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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ardwen Page 28 Book 4

Manuel went through the motions of eating, but his thoughts were far removed from the spread of food in front of him. Mayor. Was this young lady serious? Manuel shook his head suddenly and half coughed and half muttered after knuckling his upper lip. The fine slip of a woman he had eyes for last night was his queen, just the thought of it made his face feel hot. “I . . .” Manuel said then paused. “I’d be honored to take the post for as long as you need me, lordship.” Manuel stumbled over the title, unsure if he should address her as queen or simply lord, as there was no clear male successor to the kingdom. Hell, as far as he was concerned Mavigan was the only rightful successor of either gender period. The thought briefly flashed through his mind that, perhaps, Ariana might want to resume her position, but the human forlorn hope quickly quashed the idea.

Ariana had willfully abdicated in the first place, and she had not given any indication that the throne of Westgale interested her in the slightest. Manuel couldn’t really blame her, he had heard that the life of a female noble was like a monk cloistered in his cell - prestigious yet stifling. “Of course,” Manuel said after taking a spoonful of grits and plopping them on his plate, “with your permission I’d like to handle rationing right now. I’m not going to tell you how to do your bit, my queen, but I will say that while last night’s celebration should have people stepping high long enough to forget their worries for a bit – it won’t last. We’ve got Westgale, but we’ve not reclaimed the kingdom yet, and a city doesn’t live without supplies.”

“Smart man.” Manuel heard Ardwen mutter. The human soldier tossed a nod of thanks at the elf, at least Manuel assumed he was really an elf, he wasn’t sure how far the sobriquet of angel was off the mark. The forlorn hope was about to go on when Ariana made a hasty departure from the table. Manuel thought it a little odd, but who was he to question the ways of a saint? Besides, from what he had seen of her fighting the demon yesterday, the gods themselves would have to help a person who wanted to bar her path. The human warrior let the silence after the saints departure linger for a few seconds before he downed some grits and said, “Whenever you want me to I can get started, my queen.”

Written by - Ardwen

The ancient elf devoured the food on his plate with a flourish, his prodigious appetite at odds with his lean frame. Ardwen noted the veiled stares of a few of the guests at the breakfast table, but he pointedly ignored them. He didn’t care to explain to them that the last few days had seen him burning mana at a rate which was dangerous. Now that he was out of any clear and present danger, and no longer had to repress the urges to replenish himself, Ardwen’s body demanded that he make restitutions for his wanton abuse. The twilight elf had no doubt that he would sleep deeply over the next few nights as well, but he pushed that thought out of his mind as well. Westgale was free, Ariana was safe, and for the present he figured that their efforts had afforded them a moment of respite.

It was Manuel’s words that brought him back to reality. Ardwen voiced his approval of the human’s frank appraisal of the city’s situation, it was bleak but it was practical, Wilhelm had done well in forwarding the man as mayor – now all that was left was to see if Mavigan had the wisdom to second the paladin’s foresight. Ardwen had his doubts about the sagacity of Westgale’s new queen, but he bit his tongue if for no other reason than to consume another biscuit swimming in sausage gravy.

“I think Manuel is correct in that-“ Ardwen said, taking the opportunity to pause and catch his breath while speaking. Whatever the twilight elf was going to say was cut short by Ariana’s abrupt departure. Ardwen made to follow, but his Abbess had orders for him, and the commanding glance she tossed him right before the door to the Manor House slammed shut in her departure told Ardwen all he needed to know. Ariana had not invited him along, his presence was not needed. Ardwen let out a grunt of frustration and slumped back into his chair at the table with such force the wood groaned. A scowl had settled across the elf’s features, subtle but unmistakable. At last he looked at Mavigan out of the corner of his eye and started talking in answer to her question; his eyes became misty as if gazing through the fog of time to some distant memory, “Teran, Teran Witherblaze. I think that was his name at least, I’ll be honest and say that of all the Hands of Providence, I did not know him well. As an assassin, he’s probably changed his name more often than a bent coin changes hands.”

The bladeweaver noted Mavigan’s unusual reaction at the mention of the Hands, her eyes seemed to widen, and her jaw hung slightly agape. She recovered quickly however, and nodded to indicate he should go on, but the elf noted her teeth were on edge now. “He wasn’t a member of the Sect of Battle, as I was. Really, the only things I recall with any clarity about him is that he possessed an unparalleled expertise in Shadowmastery and that he was a human.” Ardwen shrugged and fixed his eyes on a spot above Mavigan’s head. “Which is exactly why this can’t be the same Teran, humans do not live for centuries.”

Elerus squirmed in his chair, suddenly uncomfortable. Since the conversation had turned to warfare and the running of a city, he had felt decidedly overlooked. He had shared the same impulse to follow Ariana out of the room that Ardwen had nearly acted on, though he knew that his reasons were different from Ardwen’s. The little elf decided to make himself as useful as possible, and when he heard the clear logical flaw in Ardwen’s reasoning he spoke up with a simple, “What about Ariana?”

Elerus watched as his old friend raised an eyebrow and glanced down at him as if he had forgotten he was there. “She,” Ardwen began, “is obviously a special case, along with Turin. I suspect their connections to the divine preserved them.”

Manuel soaked up some syrup with a hotcake and popped the piece in his mouth before adding edgewise to Ardwen’s monologue, “In the stories handed down, those Hands who came to this world long ago didn’t seem to age, or if they did it was at a pace so slow that no one even bothered to record it.”

Manuel was about to say more, but Ardwen slammed his fist on the table, several of the plates and pitchers hoped from the shock of the blow, and the ancient elf spat out, “Are you suggesting that a Hand is a treasonous murderer?” Manuel’s mouth went dry and he felt his heart stop at the warrior’s withering gaze, but it was Elerus that saved him.

“Can you say, Ardwen,” Elerus began in a whisper, “that you are so different?”

Ardwen felt like spitting on the table in disgust, but he schooled his features back into compliance, expressing as much emotion as a slab of stone. “This is pointless drivel.” He replied coldly. “He’s killed a royal family, Ariana’s family. I don’t care if he’s Cambruin reborn, I’ll tear the bastard’s head off with my own hands.”

The elven swordsman stood up from his seat with slightly less haste than Ariana had a few minutes earlier. “Right now though, I’ve got business to attend to. Come, Elerus.”

“Don’t you think Mavigan would like to ask you . . . Ardwen? This was her family that-“

The black-winged elf brooked no argument from his diminutive companion, and in one swift motion that did not even break his pace as he walked to the door he had grabbed one of Elerus’s hands and was practically dragging the small elf outside the Manor House with him. Ignoring the crowd outside as nothing more consequential than a gathering of gnats, Ardwen released Elerus hand and lead him to the tailors who quickly waved them down as they walked through the small gathering that still clustered around the Manor House. The mass of humanity had diminished from last night, but there was still a sizable portion that obviously wanted to see more of the heroes of Westgale.

In short order the two winged elves found themselves in a makeshift tailor’s workshop headed by a seamstress who could have been anything from thirty to fifty, the only hints betraying her age were touches of gray around her temples. Ardwen was lead to another room apart from Elerus, and he made one simple demand, that of a parchment and some quills. With a sign Ardwen threw himself into sketching the designs of the clothing he wanted, not trusting the humans around him to get any detail right without him leading them by the nose. Once the ink had dried and the seamstresses had taken their measurements, Ardwen shoved two leaflets of papyrus at them.

The ageless spinster looked at one and nodded while hooding her eyes, seemingly impressed with the elf’s design. She looked at the other one, however, and flipped the paper around a few times as if regardless of how she turned it was still somehow upside down. Ardwen clenched his teeth together before she could say anything. “That,” he hissed, “is a classical design from the time of Landovar.”

The tailor crinkled her forehead and said, “I see, well, if it works for you. But perhaps something more . . . contemporary might be in order as well?”

Ardwen rolled his eyes and sighed. “Then cut a garment in the style of whatever passes for court fashion in this low age. That will make three sets of clothing, more than enough. Make sure Elerus is fitted appropriately as well.”

At the mention of the child elf’s name, the seamstresses face brightened and she said with a nod, “I have my best girls working on it, don’t worry, we’ll take care of your son.”

Ardwen sighed again and touched his hand to his forehead, “He is not my son . . . just do as I ask.” Without another word, Ardwen left the building and the tailors to finish their work. Certain that Elerus could handle a few moments and measuring and picking out cuts and color, the warrior returned to the Manor House but did not enter. Instead, with a few flaps of his newly repaired wing he alighted on the edge of the roof of the house and propped one foot up while letting the other dangle. Placing an arm on the elevated knee, the sable-feathered elf dutifully awaited Ariana’s return.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus glanced around nervously at the collecting of women that had gathered around him. He saw one of them place a hand over her mouth and let out a giggle. The little elf blushed and stammered out, “W-what?”

One of the ladies knelt next to him and held his hands and explained slowly as if she were talking to a small child, “Now dearheart, don’t you think it’s a little early for Samhain costumes?”

Elerus blinked his eyes twice, hard. He had no clue what the human was talking about. “What’s a Samhain?” He said blankly.

The lady simply sighed and tossed a smug look at those around her, another one of them giggled. “Have it your way sweetie.” She spoke again. “But we’re going to have to get that wing off if we want to get you measured properly.” Before the little elf could voice a sound of protest, the seamstress’s apprentice had reached around behind him and tugged on his wing next to where it connected to his body.

Elerus let out a hiss as if had stubbed his toe, and with a reflexive movement he grabbed the young lady’s arm and shoved it away. It was her turn to look shocked and surprised now, and she looked down at her arm to see a reddened imprint of five tiny fingers. Her eyes widened at the surprising amount of strength the child had, but she set her features in a scowl and wagged a finger as if preparing to launch into a lecture.

She never got the chance. The girls’ mistress breezed into the room, took one look around with a wobble of her peppered hair, and gave a vexed click of her tongue. “Diana!” She snapped. “Weren’t you paying attention to the other winged young man who came in? I don’t care if he’s got nine wings and four arms, where’s your professionalism, girl?”

The young lady identified as Diana blushed deeply and muttered a quick apology to Elerus. Even then, the older seamstress shooed off her apprentice, and, while she still spoke to the young elf as if he were a young child, she at least had the sense to suggest that they simply needed to unlace the top of the tunic to get the proper measurement for the holes that would be needed in his clothing, and then one more measurement for his wingspan.

Elerus complied, and while he felt slightly uncomfortable as the apprentices wrapped marked twine around his bare chest, he could appreciate that the tailors had most likely never dealt with anything with wings before and were improvising as best they could. “Now, young master,” The older head of the tailoring shop said, adopting a more formal tone, “your name please?”

“Elerus.”

“What a beautiful name, master Elerus. My name is Katharine, and I beg your forgiveness for my apprentice’s earlier treatment. I fear that peoples’ manners have left them since the Usurper took the throne, we live in rude times.”

Elerus smiled slightly and laughed softly, Katharine reminded him of some of the domineering matriarchs who were the real powers behind the throne in the Deathless Empire. “Don’t worry,” he said with a grin that cracked his face nearly in two, “Diana just surprised me.”

“Still,” Katharine said with a sniff, “she must learn manners if she wants to be a successful tailor one day. Now, let’s see . . . .” Katharine trailed off as she knelt and helped Elerus lace up the front of his tunic again, as she did she muttered something about the design being too open and airy for this time of year. Continuing to mutter to herself, Elerus stilled his features as the seamstress studied his face, placing a gentle hand on his chin and turning his face from side to side. Finally she clapped her hands together and said with a smile. “My, you’re a beautiful little boy, your mother must be proud. Mark my words: you’re going to be a heart breaker one of these days.” Elerus felt his face grow hot and he hiccuped as he pointed his head to the floor, he heard some more giggling around him, which was quickly silenced by a sharp scowl from Katharine. “Still, that’s not why I was looking at you, young master. I think a nice formal court garment would work wonders for you. You're staying with Saint Ariana, yes?” Elerus bobbed his head in answer. “Then you’ll need something to wear to state or religious functions – all sorts of things.”

Elerus paled at the thought of being dragged to stuffy councils and ballrooms. He had never shared the love of pretentious court environments that Ardwen had. “I hope we don’t go to too many.” He squeaked.

Katharine heard him still and walked over to a bolt of cloth and quickly snipped off a small square. She glided across the floor with measured steps, in her element now, and knelt next to the unusual child and held the patch of cloth up to his eyes. “Nonsense,” she said, “you wouldn’t want the saint to go by herself would you? I daresay you’d be far more company than that . . . other one who came in with you.” Katherine’s eyes hardened and she gave an imperious sniff. “He just sketches out what he wants us to sow, asks for no opinion, and storms off without even saying his name.”

Elerus let out a single, dry chuckle before saying, “Sounds like Ardwen.”

Katharine smiled; the action actually placed some wrinkles on her timeless face. “This blue will work with your eyes wonderfully, my compliments young master, you’ve the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Is there anything else you’d like us to sow? Surely you don’t intend to run around in that tunic during winter? What are you sleeping in? A young boy needs proper, comfortable clothing for a good night’s rest, it’ll help you grow strong and proper.”

Elerus nodded with wide eyes and Katharine riddled off a list of vestments, cuts, designs, colors, and so on and so forth. The winged child tried to be patient, but he soon found himself squirming on top of the box he had been instructed to stand on while his measurements were being recorded. A soft knock at the door interrupted Katharine’s soliloquy. “Hey Elerus,” a young voice called through the door, “we’re going to play a game of rangers and bandits, can’t you come out yet?”

“Sorry!” Elerus said to Katharine quickly, hopping off the box. “Just um . . . make those things. Whatever you think is best, it’s fine!” He smiled and waved as he rushed to the door, yanking it open and shouting one last thanks into the makeshift tailoring shop as he ran into a small knot of children that had gathered into the street outside.

“Hey El!” Torean called brightly. Elerus quickly found himself swept along in the group of children, laughing and talking with them as if they had been friends forever.

Eventually though, Elerus broached the question that had been bothering him since he had left the tailor’s store. “What is rangers and bandits?” He said, his face scrunched in confusion.

One of the older boys that stood taller than the little winged elf nearly tripped as he said that. “No way!” He almost shouted. “You’ve never played rangers and bandits?” Elerus shook his head no. A burst of voices all tried to explain the rules and express their disbelief, before Davin whisteled so sharply that Elerus covered his ears and grimaced at the piercing noise.

“Geez,” Davin said, “everyone talking at once isn’t going to tell El how to play.” He turned to face the white-haired child. “It’s easy, there’s two teams, one are rangers, and the other are bandits. The bandits hide from the rangers, and when they’re found the rangers have to tag ‘em. If you’re tagged, you have to go to jail – but a bandit who’s not been arrested can touch the bandits in jail and set ‘em free.”

Elerus nodded slowly, his adult mind making light of the simple rules. “So,” he said so as not to seem rude, “it’s sort of like hide-and-seek mixed with tag.”

Davin opened his mouth, but then clamped it shut. The human boy pressed a finger to his chin and narrowed his eyes. “I’d never thought of it like that, I guess you’re right.” He said thoughtfully.

Once Elerus indicated he was ready the group of Westgale youths were quickly divided up into two even teams, Elerus found himself on the side of the bandits, and he went to hide in an alley nearby. Glancing down the narrow street, he spied several stacks of barrels. With a grin he flapped to the top of one of the wooden columns and knelt down. His grin turned into a frown as he felt the grimy surface of the barrel on his bare feet and hands. The little elf raised his hands and noticed his palms were blackened with the dirt and sealing tar from the barrel’s lid. Without thinking Elerus wiped his hands on the front of his tunic then slapped his forehead as he remembered he had just taken a bath. With a resigned sigh he hoped Ariana would not notice, or at least not mind. He hoped even more fervently, however, that she was OK.

Written by - Ariana

She walked tentatively past the Raven and into the room. “It is you,” she whispered with an air of disbelief. Ariana stopped halfway between the door and the table where Teran sat eating his breakfast, and wrung her hands. Conflicting emotions played across her face, torn between two conflicting desires: hug him or smack him senseless?

Aware they were not alone; she bit her lip and looked at the undead construct that stood close to Teran. After a moment of contemplation, Ariana ceased to wring her hands, and they fell loosely at her side. “Leave us,” she stated authoritatively to the other occupants of the room while gazing at Teran with carefully schooled features.

****

Mavigan watched Ardwen leave the table abruptly, dragging Elerus behind him. “Asshole,” she muttered into her grits, stirring them round and round with a spoon, her mind turning over the information Ardwen had reluctantly provided. Disjointed thoughts swirled round her head, trying the different pieces of information to see if they fit.

She gave up with a sigh. She could see no way to reconcile the idea that the rat bastard was a Hand of Providence. The two ideas went together as well as Ardwen and, well anyone else.

She sighed again and slumped down in her chair, staring at her grits as if the patterns formed there could give her the answers she sought. It was only when Manuel pointedly cleared his throat that she remembered there were other things to think about. Pulling herself up in her chair, she said, “Eh, after breakfast seems like a good time to start, Manuel.”

Pausing, she thought more about what he had told her. They had retaken the city, but still needed to retake the countryside, and until they did, the citizens of Westgale would suffer. Fighting was something she understood, and her eyes sparked with fire as she added, “I’ll help.” A shadow of confusion clouded her face, and she said softly, “Unless….”

Her troubled gaze returned to her plate. “I missed my chance to kill my Uncle.” The words were heavy with grief and uncertainty. “Maybe I’m supposed to chase him down now? It’s not like we don’t know where he’s going.” Her spoon dropped to the plate with a clang. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Written by - Teran

Teran ate his breakfast in near silence. Sabbatine had delivered it and considering the weight of his crimes he was surprised to be receiving anything at all... though he suspected someone might be getting creative with the torture techniques as Sabbatine continued to drone on about this or that and ask questions he was only vaguely aware of. He would offer single word answers and sometimes only a grunt, keeping his gaze fixed on his food.

He had no appetite but he ate because he suspected Sabbatine would not leave until he was finished. He didn't dislike her but her ignorance was incredible... she understood what Teran had done but had no concept of how Mavigan or anyone else would feel. To her events were just events, detached from all feeling, even the terrible things that happened in her own life were now alien to her.

The door opened and Sabbatine's warbling stopped as she saw who entered. Teran looked up to see who his guest was... and instantly recognized Ariana though many years had passed. He was silent and motionless as he stared at her, as if expecting her presence to be a trick of illusion. After a few seconds of silence Teran stood up and bowed before her as a sign of respect, though not quite as deeply as he used to bow.

Sabbatine was stunned by Ariana's demand to leave and she didn't move immediately. She looked to Teran for support or perhaps permission and found neither from his blank expression so hesitantly she left, closing the door behind her, glancing at Keeryn and the Raven before shrugging and finding a place to stand nearby.

"Ariana." Teran said quietly once the door closed. It wasn't quite a question, but it wasn't quite a statement either.

Written by - Ariana

The door closed behind her with a quiet snick. She stared at him in silence, her emotions a tumultuous jumble. Ariana knew what crimes had been committed, but the knowledge felt distant and removed. He had killed people she had never met, never knew, never loved, though they were tied to her by the bonds of family. Teran was one of hers, a Hand and true family like Ardwen, and her heart swelled with the sight of him.

She sighed deeply and crossed the room. Wrapping her arms around his middle, she rested her head on his chest. Small tremors worked through her body, causing her to shake, and the fabric covering his chest grew suspiciously damp. “Teran,” she choked.

Written by - Teran

Teran's arms wrapped around Ariana as she embraced him, locked together for that moment...

"I knew you would return..." He says quietly. "but why... why now?"

He sounds pained as he whispers to her, wishing his crimes had not been so apparent to her but at the same time glad they were. He could keep no secrets from her.

His mind was still recovering from her sudden appearance. He was quite good at predicting what would happen as a result of his actions but this had blind sided him.

Written by - Ariana

She chuckled wryly, the sound muffled by his shirt. Pulling from him, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I have no idea,” she said with a sniffle. “Puppet of the All-Father, that’s me.” Her voice was light and free of malice, but the faint shadow in her eyes belied the joke.

“And what of you?” she asked with a smile. “I can’t leave you alone for a couple of centuries without you getting into trouble?” She clicked her tongue and shook her head in mock disappointment.

Drawing in a deep, cleansing breath, she chuckled again. “We’re a right mess, and I’ve interrupted your breakfast.” She pointed towards the half eaten meal on the table. “Please, sit.”

Taking the suggestion herself, she claimed the chair next to his, interlaced her fingers and rested both hands upon the table. Silence reigned between them for several moments, Ariana trying to organize her thoughts. When she finally spoke, the words were carefully chosen. “I’ve never known you to act carelessly. You are a very calculating man, so I can only assume that your actions were part of some larger scheme of which I am unaware.” She glanced at him appraisingly. “Of course, I’ve also never known you to remain in captivity unless it was somewhere you wanted to be.”

Ariana shifted in her chair and turned her full attention on Teran. “As in the days of old, Teran, I find myself relying on you to function as my eyes and ears. Please, tell me everything and spare no detail.”

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm turned to Mavigan and nodded in approval. Smiling, he said,

"My old teacher told me the first sign of wisdom is recognizing how much you don't know and the second sign of wisdom is asking for help from those you can trust. It's not suprising you are unsure what to do now, as there are many things you need to consider and much is beyond what you have dealt with up to now. However, you are not alone in this and I and others will do all we can to help you. So far you have actually done quite well, and I am proud of you. Let me summarize the main issues I see.

Berdidane has left with his fleet and is now out of our immediate reach. He is likely heading back to Ironskane to regroup. At this time we do not have a fleet to chase him nor an army to fight him if we could catch him. So set him aside for now until the Westgale fleet returns from harrying Ironskane and the Westgale army returns from assisting Ithramir and the elves in retaking their other fortress. For now you should concern yourself with establishing order here in the city and then extending that to the countryside.

The first task is seeing to your coronation as Queen. That will legitimize your authority and provide a morale boost to the population. There are some standard requirements for such a ceremony, but you have a fair amount of leeway in how fancy or simple you want the ceremony to be. You also need to establish where you will reside and set up your royal household staff. Many good candidates for your staff await you outside. They can assist you in preparing for and planning the coronation.

The second task is to assemble a Royal Council to help you organize and rule the city and the kingdom. You will be the ultimate authority, and bear the ultimate responsibility for decisions, but you can and should delegate as much of that as possible to trustworthy ministers who can both advise you on issues and then carry out the decisions you make with their counsel. Abbess Ariana can help you there, as she has a lot of experience in ruling this kingdom back in the past. I can help you with military and security matters. The Raven will be an excellent source of information on current events and possible ministers. Manuel here can help organize the city. Once Alaric returns with the army you can put him in charge of the military.

The third issue is the fact that as a new Avatar you will need to receive priestess and Avatar training from the Temple of Nagarren. Ariana and I can help, but we are Avatars of a different diety and each diety has their own system. As you have found, They want things to be done Their way. You will find the training difficult but also very rewarding, both in the added abilities you will gain and in the options and confidence those new abilities will open to you, but also in the fact that you will never again be alone. Your Goddess will always be with you and She will aid and support and assist you in all things if you just ask. Coming to terms with that relationship can be difficult (it certainly was for me), but the ultimate reward is well worth the effort.

The fourth issue is to liberate and rebuild the rest of the kingdom. I have sent word out to our scattered forces in the countryside and to both the fleet and the army of our victory here, requesting the fleet to help transport the army back here once the elven fortress is retaken, and for all of our forces to assemble here. Assuming the retaking of the elven forteress goes well I would expect the elves to lend their assistance to you in return for our aid. As our forces arrive we can send them out to free the rest of the kingdom and to begin rebuilding the kingdom from the depredations of the occupation.

Only then can we consider the fifth task of an assault on Ironskane. We have moved beyond the point where you and I and a small group can run around freely on a mission. You are now the Queen and also Nagaren's newest Avatar. That has consequences. You will move and operate on a larger scale now.

A more likely objective before chasing Beridane to his well-defended Ironskane would be for you to pay a state visit to your other uncle to try to enlist Shrikefeld support. That can be done after the coronation and the establishment of a governing council and can take place while the liberation and reconstruction of Westgale is carried out by others.

For now I advise you to finish your breakfast and then go meet with those members of the Royal Staff the Raven has sent here and with the members of the Temple of Nagarren who wait outside. You should first organize your own affairs before you worry about affairs of state.

And so endeth the lesson. Please pass the gravy."

Wilhelm chuckled to defuse ther gravity of the situation and took two more cheese biscuits from the basket.

****

Resini and his Circle of Mages continued to maintain their anti-scrying shield over the strike force as they made their way through the dark noisome sewer. When Varion halted the force at a rotted and rusted cellar door Resini scryed beyond the door and signaled to Varion that the door was unlocked and there was nobody next to it. Varion silently lifted the door an inch and peer up into the world above. Varion then turned to his men.

“All right then, the gatehouse seems lightly defended, but it is a short distance away. We will be in the open and exposed for several moments before reaching it. When I throw open the door, follow me as quickly as you can. Stay close to the walls, they can at least provide us some cover.” The men all nodded their agreement. “When we get to the gatehouse…you all know what to do. On three. One…two…”

Varion was interrupted by the whine of hinges as the cellar door was pulled open from outside. Torchlight silhouetting a large figure flooded the group and momentarily blinded the commander. Instinctively, he thrust his sword with such force it pierced the large orc through the torso, armor and all. The body abruptly collapsed forward, the full weight of the orc landing heavily atop Varion. Covered in the warm, slick orc blood and struggling to roll the massive beast away, Varion gasped for breath and yelled for his men to flee the sewer and commence the attack.

Following after the first warriors who ran past Varion and out through the door, Resini led his cirlce in support. As he passed through the door Resini saw another soldier pull the blood-covered Varion to his feet. Once they were free of the door the mages dropped their anti-scry shield and went on the attack. Bolts of magical energy of various colors fanned out to strike the orcs in view. One group was wrapped in glowing bands. Another were ensnared by vines that grew from the ground and wrapped their legs. A third group were incinerated by filling fire while a fourth group was frozen in place by a sudden blizzard of icy cold.

The soldiers took advantage of the mages' efforts to race towards the gate house and engage the remaining defenders before the gatehouse door. Varion led a portion of his forces to block immediate reinforcements. While the other mages aided Varion in holding off the orcs, Resini ran to the gatehouse door, which had been closed and barred by the Orcs inside. Gathering himself, Resini pointed his staff at the door and chanted a spell. Bands of light struck and entered the door. With multiple clunks the bars inside were magically withdrawn, the doors hinges came loose, and the door burst burst free and fell flat to the ground.

Varion's men poured through the doorway and bloody battle erupted inside. Ignoring the combat, Resini made his way to the gate mechanism and cast another spell at it. Magical forces caused the mechanism to start up and begin raising the portcullis and opening the gate. Varion's men fought hard to deny the orcs attempts to interfere.

Resini stepped out side and from his staff a ball of fire shot up into the sky and exploded in color several hundred yards above the walls. The signal was given. Resini hoped the relief force would arrive in time to pass through the opening gate and secure the gatehouse before the orcs could retake it. The mages and soldiers then concentrated on defending the opening gate and buying time.

Written by - Tempyst

Kaya waited, as did her men, for the signal that would tell them it was time. Swords were drawn, bodies shuffles, anxious for the battle to start, even though they knew not all of them would make it out alive. Then suddenly, in the sky there it was, an explosion of color signaling the ground troops. Kaya yelled out a charge and ran forward. Her men followed. They charged into the sea of orcs taking no mercy on any of them. Swords clashed and sunk into flesh. Blood sprayed everywhere making the ground slick. But onward they pressed. Many fell during the battle, but it only made the survivors press on harder towards the gatehouse. As the gatehouse came into view, Kaya began chanting and those who remained joined her. Voice after voice rang over the battlefield, unsettling the orcs who had never before faced such a thing. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the remaining orcs retreated, giving up position. With A'lanthear held high, Kaya let out a victorious shout as the gatehouse was finally theirs.

Written by - Ardwen

Aranel hocked up the phlegm in his throat and spat on the ground. The swordsinger had removed his helm and was leaning against the aft wall of the gatehouse that Kaya’s company had just reclaimed. With a roll of his shoulders that screeched of armor and groaned of tired muscles the elf turned to his fellow swordswinger beside him and said, “Gather.” With a single word the other warriors in the squad circled around him.

“Where’s Tok?” The singer sergeant asked.

The soldier to Aranel’s left answered, “Took a dagger in the side. Mallan got to him in time, but he won’t be moving for a while. Still, he was lucky.” With that the man tapped the eyepatch that covered his right eye; the flesh around the patch was red and raw.

Aranel grunted and spat again. He was with Rurik when he took the wound that cost him his eye during the Minas Aure campaign. Aranel had found him unconscious next to a storage shed; the orc that had given him the knife to the face was missing both its arms and cold by that time. Rurik’s life had been saved thanks to treatment from their company’s priest, but the swordsinger sergeant knew that his squad mate was still bitter over the loss.

With a sigh Aranel crouched and scratched with his mailed hand a quick overlay of what they thought was past the gatehouse. “We’re being rotated out with squad nine for the upcoming push. They’re calling it like Minas Aure after this point. We’ve got the main gate and a couple of the side ones are being opened here,” Aranel paused to make circles in the grit and dust, “but the orcs aren’t stupid. They’ve piled rubble along a lot of the side sally gates and sapped a few of the others.”

The swordsinger commander saw Surion kneel across from him in the little knot of soldiers. His friend drew another circle inside the largest of Aranel’s and said, “What about the inner curtain walls? We going to have to chase them to the top again?”

Aranel scratched at his chin and looked up at the ceiling as he thought how to answer Surion. He had his suspicions that, just like at Minas Aure, the final bastion of this fortress would be held by some Orcish gods Avatar. If that was the case, anyone who couldn’t go one on one with a god would be ash once they reached the top. No, this was a matter for Ithramir to worry about. “I don’t know.” He said with a shrug. “Probably. Odonn was saying earlier that he’s had a headache ever since he saw the walls and it’s only getting worse.”

Surion simply nodded in response, his commander did not have to say more. Odonn was their company’s foremost mage, and like most of his kind he had ways of detecting power. Some called it a smell or an itch, but Odonn just got headaches. Both elves let slide the fact that it was rare for him to feel it at such a distance; it was probably a bad sign anyhow.

Rurik coughed above their heads and said, “Who else is moving in with the ninth, boss?”

“The fifth and sixth squads will be on the left and right flanks of the ninth respectively. The main support will be made-up of five additional sections from the human ranks though. Red realm take me if I know all their names.” Aranel said. The large elf stood and stretched his arms out in front of him. “We’re to move up in their wake with the second wave, they’ll be sending word down shortly.”

With that the conversation in the tight circle of swordsingers died as each turned to their own thoughts and diversions before they were given the order to advance. Aranel was impressed with how quickly the gatehouse had been taken, but it was never quick enough. The commander knew that speed was their only ally here – the entire siege hinged on taking and manning the fortress before the orcs could rally another force to hit them from behind. Here, this close to the green horde’s territory, there would be no fallback. They either held Minas Uial or it became their grave.

The door at the far end of the gatehouse shuddered opened and a tall helm spattered with mud poked through and barked a single command. “Go!”

It was all Aranel and his men needed. He stepped outside the gatehouse first and then slapped his helmet back on, the great helm narrowed his field of view and he thought he could hear his heartbeat echoing from the cold steel. A booming peal of thunder echoed in the air. The big swordsinger tightened his sea-grey cloak about him and tossed one last look at the rest of his squad before waving his arm forward to advance.

A light rain began to fall that steadily grew worse as his section closed in on the frontline. In the chaos and filth of the inner courtyard it only took a couple of moments before the rainwater formed channels that ran dirty brown and black. Aranel heard Rurik cuss and saw him scratching at the scar on his face, the rest of the squad wasn’t faring much better, the mud was more an annoyance than a real hindrance to their march, but it made footing uneasy.

The rain was a thick cold downpour by the time they reached the siege works at the inner gates. The orcs had not had as much time to fall back here, and the amount of dead greenskins outside the gate spoke to their desperation to buy some time to seal off the inner walls. Aranel titled his head and watched rivulets of water slide off. It didn’t matter. There was already a battering ram at the gate, and for now the rain worked in their favor. In the frigid shower it would be nearly impossible to catch any of the wooden siege engines on fire. As if this thought was a cue, the wooden gate moaned and creaked as the ram completed its first pass. It would take more to bring the gate down, but they had started, it would only take time. Aranel just prayed they had enough left.

Written by - Teran

Teran listened to her questions and a faint frown appeared on his lips. They were not easy questions to answer, nor did he think the answer would be enough justification for his actions. There was always another way to complete a goal but he had chosen that way and hurt those people... good people.

"It is not easy to explain... I am not interested in seeking justification for my actions." he says quietly.

"I did not kill for the money or sport, I killed because it had to be done. Peace was making the citizens of this kingdom soft... weak."

The assassin gazed into Ariana's eyes as he spoke, no anger or malice in his voice.

"The strength of the Kingdom was at risk." he said, breaking his gaze with her and shaking his head as if in denial.

"I am prepared to accept the punishment for the crimes I committed... I know it had to be done, but I have no right to ask Mavigan... or you to accept that answer."

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan slouched in her chair as Wilhelm rattled off the To Do list. With each new item, she slid further and further down her spine until, by the end, only the top of her head and her eyes were visible above the table.

Once it was clear Wilhelm was finished, she sat back up, a sneer of distaste on her face. “Gee,” she said drily, “is that all?”

Not really expecting a response, she hunched over her plate and stared into it, brow furrowed with concentration. It was as if Mavigan was waiting for the puddle of congealing grits to reveal a clever scheme to get her out of this. The grits did not deign to reply.

Conversation ceased at the breakfast table for several minutes, the only sounds being those of mastication. Suddenly, Mavigan brought her fist down and banged the table causing dishes and cutlery to rattle. Snapping a determined glare on Wilhelm, she said, “All right. You can shove the crown on my head, but I ain’t wearing no frilly dresses, and there is no way in hell you will ever squeeze me into a corset again.”

She shifted uncomfortably on her chair and returned her gaze to her grits. “As for the rest of it, OK. I don’t like it, but I guess I’ll suck it up… for now.”

She waited another moment and then added, “Are we done? If so, I’ll go accost the Nagarren groupies outside.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana gave a wry chuckle. “I must admit, I never thought to hear such rubbish come out of your mouth, Teran.” She abruptly pushed herself away from the table and stood, angry eyes leveled on the assassin.

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded. “War doesn’t make people strong. It never has.” Her hands clenched into fists at her side. “The only thing war is good for is causing death and destruction. This is not Aerynth. Death here is permanent.”

She turned on her heel and stalked to the far side of the room, as if she could not trust herself to be near him. “If you rely on violence to build people up you end up with someone like Ardwen! True strength has never come from the sword.” Her voice had gained in volume and she was nearly shouting. “Have you forgotten everything we once stood for?”

It took visible effort for her to calm herself down; she took one deep breath followed by another. When she spoke again, her tone was dark but quiet. “I cannot condemn you for falling from grace as I have done the same. But, we each bear the responsibility of cleaning up our own messes. If you prefer to sit here and rot in self-pity, that is your choice. However, if you choose to follow me once again and work to sort out the ruin we have left in our wakes, then give word to the Raven.”

Without waiting for a response, she exited the room. Seeing the Raven, she said, “If he requests an audience with me or bids you send a message to me, please do so immediately.”

The Raven nodded his ascent, and Ariana retraced her steps to the manor house. Unlike before, her pace was unhurried, her gaze remained on the ground, and her face was troubled.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm finished his drink with a long pull and set the flagon down. He turned to Mavigan, nodded in approval, and said,

"I agree that is a long list, but such is the life of a ruler. The order in which you deal with them is up to you. However, you have made a good start."

Wilhelm counted off five points with his fingers.

"You have agreed to be crowned. You have decided you will not wear frilly dresses or a corset in the coronation ceremony. You have invited Manuel to become the Mayor of Port Westgale, and he is ready to be sworn in. You have agreed that you will address the other issues in time. And you have decided that the first task you will handle is the delegation from the Temple of Nagarren.

That's five decisions over breakfast. Pretty good. Just take things a step at a time. And you may count on Manuel, the Raven and I to assist you as best we can.

Yes, we seem to be done here, so we can go outside. I'll warn you that the delegation is led by Acting High Priestess Korella, whom you likely recall. However, I did see your friend Allandra in the group as well.

By the way, the crown is the only required element in the coronation. As Queen you are free to wear whatever you wish, although there are precedents and traditions to at least consider. You might take a look at the coronation outfit worn by the first Mavigan. She wore Amazon armor."

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