5 Turnings prior to the events in Wyldling Snare…
Night had fallen like a black curtain over the tall copse of ancient lilac bushes behind him. Although their branches were almost barren, the silent watcher could easily envision the gnarled and twisted boughs of ancient bushes – many grown as tall as trees over many Cycles – verdant with foliage and laden with purple blossoms as they were in the late springtime. Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could imagine that he smelled their sharp fragrance in the autumn air. Unconsciously, his gloved fingers stroked the lilacs embroidered on his tabard.
Lilacs – the symbol of his order.
From his perch on his mount, the armored man gazed down into the rocky defile as if he was capable of seeing into its depths. His breath steamed in the chill autumn moonlight, but he was otherwise perfectly still – an equestrian statue.
The spell was shattered a moment later when his destrier snorted and backed away from the brink at a twitch of the reigns in the man’s hands. Chain mail jingled softly as he returned to the copse of ancient lilac bushes. Dead and dry leaves rattled as a breeze plucked them away from nearly denuded branches.
“What did you see, down there?” another man spoke from beneath the spreading limbs of a nearby oak, where he stood holding the bridle of his own horse. He had been the first to arrive at the copse over an hour ago. For the past ten minutes he had been watching the mounted man in perfect silence, expressionless as a toy soldier clad in lacquered scale armor over his silk garments. He wore a strangely shaped helm with a wide neck guard and a crest on the forehead piece that resembled moth antennae.
The mounted man showed no surprise; despite his preoccupation he had been aware of the other man’s presence for some time. He merely turned in the saddle to address his comrade. “Only darkness.” And then he spat on the ground in punctuation. “Wondered if you were ever going to speak up. How’s the bride, Nicolas?”
“She is well, I thank you.” Sir Nicolas inclined his head politely. “We are expecting a child during the Wolf Moon.”
“Congratulations!” The mounted man said. “May the Threefold One bless your growing family.” He grinned. “Didn’t waste any time, did you?”
“I thank you, Frederick.” Sir Nicolas bowed to his colleague. His wry smile was evident in his tone. “We saw no reason to wait.”
Hoofbeats interrupted their conversation. “Ah,” the mounted man said. “I reckon that’s Mordegaard.”
“The approach is from the South,” came his companion’s mild reply.
“Aye.” Sir Frederick chuckled as he removed his plain round helmet. “Commander Storm will not be coming, for he had more pressing concerns in the County of Mirrors. I will tell you more once the others arrive. And I suppose Clint will be late, as usual.”
“He does have the farthest to come, Frederick,” Sir Nicolas gently rebuked him. He took off his heavy helm and glanced up, past the branches of the ancient lilacs bushes clawing at the sky. “And the moon is not yet above us.”
Sir Frederick’s bearded face split into a grin. “At least we can be assured of a good smoke when he comes.”
Several more minutes brought with them the appearance of a tall, dark-skinned man astride a white stallion from around the bend. He wore lamellar leather armor reinforced with steel scales and a helm with a long feathery crest. A hooded raptor perched on the pommel of his saddle.
“Praise the Threefold One!” Sir Frederick dismounted to approach the new arrival. “Good to see you’re still among the living, Mordegaard.”
Sir Nicolas emerged from the gloom under the oak into the moonlight and bowed to the dark-skinned man. “Lord Yshua be with you, Mordegaard,” he said.
“Frederick. Nicolas.” Sir Mordegaard removed his crested helm and nodded to both of his comrades. “Salutations, my friends, and rich blessings from the Almighty Yshua. It is good to see you both, as well.”
His stallion was a young, spirited animal, and danced a few steps, whickering, as he pulled up on the reins. The hooded falcon shifted its talons but showed no signs of distress. The dark-skinned man patted the horse’s neck and then dismounted. He stroked the wing feathers of his bird, murmuring reassurances. It was then that they all detected the hoof-beats of a horse approaching from the west at a brisk trot.
Sir Mordegaard led his mount over to another tree on the edge of the lilac copse and loosely looped the reins around a branch. “Do not stray, Zebulun,” he murmured, placing a sword-callused hand upon its nose.
Just as the moon reached its zenith, the fourth man rode into the clearing ringed by lilac bushes on a coal-black destrier with a white blaze on his forehead. Although he was over average height and broad-shouldered, the man’s figure seemed slight when compared with his comrades, for he wore no armor other than a tough leather coat with fringes along the sleeves. His long dark hair was bound back in a queue – in the style of the Western Plains Skraeling folk – and he wore no helmet, only a wide-brimmed hat that would have concealed his face even in daylight. As it was, the moon revealed little of his features, but the three other men recognized him easily.
“What ho, Clint!” Sir Frederick raised a hand in greeting, chain mail jingling
“What ho, Rick!” Sir Clinton called back. His voice sounded eager. “I see the three of you have beat me, as usual.” He raised the brim of his hat to reveal the cocky grin on his handsome, high cheek-boned features and then slid off his horse with the grace of one practically born in the saddle.
“As an apology,” he said, dark eyes twinkling, “I have brought smokeleaf.”
“Good man,” Sir Nicolas murmured, bowing to him. “You have rkindled the spirit of forgiveness in my breast.”
Sir Clinton laughed as he withdrew an oilskin sack from a saddlebag. The four men brought out their pipes and filled them with crushed dry leaves that the young man offered them. For several moments, they puffed away in companionable silence. Fragrant smoke wreathed their heads and rose into the star-spangled blackness above them. They all waited, Sir Clinton fidgeting, the others more patiently, watching the moon slowly trace its silvery path across the heavens.
Finally, Sir Frederick tapped the dottle out of the bowl of his pipe and crushed out the embers beneath his booted heel. He tucked his pipe into a belt pouch. The others followed suit. The older man sighed. Moonlight shimmered like hoarfrost on the numerous gray hairs on his head and in his short beard. “I suppose you all have heard the rumors by now,” he said, “so what I have to say will be no mystery to any of you. A week following the Resurrection Festival, scouts reported activity along the walls of Gan’golorum. Commander Storm, himself, has gone to investigate.”
“Ah.” Sir Mordegaard nodded his head in understanding. “That explains the Commander’s absence tonight. As the Nehmwights muster for war in the North,” he said, “Banditry is on the rise in the Southern Marches. The southern caravan route has become even more perilous for honest folk to travel. I suspect that the Human League is behind all the trouble.” He turned to Sir Nicolas, his eyebrows raised inquisitively.
“Assuredly, something foul is afoot in Rang Shadah,” was all the taciturn Sir Nicolas would contribute, his dark eyes a mystery. He waved a hand to indicate that he would elaborate later, and then turned to the young Baron-Knight of the Western Marches, who looked as though he would fly apart at the seams if he did not speak soon.
“Someone’s buying up all the mining rights in the Spine,” said Sir Clinton in a rush. “And the Pacifica manufactories have increased their production sevenfold.” The young man, barely out of his teens, contained his excitement like a tightly-coiled spring. He lowered his voice. “And with my own eyes I saw Koshmar.”
The other three men exchanged uneasy glances. “Are you sure, lad?” Sir Frederick inquired, placing one large hand on Sir Clinton’s shoulder. “One Nehmwight pretty much looks like another.”
The youth stiffened and his eyes flashed. “I would not have mentioned it, otherwise.”
“Peace, Sir Clinton,” rumbled Sir Mordegaard. “Continue, my brother. The hour grows later than we hoped, and that which we swore to protect may soon be in peril.”
“Too right on that count,” muttered the youngest of their Order. Irritably, he rolled his shoulders, stretching them under the taut leather vest. “I only saw him at a distance, but I heard the Third Consul of the Western Pact – Reese Devonian, that is, a fellow I’ve been suspicious of for a while – address him by name.”
“A thousand curses upon the head of Devonian,” Sir Nicolas whispered, his dark eyes fierce.
“And a thousand more upon the Nehmwight who subverted him,” Sir Mordegaard added. “Almighty preserve us!”
Sir Frederick, the most senior among them, chuckled humorlessly. “Go ahead and curse the bastards all you want, but it’s cold steel, rather than words, that’ll be the undoing of them.”
“That, or an arrow from the shadows,” Sir Clinton said, glancing at the strung bow and quiver hanging from his saddle horn.
“I doubt the Council would countenance assassination,” said Sir Mordegaard.
Sir Frederick smiled grimly. “The Commander would,” he said. “And it is to him that we report, not the Council.”
“The night grows old,” said Sir Nicolas, who had been watching the moon.
Swiftly, the young man told the rest of his tale, and the others added details to flesh out their own findings. It was no difficulty to perceive that all these disparate activities were interconnected. Grimly, the four men concluded that that which they guarded was in danger and the time had come to prepare for war. They discussed the possibility that the stirring of the enemy in all Four Quarters was a ruse to flush out the remnants of their Order and thus determine the whereabouts of that which they safeguarded. The uneasy consensus was that they report their findings to their commander and remain vigilant of any traps as they mustered troops for the inevitable conflict.
Sir Nicolas, especially, was reluctant to commit to hostile actions. “It might be a ruse in a different manner,” he suggested, uncharacteristically verbose. “A means of utterly annihilating us and leaving our sacred charge naked to every threat.”
Sir Frederick clenched his bearded jaw. “Not on my watch.”
Sir Mordegaard’s dark eyes glittered. “It is clear, to me, what our next move must be to ensure the safety of our ward. We must each ensure that our successors are fully trained and prepared for investiture. We must await orders from Commander Storm to engage. Then, and only then, shall we carry the fight to our foes.”
Sir Clinton grinned ironically. “This from the man who claims that time is so short. But hey,” he said, doffing his wide-brimmed hat. His dark eyes shone with excitement in the moonlight. “Since we’re talking war, I reckon it’s high time I found me an apprentice!”
“No girls, Clint.” Sir Nicolas smiled. “Remember what Commander Storm said about that at the last Convocation.”
Sir Clinton’s mouth snapped shut, and his dusky cheeks darkened in a blush.
“Never mind, lad,” laughed Sir Frederick, slapping him on the back. “No matter who you choose, you’ll do old Sir Ferdinand proud.” He sobered. “May he rest in peace.”
“May he rest in peace,” intoned the other three. The young man found that he had a lump in his throat as he recalled his master, and hastily popped his hat back on his head so that the others did not see the moisture in his eyes.
“Now then,” Sir Frederick said, and cleared his throat. “According to tradition, during the full moon at the birth of each season, we have convened here in the place where our Order was founded to share the news of our realms and to speak our oath anew.”
As the most senior knight of the Lilac Order, Sir Frederick knew his duty well. He stepped back and drew his broadsword, Borealis. Placing both hands upon the hilt, he held it with the blade pointing skyward, the flat of it touching his bowed head. His voice was calm and steady as he spoke, but his heart beat with paternal love behind his armored breastplate as he conjured the image of their ward into the view of his mind’s eye.
“I, Frederick jes Ursanovir, Baron of the Northern Marches and Knight of the Lilac Order, in the presence of my brothers, hereby reaffirm my vow to protect and serve the selDrayven clan with my every breath and beat of my heart until life has fled from me. Threefold One bear witness.”
One by one, the others mimicked him.
Sir Mordegaard LeMaurior was next, pressing the flat of his cutlass, Meridialis, against his bald pate. His voice shook with his fervent vow, but the hands of the finest swordsman in the Southern Marches were as steady as his devotion to their ward’s safety.
Sir Nicolas Terayama was calm, as usual, and his voice was firm as he spoke his dedication to the selDrayven family. The blade of Orientalis, his katana, flashed in the moonlight like quicksilver. Although he loved his young wife and their unborn child passionately, the Baron-Knight of the Eastern Marches knew that he was prepared to die in the defense of the one they all served.
Sir Clinton Rodriguez, the newly invested Baron-Knight of the Western Marches, removed his hat so that the narrow blade of his saber, Occidentalis, would not slice its brim as he solemnly swore his oath. Even though he had never personally met the one he was sworn to protect, the young Skraeling was no less dedicated to the cause than his elder companions.
After he fell silent, the four Baron-Knights, each standing at one of the cardinal arrows etched into the stones at their feet, raised their chosen blades until the points met at the center. They spoke in unison ancient words passed down from baron-knight to apprentice since the inception of the Lilac Order. Perhaps it was only the moonlight, flashing off of the metal of the blades as they flicked them up, but it seemed that sparks leaped from the tips of their weapons. There was no visual or audible signal, but after a moment, the four men simultaneously lowered their disparate blades, and then sheathed them in one fluid movement.
“Lord Yshua go with you, my brothers.” Sir Frederick locked eyes with each of his comrades in turn. “The innocent must be protected,” he said. Slamming their right fists against their chests, the others echoed his words.
Without speaking further, the grim-faced men turned away and retrieved their mounts. Within moments, they were riding off to opposite points of the compass. Although they were disparate in appearance and separated by vast distances, the four Baron-Knights were united by the same cold resolve burning within their hearts.
They dared not fail in their duty.