Shinreal sat by herself.
She sipped at her mug of ale, bitter human stock, as she examined the room from her table in the back corner. At first, having an elf walk into the establishment had caused a bit of a stir. Elven men were a rare enough sight this far south, even amongst merchants, but a young elven woman walking into a dingy tap-house like the Drunken Weasel was unheard of. Eventually, some of the more inebriated customers had plucked up the courage to flirt with her. The most recent of those still lay unconcious at the foot of her table. Now the men at the bar pointedly ignored her, especially the two dwarves who had refused to acknowlege her existance from the start.
Normally she enjoyed teasing the drunks that tried to press their attentions on her when she came to a place like this, but the last one had been completely rude and she didn't feel like flirting anyway. It wasn't like she tried to attract human men, but most seemed to find her shape appealing. Her stark white hair and olive skin, combined with golden eyes and delicately pointed elven ears only made her more exotic, she supposed. It didn't seem to matter that she was only tall enough to look the most avaerage in hieght among them square in the chest. Still, the long sword at her waist and molded leather armor warned away most sober human males, and the drunk ones were fun to toy with.
Shinreal grimaced as she took another sip of ale. The drink that humans made was really no stronger than its elven counterpart, but no effort was made at all to flavor the distilled grain. It had a raw, bitter taste that sat on the tougne. She set the mug down and resolved to order wine the next time.
The water clock behind the bar read four until Tenth. It was still early. Shinreal wondered again, as she had done so for the last week, why she had bothered staying in this miserable city as long as she had. She longed to be on the move again, the forests and hills called to her, but the rumors had only gotten better the longer she stayed: First, the rumors were that a revolt had occured in the containment forts to the southwest, then a few days later there came word that the Holy Order had moved in force out of West Hold towards the rumored revolt. Now, if the rumors were even close to true, the Sunblades had moved as well. Certainly a simple revolt didn't need such a heavy-handed response, but the Sunblades in Ret Hold were being tight lipped, and the common folk knew little more. Some of the regular city militia spoke of a possible split between the Holy Order or Sunblades and the Council, but Shinreal thought that unlikely.
With a loud clack, another empty laddle snapped up the line on the water clock, moving the hands to Tenth. As if on cue, the door opened and a young man entered. He unslung the bastard sword he carried on his back and leaned it against a nearby table where he sat down. The scruffy lad serving drinks bustled over to take the young man's order.
"So," Shinreal thought "the West Holder returns....I thought he might."
The young man had brown hair, cut short and neat. His walk, build, and the heavy weapon he carried spoke of an experienced swordsman, but his face marked him as younger than twenty human years easily.
She knew he was from West Hold by his accent. He never ordered anything but mulled wine and never ate, but sat there as if waiting for someone. He had spoken with various shady people, but still he continued to come every night. Three days she had watched him. Perhaps who he was looking for would show up tonight.
She hadn't waited long when the door opened again and an armoured man entered. He was a tall Olgothian with steaks of gray in his black hair. He had the appearance of a mongoose about to strike, dark eyes taking in everything in the room in just the first few steps through the door. Shinreal recognized him immediately as Hussan Paderishal, the commander-in-chief of the Sunblades in Ret Hold. Paderishal was fully dressed in the light mail armour favored by his cavalry brigade. Two crimson loops and a gold pin on his shoulder marked him as a High General.
The other men in the bar who weren't to drunk to not know better stared openly. First strange elven women and now the garrison General? Perhaps the ale had improved.
Shinreal laughed silently at their befuddlement, but her real attention was on the newcomer. Hussan walked directly to the table where the young man sat and without being invited, seated himself next to him. For several moments he spoke quietly while the young man appeared to ignore him. Shinreal strained to hear the conversation, but only caught bits about the Witherwood, and someone's father.
It was the 'father' comment that finally evoked a response. Without a word, the young man shot out of his chair and grabbed his weapon. Hussan's eyes widened as he grabbed for his own sword, drawing it from its sheath with blinding speed.
The young man was faster.
Without drawing his weapon, he swung the sheathed four foot blade up, lifting the table up and over on its side, spilling mulled wine all over the General and pinning him into his chair. On the down stroke, he shifted his feet and dropped the heavy sword into a low arc, snapping the legs of the chair the Olgothian was sitting in like twigs.
With a mighty crash, the rest of the chair splintered under the man's armoured weight and fell from beneath him as the heavy pinewood table dropped on him from above.
The young swordsman tossed a gold coin on the floor with an apology to the owner, then stalked out the door, patrons and servers alike giving him wide berth.
The General, struggling with the heavy furniture on top of him, yelled furiously after him: "You are a disgrace, Harbind! Do you hear me!? A disgrace!!"
A couple of the off duty militia helped the Olgothian officer to disentangle himself from the table and earned a scowl for their efforts. The patrons in his path carefully ignored the irrate man as he stormed out the door himself a moment later.
"Harbind, hmm...." Shinreal mused to herself. The Guildmaster and General of West Hold's own son, no doubt. Perhaps the militia-men's rumors held a glimmer of truth after all. She paid for her drink and left, carefully skirting the remains of the hapless furniture.
"This just keeps getting better and better." the elf thought as she stepped back out into the cobblestone streets of Ret Hold. There was something afoot in the south, and Shinreal meant to know what that was.
"Tighten your form, Kyle!" Sivand said as he parried another blow by the man across from him. "And lighten up! These aren't wooden practice blades!"
Sivand and Kyle were both stripped to the waist, sweat glistening in the light from the group's small campfire. Sivand towered head and shoulders above the other man, all solid muscle and tendon that wasn't just from years of sword training. He was just naturally huge. Kyle, while smaller, was still far from weak if one judged both men by the norm.
"So, Blade Leader Iceman is afraid I might cut him?" Kyle taunted, whipping his longsword around in front of him to show off.
Sivand groaned. "No, Kyle." he said grounding the point of his own blade, "I just don't want you to dull the damn thing." Edgar snickered. Kyle shot an evil glare his direction and spun his blade even faster as he began to circle his opponent.
Almost casually, Sivand brought his sword up into the path of the whirling blade and twisted his wrist with a snap. Kyle's sword went spinning out of his grasp and sank blade-first into the dirt right between
Adere's legs. Adere fell over backwards with a yelp. Edgar laughed even harder. Jadet, who had been the quiet one of the bunch was chuckling as well.
"Fancy bladework like that only leaves you open and makes you easy to disarm, Kyle." Sivand said, sheathing his weapon and sitting down as Kyle fumed. "You need to work more on your form and less on your circus performing."
Edgar was nearly in tears now. "Shut up, clown!" Kyle roared at him. Turning back to Sivand, a small grin touched his lips. "Sure it's showy, but it still takes skill. If I can't out fight you, I can still out show you."
Normally, Sivand didn't like rising to Kyle's childish challenges, but tonight he had had enough. Standing up, he drew his sword and stepped well clear of the campfire. Edgar stopped laughing and watched as intently as the others.
Starting slowly, Sivand began to turn the heavy blade in wide arcs in front of him, then as the wieght of the blade picked up momentum, he began to spin it in quick circles and loops. Soon, he had the blade spinning so fast that it was just a blur. Persperation shone on his forehead as he concentrated on the pattern. Finally, with a flick of his wrists, Sivand tossed the sword straight up. It spun in the starlight above the camp, then came straight down, blade first, and sunk into the ground right in front of where he stood. Catching his breath and folding his hands over the pommel of the grounded blade, Sivand looked right at Kyle, "You were saying?"
Edgar, Adere and Jadet cheered and clapped, even Tav broke his dour composure and clapped harder than the other three. Kyle slowly closed his mouth and without a word, turned and retrieved his own blade from where it had landed and left to search his saddlebags for a whetstone. Sivand grinned. Just because it served no purpose in a fight didn't mean that he never tried it in his spare time.
The group had separated from the main column two days ago and had been marching with them close to a week before that. They had passed Hun and Tybor's Creek, a pair of small villages that shared the road, and within another three days they would reach Ret Hold. Another two days from Ret hold was the border of the Western Colonies at the foot of the Derrius Mountains, home of the underground kingdom of dwarves, Grelhalden. If the search for his brother led east, he knew of a road that would take them through the passes held by the dwarves, if it led north, there was a trade road that ran through several townships all the way to Urell Hold, just south of the Elven Territories, and if it led south, then they would have to hire a guide and pass through the Vildeshire Wood.
Sivand had been to Ret Hold once before, when he was much younger. Norhamn Harbind had made a trip there to inspect the garrison, something he did every year, but Sivand and Alaster had only gone with him that once. He remembered Ret Hold as a towering monolith of log walls and and clay-brick buildings. Not a spot on the great stone fortifications of West Hold or its sister to the east, but still magnificent all the same. Ret Hold was bigger than Urell Hold or even Marata Hold in the central plains. Dwarven stone pullies had been used to raise the massive tree-trunks into place. Like all the Holds, it had been constructed to withstand siege by Giants during the Colonization Wars, in fact only the tallest of the Giants could peek over the walls, and those that tried often got a face full of Dwaven catapult shot for their trouble. In the end, the final thrust had come from the south of West Hold, leaving Ret Hold with only a handful to deal with.
Sivand got up and dug through his saddle bags looking for his rations. It would be nice to visit Ret Hold again, if only the circumstances weren't so urgent. He would come back later when he wasn't rushed and see all the great battle monuments once more.
After cleaning their weapons and eating a small meal of dried meat and cheese, lots were drawn to see who had first watch. Adere picked up his spear and and, with a sigh, rose to begin making his patrol of the small clearing where they had made camp.
As he lay down to sleep, Sivand thought of Alaster. Whatever had possesed him to run off like that, especially when his father needed him the most? What if he never found him? What if....
The questions faded from his mind as sleep took hold.
Tav woke Sivand up the next morning with a nudge from his boot. "Blade Leader, wake up. I think you should see this."
Sivand rolled out of his blankets, and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, looked in the direction that Tav was pointing.
Up the road from their campsite, coming over the hills about a quarter mile away, was a column of men in armour. Polished steel mail shone in the morning sun as rows of pikemen and swordsmen marched in step to a drum beat. Behind them rode what had to be nearly a brigade of cavalry.
At the front flew the banner of the Sunblades.
"Quickly, wake the others." Sivand said "And ready the horses."
"Blade Leader?" Tav said, the question left out.
"We ride to meet them. Hurry now!" Sivand ordered as he turned to roll his things. Tav scurried about the camp, booting the others out of their blankets as Sivand hurriedly put on his chainmail. He took an extra moment to make sure his rank was on properly this time, then splashed his face with some water and dried himself on his blanketroll. He wished he had time to shave. What in blazes were the Sunblades from Ret Hold, for that was only what they could be, doing on the road going west? And all of them too! Certainly Ret Hold was better defended from the south than West Hold, and with the Dwarves to the east and Jetar Hold and Urell Hold to the north, they had little to fear from whatever troubles were brewing at the containment forts. But surely they hadn't left with every man. Yet that was how it appeared. The Council must have had something to do with it. The leader of the Ret Hold Sunblades was High General Paderishal. There had been bad blood between his father and Paderishal in the past. He would have to be careful.
The others had finished stowing their things and were finishing up the straps on their armor. "Mount up!" Sivand ordered. "Tav, keep pace with me, the rest of you in arrowhead formation, weapons stowed."
Edgar and the others looked suprised. Tav simply gave Sivand a level look and said, "Blade Leader, that's an attack formation. With or without the weapons, do you think it's wise to ride up like that?"
"Just do it!" Sivand snapped. Tav saluted and began to bark orders at the rest of the squad. Sivand took a breath an berated himself. He shouldn't let his temper get to him, but how could he explain to Tav that these men might not be their friends? The manuverings of the Council were beginning to worry him. It may just be that the Govenor had realized his mistake and had called for reenforcements. Maybe. But Sivand doubted it. The squad formed up with him at the edge of the road and he heeled his horse forward.
High General Hussan Paderishal, Commander of the Ret Hold Sunblades, Second Seat of the House, Leader of the Bloody Sun Cavalry Brigade, Nobleman of Olgothia, was having a very bad week.
It had all started with his shamble of a meeting with that Harbind brat. If the whelp survived, he was going to kill him himself. Then the order from the wizard came that it was time to move his army. He didn't know why he trusted the old meddler, but all his promises so far had been made good, and if he was truely as influencial in West Hold as he claimed, then his value to him was great indeed. For years he had languished in the shadow of Norhamn Harbind. Always beating him to the front. Always out-manuvering him. Always stealing the glory that should have been his. At first, he was irrate that Harbind had been sent by the Govenor to quell the rebellion to the south instead of him. Then, the black-robed wizard from West Hold had shown him how he could use Harbind's own treachery against him. This time the glory would be his. He would see Harbind hoist by his own petard and himself seated as the new Sunblade's Guildmaster. As it should have always been.
Once he had his position, he could do away with the magician. He was tired of the secret messages. The suggestions that were worded like commands. He would show the scrawny nit who was in control. He was in such a temper the previous night, in fact, that he had almost sent the hooded messenger away. With the hot sun beating down on him in his armor, tabard still stained with mulled wine, he was begining to think he probably should have. If the mage had lied to him, he would see the scoundrel drawn and quartered on the hour.
Hussan's brooding was interrupted by the High Captain riding to his left with him at the front of the column. He pointed ahead at a squad of cavalry coming down the road...in an Arrowhead formation. "Do you see them, High General? Should we send a scout? It looks as though they mean to attack."
Attack? Hussan nearly laughed. One squad against an entire army? That would be suicide. Removing a Rasheen vision-lens from his belt loop, he brought it up to his eye and the view of the riders lept closer.
Six men all together. A green-looped Blade Leader and his command. Weapons stowed also. No, this formation was not meant to attack. The spread out line was made so that at a word from the leader, the others could wheel and flee in opposite directions to evade capture. The man was being cautious.
"Call a general halt." Paderishal said as he put the lens away, "And ride forward with me to meet them."
The officer next to him looked startled for a moment, then did as he was told. The column slowly came to a stop as the cavalry reined in their mounts. Hussan made a clicking noise with his tounge and spurred his horse forward into a trot. The Captain followed.
As they drew nearer to the lone squad, its leader drew in his reins and signaled the others to fall into a regular column behind him. They did, but it was obvious to Hussan from the way they handled their mounts that all of them were as green as their commander's loops. What in blazes was a lone squad, and new mercenaries at that, doing so far from their company?
Upon seeing his rank, the leader, a young man not much more than a boy himself, but built like an bull gork, dismounted and knelt, his sword hand held under his heart, palm up.
"Rise and report." Hussan ordered.
The young Blade Leader stood and addressed him: "I am Sivand Gilroth, Blade Leader to Field Commander Grego, third light cavalry, West Hold. We were on our way to Ret Hold with a message from the Guildmaster, and orders to find someone."
Paderishal's eyes widened slightly, and the Captain quickly shut his own jaw with a snap. So, Norhamn Harbind had sent the bastard son to find his brother. That had to be the person they were looking for. The last time Paderishal had seen Sivand, he was still a shaggy little rat of a boy hiding behind his step-mother's skirts. He looked the complete opposite of his brother, not suprising considering that they held no blood relation, all bulging muscle and shoulder while Alaster was a tight whip of a young man; much like his father.
"If I may ask, High General," Sivand said, "who stands gaurd in Ret Hold with the Sunblades on the road west?"
Paderishal grimaced. Strong, but not subtle. "It is not your place to question me in such a manner, Blade Leader." he said, stessing the rank at the end. "But if it will ease your mind, there is a company of Dwarves and reenforcements from Urell Hold. Who is it you are looking for?"
The boy kept his eyes locked straight on Paderishal as he spoke, "A young mercenary who is absent from ranks and charged with theft to boot. Since he holds little rank, my squad was assigned to find and fetch and return him to West Hold." Paderishal took note that no name was given. Fine then, if that was the game...
Paderishal gave a snort and began to reign his horse around. "How unfortunate of you to be sent on such a petty assignment while your unit goes to battle for the Govenor. We ride to reenforce West Hold..." A lie for a lie, pup, make of it as you will, "Continue with your assignment, and report to me in West Hold after you have found your runaway."
As Paderishal rode back to the column with the Captain in tow, he thought on the other part of the wizard's message. He hadn't understood at the time, but now it seems the old trickster had expected the Gilroth boy to come this way: If the bastard brother of Harbind is seen, he is not to be interferred with. Let him come to Ret Hold, I have plans for him...
The sun was only half an orange-red ball on the horizon three days later when the group finally spotted Ret Hold. From a rise roughly three miles from the gates, Sivand could see chimney smoke rising from behind the giant log walls of the city.
"At last. Tonight we'll sleep in real beds." Edgar said, stiffling a yawn. Sivand held back one himself. It had been a long trip. But his encounter with General Paderishal still bothered him. He wasn't sure if he would be sleeping well at all.
"Well, we won't get any closer to those beds just sitting here." Sivand said, spurring his mount forward. The others followed silently.
As they came closer to the Hold however, Sivand began to get a feeling in his gut that something was wrong. It started with a pair of burnt out farm houses they had passed on the outskirts. He hadn't made to much of those, but there were others now. Not every building they passed had been burned, but even every third one was far too many. There were no people to be seen anywhere either. No smoke rose from the farm house chimneys and no livestock could be seen except for a few chickens pecking through the dirt unattended.
Sivand called a halt and he and Tav dismounted to investigate one of the unburnt houses. The door swung open when Sivand knocked. Splintered wood and broken hinge pins spoke of something having broken down the door earlier.
The scene inside made Sivand's stomach turn. Tav quietly excused himself and could be heard wretching outside. Whatever did this had spared no one, not even the hunting hound pup, which was the only corpse that was still in one piece.
Trying to keep a frantic panic from taking hold, Sivand stepped out and softly shut the door behind him. Tav had composed himself and asked about burying what was left of the farmer and his family, but Sivand shook his head. He thought of all the farms they had passed already and of the ones they had yet to pass in the next two miles. They would be burying the dead for days if they stopped at every one, and he told Tav so.
Tav reluctantly agreed and the squad continued on at a quicker pace. Sivand made himself stop counting the violated farms and homes they passed. As they drew nearer, he could see the smoke, that from a distance he had thought came from chimneys, was actually great thick columns of black, covering the area in a haze that made it seem like the dead of night even though there was still an hour of dim sunlight left. Ash rained down like macabre snow, and carrion birds circled over the walls. One of the great wooden doors at the west gate hung loose by a single steel-shod hinge, while the other lay in the dirt, the log ram used to smash it down still laying on top of it.
Mere brigands couldn't have done this, and the Unclean were hundreds of miles away to the south. So what had happened? Sivand gripped his sword handle tightly to keep himself from shaking. Tav muttered a prayer behind him as the others bowed their heads.
Ret Hold had fallen.