Rakement, Somark. Early Summer, Dragon’s Accord Year 303

 

As Ledo sat up, the usual string of thoughts ran through his head. He went to bed in a fortress, but woke up outdoors. He lived on a mountain, but there was nothing here but rolling grassy hills for a league in every direction. He was wearing different clothes than he last remembered. Even though he recognized his mind going through the same motions, as the dream started the same way every time, he could never stop himself from looking over his shoulder.

A light on the horizon flared into overwhelming brightness. He turned forward again quickly, blinking the afterimages away.

“I don’t have anything interesting for you, toda- ah, tonight.”

“No time anyway,” said a dozen voices in perfect unison. “While I’d love to chat, and could really use the distraction, I can’t afford to neglect some most pressing concerns. I come with a warning.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Something in the south,” the entity Ledo only knew as the sun said. He thought he heard notes of worry in the many voices it used. “Something beyond your comprehension; I can’t even explain it myself. I’m not sure what it can do, besides great harm.”

Images flitted through his mind. A mountain, in badlands fringing the desert that formed the southernmost reaches of explored land. A strange entity effortlessly killing soldiers Ledo somehow knew could hold their own against a hundred men each. He tried to shake the images from his head. “Even still, is there anything I can do to help?” He caught the sun’s worry echoed in his own voice, and he wasn’t sure if he was worried for it or himself.

“Be careful. Believe everything you hear. If you get word of trouble approaching, do everything you can to stay safe. I only have the faintest idea what it might want. If I’m right, you may be at the bottom of a very long list, but you’re on the list nonetheless.”

“A list of what?”

“Targets,” the sun replied. “I wish I could stay, but I have to cut this short. My attention is needed elsewhere. “

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, then,” Ledo called back, as the light behind him retreated, dimming the world as it left. As he laid back down, clouds took on hues of twilight, though no stars appeared in the sky. In these dreams, nightfall only took a minute at most, before everything was plunged into an impenetrable blackness. He closed his eyes.

Then bolted back upright again. Actual sunlight now had just started to fall over Rakement, and tentatively peeked through the windows behind him. He swept his bedsheets off himself, and started to dress quickly.

A soldier almost knocked him over as soon as he left his quarters. The guard muttered an apology while thrusting a small collection of papers at him, then said, “Late evening’s reports, sir. The night scouts are expected back soon.”

“Thank you,” Ledo mumbled back. He took the papers, then returned the guard’s ensuing salute. They turned and walked in opposite directions down the hall.

Opening the double doors to his office, Ledo strode to his desk and quickly leafed through the reports. The top paper reported the reytra they were tracking had made camp shortly after they split up, the otter-like folk apparently satisfied to set down anywhere in their vast forest that they pleased. Most of the rest covered the usual dance between scouts that occurred when two sides tried to simultaneously hide from, and keep eyes on, each other.

After separating the interesting reports from the usual chaff, he selected knickknacks at random off his desk to weight them down, then turned to the vast panels of glass that made his office’s southern wall, behind his desk. Three steps took him to a set of balcony doors, which he opened wide. As he walked to the large map table in the middle of his room, a breeze followed him, carrying the scents of early summer from the forest at the foot of his mountain.

He leaned over the map displayed there, locked in place since last night. It seemed to take new urgency in light of the prior night’s warning, attracting his attention like gravity’s pull. He hunched over the table as if the new concern manifested physically, laying a weight across shoulders just too slight for a soldier. The wind, caressing framed maps leaning against walls and wrapping around Lord-Commander Ledo Harrell’s legs, had no better luck stirring those already-mired thoughts than it did stealing away the weighted reports on his desk

Nothing looked out of place, and those reports hadn’t changed that, but he trusted his dream about this new threat. What was he missing?

For starters, why that reytra platoon turned around and split up. They’d initially come from somewhere in the heart of the Sunthravale’s massive forest, along well-worn supply roads, giving no indication they’d wanted to remain unseen. An impromptu diplomatic summit was the only reason he could think to sending troops so far from home, too many to be a scouting force and too few to start a serious skirmish, in such a visible manner. He highly doubted that they suddenly decided they had nothing to say. Something must have spooked them, but if they split up, then whoever gave the order didn’t know where the threat was. Which meant that he couldn’t use them to figure that out himself. He’d slowly come to accept these two mysteries weren’t linked, or at least that solving one wouldn’t solve the other.

He turned over the cryptic warning in his head again. In the south, a threat beyond your comprehension. Believe everything you hear. Not very helpful when he wasn’t hearing anything at all, but certainly helped whatever it was remain incomprehensible. He recalled the associated images. A mountain on the other side of the Sunthravale had been the most vivid. Reaching down and unlatching the tabs fastening the map to the table, Ledo slid it out from underneath its brackets, then walked over to where the others leaned against a wall to place it in a gap. He selected one two frames down the wall, depicting most of this southern expanse of the continent, and returned to the table to slide this one into place.

The southern boundary of the Sunthravale consisted of a string of naked flat-topped cliffs, a stark contrast to the imposing mountain range that ran the entire length of the northern border. Few peaks dotted the badlands beyond those cliffs. Traditionally, only the six largest were even marked, being the dividing line between Reytra and Drake territory. Even then, they were only large relative to the pitiful dirt piles surrounding them.

After scanning all six once more, his eyes snapped back to the easternmost, near the coast. Beyond it was Zidhizalye, city of Drakes. They might try to strike north, justifying the increasing Reytra militarization as of late. Such an event, however, wouldn’t be incomprehensible, merely unprecedented.

None of the other mountains even had that much potential attached to them. Beyond that broken land over which they stood was harsh and uninhabited desert, and nobody believed any living creature could call its unexplored reaches home. Unless life calling it home was the incomprehensible fact he should believe?

Ledo grunted and strode for the door. If he was doomed to think in endless circles, he could at least do so outdoors.

Even as he approached, the door opened of its own accord. His sister stood there with a look of surprise on her face. Simple clothing couldn’t hide her noble bearing, but tried its best. Only a large golden badge, the red beryl at its center indicating her status as mage of modest rank, spoke at all of ostentation.

“You’re up early,” Sahu said, then looked over her shoulder before continuing, “did you talk last night?”

Ledo only nodded.

After another glance behind her, Sahu stepped aside to let him leave the room. “We should take a ride.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Ledo replied, then took the lead walking down the corridor.

The corridor curved at awkward intervals as the structure wrapped around the contours of the mountain holding it. Flames gave way to daylight halfway down its length, as windows replaced doors on their right. A glance out them looked out on a small town, laid out like curved steps, starting to wake up below. Three soldiers on horseback milled around the gatehouse for a moment, before riding towards the central fortification.

The hallway ended at a spiraling stone staircase, and the pair made their way to the ground floor. At the entrance, the watch captain spoke with the three riders, just arrived. Two of the scouts noticed Ledo and Sahu immediately, saluting quickly, prompting the other two to follow suit.

“Anything interesting out there?” Ledo asked them.

The last rider to salute shook his head. “No, sir. Everything’s quiet. Expecting those reytra to turn back around?”

“I’m more worried about what they decided to run towards, or away from.”

The captain laughed, “Maybe they just thought twice about messing with us.”

Ledo grimaced. “I’d like to play this one safe. I want scouts doubled up from now on, and out for longer, Captain.

All four glanced at Sahu, though the watch captain and the rider who spoke knew better than to hold that look for long. Though he didn’t look back, he could imagine his sister displaying a thin smile and nodding. The riders then looked back to Ledo, saluted, and headed off, as if his sister’s acknowledgment was also a dismissal. Ledo contemplated saying something to the watch captain, but instead just turned for the stables and resumed walking.

“It’s going to take them time,” Sahu said softly behind him.

“It’s been two years already.” Ledo wanted to say more, but decided against it. No use retreading old discussions.

The guard stationed at the stables corrected his absurdly poor posture as soon as they caught sight of him. “The usual two,” Ledo said to him. This guard, at least, didn’t wait for confirmation from his sister.

When he returned, he led two horses. Ledo’s usual horse looked sleepier than usual, while Sahu’s ripped the reins from the guard’s hands with a single toss of its head before he could hand them over. The guard moved back to his post as the sibling nobles tacked up their mounts themselves. Ledo’s tack included a sword strapped to the saddle. Sahu’s, instead, had metal bars arranged around the saddlehorn, each one colored a different shade of silver or pale gold.

The morning breeze felt no less brisk down here, but summer’s early warmth ensured comfort. Their horses picked their way down the steep mountain pass, heading towards the forest below. A single rider approached from the opposite direction, slumping in his saddle.

“Your friends beat you home,” Ledo said, as the three converged.

The scout looked up at them anew, blinking away fatigue. “Oh, uh, sorry sir. Almost got caught a few times, it’s hard to evade those bastards’ notice.” Another few blinks, then after a look to Sahu, “Pardon the language.”

She smiled, and Ledo waved it off, before asking, “What did you come across, then?”

“A rider separated from the group heading east, doubled back this way. I tried to keep an eye on him while staying ahead, but,” the scout leaned back in his saddle, then quickly bent forward again as the mountain path’s slope threatened to pull him off backwards. “It was hard to tell who was keeping an eye on who, really. I think I lost him before coming back around, but I can’t be sure. Do you want me to escort you?”

“No, that’ll be fine,” Ledo replied. “You’re falling out of your saddle as it is. Go on and get some rest.”

“Sorry, sir. Thank you, sir. Be careful; he wasn’t equipped like the rest. Might be someone special.” The scout saluted, then continued up the track.

“Any idea who that might be?” Sahu asked Ledo as they resumed their trek downslope.

“Hopefully someone with answers.” Ledo replied, “and hopefully someone tired enough from riding through the night that we can get the drop on them, if we meet.” He looked behind him to make sure the scout was out of earshot before continuing. “You don’t have any for me either? Did you get to talk to it last night?”

Sahu waved a hand towards the east, where the sun climbed. “Unhelpful, as always. I suppose we should be thankful for what we get.”

“It’s worrying enough that we both spoke with it in the same night.”

“It might not happen again for a long while,” Sahu said. “It told me that it might have to hold off on getting in touch with us for a bit. It’s worried visiting us might attract attention from,” she waved her hand in the air, “something.”

Breaking into a grin, Ledo looked to his older sibling. “You mean we might be normal for once? The sun won’t come to us in dreams, gracing us with secret knowledge while talking about our lives and scolding us for getting into fights with each other?” His expression sobered when he looked ahead once more. “I wonder what Father would have said, if he learned we were the end of that particular family legacy.”

For a time, the only sound between them was that of their horse’s hooves, and even those started to fade as the rocky mountain slope gave way to a dirt-packed forest path.

“A mountain to the south,” Ledo said, breaking the silence. “Whatever it is, it’s there, or at least the sun is worried about something there in relation to that threat. It told me to keep an eye out, and to be careful. If its visits may attract attention, it might think that attention is already turned our way. It said that whatever was there may be looking for specific things, and we might be one of them. If something can scare even the sun, it terrifies me. I’m not sure we could handle it. ”

“But you’ll be planning for it anyway.”

“Of course,” Ledo said, with a weak smile.

After a moment of silence, Sahu responded quietly, “I’m afraid I don’t have any advice to give.” She brushed her fingers over the metal bars on her saddle, and faint sparks of color danced in front of her face. “If it finds us, it doesn’t sound like I’ll be strong enough.”

“We’ll survive. Just wanted to take a breath of fresh air to figure out how.” He paused a moment, before a short laugh. “And, honestly, I was hoping we might find those reytra had turned back around, as that scout supposed. I thought it might have been a diplomatic entourage. Out of Dragonsden, it might have been Fieldmaster R’essin. We haven’t spoken in awhile.”

“Not for lack of trying,” Sahu said. “People that busy shouldn’t be so interesting to talk to.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll admit it’s a little awkward, when the queen expects us to face him on the battlefield at a moment’s notice.”

Silence once more fell, though not as heavy as the last. If the sun thought that going silent would help, then they weren’t in danger just yet. He’d just keep an ear to the ground, and hope to hear some news sooner rather than later.

He looked towards morning light, ducking his head down so the treetops filtered out the worst of the direct sunlight. At least it’d still be around every morning, so they could greet each other.

There wasn’t any formal agreement on where human territory ended and reytra lands began. Historically, the Sunthravale Authority claimed up to the peaks of each mountain, drawing a strange and confusing line based on where the mountainsides started to slope away from the valley on their far sides. The Kingdom of Somark, however, claimed everything south to the foot of each mountain. Unlike the constant jockeying for territory on Somark’s northern border, neither party felt compelled to push the issue here. Considering Rakement’s position on the southeastern slope of the mountain, thus straddling the reytra’s border claim into this disputed territory, Ledo felt fortunate. It did mean, however, that when traveling southward, as he liked to do on occasions like this, he could never be sure whose land he tread.

His horse turned its head towards into the forest on their left, so slow as to look lazy. With a snort, it slowly came to a stop. His sister’s mount continued for five more paces before wheeling around suddenly, looking to the same direction. In the forest, a mounted figure slowly moved towards them.

“I guess we were caught out after all,” Ledo mumbled. He dropped a hand to his scabbard, and Sahu relaxed her hands around the front of her saddle. The figure – revealed to be a reytra rider, as expected – stopped short. For a tense moment the three only stared at each other, before the rider continued forward once more at their leisurely pace.

As the rider neared, Ledo was struck by the ornate armor. On the right pauldron, enlarged in the usual reytra fashion, four badges were displayed. Two he recognized; one for the Sunthra current and one for the city of Belanflow, a common enough combination. The remaining pair, however, surprised him. At the top was a plain silver disk with a flame-shaped sapphire inset. The last badge was an alteration of a more familiar, though rare, rank indicator.

“Armsmaster S’tensir,” Ledo said, taking his hand off his sword’s pommel. “Did you give the order to turn that platoon around yourself?”

Ral S’tensir drew his iskapel alongside the sibling’s horses, the deer-like creature sidling smoothly to a stop. “They were needed elsewhere.”

Ledo waited for any sort of continuing conversation, but remained disappointed. “Ah, I’m surprised someone of your stature is out here alone, but…”

He trailed off as the Armsmaster looked him and his sister over carefully, his cold regard a sudden contrast to his casual posture and nonthreatening cant of his ears. Then the reytra simply shrugged, looked down and waved a hand indicating the sword at his side closest to Ledo. A simple loop of leather held the naked blade in place. Strange protrusions, each set with a small piece of colored glass, ran opposite its singe edge. Ledo knew a matching sword hung at Ral’s other side as well, and the stories surrounding those twin blades made him shiver.

“Tell your queen,” Ral began slowly in a soft tone, “that she need not worry of trouble from this area. We presently have more important concerns.” His eyes snapped back up to meet Ledo’s as he turned his iskapel in place to look down the southbound path, and he straightened in the saddle. “If she decides to take advantage of this, however, she will pay dearly. Some things do not wait on politics.”

As he then spurred his mount into motion, Ledo heard him mumble, “Our politics, at least.”

After he passed, Sahu called out, “Will you give Fieldmaster R’essin our regards?”

The Armsmaster didn’t respond as he strolled away.

Staring at Ral’s back for a time as he left, Ledo eventually said, “I think that’s enough air for today.”