My name is Cara Shem Fenib. I lead my clan. It is the cold time in the plains, but we have survived. I have been a good hunter, so there has often been meat, instead of the hard roots that leave my insides almost as empty as not eating at all. Sickness among my clan also has been rare: the wind spirits have been kind.
This light time marks the middle of the cold time. If we survive now, my clan lives until the next cold time. But, the last few hunts have not gone well. Each member of my clan gets hungrier, and with hunger comes desperation: a young one challenged me, earlier. I refrained from hurting him, and avoided hurt for myself, but if the hunts do not improve, things will get worse.
I sent the mothers and the weak to the thick trees in search of roots. I and my brothers will hunt what we can, and alert the others if we kill. Separation is bad for the clan. If we kill, it will take longer for the others to arrive, and another beast or clan may claim it before the rest of my clan arrives. But, at least the hunters will have eaten. I have no choice. Our mothers will starve, and will not be able to make milk for the young when the warm time comes and our loins burn.
My brother’s call disturbs my thoughts: he has found a fresh trail. It is near the darkness, now is the best time. The tracks are from a large beast. The depth of its tracks show much weight. The scent tells us its taste, and our legs tighten, and our stomachs cry out to be filled. We follow quickly.
The scent gets thicker in a spot: it rested by this tree, it does not know we follow it. The trail continues, away from the thick trees, and we see a structure lit by Spara-Kla, the burning air. There are many worshipers around it. They are the Spara- Klani, the man-beasts, and they do not travel without the burning air. They roam the fields, burn the land, and hunt in the thick trees with the long claw and the flying stick. And they kill my clan when we are many and strong. We war with the Spara-Klani, but we are too weak now.
The trail continues past here, back to the trees, and we follow it, knowing that it is the riding-beasts of the Spara-Klani that we follow.
“I couldn’t reach you until I was about a hundred feet away,” Kenneth told Rho as they rode through the darkening woods. They left the burning tent and its occupants behind, trying to put out the fire, find out what its cause was, and control the slaves at the same time.
“I know. The device must be very powerful.” Rho looked over her shoulder to Goren, who sat in the saddle behind her. Kenneth, it seems, was only able to acquire one extra horse from the camp ground, and wasn’t expecting any company. The silk clothes Goren and Rho had been wearing in the tent were not nearly warm enough for the winter evening, even with five layers of the material wrapped about them, and sharing the horse allowed them the double benefit of sharing their body heat.
“I am thankful for your rescue, Kenneth,” Goren spoke as a way of getting into the conversation. For some reason, Kenneth had not treated him terribly respectfully in the past half bell. Goren wished he knew why. “My family will reward you greatly for my return, when we get to Magnus. I’ll make sure of it.”
Both Rho and Kenneth turned and looked at him disapprovingly when he said this, but it was Kenneth who spoke next, as if Goren wasn’t even there.
“I would have warned you if we had the time, but I was being… followed.”
“Looks like nothing’s coming, now,” Goren said, glancing back to make sure there was nothing behind them. This time, Kenneth did him the courtesy of acknowledging his remark.
“There are other ways of knowing when you’re being followed, boy. We are still in danger of those who are behind us.” He looked down at Rho, almost scolding her with his expression.
“I had to make a decision, didn’t I?” She seemed almost childlike to Goren with this remark, and he glimpsed a softness that he hadn’t seen from her in the tent. He wondered if he could like this demanding, oppressive woman whose angelic eyes concealed experiences he didn’t wish to live, and a fire he feared… and shared.
“It was wrong,” was Kenneth’s only response, and he looked forward and down as if to end the conversation, but he mumbled one last phrase in the next half bell. “The Fenib still have to be fed.”
The trail enters the thick trees, again, and I send my brother for the mothers and the weak. We are close now, and the man-beast will be stopping, and our numbers will be greater. It is very dark, and the Spara-Klani do not travel in the darkness.
A strange thing happens: a man-beast walks toward my clan, not covered in its usual hide, and lays down in the white cold. My brother starts forward, but my bark stops him. The Spara-Klani are not to be trusted.
I step closer, coming near his leg. He does not move. Smelling him, I do not sense fear. This disturbs me, and I warn my brothers. But this man-beast is foolish. The white cold surrounds him, makes him weak, and all we must do is wait.
Then I feel him in me, speaking to me, showing me, and I know: this one is for us. I wait, and the white cold takes his heat and leaves him with the smell of the Black Fenib. I bark to my brothers: we shall survive this cold-time.
Cold air greeted Goren as he stirred from under the blankets he and Rho had shared to keep themselves warm. The small lean-to which Kenneth had built the night before kept some of the wind out, and most of the snow, but the rest of the blankets and materials were needed for the horses. He looked around, searching for his many layers of thin clothes and found only a few of the items with which he had left.
“Here, wear these,” were the first words Rho greeted him with as she entered the slight structure, a gust of wind following her. She threw a small pile of clothes – a cape, suede vest, thick white pants and a pair of white boots which were a little large for him, and added as she walked out, “We’re leaving soon.”
He dressed quickly, finding that most of the items fit him rather well, over the thin layer of clothes he had taken from their previous lodging. What was that place, anyway, he found himself wondering, and where are we going in such a hurry? And where were these clothes last night, when I needed them? And what’s happened to… He left the tent.
“I don’t understand,” was the first thing he said to her. She was dressed in some new clothes, also; probably taken from the saddle bags she was strapping onto the horses. She gave him a hard look, filled with sadness and determination.
“He left last night,” was her only explanation. This did nothing for Goren’s need for information, and only made him wonder who he was dealing with, now that they were free.
“Oh, so he always just gets up and walks off without his clothes? In the middle of the night?”
“The Fenib had to be fed.” She looked at him, almost accusing.
“Who in Risseer’s feast are the Fenib?” He was getting very annoyed. He knew she could knock him on his back, if she needed, but he didn’t care. He only wanted answers, something she owed him at this point.
“Inhabitants of these woods. Creatures who live in the winter because we help them, because they need help. All Stevene’s creatures need help, some time or other.”
“Nehru’s pointy nose! A Stevenic!” He threw his arms up in the air and began pacing around the fire Rho had built earlier. “Listen, I don’t care what religion you follow, as long as it’s not bloody Saren. All I want is answers. Why did he leave, what’s happened to him, and why am I wearing his clothes? These are his clothes, aren’t they? I mean, is he coming back, or isn’t he? How does he intend to feed the Fenib? No one in their right mind just wanders off into the winter night without anything to wear. No one can live through…”
His words trailed off slowly, their meaning finally hitting home. He knew why Kenneth had left, now, and what had probably happened to him. He had only one reply. “Ol, that’s disgusting.”
Again, she said, “The Fenib had to be fed.”
This question only resulted in Rho’s accusing glare. He didn’t know why, but he had the feeling she thought it was his fault. Then, she stopped.
“I’m sorry, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.” Goren understood this statement about as well as he did all her opening thoughts, so she reinforced it. “If I had not taken you with us, you would have run on your own, when the tent burned, wouldn’t you?” Goren nodded. “Well, you would have been caught by the Fenib, and they would have fed on you. You would be dead, now, and not Kenneth.”
“He gave his life…?”
“I didn’t know! The magic field around the tent was preventing me from contacting Kenneth. The Fenib were in danger of dying out.”
“But he’s a human being!”
“It doesn’t matter, in the long run. There are plenty of human beings, but the Fenib who hunt in winter are slowly dying off. It’s our fault, you know.”
“What?” That last one was a little much. As hard as it was for him to understand that Kenneth’s life had been forfeit for his own, that Rho thought she was the reason for Kenneth’s death, and the Fenib had to be fed, he had no concept of why she thought the Fenib’s inability to survive was his and Rho’s fault.
“Not ‘ours’ meaning yours and mine, but ‘ours’… the human race’s. We kill them in the summer, when they hunt the game we think of as our own, the game we cage in to make the slaughter that much easier. It reduces their chances of surviving the winter.”
Goren looked at her, seeing pain, happiness, confusion, and remorse all over her face. It crumbled, her eyes became cloudy and her shoulders drooped. He thought of going to her, resting her honey-brown head against him, but she stiffened immediately.
“There. You have your answers. Now, we head for Magnus to return you to your family.”
Goren began scooping snow into the fire and listening to it simmer as the flames became lower and lower.
“What can possibly be taking them so long?” Ne’on asked no one in particular as he looked at his map of Baranur. He traced a line, once more, from Gateway to the Nar-Enthruen where he had sent a company of men to take the Stone of Strength. That gem was a giant piece of an important spell component. With it, he could open a gate the size of this hall.
Ne’on paced in front of the fireplace slowly, reflecting on the comfort of the warmth. Lifting his black hand, he tilted his head back slowly to empty the goblet’s contents down his throat. What was that, his third this evening? He hadn’t kept count. He didn’t care, anymore. Things had gotten out of control. He could barely even remember how he had gotten here. He reached for the bottle.
Everything had gotten so chaotic. And then there was Phos. Phos, whose logic was infallible, who rationalized everything so convincingly until, before he knew it, Ne’on was sitting on the Seat of Gateway and heir to House Winston. Phos, whose magic filled him, gave him the strength to do the things he couldn’t control on his own. But it felt so good when the energy filled him. It was better than the wine he was drinking. It was better than anything he had ever known. He could fly, if he wanted, or make lightning strike from the sky.
And people listened to him. Yes, he admitted, that was definitely something to consider. The power and respect that he commanded. The way people accepted what he told them, listened to his instructions, and things went along so smoothly. There were actions which had to be taken before that happened. Ne’on didn’t like to think of those times. He could hardly remember them happening, as if he had dreamed them during the night, only to wake up and find himself here, now. Phos had taken care of them. When things became confused, and Ne’on didn’t know what to do – that seemed to be happening often, in the last few months – he called Phos. All Phos asked in return was a way into this world. Ne’on liked to think of Phos as his guardian angel.
“Why not look for them?” Clay suggested from the edge of the firelight. “You have magic…”
“That wouldn’t work for our – my – benefit. It’d be like turning on a bright light in a forest. Equiville would pick it up in an instant.”
“I don’t understand,” Clay returned, stepping out of the shadows to peer at the bottle of Lederian red. Why not? he thought, and reached to fill an empty flask with the wine.
“I thought you didn’t drink.”
“I don’t,” Clay returned, and swallowed a large quantity of the liquid.
Ne’on stared silently at his Captain. There were a lot of things he hadn’t bothered to learn about Clay. He hadn’t thought he needed to, but perhaps now… no. It would all be over in a few weeks. This damn magic – it can take control of a man.
“Picture yourself sitting in the hills, watching a field. It’s night time, heavy clouds, no moon. Someone is in the field, but he’s not using anything to light the way. Can you see him?”
“Very difficult,” Clay answered. He finished the rest of his goblet, and put it back on the table. Instictively, he wandered toward the edge of the light. “But what does that have to do with it?”
“To use my magic,” Ne’on explained, “I would have to lower the Garthian Blind. That would be like lighting a torch in the middle of a dark field. Gateway would become very visible to Equiville’s senses, and we can’t afford that… not yet.”
Bartholemew Clay stepped back into the darkness.
“Just remember what I told you,” Rho’s voice, surprisingly neutral, reminded him. “Don’t stay at Gateway too long. You’re not meant for that, anymore.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re telling me. First-”
She looked at him again, and he became silent. The winter thaw had come and gone on their trip to Magnus, and the horse he had ridden had broken a leg in the muddy trail. They were forced to kill it. Something else for which she would remember him. She had a way of making him feel sorry, making him want to repent for simple mistakes. She had an influence on him which he had never known by his father, and couldn’t remember from his mother. No one, in fact, had ever made him feel so much like a child, an inexperienced, immature infant. Yet, it wasn’t malicious. It was more like… being instructed.
“Don’t understand, Goren. Just listen to people who know what they’re talking about. Go to Gateway, do what you have to do, and then leave.”
“What am I supposed to do after that?” He scowled slightly when he said that, realizing that he had been taking orders from her for so long he began to rely on her input. “Forget it. I’ll find something to do.”
“Good.” She began to walk away, then turned around. “Remember what I told you about Stevene. He’ll forgive you, as long as you forgive everyone else. And He loves you, no matter who you are, or what you do.”
Goren waived as she pulled her horse in front of her, down the cobblestone drive, and onto the road that would eventually lead her out of Magnus. She wanted him to go to Dargon for some reason. She hadn’t said it exactly like that, but he knew she would be there… maybe he would go. She was very trying, as a friend, he thought. Never gave him an inch. He smiled as he turned to walk up the steps… he liked her like that.
Haralan squinted his eyes, surveying the battle plans his advisors and War Council members had drawn out before him. It didn’t appear favorable on the field, out-manned and out-horsed by the Beinison Army, but Magnus – and Crown Castle, particularly – was strong, and held the loyalty of every good citizen. It would take more than Beinison had, he hoped, to claim victory here. But these Councils went on forever; and with Marcellon’s condition…
“My Lord King,” Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of Baranur’s Armed Forces, spoke slowly and intently. “If the Beinison Armada makes its way down the Laraka and joins forces with the Emperor’s Fist and the regular army in our Southern Marches, Magnus *will* be endangered seriously. It may be necessary to draw plans for evacuation.”
“Surely,” spoke High Priest Redcrosse, “such plans were drawn up years ago. This discussion hardly seems necessary.”
“Surely, they were, my Lord High Priest,” the Knight Captain of the Northern Marches, Luthias Connall, interupted, not a little contempt for the pompous clergyman in his voice. Haralan realized just how much Luthias had aged these past two years, with the beard roughly outlining his tired face, but he had yet to learn the complete wisdom of restraint. “However,” Luthias continued, “those plans were drawn up over one hundred years ago, when Magnus only had three sections. Only chaos, confusion, and death would result if we tried to implement those plans today.”
“Well, then,” returned the clergyman, “surely we should consider the safety of the Church-”
A loud noise from the hall outside the chamber, followed by the main doors opening, interupted the High Priest.
“Your Majesty,” announced a guard, “Goren Winston of Gateway Keep insists on appearing before you.”
One more thing, he thought. The King sighed heavily, sat back in his throne, and motioned for his council members to sit down. “Show him in.”
A ragged, tired, and disshevelled man appeared before the throne, hardly presentable to a king under normal circumstances. “My Lord King, my name is Goren Winston,” he began, and the King’s patience, worn thin by the demands of war and unhelpful clergymen, failed immediately.
“I am quite aware of your name, your title, and your heritage, my Lord Keeper. The Winston Household is one of the most well known among the minor nobles, and your resemblence to your father -beneath the dirt and blood on your face – is a striking one. I am also aware that you are now Keeper of Gateway, following your father’s demise, and that you hold one of the key strongholds at the joining of the Laraka and the Vodyanoy rivers. Am I to surmise, then, by your appearance and your urgency, that we have lost that stronghold to the Beinison invasion, or have you finally decided – after six months of delay – to take the time away from your country’s defense in order to receive your formal title by my hand? In light of the desperate situation the first example places us in, I prefer to believe that the leader of this potential military point of contention hasn’t the wits to realize where he is needed most! Further more, the question of who was left in charge comes to mind, with the only possible answer being Knights of the Star!”
The King rose from his throne, and Goren stared haplessly about the room, receiving no help from its other occupants. “My Lord King?”
“We are at war, man – do you know what that means?”
“War…” the word came out slowly, comprehension sinking in deeply and suddenly.
“Yes, war – or haven’t you been reading the royal messages sent from duchy to duchy these past months?” Haralan could not believe that Gateway Keep had been ignorant of the movement and news of the Beinison and Baranurian armies. He had sent a message less than twenty days past to the Lord Keeper, who had replied with Gateway’s readiness.
“Begging your forgiveness, your Majesty,” Goren began, “in the past six months I have witnessed my father’s death, been imprisoned by my brother, beaten by guards, hunted by slavers, and told that the feeding of a man I hardly knew to a pack of beasts was indirectly my fault. I have spent the last three months trying to cover the two weeks’ distance between Gateway and Magnus for the sole purpose of clearing my name and requesting the aid of your Majesty in bringing my brother – the true murderer of my father – to justice. The idea that this country was at war never entered my mind, nor are royal messages passed on to slaves from their owners to keep them abreast of world news.”
Haralan returned to his throne, raising his hand to halt Goren’s speech. “Something, then, has halted your freedom, my Lord Keeper. Lord Marcellon informed me four months ago of your situation and dispatched a letter to a fellow practitioner of the arts in order to reinstate your position by royal decree. Obviously, this was never executed. We had thought you in the Keeper’s Seat these last two months, at least.”
Haralan searched about him for a quill and parchment, moving the maps and scout reports and hypothetical troop movements out of his way. “This letter of appointment will have to do,” he continued, dipping the quill and scratching it onto the parchment, pausing every so often to speak. “I can’t… afford the men… for an envoy… but reveal this to… Castellan Ridgewater, isn’t it?… whom, I am told… was very loyal to… your family.” Haralan signed his name with a flourish, dripped some wax onto it, and punched his ring finger’s royal seal into the wax.
“How am I to deal with my brother, Ne’on?”
“We all have our situations to deal with if we’re to overcome the Beinison forces, Lord Keeper. See if your uncle can spare a few of the House Guard to accompany you. And please, do the court a favor and find your uncle’s baths before you embark. Looking like that, you’re not likely to instill loyalty in a dog.”
Goren sighed deeply. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
“If you’ll excuse us, Lord Keeper, we have a War Council to continue. You’ll be receiving orders from us shortly, so take care of your business as quickly as possible.”
“Yes, my Lord King.” Goren bowed for three backward steps, turned, and exited the hall.
Edward Sothos looked at the King. “A little hard on the boy, weren’t you?”
“He’s no boy… Untar is younger, and his scheming threatens our nation. It’s time Winston started accepting the responsibility for the title he’s claiming.”
Sir Luthias nodded his head in grim agreement.