Caelef leant back against the smooth trunk of a beech tree taking deep draughts of air to regain his breath. His pulse slowed. He took a long drink from his leather flask. Water, refreshing for his dehydration yet warm and stale. His heartbeat steadied but his sense of urgency remained, spurred on by the gravity of the message he carried.
Turning to look south his eye followed an undulating landscape rolling away to the horizon. The sky was deepening to purple with the encroaching night’s blackness. Veiled by this darkness were acres of cultivated fields with the occasional hamlet or village set amongst the arable land. Encircled by mountains, this was the river valley of Thirlanden. On the north bank of the river was a single craggy hill which, though lower than the surrounding mountains, commanded a view across the entire valley. At the summit of this crag lay Caelef’s destination, Thirlanden Castle.
Now looking ahead he watched as the last traces of daylight faded. Close by was a village with a couple of inns, gathering places for local farmers, where smoke drifted up from chimneys and light glowed softly from windows. Thoughts of fire, food and drink filled the messenger’s mind, seeming to make the chill air bite into his bones. He had run or walked all day and, with the castle still several miles away, could go no further than one more mile to an inn. Drawing his cloak about him he limped towards the village.
Important as it was Caelef’s news would have to wait another night to reach the ears of the king. It was news which had both angered and saddened him, had lain heavy on his mind throughout the days of his journey. He knew the king would feel the same on its telling, as would everyone in Thirlanden, but tonight they could rest in peaceful ignorance as he slept exhausted. Tomorrow they would hear of the invasion.
----- ----- ----- -----
Halmorn sat alone turning the pages of a book. Whenever he found an opportunity for solitude he headed for his private study with a volume from the castle library. He preferred the writings of the former king, Howak, partially because they gave him an insight into his grandfather’s era. The one passage he often returned to was Howak’s account of the desert tribes who inhabited the vast land across his country’s western border. These nomadic people were generally feared though in truth little was known about them. The old king’s words, though intriguing, were frustratingly brief. Yet they were at least factual, rare facts among the common speculation and superstition about the desert.
Raising his eyes from the book Halmorn looked out of his window to the opposite bank of the river. His mind followed the water’s flow to the Eastern Sea and he shuddered at the thought of that great expanse of ocean. Absentmindedly he toyed with a bronze clasp suspended from a thin chain about his neck. All Teyns had a dread of the open water despite that very few had ever seen it. Halmorn often wondered at this fear for, although he shared it, he felt it to be irrational. He reflected on how his country lay between two unknowns it feared, the desert and the sea, but if Howak had shown the desert need not be feared, then what of the sea? Could that too be approached without apprehension?
His name was sung out in a questioning way, a pure sound rather than a word, which filled the air with a clear pleasant ring. He smiled and accepted defeat before confrontation. He knew that tone and the intention behind it, the way his name was used in a seemingly innocent way. Any moment now she would appear from the adjoining room with something in mind. She would look at him with appealing eyes to weaken his resistance and flutter him into submission. The most respected warrior in Teynland was as dominant as a kitten when his wife wanted him to be.
Anerel stood in the doorway and they exchanged smiles. Her slim figure never failed to set his heart quickening even after years of marriage. Like Halmorn she too was from the north, straight black hair fell about her shoulders and a dark complexion gave her a healthy appearance even in cold spells.
“Are you busy?”
“No, not really.”
He closed Howak’s book as she walked towards him.
Here it comes, he thought.
“The children are restless. It’s a long time since we’ve been away from Thirlanden.” She stood close to him with her hands behind her back. “The king would understand, just a little while, not too far away.”
Her brown eyes appealed and demanded behind dark lashes. Halmorn looked up into her gaze, shifting his look between those hazel eyes.
“Yes, why not? We should enjoy these peaceful times.” He deepened his voice in a tone of mock deference. “I shall consult with the king and ask if he can spare his Chief General.”
“I’m sure he can.” Anerel laughed and reached out to caress his shoulders. “The children want to see their grandparents and the farm will be a lovely change for all of us.”
She’s organised this already, Halmorn thought then said, “Yes, it’s been too long since we saw my parents.”
Standing, he held her in his arms.
Looking up into his brown eyes she ran her fingers through his thick crop of black hair where it was tinged with a little grey; he was past his youth yet still had many years of strength ahead.
“Oh, just the thought of being an ordinary family man for a while.”
She shared his laughter.
----- ----- ----- -----
Other than risking a perilous climb there was only one way to reach Thirlanden Castle. A narrow path wound up the crag’s western flank occasionally bridging deep fissures or hugging precipitous cliff faces. With foundations hewn from solid rock, the castle’s position and form were such that it remained hidden from view until the last moments of approach. It had been built in centuries past when the need for strong defence had been severe. All Teyn knew of its cunning deception yet, from a distance, few could honestly claim to tell it from its natural surroundings.
Despite his youth and strength Caelef had laboured up this route to the outer gate tower. He hailed a gatekeeper and waited, feeling small and exposed before the defensive walls. A grim-faced burly character appeared. He looked concerned to see the unkempt messenger carried a scroll bearing a seal of urgency, signifying the bearer must deliver his message personally. The gatekeeper was hesitant but, as the recipient was to be King Altharg, Caelef was escorted through the gates to the castle interior and up to the king’s high tower.
After his many days of travel Caelef now stood patiently as the king read the words a second time. Altharg looked up, his eyes held bewilderment and profound sadness. Caelef felt his stare go through him to the door, then he sensed the king’s eyes refocusing on his. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
Altharg spoke solemnly. “Do you know the contents of this message?”
“Yes sir. Lady Myran stressed its urgency and importance. She told me its content in case the scroll should be lost or damaged.”
Altharg nodded his approval.
“Do you know the whereabouts of General Halmorn’s rooms?”
“Yes. I’ve been to Thirlanden before sir.”
“Then fetch him, quickly.”
Caelef turned and hobbled to the door. Noticing this, the king said, “Wait, you must be exhausted, call the guard.”
As the guard went to summon Halmorn Altharg gestured to the messenger to sit at his table. He poured him a drink from a pitcher of water.
“Rest here as best you can for now lad,” he said with a distracted air as he walked across to a window.
Hardly believing he had been served by the king, Caelef drank in hesitant sips. He looked at Altharg’s back for a moment and saw his shoulders slump and head lower. Feeling awkward Caelef raised his gaze to the window where he could see the peak of one of the mountains which guarded Thirlanden’s rich farmlands. His mind’s eye drifted further, across the miles of country he had covered, to the open grasslands lying between a great ridge and swift river. Beyond lay a tract of high moorland and in the northern reaches a vast forest stood to the east facing a plain to the west. Finally, at Teynland’s extremity, were miles of uninhabited hill country, the borderlands with the kingdom of Teynas Waith. Further still was North Teyn, the dark nation, a country of broken rocky terrain and scant recognisable civilisation. Yet it was Teynas Waith which lay on Caelef’s mind, with the reason still hard to accept. Ever since the kings of Teynland and Teynas Waith had signed the Teyn Charter the two countries had been allies. Even before the charter there had been no hostility between them.
A knock on the door broke into his thoughts.
“General Halmorn sire,” the guard announced.
Caelef began to stand as Altharg turned but the king motioned for him to remain seated. A little nervously the messenger looked up as Teynland’s Chief General strode in. He was not a tall man but possessed a broad muscular build, making him appear to be of greater stature, he seemed relaxed while carrying an air of surety and controlled power. Caelef inclined his head as Halmorn gave him brief quizzical glance, then looked at the king whose blue eyes within his bronzed face held a deeply worried look.
Feeling like a child about to overhear an adults’ conversation Caelef sat back.
“Trouble sir?” Halmorn read his king’s mood.
“Aye, and of the gravest nature, please sit down,” he hesitated, “it appears we’ve been invaded.”
Halmorn’s expression hardened. Again he glanced at the messenger. Caelef smiled weakly.
Altharg sighed. He stood and crossed to a table where he picked up a parchment map then returned to place it before them. It showed the three kingdoms of Teyn, the desert to the west and the seas which surrounded all other boundaries. Drawn many years past, the fact that the map remained unaltered was a sign of Teyn’s prevailing stability.
“Not the desert tribes?”
Caelef detected a slight tremble in Halmorn’s voice.
“No, they would have overrun us by now.” Altharg hesitated again. “Apparently by Teynas Waith.”
Halmorn looked at the king in astonishment. An attack from North Teyn could be understood, even expected, for North Teyn made the crowd in Teyn’s three, but there was no reason for hostility from Teynas Waith.
“This lad brought the news from Lady Myran in Delmare. Lisan Castle has been taken and Delmare may have fallen by now.”
The king looked old and tired.
“I fear I have to instruct you to go to war.”
Halmorn spoke gravely. “There’s no question of it. I’ll take the army immediately. Yet, I can’t believe King Zenale would plan such an attack. Do you suppose he’s been overthrown?”
Altharg sighed. “I can’t believe it either. I hope Zenale is innocent, but that might mean he’s been overthrown and I’d never wish for that.”
For a moment Altharg and Halmorn gazed thoughtfully at the map before them. Uneasy in the silence Caelef looked to one man then the other, king then general, general then king. He was the son of a farmer, his only accomplishment being a swift runner, in the presence of these great men he felt as if he was the cause of the troubled news. The words he had carried had made him feel deeply alone for days yet, he reflected, for the moment he shared a profound secret with the king. Although aware of his true station he felt a oneness with Altharg, though it was a lonely feeling. He wondered how often the king felt lonely in his high tower.
Halmorn echoed Caelef’s thoughts, “I feel a sensation of deep emptiness, of loss.”
Altharg looked to his general. “Go, and make ready for war.”
Without further words Halmorn left as Altharg stared blankly at the map.
Feeling he was intruding on the king’s private thoughts Caelef stood, bowed unnoticed then left. As best he could he hurried down the tower’s spiral steps and nearly bumped into Halmorn who seemed distracted so he went on ahead, though unsure of what to do with himself.
Halmorn called after him. “Hey lad, wait a moment.”
Caelef stopped and looked back up the stairway.
“Do you have an errand?”
“No sir. I’d like to help if I can.”
“Where are you from?”
“Lisan sir, I was working in Delmare when the news came.” Feeling the need to prove the credentials of his family loyalty he added, “My grandfather fought alongside old King Howak.”
Halmorn smiled. “Mine too.”
He instructed Caelef to have messengers sent to him and told him where he could find food.
----- ----- ----- -----
Despite the need for urgency Halmorn went to his family’s rooms first. He hesitated outside, toying with the clasp about his neck. He did not want to break his promise to them but this was war, not even Anerel’s guiles could distract him from this. He cursed silently then entered.
Anerel was playing with the children, when they saw their father they ran to him shouting. He swept them up effortlessly, one in each arm, and they giggled as he whirled them around. Aged ten Telan was the elder and, though born in Thirlanden, he was unmistakably a child of northern ancestry. He looked a miniature of Halmorn except for being more lithe than his robust father. His sister was Reala, though the family called her Little Raven. She had midnight-black hair and a piercing stare, disturbingly thoughtful for such a young child. Anerel looked on with a warm surge of affection. Being a long way from her birthplace, the closeness of her family gave her a strong feeling of home in Thirlanden.
Before she could speak Halmorn said to the children, “I need to talk with your mother, you two play together for now.”
Anerel was smiling but she detected a sullen air about Halmorn. He knelt and put the children down gently before he and Anerel went into the adjoining room.
“What’s wrong?” She closed the door. “Did Altharg say if he could spare you?”
Halmorn took a deep breath then spoke reluctantly. “A messenger has brought word of trouble in the north. Lisan Castle has been sacked and Delmare may be under threat.”
“No! Who’s attacked us? What of Ulthwaite?” She stepped towards him.
“Who? We think Teynas Waith. We’ve no word from home, though I’m sure we’d have heard by now if there was any danger to Ulthwaite.”
“Teynas Waith?” Anerel shook her head. “So you need to go north?” She spoke flatly.
Halmorn sighed and nodded. “Yes. Altharg has instructed me to take the army. We can’t delay. I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
She cursed his position. War. It was the first time she had known it and the thought of him going away to kill or die chilled her. Now she understood the feelings of Halmorn’s mother in her exile from the castle and the son she loved, and from her dark memories of wartime. Hope filled Anerel she would be spared the same.
“The children will be disappointed, they think they’re going to the farm.”
Halmorn held her gently by the shoulders.
“I know. I’ll talk to them, I’ll try to explain without worrying them. They’re too young to understand about war, or to be frightened by tales of it.”
Suddenly she broke. The possibility of danger to Halmorn worsened the thought of their parting. She clung to him and sobbed into his chest.
Stepping back after a few moments she dried her eyes and looked at him directly.
“Go now, do whatever you need to do but be back early tonight.”
----- ----- ----- -----
For the remainder of the day and into the night Thirlanden was noisy with activity. Halmorn sent messengers to all castles and villages between the south coast and Delmare, the words they carried were brief though grave.
Make ready for war. Halmorn is to march in the defence of Teynland. King Altharg has decreed all able bodied men are to meet the army on the Green Way between Thirlanden and Delmare.
Halmorn then summoned his captains. Shortly after they went about ordering their soldiers to ready themselves. Weapons were to be gathered, provisions arranged, farewells said.
Satisfied his orders were being carried out, Halmorn returned early to Anerel as he had promised. The family ate together and the children were allowed to stay up later than was usual. Halmorn could hardly bear to say goodnight to them. Once they were asleep he and Anerel talked for a long time before retiring. Their love making that night was passionate yet tender, their imminent separation serving to bring them closer together. For a while after they lay in silence, looking into each other’s eyes before drifting into a sleep of shared and troubled dreams.