It's such a surprise to find myself writing this again, after three years of neglect. I admit in the last couple of years my creative writing skills have been abandoned entirely, so if the story starts to read like an essay, I apologise. Feel free to point out anything that doesn't sit right in reviews. I do hope some of the readers who initially stuck with this story might get a chance to read this update. Enjoy.Chapter 6
Autumn drizzle dampened the streets of Corus as a non-descript carriage made its way along the winding avenue towards the royal palace. Within its confines, being jostled with every bump across the cobblestones, sat four grim faced men. Their respectable manner of dress and aristocratically trimmed beards seemed at odds with their drab mode of transportation, while documents and maps sprawled in all directions across their laps as they rode in silence.
At the palace gates, a guard stepped into the rain to halt the carriage and peered suspiciously through the door to inspect the passengers' faces.
'What business do you have at the Palace?'
'We wish to obtain an audience with the King,' replied the oldest of the four.
'I cannot allow you to enter on those grounds alone. Does the King expect your visit?'
A pause filled the carriage and the four men exchanged glances.
'The King does not expect our arrival, no, but perhaps this will give you cause to reconsider.' The spokesman of the four men extended a gnarled, but well-jewelled hand from behind the pile of parchment, which the guard examined. The signet ring worn on the gentleman's fourth finger was familiar to the guard who had previously seen duty in the Tusaine War.
'I assure you,' spoke the unknown gentleman, 'we come with good intentions and must speak urgently with the King'. The signet bearing the crest of the royal house of Tusaine was hurriedly withdrawn again into the folds of his cloak, while the guardsman nodded in understanding.
'Open the gates!'
The heavy wooden panels groaned as they were parted and the carriage, with its curious passengers, trundled into the palace grounds.
Shortly afterwards, Jonathan was interrupted in his study by knock at the door. Gary entered, followed by four robed strangers, much to Jonathan's surprise.
'You'll have to forgive my abruptness, but I bring with me Counts Griffid, Westebb, Yonge and Grieves of Tusaine. I believe you'll want to hear what they've come to say.'
'It has been many years since Tortall has had the honour of receiving a delegation from Tusaine,' Jonathan chose his words carefully, still unsure what to make of the newcomers. 'Might I ask why you are not joined by the Count of Danne, the official Ambassador?'
'We come in the greatest secrecy, without the knowledge of the Ambassador or the King,' spoke Count Griffid, the most senior of the men before Jonathan. 'King Ain's court is faltering and we do not believe it will withstand troubles that are soon to come. The King himself is indifferent and poorly prepared for what we believe will soon develop into war. Furthermore, the loyalty of the nobility cannot be counted upon should a crisis unfold. The rivalry between Jemis and Hilam has divided the court and there are more nobles waiting for an opportunity to overthrow the King than are ready to defend the throne should war come to our doorstep.'
'These troubles you refer to- do you believe war with Galla is inevitable?'
'Almost certainly. It seems simply to be a matter of time. The signs of aggression from the north become more apparent day by day. Gallan tribesmen have begun patrolling our borders and increasingly frequently infringe our territory. Something must be done, and yet his Majesty choses to ignore it. We come to ask Tortall's assistance against Galla when the time of need arises.'
'Tortall owes nothing to Tusaine,' interjected Gary, 'why should we help you? Your country has been indebted to us since the Drell Valley war. Surely you cannot expect such a commitment from us.'
'The Drell Valley incident was highly…regrettable, and we understand the imposition Tusaine makes by asking for such an alliance, but it is ultimately in Tortall's best interests to do so. Surely you can appreciate the importance of Tusaine's continued resistance to Galla in the event of conflict.' Griffid moved to a large map hanging on the wall of Jonathan's study and ran a finger along the black line which demarcated the southern boundary of Galla. 'The narrow border you share with Galla is mountainous and difficult to pass. At least half of the year, the mountain passes are closed, providing you with a natural barrier between your lands and Gallan armies. To the east, over Tusaine, the border is more porous. Fewer mountains and wider plains make for an easier crossing.' Griffid's finger fell further south, sweeping across the shared Tortall-Tusaine border. 'Here, the Hill Country is an easy avenue for any invading army.' Griffid paused, and turned to directly address Jonathan once again, full of seriousness. 'In short, your Majesty, if Tusaine falls, Galla will have an open highway to Tortall's territories.'
Jonathan could see the man's point. Tortall needed a strong buffer between itself and Galla, and if Tusaine could not independently act as that bulwark, Tortall would be required to prop its neighbour up. He looked down from the map and addressed his Prime Minister. 'It seems events are accelerating more rapidly than we thought. Don't call the war council together yet, however. I'd like to make some subtle inquiries into the readiness of our army before we make this knowledge public.' Gary nodded in understanding and ushered the Tusaine dignitaries out of the royal study, leaving Jonathan alone to ponder the difficult situation before him.
Alanna flicked sweat out of her eyes as her opponent backed away for a moment's rest. The blunt training blade flashed in the afternoon sunlight as she lowered it and let her guard down. Since her arrival at the Swoop, she had found there to be no shortage of young men from the nearby village who were willing to challenge her to a mock duel and she was happy to allow it. The regular spars kept her in shape when she was away from the palace training courts. On this particular occasion her opponent was a very tall redheaded male who seemed to be on that awkward cusp of childhood and manhood. He showed good potential as a swordsman, though was relatively untrained. He hadn't yet learned to use his height to his advantage, his gangly frame being more of difficultly of coordination than an asset. Despite this, Alanna had no doubt he could be very good given proper training.
As she sipped from a water flask she noticed puffs of dust tracing a line across the hill at the horizon- the telltale sign of an approaching horseman. Within minutes the horseman had rounded the corner of the flagstone courtyard she trained in, the rider dismounting in front of her.
'A message from Sir Gareth of Naxen, my Lady. He sad it was urgent.'
Alanna took the folded parchment and excused herself from her match, trying to wipe the sweat from her hands. Urgent communiqués from Gary were highly unusual and probably meant trouble.
Events have taken an interesting turn since we last talked, and your presence in Corus would be most useful. After your last encounter with His Majesty, I understand your reluctance, but recent happenings are going to force a peace settlement upon the two of you, I'm afraid. We hope to see you soon,
Alanna rolled her eyes in bemusement at Gary's cryptically worded summons. His letter practically bulged with the unsaid. Something was clearly afoot in Corus, and Gary deemed it important enough to bypass Jonathan's authority and summon her himself. Gary was a politically astute man whose intuition for these intrigues tended to be correct. It seemed her stay at the Swoop was to be brief after all.