Gallus sat atop Sable Hill, his eyes taking in the far eastern reaches of his kingdom. He had pushed his comrades to the utmost limits of their patience and their horses to the point of exhaustion to reach this, the Lapaian border, within three days instead of six. Two more miles and the men would pass through Lapai Gate, the most easterly Denarien city and into the neighbouring kingdom of Lapai-Dabu.
Denari’s smaller, land-locked, neighbour had long been an ally of the Green Throne. Indeed Lapai-Dabu, along with the kingdoms Edenai and Baeru, had been Denari’s most important allies of all. All four countries shared a wealth unknown by other nations of the Agea and all four had suffered because of it. The Southern Powers, who so many times had sought to invade the northern continent, seemed intent on occupying the lands of these four strongholds. As such, a powerful alliance had been forged: the Eden Alliance.
Lapai-Dabu, though small, was ringed by mountains rich in resources. Her forests were rampant, growing tall and fast to compete with logging for timber. Ancient deep rivers had left their mark on the land in rich alluvial floodplains. The small country was a paradise for traders and academics and had long boasted one of the most developed cultures in the continent. Their queen, Anishka of the House of Geraint, Lady of the Blue Throne, was a cousin of Gallus’ and a good friend. Gallus wished he had time to visit her at the Blue Palace, if only for tea and a recount of their fond memories. Alas, time was an enemy and Gallus would have to make his sojourn through his cousin’s kingdom without her knowing of his coming. Were Anishka to find out her fellow sovereign had passed within her borders without notifying her of his doing so and calling on her she would be most displeased; everybody knew that she was not a woman to be trifled with. Her jubilant husband Dahn could attest to this. Gallus tried to appease his guilty conscience by consoling himself that Anishka would be disappointed were he to appear on her doorstep without his brother in tow. The assertive queen had long been a fan of Eunus’ easy manner and Gallus knew him to be their cousin’s favourite.
Along the Lapaian border the Shield Mountains were a less daunting obstacle for Gallus and his men to traverse, hence their frantic ride to reach the border. Passing into Lapai-Dabu, the men would clear the mountain range and veer northward, following the river basins toward the northern border where Lapai-Dabu met the elven nation of Inmuin. Here the mountain road would take the men westward once more toward the sacred elven mountain. The Border Road was no easy ride, but it was a far more preferable option than tackling the wild northern plains of Titua and the forests of the Hal’Es’Ein Mountains, not to mention the peril presented by the White Sea. Gallus had played within each of these as a youth careless for his own safety, but now was not the time for risk-taking. Quite the opposite in fact.
“Enjoying the view friend?”
Gallus turned to see it was Selmain who had come to find him atop the steep rocky hillock. The others were resting their steeds far below and enjoying a swig of the Delanovian Firewater Gallus had brought along to pacify them during tedious moments of the journey. Though Avery and Thalius were men of supreme honour and depth, they were quite predictable in their vices. A shot of Firewater could never wholly appease frustration or hurt pride, but the two friends were ceasingly loyal to their oldest ally and would play along with the ruse.
Selmain had not made the tiring climb that had exhausted Gallus and left him sat upon the rocky outcrop. The tall wiry man had travelled the effortless way using translocation. Gallus too knew this mage’s trick, though for him the effort required to concentrate his mind to be finely attuned with the ether was more exhausting than the climb itself. Where Selmain could move himself across the Agea without a second thought, Gallus needed at least double the time to cover half the distance.
“Aye,” the king replied with a smile. “The Shield Mountains are beautiful enough to warrant a good look certainly.”
“Indeed,” the mage agreed with a chuckle and he sat down at his friend’s side. “One can easily understand why the elves holed themselves up in so fine a mountain range. They are practically untouchable in their lofty peaks.”
“Let us hope not or our mission will be in vain,” Gallus countered, a smile pulling at his own dusty face. Three days on the road had left the four friends dishevelled beyond words. So in truth, a visit to the Blue Throne would not have been a wise course of action even if there had been time to spare.
“See now,” Selmain crowed sounding surprised, his gaze pointing north, not east. “The sky is so clear you can very nearly make out the peaks of the Hal’Es’Ein mountains. There is our target and how it jeers us.”
“You could be there in an instant,” Gallus goaded with a sly smile, knowing that even Selmain, with all his skill, could not translocate within the borders of Inmuin. The elven mountains were devoid of the field of ether that permeated the rest of the Agea. There were those who believed Aius’ will had no desire to surround an elven stronghold, but in truth the phenomenon had never been adequately explained. Even so, Gallus liked to wind his friend up about it, so rarely was Selmain unable to achieve his goal.
“You know, I tried again this morning,” the tall mage explained with a sigh.
“Truly?” Gallus laughed. “Selmain you are the most pig-headed stubborn man I have ever met. Do you know that?”
A twinkling smile passed between mage and king.
“Yes I did know that. What is your point?”
“Oh I have none. I just like pointing out your failings every now and then. It makes me feel better about my own. How many days before we reach the mountain road friend?” Gallus exhaled deeply and stretched his long arms before himself.
“You tell me king, ‘tis you who planned the route.”
“As though you have never made the ride to the mountain road Selmain,” Gallus countered with an amused frown, knowing full well his friend’s interests in the elves. The tall wiry man smiled distantly and shook his head.
“Long has it been since I exercised my curiosity friend. We are not all so lucky as to have been blessed by their sacred kind…” Gallus threw his hand out to catch Selmain’s arm in a mock attack.
“Think twice before bringing that sordid mess into this friend,” Gallus warned fondly, though his dark eyes were severe. “You may jest all you will about my harebrained offspring, but do not jest about my wife I implore you. You will set me in a mood all the Firewater in the kingdom would not set right.”
Selmain shrugged, a whisper of a smile still on his face. How he envied Gallus.
“Forgive me,” he grovelled mockingly earning himself a withering expression from his friend.
“Only if you tell me the distance to the road.”
“A further seven days ride my lord.”
Gallus exhaled heavily before he threw his hands to his knees and jumped to his feet.
“Seven days? Then we have not a moment to waste. Come along mage, let us race to the…”
Both Gallus and Selmain suddenly looked to a patch of air above the path snaking its way down the hillock. The ether was changing. It was moving, bunching, closing in. What Gallus could see, yet Selmain could feel was the orange sparkling haze coming together in a vague fuzzy shape. The two men stood to their feet and circled the patch of changing ether. The form was becoming more defined, making the air hum with ether. There appeared two arms, two legs and a head. The bright figure of orange light seemed to resonate across the ether plains for a moment or two causing both Selmain and Gallus to look away, before quite suddenly the ether figure ceased to exist. In its place stood a person of flesh and blood instead.
Translocation was a messy practice.
Gallus ran forward towards the newly appeared man. Gregorius Sectus, a minor mage when compared with the likes of Selmain and Gallus, but a good advisor and as fair an arbiter as one could find. The king liked him.
“Sectus,” Gallus greeted while he struggled to steady his advisor, who had clearly exercised a great deal of concentration to transport himself across the kingdom. Gallus knew the headaches that could ensue immediately following translocation and he quickly helped Sectus to the rocky outcrop he and Selmain had been sat upon.
“Gallus I bring news,” Sectus panted, squeezing his fingers tightly into the corners of his eyes.
“Easy friend, take a pause. Allow yourself a moment please,” Gallus insisted, trying to hold Sectus upright on the outcrop.
“No friend, this news…is of the utmost…” Quite unceremoniously the lesser mage leaned over and wretched onto the grass. Gallus did not move.
“Selmain, water,” the king instructed and within a moment Selmain had plucked, as though from thin air, his flask of water, which he had left down by his steed. For the briefest of moments the king shook his head at the speed at which his friend could manipulate the ether, before he reached for the flask and forced the water down Sectus’ throat. The man resisted, his body still trying to orient itself in this new form so far from where it had woken up this morning. Once more the advisor fell forward and wretched into the frosty grass.
“Gallus…” the man tried through gulping breaths. “The troops…in…Fa….”
“Damn it Sectus, do shut up and drink some more water,” the king laughed, grabbing his friend firmly by the shoulders and shaking him slightly to help the cells in his body align. Selmain grinned, but hid his mirth from the king. He knew healers believed shaking someone and vigorous exercise were good remedies for the sickness translocation wrought upon lesser sensitives, but he had his doubts.
The wind rattled over the hilltop while Sectus regained his composure, but finally, surely enough he began to feel well enough to speak, though the shivers remained.
“I thank you,” he managed through deep breaths, once he was able to speak without stopping after every word. “Gallus troops in Faro are massing.”
A deep vein of concern flashed through Gallus’ mind. Faro: the bane of his position as king. How much of his time was consumed by analysing in depth the actions of the large and cantankerous country and its Emperor: Thayos? How many reports did he have to trawl through every week before he felt satisfied another invasion was not imminent? For his entire life the bully in the south had brought fear into an otherwise fearless heart and for this Gallus resented Faro.
“Explain,” the king ordered brusquely.
“Across the border from Rostkrof garrisons are gathering. Our men in the Fringe Islands inform us the king has been ordered to send over their entire fleet of frigates. And our agents in Khorosa have gone silent, not a word from a single one.”
Ignoring the image of his brother’s face flashing before his eyes Gallus listened to this news evenly before finally he let out a relieved sigh.
“They are bating us,” he said darkly. “This is not the first time either. They mean to weaken our morale Sectus, nothing more.”
Gregorius Sectus seemed deflated at Gallus’ composure. How could so concerning a series of actions evoke little more than a raised eyebrow in the sovereign?
“But friend,” the exhausted man began, before his words abandoned him. The expression on the king’s face spoke what words could not. There was nothing to fear. Since the age of fourteen Gallus had been an expert at reading the actions of the Southern Powers. As though his mind processed the strategies far finer than most, he tended to know in advance how a political crisis was going to play out. He had been lauded as the Agea’s finest diplomat and in many ways this was unlikely to be an overestimation of his abilities. Gallus was a born leader and his relieved eyes brought peace to Sectus’ mind.
“Very well,” the tired traveller managed weakly, his exhaustion rampant and claiming patches of his body.
“Any other news friend?” Gallus asked genially. “What of the elections? How does Titua fare?”
“Peaceful protests in Laille, rallies in Acrabar, violent riots in Varanasi. What you would expect.”
“And who are they protesting in aid of?” Gallus’ eyes were narrowed. He already knew the answer, though was hoping for a change in the political tide in his home city.
“The circumstances remain unchanged; Arbarus is growing more popular than Prime Minister Hester friend.”
“And with him a new headache begins,” Gallus grumbled, though his smile he feigned for the sake of this messenger, who had come so far to greet him. “And the child?”
“She has run away again my lord,” the messenger explained casually, as though bearing the king news that his daughter had once more escaped the watch of the city guards were an unimportant afterthought. Indeed, at the rate the girl managed to escape the confines of her city home even with her father working four doors down the corridor, it was barely worthy of a mention.
Gallus raised an eyebrow.
“Not entirely unexpected,” he finally spoke, sounding somewhat amused while he cast Selmain a small smile. “She is gone from the city?”
“Lady Katherine believes so friend.”
“Very well, I am sure she will return home when the snows set in. She hates the cold that one. If she still has not returned in a fortnight send Shein on her trail and let me know,” Gallus instructed, a resonance of pride shining in his eyes.
“Very well, if that is all there is to say of the country then come and join us for a glass of Firewater Sectus. I daresay you need it.”