Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 8: The Affairs of Northspire

The Regent of Northspire wrapped her arms around her shoulders, suppressing a shiver, though her dress was shrouded beneath a thick night-blue velvet cloak. The Holders waited in the wooden cabin, as they had two weeks before. She prayed that their conversation would go better this time around. Few Holders had provided a single recruit, and even fewer had offered a penny of the promised war taxes. Her father must have suspected this would happen, and Laranna was of half a mind to believe it’s what he wanted: that no more of his people would waste their lives against Sorcerers. Perhaps Laranna’s levies, by Spring, would serve only as a peacekeeping force and emergency deterrent.

The Holders had certainly convinced themselves that a real force was unnecessary, and they were saying so to one another - their servants were happy to talk to hers. Of course, those servants mostly believed Sorcery was just a tall tale, and wouldn’t connect it to the southern rebellion in any case. By their lights, Earl Joranthan would return by summertime, and the affairs of Northspire would return to normal, except that there would be a few new tales to tell. They were wrong.

Northspire would need the army, and it would march: the Earl’s daughter could feel it in her bones, though she couldn’t say why. Perhaps it was that strange dream, the one with her mother. Though the memory had begun to fade, it had seemed so vivid at the time, so real. But it couldn’t be. Her mother was dead, and she had never seen the city, though if she were to imagine the capital of Travan, it might look like that. It didn’t matter. She had seen many terrors and wonders in the past year, but she was no small girl, to trust in dreams. Despite that, the sense of purpose and of driving need remained.

“Are you ready, Jaselle?” she asked.

The slim blond returned a pained smile. On the one hand, it was unkind to show such an apparent lack of trust in her sister. On the other, things had not exactly gone well last time. “I’ve gone through the assessments, and the Imperial Charter. I’ve read the statements of the Holders, a dozen times at least. And I’m nervous as a cat in a dog kennel.”

“Don’t worry,” Athena winked, impressive in her gray cloak and massive armor. “They won’t bite. I can’t promise that I won’t.”

“I feel better already,” Jaselle murmured, then exhaled. “Laranna, we’re going to have to compromise again, you know it. When push comes to shove, we can’t make the Holders do anything. With Dad gone, they have an army, and we don’t.”

The Regent of Northspire grimaced, and lowered her hands, smoothing the folds of her dress. Common sense agreed with her sister. She rejected it. “No. Northspire being undefended isn’t good for anyone, and we need that army.”

“I imagine you have a plan to convince the Holders of that?” Jaselle asked.

“I expect I’ll start with threats,” Laranna answered conversationally.

Athena laughed. Jaselle didn’t. “The others are here,” the former bodyguard noted.

“Good,” the dark-haired Regent replied, her voice resonating. “Gelan, Brinold, it’s time to go in.”

The cabin outside the empty parade grounds was still rough, but the windows and doors at least were finished, and it had been graced with a fresh coat of paint. The buzz of conversation faded when Laranna entered the door, though the holders still enjoying refreshments that had been laid out on the table in the rear of the room.

Holders Jakol, Tarik, and Coram would be the ones to win. Maybe Vani, though he and Tarik were at odds about everything. Tarik had offered his own son, which meant he was committed to her success, but didn’t want to be the first to contribute. She would have to use him against the others. Coram had struck his own deal with Brinold, right in front of Jaselle, and would be upset if it wasn’t honored, or anyone else got better; she would have to upset him. Jorm, by being the first to offer a compromise, had gained face among the bunch; that would work against him, if he wasn’t seen to keep his word.

That didn’t mean Jaselle was wrong: the Holders could be obstinate. Laranna would have to shame them, threaten them, and spur them to act. They wouldn’t like that one bit, and they probably wouldn’t like her much, either, when she was done. So be it.

“Greetings, my Lord and Lady Holders,” Laranna began, in her most commanding voice. Reminding them that there was a woman among them might bolster her own authority, and Jana at least recognized her choice of words with a nod. “I have asked you here to remind you of your obligations under the Imperial Charter, and of your interests in seeing the defense of Northspire properly staffed. The Empire is at war, Holders, and we have been called to service. The keep stands nearly empty of defenders, and no Direwolves remain to deter and respond to the incursions of our neighbors. Is Northspire without honor? You shame our Empress, and the generations of true warriors that have come before us in service of God and nation. However, I can be lenient: fulfill your obligations in this week, and they shall not be increased in the next. This a grave matter, Holders, and I expect an equally grave response. Your Lord, Empress, and homeland need you. True men and women of Northspire, what say you?”

“Autumn has been hard,” Coram replied, “and your demands harsher still. Be reasonable, Regent, and fair-minded. Your uneven demands fall directly on the poorest of your loving subjects. Your continual renegotiation of terms only prove that you are simply asking for whatever you can get, not speaking out of need. Will the Empress thank you for crushing her people under you heel because you were too zealous, or too unsure to even know what you want?”

“Every Hold has been asked to contribute according to its wealth and size,” Laranna replied, “based on the recent assessment. I am well aware of your burdens, but Northspire’s call is for the sake of its own survival, and so I must be demanding. Petty greed disguised as concern for your people will not move me. You will meet your obligations, Coram.

“And what of you, Jorm, and the compromise that you proposed, and your peers did not deny? What new tragedy prevented you from honoring it?”

Coram replied plaintively, “The collection of men and supplies is a complicated undertaking, my Lady. Will you insult my honor, and the honor of my Hold, over a trivial delay? My family has served Northspire from the first. Would your father be pleased to hear of the tyranny you attempt in his name?”

Laranna’s eyes were ice, and her tone was colder. “My father would see you keep your word, Holder, especially when you promise so much less than what he asked. Do so now, and I will forget your ‘trivial delay’. Underestimate me, however, and you will learn to regret it. I am not without resources.”

“This is pointless,” Holder Vani protested. “The threat you fear is far away, and we of the North must patrol our own borders against Kulls. Would you take away the very men that keep Northspire’s borders, just so you can feel safer?”

Jaselle lifted her voice high, though its melody was clear. “Vani, you know that the Earl provides for the safety of the roads surrounding the keep, and leading to your Hold. No fewer than three times did our patrols come to your aid, last Fall alone! The Kulls are restless, the Viken are growing bolder, and we hear rumors of unrest even in Talyk. You have the men to spare outside the harvest season, and twice over. More, you send three wagons to our markets every month over the winter. You stand to lose nearly as much to robbery and lost trade as our taxes would cost you. Would you cut your nose to spite you face? When my father returns, your short-sightedness will be plain to him.”

A murmur arose, and Laranna nodded approvingly. Jaselle had never been one for books, but she had been studying the accounts doggedly in the past two weeks. Her hard work was paying off. Even Vani was taken aback, his face reddening in anger, or embarrassment. He was not one to accept correction meekly.

Steward Brinold, however, lifted his hand to forestall a reply. “If you will all put forward ten men, and the provisions for them, we can man Northspire’s keep, and patrol her roads. What say you do this in the next couple weeks, and we can all go home?”

“Hear, hear!” the Holders shouted, raising their cups. At this rate, there would be no army at all.

“Athena,” Laranna intoned, void frigid, “would you be so kind as to escort the good Steward to his bed. It seems his mind has taken to wandering.”

The guardswoman coughed slightly, perhaps hiding her mirth, and took the sputtering Steward by the arm. “This way, good sir,” she offered, failing to keep the irony from her voice. “You must be very tired.”

Brinold tried to resist, tugging his arm frantically, but Athena’s grip was iron. Rather than be dragged by a woman, he submitted to being walked from the room, to the general astonishment of the Holders. Laranna, they began to realize, was serious. Athena returned within a few moments. The Steward did not.

Jaselle used the time wisely. “Tarik, what do you say? Do you think your son can deliver the first company of honorable men, who will see to the security of Northspire? Honor leads, after all.”

Tarik stroked his beard, considering, and met Laranna’s eyes. She returned his stare blandly, supporting Jaselle’s gambit. The influential Holder had been called out directly: if he showed his commitment now, he stood to cement his leadership among his peers. If the others followed his lead, they would continue to do so. Probably, he could gain even more by defying the Regent - but he would have to win. If Laranna was able to assemble her army without him, or if she was able to punish him directly, no one would take him or his sons seriously again. It came down to a question: how strong was the Regent? Could she make her will stick?

He examined her closely, her perfectly arranged blue velvet dress, her flawless makeup, her hard face, her immaculately bound and raised raven hair, and her effortless poise. She struck a handsome figure: not lovely, like her gentle and compassionate sister, but cold, and fearless. This woman would not hesitate to send her western Giantess to clap him in irons, should he defy her. And the Giantess could do it, he realized. Even Gelan’s posture was respectful towards her, and he was an expert swordsman who had served Master-at-Arms Gemmelon for years. Tarik’s options were to grasp the mantle of honor his fellows had failed to reach for, or to face the icy Regent in all her icy fury. Laranna was not one to forget.

His choice was no choice at all. “It is my honor to serve the greatness of Northspire, my Lady. My son will lead the very first company to your door within three days from now. Let it not be said that BlackHold every shirked its duty, or failed of honor.”

The Regent inclined her head slightly, but respectfully, as if the outcome had never been in doubt. “Northspire recognizes the valor of BlackHold. Who else in this gathering is a true son of Northspire?”

In a moment, the winds had changed. The other Holders, save Vani, fell like timber before her, clambering over one another to be the next to earn the honor of serving. Northspire would get its army, after all.

Athena raised her hand against the morning sun, as the cool breeze spilled over her. On the south end of the training grounds, men began to gather. Some were tall, others short. Most wore thick wool or even threadbare sackcloth, and were unarmed, but three men were dressed in expensive tunics, and these had fine swords at their sides. They walked slowly toward her, and at the front was the tallest of the three. He was a muscular blond with pale blue eyes, and a hard, twisted smile.

Gelan dropped his own hand, and his voice carried only a bare hint of nerves. “Just like we discussed, Athena. I’ll handle the introduction and gather them up. We’ll say a few words, and split into weapons training and formations. The town recruits will join us tomorrow, but the first group is the most important. Luckily, BlackHill’s men are more experienced: if we can get them in line, the rest should learn by example.”

“At times like this, I can’t imagine what Gemmelon was thinking,” she responded. “I can fight well enough, but leading an army is a different kettle of fish.”

Gelan chuckled. “Too late to worry about that now. Besides, for now we’re just training. I’ve seen your spear-work, and it’ll do.”

“It’ll have to,” Athena muttered. “You can’t ever get enough practice, though. I’m used to handling a good-sized blade, but these things are long.”

The half-Kull Marshal gave his head a half-shake and met the eyes of the approaching blond swordsman. Though he tried to conceal it, the stranger didn’t seem pleased. “Hail! Welcome to Northspire,” Gelan called out.

The blond grunted, and drawled out a greeting. “Hello, Marshall. I’m Demansil of Blackhold, Holder Tarik’s son. On my left is my cousin Morith. That’s my company in the back of the field.”

The reddish-haired fellow on the other side radiated a cocky grin. “I’m Eikan of Greenhold, Holder Vani’s son. We get along better than our fathers, happily. Reporting for duty, Sir. My men will be along in a few.”

“Excellent,” Gelan replied, eying the group. “I’m Marshall Gelan, as I’m sure you know. It’s good to meet you. We’ll be mixing up the companies, though. You can stay together for the next week or so, while the recruits arrive. After that, we’ll select officers and divvy up the rest. I’m sure you understand. For now, though, I want to see what you know.”

Demansil grimaced, as if chewing something unpleasant. “With respect, sir, some of these men have been riding with me for years. I’ve led them against the Kulls a dozen times, half of those being counterattacks in Kull territory. There’s a hard-headed clan right next to Dad’s wheat farms, not the best of neighbors. We’re best together.”

“I understand,” Gelan replied. “But the Blue Direwolves of Northspire will be a single army, not twelve. If you match your reputation, you’ll have a company, but one that I choose. Until then, you’re a trainee. Understand, soldier?”

The Holder’s son nearly spat on the ground in disgust. Athena had asked around about Gelan, and found he’d gone to the Academy in Travan. Gemmelon believed in proper training, and Lord Joranthan had been willing to baack him. While Glean had been there, he’d led a couple excursions against rogue Kharshe clans, and made a bit of a name for himself. Word was, he’d faced some resentment, though. The older parts of Travan weren’t as forgiving of Clan blood as Northspire was. Still, while Gelan was well-trained, Demansil probably had more field experience with the clans than Gelan and Athena put together, and he seemed to know it.

“How about we meet some of the men from your Hold, Demansil?” Athena asked. “I’m sure you’re as eager to put the basics behind you as I am.”

Demansil nearly sneered outright. “As you say, miss.”

“Miss Marshal to you,” Athena replied ironically, and instantly regretted it. That was likely to stick.

The young man’s disgust was palpable, though his drawling voice nearly buried his bitter tone. “Sure thing, Miss Marshal. I’ll get my men.”

“Marshals,” the other two acknowledged, and followed.

Athena rolled her eyes, and watched them go.

“Your humor will be the death of me, I fear,” Gelan murmured.

“He’s going to be a handful,” miss Marshall noted. “I don’t know how many battles you’ve seen, but I doubt he’ll listen to me.”

“Think you can take him?” Gelan asked.

“Obviously,” Athena snorted, with a confidence she didn’t feel.

The half-Kull Marshall nodded, and began to walk towards the southern end of the field. “Let’s go.”

The men, at least four dozen, stared at her as she approached. She had on a helmet over her braided hair, a chain hauberk, and an overshirt with Northspire’s blue mountain insignia. The were rounded out by a long chain skirt over brown leather legging, and the finest pair of heavy, dark boots she’d ever owned. She’d never felt so naked. Some were undressing her with their eyes. Others were too preoccupied with their contempt. Athena was a tall woman, but almost half of the men here over-topped her.

“Direwolves,” Gelan called out suddenly. “Line up! I want two rows, and forward face!”

The ragged assembly slowly dispersed into two lines, the men in each eying the Marshalls. Mostly Athena. Demansil, in the front line, looked them both over, and smirked.

“My name is Marshal Gelan,” her partner continued, looking over the crowd. “And if you’re very, very fortunate, we’ll get along, but it’s not looking likely. You see, that’s the sloppiest lineup I’ve ever had the misfortune to see. It’s possible some of you are fighters, but soldiers you sure as Hell aren’t. Marshall Athena and I are here to change that. If you were men, I wager we’d straighten you out in a few weeks, teach you to fight. You’d learn to mind camp, and fortify, and march. As is, well, we’ve got our work cut out for us. But don’t worry, we’ll straighten your sorry asses out, even if I have to flatten them with my boot.

“Earl Northspire looked me in the eye personally, and told me to make him an army. By God, that’s what I’m going to do, even if it kills you. There’s an enemy in Travan, and we’re going to train to meet him. If we don’t get the call, well, we’ll be keeping the roads of Travan safe.

“We’re going to start today with two companies. I’ll have you marching, and Athena will see what you can do with a weapon. There’ll be food three times a day, a fire to sleep by, and a warm barracks at night. After you build that barracks, of course. We’ve got a few spare cabins to get you started, though, so you’ll sleep indoors for free for a few days while you work things out. We’ll sort you into companies next week, but until then, you can stay with the men who brought you here. Pay is on sevenday. Any questions?”

“Yes, how do we get out of this shithole?” someone in the back row asked, to the laughs of his neighbors.

“In a casket, most likely, if you don’t pay attention,” Gelan replied mildly. “Any serious questions?”

“Cut the fancy bullshit,” Demansil half-chuckled. “We’ll do our damned jobs, don’t worry your head about that. I want weapons first. Men, behind me.”

Dozens were already moving to obey, piling behind the stubborn blond. “Halt!” Gelan’s voice cracked like a whip. The men froze where they stood, in a scattered mess. “You maggots don’t get it, do you? We may be walking into a goddamn war. Who here has what it takes to be a company leader? Take a step forward.”

A dozen men stepped forward, including Demansil, whose dark smile near split his face. “Here I thought we weren’t doing this dance until next week.”

Gelan’s voice was full of contempt. “First to drop Athena gets the spot, one at a time. You want a try, BlackHill? Bring your sword. Now.”

Demansil swaggered up before Athena, who unconsciously fell into a slight crouch, easing forward onto the balls of her feet. She absently unlimbered her sword and shield, not letting the rodent out of her sight. The cocky young man loosened his buckler, then drew his sword and flourished it, laughing. “What a freaking joke. Miss Marshal.”

“Go,” Gelan stated.

Athena’s sword down in a lightning strike to Demansil’s hip. He raised his buckler to block, but the strength of her swing near rattled it out of his hand. His counterstroke rebounded against a full-on shield bash, pulling his right foot out of position. Athena pulled her sword forward, and elbowed the pretentious snot right right in the nose. Demansil’s head went back in a spray of blood, and he stumbled, swinging wildly, shield thrown wide. Athena calmly stepped on his right foot, parrying his sword with an absentminded backhand, and pivoted her body into a shield thrust dead in his solar plexus.

Athena deftly sheathed her sword as Demansil fell stunned to the grass, gasping. “Anyone else?”

Three more men were stupid enough to try. She was gracious enough to leave them conscious.

One nice thing about being a Marshal was having a staff. Though Athena still harbored a hint of guilt, having someone cook your food, do your laundry, make your bed, and clean your armor beat the hell out of being a bodyguard. The Field Office, where the Holders had met, was hers. Well, hers and Gelan’s. They both had their own small apartments for sleeping, attached to the back of the building. After seeing the recruits to their barracks, she had stopped in her room just long enough to peel off her armor.

But she’d gotten through the hard part. She slumped back into the chair, her very own oaken chair, as a dark yeasty ale and the most delicious beef stew she’d ever smelled were placed right in front of her. It was heaven.

“Anything else, Marshal?” the young woman who brought them asked anxiously. Her mousy brown ponytail bobbed as she nodded unconsciously.

“No, this is wonderful, Emmah. Thank you.”

The door opened, and Gelan mumbled a greeting, stepping into the dining room. Emmah bounded back into the kitchen to fetch another cup and bowl, while the dark-haired man eased into the chair across from Athena. “So. We’ve survived the first day of training.”

The westerner nodded in agreement. “That had to be the longest day of my life. I didn’t know God could put that many hours in a day.”

“Or fill them with such stupid people,” Gelan agreed, then grimaced as food was placed before him. “Not you, Emmah. You’re a godsend, and so is your stew.”

“Thank you, Marshall. You want me to close the door?” she asked.

“Please,” Gelan replied. “We have business to discuss.”

Emmah nodded, and escaped into the kitchen, leaving the pair alone. Gelan took the opportunity to take a long drink, while Athena hungrily eyed her steaming bowl bowl, waiting for it to cool. Gelan lowered his cup, and his intense brown eyes met her blue ones. Athena nearly turned away. He was an intimidating man, and those glowing eyes and dark wavy hair were almost too close for comfort. He was always a gentleman, and not one to waste words. On the other hand, as he proved today, he was utterly fearless. And the man could stare down a rock.

“Gemmelon was right about you, Athena,” he spoke suddenly. “The northern holders have a reputation. Hard as nails, every one of them, and heavy drinkers. People exaggerate, of course, but they’re said to be half-wild, and nearly unmanageable. You had them firmly in hand.”

A blond lock had worked free of its braids, and Athena brushed it from her face, breaking eye contact. “No thanks to you,” she replied dryly. “I didn’t expect to spend the first hour breaking heads.”

He didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed. “Demansil was the best of them, and when you told me you could handle him, I chose to believe you. It’s well that I did. That’s your job, and one less thing I have to worry about.”

Athena laughed. “Why not you? Afraid to mix it up yourself? Besides, who put you in charge?”

“I did,” Gelan replied calmly, after sipping his ale. “And rank has its privileges. Any complaints?”

“You arrogant bastard,” she murmured. “The next angry swordsman’s coming your way, Marshal.”

“You’re going to teach the tenderfoots to march in formations, then?” Gelan asked.

Athena rolled her eyes. “I’d rather count the splinters in the walls. Just because I learned them doesn’t mean I don’t hate them. Now, if you need someone to train scouts, I’m your girl.”

“I like the sound of that,” Gelan said, his eyes fixed on hers, lips spread in an easy smile.

Athena’s heart skipped a beat, but she pressed the feeling down. Was he - ? “Point is, we’re both new to this, but I have a lot to offer. We’re partners. Don’t think you’ll wind up on top unless I let you there.”

Damn! What was she even saying? What about this man unbalanced her so? Athena scowled firmly, but she wanted to slink under the table.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Gelan assured her, eyes twinkling, then smiled a dazzling, crooked smile. “Well, perhaps I would, but truly Gemmelon want me in charge. I’ve known him long enough to be sure of that, even if his words were unclear. But I need you, Athena, and your experience. We’ll be training a thousand men in the next few weeks, most with no experience at all, and half the rest arrogant pricks.

“I’ve been a Blue Direwolf ten years, and trained in the Travansil War Academy. You’ve been in Northspire for three months. I don’t know for sure why Gemmelon and the Earl made you second in command, but he sees something special in you, and he has good instincts. This will work out fine.”

They knew she was smart enough to defer to Gelan’s experience, too, Athena knew, and her rank would help her keep the recruits in line when Gelan wasn’t around, if she needed that. All the same, he made it difficult to keep her cool. “You know Laranna’s expecting us to do road patrols, and support the Town Watch,” she replied, switching subjects. “Word is, street crime is already up.”

It was Gelan’s turn to frown. “I don’t blame her, but that’s going to cause incidents. We’re going to be hard-pressed just to train the men, much less start them policing. Sending untrained recruits from out of town to stop muggers isn’t going to go well.”

“No,” she replied. “We’d end up sending thugs after thugs.”

“The Watch still has 50 men,” Gelan reminded her. “We could send some to train in their existing groups, but we’d have to do it soon. Also, I hate to cut our numbers.”

“We could recruit more from Northspire,” Athena pointed out.

“Good idea. In the end, I suspect we’ll have to,” Gelan agreed. “You’ve good a good head on those shoulders.”

“Aw, thanks,” the blond grinned stupidly, unable to resist. “We western girls is smart and pretty.”

“How did you you ever not end up married?” Gelan asked wonderingly.

Stung, Athena folded her arms across her chest, covering the sudden ache that emerged. “Well, he died.”

The half-Kull officer was on his feet in an instant, and his hand was on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry. That was incredibly stupid of me.”

She lowered her own hand on his, holding it there for a long moment, then looked up into his soft eyes, not a foot away, and held them. “You didn’t know.”

“Look, anything I can do…”

Athena squeezed the man’s hand, refusing to let go. It had been years since she lost James, and she had buried him away inside, refusing to think of him. Part of her missed him with a ferocity that she feared would never subside, however many men she’d flirted with to try to forget. But the image of his face refused to come to her mind, only the emptiness of loss, a hole which still cried out to be filled. It filled her, and for the first time in ages, its warmth and pain threatened to pour out from her eyes. She felt so vulnerable - in this moment, a man she hardly knew was little more than inches away, his warm breath upon her, peering into her soul. She almost burned, to have him this close, and he leaned forward, as if to share a kiss.

“I’m alright,” she said. “I can take care of myself.”

Gelan smiled, a confident, infuriating, electrifying smile. “That you can.”

Then the moment was gone, and the Marshal was seated again. Athena grinned shakily, hiding her face in her goblet. A pity the ale wasn’t better.

Jaselle crossed her ankles, eyes fixed on the ripple of her emerald green dress. The sitting room was empty, except for the fire, the cold stone, and the tapestries in Northspire’s white and azure. What could she say? Words flickered in and out of her mind like candle flames, all of them wrong. She only prayed that talking would make this better, and not worse. Unfortunately, she couldn’t put this off any longer.

Well, maybe a few minutes longer. He was late, and until he arrived, there was nothing to do but sip her wine, and worry. Those were the thoughts that wouldn’t leave her, not the helpful ones. She worried about her sister, who had left her with more and more responsibilities to carry. Laranna was always quiet outside her beloved office, but she seemed more distant every day. Her kidnapping and near death were months ago, but she seemed worse these days, not better: harder, but more fragile too. Her older sister was supposed to be the strong one, but Jaselle felt as if she were being asked to pick up the pieces. She hoped her sister was alright. It was unbearable to see her wounded, and worse that Laranna was pushing her away.

Jaselle worried at least as much about her father, though she tried not to show it. What was the point? He would do his duty, as he always had, and she had to trust that he would come home this time too. If this time felt different, she had no more control over the circumstances. Letting the awareness of her father’s danger inside her only invited pain, and made the waiting worse, too. Where was he?

The door creaked open, and a bent figure emerged, with a head full of wispy gray hair. A dark-haired man followed him through, just shy of middle age. Jaselle stood to meet them, and smiled, relieved. “Brinold, Janil, thank you for coming. Please, have a seat.”

The older man frowned, and pulled a chair away from a table. “My Lady,” he offered, reluctantly.

Jaselle slid down into the hardwood, and waited for the others to follow her example. They did so, soundlessly, compelling her to fill the silence. “Thank you,” she repeated. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you, steward.”

Brinold lifted his his eyes to the ceiling, even as his son lowered them. “What do you want? My Lady.”

Jaselle crossed her palms, placing them on the smooth wooden table between them. Brinold had served the family since before she was born, and his son, and perhaps grandson, would do so long after she married and moved away with some lucky nobelman. She felt like an intruder. “What I would like, Brinold, is to give you a chance to explain yourself. Why did you invite me to a meeting only to undermine me? Why did you try to do the same to my sister?”

Janil raised an eyebrow, re-examining his father. So, Brinold hadn’t told him the whole story. The steward laughed out loud. “Undermine you? My dear, I was trying to save the both of you from losing the Holders entirely. Whatever the law says, you need their support. When a Holders’ Council defies an Earl, the Emperors have been known to choose a new one. You know the history.”

The blond woman carefully stilled her hands. God, to speak of treason out loud, so soon! “And how exactly were you helping? Laranna never authorized the kind of deals you made with those Holders, and we won’t be able to honor them. She didn’t even know we were meeting until your plans were under way, and she was not pleased. Do you realize how bad this makes her look? And me?”

The steward shook his head. “She never asked my advice. Young lady, I know you’re trying your best, but this is what I do. The Holders are worried and unhappy, and the Earl isn’t here. We have to make do with what we have.

“Look, around a third of the Holders end up following Vani, and a third listen to Tarik. Both are reluctant to take the same side as the other. But Coram, Jakol, and Jana go their own way, and they can be bargained with. By quietly making offers to them, I made sure that at least half the Council would comply. What does Laranna do? Kick me out.”

“After you spoke over her in her own meeting,” Jaselle pointed out. “My sister is not the kind to be ignored.”

“You did what?” Janil asked suddenly.

“Not my best decision,” Brinold acknowledged grudgingly. “But she barely talked to me before the meeting, or my son. In fact, you’ve barely said two words to him, yourself.”

How old was the steward? Jaselle wondered how long it would be until he retired, or whether anyone had ever spoken to him about his son following in his footsteps. Maybe there was something going on here besides Brinold’s ego. “Well, that’s an easy enough to fix. But that doesn’t explain why you stabbed me in the back. If you had told me what you were thinking, I would have worked with you. I took your advice, and you stabbed me in the back. Northspire needs you, Brinold, and Janil, but only if I can trust you.”

The old man’s eyes widened, and opened his mouth as if to object, but then he met his son’s troubled glance, and paused. After a moment’s thought, Brinold nodded slowly. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. I haven’t quite given you a chance, my Lady, but I see you are your mother’s daughter. I’m afraid we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, and I would like to correct that.”

Janil’s eyes crinkled faintly. “Please, my Lady, accept our apology, even if Dad is too proud to use those words.”

The young co-Regent smiled, removing her hands from the table. “Apology accepted. Now that we have that out of the way, I have a few questions about the winter maintenance. Would either of you like a drink?

Brinold lips cracked in what might have been a grin. “My Lady, that would be most welcome.”

“Die!” Laranna screamed, and thrust her sword at the armored figure before her. It was instantly deflected, and she was forced a step backward, and lifted her own buckler against the counterstrike.

Her arms felt stiff and sluggish, and her reflexes off. Her lack of practice in the past weeks betrayed her. If only Athena had still been available, she wouldn’t be in this position. Probably.

The armored figure forced her back with what seemed like devilish speed. The sword came down, and she clumsily set her buckler against it. It stopped the weapon, but she near lost her balance. A shield came hurtling towards her shoulder, and she half-tripped away from it. It hit her armor with a bruising crunch. She winced, and then gasped as the sword thrust upward between her ribs, killing her.

“Better,” Jaselle remarked approvingly, lowering her sword. She sheathed it, and pulled off her helmet, letting her slightly dampened blond hair stream into the breeze.

“However did you get so good at this?” the Regent grumbled, sheathing her own sword, and placing a stabilizing hand upon her knee. Her sister hadn’t struck with anything like full power, of course, but Laranna’s shoulder and chest felt like they’d been hammered for hours instead of seconds.

“At least I’m holding my own somewhere,” the blond answered dryly, turning her head down.

“You’re stealing my line,” Laranna chuckled, then lifted her hands in protest against her sister’s quizzical looks. “No, really, you’ve done better than anyone could expect. You always used to complain about figures, but you seem to be catching up fast. I don’t know what you said to Brinold, but he and his son are coming around, and that’s helping a lot. The Holders are coming to respect you, too. We finally have most of our army training, and Northspire is ready for winter. Don’t look now, but you might be able to catch a breath.”

“Ugh,” Jaselle said, but her expression was warm. “Didn’t I always used to tell you that? When did I get to be the boring one.”

“I’m still plenty boring,” Laranna insisted. “Ask any man I know!”

“Jacob would disagree.”

“I really don’t want to hear about him,” the raven-haired Lady replied, though a bittersweet ache betrayed her. The Ironwood caravan would be arriving in Talyk around now. Jacob wouldn’t be with it - he’d probably be off getting married, but it might be nice to know how his town was doing.

“If that’s what you want,” Jaselle answered, eying her speculatively. “I’m just saying, where there’s one, there has to be more. Any day now, you’ll find some dashing Southern Lord who likes to cuddle up next to a good tax assessment by the fire.”

“Right,” the Regent answered, raising her hands to her eyes. Jaselle turned too, to see the blue-liveried page enter the courtyard. The boy couldn’t have been more than fourteen, and hesitated to encounter two of the most powerful women north of the Empire’s capital armed and dressed in heavy mail.

“Um, my Ladies,” he gulped, eyes nearly bulging from his sockets.

“At ease, boy,” Laranna replied. “What’s your name?”

“Charil,” the boy said, trying carefully to meet her eyes. “I have a message, my Lady.”

“Go ahead,” Jaselle spoke gently. The boy gave her a grateful smile, and seemed to calm. Or rather, his fear gave way to a different kind of nerves. She had that effect.

The boy extended his hand, proffering a small scroll. “I have a letter from Count Ervallyn of Talyk, my Lady. There’s an army rising in rebellion, and he’s asking your aid. It’s a Holder of his named Talman Brightblade.”

Laranna took the scroll. “The name’s familiar, but I’ve never met the man. Seems like a rather foolish time to rebel, when the Count is no doubt raising an army of his own. If he’s sending the message, that means he hasn’t left, either. The Count should be able to swat him down like a fly. I’m sure the Empress is occupied, but why is asking for our help?”

The poor page cleared his throat. “Seems this Holder is popular, and dangerous. He’s killed the Count’s oldest son, and tossed out the troops supposed to be keeping order in Redhold. They say he’s the best swordsmen alive, excepting Jacob, and threw one of the Count’s guards through a door with one hand!”

A chill ran down Laranna’s spine. “Could he be a Sorcerer?”

“No one knows, my Lady. He hasn’t said he is, and he doesn’t have to. His army’s growing by the day. Least, that’s what the messenger said what talked to me. The Count’s holed up in the city with his army. He says he could handle the traitor, but with a few hundred more men, he might be able to avoid any fighting at all. My Lady.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Jaselle said, voice sharp. “Can he handle this or no? If there’s a Sorcerer in Talyk, what can we even do?”

“You’ll stay here,” Laranna replied, eyes focused in the distance, “but I have to go.”

“Why?” her sister demanded.

“A feeling,” Laranna said, thinking of her mother, a dream, and words about needing an army. “I can’t explain.”

“Wonderful,” Jaselle expelled bitterly. The page looked down, clearly wanting to be anywhere else in the world.

The sun blazed bright on Laranna’s azure split riding dress, and she tugged down the matching bonnet to shield her eyes. Summer blazed hot around her, and she was very nearly sweating. The messengers she’d met from Lyr would laugh to hear her say so. They claimed snow never reached them, and Northspire’s hottest wind was a cool breeze. Of course, they also claimed to be able to down a full keg of ale apiece before mother shooed them away, so she wasn’t sure she believed them. She missed them: the two had wonderful lies. It wouldn’t be so bad if she could travel, herself.

Laranna never got to go anywhere or see anything! Well, except today. Mother was riding with her to one of the southern holds. She was going to start helping with the accounting soon, and Mother used that to justify an outing. It was lovely: the wind was fair and dry, and the buzz of insects kept their distance. The day was just perfect, somehow, and the road led on and on around verdant hills. Mom even let her ride Dapple, who was the most beautiful mare ever.

“Enjoying yourself, dear?” the Lady Adelin asked. She was dressed in elegant layers of spring green. She looked like a mix of a princess and heroine from a story, with the crossbow hanging neat against her saddlebag. She patted Sable absently, while steering expertly with her knees. Was there anything her mother didn’t excel at?

“Oh, yes,” the dark-haired girl replied, twinkling blue eyes turned on her mother. It was a treat to have her to herself. Even when she got out, she usually had to take her clingy little sister along. But Jaselle was barely even nine, and her mother wanted to take Larann to Ravenhold alone. So she and Mom were out with nothing but the horses and the winding road. She adored her tutor, and their small library, but a day out like this was heaven. Mom had even packed sweet-rolls.

“It’s good to have some time with you, Laranna,” mother said. “You make me feel young again.”

“You’re not old, Mom. Everybody says how beautiful you are,” Laranna pointed out. “You’re not even thirty!”

“I wasn’t, was I? This is a good memory,” the Lady Adelin admitted, smiling down at her. “We took our time, and rode long past the twilight, caught up in conversation. Holder Faraj almost sent a team out looking for us. I remember you broke into tears for making him worry. That was before your teenage years made you stubborn.”

“Mom?” Laranna asked, confused. For a moment, the road seemed to twist before her, and a large cloud obscured the sun.

“I’m sorry, love, but we need to talk,” the Lady said in her mothering voice.

“About what?” Laranna asked, lowering her voice. Suddenly, a strange chill struck her. “Wait, you’re dead.”

“Yes, dear, I am.” Her mother made a calming gesture with her hands. “Hush, it’s alright. I’m just hoping I have a little more time than I your last dream. Did you get a chance to check my bottom drawer, for the letter?”

“I - no,” Laranna answered, confused. “Mom, is it really you? What’s going on?”

“We always had a special connection, didn’t we? I love both you and your sister dearly, but you always seemed to need me more. Jaselle is like her father; she gives a little bit of herself to everyone, but she’s like a climber who never puts too much weight on one branch. As capable as you are, you should have someone you can depend on.”

“You left me,” Laranna said, shivering despite the heat, “and I didn’t want you to go. Do you know how many people I had to stare down? Half of Northspire thinks I’m a bitch by now, and the worst part is I probably am. I hate it.”

Adelin smiled pityingly. “You’re doing well, whether or not you believe it. My point, dear, is you’re not alone.”

Laranna balled her fists at the lie, and retorted sharply. “You’re dead! Am I really so lonely I need to imagine you telling me I’m not? Why can’t I be stronger, like you were?”

Her mother, blond and young, wise and beautiful like Laranna knew she never would be, spoke conversationally. “I’m in the Spirit World, but you held on tight to me, some part of me, anyway. We’re tied together now. I can be with you whenever you want, if you want me to.”

Laranna paused, unclenching her hands, and laying them on Dapple’s neck to steady herself. “What?”

For the first time, it was her mother who looked nervous. “The connection is tenuous. Reach for me, and I’ll be there for you. Push me away - and I’m gone.”

“You’re my mother! Why would I push you away?” Laranna asked, hugging herself.

“You may not want your mother riding along in your head. But if you do, I might be able to help you with what’s coming.”

“Is father going to be alright?” Laranna asked suddenly. “Please say he is.”

“He’s reached Travan safely. After that? I don’t know. But you need to decide if you want my help. I’m not tied to your father any longer, only you.”

“Of course,” Laranna said, though her tone was unconvincing. “But how can you help me?”

“It’s hard to say, yet,” her mother replied. “But if you let me in, I can see and feel what you do. In return, I might be able to lend you some of my strength, and my advice. You may find yourself needing all the help you can get, given all that’s changing.”

“You’d be in my head?! Would that make me a Sorceress?” Laranna asked.

Dapple had stopped, and Adelin turned her own horse to look her daughter in the eyes. “Maybe not. St. Thomas is ten times stronger than I am, probably more. So is Brother Francis.”

Her mother paused, gaze fading for a moment into the distance, then continued. “The future is vague, and some of the images I’ve seen contradict. Maybe I stay with you, and you live a very long life. Maybe you die young. Sometimes you’re irritated with me, and other times grateful. If I stay with you, we share everything - and I mean everything. That’s a lot to get used to.

“If not, I lose sight of what happens to you. It’s all vague, and unclear until you decide. It might be the most important thing you ever decide, and I can’t tell you what is right.”

“You can’t possibly expect me to give up every waking moment of privacy!” Laranna demanded, still girlish jaw dropping. If there was a day she didn’t spend at least half the hours alone, she couldn’t remember it. A ghost in her head - would it drive her mad? There were stories, very old stories, about men and women who could hear voices that weren’t there. She felt a sudden chill, as she remembered old tales of madness and death. None of them ended well.

“You can push me out of your senses, if you try,” Adelin noted hesitantly. “But I’ll still have a sense of what you’re feeling. However, the longer we’re together, the harder we’ll be to separate. St. Thomas was able to explain that much.”

Laranna stared into the distance for along moment. “Why do you want this?” she whispered.

“I’m your mother. I think I can help you,” Adeling replied reasonably.

“No. Not good enough,” Laranna answered, shaking her head. “Especially when you don’t even know if you can do anything at all.”

The image of her mother, so clear earlier, began to fade. It frowned, then shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s your choice, of course. But please, do find my note. Some things are hard to say in person, and I need you to remember.”

Laranna blinked, and her mother suddenly started to fade, pushed away by her fear. She tried hard to summon the joy of being an eleven year old girl, enjoying a taste of freedom, alone on her horse. It refused to come.

Laranna slid her fingers slowly down the length of the closed door, thinking. Her mind was still foggy from lack of sleep. The vague echoes of her troubling dreams were beginning to fade, but the hours afterward of tossing and turning were clear enough.

“Do you need anything, my Lady?” asked a short, dark-haired woman of roughly her own age, through the open door of the adjacent suite. The young woman cradled the still hairless Joran in her arms, and he sucked noisily at her breast. Ona, her daughter, played happily in the corner with a little straw-haired wooden doll.

Yes, there was something she needed to do, though exactly what eluded her. “No, I’m just a bit distracted. Are you doing well, Jeyne?”

The young woman in pink wool seemed a little nervous, but her smile wasn’t completely forced. “Yes, my Lady. I imagine it’s hard with the Earl gone, and so much for you to do! If it makes you feel better, the servants speak well of you. Everyone says you’ve been marvelous. Do you … know when he’s coming back?”

“I wish I did,” Laranna replied with a rueful half-smile. “The Empress will keep him as long as she needs, and campaigns usually runs some months.”

“Oh,” Jeyne replied, eyes downcast. The curvaceous nurse returned her attention to her charge, making cooing noises to soothe him.

Something in the scene stirred a twinge in Laranna that she couldn’t identify, and she turned her head away irritably. “Thank you, Jeyne. I’ll come visit my brother soon.”

Jeyne, still focused on the feeding baby, murmured her assent. “Of course, my Lady.”

Just next door to the nursery was her parents’ bedroom. Laranna lifted the keys hanging from the fine chain about her neck, and slipped it carefully into the keyhole. The room itself was much as it had always been. A great canopied bed sat in the middle of the floor. A set of sturdy oaken drawers stood to the right, and a tall silvered mirror hung from the wall. The Regent closed the door softly behind, and glided over to examine it.

Within the oval watched a proud, almost imperious young woman in a deep sapphire dress. A silver chain hung around her neck, to match the gem-studded pins that gathered her dark braids. Pale blue eyes burned in her face, over a proud nose. Laranna wanted to find beauty: beneath the fine clothes she saw a cold and awkward collection of angles and bones. Part of her knew she was judging herself too harshly. Her loneliness didn’t care.

The room was almost as she remembered it, but it felt empty. The walls were bare without fall bouquets, and the room soulless without the scent of her mother’s perfume. It was clean and empty: Brinold held the other key, and he had seen the room maintained. Laranna’s hands moved to open her mother’s dresser. Bright summer blouses and skirts lay neatly within, immaculately folded. She lifted a green blouse, her mother’s favorite. She wondered if her mother would want her to have it, though it would hang loose upon her. At the bottom of the drawer, previously hidden underneath, were three tightly rolled scrolls, held with broad green ribbon, and sealed with wax. She lifted one.

“Laranna”, the outside of the scroll read.

Her breath caught for a moment, and she found her fingers breaking the seal, releasing the ribbon, and carelessly unfurling the scroll.

Dearest Daughter,

Please forgive me. By now, you doubtless suspect that I have been aware of my coming death. I fear I must remove all doubt. For years now I have dreamed of your brother’s birth, and the consequences that would bring for our family. It would be the day that would preserve the line of Northspire and all your father and I have built here, but it would also cost my life, and take me from you. You must wonder why I said nothing about it.

Laranna, I dream of the future: the best of all futures within reach, or so it seems. Whenever I attempt to change what will be, or share enough that it may be changed, things only turn for the worse. I no longer try; only twice since I was no longer a child have I been so foolish, and those indiscretions I have come to regret deeply. For long stretches of time, I see nothing at all of what will happen. When I do, sometimes the future is divided and unclear. However, when I do see the future, and it settles into a single image, I always accept it. Even now.

Yet, even as I write, I tremble. Who can walk to her own death silently, when perhaps she could step aside? Lazarus tells us that in living and dying with purpose, we find immortality. I believe that in the Spirit World, I will.

There are a few things after my death that I suspect, but that future is split into possibilities beyond count. One thing I do know: you and I will have a new connection. You will have to make a choice: let me into your life and mind, and I can be with you always. You need never be alone again. Or you can let the dead be, and live your life unburdened by my spirit. It’s your choice, and I want nothing for you but your own joy, freely chosen.

Just know that I love you, and I’ve always loved you, and your father and sister. Nothing can take that away. Your proud mother always,

Adelin LeTyr Northspire

Laranna raised her hand to her mouth, and closed her eyes. Tears began to trickle unbidden, and there was nothing to do bet let them fall. What had she done? How could she?! Her mother was some kind of witch, and she had lied about it all her life. Now she had a connection to her daughter’s soul: she was asking to crawl into her, and live there forever. There was a word for spirits who did that: they were called demons. Screaming in grief, and betrayal, and anger, Laranna pushed away the spirit in the back of her mind, and felt her mother retreat.

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