d be good at it, if you want to be. Who did you think was ever going to figure out you had the aptitude? My father? Thaddeus? Ceann? How do you expect people to believe in you if you won’t believe in yourself? You need to speak up. I think this will be a good opportunity for you, but you’ve got to grab it with both hands.”

“Jacob’s right,” Athena added. “A little assertiveness goes a long way. And don’t give up on getting the girl. It looked to me like Anginette really likes you, and unlike Jacob, you’re free to follow up on that. And don’t worry so much, Jacob was busy moping about his own life before we dragged him out to save Ironwood.”

“He was?” Daniel asked, startled.

“Sure,” Athena said, starting to imitate Jacob’s voice, as best as hers would allow. “Oh, how can I marry Anna when I don’t even know her? She’s beautiful, and rich, and wants to have my babies - it’s so awful. Yes, I’ll have to live in a mansion in a city, but I might not get to choose the mansion. They don’t appreciate how great I am with a sword, and Daddy won’t let me have my own team, either. Oh, my life is so terrible. Please, cheer me up, Athena.”

Jacob started to cover his face in his hands, but chuckled despite himself. “Yikes, who is that guy?”

“You’ve grown up a bit, Jacob,” Athena admitted. “Not that you’re mature just yet, of course. Did you really have to beat the pants off of all the men in Northspire just to show off the size of your own, um, self-worth? Then it’s all, why won’t Laranna follow me around like a puppy even though I’m not sure I want her? And Jaselle can’t possibly have a crush on me, because that might be inconvenient, and then I might feel guilty.”

“Of course,” the terror of Northspire laughed painfully. “Glad I have you to set me straight, then.”

“What are friends for?” Athena replied.

“I’ve missed that,” Daniel said. “It was hard with you being so angry at Jacob for no reason.”

“All of my moods have reasons, even if you fail to see them,” Athena replied loftily.

“And none of them have to do with your best friend getting distracted by a girl, right when he’s about to go off and try to save everyone, and you’re afraid of losing him?” Jacob asked.

“You think you’re so smart,” Athena complained.

“Not as much as all that. Laranna’s smarter than I am, for one,” Jacob admitted.

“She does have good judgment. After all, she’s pissed at you, but she still likes me. She even invited me to come back and be her bodyguard. Maybe you’re just afraid she’s right about you?”

“Ouch,” Jacob said.

“That might be a bit much,” Daniel agreed.

“Sorry,” Athena said, suddenly contrite. “Even I go too far sometimes, I guess. Of course, I’m afraid of losing you, even when it’s nice to finally be treated as a real person by someone besides you and Thaddeus. Even Ceann turned out to be a fresh breath of swamp gas. I do have to say, Daniel, you’ve been great, though. It’s good to add someone else to that list. Friends?”

“Friends,” the men replied, then rode together in a silence that had grown much more comfortable.

Since Jacob had been in no mood for sparring, the other two took to practicing with the bow while Jacob made dinner. Athena was a little rusty, having lost most of the required callouses. Daniel must have gotten some practice in at Northspire, because he hadn’t seemed to suffer much. The trio camped at the spot Laranna had pointed out on the way from Talyk, and even broke out a bit of wine Jacob had bought for the occasion. They hadn’t quite gotten roaring drunk, but they did have enough to take a bit of the sting out of the march towards the Summit, along with various other worries and losses.

Jacob still seemed to need less sleep than he once had, so Daniel had long been snoring when Athena temporarily gave up on laying restlessly alone in her tent, and joined Jacob in looking into the fire. He still sipped from his own wineskin.

“I’m sure I’ll hate myself for asking,” Athena started, at least most of the slur gone from her voice, “but how are you doing, Jacob? Really?”

“I’m not sure,” Jacob said, staring into the fire, then forced a chuckle. “I’m not sure I should say, either, after you skewered my whining so thoroughly earlier today.”

“Consider my lips sealed, then, with unbreakable wax,” Athena replied cleverly. “I try to only bring that out when you’re ready to hear it, when you’ve moved on. I thought you had. It’s like toasting old friends.”

“You have some strange friends, then,” Jacob noted.

“I wouldn’t have any other kind,” Athena replied. “I wouldn’t fit in.”

“Was Laranna right?” Jacob asked, unable to bear any longer not asking. “Was I that much of a fool about her, or her sister? Because I was trying to be open, and honorable, and friendly. Where did I go wrong? How did I end up hurting Laranna so much? Why did I give in and kiss her? And Jaselle, why does everyone think something inappropriate was happening there? Is there something wrong with me?”

Athena sighed, and put her arm around Jacob, squeezing his shoulder. “You have such an idealistic way of looking at people, what’s right or wrong. You’ve got all this strategy about every damned thing under Heaven, but that goes out the window when you see a person you care about. You don’t think about what’s going to happen: you think about what should. I love that in you, because otherwise you would have left me to be alone, long ago.

Look, Jaselle is wise beyond her years, but she’s young, and hopeful, and I think you’re just her type. Of course she has a crush on you, but you were unavailable twice over, and so she’s handling it just fine. Better than you have a right to expect, given how many men have passed her over for her sister. Lucky for you.

Laranna, on the other hand, had a really bad season, and you swooped in and knocked her off her feet. Completely. She really is head over heels for you, and despite the nonsense coming out of your mouth, she realized you had strong feelings for her too. You buried them from yourself, but everyone else could see them plain as day, streaming out of your eyes and ears and everything. Sorry, drank a little too much, I think. But after all the guys she’s kicked to the moat, she doesn’t really understand why you won’t do that with Anna, when you and she would be so great together.

In her mind, asking her to be a friend is too unfair for words. She’s too smart to blame you, but she does anyway, because she’s practically drowning right now, and she has to blame someone. Being a great friend to her and working your way in with her family was just too much, too rotten. She’s gonna have a hard time ever forgiving you, she loves you so much.”

“That’s kind of crazy,” Jacob said. “Keep in mind, Jaselle’s only like three years younger than you. But I guess I was asking too much of both of them, especially Laranna. I really should have given her more space.”

“You think?” Athena retorted. “Still, that’s love for you. I suppose you were expecting her to be like yourself, all full of self-denial”.

Jacob shook his head. “That apparently didn’t work for me, either. No, actually I was expecting her to be like you, Arianna.”

“That’s a high bar,” the tall blond laughed. “But what makes you think I don’t just do whatever the hell I want? That’s what everyone else thinks.”

“No, Arianna,” Jacob replied, taking a swig of wine, and then raising a single finger to point at her. “You’re one of the strongest people I know. I see how carefully you plan your swagger, how cautiously you decide what you can get away with, what mask is wild enough to hide behind. And as long as you’ve been playing that game, after Talyk, most of that false swagger was gone, because Laranna liked the real you. Almost as much as I liked her. Or you. Sorry, this wine is going to my head too. Anyway, were you jealous?”

Athena sighed. “I had no right to be jealous, but yeah, I think I was. Not at you finding a girl: I’ve wanted that for years. I’ll only have a problem with Anna if she’s not good for you, for example. No, the problem was I finally saw someone you wanted to be your best friend. Especially since I lost my husband Daglin, and that name’s still hard to say, we’ve been best friends. That’s a hard thing for a girl to lose, especially after a whole town ups and spits on her. I have to admit, I liked the way you used to look at me, when you were still an infatuated teen.”

Jacob laughed. “Even though we both realized that was the quickest way to get you exiled and me chained to a desk for life? You were the one smart enough to tell me so. No use cheating, you said: everyone gets caught eventually. It was a blessing when you found Daglin, and I’ve had a long time to get over you. I was pretty young, then. No, that was never going to work. I’m glad we have this instead.”

“It’s a good relationship. Can you blame me then,” Athena asked, “for being afraid of losing it? You admit yourself that Innoken’s probably going to kill you.”

“Do you think I want that? Do I have any other choice? Look, I may not be showing it, but I’m terrified. I may be a bit more confident lately about some things, but I’m still scared to death of doing this alone, especially after blowing things with Laranna and probably Northspire too. I need your help, more than ever. I need to know I’m not crazy.”

Athena poked him in the ribs. “Sorry, you are crazy, but you’re the right kind of crazy. It’ll be alright, even if you die. Is that what you want to hear? Your friends, your family, me, the stupid town that I only love anymore because you do, they’ll all go on because you’re doing this. You’re doing the right thing, and it will work, and I’ve got your back. Better?”

“I love it when you lie to me, Arianna,” Jacob said, wistfully.

“I love you,” Athena said, giving him a squeeze, “better than anyone who can sleep with you. Because that’s the kind of crazy we are.”

The rest of the trip had gone as well as the rain would allow, for the clouds had finally burst open sometime in the middle of the night, and not let up since. Talyk had been much less notable on the second approach, in the miserable weather. Jacob was just happy to be back indoors in the warehouse. Usually, as summer approached, the kitchen was too hot to be considered pleasant, but Jacob was more than happy for the heat radiating from the stove, warming his mood. The stew was especially welcome, for breakfast had been cold and wet.

As cozy as the meal was, Lord Erik was not cheered by it. He sat picking at his food, though beside him, Francis was wolfing it down hungrily. Athena and Daniel, other other hand, were as ravenous as Jacob.

“So,” the heir to Ironwood began, “I’m glad you’re back safely, but were not Lady Laranna and Lord Northspire to return with you? I have been wracking my brain, and Francis’s, but the more we talk, the less convinced I am that there is any political solution to our problem. I don’t see how Travan can put enough pressure on a Sorcerer to keep him from leveling Ironwood, or why they would even try. Even if some other leader of Travan, unlike Count Ervallyn, was willing to believe in such threats. I was rather hoping Northspire would show up and teach me differently.”

“Oh,” Jacob replied, then swallowed a tender piece of beef. “I had some plans in that area. The crux is that I have to go kill Innoken. I just need a little help getting into the security council meeting of the Summit to challenge him to a fight.”

“I thought we talked about this,” Francis replied impatiently. “You can’t hurt him.”

“And I thought,” Jacob said, “a blade poisoned with Two-Step would do the job. It’s absorbed through the skin, so I only have to hit him once. And if he hardens his skin so it’s not absorbed right away, he’ll probably still keel over once I’m dead, as long as he doesn’t know what I’m planning.”

“I see,” Francis replied. “You know I can’t support this.”

“I know,” Jacob replied softly, “but I’m glad you think it will work.”

The Sorcerer was silent, and so Lord Erik spoke up. “That is a frankly incredible idea, Jacob, and I am amazed even you have the gall to suggest dueling and poisoning a man who could turn his skin to stone. Still, there are other problems. Where do you get the poison? Who will sponsor you into the Security Council meeting? How are you going to avoid getting killed just for breaking the peace and threatening Innoken?”

“Mostly solved. I’ve already got the poison,” Jacob replied, “and Lord Northspire will sponsor me. I just need a member to second, and I was hoping the Count could be convinced. I don’t think anyone will be concerned with me, once I bait Innoken into speaking his piece.”

“Ervallyn may be difficult to convince,” Francis said. “Though I suppose you feel you must try.”

“That seems to be the way of it,” Jacob shrugged.

“Are you sure about this, Jacob?” Lord Erik asked. “I would give anything to save Ironwood, but I won’t have you throw your life away. The risk is too high.”

“Why would God have given me my abilities, if not for this?” Jacob replied. “It’s what I’m meant to do.”

“Why do you make this hard, Jacob?” Athena complained. “I don’t suppose while you’re talking about poison, you could just walk by and poke him in the back? Maybe drop something in his drink? Of course not. Stupid honor. And not even honest, since you still plan to poison him.”

“It’s not stupid,” Jacob replied, as convincingly as he could. “Honest civilizations grow, back-stabbing ones weaken. What kind of world is it when you don’t know your enemies, when there is no place of truce where words are more sacred than weapons? Innoken will die, but as honestly as I can afford. He may not believe my sword will bite, but no one can claim I hid my intent.”

“Sounds like a great reason to get yourself killed,” Athena replied flatly, rolling her eyes. Erik bit his lip, but said nothing.

Jacob waited for what seemed like hours in a small sitting room, with wood panels and barely any decorations. Travanian aesthetics, at least outside of Northspire, were going to take some time to get used to. His brother sat beside him, seemingly much more at ease. He resisted talking, however. Was Jacob the only one who sought conversation when he got nervous? After a relatively small number of eternities, his host finally appeared. Jacob was almost positive the wait was contrived, that the Count had been off somewhere reading, or making conversation with his wife. It wasn’t a good sign.

“Count Ervallyn,” Lord Erik said, “it’s always a pleasure to see you.”

“Yourself as well,” the Count replied, “though I must admit I find some of your more recent fantasies a little disturbing. First you bring a monk here, and talk of magic swordsmen and a threat to Ironwood. Now you want me to support you at the Summit? How can I do so, with no more evidence that Ironwood is threatened than the admissions of a man your brother was about to kill?”

“Lord Count Ervallyn,” Jacob began, “the fact that we were attacked is supporting evidence, as are the threats from Serren, Innoken’s right-hand man. Even Laranna’s kidnapping and the attempt on her life support the notion that Sarronen is up to something. We just want to air our grievances, in an appropriate place, before trouble spreads.”

“Even if you were right, what do you expect can be done? Simply ask Sarronen to go home? Or are you going to kill Haldor, or Innoken?” Ervallyn asked, laughing.

Maybe so, Jacob’s expression read, his face flat and unmoving. Ervallyn raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you are planning to murder him? I thought you said these Sorcerers are invincible.”

The young Lord of Ironwood shrugged. “They’re vulnerable to poisons, such as the one used on Laranna, if they don’t expect them. But like I said, I only want to confront Innoken, see if I can put some pressure on him to stay away from Ironwood.”

“I do understand, but you won’t be using my reputation do it,” Ervallyn replied. “I am sympathetic to your fears, of course. However, I find them unsupported by the evidence. I don’t suppose you have other business to discuss? No? Unfortunately, I am quite busy today in preparation for the Summit, and so I must wish a good day to you both.”

“Good day, then, Lord Ervallyn. Until we speak again,” Erik replied, with all the dignity he could muster.

The brothers walked in silence until they passed the gate of the keep. “That’s going to make things difficult,” Jacob muttered.

“You’re not planning on sneaking in, or breaking down the door, are you?” Erik asked. “I have to draw the line somewhere.”

“No,” Jacob sighed, “but if Innoken goes home, Ironwood goes up in flames. If you left now, you might be able to sneak by and warn everyone to leave. Maybe.”

“I have to admit, that’s starting to sound better as time passes,” Erik mused, “Father would not believe any messenger but us. He might not believe us, either. I suppose if the Summit fails, we might try it. Unfortunately, we might have to go around Clan territory completely, and that could take months.”

“Is there anyone else you know who has the authority to invite us to the Summit Council, that might be persuaded to let us speak?” Jacob asked.

Lord Erik shook his head uncertainly. “The Duke of Danryk? Count Haran? Chief Andurik of the Kulls? At least it would be in his interest to let us speak. But none of them are close to Ironwood, and none owe us a favor. As well ask the Empress herself.”

“Then there’s nothing to do but show up, and look for an opportunity,” Jacob replied woodenly.

“I don’t like it,” the older Ironwood said.

Jacob snorted. “As if it mattered, what we liked. But we will go, and do what we can.”

Traveling with a dozen men to a days-long international function was ponderous. It took two days to pack, and Erik had started the process days before. The Captain and two others remained behind to maintain the warehouse, watch most of the wagons, and disburse goods. Erik readied a single large wagon to carry most of his men and their possessions, as well as some samples for trade. He spent much of his time preparing them, as well as the notes, ledgers, and proposals he still meant to present at the trade session.

On the other hand, Francis, Jacob, Athena, and Daniel elected to return on the horses they rode from Ironwood. This meant Jacob had days to wander around with Daniel and Athena, selling goods they picked up from Northspire. Jacob, optimistically, even picked up a few things he thought would do well at home. He spent much of the rest of his time with the Sorcerer, Francis, in the hopes the older man would be able to help him with what he would soon face.

They spent hours together sparring, getting used to the idiosyncrasies of fighting at very high speeds. For example, much of combat was about footwork. Hands and legs could move quickly, but most of their strength came from the positioning of the body, and the center of the body was difficult to move quickly. An increase in strength and reflexes didn’t change those rules, but redoubled them. The motion of the body downward or side-wise was limited not just by strength, but the earth’s pull. Even a Sorcerer couldn’t break into a run in a single step. On the other hand, a Sorcerer could swing harder with just an extended arm than most men could with their whole bodies. The consequences of those changes were new and strange, and both men were enjoying the process of discovering them.

High-speed sparring was exhausting, however, and even Jacob’s endurance was limited. After an hour or so, he had to stop. He tried to use the time to question Francis about Sorcerers, Heaven, the Spirit World, or their plans for Annaria. Unfortunately, Francis wasn’t willing to share much, pointing out that Jacob had chosen another path, and that Heaven kept its secrets close. He was, however, very amused to hear of Jacob’s adventures in Northspire.

“Jacob,” he said, “remember that this is your life. Do what makes your soul strong, even at the cost of your life, and you won’t regret it. You are right to fear self-indulgence. Though few good men have no vices whatsoever, they can weaken you. But be careful of the difference between self-indulgence and offering your soul to men and institutions that do not deserve it.”

Jacob grinned. “I’m not sure what the means. What would you have done differently?”

“That is not what matters,” Francis replied, eyes twinkling. “What matters is doing what is right, in a way you can be at peace with. How can you do that, if you are tossed around by contradictory duties? Choose the purpose you will serve, and give yourself to it fully.”

“Isn’t that a great way to become someone really awful?” Jacob asked.

“It is possible,” Francis admitted, “if you choose the wrong purpose, one that puts you in unnecessary conflict with others. That does not sound like you. Keep in mind that the best part of the mission of Heaven is to nurture souls, to teach them to grow without conflict. I believe in that part wholeheartedly. From what I have seen, you have given yourself to protecting others, and so you are on a good path.

Also, regarding Heaven: do not be bitter that we cannot save everyone. Believe me, I would if I could, and so would Thomas.”

“I know,” Jacob replied sadly. “I just wish I understood.”

“Don’t we all,” Francis agreed.

Jacob had been a little awed by Talyk, even after multiple visits. It was a small city, but its keep could be seen for miles, and its walls were designed to repel a siege from the days of the Kharshe of old. They were built to face tens of thousands of screaming warriors with ropes, ladders, and battering rams, who had swarmed countless less-defended settlements. The men and women who had rebuilt Talyk wanted to be prepared.

Haran’s battlements put Talyk to shame. Where Talyk had been rebuilt to withstand the remnants of the Kharshe people, Haran pre-dated the original Talyk. It had been built against a much older enemy, a once-mighty northern kingdom called Orrellon, and it had never fallen against any foe.

Though Orrellon had succumbed to the economic charms of Miraka, later to be overrun by the Kharshe and lost to history, it had once been host to a fierce warrior people, tall and clever in siege-craft. Haran had been forged as a bulwark against this fearsome enemy before even the rise of Miraka, its seven-towered castle built on a high hill to warn against encroaching Orrellians. Three concentric walls were later raised to surrounded it. The outer barrier, nearly a hundred feet high, thirty wide, and thick with towers and murder holes, was raised from stone by thousands of slaves to protect the keep. The deep quarries before the fortress now acted as an immense, jagged outer moat. While Danryk reputedly rivaled its impenetrability, Haran was by far the most awesome wholly man-made fortress in the known world.

Haran’s military nature and hilly surroundings limited its population to less than Talyk’s, and by long tradition, a third of the land inside the wall was given over to agriculture, that its people might not starve in a siege. Its huge cisterns collected rainwater, which in times of peace was used for bathing and irrigation, though the Danryk river flowed directly to the south. Even its rooftops were used to grow herbs and vegetables, reflecting its desperate history, surrounded for decades without respite by the Kharshe.

Surrounding Haran, now, were hundreds of guests streaming in from across Travan, from Kull lands, from Caerdann, from the Viken, from the Kharshe nomads to the South, from the Chaorin to the southeast, and from Sarronen. Nearly a hundred years ago, Travan’s push against the various Clans has begun to slow, and the Clans had sued for peace. Since that time, the leaders of lands near Travan met in Haran with with the Emperor (or Empress) of Travan every other year, in a great Summit dedicated to peace and order. Over time, the event had grown to include more of the great nobles of each country, and their retinues. It had also broadened in purpose, encompassing legal and trade concerns, athletic competitions, and all manners of entertainment. Jugglers, rope-walkers, knife-throwers, poets, and musicians all plied their trades there. Ironwood might not have rated a diplomatic invite to the Great Council, but was always welcomed to the general party.

“It is good to be back,” Erik noted to Jacob, as his wagon made its way slowly through the crowded network of roads outside the city towards their customary spot. The city proper could not fit a fraction of the merchants and revelers that came to its gates, and so during the Summit, the city doubled in size from its normal, more reserved, appearance. Erik often wondered that the growth was so temporary, that Talyk retained its role as the trade center of northern Travan, but it had been that way for decades.

“It is quite a show,” Jacob agreed, skirting between jugglers and a less reputable sort of entertainers. “We need to be on the lookout, though. I expect the Northspire contingent to come in this way, and I don’t want to miss them. Ervallyn is already inside.”

“I would guess,” Erik replied, “that we will not see them for another day or so. You left Northspire at least two days before they did.”

“Then you have guessed wrong,” Jacob corrected his brother. “I see the banner of Northspire off to the west. Their delegation came on horseback rather than in wagons, and overtook us. Excuse me while I catch up with them. The Earl and his daughter most likely have lodging within the city walls, while we are stuck out here.”

The elder brother shook his head, and motioned Athena in the distance to come over. “No, I don’t believe I have met the Earl, and it is past time I had the pleasure. Kenley can oversee pitching the tent. Athena and I will go with you.”

It took only a few minutes to cross the field to meet the Earl. The tall, sandy-haired man cut an impressive feature in his pale blue amfantha doublet. Laranna rode beside him, in a matching blue cloak, eyes cloudy and expression reserved. The Earl Joranthan’s expression lightened to see Jacob, and he gestured in welcome. “Hello, Lord Jacob, and Athena. I am glad to find you here so easily. I had feared it would take hours to pick you out of the crowd. And you must be Lord Erik Ironwood? I have heard good things about you, my lord.”

Athena nodded, and gave Laranna a wink, who shook her head slightly, but summoned a smile for her friend.

“Likewise, my Lord,” Erik greeted the Earl. “It is refreshing to finally meet you face to face. Jacob has been complimentary, of course, but your reputation proceeds you in Talyk, all to the good.”

“Then my reputation is better than I deserve, and I am grateful,” the Earl replied. “I would speak longer, but we have been long on the road, and I need to register with Lord Genturo Haran soon if we are to get the rooms I reserved in the Blue Guest Wing. It would be best if we spoke there, this evening. From what Jacob tells me, you and I have much to discuss. I hope you three will be there, though you can bring another person or two if there is anyone else you feel should join us.”

“I had hoped to be able to persuade Count Talyk to support Ironwood’s petition to speak,” Erik replied, “but I was unsuccessful. I am currently looking for alternative allies, but it will probably only be us three.”

“Hopefully I can help you there,” Northspire replied with a frown, “but I can make no promises. Nothing is free in Travan, unfortunately.”

“And yet you have been most generous, my Lord,” Jacob noted. “We thank you.”

Joranthan smiled warmly. “After your actions on behalf of my daughter and the cause of peace, we have been well repaid. I also wish you well in your cause. After all, I have some understanding of what you face, and Laranna and I have long worked to improve relations with our neighbors. It would be a tragedy to see that work undone. We will do what we can.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Jacob replied.

“Until this evening, then.”

Maragon was the greatest city Jacob had ever seen. The first time he had walked its streets, he had been ten years old. Its immense stone walls had been gaily painted. Its broad streets had been packed to the brim with street sellers, entertainers, and more shops than a boy had been able to imagine. Everywhere there were brightly colored fabrics, women in rich and sparkling dresses, guardsmen in shimmering steel with wicked pikes, and more breads and sweets than surely existed in any other place on earth. The gem-encrusted palaces crafted of pale green and rose-colored marble were breathtaking, and in the center was the King’s seat, an immense castle topped with an gold-leafed dome. It was an experience the son of Ironwood would never forget.

Haran was nowhere near as grand. Erik had assured him that even Travan could not compare with Maragon’s size, its wealth, or its beauty. He could believe it. However, Haran was older, and Jacob could feel the strength in its bones. The worn cobblestones slowly yielding to moss and clover, and the stone-hewn homes and shops were all several centuries old, at the youngest. The homes were cramped in the walled city, their trapezoidal shapes unlike anything built in Travan. There was little color, except flowers, and the red hair of some of the locals. The men and women who lived here were tall and tended towards freckles, though some were as fair and dark-haired as Laranna. They were a stubborn people, quiet among outsiders, and had centuries ago been almost a separate race from their brethren who had resettled most of Travan. Among them, the Easterners, the Kulls, and most of the rest of the Travanians seemed out of place.

It took some time wandering through the winding streets to find the guest rooms where Northspire would be staying. They were not in what normally passed for the richer part of town, but instead in the western edge of the city, which had for nearly a century been reserved for the purpose. Some of the minor landowners resented that, despite the money the Summit brought to the town. He had never heard that the Empress of Travan had lost sleep over it.

Francis squinted against the sun, then gestured to a street on the left where the sun had begun to bake the remnants of the spring moss. “We just need to crest that hill. It will only take a couple minutes to the complex. The Earl’s room should be near the end.”

Lord Erik walked just behind. “Thank you for coming, Bro- Francis. I do not know what to title you, though your insight will be invaluable.”

The former monk walked slowly up the hill, limping slightly. His short salt-and pepper hair blew about in the wind, combining with his untrimmed beard to make him appear even more disheveled than usual as he answered. “Francis, Brother Francis, Sorcerer, or friend: any will do. St. Thomas suggests that leaders of the Church of Heaven be be called Magisters. Perhaps in a year, you might call me that. For now, I prefer Francis.”

As he crested the ridge, Erik noted Laranna, deep blue dress offsetting her raven hair. She was a pretty enough girl, despite her prominent nose. Still, he wasn’t quite sure what Jacob saw in her: by his own taste, she was rather lacking in curves. To be fair, not every woman could match the charm and beauty of his own wife, Liliana, and everyone had their own preference. But if you liked a thin, petite woman with fine features, Anna was more fetching. Laranna didn’t seem particularly sweet or witty, either. She was clever enough, he supposed, but that was not so rare a trait. By accounts, most who had sought Laranna’s hand were actually after her land, and yet he would swear Jacob was smitten with the girl. Of course, his brother had rescued her. Maybe Jacob just wanted someone to look up to him. In the end, it didn’t matter. If they returned home, Jacob would marry Anna. He trusted his brother’s judgment that much.

Of course, that was enough of musing on inconsequential things. It was time for Erik to show some courtesy. “Greetings, my Lady Laranna. It is a pleasure to see you again. Is Lord Joranthan available?”

The Lady Laranna curtsied gracefully, and then gestured to the door. “It is good to see you, my Lord. The Scions of Ironwood are always welcome among us. Please, come in. I have refreshments waiting, including a freshly opened cask of Danryk’s finest white wine.”

Perhaps Erik had been too quick to judge his hostess. The poor girl had been under no little pressure when he had last seen her, after all. “Thank you. If this is the courtesy of Northspire, then Ironwood has been too long absent from its borders, my Lady.”

The Lady bowed her head in acknowledgment. “It is nothing. Please, enter. However, with your leave, I have a few words to say to Jacob before I join you. There are glasses on the table. Markos will pour.”

Erik smiled internally. So that was why she had been outside waiting for them. She must know that Jacob was spoken for, but sometimes the heart did not listen. Still, the street was a public place, and so her request seemed harmless enough. “As you wish, my Lady. I will wait inside.”

Jacob waited while the others went in, though Athena gave him a wink and Laranna a short embrace before stepping into the building. At that moment, intelligent thought left him, and all he could think to say, was “Good day, my Lady. I hope you are well.”

Laranna brushed a strand of windblown hair from before her pale blue eyes, and forced a smile. I have spent days planning every second of this conversation, in every possible variation. Now all I can see is his blue eyes, and all I can think is how weak he’s made me. Stupid, Laranna: you are better than this. “I - uh, you too, my Lord. Jacob, what I wanted to say to you is - shit!”

Laranna lunged forward past Jacob to where another man had suddenly appeared. She chopped hard down upon the stranger’s forearm with her palm, then thrust him away with both hands.

Jacob’s eyes widened, and then almost instantly his face went slack as he spun upon his heel, where an assailant struggled to bring his dagger back up to bear. A second lunged for Laranna from behind with his own wetly glimmering dagger.

In the face of danger, Jacob’s perception changed, and he had all the time in the world to survey his attackers. Both were pale, tall, and dark-haired: Travanians. For the moment, the one behind Laranna was more dangerous. Jacob’s own sword has been sealed within its scabbard as he entered the City, in honor of the Queen’s peace. Any who drew weapon upon another during the Summit did so on pain of death, but these two would-be killers had clearly intended to do their deed and melt into the shadows. Jacob needed to handle this quickly, and unarmed. He could do that.

Jacob took a single step forward towards the grimacing Travanian behind Laranna, and punched him, hard, in the center of the breastbone, earning a loud cracking noise. He was no more gentle with the man’s wrist as he relieved the fellow of his weapon, where it clanged to the street. The assailant slid to the ground, struggling against his spasming chest and back muscles to force air into his lungs. He was mostly failing.

A precise strike with the back of his hand deflected the arm of the recovered first assailant, who had wisely decided Jacob was the larger threat. Laranna nearly sprained her hand in a clumsy punch to the man’s back: Gammelon apparently hadn’t made that part of her training yet. Inspired by the thought, Jacob repeated a feat from the training yard. He grabbing the man’s wrist, crouched backward into his opponent’s abdomen, and tossed the fool over his shoulder into the other groaning attacker. He kept the dagger.

Laranna retrieved the first dagger from the cobblestones, and held it near the prone Travanian, who gasping, was trying to rise. “Don’t,” she warned. He didn’t.

The whole affair was over in seconds, but the hair Laranna brushed back from her forehead was damp with sweat, and her heart was a drum beating a march for all the street to hear. In the distance, the audience was getting bigger. A knife fight drew crowds, even once it was ended. “You know, Jacob, I think you may be bad luck.”

Jacob could not, in the moment, disagree. Instead, he changed the subject, ignoring the circle of men and women gathering, and the rising sound of their murmurs. “More attackers with poisoned daggers, clearly from Travan this time, and not locals. I wager the daggers are Talyk steel.”

“Talyk steel?” she muttered. “Who sent you?” she suddenly barked out to the startled would be-assassin, the one who could breathe.

Jacob examined the wide-eyed Travanian more closely. He did not look like a professional assassin. No, he looked more like a farmer, his fingers and nails still stained from years of dirt. “He’s no Kull, and not sent by Sarronen, but I bet a silver mark the weapons are coated in Two-Step. Should we press one to his cheek and find out?”

The man’s eyes widened, and he swallowed convulsively. Laranna shook her head, still staring at the thug. “It was Count Ervallyn, wasn’t it?”

The farmer remained silent, but his grimace told Laranna all she needed to know. She swore softly, awkwardly. The moment certainly called for it, but a Lady never got much practice for these occasions, and she could really use Athena right now. Jacob met her eyes grimly, but said nothing, and so Laranna continued. “It must be. But the Count and my Father have been close for decades. I was going to marry his son, for Lazarus’s sake! I just - I don’t know. What can we even do? It’s not like we can kill him.”

“I certainly can,” Jacob replied, voice dry but eyes blazing. “But I don’t think that will be necessary.”

A feminine voice answered, in firm but musical tones, “Are you threatening to break my peace, boy?”

The crowd parted, and a tall woman of classic build emerged from it, honey-gold hair raised in ringlets. Her skin was flawless, and her oval face ageless, easily passing for anything from twenty to forty-five. She wore a long green dress of rich amfantha that echoed her emerald eyes, and a silver circlet on her forehead, encrusted with small diamonds on the side and a single clear Beryl in its center. Her expression was stone. The street fell to perfect silence.

“No, your majesty,” Jacob replied with a mildness he did not feel. “As I was about to explain, the monarch of Travan takes an oath to uphold justice within her realm. Far be it from me to doubt her word, or oppose her will.”

Two bodyguards in heavy chainmail flanked the richly clad woman, each carrying a round metal shield, and wearing an unbound longsword at the hip. Each also wore a short beard and a long mustache, as was the current style. The guard on her right, a broad but fit man who over-topped Jacob by a head all but growled at him. “Mind your tone with your Empress, boy. If I don’t know you, then you can’t afford it.”

Celene Alessendara Whitestone the Unbroken, by Providence Empress of Travan and its environs, parted her red lips in what could charitably be called a smile. “Indeed. If you ask our judgment, then first answer our questions. Who are you, and what is it that has happened here?”

Jacob swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. The watching men and women now stretched throughout the narrow street. There was only a small bubble around the Empress’s retinue, Laranna, himself, and the two cowering assassins who no longer dared to try to leave. In the distance, Jacob thought he could see his brother, and Francis, step out of the guest house. If so, the shifting crowd quickly hid them. Jacob’s voice was thin but clear as he made his answer, after first offering a deep bow. “Your Majesty, I am Jacob Torannon Ironwood, second son of Baron Sterik Torannon Ironwood. The Lady Laranna, daughter of the Earl of Northspire, and myself, were speaking in this street when we were attacked from behind by these two men, each wielding a dagger dipped in poison.

The Lady called out and batted one of the daggers away, saving my life. I was able to defeat and disable the assailants without drawing a weapon, in obedience to your peace. We believe these men were sent to kill us by Count Ervallyn of Talyk. We ask the assistance of the crown in determining the truth, and the crown’s justice. Your Majesty.”

The Empress listened impassively to Jacob’s story, piercing eyes unmoved. “That is a bold claim, Ironwood. The Count has been a friend of ours, so we advise you speak with caution. Why would he do such a thing?”

With effort, Jacob lifted his voice, making it more firm and resonant, and met the Empress Celene’s eyes. “You Majesty, Lord Ervallyn knows that I have come to the Summit with the purpose of bringing a matter to the Council of Kings, should I gain entry. King Haldor of Sarronen, at the behest of his adviser, the Sorcerer Innoken, has this year kidnapped the Lady Laranna, and framed Kullen for it. This was done as one of a series of incitements intending to bring war between the Kull clans and the Empire of Travan. Sarronen desires this distraction, that it may send its troops west, against Ironwood. The Count desires the conflict that he and his sons may conquer new territory. I believe he feared I might find allies to bring my petition before the Council, where something might yet be done to keep the peace.”

The Empress’s hands were clasped before her thin waist, her face still unreadable, but Jacob noticed a single finger tapping rhythmically against one hand, in time with her thoughts. She regarded Jacob carefully as she spoke. “You defend one bold accusation with a still bolder one. Why should I credit it?”

At this point, Francis stepped out from the crowd to stand beside Jacob. “Because, your Majesty, it is true. I stand witness.”

The Empress’s towering bodyguard sneered at the newcomer. “Unless you wish to taste my steel, be silent, monk, until you are spoken to.”

The Empress’s finger froze in mid-tap, her eyes widening fractionally. “Who stands before us?”

The former monk bowed shallowly before the statuesque figure. “Your Majesty, I am known as Brother Francis.”

The green-clad monarch did smile this time, slightly, as she turned to her zealous bodyguard. “Show some respect. In his day, this was one of the great Blademasters of Travan. He avoided the tournaments, but we believe his sword was without equal.”

The armored man paused, uncertain, before replying, “As you say, Your Majesty, though I will not fear him. His prime is surely past.”

Jacob shook his head, his voice gentle but confident. How quickly matters changed. “Not at all, your Majesty. He is far more dangerous now.”

The Empress’s finger began tapping again. “Indeed,” she stated again. “Brother Francis, do you say we should grant young Ironwood’s audience with the Council?”

“I do, your Majesty,” Francis replied, his rich voice firm.

The Empress unclasped her hands, dropping them to her side. “Very well, then. Ironwood, Lady of Northspire, your audience is granted. You may leave us. Timoran, have these two poor souls removed for questioning, after which they will be executed for breaking the Peace. Brother Francis, walk with us. We desire to hear your testimony.”

Jacob bowed, and removed himself to just outside the guest house, while the others, except Laranna, entered. After a few moments, the traffic on the streets dispersed, until it was more quiet than when Jacob arrived. As he waited, Jacob examined Laranna’s eyes, and saw the worry there, but also the growing determination. The blue-clad lady stood tall, though her visage was clouded, hiding her thoughts. Jacob would give much to hear them. She had been shaken by the events of the past few weeks: the danger, her helplessness, and apparently feelings that she was unused to facing. But he could not help but feel that at the end of it, she would emerge wiser, and perhaps more sure than he.

When quiet did finally return, Laranna met his eyes squarely. “Jacob, what I wanted to say, is that I‘m sorry.”

The blue-clad lady raised her hand to stall him, when Jacob tried to respond. “I have behaved like some infatuated girl. No doubt you now think you’re unwelcome at Northspire, or that I hate you, or that I blame you. But I don’t, at least I know that I shouldn’t.

I just needed a little time to think. Well, I’ve had the chance now, and here is what I think. You never promised me anything, and you never asked anything, except in one foolish moment. I was right, of course, that we should not let ourselves get too close. I can’t be another Athena. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be adults. I owe you so very much, even more now, and I just want to be clear that I’m not angry, and I’m not ungrateful. I just want what’s best for both of us. But you shouldn’t be afraid to talk to me, when we meet. I just wanted to say that.”

Jacob met eyes levelly, listening thoughtfully before replying. “Alright, Laranna. I should have known better, too, than to push too hard. I should never have led you on, or kissed you. If you need me, I’m here, but I will step back.”

“Thank you,” Laranna replied, softly.

“It’s fine,” Jacob said with false unconcern. “I guess I’m still just new at this. But for now, I think we should go inside.”

“Yes,” Laranna added, relieved. “That would be best.”

“Leave us,” Empress Celene commanded, “I will call for you if you are needed.”

The two bodyguards bowed, and exited the small audience room, closing the door behind them. Of course, they could not be happy about it, but they would not disobey. Celene had always had a firm will, and she had had decades to harden it. However, the years had been kind to her, Francis noted, and here in private, her porcelain mask was softening. She began to look a little more like the girl he had known, twenty-odd years back, the one he had lain his life down to protect.

She was, if anything, more beautiful now, though her grace was cold. Every motion of hand, eye or leg, was perfectly calculated as she swept into her small throne and sat before him. Her hands were clasped in her lap, her dress neatly draped about her legs. The Empress’s appearance was her armor: and she let no hair or thread fall out of place. Though warmer, her green eyes remained firm. He doubted any saw the Empress otherwise. Her role was a heavy burden for any woman, and she carried it alone. Her voice too, was as carefully measured as it was musical. “So, Jonathan, how are you? The years have treated you well.”

It was to be a careful opening then, if a kind one. Francis’s response was as measured. “Jonathan is dead. However, I am well, your Majesty. I have never desired personal glory, and the life of a monk has allowed me to do much good in small ways. I have been friend, confidant, and servant to thousands.”

The Empress’s smile was marginal. “You may use my name in private, Jonathan. You have earned that privilege. Have you then become resigned to your position? It seems unlike you.”

So she sent a probe, to crack his armor, as if she had the right. He supposed monarchs thought they could have anything they desired. Travan had not merited the name Empire since the Fall, as it was no longer a conglomeration of kingdoms, but some traditions must be upheld. “Very well. Celene, I have made the best I could of what you left me, and found joy in it. I make no apology for that. I admit that I feared you hated me. Between that and my loss of honor, I wanted as much distance from my old life as possible.”

Celene shook her head fractionally, and there if there was no regret in her voice, there was sorrow. “No, I never hated you. I hated what I had to do. You saved my life, and my Empire. I owe you everything, but no one does what you did and lives, whatever the circumstances. The country comes first: you know that.”

Indeed, if a mad but popular Emperor wanted to kill his wife in a fit of jealousy over some imaginary offense, whose business was that? What was an Empress supposed to do for the man who saved her life but try him for murder and fake his death? Ought he not to be grateful? Was not Travan better off? Francis replied with even voice and lowered eyes, “As you say, Celene. I died and was reborn. Is that not the fate of all who walk the World?”

Celene scrutinized him carefully, deciding to accept his words at something near face value. “I would not blame you for bitterness, Jonathan. I am glad that you have made something good of your new life. I have long wished that for you. However, I should ask what that boy from Ironwood was speaking about. Why does he think you among the most dangerous men in the land?”

Francis smiled mysteriously. “The world is about to to change, drastically, and it seems I am fated to be on the forefront of those changes. You need not fear that I am a threat to you or Travan, but I have been reborn again in the past few weeks, in a matter even more dramatic than you saw, so many years ago. There is so much to explain.

There is a great favor I must ask, but first there are things of dire importance that you must know. It is best that you here them from me. Do you have time, Celene?”

The Empress of Travan took a deep breath, then called out to the men beyond her door, “Timoran, please convey my regrets to the Duke, and have two glasses of wine brought. It seems we will require more time with our guest than anticipated.”

* * *

Jacob cleared his throat nervously, looking out across the broad room. He and Erik had entered the council chamber early this morning, with little more ceremony than a brief announcement. The session was being held in a great hall with wooden floors, fit for a ball. There were small tables packed throughout the room representing stakeholders in the peace of the Central Annaria, each with fine chairs and pitchers for refreshment. Most seated up to four, though Jacob and Erik had not been allowed any guests. Jacob noted King Haldor, Halvar, and Innoken at the table for Sarronen. Halvar would not meet his eyes, though the other two were outwardly unconcerned by his presence.

Jacob did not recognize the King of the Kulls out of his retinue, though his name would be Hendall. The stern Chieftain of the Kharshe, with his shaved head and close-cropped beard, would be Dorgann, by reputation one of the fiercest warriors on the continent. He was a cold one, though, his manner was almost too calm and considered for a Clansman. The flame-haired woman who spoke for the Caerdann would be Queen Kaelyn. Red hair was not common among the sons and daughters of Kharshe, but it was less rare than female warlords. Still, Kaelyn had led the Caerdann for over a dozen years, and was famed for her cunning and intellect, as well as a stunning beauty that only increased with each passing year. She met his eyes with a knowing smile, which he sheepishly tried to return before moving on to the others. The Viken representative, Dannan, was a huge man with pale skin and paler hair. Jacob could not remember the name of the dark-skinned Chaorin representative, and the Omerin, as they had for years, had declined to come.

A single long table overshadowed the others, seating all the attendees from Travan except the Empress. Each Travanian was allowed another representative from their house, and so the table sat nearly twenty, including Lord Northspire and Laranna. The Empress had begun the day with an introduction and a few pleasant words for each of the invitees. Of Ironwood she had said little more than that they were considered welcome guests, whose input on certain recent matters would be asked. She had continued to speak for some time on the topics of peace, honor, and the strength of those who would resist unnecessary war. Then, she began to run through the representatives, allowing each a chance to raise an agenda item, with most of Travan’s many attendees towards the end of the list.

First, the Kulls, naturally enough, raised concerned about raids and encroachment on their land, on the part of settlers within Northspire, Talyk, and Haran. Then, the relevant parties were allowed a rebuttal. Joranthan spoke briefly of incitements by Kull hotheads conducting their own raids, but then emphasized the number of his own farmers he personally had fined or flogged for violating the border, and the decreasing number of such incursions. He finished by declaring the need to honor the no-man’s land between Northspire and Kull territory, and the importance of de-escalation and peace. His offer to help fence the border was rejected. Still, Chieftain Hendall was somewhat mollified by his words.

Count Ervallyn, on the other hand, decried Kull hypocrisy, threatening to retrieve stolen grain and cattle from bordering Kull raiders by force. He warned that while Travan valued honor and cooperation, its men were patriots who were not made fools of by anyone, and did not fear to stand up against external threats. He was wise enough not to bring up Laranna’s kidnapping, as given new information, it pertained more to relations with Sarronen than the Kulls.

The Count of Haran seconded Talyk’s concerns, noting that he had long been reasonable in the face of increasing covert aggression. His reddened face and raised fist spoke volumes to Jacob of the man’s reason and restraint, as he accused his neighbors of a long list of aggressions, each more improbable than the last. The argument wound on for hours. In the end, all parties agreed to honor the border, as long as the others did too. Talyk and Haran spent more time talking about the vengeance they would inflict against the next incursion than of anything else. It seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Viken, in their turn, had their own concerns with incursions by the Kulls, and wanted Travan’s intervention. Talyk and Haran were all too happy to threaten their neighbor all over again. Hendall’s face became grim.

When Sarronen was allowed to speak, King Haldor also spoke against the Kulls, but more subtly, emphasizing his regret that the Kulls did not share their own good relations with Travan. They then asked for decreased restrictions on buying steel from Travan, especially for plows and other non-weapon goods, given their long peace and friendship with the Empress. This sparked its own long set of arguments, both for and against the idea, with other countries also asking for lowered restrictions on metals from Travan. Despite the disingenuous nature of the requests, Eastern Travanian Lords favored increased trade with the Clans, as they were buffered from having to deal with any negative consequences of lowering the restrictions by their western neighbors. The Empress and the Western Travanian lords were opposed.

Old arguments dragged long into the afternoon, and Jacob nearly found himself nodding off at his table, until suddenly he heard the Empress Celene call out his name, asking about his own petition. Jacob’s eyes widened in a surge of energy, and his heart beat loud within his chest. This was his chance, Ironwood’s one chance, to escape destruction. It had sneaked up on him almost without him knowing, and yet this opportunity would be frighteningly easy to bungle. Jacob stood slowly, and his mouth began to dry, as he saw half the men in the room eying him impatiently, the others ignoring him completely. Haldor and Innoken’s were among the few whose gazes bore deep into him, awaiting the storm. It was time.

“Lords and Ladies of the Council,” Jacob began, trying to keep his tone level, even as he raised his voice. “I have recently had the pleasure of being a guest of city of Sarronen. I found the men and women there to be kind, brave, and hospitable. I was honored to compete among them in their Spring Tournament. I befriended men like Halvar, who I found to capable and honorable. I met dozens of other good men and women: warriors, merchants, servants, and farmers. After keeping the Lady Laranna as their guest for weeks, following her kidnapping, the king of Sarronen saw fit to entrust her safety into my care.

You can imagine my shock and sorrow when, after I departed, Halvar’s patrol set upon my party and attempted to kill every single one of us.”

Jacob paused for a moment, taking in the room: Halvar’s determined misery, Innoken’s smug confidence, and razor gaze of the Empress, her slightly raised eyebrow the only sign of her surprise. Laranna nodded, her own face grim and determined. The scion of Ironwood continued. “King Haldor, you see, was afraid. We had just found an item that had been stolen from us, the Shield of St. Thomas. He was afraid of the chance that Ironwood might use it to raise a Sorcerer that could confront him, who could challenge the God who had him under his thrall. But more importantly, I suspect he was afraid of the displeasure of the God he served. You see, for years, all of Sarronen has been under the sway of the Sorcerer Innoken, and through him, the so-called God of Fire, Shakath.

His fears came partially into reality. With the help of St. Thomas and the man he took as his Sorcerer, Brother Francis, we were able to repel the assault in safety. No doubt, Shakath was indeed angry.”

Jacob’s face shone with angry determination as stared directly at Innoken, who acknowledged the attention with a cautious smile. Jacob swung his eyes back to Halvar, who still looked miserable, and still confused about Jacob’s intent. “Shakath has granted Innoken many abilities, which he has used to lie to and bully his people, betraying their honor. Through his agents, he stole the Shield of St. Thomas, murdering two good men of Ironwood. He kidnapped Lady Laranna of Northspire, intending to cast the blame on the Kulls. He also sent raiders through Kull territory to set upon Travan farmers, and possibly Viken lands, hoping to help bring Travan and the Kulls into open conflict.

With this distraction instigated, he would send his own army westward, securing the land until the mountains, burning Ironwood to the ground. Then he would, presumably, offer the Kulls his protection, taking them into his Empire, and ending the conflict. Through it all, he would drag unwillingly his own good people into a costly and needless war. This is what Serren hinted to me, before his God sent him to his death.

Innoken, do you deny it? The sons of Kharshe are warriors who take their own due, but they have never been liars, poisonous vipers full of venom! Will you continue to lie to your own people, who you grind under your heel? Will you lie to the council, so that when your armies move west, all will know your cowardice and the utter barrenness of your every word?

No! If I am your enemy, face me with honor. Your people do not want to fight me, except under your cruel duress. If you would face me, meet my challenge yourself.”

Empress Celine’s jade eyes burned, and she slammed her hand down upon the arm of her throne with a loud clap. “That is enough. This room is under my peace. I did not invite you here to insult your enemies or offer threats to my guests! Innoken, you have been accused - you may respond.”

Innoken stood leisurely and stretched himself to his full height of six feet. Then eight feet, then ten. Finally, he towered over the room, voice deep as the rolling sea. “Your claims about our intentions for Travan and the Kulls are nothing but speculation, and I will not be drawn into them.

However, an Ironwood with the Shield of St. Thomas may pose a threat to the plans of Shakath. For the sake of my people, whom I love, I will destroy that threat.

You speak of honor? St. Thomas, in violation of the neutrality of Heaven, has given you gifts of speed and strength. For the sake of my people, and to rectify that mistake, I will meet your challenge. I compliment your courage. However, you will see the power of Shakath, and regret asking to face it, boy.

I will keep to the sacred rules of hospitality. Your Majesty, with your leave, I will meet Ironwood’s challenge in the Binuwan Stadium outside the city this evening. My honor will be upheld.”

Empress Celene was not merely a strong woman, she was a strong ruler. She had seen many trials in her twenty years of ruling in a man’s world, and all knew her will was as stone itself. Yet her voice was thin as she answered the towering shadow before her, fighting the waver that threatened. “You have my leave,” the Empress replied.

“Very well,” Innoken replied, beginning to shrink back to the size of a man. “We fight an hour before sundown.”

Binuwan Stadium was several hundred years old, dating back to early in what was then the Mirakan League. Miraka, even then, was fabulously wealthy. Both its influence and its enemies had been growing by the year. Travan’s ruler, King Torellanon, had decided it would do better with Miraka than against it. Travan had exported its mercenaries, the best in the known world. It had enthusiastically imported nearly everything else Miraka had to offer, including slavery and executions as public spectacle. There had even been experiments with the idea of trial by combat. The Mirakan merchant Binuwan had sold the ideas wholesale to the men of Haran, and made a fortune off it, building a stadium of incredible size to woo the crowds. Most former Mirakan cities still had them today, though some had gone to disuse since. The Binuwan, like its counterpart in Sarronen, still hosted contests, plays, and the occasional festivities.

The Binuwan had been weeded and tended for the Summit. Earlier today, magicians and jugglers had dazzled guests from nearby lands whose business had allowed them to attend. Tonight, music and dancing by the light of torch and bonfire were planned, for those with invitations. It was almost too large a venue for only two people to kill each other upon. Jacob wondered if men and women would still dance tonight, with his own blood in the sand beneath their feet.

The bladesman’s toes stirred that sand now, tan and gray, as he sat on one of the flattened stones arranged in rising concentric rings around the little valley, the buzz of hundreds of onlookers in his ear. He had been here for some of the longest minutes in his life, but Innoken had not yet arrived. “It’s almost time,” he mused out loud. “I should warm up.”

Beside him, Erik laid one hand on his shoulder, but it was Francis, on his other side, who spoke. “I do not doubt that Innoken will be late. He wants a spectacle, and the Binuwan is not yet full. The Empress has not arrived, either, though she has had a seat reserved for some time. Likely, she will glide over the hill soon after the Sorcerer is spotted.”

The young Lord chuckled briefly, dragging his boots again impatiently through the sand. “Even now, the little games must continue. My time seems too brief for them? Will you help me warm up, Francis?” he asked.

“No, my young friend,” the former monk replied. He looked troubled, though his smile never left his face. It was only his eyes that acknowledged the weight of the moment. “This is as far as I can go, and neither of us should give anything away until the last moment. You will want every advantage.”

Jacob held out his hand, which the older man shook. “Then I want to thank you, for all you have done. You are a good man, and have been a good friend.”

The warmth finally reached Francis’s eyes, as he regarded the young man. “Thank you, though the pleasure has been mine. You are a remarkable young man, and it has been an honor to have your friendship. You have engineered this, and you will have your chance to fight for Ironwood. I wish you the best of luck, but if things go poorly, remember that even death is not the end. Fight well. I have hope of seeing you again.”

Erik stood, and embraced his brother, wishing him well. “Good luck, Jacob. If anyone can do this, it’s you. Ironwood and I go with you. You have our love.”

Athena too stood, and clasped his hand. Her golden hair was elaborately pinned and braided for the occasion, but underneath her face was hard and her blue eyes seemed on the verge of tears. “This is still crazy, you know. But you’ve done a lot of really messed up things in the past weeks, and you’ve gotten away with it. So all I have to say is, you better win, you idiot. I’ll never forgive you if you don’t. You have to come back.”

Jacob winced, and his eyes closed involuntarily, but his smile was confident. “I know. I know, and I’ll do what I have to do. But if I don’t come back, don’t give up, don’t change. I swear I’ll haunt you if you do.”

Daniel offered Jacob a confident grin that said everything, but he chose to repeat it in words. “I’ve said it before, and I say it now: God’s been looking out for you. You were meant to do this.”

Lord Northspire also wished him luck. Jacob could read the sincerity in his eyes, and the hopefulness that this plan would work, but also the intelligent fear of realism. “For all our sakes, good luck, young man. What you face is beyond my ability to judge, but you seem to be a good and capable man. I will trust that, as my wife and daughters do. In some ways, they see much further than I. May God go with you.”

Finally, Laranna stepped forward, sapphire eyes bright, raven hair perfectly composed, lips curved into an encouraging smile. She glanced over her shoulder at the Sarronen men beginning to stride down the hill, then turned her gaze back to him. “Like Daniel said, you were meant to do this. Kick this bastard’s ass.”

All eyes were on Innoken as he glided towards the sand, the arena he had chosen to reveal his God’s power. Though it was surely a trick of the sun, his elegant gold-trimmed scarlet robe seemed to shine with his energy. He surveyed the crowd, pleased, giving only a glance to the lone figure standing below and to the left, hands clasped patiently.

Innoken embarked upon the sand to the right of the main entrance, casting his cloak to the sand with a flourish. Ignoring the man from Ironwood, he crossed his arms, facing the entrance in anticipation. He did not wait long, for Empress Celene, clad in pale green, soon joined the crowd. With only her bodyguards, she ascended to a reserved platform to the left of the stadium. Tall and stately, she motioned the crowd to silence with her palm, and they obeyed. For a moment, she stood still in the empty air, examining first the unarmed scion of Ironwood in his homeland’s brown and green, and then the tall shaman of Sarronen, whose red and gold attire glowed like an ember in the sun. The deep yet feminine voice of the Empress reverberated through the stadium. “You may begin.”

“The days are done when the so-called Fire God will grind the people of Sarronen beneath his heel,” Jacob called out, his words reaching far into the great circle of onlookers. “I fight today so there will be peace between our lands, and not war!”

Innoken turned to face Jacob, though his reasonable tone and resonant voice carried to the sons of Kharshe. “Would you deny my people what you yourself reach for? All men die, and most pass from all memory. But the sons of Kharshe are taught strength and honor from birth, and this is why so many find their way to the Hall of Immortal Warriors, Vallaton. They serve me, and in return, I make them great. The souls of Ironwood would do better among us.

Jacob of Ironwood, you know this. You follow the sword, and fight with an honor rare in your country. It has made you strong: if you die well today, perhaps you also may come to Vallaton soon. But a God does not abandon his people out of the fear of conflict, and avoiding a fight is not worth the death of souls. Now, draw your weapon: I have no intention of executing an unarmed man.”

Jacob complied, lifting his gleaming sword in a salute, and strapping his shield to his arm as he replied. “There are better ways to tend souls than violence, or else we would all be cannibals. On one thing we agree: there are times when any worthy soul must act to defend his people. Since you persist in planning to slaughter the innocent, that time is now.”

Innoken stepped forward and began to swell, over-topping Jacob by almost three feet, his shimmering robe hardening into a glittering scarlet chainmail that covered his skin from toe to neck, leaving only his face exposed. His facial skin also reddened, scaling like that of some mythical dragon, becoming its own armor. Blue-tipped flames of red and yellow engulfed his lengthening sword. The towering red knight laughed, his now rasping tones scoured the air. “You know so very little. I take no pleasure in the pain of others. I refine my people’s strength, and burn away what threatens them. Unfortunately, that includes you. Fare your spirit well, Ironwood.”

Despite his great size, Innoken moved with blazing speed, closing the distance to Jacob in heartbeats. His great sword cut a red arc through the air, but the Ironwood warrior was ready. Jacob stepped nimbly to the side, leaving only an incandescent afterimage of the weapon’s passing where his head had been. The following wave of heat threatened to curl his hair, but the swordsman was already moving again.

His counter-strike came with whip-like speed, his entire body rippling to bring his weapon against his opponent’s wrist with crushing force. It should haven a perfect hit, the edge of the steel parting chain like silk, rending tendons and possibly the entire wrist, disabling his foe. Failing that, the incredible energy of the swing, focused onto the sweet spot of the long weapon, should have forced Innoken’s chain armor through muscles and tendons, rendering them into useless jelly. Instead, Jacob’s whole arm shivered as his swing rebounded. Only its excellent craftsmanship prevented his sword from shattering completely. No doubt the edge had gained a notch, though he was too busy to check. He again dodged Innoken’s great bar of flame, as it chopped through the air. The monstrosity before him wasn’t even slowed.

For long minutes the one-sided battle continued, with Jacob ever on the defensive. The avatar of Shakath had only one apparent weakness, an uncovered face towering easily nine feet in the air, and his attacks were relentless. Ironwood flowed from one form to another, blocking, parrying dodging, making sure never to meet the full weight of his enemy’s attack with sword or shield. He moved in a blur that few in the audience could follow. His skin glistened with the sweat of exertion, and from the great heat that radiated from the red giant, and his weapon of steel and flame.

Still, Jacob had hope, for as fast as his opponent was, and as strong, he was almost clumsy with power. Each time he leaned forward in a downward chop, he almost left an opening, a so-far false window of opportunity widened as he grew ever more careless. Ironwood only hoped it would be enough, and so he was patient, and his moves mechanical: step, parry, step, dodge. Maneuvering his opponent was near impossible when he presented no threat, and so Jacob waited, though his arms and legs began to strain with the constant blur of motion required.

In the stands, Laranna struggled to keep her hands still in her lap. Though it was unseemly for a lady watching a fight to the death, she wanted to cry out loud for the champion that fought against Sarronen, against Count Ervallyn. She had been held captive and nearly assassinated, and while Jacob fought foremost for Ironwood, she knew he also fought for her. And she wasn’t alone: the energy in the air was infectious. The men of Ironwood cheered their champion, but so did men of Northspire, Talyk, and the Kull Clan, who prayed against war. Laranna thought she saw something in Halvar’s eyes, as well, something between hope and fear. She would swear the Empress herself gave her favor to the underdog. She knew she was hopelessly biased: her aching heart still left her unsteady around Jacob, though she didn’t dare show it. She had made enough of a fool of herself already.

None of that bound her here. She might have to hide her wounded heart from Jacob, but she could still cheer for him. She leaned over towards Francis, and spoke. “The crowd in the Sarronen arena was not nearly this alive. If only this energy could be harnessed, Jacob would win the day immediately. I’m having trouble following, for it’s all a blur down there. Still, Jacob looks much faster than Innoken. He’s doing well so far, isn’t he?”

Francis nodded cautiously, but his eyes were still dark with worry. “He is fighting well, but he is much more vulnerable than the Sorcerer, and will be quicker to tire. Innoken’s strength is incredible, even if his swordsmanship is not. Jacob may need that energy you speak of.”

On the sand, it seemed forever that Jacob danced and swung away from his opponent, still waiting for his chance to strike back, to do anything but dodge and block. Then, suddenly, the opening he had been waiting for appeared. Jacob’s sword glistened wet with poison as it whipped up, cracking into Innoken’s nose, finally causing the great hulk to stumble with surprise. There was a fresh cheer from the crowd, roaring from above. Then, a quick burst of fire swept up Innoken’s face, and he laughed. “Did you know that Two-Step is destroyed instantly by flame? You have no hope whatsoever.”

Stunned, the Ironwood bladesman was caught flat-footed at his opponent’s powerful counter-swing. He barely lifted his shield before the great flame came down. His shield exploded into spinning shards of leather and steel, and he found himself hurtling to the ground, helpless as he watched Innoken prepare to end his life. His sword, notched and gleaming in the firelight, fell to his side.

Suddenly, Athena, with a heart-rending scream, hurtled between them, shield raised, and deflected Jacob’s deathblow. It only stalled the giant a moment, for her shield held up no better than Jacob’s. Without a word, he stabbed Athena in the gut, then watched her slide to the sand.

At that moment, Francis rose, unable any more to simply watch as his friends died. He stepped up before Innoken, and raised one hand. Innoken paused, taken aback. “What do you do think to do, Sorcerer? The Compact forbids you to act here.”

Francis bent over Athena, touching the deep steaming hole in her skin, just above the front of her hip. Jacob, now standing, hovered by the Sorcerer’s side, face in horror. Though Innoken’s fire had cauterized it, the wound stunk with blood and gore. There could be no doubt that it was lethal. Still, Francis asked Athena, voice soft in her ear, “Do you trust me?”

Athena, nearly frozen in shock, whispered a single inaudible word, and Francis lowered his hand. Athena gasped, shuddering, and her eyes closed. Jacob turned his eyes to the white-clad Sorcerer, who nodded, and replied, “I will take care of her. Do you also trust me, Jacob?”

While Innoken fumed silently, Jacob nodded. Francis then straightened, and replied, “Then give me your sword.”

While Jacob leaned over to retrieve it, the Shaman of Sarronen glared into the former monk’s eyes. They were an odd pair, the great scarlet giant, and the ivory-clad Sorcerer of Heaven standing quietly below him. Innoken stood at least nine feet tall, a great glittering knight of flame. Before him, Francis looked almost feeble. However, while Francis radiated calm, Innoken seemed unsure. His voice, once confident, now held restrained anger. “What do you do, monk? You cannot interfere! Or do you not fear true death?”

The former Travanian monk met the threat with a half-smile. “You are right: I cannot exert my power against you. But did you not say, before a witness of Heaven, that you would not kill an unarmed man? Jacob has nothing that can touch you. I will keep you to your word: he will be unarmed no longer.”

The white-robed Sorcerer held Jacob’s sword high above his head in the waning sunlight, and it was no longer steel, but gleamed darkly like polished obsidian. He pivoted from Innoken to face the crowd arrayed in a broad semi-circle above, and raised his voiced his voice to reach all of them. “I cannot interfere here, but you can. Here you see a new magic unleashed on the world, and you may think yourself helpless before it. You are not! This is the Sword of Mortality, and you are its soul. If you have faith in it, and in the champion against the Gods who would rule you, your champion, then magic will not avail against him.”

Francis then handed Jacob the dark longsword, and bent to lift Athena into his arms. He effortlessly carried her to the stone seats, and laid her down gently there, where Laranna scrambled forward to tend her. Then the former monk turned back, and his voice rumbled across the Arena. “You may begin.”

Neither Jacob nor a snarling Innoken wasted any time. There was a flurry of flame and darkness as swords met. Jacob parried furiously, for he no longer held a shield, but neither did he fear any longer that his weapon would break. Roars and claps rose from the men and women behind him as his counter-attacks began to bite, shedding chips and embers from his opponent’s armor, scarlet chain fading into burning bits of cloth that floated in the wind.

Innoken redoubled his efforts, his great angry chops beginning to show precision instead of careless strength. Jacob, on the other hand, focused more and more strength on his attacks, attempting to whittle down his opponent. Whatever Francis had done to his sword had let him back into the fight, but so far, little more than that. Contrary to Jacob’s optimistic appraisal, Innoken would only have to hit him once to defeat him, while Jacob worked desperately to wear down his opponent. For ten minutes, then twenty, this continued, with Innoken slowly shedding armor. Meanwhile Jacob’s face twisted into a grimace, and the sweat that poured from him began to dry. The punishing heat of the battle seemed to bake every drop of water from his body, then ask for more, leaving his face reddened and his body exhausted. Yet the battle went on: to falter was to die.

Lord Erik noted uneasily the toll the fight was taking on his brother. He too had difficulty following all the details of the fight, as Jacob and Innoken both were just too fast. Unfortunately, he saw enough to worry him. When one of Jacob’s backhands first drew blood several minutes ago, the crowd had roared to its feet, but the poison on Jacob’s sword had long been cooked off by Innoken’s fire, and the wound had been superficial. Worse, it had healed almost instantly, right before his eyes. So, too, had every wound thereafter. Maybe, just maybe, the damage was taking a little longer to heal, and Innoken was beginning to tire. But if so, Jacob was fading far faster. “This isn’t going well,” he mentioned to Francis.

“It is not,” the Sorcerer replied heavily. “Laranna’s idea was a good one, but I fear I acted too late. I do not know how much longer Jacob can last, but he is not doing enough damage. Innoken’s wounds are completely healed between one of his hits and the next. I am amazed Jacob is still on his feet.”

“No,” Laranna replied, stone-faced, as she sat holding Athena’s hand, feeling the slow pulse within. “No, we can’t lose Jacob, not after everything.”

The Lady-heir of Northspire rose to her feet, gently laying Athena’s hand by her prone body. Brother Francis’s face echoed his words: he already given up on Jacob. Even Lord Erik had, his own brother! She raised her hand to her brow against the setting sun, and scanned the crowd desperately, looking for signs of hope. There were some. Many, like her, had been unable to follow the fight well enough to know Jacob was losing. All they saw was Jacob’s unflagging speed, and the glittering blood and armor being rent from Innoken. In the distance, even Halvar clenched his fist in satisfaction whenever Jacob struck a blow.

Laranna feared more than anything that Athena had been right, that Jacob could never win, and worse, that she had helped persuade Jacob to his own death, and perhaps Athena’s too. So far Francis had been silent on Athena’s chances, but as Laranna’s hopes began to fade, the growing guilt became unbearable. As long as Jacob continued to fight, how dare she give up before he did? At the same time, what could she possibly do? She could think of only one thing. So Laranna raised her fist, and in a very unladylike voice began to chant at the top of her lungs, “Jacob! Jacob! Jacob! For Ironwood!”

Others turned to look at her, and she felt her face flush, but only continued, louder. “Jacob! Jacob! Jacob! For Northspire!”

And suddenly it was the most wondrous thing: the cheer caught on. First, Lord Erik’s men joined her, and Daniel. Then, she heard other men and women throughout the crowd adding their own voices, their own cheers. “For Kullen!” she heard, from men she recognized from her time there.

“For Talyk!” she heard, and noted Lord Morgren standing across the nearest aisle, fist pumping in the air. Her jaw nearly dropped when Halvar’s voice rose out loud enough to pierce the throng, “Jacob! Jacob! Jacob! For Sarronen!”

Back on the sand, Innoken noted it too. He paused to level a glare at his own contingent in the stands. Jacob didn’t - with both hands, and using the strength of his legs and entire body, he thrust his blade upward into Innoken’s huge, thickly muscled chest, aiming for his heart. This time, powered by the hopes and cries of a hundred men and women, the blade bit deep. It buried itself nearly a foot into the giant, and doused the heat there.

The Red Sorcerer bellowed out loud, writhing in pain, but it seemed he could survive even this terrible wound. Jacob tensed his arms, clearly trying to remove the obsidian blade, but it wouldn’t budge. He had just started to stumble, when Innoken’s fiery blade finally caught him, nearly severing his left shoulder, and scoring deep down his side and back. Jacob’s armor parted like straw, and the fragmented rings burned rivers into his skin. The surrounding fabric of his tunic blackened to ash as Jacob fell to the ground, neatly pinning his functional arm.

Innoken grimaced in satisfaction at his fallen opponent, even as the dark sword hung from his chest, preventing the surrounding tissue from regenerating. “Die well, Jacob of Ironwood,” he said, lifting his great sword for a death blow.

Fighting the rising darkness that threatened to engulf him, Jacob leaned left onto the ruined part of his back, and plucked a dagger from a sheath around his leg. With blinding speed, he flipped it towards the scarlet giant that hung over him, watching its edge crookedly rebound from the cracked, wounded flesh near where his sword had penetrated.

Innoken took a moment to laugh at the seemingly futile gesture, then crumpled to the ground, dead.

“A good death, Sorcerer,” Jacob murmured. Then the pain, the shock, and the dehydration took the light from the world.

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