Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 16: You Can't Go Back

Jacob stared off into the west, toward what he might still call home. With the days growing shorter, the shadows were already long, dark, and cold. He and the rest of the delegation from the Kharshe had waited quietly for King (now Prince) Haldor’s party to return home. Thankfully, the Chieftain had declined their offer of hospitality, probably just to give them some time to recover from the insult. Surrendering one’s nation without even a battle was humiliating. Jacob understood well. What a waste of effort the improvements to its wall had been, just like his own attempts to forestall the inevitable. What God had decided this was the best of all possible fates? At the moment, Jacob was not particularly inclined to gratitude.

“Prince Jacob,” a deep voice rumbled, breaking the son of Ironwood from his reverie. It was easy to forget how dangerous the Chieftain really was. His tone was often firm, but seldom harsh. “A moment.”

Jacob rode to his Emperor’s side, for that’s what the man truly was, whatever he titled himself. On top of his great black horse, he looked enormous. “Yes, Chieftain?”

“Do you plan to return to Ironwood alone?” Dorgann asked, brown eyes fixed on his response.

Jacob shook his head. “No, Chieftain. I hoped to gather the men from my caravan to Sarronen and return with them.”

The Kharshe warrior gave a curt nod, as the copper-haired queen rode to his side. They made a magnificent pair. “Very well. However, I suggest you return as quickly as possible, if you want to find anything of Ironwood left when you do. Duke Whitehill, with the help of the Ascended Semorre, has taken the crown of Margon, and his herald is already in Ironwood, trying to win its people. Anyone who wishes to stay and submit to your rule, and therefore mine, will be allowed to. But expect Margon to try to prevent it.”

Queen Kaelynn added, in her liquid contralto, “You have more to deal with than simply Whitehall, Jacob. No fewer than three Sorcerers have been tearing Margon apart, trying to win its crown. One of them is a Margon Count that’s taken defeat rather poorly, and I expect he’ll swing by Ironwood eventually. Our agreement is only with Whitehill and his allies, I’m afraid, so you’ll need to be prepared for him.”

Jacob felt sick. Bad enough that he would have to wrest the town of Ironwood from his own father, by force if necessary. He would also have to contend with Margon Sorcerers, including one who intended to capture his town. “What is the name of this rogue Sorcerer, your Majesties?”

“His name,” Dorgann replied, “is Count Dorman. You’ll likely have to kill him, I’m afraid. The Queen and I will join you in Ironwood to finalize the agreement with Whitehall, but after that, Ironwood is your responsibility. I will expect you and your army here in the Spring, though, for the campaign against Travan. A thousand souls should do.”

He was to bring a thousand men? After murdering a Sorcerer and losing much of the town to Margon? Jacob’s stomach was already tying itself in knots. “Kill him, your Majesty? And if I’m unable to defeat him?”

“Yes, of course,” Dorgann responded waspishly. “I don’t prefer to repeat myself. I expect you’ll be able. You’re not much use to us, otherwise. Don’t rely on poison, though. Vallaton has begun to work out immunity to some of the more deadly substances.”

Worse and worse. “Very well, your Majesty. Anything else I should know?”

Dorgann’s smile was a blast of pure winter, and the Queen’s was not much gentler as she replied. “Best of luck, Prince Jacob. I’ll see you again soon.”

There was nothing to do but offer the best bow he could manage in his saddle, and begin the slow ride into Sarronen. He had some friends to apologize to, if any would still listen.

Jacob’s brain pounded steadily against the sides of skull, in revenge for a night’s drunken attempt at atonement. There were far too many debts to repay - he hadn’t served either Ironwood or Sarronen very well. Not that his failure had been entirely his fault. After all, he doubted there was any way he could have defeated Chieftain Dorgann through persuasion, battle, or trickery. As far as he knew, the only real choice he’d had was whether to live or die. Living was a hard choice to regret, most of the time.

Halvar had, in the end, agreed. Jacob had knocked on his friend’s door repeatedly until his knuckles were raw, before Sarronen’s prince had reluctantly answered. He’d then invited himself in and plied the clansman with a great bottle of wine. A few hours and many hard words later, Jacob had finally convinced his friend that if he’d had to face Dorgann a hundred times, he would have lost as many times. When they had both drunk so much that alcohol was sloshing in their ears, they had made up, and faced the new reality of a new Kharshe Empire together. Haldor and his son had even grimly bid his caravan farewell as he departed the next morning, promising to welcome any guest or trader from Ironwood with open arms. Given the circumstances, Jacob was truly touched.

His own colleagues, on the other hand, were more uneasy, though they’d accepted his command once more, and packed quickly for the return to Ironwood. Jacob led the way over the stone and gravel road, with Ceann and Thaddeus following quietly behind. Daniel had volunteered to drive the wagon, and his eagle eyes were fixed on the horizon, in the remote chance that he would have to lift the bow that sat beside him.

The trio had walked for miles between the cottages that lined the broad street, and later between rows of barren trees be-skirted by thick layers of golden brown leaves, before the rangy blond guardsman finally got the nerve to speak. “How are you holding up, Jacob?”

The cutting wind and sky of depression gray wanted to answer for him, but Jacob forced himself to speak. “Not as well as I’d like. I’ve had enough time to count my problems, but not enough time to see my way out of them. The Kharshe Empire could change everything, and not all for the better. Not that I’d dare tell the Chieftain.”

“What do you mean by that, exactly?” Thaddeus asked. “I’m usually the pessimist, but the Kharshe want to keep us, not kill us. That’s a good sign. I’m not anxious to go to war against Travan, but it seems like with Sorcerers around, armies are just window dressing. There’s no point in sending soldiers against them as far as I can see. Also, the Kharshe have made peace with Margon, so once Travan is sorted, there’s no one left to fight. We just go home. You can marry your sweetheart, and then - well, you don’t have to go to Pearl Bay, after all. Wedded bliss and all that.”

Jacob chuckled darkly. “I imagine Margon will still want to trade with us, though there’s bound to be some tension there. But the Queen’s already told me I can’t marry Anna. She says I have to find a Kharshe woman. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do that in Ironwood, of course. But I suppose she’s thinking of the Springtime, when I’m supposed to somehow raise a thousand men to ride against Travan. That’s if no other Sorcerers swing by to cause trouble first.”

Thaddeus shook his head sadly, as if Jacob’s concern were catching. “Harsh. But you have enough trouble not to borrow more. I’m sorry about Anna, I really am. Still, Margon at least will leave us be, and I really don’t think the Chieftain’s going to need any of us but you against other Sorcerers. Any army we bring is just going to be there to hold territory.

“Maybe the Queen’s right. Find yourself a good woman, and in a year we’ll all be settling into rebuilding Ironwood and the caravans. At least now you’ll be able to pick who you want to marry. Not someone as lovely as Lysa, of course, but you shouldn’t get greedy. Myself, I intend to settle down, spend a lot less time out, and more with the kids. Sorcery, war - it’s too much for a man like me. I’m gonna lay as low as I can.”

Ceann frowned, his carrot-colored hair waving in the wind, eyes fixed on Thaddeus. “If you’re going to be a coward, that’s your business, but have the sense not to brag about it. Jacob’s worried about Ironwood because he’s honorable, because he’s responsible. Maybe you ought to try it. But no, you’re right. You should just get home to your wife before she wanders off. Again.”

Jacob plucked Thaddeus’s fist from the air before it had the chance to connect. “Ceann, that’s enough. Thaddeus, next time you attack his honor, I’m not stopping him. Let it be.”

“Sorry, Jacob,” Ceann mumbled, as Thaddeus cross his arms, though his face was murderous. “But sometimes you have real reason to worry. Sometimes you have to take care of business now, and worry about your love life later. Honor saved Ironwood once this year, and your honor will save it again. I believe that.”

Jacob nodded. He wished he could, but honor had brought him nothing but grief lately. He was tired. Before this past Spring, Jacob had done what he wanted to do, they way he’d wanted to do it, and damn his father’s demands. He thought he’d finally grown up and found honor, and purpose.

Yet what had that bought him? First, he’d become a killer. He’d thought it was worth it, to save his life, and that of Ironwood, but now it turned out he hadn’t saved Ironwood after all. Maybe he still could, but for what, just to march its sons off to their deaths? If he survived the possibly endless duels required to defend his home?

Recent events hadn’t exactly done the best for his personal life, either. He’d lost Athena. He’d come close to falling for the dark-haired Laranna, only to be shown what a fool he was for that. Then, he’d tried to protect her, and God knows what was happening to her now: the Travansils would probably kill her, or worse, put them on opposite sides of the battlefield.

And then, he’d finally let Anna in, started finding a real relationship with her, a real hope that they could have happiness and a family in each other. Now he’d have to give that up to. Jacob knew what he was “supposed” to do. But he couldn’t believe in it, not the way he used to. Honor had no answers - it was only a fraud, an illusion. He’d go home, to whatever home was left, but only because he didn’t have anything else. Just the thought left him exhausted.

“Family comes first,” Thaddeus replied stubbornly. “The older you get, the more you learn that. I don’t care what the Sorcerers say, or the childless red-headed wonder. Ceann, if you ever find a woman you don’t scare away, maybe you can tell me something about how much family isn’t worth.”

“I don’t know what to tell Anna,” Jacob continued, trying to wrench the other two from their disagreement.

“Tell her you’d marry her gladly, but the Queen forbids it,” Ceann shrugged. “That way Thaddeus can brag about how he’s the only one with a real love life.”

“Not the only one,” Thaddeus smirked. “I’m assuming we still plan to stop at Thane’s house?”

“Yes,” Jacob answered, with a genuine smile. “Daniel should have at least that much.”

Ceann, for a wonder, only nodded. At least there was still one thing to keep the peace between the two, even if Jacob’s efforts failed. Jacob only hoped that, after seeing Anginette, Daniel would be more inclined to forgive him. He could only hope, even if that hope had turned as cold as the coming winter snow.

“Jacob, I have never seen you so in need of a drink. Did you not say the news is good?”

The prince of Ironwood grimaced, then downed the last sip of wine. If he had thought to refuse Hannah’s offer of hospitality, he had been quickly overruled. Her cooking must have been delicious, given the way the others raved about it. Both Thane and his wife had been pleased to hear Sarronen had joined the Kharshe Empire, and overjoyed that the Empire was willing to take Ironwood peacefully into its fold. Since their new Chieftain had arranged a deal with Margon, all seemed well. Jacob had not yet explained the threat of Travan. The words he needed seemed to be drowning somewhere in his wine, and his attempt to chase after them only left him further adrift.

Anginette, on the other hand, had embraced Daniel fiercely, and her head was resting on his shoulder right now, after nearly an hour of their staring into each other’s eyes. Sometimes, young love was a beautiful thing to watch. At the moment, it left Jacob wanting to kick something. That probably had less to do with their goofy grins than with his inability to right himself in the world, though it did seem every ounce of sense and dignity had oozed out of their hollow heads.

Jacob seemed to be alone in his mood, though. Thaddeus, of course, had taken things philosophically, but even Ceann seemed resigned to events. Ironwood was only nominally a member of Margon - the others seemed to think nominal membership in the Kharshe Empire wouldn’t be much of a change. The “prince” wasn’t so sure.

But he had been silent too long, and he supposed he owed Thane an answer. “Things could be worse, maybe. Maybe? But I am not looking forward to fighting my father over Ironwood. God knows what Margon will be do. Easy for Kharshe not to worry about it, but Ironwood is trade. Was built on trade, I mean. Anyway, I’m more worried about Travan.

“There’s Sorcerers in Travan too, and the Kharshe want me to help fight ’em. They’ll ask me to fight Travan, and any stupid Sorcerer the Compact won’t let them. Things between Ironwood and Kharshe are all good. The rest of the world? Dipped in dung up to its eyeballs.”

That hadn’t come out quite as dignified as it ought to. Maybe Jacob had drunk a bit too much already. But he didn’t care. It was freeing. It let him not care.

Thane examined the contests of his mug carefully, as if unclear whether to drain them, or whether to fill the cup again. After a moment, he poured generously into both Jacob’s mug and his own. “You need this more than I do, young man. Hannah and I know well what it is to carry worry for others. But what good is it now, the weight on your shoulders? Let it rest. You cannot do more tonight.”

Jacob opened his mouth as if to retort. What did Thane know of war and murder, or of Sorcery? What if he couldn’t find the right way to tell Anna goodbye? What could he tell his father? I failed, now give me your Barony? But Thane’s deep blue eyes and Hannah’s red sympathetic smile read all of that, all that mattered. So instead, Jacob pressed his lips into a sheepish grin instead, and lifted his cup in salute. They were right, he couldn’t deny it, and the breath that had been slowly escaping his lungs left in a chuckle. When he inhaled, slowly, a sad and weary calm flowed through him. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

“Yenna,” his host called out, “do you know a song fit for the evening?”

Thane’s younger daughter bounced to her feet, dirty blond hair swishing fetchingly about her shoulders as she jumped to her retrieve her flute. “Of course, father. I’ve just learned a new one.”

Thaddeus, who had been regaling the younger boys with tales of the east, turned to listen as the young woman checked the strings. Even Ceann, who had been listening with reluctant amusement to Thaddeus’s stories, turned to look. Yenna cleared her throat softly. “I hope you like it. The right note…”

He swept me up with wooing eyes beside the weeping willow,

Fair of face and strong of arm, his walk did make me tremble,

The lad who stole my love away in Villa Torinhillo.

He came to me as I called my wares, my rope and wax, and candles,

He gave his heart and bought my line, the man from Torinhillo.

Jacob wanted to laugh, though the song touched his drunken heart despite himself. The words were doggerel, meandering on about god-cursed lovers who fought to rest in each other’s arms, and grow old together. But the tune was perfectly bittersweet, and as the tension in Jacob’s brow faded, the drink was ready to dissolve his self-blame, and his worried resentment at the unfairness of the world. The shining eyes of the young lovers who turned from the singer to each other were mirrored in the tenderness of Thane and Hannah. Thaddeus looked half ready to weep, and even Ceann’s expression softened.

The “prince” found himself leaning back against the wall, his slow smile of inebriation melding with the companionship in the air. Thaddeus had brought his fiddle this time, and Daniel took his turn with singing. And suddenly, Jacob realized it was beautiful. All of it. For a few hours at least, he found a measure of peace.

Jacob had woken with a splitting headache, an uneasy stomach, and a bemused grin. Despite the aches and pains, and his desire to squint against the light, he felt surprisingly good. Breakfast had been lovely, even if he had eaten sparingly. Vague memories of song and dance from the night before sifted through his mind, though there seemed to be pieces missing.

Whatever had passed, Jacob felt better, more like himself, and Thane and Hannah seemed pleased at the change. At his encouragement, Daniel had asked for formal permission to court Anginette, which had been granted, to their great joy. What had been fun and flirtatious was now serious. Come next year, Daniel would spend months trading and helping Thane, and learning if he and Anginette were marriage material.

“Jacob, my friend,” Thane had said, “it’s always a great thing to see you and the others. Maybe this way it will not be so long until next time, eh?”

“I hope not,” Jacob had replied. “I don’t think I’ll be going to Margon, now, but I may be too busy for caravan runs. Still, my friend, call and I will do all I can to come.”

“Hah,” Thane laughed, clapping his back. “To have a very Prince at my beck and call!”

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Jacob quipped back at the older blond. “I’m still not going to cut Ironwood’s prices.”

Then he sobered a bit, thinking again of how much would change, before adding, “I don’t know if we can bring as much come Spring, given events with Margon, but we’ll do what we can.”

“I trust you will,” Thane replied. “You’re a good man, prince Jacob, but you worry too much. Bring what you can, and we will make good of it. And we will look forward to taking Daniel under our roof!”

With that, and many loud and cheerful goodbyes, the wagon was on the road again to Ironwood. Jacob took the opportunity to sidle up next to Daniel, who walked in front of the horses, leaving Thaddeus to take his turn in the archer’s chair, while Ceann drove the wagon.

The younger man blew a strand of his lengthening dark hair from before his eyes, then examined his “prince” uncomfortably. “What is it, Jacob?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry I had to surrender Ironwood to the Kharshe. It was the right thing to do, but I wouldn’t have done it if I had any other real choice. Chieftain Dorgann is worth ten of me in a fight. I never had a chance.”

The tracker looked downward, as if reading the signs of the road. It was cold again, and still damp from a late night rain. Soon the ground would be frozen. “I know that, Jacob. It’s not your fault, not really. But what’s gonna stop these Sorcerers from doing whatever they feel like, no matter how insane? They’re busy now, fighting each other, but after that, what do they want with us?”

Jacob scratched his forehead. Why hadn’t he thought to probe Kaelynn about that? Maybe because, despite her vast power and experience, she was a woman, not a god. A beautiful, capable, dangerous woman. “That’s a good question. Brother Francis said once that we’re like pets to them. Why are they fighting each other in some places, and making permanent treaties in others? Innoken, before we fought, said the point of life was conflict, that it made the soul stronger. But he also wanted to be worshiped, more than mere pride would seem to justify. Of course, if belief in my sword give it the power to counter Sorcery, what would a belief that an Ascended is a God do? What if Sorcerers are returning here just to gain more power before they return to Vallaton?”

Daniel glanced incredulously his way, before dropping his head again to the road. “Maybe, but I thought it was supposed to be some kind of paradise. What do they need us for? You think they just like to have someone to lord over? That sounds about right. I know people like that.”

“You think I wanted to be a prince, Daniel?” the former Lord Ironwood responded sharply.

Daniel’s brown eyes found his again. “Don’t you? You’re going to be one of those Vallaton types too, aren’t you. Innoken said so. Sorcerers and their - pets, right? All set to own us, and send us to war.”

Jacob stopped in his tracks, until Daniel had to step to the side of the road and turn to face him, as the wagon rolled by. “What is it, Daniel? Spit it out.”

“I trusted you, Jacob. I thought you were one of us,” the young man replied. “You may be pretty decent for a Sorcerer, but you’re one of them. Even if St. Thomas had never juiced you up, you would be. Just younger, like a child version.

“Daniel,” replied. He stopped, swallowing a strange lump in his throat. “I’m your friend. I did what I had to do, but I’ve never lied to you. Not once.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said, frowning in uncertainty and guilt, then kicked some dead grass with his boot. “Sorry, Jacob. I just - I don’t know. So much is changing, I can’t even believe it. It’s crazy.”

“It’s not all bad,” Jacob said, beginning to walk behind the tall, dusty wagon. It had been shined and painted for the parade, but dirt and dust had caked onto the lower panels, looking even drabber against the gray sky. He pulled his cloak tighter at the sight of darker clouds ahead. Late autumn rain was cold rain. “After all, you’ve found Anginette. You should be grateful - getting Thane to let a Westerner date his daughter took some convincing.”

“Yeah,” Daniel laughed, a broad and genuine smile making its way to his face. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she? Smart too. Not that I don’t deserve to have a girl like her, you know. It’s just nice.”

“Sure,” Jacob responded, not bothering to hide his amusement. “Tell that to - what was her name, Mariya?”

“Mariya was pretty enough,” Daniel sniffed, “but her lack of taste isn’t my problem. Hey, don’t you think we ought to get back in front of the wagon?”

Jacob smiled, and led the way forward. Even if the world was going to hell, he’d find a way to shield Daniel from it. Someone should have a normal life.

The days passed slowly, as the wagon rolled slowly back to Ironwood. After a bone-chilling storm, the weather grew clear and cold. Sunrise began with wind and frost, heralding the winter that had nearly arrived. Then, thankfully, the sun and warmth returned briefly, making a welcome respite. Jacob and Daniel had returned to something close to the trust they’d had, tiptoeing around the idealism both had shared, but were unwilling, just yet, to touch again. Thaddeus seemed, if anything, more mature. He worried a bit about the future of the eastern caravan run, but seemed mostly grateful to be returning home. It was good to have someone to rely on.

Ceann had been quiet, but surprisingly, almost humble. Jacob knew he intimidated the man, but it was more than that. He had always been so cocky, but being faced with armies and Sorcerers rearranging all of Annaria seemed to have left its mark. Instead, he seemed thoughtful, almost deferential. Jacob was caught between feeling grateful and guilty. Most of that guilt, though, had nothing to do with Ceann, and everything to do with Anna, his family, and the future of Ironwood. But until he got home, he had nothing more effective than worry to deal with it. Chieftain Dorgann had said Margon was already in the process of offering relocation to the residents of Ironwood. Until he heard the details of that, there was just too much he didn’t know. Any attempt to speculate only led him in circles, and tied him in knots. So he turned his thoughts away from honor and responsibility, and tried to enjoy the road, instead.

It worked, mostly. The sun was high, the weather was pleasant and free of insects, and the stark beauty of the leafless countryside was soothing. That was when he saw the enormous crimson bird circling above, with darkly agate for eyes, and yellow-gold plumage near its beak. It was beautiful and fierce and frightening: its colors too vivid for words. It flew close enough that it seemed twice the size of a human or more, and yet high enough that its shadow stretched like that of a dragon across the trees and grasses. “Daniel, what in the name of Lazarus is that? Have you ever seen anything like it?”

Daniel squinted upwards, jaw open. “That looks like - well, damn if I know. No, there’s not a bird in the world that big, or that bright.”

“It’s diving,” Jacob replied, raising a hand to shield against the sun as it dove into a small copse of trees. He stood still for a moment, waiting to see if it would emerge again. It didn’t.

“Well, that was something,” Daniel said, and after a moment they both returned to walking.

And so it was. A minute later, a tall copper-haired woman glided from the copse, and flowed toward them, dark sapphire and gold gown trailing gracefully behind in the wind. Her clothing was finely made and embroidered, and gold glinted from her wrists and neck. Otherwise, she bore only a small brown leather pack. Her visage was arresting. Jacob’s eyes widened.

“My Queen,” he said, as she approached. “I didn’t expect you to drop in.”

“Prince Jacob, it is good to see you. These must be the friends you mentioned. Daniel, I commend you. Very few can infiltrate a Kharshe army and escape unscathed. Sometime, you must tell me how you managed it.”

Daniel stared at the queen openly for a long moment, then blushed and lowered his head. “It was nothing, my Queen. I wouldn’t have been able to, if Jacob hadn’t been there to distract everyone.”

Kaelynn nodded gravely. “An accomplishment, still.”

Thaddeus cleared his throat nervously, and asked, “Your Majesty, how did you get here?”

The Kharshe Queen smiled knowingly. “Jacob, walk with me. We have news to share before we see Ironwood tomorrow.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” the merchant answered with a short bow, then stepped to her side, ignoring the whispers between Thaddeus and Daniel.

The beautiful queen remained silent, however, her creamy skin unblemished by the travel, and an amused smile perched on her cherry lips. Jacob waited several minutes, listening to the swish of her dress as it flapped in the slight breeze, the crush of gravel under wagon wheels, and the clop of hooves on gravel, before he was moved finally to speak. “Your Majesty, you said you had news to share.”

“I did,” the queen answered, voice musical.

“Would you care to quench my curiosity, then?” Jacob asked mildly.

“I would rather not,” she laughed, hands clasped before her, green eyes glistening. “It’s too bright a flame to douse. Besides, you talk too much.”

Jacob only grinned at the rebuke, and the white-blue sky that began to yellow as the sun slipped beneath the tall pillars of pristine cloud that filled the air. As the hours quickly passed, Kaelynn walking close by his side, the orb continued downward, as if it were passing through a great temple to the red fires of the underworld. When the sun reached the distant hills, the fires ignited, angry red at the horizon, but rising throughout the evening in pinks and yellows, before meeting the deep blue that presaged night. The evening shadows ran long, deepening the grays of the gravel and stone, and the greens of grasses that had not yet succumbed to winter snow.

Only then did Jacob dare speak. “Kaelynn, I think it’s time to camp for the night.”

The queen stirred, as if from reverie. “Yes, of course. You may have it set up, then.”

So Jacob fell back, calling to Ceann to haul out the tents and cooking supplies. With no horse to attend to, he began to gather wood and tinder, wondering at the queen’s long silence. She remained standing where she was, hands clasped behind her, as Jacob brought the leaves, brush, and sticks together, and began using his flint to set them ablaze.

Thaddeus carefully unwrapped some vegetables and strips of cured beef for the stew, while Ceann stalked north in search of a nearby stream to fill the pots with water. “So,” Thaddeus asked, “you’ve had the afternoon with a beautiful Sorceress. What have you learned? Secrets and witchcraft the like the world has never seen?”

“No,” the dark-haired price replied ruefully. “I haven’t learned a thing, except that our queen values her time to think.”

“That,” Kaelynn replied as she gracefully approached and seated herself on a nearby log, “is no small step toward wisdom, and a habit you might want to try, yourself.”

“I hope you’re in the mood for stew, my Queen,” Jacob replied after a nod, changing the subject. Thaddeus continued to watch her, arrested, with eyes wide.

“Stew sounds lovely,” she said. “A day filled with travel is a fine spice for any meal, but I trust you will do justice to this one.”

Ceann, meanwhile, was stepping through the weeds to the north, a long-handled pot filled with water in each hand. He slowed as he saw the queen, but then paced toward the fire’s rising scarlet and amber tongues, and hung the pots on the spit.

“Thank you,” Jacob acknowledged, and began placing meat, spices, and vegetables into the water. “So, what does the goddess Atha wish to tell us, your Majesty?”

The queen’s eyebrow rose, pushing the glimmering red stone riding on her forehead upward. Both it and her hair shone in the rays of the waning sunlight, and the rising fire. However, she chose not to question him. “She has news from across Annaria. Margon is calming, now that its most serious rebel has been driven east across the Wall - fortunate for Margon, less so for Ironwood.

“Balina and Chaltan are still firestorms, but neither are much concerned at the moment with events beyond their borders. A few magicians are popping up across our own realm, those who would be Sorcerers if they had a bit more power. We need to keep an eye on them, especially if they join the Compact.

“There are also a couple new Sorcerers in the north of Travan, even if one is scarcely worth the name. They will have to be dealt with. However, neither is as significant as the Travansils, who have already begun their assault on the so-called Empress of Travan. Before long, they will gather the lion’s share of the nation behind them. The time we have to spend in Ironwood grows short, Jacob. The new king of Margon is already preening that he has recruited your father, and some of your countryman have already set out westward. We’ll have to work quickly if there’s to be anything of your princedom left.”

Jacob rocked backward, his thoughts racing. Around the fire, the others looked stunned. And yet, it made sense. Except, Daniel’s question kept returning to him. “Why does the king of Margon want our people? What does he hope to gain? Will he oppose me?”

Kaelynn smiled knowingly. “Margon and Kharshe have a deal: we get Ironwood, but he can keep whoever swears to him. He’ll honor the deal, of course, to the letter. But what does King Garet want? Power, Jacob. In the long course of centuries, power is life.”

“Vallaton is supposed to be some kind of paradise,” Daniel objected. “And we’re talking about gods. Atha, Akhor, Shakath, and who else? What power could we offer gods? And what gods do the Travansils follow? Your Majesty.”

The queen raised an eyebrow. “We have a saying in Vallaton: nothing worth having can be won by begging. But perhaps your last question will shed light on the first.

“The brothers of house Travansil worship their father, Amarandor Travansil. At least, that’s the life he lived in the time of Khardum, and he is no friend of Vallaton. His spirit has returned to the founding line of Travan several times, and his sons have each led the nation more than once. You may not be surprised to find they want revenge against the Kharshe.”

“I don’t understand, your Majesty,” Daniel replied. “I thought the dead were beyond our concerns.”

“Sometimes,” the red-haired woman admitted, as the light from the flames flickered across her face. “But the gods are more driven than mortals, not less. Their concerns are larger.”

Jacob shook his head slightly. “I think the stew is ready.”

In moments, Daniel was eagerly ladling the thick substance into his bowl, hungrily savoring the aroma until it was cool enough to eat. The queen followed, and then the rest, while Jacob served ale from a casket. There were some advantages to traveling in the company of a full wagon.

Jacob asked Kaelynn softly, after retrieving his own stew, “Will Chieftain Dorgann join us tomorrow?

He was forced to wait patiently, as she stared into the crackling fire, until finally she stirred. “Hopefully,” she shrugged. “If we have to deal with Whitehill or his lackey Charlienne, we’ll want him. They aren’t pleased that we’re asking to keep you and much of Ironwood’s population. They’re demanding we handle with Margon’s rogue Sorcerer in return. We should be able to convince him to head on, but it will be a delicate dance.”

“Do you like to dance, Kaelynn?” Jacob asked.

She looked up briefly, but Thaddeus was leading the other two men in a drinking song. They were, for the moment alone, and Kaelynn favored Jacob with a rare, teasing smile. “Why, is that an invitation?”

“Thaddeus has his fiddle, and Ceann can keep a beat,” Jacob replied with a wink.

“Some other time,” she laughed musically, though she looked - flattered, grateful? Neither emotion was expected. There was something about teasing her, reaching for the woman behind the mask, that scattered the dark clouds within him.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Jacob replied with a grin. “What does this rogue Sorcerer want?”

“The same thing we all want,” Kaelynn replied, her full lips twisted in to a grimace. “But Dorman outbid his dice, and Whitehill defeated him. Dorman’s following is a pittance, now, but the Compact forbids us from ridding ourselves of him. You, Jacob, can change the game, since you’re not bound by it. He’s proven he won’t bend his knee, but perhaps we can drive him south. I don’t think the Free Cities all have Sorcerers yet. Otherwise, you’ll have to kill him, of course.”

Jacob’s blood ran cold. It wasn’t the first time he’d been asked to kill this Sorcerer he’d never met, but the difficulty and inhumanity of the task was finally starting to sink in. Dorgann’s skills were so far beyond his that he had begun to believe that killing Innoken was a fluke. Kaelynn had even warned him, the other day, that most of the Sorcerers of Vallaton were developing immunities to the fastest-acting poisons. “I hope I can.”

“Me too,” Kaelynn agreed, then sipped coolly from her cup. Jacob could only do the same.

Jacob rose with the sun, thin and weak though it was against the clouds the canopied the gray land. The days had grown short, and his body moved through the rote chores with more haste than usual. Eggs, dried bacon, and stale bread made a quick breakfast, and then the wagon was on the road. Anxiety bubbled within him, and he did not relish what he was asked to do. Still, in this day, in this morning, he was himself.

There was no sign, through breakfast, of the friendliness Kaelynn had shown last night. She rebuffed his questions and ate in silence, distracted by her thoughts or conversations with her “goddess”. Jacob used the time to warn Ceann and Thaddeus to let him break the news of his surrender to the Kharshe in his own way. “And if you either of you choose to take Whitehill’s offer to move to Margon, I won’t hold it against you. Ironwood has a hard road ahead.”

“Don’t worry about that, Jacob,” Thaddeus responded. “I don’t want to ride against Travan, not if I can avoid it, but Ironwood is my home. You’ll be a great Prince, I know it. You would have grown into a good man no matter what, but I can’t help but feel a little proud.”

“Thanks, Thaddeus,” Jacob replied gratefully. “I learned from the best. I’ll always be grateful you took me under your wing in the Guard.”

“You’ve gotten a lot more dangerous since then,” Thaddeus snorted. “Good for you.”

Jacob winked. “I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”

Daniel piped in, “I’m staying too, of course. I mean, as much as I’d like to move west and leave your sorry ass, I don’t think Anginette would take that too well.”

Jacob laughed. “I guess I’m stuck with you, then. I might as well leave you on the caravan, since you’re not good for anything else.”

“Don’t think you’re getting away with that,” Daniel retorted. “If you’re riding east to fight Sorcerers, I want to be there. Just in case it’s a good fight.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll keep you in mind,” Jacob answered with a half-grin. “But your courtship with Anginette isn’t just important for you, but Ironwood. Think carefully before you risk it to go to war.”

“I’m staying too,” Ceann added. “If you’ll have me.”

Jacob carefully smoothed his face to hide his surprise. Ceann was the Baron’s man, and hadn’t exactly been on the best terms with him, or Athena. But even if Thaddeus could handle the wagon to Sarronen, Jacob would be in sore need of men with experience. So he held out his hand, “I’d be honored to. Welcome to the new Ironwood.”

Ceann nodded gratefully, with such dignity he made it almost a bow. There was hope for the man yet.

“Are we quite ready to leave yet?” the Queen called over. She looked ready for a ball, dressed in an entirely different dress than the day before, a long and low-cut gown of majestic purple that flowed elegantly, but curved suggestively about her figure as she walked. She had borrowed a tent for the evening, but her clothing must have been kept in the small bag she’d carried. “We really should arrive in Ironwood by midday.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Jacob called back, then continued in a lower voice, “Better douse the fire, guys.”

Surprisingly, the graceful redhead fell in beside Jacob again, as they began the last leg of their journey. Usually, at the end of a caravan run, Jacob was overjoyed to return home. A caravan would expect to be greeted by a large crowd, followed by drink and dance, and a few days to relax and recover, mostly spent at the Clever Swordsman. This time, though, Jacob was apprehensive. What would his father say? What would Margon want? What about this rogue Sorcerer? Would Jacob have to fight him, after all?

But out loud, Jacob ended up asking a different question entirely. “Is the Chieftain going to fly here too?”

The Queen’s laughter was low and musical, and indescribably feminine. “Flying doesn’t suit our great leader. But his horse will cover the distance in a matter of hours. No mind could believe a horse could move so quickly, until the eye had seen it.”

“You made a beautiful bird,” Jacob added, thoughtlessly. “I’m only sad I missed the transformation.”

The queen’s eyebrows shot to her forehead, but her lips quirked into a dangerous half-smile. “I suppose you gathered that it can’t be done with clothes on, then?”

The dark-haired merchant-lord actually blushed. “Ah - no.”

“You, prince Jacob, are getting to be quite the handful,” the Queen murmured. “A woman can scarcely decide whether to kiss you or feed you to the dogs. I haven’t had the opportunity to discover if I actually can turn men into frogs. It might be interesting to find out.”

“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind, your Majesty,” Jacob responded. “Tell me, do you enjoy being a queen?”

“Do I what?” the lady asked quietly, folding her arms across her breasts.

“You could be anything you want - a warrior, an artist, a philosopher, a general, or an acrobat.” Jacob continued boldly, but decided it could not hurt to flatter. “You have the intelligence, and beauty, and power of a dozen lifetimes. What do you want to do with it?”

The queen stared back at him, like a bird of prey, or the marble statue of Athena in Maragon’s great square. Her arms remained crossed defensively. Her eyes flashed with something that wasn’t anger, but wasn’t pleasure, either. “An Ascended can spend a lifetime trying to answer a question like that. Did you know that in Vallaton, Atha builds castles? Elegant fortresses, with gilded towers and minarets reaching for the sky, surrounded by moats and gardens where every flower and blade of grass is a masterwork beyond your imagining. I used to help her once, but I chose to come here. An eternity spent even in masterworks can grow boring and trite. Today, here, I am a queen, and the people I build will be my work, strong and fierce. Being a good queen is a chore. Being a great queen will be an act to echo throughout the ages. Life is the art that is worth suffering for.”

“That’s - a good answer,” Jacob replied.

“Excellent.” Kaelynn seemed relieved to have the matter closed, and increased her pace to walk ahead. “Now leave me be. I have much to consider.”

So it was, until Ironwood’s flag began to peek over a rolling hill, the keep tower rising slowly behind. In the spring, the open front gate would have been decorated in flowers. In summer, the eye was drawn to the tall green maples to either side of it. A few weeks back, those maples would have been beacons of light and color, bracketing the portal to trade center of Middle Annaria. Now, the gate was stark and the trees barren. The gate remained open, but the streets, as Jacob approached, seemed achingly empty. Too few children played in the streets, and to the side, several of shops were shuttered. A small group was gathering to see the wagon approach, but they were few, and they lacked the joy such a welcome should bring.

At the front was a tall red and brown clad figure, whose dark hair was beginning to gray. Beside him stood a lithe wisp of a woman, with red lips and auburn hair. Just behind were two tall, proud-looking men of middle age, formally dressed visitors of some kind, in tunics cut in Margon style, with patches displaying their noble insignia. The man in front, Jacob’s father, breezed forward to take his hand, though he paused to look quizzically at the elegantly dressed woman at his side. “Welcome home, son.”

“Good to be back,” Jacob grinned, and shook the hand firmly.

The young woman stepped forward and embraced him firmly, ignoring the redhead beside him, then lifted on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Did you miss me?” Anna asked.

Jacob returned the embrace, first awkwardly, then with a fierce squeeze that widened her eyes. “You did miss me!”

Jacob nodded, but his heart ached too much to speak. He wasn’t sure what he felt for Anna, but she was beautiful and kind, and he was going to hurt her, and there was nothing he could do about it. Or was there? Could he change Atha’s mind? Did he want to? Would Anna want him to, if it meant living here instead of Pearl Bay? At his side, Kaelynn pursed her lips crookedly. Was she amused?

Baron Ironwood laughed, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Looking forward to your wedding, are you? We may be leaving even sooner than you think. But where are my manners?

To my left is Duke Charlienne, newly appointed Warden of the East of Margon. To my right is Tholin Grayhill, recently appointed herald of King Garet Whitehill of Margon.”

Jacob bowed deeply. “Sorcerer Charlienne, it is an honor to make your acquaintance. Herald Grayhill, it is a pleasure for Ironwood to receive the attention of the crown. May I also present Her Majesty Kaelynn Riverstorm, Queen of the Western Kharshe Empire.”

The great hall was dim, despite the roaring hearthfire, and Jacob’s eyes strained to adjust. There were only a couple weeks until the celebration Saturnalia, assuming there was anyone left to care. Outside, the day was clear and cold, but the wood and stone reflected warmth, and wine, and friendly voices. Jacob knew every inch of the dark ironwood beams and arches, the sturdy chairs and tables, the carven doors and ceilings, and lined windows of colored glass. The artwork was old, some of it dating back to the founding of Ironwood, depicting the life of Lazarus, the sacrifice of the Mother, or the fall of Khardum. It was home. And yet it wasn’t: it was something more precious than that. Every grain of wood and flicker of the light burned into his mind, as if it were the last time he would ever see it.

Baron Ironwood, his father, sat uneasily on his “throne”, an ornately carved seat at the head of the table. To his right was Lord Charlienne, thoughtfully swishing a clear cup of deep red wine. Jacob’s brother Erik sat alone, rubbing his hands nervously. Jacob longed to ask him about Liliana, and whether the child had arrived, though he would never be so rude. Still, if it hadn’t happened yet, it would very soon.

Anna was beside him, her knees and shoulders close enough that he could feel the heat, but she’d sensed his unease, and her eyes swiveled between he and the stunning redhead seated to his left. Whatever was she thought was happening, she correctly laid the blame at the feet of the Queen.

“Have a drink, Jacob,” the Baron called to him. “It will make this easier.”

Jacob nodded, and lifted a crystal goblet from a young serving woman with dark, offering a smile in thanks. She nodded, turning her tray to Kaelynn, who followed his example, and then padded from the room. So, it was time. He tipped the cup to his lips sparingly, then placed it on the table. “You want to talk about the evacuation of Ironwood.”

Lord Ironwood’s face froze for a split second, then he nodded, fixing his eyes meaningfully on the red-haired queen. “If you want to call it that. The Kharshe Empire demanded Margon cede Ironwood to them in return for a hundred years of peace. However, after the near destruction of Marin, King Whitehall has graciously offered the survivors of Ironwood most of its land. The Ironwood Trading Company can move to Marin, and our people can replace its logging and agriculture. Now the fighting has passed in Margon, it offers us peace and protection from Sorcerers, unlike the East.”

Queen Kaelynn crossed her legs, and her voice, though smoky, filled the room. “My poor Baron, you mistake the caution of the Kharshe Empire for cruelty. We are willing to accept the men and women of Ironwood among us, if we can do so with peace and security. Those who make themselves Kharshe, and swear to me, may remain.”

The dark-haired Charlienne, whose head had been cocked to the side as if listening to a voice no one could hear, cleared his throat. “My dear Queen, why the change of heart? Akhor said he would not trust westerners within his borders, especially with no Sorcerer to watch them.”

The copper-haired queen smiled crookedly. “Lord Jacob. I need someone I can trust to defend Ironwood when I’m not there, someone willing to give himself to Kharshe, and myself. But you already knew that.”

There was a hiss to Jacob’s right, as Anna inhaled sharply. Her eyes flashed with suspicion and betrayal. Jacob looked away, meeting first Kaelynn’s amused expression, then his father’s veiled confusion.”

“Lord Charlienne, you kept this from me?” Lord Ironwood asked hesitantly.

The Duke of Timor did not hesitate to answer. “The news was recent, and untrustworthy. Besides, I could scarcely credit that Lord Jacob would deny our offer of prosperity merely to drive hundreds of his own countrymen into needless war, especially against two of the most powerful Sorcerers in Annaria. But, seeing his youth, and the Queen’s beauty, it begins to make sense.”

Jacob could feel Anna’s hurt and angry glare even before he turned his head. Her visible pain wounded him, shook his courage and resolve. “You betrayed me and Ironwood? For her?!”

“I had to,” Jacob objected. “Great Chieftain Dorgann defeated me in single combat. My life was forfeit, and Ironwood was going to be lost. Offering my service to the Kharshe was the only way to save both.”

Jacob’s father, who had been on the edge of his seat, leaned back into his chair. Anna’s silent grip on her own armrests loosened, though her expression was fierce.

Lord Ironwood frowned. “But it was not, and oaths made under duress and false premises need not be honored. Ironwood is mine, for now, and you are my son. My people are not going to war, not against Sorcerers. I will obey my King, accept the Earldom of Marin, and you and the rest of my people are coming with. Do not forsake your honor, or your bride.”

“You father is right, Lord Jacob,” Duke Charlienne added. “The Kharshe have promised that any of Ironwood’s people who wish to leave for Marin can go, including you. It’s not just the safest choice for your people, not just the wisest, but also the most honorable. Or did you intent to rebel against your father for the purpose of leading your countrymen to their deaths?

”Lest you forget, Count Dorman, a Sorcerer who has been driven from my realm, may also have his eye on Ironwood. I will protect Margonians from his anger, but not the Kharshe. If you cannot defeat him, and he attempts to capture the remnants of Ironwood, I may have no choice but to kill them.

”On the other hand, if you choose to serve Margon, rather than surrender to Kharshe threats, the King in Maragon is willing to welcome you and your wife-to-be. I advise you to accept it. Your oath to the King is a prior commitment you were not given permission to break. Moving to Marin is not just the right and honorable thing to do for you and the people of Ironwood, but the most rewarding as well.”

Jacob closed his eyes. Everything he knew had turned upside down - again. He could have the life his father had planned for him, more or less. Anna would forgive him - he could already see the glimmer of hope in her eyes. The people of Ironwood would be saved, much safer in fact than they had been, in the arms of the new king of Margon. He would not have to face Dorman, or any of the other Sorcerers he would otherwise be asked to kill, and eventually be killed be. Daniel would lose his sweetheart, and his relationship with the Karshe would suffer, but those were small prices to pay. He would be a fool not to accept the King’s offer, and the Duke was right - Margon did have the deeper and older claim upon him. His mouth opened, and closed. His head spun.

“Betray me, Lord Jacob, and I will permit it,” Quenn Kaelynn hissed, “but do not ever think to cross east of the Wall again if you do! You will never set foot in my territory again, not yourself, nor any of the wagons of Marin. Do you think to hide curled up in Margon from your one chance at glory, for yourself and your people, ‘Prince’ Jacob? Follow your father to Margon, give yourself to a life of coin-counting? You will die old and faded, and your soul will not pass to the Spirit Realm. Choose life and battle, Jacob, and make the world and your soul bright. Marry a storming Kharshe woman who will make you strong, not the simpering little girl beside you!”

“Bah,” spat Charlienne. “Stay in Ironwood against the king’s invitation, and your wagons will never pass into Margon. If you choose the East, that’s where you live. We are generous, but to do not presume to take advantage of us!”

“Jacob,” Anna cried, grasping his arm. “Don’t leave me! Don’t go to barbarian lands where I can’t follow!”

Then, suddenly, like a vision, Jacob saw both futures laid out before him: one long and stifling life of safety, and another of purpose. Jacob inhaled slowly, then set his teeth in a fierce grimace. “Father, I’m staying, with any who choose of their own will to stay with me. If I go to Marin, Ironwood is dead, not just the streets and shops and fields and practice yards I grew up in: all of it. Ironwood is the crossroads of civilization. Without it, any contact Margon has with Travan or the Free Cities will slow to the trickle the Nazibians and Chaltans allow, and the Kharshe will be lost to you. But if I stay, the Kharshe Empire can be great, a true replacement for the Miraka that was lost, and a friend of Margon. Perhaps, finally, the legacy of Khardum’s hate will finally die. Those of Travan I’ve met and befriended I can help save from the tyrants who truly want to destroy Annaria, not like Chieftain Dorgann and my Queen, who will make if it an Empire to be loved and envied. This is the good fight, for the chance at a glorious Annaria, and it’s what I’m made for. I’m fighting it. My Queen, I am at your service, and Ironwood’s.”

“Well said, my Prince,” Queen Kaelynn nearly purred, her voice liquid and magnanimous in triumph. “A worthy consecration.”

Lady Anna Whitesail stared at him, her eyes wide and horrified, her silky auburn hair and the flawless curves of her flame-orange dress almost too composed. Suddenly she shrieked, “I hate you! I’ve always hated you, because you’ve never told me the truth, not once. Not about Athena, and not about Laranna - I’ve heard all about her! You act so strong and honorable and boring, but you’re just like the rest of them, ready to use any woman until you have what you want. Well, not me, piss-bag! I got away from you, and you have to live with that - alone or with your barbarian hag!”

With that, the young beauty leapt from her chair, bounded to the door, and then she was gone, leaving behind only guilt and regret.

Jacob’s father nodded, though his eyes were angry coals. “So be it. I hope that few have the insanity to remain with you.”

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