Storm Clouds (Chapter 2)

71rYAYxfZsL._SL1500_Storm Clouds

Among the many curious groups of ardents to be found upon the land, I encountered a group in northern Blyan who call themselves “Chrystans”. I thought at first that they were an Old Faith group that had wandered from the main, but soon realized that they worship but one god and hold it sacred above all others. They say they were thus when they came through the portal with us. Certainly they live like Celts except for a few odd religious practices that seem to color their daily living, but I am doubtful they ever trod the soil of Gawl. I believe them to be of Rune, since before we came here to tame the land. They are some form of wild folk, not true Celts at all.

Sedd of Odal, Scribe of Bel (FY 521)

 

Founding Year (FY) 931 – Summer – Dun Celdrya

Celdrya’s capital city lay shrouded in a days-long rain, as if in reaction to the death of the prince. The massive dun, home of the royal family, stood dark-grey against the stark light-grey stone of the Founding Rock, an imposing near-black fist thrust against a glowering sky. The Celdryan people bustled about their prosperous lives, muffled against the damp and wondering if there’d be war.

Deryk ap Fyrgal crossed the main ward of Dun Celdrya, shoulders hunched against the drizzle, casting a doleful eye toward the grieving heavens. The sky suited his mood and matched the black armband he wore.

Inside the door to the great hall, Deryk paused to shake water from his cloak, decided it was a lost cause and hung the sodden mess on one of the many waiting pegs among the myriad damp cloaks, quite a few of them plaid, but a notable number also striped. The merchants thought there‘d be war and war was usually good for them, so they loitered about the dun to be the first to know, the first to get in at the trough. Merchants cared little that war meant death. They cared only for profits.

Deryk was expected upstairs in the King’s greeting chamber, but he could pause for a moment to gather his thoughts. A serving lass passed with a pitcher that wafted a scent of wine to him, reminding of all he would rather be doing. Maryn’s death had torn a hole into the center of his life that would not be easily filled. Fun times of hunting and laughter sprang into his memory, only to be replaced with what had happened that night less than a fortnight gone. He’d been awakened by the raven’s scream and sitting up confused on his cot when had come the shouting calls of murder. He’d rushed from the tent to find Maryn ….  Deryk shook himself free of those thoughts and mounted the stairs to the upper floors of the main broch. It wouldn’t do to keep the king waiting. Perryn had warned him that in the liege’s current mood, Deryk could easily be accused of plotting to kill Maryn and take the throne. He shivered at the change of winds that had befallen the court. It never bode well when a lord loved his heir too much.

Deryk heard the shouting before he reached the chamber, even through the closed door. Vanyn was cursing a steady stream and demanding answers. His liegemen were trying to provide the latter, but he wasn’t giving them much opportunity.

“Sire ….”

“I will not have my son murdered in my kingdom and not have the murderer brought to justice!”

“Aye, sire, but ….”

“I will not hear any cursed blathering!” he roared. Deryk thought it might be best just to duck back down the stairs, tell his honor guard to say they’d been delayed, but just as the thought solidified toward action, the door came open and he was left standing there with no opportunity to flee.

“Lord Deryk,” Vanyn acknowledged. “Please, join us! It would be good to have the report of someone who was on the ground.”

Deryk looked into the king’s eyes and saw grief-madness, but raised a warrior, he stiffened his spine and walked into the room where Vanyn’s councilors and several of his honor lords stood round the council table, mostly looking anywhere but at their king. Vanyn looked ill, grey of skin and tight about the mouth. Those who owed him fealty looked either angry or frightened and the anger of some seemed to mask fear. As they shifted to make room at the table for him, Deryk glanced round the room and a serving man brought him a goblet of mead.

“We were camped along the Avercelt after a day fishing. I turned in because the hour was late, but Maryn felt the need of a walk.”

“And, you didn’t go with him?” Burcan ap Manahan, the king’s son-in-law, demanded. He must have ridden in from Mulyn straightway upon hearing the news. Even an ore boat down the Avercelt would have taken an eightnight.

“Why would I?” Deryk asked through ice-cold lips. “There were two honor guards each 15 strong outside the tent and we were in settled country. It never occurred to me, certainly, and I doubt if it ever occurred to Maryn, that he would be in danger there. We’d been there since the previous afternoon without seeing anyone outside of our own party.”

He longed to take a sip of the mead, but he feared his hand would tremble, so he kept both fisted behind his back, one thumb hooked in his leather sword belt. He fixed his gaze on a portion of tapestry visible above the head of Councilor Dumyr who, while a man of great political skill, was short.

“Go on,” Vanyn demanded. He set his own goblet of mead near Deryk’s and seemed to steel himself for the report. Deryk had seen the look of confusion on Perryn’s face when he’d told the complete story, so now he told the less detailed one he’d rehearsed on the ride to the capitol.

“I was just drifting off when the alaram was called. I rushed out and found – found Maryn staked to a tree by the spear that my rider brought to you yesterday. There was nothing to be done. It was not a survivable wound.”

Vanyn began to cough, hands upon the table, his face turning from grey to red and then purple as he struggled to regain his breath. Amazingly, his mistress, Malona, glided up to his side and soothed him. He was soon able to take a sip of his drink and ask Deryk to continue. The king’s mistress was a beautiful woman with lustrous black hair and large eyes of a golden brown color, but it was rare to see a woman in such a council and Deryk wondered at her presence and struggled to resume.

“Did Prince Maryn say anything before his death?” Dumyr, Vanyn’s high councilor, asked.

“Naught that made sense. He was already close to death by the time I got there and in the death throes madness.”

“What did he say?”

“Somewhat about ‘she’s beautiful’ and a treasure that could not be his.”

“Might he have been speaking of his betrothed,” asked Lord Gerriant from near the border with Fygal.

“Mayhap, though I do not think they have yet formed a love-bond,” Deryk answered. “Maryn was still mourning his wife. I think it was more likely he was dreaming of her in those last moments. No offence to Gillian of Llyr, of course,” he added, suddenly remembering that Gerriant was a cousin of sorts to Maryn’s betrothed.

“We know you mean the upmost respect,” Gerriant assured, appearing to mean it.

“We searched the area and I spoke to all who were within earshot at the time of the attack. The guard he was speaking with at the time said they heard a raven scream just before the spear flew.”

“A raven at midnight?” Burcan demanded. “And that far south this late in the spring? Most unusual!” Mulyn knew ravens, for they were a more northern bird.

“Aye, I thought so too until I found this.”

Deryk produced the raven feather, laying it upon the hide map that rested upon the massive table top. Glossy black with a thick spine, it was almost as long as his forearm and as wide as his spread hand. The chamber erupted into loud exclamations as Vanyn began to cough again. This time, he brought up blood and withdrew from the meeting. With his son Perryn gone to recover Maryn’s body, the councilor took the lead.

“This is no natural feather,” he noted, which drew no protests. “We all know what this is.”

Deryk raised an eyebrow because he didn’t know what it was any more than Perryn.

“We must deal with this immediately,” Burcan agreed. “If the Assassin’s Guild is once more operating in Celdrya, we must locate and eradicate them while the trail is still fresh.”

The men around the table nodded and lent their vehement support to this plan of action.

“I will take this to the king as soon as he’s had a bit of a rest and I’ll have an answer for you by the evening meal,” Councilor Dumyr assured the lords and left the room.

Deryk watched as the others slowly filed out, talking among themselves. A serving man began to clear the room of the various goblets and tankards. He glanced at Deryk’s goblet and then at the young lord’s face.

“I require a moment,” Deryk explained.

“Of course, my lord. Do you want a fresh drink?”

“Nay, thank you, uh … I do not know your name.”

“Talidd, sir.”

“Thank you for your concern. I just need a moment’s peace.”

Talidd nodded, though his dark eyes still held concern. A good servant, he returned to tidying the rest of the council chamber. Deryk reached for his goblet of mead, distracted by his dark thoughts. As it neared his lips, however, he smelled somewhat that gave him pause. Vanyn’s goblet had been beside his and he’d picked up Vanyn’s goblet by mistake. Like all younger brothers, he’d been trained to detect poisons lest he be required to act as taster to the heir. The pungent aroma of wolfsbane caused him to pull the goblet back before it touched his lips.

Gods, no!

“Poison!” he called, croaking, causing the serving man to pause in his duties and stare at him, throat muscles working. “Poison!” Deryk yelled again, louder this time, running from the room with the goblet in his hand to show the chirgeon. “The King has been poisoned!”

 

Hansorfjord, Northern Sea – Viking Date 741 / Kindred Cycle 24573/Founding Year1023 –

(Five Years Past)

Hansorfjord celebrated the majority of their future kong. His testing near-complete Erik Magnuson stood upon the testing ground, stripped to the waist in the summer sun, weighing his options. Hovdinkong Magnus Hansorsson watched from the reviewing stand, willing himself not to be anxious. The heavier spear would fly farther, but less accurately. Erik might only wound his prey, which would call his future rule into question. Magnus watched the boy choose the lighter spear and tried not to be anxious. The spear might fall short of the prey and that would also call his future rule into question. The boy had had a near-perfect score so far over the last two days. He’d run a league in armor the first day and been only a quarter sector off Magnus’ own time. Yestermorrow, he’d rigged a boat for sailing in record time. Hunting should have been the least of trials, but Magnus knew that there were those watching who would make much of the least.

No sooner had the boy made his selection than a flash of movement downfield drew Magnus’ attention. The boy cocked back his arm and let fly. The spear flew straight and true and struck in the gorse-covered shield of a young warrior, who stood to salute the young heir-chief, tugging on the spear to show that the steel had stuck in the wood. Erik saluted him back with the spear he had just picked up and no sooner let the shaft fly, sensing movement just beyond the first warrior who dropped into the hiding brush to avoid being skewered. The heavier spear flew as true and actually toppled the warrior who wielded the shield it struck. The crowd laughed. The warrior stood slowly and saluted Erik in similar fashion, who saluted back empty-handed.

Magnus saw movement at the entry of the testing grounds and watched as a runner marked him and began a run round the pathway that marked the outer edge. The testing grounds occupied a narrow strip of valley with high rocky hills on either side and deep brush along the bottom. Magnus leaned over to consult with his hammer man, Jarl Barentson, who got up to relay the message to the guards.

Magnus had missed the third throw, but it seemed to have gone well for Erik. He knew he would miss others once the runner reached the reviewing stage.

Erik threw four more spears in the interim, all accurate and powerful. He was starting to sweat and where his skin was not permanently kissed by the sun, he was starting to redden. This too was part of the trials. Magnus remembered his own sunbite with grim fondness.

“Kong, a runner comes before you with a message from Hovda Orma,” Jarl announced.

“Bring him forward.”

The runner walked boldly to his chief, aware that messengers were very valuable. He struck his sweat-stained breast with his right clenched hand. Magnus was first among equals, not to be feared

“Kong Magnus, there comes a merchant of Orenthal, bearing fine gifts and the seal of their king.”

There were few things that would interrupt Magnus viewing his son, but the king of Orenthal or one of his envoys was among them. Magnus glanced at the sun. There were perhaps two more spears and then would come the field run, which could not be easily viewed at any rate.

“Return to Hovda Orma with this message. I will come within the half-sector. She is to provide the emissary with all comforts.”

“Yes, Kong Magnus.”

The runner turned crisply and began his run round the testing grounds to the exit and then to the five-mile track back to Magnus’ fortress at the top of the fjord. Jarl awaited his orders.

“I must attend to this. See that Erik knows I viewed all the spears and that I will return after the midday rest for our contest.”

“Of course, Kong Magnus.”

Magnus signaled two of the guards to walk with him and struck out for the small harbor where his canoe awaited him. As soon as they were free of the narrow valley of the testing ground, they jogged toward the sea.

Hansorfjord, straddling the top of the fjord, hemmed in by spruce forests and slate crags, was merely a quarter-sector’s hard paddle across the stunning blue water and Magnus lent his own considerable skill to the endeavor, so that they were soon upon the shingle below the fortress. There was a large Orenthal ship anchored a bit off the shingle here, the yellow-skinned sailors watching him coolly from the deck. Magnus wondered if they would do so in the presence of their employer. Were they not servants to him? Although in Svardin society, all men were free to come and go as they chose, Magnus understood that the servants of other rulers were not.

The ship impressed, dwarfing the fishing boats beached on the shingle.. The carved and painted masthead showed a beautiful woman of Orenthal features, her dark hair braided tight against her back. The Svardin had nothing like it. The death ferries were carved similarly, but no boat in all of Svardin was so large. Truth-be-told, they didn’t need to be. The long boats were fast and cunning and, if many of them were amassed, carried more than enough men to overwhelm any community of land-lockers.

Magnus climbed the long switchback of steps hewn into the rock that brought him up to the fortress. Death awaited those who trod those steps unwarily, but the Hovingkong had no fear. He greeted each viking by name as he passed through their ranks in the guard house at the top of the stairs, then he crossed the courtyard where some husbandmen were shearing sheep and entered the great hall.

On this fine day, the window shutters stood open to allow air and light into the heavy-timbered room. His wife Orma, nearly as tall as he and with the dark hair common to her island, strode up to him.

“He’s relaxing in the gardens,” she announced, offering him the cloak of state. “Gilyn is his name.”

“That’s not a Orenthal name,” Magnus noted, frowning, settling the sealskin cloak on his shoulders. It was too hot for such on this day, but appearances mattered to the outfolk.

“Nah. His hair is light, his features not slanted. But he bears the seal-mark of the Orenthal king and letters patent.”

Magnus fingered the torc of braided gold round his neck, considering.

“Has he supped?”

“He accepted water only.”

Magnus frowned at her. Tall, with a windburn face and sun-bleached blond hair, he was a man of action. Some supposed he was not given to deep thought. Their assumptions were occasionally their death. Therefore, he eschewed assumptions himself. He did not know what to make of this emissary. He checked the knife at his waist and signaled the guards to follow him.

The Orenthal emissary stood in the garden, at the wall overlooking the plunging river. His hands rested upon the ledge. Magnus did not try for stealth as he approached; still he was surprised when the emissary turned well before he’d traveled halfway to him.

“Hovdin Magnus,” Gilyn said. Unlike Orenthal emissaries, this one was as tall as Magnus, though slender, with long arms and a thin face. His hair was light brown, his eyes an impossibly light grey shot with vines of ice-blue. Hovdin was a Svardin term for clan leader. The Orenthal did not recognize him as chief-king. For now, Magnus could not argue. Someday, he would crush them – or Erik would.

“Emissary Gilyn,” Magnus replied. Orma had glided up beside him. Although her Orenthal was only passing, it far exceeded his. “Hovda Orma will interpret for us” just about exhausted his Orenthal.

“That will not be necessary,” Gilyn said in slightly accented Svard. “I am conversant in your language.”

Orma and Magnus exchanged looks, hers saying she had been unaware of this, and then she withdrew. By design, she would lie in the board and have a servant bring out a platter in the garden.

“Shall we sit then?” Magnus asked, indicting the table and benches that stood nearby.

“Of course.” They took their seats. Gilyn wore black Orenthal silks, the lower garment cut in trews. His cloak, draped over the bench, was a fascinating grey that seemed to shift with the light. “You are no doubt confused, as I am not what you expected.”

“You are not as the other emissaries, nah.”

“I am in the employ of the Orenthal emperor, but I am Celdryan and Kin by descent.”

Magnus knew of the Celdryans who occupied the mainland to the south. He’d heard of the Kin who lived in the mountain fastnesses. Gilyn’s appearance suggested the tales Magnus had heard were fantasy … the Kin were men like any other.

“And you have come to Hansorfjord for some business or to deliver a message?”

“For business. I understand your heir has reached his majority.”

“Yah.”

“He must undertake a great task to prove his worthiness to rule, yah?”

“He must.”

“Has he selected it yet?”

“Not as yet.” Truth-to-told, Erik had been fleeced of a great accomplishment by his own father, who had been all too successful in uniting the Northern Isles.

“Ah, good waters then.” Magnus refused to show it, but he was impressed with Gilyn’s command of the language. Usually idioms troubled speakers who were not Svardin. “I believe the continent to the south is ripe for the taking with a well-organized invasion. If your son is willing to attend an inspection with me, I believe he will come away with the same impression.”

Magnus was familiar with the lands to the south. Now desert, there were signs of a great past civilization. A few vikings had followed a river up into the mountains, but the formidable barrier had not been surmounted by Svards to his knowledge. Then there was the matter of Gilyn’s employers.

“And, what is in this for the Orenthal?”

Magnus knew well the Orenthal would always claim the greatest portion of the spoils. A devious and rapacious race. The human face of his guest notwithstanding, Magnus trusted the Orenthal not at all.

“Of course, the spoils can be divided according to contribution,” Gilyn said. “The Orenthal desire a partnership with the Viking.”

“Hmm. The last emissary suggested subjugation might be in order.”

“The last emissary had limited vision.”

Magnus considered the offer.

“Erik’s testing is not yet complete. Should he pass it, you may discuss the future with him. Is that acceptable to you?”

“It is.” Gilyn held out a slender, but muscular hand to clasp Magnus’. Magnus held him firm.

“Just remember, Emissary. What a vikrus can count and carry is his by right and we’ll not be playing any games of who owns what when the day is done. Yah?”

“Yah,” Gilyn assured him. He laughed, a bit daft sounding. “You have my word as a Celdrya and a Kin that this will be above-board and honest.”

“Against your own people?”

“My peoples turned their backs on me many cycles ago. I hold no affection for either of them. You’ll learn to trust me on that.”

“We’ll see,” Magnus replied. Magnus trusted few men, which was how he had become kong, but he knew an opportunity when one presented itself. Would Erik be so wise? It was time to find out.

 

Spring Founding Year (FY) 1028 – East Faren, County Dublyn

Not to be too melodramatic, Lord, but did the ancient Believers feel this way as they were forced to leave home to do Your work?

Along a lonely mountain trail, a sorrel mare bore an elven-dressed human, his hair plaited with beads in Kindred fashion that identified his heritage to those who knew the meaning. Tall and slender with long fingers and strongly blue eyes that subtly hinted at elvishness, the man bore regular features and dark brown hair that showed rich in the sun; in most of the kingdom he would have been thought handsome and naught more.

Padraig ap Chenyn of Cenconyn traveled home, but he felt very much as though he departed his true home, for he left people he truly loved who would mourn his absence, to whom he hoped fervently one day to return.

He reined his horse to a stop at the top of a rise and caught his first glimpse of the Basketlands, to use its proper Kindred name Since leaving the camp at the end of the highway, he’d encountered some difficult trail, with washaway and downed trees, evidence of scant use in recent years. What he saw ahead looked more pleasant for horses’ legs. This part of Dublyn was rolling hills of grassland broken by occasional copses of trees. Far to the north where the mountains began to rise round Cenconyn way lay a stretch of old forest between him and the dun he’d been raised in. He didn’t think he’d be going there just yet.

In the broad valley below, Padraig could make out the road and a faint trail of smoke rising a half day gone. Being past midday, he faced a choice. Uncomfortable with camping in the open grasslands until he knew exactly where he was, yet recognizing he could not reach the first settlement that day, he decided to bide time and camp in a copse of trees within an easy ride of the mountains. He couldn’t just ride there without preparation.

Padraig dismounted to begin stripping off his clothes. Good quality elven clothes consisted of a pair of leather trews and a coton tunic embroidered with flowers and vines. He folded these up and stowed them in the bottom of a pannier on the back of the dapple-grey pony he led behind the horse, replacing them with the traditional Celdryan clothing of loose woolen breecs and a shapeless linen siarc. He tightened the breecs with a draw cord and drew in the siarc with a wide leather belt. He’d have to wear his elven boots since he didn’t have a Celdryan pair, but he supposed it wouldn’t matter. Many a Denygal wore them and he planned to travel as a Denygalman. After four years of wearing the practical elven dress, Padraig felt near-to naked in the loose-fitting Celdryan garb.

Get used to it, man! he chided himself. There’s naught for it!

As a final act, he removed the beaded braid from his hair with the edge of his dagger. That saddened him. Given different timing, he’d have given the braid to Ryanna against promise of his return. Sighing, he stowed the beads with his elven clothes, repacked the herbs on top and faced the kingdom.

As he mounted, he felt a tug on his mind. Thinking it one of his elven friends, he responded, then sensed the mind that touched his and recoiled at the filth encountered. With a sharp mental parry, he closed his mind and set seals against any unknown entrance.

“I suppose it might have been a dark one,” Padraig said aloud, a bit breathless. “They are known to scry for those sensitive.” Padraig laughed nervously then, and patted the mare’s golden  neck with an affectionate hand. “Listen to me,” he scoffed, “spouting forth like I actually know somewhat about dark ones. I suppose I’ll likely learn, don’t you think, Joy?”

The horse’s mind touched his, just the beginnings of communication, a sense that she understood what he was saying, or at least understood his tone and agreed with it.

“Well, I suppose you know more about dark ones than I do. They say animals are naturally attuned to what men ignore. I hope that’s true, because one of us should know somewhat about things.”

The horse, Joy, snorted, perhaps because a fly bothered her or, more like she found him ridiculous. He supposed that they were the same maturity level within their species and like any headstrong young lass, she found the folly of lads dreaming of adventure humorous. The Companion link allowed her to understand his species in a way horses usually did not.

Padraig reined to a halt at the bottom of the slope where a marker stone announced the border. The leaping hart on the kingdom side announced the vyngetrix of Dublyn. On the mountain side the marker stone sported a hideously demonic face with peaked ears and evil eyes. He chuckled at the folly of man’s mind that he would believe such nonsense. Still shaking his head, he clucked to Joy, continuing into the kingdom.

On the morrow, he awoke early to ride toward the chimney smoke he’d spotted on the horizon. He had dreaded the kingdom while in the mountains, remembering it more for crowded towns and bustling cities, yet as he rode along the barely discernable dirt track that passed for a road, the experience grew enjoyable. A faintly unreal color of gold covered the rolling hills, signaling they were about to burst into green. Leafless shrubs and occasional trees he rode past hovered on the edge of bursting into verdant life. Birds flitted from branch to branch and tree to tree in a riot of mating, their song filling the air.

The hard blue sky promised warmth, yet couldn’t really produce it.  He wore his good warm cloak, throwing it back on his shoulders. As he rode he began calculating the date as he had quite lost track of the wheel of the year in Celdrya while in the mountains. The Kindred kept their own calendar; by their reckoning it was about the spring equinox — halfway between Imbolc and Beltane. The green would brighten the hills quite soon; already the grassland lay wet with run-off streams and many of the trees had water round their roots.

Padraig encountered a herd of sheep guarded by a watchful dog just before midday. The large black dog watched him with such suspicion that Padraig waited until he’d rounded a bend in the road before he dismounted to eat a bit of lunch.

He’d have to reach a farmstead or tavern soon as his tuck bag was nearly empty. The thought caused him to grimace, already wishing that he didn’t have to give up some favorite elven foods.  Naught for it, of course! He’d come home with a mission and no choice but to complete it, come what may.

He approached the first farmstead a bit after the meal. He topped a rise and looked down at the compound set behind tall stone walls. The chimney stood cold, but the thatch looked sound on the roof and he could hear chickens. He winced as at least a couple of dogs launched themselves against the wooden gate to announce his presence. He tried the latch, relieved it was bolted from the inside.

A wise farmer, then! Padraig thought. Sensible, given that they’re alone out here.

Just as he noted the stones of the walls were dressed with a finery he wouldn’t have expected from a farmer a face appeared at the opening at the top of the gate. Those blue eyes could only belong to a pretty lass.

“Hallo?” she greeted.  “Are you wanting somewhat?”

“I’m a traveler on the roads,” Padraig replied, slowly, his mouth unpracticed with Celtman speak after a lapse of years. “I’m hoping to buy some bread and per — mayhap water my stock.”

“Traveler?”

“Herbman. I’ve been foraging in the eastern mountains.”

The blue eyes judged him coolly. Padraig waited. Naught more would convince the farmwife to let him in or send him away.

“You be at Sion’s steading, herbman.  I be Sion’s wife, Marya.”

“Padraig of Denygal.”

The eyes continued to weigh him. He waited again. This time the wait wasn’t too long.  The latch rattled and the gate swung outward.

“You don’t look like a daemon anyway,” Marya said, holding the gate open wide. Her smirk indicated she wasn’t much afraid of daemons. The dogs slunk off as if shamed by their rudeness. They were the same large breed, one a buckskin and the other black, as their fellow guarding the sheep. “I baked bread last night and we’ve some dried apples left from the winter.”

“Four coppers for two days’ worth?”

“Five and I’ll throw in a bit of jerked meat.”

“Done.” He released his tuck bag from a saddle hook and handed it over.

“Stock trough’s over there. The barrel’s by the door.”

Padraig watched her walk away, noting that she just topped his shoulder and had blond hair tucked up under a headscarf. Her skirts hitched up into her kirtle in improvised breecs, she still carried the pitchfork she’d used for mucking the stables. She disappeared into the house, pausing long enough to scrape her bare feet off on a stone outside the door.  She took the pitchfork with her.

That one’s wise in the ways of men, Padraig admired.

Padraig allowed Joy and the grey pony, Earnest, to make their way to the trough while he approached the barrel with his water skins. He drank long from the clear, cool water before washing his face and wetting his hair, careful not to let the waste water trickle back into the barrel.

That midden heap should be farther away.

Typical of a farm, every bit of soil in the yard turned to vegetables except for the composting pile, the walkways, and small spaces before the door and round the well. Padraig noted with surprise that the same stone built the cottage as the fence; he recognized the type — had seen it oft in the basements of Dun Cenconyn, but never outdoors.

Pale pearly pink, almost luminous, it was not a common stone, dressed and in some places carved. Farmers would not have labored so hard on the esthetics of a cottage, much less a defense wall. The steading must have been built, as Dun Cenconyn, on the ruins of an elven city. There were a few scattered throughout the basketlands. He’d never known any humans willing to use the lumina stone; most considered it haunted, if not evil.

“Admiring our witch stone?” Marya asked, coming up behind him on silent bare feet.  Padraig managed not to startle, though his heart thumped once. She held out his tuck bag. She’d left the pitch fork by the door.

“It’s indeed lovely. Did Sion do the dressing himself?”

“Nay, nay, but the fields about here are filled with the stuff.  Big blocks like that. Some say the Fey did leave it behind them when they moved on to the fairy realm … or, more like, the mountains.”

“Aye? Do you see the Kin hereabouts?” Padraig asked, establishing immediately that they both knew the elves to be real.

“Nay, they don’t come here anymore. Traveled to the Cenconyn faire long ago and we saw some. Beautiful people. Sion and I’ve been here five years and we’ve seen none.”

“Then why the defense wall?”

“Tis a long way from the village and my Sion does worry about the troubles elsewhere, that those who are desperate may come someday. So far we’ve only seen the nobleborn, come each fall to the hunting track into the mountains. Still Sion built the walls. He used the stone because there’s so much of it throughout the valley and, though there are some that call it witchstone, why throw away what is both beautiful and functional when you have need of it?”

Padraig nodded, impressed by her practicality. Sion needn’t have put the vines and stylized flowers where they’d be visually pleasing either.

“Do they stop here?” She cocked an eyebrow at him in question. “The nobles?” He hoped for some gossip.

“Aye, to eat my bread and use our water without so much as a copper or a thank you very much.”

Padraig laughed at her humored indignation, which won a full-mouthed grin from his hostess. She showed good teeth.

“The noble-born often show little care for those who fill their bellies and cellars,” he agreed. “I’m a bit turned about coming from the mountains. Where exactly is Sion’s steading?”

“Faren, County Werglidd. The village of Nalyn be about a half-day’s journey west by horseback. Dun Werglidd is mayhap one day’s journey farther. Lord Jarvys is rig there.”

Padraig remembered County Werglidd within the Dublyner rigdon of Faren.

“How far is Dun Trevyllan?”

“Good four days by wagon. Mayhap two, two and half days on horseback.”

“How are the roads?”

“The villagers in Nalyn have been repairing the road from the village to Dun Werglidd. I’ve heard that there’s a proper road from Trevyllan to Clarcom. I suppose Cunyr wants his taxes more quickly.”

“Cunyr is still vyngretrix then?”

“Aye. His heir, Bryan, be about 15 summers, I think.”

The way Marya spoke she might just have been passing on information or she might hope for Cunyr’s passing. Perhaps she hoped he wouldn’t pass soon. After all, a cur like Cunyr was apt to whelp cruel pups. The elves said the hand that rocks the cradle held a stronger influence.

“Who is rig at Dun Trevyllan now? Still Beryl?”

“Nay, but Beryl did die in a hunting accident last fall. We got the news of Lord Geran’s ascension just at snowfall. I suppose we’ll be seeing what sort of overlord he’ll be round Lughnasa.”

Padraig knew Geran and decided to risk a bit, though truly the risk seemed small.

“My master in herbs and I wintered in Dun Trevyllan several years gone. A good teacher, Geran’s father. I think his son’ll act honorably toward those who support him.”

“Truly?”

“Aye. At least Geran never cheated at dice and he didn’t quibble when he lost.”

Padraig smiled inwardly at the lad he’d been back then, using his gift at guessing dice to win against the brash young lord. Geran might have suspected him of cheating, but he’d always paid his losings and he’d not used his position to call Padraig to justice.

“How long were you in the mountains?” Marya asked.

There was somewhat so open about her question that Padraig felt drawn by her human attractiveness. Her wide blue eyes set in a pretty face with a pert nose and a warm smile could make a man forget that she stank of the stables; Padraig reminded himself you couldn’t muck out without smelling of muck. A tendril of blond hair had worked its way loose from her headscarf and it showed clean. The golden hair brought a response of longing from deep inside him.

He reminded himself sharply that he was not the sort of man who trifled with married women, but bitter truth presented itself. Sin is sin and you’ve  flown close to its flame your first contact back with humans. I repent Lord! As soon as he thought that a small gust of wind wafted her scent to him. She stank of the stables and his desire stepped back into the shadows.

“I’d best be going if it’s a half-day’s ride to the village,” he said. “Tis a lovely steading, Marya.” He’d never know quite why he asked, but he did. Maybe it was to deny what he’d felt only a moment before. “Are your children with Sion, then, out tending the fields?”

She hesitated for a moment.

“Nay and you did say you were an herbman, didn’t you? You’ve been in the eastern mountains. Among the Fey, aye?”

“I won’t deny that I studied some of their lore, aye.”

“I’ve heard that they’ve different sort of lore than we do, ways of healing our herbmen don’t know.”

“Some such, aye.”

Marya hesitated again, considering some sad thought, then spoke quietly, but in a rush, as if she wanted to get the words away and have her answer before somewhat stopped her.

“Sion and I married five years ago. There’s no children and I was wondering, well, if there’s somewhat ….  The herbman that travels through the village now and again said there’s naught, but he did suggest the Fey might have a cure or two, then made it into a joke, like.”

Padraig’s heart went out to her. Although farm wives weren’t likely set aside for barren, their husbands and the townspeople were sometimes less than kind.

“Sion wants children then?” he inquired.

“We both do. We even danced round the Beltane tree again last year to see if somewhat would happen, but naught.”

Padraig understood this to mean that they had normal sexual relations. He opened his Sight to have a look at her, pretending that he considered his words carefully. It took only a moment to see that she was in perfect health. All the colors of a healthy young woman were present.

“I have some herbs that might help, but I have to ask some – some questions.”

“Aye.”

He queried about delicate matters like her monthly courses and whether her husband had ever had mumps. His healing Sight told him that Marya wasn’t the problem. He couldn’t Heal what wasn’t broken. He asked God for permission to Heal Sion, but he wasn’t sure of the response, did not feel anything that would tell him if God had granted the healing.

“I’ve some herbs I’ll give you. Hold a bit.”

He found what he was looking for in one of the pony’s panniers and he quickly spooned somewhat out into two bags, one for each type of herb.  Padraig swallowed hard at what he was doing. The red raspberry leaves were common enough, but the palmetto was a swamp plant and not so easily come by. Ah, well, he wasn’t returning to the kingdom to make his fortune.

“The red cloth is for you and the blue cloth is for Sion.  Make a tea of it every morning until it’s all used up. I can’t promise it will work, mind you. These things are often vexing. But, it does work sometimes.”

“Thank you,” Marya said, taking the bags and clasping them to her kirtle like a suspected treasure.  “How much do I owe you?”

“Naught.  Pleased that I may help you.”

He caught Joy’s halter and led the stock toward the gate.  Marya followed, kicking back the dogs who had come to say goodbye as if Padraig were an old friend.

“If we bear a child, we’ll name the boy after you.”

“Only if it pleases Sion,” Padraig insisted.

“If it works, your name will please him well. What name do you favor for a girl?”

Padraig didn’t have to ponder the question.

“Ryanna,” he replied. He swung up into the saddle, nodded once to Marya and rode off down the road. He’d not gone far before he realized that he felt totally at peace with the encounter. He glanced back over his shoulder to view the farmstead one last time, and found himself staring in awe.

There had indeed been an elven city here in the long ago and its memory still lingered for them that are sensitive to such things. Though by no means a gifted seer, there was elven blood in his veins and he saw what there remained – the echo of the city.

Built of pale lumina stone that caught the sunlight and made it shimmer, the city rose in delicate spires and graceful towers throughout the valley where Sion’s steading now rested. Broad avenues divided blocks of buildings, all in rectangles and squares, shaded by graceful trees. The stream flowing just east of Sion’s steading was bridged by a graceful span of stone and there was not a defense wall to be seen.

Padraig blinked and the vision faded. He’d seen what had been there to be seen, almost as a beacon of light against the darkness. He’d come west with a mission and he must never forget that. Rescuing the basketlands was important not only for the society of men that now lived there but, for some unfathomable reason, for the Kin who had long ago fled those precincts.

 

Spring Founding Year (FY) 1028 – Blue Iris Holt – Present

The community of Kin Padraig had departed from sheltered in the high mountains to the northeast of Faren. At one time, this elfholt had been a dwarven mine, but the dwarves had given it to the elves when the mine played out and now a thriving community of Kin called the caves home. The beautiful half-elf Morynsionryanna sat beside a large stone basin, trailing an idle finger through the water to keep the visions active. In an ethereal window, Ryanna saw a tired-looking Padraig saddling the sorrel mare in a copse of trees somewhere in Dublyn. She didn’t know how she could know that for certain, but she did know, beyond just the guess that he would still be in Dublyn. He looked hale enough and she supposed that after living in the holt for so many years, sleeping upon the ground would take some getting used to, thus explaining the shadows around his eyes. She wished that she could reach out to him and touch his mind. He could reply to a touch, though he was not able to scry in his own right. Alas, she’d been forbidden by Gly and to disobey would mean to lose these sessions where she might view Padraig. This was better than no contact at all, so she restrained her more rebellious tendencies.

Truly this must be love, she thought. I never acted this way with Gil. I’ve scried often enough for him, but not with longing.

The thought of Gil shifted the images in the basin to a faraway city that Ryanna knew she’d never visited. Dark haired people with almond-shaped dark eyes walked immaculate streets of the finest tile before white-washed buildings of a style she did not recognize. Their clothes were of the finest Orental silk. What she did not understand was why thoughts of Gil always brought her to this faraway foreign city. For five years she’d felt naught that would convince her that her husband was still among the breathing, yet thoughts of him always brought her visions of the Orental city. Had he perished there? She’d never heard that mage work could hone in on the last knowings of a departed soul, so perhaps it came from some human part of her abilities. Certainly no elf had ever claimed it as possible and none of her tutors could help her decipher its meaning.

As sometimes happened with her, her vision shifted, so that she now saw a Morikan caravan stopped in the desert, where a dark, turbaned trader haggled with a stout dwarf over some goods – nay, over human slaves. Not dwarfs then, but trolls. The dwarvish cousins were easily confused on first sight, but their ways had diverged in the millennia since their rift. From one of the little cottages on the back of a wagon, a woman completely covered in a veil watched the transaction. Ryanna supposed the desert-dwellers felt no compunction over keeping slaves since they kept their mates in virtual slavery.

Her irritation at that thought caused the visions to collapse completely. Ryanna paddled in the water for a moment more, hoping to return a vision of Padraig, but it was no good. Sighing, she sat up and looked around the Hall of the Wise. The large rock basin that she sat beside was filled by an artfully worked waterfall that fell in courses down the wall, yet somehow the surface was always reflective enough for scrying, tempting her to remain and continue her activities. The morning meal scented the air with warm yeast as acolytes, apprentices and the Wise descended from their chambers to the Hall. Her time of indulgence had passed. Time to embrace the day. In time, Gly would allow her more freedom, but only if she earned it. There’d be time enough for indulgences later.

As a farewell to her self-indulgence, she trailed a finger through the water one last time, though without any power behind it. She expected to see nothing beyond the ordinary sparkles of lantern light thrown off moving water, but a window opened unexpectedly in the depths of the pool. She leaned forward, curious, expecting to see Padraig once more, but espying instead a dark room lit by a steady low light that shimmered off scales of green and gold. While she contemplated the possible nature of those scales, a large brow ridge hove into sight. The head turned, dipping into a pool of darkness and then rose so that Ryanna could see the enormous eye with a vertically slit pupil surrounded by multi-faceted golden iris. Ryanna realized with a jolt that the eye saw her and in that moment, she lost the vision.

“Running a bit long on your scrying, yes?” a voice asked.

Flustered, Ryanna looked up at her tutor in wisdom. Gly, like all full elves, was a tall slender man of undetermined years. His hair was a pale color, just a bit lighter than straw and his vertically slit eyes were violet. His ears were furled like sea-shells and rose in sharp peaks.

“I think I just scried a dragon,” Ryanna gasped. Being a half-elf, Ryanna looked human. Her eyes were remarkable only in being beautiful and brilliant green and her ears were rounded.

Gly raised an eyebrow, but after a moment, a smile transformed his slender face.

“This is why I enjoy having you as a pupil,” he announced. “You break all the boundaries. A dragon?”

“Yes, a dragon in its lair. She was beautiful.”

“In its lair?” Now Gly frowned, the expression furrowing his unlined brow. Among men, Gly seemed a young man scarcely into his third decade, but he was near a half-millennium-old. “It would be a rare gift if you could scry into a dragon’s lair. They have their own ways to prevent that, such as we protect the holt.”

“And do I not have a rare set of gifts?” Ryanna asked. This elicited another grin from her tutor. She stood up from the fountain’s edge, her simple cotan robe falling around her ankles to drape her lean frame. A tall elfling with a long braid of dark hair, she hardly rated a glance among the Kin. Elflings were not rare in the Kinholts, but they were still a minority. Her human eyes and round ears were odd-seeming to her mother’s race, but in human society, many a man had chased after her like cat-mint. As she approached a half-century of life, she now recognized that her half-elven beauty had been part of the problem all along.

“I have not heard of any Kin in my lifetime who could scry a dragon,” Gly assured her. “Not even Shanara is so gifted.”

“Or she has chosen not to share,” Ryanna suggested.

“Well, true. Shanara does prefer her privacy. When next she wanders this way, or at least scries to me, I’ll have to ask after that ability. She is a connoisseur of historical lore.”

They stopped at the long table near one of the two hearths that heated the enormous central chamber of the Hall of the Wise and collected breakfast – seed bread with eggs and dried berries soaked in goat’s milk. They took their food around a corner to Gly’s workshop. In the darkness, Ryanna smelled drying herbs and essential oils. She lit the lamps with a thought as Gly moved a tray from his work table. To protect the quality of his wares, Gly’s workshop had no windows, so even on a cool spring day, the room was blackness without lamps.

“I had planned to discuss Scripture today, but I think rather we should investigate history,” Gly said, selecting a codex from a floor to ceiling shelves of similar books and setting it before her. “Dragons are much on my mind now. What do you know of them?”

While Ryanna recited what she remembered of dragon lore, Gly ate some of his breakfast, not even looking at her.

“They are one of the elder races in the Basketlands, perhaps the oldest. Certainly they predate the creation of Kin and Dwarf alike, though there is question if the Wardens might have walked the land before. They once lived in consort with Kin and were considered councilors of the Wardens, until the coming of the Celts. With the loss of the basketlands, we also lost contact with the Wardens and the dragons. Some still claim to see them flying in the high valleys, but they avoid the company of the other sentient races.”

“You grasp the major understanding of the situation,” Gly observed. “Please seek a deeper knowledge,” he encouraged as Ryanna spooned a bit of berries and crème into her mouth.

Swallowing, Ryanna opened the codex, found the subject in the index and flipped to the pages. A line-drawing in colored ink showed a scarlet and black dragon that looked remarkably like the one from her vision.

“They live many thousands of years, it is thought. They live in caves on the sides of fire mountains. They’re monogamous and bear live young that spend their early development in a mother’s pouch. They are thought to have a language that is all their own, but they also speak Elvish. Ho, there, this writer believes they may all be gone.”

“Garanthalgravynsyn,” Gly identified. “He lived through the Scourging. That book dates from the last years of his life when he had not seen a dragon for four hundred years.”

Ryanna swallowed a bite of seed bread before continuing.

“That’s before we moved into the Dragon’s Back,” Ryanna said thoughtfully. “Could it be that dragonkind were wiser than we and simply moved away from the Celtman early?”

“It well might be, though I have heard that the Celts hunted them where they remained in the basketlands. How we know that for certain, I cannot say.”

“Yes, I remember the tales they told at Peace River. Hunting dragons was among them. The lives of men are so short, however, that they thought they were telling mere fancies. Except for those who lived with us there, most Celtmen thought elves a fancy, actually.”

“They live short lives, men,” Gly agreed. “Is there more about dragonkind there?”

“Not really. References to other books. He was writing from Moryn. I suppose these might be found in the collegium.”

“No doubt. Perhaps I can scry to Tav, see if he can bring some of Garanthal’s books back with him in the spring.”

“You’re excited by this topic.” Ryanna did not form it as a question.

“Yes, yes, indeed. So much of this time seems so exciting. Winter People brought prophesy and prophesy ignites, sending Padraig to seek the king. After centuries of waiting, it feels as if the world turns once more on its axis.”

“The Celdryans will not easily accept that a king that unites both people,” Ryanna reminded gently.

“They cannot stand against the One True God’s choice,” Gly assured her.

Ryanna flipped a page of the codex and gasped. Behind the dragon in flight, a fire mountain erupted, red ink enveloping a village far down the page. The artist’s rendering seemed to suggest that the dragon was somehow responsible for the eruption. She pointed out the drawing to Gly.

“They are always tied to fire mountains in the lore. I don’t know why the artist would suggest this, however.”

“Could it be a gift of the dragons, such as I can call forth fire from wicks? They can somehow draw fire from mountains?”

“Perhaps. Our ancestors took dragons for granted and either didn’t write about them or the books have been lost. We really know very little about them now.”

“The Celts believe dragons can breathe fire from their mouths or noses.”

“That sounds painful,” Gly said wryly.

“That was my thought round the story fire. What am I to learn from all this?”

“I’m uncertain. What I know for certain is that the Gifted receive their Gifts from the True God as they are needed. If you can see into a dragon’s lair, Ryanna, then God must have a purpose for it.”

Ryanna sighed. Elves usually developed their gifts as children and their childhoods reflected the restraints needed. Powerfully gifted children were often apprenticed to the Wise. Ryanna, like many elflings, had exhibited only mundane gifts as a child, coming into increasing power as a young adult, already married and seeking her own life story. She had not submitted easily to the tutoring and the demands upon her freedom and she still did not seek to be a Wisdom.

“Why does the Council still refuse to block me from the Source?” she asked. “They know that I will never use my abilities in a position of leadership, so why do they not allow me to end my studies?”

“They do not owe you an explanation, Ryanna,” Gly said. “Seems a shame to waste gifts such as you have.”

“They could always unbind me if needed. I do not seek this life, Gly.”

“No, you’d rather chase after Padraig.”

“Not true,” Ryanna insisted. “I accepted the restraints put upon me by the Wise. Even if I had not, Padraig would not have me until I had fulfilled my responsibility.”

“And, you do not feel in the least rebellious about this?”

“I didn’t say that,” Ryanna said with a quick smile. “Of course I’m impatient. Elflings always are, by Kin standards. I have matured in my perspective, however. I will not go haring off to repeat the mistakes of my youth. Although I have never worn goi’tan grey, I understand why I earned it and would not earn it again.”

Gly nodded.

“I think perhaps you are acquiring wisdom, pupil.”

Ryanna smiled at him, warmed by a high compliment indeed. Then Gly pulled the codex from her and set another one in its place.

“What did Pol have to say about being content?” he asked.

Ryanna paused for a heartbeat, scanning the Scriptos before her.

“The letter he wrote to Filipai,” she said, searching the pages. “Ah – here it is.”

Before moving on to the next portion of the lesson, however, Ryanna looked at Gly.

“If Padraig is to find the king,” she asked. “Are my gifts to be used in some way to secure the king’s reign?”

“We have no way of knowing and thus the council chooses not to restrain that which God appears to find needful.”

Ryanna shivered as a sensation like snow sliding off a roof washed down her back.

“I think you might speak truth,” she said.

“The Wise always speak the truth as it is available to us,” he replied. “Now let’s get back to your lesson so that you are ready when God calls.”

When God calls? Ryanna thought. What if I see the trumpets being prepared right now? And another shovelful of snow slid down her back.

http://www.amazon.com/Willow-Branch-Book-Daermad-Cycle-ebook/dp/B00OL13YF2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427828697&sr=1-1&keywords=the+willow+branch

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