Skirmishes and Schisms by FibroJedi | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

Chapter 2: Strategy Convergence

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A First Roll of the Dice


 

Saf-Athan Palace, City of Bezélan
23, Jylta 545 AFD, 3 Ur and a quarter

 

"Well that backfired," Rusziné grumbled, ruing yet another gamble gone wrong. 

Rusziné straightened his back and did his best to look like he was marching properly towards the two Royal Guards stationed outside the King’s chambre. He and King Carnael had an unspoken agreement that if Rusziné tried to appear professional, the King would pretend to ignore that he wasn’t. As obsessed as Carnael seemed to be about protocol, he was more inclined to allow some flexibility when soldiers and officers performed their duties better than their peers. It had maddened the King that someone so lackadaisical and nonchalant could equally perform their practical tasks with near-flawless results. That, along with his quasi-ambassador role to the Woodsmen that had increased trade and, more importantly, better security over the northern border meant Rusziné was very much an asset in his otherwise-lazy armed forces.

There was one other rub, though - the man was liked and respected in equal measure by most soldiers and guards across the ranks. The King, on the other hand, was not and therefore felt threatened by the Byāntite. The sustained animosity between the two had reached a point where they could, in principle, be in agreement about a course of action, yet still sound like a quarrelling mismatched couple.

I wonder what he’ll jibe me about this time, Rusziné thought.

Saluting to the guards, he awaited their reply.

"You are recognised Captain Rusziné,” the female guard on his left softly replied, "though what brings you here of all places at this unseemly hour? The King is asleep, you know?"

You don’t say?, Rusziné resisted saying out loud.

"Yes I am, Guard Latisha," he actually said, "however, this could not wait as it will require a swift response from His Majesty, Our King."

Knowing that even this Captain, who could play inane games for his own amusement, wouldn't risk the King’s ire when he was asleep, Latisha nodded and indicated that Rusziné should tell her the message to relay to King Carnael. Captain or no, only the Royal Guards were permitted inside the King’s chambre. Once she had heard all of Rusziné’s message, she turned, took a deep breath and entered the room.

Five Minutes Later

Wrapped only in a wool-lined silk robe and shod in felt slippers, a dark-eyed King Carnael emerged, frowning.

"We have white birds delivering messages as well as blue ones now, do we?" he growled.

Rusziné coughed.

"As has always been the case in Winter, your Majesty," he reminded his lord, as gently as he could force himself, "it is just highly unusual that one would venture to the Capital and even less so with a message that the King of Qal’ath should be concerned about."

Carnael yawned.

"Alright, fine. Guard Latisha, please send some violet tea to the lobby." he instructed.

Giving the King a smart salute, she marched to the kitchens to relay the message to the night staff. Violet tea was a luxury in Qal’ath, as it was made using leaves from trees only found in Aevyenù Woods in Byantē Alliance territory. Its effect was to be so refreshing as to alert the senses, but not so stimulating as to disrupt sleep. In fact, if served with milk, it could enhance the quality of sleep by providing a feeling of well-being. Carnael would not be drinking this cup with milk.

Sighing, he slumped down at the small table in the lobby and gestured lazily to another chair, which Rusziné sat in and slouched back on.

"What do you know about the Northern Kyadii?" the King asked simply.

Rusziné nodded.

"Take the Sablesand ones and turn all that you know about them upside down. Throw in hyper-territorial behaviour and you have your answer."

"So," Carnael sighed, knowing he was being forced to think again, "they can survive stupidly cold temperatures, no, thrive in them, have a strong clan mentality and protect each other. Sablesand Kyadii do that through careful demonstrations of strength and go to war only as a necessity. But from your description, showing aggression is more the default position for the Northern Kyadii?"

Latisha returned with four cups of violet tea on a silver tray, and placed one in front of the King and another near Rusziné.

"I trust it is acceptable for us to take a break while you talk, your Majesty, my King?" she asked.

“What?” Carnael frowned, “yes, yes of course. There’s nothing to guard while I’m not in there. Go find a couch near a fire or something. But return in a quarter Ur."

Latisha placed the tray on the floor, smartly saluted, retrieved the tray and made her way to the other Royal Guard with the good news.

"A bit overkill just to salute wasn’t it?" Rusziné asked, louder than he had intended.

"Probably, but at least she wants to," Carnael replied pointedly.

“At least you know I’ll never deceive you as I’m always myself,” Rusziné shrugged, "anyway, your summary of the Northern Kyadii is fairly accurate according to my understanding."

"So, they’re about to trespass on the burial site of the Woodsmen and so they want our help?" the King asked.

"That about sums it up, yes. Can we spare anyone?"

"I could always get you out of my hair for a start," Carnael glowered, before allowing his face to relax, "or me out of yours, depending on which of us anyone asks."

Rusziné laughed.

"Both are true. However, I am more than happy to answer the call, but I’ll need a few soldiers with me. Whatever your view on clan cultures, we’re not dealing with unthinking, untrained barbarians here. All Kyadii share one thing in common: every cub is trained in self-defence and attack," he explained, pausing to take a few sips of the tea, "now, what they do not do normally is anything akin to an invasion."

"So we could beat them on strategy without committing too many soldiers?" Carnael asked.

"Like you would want me taking a large squad of Bezélan’s finest away! Who knows what divisive whispers I could impart to them in that time?" he grinned, to which Carnael grimaced.

"You heard about that rumour, then. I shouldn’t be surprised. I should also learn one day that you may be incorrigible, but you’ve never been disloyal to Qal’ath," he begrudgingly accepted.

That does not mean I won't be watching for a time when you are, at last, disloyal, he thought.

"And I am loath to give you a reason to think otherwise," Rusziné replied, "I’ve lived in the Realm long enough to call it home. Though I do appreciate you buying in tea from where I grew up," he nodded having another taste of the familiar brew.

"Did the White Bird give any indication of numbers?" Carnael asked, returning to the task at hand.

Rusziné shook his head.

"Not yet, though I suspect that will be the Blàmìs’ next mission. That, or finding allies. The White Birds are not as numerous as their Blue cousins. Anyhow, I don’t need many soldiers. The aim is to prevent an incursion, not to start a full-scale battle. Capture over killing preferred, in my view. Even better would be to send them back home, but life rarely affords us the ideal cards."

Carnael drained the last of his tea and sat back in the chair.

"I don’t know how you manage it, Rusziné," he said, shaking his head.

"Giving you 'advice', you mean? I actively listen to your views and don’t immediately discount them, then I give you 'advice', but also make it clear that’s my opinion." he explained, "And I've never broken the letter of the law or your rules on the operations you've sent me on. So, it's simple: I won’t take more resources - or people - than you allocate, even if you just sent me alone."

Carnael gave a strange, wry chuckle.

"A tempting idea, I accept. But that would not honour our agreement with the Woodsmen. You may take nine. A decantà," he decided, "I can send a couple from the barracks, but you'll need to find the rest. Just make sure these snow-cats do not get closer to the Capital than the Stones of Myrn, understood?"

Rusziné nodded.

"I understand your instructions and will follow them. I'll never understand why you redefined a decantà to be nine instead of ten soldiers, though."

Various time-frames, military units and even building measures had been redefined under King Carnael's rule, even to the point that an Ana had been reduced to 299 days over eleven months6. It did not take long for this idea to impact people's thinking and how Kal-Cubes were fashioned and games played. He had stretched his own interpretations on many occasions, however - the definition of decantà being one of the prime examples. While made up of ten soldiers in all, the leader was not counted, thus officially only nine were in the squad.

"Even numbers can lead to stalemate," the King answered,  "they are bad for decision-making. And speaking of making decisions, I believe you have a squad to assemble."

Rusziné took the hint, drained his own cup, stretched and stood. He saluted the King and nodded.

"And you have sleep to go back to, you lucky, lucky man," he smirked, "I’ll send a Blàmìs back to you if I encounter another one, or one of my decantà if possible, in the event we require your input."

Carnael pushed his chair back and hauled his tired body to its feet.

"I don’t know why I put up with you. You’re too good at your job. You even saluted. Hùlan. Now go."

Saluting once more Rusziné turned and departed. The King shrugged and shuffled back to his room. On the one hand, being free of the lumbering fool would make his life simpler, but on the other hand he could not concoct a convincing enough reason to exclude him from the military either.

Yet, he thought, frowning, I will not be upstaged by a foreigner.

As he approached his chambre door, the two Royal Guards returned to their posts, and Carnael  to the blissful ignorance of sleep. Before unconsciousness embraced him once more, he thought

Did Rusziné say he would send a white bird to me? Why would he...?


Mixed Feelings


 

Everspring, the Forest of Doon
3 Ur 30

Chief Ki-E-Vwa frowned and refocused. Something was blocking his view.

"But what could it be?" he muttered quietly.

Through the ancient ritual, he could now see the Viàn Falínai as though he were actually standing there. He could just about discern some shadows but the source of them remained obscured. That usually indicated Myst Sensitive interference, the presence of at least one being able to harness Elemental Energy to a certain degree. A barrier preventing him from seeing the person or the group they were in usually indicated Erdé attunement, which had the effect of placing an invisible mountain between him and those he was attempting to observe.

"Very well, we'll try this a different way, then. If I cannot see, I will feel."

It was not in his nature to combat one Element with another. Such drastic measures were for war-times or in an emergency. While the trespassing of the Kyadii on the Viàn was not to be tolerated, it was not a desperate situation either. Ki-E-Vwa whispered into his cupped hands, and his words became a swirl of mist that caught up the remaining herbs from those he had prepared.

"Yes, I feel. I sense, fear, uncertainty and...what is this?" he pondered.

"Desperation and love, Chief," Ki-E-Jaisèn announced as he shuffled through the door.

"Indeed. The Kyadii - or at least some of them - do not wish to be where they are. And in that situation, the type of love is largely irrelevant. Parent, partner, friend, sister, clan-mate. Regardless of race, we defend those we care about."

His Seer and advisor sat next to him and looked him in the eyes.

"Agreed. And, before you ask, I was already awake."

"Another dream?" the Chief asked.

Jaisèn shook his head.

"No, just restless...and I think your situation is why."

Ki-E-Vwa allowed the mist to dissipate and inhaled the scent for its pleasing aroma.

"So, what do we do?" the Chief asked.

Jaisèn shook his head.

"Nothing, yet. But we may need to in an Ur or two. There is little point in reacting to a situation that is ever-changing, until it is closer."


Feline Friction


Frostplain, North of the Viàn Falínai
4 Ur

 More than once the Kyadii had had to stop and pull some of their number from the deep snows of Frostplain. Ferrfeiss was grateful that it was only necessary for a very short distance of their overall trek. One hour had now past since they swam across the half-frozen Nrraneer River, or Blànaneux in Foyiitùn, and the land under paw was beginning to feel firmer again.

"I hate to admit Ferrfeiss was right about not navigating the Drift," Arrnwarr7 begrudgingly accepted, "it could have genuinely been fatal."

"I do have the same ears as you, you realise?" Ferrfeiss called from the front of the pack, firmly, but more amused than he wanted to give away.

Some of the Deenfeiss sniggered, much to Arrnwarr's embarrassment.

"Sorry, Ferrfeiss," she mumbled.

The leader smiled slightly, glad his head was facing away from the other Kyadii in the group.

"Think nothing of it, Arrnwarr."

"Does your name mean you 'get in the way', Arrnwarr?" a usually-silent Kyadd sneered.

While remaining sensitive to where her foot-paws landed, she turned her head and growled.

"Nrrndach8,. Clearly the so-called 'common tongue' does not encompass such as common as you," she snarled, "Arrnwarr means 'way in'. It will be my job to stay in the shadows to find a breach when we reach the enemy fort."

"And that's why she's here," Ferrfeiss called again to them, "I hope I don't need to remind you all that we need to work together," he sighed, "that goes for you too, Klorwyrrb9. Save your anger for the real enemy and use it to guide your Rzarchprls."

The Rzarchprl had no Common Tongue translation and was a weapon unique to the Kyadii. It was arguably one of the only aspects of clan life present in the Northern Kyadii and in those of Sablesand Dunes. While it was shaped like a walking cane, on the curved end were razor-sharp blades, designed for cutting through armour or causing non-fatal, but draining wounds. For the Deenfeiss, the opposite end could be tipped with a tooth, claw or sharpened stone depending on the resources available when the weapon was created or refashioned. The Sablesand clan, called the Parrtrof Teeg, with loose ties to merchants, often used metal blades, the better to fight against anyone bearing modern armaments. The crafting of the Rzarchprl was a rite of passage for a cub and the combat techniques employing it, which could be in one or two hand-paws, were carefully passed down to every generation.

Taking Ferrfeiss' warning seriously, silence fell on them all again as they headed South-Eastward towards the Viàn Falínai.


A Call in the Snow


Nysz-Elel, Bruhaii Anblàn
(East of the Viàn Falínai)

4 Ur

 

Never had she flown so swiftly with a task so urgent. Feeling dizzy, she landed in the garden of a hut she hoped belonged to one of the White-Leaves.  She was grateful her feathers camouflaged her in the snow, into which she stuck her beak, and gratefully drank. Testing her voice, she gave a trill, which, while not intended to draw attention, did so.

"What 'ave we 'ere then?" an Elelup asked, pottering round from the back of the hut, with a woodcutter's axe in hand, "a messenger bird methinks."

Startled, the Blàmìs gave an anxious chattering sound, keeping her eyes fixed on the axe. While the Elelupii were usually less than half the height of the Paràntii, from her perspective that meant the weapon was significantly closer to her fatigued form.

"This?" the Elelup questioned, before realising the source of consternation, "Oh, I am jus' 'eading out afore the sun meks it too bright ta chop wood fer me fire. Look I don' speak bird, but one o' the White-Woods folk 'ave a camp fire near 'ere just ta North. Mebbe ask them?"

Bobbing, the Snowbird hopped back through the gate and found the campfire as the Elelup had explained. As the ground became less frozen the closer to the fire she hopped, she was able to find some bugs to replenish her strength. She hated the taste of insects, though worms and some grubs were palatable. Although she much preferred food crafted by others, she had to deliver her messages, so she accepted any sustenance available, albeit begrudgingly at times.

Feeling strength return to her wings, she fluttered a little over the ground which caught the attention of the campfire's sole guardian, who smiled and stretched.

"Hello, friend, come warm yourself," she motioned with the hand not holding the warm berry-juice provided by the locals of Nysz-Elel, "I'm Ayàvi, by the way."

The Blàmìs nodded and hopped onto her knee, then onto the edge of the cup before crying with a shrill chirp and jumping back to the snow.

"Oh, I am sorry, I should have told you the mug was hot," Ayàvi exclaimed, "here, let me help you. It's my job to play medic when we're on hunting trips."

She reached out a hand and muttered a few words, and the Snowbird felt her feet much soothed. the White-leaf was about to continue her thought when the bird jumped onto her shoulder and began a forlorn song. Ayàvi's relaxed demeanour changed to one of anxiety then urgency.

"Absolutely," she nodded, "tell the Chief..."

She closed her eyes for a moment and took some sips of the berry juice.

"Tell him that the Hawk-Riders will answer the call."

 


Who Can Judge?


 

Everspring, the Forest of Doon
4 Ur

 "Of all the times to draw the night-shift, we had to get this one," Calledth complained, as he hurriedly filled his quiver with arrows, being careful to set aside the barbed and mildly-poisoned ones.

Lyssah chuckled. She too was preparing her weapon - a spear which was normally tipped with sharpened steel provided by either Qal'ath or the forges in the Bevérohii, depending on who was available and open to a barter exchange. Today, however, she had carefully prised this from the runed shaft and was replacing it with a pinewood 'blade' Calledth had carved, which was edged with smooth bones found within the Forest of Doon. As few creatures 'under the roof' were hunted by the Woodsmen, Nature's cycles claimed its inhabitants, and as all beings were part of the delicate balance of the Elements, they tried to honour the fallen as much as possible.

"You know, love, if you look at this, it's almost heart-shaped," Lyssah smiled.

Glancing up, Calledth frowned.

"I'd been going for two raindrops side-by-side, making the bones into leaves of a kind. But if you see a heart, that's fine too, so long as it doesn't distract you in the moment."

Lyssah, focused as she was in binding the tip on, did not need to look at her life-partner to see the expression of consternation on his face. As she was from the Foyverii - or the Green-Leaf Clan, and he the Foyruszii - the Red-Leaf Clan, their world-views were often radically different. But they had made the partnership work and usually made up for the weaknesses of the other.

"Sorry, I shouldn't have tried to poke fun at you in the dead of night or early morning," she replied, "I am grateful for this whatever it looks like. It should work wonders in only inflicting minor injuries if it comes to confrontation."

Checking his supple Maple bow was still in good working order, Calledth threw his quiver over his shoulder and folded his arms.

"'When', you mean? If the Kyadii are going through the Viàn, they know what they are doing. And, I tell you, they will not have any concerns about inflicting wounds - fatal ones if necessary. Preserving life is one thing, but if it comes down to them or us...."

"Do you think any of us can correctly judge that in the heat of battle, love?" Lyssah gently questioned, reaching her hand out to squeeze his shoulder.

Calledth sighed.

"No, I guess you're right. I just hope our humane methods here don't put more at risk that's all."

Lyssah fixed her new spear to her back and embraced him, running her fingers through his coarse black hair.

"I don't expect you to abandon everything about your clan, you know? There is more to life than fighting. And, before you retort, there is a time for fighting too. That's why we go together, alright?"

She drew back and looked into his blue-grey eyes and nodded. Calledth took a deep breath, drew in the scent of her and the wood around him, and let his shoulders relax for a second or two.

"Okay Lys, let's get moving. The others should be heading that way already."

 


Duty Against Time


Outside Bezélan Minor
4 Ur 30

After countless complaints about the late night and having to carry such heavy loads, Rusziné's decantà arrived at Tolìpor, near the entrance to Bezélan Minor.

While he had initially struggled for volunteers, most had agreed to join him to escape the watchful eyes of their superiors or the boredom of inactivity in the Capital. Their skills ranged from sword-craft to archery, and all had undergone their preliminary survival training. Recruiting more than one healer had proven impossible, however, and Rusziné had been forced to hope that one would be sufficient, when paired alongside his herb-lore experience.

It was to avert a battle that I took on this job, he thought, but much will depend on what the Kyadii actually want.

At his feet, his small squad had dumped ropes, logs and a few empty barrels.

"So, boss, why an Erdàn did you ask us to bring all this...junk?" one complained, "I don't want to sound rebellious or anything, but..."

Rusziné rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, I agree with Y'mtyrn," another, called Oesuli, chimed in, "and I thought speed was of the essence."

Their Captain closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, trying to keep his emotions in-check, in what was already a charged situation.

"And you had to bring us to Minor, of all places," spat a Neophyte called Jaridà.

"Enough!" Rusziné shouted, finally cracking, "We will get nothing done if you don't think, listen, plan and act. I know I normally allow a more relaxed atmosphere but, this mission is urgent, so we must make good time - efficiency and speed are not always the same thing," he pointed out, taking a deep breath, "and you are being, frankly, ridiculous. Even you Neophytes should know better, especially you Y'mtyrn - a healer should know the value of patience under pressure."

Aware that the man had only ever yelled at subordinates once before, they fell silent and formed a row in front of him, standing as smartly as their aching shoulders allowed them to.

"Thank you," Rusziné acknowledged, regaining control of his thumping heart rate, grateful he was predisposed to speedy recovery rates, "and sorry for yelling at you. So, what did I just say we had to do? Marshall Jewan?"

"Think, listen, plan and act, sir. So we need to think first, but think about what, sir?"

"Where has the King ordered us to defend first and how do we get there?"

A few of the soldiers murmured among themselves before Jewan once more spoke for them.

"The Stones of Myrn, sir, which is over the Aszilousii River from here," he pointed, "and to answer your question," he said, glaring at Jaridà, "this is the quickest way to the Stones and our job is to protect all of the Capital - even Minor. Arguably, especially Minor."

Bezélan Minor's existence had been brought about due to over-crowing in the Capital, forcing the city planners to create a new walled zone in which to house the overflow. With the land South of Bezélan being dedicated farmland for the its inhabitants, they had been forced to construct a 'sister' colony, on the opposite side of Lake Paxeux. As only the wealthy could afford to live in most quarters of Bezélan proper, 'Minor', as it was locally referred to, became a sprawling extension of the poor-people's community, which began at the aptly-named Ragged Row.

"Very good, Marshall Jewan," Rusziné nodded before making eye-contact with each of his squad members in turn, "So, how many of you wish to swim across the river?"

He surveyed the silent row of half-awake City Guards, grateful that he, at least, had managed to secure one Marshall among the nine he had been permitted to borrow from the garrison.

"No one? Then, for the love of everything sane, get making a raft from this 'junk', before I force you to swim across, and," he added, anticipating the mutterings, "I will be helping you do it. If we work together we can do this in a quarter Ur."

They started their tasks and as Jewan began tying some logs together, he turned his head to Rusziné and shook his head.

"Raft-building. It's like training camp again. Annoyingly, this is also the best solution, with our limited budgets. But, how have we still no method of flight, or even official boats for travelling upstream? Even the Crystal Circle has a one-person raft-ferry."

"Carnael still thinks he is immune to flying enemies simply because he has not seen one during his reign. As for the boats, well I had thought to commandeer the Circle's raft, but it's safe to say that it's well...not safe," he chuckled.

"I swear," Jewan sighed, "complacency will be the downfall of Qal'ath if the King does not review both his defence and attack methods."

"It will take something massive to make him change anything. Why prepare for something you think will never happen?" Rusziné pointed out, "while Qal'ath being attacked is more likely than Sablesand being flooded, that's not how Carnael thinks."

"It's King Carnael, sir," Jewan smirked.

"I know, and I call him that to his face," Rusziné tutted as he finished joining some half barrels together, "usually."


Divide and Defend


Viàn Falínai
4 Ur 45

Kighas could not stop pacing around his watch post, which had nothing to do with the cold air of the late night.

"Come on," he muttered, "if we were in a battle, or planning for one, or working to avert one, I would know what to do. It's this infuriating standing around I do not know how to handle."

More than once he had drawn his stone dagger and sheathed it again. More than once he had checked all the fastenings on his reinforced leather tunic. Being worried his bow needed re-stringing, he had verified it to be in a good condition so many times that he was now concerned his tests had weakened it.

"You're going crazy. Even your logical preparations unnerve you."

He stared back out to Viàn and no longer knew if he was seeing shapes of real beings, or imagining them. Just as he was tempted to draw his dagger again, he heard a low whistle in the air and turned to see the Blàmìs winging her way towards him.

"I don't have any food now, friend, I'm sorry. And if I did have, it would be frozen."

If birds could frown, Kighas felt as though that was the look she was giving him. Expecting her to land on his shoulder, he was startled when she perched on his nose and looked directly into one of his eyes.

"Uhm, now's not the time to blind a watch-guard, if you will pardon my saying so."

The Snowbird whistled her messages so quietly he had to strain to hear them and, once she had finished, he felt less alone. At the end of her song of whispers, she rubbed her face against his forehead and returned to his shoulder.

"I...thank you," Kighas managed.

So, the King of Qal'ath has sent a large enough squad to show a presence, but not too large to spark a war. That is strangely full of foresight for Carnael. And the Hawk-Riders will assist us too. Both groups will be here before five Ur thirty then, depending on how fast the Qalathii can run.

But one vital question remained - where were the Kyadii?


South-West of the Stones of Myrn

There was no breath for muttering or complaints when a forced march had turned into a swift jog. For a squad of cobbled-together soldiers, with the right level of authoritarian leadership, they had exceeded Rusziné's expectations and crossed the Aszilousii in ten minutes. It had been made even easier once they had decided to join three rafts to make a floating bridge, an idea neither Rusziné nor Jewan had conceived, but one of the Neophytes.

That's not to say there weren't any unnerving near-falls as they leapt between rafts. Even for a narrow portion of the river, it had been a challenge to effect a dry crossing. Once across, they had turned and picked up the pace, focussed on where their defence of Bezélan would begin.

The Stones of Myrn were in sight and all Rusziné had to decide was who to leave guarding them, and who to take on a sprint through the Forest of Doon.

No pressure then, he thought resentfully.


North-East of the Forest of Doon

The wind rushed through Ayàvi's golden hair. She closed her eyes briefly to enjoy it, and to soak in the pure Elemental essences of the Sky and Air, through which she would cast her healing. Given the Foyblànii were often spread thinly through their forest and the surrounding areas, she had been surprised at how quickly a rapid defence force had been assembled. Seven White-leaves atop four Hawks would result in three on the ground and four in the air. That was nearly half a squadron, and Ayàvi could not remember when she had last seen such a partial deployment. A full one had not been required for all of her life, as much as she could remember. She smiled, despite knowing she would need to focus in only a few short minutes.

The Viàn's defence is worth all of this, she thought resolutely.

As she opened her eyes, the Lead Hawk came alongside hers and its sole rider called to her.

"Prepare for a gradual descent. Repeat, a gradual descent. This is a defensive squad. Swooping will only be permitted if you are attacked from the ground, understood?"

"Got it. I need someone to take over the harness once we move to the trees, though," Ayàvi pointed out.

The leader nodded.

"Already on it. Kyaevy will be back-leaping any minute now."

"Are you sure it was wise to bring her, Sir?" Ayàvi asked.

"No choice, unless you only want two on the ground. The Linking of her eyesight with the Hawk's may well be essential," he replied, "we hope it won't be, of course, but we can't plan for something not to happen."

"Understood," Ayàvi acknowledged, "I am ready for the hand-over."


Doing Right, Sensing Wrong


Stones of Myrn
5 Ur

"Marshall Jewan, you should be unsurprised to know I am electing you to lead the defence of the Stones should they be breached. I have selected the four you will make your stand with. My job is to ensure you do not need to do yours or," he checked himself, "try to, anyway."

Jewan nodded.

"But what if you need us to come to your aid, sir?" he asked.

Hùlàn, great point, Rusziné thought.

"Right, yes, that may be required. Thank you. I am hoping it will not be, of course. I will keep my ears open for a Blàmìs as we hurtle through Doon. Equally, if you see one, send them my way."

Rusziné motioned to his half-décànta to join him.

"Marshall Jewan, that group is your responsibility now. Make sure they look like a wall of defiance, no matter how you feel. Boredom is not an excuse to stop watching. And if there's nothing to see, then use your ears. There is always something to hear. Qal'ath is relying on us to prevent a possible incursion on her territory."

"Even if they'll never know about it..." a Neophyte muttered.

"Yes, Vimas, even if they'll never know about it." Rusziné scowled, "Never try to mutter in the presence of someone who listens to nature. In fact, don't mutter at all. Speak your mind, because then at least it's let out rather than irritating you from within."

The Neophyte flushed in shame.

"Right, attack group, with me," Rusziné ordered, leaving Vimas to his thoughts, "Jaridà, that includes you. I hope that five-minute break was sufficient for everyone because it's all you're getting. It's time to get to the Viàn. All soldiers - do what is right and do our squad proud - even if the King never knows what you've achieved."

With that, Rusziné turned, secured his sword more firmly to his back and began to run. His half-decàntà, shocked into a sprint, followed and Jewan turned to his own soldiers.

"You heard the man. Spread out, form an invisible defensive line and make sure you can both hear and see at least one other."

He rummaged into his pack and pulled out a few pouches, throwing one to each of those under his command.

"No, it's not for pleasure," he grinned, "quite the opposite. Remember, we are here to defend, not kill. If you're pushed to defend your lives, use these to put your foe to sleep."

As they began to take their positions, Jewan fidgeted nervously.

Something tells me today is not going to go according to plan.

What he wished he knew what whose plan would go awry. The thing he found most unsettling was knowing he was powerless to change anything now. If this scenario had been during a game of Kalmys, he doubted even Rusziné would bet on it.

And that's the most disquieting thing of all, he thought.

Behind the Hills, North of the Viàn Falínai
5 Ur

Ferrfeiss sniffed, growled and snarled. The main group of the Kyadii had been left behind what he hoped was a blind spot in the low-lying hills North of the Viàn while he and Arrnwarr had unceremoniously stalked forward on all-fours close enough to see the entrances to the stone-covered tombs of the Woodsmen. The Viàn was mostly underground, with natural cave entrances leading out from three small, low-lying hills. These were closed off, some with large, natural boulders and others with worked circular stones.

"Something smells...wrong," he muttered.

"What do we do about it?" Arrnwarr asked, her Rzarchprl already in one hand-paw.

"Exactly what we planned to do anyway," Ferrfeiss nodded, "but...be careful."

"I am always careful, that's my job," Arrnwarr replied, trying to keep a measured tone.

"I mean it. There is more going on than what I can see or smell properly right now. Do what you do best but... I nee... want you alive." Ferrfeiss replied, averting his eyes from hers.

There was a slight pause between them.

"Oh, it's..." Arrnwarr started to reply.

"Yes, it is. I came here to reclaim a brother, not lose...you," the usually-fierce Deenfeiss Leen Kyadd stammered, "if there is no low-risk way of pushing through, get your tail back here and we will rethink. Go swiftly - look in all directions but return double-swift only when it is safe to do so."

He briefly rested a hand-paw on hers before retracting it and laying on the dewy ground, staring at the Viàn. Arrnwarr closed her eyes, took a breath and began the slow approach taking each shadow in turn with wide eyes and retracted claws.

Ferrfeiss watched her intently until her skills at hiding evaded even his still-sharp vision.

If we've timed this the way I think we have, we should be making the crossing in about a half hour, he thought nervously, low-risk is all I can hope for. I know there's no truly safe way through.

The hidden Kyadii were beginning to murmur among themselves. The closer the dawn drew, the warmer they would feel and the more exposed they would be.

"If we came to investigate a brother held in Qal'ath," one piped up, "did no one think asking would be a smart first move?"

Ferrfeiss had his ears straining forward to listen for any sign of Arrnwarr and, for the first time on the whole journey South, heard nothing of the conversations behind him.

 

North of Everspring, The Forest of Doon
5 Ur 15

Rusziné wheezed, his hand resting against a tree, while is half-squad did likewise.

"Sir...this...is more...than, ugh...the best soldiers...can be asked to do," one struggled to say his voice raspy and burning with reflux.

I wish he weren't right, Rusziné thought.

"I am aware," he managed as his breath returned swifter than the others', as was normal for his lineage, "but we must count to thirty and continue. And, for this purpose, you are the best soldiers."

While he had not been presented with many options back in Bezélan, those who opted for the night shifts, or coldest outposts and towers tended to be those of stronger character. While he pondered this, Rusziné noticed that another of his charges was rubbing his eyes with clear discomfort.

"Wait on that thirty count," he announced before turning his attention back to the Neophyte, "what's the matter?"

He flushed red and looked at the ground.

"Would now be a bad time to say certain grasses and plants make my eyes and nose itchy?"

He's already ashamed, there's little point in adding to it, Rusziné thought.

"Yes, Natarr it is," he replied as calmly as his impatience would allow him,"you should have told me at Myrn and you could have stayed with Jewan instead."

"I know sir, but..."

"But what's done is done," Rusziné interrupted, "we have no choice now but to continue. Refresh your face with water and we'll start that thirty count now."

And so he began, knowing each second lost was yet another risk in this mission, even if he were able to disregard the Neophyte's allergies. As he neared 'twenty', the ground seemed to shake under his feet and he and his comrades run into and swept into the air. As he landed with a thud, Rusziné realised what had happened.

"A Doe? Thank the Elements!" he cried as he settled into a more comfortable riding position.

"You can thank me too if you like," his Doe responded, as she kept running.

"I am sorry, I momentarily forgot you were the only creatures that speak our language, at least as far as we know."

"There's nothing to forgive, my friend. We will drop you at the Forest's Edge. If there is a fight, it is not ours, but we cannot have people rampaging through Doon."

"Including clumsy Qalathian soldiers," Rusziné smiled wryly.

"Indeed, though that is less important than your task."

"How did you even know?" he asked in surprise, as he began to see the thinning density of trees ahead.

"Then I guess there is something you do not know," the Doe whinnied with concern, mixed with mild amusement, "the Foyblànii have been mobilised, along with their winged friends. They only travel at speed when it is urgent. We merely followed in their wake on the ground. If only we could run as quickly as they can fly."

"Your assistance is really appreciated."

"You can thank me by doing what you came here to do."

Within moments all three Does, carrying his four charges as well as himself, came to a halt and the squad disembarked.

Rusziné gave the Does a nod of thanks, and they slowly retreated deeper into the Forest. He turned to his half décantà and lowered his voice.

"Do you remember what I said to Jewan's squad?"

"To do what's right and... something... whether people know it or not?" one ventured, embarrassed he could not recall it all.

Rusziné nodded.

"You recall all the important words. We must do what is right at all times, you hear me? Tonight makes me nervous, and we will not be the only ones feeling so. But we are together, we have a mission and importantly, we have allies and friends. Jewan is under orders to incapacitate, but not kill any foes. The same orders apply to us."

He pulled out some smaller packets from his pockets similar to those the Marshall had distributed to his half décantà and handed them around.

"Sir, I kind of should not carry this," Natarr ventured.

Rusziné rubbed his temples, wishing the day was running smoother.

"You have no other form of defence, Natarr," he pointed out, "except the lethal kind."

Natarr nodded, but remained visibly concerned.

"Smells... relaxing," Jaridà noted, with a smile.

Rusziné smirked.

"If you don't burst the packet you won't, let's say over-relax, hmm? Right," he said as he drew himself up and took a serious tone again, "we now move cautiously to the edge of Viàn. If you have any questions, it is now or never."

"Uhm, sir? You've told us to do what is right, and I think I understand, but this situation is, if I may say so, ridiculously unusual," one stammered.

"Is there a question?" Rusziné asked through strained patience and heightened anxiety.

"Yes, sir. What if the right thing is not the same as, you know, what's expected."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that. My advice remains the same. Please note the word advice - I am not here to force you to do anything."

With that, the man turned and began picking his way around the trees, stepping carefully over fallen branches and dried twigs. His comrades followed in a line behind and copied his footsteps. When there were almost no trees remaining to circumvent, Rusziné beckoned to each and pointed to a specific tree as hiding places. With only hand signals, he motioned for them to kneel and watch the Viàn. Carefully and quietly unsheathing his sword, he leaned it up against his tree, being careful to ensure it was always shadowed, before also kneeling.

Rusziné knew the Watch-guard was somewhere nearby and assumed the Foyruszii were also in position, or about to be. He now only had a rough idea of the time, which he thought was about five Ur and a half.

We may have only just arrived in time, he though gratefully, thank the Elements.

The only sound he could hear now was the thumping of his heart and the anxious grinding of his teeth.


Strategy Convergence


Among the Tombs, the Viàn Falínai
5 Ur 30

Calledth double-strung his bow and waited. They had been informed that the Kyadii were likely still Nùormà of the Viàn, so he and Lyssah had intentionally positioned themselves downwind, the better to avoid the would-be trespassers' superior sense of smell. While he was on the ground, his life-partner was atop a tree in a small copse and ring of trees only a spear's throw away. Calledth was becoming restless but dared not risk alerting the invaders to his position.

Just make your move, Kyadii. Or leave. I no longer care. Do something.

Behind the Hills, North of the Viàn Falínai

This time he knew he was not imagining things. The Woodsmen did have sentries or guards of some ilk around the caves. On the one paw, he was unsurprised, but one the other it also left him disappointed. Their presence cut off the direct route, meaning they would have to circumnavigate the Viàn to be able to enter the Forest, adding yet more time to the creeping daylight.

Where is Arrnwarr? Ferrfeiss thought in despair, she should have been back by now from such a quick scouting foray.

He crept slowly back to the remaining Kyadii, who looked warily at him.

"Rrright, friends," he said, trying to sound decisive, "this is the plan."

North-East of the Viàn Falínai

With near silence, the three Foyblànii jumped from their Hawks to the thin border of trees and the rest of the Squadron gradually continued North in a feint of a normal flight of the wild birds. Ayàvi deftly swung to the lowest branch strong enough to take her weight and gazed over the tombs.

It's as though nothing is happening, she thought, beginning to wonder if, in fact, nothing was happening. Refocusing on the shadows between the caves, she felt the presence of friends and smiled.

Well, they would only be there with good reason, so we just have to wait.

The sudden change from the swift flight to utter silence and stillness had taken her aback, as she had expected to arrive at a battle.

No, it's a bubbling pot, and someone has forgotten to take it off the fire.

Soon, she knew, there would only be one outcome. The pot would overflow.

In Some Nearby Trees
5 Ur 35

Kyaevy crouched behind the red tree that Ayàvi had scaled and lifted her nose to gauge for scents. The cold of the night would have made her task much harder, but as dawn drew closer, the source and direction of the aromas became clearer. She already had a vague idea, but not enough to risk rampaging - to her probable doom - in that direction.

I never thought I would have to face other Kyadii, she thought, puzzling over the conundrum, and I don't own a non-lethal weapon.

Having been on regular hunting forays and the occasional battle against wolves or other sentient trespassers, she had kept her Rzarchprl in the best condition that she could. There was always the risky approach of holding the weapon at a sharp end and using the shaft as a blunt-force instrument, but such an approach would bring scorn upon her from the other Deenfeiss and could even see her precious weapon slashed by claws, or worse, stolen and used against her.

I will be beyond tired after all this, she thought, if we see an 'after', anyway, she mused, the Deenfeiss know how to to fight, after all.

As she glanced around, a brief flash of white distracted her surveillance and a Blàmìs landed on her left hand-paw. Kyaevy opened her mouth to speak, but the bird raised a wing to cover it. With great caution, the Blàmìs looked to her Rzarchprl and hopped onto it, between two blades. Then, with a flutter she returned to Kyaevy's hand-paw. With a bob, she then flew away once more. The Kyadd paused, before realisation dawned.

I do have a non-lethal weapon. My paws. Well, paws with sheathed claws, anyway.

She would only have to threaten to use the tribal weapon for the Kyadii to know she was willing and able to use it. Shaking her head, she forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand. She pricked up her ears and listened, while also focusing on the location of the Hawk that had deposited her at the Viàn.

Above her, Ayàvi surveyed the area looking for shifts in the shadows that she knew inevitably would stir.

Strategy Convergence
5 Ur 35

Arrnwarr sniffed and listened. Ferrfeiss had been correct, something was wrong. She hadn't doubted him, but always preferred to see things with her own senses. Non-Woodsmen were in the Forest. She knew the scent of the Foyii, for they smelled pleasing and natural, which she found disconcerting when thinking she may have to fight people who lived in a similar way to her own tribe. No, what she could smell was not pleasing. It was sweaty, nervous.

And what is that other scent? she thought, frowning.

It was something akin to coal or slate, but as cold as stone.

Weapons. Metal weapons.

Her clan, for all their bravery and bravado, even with their claws and Rzarchprls, could not prevail against these in a straight fight.

All except one of our number anyway, she corrected herself, though I wish Ferrfeiss would realise he doesn't have to fight the best to be strong.

She was torn between returning to him with the news and acting now to prevent a possible massacre of her friends.

Why was Ferrfeiss so vulnerable with me? Now I don't know what to do.

From her vantage point, she found the source of the scent, silently padded to a nearby tree, climbed into its lower branches and covered herself in its shadow, much as her targets had.

Rusziné glanced behind and above him, trying but failing to see through the dense woodland.

I am sure I heard something, or someone.

He reached for his sword and kept it in-hand.

Which plant is making my eyes itch this badly? Natarr thought in frustration, his feelings mixing with an all-pervading sense of powerlessness.

 With his sword in one hand, he rubbed his eyes with the other, but it did not ease the sensation. Instead, it spread to his nose. The Neophyte's knees trembled.

No...please, no.


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