It was the third night on that wild scamper across half of Veran, the race to make Port Aravas and take ship to preserve what we could. We were in the Eastveld, the home of the Irjharai—the Arayai, nomads who follow the endris herds. Irjharai are not normally friendly to strangers and rarely grant permission for outsiders to travel in their stewardship, but they regard the Lady of Veran as one of themselves. For her, as ever, the accounting is completely different.
I was there by accident—perhaps. Certainly it was unexpected. I had taken my retirement from the Guardians nearly five years past, having served my twenty and with no taste for another twenty. I spent the last five years in Aurora City, indented to the College of Arms to learn what would make me useful when I returned home to Fahalanahr—having neither taste nor talent for clothwork, the business of my House. In the last twenty-five years I’d seen my karil four times, only once for any period of time, during my tenth-year leave. But a retired Guardian, if willing to learn a skill, is always sure of honorable work, and I thought it more than likely that herald’s training would gain me a worthy place at the Great House of Nul-Atar.
I had done well at the College and was offered advanced training, but before I made that decision I thought to travel back to Fahalanahr, where one waited for me, and discuss the matter with her. So I asked and received permission to travel east with the Royal Household on summer’s progress, planning to leave them at the Lower Pass and travel on through the Joyful Hills to that green City, Queen of the Falarin River.
The Household was in the forests covering the foothills of Yimsin Mountain for the Solstice Hunt, when the news was received. The Guardians have always had layers of contingency plans in place, to deal with the attacks of planet pirates or ordinary raiders, and yes, even the unlikely threat of a barbarian invasion. The standard equipment of the Household detachment of Guardians includes a communications link, always on, always active. If that link goes down, a countdown is automatically initiated.
There are many reasons the link might go down—the most common being weather, although that far east in midsummer the weather is as calm as it ever is. Less common is satellite malfunction, or a fault somewhere in the many strands of the triply-redundant web that links all Guardian outposts. In the event of such, the standard procedure is to wait a selected time, during which some unaffected node can re-establish the link for the duration of the storm, or during which the self-repair relays can shunt the link to working nodes. Forty-nine times of fifty, that happens before the first countdown ends.
But the other reasons the link might go down are not innocent: Planet pirates. Slavers, or ordinary raiders. Even (although this was always considered a contingency so remote as to be laughable,) a barbarian invasion. Veran has little of value to the techno-barbarian colonies of the Hub, and even slavers would generally find us too far off the regular space routes to be an economically viable source of supply. Still, it has happened, as in my mother’s time, and she was a Guardian, a veteran of the Land Festival raid, fighting off three well-equipped corsair craft of Wylenthian criminals. And it began, as expected, with an ECM burst that disabled the communications network.
So, if the first countdown runs out without the network patching itself to restore communications to the Household detachment, a second countdown is started. This longer countdown entails first-level preparations for action according to the Emergency Protocols, including ensuring that the King and other key persons may be secured quickly. It took some time to get a fix on the locator with the hunting party, and by the time the jetcar reached them, the second countdown, too, had expired. Guardians all over Veran initiated contingency plans.
By the time the hunting party returned to Bellflower House, a message-bird relay had arrived from Traaki, the nearest Citadel of the Guardians, relaying the information that they were under attack, and that weapons flashes had been observed in the Eothain Valley, approximately aligned with Aurora City. We had to consider all of Veran under attack.
There was some dispute, I remember, about how our response should be made. But the Guard-Major prevailed, insisting that the Emergency Protocols be fully implemented, in spite of the ceremonial importance of the Solstice Hunt.
I knew the Protocols, of course, from my days with the Guardians. They do change, but not so quickly or drastically that a five-years’ absence would render me ignorant. And a key Protocol is to separate, as widely as possible, the Lady of Veran from the King.
There is sound strategy behind this. First: Because the King becomes the military leader of the response, and is expected to lead the Guardians, the Levies and Militias into battle if needed—the King is a target. Most barbarian weapons are foolish, indiscriminate, destructive things that cannot distinguish between a target individual and the next person to them. So it was imperative to move the Lady from harm’s way. Second: If by some chance the King was killed in battle, it would be the Lady who must ensure the succession and provide leadership against the attackers. That was simple enough.
She listened to the debate for some minutes before she silenced them with a gesture. “I will leave now,” she said. “And I will travel fast. I will take only Veran Herald, to make the greatest distance in the least time.”
The Lady’s will is not questioned. And in ordinary times, she could travel so, if she willed. But the times were not ordinary, as many pointed out. It was her brother the King who persuaded her to take one skilled in fighting, for her protection. The Lady, by long custom, is not guarded and although her ultimate authority embraces them, the Guardians are the King’s force.
She would not take even a single Guardian from the King’s forces—all might be needed, she said.
I was no longer a Guardian. But I had been twenty years in their ranks, serving as Royal Champion nearly a dozen times, and winning much honor in the biennial Practice Wars. Yet as an Adept of the College of Arms I was also indented to the service of Veran, and my service would not outrage custom. We still worried about that, then.