Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 3: Northern Shadows

Laranna parried frantically as the heavily armored figure swung hard at her shoulder, barely deflecting the incoming weapon. A shield came up hard into her face, clanging off her helmet, but snapping her head back and sending her reeling. She was still staggering backward when the fighter stabbed her in the chest, killing her.

“Burning Lazarus!” she cried out, landing hard on her bottom. Her sword slipped from her gloved hand, and she nearly sprained her wrist trying to catch herself. Another thing she’d supposedly been trained not to do.

“That’s enough for now,” Athena allowed, lowering her sword. She did not seem pleased. At least this time it was Laranna who had done the swearing.

The oldest daughter of the Earl of Northspire struggled to regain her feet, gasping for breath as she lifted her own helmet from her dark matted hair. She was bruised, exhausted, dazed, and burdened by armor that was over a quarter of her own weight. Her tail-bone was going to be especially sore, as soon as she could feel it again. The only mercy was that Jaselle wasn’t here to see it. At the moment, she was looking after her baby brother, Dale, who she was utterly smitten with. Jeyne was grateful for the help, and the company, but that left Laranna to accept her beatings alone.

“Sorry, Athena,” Laranna mumbled, steadying herself. “I don’t seem to have my sister’s coordination. I’m not quite ready for a proper fight.”

Unfortunately, that was an understatement. Despite her infuriating unconcern for the problem of self-defense, Jaselle’s skill with swords and daggers had grown by leaps and bounds, while Laranna barely managed to avoid tripping over her own feet. She had made some progress: on good days, she occasionally even remembered to use proper form. But she felt so slow, and Athena kept adding in new moves from different angles. Whenever Laranna had to track more than one thing at a time, her defenses fell apart.

Athena’s response was, as usual, to shake her head. “I can’t fault your determination,” the taller woman replied, “The sword should be learned young, so this might be hard for a while. Don’t get me wrong: anything you learn makes my job easier, and I’m glad to teach. But for now, if you have to use a weapon for real, do it from behind.”

“I’m glad I have a bodyguard, then,” Laranna replied heavily. “Thank you again for coming all the way here. I simply don’t know what I would do without you. I put off the master-at-arms as long as I could, but he was about to have a teenage boy watch after me!”

Athena’s grim look faded, the clouds passing to reveal a much sunnier expression. “Laranna, you’re doing me the favor, and you know it. You were a friend to me when I had nowhere else to go, and it’s been wonderful. People are so respectful here that I keep looking over my shoulder to find the important person behind me. If I have to hang on you like an undersized cloak, it’s worth it. I followed Jacob around long enough! But I have to admit, I’d pay gold to see how red you’d turn with a pimple-faced boy guarding your bath!”

Laranna rolled her eyes, and gathered her purse and cloak. She certainly would have to bathe before she changed into a proper dress again, an awkward routine with a boy following on her heels. “As if I’d let him in! There are few enough men who’d have me now without that kind of scandal. Now that Dale’s been born, the suitors have dried up entirely. Or maybe the ones I scared off have been talking.

“But since you brought him up, how was Jacob? Do you miss him? I’ve been a bit afraid to ask.”

Athena shrugged. “He was upset when I left, even if he wouldn’t admit it. I couldn’t tell him why I was leaving, and he didn’t like what I could tell him. It was just as well, though. He and Anna were starting to get cutesy with each other, so there wasn’t going to be room for another woman in his life much longer, especially a friend. Anna strikes me as the jealous kind.”

Laranna frowned as she held the door to the inner keep open for her bodyguard. She probably shouldn’t do that, but the courtesy was instinctive. “I thought Jacob and Anna didn’t get along.”

Athena raised an eyebrow and stepped through, hand absently resting on her sword’s hilt. “They don’t have much to talk about, but that doesn’t keep his tongue from hanging out when he sees her. They’ll get by. I hope she’s good to him, but there’s not much I can do about it either way. I suppose I miss him now and again; Jacob was a man you could count on, you know? He was better than a brother, especially after my husband died. But enough about me - how are you holding up?”

Laranna let Athena pass her, and followed her down the hall to her own chambers. “I barely knew him, really. I was just making conversation.”

Athena hesitated for a step before continuing, blond ponytail bouncing slightly as she walked. “I was talking about your mother, actually. Oh, I’m sorry: I shouldn’t have brought it up. It’s only been a few weeks, and you’ve been so quiet.”

“That’s because it hurts, alright!” Laranna snapped. “She knew for years she was going to leave us, and didn’t say a damned word. I’ve had more than enough time to consider the hints: all the preparations, and her half-hidden reactions every time someone mentioned her pregnancy. She knew she was going to die. She was nervous, but she wasn’t afraid - she just set up everything like she was leaving for a trip. You know how people always say not to worry about someone when they die, because they’re going to a better place?

“For most people that’s just being polite, but Mom actually knew. She kicked the dust off her heels and never looked back. Can you believe? Good riddance - I hate her!”

Athena spun on her heel to face her, concern carved into the lines of her face. “What?!”

Laranna clenched her eyes and fists, then bit her lip at the hurt in her friend’s eyes. What was wrong with her? It was bad enough after Sarronen: the night sweats, and her heart’s eagerness to race at shadows of absolutely nothing. Her mother’s death had only made things worse. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped. Just please, let’s go. I could really use a bath.”

Athena nodded, then paced the remainder of the hallway. Wordlessly, she opened the door, carefully peering into the room before letting Laranna pass. Since beginning her sessions with the sword, Laranna had placed a large wooden tub in her room, and set up a sluice to the rain barrels on the small balcony outside. Athena opened the balcony doors, and turned the tap to the barrels, then closed them again. With thick cloths to protect her hands, she lifted a pot of steaming hot water, which had been resting in a pit of sand and coals, to pour into the tub. The mixture of waters hissed, as they stirred within the wooden basin. The result was a true luxury: a bath just hot enough to melt the ache from her muscles. If only the warmth could reach inside.

With Athena’s help, Laranna removed her chain shirt, leggings, gauntlets, and every other ungodly heavy piece of armor a fighter apparently wore. She stood in her shift, just staring at the water, while her bodyguard waited, patiently.

“I’m sorry,” Athena said. “But you know better. You don’t hate your mother, and never did: you love her. She still loves you too, wherever she is. She just couldn’t stay.”

Stupid, childish, obvious words. Suddenly, Laranna found her arms wrapped around cold chain mail. The tears began to fall, and the sobs began.

“Hush,” Athena said, and began to stroke her hair. “It’s alright. It’s going to be alright.”

By dinnertime, Laranna felt like an entirely different woman. A nap and a good cry was a balm for the soul, and Athena had known just what to say, bless her soul. The hot weight on her chest had faded to a dull ache, and Laranna intended to soak in the warmth of the fire and her thick amfantha shawl. The thought brought a brief pang of guilt - Athena was still in her armor, leading the way into the keep’s dining hall.

Inside, the table was set, and the candles above it lit, casting split shadows on the stone. The roar and pop from the hearth was pleasant, defying the chill outside. There, an autumn storm was brewing, the kind that would strip the golden leaves from the trees, and shake the evergreens in the courtyard. There was a comfort in her immunity against the weather. Even so, the stone dining hall felt bare and hollow. In the past, there would have been pine wreaths, the scent of her mother’s warm cider, and shared laughter. Instead, there was only Jaselle, waiting alone, though she spared a smile through the opening door. Her lovingly crafted green dress and dark shawl made her sandy hair and sapphire eyes glow in the flickering light. Laranna loved her younger sister dearly, but sometimes it was difficult not to be a tad jealous of her beauty.

“Hi Laranna, Athena,” the younger sister called out from where she lounged in her chair. “How was today’s session? Sorry I couldn’t make it, but Jeyne was feeling poorly, and it would have been wrong to leave her alone with the kids.”

“Chilly,” Laranna replied, and took a seat across from her sister. Athena remained standing, back against the wall. “It’s good to be in near the fire. We missed you, but of course I understand. Have you seen Father yet? I’m ravenous.”

Jaselle nodded. “He just left. There was a messenger from the Empress herself, and he didn’t want to keep the fellow waiting. He also said to start eating without him, so now that you’re finally here, I plan to take him at his word. Oh, and for Heaven’s sake, Athena, have a seat. There’s no danger here, and you’re among family.”

Athena replied gratefully, “I will, thank you. I’m starving, and the roast looks delicious.”

“Dig in,” Jaselle added in a friendly tone. “I plan to.”

The younger blond helped herself to a bowl of tantalizing beef stew, then continued, speaking with her hands, to the bodyguard’s silent amusement. “Do you have any idea how many numbers are involved in making sure the keep is stocked for the winter? I’ve been working with the steward to double-measure cattle, beans, bags of flour, and every vegetable under the sun. Or rain, lately. That’s not considering the list of repairs for the craftsman to attend to, or the paychests - you guards aren’t cheap. I swear it will kill me through sheer boredom. No wonder Brinold looks as shriveled as the vegetables.”

Athena chuckled. “I never had much patience for figures, but you do well enough. Sure, you talk our ears off about how unfair it is, but you keep up with job like a right merchant. Come to think of it, Jacob probably did less paperwork, and complained more about it. I can’t blame him or you, though. Only Laranna has enough brain damage to enjoy clerking. A week of that, and I’d be ready to drink myself into a stupor. Probably less.”

“It hardly takes a broken brain to want one’s figures in a row,” Laranna replied with a delicate sniff. “Juggling tax assessments, disbursements, and grants does take a modicum of talent. A Holder will bleed the province of every coin it has, if it pads his own treasury. Keeping them all in line is a challenge of intellect and will, but I can’t help but pity a mind that finds counting beans taxing.”

“I’ll remember that the next time you swing a sword at me,” Athena grinned. “Although your strained expression as you think it through will give me about a week’s notice. At least you’re starting to use a little bit of force. It’s almost worth blocking now.”

Jaselle winced. “Low blow there, Athena. Speaking of which, do you talk to the guardsmen like that? If so, it’s working. Jacob said the only reason you didn’t have to beat the men away with a stick back in Ironwood was you were willing to let them fight each other, instead. But just last week, a little bird told me half a dozen men were working up the courage to talk to you.”

Laranna swore she saw Athena redden, though it could be a trick of the firelight. “I never saw you as heart-breaker, Athena. You don’t seem like someone who needs that.”

Athena quirked an eyebrow. “A girl has to choose between being confident and attractive? Why didn’t anyone tell me before?

“I did have admirers in Ironwood, but not the kind looking for marriage. Keeping them in hand was entertaining for a while, but trickier than juggling your Holders, I wager. I’ve had my fill of men for a while, thank you very much, especially Ceann and Baron Dipshit. A warm thick beer is a much better companion.”

“And much easier to wrap your lips around in public,” Jaselle giggled. “If the guards bother you, let me know. I can see it handled gently. I have a few friends.”

Laranna nodded slowly. “You could, at that. The guard adores you, Jaselle.”

“Thank you,” Athena replied, ignoring the interjection. “Being a bodyguard keeps me busy, though. When I’m not with Laranna, I’m in the yard. That’s been an education, let me tell you. Ironwood’s fighters are not to your standards. Our standards. They’ve tested me pretty hard here.”

“Maybe so,” Laranna replied, “but the word is you’re passing. Gemmelon’s been impressed with you, and Father too. I don’t think his run-in with Jacob hurt your image, either. Compared to him, you look humble.”

“If he only knew,” Athena laughed. “I won’t argue, though - it’s too nice to hear. Your father really trusts you, Laranna. It does my heart good to see.”

Jaselle rolled her eyes and forced down her mouthful of the roast. “Oh yes, Laranna filled up on responsibility with her mother’s milk, and Father knows it. She has the incredibly poor taste to match it with competence. Thankfully, I only got a half portion. It’s as difficult for a strong woman to find a worthy suitor as a tall one.”

Laranna raised both brows. “I don’t know about that, but if so, you’d best be careful too. At least, you might want to set your sights higher than a snake like Morgren. You’re not still interested in him, are you?”

Jaselle’s jaw firmed. “After his father tried to kill you? Never. You had a chance at one good man, though.”

The dark-haired former heir sighed in response, and leaned back in her chair. “No. I didn’t. How is the sweet-root?”

Athena bit her lip, clearly recognizing a sensitive topic. Jaselle spoke anyway. “There he is.”

“What?” Athena replied, standing abruptly and turning towards the door.

“Enjoying your dinner, girls?” Lord Joranthan asked. “No, Athena, you might as well sit. You’ve earned it.”

“News then? What is it?” Laranna asked urgently.

“War,” her father answered, approaching to take a seat at the head of the table. “An army is marching on the heart of the Empire under banner of Demond Travansil. We will have much to plan, once Gemmelon arrives. In the meantime, let’s eat.”

The Earl of Northspire’s woolen silence muffled her own voice, and Laranna’s questions burned unspoken within as members of the little council gathered. Gemmelon, Northspire’s master-at-arms moved to sit on her father’s left, hands folded. His dark eyes were troubled, and his expression was stony under his short and bushy beard, as her murmured something over his own left shoulder to his assistant, Gelan. Laranna remained on her father’s right, with Athena, looking uneasy, next to Jaselle on her own left. It wasn’t clear who was the most nervous, until Jord the kitchen boy skittered off with the last of the plates, leading the Earl to finally sigh and lift his eyes to the room.

Laranna feared the worst. One learned a certain sense of paranoia, after being kidnapped. Surviving an assassination attempt had chiseled the lesson in deep. But her adventures with Lord Jacob had taught her what to fear: another Sorcerer. Maybe more than one. Jacob had barely managed to defeat Innoken, through a series of flukes and even a divine intervention. Northspire could hardly expect the same.

“So,” Joranthan began, “Her Majesty the Empress is calling for all available military aid, as soon as possible. Demond and Tandar Travansil, it seems, have rebelled. We don’t know much, but the brothers conquered the far South almost overnight, and now they’re marching towards the capital city of Travan. The Empress is vague about how this happened, but she is calling all the banners to her.

“We will send conscription notices to the Holders in the morning, but our standing forces must leave as soon as they can be prepared and fitted with supplies. Gemmelon, give me options.”

All eyes turned to the broad Master-at-Arms, and he responded in a measured drawl. “My Lord, it’ll only take a few days to establish a baggage train now the harvest is done. We’ll need new wagons, but that won’t take the carpenters long.

“I have over two hundred armored men in my command in Northspire’s Blue Direwolves, and mounts for about half. If we leave fifty behind, we can march with the rest in three days. As for levies, if we were defending our homes against the Kulls, we could muster some five thousand. We’re growing quickly, but the North is sparsely populated.

“The Holders won’t be able to support more than half that, though, if we march south. Even less if we want to leave before year’s end: maybe a thousand, but that’s more a political question than a military one.”

“We march in three days, then,” Lord Joranthan decreed. “Northspire will recruit levies, in case we need them, but leaving later might be as bad as never. If I need reinforcements, I can send for them once they’ve been gathered. It pains me to risk a single unnecessary life, but honor requires we answer, and an answer we will.

“Laranna, you will handle the recruiting, and act as Regent in my stead. Jaselle, your sister will need you. You’ve been assuming new responsibilities lately, but I’m afraid you’ll see a lot more. You and Laranna will have to work it out.”

“Of course, Father,” Jaselle replied softly.

“Father,” Laranna asked, heart leaping into her dry throat, “Who will lead the levies once we recruit them? Where should I join you?”

The tall, sandy-haired man smiled. “You think I want you leading armies? I don’t even know what we’re up against. If necessary, you can meet me in Travan, but wait for my signal. Send a courier when the recruits are ready, and then wait for me to contact you after. I’ll also bring a cote of pigeons, in case the roads are blocked. For the rest - Gemmelon?”

“As you know, my Lord, I trust Gelan to act in my stead. For ten years, he has been a credit to Northspire. He has a solid head on his shoulders, and the men trust him. However, this is an enormous task, he will need a partner. With your permission, I would like Athena to work with him.”

“What!” Laranna cried.

“What?” Athena added.

“Hmmm,” Gelan murmured, crossing his arms, but looking thoughtful.

“Athena has been with us for barely three months,” Joranthan noted, brows furrowing. “She’s talented, but are you confident in this?”

“With respect,” Gammelon replied, “I am. Since she arrived, she’s learned a great deal, and she more than meets my standard for officers. Her experience in Ironwood will be an asset, too. The ladies of Northspire trust her with their lives, which is no small recommendation. What’s more, I’ve seen what she’s done with Jaselle: she’ll be an excellent teacher. Lord Jacob, as much as I hate to admit it, showed me how overconfident the men have become. I believe Athena can cure that better than anyone.”

“Will the recruits follow a woman?” Gelan asked, as the Earl nodded.

Gemmelon grinned wickedly. “Surely. And they’ll work especially hard to prove themselves against one. It will only spur them further when they fail.”

“All fine points,” Laranna cut in, “but would you deprive me of my bodyguard?”

Lord Northspire cleared his throat. “My daughter, you have been through much recently, and neither your mother or I begrudged your learning to defend yourself. But you’re safe within these walls. You’ve never had a bodyguard before, and our need is great. Perhaps you can find a replacement for that task, but it seems Athena’s experience is too valuable to waste.”

Laranna’s blood ran cold. Though the threat was supposedly past, she had never felt more vulnerable and alone. Her recent training sessions only proved how woefully incapable she was of defending herself. Athena wasn’t just a bodyguard, but a friend and confidant - one who had saved her life. Laranna needed her. “Athena?” she asked, “What do you think?”

The tall blond wore her boldest grin, the one she used when facing a difficult opponent. “My Lord, my Lady, I’m here to serve. If you think I can help by training grunts, then those grunts are in for a time. But when I came here, my Lord, my first promise was to Lady Laranna, that I would keep her safe. If we do leave Northspire, I’ll need to find a replacement to guard her, and until then, I’d like to see her training continued.”

Lord Joranthan nodded slowly. “That’s an honorable request. Granted. Anything else?”

“I just talked to the steward,” Jaselle replied. “I can help Gemmelon with gathering the provisions, if he knows what he wants.”

“Very good. Then we had best get started,” Earl Northspire said brusquely. “There is much to do.”

Laranna shot Athena a grateful look, and her friend gave a nod of reassurance, but her feelings were bittersweet. She couldn’t expect Athena to defy her father and reject such a hefty promotion, not to babysit a woman who was no longer even heir to a title. But who else could she trust? It felt like Athena had been in her life for years, not months. Now, she was one more false hope of companionship. For the first time, Laranna began to sincerely regret dismissing her suitors out of hand - at least one or two of them. Listening to the rising wind whistle through the keep’s shutters as the storm continued to rage, the Earl’s eldest daughter suddenly felt very lonely.

She carefully avoided thinking about what her father might face, or whether he would return. Yet the fears of losing him danced just outside the rational parts of her mind, like circling sharks that had scented blood.

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