So the three of us, the Lady of Veran, myself, and Leifara, Veran Herald, set forth. She told none where she planned to go, so that there were none among the Royal forces who could betray her whereabouts. There were ways enough to maintain communication. Every Kingsroad is lined with stations for the Royal Post, every twenty to forty kilometers. And all of those stations are linked by wired telegraphy, its conduits buried securely beneath the road verges.
Several of the major Guilds and some Great Houses also have wired telegraphy systems, some even linked to local stations of the Post, and thus capable of relaying information—at some cost—as quickly as the Post itself. There is a substantial resource debt for such service, naturally, but Guilds such as the Financers’, and Great Houses like the Westmarch or Clearwater or Kencevri can reckon such debts and still regard the worth of the service.
Even the resource-frugal communications vectors can attain considerable speed. Royal Post riders, for instance, carrying a bag marked “Quick,” can traverse the length of the Royal Road, from Chorral in the East, on the shore of the Melliviran Sea, to the Hall of the Great House of the Westmarch—sixty-seven hundred and fifty-three kilometers—in just over twenty days, in summer time. A bird relay can make that distance in as little as eight days. Line-of-sight or sound signal relays cover shorter distances but are even faster, and LOS channels can be linked by bird relays or Post telegraphy for very fast transmission, indeed. And such systems are redundant, so that no one system destroyed or put out of action imperils all communications.
We went the first day afoot, by ordinary roads until we made the trail for Blackleaf Gap Ranger Station. There was little traffic on the roads, due to the Solstice—everyone was home, or a-hunt, celebrating the Festival of Air. We could see kites and balloons in the distance as we passed over High Yris bridge, where the people of Carn Yris were having their Festival. At the Ranger Station that night, we rested, but set out before dawn, taking mounts and a Ranger guide through the Gap to the Hasvé Trail. We changed mounts at the House Post stations on the Trail for as long as we kept to it, and so made good time.
Those first two days there was no time to think. We concentrated only on making ground, as much ground as we could, grudging the minutes spent in rest and taking food, usually at a Post station.
We crossed the Mirissi River and left the last Post station just before midday on the third day, again making afoot across the hillocky margin between the Mirissi and the veld country. In front of us unfolded the Reyai plains, the summering grounds of the endris herds. We continued on more slowly, and I could see the Lady scrutinizing the terrain like a Ranger. Once or twice she paused, to inspect more closely some clump of vegetation or cluster of rocks.
Finally she held up a hand: Stop here. She cast about, looking for something, and selected some clumps of dry vegetation that had been blown by the wind into a cleft along a low ridge. With this, she kindled a fire, and sprinkled it with water from Her bottle, sending a thin twist of distinctly purplish smoke high into the air. When it burned out, we sat, waiting. The sun had visibly dropped to the horizon when I perceived movement there.
They rode the stocky, low-slung mounts of the veld, the ri’lhar, relatives of the heavy draft animals used among the eastern lowlands. Not fast, but a ri’lhar can go a great many hours in a steady, ground-eating lope without stopping for food or drink.
As they approached, the Lady stood, awaiting them calmly—when they approached closer, she spoke in the Yrvanni dialect of the Arayai. I had heard that she had spent more than one year among the Irjharai. She seemed fluent. I, on the other hand, had studied the Yrvanni, among other Low Veran tongues, at the College of Arms. But I’d achieved little more than a cursory grasp of structure and a few basic phrases of greeting and good manners.
The riders—three men and a woman—dismounted, and the one wearing a heavily embroidered drape across his shoulders bowed, and gestured for a debt-favor. The Lady walked towards them, three steps, and each of them passed her, crouched and picked a handful of the tough, low-growing vegetation on which she had trodden. They stowed their prizes carefully about their persons, and then the leader nodded to Leifara and I.
They made us free of their karil, polite disclaimers of indebtedness were exchanged, and one of the riders went off, to return with additional mounts. That night, we ate fresh-roasted gerrit, and river tikash simmered in endris milk, and milk pudding with tarella fruit.
And we learned more of the barbarian invasion. The Arayai, like all of the Irjharai, have their own system of scouts and message-transmission, and they make extensive use of message-birds. They told of smoke over Aurora City, and over the Citadels of the Guardians. The King had dispatched the blood-banners, and the vassal-levies and bladesmen and militias were already on the move to their muster-points. Little was yet known of the enemy, but it was clearly more than a smash-and-grab raid.
That was when I, at least, realized that the Veran I knew was already changed irrevocably. Perhaps we could convince these invaders that whatever they came for would cost more than it was worth to them—but even if we did, change would come. Whatever particular circumstances induced their assault, distance and poverty (by Hub standards) no longer protected us. Without those protections, our future would be very different than what we would all have imagined just days ago.
The next day we began another long, hard ride down the Reyai Plains to the Great East Road that sundered it from the Aravan Barrens. It was easy the first two days, when small streams and springs from the Mirissi still intersected our route regularly. But once we passed far enough south, the smaller watercourses were all dried up for the summer, awaiting the elgeth storms. We had to carry every drop of water, and rely on our Arayai guide to find the occasional hidden wellspring.
Unaccustomed to riding, I developed painful blisters by the end of the first day. Our guide, a taciturn young woman called S’tiri, noticed my painful movements when we dismounted for rest. She seemed moderately amused, but vanished into a stand of brush as the setting sun swept the sea of dry vegetation with color.
Leifara unrolled a small thermal sheet and set a skin bag of water on it to heat. The Lady busied herself with care of the ri’lhar, unfastening the riding harnesses, and pouring water from the larger skins into a drinking bag for each animal. I offered to help, holding the drinking bags for each beast, but I lacked the knack and the first one managed to slobber quite a bit of water onto the ground. She showed me the trick of holding one side of the bag tight under the lower jaw, forcing them to drink more slowly.
By the time Leifara had brewed shirith, flavoring it with a handful of dried berries and herbs, S’tiri had returned, and the long shadows of sunset had merged into a purple dusk.
“We must watch this night,” the guide said, her hands busy with items pulled from various pockets or pouches on her person. The unfamiliar construction and the accent confused me at first. “Watch the night?”
She shook her head, amusement briefly flickering again. “No, watch. There are signs. I think a remsi pack nearabouts. Glows we set, yes?” Her Middle Veran was fluent but unaccustomed.
A remsi pack would be a considerable hazard if we were on its chosen hunting-grounds. They hunted nocturnally, estivating on sun-heated rocks during the day. Perhaps forty centimeters high at the shoulder, they are hexapedal, cumbrous-looking and lapped with heavy skin-scales that do not prevent them from moving with a disconcerting swiftness on the hunt. Their frontmost pair of legs are armed with envenomed retractable spines along the inner surfaces. When prey is surrounded by a pack—usually ten or twelve remsi—they dart in, one at a time, to inject their venom load. By the time the last approaches, the victim is paralyzed and the pack can feed –slowly— on the warm living flesh.
Fortunately remsi are photophobic. When their innermost eyelids peel back after sunset to allow them their nightvision, they are acutely sensitive to many light-wavelengths. We carried bioglows that could be activated by damping them with some of our precious water. Likely, they would be enough to keep a pack away, but a watch was a sensible precaution, especially since other predators of the region are not so photophobic. “Glows, certainly,” I nodded. “And a watch. Will you watch first, or shall I?”
She grinned, then, and handed me what she’d been working on—a krell leaf, wrapped around something squishy. “Here.” She pointed at my legs. “If you will ride again.” I opened the leaf and sniffed, mingled odors of herbs and animal fat. “You watch first, use this. When virath rises I watch.”
The faint green disk of palanahr had already risen over the horizon. S’tiri wandered over to collect some shirith, and I unwrapped my leggings to apply the herbal ointment. Harness galls are no small impediment, when fast travel is required. By the time I finished, Leifara joined me, bringing a drinkskin of shirith and some of the dried, spiced meat that served the Irjharai as journey food.
I was a little shy of Leifara. Veran Herald is the second-highest position a herald can reach, second only to the President of the College of Arms, and it requires advanced studies among the Cloisters as well as at the College Chancellery, and a rare degree of aptitude and skill. Although some years younger than I, Leifara had doubtless been studying and practicing heraldry since before I’d been accepted to the Citadel Pageant.
“The Aravai says there is remsi sign about,” she said. I nodded.
“For an aspiring Herald, you do not use your voice much, do you, Ilvren?”
I made no effort to hide my surprise. “Is there need?”
Leifara chuckled, then sobered. “There is need… and need. A herald is not a Singer, certainly.” She looked at me, her head tilted a bit. “You are well spoken of at the College. Welan put you at the top of your cohort.”
I shrugged. “Perhaps maturity has some advantages after all. It was hard enough to keep up with younger and faster brains.”
“Keep up with, and surpass, according to Welan. Does Welan lie?”
“Welan is a herald of great experience, and well able to polish a gova kernel until it gleams brightly as the unbroken shell.”
She smiled, slowly. “If all Guardians are so well-prepared for heraldry, perhaps the College should seek more students among those released from the Citadels.”
“The Citadels teach discipline, and is discipline not at the heart of any worthwhile endeavor?”
“True enough.” She fell silent for some moments, then glanced over at the Lady, who was damping a glow. “And she will need to draw upon every mote of discipline, every droplet, every smallest molecule.”
I watched the flattened sphere in the Lady’s hands begin to show a faint, greenish-yellow light. She looked up, then, from the work, her face oddly shadowed by the light from below, and nodded. “Great discipline will be required. Not the least, to make Port Aravas in four sunsets.”
I would have thought it impossible before the last two days’ travel, and even so, it seemed unlikely.
“There are many hundreds of kilometers to cross…”
She nodded again. “But by midday after tomorrow’s sunset, we will strike the Great East Road. From there we will take Post mounts.” She smiled, the growing light banishing the shadows from her face. “I trust you can ride a Post chepal?”
I thought of my harness galls and tried not to let the wince I felt show on my face. “I will ride a forzak, if needed, Lady.”
She canted her head, as though considering those swift, vicious predators as mounts. “We will hope that will not be necessary.” I thought I saw a gleam of humor in her eyes as she turned to set the now-bright glow atop a pile of gear.
We did make Port Aravas by sunset, four days later.
The Post station there had news: The Citadels had all fallen. The Guardians of Veran were no more. The King had mustered all of the Eastern levies for a stand against the invaders—a battle certain to be lost, with Veran swords and twirl-spears and yat-akkans against the FE cannons, plasma mortars, and forcebeams of the enemy.
We took ship from Port Aravas into a dark future.