The following is a continuation of the Corean Chronicles first Trilogy (Legacies, Darkness, Scepters) written by L.E. Modesitt. While I will add details as necessary, having read the original will make this story much more coherent.
Chapter 1. North of Iron Stem, Iron Valleys.
Alucius almost absent mindedly guided his chestnut stallion through the scattered quarasote bushes that dotted the sandy landscape. On the stead only a month, the horse was still getting acclimated to the long days of walking the bleak stretches while his rider kept the flock of nightsheep moving. And they needed to keep moving so as not to overgraze the never plentiful young shoots of the quarasote bushes before they hardened into thorns capable of ripping through the toughest boot leather, let alone the hide of a horse or rider.
But it was the quarasote that allowed the wool of the rams to be processed into thread that when woven into cloth known as nightsilk, while pliable as any cloth under normal circumstances, would become as tough as steel wire when subjected to sudden pressure, such as a saber or bullet strike. Alucius knew better than perhaps any man living or dead just how valuable that quality was for his own nightsilk undergarments, worn since he first entered Militia service just past his eighteenth birthday, had saved his life at least half a dozen times.
As a herder of nightsheep he needed to focus on the land around him as well as the nightsheep themselves. He was finding it more of a challenge this day for two reasons. The first distraction was rooted in the destruction of all links to the world Efra and cutting Corus free of the attempt to reestablish the domination of the Efrans and their Duarchy as had existed in the past up until the time of the Cataclysm. It seemed the stead had been unusually quiet.
Not only had the strange talent twisted creatures that had plagued them over the last year or so ceased appearing but the usual threat of sanders and sandwolves had also vanished. He could understand the sanders, those blocky man-like creatures that would rise up out of the soil to kill a ram or ewe, or unwary herder, and feed off their life force. They were one half of the species commonly referred to as the ancients. The other half, the soarers, the last soarer in fact, had died only a short time ago. He wasn't sure if the sanders had done likewise, or with the loss of the soarers, they simply didn't know what to do next.
He expected the sandwolves to return for they were a part of the land as much as the nightsheep were and he assumed that the changes wrought by the severing of the connection between Efra and Corus had sent them into hiding. With a brief shake of his head Alucius brought his attention back to the flock, noting that the nightsheep hadn't stretched out too badly yet, but it was still only midmorning. It wasn't simple daydreaming that had him struggling to keep his mind on the flock. He was wrestling with a moral dilemma of sorts.
Since he first entered Militia service over seven years ago, his only desire was to return to the stead to live the life of a herder and raise a family with his wife, Wendra, and share that life with his mother and grandparents for as long as they lived. As a result of various events, he spent two of those years as a Militia trooper, interrupted by two years as a captive trooper of the Matrites. After those two terms of service he was able to spend two years on the stead and made a start on his family. He also lost his grandmother, who's failing health, held just long enough until her own herder heritage allowed her to know he was returning from captivity, the first ever to do so, but she died before he got home.
The last year had him returned to service at the request of the Lord Protector of Lanachrona, who, as a result of the forced union of the Iron Valleys with that former adversary, was now ruler of his homeland. As a result of his first four years of service and his demonstrated ability to make the nearly impossible look routine and the truly impossible merely difficult, he had earned the respect and admiration of the Lord Protector. When the war between Lanachrona and Madrien, the land of the Matrites, began to take a series of bad turns, due to interference by the Efrans as it turned out, the desperate Lord Protector requested Alucius' return to put down a false rebellion and then thwart an attempt by the Matrites to destroy a large portion of the Southern Guard, the army of Lanachrona.
He did both and as a reward he was appointed the Commandant of the Northern Guard, formerly the Iron Valley Militia until the union. In this position he discovered a conspiracy to gut the Northern Guard so that the war between Lanachrona and Madrien would grind on, creating so much misery and dissention that the return of the Duarchy and its imposed stability would be welcomed with open arms, the true consequences of which would only be realized after it was too late.
It was this discovery that led Alucius and Wendra on a bizarre mission to the very home world of the Efrans and the destruction of their source of power and the translation tube that connected the two worlds. After their return he resigned from the Militia, recommending his comrade and friend, Feran then a Majer, to be his replacement and then he and Wendra went back to the stead.
It was these events that he was now considering. During those seven years he had also come to learn far more about the Talent he had possessed his whole life. Every herder needed at least a touch of Talent so that they could control the nightsheep and maintain awareness of their surroundings. Alucius had always shown, to his family at least, more than a normal share. A hard and fast rule of herder life was to never reveal to the outside world what Talent he had. His years in the military had built up a legend around him as someone who could see what others couldn't, to shoot and hit targets others could barely see and to survive injuries that would have killed anyone else ten times over.
But the true extent of his abilities were known only to his family, and the soarers that had watched over him and when the time came, to train him, and his wife, to take up where they had left off, for they were both soarers' children. And now his dilemma was this. Lanachrona and by extension, the Iron Valleys, were still at war with Madrien. Now that the influence of the Efrans was removed the Matrites were at a severe disadvantage but the Southern Guard was nearly exhausted. To further complicate matters, the great nation on the eastern side of the continent, separated from Lanachrona by the central mountain range, the Spine of Corus, was showing signs of looking west. Could he turn his back on all of this, as he had the first time, to find two years from now that the world was about to crash down on the Valleys again, destroying his way of life.
He had promised the Lord Protector that he would not deprive him of his advice, but he also made it clear he didn't really want to get too heavily involved in any more of the world's problems. But the more he thought about it these last weeks, the less likely he felt he was going to be able to ignore it. He had already found that he was inclined to wait too long and not act until all was almost lost. Not only was it a matter of his own stead and family, but that of the entire herder community as well and all those who lived in the Iron Valleys.
This train of thought occupied his mind for the entire day. As the sun began to near the western horizon he moved the flock down the last slope of Westridge toward the stead and home. He was just closing up the door to the barn when he sensed the approach of Wendra. As he led the chestnut to the stable he couldn't help but smile as she crossed the distance between them. The long brown hair and the greenish gold eyes highlighted by a warm smile softened the perception of strength and an ever so slightly larger than life quality that their growing Talent created, for Wendra was every bit as Talent capable as was her husband.
"Another quiet day?" she asked as she came up and accepted his one arm hug.
"Not a sign of anything. Just scrats and grayjays," he replied as they walked to the stable.
"You don't think they're gone forever, do you?" she asked.
"The sandwolves? Definitely not. But since they probably have something of Talent about them, I'd think recent events have them somewhat confused," he replied with a bit of a smile as they both worked to remove the saddle and other gear from his horse. "The sanders are another question. There always seemed to be more of them but perhaps they died out when the last soarer did. Only time will tell."
She nodded once and then looked at him closely.
"Something's been bothering you. I could feel it quite plainly for most of the day. What's wrong?"
"I'm worried about the future, I guess," he replied.
"We all are, sweetheart, but you've been brooding about it quite a bit recently, yes?" she prodded.
"Yes. Eliminating the Efran threat only means the future is completely in our hands. Those of us of Corus. The Regent of the Matrial was a more intractable threat than the Matrial ever was. I don't know if that was because of the Efrans or not, but I worry about whoever is in charge now. I don't want to see more troopers from either side die. Not to mention we have the Praetor of Lustrea moving on Deforya. I won't lament the loss of the landowners there but he may come west after that and he has the largest armed force in the world right now."
"Alright, so we're back to where we were five or six years ago. What are you thinking?" she asked.
"I'm thinking do we have to do something about it. Did the soarers do all this and teach us what we know just to have us sit here on the stead? Or are we supposed to take up from them and try to act like shepherds for all of Corus?"
Wendra blinked at her husband as she took in all that he was saying. Then she said,
"The last soarer did mention something like that. About even if we didn't think it was fair, those with ability were always called upon to do more. But that's a bit much, don't you think? Two people to watch over an entire continent?"
"I know…or maybe I don't know…" he said, his voice tinged with the frustration she could feel pouring out of him. "I just can't help but think that if I hadn't waited to act you wouldn't have been taken the way you were, or things wouldn't have gotten so bad that I had to return to duty."
"Oh, Alucius, you can't blame yourself for all of that. You certainly knew when to act when those false brigands attempted the attacks on Emal. And we certainly didn't waste any time going after the Efrans on their home world. Come on, let's get this big fellow settled and get you into the house for a good meal. You'll feel better."
He gave a bit of a shrug and smiled at her cheerful voice at the end. Later, as they ate, Alucius' grandfather, Royalt, looked at his grandson. Not nearly as Talented, he was still a herder and he could feel his grandson's anxiety.
"What's wrong?" came the direct question, much like the man who asked it.
"I suppose I'm just concerned about what will happen next, grandfather," Alucius replied as he looked to the older man.
Royalt nodded slightly and said,
"Still a lot of turmoil out there. Word is that the southern front with the Matrites is stable and there hasn't been any attempt to move additional forces north, yet. But I'm sure they are just regrouping and trying to deal with the loss of the collars again."
"And in a year it'll start all over again," Alucius said.
"Maybe. They'll have a difficult time of it in the north," the older man said. "With what you and Feran have done in reversing all the treachery of those sandsnakes Weslyn and Imealt, they won't make much head way against the Militia, or Northern Guard," he finished with a grimace.
Royalt had spent eight years with the Militia during the last confrontation with the Lanachronans and had a hard time calling it the Northern Guard.
"But that still means troopers, theirs and ours, are going to die. The soarers showed us that we are bleeding this world of life. All the death and destruction. I think that's one reason why things have changed in the last generation. We need more people and trees and other living things to build up the lifeforce. But how do we stop it?" he asked.
"You are the soarers' children. If you can't figure it out, this poor old herder can't help much," Royalt said.
"Poor old herder my foot," Wendra said with mock scorn, then she turned to look at Lucenda, Alucius' mother and Royalt's daughter. "Between this old herder and my grandfather and a few others, there's more practical wisdom than in any palace in any land."
"That's true, Wendra," Lucenda replied, "but who would seek out herders and then listen to them?"
"The Lord Protector would. He said as much. Alucius told me that at his last private audience with the Lord Protector the man said he still wanted Alucius' advice," Wendra said.
Three heads swiveled in his direction. He looked back at them.
"All I want to be is a herder," he said, but the words rang falsely even as he said them.
His grandfather regarded him seriously.
"I spent eight years in the Militia training troopers so we'd stay free of the Lanachronans. Your Da took his turn to keep us safe from raiders. Wendra's grandfather spent a lot of time in Dekhron finding out what he could to try and keep us safe from machinations of the old Council. You spent almost five years total to save us from being destroyed by the Matrites. We all do what we can. You might be asked to do more, but only because you can do more. If a few words spoken in the right ear at the right time might avert some disaster, shouldn't you say them?" Royalt finished.
"I suppose so. I'll need to think about it," the younger herder replied.
That night all the thinking and talking invaded his dreams. While not so disturbing as the one that had him trapped in a shrinking room of Efran design, tied to his sense of trapped helplessness, he did take a journey through the many difficult and life threatening situations he had been through. It reminded him of the heavy toll in lives lost and disrupted, the squandered treasure. When he awoke he knew it was going to be another long day in the saddle.
Chapter 2. Alustre, Lustrea
Lord Waleryn, younger brother and former heir to Talryn, Lord Protector of Lanachrona, stood before the Praetor of Lustrea, Tyren. Once he was but a heartbeat away from being ruler of the largest land west of the Spine of Corus. Today he stood as a confused, bedraggled figure before the ruler of the largest land in all of Corus and one rapidly running out of patience.
"So tell me, Lord Waleryn," the Praetor began, drawing out the title, "has several days alone with your thoughts helped clarify your memory at all?"
"Most honored Praetor, I fear that no amount of time will accomplish that, as I have told you. I have no recollection of leaving Lanachrona and arriving here, let alone creating the ancient weapons and devices you claim that I have. The drawings and texts you have shown me are completely unknown to me."
"Were it not for the fact that there is something of gap in my own memory, I would have you executed on the spot and then claim a favor from your brother. But as you stand at the heart of this mystery you shall remain as my guest until this is resolved. Fortunately, what you have created remains in working order so we may proceed with our plans regarding Deforya. Return him to his cell," the young Praetor directed.
As he watched the two Praetorean guards escort the erstwhile Lord out of the audience chamber his expression shifted from annoyance to concern. He recalled having visited the table chamber in Prosp in the company of Waleryn and then suddenly finding himself back in the palace in Alustre after the passage of some weeks. How does one lose so much time without being subject to injury or illness? He pondered this question as he walked in the company of his four personal bodyguards back to his apartment.
Chapter 3. Tempre, Lanachrona.
The Lord Protector sat at the table in the dining room with his wife and consort, Lady Alerya, and his son and heir, Talus, perched on his lap. Mother and father had completed their breakfast and now they lingered before the day of meetings and audiences were to begin. As the Lord Protector let his son play with his fingers he couldn't help but smile a bit.
"Well, that looks so much better," Alerya said.
Talryn looked up and said,
"Would that every morning could start with a smile."
"But things are improving are they not?"
"Yes, much as the young colonel predicted. The latest dispatches indicate that the Matrites in the south have hesitated and they have made no major thrusts in either the north or south as of yet. It would appear the loss of the Regent has created some confusion, perhaps even a power struggle at the top," he replied and then the smile left his face.
"What is it, my dear? The herder colonel?"
"Yes. To have such an extraordinary individual, who is apparently supportive of my policies, so close yet as far away as the moons, is most frustrating," he replied.
"My dear, he has done so much already, how could you think to ask for more?" she asked.
"Because I am the ruler of a country still at war, although now I have a glimmer of hope we can resolve it to our satisfaction. I have already dispatched orders to Alyniat to retender our offer of a truce. I understand that he received some advice from Colonel Alucius as well and the Matrites have lost more than a few of their patrols. I hope they will feel the pressure and consider the offer this time.
"But even with a truce there is still so much to do, to rebuild and there is the potential threat from the east. I'm not talking about sending him out to fight. I can't risk the loss or the enmity of the herders that would create, but we would all benefit from his advice and counsel, regardless of how simple a herder he believes himself to be."
"Then perhaps you should send him a personal message asking him to reconsider his position and make himself available to you. Although I doubt he would want to be away from his stead for any period of time. What with a young family and his aging grandfather," Alerya said.
"My dear, you saw the way he just appeared here that last time and felt the power that radiated off him. I dare say he has methods available to him that we can't even begin to guess at. As to the message, I already did. He should be receiving it by dispatch any day now."
"And you didn't tell me?"
"I knew that you feel both beholden and somewhat protective of the colonel so if he refused I would drop the matter and you'd be none the wiser."
"You are becoming more devious the longer you rule. I'm not sure I like that. Perhaps I should reclaim Talus to protect him for your baser instincts," she said as she stood and reached for the boy but then leaned down to kiss he husband's cheek to take the sting out of her words. "Now go. Practice being devious with your officers and ministers where it belongs."
He shook his head and smiled ruefully as he also stood and with a last kiss for both wife and son, turned and headed for the stairs down to his audience chamber.
The Lord Protector was more accurate then he could have known. When Alucius returned with the flock he found Wendra waiting for him on the porch. She held a pair of envelopes in her hands. Alucius could not sense any outward anxiety, either from his wife, or from those still inside the house.
"What have you got there?" he asked.
"A message from Colonel Feran and one, apparently from the Lord Protector. The dispatch rider who delivered them said we shouldn't be worried. How would he know that?" she asked.
"It's amazing what the riders know. Let's go inside and start with Feran's message," Alucius said as he walked onto the porch and offered his wife a hug and a kiss.
As she snuggled into him she said,
"Hmmm, I'm so glad it's almost summer. Your face is always so cold when that bitter wind blows."
With a smile he kissed her again and then arm in arm they entered the house. He saw Royalt sitting at the kitchen table while his mother worked on dinner at the big iron stove.
"So, it didn't take them long, did it?" his grandfather began. "Home for just a month and already getting messages."
"It probably has something to do with the moving of the Guard headquarters to Iron Stem. The Lord Protector said to wait until after spring to announce it so I guess that's what this is all about. Let's see what Feran has to say first."
He slit open the envelope with his belt knife and began to read, almost immediately his eyes twinkled and his lips curved in a sardonic smile.
"You should hear this," he said and began to read.
'Most honored Colonel,
May this message find you and your family in the best of health despite saddle sores gained from long days astride a horse roaming the picturesque quarasote lands of the far north. As summer is nearly upon us I beg to remind you of the Lord Protectors directive to hold plans to move Northern Guard headquarters to the vicinity of Iron Stem. Since it was your fertile imagination that gave birth to this endeavor I would ask your indulgence to meet with me in the area to discuss possible locations, layout, facilities and all those logistical details that you have always found so interesting.
As commandant of said Northern Guard I have taken it upon myself to convene this meeting at a comfortable stead some vingts to the north of Iron Stem. I will arrive mid morning on Septi of this week. I trust I will find you there.
With utmost respect,
Commandant, Northern Guard'
Alucius couldn't help but chuckle. His grandfather looked at him and said,
"Awfully strange wording for a dispatch. Does he always write them like that?"
"No, not at all. I'm sure this is his way of telling me this is more of a friendly visit to talk things over than anything really official. It's even in his handwriting. All the official dispatches are dictated to whatever clerk is on duty and just signed by the Colonel."
Alucius then said,
"So he'll be here day after tomorrow. Will you be able to take the flock out, sir?"
"Of course, I haven't been out with them in over a week. I'll take Wendra with me. From what we've seen, or haven't seen, I'll need someone to talk to otherwise I'll fall off the horse from boredom," Royalt said, winking at his grandson's wife.
"You're okay with that?" he asked her.
"Of course. The weather is getting so much better and Alendra could use some time out in the fresh air.
"What about the other one?" Lucenda asked pointedly.
With a nod Alucius slit open the envelope of the message from the Lord Protector. He read it all the way through to himself.
'My most esteemed Colonel Alucius,
I wish to take this opportunity to again thank and commend you for all you have done in support of the Iron Valleys, the Guard, both Northern and Southern, and Lanachrona as a whole. I would also like to allay any fears that the arrival of this message may have caused. I am most certainly not asking you to return to any duty, combat or otherwise, in the Guard. Instead, I am asking, as a personal favor to me, to reconsider the nature of the comment you made just before your last departure.
You stated that you were going back to being a herder. Alerya and I took this to mean it was your intent to return to your stead and remove yourself from the cares and woes of our world as you have come to know them. I would ask that you broaden your perspective of what a herder is and what that point of view could mean for the Valleys, Lanachrona and Corus.
With this in mind I would further ask that you make yourself available to me periodically, by whatever means you find most expeditious, to discuss issues of import to us all. If you should find yourself amenable to this arrangement I would ask that you make the first such visit at the first glass of the evening on Duadi of the first week of summer, in the same place as our last meeting.
In anticipation of your first visit, Lady Alerya and I wish you and your family well.
With respect and admiration,
Talryn, Lord Protector of Lanachrona'
When he was finished he handed it to Wendra. Lucenda looked at her son and said,
"So, he's not calling you back is he?"
"No, mother. He's asking me to become some sort of adviser. He's asking me to visit occasionally to talk over things he needs help with, I guess."
This raised the eyebrows of both mother and grandfather. By this time Wendra had finished the message and she handed it back to Alucius, who offered it to either of the other two. Neither took it, yet.
"Well, this does go to what we discussed yesterday, Alucius. You've been struggling with yourself over what you should do, or not do. Here's a chance to do something that doesn't put you at risk of getting shot full of holes or flamed by some Legacy of the Duarchs," his mother said.
"And it's a personal request," Royalt said. "No mention of money or titles or rank. Coming from a ruler that's a pretty good idea of what he thinks of you."
Alucius sat back in his chair, looking over the sheet in his hand. The hand that signed it was the same that wrote it. So either the most powerful man this side of the Spine wrote a personal message asking for his help, or someone else did. But the signature looked very much like the one he carried back with him from Tempre that made him Commandant.
"At least I have some time to think about. This is nearly two weeks away. A good meal will help me there," he said with a grin.
"As if you'd get any other kind around here," Lucenda said with a snort, causing Wendra to start laughing and Royalt to shake his head.
Alucius took the rare opportunity to sit on the porch facing the lane that connected the stead to the high road. He was up early and saw Wendra and Royalt off as they took the flock out into the quarasote flats. Alendra was along for the ride and seemingly happy to be so. So now he was sitting on the bench waiting for Feran to arrive. But there really was never slack time on a stead, unless a gather was in progress, so while he sat he worked at repairing some tack that had been hanging from a peg in the stable, awaiting some attention.
Long before the sound of hooves came to his ears, Alucius could sense the presence of six horses and riders coming at a brisk walk up the lane. He looked up when he knew they were about to come into view. Feran was at the front of the right hand column and it looked like Faisyn as the detachment leader. He stood up and laid the tack and tools aside and walked off the porch to meet them. Feran spoke to Faisyn and the squad leader held up a hand and called the small column to a halt.
"Good morning, Colonel Feran. Welcome to the stead," Alucius offered.
"Good morning, Colonel Alucius. Thank you. I hope you don't mind," Feran said with his usual sardonic grin as he indicated the escort detail. "The commandant is never allowed to travel alone."
"Not at all, I expected as much. Good to see you again, Faisyn, gentlemen," Alucius replied.
"Good day to you, Colonel," Faisyn said while the others merely offered a low chorus of 'sirs'.
"And it's still 'Colonel' is it?" Alucius asked with a grin.
"Actually, yes. Any former Commandant remains 'Colonel' for life, unless stripped for behavior unbecoming and I don't see that happening," Feran replied.
Alucius just shrugged.
"Well, you're most welcome, and you can help yourself to water and grain from the stable for the mounts. I'm afraid there isn't room for all of them, even with Wendra and Grandfather out with the flock, but it's not going to be too warm and there's shade to be had if needed."
"Faisyn," Feran began, "see to the mounts but don't impose too much on the Colonel's generosity."
Feran swung down off his horse and handed the reins to Faisyn and then walked up to shake hands with Alucius. As the detachment swung around to head for the stable yard, Alucius caught the softly spoken comments.
"….see what he was doin' when we rode up…."
"…what did you think? This be a stead, no ostlers, do the work yerself…"
He could only laugh and shake his head. He pointed to the house and said,
"Come on into the house. My mother should have something to cut the road dust."
"That would be much appreciated. I forget how dry it is up here. You're looking fit. Getting back to herding seems to suit you," Feran said as he regarded his friend and former comrade in arms from beside him. "You don't look quite so…well, you know, like last time," he concluded in a lower tone.
Alucius simply nodded.
"Grandfather noticed that after the first week. I think what you saw was an effect of traveling the way we did and it wears off over time. And we did a lot of traveling that time."
As they ascended the steps to the porch, the door swung open and Lucenda appeared.
"Feran, this is my mother, Lucenda. Mother, this is Colonel Feran."
"Madame Lucenda, it's very nice to meet you after all these years. I trust we aren't imposing on you too much."
"Not at all, Colonel. It's much better to have you come visit here than to have Alucius travel back to Dekhron," she said with pointed expression.
Alucius chuckled and then directed his friend into the house.
"Have a seat in the parlor and I'll get you that dust cutter I promised," Alucius said.
When he returned he found Feran sitting in the one straight backed chair. He smiled a bit and said,
"You can use one of the softer ones, you know," as he pointed to the other options in the room.
With a grin the older man shifted over to one end of the couch and Alucius sat in the chair so favored by his late grandmother. He had placed two mugs of ale on the table at the end of the couch.
"So, what can I do for you?" he asked.
"Well, the Northern Guard has the funds and permission to move Headquarters to Iron Stem, and after the last month of dealing with the merchants of Dekhron, it can't happen a moment too soon. However, we still have a war on our hands so it has to be done smartly and I don't know anyone smarter than you. So what did you have on your mind?"
"The idea was to get the Guard away from the merchants, and I'll come back to them in a bit. Also it puts the commanders closer to the action, both in terms of the current Matrite threat as well as any future trouble with the Reillies. There's plenty of open land so we could get it close to the crossroads. I would stay away from the old Iron Mill and mine complex. Too much unpleasant history and you know how superstitious troopers can be," Alucius said.
"I was looking around as we rode up here. There seemed to be a few spots that might work. Do you think we need to go bigger than the old post in Dekhron?"
"I wouldn't think so, but let's not be too hasty. Let's look at the layout of the current posts in the Valleys and North Madrien. We may not want to permanently station more companies at a headquarters post but we might want to provide room for contingencies," Alucius replied.
Feran nodded and then asked,
"What were your thoughts about the old post once we've made the move? Abandon it like the Southern Guard did at Semal?"
"I don't think so, at least not yet. I think we could clear out most of the equipment, shutter up buildings but leave maybe two squads as caretakers, maybe provisional units made up of wounded, those soon to be stipended, at let them maintain the place. I'm not convinced we may not have problems from the east and Dekhron could be a fast way to establish a defense if need be."
"I hadn't thought about the east. You think the Lustreans will make a move past the Spine?" Feran asked.
"I'm sure they are thinking about it. I know the Praetor had to have been getting some help from the Talent twisted ones. How much and what kind I don't know, yet."
"Wendra and I have plans for some exploring. I might head east at some point to see what there is to see. I was only in that one table building in Prosp so I don't know anything else," Alucius replied.
Feran simply nodded, knowing enough to realize he didn't really want to know too much and trusting in Alucius that he didn't really need to know. They began discussing the current tactical and strategic situation as it involved the troops of the Northern Guard and with a piece of brown paper laid out a rough map of the Valleys and North Madrien. From there they calculated likely troop movements, future requirements and the likelihood of trouble from the east. It was decided that they would recommend to Marshall Alyniat that a facility to permanently house three companies, two horse and one foot, be built with additional room for three more horse companies on a temporary basis.
"What about getting this place built? I don't remember this being much of an area with a lot of people or materials," Feran asked.
"That can be misleading," Alucius said. "Granted the steads are pretty thin to the North but there are a number of townsheep steads to the south of Iron Stem and some farms as well. Most have more than a few sons working them and the opportunity to earn extra coin will bring them out. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see some Reillies come looking for work. Plus it's not far from Dehkron. Labor won't be a problem. We'll have to see about materials. We do have a least one lumber mill not too far away. I did my initial training with one of the sons. I'll have to ask my grandfather but I seem to recall something about some old quarries north and east of Iron Stem, closer to the plateau. They could be reopened."
"What would you say to taking a ride with me back toward Iron Stem? We can scout out some locations and then we'll head out, stop overnight at Sudon and you can come back home."
"Sounds like a good idea. Let me tell my mother although I have a feeling she's going to insist on feeding you and your detail before we go," Alucius replied with a smile.
And that is exactly what happened, despite the Honored Colonel Feran's objections. He was promptly reminded that he was not at a Guard post and she was giving the orders in her own home. It was a tight fit but the five troopers along with their present and former Commandants were sitting around the table eating a stew that Lucenda had started the afternoon before in preparation for their visit. More than one trooper commented it was the best they had eaten since their last trips home.
Once they had finished eating and many thanks offered, Alucius saddle his horse and in a short time the small troop was on the lane headed for the high road to Iron Stem. Alucius rode alongside Feran and they discussed matters as they were developing in Dekhron.
"How have the traders be treating you?" Alucius asked.
"Like the wrath of the ancients were about to fall on them. Once word got out that Tarolt and Halanat were traitors working with the Matrial and then the Regent, they started walking around Dekhron very softly. Hasant hasn't been seen in days but the word is he's just holed up in his house until things settle down," Feran said, his voice tinged with disgust. "I'd imagine after a time they'll fall back to their old ways, but hopefully we'll be settled in Iron Stem by then. I can only imagine the howls that will cause."
Alucius laughed and then asked,
"How about with the companies facing the Matrites?"
"Things are improving there very quickly. It was almost as if the troopers were waiting for good company commanders. Like you suggested, we've been taking out their patrols whenever possible. I've even gotten some reports of Matrite officers being picked off here and there. Seems that a few troopers got hold of captured Matrite rifles and have been putting their longer range to good use. I don't know for sure but I'm guessing some herder boys are involved," Feran replied glancing over at his friend.
"Could be," Alucius replied noncommittally.
"Do you think they'll keep fighting or look for a way out after all that's happened?" Feran asked, going as far as he would in referring to what Alucius and Wendra had done.
"It's hard to say. After four hundred years I can't imagine they'll let go so easily. If we keep bleeding them, it might force them to. Plus they can't rely on forced conscripts so that cuts their forces by almost a third right there. And if any of the uncollared men figure it out and start looking for payback, they'll have internal issues to deal with," Alucius replied.
They rode in silence for a while longer until they started getting close enough to town. As they neared the dustcat works Alucius grinned a bit. He knew that Gortal's days in Iron Stem were numbered because once the first week of summer began, the announcement about moving the Headquarters would coincide with the delivery of an order of eviction for the entire operation. He was only sorry he wouldn't be the one to delivery it.
As they rode on, the two discussed the pluses and minuses of several tracts of land on either side of the high road. The one they finally settled on recommending to Marshal Alyniat was about a vingt out from town on the side opposite the dustcat works. It was mostly flat with only a few slight rises and depressions to be leveled. It was far enough from town to prevent one from interfering with the other but close enough to allow troopers access to the town and for ease of transport for anything the post would need. Local legend suggested that a post of some kind had been there centuries before, possibly to the time of the Cataclysm based on occasional bits and pieces that were found in the area.
"Alright then, I'll send the Marshall our recommendation with tomorrow's dispatch rider and then we'll see where we stand," Feran said.
Alucius nodded and with a handshake for his friend and nods to the men, who returned crisp salutes, he watched as the troop headed south towards Sudon and the training post where they would stay overnight. The former Commandant turned his horse back north and headed for home. He let his mind wander a bit, considering what Feran had said about the Matrites and whether they would see the sense in coming to some accommodation with the Lord Protector. He didn't have very high hopes.
He let his senses roam over the land as he rode. There was absolutely no sense of any sandwolves anywhere, nor sanders. There were occasional scrats and grayjays and what he thought might be a flock of townsheep off to the west. He was also picking up an almost audible hum in the back of his thoughts. When he focused on it he figured out it was the sense of the high road itself and its ties to the local lifeforce that allowed it to remain unmarred after millennia of use. He shuddered at the thought of how much energy had been squandered over time to maintain the constructions of the Efrans.
He probed the stones of the road and sought for the connections to land that allowed the life force to be drawn to them. After a bit of searching, he found them. Each stone block had a faint tendril that ran to a group of others that formed a bundle of sorts. Each bundle linked to a node that joined with other bundles and then ran down into the ground for a short distance and from there drew on the local life force.
He began to wonder if the draw was enough to unbalance the local conditions and make things so difficult for most plants and animals to exist in this part of the Valleys. He imagined that in places like central Lanachrona and Madrien there was more than enough life force to spare but up here in the Valleys, especially in the Quarasote flats, it had to matter, at least somewhat. He wondered if he could experiment in some way. These thoughts occupied his mind until he reached the stead, just in time to find Wendra and Royalt coming down the last slope of the ridge. He would discuss his observation and ideas with Wendra that night.
"What do you think would happen if you unlinked the stones?" she asked as they were getting ready for bed.
"I have no idea. I mean I'm sure that if nothing else they would start to wear like any other road stones and I imagine they wouldn't be able to stay clear of snow. Beyond that?" he shrugged.
"I mean you don't think that they would crumble to dust like those Efrans did when we found their bodies, do you?" she asked.
"It's possible I guess. I know that when the Matrial died her body disappeared, but then again when we killed those Efrans in the house in Salaan they didn't? That's why I figured I'd go all the way to the north end of our high road and undo the very last section and see what happens."
"That makes sense," Wendra said, and then looked at her husband speculatively. "You weren't planning on going tonight, were you?"
"No, of course not," he replied, puzzled.
"Good, because I have other plans for us tonight," she said archly.
Alucius flushed but smiled broadly.
His opportunity to try out his idea didn't come for awhile. He was back at work the next day taking out the flock while Royalt, Wendra and Lucenda worked on spinning thread and weaving cloth from the various fleeces provided by the rams and ewes. In fact, he worked the flock pretty much straight through until it was time to keep his appointment with the Lord Protector. So, on the first Septi of summer he brought in the flock, washed up thoroughly and ate quickly.
He walked outside with Wendra, who was carrying their daughter, and came to a stop on a stony patch of ground. He had a paper wrapped package tucked under one arm. He could link to the ley lines of Acorus from nearly anywhere but he always found it easier if he was already on stone.
"Have a care, sweetheart," Wendra said.
"Always. Plus I don't think he means me any harm," Alucius replied.
"Not physically. But don't let him talk you into anything crazy," she said with a grin.
With a kiss for both wife and daughter he focused on the green lines within the depths and quickly dropped out of sight. Each time he did it, it proved easier than the last and without the interference and corruption of the Efran translation tubes, it was actually a reasonably pleasant experience. What had once been bone numbing chill was now just cool. He could see, as if through a slightly warped window, the features of the land above and navigation was swift and sure. He quickly found the triple line juncture that was beneath the table chamber in the lowest level of the palace of the Lord Protector and with a thin tendril that he attached to one of the lines, he drifted until he was at the spot where he stepped out into the private apartments of the ruling couple.
Chapter 5, Tempre, Lanachrona
With a bit of care he stepped out into the upper world, this time his feet flat to the polished floor. The room was much as he remembered except this time the Lord Protector was waiting for him and he was alone.
"Ah, Colonel. Right on time. I can't tell you how delighted I am that you agreed to respond to my request. Please, come in and be seated."
"Thank you, sir. I'm honored that you wished to speak with me," Alucius said as he approached.
"Please, Colonel. I know that you are unfailingly polite and respectful. But don't let that cloud the issue. I still need your help and I decided not to let stubborn pride stand in the way of requesting it."
Alucius couldn't help but smile, nor could he help liking the young ruler, not much older than himself, for his open manner. As he sat down, Alucius took hold of his package. He held it out to the Lord Protector, who regarded it with raised eyebrows.
"My mother insisted I bring this along. It is supposed to be a gift from my daughter Alendra to your son. Are Lady Alerya and young Talus well?"
"Yes, both are in fine health, Alerya better than she has been in years. She is putting Talus to bed. I'd imagine she'll join us before we are through. I'll allow her the pleasure of opening the gift, which by the way is most appreciated, if unnecessary," the Lord Protector said with a smile.
"My mother felt otherwise, which I will explain when Lady Alerya arrives," Alucius replied and then said, "And how may I be of assistance to you, sir?"
"In several ways, actually. I need your frank appraisal of situations. One of my biggest problems comes when my advisors hesitate to tell me what I need to know for fear of telling me bad news. And when they do tell me, it is often surrounded by so much prevaricating that I can barely tell what the news is. It was tolerable when I had a table to let me see for myself what was going on but without that aid, I must have information and advice without all the fluff."
Alucius nodded as the Lord Protector continued.
"I also need your herder perspectives and sensibilities. Lanachronans know little of what goes on in the upper reaches of the Valleys, but what little I do know is that you herders see what is there, not what you wish there to be. I could sorely use such a point of view. And lastly, I need the example you have set, and will most likely continue to set."
"Ah, the near legendary modesty. But let's face the facts, Colonel. You have accomplished so much with so little, in such a short period of time. And yes, I know," the Lord Protector said, holding up a hand to forestall any comment Alucius was going to make, "you have been fortunate. But you have also displayed courage, tactical brilliance, unparalleled leadership and an understanding of how to get the best from your men, even those that were barely more than raw recruits and that all has little to do with fortune, but much to do with ability."
Alucius remained silent, as he sensed there was absolute conviction behind every word the Lord Protector said.
"I intend to use that example, Colonel. In fact, I would have to guess that for some time to come your name is going to be pretty unpopular around here. This war with Madrien has demonstrated some very serious issues with how the Southern Guard operates. And while I may not be able to resolve ever issue, I intend to rectify the ones I can. You showed what a properly led and trained force of men can accomplish, and I'm not referring to those things that required your, how can I say it, special skills. I have already dropped a few suggestions that we need to examine how the Northern Guard trains it's troopers and runs a Headquarters. We have been quite frankly amazed at how quickly you and Colonel Feran were able to sort out the mess that Weslyn left for you."
"We'll, sir. I'm not sure how much of that experience would transfer to the south. We have far fewer companies and not nearly the political issues you have with Southern Guard officers," Alucius said.
"I'm all too well aware of those distinctions, Colonel, but it does provide a vivid example of what can be accomplished if one really tries. I'm also considering sending some of the more promising young officers, sub captains, for attachment to Northern Guard companies to expose them to that sort of thinking. I will hold to my promise not to station Southern units in the Valleys but this is different."
"If that is indeed the case, then I would suggest you make sure they are officers promoted from the ranks. At least the first few sets of rotations," Alucius said.
The Lord Protector nodded.
"Yes, that would make sense," he said and then laughed. "That's precisely what I meant about needing your advice."
The two men discussed other matters pertaining to both Guard forces for a while, when Alucius hazarded a question.
"Has there been any thought given to offering the Matrites a truce or cease fire, sir?"
"Yes, I reiterated my original offer several weeks ago. While not as unreasonable as the Regent, the Matrite high command, or whatever they call themselves, have refused and demand we withdraw to the original borders. This Marshall Aluyin didn't ask for Southgate or golds but our guess is she's playing for time while they sort themselves out," the Lord Protector replied.
"That's going to take some doing. Without the torques or the powers of the Matrial and the Regent to back them up their only hope is coming up with some new talent weapon, or more spear throwers. Without the torques they are likely to lose a significant number of troopers, possibly a mutiny. I understand they haven't made any advances against our force."
"That's right. Nor have we against theirs. The Northern Guard is in relatively good shape now but the Southern needs some time. They'll hold the lines but we are pretty thin right now. We have companies in training but it will be some time before we can bring them into the lines."
"A stalemate then," Alucius offered.
"For the time being. You look thoughtful, Colonel. May I ask why?"
Before Alucius could reply, the sound of footsteps came from the other side of the room. He looked up to see a radiantly healthy Lady Alerya approaching with a large smile.
"My dear, Colonel. While I must say I'm very happy to see you here, I am concerned about taking you from the stead."
Alucius stood and bowed and then said,
"Don't be too concerned, Lady Alerya. I had been thinking for some weeks that with things still uncertain in both east and west of Corus that I couldn't retreat to the stead as I attempted the last time."
"I hope I'm not interrupting, Talryn," she asked her husband.
"Not as such. We have covered a number of matters. It appears my request for aid has fallen on receptive ears," the Lord Protector replied with a smile. "In fact, this would be a good time to pause, so that the good Colonel can make his presentation."
The Lady Talryn looked from one man to the other with a puzzled look. Alucius smiled a bit and said,
"My mother sent something with me, a present from my daughter to your son," he said, indicating the package that was resting on a small table by the Lord Protector's chair.
"What a lovely thought," Lady Alerya said with genuine feeling.
She picked up the package and undid the simple bow that held the paper in place. With deft movements she had the paper off and was holding a blanket of soft black material, almost a felt but not quite.
"It is exquisite, Colonel. I've never seen or felt such before. It is neither of the silks that herders produce, is it?" she asked as she held it out.
"No, ma'am. Those are made from shearing and processing the fleeces from either rams or ewes. On those occasions when we lose a ewe either to age, or predation by sandwolves or sanders, we sometimes remove the entire skin and work it to produce this," he said indicating the blanket. "They almost never leave a stead. My mother thought that the heir to the Lord Protector should have something that would remind him of the worth of the Iron Valleys," he finished with a lopsided grin.
"It is a magnificent gift and one I'm sure Talus will come to treasure," Alerya replied. "And your mother sends a shrewd and subtle message. Would that we could meet one day. Well, I did not mean to delay your discussions but I had wanted to see you again, Colonel."
"Thank you, ma'am, but if you don't mind, perhaps you could stay awhile. There's something I think both of you should know."
"I would be happy to, Colonel. Dearest, if I may?" she asked.
Once they had all taken seats Alucius took a breath and let it out slowly. He looked to the Lord Protector and then his Lady and began.
"I have said in the past that while I would much prefer that the Iron Valleys had maintained its independence, I recognize that as things have turned out, you, sir, with the support of you, ma'am, are the best chance we have of maintaining our way of life on the steads. That is why I have done what I could in the past, and will do now to support your policies. But I think that there are things you need to know in order to better understand Corus and why things are the way they are, and where the future might lie, as best we, Wendra and I, have been able to discover."
It was obvious that he had the full attention of the ruler and his consort. Lady Alerya was practically leaning forward in her chair. Alucius began to describe what he had discovered about Corus, the domination of the Duarchy by the Efrans, the actions of the soarers and the attempts to reestablish that long lost empire. He explained what he knew of the Matrial and how she attained her powers. How Enyll, the Lord Protectors Recorder of Deeds had come to be possessed by the Efrans and who and what the traders of Dekhron were and what they had done. He talked of the Hyalt uprising and how it played into the overall strategy of the Efrans as he understood it. He spoke of the engineer in Madrien as well as the one in Lustrea and what might come of those efforts. He also talked about his encounters with soarers, the wood spirit and the spirit that appeared to him in Dereka, and the things he and Wendra found there. As he talked, his senses picked up a combination of amazement, fascination and only touches of incredulity from the two. He guessed that knowing how he could appear at will, opened them up to greater possibilities. When he described what had occurred in the table building in Salaan and then the trip to Efra and back they sat wide eyed. When he finished he sat back and waited.
After a few moments the Lord Protector blinked and said,
"Colonel, you are either the most skillful story teller, or the world is in no way the place I believed it to be. I suppose the table and the pteridons and the like should have been a clue, but never in my life would I have imagined the rest of it."
"I suppose growing up on a stead and having seen soarers and knowing what I could do with the nightsheep and the healing made it a little more believable for me, sir, but not much. I've had more than a few shocks with all of this. But there are still some legacies that we have to deal with. Madrien being the first, but Tyren of Lustrea may have weapons available to him that would be on a par with the crystal spear thrower. And if I'm not mistaken those folks in Dulka may prove to be something like the True Believers in Hyalt. But at least now you know and can take them into consideration," Alucius said.
"Any suggestions, Colonel?"
"Settle Madrien first. Keep the lines steady where they are now, apply pressure by controlling trade on the highroads, and removing what patrols they send out. And I've been giving it some thought. I may be able to help stir things up inside their borders that might make them see the sense of bringing all this to an end," Alucius replied.
"Do I want to know?"
"The details, I don't think so. Better you can deny it, if need be. Just don't be surprised if you hear anything odd coming out of Madrien, or an offer for a truce."
The Lord Protector nodded and smiled a bit as he regarded Alucius and then turned to his wife.
"The Colonel is not nearly so guileless as he would like for us to believe, my dear. It explains much, but an honest man to the core and we need more such in these times," he said and then turned to Alucius. "I believe I have imposed on your time sufficiently for the evening, Colonel. What say you, a similar meeting at the same time each such day of the month?"
"I think that would be a good plan, sir," he replied.
"Excellent. I must say I look to the future with much more confidence than a few scant months ago. I would not say this to many but know that I am in your debt Colonel. I respect and pay my debts."
"Thank you, sir. Right now, the moving of Northern Guard Headquarters and the closing of the dreamdust works are all the payment I require at the moment."
Alucius stood, as did the couple, and he offered his bow to Alerya.
"Please express my gratitude to your mother, Colonel, on behalf of Talus. And you may tell her that her message was received and understood," she said with a smile. "Upon your return I am sure that Talus will have something suitable to offer to your daughter, for she should know and remember that the herders find favor in Tempre."