Feb 192013
 

Read me the story
vivid deathThe evening after she raised Veran Banner, the Lady drew me aside, after the daysend meal.

“Ilvren, I need you to return, now, to thinking as a Guardian.”

This I had been anticipating. Raising Veran Banner now could mean only one thing—that the Lady had determined to continue resisting the barbarian invaders, and that implied military action of some variety.

“My life is Veran’s, Lady.”

She looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. “Let us, then, summarize what is known. First: The invaders are indeed techno-barbarians, world-killers from the Hub. They issue their demands in the name of a place called Klaros.”

This was new information to me and had doubtless been included in the information brought by Captain Matyas’ bird relay. “Alas, Lady, the study of the Hub and its many powers and worlds was not part of my Guardian training. I can tell you nothing of these particular barbarians.”

She accepted disappointment philosophically. “Second: The King perished at a great battle in the foothills of Quavi north of Traaki Citadel, to the west of Gallyvaran Pass, nine- no, ten, now- days ago.” She canted her head. “Speculate upon the implications of this, please.”

I was already feeling the old thought-patterns sliding into place. It was not dissimilar to a planning exercise during Practice Wars.

“We know the blood-banners were sent forth the day we set forth from Bellflower House. That leaves a period of nine days for the levies and Militias to gather to their muster-points. The Traaki Citadel was already overcome, so the principal gathering would have been at either Nendaari House or the Charter City of Pequavil. Both are designated muster points. Nine days…” I tried to recall what I had known of the strength estimates for those karils, but most of my actual experience had been in the west.

“Perhaps eighteen thousand Militia, and another sixty thousand levies. The supply caches at Pequavil, Missar Valley, Old Syxarth, and Nendaar Gorge would have been available, and anything scavenged from Traaki.”

She frowned. “But Traaki was destroyed on the first day.”

I realized that she would, in all probability, know little of the matters concerning the Guardians and the Emergency Protocols.

“If the Captain of a Citadel judges an attack to be of clearly overwhelming force, his primary objective becomes to enable as many Guardians as possible to escape, using secret ways, and taking as much as possible of the Citadel’s materiel. It is certain that at Traaki, Captain Erillas will have made that decision.”

Her brows were drawn together, assimilating this. She nodded for me to continue.

“In any case, Lady, however many Guardians survived to fight at Quavi, they will all have perished quickly. To preserve the King’s life, and remove him from the battle zone to a planned fallback fortification would have been the task of the most skilled and best-equipped fighters that the Marshal could appoint. If this was not accomplished, it would seem to indicate that these Klarosians attacked in overwhelming force, and quickly destroyed all of the Royal forces.”

“It’s likely, however, that the Mayor of the Palace and other key Royal Officers will have not been at the battle site, and some may have survived. They will be making their way to dispersed muster points, and enquiries there may give us more information. Information is what we need the most. We cannot formulate much more than a broad strategy until we know more about what we are facing.”

Again, she nodded. “And that broad strategy…”

“Well, the basic strategy in a barbarian invasion scenario has always been the same, Lady.”

Her eyes darkened, the pupils dilating with emotion, but she did not speak, merely nodded again for me to continue.

“Increase the cost of their objective to where they will abandon the attempt to achieve it.”

“And what is that strategy likely to cost us?” She asked, her tone both dryly ironic, and curiously fearful, as though she knew the answer but hoped to be proven wrong.

“Lives, Lady. Many, many lives. Perhaps millions.”

Her eyes dropped, and there was a long silence, before she thanked and dismissed me.

We stayed another night at the Lyrin Chancel. The Lady sent one of the marsh women back with a message for Captain Matyas; she left with the Chancel’s debt-send in the form of metal slugs and powdered dryland herbs. The rest of the morning, the Lady spent with Leifara and Canon Lennari, preparing the messages that would send the banner forth throughout all Veran. No more, just now, than that the blood-banner of Veran was raised—that would suffice to let all the karils and Great Houses know that she lived, and thus Veran lived, and the world-killers had not prevailed.

After daymeal, I was summoned to Canon Lennari’s chambers. He and Elder Kevrilaasya, Leifara and the Lady, were gathered there, discussing Chancel business. The Canon and the Elder greeted me politely, and then took their leave.

“Ilvren, we must set forth the possibilities for our course,” the Lady began, without preamble. She seemed less weary and tense than at the banner-raising.

I nodded. “I am at Veran’s service.”

“I must assume that the Marshal of the Guard is dead, and the eastern and western Captains-Major, too. I have no experience in military matters, nor do I feel hopeful that military action—as I understand it, and my understanding is limited, I grant—will serve our purpose well. Nevertheless, it is a fight, and I must now lead warriors. You must teach me what you can.”

I nodded.

“You told me of Citadel Captains’ strategies—buying time for Guardians to escape, for the salvage of weapons and materials.”

“Yes. In the Protocols, that strategy goes by the name of Relnara, after the plant that scatters itself as it dies, to live again from each piece.”

She smiled. “How apt.”

“Precisely so, Lady. Like relnara nodules, surviving Guardians will be dispersing themselves as widely as possible, and seeking the resources which will enable them to raise a new generation of fighters.”

“Ahhhh…” Her eyes narrowed in comprehension, and she nodded for me to continue.

“Dispersal helps to avoid competition and make efficient use of resources, and increases the chances that some may avoid the notice of our invaders, as the relnara escape the rootling snouts of mountain talgar.”

“And how should Veran use this resource?”

“We do not yet have enough information to determine that, Lady. We must know more of the enemy.”

Her brows drew together. “But you were a Guardian, Ilvren—surely you know how barbarians fight?”

“In general I do. But as to particulars—there are thousands of worlds in the Hub. They share some technology and an economic framework, but little else. How an enemy fights is only one aspect of the intelligence we need to be effective against them. Why they fight… who they are, how they conceive of themselves… what tactics they favor, what they avoid… their strategic biases…” I shrugged. “It is all important.”

Her eyes were on mine, intent, narrowed a little. “I see. It is like striking a balance. You can’t be effective until you understand how all the elements fit together. How will we learn this?”

I had been turning an idea over in my head for some time. Not an attractive idea to me, personally, but personal considerations no longer held merit.

“We are making for the Westmarch. There is one there who might provide a starting place.”

“A Westmarcher?”

I nodded. “He is the brother of Westmarch’s mother’s mother. He served four terms in the Guardians and became Elder Preceptor of the War Academy, before he retired. The Hub and its worlds were his particular study—I believe he even took ship with an Independent Fleet trader once, and visited some Hub worlds. Back in my mother’s time.”

“If he is still alive,” I added, belatedly. “Arrestar must be over a hundred and twenty by now.”

“We will hope he is still alive.”

Sep 142012
 

Aerial view of estuarial terrain, with rivers draining into pale blue and lavender marshwater.As soon as the reflection of dawn showed, Captain Matyas lifted the anchors and allowed the ship to drift carefully eastward, although shore was no more than a hint of darker darkness against the farthest horizon. Finally he pointed to a change in the wave pattern. “I daren’t go further. Those are the Grinders… with the tide flowing, less than two meters below the surface.”

The longboat was hauled from its resting place in the waist, and lifted to fix it on an apparatus that hung it over the side of the rail. With half a dozen of the strongest rowers among the crew, we clambered into it and were lowered to the water. Leifara and I took our turns at the oars, spelling rowers as we followed the waves toward the distant shore.

About halfway there, the man in charge of the rowers handed me a signal mirror. If none of the marsh folk could see it, it would be a long and dangerous passage through the maze of twisting channels. Marsh predators are aggressive and deadly.

I took a rowing bench when we reached the Grinders, so that the crewman in charge of the longboat could lean out, over the prow, and call directions to the steersmen. The boat checked, repeatedly, and zigged and zagged amongst row after row of what looked like submerged, needle-sharp mountain tops. The further we went, the more the waves subsided, until by the time we had passed the last ridge, we rowed across a surface like a lake on a calm day. It was hot, too. The rowers were all sweating freely. The Lady called for a halt, and we passed waterskins around.

A rower who had been watching the dark smudges of marsh in the distance started. “There—a flash, I think!”

I glanced up at the degree of the sun. We would need two mirrors to return the signal, now, but with a little angling it was easily done. Anxiously, we scanned the direction the rower had indicated. Finally—more flashes. The crewman nodded. “They will send a guide.” I heaved a sigh of relief. I hadn’t relished the thought of trying to make our way through those fetid, tangled weeds harboring a dozen kinds of death at every turn.

The promised guide was two women, almost naked and smeared with a bizarre pattern of pigments. One had her head shaved and was slung with collectors’ bags, the other wore her long dark hair in marshlocks and had an elaborate neck-collar of claws and teeth. Its center point reached halfway down her breast. They both emerged from a tangle of graysedge and stood silently awaiting the boat.

The crewman standing at the front of the boat gestured for the rowers to stop, and hailed them in Southspeech. There was some rapid back-and-forthing—I don’t have any of the Marshtongue, there were few even in the College of Arms who spoke it—and finally the one with the collecting bags made a gesture.

The crewman turned to us. “We can approach, now. When we are close enough, they will examine us and determine whether they will conduct us to the dry.”

We rowed slowly in. The two women watched, warily. Their appearance was strange, even eerie, although I know that the substances they anoint their bodies with are entirely practical in function—protective coatings against certain types of water parasites, scent-deadening chemicals to make them invisible to some predators, camouflage to reduce their visibility to sight hunters, and other uses. Still, it had the effect of making them look a little inhuman, or like a cross between humans and some marsh creature.

When the prow of our boat was less than a meter from the swaying tips of the young grayreeds, the collector held up her hand, and we stopped the boat. We sat in silence as they looked us over, then the collector leaned closer to the boat and sniffed, several times, smelling us as an animal might. She looked us over, then spoke in the common tongue: “You would go to the dry?”

The Lady answered, in Southspeech. The two women’s eyes widened, and the hunter leaned over, hand cupped, and lifted some of the clear brownish water from among the reeds where they stood. She offered it to the Lady, her eyes wide.

The Lady held out both of her hands to receive the water, then lifted them with a swift, ritualistic gesture to let the water fall on her head and shoulders. She spoke again, and both of the marsh women bowed. The collector gestured, pointing to the open channel, and the two women set off. We followed with only two oars and the steersman—there was barely enough width in the channel to row.

They led us through a shifting maze of channels that sometimes doubled back on themselves, splitting and rejoining and turning this way and that—no one but a marshlander could have found that path. The sun was mostly behind us, but again we turned north, south, sometimes even back on our track into the sun for a time. Now and again we would have to ship the oars, and the collector would slip into the water and tow the boat with a rope, thrown to her by the crewman in front.

We stopped occasionally, for no reason I could discern, and twice the hunter raised an odd, animal- or bird-like cry, which was answered from a distance. We proceeded in silence. When Leifara murmured something to the Lady, the collector turned to her and made an emphatic gesture for silence. Around us, the wind kept up a constant low song in the tangles of marsh growth, underlaid with a slow lapping of water.

Once, the wind dropped, and the collector put out a hand to halt the boat, gesturing with the other for silence. She and the hunter both froze, unmoving as stone, and we tried to do likewise. The silence stretched until our ears, accustomed, began to register the small noises of the marsh—insect song, the rustling of vegetation agitated by the passage of creatures under water or on the surface, the cry of a distant bird. We held that stillness, that silence, for what seemed like a lifetime, until there was a sudden explosion of sound beyond us and to the right among the sedges: A hellish, predatory-sounding cry and a desperate splashing, unbelievably loud.

Some of us started, I know I was among them—I could not help it, the sound was so unexpected. A shadow arose where the sound had been: A nofra, spreading its huge vanes in an attempt to catch and engulf the warm-blooded noisemakers it had sensed in its hunting grounds.

How big is a nofra? I am not familiar with all the varieties; I know some are larger than others. This one was big enough—larger than the mainsail of our ship, it loomed, extended to the point of being semi-translucent, undulating slightly in the still air, seeking a breeze or air current that it could use to waft itself in our direction. It was distant enough, I thought, that it could not engulf us simply by folding over. The hunter’s fingers were working in a pouch that hung at her hip, the motion silent, small enough not to raise betraying air currents.

Even a very huge nofra could not engulf us all—their normal prey is the hyarthem, a big creature of the themfi order, larger than a human, but not by much. But the speed at which those vanes could contract, engulfing the victim and constricting with incredible force, could reduce its prey to a digestible jelly in perhaps fifty heartbeats. They wouldn’t actually eat humans, but by the time they determined that their catch was inedible it was too late for the human in question.

The reed tops rippled—the wind was returning. Now, while the creature was angling its vanes, trying to catch the moving air at an angle that would allow it to lift, the hunter moved with incredible speed, lifting something to her lips and blowing with astonishing force. A fine jet of particles burst from the end of the tube, catching the leading edge of the nofra’s vane.

With a high shrieking keen, it collapsed, shrinking, folding, contracting its vanes; disappearing among the vegetation. I was not the only one to draw a shaky sigh of relief. The Lady murmured something very quietly, and the collector glanced at her, and nodded. The air was alive with windsong again, and we continued on.

Eventually we reached a place where the marsh women instructed us to leave the boat—there were no channels remaining wide enough for its passage. We sorted ourselves into a single file, the hunter at the front, the collector at the tail, and stepped very carefully indeed, following routes as tortuous as the boat channels had been, and even more difficult to discern. Once a crewman stepped unwarily, and sank up to the knee in slimy water, drawing an angry look from the marsh women and condemning us to another long period of stonestruck silence, with the reddening glow of sunset painting the vegetation around us.

It was twilight, with night on the horizon, when we reached “the dry.” The transition was so gradual as to be almost undetectable, but finally we strode on firm ground, among more grasses than sedge and reeds, and a discernable foot trail among them. The marsh women would have left us, then, but after another short conversation with the Lady, they consented to accompany us, although they were plainly ill-at-ease when we reached a road, packed stone and sand. They kept looking about, warily. The predators in the dry were not their predators, they plainly had little trust in the crewmen and myself, although we were all armed.

Along one side of the road, rock cairns appeared at regular intervals, perhaps fifty meters apart. As full dark descended, phosphorescent lichens on these began to glow softly, guiding us until palanahr rose greenly over the flat horizon to our left. It was near the full, and bright enough to pale the lichen-glow and keep us to the road. It had risen a quarter of the sky when a figure appeared on the road before us.

“Who travels Lyrin?” came the challenge, mildly.

I answered for us: “Ilvren, Adept of the College of Arms, in the service of Veran. Who challenges the servant of Veran?”

“Narneth of Lyrin, in service to the Chancel.”

“Then we are well met, for we are bound for the Chancel, Narneth of Lyrin.”

It was only a short trek further, the road curved inland again, around a ridge of upthrust rock, and beyond we could see the lights and bulk of the Chancel against the dark eastern horizon. When we passed through the outer gate, into the light of the globes set on high posts at the entrance to the inner Chancel, we could see the porter plainly, and the porter could see us.

His eyes narrowed as they perceived the marsh women, standing close together a little apart from the rest of us, and then widened again when they rested on the Lady’s face. He bowed. “Lyrin is honored beyond words, Lady.”

She nodded. “You honor me. We are in haste, Wandan. Is Lennari awake still?”

He nodded. “I will conduct you to him.” He glanced at us, at the marsh women. “Um… all of you, Lady?”

She sensed his disapproval of the marsh women, and her own disapproval answered it. “My daughters Inri and Olani, Wandan. Without their guidance we might have perished in the marshes, yes, even me.”

“You… you came from the gulf?” The porter’s astonishment at hearing the Lady speak so of the marshfolk was compounded with amazement at our passage. He bowed to the marsh women. “My pardon, marsh sisters, for discourtesy. I stand in your debt. Lyrin Chancel stands in your debt.”

The collector nodded, gravely. “Debt is taken, pardon is given, dryman.”

The next morning, after we had (thanks be!) bathed, eaten, slept in beds, and eaten again, we assembled in the inmost courtyard of the Chancel, by the young k’blad tree that had been once a limb of the Great Tree itself, in Aurora Chancel’s courtyard. Lennari, Canon of the Chancel, held a length of loose-woven dennicloth, undyed and unmarked. Another Elder of the Chancel held a cushion before him, bearing a very sharp knife. Leifara carried her own yat-akkan in a scabbard by her side, and a sharp, short-handled shearing tool.

The Lady was very pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. I don’t know if she had slept. She had dismissed us to the care of Adepts of the Cloister, with orders to sleep, but when we retired, she was still closeted with Lennari. She shook her head, and looked at the Canon. “Eldest, there is no tradition for this, thank the Power, and I wish none to arise. But what I purpose here is a very deep and perilous matter, and there would be no harm, I think, in a moment of prayer for those believers among us.”

We bowed our heads, all of us, I think, though I did not look. I am not, myself, a believer, but there is no hypocrisy in showing respect for the beliefs of others. I misspeak. I believe, in my fashion, that there are powers greater than humanity, unsearchable and vast, and perhaps they have something to do with the existence of this universe of matter and energy that we know. But who can say? And whether they concern themselves with the small affairs of humankind—well, there I doubt, in truth. But that is my own feeling, based on my own experience, and I would speak for—or against—no others.

After a silence, heavy with a growing tension, the Lady raised her head, and nodded to Leifara, who stepped forward, and approached the tree. She laid her hand on its bole, and whispered the invocation of the Foresters. With the edge of the shearing tool, she cut her finger, and bent, allowing the blood to drop on an exposed root. Then she stepped back.

The habit of the k’blad tree’s growth is thus: In its youth, its lower branches run long and straight and slender out from the bole in an upward-spiraling pattern. The lowest ones grow very long, eventually bending to touch the ground and root, so that an old k’blad is not one tree, but many, unless a Forester shape it otherwise. The upper branches are shorter, and stouter, but branching more profusely, in contrast to the lower branches’ straight, slender run. Wood from the k’blad tree lives for a very long time, even severed from the parent trunk. If the cut end is buried in earth, the wood will throw leaves, and even shoots, and eventually root itself.

Leifara approached one of the lower branches, and with a quick, hard stroke of the shearing tool, lopped it from the bole, leaving a short collar and a clean cut. She held the branch—now the standard of Veran Banner—in her left hand, and bowed thanks to the tree.

Then Lennari and the other Elder approached the Lady, with the length of cloth and the knife. The Elder murmured something to her, and she nodded, and held out her left arm. The Elder tied a ligature around it, above the elbow, and the Lady picked up the knife. Carefully, she made a small cut—some blood welled, but not much. She stood, holding the wrist upward, blood oozing sluggishly, while the Canon and the Elder unfolded the cloth and spread it, holding it in front of her.

Then she nodded, and with a quick gesture, released the ligature, so that the blood flowed freely, pooling on her wrist and hand, and beginning to drip to the ground. She appeared to set her teeth, and then lifted her arm in a gesture that splattered her blood upon the cloth, making the blood-banner of Veran. She did this three times, then let her arm drop, staring with eyes like stones at the bloody pattern she had made.

The Elder moved forward quickly, and lifted her hand, nodding to an Adept standing nearby. Together, they wiped her arm and hand, and applied a poultice of timik to the cut, binding it.

Leifara, meanwhile, had stripped the shoots from the standard, saving the largest. Now she took the cloth, and with a stout twist of denni, bound it in a long, spiraling stitch to the shoot, and with a thong of tanned talgar hide, bound that in turn to the standard. Then, holding the standard carefully parallel to the ground, she turned to the Lady, and went down on one knee, offering it to her.

And the Lady took the still-damp banner, and raised the standard. The bloody cloth hung unmoving; there was no wind to stir it.

We all dropped to one knee, and then the Lady spoke.

“I, Kuinyvara, fifty-ninth Lady of Veran, raise this banner of blood against the enemies of Veran. Let there be no peace until it is laid down!”

Sep 062012
 

Landscape-aerial view of dry, ridged land.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.

Sep 032012
 

A path leading through a forest with heavy undergrowth and large, straight tree-boles.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.

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