Chapter 12: Identity Revealed
Far to the west, Gelida Mectar rode slowly through the mountains. The cause of the slow journey was not the rugged terrain, but the need to conserve what strength they could on their long march from the border of Torridesta to Galzeen, a trip that, even in a straight line, was over three hundred leagues. Having been forced to travel along roads, through the mountains at least, Gelida’s army had already marched nearer to four hundred, and they were still at least two days away from Galzeen. There were other reasons for her desire to march slowly. Many trade caravans had been raided along the route by El Darnen and the Serpent’s Fang. She had no desire to run into an ambush. She knew that he would have someone watching the road, but she fervently hoped that the thirty thousand soldiers that she had with her would be enough to avoid a fight with the criminal warlord. She was completely surprised, therefore, when five horsemen rode out of a small cave and hailed her.
“Greetings, Lady Mectar.” She reined her horse to a stop, and placed her hand on her sword hilt. But the man kept speaking. “You have come far enough for this night, and further than you should have.”
“I don’t wish to kill you, but I will if you bar my way.” She had learned from experience that the only way to negotiate with bandits was to threaten the only thing they cared about: their lives.
“You can’t threaten me, nor would I be so hasty to do so, my lady. You are not yet in Noldoron. Even if you were, your word counts for little enough there.” He paused, but added a last remark mentally. ‘I know you will not kill me. You can’t afford to alienate the army I represent.’
“What do you want? I’m in a hurry.”
“We know. We’ve been watching you since you entered the mountains. That is why I think it would be to your benefit to go no further.”
“I have to be in Galzeen in time to save it from Guinira.”
The other four men shifted uneasily. The speaker’s voice seemed sorrowful as he spoke. “If you came for that purpose, you have come far too late with too few men. The bridges fell sixty days ago. The city is forty five days Guinira’s.”
Though Gelida suspected as much when Erygan had told her that her father was dead, she was still shocked to hear it, especially in the present circumstances. “She has had the city for that long?”
The man in the lead slowly nodded. “Your people fought bravely, and none more so than your father, I’m told. I am sorry, but there’s nothing you can do for either the city or your people. Not with men in this state. And certainly not alone.”
“My father is -”
“Your father is dead. Dalasin is dead one month at least. Some of our comrades in the city managed to get his body out before it was dishonoured. Many others of my people died trying to hold the palace from Guinira. They felt that we owed him that much.”
This left her speechless. She did not know what to say, nor even what to think. El Darnen Greshida recognized no authority but their own, unless it was Taren Garrenin, and only then occasionally. And yet, his men, likely men who were not Noldorin, had died for her father and her country. That they held themselves in debt to her father was something she could not understand. “You have my father’s body?”
“We do, Gelida. I told you it would be beneficial for you to stay here through the night. I mean it. Your men, if you hadn’t noticed, are ready to drop. What horses you have aren’t the kind meant for this rough road, and night falls quickly here, as you no doubt noticed. Even if none of that were so, the first thing Guinira did after taking Noldoron was close the Garuthen Road. You would not get out of the mountains unmarked and without a fight, and then you would still be over two miles from the city. Near to the walls, maybe, but too far away to surprise Guinira’s forces.”
“I can’t wait longer. If I -”
“If you march on the city as you plan to do, it will cost you the lives of almost every one of the men you have. There are still men of ours in the city, and we can get yours in also. Not all of them, but some, enough to make a difference. Here, your men can repair their equipment and you can replenish your supplies. You would also have time to rest and think, and plan a course of attack.”
“That still leaves us with the problem of the closed road.”
“All I ask is that you trust El Darnen.”
“You want a Morschcoda to trust a criminal?”
“You are not Morschcoda, not yet.” He stopped for a moment, clearly dreading what he had to say next. “And yes, I want you to trust me.” Gelida could only stare at him. “I am El Darnen, but if it will help your decision, there is more than one way out of these mountains.”
Gelida wondered that night if she had made the right decision. El Darnen could easily have her men butchered during the night, but she could not help but think that he would uphold their bargain. He owed allegiance to no one, though, and especially not to her. Too much could go wrong for her to spend the night in peace, even though she knew that if El Darnen turned on them, she would likely be taken alive to be ransomed off to the highest bidder, if not worse. Still, the words he had said rang in her ears. “We felt we owed him that much.” Obviously they meant her father, but she could not imagine why a band of criminals would owe her father anything. Too deep in thought to sleep, she pushed herself off of the rough bed El Darnen had insisted on giving her. She had protested, but he had stated that it was his law that no woman in his camp be without a bed. She rarely thought of criminals as having any kind of morals or civility, but El Darnen most certainly did. He was an enigma, so she decided, partly because of the rough bed, that she should find out as much as she could about the criminal warlord with whom she shared the Garuthen Mountains. She wandered through the camp of caves and tents, hidden well away from and high above the road. El Darnen himself was standing guard at the entrance to the hidden mountain pasture.
“Sleep doesn’t often come easily within the mountains, daughter of Dalasin, even in high summer. And that is over one month gone.”
Gelida was almost shocked that he had known it was her without even turning his head. To make it seem like she had not been disturbed by that, she pretended count up the time on her fingers. High summer had been gone seventy days. Just under one and a half months. Almost the whole last month, nearing fifty days, her army had been marching to Galzeen. After three years of war in Rista, she had spent five long weeks on the road without adequate rest in her desperation to reach Galzeen before it fell. Even though she had known her father was dead, there had still been a fading hope in her that her home had not been taken. “Ten days to a week, five weeks to a month, ten months to a year. Five hundred days between the Red Sun and the Silver Moon, and in all of that, I do not have time to waste. It is not the night or the mountains that trouble me, Serpent. It’s the feeling that no matter what happens now, it will be too late.”
“Some argue that late is better than never, and any help is better than none at all. I disagree with them. But that’s not what really keeps you awake tonight. You fear me, don’t deny it.”
“Yes, I do. But that isn’t the whole reason that I came looking for you. I could think of no reason why you would hold yourself in my father’s debt.”
He never took his eyes off of the road far below, or the entrance to the easily missed, winding path that lead from it up to the camp. “How long has it been since you could truly call Noldoron your home?”
She paused for a moment. This man knew much about her. “I’ve lived in Toredo for the past eighteen years. For the past fifty, it has been more my home than Galzeen or Noldoron has really ever been.”
“Well, you would have no reason to know this.” He straightened, rolling his shoulders. “For the past fifteen years, your father sought to win my loyalty, or maybe just my friendship. He knew we were in these mountains. I don’t know how he found us, or how long he knew we were here. I don’t care either. For fifteen years, he supplied us: weapons, armour, and other things that we couldn’t get easily. Food, especially, is hard to come by up here, even for a small hunting party. An army of refugees needs quite a bit more than these mountains were willing to produce. Dalasin traded us the food we needed desperately for the security he didn’t feel. He was afraid that Erygan would have Norrin march in force against him, and he was certain that they would march through the mountains, or, in the last five years, that they would use the Garuthen Road. We provided a defence. If we attacked any army marching from the north, it would be because we assumed that they were marching against us. It would never have been believed that we were defending Dalasin. He could never give us much armour or many weapons at a time, not enough to be noticed anyway. They had allegedly belonged to convoys heading north to arm Erygan’s soldiers. Certain groups had orders to empty their wagons, hide the goods where we would find them, and then make it look like we had attacked.”
“Wait, you said fifteen years. My father was only Morschcoda for five.”
“And yet, your father was always a rich man. And a paranoid one. He hoped that if Norrin did march, we would feel obligated to come to the aid of the one who have aided us. And he also hoped that if Noldoron survived the Eschcotan attack, that we would find some way to ensure he took control of the country.”
The two of them started walking back towards the camp. “I have something that belongs to you now. I didn’t understand why he sent it, but it came with the last delivery, just as the bridges fell.”
“What is it?”
“You will see.”
El Darnen led Gelida to a small cave she had not seen before, hidden behind a spur of the mountain that still loomed high above them. One of the last things she had expected stood before the entrance: five Tall Dwarves. She could tell that whatever they guarded, her father had been desperate to protect.
“They will take orders only from Dalasin’s rightful heir, you, and they were ordered to guard what lies beyond with their lives. You will face whatever other things guard this treasure alone, for they will not let me pass. And none of those who pushed their way through came out again.”
Gelida nodded slowly, and then took a step forward. The Tall Dwarves did not tense as she might have expected them to. She took that as a good sign. As she went to step into the cave, one of the guards spoke. “You have the right to pass, Gelida Mectar. Your weapons do not. You must leave your sword and any other blade you possess here on the threshold.”
It was a strange request, especially since El Darnen had seemed to indicate that there might be other things in the cave. She looked back over her shoulder at El Darnen, for some reason needing this man’s conformation that everything would be alright. He nodded slowly. Reassured, she unbuckled her sword belt and handed it to one of the guards. Pulling two knives out of her boots, and another from inside of her jacket, she went to step forward again.
“Gelida Mectar, you must leave all weapons outside of this cave.”
She reluctantly nodded, and pulled a long dagger out of her jacket, from where it had hung hidden behind her neck. As she went to step forward again, the guard put up his hand to stop her. “It is not for our protection that we require you to leave all of your weapons behind, my lady. It would be dangerous, to say the least, for you to take even what you still have with you.”
“Captain, I promise that what you sense is not a weapon. But to leave it behind would be like leaving a part of my own body out here. I can’t do that.”
The guard thought for a long time, too long in Gelida’s mind, and his eyes, filled with suspicion, dropped to her gloved right hand. “I do not know what will happen to you in there, if you will not leave whatever this is behind. You only increase your own danger.”
“I will go in with her.” Gelida had almost forgotten El Darnen already. The prospect of the cave was scaring her more than ever.
“No, you will not.” The guard’s voice suddenly seemed harsh and cold in a way that it had not before.
“Well, none of you will, and now you think she shouldn’t. Someone had better go in to make sure she survives.”
“You are not worthy.”
“Get used to that idea, captain. I have lost six men to that cave since you came here. I think you owe me. Now, tell me what is in there, or let me see for myself.”
“El Darnen, you don’t have to come with me. Captain, you will let me pass. What I bear is not a weapon. Surely whatever guards this place aside from you will be able to tell that.”
Unsatisfied, the guard let her pass. As she stepped into the darkness of the cave, she became aware of a number of large creatures, a second defence against any unworthy being who got passed the Tall Dwarves. She understood, now, why she would need no weapons. If someone had forced their way passed the guards, they would have a sword at least. Since she had none, the beasts, or whatever they were, would know she had been allowed to pass. ‘Clever,’ she thought, not daring to say anything. She continued forward, drawn by something she could not see, until she rounded one last corner. A single ray of light somehow managed to find its way through the rough cliffs and crags above her so as to illuminate a pile of steel. The closer she got to it, the more she could feel the silent watchers closing in behind her. The light grew steadily darker, as outside of the cave the moon was beginning to set, but the stars still shone. And finally, she stood at her father’s grave. The place was marked only by a single upright stone, deeply scratched with the runes that made up her father’s name. And beside it, that which she had entered the cave for, not knowing what it was: her father’s armour and sword.
El Darnen waited with the Tall Dwarves the entire time that Gelida was in the cave. Their pets would not harm her as she had no weapon, but since no one who had gone in had come out, he did not know what would happen once she put on her father’s armour. ‘She might not put it on at all,’ he thought. ‘Dalasin was not small, and if she were to wear it, it would have to be altered.’ Altering armour to fit another person was no small task, not even for Noldorin Morschledu. It could be done, but not until they reached the city. Something like that needed a proper forge.
“My lord,” whispered one of his men, suddenly close behind him.
“Curse these Dothrin, they can move too quietly,” he said under his breath. Louder, he addressed the man. “Well, what is it?”
“The scouts just reported in. The city is deserted. No one saw Guinira’s army leave, but the road is no longer blocked. Some scouts even went as close to the walls as they could without being seen. There was no one on the walls, no guard at the gates. Galzeen has been abandoned.”
El Darnen was confused. Guinira had to know that somewhere in these mountains, the daughter of the man that no more than one month ago she had had killed was leading an army. An army made up of common soldiers, yes, but an army nonetheless. And from what he knew of Guinira, she was not one to hand back something without getting anything for it, especially not a country. Maybe she thought that fear of her would keep the city in line. Or maybe … “Rouse the camp. Everyone armed. Anyone who goes within one mile of the road before I give the order, I swear I’ll kill myself and have their guts hung from a flag pole. But by Lasheed’s Throne, do it quietly.”
The man went dead white, knowing how bad it must be if El Darnen had invoked a god’s name, so white that even dark as the night was, he would have been a choice target for any archer worth his bow. “What’s wrong sir?”
“Guinira is coming for us.”
Guinira’s small force, one of a half of a dozen, crept stealthily towards the high mountain pasture. She was not surprised when she encountered no guards, nor was she surprised when she saw that almost no one was stirring yet in the camp. “I thought criminals were the most watchful of all types of soldiers” she said sarcastically, barely loud enough for her two guards to hear. They both frowned in response to her statement. Both were Tai-Aren Coda. It was their duty to protect her, but they were also indoctrinated with the morals and codes of their kind. They would not fight an unarmed foe. They would not kill anyone who did not have the chance to defend themselves. The only instance that those did not come into effect was when fighting others of their kind. A Tai-Aren Coda was never considered ‘unarmed.’ For her to order them to charge in to the camp with her and kill without remorse would be harder for them to obey than if she ordered them to take their own lives. But they had their duty to her, and if they were lucky, there would be enemy Tai-Aren Coda in the camp. It was the only way. “Captain, send the signal to the other groups, as well as the decoy army on the road. Remember, I want Gelida alive.”
“What of the Serpent?”
“Bring me his head.” The captain left, his lips pulling apart in a gruesome smile.
Guinira’s army had split into several groups. Hers was one of the largest, at five thousand. Two of her generals each led forces of the same size, while another twenty thousand men were dispersed in a wide ring to prevent any escape. Another ten thousand were divided between two points along the road. She had planned on El Darnen’s band being only five thousand strong, at most, and with Gelida’s thirty thousand regulars, she could not see needing more than what she had to deal with both of these threats in one attack. What she did not plan on, however, was that El Darnen would be ready for her. The second her three armies left the shelter of the woods, arrows were falling on them, accurate and deadly, aimed with skill. The line held and made it into the camp, where they began to destroy everything they could. More fell to arrows, and some to swords as those in the camp organized themselves.
Even as the camp burned, Guinira could not shake the feeling that it was too easy. Gelida’s Noldorin were nowhere to be found, and while she had lost men, El Darnen was supposed to be a great military leader. Not one of the same caliber as Taren Garrenin or Makret Druoth, but a great leader nonetheless. “That is why it is too easy” she said out loud to herself. “Fall back,” she suddenly screamed. It was already too late. Her ring of soldiers was being pushed into the camp by Gelida’s soldiers from the north and east. Her soldiers from the road were running into the camp, some without weapons, many wounded, and all covered in blood, chased soon after by the soldiery of El Darnen Greshida, far more numerous than she had expected. To the south, the standard of a coiled serpent had been raised, and many archers were clustered around it, bows at the ready, willing and able to unleash another punishing wave of arrows into the Armandan ranks, but they did not fire. Either discipline or fear kept their hands on the strings. Guinira knew which one she felt. The camp was theirs, but El Darnen had won. Still, Guinira refused to go down without a fight. Ordering her men, she was determined to sell her life dearly. She would not let El Darnen take her to Taren as a prize. The archers around the banner separated around a tall man in black armour painted with blue rings. He continued to walk forward, undaunted by the still living Armandans.
“Guinira Estaleth, you are surrounded and diminished, in a camp not your own, in mountains you do not know. Will you yield?”
She gave another look around her. She knew that if her men broke, there was little chance that even if they escaped, any would make it out of the mountains. Either El Darnen would hunt them down, or they would starve to death in the unfamiliar land. “I will speak with the Serpent, but I do not yield.” Quieter, in a defeated voice, she added “yet.”
A small tent was set up, about halfway between the camp and the line of trees. Only Guinira’s two Tai-Aren Coda were with her. El Darnen came alone, with Gelida and the guards she had brought.
“Well what? I assumed you were the ones presenting the terms of surrender.”
“We are, but we are not unreasonable. We were wondering if you had any terms that you would either not accept, or were necessary to get you to surrender peacefully.”
Guinira was taken aback. She had not expected to be allowed to name the terms of her own surrender. She also had not expected that El Darnen would be arrogant enough to come unprotected. He had a reputation for almost excessive bravery, but this was beyond even Taren or Erygan. Even Norrin, reputedly the bravest member of the former Morschcoda Council, would not come to a negotiation without at least one of the Mountain Guard for protection. ‘He is not without protection’ thought Guinira, trying to comfort herself. ‘He has the entire strength of El Darnen Greshida with him, just not in this tent.’ Returning to the physical world from the deep and dark paths her thoughts often walked down, she stated the most obvious terms she could think of quickly. “My soldiers go free and keep their weapons. You keep anything belonging to fallen soldiers, except in the case of the Morschledu Rings. My army returns to Galzeen unfought, and we do not march on you here again.”
El Darnen sat in silent contemplation for several minutes. Gelida was obviously working hard to keep her rising anger under control, and she was managing to do it. That impressed Guinira, in an odd way. She thought how different Gelida was from the other Morschcoda she knew. Finally, El Darnen answered. “If it were me that you had to negotiate with, I would be only too happy to agree to those terms. It is an unfortunate circumstance, but your attack was not on me, but the woman you knew was here. It is, therefore, not my place to negotiate, but to mediate. It is Gelida you must appease, Guinira.”
“And since I must be appeased, I will make some of my terms known. All Morschen who bow to the Anarian Throne must withdraw from Noldoron. Second, Guinira must make it known throughout all of what once was Anaria that she, as Queen, recognizes the sovereignty of Noldoron as an independent country.” At this point El Darnen nodded in agreement. “These are terms that must be accepted in order for there to be any form of peace here today.”
“I don’t think that either of these sounds unreasonable. Do you have any objections, Guinira?”
“I want your term ‘Morschen who bow to the Anarian Throne’ clarified. Technically, all Morschen in Noldoron bow to me, willingly or not.”
Gelida thought quickly for a moment. “All Morschen who entered the country in force of war under the banner of either Armanda or Caladea will leave Noldoron.”
“I think that I can accept both of those terms, provided that the terms I laid out are also honoured.”
“Your men will be given three days to leave Galzeen after they leave these mountains, if that is agreeable too both parties.” Both women looked at each other and nodded. “Excellent. I will make the arrangements myself.” He stood up and left.
After an awkward, if short, silence, Guinira spoke again. “I didn’t kill your father, and I didn’t particularly want him dead.”
“El Darnen told me that you had plans to execute him for treason. Why should I believe you?”
“I guess I can’t expect you to, but the truth remains. Your father and I fought, long and hard, in single combat in the throne room of the palace in Galzeen. Your father knew he could not win, and so, rather than bow or submit, he took his own life. He sheathed the sword in his own body.”
“That sounds like him, from what I have heard about him in the last few years. I didn’t know him well, though.”
“You have spent many years in Torridesta, but almost no time since the Council’s fall in your own land. Why not return Noldoron to its former allegiances?”
Gelida sighed. Guinira thought she seemed old, even older than she herself was, though that was still quite young. Then she began quietly. “I’ve been in Torridesta for a lot longer than just since the Council’s fall. But, sooner or later, Taren will turn his attention westward. Erygan can’t fight Taren, he knows that, but he will still try to hold land he sees as his. I don’t want to cause further conflict and bloodshed for one country. It’s not worth the price, even if I could afford to spend the lives that would be lost defending Noldoron.”
“And what about me?”
“You surrendered Dothoro to Taren so that you could try to take Noldoron. You have less strength to fight him that Erygan does.”
“You sound far too sure of yourself to be from Noldoron, Gelida. Are you sure you’re Dalasin’s daughter?” Guinira had meant it as a joke, but it made Gelida angry.
“Yes, I am. I may be Noldorin, but I grew up in Erygan’s court, surrounded by spineless nobles and scheming merchants. Noldoron forges weapons like my father. Torridesta forges politicians like Erygan, and now like me. I know what I want, and I don’t want to fight a war that I know I can’t win, especially against Drogoda.”
“Well, at least one Morschcoda has enough sense to understand that there’s no need to stand against me,” said Taren, as he walked into the tent, with two members of the Spear of Drogoda behind him. El Darnen was not in sight. “No, neither of you have to worry about me attacking your armies. We will have other enemies, and we will need every soldier we can find, and more. But whether that lies a decade or a thousand years into the future, or the day after tomorrow, it is beyond my sight. So, neither of you need fear for your men or your lives. I am here only to talk and to listen. If I have heard correctly, Gelida, you want to make Noldoron into an independent nation. I can accept that, but my mission is to unite Anaria, so Noldoron’s sovereignty would last so short a time that it would hardly be worth remembering in the history books. You have said yourself you won’t fight me. Why not join me now? Your agreement with Guinira still stands, except instead of independence from all ties, you gain that plus allies, all united under the Banner of the Warship.”
“I will consider your proposal, Morschcoda Garrenin, once I have set Noldoron in order again. It has only been barely one month since my father’s fall, but I would have him buried properly, and see my country once more able to stand by itself after an invasion and a change of leadership, not once, but twice.”
“You already speak with the wisdom and authority of a seasoned ruler,” said Taren, almost reverently. “I now see how fully I was wrong during your father’s first and last sitting as Morschcoda, five years ago. I have learned I was wrong about him. I see now that I was wrong about you.”
Gelida was almost speechless. She had not even imagined that Taren Garrenin would know who she was even five years ago. She had only turned ninety eight just before summer. “Thank you,” was all she managed to say.
Guinira got up to leave, saying “This negotiation is over. I must now honour such agreements as I have made. I must see my men back to Galzeen, and from there back to Armanda. Taren, will you open the border of Storinea for my armies to pass through?”
“I already have. Your generals carry written orders from me to guards and patrols along the main roads to let them pass.”
“Thank you. And now, I take my leave.”
“I think not, Guinira” said Taren, as his two guards blocked the way out of the tent. Guinira’s Tai-Aren Coda drew their swords, but she ordered them to stand down.
“What is the meaning of this, Taren?”
“Suffice it to mean that I am taking you prisoner, and the ransom I am demanding is to be acknowledged as the ruler of all lands still under the rule of the Anarian Throne.”
“But you said the agreement between Gelida and I would be honoured.”
“Yes, I did. And in all of your short deliberations, you never made any provisions that pertained to you personally, or that could not be easily interpreted to exclude you from them. Everything you said was in regards to your soldiers or your men. The treaty is honoured, and you are my prisoner.”
Guinira sat down again, disgusted with herself for making such an obvious mistake. But she directed her anger towards the dangerous man who blocked her exit. “How do you live with yourself, Taren?”
“I see it as my duty to unite Anaria under one banner, mine, and I will see it done. If I must resort to the sword, so be it. But the Deshika are coming, and The Kindler will return.” Gelida made the motion. Guinira merely stared. “Those attacks five years ago that placed you on the throne of my ancestors were a warning; a test that we barely survived. I don’t intend to be caught in the same position again. That is how I live with myself, Guinira Gundara, daughter of Xari.”