By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

A Shattered Peace

Outside Ironwood, the strangers nodded genially to the guards at the front gate. When asked to announce their business, the taller one explained that they meant to stay the night with a friend in town, then pick up some goods in the morning and be on their way. The challenge, though, was only perfunctory. Two unarmed men were no danger, and Ironwood was a trusting place. It had no real enemies to speak of, and boasted enough trained guardsmen to discourage most casual crime. Besides, this was a town built on trade: Margonians and clansmen traveled from dozens of miles around to visit its markets. It would not do to discourage visitors. The guard captain waved them in.

The first man to enter was a tall clansman, light of step but broad of shoulder. His scarred cheek was mostly hidden beneath a thick but carefully trimmed beard. His smile was easy, but his eyes were hard. Serren’s side felt empty without his sword, though he knew he would not need it. His brother had been left outside of town with the three horses, and he didn’t expect his business here would take very long. He was pleased to find that he drew few eyes, though. Not that any who saw him were likely to remember his face in the fading light: the tapestry of stars was beginning to unroll across the sky.

Today, Serren wore the tunic and trousers that the local villagers seemed to like so much, rather than the well-tailored robes he preferred. A guest should make some concessions for his host, after all. He did not have an eye for all the gardening, but he did take a moment to admire the gate: it was skillfully made, even if it was a bit flimsy for the heavy frame.

He nodded over to his comrade, and then walked briskly down the main road. Khaz was a good man, never one to shirk his duty, although sadly he thought himself something of a wit. To say he was half right would have been generous. But he was capable, and reliable, and that was all that Serren really needed. The two headed together towards the center of town, with the steady, purposeful walk of people who have somewhere to be, but not so soon as to worry about it.

Serren was the first to break the silence. Men who didn’t want attention should engage in casual conversation. “It looks like an early Summer this year.”

Khaz responded in kind. “Shakath send it is so. Spring rains are good for the farmers, but for travel, warm days and nights are best.”

Serren snorted. “I didn’t know Shakath controlled the weather. Ascribing too much blame to a God is as much sacrilege as giving too little credit.”

“You are so very serious, my friend. I will be careful not to blame any God for the rod that was inserted to straighten your spine from below.”

“Say the word, and I’ll happily give you one of your own,” Serren remarked pointedly.

The two continued their banter, following their feet, and filling their minds as much as possible with only the cares of the moment, as they were taught. It was not long, however, before they skirted the broad, open courtyard of the keep, and neared the small chapel at its side. The streets were bare here, and the torches lighting the walkway were dim against the darkening sky. The strangers continued to speak as they approached the door, barely looking at the single guard who approached to let them know that the chapel was closed to visitors.

Serren did not even glance up until it was done, working only from the edge of his vision. The dagger shot from his sleeve to his hand in less than a thought, and the guard’s throat was slit before he could even meet his killer’s eyes.

Jacob paused before the door of “The Clever Swordsman”, and took a breath. He could use nothing like a drink and the company of a good friend. Dinner with his father, Anna, and the elder Lady Whitesail had not exactly been unpleasant, but it had been exhausting. Each had strong expectations of what ought to be said and what absolutely should not be - none of those expectations included silence on his part. Jacob had been as charming as he could, revealing nothing about his mounting frustrations and doubts. He complimented Anna on her clothing, inquired politely on the Lady Whitesail’s visit, and offered to escort her around the somewhat rustic attractions she hadn’t yet seen. In short, he smiled and kept the evening light. Usually his father invited more guests, easing the task, but tonight he felt as if he had carried the table on his shoulders rather than the conversation. Still, it had gone well enough, and it was time to unwind. A bow left strung was quickly ruined, and so too were men. Morning in the practice yard would come soon enough, but how he chose to relax in the meantime was his business, not his father’s.

The “Swordsman” was one of a few small taverns in town, and Jacob’s personal favorite. With the pleasure of anticipation, he opened the exquisitely carved hardwood door, and stepped inside. The neatly adorned common room was a comforting sight, with nearly everything constructed from Ironwood’s signature hardwoods, from the floors to the tightly sealed planked ceiling. The aroma of well-smoked pork wafted over from the fire-pit, mingling pleasantly with the sweet smells of freshly baked breads and the bite of the excellent local lager. The combination flowed into his nostrils, reaching deep within to soothe his spirit, as he knew it would. He nodded to a buxom young serving girl - in Ironwood a gentleman did not ignore servants, especially pretty ones - and made his way past a number of plain but well-crafted tables. Two of these were pulled together to fit a dozen bulky men with swords at their waists. At the next sat a few young women, banding together to share their triumphs and woes. He sidled by these absently, moving towards the far end of the room.

Most of Ironwood’s working folk could not really afford to frequent a place like the “Swordsman”, which made it somewhat socially acceptable for Jacob to be here. Only somewhat: it was a drinking establishment, after all. Among the other young nobles, artisans, and merchant heirs like himself were the true regulars: over a dozen guardsman of the Ironwood Mercantile Company. They were not nobility, but they were good customers: well paid, reasonably well behaved, and not overly burdened by frugality. They were his Baron Ironwood’s employees, but to Jacob they were comrades.

In the darkened corner, the young nobleman found what he was looking for: a tall, wiry man man of roughly thirty years, with sandy hair and a distant expression. He wore trousers, a well-fitted linen shirt, and a fine green woolen coat. Beside him sat a young woman taller than most men. Her features were well-proportioned, but her shoulders were hard and her arms lined with thin scars. Her dirty blond hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail that looked fetching enough in the firelight, but was hardly high fashion. She smiled broadly at his arrival, an expression he instantly matched. “Well met!” he called out to his friends. Sighing comfortably, he slumped into the high-backed hardwood chair to the woman’s left. “Good to see you, Thaddeus! Athena, how are the boys treating you?”

After losing a particularly one-sided bout, Jacob had once cuttingly called his older friend Athena, after the Ancient Mirakan Goddess of War. After all, how many modern fathers would have let their daughters learn to use a sword? That had been years ago, and much had changed since, but the name had stuck. Athena bit her lip before replying irritably, “I’ve barely caught an eye all night. I’m starting to feel old.”

The other man at the table, Thaddeus, turned his head towards Athena and spoke with the exaggerated care of a man with a few rounds behind him, “Looking for pity, Athena? You know it’s only because everyone here knows you already. You’re as pretty as ever, and twenty-one is hardly old. You know, if they let you get out a little more, you might have an easier time finding unsuspecting young foo- fellows to play with.”

When Athena glared at him, Thaddeus added, “Oh, was that out loud? Well, Jacob owes me one, so you’re outnumbered.”

Athena laughed. “Is that so? You may find his loyalties divided.” She turned her eyes back on Jacob. “You, young man, are getting too damn deadly for your own good. It wasn’t that long ago I could thump you around the yard at will. Now I have to reach into my bag of dirty tricks just to win the occasional beer.” Athena smiled sweetly, her voice smug. “Speaking of which: pay up.”

“I’m good for it,” Jacob replied, then raised a hand to signal the serving girl he had passed on the way in. It took mere seconds for her to head over. Was this not a fine establishment? “An ale each for Athena and myself.”

Thaddeus spoke up, “And one more for me.” The barmaid paused, but her tone was friendly, “Three ales. Of course, my lords. I’ll go take care of you, then.”

Jacob turned back to Athena, and folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve had sand kicked at me before in a bout, but not usually at the same time someone announces that my fiancee is watching me fight. You signaled Corrin, didn’t you?”

Athena stared back with wide, innocent eyes. “Now, would I do such a thing?”

Jacob snorted, making his opinion abundantly clear. “In a heartbeat, you would. Apparently, I’m not the only one who owed you something. Did you make a bet with him too?”

Athena shook her head and smiled contentedly, “Not a bet. I just let him know it would be appreciated. And hilarious.”

Before her scandalous elopement with a lumberjack, God rest his lovely soul, Athena had been the daughter of the most respected smith in Ironwood. Despite her attraction to masculine activities like swordplay, she had been respected, and a betrothal to a knight had likely been in her future. Instead, she had risked fortune and family to marry for love: a great, kindly bear of a man. The local priest had reluctantly admitted she had the right to marry whom she chose: he hadn’t explained that she would never be forgiven for it.

For a short while, Athena had been happy, even blissfully so, despite the scandal. However, when Athena’s poor husband had been felled by a wayward tree, Athena’s heart had been crushed along with him. When, shortly afterward, she had lost a son in childbirth, she had been truly devastated. Finally, in her deepest depression, doctors informed her that the stillbirth had left her barren. It seemed fitting, considering how dead she felt, inside and out.

No-one would hire an ostracized widow with few domestic skills to speak of. A tom-boy who was also barren had no chance whatsoever. Estranged from her parents by her elopement, and mercilessly attacked by the women of the town for daring to defy custom, she lived alone in the small cottage her husband had built. For months she hid there, barely surviving. On the days she could gather enough willpower to leave her bed, she would hunt and forage.

Jacob, who was well-liked but isolated by his rank, had been her playmate back before that had become too improper. Later, as a young teen, he had been one of the few boys willing to practice with a girl who could beat him with a sword. When her husband died, Jacob had been the only one willing to risk gossip by going alone to check on her. Finding her alone and despondent, he had gone to his father with an impassioned plea that something be done. She would make a terrible maid, but perhaps she would be of use in the Guard?

Lord Sterik brought Athena in to hear her story himself. Given her preferences, he even summoned his master-at-arms to spar with her. To his surprise, she gave an excellent performance. After some direct and unsettling questions about her ability to work with rough men, Lord Sterik had in fact offered her a position in the Company’s guard. Knowing she would not be treated like a lady among guardsman, he also gave her unusual latitude in dealing with the men, as long as no trouble came back to him. Athena had embraced the chance with both arms.

From then, Athena had blossomed. She cast off her given name of Arianna, and embraced her nickname with pride. As the Baron had promised, training with the Guard was no picnic. However, to the surprise of nearly everyone but Jacob, Athena thrived there. Her fellows were fascinated, but soon learned to respect her, though deflecting that attention had turned her into a terrible flirt. There were bound to be rumors that she had crossed the lines of propriety, but as yet there had been no truly serious complaints about her. The Baron’s decision to accept Athena had initially been scandalous; a few years later, it was accepted as inevitable.

If Athena still carried some bitterness inside her, who could blame her? However, in the Guard she had found a sense of belonging. In return, Athena was forever grateful to Jacob and his father, and would give her life for either. Jacob had become like a brother. Naturally, this meant she had to give him a hard time.

“So. About this fiancee of yours, Jacob. I don’t think you got actually any of that sand I kicked at you. You must really be in love if Anna’s name alone made you stagger. Or is she just that good in bed?”

The serving woman had just returned with three fully laden mugs of the the excellent house lager, and so Thaddeus was in the process of raising the rich beverage to his lips when Athena spoke. Thaddeus nearly choked, spluttering ale halfway across the table before coughing a response. “Oh, Athena. You have a way with words.” He placed his hand casually on her arm, an absent gesture any self-righteous matron from Maragon might have fainted to see. “But you can ease off the poor lad. Anna is a stunning young lady, but Jacob is too much the White Knight. He’ll defend her honor to the last. Besides, you know he wouldn’t do more than dream of ‘taking advantage of her’, despite how half the knightlings in town see betrothal as a license to do exactly that, and to get on with the good bits of marriage.”

Athena pursed her lips, but didn’t look terribly repentant. “Spoiling my sport? You know, a lot of families ‘accidentally’ let their innocent little ducklings sneak off to play. Getting the boys and girls to feel like the whole thing is their idea is completely worth moving up a wedding date. Not that anyone here would do such a thing, of course. I just wanted to know how the girl is earning our friend’s affection.”

Thaddeus snorted, and started to reply, but Jacob waved him down. “No, it’s fine. Our honor is fully intact, thank you very much. Anna is beautiful, though, isn’t she? And she’s a dream when she wants to be. Despite my father’s title, I feel like a peasant next to her, and she knows it.

"But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still trying to figure her out, and this whole marriage thing in general. It hasn’t been that long since I got the news, after all. Sometimes I think she really likes me, and sometimes I think she doesn’t see me at all. Just Ironwood’s second son: a backwoods noble whose family is worth half hers despite the title.

"Anna can be clever and considerate at times, but she also seems so young and materialistic, and so caught up in her own concerns. I have no idea who she will grow into.”

Athena watched his expression carefully, then raised an eyebrow. “No jitters about the death of freedom and all that?”

Jacob sighed. “A few. I’ve always known my father would marry me off for money or politics, but that was always somewhere off in the future. Now it’s starting to feel real. Not just getting married, but all the expectations Father has for my next twenty years: every post, every promotion, every child, every coin I’m expected to make. Jitters about Anna herself are almost icing on the cake, though I have enough of those.

"Father is being quite clear that my life is not my own, and in his estimation, being handled poorly. After all: what man of note spends time in taverns and the company of fighting men? Speaking of which, my ale is waiting. Let’s have a toast!”

Athena grimaced in sympathy, but all three lifted their glasses, and Thaddeus called out the toast, “To Good Friends!” He drank slowly, savoring his last mug of the night.

After a contented sigh, Thaddeus addressed his young friend. “Jacob, you can’t make everyone happy, but you don’t have to sleep next to everyone, either. When you’re figuring out who to please, keep that in mind. And stay true to yourself. As long as you’re about selling your soul, make sure you get a good price. I work hard, take care of the children, but I also have my evenings here to unwind. No one’s taking that away from me, and they can’t take it from you either.”

Jacob’s face lightened, despite himself. “Sure, unless you have ambitions of any kind. Or your cherished loved ones have them for you.”

Athena shook her head despairingly. “See, that’s what you get when you give a rat’s ass about what someone else thinks of you. Show some backbone and she’ll come around.” Then, almost against her will, she lowered her voice. “Even if fate does screw you somehow, life goes on. Thaddeus could tell you about that too.”

Thaddeus could. He drank too much not to know the world wasn’t always rainbows and puppies. His own home life was far from perfect. He and his wife didn’t fight much these days, but that only because they had grown practiced at staying out of each other’s hair. That was why he was out in a tavern on a weekday night, rather than home with her and his three children. Well, he was pretty sure the latter two were his. You had to take the bad with the good, and make of it what you could.

Thaddeus brushed the traitor thoughts from his mind, and grinned convincingly. “Why, because I’m here rather than at home? I have a wife who actually prefers it when I carouse once in a while. Makes her more appreciative when she does get a hold of me.”

Jacob added softly, “Carouse indeed! You like to drink a bit and listen to music, perhaps occasionally pretend you can carry a tune. Still, you are as faithful as a monk.”

Thaddeus laughed, “Perhaps, fool that I am.”

Athena snorted, “More faithful. A few so-called men in brown have tried in vain to teach me new ways to pray: celibacy be damned. Thankfully, I am the image of willpower.”

Just then then the door burst open and Daniel, one of the young guards who worked at the keep, swept into the inn in full regalia, including chain mail and helmet. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the difference in lighting, then hurried through the room over to Jacob’s table. Once there, he blurted out, breathlessly, “Pardon, Master Jacob, but you’re needed at the keep right now! There’s been an attack. Timothy is dead, and Father Gerrold. They must have been after the Shield of St. Thomas, because it is gone!”

“Dead”, Jacob mouthed quietly. Hands a blur, he fished coins out of his purse, and placed them on the table. Rising with an almost casual grace, he swept on his cloak in a motion, and stepped towards the door. “Follow me,” he said.

As he rushed to the keep, Jacob’s thoughts were on poor Timothy. His duty area was by the chapel in the center of town, next to the keep itself. He was, or had been, almost two years younger than Jacob, and proud as a peacock to be in the Guard. He was a also big fellow: broad, muscular, and cocky, but his good-natured enthusiasm made him everyone’s friend. He seemed invincible: it hardly seemed possible that he was dead. Then there was Father Gerrold, who had initiated Jacob into the church and welcomed him into adulthood: gone. A murder in the chapel was beyond belief, but tonight there had been two. Impossible. Yet only a little less shocking was the theft of the shield of St. Thomas.

St. Thomas had been a hero in the wars between Margon and Balina, two hundred years ago. High Lord Umber of Balina unleashed an immense army without warning or mercy, attempting to become Emperor of the civilized world. The larger nation pressed Margon ruthlessly, almost to the point of collapse. Countless brave young men were lost to the crows, to the grief of all that remained, and yet Margon refused to surrender. Legend said that without the efforts of St. Thomas, it would have fallen entirely into ruin. However, with his leadership, engineering skill, and strategic genius, Margon held. St. Thomas turned affairs around almost singlehandedly, reversing Margon’s losses, and even swelling its borders. Enduring a decade of brutal fighting, he finally defeated Umber personally, and sued a humbled Balina for peace.

Afterward, sick to death of war, the great Saint fled eastward to live as hermit. He settled alone, in the ruins of a city abandoned in the Great Fall. It lay just east of the mountains that sheltered civilization, where the barbarian clans had not yet spread to fill the overgrown land. He hoped to put himself beyond the reach of all men, and the memories of those he couldn’t save. Unfortunately for his plans, hundreds of families followed him into exile. Refugees and adventurers alike believed that where the hero of Margon went, peace and prosperity would follow.

It was not long before the nearby sons of Kharshe took notice of the town growing to their west. They began to mount raids, first to steal, then to kill. In response, St. Thomas reluctantly built a stone keep and a wall to protect his people. Though the settlers faced only a few small clans, defense against them was a desperate affair. In the end, St. Thomas’s skill in diplomacy proved as important as the village’s defenses. Invoking God as his defender, St. Thomas cowed the nearby raiders into bargaining for peace, thus safeguarding the first settlement east of the mountains, after the Fall. This town became Ironwood, and thrived in the shelter of its founder’s reputation. It was said that as long as St. Thomas’s shield watched over Ironwood, it would never fall. Now that shield was gone.

Jacob’s breath was heavy in his own ears as he approached the keep, though that sound and the footsteps of his friends were quickly lost in the chaos of a milling crowd. Guardsmen in armor, merchants, craftsmen, and all manner of men and women crowded together for protection, looking for order. Shock so far had quieted them, but their voices were beginning to rise; they wanted an answer, a response to the murders among them. Lord Sterik was in their center, grabbing individual guardsmen and sending them to the gates, or to posts on the town wall. When he saw his Jacob and his friends arrive, he motioned them over.

“If only Erik were here”, he muttered, just loud enough to be heard. “Well, we make do with what we have.”

The Baron’s eyes bore through the young men and women before him, unimpressed, as he raised his voice for them to hear. His words were quick and curt. “So I see you’ve finally arrived. Jacob, the chapel was attacked by two unknown clansmen. They cut Timothy’s throat and dragged him inside the chapel. There, they killed Father Gerrold, and took the Shield of St. Thomas. On the bright side, Daniel was stationed nearby, just around the corner. He saw the assassins leave with the Shield, and raised the alarm. He stayed alive, and now he knows their faces. That is the only good news, I fear. I’ve set men to scour Ironwood, but I would bet my left arm the bastards have already left. Given the dark, we don’t know much more yet.”

The Baron took a slow breath, and frowned out into the crowd. “Jacob, this cannot stand. We need justice for Ironwood, and we need that shield back. The people are scared, and we’re low on men, with the spring caravans out. I’m putting every man I can spare on the walls to calm them, but someone has to find the worthless vomit-specks who did this and make them pay. I’m sending you.

"You’ll need a team of people that can leave with the dawn. Ceann will be your advisor: listen to him. You’ll need at least one tracker, and someone besides yourself who can speak Kharshe. You can have Daniel; he has some skill there, and he’s a witness. I can spare Thaddeus too, since he can speak the language, and he is fair with a blade.”

Jacob held his face blank, concealing his surprise. His father had never trusted him to lead a team outside the keep before. He was still numb with loss, but under that, part of him wanted to be the one to strike back against the insanity. Part of him wanted to prove he could. He spared a glance for Ceann, the broad red-haired man behind his father. Several years older than Jacob, and a little younger than Thaddeus, Ceann was a commoner whose hard work had earned him his own wagon, and the Baron’s ear. He was well-respected, though he spent a lot of his time driving a cart among the outlying villages. He didn’t travel with the main caravans, though, and he was available now. Ceann and the Baron’s son had never been close. Jacob wrenched his mind back to the moment, and the challenge ahead. “Of course, father. Glad to have you with us, Ceann. Might I suggest Athena? We could use a second tracker.”

Lord Ironwood nodded reluctantly. “I suppose you will want another. Athena is perhaps the best we have left.”

Brother Francis interjected in a gentle voice but powerful voice, one that could not be ignored, “Excuse me, my Lord, but I also intend to travel east. I came here to see the Shield of St. Francis. If you let me travel with you, I will gladly help you find it. In Clan territory, a man of the cloth may learn more than a guardsman. I’m fluent in multiple Clan dialects, and I can handle myself in a fight, if it comes that. If I had been with father Gerrold tonight, he might be alive.” The monk paused and grimaced. “I am used to the road. I can keep up.”

To his own surprise, Jacob found himself nodding in agreement. “Father, with your permission, I think he will be a fine sixth. We may also need some goods for trade and bribes. May I raid the warehouse?”

Lord Ironwood nodded slowly. “We are shorthanded, and your assistance is welcome. If my son will not refuse you, neither will I. For the rest, Jacob, take what you need. Make the best of the trip, but do not be distracted from your purpose. Keep your load light, and listen to Ceann.”

Ceann filled the silence with his own words, “Does my Lord consider six to be optimal? Fewer might be better if you only want to scout out the artifact, and more would be safer if you hope to recover it.”

Sterik looked meaningfully at his son, and so Jacob responded, “Our best bet is to to take a small number of people, and catch the thieves on the road. We need enough swords to overpower them, but few enough to catch them. If they do make it to somewhere larger than a village, I may need to act as an envoy, to ransom the holy artifact or offer a reward. Six people is perfect: few enough to travel quickly, but just enough to handle a few dangerous men. And also enough to be taken seriously by clan leader, if it comes to that.”

Sterik nodded. “It will do. I certainly will not send a dozen people wandering around in the woods to chase down one piece of equipment, no matter how valuable. You will find the shield with six. Return with it, or if you are outmatched, with enough information to retrieve it later. If you get the chance to bring the murderers to justice, take it, but use discretion. Also, return within a month, whether you fail or succeed. I cannot afford to send a patrol to find you if you run late, but the common folk will be nervous if you are gone long. Are we clear?”

In a rare moment, he lowered his voice and added in a tone pitched only for Jacob and Ceann, who he motioned forward. “This mission may seem unlikely, but it is important you succeed. I hesitate to mention it, but the loss of the shield could cause unrest, here and with our neighbors.”

Jacob sighed and replied in a low voice to match his father’s, “Yes, I know. Many of the clans do not love us. Some call us neighbors, but others only tolerate us because they fear our God. But they are superstitious, and they remember that St. Thomas was even more heavily outnumbered than we, when he established Ironwood’s peace. The clans may rethink the peace if they realize his Shield has been taken.”

Lord Ironwood shook his head firmly. “Do not be over-dramatic. Yes, someone is likely trying to damage our reputation. But even most barbarians know better than to believe that nonsense. They tolerate us because trading with us is more profitable than fighting us. Come back with the shield, and keep quiet about your concerns. More than anything, it is our confidence that keeps our neighbors respectful.”

Jacob wasn’t so sure, but he knew better than to argue. Already, excitement over the opportunity, and anxiety over the need to deliver, began to eat at him. He replied the only way he could. “Of course, Father. We will find them.”

Sterik raised his voice to a normal pitch. “Then I wish you luck. Go, while I get this mess under control. Ceann, get them started. Good luck to you all.” He waited only for Ceann’s nod before turning back to the crowd, and so he missed the dark look the man sent Jacob’s way before speaking.

“Come Jacob, let’s started packing,” the redhead commanded. “Everyone else, prepare one bag to carry and load one pack horse for travel. I’ll see you all at dawn.”

Jacob cleared his throat. “Actually, I need to explain all this to my fiancee, but I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.” Doing his best to ignore Ceann’s impatient eyes, Jacob left to give Anna the news. It had been a long day; he braced himself for an equally long night, and an early morning.

Standing just outside of the town wall, Serren was smiled as he observed the town. The town was beginning to buzz, and torches to gather like fireflies. The job had gone almost as well as he could have hoped. He had the Shield of St. Thomas, and his team was on its way home. It would have been better if no one had laid eyes on him, but it was dark, and he doubted he doubted any of the locals would recognize one clansman from another. Even if they did, they would never catch him. He and his comrades had spent hours earlier laying false tracks. It seemed unlikely coin-counters could track him at all, but even his comrades would be unable to follow him in the darkness, and that would put any pursuit a good day behind.

Serren let himself enjoy, for a moment, the thrill of success. He did not know why his master was wary of the object he carried, when his own God’s power was so much greater. But a strong leader made allowances for all possibilities, he supposed. In any event, there was absolutely nothing to fear now. The warrior smiled in triumph, then mounted with quick and quiet skill, as his men followed behind.

Sparing one more look for the stirring lights, he knew a shadow of regret. The town was lovely, despite being peopled with grubs and sheep. Serren had seen a number of fine cottages that he would gladly claim as his own; he might yet get the chance. He hoped they did not get too badly burnt to occupy, in the fight to come. There was no way Ironwood’s defenders could stand against what was coming, but it was possible that a cottage would remain for him. Shakath would not demand all of Ironwood for his flames. Probably.

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