“There are things certain in this life, death being chief among them, but I am not one to linger on the morbid. No, I speak of the pre-ordained, the given, the certainties, that might have become something else entirely, if we’d simply imagined.
Even before my birth, my role in life was mapped out. I was born into a prestigious line of scholars, and as the first daughter, I would become a chronicler. Not for even a moment, did it occur to me that there was something else I could do, might want to do.
And so it was, when I later left my homeland to take an assignment given, if the native belief was to be observed, by a divine being. It was an honour, and certainly one I wouldn’t reconsider taking now, but there were many different paths that might have been, and probably some that should have been, and I do often wonder what might have happened if I’d just thought to imagine something else.” - First Loreholder Nen-Shek Ahn, Letters of the Dincroft Dynasty
The shuffle of booted feet on the hard-packed mud outside was not the first hint that he had a visitor. Even the perpetual camp buzz couldn’t hide the prominent thud of impatient hooves. Straightening, Tutelar Menhyr pushed himself away from the terrain map unfurled on the tabletop before him. He shifted a stone back to the corner of the curling parchment.
The pavillion did much to shield him from winter bearing winds, but stray gusts had a habit of finding their way through the entrance. As if on cue, the harsh breath of morning air brushed the Tutelar’s cheek, rustling strands of thick, brown hair about his ears. Sliding his gaze towards the entryway, he spotted the source. The tent flap, pulled aside by the hand of one of two men-at-arms guarding the front of the pavillion, allowed a stocky, muck-splattered messenger to duck below the canvas. The scarlet and cobalt livery of the Council of Kings was hard to miss, even with the modest caking of dirt.
A peremptory bow followed as the messenger spied the Tutelar. Stepping into the candlelight flickering from the tabletop, the man’s groomed moustache, bristling as words began to form, glistened with remnants of a sweaty journey.
“Tutelar Idris Menhyr,” he breathed, voice coarse, harsh.
The Tutelar didn’t miss the absence of proper greeting.
Dipping into a leather-bound compartment sewed onto the man’s outfit, the messenger slid out a scroll case.
“I bring a missive on behalf of Their August Majesties, the Council of Kings.”
The ground beneath his booted feet crunched as he stepped forwards. The Tutelar stared at the messenger for a good, long moment, his weathered features as expressive as a rock. The Council’s proxy looked ready to reiterate the announcement, pushing the scroll case towards the taller man.
“Set it on the table and leave,” Tutelar Menhyr directed, returning his attention to the unfurled map, crossing arms over his chest, wrinkling the surcoat.
The messenger did as instructed, straightening after he placed the case on the tabletop, next to the map.
“Their Majesties expect a response.”
Idris worked a knot out of his jaw, grinding teeth as he did so. “I’m certain they do.”
Clearly the Council’s man was unused to anything but complete compliance. His cheeks puffed as his mind worked a retort to his lips.
“Did you mishear me, emissary?” The Tutelar glanced up from the map, irritation drawing furrows into his brow. “Leave.”
The local blackram, famed for its curling, sturdy horns, were eager to butt heads, often to the point of exhaustion. Like a grizzled old tup, the Tutelar’s will soon overcame the runt’s and the Council’s proxy shuffled back towards the entryway, indignation flaring behind his eyes.
Idris dismissed the unsavoury business, eyeing the scroll case with mild curiosity and much-tempered wariness. The Council of Kings, as settled as they were atop a mountain of complacency, rarely delivered favourable news. He knew his early departure from court would have ruffled a few feathers, expected some kind of vitriol to follow, and yet for them to send a rider so soon was out of character. He curled a gloved hand around the solid leather case, scanning the textured surface, the dark blue wax that housed the Council’s sacred seal.
The faintest scent of earth and wool drifted past Tutelar Menhyr and he knew Ahn had arrived. It was about that time. His hand tightened around the case.
The chronicler made her way across the pavillion towards the solitary stool off to one side, her stool.
“I’m barely out of smelling distance and they’ve already sent dogs to bark at my heels.”
There was no immediate response and he turned then, scroll case already leaving his grip as he tossed it in her direction. It clattered onto the ground, biting into the dirt, just a step from Ahn’s grey travelling boots.
“Deal with it. I have no patience for their admonishments today.”
The chronicler looked up from the scroll case at his words, shapely eyebrows arching. Ahn’s Ashiiri homeland had blessed her with deep-brown eyes and dark, olive skin. In comparison to the fairer hues of those who surrounded her now, she was very different, and it had taken Idris a good time to adjust to reading her mannerisms. She was the constant, persistent, presence. It was almost comforting in a way, like the old, well-thumbed copy of Verses on the Red Mountain, tucked into his saddle pack. Currently, Ahn’s expression was just as easy to read. She disapproved.
The chronicler had a bad habit of voicing her concerns, but the Tutelar was pleased to note that she had decided against it on this occasion. She stooped low to pluck the leather case from the ground, her robes scraping the mud as she did so. She was hardly elegant, bending at the waist instead of the knees as women were expected to. He often found the paucity of etiquette in her presence a refreshing change.
Their eyes met again. She was hesitating, clutching the scroll in the free hand, the other arm occupied by a hefty tome. Straightening to her full height, still a good head shorter than the Tutelar, she glanced down at the official document. Whatever inner war had been waging within her seemed to resolve itself as she retreated to the stool, taking a seat and setting the leather-bound archive book on her lap.
Seeing her begin to peel off the seal, Idris turned back to the terrain map. The Carnac Mountains dominated the landscape in the eastern section of the diagram. To the north-east, just off the map, lay the lands of the Menhyr Tutelary. West and north of the expansive mountain range, huddled into its prosperous valley, sat Myn Morvalen, capital of Tirgodh. Wooden markers, painted red, blue, green, covered ink spots that represented towns, forts, or outposts. Two red markers remained, the representation of that which he had failed to achieve this season.
Reaching down, he idly nudged at one of the two tokens with a gloved forefinger. The wooden circle slid about the map freely, revealing the symbol of Aryst of the Dun. Every cycle, his campaign season would be cut short with the call to the capital, the summons issued to every Tutelar of Tirgodh, heralding the mandatory attendance of a series of festivals intermingled with administrative meetings and political addresses. It was tedious. More than that, it was expensive, a drain on an already depleted coffer.
Idris felt the toe of his boot dig into dirt and deliberately placed his foot flat on the ground. It was a tic that had developed from the habit of treading ash. Even if it had been a long time since he’d touched a pipe, the body clung to familiarity when the mind wandered.
“The Council of Kings writes that you must master a varlet, Tutelar.” Ahn’s voice swatted aside his agitation, replacing it with something far more familiar.
She sounded hesitant, and there was little wonder as to the reason. After a moment, the Tutelar turned, regarding first the scroll in her hands and then her face. She looked pinched, lips pressed so tightly together, Idris wondered what it was she was trying not to say.
The idea of mastering and varlets summoned up memories from the dredges of his mind that were unsavoury at best. It was a sacred tradition that every Tutelar must engage in at some point in their life. He knew it had been expected of him before he’d passed thirty cycles, let alone after forty. For the Council to officially enforce the duty, he must really have pissed them off.
As the silence stretched out, he found the increasing discomfort being displayed on Ahn’s face did a little to off-set the irritation throbbing in his temple. Sucking in a short, sharp breath, he knew he had to make a decision.
“Boden has in his possession a record of offers. Once we arrive tonight, fetch them, and choose for me a suitable varlet.”
“Me?” As soon as the word passed her lips, she looked as if she regretted them.
The tension that had been slowly ebbing away returned with renewed vigour.
“Do you see anyone else?”
The chronicler stood, awkwardly hefting the tome under her arm as she balanced the scroll between two fingers.
“I am wholly unqualified, Tutelar.”
“You’re a smart woman, Ahn. I trust you to see the task done.”
Her eyebrows were already drawing together to form the all-too-familiar disapproving frown. He wanted to hear nothing further on the subject and turned on his heel, surcoat flapping behind him. A band of sunlight cut into the shade covering the strategy table, and for a moment the Tutelar thought he might have been saved by the distraction of mundane camp affairs. When one of the pavillion guards bowed his head and resealed the entryway, he realised the wind was simply making a mockery of him. Turning his eyes skyward, looking past the striped canvas over his head, he dared Segeri to torment him more.