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

Chapter 10: The Cost of Leadership

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23, Jylta 545 AFD

Elelupi Guard-tower, Hillsworn Fort, 17 Ur 45

They had made good time until the regal procession had hit a roadblock in the most literal sense of the word. Lytania frowned.

"This road was clear two days ago!" she shouted angrily, "who thought leaving an enormous pile of rocks in the way was a good idea?"

"The path looks torn up and the grass has seen fire too," Natarr noted, "but it doesn't look like it spread South to the guard tower or much beyond that tree over there." he pointed.

"Well, then, I suggest you all get to moving the rocks. There is little room to manoeuvre the Battle Cats around that heap and through the gate," Carnael instructed them, more calmly than he felt, "they are wide and not as agile as we would like."

Something we need to tweak for the next generation, I think, he mused.

"Yes, Your Majesty," Natarr replied, staring pointedly at the other members of his former squad.

They dismounted from their Kyjushii, who stood patiently for them to return as was encouraged in their training. One or two took the chance to wash some of the journey's dust from their legs, which was not so encouraged. On this occasion, no one paid them any attention.

"That includes you, Lytania," Carnael sternly commanded, noticing her usual feisty demeanour was absent.

"Yes, your Majesty, my King," she murmured, averting his eyes, before also dismounting her Battle-Cat, pausing to rub her face against that of her favourite feline in the whole Realm.

Through no small effort, Carnael watched as the stone pile was returned to various places in the ground and dirt scraped around them into something resembling a path.

Hmm, I don't think I need to be concerned. If I knew he would turn up at Tolmyr I would have made their lives much harder, he mused, but it looks like the plan worked, or, took place at least, he corrected himself.

As the workers returned to their Kyjushii, Carnael was about to give the order through the gate when a shout from the tower startled him.

"Is that you, Your Majesty? Oh yes, it is the King, oh thank the Elements, Your Majesty!" a frantic-looking Elelupi watch-guard cried as he ran down the tower's steps and flung himself down at the King's feet.

"Calm yourself, Hillsworn," Carnael instructed him, "this will be easier if you breathe. Your name first, please."

"Kykylan Dédéàn, your Majesty, my King. But just 'Ky' or 'Kylan' is fine'"

"Then I will refer to you as Kylan," Carnael decided, "Now, what do you wish to report, Hillsworn?"

"Yes, your Majesty," the Elelup replied, keeping his eyes pointing at the ground, "I am glad Your Majesty is here and not earlier, a most terrible thing happened!"

The King coughed, and suddenly felt less comfortable on his Battle-Cat's back.

"Pray tell me how I may help you," he commanded, hoping to avoid a description of the event.

"Well, I wasn't really asking for help, but I guess I have been afraid in my guard tower since all that flashing and fizzing and shouting and all that. I must have passed out, because I did not know my King's people were repairing the damage from the blasts until a moment ago. If I am asking for help it's more that, well, I couldn't send a messenger - an Elelupi one, of course - to my King, and it wouldn't have been safe to anyway."

This one cannot stop yabbering, Carnael thought, frustrated.

"I tried looking to see the trouble," Kylan continued, "we have spears and the like in the tower of course, but we have never had a need of them, except for the occasional fence-breaking goat stampede that goes on to feed a family of eight for a week, but never against actual people, you know? But they would have been useless against..." he lowered his voice, "magicks."

"So, you witnessed a fight between mages on Qalathian Territory?" Carnael asked, "That is very loyal of you, for such behaviour is not in accordance with the Authorised Mage Programme. Tell me, Hillsworn, do you know how many survived the battle?"

Mages openly fighting this close to Timri seems either brazen or reckless, Lytania thought, why risk being exposed?

Kylan stood and scuffed the floor awkwardly with his foot as if not wanting to answer the question. Being trained as a Hillsworn Defender, he did not need to look up to know the others had gathered round him all waiting for him to respond.

"I am sorry your Majesty, my King, my memory is hazy, but last I could see through the fizzing..."

"and the banging, crashing and the like..." Carnael prompted, not wanting the Elelup to repeat half his story.

"Your Majesty is most wise, but though I think some mages were hurt, possibly seriously, I think...think mind you, I don't know for definite, but I think they all did. But I do think someone died, but I was being a coward and hiding behind my tower's wall so I don't know who died, or why. But someone wasn't happy about it and yelled loads about getting it wrong..."

The King held up a hand and the Elelup's voice faded into an embarrassed silence.

"Thank you, Hillsworn Defender Kylan. You may return to your post knowing you've done your duty. We shall investigate these unauthorised mages and ensure that no unlawful killing took place."

"Yes your Majesty, my King," Kylan replied bowing his head, "and if I hear or see or remember anything else, I'll find someone who can tell you."

Feeling reassured, and protected by the sight of the muscular Battle-cats of Qal'ath being led through his guarded gate by the King himself he smiled and walked, as smartly as his now bedraggled clothes would allow him, back up the steps and through the door of the watch-tower.

The King listened to me, he thought in wonder, he really wanted to know about them mages. Well, it's nearly time for a shift change, dinner and a warm fire. And I need all three after today!

Down below, the King seemed deep in thought. Realising everyone was waiting for him, and he had been very clear on trying to be on time, he raised his head and waved a weary hand at Lytania.

"Well, Royal Guard?" he asked as if expecting her to know his mind, "are you going to lead the way, or am I?"

Lytania turned her Battle-cat towards the gate and looked up, letting the frosty, early evening breeze wash over her.

"I will, for 'the King should be surrounded for his own protection'. And I serve faithfully."

Not waiting for a response, she urged her Kyjusha through the gate and the others followed behind.

Viatoli, East of Tolmyr Sands
15 Minutes later, c.
18 Ur 15

"Well, it is now time to see if Rusziné has honoured our laws and his King one final time, or whether he will be an utter disgrace," Carnael announced, having perked up a little on the path southwards, "we should slow down, so we can see the exact meeting spot more clearly."

They approached a fork in the path, with the southern one leading to Oestun Vyai and the western into Tolmyr Sands, they passed a dejected, dirty-looking girl holding what appeared to be a broken and burned branch, but whose eyes seemed glazed over, such that she barely noticed their existence, let alone who was in the group.

Lytania was about to rebuke her but Carnael stopped her with an outstretched hand.

"We are not here for her, let us not have more interruptions. Now, if Rusziné is the coward I believe him to be, then this trip should be delightfully cut short."

Natarr tried to remember his Kyjushii-riding lessons and encouraged his Battle-Cat to pad around nearby rocks without dislodging the roughly-cut fence that separated the path from Antler Pastures, the domain of the Stags. To his surprise, the battle-cat leaned down and sniffed the ground, before giving a strange, deep throated gurgle.

"Are you...purring?" he asked cautiously, "I didn't know they still purred."

"What does it matter?" Carnael snapped, "it's probably found the scent of a creature it wants to get cosy with."

Abashed, Natarr fell silent, as did the others.

Where is Rusziné?, frowned Lytania, I know he's being exiled, but even he wouldn't choose to not be here.

As she was finishing her thought, a voice came from behind a large rock stood where the path of the Viatoli met the Lostland Marshes27.

"It matters, because once a Battle-cat connects with someone, they will defend them to the death and love them for the same time period," he paused, "but they cannot smell abandonment, thankfully keeping Natarr safe."

Carnael turned his cat sharply towards the direction of the voice.

"Rusziné, you..."

"Survived?" he shrugged, "Sadly, yes. Not only that, but I arrived on time and unarmed as commanded. Because I respect the position of the king, no matter what I think of the person."

"Watch your tone," Lytania commanded.

"I don't need to, I'm supposed to be dead. Aren't I, Carnael?" he asked, narrowing his eyes, "Well, it sure feels like it."

"My Lord?" Lytania asked, looking questioningly at the ruler of Qal'ath.

The King coughed, as though to clear his throat and looked at Rusziné with a mixture of disbelief and fury, but when he spoke it was though his words were of ice.

"That man, facing exile in the desert, has clearly caught a Winter Madness. I have no idea what he is talking about."

Rusziné opened his mouth to speak when, from the South, Marshall Jewan and his Battle-cat raced to their position.

"Assuming we haven't started the Ceremony of Exile, pardon the interruption, but this is important!" he gasped.

Rusziné frowned, then looking to the Marshall's shoulder, realised the source of his anxiety and strode swiftly to him.

"You have a bird on your shoulder again, Marshall," he said in all seriousness on this occasion, "may I?"

Jewan nodded, "please, I don't know how long it has left."

"This one's a she, I believe."

"One more relic of a long-lost alliance," Carnael sighed, "what is one less bird in this Realm?"

Ignoring the attempt to anger him, Rusziné gingerly lifted the Blàmìs from Jewan's shoulder and held her close to his heart in one hand, while gently stroking her head with a finger on the other hand.

"What is one less bird? Or soldier? Or unofficial mage? Or one less Royal Guard? Or one less of anything that is not you, Your Majesty?" he asked, "I'll tell you what one less of all those things does to your Realm - it weakens it. Either directly, or by bolstering a foe or potential adversary."

He shook his head and turned his gaze to the Blàmìs.

"You're okay now, faithful one. The Marshall has a good heart, and you know me as the friend who annoyed you first thing this morning."

The Snowbird gave a heart-wrenching whine, lifted her head and looked directly into Rusziné's eyes.

"Yes, you've done an amazing job today. You have flown all over," Rusziné whispered, "and most of it, I suspect, without being given direct instructions. It's time for you to rest now... you have been trying to defend our Realm and your own, and you have done well."

Hold it together, man, he thought.

The Snowbird gave a low whistle, flicked its wings and let her head flop back onto his hand. As she closed her eyes, even Lytania struggled to maintain composed and Jewan looked on concerned, wondering if he had found help too late.

Oesuli looked away, while the King grew impatient.

"We do have here, in case you had forgotten?"  he stated with a shrug to rival even Rusziné's own.

The man himself looked up and, with jaw clenched, had to force himself from lashing out, which would spell absolute doom for the tiny, snowy Blàmìs in his large calloused hands.

"Yes, oh King, we have other business. That's your problem, isn't it? Never one to recognise an ally, nor appreciate the work they do for you and especially the Aszilmìsii and Blàmìsii, because they do it for no reward. You care only about that which you can see, not even feigning knowledge or consideration for friend or foe that is unseen," he turned his head towards the Marshall, "Jewan, where did you find this bird?"

"You don't need to have that conversation, Marshall," the King said gruffly.

"Is there a law to say I shouldn't?" Jewan asked in genuine innocence, "as far as I know, Rusziné is permitted to converse with me before his exile. And where he is stood, he could chat with me all day," the Marshall replied, "if you can tell me of such a law, I will gladly obey it, my King."

"Well…bah," was all Carnael could respond, "just hurry it along, then."

Jewan shook his head, glad he was free to answer the question he had been posted.

"She was flying West to East along the Bracken Barrier, being pursued by what seemed to be..."

"A Raven?" Rusziné asked, all but certain of the answer.

"I don't know how you figured it out, but yes. The Blàmìs, being known as an ally of the Realm to my Kyjusha, was defended by her and the Raven fell to the floor. It disappeared leaving only a patch of burned ground. She has struggled ever since."

"When this happened was there a pile of stones blocking the road?" Rusziné asked.

Looking confused the Marshall shook his head. "Uhm, no, it was clear as it always is."

Rusziné sighed and bowed his head, sheltering the still form of the Snowbird with his chin and she limply rolled towards his neck. He wanted to cry, but the tears would not come, drained as he was by what felt like the longest day he had ever endured.

"Then, your Majesty," he said addressing the King once more, "this Snowbird was on the way from the West to warn someone, or people, of an attack along that path. She was trying to save lives of people she saw as friends, while your ambush had been set to destroy lives - lives of the people who were trying to serve you."

His body began to shake with emotion, but he could not release them. As he closed his eyes, the Snowbird's final movement was to roll into his Everice necklace, the one gifted to him by the Kyadii. Being naturally aligned with Ousii - Waters, and Aevyen - Air, the Snowbird drew Elemental Essence from the necklace into itself, and a glow emanated from the ice crystal with such a blinding light that those near to Rusziné had to shield their eyes. It seemed that, no sooner had the light arrived, than it was whisked away once more. Rusziné looked around but could not see the bird, and he panicked.

"W-where is she?"

I am here, friend, she called, flying circles around his head before landing on his shoulder and nuzzling his cheek, I am not perfectly healed. For that, I need rest. But I am alive because of you.

"No," he responded shaking his head, "you're alive because of the Kyadii. And should you not now head home, where it is cold?"

The bird seemed to stamp a foot on his shoulder.

There is no need. You are now my home. Your Everice, my source. There are plenty of bugs in the desert, as disgusting as they are.

Rusziné forced a weary laugh and relayed his conversation. Carnael shifted with obvious restlessness.

"Well, that's all nice, but you are still rebellious and disobeyed my command, so I will see you exiled." he growled.

"And I have every intention of going into Tolmyr Sands. If I had not, I would not be here. I hear you're calling it a Ceremony of Exile or some nonsense?" he questioned, "no such thing exists in written regulations that I know. Because Qal'ath was never founded on the principle of kicking out people with valid alternative view points. Moreover, his Majesty is not, let's say, enamoured by ceremonies where others are the focus."

"I will repeat what Latisha said earlier, watch your tone." Carnael said menacingly.

"I will not," Rusziné replied, "unless you plan on getting off your high cat and fighting me hand-to-hand, which I would like to point out is in the regulations. It would be a relief to be on even terms after battling against mystical and Elemental weapons. Prove to me and everyone here, that you have the right judgement of me?"

The King looked away, aware that in one moment he had refused a direct challenge to honourable combat. A fact which did not go unnoticed by many of those seated on the Kyjushii around him.

"I thought not," Rusziné sighed, disappointed, "sorry the show will be boring friends, but the micro-desert awaits. The king has made several questionable decisions recently, including the direction to turn me loose. But that decision has been made."

Carnael opened his mouth to retort but immediately closed it when Rusziné held up a hand to tell him not to.

"I will say some final things - because I have the right to that. Then I...I mean, we will go into Tolmyr where Carnael hopes I will die. That is the only kind of hope he has," he cleared his throat, "friends and...others, today the King has shown how he rewards success, for I was given an assignment and, per his instructions at an unseemly Ur this morning, I along with my unit and other allies, fulfilled all the King's objectives. Bezélan was not approached, no soldiers were killed...during the operation...and the Kyadii returned home. For following those instructions and not the ad hoc one to kill the Kyadii leader, I have lost my home, my position and my friends. Some people today will have gone hungry because I was not there for them," he paused to collect his thoughts, "but it wasn't enough to send me away.

"You see, he would never admit it, but I long suspected that King Carnael thought I desired the throne. A laughable notion, as though I would be tied to that position by choice! It's even less of a logical idea as I am not Qalathian, as you are all now aware.

But once paranoia kicks in, it doesn't go away, and I've been trying to soothe his Glorious Majesty for years. I did that, not to blunt his authority as he believes, but to keep it sharp, focused and decisive. No matter the quality of a ruler - once that ruler is no longer ruling, either by choice or by death, uncertainty creeps in. Which is why a new leader is chosen so swiftly.

"But in trying to serve the Realm, sometimes at the cost of following instructions, in attempting to demonstrate that we care for the people, not just about how they look, King Carnael saw me as a threat, not an ally. His decision to sever ties with the Foyii - the Woodsmen - will be fatal, if not for him personally, then for others, and potentially for the Realm of Qal'ath.

"It is this Realm, with its rich variety of races, trades, wildlife and more, this is the Realm I have served. It just happens to have been led by the man over there who has condemned me for doing what is right. Carnael the Second is not the first king to be inert and selfish due to inheriting riches and a peace he could not have earned. In one sense, he could lead in no other way, for no one has yet opposed him.

"But today, today he has made a grave error: he has turned his own people against themselves. While that may distract them from his lack of leadership for a while, when their anger against each other dies down, the ties between the survivors will be stronger and then they will question why they fought each other, and they will look to their circumstances, their elders and their king, and they will turn on you. And that will not be my doing, but that of the King, who turns a blind eye to those that most depend on him.

"Why do I think this? Aside from my almost daily trips into the poorer districts of the Capital and to the prison to those I know for a fact ought not to be there, I have this proof: I was attacked by former residents of Bezélan - and I mean Bezélan proper, not Minor. They brought magicks upon me and another soldier of Qal'ath within a short distance from Timri. So sure of their backer's support, they did not fear reprisals from the authorities, they were free to rain spells of many types in an attempt to kill or capture me. The effort nearly cost them the lives of their own own. But in the heat of the exchanges, one of the mages let slip that the ambush was laid by the man who rules over all of you and whose commands you are duty bound to obey.

"And the result? A promising young soldier who just happened to be accompanying me from the Stones of Myrn to Tolmyr Sands lost his life, murdered by a mage who had been commanded to kill me and with such an incantation it drained her, almost costing hers too. Jaridà was his name, Carnael. Remember that name. Jaridà. He died defending me because I was defenceless. He died doing the honourable thing, and I wish to the Elements that, for once, he had been dishonourable. For I should be dead and he should still be with you.

"He loved Qal'ath, he enjoyed being a soldier and he was willing to learn and he followed my instructions knowing I also listened to him. But thanks to that so-called King, he is dead. I say the murderer isn't really the mage who cast the spell, but for the puppeteer that made it possible.

"I say this not to remove him from power, for that is not my place," he sighed, "and to all you soldiers, guards and a soon-to-be Captain, you must follow as many orders from the King as possible. For if you don't, the whole thing falls apart. But you must not follow blindly.

"I don't know the ultimate aim of the mages, nor where they came from, but they were led on false promises. Much as I was led to believe I should be here unarmoured and unarmed, while Carnael arranged for me not to make it at all."

"You have no proof of any of that," Carnael spat angrily.

"Yes he does," a hollow-sounding, monotonous voice responded from behind him.

The King turned his head and saw the girl from a few moments earlier, in the dirty robes and holding a burned branch.

"And who are you?"

The girl looked up with resignation.

"I am the proof, for I was the one the King bribed, cajoled, used and manipulated," she held her almost broken branch towards Carnael, "and for that, I'm left as soon enough the Realm will be: empty and lifeless. Living, yet not alive. Dying, but not dead. So insignificant, he does not even remember my face. Was I weak? Yes. Did I fail at my task? Yes. But was I doomed to fail from the start? Almost certainly."

"Sara-Ash?" Carnael unwittingly let slip before burying his head in his hands.

An almost indiscernible murmur of surprise rippled around the soldiers mounted on Battle-cats.

"Yes," the girl confirmed, "and that's all I am now. Dust and ash. I wish I could threaten you, but I cannot,"

Sarah-Ash shook her head, snapped her dead brand in half and threw it over the fence into Antler Pastures.

Clever, thought Rusziné, the King cannot order that retrieved as it's on the Stags' land.

The girl shuffled over to where Rusziné was standing and held a hand out to the Snowbird that had settled onto the man's shoulder.

"I am sorry for the Raven that hurt you, we never wanted...well, any of today to go the way it has. Please know that she was not trying to hurt you. Although I do accept now it appeared that way."

After a pause, the Blàmis whistled and tapped her open palm with a foot.

"You're fine, Ash," Rusziné said, trying to smile, "she basically just high-fived you."

"Rusziné, I know I'm not, well, I can't be, you know?" she hoped not to have to finish the sentence, but seeing his obvious confusion was forced to continue, "I'm not Ayàvi. And I don't deserve your friendship. But I have nowhere else to turn."

"If the desert is to your liking, we can go together. You don't need to be anyone else. Hopefully, we can resolve our differences while we still have time," he offered, knowing he still hadn't come to terms with her part in Jaridà's death.

"That's more than I deserve, thank you."

Rusziné turned back to the group and surveyed them.

"I'm leaving now," he stated, "for that is the decree of the King. But know this, should the Elements sustain me, if you see me again, it will be to rescue the Realm, not to seize it, because it belongs to everyone, not to just one person. As I said to the Marshall earlier, I repeat for all of you now: serve the people of Qal'ath well, protect them, build them up and support them."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the second pouch of coins he had not spent at Traders Square, which he threw to Jewan.

"Captain Jewan, for it is my prerogative as outgoing Captain to confirm the replacement, these coins are for the sole purpose of buying bread or ingredients to produce it. Take it to the bakeries of Minor and Uranbé. See the loaves split in proportions according to population size. It will be my final act."

"So it was you," Lytania said, gasping, "how?"

"The military is paid well, as they should be. But I lived poorly so others could survive. I grew up first in the far West then later in Byantē's wilds. Surviving is my only skill, really, so a simpler life suits me. Enjoying a lower quality of life to preserve others' right to be alive is a rational choice.

And now, for once, I must see to my own survival. Farewell friends and may the Elements protect you and those you hold dear."

With a subtle hand flick, Ash turned along with him and they began their walk into Tolmyr Sands, a place of dirt and grit, of high cliffs and dead-end routes, where life and death intertwine leaving wanderers uncertain which they face, and where no water flows. And thus the King's final command to Captain Rusziné was enacted, and he along with Sara-Ash and one Snowbird disappeared into the mist that had begun to form at its entrance as the night's chill fell.

The King of Qal'ath stared blankly into the murk until he was certain he could no longer see their outlines and then shivered, unsure how long he had been gazing into that dank veil. But when he looked around, he found he was alone. One by one, all the others had padded away, the Kyjushi's footsteps being near-silent, their approach - and departure - are barely audible. But Carnael realised he had commanded everyone to come with him to Tolmyr, and they were under no obligation to escort him back as he was next to Oestun Vyai, a Qalathian, safe outpost.

Suddenly feeling exposed, in a panic he fled into its walls.

This is what happens if I let my weaknesses show, he thought, realising his lost credibility from his refusal to engage Rusziné in combat, hùlàn.

Outside, the Wind howled a mournful tune, carrying earthen tones along the damp ground. To the North, sparks became Fire, decimating that season's winterberries. Dark clouds formed and covered the moon, plunged all of Western Qal'ath into thick darkness and shrouded the Sky.

Leaning against Oestun Vyai's outer walls, a figure, hunched over her staff shook her head sadly, and began her long walk back home.

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