Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 17: The Fate of Talyk

Laranna closed her eyes in pleasure as the warmth of the raspberry tea filled her. Outside the rain pattered softly on the tile roof, and the draft whistled through the closed shutters. The room itself was warm and cozy, with a fire in the hearth, and candles on a lovely silver and crystal chandelier. However, the wood paneling was rough-sanded, and the floor strewn with sand and dry grasses. The images hanging from the walls were beautiful and bright, but rustic. There were two chairs at the small table, and a warm kettle of tea set in the middle. Flowers bedecked the mantel, and the small bookshelf looked well-worn. In short, the place was lovely, like home but more comfortable and beautiful at once.

“It’s very good,” she whispered. “The tea, I meant, but really everything. Is this what your house is like, in Heaven?”

“With the Homesteaders,” the Lady Adelin corrected. She eased back in her own chair, wearing a beautiful but comfortable-looking skirt and blouse, that blended from a sunrise yellow to mountain lake blue. It must be a fashion among the dead.

“We’re a scattered group trying to build our own houses and gardens,” she continued. “I spend most of my time in the Library, in the Theater, or in Mead, learning. Heaven is the most prestigious of the Spirit Realms, but not as big as you might think. The homesteaders are mostly those who are just visiting, though some of us end up staying a while.

“To answer your question, though: yes. My cottage is much like this, though I can’t bring the wind and rain there. Dreams are more malleable than the Spirit World.”

“The Homesteaders aren’t respected, mother?” Laranna asked, leaning back in her chair. Don’t tell me the ‘Ascended’ claw at each other for status like the rest of us.”

“We do, I’m afraid,” Adelin replied, sipping her tea. “Some people just can’t find meaning without competition, and not just in Vallaton. It - it might be best if you didn’t call me mother going forward, if you want me to stay with you. I’m probably going to be sharing a lot of experiences with you, some that you might be embarrassed to have your mother watching, though of course I’ll back off when you ask for it. My role is different now: I’m not here to judge you or tell you what to do. I love you as much as I ever did, maybe more, but it may be different.”

What a strange thing for her moth- Adelin to say. But there was more there, behind that, something unsaid. “Have you seen something, a vision?”

“Yes,” her mother said. “But it’s related to your choices, not mine. If I tell you - well, you might change it. I don’t want to risk that.”

“Fine,” Laranna replied, because of course, it wasn’t. But there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. No one was more stubborn than Adelin, however softly she spoke. “Then maybe you could tell me something about father? Or about this mess with Brightblade. Half the reason I’m here is because you hinted that I should come.”

“I know,” Adeline replied, with a twist of her mouth. “Your father is alive. I speak to Thomas once in a while, and last I did, the Travansils hadn’t attacked yet. Soon, though, very soon.

“Brightblade, though - that’s something else I can’t say for sure. But tell me, is there any chance Ervallyn will defeat him in a fight?”

“No,” Laranna replied curtly.

“Or that Brightblade will submit to him, whatever the Empress says?” the older woman continued.

“No, not a chance,” Laranna answered.

“Then, are you willing to fight Brightblade for him?” Adelin asked. “Or fight Ervallyn with Brightblade?”

“I can’t beat Brightblade, and he doesn’t need me to fight the Count,” Laranna responded, gripping the table in frustration.

“Then what are you doing here?” Adelin asked. “You can’t negotiate without power, or at least the appearance of it, and the Empress is about to lose her Empire if she doesn’t secure powerful Sorcerers immediately. She won’t be able to help you.”

Laranna sighed. She simply hadn’t wanted to believe, when it came down to it, that the Empress would lose. She was brilliant, kind, and fair, and tougher than nails - the most powerful woman in the known world, and one of the most loved. Laranna practically idolized her. Now, her mo - Adelin was saying it wouldn’t be enough. “I suppose I was hoping for permission to side with Brightblade, for the feeling that it would be safe. But I won’t get permission, and it’s not safe. The man seems decent enough, but he’s ambitious and desperate - I can’t trust him.

“And I don’t have a choice. With Gelan’s help, maybe I can put up a good fight, but I can’t win.”

The raven haired woman sighed, lowering her tea. “About all I can do is pretend. Which is stupid, because what I really want is to make sure he doesn’t attack North, or drag me into a fight with the Travansils.”

“Exactly,” the sandy-haired Ascended replied intensely. “That’s our position. That’s what we’re fighting for.”

“Easier said than done,” Laranna muttered. “I hope I at least remember our conversation this time.”

“You will,” Adelin replied, then took a sip of her own tea, narrowing her eyes in appreciation as the warmth spread through her. “One nice thing about being a Sorceress is it’s easier to be who you want to be, given time. That includes your memory.”

The raven-haired Regent smiled. “Small mercies, I suppose.”

The bright sun made the day pleasant, almost too pleasant for the end of the year, when snow might fall any day. This time, Ervallyn had called the meeting, and this time Laranna would ride with him. She still wasn’t sure why.

“You can’t tell me anything, Count Talyk?” she asked, riding at his side.

She wore a sea-foam dress, and the ruffles from her loose-fitting skirt bounced around her calves as she rode. Athena and Gelan followed behind, silently anxious that this meeting might come to violence. They were right to be concerned: the Count clearly knew something he wasn’t sharing, or he wouldn’t have agreed to meet Brightblade, deadline or no. Laranna herself had heard nothing, not from the Empress, and not from her father. It was unnerving.

“That, my dear, would be telling,” the Count replied teasingly. “But this farce cannot continue. It is time to make arrangements with Holder Brightblade, if I do not wish him to break down my door.”

“Well, thank Heaven for that!” Laranna agreed fervently. “But what’s changed. You seemed afraid you had nothing to offer.”

The Count smiled. “What do you think of the Empress, my dear?”

Where in the World was Ervallyn going with this? “I swore an oath to obey her, but really it’s a pleasure. She’s the wisest monarch of any realm I know, and made of the sternest stuff. It’s a privilege to serve her. I’m sure she’ll do the right thing.”

“Of course,” Ervallyn agreed, “of course. And the Travansils of the South?”

Laranna frowned. “The heirs of the ruling house of Tyr are said to be powerful Sorcerers, strong and charismatic. Other than the fact of their rebellion, I know little about them. But I have not heard it said they wished to negotiate with the Empress.”

Ervallyn nodded sympathetically. “Rebellion is such an ugly business: if they wanted to serve the Empire, they should have gone through the Empress, yes?”

“Yes,” the Regent replied emphatically. “How many thousands of lives will they spend on their ambition? And they sacrifice legitimacy in the process.”

The Count smiled, looking away. “You see, my Lady? We understand one another. Ah, look ahead, our rival approaches.”

It was true. Cresting the hill were Holder Talman Brightblade and two of his bodyguards, to match the riders beside Athena and Gelan. He looked dashing in his bright blue regalia, his polished steel ring-mail shining in the sun. Three parties would meet in the center of the field, with two guards for each. To discuss information that it seemed everyone but Laranna had.

Wary of being overhead as she had been in the last meeting, Laranna approached the Holder silently, and the Count did the same, edging to her right, so that the delegation formed a circle. The Holder was the first to dismount, and the others did the same, leaving their horses standing behind.

“Well met!” Brightblade called out with a voice that seemed forced and a predatory smile. “I did not think you would have the courage to meet me here. Perhaps you will surprise me further, and have the humility to surrender. You find me in a fine mood: I would even be prepared to guarantee your lives.”

“It is a pleasure to see you, Holder,” Count Ervallyn spoke unctuously, “though I might wish for a better occasion. I do have news, as it turns out. I received a pigeon from the Empress asking that you ride to her side and submit to her judgment - which would be commuted if you spent your skills fighting by her side against the rebellion of the South.”

Laranna frowned. As expected, though why had Talyk received news first? Of course - he must have sent word weeks ago. But if that were true - perhaps he had already known the Empress’s will when Laranna arrived! What game was he playing at? At one level, it didn’t matter - Laranna was committed to the Empress’s will. “If that is the Empress’s judgment, I find it fair. Ride south with me to her aid, and I am sure she will treat you fairly.”

“Fairly?” the broad Holder snorted. “She will let me live, and my family - until the next time Talyk’s spawn decide to spread their violence.”

“My spawn have surely learned their lessons, those you didn’t murder,” Talyk replied mildly, “and my sons differ in personality. You know well that you no longer need fear anything from me. It is ambition that drives you here: admit it.”

“If it were so?” Holder Talman replied suspiciously. “Whatever pity I have for your family, but my vengeance against you is just. Turn over your title, and Talyk, and I will find someplace suitable for you, and your sons. But not over me - never again!”

“Take your case before the Empress if you will,” Laranna replied. “But until you do, Count Ervallyn is her lawful representative here.”

Beware, the Lady Adelin warned her. These are snakes in the grass. Careful where you tread.

“No!” Brightblade bellowed. “I will not submit to the Empress!”

“Then how about Emperor Demond Travansil?” the Count asked. “He is willing to accept your service. And if you can take the Earldom of Northspire, he is willing to let you keep it. However, Talyk you may not have, as the Emperor has already bestowed it upon me, in recognition of my oath to him.”

“What?!” Laranna bellowed, turning upon the traitor.

“It’s just as well, my dear,” Count Ervallyn replied mockingly. “I doubt you would willingly swear to the man who just killed your father. Travan has fallen. The pigeon arrived only last night.”

Laranna’s lungs emptied, and her gut twisted as if kicked. Dead. “I’ll kill you, worm. I’ll rip your guts from you chest and stomp on them, if it’s the last thing I do.”

“Redhold is adjacent to Northspire,” Talman mused. “I presume as Earl of Northspire I may annex it?”

“With my blessing,” Ervallyn replied gallantly.

“Damn you both!” Laranna snarled.

“I’m afraid,” Talman replied, “that isn’t going to happen. I’m sorry, my Lady. I truly am.”

Talman’s sword flashed from its scabbard in an instant, and Gelan crumpled, thick blood leaking from his side. His reflexes were fast, though: what was meant to be stab through the gut seemed instead to have crippled the man’s hip. However, he would not be standing any time soon. Laranna stared in horror as the shining blade spun her way, in an arc almost too fast to see. It was deflected by Athena’s sword. Talman stepped backward and laughed.

Laranna reached out instinctively, placing her hand on Athena’s side, and stepping behind her shield. “Kill the bastard,” she growled, her anger burning with the intensity of suns.

Ervallyn’s guards had lunged forward, to grab Athena or cut her, but in a twin flash, both fell in fountains of blood. Talman’s men backed away, as the Holder’s eyes narrowed. “So, the Sorceress has learned a new trick,” he murmured.

Brightblade’s attack was ferocious, a thing of wind and fury. With her Sorcerous eyes, Laranna was able to follow the blur of his weapon, barely, as it hissed and struck, seeking a way around Athena’s defenses. His form was not perfect, she saw, nor his attacks as precise and elegant as Gelan’s had been. But he was so fast, and his power was astonishing. Steel struck wood and steel as Athena blocked and parried, and he threw her back, lifting her from her feet with the sheer force of his thrusts. Each time he struck, it was as if Athena was leaping, for she lacked the weight to remain on the ground. But her balance was preternatural, and she landed each time on her feet, catlike, as if her flights were planned. Laranna was in awe.

But Athena was not being driven down - far from it. Her own fury was more than a match for the Holder’s. She was not as fast as Gelan had been - she was faster, much faster, proving that compatibility with the Sorceress was as important as power in determining what they could do. Athena ducked and lunged like a pouncing lion, twisting and spinning to strike from every conceivable angle. What’s more, her blows were landing, sparking against the armor of her foe without answer. Her technique was a thing of beauty. And as with Jacob and Innoken, it wasn’t enough, for she wasn’t piercing his skin.

Maybe in time, Athena could wear the Sorcerer down until her weapon would draw blood, at least in theory. But she was no Sorcerer, despite the speed Laranna had given her. She was going to wear down first. She was going to lose.

No. Laranna growled. There had to a be a way, she thought, as she circled the pair, long skirt swishing uselessly in the breeze. It would not have been ladylike to bring a sword, and so she hadn’t. She did wear a dagger, but it was short, and she’d have to get close. Which was suicide. Perhaps if she -

Athena staggered as Brightblade drew first blood, just nicking the outside of her arm. Her bracers parted like silk. However, she showed no awareness of the wound, shouting her defiance as she pecked away at him with her weapon.

Laranna caught the Count inching her way, and drew her dagger menacingly. The Count backed away silently, eyes on the blurred fighting figures before him. At her feet, Gelan groaned, and slipped a throwing knife from his belt, carefully aiming it at the Sorcerer’s head. Laranna took a step to the side and forward, closer to the fighting pair, but clearing a way for Gelan’s throw.

In an instant, Gelan’s weapon launched, flawlessly, headed right for Brightblade’s eyeball. He did what any human being would do - flinch. In that moment, Athena’s sword thrust straight into Brightblade’s gut, parting his armor, even scratching his skin - only to bend against it. Brightblade, victory in his eye, began his fatal counterstroke, just as Laranna’s dagger removed his throat. He reacted to that too as any human would - he died, nosily.

Count Ervallyn took the opportunity to burst into a run, straight for Talyk. Compared to Laranna, he might as well have been swimming in molasses.

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