Old Friends

Welsley took a half-step to the right of Samuel to give herself a better view of the men who had stalked them. She hung her mace by her side and placed a reassuring hand on her protector’s back. Samuel still hadn’t lowered his sword, but the other men hadn’t lowered their bows either.

“Dahren,” Welsley addressed the man she had bumped into while leaving the Golden Keg. “It’s good to see you, especially considering your excellent timing. What brings you so far from Morton?”

There was a slight lowering of one of the bows.

“You,” the man who had lowered his bow answered. “Odd as that may sound, I’ve come here because of you. To warn you of events, well, such as this.”

“I appreciate the timely assistance,” Welsley offered, “but I’m confused. How did you know of this attack?”

“You haven’t made a lot of friends since you found religion,” the man known as Dahren said. “As expected your unnatural tendency to rise to the top has resulted in you stepping on a number of rather large toes. Is it true you had Light Falson killed?”

“It was more complicated than that,” Welsley answered.

“Someone disagrees,” Dahren countered. “Those of us who have fallen out of the Goddess’ grace have heard tell that you made the old woman watch while you burnt her granddaughter at the stake before you tore the old lady’s throat out with your bare hands and left her to bleed to death in the street.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Welsley laughed. “It was a strategic gamble that was only partially successful. We lost a Guiding Light but stopped an invasion. A lot more people would have been lost if they had attacked. They would have infected our lands, there are too many places between the towers for them to hide.”

“You don’t need to justify your choices to me,” Dahren replied. “I am well aware of the mindless devotion to the family shown by those with Falson blood in their veins. That cult has been a plague on free-men, like myself, almost since the Goddess’ children conquered the tower cities. Maybe even longer, if the legends are to be believed. Those of us who live on the fringe of society have heard both tales: that of villain and that of hero.”

Dahren slowly slid the arrow from his bow. He kept his eyes on Samuel as he returned the arrow to its quiver, just as carefully he slid the bow over his arm and across his back. None of his companions adjusted their stance.

“If you could restrain your dog,” Dahren began, he flicked a hand toward Samuel.

“Watch yourself,” Samuel warned.

“Put your sword away,” Welsley instructed Samuel, her voice soft and reassuring. She kept her hand on his arm until he relented and sheathed his sword.

“Good doggy,” Dahren smiled. “We can’t stay here chatting. We are just asking for someone to come upon us. We have a lot to discuss and it would be better if we weren’t interrupted.”

“Agreed,” Welsley responded. “What do you suggest?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Dahren replied. “I have made arrangements with the local guild to use one of their dens. They’ve cleaned it out for my uses, it’ll be safe and secure. It’s not that far from here, under the shadow of the wall. We can talk there.”

“Okay,” Welsley agreed. This seemed a better option than her initial thought. It would have been easy to make use of the tower’s secret ways but when she considered Dahren’s somewhat shady path in life it would open up potential problems in the future. Once he learned of the backdoor into the tower he would use it and share it among the realm’s various criminal guilds. It would cause more problems in the long term compared to the short term safety and privacy they would gain.

Dahren turned to his three companions. “Dispose of these bodies. We don’t want them found on the street. No sense drawing more soldiers onto patrol. Meet us at the den once you’re finished.”

“What about him?” one of the bowmen indicated the injured soldier.

“We need him,” Samuel said. “He can tell us who was involved in planning this attack. We can root out the traitors and break the conspiracy.”

“Bind him, gag him, blindfold him,” Dahren agreed. “Bring him with you when you’re done. Follow me.”

Welsley and Samuel followed Dahren as he moved away from the scene of the ambush. They moved through darkened alleys at a quick pace, they moved swiftly between the shadows and ducked between the town’s closely spaced buildings. They dashed across every major street they came across, each step took them further from the gates and closer to the wall. Not a word was spoken as they moved across the town.

Their destination was on the street that ran along the walls of the tower’s garrison. The building looked identical to the buildings around it: a two storey mostly stone building. They slipped around the back of the building, they moved to a dark corner of a small yard where Dahren slid a flagstone under the building’s corner to reveal a concealed ladder that led under the house.

“This is it,” Dahren said. “I’ll go first and get us some lights. Follow behind me. Pull the entrance shut after you.” He disappeared into the ground.

Welsley climbed down the ladder after him. She moved through a short tunnel toward a dim light. Behind her, she could hear Samuel closing the entrance-way.

She found herself in a small, square room carved out of the stone of the mountain. A torch was lit in each corner. There were four shelves carved into two of the walls, each shelf large enough to support a man lying on his back. Blankets were piled on each shelf. A fireplace was built into another wall, connected to the chimney of the house above it. A table and half-a-dozen chairs filled the centre of the room. A handful of barrels and crates were scattered around the room.

“Welcome,” Dahren said with a flourish. “It’s not much but it will allow us to talk in peace. Take a seat.”

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Ambush

“We’re being followed,” Samuel declared.

“Are you sure?” Welsley asked. She didn’t need an answer, she knew he was right, she could hear the footsteps following behind them. Whoever was following them was matching their cadence, they were being stalked not attacked. For the moment.

“Four of them,” Samuel confirmed. “Probably the men we ran into at the tavern. They were armed.”

“What?” Welsley exclaimed.

“Swords, bows, light armour,” Samuel replied. “They moved like warriors. Not soldiers but brawlers.”

“Not anyone from the tower,” she mused. “The man I ran into looked familiar. I just can’t place him.”

Samuel nodded ahead of them. “What about them?” he asked. “They’re definitely soldiers, or were at one point.”

Welsley looked ahead of them. There were six figures on the road before them. They were stretched in a line across the street. Each man stood in place, sword in hand, their attention focused on Welsley and Samuel.

“They could be from the tower,” Welsley said. It was hard to tell, the distance and the dimming light made picking out details difficult. They seemed ordered and disciplined from this distance, they were most likely soldiers but it was even odds that they might be a tower patrol.

“I think we know why they let you go without a bodyguard,” Samuel muttered. “There are two more in the alleys on either side. Ten ahead, four behind. That might be more than I can handle alone. Might.” He had pulled his crossbow from his back and loaded a bolt while he spoke.

“No tower guards have ever harmed a Guiding Light,” Welsley responded automatically. That sounded false even to her own ears. She hadn’t hesitated to hand Light Falson over to the Lady to save Norasburg from destruction, she would do it again without hesitation. It stood to reason that some members of that family might desire revenge. It was why she had chosen to break up the family and spread them across the tower cities. She had known it was a possibility, but this seemed overly bold.

Suspicious as the moment seemed, despite it being in the realm of possibility, Welsley felt herself questioning it. No one knew where she was going, it had been a spontaneous choice, had they followed her? Did they wait the entire afternoon for her to leave the tavern? This was the most obvious route back to the tower so the choice of ambush point made sense. There was no way they should have known where she had gone and no way they could have known when she would return.

“Light Koarl?” the call came from one of the men ahead of her.

A sense of relief washed over Welsley. It quickly disappeared as she realized the men in front of her had begun to move forward. The movement was slow and purposeful, it dripped with malice.

“This is a bad spot,” Samuel growled. He pushed himself halfway in front of Welsley, his crossbow was levelled at the approaching men. “That’s far enough,” he warned, his voice raised.

“Light Koarl,” the man ahead of them had slowed their approach. “We’re here to escort you back to the tower.”

“Why aren’t they in uniform?” Welsley wondered. Although the six men in front had slowed almost to a stop, the pairs on either side were still moving forward; cautiously but noticeably. She pulled her mace from her belt.

“You don’t recognize any of them?” Samuel asked. He kept his crossbow locked on the other group’s speaker, his eyes flicked to the sides to keep all the soldiers’ locations fixed in his mind.

“Not a one,” Welsley answered after she looked at the men who claimed to be her guards. “Who are you?” she demanded from the self-proclaimed soldiers.

“Light Koarl…,” the speaker began.

“Enough of this,” one of the other men pushed forward. “You gave Light Falson to the Sister and fated her to a pain-filled death. Now you join her.”

The man took one more step forward and then dropped, a crossbow bolt buried in the centre of his chest. Samuel had another bolt readied before anyone could react. The crossbow was aimed back at the original speakers chest.

“Alright,” the man glanced at his fallen companion, “no point wasting more time trying to be subtle. Kill them!”

The soldiers moved in and chaos erupted around them. The soldier that had spoken dropped to the ground, the bolt from Samuel’s crossbow protruded from his knee. Samuel’s crossbow clattered on the ground and his sword flashed in his hand. He took a step forward and then there was the sound of arrows colliding with bodies. Welsley could see the soldiers that approached from the alley fall. She heard the twang of bows followed by the thud of arrows as they hit their targets, she saw the last of the soldiers drop before she was spun around and all she could see was Samuel’s back.

She had all but forgotten the men who had been trailing them. They were forefront in her mind now. They formed an arc facing her, their bows nocked and ready. Her only barrier was Samuel, at this range it was unlikely he’d survive the initial attack let alone be able to close the distance before they could fire again.

But they had killed the attacking soldiers. They could have killed her and Samuel at any point. There was something familiar about one of them.

“Wait,” Welsley touched Samuel’s arm. “Sheath your sword. I know that man. We’re among friends.”

The Golden Keg

The Golden Keg was located a mere handful of blocks from the garrison’s gate. It was a bit off the main road and sat between a well and what looked like a failed attempt at a garden. The building was similar to the other buildings near it: a two-storey building made of quarried stone. Smoke rose from the chimney and filled the air with a savoury mix of cooking meats, spices and breads. The many windows were shuttered against the cold. The wooden door was reached by climbing a trio of steps and taking a couple steps across a stone porch.

Wooden tables and wooden benches was the tavern’s interior decor. Two large tables filled the center of the room, eight smaller tables were arranged around the room’s perimeter. An open doorway across from the entrance led to the kitchen, storage room, and other areas not open to the public. The floor was blanketed by a mix of straw and sawdust.

Only three of the smaller tables were in use when the two of them arrived. The other groups matched them in numbers: two at each table. The conversations were hushed and private. Bread, bowls, and mugs sat with every group.

None of the patrons looked up from their tables when the two entered the tavern. The conversations were either too riveting to miss or the participants didn’t care who might be joining them. Welsley and Samuel chose an empty table near the door without drawing any eyes to them.

They sat across from each other. Samuel sat where he could watch the entrance, Welsley rested her back against the wall so she could observe as much of the tavern as possible.

“It’s nice and warm in here,” Welsley leaned into the wall and half-closed her eyes. “The cold of the day will be gone in no time.”

“What ever they have on the fire smells amazing,” Samuel noticed, “it’ll warm the bones, for sure.”

“It’s quieter than I expected,” Welsley observed.

“It is mid-afternoon,” Samuel offered as explanation. “I’m sure it picks up once they are done in the mines for the day.”

“Sometimes,” a man’s voice joined their conversation. “There are watering-holes closer to the mines. A lot of them. My clientele tend to be visiting merchants and their mercenaries. On, or around, market days this place is packed. Outside of market days we rely heavily on the soldiers of the tower. With the shake-up over there, we’ve been seeing less of them lately. This cold will keep most of the townsfolk away. This’ll warm you up.”

He slid a couple of bowls of a thick, creamy stew in front of them. Matching mugs of a steaming reddish-brown liquid followed after. The man withdrew as quickly as he had appeared.

Samuel dipped a spoon into the bowl in front of him. He watched as he poured the spoon’s content back into the bowl. The sauce was heavy, a little thicker than soup but more liquid than paste. There were bits of potatoes, carrots, and onions mixed into the sauce. There were other vegetables mixed in that he wasn’t sure of. There looked to be about three types of meat but it was hard to tell from what animals it came from as the aroma of the spices overwhelmed every other scent.

“Are you going to eat it?” Welsley asked.

“I’m considering it,” Samuel answered.

“It goes best with these,” the men who had brought their food and drink interrupted. He added a tray of warm, fist-sized biscuits to the table and retired without another word.

“He’s good,” Welsley observed.

“He is,” Samuel agreed.

They set to devouring the meal in front of them. The biscuits were hard on the outside and tender on the inside. A gentle smell of butter rose into the air when each biscuit was torn open. Dipped into the stew the result was a tangy, and somewhat salty, mouthful. Welsley wasn’t sure what was in the stew but thought she tasted ham, chicken, and lamb in the mix. There was the hint of some kind of nut, but whether it was in the biscuit or the stew Welsley couldn’t say.

The mugs were filled with a tart red wine, heated and flavoured with cocoa. Malted honey was drizzled over the warm brew to sweeten the concoction. The end result was like napping in front of a blazing hearth on a cold winter’s day, except in liquid form. It was the familiar comfort and safety of one’s early years distilled into a drink.

Aside from an acknowledgement of their enjoyment of the food, Welsley and Samuel ate in relative silence. Welsley kept an eye on the rest of the room while they ate and drank. There was little change among the population of the tavern; a couple groups left but were replaced by an almost perfect match of newcomers. They seemed most likely to be locals, as far as Welsley could tell, they didn;t have the bearing of a soldier or a mercenary.

The tavern-keeper cleared the tables almost as soon as the patrons left. Bowls, cutlery, and cups were swept into a low-sided basket; coins left as payment found a home in a pocket; crumbs and spillage were swept onto the straw-covered floor. He would be gone again as soon as the table had been cleared.

He would reappear moments after a group would sit at a table. Bowls of stew, mugs of the honeyed wine, and plates of biscuits quickly found their way to the tops of the tables. The tavern-keep would then disappear, showing up seemingly at random to refill mugs and bowls that got too low.

“This has been a nice way to spend an afternoon,” Welsley took a last sip from her mug.

“Yes,” Samuel agreed. “Good food, comfortable setting, nice company.”

“Thanks,” Welsley laughed. “We should return when it’s busier.”

“You’ve seen what you wanted?” he asked.

“I think we’ve seen all we’re going to today,” Welsley answered. “We should get back before my guards panic and tear the town apart looking for me.”

Samuel dropped a pile of coins onto the table. They stood up from the table and pulled their cloaks closer to them. They had felt the cold every time the door had opened, the day had not gotten warmer.

“Back into the cold,” Samuel gestured toward the door.

Welsley opened the door and stepped out into a group of men who were attempting to enter at the same time. There were apologies offered, then some dancing as each group attempted to give way to the other. Welsley had locked eyes with the man she had bumped into and then she was propelled by Samuel through the group and onto the street.

There was something familiar about the man.

A Walk in the Rain

They walked together in silence through the empty grounds of Falson Peak’s tower garrison. On regular days the grounds would be filled with soldiers sparring, training, and running drills. It was cold today, the skies covered in dark and foreboding clouds. It had been raining earlier in the day, cold droplets that were a mix of ice and water, although the air was clear as they crossed over the empty space.

The silence was companionable. The silence had come about as a natural growth of the conversation they had been engaged in rather than a lack of topics or an unease of speech. They had just arrived at a point where it made more sense to walk in silence together than to fill every moment with words.

This was an oddity for Welsley: she was never allowed out of the tower without at least a couple of guards to accompany her. This was true even when she was keeping to the tower grounds, the gardens were considered as much a danger as the streets of the town were, as was the garrison. Today, however, it was just her and Samuel.

Maybe it was the wet, cold of the day that had added to her guards’ willingness to grant her this day’s freedom. The two companions had seen almost no one as they had wandered through the gardens earlier in the day, the same seemed to be occurring as they passed through the training grounds.

The crossbow on his back and the sword strapped to Samuel’s side probably had more to do with her usual protectors’ shrugging off their normal routine. Welsley had brought a mace with her which she kept hidden under her cloak.

There was a large, three storey barracks that ran the length of the yard. There would be additional floors housing soldiers beneath the ground. The above ground structures were an illusion, the vast majority of the garrison’s functionality could be found beneath the training grounds. The stables were the only facilities that didn’t have any underground representation, instead they kept large stables outside of the garrison walls. The grounds that they walked through was primarily used for show, the most intense training was done beyond the walls among the wilds.

There was a platform set up across from the barracks. It was an observation platform used by the highest ranked officers on a daily basis to review the training and proficiency of their troops. On rarer occasions it was used as a viewing platform for the Guiding Light and other notables to be awed by the martial skills of the garrison both as individual members and as a unit. For a long time this was one of the only ways the soldiers had to prove their competency.

The attack on Norasburg had changed that.

They now had a real enemy to focus on. There was a difference in the energy that surrounded the soldiers during their drills. No longer were they just going through the motions. They now trained to battle an enemy, they trained to survive a battle and to win a war. No longer was their only concern to win a tournament and gain glory, now the end goal was to win and survive; less frivolous a focus.

Although all of the men stationed at a tower’s garrison were trained as soldiers not all were assigned to soldierly duties. There were soldiers assigned to the tower as guards, it was from those guards that the Guiding Light’s personal bodyguard was chosen. Some of the garrison would spend their days travelling, protecting shipments to and from Falson Peak from bandits and highwaymen. A number of the garrison provided security and law enforcement for the local community. Anything else that might come up would normally be staffed by at least a few members of the rank-and-file.

All of it could fill their time and test their skills, but they were soldiers and soldiers existed to fight wars. There had been no wars between the towers since the Goddess had taken them from the warlords who had claimed them so many centuries ago. The tower cities kept to themselves, they never had their military move beyond their accepted borders nor acted in any way that could be considered aggressive toward their neighbours. Not that that mattered, there were no people organized in anywhere nearing the size of the tower cities.

The tower cities would have been even more monolithic if the Lady hadn’t destroyed the three towers that She did. Three more towers, three more cities, three more voices on the Council of Lights would have made a real impact. The differences would almost be endless, the potential definitely was.

That was a line of thought for another time.

Welsley glanced at Samuel. She suspected she looked as wet and windblown as he did. Her lips curled up in a slight smile before she had a chance to consider restraining it.

“I think we’re about to get wet,” Samuel responded with a quick glance at the sky. “Wetter, I mean.”

He was probably right, Welsley thought. It had already been showering off and on throughout the day, another round of freezing rain would not be unexpected.

“Let’s pick up the pace,” Welsley agreed. “We should be able to make it to the gate before the sky opens up on us.”

They had spent the last couple of days exploring the tower and its grounds. They had kept to the public areas of the tower, Welsley trusted Samuel as completely as she trusted anyone, maybe more so, but she was unwilling to risk the secret ways within the tower becoming public knowledge. There was more than enough to see in the tower without delving into the hidden areas.

This day found them headed out to the town that had grown up around the tower. Specifically they were on their way to a tavern: the Golden Keg. It had been a while since Welsley had visited a tavern, or even been able to. Her usual retinue prevented her from visiting any watering-hole without having the place cleared out first. She was looking forward to spending an afternoon drinking and eating, sharing jokes and gossip, and just experiencing what her new subjects were like when the formalities were dropped. Her and Samuel would be able to make a reasonably convincing pair of travellers looking to escape the cold and the rain.

“Your Eminence?” one of the guards approached them as they neared the gate. She wasn’t sure if his confusion stemmed from her brown clothing, her lack of bodyguards, or that she had ventured out on such a day. The previous Guiding Light wouldn’t have considered any of the scenarios.

“Please open the gate, soldier,” she nodded a greeting, “I wish to enter the city.”

They passed through the gate and were part way along the streets on their way to the tavern when the rain opened up on them.

Mourning

“I can see why you start your day here,” Samuel said. “The view is serene.”

“It is something to behold,” Welsley agreed. “Awe inspiring, both here and at Norasburg. But it is at sunrise when the mountains are bathed in red that it is most uplifting. Seeing the Great Forest painted in red light and shadows at the start of every morning gave Norasburg a permanent place in my heart. It is a sight you should see.”

It was just before midday. Welsley could hear lunch being laid out in the chamber behind her. She was on her balcony with Samuel beside her.

After news of the previous night, Welsley had not wanted to be around people. She wanted a day without eyes on her, without sympathies offered in an overwhelming avalanche of false caring, she wanted to be alone. She had decided to put off the promised tour of Falson Peak, delayed her meeting with Samuel, and spent the morning silently watching the sun climb into the sky from behind the mountains. A morning spent in quiet contemplation.

She had Arah bring Samuel to her quarters after she had completed her morning ritual. When he arrived, Welsley found herself doing something she would never have seen herself doing: she shared the letter, her thoughts, and her reaction to it all with Samuel. Showing such weakness was uncomfortable for her, but it was also a relief. She had waved off Samuel’s offerings of sympathy and the two of them had moved to the balcony where they quietly took in the view.

“I expect the same could be said for the view from all the towers,” Welsley mused. “Even the ruined tower, I suppose.”

“I doubt the Lady of the Tower even notices,” Samuel added.

“True,” Welsley agreed. “I doubt she is even capable of noticing beauty of any kind.”

“I have never been off the ground before,” Samuel shared. “Not really. When I was a soldier I served as a scout, always in the field. I never stood guard on a watchtower, never patrolled atop a wall. My feet were always on the ground, or close to it.”

“You’re doing good compared to some I’ve met,” Welsley smiled. “There are some among the faithful who are too terrified to even pass through the balcony doors despite being a part of the towers for the majority of their lives. You have at least managed to match my distance from the tower.”

Samuel gave a very little smile. While it was true that he had made his way onto the balcony, he was at least half-a-step closer to the entrance of the tower than she was. He was content with the view from where he stood and showed no desire to move further out from the tower core.

“My father spent his life on the seas,” Welsley mused. “Most of it, anyway. He had worked every position he could, he was comfortable at every post on a ship. Especially up in the crow’s nest or among the sails. He could go anywhere on a ship at any time and in any weather. But take him off the water and he was only comfortable with his feet on the ground.”

“I’ve never seen an ocean,” Samuel admitted. “Lakes, rivers, but no oceans.”

“You ever been on a river boat?” Welsley asked. “A canoe?”

“No,” he shook his head. “I can swim well enough but the thought of standing on an ever roiling surface makes my stomach churn. I’ve never felt the need to experience it.”

“It isn’t as bad as you think it is,” Welsley shrugged. “I’ve been on vessels of every size and shape. Excepting the climbing and extreme weather it isn’t much different than being on land. You get used to it fairly fast.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Samuel answered. “I’m content to never find out.”

“I’m betting there are a number of people who would say the same thing about the forest,” she replied.

“I’ll stick to the deep green, thank-you,” Samuel laughed. “The endless blue is meant for men other than me.”

“I’ll stick with the cobblestone streets and the press of the crowds, myself,” Welsley offered. “The sights, the sounds, the smells brought from all corners of the world, known and unknown. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Norasburg has its charms, definitely, but I miss the excitement Morton brought daily. Those were good days. Getting lost among the crowds, just one of thousands living their lives.”

“Now you’re the first of many thousands,” Samuel observed. “No more blending in with the others.”

“True,” she sighed. “It is a lot harder to slip into a crowd accompanied by bodyguards and attendants. I doubt too many people would recognize me on sight; ditch the entourage, lose the uniform. It could be done. But it was simpler at one time.”

“Tea, Your Eminence,” Arah deftly passed a steaming cup into the hands of both Welsley and Samuel. “Lunch will be served momentarily. I have a fire started in the hearth should you wish to warm up.”

Arah bowed slightly and disappeared into the tower before anyone could reply. She would divide her time by overseeing the lunch setup, running interference for anyone needing Welsley’s attention, and providing anything the Light might need. She was intent on providing Welsley with an interruption free day. She had so far been successful.

Welsley was thankful for that. She knew she couldn’t avoid her responsibilities forever, but a day or two was needed. She needed to get through the initial shock of the news so she could focus on her duties. At this point she still felt too distracted to be of much use to anyone.

“This is good,” Samuel offered after a sip of his tea. “Your attendant, Arah, seems to have a talent for tea.”

“She has her moments,” Welsley admitted.

They sipped their tea in silence. The beverage brought a warmth to her that she hadn’t realized she needed. They had been standing out in the cold longer than she realized. She was distracted indeed.

“I’m hungry,” Welsley announced. “Let’s eat.”

The Loss

Welsley set aside another of Shan’s missives. She had read through three of her former attendant’s reports and they were as expected: thorough, detailed, complete. It was the one thing she could count on them from Shan, she would leave out nothing as inconsequential. Still, there had been nothing in what she’d read that couldn’t have been sent through regular channels. Perhaps Shan had just decided to take advantage of Samuel’s restless nature.

They had chatted comfortably over breakfast, Welsley and Samuel, and shared stories of their youths. Welsley told of the hustle-and-bustle of a port city, the exotic foods and people that arrived with every new vessel. Samuel shared a childhood of freedom, living with and learning from nature. They shared story after story: breakfast became lunch, lunch moved into dinner. It was a nice and easy way to spend a day.

Welsley hadn’t realized how much she had missed having a friendly face around. She hadn’t realized how much she had gotten used to having Samuel’s presence around her and how dearly she had been missing it. If she was honest, she missed everything about her time in that sleepy little community.

That was what led to her sitting at her desk bathed in candlelight as she read through the letters delivered earlier by Samuel. She could almost hear Shan’s voice as she read the letters reciting the day’s events to her. She allowed herself the luxury to savour each letter, indulging in a slow sip of wine between each one. The familiarity of the remembered routine relaxed her and brought comfort to her, if only of a temporary nature.

“Let’s see if we can find what you wanted to keep between us,” Welsley whispered as she exchanged the wine goblet for the next unopened letter.

“Not this one, I guess,” Welsley muttered as she skimmed over the writing. This one contained troop movements and inventory shipments from the Norasburg tower to the temporary camp at the edge of the wasteland. Nothing out of the ordinary, Welsley would have made the same choices in her place.

She took another sip of wine. It sounded like Shan had everything under control. There would need to be an increase in the basics for sure, Norasburg didn’t have the population to be able to support two large garrisons by itself. The garrison at the edge of the Ravensbrook wasteland would do no farming on its own and even with the aid of the people of Shatterook they would need an additional consistent source of food available.

They would need to sit down with representatives from Shatterook to iron out an agreement with regards to the garrisons stationed around the wall. Shatterook was closer to the ruined tower and its army of the dead and was at the most immediate risk. The tower cities, however, were the focus of the Lady’s hatred and wrath, they benefited most by cutting the Lady off from the outside world.

Welsley felt the tower cities should bear the brunt of the burden. They would gain the most benefit from the wall and its watch. The towers had access to more soldiers, trained and potential, the larger population among the towers allowed for more wealth, food, and equipment to be diverted to support the outposts. If the Lady truly was the Goddess’ sister then it fell to the Goddess’ children to deal with her. Every angle she approached it from brought her to the same conclusion: the Lady was the towers’ responsibility.

These concerns could be set aside for a bit. Excepting an attempt by a significant force to either escape or gain entry to the wasteland, the newly combined forces needed a chance to assimilate into a single cohesive army. The details on supporting the endeavour could be hashed out as time allowed.

Her priority was to successfully transition the tower cities during the unexpected change in leadership. If the unity between the towers was to fracture it might become outright impossible to support a permanent presence at the ruined tower. That risk was more than Welsley was willing to take.

Welsley doubted there was anyone from her youth who would recognize her today. She was still as independent, strong-headed, and stubborn as she ever was; that was the foundation of her personality. Gone was the impulsivity, the selfishness, and the lack of focus that had defined her as a youth. No one would have ever guessed she would be up at night worrying over the fate of so many people she had never met.

Those were simpler days. She smiled, took another sip of wine, and reached for another letter. The last one, it turned out, secured by a wax seal.

Welsley stopped and looked at the papers in her hand. None of the other missives had been sealed, only folded. The towers all used a similar seal, that of a tower differentiated by the name of the city that surrounded it. This seal was different, cruder and simpler. It was two triangles placed back-to-back in a crude representation of a ship’s sail.

It was the seal her family had used for generations.

Shan wouldn’t have been aware of that. She would have recognized it as being important by the seal, saw it was addressed to Light Koarl and forwarded it appropriately. Welsley doubted it would have even crossed Shan’s mind to check the contents of the letter.

There was an intense amount of curiosity attached to this final document. She hadn’t heard from any member of her family since she was appointed as the Guiding Light of Norasburg. It wasn’t that there were any negative feelings between her and her family, they just had never been a communicative family. Even as a child her parents and siblings had only shared what was absolutely crucial. Even when filled with family the house was normally as hushed as a graveyard. The letter was a curiosity.

The wax cracked under her thumb. The message took up all of two sheets. The handwriting was flowery and perfect, her mother’s hand. The note was straight forward: business had improved, new overseas contacts had been made, their merchant fleet had doubled in size, her uncle had taken on her father’s duties, was there anything of her father’s she’d like?

What?

She fought back tears as she reread the letter. It was not written explicitly but Welsley had no doubt her father had died.

How? When? Why?

There were no answers. Her father wasn’t so old as to have passed away from age. He would never have willingly given up the empire he had built to his brother. They would never have offered a keepsake if he still lived.

She allowed her tears to flow as she read the letter again.

The Visit

“Who is it I am meeting, Arah?” Welsley asked her attendant.

Welsley glanced at her younger companion. They were both dressed in a similar fashion: white, almost a very light grey, robes over more functional clothing. The other woman had grown up in the mountains, Welsley suspected that she wore more layers than the woman beside her.

They walked side-by-side through the tower’s corridor and down the stairs. Welsley had watched carefully since she arrived at Falson Peak and saw no evidence that anyone knew of the existence of the tower’s hidden pathways. She chose to move through the tower openly as well, there was no point in losing a secret as potentially useful as an alternate route unless it became necessary. There was value in keeping this secret.

“He looks like he walked out of the wilds, my Light,” the other woman answered in her quiet, timid voice. “He didn’t offer a name, just demanded to see you. I’m sorry, Light Koarl.”

Welsley hid a smile. She was not surprised that Arah hadn’t got her the visitor’s name. It didn’t take much to fluster the younger woman, it didn’t take much to imagine her being pushed into summoning Welsley for someone who was brusk and demanding. Faced with an arrogant individual, Arah would have jumped at any chance to remove herself from the situation.

“He refused to turn over his weapons,” Arah continued. “He is being watched by a couple of the tower guards. They are waiting for you on the third floor, Your Eminence.”

“So not a miner?” Welsley quipped.

“I don’t think so, my Light,” Arah answered. “I don’t think he’s a local.”

“A soldier?” Welsley wondered aloud.

“Not one of ours,” Arah responded. “He’s grungy. I would be surprised if he were a soldier. Not a tower soldier, for certain. Mercenary maybe.”

Grungy turned out to be an apt description, Welsley found when they entered the small meeting room. There waited a table, a half-dozen chairs, two of the tower’s rather gruff guards, and the grungy mercenary. None of the waiting men seemed at ease, they all stood silently watching each other when the two women entered the room.

“Leave us,” Welsley instructed the guards. The words were out of her mouth before she even realized who she was looking at.

“Your Eminence?” one of the guards responded. Neither guard had moved.

“You can leave us,” Welsley looked pointedly at the guards, “he is no danger to me.”

The guards nodded, shot one last look at the waiting man, and left the room.

“Arah,” Welsley explained, “this man is a mercenary. He is not normally so grungy, but we can forgive that. This man willingly, without being asked, devoted himself to my service. He risked his life to keep me from harm, to deliver to me my every whim.”

“I only did what I thought was right,” the man replied. “Mercenary thought I am. Light Koarl and I differ in our recollection of events, my memory is of her saving my life.”

“Perhaps,” Welsley smiled, “perhaps. It is good to see you Samuel. Arah, have my breakfast brought here. Bring enough for our guest as well. Hurry now, thank-you.”

“Yes, Your Eminence,” Arah bowed and left the room.

“Sit. Sit,” Welsley gestured to the table. She sat and added, “We have so much to catch up on. How are you? The others? Is everything alright? What brings you this far into the tower cities?”

“I am well,” Samuel joined her at the table. “Everyone is hard at work. The wall has been completed, all that remains is for the vines to thicken and it will be impassable. Patrols have been set up, outposts are being built, they even have a permanent camp where the main fort will be erected. Norasburg has grown, you would not recognize it. How are things here?”

“Things are progressing better than I expected they would,” Welsley answered. “The people here have followed a simple life for generations: work hard all day, celebrate the Goddess in the evening. They are fanatically devout and accept the Goddess’ wishes without question, mostly. The fanatic faithful are wonderful to behold but there is an element of danger to anyone devoted to an ideal without question. Even more so when they band together in groups. What brings you here, Samuel? So far from your forest.”

“There was little need for me,” Samuel shrugged. “I am not a druid. I can’t coax plants into growing faster or in the way I want. The patrols and outposts are better left in the hands of life-long soldiers. Running messages between Norasburg, Shatterook, and the wall around Ravensbrook can be done by anyone. I was feeling underused and restless so I decided to indulge my curiosity and come see Falson Peak for myself.”

“I’m glad you did,” Welsley offered. “I’ll show you around myself. It will be like old times.”

“Without the undead, I hope,” Samuel said.

They both dropped into silence as Arah returned with food-laden attendants in tow. Arah and her servers filled the table with a variety of fresh foods and juices. They were quick and efficient, the table was filled and the servers gone almost before their presence could be acknowledged.

“I will be just outside the door if you need anything more, Your Eminence,” Arah stated and closed the door behind her.

“Shan gave me these before I left,” Samuel pulled a handful of correspondence from under his cloak. “She felt they were too important to trust to regular messengers.”

“So the truth comes out at last,” Welsley joked. She took the papers from Samuel and placed them on the table. “First we eat. I’ll catch up with Shan’s reports once I have a full stomach. Let’s eat.”

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