The Wall

“Impressive,” Shan admitted as she surveyed the wall before her.

“Give it a couple of years,” Esther responded. “It’ll be as strong as any wall built of stone. For now, however, we have done all we could. We’ve given it a good start, it is up to the plants now.”

The wall towered over the women who stood before it. The wall had been formed by the same dark, oily, thorned vines that had been the only life they had found within the wasteland. These plants were hardy, dangerous, and bloodthirsty; any living being that came near would be rewarded by an almost snake-like writhing. The only blessing that came with the plants was a hatred of the undead that matched that of the women.

When the plants finally reached maturity the wall would be three to four men deep. A tangle of thick vines punctuated by razor sharp thorns. A couple years of growth and the wall would be as impassable as solid stone.

“The primary outpost should be finished in a couple months,” Commander Mortimer offered from just behind her.

“Once the fort is complete we’ll open a tunnel in the wall,” Esther indicated the area before them, “here. For controlled access to the wastes.”

“We’ll set up similar points of access at every outpost we build along the wall,” Mortimer added. “We need to be able to get into the wasteland to cull the undead population before it becomes a threat. We don’t want a nasty surprise should they ever manage to break the curse.”

“Excellent precaution,” Shan admitted.

Shan looked around the area where she stood. Almost everywhere her eyes rested the wooden skeletons of future buildings could be seen. On either side of her were two watching square bases that would form the towers that would sit on the edge of the gate into the wastes. They were placed close to the wall so as to allow them to be partially absorbed into it once the wall reached maturity. She could see a spattering of similar structures throughout the land immediately behind her. They were placeholders and traced out what would eventually be the walls of the fort. The structures would be completed once the cut stone arrived from Shatterook’s quarries.

For now the outpost consisted of a single, large, open-sided tent that served as the command post. Two large tables nearly filled one half of the tent. The tables held a rough map of the region and several crudely carved figures meant to represent the units assigned to the outpost. The other portion of the tent held a desk, a chair, and a bed. It served as Mortimer’s quarters.

The rest of the soldiers had pitched their tents just outside the planned walls of the outpost.

“We tried firing flaming arrows at the zombies that gathered too close to the wall,” Mortimer spoke, “but the vines didn’t like it. We had to stop, it made them angry. A more direct approach seemed called for.”

“The vines shy away from fire,” Esther added, “like every other plant.”

“When are the stone for the outpost structures arriving?” Shan asked.

“Any day now,” Mortimer answered. “At least the first shipment is due within days. Messengers inform me that there should be enough stones to complete the two gate towers. We should receive additional shipments every couple of weeks.”

“Craig is expected to accompany this first shipment,” Thomas spoke from Esther’s side. “Along with Shatterook’s first batch of soldiers.”

“Excellent news,” Shan replied. She turned to look through the wall of vines.

“We’ll have your tent set up near the command post,” Captain Abeth informed her. He had taken on the duties of Shan’s commander of her personal guard. There were about a dozen guards with her on this trip. The guards were all around her at various distances surrounding her like a cloud. Abeth stayed within arm’s reach of her.

“Good,” Shan nodded. “We’ll set up our base camp here. I’d like to inspect a few of the other posts as well.” Shan squinted at a point in the distance.

“It would take weeks, maybe months, to circle around the entire wall,” Mortimer offered. “You’re welcome to make the trip, but bear in mind that most of the posts will be little more than tents and a campfire. It’ll be many months before any of them resemble anything like a fort.”

“I’m used to sleeping rough, Commander,” Shan replied. There was something out there in the distance. Still as a statue on a hilltop but it was there.

“Of course, Your Illuminance,” Mortimer nodded.

“We’ll leave tomorrow,” Shan addressed Abeth. “We’ll travel along the northern arc of the wall and travel until we meet the stone shipment. We’ll provide an escort for the caravan and return here with it. We’ll follow the wall south afterwards and journey along it for a couple weeks, maybe more. We’ll return here prior to making the trip back to Norasburg.”

“I’ll make the arrangements,” Abeth replied.

“That should give you enough time to get me a list of the resources you’ll need,” Shan directed Mortimer, “at least initially. We’ll determine ongoing needs as we move forward.”

“I will have that for you when you return,” Mortimer agreed.

“Excellent.” Shan spoke to Esther next, “Do you recognize that figure on the hill?”

“The watcher,” Mortimer answered. “He is there every single day, watching all that we do.”

“Be thankful that’s all he does,” Esther remarked. “That being you call the watcher is Prince Stefan. He is far more than your normal undead. There is power there, controlled and dangerous. I’d hate to be the focus of it should he ever let it loose.”

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The Head of the Snake

There were six men who were identified as the leaders of the conspiracy. Five more men were named by Noram in addition to himself. All the men were highly ranked soldiers that were members of Falson Peak’s garrison. Life-long soldiers to the one. Not a surprise that they were all part of the main branch of the Falson family.

These six men commanded the loyalty and obedience of thousands of the soldiers of the tower cities. The soldiers available to perform these men’s vision were scattered across the realm although the bulk of them were homed in the garrison at Falson Peak. None of the officers connected to the conspiracy’s leadership had come to Welsley’s attention when she had attempted to break the Falson’s control of Falson Peak’s tower and surrounding region. They had all seemed to be a low risk of disloyalty.

It was a concern to Welsley that all the leaders were assigned to her garrison. She had transferred a number of top-ranked officers away from the tower, it only seemed logical to her that at least some of her enemies would be elsewhere. It was something she’d need to watch out for after she’d dealt with what was before her.

What should she do with the traitors?

The obvious answer was to have a public trial, expose their conspiracy, find them guilty before the eyes of the Goddess’ flock, and execute them in a public fashion. It is the way this behaviour would be handled in most other kingdoms she had ever heard or read about.

A public acknowledgement that leaders of a tower’s garrison would reject the word of the Goddess would have devastating reverberations throughout the realm. To put out into general society that the people who served the Goddess would question her decisions would create doubt among the population and fracture the Lights’ control over their cities. It would be hard to ask your average citizen to blindly obey her laws if the soldiers devoted to her openly disobeyed her word.

Even if she was to limit the trial to just the tower’s military personnel there would be similar issues. A trial would only serve to weaken, not just Welsley’s control of her tower but the Council of Light’s dominance over the entire realm. The tower cities worked only because the Goddess’ authority was absolute and never questioned.

She couldn’t just ignore it. That route had similar issues to it. Ignoring the conspiracy would just tell the remaining conspirators that they could get away with attacks on a Guiding Light. They would never be able to move on, there would be a constant battle for control until one side was destroyed. Any display of weakness shown by her could shatter the society built by generations of the faithful.

Welsley would need to deal with the situation decisively and on her own.

Welsley sighed. She had been doing that a lot since the leaders of the would-be rebellion had been taken into custody.

She needed peace within her tower. She needed unity, brotherhood, and trust among the people who served her. She needed to be able to focus her attention on the threat presented by the Ruined Tower and its mistress. She needed the tower to work as a single unit focused on the security of the tower cities and their people.

But they had tried to kill her and that was difficult to forgive.

The temptation to use her position for vengeance was almost overwhelming. It wouldn’t just be her lashing out at people who attacked her, it would bring a sense of security to her, for a short time. An execution, public or otherwise, would create martyrs and set up another wave of revolt among the family. It was only a matter of time before the traitorous acts spilled over into the other towers.

That couldn’t be allowed to happen. A deal would need to be struck.

Welsley sighed.

“Where do we go from here?” Welsley asked the men around her. She looked over the six conspirators that sat across the table from her. To either side of her sat Samuel and Daniel, Dahren and a handful of his men guarded the room. Welsley was not willing to have anymore of the tower’s soldiers hear what was about to be discussed than was necessary.

“We’ve agreed to your terms,” the eldest of the men across from her answered. “We exchange our freedom, even our lives, for that of our kin. We accept whatever consequences our actions bring. We are at your mercy.”

Alten Falson, the man who had replied to her, was a nephew of Edith Falson, the former Guiding Light of Falson Peak. He was second, maybe it was third, in command of the garrison. Of all the traitors in the room with her, Alten was the highest ranked and longest serving of all the soldiers devoted to the Goddess. He was well into his middle-age but still seemed vital and strong as a man many years younger.

“I think it’s safe to assume that if we executed you, as traitors, any agreement we’ve reached would be moot,” Welsley offered her opinion. “Would you agree?”

There was no answer. Welsley hadn’t expected one.

“Your family members would rise up in arms,” Welsley continued. “They would have another reason to demand vengeance. But they might feel justified in their actions if I were to ignore it and let it go without it being addressed.”

The room was silent as she considered her options.

“I am going to send you to the Ruined Tower,” Welsley decided. “To the command of your kinsman Commander Mortimer. You will spend the remainder of your lives keeping the Lady’s forces from encroaching on the realm. You will go as volunteers and no one need ever know you questioned the Goddess’ will. You’ll die at the hands of our enemy as heroes rather than traitors.”

“That seems most fair,” Alten nodded.

“Good,” Welsley acknowledged. “You’ll leave with the next transfer. Daniel, please escort these men back to the barracks.”

Welsley watched as the men shuffled out of the room. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Dahren sit down at the table beside her, his men followed the others out of the room.

“You’re just going to let them go?” Dahren asked.

“The road to the Ruined Tower is long and dangerous,” Welsley answered. “Accidents happen everyday. I hear there has been a surge in highwaymen as of late.”

“I have heard the same,” Dahren replied.

“They can’t die by my hand, but they can’t just disappear,” Welsley said. “It has to be public, open, and before they reach Norasburg.”

“I know just the man,” Dahren replied.

The Traitor

The room was originally intended to be used as a reading room. At least that was the impression it had given Welsley the first time she had entered it. Lanterns had hung from the ceiling flooding the room with light. The walls were buried behind bookshelves filled full of writings. Small tables stood beside the couches that sat back-to-back in the centre of the room. It was a far more comfortable space to read in than the tower’s libraries or archives.

It was at one point. It wasn’t anymore.

Welsley found that she liked the feel of the room, she just had no interest in a reading room. She had no problem with reading for pleasure, she just preferred to do it while relaxing in a comfortable chair beside a lit fireplace. Add a glass, or a bottle, of wine to the mix and you had a relaxing evening.

She wanted a working space. The couches were removed, replaced with chairs and a desk. The room gave her a place she could go to: to make notes of her day, to plan out her future needs, to discuss issues with individuals away from the eyes and ears of the tower’s inhabitants. It also made a good place to go and have a private thought or two.

It was in this former reading room, now a study, that Welsley found herself this afternoon after the conversation on the stairs. She sat behind the desk, her back to the wall. She could see Daniel as he stood, arms folded across his chest, beside the door to the room. Samuel leaned against the bookshelves to Welsley’s left. Both men were armed and both men had their attention fixed on the third man in the room.

The man sat in one of the chairs on the opposite side of the desk from Welsley. He was older than she was. His hair was cropped short like the majority of the garrison’s soldiers, his chin was covered by a short, neatly trimmed beard. His gaze was locked onto a point on the wall just beyond Welsley’s head.

The man sat with his wrists and ankles shackled. He was a prisoner brought to her to be interrogated. He was the first, and so far only one, of the leaders of the conspiracy against her to be brought forward.

She watched the chained man intently, her hope was to see him flinch.

Noran Falson was the prisoner’s name. He wore the rank of Major within the Falson Peak military personnel. He specialized in the security of the tower and garrison grounds. His primary duty to ensure the watches on the walls were properly covered, maintained, and supplied. Welsley had seen the man around the tower but could not recall ever having interacted with him.

Noran was, as far as Welsley could determine, a dedicated officer and a skilled soldier. His betrayal of a Guiding Light, his Guiding Light, seemed out of place for an officer of his quality. There were no reports of his involvement, or even interest, in anything even remotely political. He was a member of the main branch of the Falson family and a perfect record in the archives was not entirely unexpected.

The man’s presence reeked of arrogance. Welsley had to give the man credit, he showed an immense amount of courage.

Dahren had certainly lived up to his word.

Welsley had received word that a merchant had arrived at the gates to the tower who had insisted on speaking with her directly. To Welsley’s surprise she met a man who turned over to her a wagon loaded with eight wooden barrels filled with the mead that Dahren had promised to find for her. In addition to delivering the kegs to her, the merchant slipped a piece of paper into her hand. The paper had two words written on it: “Noran Falson.”

She had retired to her office to confer with Daniel and Samuel to determine the best course to take. The debate was short and one-sided, within the hour Daniel and a squad of her bodyguard had taken Noran into custody and had him shackled to a chair in her office.

There was no way to predict what the response to his very public arrest would be. The floor of the tower they were on was cleared of everyone but the soldiers assigned to protect her. A watch was put on the stairs to keep anyone from interrupting the work that needed to be done.

Everything had been quiet since Daniel and his men had dragged the Major from the barracks.

Including the room where Welsley now sat.

“Who do you take your orders from?” Welsley broke the silence. There was no point dancing around the issue. The Falson man displayed no sign of nervousness or fear, he was the image of righteousness. Welsley had no doubt that he would not be tricked or coerced into a confession.

It wasn’t needed. Welsley and Noran both knew he was connected to the conspiracy against her, the only question she needed answered was to what degree. Only one of the people in the room knew the answer to that question, he wasn’t talking.

“Who gave the order to attack me?” Welsley asked when it became apparent that her first question wasn’t going to get an answer. “Was it you? Was it your idea to try to kill me? Who are you working with? Who is your leader?”

Noran didn’t move a muscle. His gaze stayed locked onto the point on the wall. There was no indication that the shackled man had even heard the questions directed at him. He sat as still as a statue except for his breathing and the occasional blinking of his eyes.

“We don’t have to turn this into a hostile thing,” Welsley decided to take a different approach. “I am only interested in the leaders. Anyone else can keep their positions with no ramifications. I wasn’t hurt, the attackers were dispatched. I see no need to punish more people than I need to. I want this brought to an end with as little loss of life as possible. There are dangers on the horizon coming to the realm, we can’t be fighting among ourselves when it arrives. That’ll only destroy us. Help me keep the Goddess’ people safe. Help me round up the traitors so we can move forward.”

Noram’s eyes moved to look at Welsley.

“What they claim has happened at Norasburg is true?” the prisoner asked.

“Yes,” Welsley responded.

“You only want the leaders? No one else?” Noram asked.

“This needs to end,” Welsley nodded. “We will need every soldier we have if conflict breaks out again.”

The prisoner was silent for a moment and then nodded.

Conversation on the Stairs

“We have lost another half-dozen soldiers,” Daniel reported as they descended the tower’s main staircase. He spoke in a hushed whisper. It was an unspoken agreement between them that they would only discuss the conspiracy against Welsley when they were in private. Her new guard was far enough ahead or behind them to create a private space for the three of them: Welsley, Daniel, and Samuel.

Dahren had moved quicker than she had thought he would. The first disappearance occurred just days after the attack on her. The disappearance of soldiers quickly developed almost a schedule; every second or third day another soldier would vanish. All the missing soldiers were connected through the Falson bloodline.

Welsley had yet to hear a word from Dahren.

“Sixteen in two weeks,” Samuel summarized in an equally hushed voice. “I’ve served in armies with higher desertion rates.”

“Except these men weren’t pressed into service,” Daniel replied. “This isn’t a militia formed from untrained locals. These were well-trained fanatics, devoted and unwavering. And these aren’t desertions.”

“At least ten of them aren’t,” Welsley agreed, “but things have changed. We can no longer be certain that being a Falson will keep them at their posts.”

There was truth in the statement, but it wasn’t the truth. There was no doubt in Welsley’s mind that the disappearances were connected to Dahren. There was no doubt in her mind that none of the soldiers would ever be seen alive again. Dahren would never allow a hint of his, or her, involvement to reach anyone’s ears. Once he had gotten the information he wanted from them they would vanish, disposed of in the same manner as the bodies of the men who had attacked her.

“You think it has gone that far?” Daniel asked. “Their morale so shaken they would abandon their brothers-in-arms?”

“This isn’t about brotherhood or loyalty,” Welsley replied. “This is about power and greed.”

“Of course,” Daniel nodded in agreement. “It is still hard to wrap my head around that. My time as a soldier was about my duty and my squad. It had never occurred to me to consider who was in charge and why. I suppose that’s the difference between being part of a family and being part of a legacy.”

“They possess a number of similarities to the warlords of old,” Welsley agreed. “We were all taught that power being passed down through generations of the same family was ended when the Goddess conquered the tower cities. True everywhere but Falson Peak. This tower fiercely held onto those old traditions. They hid it behind the pomp and circumstance of being chosen by the Goddess but the lineage remained unbroken. Power is not willingly relinquished.”

“They used their personal connection with the Goddess to corrupt her will,” Daniel responded.

There was a good intention behind the idea of rule by divine selection. It would reduce conflict among the tower cities; there was little need for conquest when the throne was not passed down the family line upon the ruler’s death. The creation of the council allowed for uniformity in the laws across the realm, faster responses to disasters and threats to any of the tower cities. More importantly, it opened up the possibility for anyone from any walk of life to be chosen to guide society and removed power from the hands of a select few.

Good intentions and lofty ideals often fall prey to corruption. The tower cities under the Goddess began with the corruption already in place. The deal with the Falson family allowed the corruption to grow: the Falsons maintained their control over a tower with no risk of ever giving up their seat on the council, a permanent seat gave the family more control over the realm’s future than any other, it also allowed them to sell seats on the council as they became available.

None of this was taught to the faithful.

“Without their assistance at the beginning of it all the world would be a very different place today,” Welsley replied. “An unchecked sense of entitlement corrupts everything. What is the word around the garrison concerning the disappearances?”

“It’s oddly quiet,” Daniel answered. “There’s normally some sort of talk when a soldier leaves the service. Gossip travels fast within the barracks but here it’s almost non-existent. You hear a little chatter about the man disappearing while on leave or on assignment that takes them outside of the walls. They joke about assassins stalking the garrison, phantoms dragging men into the shadows never to be seen again. All very incredible and superstitious theories.”

Sounded a lot like how Dahren liked to operate. Grab people when they were alone, quickly and quietly, mostly in the dark at night. He would make sure there were no witnesses and that his victim was never seen again. Fear, imagination, and human nature would do the rest; tales of monsters prowling the streets were sure to follow. These rumours were passed around the community in hushed tones, it increased the community’s anxiety and loosened lips. People were far more eager to talk when they were afraid, the longer they lived in terror the quicker they would spill their secrets.

He was fond of allowing people’s own fears to do the work for him.

“A little ironic,” Samuel offered, “that they entertain the idea that they are being targeted for assassination after they made an attempt on your life. Their lack of concern for their missing family suggests that they’re aware of the attempt and the consequences of its failure.”

“I don’t understand this subterfuge,” Daniel responded. “They have the numbers. I don’t understand why they don’t just take the tower by force.”

“It would bring them into open conflict with the other towers,” Welsley answered. “To openly reject the Goddess’ choice would mark them as heretics, to take a tower would make them an enemy. They would never be able to regain their former place among the faithful after that. Assuming they could survive a war with all the other towers.”

“No,” Welsley stopped her descent on the stairs, “their best hope of regaining their past position is to eliminate me. It opens up a seat on the council, the seat of Falson Peak, and removes the strongest opposition to them regaining their seat. It also is the route that requires the least amount of deaths and weakens the realm as little as possible. It is a good plan, when you consider it.”

Changing the Guard

“Are you certain they were soldiers of the garrison, Your Eminence?” Captain Lorkin asked. He sat across the table from Welsley, his back straight and rigid. He looked shocked by the tale that had just been told to him. The struggle to come to terms with the idea that a garrison soldier might betray a Guiding Light played out visibly across his features.

“Daniel,” Welsley began her response, “we’ve known each other for long enough for you to drop the formality when we’re not in the public eye.”

“Welsley,” Lorkin answered, “are you certain they were soldiers of the garrison?”

“They claimed to be,” Welsley answered. “I didn’t recognize any of them that attacked me. My friend from Morton is certain those he met were.” She had chosen to be as upfront with the soldier as she could. She left out the details of who she got the information about the Morton conspirators from; Captain Lorkin had spent many years fighting the criminal elements that made their home in Morton’s shadows and was unlikely to be willing to consider any information that came from them.

“They could have been lying,” Daniel offered as rebuttal.

“They moved like soldiers,” Samuel added. “They were disciplined. They were trained.”

“Former soldiers,” Daniel explained. “Mercenaries. Another nation’s military. A peasant militia.”

“There’s no nation that would risk a war with us to interfere with our internal politics,” Welsley replied. “Peasant militia are far too busy with fighting banditry to try to kill a Guiding Light, assuming they were willing to question a decision from the Goddess. Do you know of any mercenary groups operating this far into the realm? I haven’t heard of any. They did claim to be Falsons.”

“No,” Daniel agreed, “I can’t think of any group operating in the realm. I just can’t see one of the Goddess’ soldiers taking it upon themselves to attack one of her chosen Lights. It’s unfathomable.”

“Is it?” Welsley asked. “Are we sure it hasn’t happened before? I doubt it would be taught if it had.”

“Maybe when her children first claimed the towers,” Daniel thought aloud. “When they first brought her teachings to the people. There were probably a good number of people who fought against their loss of privilege and power. That was centuries ago, there is nor a person alive who would need to do so today. Why would anyone want to go against the Mother’s will?”

“I think you have just answered your question,” Welsley answered.

Daniel shook his head, a lost look on his face.

“There has always been a Falson on the Council of Lights. Always a Falson as the Guiding Light of the tower at Falson Peak,” Welsley paused. “Until now.”

“Until now,” Daniel repeated. “The Falsons always were… different. Separate from the rest of us. There’s no telling what choices they might make. What do you need of me?”

“I need you to take command of my personal guard,” Welsley stated. “I can no longer trust my current guard. We need to shake things up. I want to be able to focus on my responsibilities and not on concern for my safety. Build your unit with soldiers whose loyalty you trust, as many as you need from any garrison you want. I’ll make sure any transfers you need are approved.”

“There are quite a few men I trust who have already been transferred,” Daniel nodded, “I can have a detail to guard you before the morning is done. They’re mostly Morton soldiers, I’ve worked with all of them numerous times over my career. I’d like to double the usual bodyguard, we are in the heart of the Falson territory. They’ll outnumber us no matter what but more guards might make them less brazen.”

“Agreed,” Welsley nodded. “Light Falson used to travel with a small army so it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows if I do the same. I feel much relieved now that we have a plan. Thank-you Daniel, you may have just saved my life.”

“What do you want me to do about the traitors?” Daniel asked.

“Nothing at this point,” Welsley answered. “We need to find the conspirators, we need them to make another move. I refuse to believe that all members of the Falson family are involved. It is a large enough family that they could have prevented me from taking the seat at the tower if they were all involved. It’s a small group that just has a large amount of authority over the clan. For now we’ll settle on a defensive stance and let them come to us.”

“I’ll keep my eyes open in case they slip up,” Daniel said.

“Please do,” Welsley agreed. “In the meantime, let us eat.”

“I was surprised,” Daniel started speaking as he helped himself to some food, “when I heard you had been chosen by the Goddess to be one of her Guiding Lights. I could have seen you take up a position as one of a tower’s Illuminated but a Light… Your talents were wasted as one of the faithful, you were too skilled not to be moved into the ranks of the Illuminated. I would never have guessed you’d be chosen.”

“Who among us can truly claim to understand how the Goddess thinks,” Welsley shrugged. “We interpret her words as best we can and live our lives as closely as we can to the example she left for us. We serve as she wishes us too.”

“Truer words I have never heard,” Daniel nodded. “I heard rumours of an attack on Norasburg. We’ve had numerous soldiers transferred to that tower, so I assume that part was true. Did we really get attacked by monsters?”

“Yes,” Welsley admitted. “They were something out of myth. The dead had risen from their graves to attack the living. Not just human versions of the undead but bears as well. It was awful.”

“And Light Falson?” Daniel asked.

“She surrendered herself to them,” Welsley replied, “to buy us time to put together a defence. Her actions kept Norasburg from being overwhelmed and kept the realm from being invaded.”

“Which led us to where we are today,” Daniel forked some food into his mouth. They settled into eating the breakfast in quiet companionship.

Doubts

Dahren was right, Welsley thought, someone had gone to a lot of effort when it came to brewing that mead. She had enjoyed it, Dahren had promised to procure a few large kegs for her as soon as he had the chance. The salted meat, hard cheese, and dry biscuits made a passable meal but she would have preferred something fresher. The meal was eaten almost in silence, the conversation was stunted and punctuated by periods of uncomfortable silence. They avoided any mention of the attempt on Welsley’s life.

After the quick meal, Dahren and his crew escorted Welsley and Samuel back to the tower. The sun had descended in the sky by the time they left the underground lair, the streets were engulfed in shadow. Every alley they passed was a black doorway that radiated danger, despite the anxiety brought on as they crossed through the darkened streets they made it to the gates of the tower wall without incident. They parted ways at the gate.

There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary when they arrived at the tower. Welsley and Samuel passed through the gates and made their way to her chambers. It had been a long day, Welsley allowed herself to collapse onto her bed, restaffing her bodyguard could wait until morning. Samuel took up a position by the door as Welsley drifted off to sleep.

“Good morning, Your Eminence,” Welsley heard Arah’s voice call from inside the tower. Welsley and Samuel were standing on the balcony, in quiet contemplation as the sun rose before them. Welsley turned her head toward her attendant and nodded in greeting. She wondered what it meant about Arah’s loyalty that she had come by this morning to perform her duties; perhaps nothing.

“There is a fire in the hearth,” Arah continued after a moment. “There is a kettle waiting and a couple of cups. Would you like me to have your breakfast brought here?”

“Yes. Thank-you, Arah. That would be wonderful,” Welsley replied. She wondered how much she could trust Arah. Did her attendant know of the attempt on her life? Of the conspiracy against her? What was her involvement, if any? Should Welsley trust her? And how far? If Welsley treated Arah differently would that serve to create suspicion in the conspirators? Welsley had never sensed any duplicity in Arah, but perhaps the other woman was just good at hiding it.

“Arah,” Welsley brought her attendant to a halt just as she was about to leave. “Who was the captain of the soldiers who transferred in from Morton? Lorson, I think?”

“Lorkin, my Light,” Arah corrected. “Captain Daniel Lorkin. He was one of the first of the replacement soldiers to arrive. He has an excellent reputation among the garrison.”

“Yes. That’s what I had heard as well,” Welsley agreed. “Send for him, please. Have him join us here for breakfast.”

“Yes, Light Koarl,” Arah nodded and left the chamber.

“Lorkin?” Samuel threw Welsley a questioning look.

Welsley walked into the tower and poured a cup of tea for both her and Samuel. She sat in a chair facing the fireplace. She gestured for Samuel to sit in the empty seat beside her.

“When I was one of the faithful of the tower at Morton I had the good fortune to work with a number of the tower’s soldiers,” Welsley explained. “Which was a good thing, studying scripture and laws is probably the most boring thing anyone could ever be made to do. I always enjoyed being assigned a duty that got me away from the classroom. One of the soldiers I got to work with was Daniel Lorkin, just a soldier at the time not yet a captain. He was a devoted soldier, loyal and trustworthy.”

“A good man to lead your personal guard,” Samuel nodded.

“My thoughts exactly,” Welsley took a sip from her cup. “He’ll be able to make good choices on who we can trust to keep me alive. It’ll be nice to have a member of the tower I know I can trust. You and I against the whole of the tower doesn’t appeal to me.”

“Nor to me,” Samuel admitted.

The room was silent except for the crackling of the fire in the hearth. There was comfort in the silence, Welsley didn’t want to talk about the Falson conspiracy nor did she want to fill the silence with empty words. Her mind was filled with thoughts of trust and loyalty, idle chatter seemed disrespectful to the seriousness of the issues she faced.

She had thought that separating the family, dividing them among the towers, would make their acceptance of their new circumstances easier. Having to acclimate themselves to new homes and new responsibilities would distract them long enough for them to move beyond their loss. Their family loyalty was far stronger than she would have ever guessed.

The important question was how much of the Falson family was possessed by this loyalty to the family? How many members felt that need for vengeance? Was it just a small group that worked against her? Was it the garrison’s former officers? All the soldiers? The faithful as well? Did it include townsfolk? How many people did it include?

There seemed no way to be sure. Anyone who had lived for any length of time could be a part of it even if they weren’t of Falson blood. Welsley would need to surround herself with people who had no connection to Falson Peak. People who she knew personally, if possible.

But could she trust everyone she knew?

She hadn’t known Samuel for that long but he had displayed a willingness to put his life at risk for her. He had the added benefit of not being from the tower cities, he had no connection to any tower or any Guiding Light outside of her. She was willing to trust their newfound friendship. If she had to put her life in anyone’s hands she’d feel safe putting it in his.

She wasn’t so certain about Dahren. They had been friends in their youth and there was a warmth between them, but Dahren didn’t come from a lifestyle that valued loyalty or trust. In Dahren’s world trust didn’t exist and loyalty was only as good as the last pouch of coin. It was bought and sold on a regular basis. Dahren had no love for the Falsons or any tower soldier. She just worried that she had released a monster she would be unable to control.

“Light Koarl,” Arah interrupted Welsley’s thoughts, “Captain Lorkin is here.”

“Excellent,” Welsley replied. “Captain, come join us for breakfast. I have some thoughts to discuss about your duties.”

Deals

The entire family. She hadn’t considered the possibility that the entire family might be united against her. She had counted on the Falsons being like any other family: divided and fractured by personal desires and personality conflicts. That had been true among every other family she had ever come across, her own included. Some families hid it better, but it was always there hiding under the surface.

When Welsley had joined the ranks of the faithful she had been educated on a number of issues of importance to the Daughters of the Goddess, including the history of the religion’s early days. Falson Peak was the first of the tower cities to fall into the Goddess’ hands. It was a peaceful transition of power, the Falson family moved from a patriarchal controlled society to one controlled by a matriarchy overnight. The Goddess suddenly had an army to fight for her and the Falson family earned a permanent place on what would eventually become known as the Council of Lights. It was the Falson matriarch who became the first of the Goddess’ Guiding Lights.

It was always framed as an act of blind devotion to the righteousness of the Goddess’ views. The family had been taken with the Goddess’ promise of a new, just, safe world under her guidance. It was a vision the family had been willing to risk everything to bring into existence. It was a gamble that paid out beautifully, the movement was a huge success and the Falson family was set for eternity.

That was the official line taught to generations of the faithful.

The truth was probably a bit more mundane than that. The pre-Goddess tower cities were a chaotic mess of petty tyrants fighting endlessly among themselves. With the exception of Falson Peak and the three united towers beyond the great forest, the realm was volatile and dangerous for all who called it home. It was a world in desperate need of a strong leader to impose order on it. The animosity that had built up between the various clans made it unlikely they could ever follow an existing flag. Old kingdoms would need to topple before a new one could rise.

The support offered by the Falson family came more from a desire for power than from the support of an ideology. The appearance of the Goddess provided them with an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Backing the Goddess early allowed them an uncontested claim on the power that would come with control of more and more of the tower cities. It was easy to hide their control of the realm behind the idea of a deity.

A cult that would have been little more than a local, grassroots religion received a giant boost of followers that included a trained, experienced, well-equipped army. A relatively unheard of system of belief became the most dominant ideology in the region. Word of the Goddess spread among the tower cities. Without fighting a battle the Falson family had ensured their control of the realm.

Until Light Koarl took it all away in a single day.

She truly could muck things up. Welsley didn’t think she was wrong about her read of the beginnings of the faithful and their connection to the Falsons in the early days. It was Light Falson who had willingly accepted a large sum of gold from Welsley’s father in exchange for Welsley receiving an appointment as a Guiding Light. It made sense to Welsley that if the family was willing to sell a council seat they had probably been willing to buy one too.

It didn’t matter how it happened. What mattered was that the Falson’s sense of entitlement had been shattered. The many centuries of a guaranteed position had been ended and that family had lost a lot of its power and influence. A potentially exciting time for the tower cities that just might cost Welsley her life.

It would be worth it, the loss of her life, if she could be sure the Falsons would be prevented from gaining a seat on the council again. Of the eleven Guiding Lights that sat with her on the council, only Shan seemed to possess the potential for leadership. Shan’s attention was external to the realm, it needed to be and it would be detrimental to the realm’s defence if Shan had to wage a potential political war with the other tower cities. Welelsy knew Shan’s personality well enough to be sure that the Guiding Light of Norasburg wouldn’t see the Falson threat as a priority.

Welsley would just need to stay alive. For the good of the realm.

“What are our options?” Welsley asked. “How do we approach this?”

“We kill the serpents,” Dahren answered. “Forget about the fantasy of chopping the head off a snake and the body will die. These type of conspiracies are more like a hydra: cut off a head and two more grow to take its place. It’s a long, slow, tedious, and dirty process to remove these plotters. I already took care of one group in Morton, then we stopped the group here, so we’ve already made progress. We have a captive that will lead us to more, who will lead us to more, and so on. You’ll leave that business to me, keep your hands clean, I’ll clear the garden for you.”

“You can’t just kill members of the Goddess’ faithful,” Welsley stated.

“I can,” Dahren replied. “I’ll bring you some of the leaders so you can use them as examples of what happens to traitors. You can display your righteousness in the eyes of the Goddess. I’ll root out your enemies and you can put on a show for your masses.”
“That could work,” Welsley admitted. “We need to make as much of it public as we can. We want to dissuade as many people from joining this movement. Showing the consequences of this choice should help.”

“Agreed,” Dahren nodded. “In the meantime, you need to surround yourself with a bodyguard you can trust. Never go anywhere without them. No Falsons in it, no connection to them. Keep yourself safe while I track down your enemies.”

“My thoughts as well,” Welsley agreed.

“And keep your dog at your side,” Dahren indicated Samuel. “He looks like he can bite.”

Welsley patted Samuel lightly on the arm.

“Promise me you’ll be discrete, Dahren,” Welsley nodded.

“Always. I’ll protect you every way I can, old friend,” Dahren slapped his hands together. “Let’s eat. Let’s drink. Then we’ll get you home.”

The smile on Dahren’s face was hard and cold.

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