Chapter 24: From the Devil's Mouth
The guards hesitated to carry out Daliana’s order. Makret took his chance.
“You can’t arrest me Daliana.”
The guards stopped, not daring to look away from the man that they supposedly kept from killing everyone in the room.
“And why is that, traitor?”
“I am an official ambassador from The Kindler, and even he considers the sanctity of envoys before he does anything to them. And if it will help us to speed this discussion, here is my sword.” Instead of drawing it, he unbuckled the thin leather belt from his waist and handed everything, hilt away from him, to the nearest guard. “Now, you’re armed. I’m not. May we speak in private, as befits a Queen hearing an ambassador?”
“Anything you wish to say may be said here.”
“You need all these guards? With Edya Reeshnar standing before you, and me unarmed, you need two Ringlords and five Tai-Aren Coda to protect you?” He shook his head. Clearly he had expected more from the woman chosen to lead Taren’s Empire. “As you will.”
“What message does The Kindler have for me?”
“Oh, the only thing that that demon-spawned wretch has to say to whomever it is that leads this rabble against him, his words, is that you should surrender now and not die horrible, violent deaths, even though you likely would anyway after he got his hands on you. Mostly, I am here with messages on my own behalf; messages that I could not get to Rider Encarthian before he escaped. Did he warn you about The Kindler’s fleet?”
Edya could not hold the interest out of her voice. “How did …”
“Yes, of course he would. I suppose he couldn’t tell you when the fleet is coming, because The Kindler, may he rot forever in the hell he created, won’t tell me. Even if he didn’t lie about it being a month, that still gives you … five days, to prepare to face it.”
“Five days? If it was only a month from the time that Regath escaped, it should have been here a week ago, at the latest.”
“Remember where I was, Edya.” She tensed when he used her name. “We were speaking in Deshik months. Seven months of seventy days. Barbaric system.” He spat on the floor to add emphasis.
“Why should I not hear what you have to say and then arrest you?”
“Because the Deshika are camped on the northern shore of the Sea of Drogoda, and are instructed to attack if I haven’t returned by the end of the third day.”
“Fifteen thousand against the armies we have here? That’s laughable.”
“You forget who they had to plan for the siege of Alquendiro, Daliana Marcarry. Though I was against drawing them up, and didn’t put much thought into it, even with their disadvantage in numbers, I would be surprised if the Deshika didn’t at least partially succeed.”
Edya was silently in agreement with Makret. Marrdin was skeptical, but he said nothing. Daliana, though, was still unconvinced. “How do I know that you won’t attack the city anyway? You have nothing to gain from this audience.”
“The Kindler is currently in Alega. I don’t know why, but I suspect that he is gathering reinforcements. From what I understand, at least two more of the Seven are in Anaria. He wouldn’t tell me which, and they haven’t revealed themselves yet. But I am in command while he’s gone, and often when he’s here, I order things the way I wish. And as for what I gain, well, you may see that I have good reasons for being here, Daliana.”
She sighed and waved her hand at him, almost dismissing him. “Tell us what you wish, and then get out of my sight.”
“Of course, Daliana Garrenin.” As soon as he said that, the whole room was in an uproar. The five guards all drew their swords. Edya drew hers as well. Marrdin backed up behind the two Ringlords, who had placed themselves right in front of Daliana and had begun to chant, preparing to cast any defensive spells they could to counter the attack they were sure Makret was about to unleash. Makret and Daliana were the only two in the room who did not move. They stayed where they had been, eyes locked in a deadly contest. When everything finally settled down, Daliana too broke away from the piercing gaze of Makret’s eyes. He spoke again. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that … Yet. I should have waited until you required proof that you can trust me.”
A hard edge crept into Daliana’s voice. She sounded more like Taren than ever when she spoke. “How did you know?”
“What is the easiest and most logical way that I could have found out? Taren told me himself, over six hundred and fifty years ago.”
“But he told us that you didn’t know who his heir was.”
“Think Daliana. If you knew that I knew you’re Taren’s daughter, you would have given yourself away before you even took the throne. Daliana, you are held as the Queen of Drogoda, but no one not closely associated with the fallen Morschcoda Council knows the reason. If they did, the Garrenin line would have been obvious to The Kindler. The only Morschcoda who never left her home without an army to protect herself would have been the only possible target. The Kindler would have seen you dead already.” He paused to let his words sink in. “What else do I know of the Morschen side of this conflict? Norrin is holding Dishmo Kornara in case I am stupid enough to attack it on The Kindler’s orders. Galeth, several other Dragon Riders, and several Demosira in Dishmo Kornara are searching for anything that they can find that you might consider useful, even writings about me and my successes as a general. Kallin is in Dorok-Baan, searching through his papers for anything to do with the Ring of Taren the First. Ranny, Xari, Guinira and their armies are camped on the shores of Beruthien Bay in case this Deshik fleet lands there. You went to speak with El Darnen to try to gain his cooperation, and Gelida Mectar remained behind. The ever incompetent Grand Admiral Tarick Jreshti is sailing to The Dragon’s Head to engage a fleet that he won’t find. And half of the Brotherhood of the Mordak is camped outside the walls of Airachni both to prevent me from attacking that city and to march as soon as the fleet that may not be coming has landed we don’t know where.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“I know much, Daliana. Much that must remain secret. Know, though, that I neither serve The Kindler nor do I wish him victory.”
“So why betray us?”
“So that the Morschen will survive.”
Daliana looked at the five Tai-Aren Coda, and nodded. They removed themselves from the room, meaning they were just outside waiting with drawn swords in case there was occasion to call on them, but the two Morschledu remained where they were. “And how do you believe you can help us when you answer to the one who wishes to destroy us?”
“Yes, I answer to The Kindler, but to him alone. I order the entire army of Deshika as I will when he’s not with it, and usually even when he is. I can help you more than you can help yourself. This is not the land of the Morschen anymore, Daliana.”
“We have yet to fall.”
“And I hope you don’t, but I don’t think you realize the consequences of Taren’s victory at Agrista.”
“Taren died. I wouldn’t call that a victory.”
“Really? I don’t think you understand your father as well as you should or as well as you believe you do.”
“Taren may have been my father, but he did nothing to show me that while he was alive. Regardless of that, I don’t call his death a victory for the Morschen, and I don’t see how you can, either.”
Makret shook his head, and then began pacing back and forth across the room, looking up at them occasionally. “Taren slaughtered the Deshik forces at Agrista. Thousands died to take the city’s southern gate. Ten thousand or more fell in the city’s collapse. One life, even Taren’s, in exchange for that, and you still don’t call it a victory? I would call that far more.”
“It was a great victory at great cost, then.”
“Even more so, now. The Kindler had a second army in readiness, though he thought the conquest could be completed without it. He was wrong. So now, he has gone back to Alega to oversee the raising of yet another army. One with whose strength in numbers he can be certain of taking Anaria. This fleet bringing four hundred thousand soldiers, it is little more than a vanguard, an advance army. He is always boasting, and lies pour from his mouth like a river from the mountains, but I believe in this, he speaks the truth.”
Edya could not contain herself anymore. Whether Makret was a traitor or not, it seemed to her that he wanted Daliana’s surrender, and was overstating the armies available to The Kindler to get it. “How can you believe him? There is no army in existence that can be that large. How will it cross the sea? It can’t possibly ...” Makret cut her off.
“Edya, you are a soldier, and a Ringlord. The seas are your province, and you expect me to answer you when you ask how an army that large could cross the water?” They stared at each other, the battle of wills evident in their eyes. Makret spoke, but did not look away. “I hope, I truly do, that it isn’t possible, but I know all too well that it can be done. Also, I don’t think that that second army will cross the ocean. It will come overland, as those first Deshika did.”
“You will stand by this?”
“To the death.” Edya relaxed her gaze, and Makret’s eyes went to Daliana.
“And you still claim to oppose The Kindler?”
“If he didn’t need me, he would have killed me at Agrista. I speak against him, loudly and often. The day my usefulness to him ends, so do I.”
“So join us. Lead our armies against him. We can defeat him, no matter how large his armies.”
“I think you fail to understand how many Deshika there are in the world. The army he launched at us before was almost two hundred thousand strong. The army that attacked Agrista was close to fifty thousand. The army coming now contains over four hundred thousand soldiers. The army he is raising in Alega will contain, he claims, over a million. And that is just the armies of one of the Seven Devils, and by many accounts, not the largest. Even if I were to side with you, and were we able to defeat The Kindler’s armies so completely that none escaped the battlefield, let alone Anaria, The Kindler would merely step back, and one or more of his brethren would take his place with their fresh armies, while ours are a battered shell of what they once were. And if it was even remotely possible that we could do the same thing again, the process would merely repeat. And if, by a miracle proportional to divine intercession, we did win, the Devils themselves would be unharmed, and they would go and hide on the other side of the ocean, and raise their armies once more, and they would come quicker, while the Morschen increase slowly. This isn’t a winnable war, Daliana. By all means, march against him. Slaughter your way through fields of the Deshika for all I care. The only thing you bring closer is a guarantee of your death and Anaria’s fall.”
“There is honour in death.”
“Edya, Taren was more a mentor to you than he ever thought.” Makret snorted. “There are many who think like that, and have died thinking that way. But honour is not a lasting thing. You can’t sustain yourself solely with honour. Death is only honourable if there are also those who live to remember it, Edya Reeshnar.”
“I will not be moved, Makret Druoth.”
“Then we have nothing more to say to one another, Daliana Garrenin.” He turned on his heal, taking his sword from where it rested by the door as he went. He stopped just beyond the doors, and looked over his shoulder as he buckled on the belt. Nobody had moved. He added one last thing. “I would get as large a hoard of provisions as possible into the mountains before needing to use them as a last resort. El Darnen has never been particularly well supplied.”
Makret’s announcements took several days to sink in, and by that time, scouts reported that no trace of the Deshik army could be found along the northern shore of the Sea of Drogoda. Edya did not seem particularly taken aback by the news. She and Daliana sat in Taren’s war room, planning to push north along the road into Meclarya.
“Though I am glad that the army isn’t there, I didn’t think it would be.”
“Why’s that?” Daliana asked.
“There’s nowhere for an army half the size of the Deshika,” Edya explained, “not without stretching their camp out over ten miles. The beaches on the northern shore run inland for fewer than one hundred feet before hitting the crags that are the southern wall of the Moredo. The crags run east to west for almost fifty leagues, and the wall is nearly sixty feet in height. Behind it is a folded, broken land of bare rock stretching for at least two leagues before running into long downs, where the slopes might fall twice the height of a tall man over three miles to the Plains of Moredo. If Makret had said the western shore, I would be much less skeptical. The land at the bottom and the top of that wall is different from that along the northern wall.” She ended, believing Daliana needed no more information.
“How would Makret strike at the city?”
Edya thought for several seconds, but she had an answer ready. She had started perfecting it as soon as she saw the camps outside of the city when she returned leading the Brotherhood from An-Aniath. “I think that he would try to take or destroy the bridges under cover of night. After that, he would attack the city from the northern shore and eastern wall. Taren had holds hidden in the two mountains on the island so that if Alquendiro fell, he wouldn’t have to retreat far. Makret would know of them, so he would try to cut them off. From the north, he could enter the city through the wharves, and the east wall has the city’s only gate.”
A knock at the door silenced the two women. Marrdin entered, with strange news. “The last scouts have returned. A woman rode west, and up to the Cardor River. She said something about there being no barges left on the southern bank of the river, from the crags to the forest.”
“What does it mean, Edya?”
“Makret is trying to tell us something. He is too skilled a general not to have a motive. By removing or destroying the barges, he forces us to march a long way west, almost to Eshtam-Nis, before we could ford the Cardor. So, either he plans to make a stroke westward, or he wants us to march east.”
“Maybe both,” said Kallin, entering suddenly.
“Kallin! What are you doing here?”
“Erygan asked me to bring The Learned eastward, and I have a report to make.”
“I believe I have found something concerning the location of the Ring of Taren, but it won’t help us.”
“I need to know it, whatever it is.”
Kallin nodded, and as he did, his robes parted at the chin. Under them, he wore the armour of one of The Learned. Edya looked almost sympathetic towards the short man, worried what his part would be in the battles to come. He was no strategist, and his swordsmanship was abysmal at best. “Taren Garrenin the First was regarded as the first of the Morschen, but several points disagreed with that. I found manuscripts, old and almost illegible, but they could be made out. The mentioned El Bendro Dakoia many times, but had nothing to say of Taren. Other scholars found mentions of him later, references to him at least, that said ‘the ancient warrior king wields one of our Rings, but with powers wholly different from any the Morschen races have before shown. His prowess in battle, and the magic he wields therein are unmatched even by the Seven Lords we fight against. These powers of war and battle have not been seen in our Rings before now.’ This seems to indicate that the Drogs, or there warrior tendencies at least, were created by Lasheed solely for El Bendro Dakoia, and were not originally common among the Morschen races. It also explains much about the line of House Garrenin: Warrior Princes, battlefield Queens, who ruled with the sword of steel rather than the scepter of gold.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad thing, Stargazer.”
“Because my report is yet unfinished, your majesty. Scholars working with me found maps, ancient maps indeed, which showed a different world. We almost didn’t recognize what we were looking at as a map of Anaria. The coast was different in the first days of the war, and the vast ocean that separates Anaria from Alega and Acrosa and any other lands that lie beyond them, it was little more than a river in the first days of the world.”
“What?” The shock in the three voices that yelled in unison could be felt.
“Those same scholars interpreted Deshik scrolls found locked away that tell us many Eschcotan Morschledu, led by then Morschcoda Ordrick Mervnin, launched violent elemental attacks against the armies of the Seven Devils. One, apparently, created the walls of Drogoda, gouging the land, and eventually, the Cardor River filled the new valley with water, creating the Sea of Drogoda. Another such attack, much larger and more violent, broke much of the land in the river bed, pushing away Alega and Acrosa, or drowning the land that it had been and forcing people there to give the names to new lands they settled.”
“The effort cost the Eschcotans many lives, foremost among them, the first of the Morschcoda to fall in the war, Ordrick Mervnin. It was in records dated after the fall of Morschcoda Mervnin that Taren the first is mentioned in any detail. Apparently, nearing the end of the war, when the Eschcotans sacrificed themselves, Taren was the oldest Morschen alive by several centuries. The Morschen need for warriors was insane. By the time that many of them were thirty, tens of thousands of soldiers in that war would have been veterans of as many battles as the greatest warriors of our time could boast of. Taren the first was noted as being the only Morschen alive at the end of the war that had been alive at the beginning, so I gather.” He paused to let what he had said so far sink in, and then he continued, after a glass of wine to cool his parched throat. “Here is where we will despair of our hope of finding the Ring of Taren. Taren took his army, of whom the Drogs and Drogs alone claim descent, and crossed the widening ocean to take the battle to the Seven, allowing time for the battered Morschen in Anaria to marshal themselves and regroup, to gather their scattered forces and unite themselves once more. Taren supposedly unleashed great floods that pushed the sundered lands still farther from Anaria, but it could not prevent the return of the Seven, who were now the five, as two had fallen to Taren in his initial assault. Taren ended two more in his retreat from Alega. But the three remaining attacked Anaria before he could return. The battle was long and vicious, and cost dozens of rapidly appointed Morschcoda to repel, and many thousands of Morschen and Morschledu. There are no records that note how many Morschen bore the title of Morschcoda during the war, or for which countries they bore it. El Kardi Morschcoda might give us more insight into the war, and the lives of those who served as Morschcoda, but that is not what we need right now. Only The Kindler remained of the Seven at this point, and only two Morschcoda for certain are known to have been alive. In the final contest between Taren and The Kindler, Taren wounded his enemy, but The Kindler killed Taren, cutting off his sword hand, his left incidentally, while all of his descendants have been right handed, so that he could neither wield Donkar-Hesta, nor use his Ring against him. Egrin Carrick completed the battle, claiming victory over The Kindler, but The Kindler took with him, according to Morschcoda Carrick, three prizes: a sword, a hand, and a Ring. Incidentally, that legend about the three items taken by The Kindler is why Morschen hold the number three to be evil. It is also why Drogs have a natural mistrust of left handed people.”
Nobody seemed to fully grasp what Kallin had just said, especially after the two anecdotes about Morschen superstitions, until Edya broke the silence.
“So, when The Kindler was banished from the world, he took the hand of his greatest enemy, to show that he had conquered, no matter what came after. And the hand still held the sword and Ring of Taren the First.”
“Which means,” said Marrdin “that in order to find the Ring of Taren, we would have to search the deepest pits of the Third Hell.”
Daliana was silent after Kallin finished his narrative. Edya looked up at her, and then she seemed to wake up. “Kallin, I want to see Erygan, and I want to see him now.”