Nloheim Bonecry's head wobbled uncertainly, held in his left hand that was braced by the elbow against the sturdy oak table, jolting him momentarily from the approaching sleep. The remains of a platter of venison and fresh bread were nearly cold, pushed slightly away from him. They'd been at this for nearly ten hours, shown by the substantial basin of liquid that had formed from the water clock in the center of the large table. The fact that his stomach was heavy with food did not aid him to listen to the ongoing debate. It was yet another council on whether or not to martial the army against the rumored threat of the Theocracy.
"What says the seat of the Hunt?" asked Ravna Goldmere, taking great pride in her role as facilitator, since she got to sit in the seat of the Sun so very rarely.
It took him a moment to realize she was talking to him. "Sorry, what was the question?" Nloheim asked, gazing at the bleary eyes of three of his fellows and then at Ravna. Her youthful energy was tremendously out of place, he thought, amongst the council of elders.
"The question, revered speaker of Fate, is whether or not it would be wise to conscript aid from the Concordat," she replied, a bit testy but too fearful of Nlo to let it enter her voice much. She referred, of course, to diverting knights from their sacred charge of protecting the lands against the invasion of the Orcish Empire through the narrow isthmus that connected their domains.
Nlo was about to issue a retort when he realized what seat he was in. He did not know who had brought up this course of action, but being in the seat of the Hunt meant he could only argue against it by how it might affect the animal resources of the land. In the seat of War, Laselue Stormraven's gray hair fell down in front of her face, asleep, showing Nlo exactly why the war with the Orcish had not been brought up to squelch this topic. "The seat of the Hunt says that should the forces of the Concordat of Kent be diverted to our aid they would put an unwelcome and unpredictable drain on the resources of our animal stock and would leave only animals to hold off the orcs." It wasn't a perfect counter, but it didn't technically overstep his bounds.
Ravna seemed like she wanted to countermand him, but looking at his blank eyes she was, as usual, intimidated from her course. The Goldmeres, in general, seemed to have that problem with the eerie presences of Clan Bonecry. She settled back into her leather chair, blazoned with the gold of the sun, and pulled hair of a similar color away from her perfectly formed face. Nlo had to admit to himself that in many ways he was enamored by her charms, but he knew full well that even were their ages not at least three decades separated they were still the heads of two rival families, and she was every bit as willing to use all political tools in her favor as he was.
"I propose that industry would be served best by manufacturing tools for combat locally, whereas the Kentish would bring their own supplies with them and, thus, reduce the amount of labor that could be done locally," said Regek Cragwalker, speaking up from the seat of Crafts. He rubbed his thick callused hands together and through his sparse white hair, trying to wake up in order to participate.
Rabuhr Windsong nodded his elderly head sagely at this statement, though with his eyes half lidded as they were, he very well could have been nodding at his own daydream. "Very well, the seat of Crafts supports the seat of the Hunt. What say you seat of War?" asked Ravna.
Laselue's head very nearly hit the table, startled awake as she was by this question. "War says that the question should be asked again," the older woman stated to the younger, rubbing the bridge of a nose that resembled a beak as her hand proceeded down from clearing the sleep from her eyes. Nlo suspected that Ravna had the worst time with Laselue, as the beauty that sometimes swayed the trio of older men had absolutely no effect on the matron of Clan Stormraven.
"Should the Knights of Kent be diverted, in some part, to help in the impending war against the Theocracy of Arkand?" Ravna repeated again, the irritability that she could not bring to bear against Nlo in full force against Laselue.
"Oh, that again?" Laselue sneered slightly, "The seat of War points out that should war resources be diverted from the actual threat of the Orcish Empire to face a potential threat from the Theocracy of Arkand, we would face definite conquest as opposed to hypothetical conquest. Further, the orcs have been trying the defenses of the Kentish of late, and with a reduced garrison there is no doubt that they would be able to choose an opportune time and break through the isthmus and gain a solid foothold in council lands."
"Very well," Ravna stated as she handed her plate to the passing serving boy, "the matter of drawing resources from the Kentish is tabled by an argument of three to one. It will remain so until more evidence can be brought to bear that the Concordat can spare these resources. We will now accept new proposals." She checked the matter off of the parchment she had before her and looked about at the already drifting elders.
* * *
At the foot of the stairs a young serving boy spoke quietly with an older maid. Within minutes she had gotten in touch with her contact, and the intelligence was swiftly borne to its destination. When the high priest of Arkand received the news he was quite pleased. With the Kentish out of the fight the odds abruptly became much stronger for his side. He spent the rest of the evening writing missives to spread this information to his fellows.
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"Do you know, child, what is done to traitors?" a female voice asked, calmly, suddenly, causing Uhlsat to leap up and away, slamming into the kitchen wall. He felt the hard gray plaster leave a bruise on his forehead, and smelled his own blood in his nose. Picking himself up from the dust-covered hardwood floor where he had fallen, he slowly turned towards the speaker, brushing his coarse green tunic and brown trousers free of the choking dirt.
"Mi'tress Las'lew," he fell to his knees in shock that one of the counselors would deign to speak directly to him, "I don't know what you mean!" Were they on to him, or were they talking about something completely different? He looked into her eyes, unblurred by age, crystalline blue that revealed nothing besides their fierce intensity.
"My name is pronounced 'laz-Ul-whey,' Laselue," she said in seeming disgust at yet another commoner that could not properly speak simple vowel conjunctions, "but you must call me Mistress Stormraven." She brushed her graying hair free of her face, its composition giving all the appearance of snow on the feathers of a bird of prey. Absently running a long fingernail down the aged but unwrinkled flesh of her cheek she gave Uhl all the impression of a hawk about to gobble him up.
"Forgive me Mi'tress, I meant no offense." The boy's eyes scanned around the room for avenues of escape. She had neatly caught him in a corner of the kitchen, between a roasting rack of lamb and a basin full of dishes, managing to block with her form both the doorway and the path past a large oaken table that served as a food preparation area. His only option would be a window several paces away, the midmorning sunlight flickering through it and the heat waves coming off of the nearby wood-stove.
She saw his darting eyes and was recalled to her point of business. "Traitors to the countries of the Council face a very grim fate indeed," she spoke sibilantly, her voice dropping to a whisper that nonetheless carried the short distance across the room, her eyes half-lidded, "Once I saw a man stretched on the rack in the village square, left for the ravens to eat him at their leisure. He lasted a week, but he was mad by the fourth day. I can only imagine how painful it must have been." Uhl felt his face blanch with the thought and saw a small sardonic smile form on the counselor's face.
Feeling more fear than he had in any of his eleven years, Uhl forced himself to be brave, clenching his tanned, callused hands behind his back. "Mi'tress, that sounds horr'ble." He blinked his small brown eyes to clear the tears of panic that had been welling up, and set his feet firmly.
"Yes, indeed it is," she said, not letting him free of her cold, hard eyes for a minute, her hands folded patiently inside her voluminous emerald robe. "There are rumors of spies operating within the manor, using their place as servants in order to send information on the plans of the Council to rival nations. These became more than rumor last night when a maid named Seblona was caught forging a missive to the Arkandites. The city's reeves are even now interrogating her," she let the word fill with the meaning of what was actually being done, "and if they aren't stopped soon she might very well reveal the names of her fellow conspirators."
Laselue stopped for a moment, her gaze bearing down on Uhl. He swallowed hard, and felt a bead of sweat rolling down his face. "However, what the police find," she continued, "may not be all that she revealed in the hours that she was under my care before being turned over to the reeves. In fact, I think I know a great deal that her accomplices are unlikely to wish known." Suddenly she stepped forward, giving all the appearance of a raptor approaching its prey, forcing Uhl to take a step further back into the corner. Her next statement was so nearly silent that even the cooks operating frantically to prepare the lunch meal across the kitchen could not know that she spoke, "Do you know how we found her?"
"N-n-no, Mi'tress," Uhl stammered, feeling for all the world that this woman was about to eat him like some small morsel of food in one bite.
"Because the Arkandites are not the only ones who make use of spies." She allowed this a moment to sink in before she continued in that same piercing whisper, "Nothing is safe from my knowledge in this manor, and my operatives are much better than those our rivals have in place. I am giving you a very simple choice. You can give your allegiance to me, work as one of my operatives, and filter misinformation to those plants we allow to continue here, or I can let Seblona's interrogation continue until all of her fellows are made known."
When she put it that way, the choice was not so difficult to make after all. His loyalty to his current patrons was bought with coins, but this new loyalty would be bought with his life. He nodded his acceptance to the counselor. "Excellent," she spoke in a warm voice, the fierceness melting away into the typical mien of a wise matron, "I believe it's lunchtime." She tousled his black hair with a soft hand and walked calmly from the room. For his part, Uhl let out a deep sigh and fainted into the corner, once again knocking his head against the wall.
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Sir Beselm Enbosekh Silverdust stared blearily at the rising sun, its bright rays piercing the film that covered his eyes but not warming his body after the long cold night. He tried to move but was unable to find the strength, though the attempt did restore the sharp ache of his body's weight hanging by his arms, which lanced up his shoulder blades. How many days had it been? It had been at least five, though he was swiftly losing count as the hours of torment traded off with blackouts. If it had not rained, was it yesterday, he would likely be dead by now. That would be a release.
Finally, he ripped open his eyes. He would not allow them to surprise him this day; he had to be alert to their tricks. The new sunlight showed him again the wooden platform he hung over, his feet almost touching but not quite, from his arms chained to the scaffolding he knew to be overhead. Around him the square of granite cobblestones led to the fronts of a dozen shops. The low, squat buildings were crude and ugly, but looked sturdy enough to weather any attack. He had once thought he was that sturdy.
Only a few days before he had enjoyed health, been in the prime of his life. He and his squad had penetrated deep into enemy territory, carefully scouting out the lay of the land, keeping tabs on how the enemy worked. They needed to see how strong they were, whether they would soon be planning an attack. With all the information they needed, knowledge to tell the headquarters that, indeed, the enemy was marshaling for another strike soon, they were heading home.
It had been a band of hunters that had seen them. Immediately recognizing the threat they presented, the group reacted with military efficiency, sending two to rally the guard while the rest engaged the knights. All had fallen, but not before the runners were too far away to catch. Though they had traveled with utmost stealth and speed back towards home, it had not been enough. They had been run down within sight of their borders.
And now he hung from this scaffold, dying slowly to the most insidious of torture, the agony of his own thoughts, the only physical torment his own lack of fortitude. Similar tortures were employed by his side, and the captives often broke mentally before death finally took them. He willed a silent prayer to Skydancer, goddess of the sun, as her orb rose steadily into the heavens, wishing for release from this torment.
None of the enemy had begun to move about town, and he supposed it must now be a rest day. Did they even observe the same structure of days as he did? Probably not, for their twisted deities did not require the same devotion and love as did his. He thought he heard footsteps on the cobbles behind him, and then there was a click, and his right arm fell free, landing limply at his side.
"Soldier? Can you move?" a strong and stern voice drove itself into his hearing.
He broke open his cracked lips and forced air into his throat, "No, sir. Please kill me."
"The others in your company are dead soldier, we need to know if your mission was a success."
Thinking hard, he replied, "Yes sir, we gathered the information."
"Well, what did you determine?"
"The enemy, sir, are fortified. It would be a bad time to withdraw soldiers to fight the Arkandites."
"Excellent, soldier, you're a credit to the knights." The footsteps began again and hurried away.
Some few minutes later the light flickered on polished black armor, fitted to short but menacing figures that were approaching from before him. Slimy dark hair stuck to scalps the green of pondscum, and yellow tusks glinted dully in the sun. The troop stopped before him, regarding him with beady black eyes from beneath sloping brows. The lead figure spoke gruffly, "so, human, are you ready to tell us why you have invaded our countryland?"
"I will never tell you," Beselm hissed through his still-parted lips.
"Too bad then, since you already have," the orc grinned hideously, "Soldier. It seems that the knights of Kent must soon contend with another power, and they will not be able to face us will full force. That is information most interesting." The ugly toad chortled, a horrid, grating sound.
With a burst of energy even Beselm had not known he possessed, he swung forward, reaching with his newly free hand for the axe that hung on the orc's back. Contact was made and with a wild spin he pulled back and left it, blade first with a wet thump, in the sergeant's head. As the crossbow bolts of the others pierced his body he watched their dead leader fall to the ground. The last breath left the knight's body, fixing the smile of triumph on his face.