Chapter 15: So it Begins
The yell came clearly to Taren’s ears. “Rider approaching.” Two members of the Spear rode out to see whether whoever it was would pose a threat to their king. They came back quickly, with another Mordak Rider between them. The Rider dismounted and bowed, before launching quickly into speech. “My lord, I have a report from the northern border. I don’t believe it was a coincidence.”
“Carry on, Rider.”
“My lord, I was in the village of Croften, nearly one week’s ride north of here, when my Mordak sensed something was wrong. A Dothrin courier emerged from a small side street. She had no horse, nor did she carry a message satchel, but she claimed to be carrying a message from you to Morschcoda Redernin of Rista.”
“Where is the courier now?”
“A week out of Croften, on horse.”
“I see.” Taren retreated to his thoughts.
Makret leaned sideways and whispered into Taren’s ear. “I know that look, Taren. What do you think?”
Taren’s instructions also came as a whisper. “Makret, take four Riders and go to Agrista. You do not need to beat the courier, but you must make haste. You,” he said, starting to speak in a louder voice. “Rider, go to Airachni and tell Chief Rider Tendornin to send a Dragon Rider to Morschcoda Redernin, telling him that he must arrest that courier. The Brotherhood will continue on to An-Aniath,” he paused, and leaning back to his friend, whispered “where you, Makret, will bring her. You and I know that it’s Guinira, but Marrdin above all must not know who she is.”
“You will likely have ‘the courier’ before that, my lord.”
Taren nodded slowly. “You have your orders.”
Makret chose four Riders and left quickly. They would ride straight to Agrista, Taren knew. The other Rider had gone well before Makret, headed for Airachni. Taren realized, though, that if Guinira was already past the border, she could travel as herself, not a Dothrin woman. “Nyjeta!” Turning to one of his captains, he gave quick orders. “Send another Rider after Makret. Tell him that he must get to Marrdin before that messenger does.” Lowering his voice, so that only he and the Rider could hear, he said “tell him also that the shark smells its own blood. He will know what it means and what he is to do.” The Mordak Rider, a youngish man named Regath Encarthian, rode off so quickly, Taren had barely finished giving him his orders. Yelling at another captain he said “and send another Rider to Airachni. Get a second Dragon in the air if you must. Ensure that Marrdin knows that Makret will take her, and if he interferes, that the Dragon Hearted stands ready for invasion. And the Rider that goes to Airachni needs to go to Daken and tell him to send the Dragon Hearted to the northern border.” When the captain did not move right away, he shouted “GO!”
Brotherhood captain Edya Reeshnar left her king as quickly as she dared to give his orders. There was something different about her lord lately. His voice had always used to carry such weight and power. Now, it not only had that, but there was darkness to it, one that left implied threats even with the most pleasant of topics. ‘That was not there when we conquered Caladea, so …’ she allowed the thought to trail off.
Taren watched Edya Reeshnar go to see his orders carried out. Ordinarily, the way she moved would have held his gaze in a different way. Now, he merely watched her, ensuring she did as instructed. Her walk was perfectly balanced, a powerful stride that betrayed a hidden grace and deadly ability with a sword. She was not yet Tai-Aren Coda, but she would be soon, quite easily surpassing the tests. From a young age, she had shown much more than basic skill with a sword. She had impressed Taren, and he had considered bending the law more than once, and taking her on as his own apprentice, teaching her the ways of the blade himself. He had decided that it would be better to ensure she learned conventionally, from a Tai-Aren Coda, rather than from himself. ‘Well, Makret decided for me.’ It was true that Makret had been convinced that Taren could not withstand the outrage of a Morschcoda taking on an apprentice who was neither of his blood nor nobly born. It was not the type of thing that could be hidden. So Taren merely watched the retreating form of a woman almost four hundred years younger than him. And then he turned away.
The march south went quickly, too quickly for Taren’s liking. Makret had not been heard from since he and his chosen Riders had left for Agrista. No Dragon Rider had come to bring messages from Makret, though that was not unusual. ‘We must continue forward without him. It is unfortunate. I almost feel incapable of leading this attack.’ His thoughts that he did not care about being overheard had often followed other such dark paths since the Drogodan border had been left behind over a week ago. The desert was still seven days ahead, at least, but he knew that Xari knew he was here already. In Guinira’s absence, she, as former Morschcoda, was in charge of the defenses of the country. So he found it surprising several days later when, instead of an army waiting for them at the edge of the desert, Xari herself with only a small guard awaited them.
“Welcome Warship, to the land of Armanda. Though you come in force of war, it is unnecessary. With the fall of Queen Guinira, the pride and strength of the Flame Weavers is broken.”
Taren tensed, expecting a trap. “I don’t understand.”
“Then I will explain another way.” She dismounted and walked towards Taren, stopping just five feet from his Mordak’s nose. She bowed, a deep formal bow, with her right hand on her heart and her left hand, palm upward, stretched towards him. “Here, on the borders of the Ashnora Desert do I, Xari Gundara, Guardian of the Golden Flame, Morschcoda of the land of Armanda, pledge myself and my lands in service and fealty to Taren Garrenin the Second, the Warship, King of Drogoda and Lord of the South.”
Taren was not sure why Xari was doing this, but he responded. “And I, Taren Garrenin the Second, accept your fealty and service, Xari Gundara. Rise and take your place beside me. We have much to discuss on our way south.”
The Brotherhood, on Taren’s orders, rode northwards, back to Alquendiro. Taren and the Spear of Drogoda, commanded by Edya Reeshnar in Makret’s absence, continued on to An-Aniath with Xari. Though he understood why Xari had surrendered, he did not understand the actions of the Flame Weavers. They were an ancient and dangerous force, with a noble and proud beginning. That the fall of one of their own could shake them was unnerving. The Flame Weavers of old had been the first to turn to The Kindler, yet they had been the first to see his betrayal of them and fought long and hard to undo everything that he had done, and that they had done in his name.
“What would it take to rekindle the spent pride of the Flame Weavers?”
“You almost sound as though you want that to happen, Taren.” Xari rode slowly beside her new master, keeping her eyes low as they rode through her lands. Her voice, proud and resilient before her men was now loaded with sorrow.
“Believe me or don’t, Xari, but I do want that to happen. Regardless of what many of you younger Morschen think, I have not been nor will I be here forever. Someone must be able to step in when I set sail alone. I don’t want Anaria to crumble from within even as The Kindler marches on us from outside.”
Xari sighed heavily. “If that is so, Taren, only Guinira, were she still alive, could rekindle the fires of their spirits.”
Marrdin thought long and hard about Taren’s ‘proposal.’ Surrender the courier, or face the strength of the Drogodan Empire. Marrdin had been caught between Taren and his prey several times, and they had never turned out well for Rista. Taren was just not the type of person one had the luxury of saying no to. Not if they expected to survive, at least. The Dragon Hearted, who not even one year ago had helped repel Erygan and his advancing borders, now stood poised to invade on Taren’s behalf. Summoning one of his own messengers, he spoke quickly and quietly. “How quickly could you get to Toredo, and how quickly could Erygan marshal his forces once you are there? The Black Guard could hold back the Dragon Hearted.”
“You are only exchanging one empire for another, my lord.”
Marrdin thought about the swords of Drogoda, especially the swords of the Mordak Riders Taren had sent north. “So be it.”
Marrdin stared blankly at the six Mordak Riders without really comprehending that they stood before him. He had to buy time for his messenger to reach Toredo, but that would take him at least three weeks, if he was lucky. So, he attempted to engage them in somewhat unpleasant debate.
“Makret, you have a long reputation of honesty. I think we can speak freely, but I would also like to speak privately.”
“Well I do not disagree that we can speak freely, I am here officially.”
“To Hesta with formality, Makret. Walk with me.” Marrdin stood and walked out a side door. Makret considered not following him, but eventually did, alone. “You tell me that Taren wants this courier, and you also tell me that if I don’t hand her over to you, I will be made to.” He paused, to see if Makret understood what he was trying to say. It seemed he did, but Marrdin continued anyway. “I’m willing to hand over the courier. Lasheed knows I’ve tried arguing with Taren before, but you have to tell me something first. Why is she so important to Taren? Why is he willing to risk war because of one person?”
“Taren marched on An-Aniath because he believed this woman was there. One of our own messengers reached us after the city had fallen to tell us that he had seen her in the north, and that she claimed to have a message for the Morschcoda of the land of Rista. Taren doesn’t want to invade another country so soon after taking Armanda, which is why he sent us. He will ride in strength, though, if you is force him to.”
“Hence the motto of House Garrenin: Eckrit ar Morrind.”
“Force when Necessary” interpreted Makret, nodding.
“You explain much about Taren himself, but the real question is still unanswered. I will ask one more time, and you had better convince me. Who is this woman, and why is Taren so set on capturing her? You won’t leave this city with her until I am satisfied.”
“You have no power to hold me, Marrdin. I answer to Taren, and to Taren alone. Any act against me or those with me will be perceived as an act of war, and the Drogodan Empire will answer accordingly. But, if you absolutely must know why Taren seeks this woman, she is a traitor to the Drogodan Empire. She was imprisoned in Valok-Shein, but she managed to escape. We don’t know how, but Taren is anxious that once we have this woman, she doesn’t do it again.”
“You seriously expect me to believe that a Dothrin courier escaped Valok-Shein?”
“We don’t publicize the fact, but it has happened before. Carde Deithara.”
“I’ve heard of her. Drog noblewoman, rumoured to have had an affair with Taren and then attempted to assassinate him. Now she’s pirate. And Taren refuses to hunt her down.”
“Well, she hasn’t tried to kill him in a long time.”
“Your answer isn’t unsatisfying, Makret, but remember this. You may be Taren’s right hand, but I am lord of Rista. I answer only to myself, and to Queen Guinira Estaleth. And if you -” but Makret cut him off.
“Guinira is dead Marrdin, so make up your own mind and stop hiding behind the skirts of a woman six hundred years your junior!” Makret’s shout caused the shallow pools of water throughout the courtyard they were in to erupt into geysers. Makret knew that Guinira was the courier that he had been sent after, but his spies had reported that many Armandans believed their Queen to be dead. It would not hurt Marrdin to believe the same thing.
Marrdin wandered through Agrista pondering Makret’s final act. He was not convinced that Makret believed Guinira was dead, and that the eruption of the pools was an attempt to make those watching believe Makret was merely frustrated. “It was certainly effective” thought Marrdin aloud. He had no doubt that some of his people, perhaps even most of them, believed Makret’s charade. And if they believed he was merely frustrated, and Marrdin was not in the castle … He did not finish the thought. He did not have the time to do so. His people would not, could not, release the courier without his approval. Without hesitation, he turned and ran back to the castle. None of the Ringless, and few even of the Morschledu, could keep pace with his full speed. He was proud of that, but there was now no time to gloat.
Two of Taren’s spies in Agrista met Makret and his Riders. Disguising themselves as Ristans, they made their slow way to the room where the ‘Dothrin Courier’ was staying. They entered silently, and Guinira took little notice of them, except to speak to them without even looking over her shoulder.
“You should drop your Ice Mist Veils, so that I will know who it is I have killed.”
“We are not here to kill you” said Makret. “But we know that you are no Dothorin.”
Guinira paused for a moment. “I know your voice.” She turned as she said it.
“You should know it well” said Makret, as he dropped his power. Distorting Depths was the true name of the power more often referred to as the Mirror of the Deeps.
“Makret Druoth. So Taren believes he can force me to come back as a prisoner.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then he wants to use my death to break Armanda.”
“As you attempted to use Dalasin? No. Taren has more respect for the gift command than you do. He wants to use you to bring Armanda back to life.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Taren has already taken Armanda. Xari surrendered to him. The Flame Weavers offered no resistance. He literally marched into An-Aniath with the Spear. Xari surrendered to him at the border of the desert.”
“Why would the Flame Weavers not fight?”
“They are broken. Your ‘death’ has destroyed their pride. Taren would restore it.”
“I do not believe you, Son of Carth. And you cannot expect me to believe that you know what is happening in Armanda while you are here in Rista.”
“But Taren is in Armanda, and his Ring and my Ring are brothers. Bearing Brother Rings allows us to mind speak with each other, even when we are on opposite sides of the continent. You don’t have to believe me. You only need to come with me.”
“And she will not be doing that either” shouted Marrdin, as he and five of his guards stormed into the room. “I warned you, Druoth. I told you that I would yield the courier in my own time, if at all.”
While Makret’s tone had been humble, almost begging Guinira to go with him, it changed towards Marrdin. He spoke with authority and power. “And I told you, Redernin, that I would not be threatened, and that the Drogodan Empire would respond accordingly.”
“This courier has nothing to do with Taren. She’s Dothrin for one thing, and-”
“And as a Dothorin, she is a citizen of Taren’s empire. And as a courier associated with the Dothrin Army, she is under my command, as I am High General of the Armies of Imperial Drogoda.” Turning now to Guinira, who still wore her disguise, he said “so, I order you to return with me now to Taren.”
Marrdin looked shaken, and Guinira looked pale. Because she was posing as a Dothrin courier, if she refused the order, she could be punished with insubordination. Likely, that punishment would involve nothing worse than imprisonment. If Makret was really angry, and if Taren was angered, she would have to endure a public flogging, designed in such a way as to break the illusion she wore. If she revealed herself, Marrdin would protect her, but he would have to fight off the crushing weight of both Taren’s and Erygan’s respective empires. She was a prize for both of them. Before she had time to think, though, Marrdin spoke again. “I offer this woman political asylum here in Rista. So long as she remains on Ristan soil, you can’t touch her.”
Makret now was the one who was shocked. Political asylum was something rarely done, usually only for Merchant Princes or for war criminals who’s actions had benefited the nation they had fled to.
Makret, who had been almost ignoring Marrdin, rounded on him now. He pointed a long finger into the taller Morschcoda’s face. “You have one week to reconsider your decision, Morschcoda. Other forces than the Dragon Hearted have been gathering on your southern border.”
With that said, Makret pushed passed Marrdin, and he and his men left Agrista.