Thursday, 31 October 2019

28. Clayday/ Movement Week to Wildday/ Illusion Week; Fire Season; 1618

Bofrost rode along sullenly, casting accusing glances at the leaden sky that hung over them like a shroud. The weather had turned unseasonably cold and wet, and Bofrost feared for the crops that would soon be gathered in against the coming of Dark Season. As he looked upward, the rainwater that had gathered in the folds of his cap finally took the opportunity to cascade down the back of his neck, making him curse out loud. But even this outburst drew no attention from his travelling companions. Onward they rode in grim silence, lost in their own thoughts, letting their mounts choose their own way towards the smudge of woodsmoke hanging in the damp air ahead of them. Even Sandene seemed less attentive to their surroundings than usual, seeming to almost dare any threat to emerge from the forests pressing in around them.

They’d been like this for the last few days, ever since the failed cattle raid on the Varmandi. They’d entertained such high hopes of entering the Hiording stead leading a string of fine cattle taken from their ancestral enemies. They’d joked about how they’d be treated as heroes, and how the Hiording chief would have no choice but to support them at Baranthos’ trial. After all, what threat could a bunch of backward Varmandi hillmen be to the Heroes of the Red Hands?

Well, quite a lot as it turned out. Although they’d tried to follow the required rituals of the cattle raid, something wasn’t quite right. It seemed as though, separated from their clan as they were, that the Gods didn’t hear their entreaties. Everything went wrong from the start, and the raid ended ignominiously with the companions riding out of Varmandi territory pursued by a jeering band of warriors and clansmen; even Yrsa was impressed by Terrastal’s rare display of horsemanship as he galloped past to make his escape.

And so they approached the stead of the Hiording chief, damp and spirits downcast, hoping at least for a warm welcome from their tribal allies. Much to their relief, they were not disappointed. Bearing as they did sigils marking them as speakers for the Ernaldori, they were quickly given dry clothing, hot food and strong ale. As they ate, looking around at the fine carvings adorning the timbers of the Hiording clan hall, a large pallet was borne in by four strong Hiording warriors. Atop the pallet sat a great mound of a woman with greasy skin and lank hair. But while Terrastal and Sandene cast sideways glances at each other, Randel and Yrsa saw beyond the woman’s outward appearance. Kristralda of the Hiording had not become chief through luck or happenstance. Instead, she was renowned as having wits worthy of Issaries and a temper fit for Orlanth himself. As they considered this, Kristralda regarded them with a piercing eye and began to speak in a deep, strangely compelling voice. ‘So, you are the voice of the Ernaldori Clan Ring, eh? What are you doing, so far from home and coming from the north, not south?’. Even as Terrastal began to speak on behalf of his companions, it quickly became clear that Kristralda and her Lawspeaker, Aileena, knew more than enough already. Although the tales of the companions’ exploits drew an admiring murmur from the assembled Hiording warriors,  Kristralda was merely politely interested. Even the God-touched appearances of Randel Silvertongue and Sandene didn’t seem to sway her overmuch. When Terrastal came around to ask for her support in the coming trial, she remained carefully neutral saying only that she would weigh the facts and act in the interest of all. Which, Bofrost knew, meant that she would do what was right for the Hiordings. And with that the audience came to an end, with the offer that they might talk further on the trip south to Clearwine to attend the trial.

The next morning, the clan assembled and made ready for the journey to the Ernaldori lands. Kristralda was borne southwards in a fine horse-drawn chariot decorated with bronze plaques, each showing a scene from her Clan’s mythic past. Around her formed up a proud honour guard of bearded Orlanthi warriors, but when the companions approached to ride alongside their Chief they moved aside respectfully. As the retinue left the gates of the Clan Stead, the remaining clanfolk began to sing rhythmically, sending a heartfelt prayer of protection and safe return for their chief soaring skywards. As the song flowed over them and eventually faded into the distance, Randel glanced at Kristralda and noted that tears were streaming down her cheeks, giving the lie to her usually gruff manner. It was clear that Kristralda would be true to her word and do anything to protect her people, come what may.
The journey southward was largely uneventful. At Asbjorn’s Stead, they were joined by Asbjorn himself and his honour guard. Asbjorn greeted the heroes warmly, roaring with laughter as they related the tale of the Red Hands and how they’d humiliated Temertain. But his loudest laughter was reserved for Terrastal’s indignant description of his treatment at the hands of Ernalsulva. ‘She’s got your measure, and no mistake!’ he said with a grin. ‘These Orlanthi princesses are more trouble than they’re worth sometimes.’ As a low rumble of thunder was heard in the distance, Asbjorn glanced skyward nervously and added ‘All praise to Ernalda, of course’ and grinned sheepishly at the heroes.
As they moved onwards, their growing band were joined first by a delegation of the Anmangarn, the dour clansmen of the Black Spear Clan who had hidden the Spear of the Colymar Clan from King Kangharl. Their chief Vestorfin Tribute-Taker welcomed Kristralda warmly and the heroes were greeted with enthusiasm; their reputations as champions of the Orlanthi virtues had spread, as had their enmity for the hated Lunars. As the black-clad warriors listened to the companions’ stories as they rode together, Yrsa became aware of a desperate need for something to believe in amongst the Black Spear warriors, especially the younger ones. Terrastal’s simple message of resistance to the Lunars at all costs found fertile ground in their minds and Yrsa’s sense of unease began to grow. Likewise, Sandene’s terse responses seemed to attract more attention than she would have liked. Wisely, Randel and Bofrost kept their more moderate views to themselves, seeing that the Black Spears were not open to such thoughts.

Seeing the regard in which the companions were held by her peers and friends, Kristralda became somewhat warmer to their attempts at conversation as they rode. Although she remained steadfastly neutral in the matter of Baranthos, she did let it be known that she had a special enmity for a Varmandi champion by name of Insterid. This proud and violent warrior had brought down several Hiording warriors over the years and was renowned for her cruelty, delighting in maiming her opponents before either killing them outright or sending them back to their families, shamed. A great mountain of a woman, Insterid had even been known to kill unarmed herdsmen during cattle raids. If this woman were to be brought down, say in an honour duel, that might sway her thinking somewhat about Baranthos’ claim to innocence. The gleam in Terrastal’s eye at this news was plain to all...

Finally, their numbers swollen even further by the addition of a delegation from the friendly Orlmarth clan, they entered the familiar lands of the Ernaldori. All of the Ernaldori felt the familiar welcoming touch of the Clan’s Wyter in their minds as they returned home. Even Sandene felt a welcoming touch, though more formal and reserved as was only proper. Having received the gifts of earth, salt and bread from a nervous-looking group of young Ernaldori warriors, the combined retinue travelled through the well-ordered and tilled farmland towards the city of Clearwine, its white walls shining in the distance. As they travelled, the heroes looked southward in hopes of catching a glimpse of Randel’s Stead; sure enough, the keenest-eyed amongst them were rewarded with the sight of tiny figures moving around a growing stead, surrounded by green farmland. It seemed such a haven of peace, far from the great matters that they’d found themselved embroiled in and the companions promised themselves a period of quiet after the storm of Baranthos’ trial had passed.

Yet as they came closer to Clearwine, they saw signs that things were not entirely as they left them. A mile or so downstream from the city a small army of Lunar slaves was building a large, square structure with a jetty extending out into the river. With a cry, Bofrost pointed out the similarity to the structure they and the Hidden Gale rebels had burned only a few weeks before; far from driving out the Lunars, their overlords had decided to rebuild, but this time even closer to the city. But even as they digested this news, Sandene pointed out a troubling development in the city itself. The gate into the city known as Sartar’s Tower was now being patrolled by Lunar warriors; in fact, the regiment known as the Silver Shields. The last time they’d seen a Silver Shield, it had been the young Lunar officer Vanthorion as he was being crucified by the Hidden Gale amidst a burning slave fort. Now, Silver Shield banners were flying proudly over Clearwine, a Lunar garrison to help ‘protect’ the city whilst coincidentally helping to ensure the obedience of its inhabitants.

Yet their sour expressions and troubled moods were lifted by the welcome they received when the entered the Ernarldori quarter of the great city. First, there were murmurs of recogniton as they passed, becoming shouts of welcome: ‘They’re here! The Heroes of the Broken Tower and the Red Hands are here!’. Children ran ahead of them, shouting their names as they made their way to the Ernaldori Clan Hall. By the time they reached the Hall itself, the jubilant crowds pressed so closely that they were almost unable to move. They were greeted by a smiling Morgana White-Eye and the rest of the Clan Ring. Even those of the Ring opposed to their methods found themselves caught up in the mood of the moment and cheered as the heroes dismounted before them. As Morgana held up her hands, the crowd lapsed into an excited silence. ‘Welcome to you, proud Orlanthi of the Ernaldori! And our firm friends and allies’ she added, nodding respectfully towards Sandene. ‘In honour of your heroism and achievements, tonight there will be a great feast for all true Orlanthi! And may Orlanth and Ernalda smile upon you always!’.

The Feast was indeed the greatest that any but the greyest head could remember. As the companions entered one by one, their names were called out by Orlgard Korlmarsson, Lawspeaker for the Ernaldori. ‘Clansfolk and friends, Beloved of Orlanth and Ernalda, be upstanding to welcome the Hero Band! Randel Silvertongue, the Harmony within the Storm, fair of word and dealing. Beloved defender of the Earth!’ A huge cheer went up as Randel entered, but it was the look of pride in Eirissa’s eyes that meant the most to him. After a pause, a sheepish Yrsa shuffled through the entrance, hunching her shoulders so as not to draw attention to her height. Despite this, Orlgard regarded her warmly and turned to the expectant crowd. ‘I give you Yrsa Horsebride, a name given in mockery but taken in pride. Marked by fire, chosen of Redalda, true and loyal. Protector of the Hearth and defender of the Stead. Friend of horses and foe to chaos. Fierce fighter of the Broken Tower and unmoving barrier against the enemies of the Colymar!’ Again, a huge cheer rang out amongst which, to Yrsa’s horror, were more than a few whistles of appreciation. Scanning the faces before her, for the first time she felt truly at home. Feeling a hand on her shoulder, Yrsa turned and saw Terrastal’s grinning face. ‘Come on’ he said, ‘enough of you hogging the attention. My turn!’. In sharp contrast to Yrsa’s reticence, Terrastal strode forward and struck a suitably heroic pose and cast a glance at an astonished Orlgard. ‘I’m ready now’ he said, and turned back to the hooting and stamping crowd. Momentarily taken aback, Orlgard began. ‘I give you Terrastal, sorcerer-spite, eye-taker! Called to Idrima, Vessel of Orlanth, liberator of the Red Hands, Lunar hater, Lunar bane, death of Branduan Hodirson, deceiver of the Fool Prince and True Companion!’. As Orlgard spoke, Terrastal strutted up and down with hands on hips, turning this way and that to best show off his physique. As he did so, he made sure to catch the eyes of as many eligible suitors as possible so that when he finally ceded the floor he was immediately mobbed by a small but enthusiastic group. In contrast, the next figure stepped forward almost absently, blinking in surprise that he should be the subject of any attention at all. Orlmgard stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, his voice becoming more serious. ‘Bofrost the Bookish, Stealer of Secrets, Oath-Keeper, Law-Speaker, Deceiver of Lunars, Breaker of Mostali secrets, Light-Bringer in this accursed age of Chaos and Darkness!’ With this last word, Orlmgard pressed his wrinkled brow to Bofrost’s and they exchanged the secret words known only to followers of Llankhor Mhy. Finally came Sandene with her coal-black skin, red eyes and perpetually bloody tongue; at her appearance, the crowd fell silent; partially out of fear, but also in respect. As she did so, a familar figure stepped forward alongside her. ‘I am Magana, Axe-Maiden. To you, I present Sandene Three-Death of the Red Hands, Harbinger of Death. Reborn to the Avenging Daughter, Defender of the Broken Tower, Slayer of Chaos, Friend to the Storm and implacable foe of those that would deny the Earth.’ With a murmur of assent, the crowd parted as Magana led Sandene forward and pushed a horn of ale into her hands. Looking around her, Sandene raised the horn high and howled. The crowd howled back and the feast began in earnest.

Despite the upcoming trial of Baranthos, the feeling was that the companions and the Clan Ring’s other envoys had done enough to secure Baranthos’ release. So the Ernaldori permitted themselves a chance to celebrate and, for a night at least, live as free men and women under their Gods. Terrastal and Sandene threw themselves into festivities as always, singing, dancing and boasting of their deeds.

Bofrost was more restrained as always, finding the most learned amongst the throng and testing his own knowledge and theirs in contests of wisdom. Randel found the merchants, sitting close to those deepest in their cups, carefully making favourable deals where he could. It was whilst making such a deal that he felt a gentle hand upon his shoulder; even without looking up, he knew it belonged to Eirissa. Leaning close, the Priestess whispered in his ear. ‘How does it feel to be a rich man, Randel of the Silver Tongue?’. Thinking she was fishing for compliments, Randel began to make some suitably flowery response when he realised she was speaking literally. In her hands, she held gold and silver chains, each of great worth. Almost without thought, his sharp mind appraised their worth: 500 Lunars! ‘Kangharl’s man came and ransomed that sword-thane you took in the Enjossi lands, and mighty sour he looked about it too. You made an enemy there for sure, but also some useful coin. So what will you do now, Randel Silvertongue?’ Perhaps mercifully, his reply was drowned out by a particularly loud yell from a furiously stamping Sandene, being spurred on in her dancing by a red-faced Terrastal.

Yrsa watched her companions as they took their ease, each in their own way. Much to her sadness, she never felt at home amongst crowds. She felt awkward at the attention that came her way, and brushed off advances from other men and women who wanted to be closer still to one of Hofstaring’s Heroes. Instead, she stood in the shadow of a carved wooden column, nursing a horn of ale. After a while, she became aware of a figure standing quietly at her shoulder. Thinking it another would-be suitor, Yrsa turned to make her excuses, groaning inwardly. Instead, the figure was that of a slight young woman bearing the collar of a thrall. The young woman stepped forward to refill Yrsa’s drink, and as she did so, Yrsa noted that the thrall bore the markings of the Malani Clan. They fell into easy conversation, a wonder to Yrsa, and the young woman revealed she had deliberately sought out Yrsa. The thrall, Levru, knew that Yrsa sought her father who had been taken during a Malani raid. Levru was sure she could help Yrsa in this; her only request was that she should be released from thralldom to the Black Spear clan. They were not unkind to her, but she disliked living in the Colymar Wilds and so close to Tarndisi’s Grove. If Yrsa were to take her as a thrall, she swore an oath to help find her father and free him from the Malani. With tears in her eyes, Yrsa hugged a surprised Levru close before stepping back in shock at her own behaviour. For a moment, they regarded each other with wide eyes; then, without another word, they burst into peals of laughter that rang out over the roar of an Orlanthi clan at play.

The next morning found the companions seated around a smouldering firepit in the Ernaldori Clan Hall. Around them, the final stragglers from the evening’s festivities were stirring from their drunken sleep and dragging themselves off to their own beds. Randel sat close to Eirissa as they shared a platter of food and ale. Yrsa was in the unfamilar position of being waited on by a pleased-looking Levru; she kept trying to stand up and fetch her own food and drink, before an attentive Levru gently pushed her back into her seat and fetched what was required. Bofrost sat with his hood up and watched this with some amusement, his bright eyes glittering in the guttering torchlight. Perhaps mercifully, Terrastal was oblivious to all of this. He sat hunched forward, his head in his hands as he sipped at a mug of spiced wine; every now and then, his shoulders heaved as his stomach rebelled, but he managed to keep both his dignity and his stomach contents intact. He glared sourly at Sandene as she sat across from him, seemingly untouched by her exertions of the night before. In contrast to Terrastal, she was noisily consuming the last remnants of a huge bowl of snails that had been cooked in a strongly-spiced sauce. As she slurped the last one from its shell, she sat back and let loose an echoing and noisome belch. As all eyes turned to her, she looked back with a quizzical expression and a puzzled ‘What?’

Terrastal’s response was lost as the door to the hall slammed open and in marched a group of bearded and braided Taraling warriors, flanked by Ernaldori clan fighters. Although blades remained in their sheaths, it was clear that there was no love lost between the groups of warriors. Behind them strode in Drenyan, the grizzled Ernaldori warrior. ‘These fine fellows have come from our beloved king Kangharl, requesting that the heroes of the Red Hands attend him at his court immediately. I told them that was impossible, but they insisted on seeing you in person’. Slowly, the companions rose to their feet. Randel spoke first ‘Bid our fellow Colymar wait outside, my lord Drenyan. We’ll join them shortly’. After the Taralingi had moved out of earshot, there followed a furious argument as to how to proceed. Yet, despite their misgivings there was little option for them to refuse Kangharl’s summons; he was yet their king and had an army at his beck and call. Moreover, none of the companions wished to be seen as cowards, unwilling to say to the King’s face what they spoke of so freely to others. If they backed down now, why should their words of solidarity and resistance hold any value for the chiefs of the other Clans whose support they’d sought on Baranthos’ behalf.

After quickly making themselves as presentable as they could, the band were escorted by Kangharl’s household warriors into the Royal Palace. Although they were as impressed as ever by the fine Orlanthi craftsmanship on display, they were also made wary by the even greater amount of Lunar influence in evidence. Few of the courtiers dressed in the Orlanthi fashion and their own manner of dress drew some snorts of derision and even a few sniggers. These last were cut short, however, by the venomous stares of Sandene and Terrastal who glared around with a dangerous eye. As always, Randel and Bofrost were more circumspect, whilst Yrsa walked along solemnly with an impassive expression.
Before long, the five found themselves ushered into the presence of the King by a nervous Lunar functionary. Kangharl reclined on a low dais, propped up on soft cushions of Esrolian design. A shaven-headed slave was carefully curling Kangharl’s great black beard into a cascade of oiled curls in the Lunar fashion. Behind Kangharl stood a tall, heavy-set, dark haired brute of a man. With a shock of recognition, the heroes recognised the warrior who had slain the Thane of Apple Lane so brutally. Darsten Black-Oak wore a stony expression, a sneer of contempt on his lips. As the heroes approached the dais, Kangharl motioned the slave away to join a group of slaves standing silently in alcoves either side of the chamber. Standing up, the King beckoned the band to sit. ‘Ah, my guests! It seems you’ve been making some powerful enemies whilst on you travels. By rights, I should have you packed up and sent off to Prince Temertain to receive his justice.’ Seeing the wary looks on their faces, he began to laugh; it was a harsh, braying sound, very much at odds with the sophisticated Lunar exterior he tried so hard to cultivate. ‘Fear not, my friends. As with so many of your petty rebellions, this one suits my purpose and those of my allies. So, sit and drink; eat!’.

The five sat, although only Randel and Bofrost took a small cup of wine. Kangharl continued: ‘So the trial of the traitor Baranthos is almost here. I know you’ve been doing the right thing by your chief, travelling around to drum up support for him. Who knows, you may even have the numbers to win, but I doubt it. Whatever happens, change is coming. The Red Moon rises and all who stand against it will be brought down. Baranthos and the old ways are finished, if not now then soon. The only question you need to answer is whether you’ll be brought down or raised up.’ Seeing the confused expressions on their faces, Kangharl went on. ‘When Baranthos falls, a new Clan Ring will be needed to support the new chief. Darsten, what word do my Lunar advisers use when they speak of such things? Ah yes; ‘progressive’, they call it. We will need a progressive Clan Ring made up of capable Heortlings such as yourselves. And with my support, who knows how high some of you may climb?’ Seeing the anger in their faces, Kangharl turned back to Darsten and sighed. ‘Well, at least I tried, eh? Perhaps if I can’t help in this way, perhaps I might win their friendship with a gift. Not of gold or magic, but of news’. Sitting once more, Kangharl once more went on in a conversational tone. ‘I understand you made a great impact on the Enjossi when you visited. The chief’s daughter, Frieda I think her name is, made a great impression on you. How unfortunate, therefore, that even now a Lunar tax collector has taken a liking to her. So much of a liking that the villainous wretch has assaulted her and stained her honour. Even the Enjossi, weakened by the absence of their chief at Baranthos’ trial, would find it difficult to do anything other than strike the fool down along with his escort’. Kangharl reached out and took a bunch of grapes from the table, popping them into his mouth and crunching them one by one. ‘Of course, the Lunars wouldn’t see things in such simple terms. Instead, they would be forced to declare the Enjossi to be outlaws; the Empire has a great need of slaves and the flow has been stemmed somewhat by the rash actions of a few rebels’. Again, he grinned at them. Randel realised that this was not news that had arrived of a sudden; no, this had the ring of a carefully planned gambit. ‘Poor Frieda. She may be dead, or perhaps she’s being taken into captivity with the remainder of her tribe. Whatever; I give this information to you to do with as you wish. You may leave’. As the companions left the hall, bitter words spilling from their mouths, Yrsa noted the eyes of the slaves and servants following them; she had no doubt that what had happened here would get out and that their reputations may stand and fall as a result.

Before long, the hero band were back at the Hall of the Ernaldori, in deep discussion about what to do with this news. As their discussions went back and forth, Morgana White-Eye listened carefully. They had two clear paths ahead of them; they could tell Griselda of the Enjossi, what they knew, but risked her returning to the Enjossi stead to save her daughter, leaving Kangharl with the upper hand in Baranthos’ trial. Another, less honourable path would be to keep the news to themselves until after the trial. But Yrsa and Morgana counselled against this; the story would get out and the heroes’ reputations as honourable warriors and sages would be ruined as ones willing to sacrifice another’s clan for their own. Furthermore, the fragile peace of the loyal Orlanthi clans would be broken, weakening them against Kangharl’s tyranny. Therefore, only one path lay ahead; they must tell Griselda of her daughter’s plight and beg her to stay for the trial regardless.

As expected, the conversation was not easy. Upon hearing the news, Griselda took up her sword and immediately made to leave with her honour guard. It took all of Randel’s power of persuasion and Terrastal’s passion to give her even a moment’s pause. But, in the end, it was Sandene’s deathly intensity that stopped her from leaving. She had largely been quiet in the negotiations – this was not her area of expertise. But she could not contain herself and stepped forward, drawing the ornate War Ax that had been gifted to her by the Enjossi. Her words began quietly, but the room fell silent to listen.
“Mother Griselda, you know me, you know who I serve. You know that I am sworn to protect and avenge the Earth, and the Innocent. I swear to you that when I finish this oath I will leave this place, and I will race to the Enjossi lands. There I will deliver my sworn duty to protect your daughter. Should I be too late, and this treachery has already unfolded, then I will not rest, I will not sleep until her defiler is dead. His death will be legend, and your enemies will think twice before they oppress your people! I would I ask that you remain here to support my adopted kin but know that my oath is not dependent upon your actions.” As she spoke, she drew the axe along her leg, a gentle touch, but the blood flows freely, seeming somehow to soak into the blade.  “This I swear as an Avenging Daughter.”
The slight Sandene held the axe aloft, seeming to grow, to take on an even more ferocious and red eyed visage, her armour fading and replaced by a grisly garland of scalps, hands and male genitals. And with that, she turned and ran from the room. Wordlessly, her comrades turned to watch as she sped from the room. As they did so, a quiet voice spoke from behind them. ‘I will stay’ said Griselda with a note of wonder in her voice, as though she couldn’t quite believe the words were hers. ‘I will stay, trusting your friend to keep to her oath. I will cast my vote for Baranthos, and Chaos take the Lunars’. With that, she rose and followed Sandene with her honour guard walking slowly behind.

Bofrost, Randel and Yrsa rushed after Sandene, to help her prepare for her oathquest. Terrastal made to follow them, but brought up short before he reached the door. He felt his anger rise uncontrollably and like any Orlanthi he knew what he needed; a fight. Quickly, he found Jayis the Durulz Humakti and his mentor Drenyan in their favourite tavern. Seeing his grim face, the two wordlessly finished their drinks, grabbed their weapons and headed out with him. Before long, Terrastal and his companions found their quarry. Or rather, their quarry found them. As they passed one of Clearwine’s more disreputable inns, a sudden crash and yell rang out and a body flew through the curtained entrance and lay ominously still in the street. Swaying out after the unfortunate came Terrastal’s target: Insterid of the Varmandi, target of Kristralda’s special hatred. She was enormous, her tunic sweat- and ale-stained, an insolent sneer on her scarred face. Seeing her obvious drunkeness, Terrastal grinned at Drenyan and Jayvis. ‘Why don’t you pick on someone who can fight back, troll-dung?’ he yelled, holding up his fists. He was confident he could take his opponent down, tempt her into drawing bronze first and then kill her with his axe. It was while he was savouring his inevitable victory that the first blow came. Insterid moved like lightning, all appearance of drunkeness gone. As Terrastal rocked back on his heels, he tasted blood and the world seemed to become fainter around him. Shaking his head, he snaked out a deadly right hook towards Insterid’s jaw. She simply stepped right and thundered a further blow into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him completely. With a sigh, he sat down with a thud and tried to draw breath into his lungs. With her head cocked on one side, Insterid regarded the gasping Orlanthi and seemed to reach a decision. Drawing back her foot, she simply kicked Terrasal hard in the head with a sickening crack. Just before he lost consciousness, Terrastal would have laughed if he had breath to do so; the great Terrastal, dead in a street brawl from a kick in the head. Then the blackness claimed him...

The next thing he knew was the concerned face of Yrsa as it swam into focus before him. As he groaned at the pain in his head, Yrsa stood and said simply ‘it’s time’. Terrastal needed no further clarification; the day of Baranthos’ trial had come. He felt himself being lifted to his feet, hands keeping him upright as he was led out of the door to join the crowd coursing down the street towards Clearwine’s main public space. A raised dais stood at the far end of the open area with 12 finely carved high-backed wooden chairs spaced evenly along it, six on a side. Each was carved with the runes and sacred animals of each of the 12 Ernaldori Clans and between them was a finely-wrought, even larger seat on a raised platform; this was the throne of the king of the Ernaldori tribe. The crowd hissed quietly to itself; the throne’s beautiful carvings of the Lightbringers were obscured by a fine blanket of Lunar make, tastefully decorated with symbols of the Red Goddess. Kangharl was clearly here to demonstrate the power of his kingship, no matter what his subjects may think of his views. Before long, the chiefs of the 12 clans took their places. To the left of the stage were the Narri, Taraling, Enhyli, Varmandi  and Antorling chiefs, all Kangharl loyalists. To the right were the Anmangarn, Olmarthing, Arnoring and Konthasos chiefs, all supporters of Baranthos. Taking the place of the Ernaldori chief was Morganeth White-Eye, sitting quietly with her hands folded and attended by a worried-looking Eirissa. Glancing out into the crowd, she caught Randel’s gaze and raised a weak smile of welcome. Last to take their places were Kristralda of the neutral Hiording and an exhausted-looking Griselda of the Enjossi. The heroes could only guess at the conflict raging inside her and were amazed at her strength of mind. Finally came Kangharl, beard curled in the Lunar fashion and wearing rich robes from the best weaving-houses of the Lunar Empire. Accompanied by grim looking warriors of the Taraling clan as his body guard, he nodded and smiled as he walked to his place in the centre of the dais as though the low hisses of discontent from the crowd were cheers of support. Following on behind came a group of shaven-headed Lunar scribes and sages with the familiar and unwelcome form of Darsten Black-Oak bringing up the rear, his wicked-looking club in his hand. Taking his seat, Kangharl nodded to his chief sage and the trial began.

The trial itself dragged on over several hours and the crowd became restive as time wore on. To all but Bofrost and Randel, the whole thing seemed like an anti-climax; it mainly consisted of successive Llankor Mhy and Lunar Irrippi Ontor sages making obscure legal points which were then rebutted by whoever followed them. However, Bofrost caused consternation amongst Kangharl’s sages when he quoted an obscure legal point that they seemed unable to answer. Scurrying over to the King, one of the scribes whispered in Kangharl’s ear. With a face like thunder, the King stood and in a booming voice began to speak. ‘Enough! The facts have been heard and weighed. Now the chiefs must vote according to custom. Bring forth the traitor!’ At this, the crowd fell silent as a filthy, skinny figure was led out onto the dais in chains by Lunar guards. The once proud and strong figure of Baranthos had been reduced to a stooped and broken man that stood swaying and blinking in the bright sunlight. The heroes could feel the crowd tense around them as the mood became dangerous. Oblivious, confident in his own power, Kangharl continued. ‘What say you to the guilt of this man? Let your conscience and the honour of your clan be your guide’. One by one, the Clan Chiefs voted. There were no surprises from those whose allegiances were well-known and the tally was soon five for Baranthos and five against with only the Hiording and Enjossi left to vote. Kristralda of the Hiording shifted in her seat and consulted her Lawspeaker for some time whilst the crowd held its collective breath. And then she spoke. ‘The Hiording are unconvinced by either argument and therefore withhold their vote, as is their right.’ The crowd began to chatter excitedly; one more vote would secure Baranthos’ freedom and the Enjossi were new and firm friends of the Ernaldori, thanks to the heroes in their midst. Feeling all eyes upon her, Griselda stood tall and gazed defiantly at Kangharl as she opened her mouth to speak. But as she did so, Kangharl’s voice once more boomed out. ‘Griselda of the Enjossi! I name you traitor to your tribe and your ruler Temertain! Even now, your clan has risen in insurrection against the Prince and his Lunar allies and as such your voice has no standing here! I declare you and the Enjossi outlaw! Guards, seize her!’ There was a stunned silence as his words seemed to hang in the air for a moment and then everything seemed to happen at once. As one, the crowd came alive like a vast, hungry beast. The nearest of Kangharl’s warriors were pulled to the ground and beaten mercilessly, whether Lunar or Orlanthi. Whilst Baranthos stood swaying in the hot sun, Kangharl was surrounded by his guard and dragged backwards, his shouts lost in the crowd’s wordless, furious din. It was as though a long-expected storm was breaking and none could say what would be left in its wake, least of all the heroes who stood dumbfounded in the storm’s eye.

To be continued...