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sklandor

The Gryphon's Game: Chapter Ten (Complete revision)

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Jan. 29th, 2006 | 10:28 am
music: Ben Lee- No Right Angles
posted by: sanitysloss in sklandor

This is chapter ten, completely revised.



Chapter Ten

The following morning was a beautiful day. It was warm and sunny with barely a cloud in the sky. A gentle breeze carried the scent of the hundreds of flowers decorating the city and made the banners and flags spread throughout the city flutter.

The start of the Festival of Blades was marked with a grand parade. It was a grand spectacle with musicians, acrobats, dancers, along with soldiers from each army and warriors marching through the city in a great loop before entering the grand arena that would serve as the battleground for many of the matches. There, the rules of the festival would be read.

By tradition, the army of the host tribe led the parade with the other tribes drawing numbers to find their placement.

This year, the Aquila army was at the front, followed by the Sandari army, the Hirykui army, the Kanjaru army, the Tenbnea army, and in the rear, the Kanjadu army. Polished weapons and armor reflected the light as plumes and banners waved in the light wind. Rows of calvary riders, spearmen, and swordsmen marched down the path in perfect formation. It was an impressive sight and a truly showed the power of each tribe's army.

Between the armies were warriors from different training schools, their own banners and flags waving as they marched along, occasionally stopping to show off their skills and talents to the admiring audience.

Also mixed in were acrobats, dancers, and musicians. Beautiful women in brightly colored skirts and blouses whirled around in unison, their skirts flaring out as the scarves attached to their wrists and ankles gracefully trailed behind them. Acrobats, performed back flips, front flips, cartwheels, and somersaults along with juggling acts, occasionally tossing brightly color balls or candy into the audience much to the delight of the children. The musicians marched along, pounding out drum cadences and familiar marching songs.

Along the parade route, people cheered and blew whistles and other noisemakers as the parade passed by. Many people were crowded on the sidewalks, but others sat in the buildings, throwing streamers and confetti out of windows. In many areas, the white marble streets were completely covered with small pieces of colored paper. Even after the festival was finished, bits of paper were found in the gutters or swept up when the streets were cleaned, reminding people of happier times.

Halfway though the parade route were the grandstands. There, the rulers and invited members of the upper class sat in on silk cushions while the awning above provided shade from the sun. There were also servants, ready to pour glasses of wine or water.

In one box sat the two royal daughters and the servants, Juran, Nouma, Lieries, and several other noblemen and women. On the other side of the parade route sat Tonari, Isberi, and Kinara. Missing from the grandstands was Gareth. Those who had tried to see him were quickly ushered away by the guards standing in front of his door, the only explanation being he was sick and needed to rest.

While Flarka sat patiently on the bench next to Juran, quietly observing the parade, Lissa, Teriana, and Aidia raced along the box to find the best vantage point while shouting and cheering at the parade members below. Their loudness and excitement annoyed some of the other members in the box, but it was quickly established the guests and children of the Hirykui ruler were free to do as they wished.

“Mela Juran!” The Sandari ruler looked up as Teriana waved happily at him. In the absence of the Hirykui ruler, he had taken the position of guardian and surrogate father, a position he enjoyed. “Look, it's a dragon!”

A large dragon, made out of silk and wire gracefully drifted by. It was attached to long wood poles and the marchers holding the poles would raise and lower them, making the dragon twist and turn as it glided through the sky. The passing of the dragon symbolized the arrival of the Hirykui army.

“So it is,” Juran replied as he stood up. He wondered if Aerin knew about her husband's absence. He somehow sensed she did. “Ladies, come here. You'll have to represent your father in his absence.”

The four women obediently lined up as the Hirykui army began to pass under. A row of dancers dressed in Hirykui blue and silver passed below them, their scarves and skirts flaring out as they spun around. Behind them were the flag bearers, carrying the familiar blue and silver standard of the Hirykui army and tribe. Behind them stretched the great Hirykui army, with Commander Renkruia leading them.

Every year a new set of armor for each commander was created for the parade. The armor was a representation of the tribe they served and a true work of art and a testament to the crafter's abilities.

Aerin's armor was designed to resemble a dragon with many of the design elements taken from her own spirit form. The metal was colored a deep blue with silver accents. It was a set of plate armor with the metal overlapping each other to look like scales.

Her helmet, which fully covered her head, was shaped to resemble a dragon's head. A permanent snarl and rows of teeth was carved into the metal while three black horns extended from the back of the helmet and curved down.

Her gauntlets were fitted with ebony claws and added to her fierce and draconic appearance. There were also similar claws on her boots. Covering her chest was the familiar tabard of blue and silver, while a flowing cloak of dark blue and silver covered her back. Also covering her were pieces of confetti and streamers, several dangling comically off her horns.

While normally she would have enjoyed the parade, happily waving to people as the rode past, the events of last night left Aerin feeling exhausted and generally angry. After Jeyer left, she had checked up on the two servants and daughters, relieved to discover they were okay. The rest of the night and early morning had been spent watching over Gareth. There was no doubt Tonari had been behind it-- she was certain she had seen the Aquila ruler with the dagger before and the room was filled with her stink-- she was hesitant to confront the Aquila ruler before speaking to Gareth.

There was so much she wanted to know. How had Tonari entered the room, why hadn't the guards done anything, where was everyone else? There were too many questions and different scenarios kept arising in her mind, pulling her focus everywhere. At that moment, Aerin wanted nothing than a relaxing bath, a clean set of clothing, and a long, relaxing nap.

Three whistle blasts pierced the air and she pulled her horse to a stop. Behind her, the soldiers stopped, still marking step as the drummers continued the drum cadence. Turning her horse, she faced the grandstands and saluted the men. In the din of the crowd, she could faintly pick out the voices of Aidia, Lissa, and Teriana and it brought a small smile to her face. Lowering her hand, she turned her horse the other way and saluted the women. Another series of whistle blasts and they were on their way again. With the first formal part of the parade over with, Aerin relaxed slightly as she rode on, counting down the minutes until she could change out of her armor.

Aidia gave a final cheer as her mother and army passed by, immensely proud of the soldiers below. The young soldier wanted nothing more than to be marching in the parade with the other soldiers, but both her commander and mother had asked she stay out of the festival this time.

Lissa gave a wistful sigh as a group of acrobats followed underneath and began to amuse the crowd with their antics. While she had seen parades in Trantrioch, never had they been on such a grand scale and she had never been up in the grandstands before. Hearing her sigh, Aidia looked over curiously. Lissa just shook her head. “Oh, just thinkin'. It must be nice marchin' in parades an' bein' a famous warrior such as Commander Renkruia.”

“Well, I haven't marched in any real parades yet,” Aidia admitted. “Though I guess it's nice hearin' people cheerin' your name wherever you go, bein' a hero to all.”

Aidia had not yet realized there was more to being a warrior then just brave and epic battles and parades. She saw only the glory of being a warrior and knew nothing of the pain, destruction, and chaos her mother was a part of. Had the horrors been made clear to her, she might have looked at the path of a warrior and walked the other way.

Juran smiled and shook his head as he listened to the two young women talk. Both had much to learn about the real world, but no sense in rushing them when there was plenty of time. Turning to the Tenbnea ruler, he gave a small head bow as he addressed the elderly man. “You are fortunate to have such wonderful grandchildren, and of course, Gareth for a son.”

Nouma gave an absent nod and a small smile. “Of course I am, Juran.”

Juran looked at him. Illness had changed the man for the worse. He seemed distant and paranoid, convinced everyone was planning his downfall, a far shade from the proud and powerful man he once was. And the way he seemed so displeased with Gareth bothered him. He wondered if there had been some argument between the two Tenbnea man. Deciding not to dwell on it further, he looked at Flarka and smiled at her. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

Flarka looked over and gave a polite nod while keeping her eyes lowered. As awe-struck as she was by the beauty of the city, the level of power the upper class held over the lower overwhelmed her. It saddened her to see the servants look so cowed and intimidated as they moved around the castle. It didn't help the men and women around her were scrutinizing her as they quietly talked about her. “Yes, Mela Juran, I am.”

Juran was not convinced she was enjoying herself. She seemed paler than usual and was quieter than normal. He gently patted her hand as he said under his breath, “Do not worry what others think. You may be a servant, but you bear much more class and sophistication than these louts.”

Flarka blushed profusely at the ruler's words. “Your kind words honor me, Mela Juran.”

Lowering her voice, she looked over at the three girls as she spoke to Juran. “Mela Juran, do you know what is wrong with Mela Gareth? I took the girls to meet him this morning, but we were turned away by guards. Hirykui guards. They said he was ill and needed his rest. I can understand that, but it seems so strange. I'm certain he was in perfect health last night.”

Gareth's sudden disappearance also worried Juran. He too had tried to visit the Hirykui ruler and had been surprised to see the bedchamber blocked by two Hirykui soldiers. While he accepted their answer and walked, he knew it was not mere illness keeping the Hirykui ruler away from the public eye if the Aquila guards around the castle could not be trusted with watching the room. “He was in perfect health. I am just as worried as you. Why don't we visit the ruler after all this, mm?”

“I would like that. And the girls too?”

Juran frowned slightly and shook his head. “No, I think we should see him first.”

Flarka nodded in agreement as Teriana ran over, a smile on her face as she took her grandfather's hands in her own and gently pulled on them. Behind them, a flock of silk pegasui flew past, gracefully swooping and flying around. “Mela Nouma, the Tenbnea army is coming. Won't you come see them?”

Nouma patted the girl on the head as he slowly rose to his feet with Lieries' aid. He shuffled forward and gripped the railing as the Tenbnea army stopped underneath.

Alek gave a smart salute as he faced his ruler, his horsehair plume waving in the breeze. Someone shouted out to him as he heard a loud bang, quickly gripping the reins as his horse began to stomp the ground in agitation. The crowd began to scream and run, adding to the confusion as several more firecrackers went off, spooking the other horses. The Tenbnea commander was a skilled horseman, but in his parade armor he could barely move much less control a frightened horse. The soldiers near him quickly ran to calm his horse and others while attempt to restore order to the panicked crowd. In the confusion, the ones who threw the firecrackers slipped away unnoticed.

Juran watched and worried, hoping none of the soldiers or townspeople would be injured. Amidst all the confusion, he heard someone laughing hysterically. Angered someone would find it so amusing, Juran turned to shout at the offender, shocked to discover it was Nouma. “Nouma, what is so amusing about this? Someone could be hurt.”

Nouma looked over at the other ruler, a large grin on his face. Lieries looked nervous and was trying to lead the ruler back to his seat. “Oh, I'm sure this is just a small event put on to show the efficiency of the Tenbnea Army is. There's no need to worry.”

Juran looked at the parade route. The horses had been calmed down and most people had returned to their places. Yes, it had showed how efficient the Tenbnea Army was, but Juran doubted it had been planned. “No, I don't think so, Nouma. Someone could have been seriously injured. An innocent bystander, a soldier, even Commander Esteban could have been hurt. What if Commander Esteban fell from his horse?”

“He is a battle-hardened warrior. A fall will not kill him. And if it did, well, then perhaps he is not fit to be commander,” Nouma said as he looked away from the Sandari ruler. As far as he was concerned, the conversation was over.

Juran made a disapproving sound as he shook his head at the Tenbnea ruler. How far his friend had fallen. “You have changed, Nouma. May Kalrasha strike me down if I become such an uncaring man in my old age.”

Everyone looked at him in surprise as he stormed out of the grandstand. Flarka looked from the three girls, shocked and confused at what had happened both on the parade route and in the grandstand, to the ruler she had once served, a cold look on his face as he observed the parade in silence, to the exit.

“Mela Nouma, I'm sorry, but please watch over the girls,” Flarka said, giving an apologetic bow as the ruler looked at her and nodded in acknowledgment of her request. “Aidia, Teriana, Lissa, listen to Mela Nouma and don't do anything foolish!”

The three girls were about to follow the servant out, but a look from Mela Nouma quickly stopped them and they quietly turned back to watching the parade.

By the time the last warrior entered the arena, the majority of the audience had already moved inside the vast coliseum. The rulers, who had departed once the Kanjadu army had passed the grandstands, were already seated in their section and awaiting for the ceremony to finish.

On the arena floor, the flags for each army and school were arranged in a great half circle behind a platform holding a single podium. Standing in front were the six commanders, lined up and at attention with all the warriors and soldiers arranged behind them in great columns. It was as if they were statues neatly arranged and awaiting for someone to breathe life into them.

Walking out one of the many entrances into the main arena floor, was a tall, pompous looking man dressed in robes bearing the Aquila crest. As he stepped up to the podium, all the warriors saluted him before they dropped to one knee and lowered their heads.

The man cleared his throat as he tapped a crystal mounted to the podium. The crystal briefly glowed blue before the light faded away. “Great warriors gathered before me today, I bid you welcome to the Festival of Blades, held in the great city of Asruli.”

The crystal amplified his voice so all could hear him. In the stands, people murmured appreciatively to each other, commenting on the magic that made it possible. The speaker first praised the Gods for their mercy, kindness, and wisdom, then Tonari for hosting the festival and the other rulers for their contributions. Then the warriors were praised for their service and loyalty to the tribes and for their great abilities and skills.

After all the proper praises and thanks were given, the general rules were outlined. They were the same rules recited at the festival every year and the rules were also posted in the barracks as a constant reminder. Warriors who had attended the festival several times rolled their eyes, growing agitated under the hot sun.

With all the formalities finished and the opening ceremonies over, there was a collective sigh of relief from the warriors, masked by the thunderous applause and the sound of the soldiers simultaneously standing up and giving a final salute before filing out through the various exits.

The six commanders were the first to file out, moving as quickly as they could in their heavy armor. Once out public view, they were whisked away to the room set aside for them. Dubbed the commander's lounge, the room was filled with plush couches for the commanders to recline on along with closets for storage and an adjoining washroom. Set against one wall was a long table, already filled with presents for the commanders from adoring fans.

The six commanders thanked the attendants who had helped them to the room before quickly stripping off the armor, unceremoniously dropping the armor on the ground.

Jeyer gave a groan of disgust as he pulled off his helmet, a small stream of sweat pouring out from the helmet. “I will be glad if I never have to wear this accursed armor again.”

“Agreed,” Nokane replied as she stripped off her own armor. Raised in the blistering desert heat of the desert, she didn't mind the warm weather in Asruli; it was the humidity she hated. “Aerin, pass me a water skin?”

Closest to the table, Aerin grabbed one of the water skins off the table and sloppily threw it, manging to miss Nokane and hit Zidah, who was reclining on a couch behind the Sandari woman. As a magic user, Zidah had forsaken the heavy plate and mail and gone for the traditional cloth robes of a magic user with leather armor over it. Her armor already removed, she was sitting around in the robe when the pouch hit her. The pouch opened on impact, drenching the Kanjaru woman with cold water.

Zidah gave a shirk of surprise and rage as she stood up, her eyes narrowed as she glared at the Hirykui woman. “Watch where you're throwing things!”

Too exhausted to argue, Aerin mumbled an apology as she reached for another water skin and held for Nokane to take it. Zidah was still fuming and growling herself, but both commanders ignored her.

Nokane took a long drink from the water skin before handing it back to Aerin. She studied the exhausted face of her friend and her brow creased. “Y' okay here? Look like yer 'bout t' pass out.”

Aerin gave a tired nod as she finished off the water skin. “I'm fine, just a little tired. Didn't get as much as I should have.”

“Somethin' happen last night? Saw yer soldiers in front of yer bedchamber when ah was passin' by.”

Aerin blinked at Nokane and shook her head. “Gareth's feelin' ill so I thought I'd post my guards an' make sure no one disturbs him.”

“What's wrong with the castle guards?”

Aerin hesitated to respond with Jeyer in the same room. The Aquila commander gave a cold laugh. “Don't worry, I'll say it myself; the castle guards are inept bastards.”

“While we're on the topic of inept bastards,” Alek broke in as he removed the last of his armor. An angry scowl was etched on his face and his eyes were narrowed. “Those damned cultists are back. Threw some firecrackers at the horses an' spooked the poor creatures. Ah swear ah'll wring the neck of those bards if ah find them.”


The older commanders nodded with sympathy and understanding with the two younger commanders looked at them with confusion. Jeyer looked at them and gave a small shrug. “Every year we run into these crazed fanatics. They're convinced we're soulless servants of Ossani that'll turn the world toward darkness an' have ritualistic sacrifices, bathe in the bloods of our victims while havin' wild orgies with each other an' our followers between battles.”

“They've also convinced themselves it's their duty to purge such evil,” Aerin said with a wry face as she searched through the gift table. “But it's nothing to worry about. They usually throw rocks an' curses an' cause a big scene an' nothin' else. Best thing to do is ignore them an' walk away. Ah, here we go.”

She held up a bottle of wine and gave a small grin. “Fine Hirykui wine, straight from the wine cellars of Trantrioch. Should make up for that sludge we had last night. Alek, I think you deserve the first drink.”

Alek took the bottle from her and looked at the label before he cracked the wax seal and removed the cork. He took a long drink from the bottle before he returned the bottle to the Hirykui commander. “Ah, just what ah needed for this weary body. Ah tell y', ah'm gettin' too old fer this. Think ah'll retire after this festival an' leave all the fightin's an' what not t' y' younger folks.”

There was a stunned silence as all of the commanders stared at him. A smile crept onto Alek's face as he gave a hearty laugh. “Y’ can stop lookin’ at me with those pityin’ eyes. Ah’m kidding ‘bout retirin’. Ah think ah can churn out a few more years from these old bones.”

There was a collective sigh of relief from the older commanders. They had long seen the old commander as a steady source of support and stability and looked to him for his advise. It would be a great loss when Alek finally retired, either by his own choice or through his death.

“Good to know you’ll still be around with us,” Aerin replied as she motioned toward the washroom. “Who wants to use it first?”

Everyone shrugged, offering the washroom up to someone else before Jeyer stood up and claimed it. “Anyone else want to join me? Plenty of room in there. Zidah, want to join me? I can scrub your back.”

Zidah glared at him and he quickly scampered off. Aerin gave a small smile as she picked an apple off of the gift table and begin to peel it with a small knife. “You know he was only jokin', Zidah. He's harmless, really.”

The Kanjaru commander didn't look convinced. “I don't see how you can stand him.”

Aerin smiled as she remembered the first time she met the Aquila commander. He had been his usual charming self and the two had begun to argue. After sufficiently bruising each other, they dropped the argument, declared each other equals, and brought each other drinks. Since then, they had been on good terms.

“Jeyer is not as bad as he seems. Aye, he may love his wine an' women, but he's a good man at heart. He's like a brother to me. True, a brother I want to bash on the head at times, but still a brother. Try to look past his outer self, mm? Besides, the two of you have somethin' in common; he's also a Kanjadu.”

Zidah looked at Aerin with surprise and interest. Across the room, Enrico bristled slightly. “Really? What aspect does he follow? Forest or mountain?”

“I wouldn't know, but is it really that important?”

The Kanjadu woman gave the Hirykui woman a look that was a mix between absolute shock and disgust. “Your ignorance is astounding, Commander Renkruia.”

Alek sat up and gave the younger commander a look of warning. “Remember who y' speak t', Commander Morban.”

“I will remember that, Commander Esteban,” Zidah said as she looked over at Aerin with a smug look. “Well, I shall explain it to you then. Ekoti is unique in the aspect--”

“--Ekoti is both male an' female. There are two versions of Ekoti, the first being two separate entities, one male an' one female. Twins, you could say, but they are not true twins like the demi-gods Iris and Siri. Ekoti can also be depicted as an androgynous figure. Both depictions are accurate and accepted in the temples.”

Aerin gave a small chuckle at Zidah's surprised look. “I could say more about Ekoti, but I'll get to the point: For years, forests have always been attributed to the female aspect while mountains have been attributed to the male aspect. In recent years, there has been debate over which aspect should be followed or which is more powerful. As a result, the Kanjadu tribe has been divided, with the Kanjaru tribe followin' the female aspect an' the Kanjadu tribe followin' the male aspect.
“When I asked was it really that important, I was not implyin' I did not know about the lore or the reason behind the split. My point is no matter what aspect you follow, you are all children of Ekoti.”

“Do not assume you know or understand everything because you can repeat what everyone else already knows, Commander Renkruia,” Zidah replied, a sour look on her face. While she could respect Aerin for her abilities as a warrior, she still considered herself the superior in skills and intellect. Any commoner could pick up a sword and swing it around, but it took true talent to master the art of magic.

“The division in the Kanjadu tribe is not because of a mere disagreement over which aspect to follow; it is about picking the right ruler and power. Too long the Kanjadu tribe has been a weak tribe, progressing little and clinging onto old outdated rituals and ways. Maila Isberi will change that with the Kanjaru tribe. She will succeed where Maila Kinara has failed.”

“An’ I suppose you help carry out Maila Isberi's plan?” Aerin asked, cutting the apple slice in half and tossing one half over to Alek.

Zidah said nothing, but raised her hand, tracing a small series of signs in the air. Vines slithered out from the various bouquets on the gift table and over to where Aerin was seated. Wrapping around the wrist of the surprised Hirykui woman, the vines plucked the apple slice out of her hand and carried it over to the Kanjaru woman and offered it up to her. Zidah gave a small smile as she plucked the apple slice out of the vines and bit into it.

“I will do what is necessary.”

Aerin sliced through the vines with her dagger and freed her hand as she looked at the young commander. Zidah was bold, but her boldness was unrestrained. The young woman still had much to learn about being a commander. “I see. I wish you the best of luck with your plans.”

Nokane watched everything quietly. She didn't like the Kanjaru commander and nothing the young woman had done had helped improve her opinion. But something about Zidah intrigued her. “Zidah, ah'm curious about somethin'. It's obvious yer a talented mage, so why become a commander?”

“An' it's not t' say we don't believe a mage can be a good commander. After all, one of the finest Tenbnea commanders, Commander Alyandra was her name, was a mage. Just uncommon,” Alek broke in as he stretched out and ate his apple slice.

Zidah looked over at Enrico, a smug smile on her face. “I have my reasons.”

Everyone followed her gaze over to the young man, who blushed and looked away. The animosity between the two commanders was obvious, but the question was why? Nokane turned back toward Zidah and gave a small nod. “Very well. If y' wish t' keep yer own council, ah'll respect that, but know it's ill-advised t' keep secrets from friends.”

“We are not friends, Commander Asrulda. I am here to win and show the power of my tribe, not socialize with others and make friends as you seem so fond of doing.”

Alek gave a low chuckle as he sat up and leaned forward. His patience with the young commander was beginning to wear thin and the prospect of fighting her in the arena and teaching her a lesson was becoming more appealing. “If y' think the point of this festival is to 'win' an' t' 'show the power of yer tribe' an' if y' truly believe y' can survive without friends or the support of yer fellow commanders, then forgive me, but yer a damned fool an' ah pity y'.”

Aerin gave the Kanjaru commander a cold smile as she began to peel another apple. “Alek's right, dearie. While I’ll admit winnin’ matches will bring prestige an’ what not, just remember we’re here as entertainers. Your death will excite the crowd just as much as anyone else's. Remember that.”

Zidah would have said something in reply, but a knock on the door interrupted her. Alek stood up and opened it. An arena attendant gave a low bow as he handed over a sealed scroll. “Helali eraka. This is the official fight schedule for all commanders. Individual copies can be delivered upon request. Additional questions can be directed toward the main desk.”

Alek thanked the man before closing the door. Holding up the scroll, he looked at the other commanders. “Well, this is it. Go ahead an' take a peek or wait fer Jeyer?”

It was quickly agreed to wait for the final commander. Alek set it down on the table before returning to his seat. The commanders quietly conversed among themselves, sneaking glances over at the scroll on the table. When Jeyer reentered the room, he looked at all of them with curiosity before noticing the scroll.

Aerin picked it up and tossed it over to him. “Do the honors, Jeyer.”

Jeyer carefully removed the wax seal and began to skim over the contents, while everyone stood up and surrounded him. When he was finished reading, he rolled it back up. “First match is between Enrico an' Nokane, second is between Aerin an' Alek, third is between Zidah an' myself. You can look up the schedule for the rest of the festival yourself.”

Upon hearing he would be facing the Sandari commander first, Enrico paled slightly. While he knew he would have to face her eventually, he hadn't expected it to be so soon.

Nokane held her hand out to him, noting the worried look on his face. While she had no intention of holding back, there was still his relative inexperience to take into consideration. “May yer blade ring true, Enrico. Look forward t' fightin' y'.”

Enrico took her hand and shook it firmly as he managed a brave smile. “The same to you, Nokane. May your blade ring true.”

Aerin looked over at Enrico and smiled at him. She saw promise in the man and knew he would be fine. Alek, she held out her hand and shook it firmly while giving the man a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Well, this is it, old friend. Glad to have you as my first. May Alashina bless you with her speed an' may your spear be true.”

“As t' y', Aerin. Look forward t' testin' my skills gainst y'. May Kalrasha bless y'... but not too much,” Alek replied, returning the shoulder slap before they drew apart.

Jeyer smiled as he held his hand out to Zidah. She shook it before quickly releasing it. The Aquila commander looked amused by her actions, but gave her a low bow. “May Ekoti bless us both. The best of fortune an' strength to you, my dear.”

“And to you,” she said curtly, though she avoided eye contact with him.

“A prayer before we go?” Aerin asked as the other commanders nodded. Taking each other's hands, they lowered their heads as Aerin recited out a prayer.

The six commanders looked at each other for a bit more, exchanging a few more well-wishes and blessings and dragging out their farewells. With the time for friendship quickly fleeting, they tried to grasp the last remaining minutes. Who knew what tomorrow would bring save change and pain. When there was nothing left to be said, they gathered up their belongings and left the room, heading off in their own separate directions.

*****


With the festival started, many of the tournaments and events were already in full swing. Crowds gathered around makeshift arenas to watch archery competitions, jousting matches, and many other events.

For warriors seeking fame and glory, these events were the best way to begin. One could become quickly noticed by a nobleman seeking a bodyguard or a group of adventurers looking for a skilled archer for their next quest. It was also a well known fact the commanders and captains of the armies were always found at the events, seeking out new recruits.

Captain Selena Kaurris leaned on a fence railing, watching one such match with interest. It was one of the lower ranking tournaments for novices, so she doubted she would find any potential recruit for the Hirykui army, but it was still entertaining.

Her formal parade uniform had already been shed and she now wore a plain short-sleeved tunic belted at the waist with loose breeches and a pair of worn leather boots. Attached to the belt around her waist was her sword. Looking like any other warriors and festival-goers, she easily blended in.

“Interestin' t' see young warriors fightin', innit, Selena?” a voice asked her. She expected it to see one of her soldiers or perhaps one of her friends, but instead Selena faced the minstrel that had traveled with them. Erik grinned as he tilted his head toward the fighters. “See anyone y' like?”

Selena looked back at the warriors. One was a swordsman and the other was a staff fighter. Their movements were awkward and she could see plenty of flaws, but they were young and still had time to polish up their skills. “Not here. I doubt they'll be enterin' the Hirykui army any time soon, but I could see them goin' into other armies. I think I’ll refer the staff fighter to Alek.”

“Only the best of the best fer the Hirykui army, eh?”

“Somethin' like that. So, what brings you to these matches? Can’t see a guy like you interested in these.”

“Just takin' a small break from helpin' Marcus.”

“Oh, so did set up a stand. How is it goin’?”

Erik gave a large grin. “Quite well. A little slow in the beginnin', so ah had t' draw some people in with a bit of song an' dance, but ah think they're doin' better now. Y' should stop by later.”

Selena nodded in agreement. “Of course, but you'll have to show me how to get there.”

“Ah'll be glad t' escort y', yer warriorness. An' yerself? What brings y' t' these matches if yer not lookin’ t’ hire more recruits?”

Selena gave a small laugh as she ran a hand through her hair. The crowd around them cheered as the staff fighter managed to knock the swordsman over. “Nostalgia, perhaps. Like many other warriors, I made my beginnin' in tournaments like these, in this city actually. Didn't win, but I performed well enough to be accepted into the Kanjadu army.”

“Yer family must have been proud of y'.”

A pained smiled crossed the Hirykui captain's face as she shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. “Hardly. It’s a long story.”

Erik smiled at her as he offered his arm out. “I would love t’ hear it. We can walk t’ Marcus’ stand while y' talk.”

Selena hesitated slightly, but accepted his arm as they left the ring and began to walk along. “Very well then. The Kaurris family, maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you haven’t, is a very prestigious an’ well-to-do Aquila family. My father was captain of the Aquila army, my mother, stayed at home an’ ruled over the estate. I was the eldest child, followed by a younger brother an’ two sisters.”
“As the eldest child, I was expected to grow up an’ become a proper young lady an’ marry a rich wealthy gentleman an’ be the perfect trophy wife to him, my own dreams be dammed. My younger brother was the one expected to be the warrior an’ carry on my father’s legacy. Problem was I was fascinated with the stories he told an’ the armor an’ weapons. I didn’t want to be anythin’ but a warrior. I snuck onto the trainin’ grounds to watch the soldiers train an’ even tried to get some of the soldiers to teach me. My parents were far from pleased.
“When my brother began receivin’ sword trainin’, I snuck off to watch an’ learn from his lessons. That went on for a month before his teacher caught me an’ had me fight one of his students. As expected, I lost, but the teacher was impressed an’ offered to teach me how to fight. Father an’ Mother forbade me from learnin’, despite what he said, so I began learnin’ from him in secret.
“The festival came around an’ at my tutor’s encouragement, entered a few of the matches. How was I supposed to know I’d end up fightin’ my own brother in front of my own family? I ended up defeatin’ him an’ goin’ on. Didn’t win the tournament or even place very highly, but I caught the eye of the Kanjadu commander. He wanted to recruit me for the army. When I told my parents, they gave me two options: join the Kanjadu army an’ become disowned from the family, or stay home an’ remain a proper young lady.”

She looked at Erik with a small smile. “I think you can guess which option I choose.”

“But now that yer a captain, certainly they've--”

“No, never did. My father never spoke me to again. Died before anythin' between us could be resolved. My mother is still alive, but refuses to acknowledge my existence. My siblin's were proud of me though an' did their best to keep in touch an' let me know what was goin' on.”

“My condolences. It must have been hard for you.”

“I won't lie an' say it was easy. Hurt more than anythin' else in the world. Well, no, I can think of a few other events that hurt, but I won't go into them now.”

She grinned at him. “So, what about you? Sure a rogue like yourself has an interestin' story to tell.”

Erik paled slightly. As a member of the royal family, he had met most of the prestigious families in the Aquila tribe, the Kaurris family included. The Kaurris family was a loyal supporter of the Aquila royal family and had deep ties in the Aquila military. While her loyalty and ties toward the Aquila tribe was most likely low, Erik knew he had to pick his friends carefully. “Perhaps another time. Maybe over drinks sometime this week, if yer not busy that is.”

Selena looked at him with mild surprise and amusement. She wondered if it was an innocent offer of friendship or if he was looking for more. He was certainly a nice man and honest from what she could tell, but she already knew anything beyond a friendship would never work. But there was no sense in turning down a kind offer. “I would enjoy that. Kalrasha knows with the things I have to do this week, drinks are greatly appreciated.”

Marcus and several other assistants were busy organizing merchandise and handling transactions when Erik and Selena arrived. Using a few tables and chairs and a canvas cover from one of the carriages, the farmer and his friends had formed a makeshift stand, their bone-carved necklaces, bracelets, and decorative figurines proudly displayed for admiring shoppers. A trip to the beach had also produced some seashells, drift wood, and smooth stones for their craft-making.

The farmer gave a large smile as the minstrel and captain arrived. Selena gave Marcus a firm hand shake while Erik went off to retrieve his lute. “Good to see you again, Marcus. I hope business is goin' well for you?”

The farmer grinned as he picked up a bulging money purse. “Began pretty slowly, but Erik drew some people in with a little bit of song an' dance. Was worried we wouldn't be able t' compete against the other merchants, but looks like we're doin' quite well. Turns out our prices are affordable for most people.”

“I'm glad to hear that,” Selena said as she looked over at Erik. Reunited with his lute, he was already beginning to play songs to draw people toward the stand. Switching between songs and stories, he entertained the growing crowd.

Between a song, Selena motioned for Erik to come over. Grinning widely at him, she drew her sword from her sheath. “Play somethin' fast for me, will ya?”

Hopping onto a chair, Erik gave a low bow as he began to strum out a fast paced song. Selena walked in front of the crowd and began to weave her sword back and forth in the air. The crowd moved back, giving her plenty of space as she began one of her many training routines, her sword mere flashes of light as she flipped and spun around. Erik grinned as he noticed the crowd growing and winked over at Marcus. When she finished her routine, she grinned at the crowd, shouting over the thunderous applause.

“While you're here, don't forget to check out the lovely array of necklaces, bracelets, an' figurines at the stand to my left! Buy a present for a loved one back one, or maybe for a new lover tonight,” she said, winking and blowing a kiss to the crowd, pleased to see people had already turned to browse the stand. After taking a short break, the two Aquilas began their show again.

While their act drew plenty of attention for Marcus' stand and was a true blessing for his wallet, it also drew plenty of unwanted attention.

Deneb stalked the streets of Asruli, a long cloak hiding his missing arm. With his followers from what was left of the Crimson Claw, they stowed away on a boat and made their way to Asruli. With the wealthy walking along the streets in their silks and diamonds and merchants displaying their goods on open tabletops, it was the perfect opportunity to become rich.

He scouted the stands, a grin spreading across his face when he saw the stand with a large crowd busy watching two performers. With the distraction already set up, he nodded at his men as they began to head toward the table. While his lackeys served as lookouts, Deneb scanned the goods on the table. He frowned as he looked at the homemade necklaces and bracelets. They weren't diamonds or gold, but they were decent and he figured he could convince some poor sap they were carved from dragon or unicorn bone.

He moved into position and prepared to grab a few necklaces when one of his lackeys nudged him. The thief looked over, his eyes narrowed. The lackey simply pointed at the performers. Standing on the chair was Erik. Selena was gone, getting some water before resuming her performance.

Deneb looked over the minstrel, his mouth dropping open as he recognized the minstrel. Unable to contain his anger, he drew a dagger and pushed through the crowd. People quickly scrambled out of his path as he lunged at Erik.

Erik quickly leapt off his chair and out of the way as Deneb slashed his blade at him. Landing on his feet, Erik raised his lute to block another attack while he gave a cold scowl. “The hell are y' doin' here?”

Deneb took a step back as he flipped his dagger in the air. The crowd around them closed in, urging on a fight. “Gettin' rich an' gettin' revenge, boy.”

Erik looked at the crowd then over to Marcus. The simple farmer abhorred fighting and knew nothing good could come out of it, but looked over at the minstrel and gave a small shrug to say, “do what you must do.”

“Best walk away while y' can, Deneb,” Erik said. He had no doubt he could outfight the thief in a fair fight, but surrounded by innocent civilians and without a proper weapon, there was potential for disaster.

Deneb laughed again as he leered at the thief. He hated how Erik was doing so well while he was still scraping and stealing scraps of food, how Erik had found a more honorable line of work. He took a step forward, but a sword tip pointed at his throat stopped him.

The Hirykui captain gave a cold smile as she raised her sword to tap the thief on the chin. “Helali alda, Deneb. What are you doin' here, stinkin' up the place? Oh, an' my compliments to the person who removed your hand. A shame he couldn't have removed yer lousy head too.”

Erik looked over at the captain with surprise. “Y' know this lout?”

A small smirk crossed her face as she drew her sword back. “You could say that.”

It was true the thief and captain knew each other, though it was hardly on good terms. They had once served together in the Hirykui army. Upon meeting each other, he made it very clear he believed women had no place in the army except as bed partners and did everything he could to make her life miserable. As the years went by, she turned down his advances and continued to prove her abilities as a warrior.

When the position of captain opened up, both Selena and Deneb went for the position. The two ended up fighting against each other in a match, where Deneb was defeated.

Infuriated by his loss, he broke into her sleeping quarters that night and tried to rape her. She had fought back and broke his hand and his nose and would have done more had the other soldiers not dragged her off of him. Shortly after, he was expelled from the army. After that, his career as a warrior continued on a downward path as his bad-temper and vices interfered with his effectiveness.

Even after so many years, Deneb was still bitter toward the Aquila woman Not only because she had consistently turned down his advances, but because she had defeated him in front of the army and had him expelled from the army and ended his career. While he only had himself to blame, he firmly believed it was her fault and one day, he would have his revenge.

Deneb spat on the ground as he glowered at the captain. “Still the whore of the Hirykui army?”

Selena said nothing as she sheathed her sword. Petty insults and crude behavior, he hadn't changed at all. “I suggest you leave, Deneb.”

Deneb took a swipe at her with his dagger, the blade crossing in front of her eyes as he taunted her. “'Fraid t' fight me an' ruin that pretty face of yers?”

Erik took a step forward, but Selena grabbed his arm. As much as she wanted to fight him and silence him, it was neither the time nor the place. He looked at her, but took a step back. Deneb sneered at his former comrade and flipped his dagger into the air. “Beh, knew y' wouldn't face me, y' coward.”

Something snapped in the man and he leapt forward, swinging his lute as if it were a mace. Wood splintered as it connected with Deneb's head and the man dropped to his knee, clutching his head. Seeing their boss injured, the other thieves came out of the crowd, their weapon drawn.

“Well, now look at what you've done,” Selena mumbled as she drew her sword and crouched into a battle stance as the thieves advanced. Erik backed away from Deneb, his broken lute still clutched in his hand. Around them, some people quickly left, not wanting to be caught in the brawl, while others stayed to egg the fight on.

But before the fight could progress, whistle blasts pierced the air as Aquila guards broke through the crowd, shooing people away. The bandits quickly ran off, not wanting to confront the soldiers.

“Git back 'ere y' spinless bastards!” Deneb shouted at them as he staggered to feet, blood pouring down his face. “Ah said git back 'ere!”

One guard, presumably the leader as the plume on his helm was larger than the others, marched up to Deneb, Selena, and Erik and sneered at them. Selena hid a smile as she straightened up to her full height, a head taller than the guard. The condescending sneer on his face vanished slightly as he took a step back. Composing himself, he looked at the captain as he said, “Such uncivilized brawling will not be allowed on the streets of Asruli nor are commoners allowed to carry weapons without the proper papers. Please hand over your weapons immediately.”

“Captain Dalsher? What is the hold up?” The voice of the Aquila ruler pierced the air. Behind the crowd was the royal palanquin of the Aquila tribe, the curtain thrown aside as Tonari looked out, her eyes narrowed and an angry expression on her face.

The sight of his younger sister made Erik's heart freeze. While his intent of coming to Asruli was to find a way to enter the castle, he had planned on remaining unnoticed by her. But now with a crowd surrounding them, it would be impossible to avoid confrontation with her.

The guard that had addressed Deneb and Selena quickly turned to face his ruler, throwing a hasty salute as the townspeople quickly dropped to their knees to bow to their ruler. “Forgive me, your highness, but these...” he waved toward the three, “commoners were fighting and this crowd formed to watch them. Typical behavior, I assure you this will not happen again.”

Tonari motioned for her guards to set down the palanquin and help her out. The crowd parted as she walked past, her dress and robes flowing around her feet gracefully and the sun shining off of her jewels and crown. She stopped in front of the three offenders and looked at them. Selena gave the Aquila woman a formal salute before dropping down to one knee while Erik quickly dropped down to his knees. Deneb only smirked at the ruler and spat on the ground in front of her. Captain Dalsher recoiled in disgust as another guard forced Deneb to his knees.

“You, stand up. What is your name?” Selena stood up at the order of the Aquila ruler. While she disliked the Aquila ruler, she knew her place and knew better than to argue.

“Captain Selena Kaurris of the Hirykui army, your highness,” she said curtly. She briefly looked over at Captain Dalsher, who had turned red.

Tonari looked her up and down as a small smile crept across her lips. “An Aquila, are you not?”

“Yes, your highness.”

“I thought so. Any relation toward the Kaurris family?”

“Captain Bordain Kaurris of the Aquila army was my father,” Selena replied. Captain Dalsher turned even redder and quickly turned away.

Tonari nodded appreciatively. Of the noble Aquila families, the Kaurris family was the most loyal. Whether that meant the Hirykui captain pledged her loyalty to the Aquila tribe also was uncertain, but Tonari stored away the inforamtion for later as she turned to look at Deneb. “And you, what is your name?”

“What does it matter to you?” Deneb snarled.

Captain Dalsher glowered at the thief. “You are in the presence of Maila Tonari, ruler of the Aquila tribe. Mind your manners, peasant.”

Deneb growled at the Aquila man and snapped at him before turning to look at Tonari, a lewd sneer on his face. The other guards looked at him, ready to dispatch him if their ruler so commanded. Such open rudeness was never tolerated, especially toward Maila Tonari.

Tonari in turn merely hid a smile. If he wished to feast upon her beauty, then she would let him. Those that were the most obvious in their desires were always the most easy to control.

Captain Dalsher cuffed Deneb on the head. “Her royal majesty has asked for your name and you will provide it.”

The thief glared at the guard, but surrendered his name. “Deneb.”

She said nothing, but made a dismissive sound. It was a common and crude name for such a crude man. Looking at the final figure, she blinked. He seemed familiar and there was something about him she didn't like. “You. Rise.”

Erik slowly stood up and faced his sister, a defiant look in his eyes. Even after all the years that had passed, Tonari recognized her brother. A cold smile crossed her lips as she studied his simple clothing, his changed appearance, and the broken lute in his hands.

“I see. Captain Kaurris?” the captain looked over and waited for the ruler's next words. “I presume this will not happen again?”

“No, your majesty, this will not happen again.”

Tonari nodded, accepting her answer. “Very good.”

Tonari turned around and walked back to her palanquin. Captain Dalsher stared in surprise. She had arrested and punished people for less, yet the three, especially Deneb who had openly defied her, were allowed to walk free? “Maila Tonari, but what-”

Tonari turned back to face him, her eyes narrowed. “You heard the captain. It will not happen again.”

She entered her palanquin as Dalsher gave the three a cold glare before marching over to join the other guards. With the ruler safely inside, the guards picked up the palanquin and jogged off with Dalsher leading them on horseback.

With the fight over before it even started, much of the crowd dispersed with a few holding back to see what would happen. Deneb watched Tonari leave before turning back to Selena. “Don't think ah've fergotten about y'. We're goin' t' settle this right 'ere, right now.”

“No, y' won't.”

A heavy hand clamped down at Deneb's shoulder and the thief looked up at Marcus. The farmer had silently observed everything, knowing better than to get involved. Whatever feud existed between the minstrel, bandit, and commander was best left between them, but with several warnings already given and ignored, the peaceful farmer decided to step in. “Ah kindly ask y' t' leave mah friend alone an' move on.”

While Marcus was a pacifist and would never hurt anyone, Deneb didn't know that. Knowing better than to pick a fight with a much larger man, he pulled his shoulder away. He cast a final smirk at the Hirykui captain as he spat on her boot and walked off.

Selena winkled her nose in disgust as she scraped the glob of spit off with her boot heel. “Geh. Damned bastard hasn't changed a bit. Suppose I'll be watchin' my back a bit more carefully. Still, glad the fight was broken up, even if it was by Maila Tonari. She hasn't changed either. Eh, Erik, you okay?”

The minstrel said nothing but dropped his broken lute on the ground and took a small step forward. Tears threatened to spill down his cheeks as he lowered his head. Everything was beginning to be good again and now...He knew now it was time for him to disappear again. Staying with Marcus and his family and friends would only result in their destruction, not just from Tonari, but Deneb too.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to face the Hirykui captain. There was a worried look on her face as well as a one of understanding. “I do not know what past haunts you, but I am here if you need me. After all, you owe me a drink, 'member?”

Marcus nodded in agreement. “An' if y' ever need food an' shelter, y' know where my carriage is. We'd love t' have y' with us.”

Erik took Selena's hand and kissed the back of it as he bowed down before giving Marcus a firm handshake. “Thank you, my friends, ah shall not ferget yer offers. But for now, ah must go. Farewell, an' may Kalrasha protect y' all.”

Releasing Marcus' hand, he gave them a final wave before stepping into the crowd.

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