Chapter 5: The Cost of Victory
Daliana, bleeding from a small gash on her leg, climbed the nearest tree and crossed the river to where Edya Reeshnar struggled to rise to her feet. She had released the Cardor, and now it raged in full fury as it would during the early spring. Daliana was not the first person, though, to reach the Drog Morschcoda. Just as she regained her feet, she collapsed again, but before her head hit the ground, El Darnen emerged from the trees and caught her. Several hundred of the Greshida followed him out into the clearing around the river.
“How did you do that, Edya?” Daliana was out of breath.
Edya was slow to respond. “I just had to … but … I didn’t know I could.” And then she fainted. El Darnen slowly lowered her to the ground, and ordered his men to set up camp. He returned to Daliana after a few minutes.
She was standing by the riverside, staring at the raging water. “El Darnen, you’re a Drog. Do you think that you could have stopped this river?”
“There aren’t many Drogs who could even slow the Cardor, even this far south. None could do it north of the shallows. I could do it here, yes, and maybe further north, but ...” He let the comment fade.
“I didn’t say it to call her strength into question. I just need to understand. So many of us died, and Guinira has turned so many more against us. What hope do we have?”
“The same hope that we always had, Daliana: a dead man’s hope. But we have weapons. There are still swords in Anaria. The Kindler doesn’t want us uniting under the banner of the Garrenins a second time. He knows that there is still the strength to challenge him for Anaria. How we would defeat the rest of the Seven Devils … I don’t know.” He left her then, and went to meet with his captains and arrange for the Deshika to be watched, and turned back if they ventured under the trees again.
Daliana sat silent for a long time, waiting for El Darnen to come back, or for Makret to enter the forest and explain himself, or even for Edya to wake up. But the healers told her that Edya needed to rest and recover, and El Darnen seemed oddly protective of the young Morschcoda General, a constant presence in case anything changed. And Makret sent no messenger nor did he come himself. So, feeling very alone, Daliana climbed a tree, deciding that she could put her restlessness to use high above the ground by spying on Makret’s camp. But when she finally reached the height of the canopy pathways, the highest of which were nearly one hundred feet up even that close to the edge of the forest, she merely ran. She did not pay attention to the direction, nor did she pay attention to where her feet fell. If she slipped through a hole, she allowed herself to fall to the next layer of entwined branches, and then she slowly worked her way back up. Nothing mattered in that time, only the feeling of her feet hitting the well-worn, smooth bark of the treetop pathways that her Rangers often used. She did not stop for almost two hours, and even then, she continued to move forward. She did not know what drove her.
Daliana had just decided that it was time to return to the camp when something caused her to turn and draw the sword that she had brought from the camp. A man was standing just ten feet from her, hidden up against the trunk of a giant maple.
“You do not need your blade, Daliana Marcarry.” She did not lower it. “Even if I posed a threat to you, such a weapon would hardly protect you from a man already dead.” That got Daliana’s attention. She lowered the point of her blade to the branch that she stood on, but did not sheath her sword.
“What do you want, spirit?”
“So formal? You were never so when I stood beside you as lord of the Half-Elvin.”
She inhaled sharply, recognizing the tall, handsome man at last as he stepped forward into the pale moonlight. “Atalin?”
“Yes, my lady. I have come back.”
“Please, my lady. My time is short, and I have much to say. Morning draws nigh, and I will fade with it.” She nodded. Interactions with the spirits of the dead, while rare, always agreed on the fact that ghosts faded with the setting of the moon. “There is strife between the Seven. If there was ever a time to strike back, it is drawing near, but your own force is still weak. So there are several things that you must know. In the Garuthen Mountains, there is an artifact that El Darnen has long watched over. He must take you to it if the Warship is to sail once again. Also, the journey of Kallin’s father was not in vain. But he will not return. Someone must seek him out.” “What does any of this mean?”
“I am only a messenger this night, my lady. The Lords of the Dead do not reveal to mortals what they did not know in life. I know nothing more than I have said, and would not be permitted to speak of it if I did.” He started to fade, and Daliana looked east, where a faint glow was beginning to pierce the thick leaves. She turned around, and Atalin was already completely transparent. “I will return before the Silver Moon if I can, but I do not expect to have more knowledge to share with you if I do come back. Good bye for now, my lady.” He faded away.
It took Daliana some time to figure out where she was, and what direction she had come in her need to move, but she guessed as well as she could and stuck to that direction. She ended up being nearly right, and eventually struck the Cardor, but she was far west of El Darnen’s camp. It took her another long hour to get back, and when she did, things were basically as she had left them. Daken Calmi and Aleishi Mandrath, who had met El Darnen as he marched east and returned to the river with him, sat around a campfire, not sure what they should be doing. Gelinia Eshtarin, who had planned to remain with the camp anyway, was taking a turn watching over Edya. Daliana apprehended a healer who told her that Edya was recovering rapidly, but still should rest for as long as possible. But El Darnen was not behaving the same way that he was when she had left. The Serpent seemed to be trying to create a new fork in the river. He had crushed a narrow strip of grass with his pacing: from the fire where the Daken and Aleishi sat, to the river, and back again. It looked like he had worn a groove into the ground already. She had been intending to pull El Darnen aside and speak to him quietly, but there was no need. As soon as he saw her, he left his pacing and walked over, gesturing with his head into his own empty tent. Normally, she would have been concerned about the way that others might interpret what they saw. Now, she just needed answers.
She was about to start when he jumped in ahead of her, his tone worried and fierce at the same time. “Where did you go?”
“What are you talking about?”
He sat down on his bed, then immediately stood up. He clenched his fists several times. “Your little midnight run. You were gone for five hours, Daliana. FIVE HOURS! Where did you go?”
She put a hand on his chest to hold him back and remind him to be calm. “Relax, El Darnen. I needed to run, to move, to be doing something, so I did. I went north.”
“You felt the need to run. Did you feel the need to get eaten? You know that Lurnax hunt at night, and one lone Morschen, running through the forest, through an area known to be part of their territory, would be a good night’s hunt for one hungry lizard.”
Daliana would have been offended if she weren’t touched by his concern. “I am aware of the dangers that Lurnax pose. I have lived in the forest my whole life.”
“Then I ask you to consider those dangers before you feel the need to run again. We can’t afford to lose you, Daliana.” He laughed at himself. “Besides, your father would haunt me till my dying day and beyond if I let anything happen to you.”
She was taken back by how much the generally reserved and detached Serpent seemed to genuinely care about her safety. But she had other things that she needed to talk about with him. “My father may haunt you, but another spirit has come to me.” She paused and savoured his unsettled look. “The ghost of Atalin Danalath was with me in the forest tonight. He told me several things.” El Darnen sat back down. “Oh? What things?” He did not sound convinced.
“There’s trouble brewing between the Seven Devils. He didn’t say what kind of trouble or when it might come to blows between them, but he warned me to be prepared to take advantage of it. He also said something about the quest of Kallin’s father not being in vain, but that he wouldn’t return. We would have to find him. Do you know anything about that?” El Darnen stared at her for a long time before he answered. He began by heaving a long sigh of exhaustion. “Garneth Revdark abdicated the Morschcodal Throne of Stars and gave it, technically, to Kallin. Kallin wasn’t Demosira yet, so he could only hold the title; he could not officially bear it. Garneth gathered some Demosira skilled at languages and led them west. For two years, they travelled in lands just beyond our borders, looking for signs of new peoples to make allies out of, sending messengers back regularly, every month or so. Twenty messengers in total. They disappeared out of known lands about fifty-five years ago, near the far edge of the western wastelands. Dragon Riders sent after them either didn’t come back or came back half alive with no news of Garneth. Galeth Tendornin himself went the last time to see if he could find Garneth or some sign of him. The old man came back almost two years later, half-starved and more than half-dead. He had been from the Icto-Rista to the Southern Lava Fields. He had flown over swamps the size of Drogoda and craters deeper than the Garuthen Mountains are tall. He did not see a sign of one single intelligent being, living or dead, in that whole time. When he tried to go out again, with more Riders and for a longer time, the Dragon Council stepped in and told him that if he wanted to go alone, he could, but he wasn’t allowed to take other Riders with him, unless they volunteered. And even if they did, he would not remain Chief Rider of the Dragon Riders if he insisted on going. He stayed here, and no one has seen or heard from Garneth Revdark in fifty years or more. That is all I know, though Kallin undoubtedly could tell you more.” She absorbed his soliloquy silently, simply staring at his face in quiet disbelief. “How did I not know this sooner?”
“Even the other Morschcoda, as you do know, knew nothing about Garneth’s reasons for abdicating. All he said in the Council Chamber was that it was time for Storinea to have a new Morschcoda. I know why he left because before he actually set out, he invited me to Dorok-Baan. He asked me if I knew anything about the lands across the mountains. I couldn’t tell him anything worth knowing.” ‘How does he know what Garneth said in his final sitting? He doesn’t have access to El Kardi Morschcoda.’ She did not voice that question. Instead, she asked El Darnen another. “And what about this ‘artifact’ that you have long watched over? What does that mean?” El Darnen sighed again. “It means that either you have spies that I haven’t found or you really were visited by a ghost. Nobody outside of the Greshida, and very few even inside of it know about that which we guard in our mountain hold. I suppose that Kallin or Erygan might have heard of this thing’s existence, but it’s a stretch even to name them. I suspect that Taren knew. The Garrenin’s kept more records and journals than a Demosira could hope for.” Daliana began to look excited. “No, it isn’t Donkar-Hesta, nor is it the First Garrenin’s Ring.” Her face fell. “I don’t know what it is, though I have suspicions. I believe that it is beyond value - and old. So very old.” “Well then, we have to go to the mountains to see it.”
“Yes, we will. And we’ll have to take Kallin with us. He should know what it is that I have guarded for so long. It’s likelier that he will than Erygan, and Taren is dead, so we can’t ask him.” Daliana thought that there was something strange in El Darnen’s voice as he mentioned Taren’s death, but she could not place it. It felt like the Serpent did not quite believe what he was saying, but she knew that Taren was dead. She could feel it in her heart that her father was not coming back.
As the two stepped outside, it was Gelinia Eshtarin who sat minding the fire. Aleishi had gone in to take a turn watching over Edya, and the young Ristan sat, absentmindedly poking the fire with a stick that she was holding in her left hand. Daken had retired to his own tent. It was strange for Daliana to see the woman, who was maybe one quarter of her own age, look so tired. Though she had only recently ascended to the title of Lord General of the Crystal Sword, Daliana remembered Gelinia often accompanying Marrdin Redernin to The Councils at Dishmo Kornara. That woman had been full of life, and laughed and smiled more than most other people that Daliana had met, either at Dishmo Kornara or in her state visits to other countries. Without knowing what prompted her, Daliana walked over to her and sat.
“Has there been any news about Eildar?”
“Only that he’s not dead, and that the healers don’t expect that to change.”
“That’s some good news, then.”
“We’ve had a reasonable amount of good news today. We know now that we can at least fight Armanda. Or, we can fight Deshika led by uncommitted generals like Makret.”
Daliana nodded, unconvinced. “How’s Edya?”
“Still out. She woke up once or twice, but by the time I had even noticed to think about summoning a healer, she had drifted off again.”
“Do any healers have opinions about what is wrong with her?”
“You seem overly interested. Why?”
“I …” She had no response ready, but she knew her answer. She just did not know the words to say it. “Taren was my father. He looked out for Edya all of her life, and with him gone, it feels like she, with so many other seemingly more important things, has fallen to me. I feel like Taren would want me to do this. And I feel that taking care of Edya, or looking out for her, is at least something that I can actually do.” “You feel an obligation to continue in all of your father’s footsteps.” Gelinia lowered herself off of the log she sat on and leaned her back against it. “Don’t you think that Taren’s Drogodan boots might be too large for your Dothrin feet?”
“You understand why I’m worried then.”
“I’ve asked myself a question very like it for four or five hundred years. Actually, I forget when I first started asking it.” This caught Daliana by surprise. She had thought Gelinia was much younger. “I come from a long line of Drog-Ristan half-bloods. Every man in my family was recruited into either the Brotherhood of the Mordak or the Crystal Sword. When I was born, six hundred years ago now, the only child of a family of long military history, and a girl, it was widely believed that the last Eshtarin had already claimed their place in Anaria’s bloodier histories. But even though I refused to believe that, I had three older generations of soldiers still living in my family to prove wrong. It was only when I took the position as second in command of the Crystal Sword that I felt like I had done it. So, yes, I know what it is to feel … inadequate.” She stretched her back, cracking it several times and letting out a contented sigh as she lowered herself back down.
“If I wasn’t afraid to lose my only sympathizer, I might say something about how I have had the Garrenin lineage heaped on my shoulders. But I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Gelinia stared into the fire. “You’re the heir to a name that stretches back to beyond antiquity. That is the beginning you seek.”
“And how do I end?”
“By doing something none of your ancestors ever did.”
“One hundred thousand men and women have borne this name over five ages. It’s the only Great House that still exists which can be traced throughout the entire history of our people, all the way back to The Eternal War. I doubt that there is anything left to be done, except die childless and break the line.” “You might think so,” said El Darnen in a quiet voice, as he sat down on the log Gelinia leaned against, “but not one single Garrenin has lived to be one thousand.” Gelinia swatted his leg and murmured something about how that was not the best approach to Daliana’s problem. It was only then that Daliana thought about why she had sat down in the first place.
“Well, maybe I’ll be the first to die of old age, but what about you, Gelinia?”
The Ristan’s pale blue eyes narrowed and her body tightened. “What about me?”
“Will you live long enough to die of old age? Every time that I look at you today, you’ve seemed dead on your feet.”
Gelinia relaxed, leaning back into the log. “It’s the wound that I received at Agrista. Though that was two years ago … Sometimes it feels nearly healed, and other times, it seems as though I can feel it draining my strength as my body works to repair the damage.” El Darnen put a hand on her shoulder and started rolling up her sleeve. Gelinia tried to pull away, but the Serpent’s grip on her shoulder was firm, and she barely had the strength to fight him off anyway. When the sleeve reached her elbow, she started to pull harder, but El Darnen still held firm. When the sleeve finally was pulled back above the wound, Daliana made the sign of the circle around her heart. El Darnen was more direct.
“Nyjeta!” Gelinia flinched as he shouted the pungent oath near her ear. “Why didn’t you show this to someone?”
Gelinia looked down at her left arm. There was still a large chunk of flesh missing, and the skin around the crater in her arm was either a bloodless white or black streaked with burning red veins. “It was worse when it first happened, and there was too much to do after that, many who were more seriously injured. And after…” She did not get a chance to finish. El Darnen’s yell had drawn several healers, among others, who believed that Edya was in some danger. One man, an ancient warrior with a grizzled grey beard, vomited when he caught a glimpse of Gelinia’s arm. Others of the same sort either cursed audibly or made the sign of the circle, as Daliana had. The healers, however, wasted no time on such indulgences. There were five of them, and between them, they had no trouble in forcing Gelinia towards the tent where El Darnen and Daliana had had their discussion. Daliana wondered why they would use El Darnen’s tent, but then she noticed that the Serpent was no longer sitting on the log, but had run ahead to his tent to remove his pack, his maps, and clean the small pile of various items off his cot, which would undoubtedly be needed by Gelinia. He emerged a moment later and walked over to the tent where Edya still slept and stepped inside. The flap moved again, but it was Aleishi Mandrath, not El Darnen, who had pushed herself through the canvas doorway.
“What happened out here?”
“Gelinia’s apparently been injured since Agrista. El Darnen just forced her to show us the wound. It’s … not small.”
“Was it really that bad? I mean, I heard El Darnen, and then I heard a few others, and then I heard—”
Instead of answering, Daliana projected an image of Gelinia’s arm into Aleishi’s mind. The younger woman looked sick and gagged, but did not vomit. She regained some composure and stood straighter, but then her eyes rolled back into her head and she blacked out. Daliana caught her as she fell, and sat her down leaning against the log where Gelinia had been sitting. She came too after a minute.
“Did you really have to do that?”
“You did ask if it was bad.”
“I was hoping more … Edya bad.”
“How is she?”
“She seems to be sleeping now, not just unconscious. El Darnen said that he would stay with her the rest of the night in case she woke up or needed anything.”
“So I guess that means that I am stuck here for a while.”
“Most likely, your majesty.” Aleishi laughed at the face Daliana made, not knowing it was the reference to her position and not whether she would be leaving the forest or not, that provoked the reaction.
As soon as the trees and their Morschen defenders had been left behind, Makret had ordered the camp broken and the battle weary Deshika to march southwards. By the time that the ghost of Atalin Danalath had been to Daliana, Makret and his army had moved far away; their fear kept them marching. Though Makret was as tired as any of them, having lost several nights of sleep due to his need to speak with Daliana and Edya personally, there were certain things that he could not say through a messenger. He had even refused to give those secrets to Daken, Gelinia, or Aleishi, and he had not managed to deliver half of his messages anyway: things concerning Taren, or the plans of Guinira and The Kindler, or the names of Ringlord spies in Dothoro or the Garuthen Mountains. Certain ones of those things did not need to be said in person though.
When his army came to a stop for the night, weary and footsore, Makret, though in equally bad shape, stayed up in his tent late into the night, writing out a detailed letter. His seal, a sword raised in salute beside an armoured fist, pressed the folded paper together. He stepped out of his tent and wandered through the camp, stopping occasionally to talk with one of the guards on patrol, keeping an eye out over his shoulder. When he was sure that no one could see him and he would not be followed, he slipped out of the camp and far enough up the road to be out of sight of the camp. He knelt down, whispered three words over the bit of paper, and shoved it under a rock with a hole in it roughly shaped like a mouth. Though he believed that the spell would lead Edya to it as soon as it could, he pulled the blue stone out of his belt and left it standing upright at the edge of the hole. Edya would know because of the stone that the envelope was meant for her. Knowing that he had just done one more service for the Morschledu Remnant, he ran back to the camp, slipping in unnoticed, and made it back to his tent before, he hoped, any of the War Chiefs had become suspicious and checked whether or not he was in his tent.
The next morning, he discovered that he was very fortunate. One of the War Chiefs had looked in to speak with him, but one of the night guards told the Chief that he had seen Makret near the encampment’s southern edge. By the time the War Chief had returned, unable to find Makret where the guard had said he was, Makret had returned to the camp and spoken to the guard, so he knew the story that he would have to tell.