Chapter 14: Return
Guinira was in a bad mood. Makret, despite her self-assurances that it was impossible, had escaped from An-Aniath. He could only go two ways, but she did not know which he would have gone, and she dared not send men in both directions. If she chased him into Storinea, he could disappear, and the Remnant would know that her armies were out in force. She did not fear the Remnant, but Armandan Rebels patrolling the lands between the Estal and Miadonga Rivers would be dangerous. And if Makret had any spies in the city, they could help with whatever coup might be attempted. If he had gone to Caladea, he could disappear into the country’s far larger population, and he had as good as told her that he had spies in that country. Whatever airs she put on, she had always feared the strength of the fallen Morschcoda Council, and now she feared it more. With the rumours spreading about Edya Reeshnar stopping the Cardor, getting her own armies or even the Deshika to march into battle might be impossible, even if she found a new High General. Not having heard from Hialed Volkure made her position more difficult.
As she walked through her palace to the throne room, she felt something wrong. The Black Power of one of the Seven was ahead of her. She knew that The Kindler could return whenever he wanted, but she had not believed that he would actually come back. He had both Nasheem and Vorteez in Anaria to do his bidding. She supposed that it could be another of her Devil masters, but as soon as the thought entered her mind, she discarded it. Nasheem avoided An-Aniath and Vorteez was hunting down the last of the Mordak and Dragon Riders. Desperately hoping that there was only one, no matter which it was, she walked through the open doors of her throne room, down the long red carpet, and without looking up at the seat which she knew was occupied, knelt exactly seven feet from the bottom step.
The Kindler looked down at the mortal woman whose throne he was sitting in. She puzzled him. Two years ago, she had been impervious to mental trickery, willing to fight even him until the last of her strength. ‘But now … Now she is broken. She can’t hold this empire together with her own strength for much longer. But I need her ... for the present.’ While he thought this, Guinira still knelt on the carpet, her head bowed so that she did not even see his feet. He shook his head slowly. This was not the same woman that had given him such a fight. “Rise, Guinira.” She did so, but said nothing. “An account of the time since I departed for Alega is due, I think.” “Yes my Lord.” She still did not look at him. “General Druoth, with the help of your Deshika, succeeded in retaking this city from rebels who still believe that it is possible for the old order to be restored. One of those rebels was … is … my mother, and I have made finding her, as well as the other council members, my highest priority. We had nothing though, for quite some time, so we merely focused on bringing more of Anaria under our control. Erygan Dalrey of Torridesta fought back against us, and he is still rampaging throughout the north unchecked. We met him in battle several times, but he always bested us. We still don’t know how. The Drog Imperial Navy has also been a nuisance, raiding supply lines, attacking convoys, even striking at Deshik controlled ports along the coast. We haven’t managed to find where they are hiding, but we will, eventually. We currently have neither the ships nor the sailors for a search. And fighting Drogs at sea … It is neither the safest nor wisest course of action.” The Kindler tensed and relaxed his fingers several times, cracking each of his knuckles one by one. “What about the Morschledu Remnant? Have they been located?”
“General Druoth found a weapon that seemed to indicate that the Remnant had retreated into the forests of Dothoro. We had already taken the southern plains of the country, but the forest was considered too dangerous. Still, Druoth took his army and attacked them.” She was careful to avoid mentioning her involvement in ordering the attack. “It failed miserably. He took forty thousand of The Dread Commander’s Deshika with him. I believe that under half came back.” “And where is General Druoth? He should be here to give his own account.”
“It seems, my Lord, General Druoth is not on our side.”
The Kindler’s eyes bored into Guinira. It was at that moment that Guinira made the mistake of looking up. But she did not see anger or hatred in his eyes, though The Kindler certainly felt them. She saw fear. The Kindler knew as well as she did how skilled a General Makret Druoth was. More than that, The Kindler had felt the true extent of his magical powers. They were formidable, to say the least.
“It seems that Druoth has been deceiving us about his loyalties.” She included herself because in that case, it would have been unwise to make it sound like The Kindler had been the only one fooled by Makret. The Kindler surprised her then.
“I should have seen this.”
“My Lord, this is not your fault. You were on the other side of the ocean. It is mine. I could not hold him to me.”
The Kindler shook his head at her. The old Guinira would have agreed with him, or said nothing, at the least. This Guinira wanted so much to be in his favour that she was willing to take any blame that he was going to take for himself. He did not understand mortals. “That was not what I meant. I have known for over a year now that Makret Druoth was not one of us. That was why I wanted Nasheem here. That was why I went back to Alega.” “If you had told me, I would have had him dealt with sooner.”
The Kindler stood. His voice shook the ceiling of the throne room as he shouted his response. “I didn’t want him dealt with!” He calmed himself, but the power and malevolence in his voice still shook the room. “I wanted him here, watched, and under control.” The Kindler started pacing and lowered his voice. “While he had to pretend to be loyal, he wasn’t a threat. Now, the second he gets to a major city, he will announce that he stands with the Remnant. Hundreds of thousands of Morschen will join him just because he is Makret Druoth, no matter what he has done. Thousands of ‘loyal’ Ringlords will join him just because they don’t want to be on the losing side.” “What do we do now?”
“We must deal with Druoth, before he can rejoin our enemies. I will not allow him to raise the banner of the Garrenins over Anaria once again.”
Guinira started to argue for the first time. “My Lord, the Garrenins are dead. Even Taren the Second has passed into whatever world comes next. Not one remains in Anaria to unite the Remnant, even if Makret raises their fallen banner.”
“There is no Garrenin that we know of, Guinira. It troubles me how much Druoth is like his fallen master. Taren Garrenin was a powerful man. It would not surprise me to know that he survived the ruin of Agrista. He was the one who caused it, after all.” “It isn’t possible my Lord. If he had, the Remnant wouldn’t be hiding in the forest. He was never one to sit by, even when hopelessly outnumbered. And he knows what kind of effect it would have on our forces, Deshik and Morschen, if he were to reveal himself.” “Perhaps ... But I believe that a Garrenin has survived this war, someone who waits in the shadows, listening for the voices of dead ancestors to tell him or her that the time is right. But we must stop Druoth. Do you know how he escaped or which way he went?” “No. No one saw him leave, which leads me to suspect that the Remnant sent a Portaller to free him. Or, unfortunately, spies within the palace could have seen to his release. I think though, that if he escaped himself, he went either east, to Caladea, or west, to Storinea. He would be too easily recognized in Drogoda.” “He will be recognized no matter where he goes. Makret Druoth is not a man who can hide. Nor would he choose to do so. Is there a Hunter’s Guild in Anaria?”
“I don’t know if there is an official Guild, but there are some who would hunt him down.”
“Good. You will attend to that. I want him found, Guinira. Any means. Any price. Do you understand?” Guinira nodded. “After that is dealt with, come and find me. The Eschcotan occupation of Dishmo Kornara has gone on long enough. We must end that, but not by striking at the city itself. You must devise a way to bring Eschcota to its knees. Without them, Dishmo Kornara will fall easily.” …
Guinira saw to it that news was spread throughout An-Aniath that there was a price on Makret Druoth’s head. Knowing that she needed to make a point, whoever inquired was told “alive if possible, dead if necessary.” She suspected that Makret’s reputation would encourage only the best Hunters to attempt the capture, especially a live capture, but she was worried that the “dead if necessary” clause might encourage a Hunter with no professional pride to simply slit the legendary Drog’s throat while he was asleep. It would not have been the first time that some nameless Hunter brought in a prize of such value. So, to discourage just anyone from claiming the Right to Hunt, she made the dead bounty seven thousand paroes. Though seven thousand gold paroes was for most people a fortune, for a name like Makret Druoth, tens of thousands, if not more, would be considered a worthy price. For Makret to be brought in alive, in acknowledgement of how hard, nearly impossible, it would be to capture him, supposing that they could even find Makret, she offered twenty-one thousand paroes. She knew that Bounty Hunters had certain rules that they were supposed to follow, but a lone Hunter bringing an obscenely powerful and talented Ringlord in to An-Aniath from she knew not where might be willing to bend the rules with no one looking. Either way, the price was set, but the Right to Hunt had to be earned. And until Hunters made their way to An-Aniath for a chance at profit, she could do nothing more.
“The price on Druoth is set, my lord.”
“Good. Eschcota is our next priority. The country must be crushed, but more importantly, Norrin Shrevneer must die.”
“He won’t willingly leave Dishmo Kornara.”
“No, he will not. That is the problem. What can we strike at in his own country that would cause him to march to war?”
“That is difficult, because even if we were to attack Braldish itself, if he knew that the city was certain to fall whether he marched to aid it or not, he wouldn’t go.”
“Are you sure?”
“He is a blunt man, my Lord, but cautious. I have known him to refuse to march into battle if there was a way to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
“So, let us assume that Braldish is the only place we can march on in Eschcota that Shrevneer would be willing to defend personally. If we send too few men, the city will stand regardless, but if we send too many, Norrin will know the city will fall with or without him, and will not come.” “Exactly. But he may not go himself anyway. With the Remnant in Dothoro, and Noldoron closed to us, the Remnant may march instead of the Eschcotans. And that wouldn’t help us take either Eschcota or Dishmo Kornara.”
“Though Norrin undoubtedly would have the most cause to march to the aid of Braldish.”
“Not if any other Morschcoda with strength of arms is near enough to tip the battle. But … aside from Erygan Dalrey, Norrin Shrevneer is really the only Morschcoda who still has an army of any size.”
The Kindler tented his fingers and touched them to his lips as he spoke. “Obviously, Shrevneer will not come himself unless his commanders at Braldish are outmatched. What, or maybe who, is likeliest to draw out the Morschcoda?”
“Someone who is valuable to our cause in this war. Someone who is an important leader. Someone …” Guinira’s voice faded out as she understood who would have to go.
The Kindler smirked. “Someone like you, Guinira?”
“I don’t agree. There must be others who are capable of leading this attack.”
“You are the only one, Guinira. There is no Deshik War Chief I trust to succeed, and there are no tried Morschen among our ranks. You have lead armies before, and as Queen of Deshik Anaria, you would be very valuable to our enemy. Valuable enough to draw the only remaining substantial army left on this side of the ocean out of its hiding place in Dishmo Kornara.” “Of … Of course, my Lord Kindler. I will make preparations immediately.”
Makret had not really expected to get out of the cell blocks, let alone out of the city, especially since telling Guinira that the way she could best serve her people was by having her master kill her. He had had help, though, he was certain of it. Nasheem’s doing, he did not doubt. The second of the Seven Devils wanted Makret alive, and wanted him to help end the war that The Kindler had started. Still, it came as a surprise when, as he stopped to take stock of his situation, he found himself already out of the desert. Alone, on foot, with no supplies, he had somehow covered eighty leagues. That he had done it at all was staggering, but Guinira must be searching for him. That was where his suspicions that his escape was not unaided began. He suspected that Nasheem had been moving him along at night, Travelling with him, but never enough for Makret to be certain. As for why he went the way he did, towards Caladea, he had no explanation. It felt right, so that was the direction that he walked. Since he recognized where he was, it seemed that Nasheem at least did not disagree with his choice. As the sun rose above the eastern horizon, small and far away, Makret rolled to his feet, a maneuver he would be more accustomed to using on the battlefield, and began walking. All the time Makret walked, he wondered if Guinira would even bother trying to find him. After all, he could be anywhere, and he could disappear into the faceless Morschen crowds that clogged all Anarian cities, so long as he never went home.
“That’s my one regret,” thought Makret out loud, not caring that no one was there to hear him. “If Taren survived Agrista, I have to find him. He’s the only person who can convince the Remnant that I’m not a threat to them.”
“Reeshnar believes you, Druoth. And so does Marcarry.” Makret ducked and rolled forward as he heard the voice, coming back to his feet as he turned face to face with Nasheem.
“What are you doing here?”
“I have been waiting for you to speak out loud for the past while now. You seemed determined to ignore my presence though.” Makret looked skeptical, but as he thought, he could recall the nauseating feeling of one of the Devil’s Black Power going back even to the night before.
“Well, now I have. So what do you want, Nasheem?”
“You are alone and friendless in a land not your own. Your only allies, whichever side you really serve, are leagues upon leagues away. The only thing you possess in all the world besides the clothes on your back is your Ring. And despite all that, you choose to seek a fight with one of the Seven Devils.” Nasheem drew himself up to his full height, and gathered together a formidable store of magical energy. Makret could feel it, pulsating like a living heart, even where he stood ten feet away. Rather than be drawn into a fight he knew that he could not win, he simply turned away and kept walking. Only long years of training and well-honed battlefield instincts kept Makret’s head attached as Nasheem drew a long sword and leapt towards the Morschen man twenty feet away, swinging the blade in a powerful cut as he landed just behind Makret. Makret dove forward and rolled, the same as he had done when Nasheem first spoke, and threw a ball of water at Nasheem. To Makret’s surprise, it struck the Devil in the head, bowling over his bearded opponent. Makret was equally surprised when Nasheem laughed as he got to his feet.
“Oh yes, there is fight in you still.” He smiled. “I could use your strength, Makret.”
Though surprised that the Devil had used his first name, which he had never done before, Makret still wanted nothing to do with him. “Whether there is fight or not, I no longer belong to either side. I’m not even welcome in my own country. I’m a relic, Nasheem. I don’t belong to this time. The future will judge me and my past, whether I was hero or villain. I will have no more say in the matter. It is over for me.” “Only because you choose for it to be.”
“Do I have any other choice?”
Nasheem did not say anything. He merely vanished. In his place was Makret’s armour and sword.
Makret stared at the pile of metal for a long time before deciding on anything, but he took only two things from the pile: his sword, which he would need, and his helmet, which he had refused to get rid of even after becoming Guinira’s High General. It was the helmet of a member of the Spear of Drogoda. Since he was the only Spear he knew of who had survived Emin-Tal aside from Edya, he felt it was both his right and duty to take it. From his pocket, he removed a tiny silver broach, shaped like a spear, and pinned that onto his shirt. And then he started walking. He turned back very quickly, and took the chainmail shirt also. He did not go back again.
Four Hunters stood patiently at the far end of the room where Guinira had her private audiences. They were arguing amongst themselves, as Guinira had altered the original bounty on Makret. He was still worth twenty-one thousand paroes alive, but she had decided that one Hunter alone could not bring him in, so three were being sent after him. The only trouble was deciding which three, and what bothered her most was that only one was Anarian, and she was not one whom Guinira was inclined to pick. She had already chosen two of her Hunters for certain. One was an islander from somewhere far beyond Anaria’s shores. He towered at over seven feet tall and had a large selection of weaponry strapped about him. Two swords and a large war bow hung across his back, and his boots contained hidden daggers. A Dothrin Anshawl slapped his left thigh whenever he moved, which he did with deadly grace that accented his prowess in both armed and unarmed combat. He also had several Dothrin Wolfheads, often used on ships to secure ropes, tucked into his belt. The second was a Hunter with a long reputation. She had thought when she first saw him that Gorshcki Coptulo wore a strange kind of armour that gave him the look of a lizard. The Kindler had informed her that that was his natural state. Far to the south in the lava fields, there was a tribe of lizard-humans known primarily to the world because of Hunters. He was armed only with a bow, but he had sharp claws which he used in close quarters combat. It was the other two that she did not know about. Both had earned the Right to Hunt, however, so it was up to Guinira to choose which one would be going. She was spared the trouble. Gorshcki came over, tasting the air with his long tongue before he reached her.
“We have decided.” His voice was rough and hissing, rather like she expected from a lizard, lingering on s’, and not dissimilar to a Deshika’s voice. He spoke Morschen Basic much better than a Deshika did, however. “Vr’dro Car Thr’gis and I agree that we want both of them.” “Why?”
His tongue flicked out again, near to Guinira’s face. “You want Druoth. We want to live to get paid. The Storinean has told us about him. We want both her and the Cartarin Hunter, Grrwa.” The Kindler had also explained that the Cartarin were a tribe of cat-like humanoids from somewhere north of the lava fields. The eight-foot-tall female that resembled a white leopard needed no other weapons than her long teeth and sharp claws, but she had them anyway. She clutched a long throwing spear in her paw, and another was strapped in a sling across her back. The other could fit there as well, and likely would eventually go back, as the Cartarin would run on all fours when chasing prey. The Storinean woman, Veena Coush, rounded out the group. She was the odd one out, certainly, but she had the same intense look in her eyes as the other three did. Guinira nodded. Whatever the woman looked like, she was a Hunter, and she had enough weapons to prove it. Underneath her scholar’s robes, an Anshawl was strapped to her leg. Torridestan Blood Moons, curved throwing knives shaped to look like a crescent moon, were sheathed behind her neck. She had also produced five Ink Spears, from her native Storinea, out of various pocket sheaths. The weapons were perfect for assassinations because they were razor sharp, the blade was often coated in poison, and they were no bigger than a pen. With her scholar’s robes on, none of her weapons could be seen. Guinira was genuinely impressed with her, but she doubted that Druoth would be. If he had gone the direction Guinira believed he had, a Storinean would stick out almost as much as a giant, a lizard, or an eight-foot-tall Cartarin female. “Very well. All four of you. I will amend the price on Druoth. Twenty-eight thousand paroes if he is alive. Twelve thousand if he is dead. My spies report that someone who may have been Druoth was seen near the Caladean border with Armanda one week ago.” The four Hunters nodded as Gorshcki replied. “We will begin the Hunt, then.”
Grrwa looked back at An-Aniath once the four were out of the city. “She will kill us if we do not bring him back.”
“You think so Gorshcki? She does not understand the rules of our kind. No reward is worth dying for.”
“I agree that we don’t need to get killed, but rules?” Comprehension dawned on the lizard’s bony face. “Ah, you’re a Guild Hunter.”
“I look out for myself. Guild rules help me do that.”
The lizard nodded, but remained silent.
“She isn’t wrong, Gorshcki.”
“You agree with her Veena?”
“I know a bad deal. We’ll get seven thousand each if we bring him back alive. We won’t bring him back alive though.”
“Three thousand is not poor consolation.”
The giant, Car, did not say anything, but he stopped to listen to the argument. He shook his head at Gorshcki’s statement.
“Makret Druoth is the biggest name I’ve ever seen a bounty on. That’s because people like Druoth aren’t worth sending Hunters after. If we were smart, we’d each be getting twenty-eight thousand just to risk our necks hunting him.”
“I think you’re paranoid Veena.”
“I think you’re an idiot, Gorshcki.”
“Enough. Makret has a long lead, so we have far to run just to catch up. Bringing him in alive is the greatest challenge any of us will ever face, but we need to find him first.”
Gorshcki and Veena exchanged glances at the way the giant Cartarin female said Makret’s name, but she and Car had already started moving again, so, one by one, they fell back into line.
Back inside the city, Guinira had just returned to The Kindler to report her hiring of the Hunters.
“Do you think that these four Hunters will be up to the task?”
“Druoth is dangerous my Lord. But against four Hunters … Even he can’t fight forever.”
“I want Druoth alive.”
“They may have to kill him just to prevent him from escaping.”
The Kindler touched a pen to his tongue, and then to the map he stared at, silent in his thoughts. “So be it. Alive would be preferable, but dead is better than him escaping to stand against us.” He motioned for her to stand beside him at the table he was examining. On it was a map of Braldish as well as a larger map showing the city and several leagues in every direction. “Now, the city has three gates, and unfortunately, you will likely have to assault all three at the same time.” The Kindler moved the tip of the pen from the map, leaving no mark on the paper.
“I know Braldish better than you do, my Lord. It is impossible to get to the Western Gate from outside of the walls unless you come through the Garuthen Mountains. As for assaulting the other two gates, that will require a large army, as well as competent commanders that I can trust to do what they are told.” “Even with that, you will undoubtedly have trouble. Three gates without proper siege equipment is two gates too many. The Deshika do not make siege engines, and I have seen no design for such machinery in Armanda.”
Guinira for the first time did not feel any shame as she answered her master. “War is more of a tradition than a real thing amongst the Morschenic races. Battles are fought on open fields. True-Arms Masters require the presence of others of their kind just to be willing to fight. Ringlords who are trained as battle mages don’t use their abilities before the dawning of the second day of battle. I don’t remember the last time a walled city in Anaria was ever actually attacked in a true war by a Morschen army. It must have happened during the Loyalty Wars, about twenty thousand years ago, but it has not since then.” “So, there is no siege equipment. Without that, even taking the two gates you can get to will be a challenge. And the third gate will be the shatter point in the plan, which is already weak enough. You will miss Druoth badly during your campaign, I do not doubt. Because it faces the Garuthen Mountains, it must be held. There are too many Morschen in the mountains for it to be ignored. And if the city falls, those important to the Remnant who are inside the city will flee through that gate in an attempt to get into the mountains, where they will simply disappear. Braldish is already closer to those mountains than I wish to send my army.” “The Northern Gate is basically an iron door underneath a cliff. I can’t send men to assault it. They wouldn’t have the room. And the Western Gate, as I’ve said, is only accessible through the Garuthen Mountains, and only exists for merchants travelling along the Garuthen Trade Route.” Guinira looked up into her master’s bearded chin. “My Lord, even on a map, this mission seems suicidal, at best. Give me enough men and I will only lose more before taking the city. If we don’t draw Shrevneer out of Dishmo Kornara, the whole point of the attack is gone.” “Shrevneer will come. It is your duty to ensure that. As it is, I have marshalled your army already. You have fourteen War Chiefs reporting to you. Two hundred thousand Deshika are already marching. You will lead another fifty thousand warriors yourself, as well as half of the loyal Flame Weavers. They are waiting for your command outside of the city. Gather any Ringlords you think will be of use to you, but be marching within the hour. If you require them, there are camps of Deshik warriors throughout the Morieden Plains. Use them for reinforcements. Your boy, Volkure, should be close to Braldish. You’ll meet him there.” She bowed and turned to leave, but The Kindler stopped her. “Oh, and Guinira. Do not fail me this time. You will not survive if you disappoint me again.”