Chapter 8: Into the Forest
Five years later, Taren still remembered every word that had been said at that final meeting of the Morschcoda Council. It was always that way when something that would change the course of the future was placed into his hands. Taren had not known when his father had made him Ambassador to Armanda that he would soon be meeting the love of his life, and yet he remembered that day in painful detail. The woman he had loved he had married, she who was next in line to the Morschcodal Throne in Dishmo Kornara. She had died not even three years after their marriage, at which time Taren resigned the position of Ambassador. The final day of the Drog Civil War was also engraved in his mind. A day of bloodshed beyond anything Taren had witnessed previously or since. His three younger brothers and his younger sister had stood against him. They would not surrender, and so, on the field of battle, Taren had met Garret and Dreth. Dreth had nearly carved out Taren’s eye, but Taren had killed them both. The day he had been named Morschcoda, too, was carved into the unbreakable stone of his memory, when he had brought his evidence before the Mordak Council, accusing his father of inciting civil war in his own land. He had executed Garrick Garrenin himself. Shaking off his haunting past, and the urge to reach for the flask in his boot with it, Taren turned from the window where he had been standing. Though he had given up drinking, for the most part, occasion often demanded it, and he still kept the flask in his boot for emergencies. Makret was there in the room behind him as he turned, standing as usual. The man was more loyal than Taren had any reason to expect. He was a man who could not be bought. Taren knew that well. He knew that Makret had refused substantial rewards, even ones that promised that he would be the next Morschcoda, to assassinate Taren. He had stood with Taren since they had both been young and careless, in their early twenties, now seven hundred years past.
“What news is there today, Makret?”
“The Storinean Delegation has arrived in the city, my lord, and-” Taren cut him off.
“Makret, I won’t have you calling me my lord. Call me Taren unless occasion demands formality. I’m still the same man I was fifty years ago, let alone five, no matter how much Drogoda, and its people with it, has changed.”
“Yes … my lord” he said, laughing. Taren laughed with him.
“Have it your own way. Now, what is the rest?”
“A messenger from Eshtam-Nis arrived early this morning. She will not speak to anyone but you.”
“There’s more to that, isn’t there.”
“Unfortunately. She wears the armour of a Dothrin courier, but I would swear she is not one of the people of the forest. Her dark brown eyes and her red hair mark her as Armandan.”
“So, Guinira sent this woman, not Daliana.”
“It would seem so.”
Taren thought. Obviously the message had its origin in Dothoro, but the woman Makret described could not, by any stretch of imagination, belong to Daliana’s people. For the most part, Dothrin had green eyes and hair any shade of brown, not brown eyes or red hair. Daliana’s eyes were the only exception to that rule that he could think of, though many of the Half-Elvin had black or blond hair. “I will see Kallin and his delegation now. Bring the woman in sometime later. Her masters will learn to respect the Drogodan throne through her.”
Daliana closed the doors to her private chambers. Not even Guinira would follow her there, whether she respected Daliana’s rights as Morschcoda or not. Daliana had retreated because, though she had no choice, she still had trouble being in the same room as her Queen since Atalin’s execution. Guinira had summoned him to An-Aniath barely a year into her rule. Daliana had begged him not to go, had offered him every excuse, had even ordered him not to leave Eshtam-Nis. He had stubbornly insisted that there was no danger for him. He did not believe that Guinira blamed him for being the only contender for the throne she now sat on. Daliana had not been able to convince him that he was wrong. His small guard had been ambushed inside of An-Aniath, he had been arrested, and he had been charged for treason against Anaria. Taren’s ambassador had attempted to free Atalin politically, Taren’s spies had tried to force their way into the prison and get him out. They had failed, and Atalin was executed before Daliana had even known he had been arrested. When Daliana had complained to Guinira, she had been given a choice: she could forget the whole thing, or she could face the same consequences as Atalin. Taren had intervened personally, and closed his borders before Guinira’s threat could be carried out. So, it had been Daliana who suggested that the messenger go to Taren. Her private messenger had not gotten out of the city alive, so another had been sent, this time with Guinira’s permission. Daliana composed herself, managed one more time to put Atalin’s murder behind her, and walked back out to deal with Guinira.
Two weeks later, Guinira sat with the two Morschcoda in the throne room of Eshtam-Nis. Daliana and Xari were both attempting to explain to the younger woman that she had no idea who she was dealing with in Taren Garrenin, but as usual, the arrogance of youth that Guinira had more than her share of prevented them from being able to reason with her.
“I have doubts that Taren will even see the messenger you sent, your majesty.”
“And why is that Daliana? We sent a Dothrin courier, and even if he does not respect Armanda, he respects Dothoro.” There was a hard edge to Guinira’s words, and Daliana knew it was aimed at her.
“With all due respect, your majesty, you sent an Armandan in Dothrin armour. Taren will know the difference. And he will not respect the message, simply because of the lie that bears it.”
“He is the one who put me on the throne. Why would he ignore a message from me?”
“That is exactly why he would ignore it. He is the one who made you Queen. You already owe him, and, as he may choose to see it, you have already ignored that once. He won’t be anxious to do you any more favours.”
Xari broke in. “My lady, I sat on the Morschcoda Council with Taren for three hundred years. I thought I knew him well. I never suspected that he would try to break Anaria. Now that he is king of a powerful empire, he is even more unpredictable. If he sees the messenger it all, it will only be to make a painful point to us, and especially to you, your majesty.”
Guinira looked hard at both of them. She refused to admit, even to herself, that the two Morschcoda were right, even though she knew if she took enough time to think, that they were. Trying to shift the subject, she said, “If Taren even meets with our messenger, as you two seem to think that he won’t, how will he respond? And if he responds positively, what will he demand? The two of you know Taren better than I do.”
Daliana shifted in her seat. It was the closest that Guinira would ever get to saying that someone else was right. So, when Daliana answered, she spoke slowly. “If Taren comes, his price will be high. No higher than you can afford, but … no less than that either.”
Xari spoke with even less confidence than Daliana pretended to have. “Taren will demand nothing. He will simply take what he wants, when he wants to, for no other reason than that he wants it. And whatever he takes, you can be certain he will keep.”
“The Flame Weavers will stop him, or the Half-Elvin. I will not let him simply walk away from Eshtam-Nis with anything he desires.”
Both Xari and Daliana nearly fell to the floor from laughing so hard. Attempting to regain her composure, Daliana stood up slowly. “The Half-Elvin will stop Taren?” She burst into laughter again. “My lady, the Half-Elvin could not stop the Rayed Sun, let alone the Brotherhood of the Mordak.”
“As for the Flame Weavers, my lady, you yourself were once one. You should know that they are a poor match for the Brotherhood. And we only have a few hundred here. It’s nothing more than an honour guard escorting us through Taren’s lands.”
“And Taren won’t leave Eshtam-Nis with something he desires.” Guinira looked at Daliana, confused. “Taren will leave with Eshtam-Nis, which is what he desires.”
“How do you know that Taren wants Eshtam-Nis, or Dothoro? He had the strength to take it before now.”
“Yes, but then he was constrained by the Anarian Treaty. Border wars weren’t uncommon, but marching in open war would have turned the rest of the Ten Nations against him, and likely even his own people. Dothoro needs Drogoda’s good will, and Drogoda needs Dothrin timbre. Taren would have risked too much by marching in open war, so he will seize control while he is here at our request. As for knowing that he wants Dothoro, he has invited me to Alquendiro almost every year since I became Morschcoda. I suspect that he wanted to form an alliance with me, one way or another; an alliance where no doubt he would be in command.”
“But he couldn’t have married you and had you remain Morschcoda.”
“No, but a country’s Morschcoda is only their representative on the Council, my lady.” It was Xari speaking now. “A country’s head of state does not necessarily have to be its Morschcoda, though it usually has been. Daliana would not have been expected to step down as Dothoro’s ruler, but she would have had to name a new Morschcoda. Likely, Taren would have been the one to do so, though, and he would then rule in truth, if not in name.”
While Guinira pondered everything that the two Morschcoda had just told her, Daliana sent a thought towards Xari. ‘You know who Taren would have had me name Morschcoda, don’t you?’
A week after her conversation with the two Morschcoda, Guinira sat in silent thought, contemplating what the two women had told her. Taren and his new Drogodan Empire were quandaries that she neither knew how to solve nor even what to think of. Taren had been a king for five years, yet he had done little more than establish his absolute control over Drogoda and Storinea, by force if dissidents would not yield otherwise. Trade continued as it had always done, and the roads through the two countries remained open to use by Armanda and Caladea. Taren had not shut the borders, though Guinira knew that he easily could. With the full forces of both the Brotherhood of the Mordak and Storinea’s Learned, not to mention the army that had been conscripted and trained during the Deshika attacks before she had ascended the throne, the empire that cut Anaria in half was a force to be reckoned with. And then there was Taren himself. Her royal visits to Drogoda showed her that Taren was not so singular a man as she had thought him. Drogoda was hardly full of them, but they were there. It was a military superpower, it had naval superiority, and it was the home of many deadly arms masters, but for all of that, Drogoda was a failing country. Mighty as Alquendiro was, the seat of Taren’s power was a testament to the strength and majesty of Drogoda in the days of its rising, but it was clearly a relic, a memory of another time. Newer cities in Drogoda had the same flowing, graceful architecture, but they lacked the sense of solidity and power and majestic, timeless strength that emanated from Alquendiro, from its towering walls to its massive palace. She was forced to admit that she had been wrong in her judgement of him. He held his massive power in check simply because he did not care to have it in the first place, not because he did not wish to exercise it. She had also been wrong about Erygan. As a Morschcoda he had held his power in check. As the ruler of an empire larger, if not stronger, than Taren’s, he had unleashed his armies. Combined armies of Ristans and Meclaryans were attempting to hold Rista’s western border from Erygan’s Black Guard, and Dothoro was under assault from Noldoron’s Tall Dwarves. The Tall Dwarves were almost exactly what their name suggested, tall Noldorin Morschen wearing armour forged from Dwarven Steel. They had overrun the plains in southern and western Dothoro, taking special care to not destroy the plantations that grew Dothoro’s famous and expensive pipe weed. The Half-Elvin and Meclaryan Eagle Eyed had been able to repel them from the forest. It was because of the attack on Dothoro that the messenger had gone to Taren. That had been over a month ago, and now the Tall Dwarves were marching on Eshtam-Nis along the road from both north and south, though they were becoming ever more wary as the wood-crafty Dothrin Rangers and Half-Elvin continued to ambush regiments and scouting parties that wandered too far from the main force as it advanced under the tall dark trees.
Her thoughts were disturbed as loud war horns were blown outside of the city, coming from the south. At first she feared that the Tall Dwarves were already attacking, but then she listened more closely. She soon realised that not even Dalasin was stupid enough to let only one of his armies attack when another was close by. Those horns, deep and powerful and loud, she had not heard before, but knew well where they must be from. Taren had answered, and he had come in force.
Daliana, Xari, and Guinira all stood in the entrance to the Dothrin palace, where they watched the Spear of Drogoda enter the city and ride slowly through the streets towards them. Taren was obviously the man in the lead, riding confidently with a master’s balance as the massive beast he rode shifted its weight from side to side with each heavy step, but even though they knew which one he was, it was still hard to be sure. The first forty riders of the Spear all wore armour similar to Taren’s, though each one’s, as the three saw when they were closer, had slightly different detailing. Their weapons were also practically identical. Instead of the short bows favoured by most cavalry type soldiers, they had tall bows of a strange shape, made of a dark wood that not even Daliana could identify. They all had quivers full of long arrows, fletched with blue feathers of a coastal bird that Daliana also did not recognize, and nocked with silver. The arrows seemed to be of the same dark wood as the bows. All wore on their hip a great sword, again, each one slightly different, either in length or style. On their opposite hips, left or right depending on which hand the man, as the first forty all were, used naturally, were small hunting knives as well as ordinary cavalry sabers. The other sixty men and women of the Spear were as different from each other as the first were identical. Their weapons were many and varied, from axes and great swords to twin daggers. Xari even believed she saw one man with a hand carved slingshot sticking out of his belt. The only things every single one had in common were their helmets, each one Dwarven Steel topped with a carved Mordak head, and their broaches, a silver spear, which pinned each one’s cloak on their right shoulder. It was an impressive display of force, to say the least. As Taren, Makret Druoth, and five other riders neared the palace, two other members of the Spear rode up with a horse between them. Guinira’s messenger was on it, her arms chained to her sides, her feet bound to the saddle. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Queen Guinira” answered Taren. “Marching or sailing under false colours are both punishable by death, as such people are considered pirates in all countries, whether in Anaria or withdrawn from it.”
“How dare-” she started.
“We should go inside. Some things are better not discussed where they may be overheard by less friendly ears.”
“So, Taren?” Guinira asked as soon as was permissible, after she, Xari, Daliana, Taren, and Makret were all seated and alone. “Why spare my messenger?”
“The law is ambiguous, or can be taken that way if one wants to ignore it. The wording was in her favour. It says that such acts may be punished by death, and I was not particularly inclined to kill her. What I am more concerned with is why you sent an Armandan pretending to be Dothrin.” He place a special emphasis on the word ‘you’. “Daliana or Xari could have told you, and maybe did, that I would be able to tell the difference.”
Guinira refused to answer, not that she had one anyway. While Daliana and Xari began questioning Taren about his plans for how to deal with Dalasin, she studied Makret. She had heard, as had almost everyone in Anaria, of the famed Drog General. He was Taren’s right hand, on the battlefield and off, his first servant and by far his most loyal, Drogoda’s High General, the Commander of the Spear of Drogoda, former Master of the Brotherhood of the Mordak, and Tai-Aren Coda. The man was second in power in Drogoda only to Taren himself, and equal in Storinea with Kallin Revdark. He was also an enigma. Everyone knew of him, but nobody knew anything about him. Many had met him on the battlefield, though of all of the soldiers that she had personally met, only Aleishi Mandrath of Caladea had survived that encounter. So she studied him with the same intensity that she had first studied Taren. He sat with his right ankle resting on his left knee, a position that would not hamper his rising quickly if his lord was threatened. His left hand held the crystal goblet delicately as he savoured the pale white wine it was filled with, and his right hand bore a silver Ring set with a row of small sapphires around the entire band. His hair, black, but not like Taren’s, hung straight down from the top of his head, but it was cut short with military precision. Two long, thin scars crossed his left cheek, one running straight down from the outer corner of his eye to the side of his mouth, and the other from the bottom of his nose towards his neck until it disappeared under his thin beard. His eyes were dark blue, warmer than Taren’s own sea grey eyes. With Taren, she had run the risk of getting lost in the empty space shielding his mind. Makret’s mind was different. Unlike Taren, Makret’s walls were right at the surface of his mind. She could tell that he knew she was there, though. Unlike Taren, he did not probe her back. Also unlike Taren, he opened his defenses for her. He allowed her some access to most things in his mind, especially how Taren had won his loyalty. His secrets, however, were his own. Nothing she could do would move the flawless armour that protected his inmost being. Suddenly, Taren stood. “Well, I think it is time I paid Dalasin a visit. I will leave one thousand of the Brotherhood outside of the walls, in case the Noldorin armies to the south make any advance into the forest. The rest I take with me. Makret, you are in command here until I return.” The way he said it almost made it sound like he had placed Makret in command of the entire city. And the way he set his wine down, untouched, Guinira made a point of noticing and remembering, had a sense of finality, as though nothing more was allowed to be said.
The Spear left the city with Taren, but only the first forty riders accompanied him and all but one thousand of the Brotherhood to confront Dalasin, who marched at the head of his northern army.
As Taren rode north, the whole strength of the Rayed Sun, with Ranny Marsharin at their head, marched west through the forest. Directly west of the city was a place on the Cardor River where it bowed further west than anywhere else in the country. Once at the Cardor, which now marked the front of battle between Dothoro and Noldoron, The Rayed Sun met several thousand Flame Weavers. Together, the two armies settled down to wait.
Back in Eshtam-Nis, Guinira was preparing to leave the city so as not to become one of Taren’s servants or hostages when he claimed the country, as Daliana and Xari both said he would. “While Taren deals with Dalasin, you and I will march to strike at Noldoron while it is relatively undefended, Xari. You, Daliana, will seal Eshtam-Nis against the Brotherhood. Taren cannot be allowed to name Dothoro as his price.”
“He will anyway. I told you before, your majesty, force of arms will only make Taren more determined to take what he wants. This city can’t stand against the Brotherhood, even if every Dothrin soldier was within its walls. This country stands because we allow no one to pass along the roads or through the forest unchecked. But the Brotherhood is already at the walls, and with Makret Druoth commanding them, the Half-Elvin that are in the city are not enough to repel them.” Guinira merely nodded, and then Daliana understood. “You meant for this to happen. Ever since I spoke out against Atalin’s execution, you’ve been trying to find a way to get rid of me.”
“I am sorry, Daliana,” said Guinira, with absolutely no sorrow in her voice. She left Daliana standing there. Xari looked back at the older woman, her mentor on the Council and her long-time friend, but chose to depart with Guinira for the camp of Rayed Sun and Flame Weavers that had gathered at the river.
As Xari and Guinira rode west to join with Ranny, Taren was debating with Dalasin.
“I will fight you if I must, Dalasin, but I think we would both rather that not happen.”
“Taren, you may be a king, but you are not mine, and this is not your land. Only Erygan can order me back to Galzeen.”
“Erygan can have Rista. It holds little of interest to me. Dothoro is another matter.”
“I will follow my orders, Taren.”
“By the gods and the Seven, you are a Morschcoda. What is Erygan going to do to you if you turn around and say that you chose what was best for your country for once?”
“I am Morschcoda, yes, but Erygan is my king.”
Taren shook his head at the younger man. “You do know that Guinira is marshalling an army to take Noldoron while you’re here.”
“She will have Stone Warriors to deal with. I’m not concerned with her.”
Taren ground his teeth, frustrated with Dalasin’s attitude and that Erygan had not placed a commander with more sense in charge of his Dothorin Campaign. “If this must lead to a battle, so be it. Dwarven Steel won’t protect your men from being crushed underneath a Mordak’s foot.”
“Um, sir, if I-”
“You may not, commander. Taren, you have only forty men of the Spear with you, and whatever their prowess in battle, they alone cannot defeat my armies.”
“By the gods you are an idiot,” said Taren, shaking his head. “A powerful piece you may be in Erygan’s court, but the battlefield is my province. Do you honestly think that I would ride to a possible war with not even half of the Spear of Drogoda behind me? I brought five thousand Riders of the Brotherhood with me here, to this camp, and one thousand more guard the walls of Eshtam-Nis. Listen to your commander, boy.” Dalasin visibly paled. Five thousand Mordak Riders was a force he could not be confident of defeating, even with his sizable army, and especially not if one thousand more surrounded the walls of the forest city. Taren knew that he had the Noldorin’s attention. “Go home, Dalasin.”
“And how will I answer Erygan? He gave me orders to take Eshtam-Nis.”
“When he demands an answer, tell him what you told Norrin during The Councils. Tell him you fear me more than you fear him. It’s true enough, I would guess.” Taren turned and mounted his Mordak, then looked back at Dalasin. “Also, remind him that he and I agreed long ago. Dothoro was to be mine.”
With that, Taren turned and left. He knew that Dalasin would order a retreat. He only wondered if Dalasin would reach Galzeen before Guinira did.