Another violent clap of thunder vibrated the air within Lucia's chamber as if her mother's fury was being released upon the Hall of Sylvain itself. Lucia desperately wanted to go to her mother's side, to bolster her mother's sorcery with her own. But this her mother had expressly forbidden.
The beast's blood magic is beyond your craft, her mother had warned. He will sense your abilities and yoke your strength to his own. Only I can confront his wizardry. Whatever you hear, you must remain in your room.
The words still chilled her. Any evil that possessed enough power to vex her mother so was not to be underestimated. So Lucia obeyed without question when the Harhn poured from the Vol Thaldane.
But as the hours passed, Lucia could no longer remain idle. The servants scurrying about the Hall, the shouts of knights giving orders, and the sound of battle raging outside lured her from her quarters. But every guard Lucia addressed in her family's Longhouse only offered feigned assurances. You need not worry, my lady, all is well.
She could sense their apprehension as they frantically dismissed themselves from her presence. Lucia's mind raced with images of her mother and father. Her steps had quickened through the Hall, their cadence matching the bustling servants and guards. Women desperately cared for the wounded while men prepared for the final assault. Dread was etched upon every face. This is what the Harhn brought to Marcellus; unbridled destruction that upset the balance of all things.
For the people of Marcellus, the fall season would have normally been the time for the Harvest Festival. But the fruits of their labor were now in jeopardy of being set ablaze. For the first time in fifty years, the Harhn arrived in vast numbers from the Vol Thaldane to wage war upon the domains of Man. Their onslaught across the frontier served as an alarm for the Hugue to prepare for war. But Marcellus was still ill-equipped for the horde amassed beyond their low walls. Only a handful of her father's knights, scores of men-at-arms and militia were all that kept the green monsters from breaching the Hall's last defenses.
Lucia had raced upstairs to where she stood now. Her senses attempted to extend beyond the door separating her mother and herself. Her body shook with each clap of thunder, but longer periods stretched between each incantation. For the first time in Lucia's young life, she could sense and hear fatigue in her mother's voice. And then…there was silence.
***Lord Baudouin gulped the last of the wine within his goblet before placing it upon the upper-left hand corner of the map. The parchment was old, riddled with stains of ale and wine. The edges were tattered, but the central features of the cartography were sound: Mersalia, and the northern regions of its neighbors--Grunehiem, Pratalsia, and Cadyrnia that bordered below. But the spaces beyond, where Verslund would be in the north and Vhor should be in the south - were maddeningly blank.
"No matter how long you stare at that bloody map, the landscape will not change," a familiar voice said from the pavilion's entry.
Baudouin smiled. He gestured for his younger cousin to enter as he pulled another stool closer to his own. "No word from the scouts?" Baudouin asked.
Flannery did not immediately respond. He walked to an adjacent table where wine, cheese, and bread were laid out. After pouring a cup of wine and tearing off a piece of a loaf, he seated himself next to Baudouin. "You know very well, you would have been notified as soon as the camp-watch spotted them," Flannery answered.
Baudouin nodded. "It's just the waiting. If it was a just a Harhn raid and they returned to the frontier, we could proceed as ordered."
"We would be fooling ourselves to think this is just a mere raid. These are Vasser lands. If there is another horde entering the Hugue, we cannot move this army forward, and leave our domains and southern Mersalia unprotected," Flannery said.
"Tugdal does not share your sentiment," Baudouin replied.
"Who gives a squirt of piss what Tugdal thinks? This is your father's army. No, it's your army. Tugdal and his House are just ambitious newborns," Flannery scoffed.
Baudouin smirked at Flannery's choice of word. But he understood the term was commonly used by the Ancestral Houses – a slight against pedigrees with limited nobility.
"Our orders were specific. Tugdal is just complying with the King's decree." Baudouin's eyes returned to the map, his finger tracing the route to Magdenhof – where the Hugue Kings awaited his army.
"By the Goddess…don't defend that man. I have no idea what your late aunt was thinking when she married that pig-heap's father." Flannery downed another mouthful of wine. "I just want you to know, that regardless of what you decide, Norris and I are with you."
Baudouin treasured Flannery's company. Besides being an accomplished warrior and kinsman, he was a true friend. Flannery and Norris had been at his side since childhood. Norris was the eldest; two years older than Baudouin, Flannery the youngest. Baudouin, in the thirty-second year of his life, was an older man by most accounting, but the Vasser line had proved resilient against the weight of time.
His cousins had ridden with him and his father during the latter days of the Frontier Crusade. All had earned their baptism of warfare against the barbarity of the Harhn.
In appearance, they could easily be mistaken for brothers. All were just shy of six feet in height, with the same auburn hair and welcoming dark-brown eyes. Norris sported a well-groomed mustache which was the target of jokes since he fussed with it so often. Flannery and Baudouin shaved on occasion, displaying a rugged unkempt appearance. All had slim, muscular, well-proportioned physiques. They may have been cousins by blood, but in spirit and heart, they were brothers forged by friendship and combat.
"The army will have my answer as soon as the scouts return," Baudouin said after Flannery's assertion eased his melancholy.
"Of course…to flatter you with my undying devotion and to drink your wine is not the true reason I'm here."
Baudouin flashed the knight an inquisitive look.
"We have a guest in our encampment who requests an audience with you," Flannery said.
"Who?" Baudouin asked, straightening his posture.
"Sir Alaric of the Order."
"A Dragon Knight…here?"
"Not exactly," Flannery said and took another swig from his goblet. "He's an Initiate."
"What does an Initiate of the Order want with me?"
"If you step away from your map, and stop brooding like a scorned mistress, I will show him in," Flannery teased.
"You are quite the ass," Baudouin said as his eyes followed his cousin to the pavilion's doorway.
"I must confess, my lord, that such a trait runs strong in the Vasser House."
Baudouin smiled, flicking his wrist in a gesture for him to carry on. A Temple Initiate to see me? he thought, recalling the tales he had heard about the Order.
Two centuries ago, they were the Order of the Dragon, named after the Great Dragon Shyrdasa that once lived within Dragon Peak. Legend told that a band of knights came to the aid of the ancient creature by protecting her unborn young still nestling within their eggs. Harhn had come to claim the eggs for their magical properties while Shyrdasa slumbered. After centuries of hibernation, she awoke to find slain Harhn strewn about her lair, and knights kneeling before her, covered in the blood of the vanquished foe. For their valor, she awarded them with secret knowledge that encompassed martial prowess and magic. It was not long before the Knights' superior skills were evident upon the battlefield, marking them as favored by the Dragon. Shyrdasa also chose women from throughout the Hugue to serve as her Dragon Maidens, and bestowed upon them the secrets of draconic sorcery.
Worship of the Dragon spread across the Hugue. Her following became as prevalent as the ancestral worship of Shalruh-the Great Mother and her Maidens of Virtue.
Following the harvest, nobility and peasantry spread fruits, flowers, and livestock at the base of the mountain like an extravagant banquet. The people beamed with excitement when Shyrdasa would soar through the heavens above the Hugue kingdoms, her flight said to be a display of gratification for the gifts bestowed. Fathers would tell their children stories of the Great Dragon, and grandfathers would threaten their grandchildren to behave lest they incur Shyrdasa's wrath.
Stories were all the populace had now, as Shyrdasa had not been seen in decades. Some time before the Frontier Crusade, the winged spectacle in the sky had stopped, and the magical mist that covered the mountain's base like a morning haze had disappeared.
At the midpoint of the crusade, the Dragon Knights transformed into the Order of the Secret Throne; a name they gave themselves to honor the Dragon upon her mountain throne. At least, that's what they claimed the name signified. But the Kings of the Hugue had always been skeptical
Following the crusade, the Order became more secluded, taking preference with their agenda rather than serving the Hugue crowns. But history proved the Hugue could count on them during her time of need…until recently.
"My lord, I present Sir Alaric of the Order," Flannery announced.
Word of the Initiate's arrival had spread through the encampment like wildfire. His entry was followed by the captains of Baudouin's army.
"Welcome, Dragon Knight. I trust you've been offered a hot meal…"
"Forgive me, my lord," Alaric interrupted. "I must dispense with pleasantries, for our time is short."
Baudouin was not offended by the interruption. The knight's powerful frame and battle-worn armor were a testament to his experience in combat. His surcoat was colored in the traditional initiate-red with the white charge of a Dragon that still maintained its brightness. Combined with the mystique of his Order, Baudouin could not help but be impressed with the Initiate. He sized the visitor up, seeing the intensity in his eyes. He nodded for the Initiate to continue.
"My lord, the village of Marcellus is under attack, and I fear Lady Joslin and Lucia will not last the day unless we go to their aid at once," Alaric said.
"I have heard of an attack from fleeing villagers," Baudouin said. "Scouts have been dispatched to…"
"I again apologize, my lord, but your scouts will only report what I already know to be true."
"How do you know this?" Tugdal barked. "Did you come from there?"
"No, my lord, I have…messengers that spirited the information to me."
"How many Harhn?" Baudouin asked.
"I am uncertain, but I know Marcellus will be overrun unless we intercede," Alaric replied.
"Does the King know of this?" Norris asked.
"I have sent riders to Magdenhof, but in so doing, I fear I have sent them to their deaths."
"What do you mean? Have the Harhn already besieged the fortress?" Tugdal questioned.
"No. The Harhn amassing near Magdenhof is a ruse," Alaric said plainly.
A collective gasp filled the tent. A moment of silence followed as knights exchanged worried glances.
"How can that be? The Harhn are nothing more than savage animals. They only fight in disorganized mobs. Stratagems are beyond their primitive minds," Tugdal said.
Murmurs ensued throughout the tent. Baudouin raised his hands to quiet the council. "Please continue, Sir Alaric."
The Initiate walked closer to the table. "With your permission, my lord?" he asked, gesturing at the map. Baudouin nodded, shifting to the left to grant Alaric more space.
"As you know, the Harhn are at Magdenhof. The Hugue kings and their armies are awaiting a siege that will most likely never come. While our armies are entrenched there, two more Harhn armies are here and here," Alaric explained, pointing to Marcellus and a point on the map in Grunehiem.
"May the Goddess and the Dragon protect," Flannery whispered.
The murmuring resumed.
"That is not possible," Tugdal argued. "There would have been word of such an incursion."
Alaric shook his head. "These attacks have just begun, and come with speed. In addition to these two armies, dozens of small war bands are fanned out along the main routes to block correspondence to and from Magdenhof. Behind the fortress walls, the Hugue kings are unaware the Harhn have begun a rampage through the heartland."
"By your account, they could tear from east to west by winter's first snowfall," Norris said.
"They will feel the tip of our lances before that day," Baudouin proclaimed. "If Marcellus is overrun, they will most likely strike Leonette or Verebur next."
"Leonette is not defensible…bad ground for repelling any large engagement, and Verebur is closer. Should the beasts come, at least there we will have more food and supplies," Norris surmised.
"I agree," Baudouin replied. "Verebur is where we will make our stand."
The tent filled with the sound of chatter and clanking armor as knights shuffled within the tent.
"Wait, my lord," Alaric cried out, attempting to stifle the commotion.
"Gentlemen, please!" Baudouin spoke, silencing the occupants.
"Our first destination must be Marcellus," Alaric insisted.
"The village would be sacked by now," Tugdal said.
"Their defenses are still holding. We still have time to save the Viscountess and her daughter," Alaric replied.
Tugdal stepped forward. "It's bad enough that we delay the army's march to join the King. But now you expect us to commit this army to a village that has already been lost…against a foe that outnumbers us? We require preparation against a horde that size."
"No preparation will subdue this tide without the aid of sorcery," Alaric replied.
"Please tell me you are not entertaining this folly?" Tugdal asked of Baudouin.
Alaric placed both his hands on the table and leaned toward its center. With an intense expression on his face, he panned across the collection of captains. "Hear me, gentlemen," he said in a deep monotone voice. "There are weapons other than axe and sword working against us. We need the Dragon Maidens to prevail."
"The Hugue has plenty of wizards and mystics to fend off Harhn magic," Tugdal snapped back. He mimicked Alaric's posture, leaning within inches of the Initiate's face. "You just want us to save two of your own. Tell me, Alaric, where is your Order? Why are they out seeking riches deep in the frontier instead of being here to defend the Hugue? This is just another example of your seditious Order serving their agenda instead of the Hugue crowns."
The Initiate was insulted. He pushed himself from the table into an upright position, compelling Tugdal to reach for the hilt of his sword. The assembled captains also instinctively reached for their own blades.
Baudouin raised one hand in protest, while grabbing Norris's sword arm with the other. "Enough!" he yelled. "There will be no drawing of steel over heated words."
The silence that followed Baudouin's command was broken by a voice at the pavilion's entrance. "My lord!" a male youth cried as he pressed inside.
"It's the scout!" a knight cried out.
"Come forth!" Baudouin waved the boy over.
The knights parted for the scrawny youth drenched in rain and sweat. He bowed upon reaching the table.
"Speak boy!" Norris commanded.
The scout took a second to catch his breath before using his sleeve to wipe the snot from his nose. "The stories are true. Harhn of great number have fallen upon Marcellus," the scout said.
"How many?" Baudouin asked.
"A thousand…maybe more, but their attack has slowed."
"Slowed?" Alaric and Baudouin simultaneously questioned.
"The horde is still pressing against Sylvain Hall, but the majority of their army is surrounding the hill rather than charging up the slope," the scout reported.
"They are more concerned with preventing escape. They want to ensure the capture of the Dragon Maidens," Alaric explained.
"That's nonsense," Tugdal blurted. "They are savage beasts without clarity of reason that rampage, kill, and burn. They care nothing of ransoms."
"They do not come for coin. It's the magical essence of the Maidens they covet," Alaric said with a contemptuous tone.
Before Tugdal could retort, Baudouin cut in. "Magdenhof will no better prosper or falter from our absence. There is now a threat to the Hugue's heartland. With that being said, we cannot march this army to Magdenhof," Baudouin declared.
"Do we go to the aid of Marcellus or rally at Verebur?" Norris asked.
"That decision I shall make shortly, but first I must speak to Alaric…alone."
"We should continue to Magdenhof at once. By the time this army marches through the Besone Hills, the Harhn will…"
"I said I will speak to Alaric alone!" Baudouin said with a raised voice, interrupting Tugdal.
He then took a deep breath and composed himself. "Afterwards, you and the remaining captains will have my answer."
Tugdal grimaced, flashing Baudouin a hard look. "As you wish, my lord," he said with spiteful inflection. He stormed from Baudouin's pavilion with his entourage following upon his heels.
Once the remaining captains filed out of the tent, Baudouin filled two goblets with wine. He handed one to Alaric. "When was the last time you slept?" he asked.
The Initiate took the cup, nodding in appreciation. "Two days, my lord…but I'm fine," he replied, taking a seat upon one of the stools.
Baudouin sat next to him, and for a moment there was an uncomfortable silence before Alaric spoke. "I met your father once. I believe it was two summers ago in Oriane. He was mustering a host to fight bandits in the frontier. A natural leader…I see much of him in you."
Baudouin smiled. "Isn't flattery to achieve your own ends beneath a Temple-Initiate?"
Alaric released a deep chuckle, slapping his gauntlet upon the table. "You are right, my lord. It's unbecoming for either beggar or king."
"As you said earlier, let us dispense with formalities, for the Hugue does not have the luxury of time that our tongues can so easily squander," Baudouin said plainly, but with a tone that would not be construed as an insult.
"Agreed," Alaric replied before swallowing another gulp of wine.
"As much as I empathize with your council concerning the Maidens, wisdom dictates that we prepare at Verebur," Baudouin said.
"We must extend our glance beyond conventional wisdom. The Harhn have sorcerers among them that are skilled in blood magic. Their immediate attack on Marcellus is no accident. One can use the essence of other wizards to enhance their own conjuring. This is especially the case when blood magic is used."
"So your council is to solely protect your own?"
"No, my lord. This is not like the predictable, mindless hordes we fought during the Frontier Crusade. There is cunning and purpose hidden behind their savagery, and these Harhn sorcerers are the heart of it…especially one."
"He's the strongest of them all, and he is at Marcellus. Saving the Viscountess and her daughter should be our goal. With the absence of the rest of my Order, it will take Joslin and her daughter's combined power to repel the Harhn sorcerers," Alaric advised.
"I will not march this army to Marcellus in vain. Could we be too late?" Baudouin asked.
"They are alive, I assure you. If their lives fade, I will know." Alaric looked into his wine.
Baudouin rose to his feet, allowing their conversation and the scout's report to swirl in his thoughts. He walked to the pavilion's lip. The air was filled with moisture, but the rain had long ceased. The sun brought a mild comfort from the chilled winds that blew. He marveled at the encampment as it bustled with activity. The smithies were sharpening blades, squires were fussing with saddles, and archers were filling quivers for their yew instruments of death. It was as if the encampment itself was a sentient being, and all within were the organs and fluids that sustained it. Everyone worked toward a purpose, and at that moment, Baudouin discovered his own. He turned back toward the Initiate.
"Make any prayers to your Dragon that you feel are relevant," Baudouin suggested. "We ride to Marcellus within the hour."
(Thankyou for allowing me to use this excerpt to Jack Whitsel, his publishers and also Mayra Calvani for introducing Jack to me too)