Joyous music played and merry voices echoed around the Great Hall of Issia Castle. For six days the festivities had been going on in celebration of the newly crowned Baron.
During the days the city was filled with events and tournaments including log tossing, mock battles in wide arenas, bare-fist fighting, spear throwing, and all manner of entertainment. The days of Spring were getting warmer and thousands of people had come to Gaianaus’s capitol to enjoy and take part in the spectacles. The streets were filled with celebrations and laughter during the days and at night the sounds of feasting joined them.
But here in the Great Hall only the lords and ladies and other people of importance dined. Although it was to be expected, Liuden had been surprised that he had been asked to join, for he felt as if the new Baron did not favour his company overly much. So even though he was in the Hall, he tried to remain inconspicuous as he stood to the side of the two long tables that sat parallel to each other and stretched from the throne to the entrance doors.
All the lords and ladies of Gaianaus sat at one of the tables or walked about, eating, drinking and otherwise thoroughly enjoying the festivities. Many serving girls hurried about as Liuden watched from the side, leaning up against one of the many pillars. The girls were always quick to top up the cups and bring more food to the nobles.
He found it very curious as he looked on, that this was the sixth day of celebrations but it did not seem as though it had lost any of its exuberance. Even Liuden was feeling rather pleased, for he knew that the longer this continued the war with Sesserrech seemed less likely.
“Another drink Regional Commander?” a cute red-haired serving girl asked politely as she stopped before him.
“No, thank you,” Liuden declined with a smile.
“It’s been six nights and you’ve barely had one drink.” The young woman said seriously. “I didn’t realise Regional Commanders were so dainty. Why, I reckon I could drink you under the table.”
“You probably could.” Liuden chuckled, “But still, no thank you.”
“Suit yerself.” The redhead shrugged and continued on her way.
Liuden watched the petite young woman walk away and he wondered why people in the north were so proud of their drinking abilities, something that was only rivaled by their pride of their fighting abilities.
He shrugged to himself and absently glanced towards the entrance as he took a sip of his ale. A woman entered the Hall by herself and caught his attention for she was not wearing the usual furs and dress of the other ladies. Instead she wore a military outfit of someone under the Regional Command. Her pants and top were of dark green with a silver wolf embroidered across her breast, almost identical to Liuden’s attire.
But despite being the Regional Commander he did not recognise her. Curiously Liuden watched the woman filter through the crowd on the opposite side of the Hall to him.
She seemed older than he was, maybe a few years past her mid-twenties, but her features were still youthful. Her dark brown hair fell loosely around her shoulders and danced about her back as she walked with confidence through the room.
He watched the military woman closely, for not only was he curious as to who she was, he was also enchanted by her beauty.
Amid the crowd she was stopped by someone and they began to talk. Intrigue bubbled within him and Liuden moved away from the shadow of the pillar. Swallowing down what was left of his drink he dropped the cup onto the table, his gaze never leaving the military woman across the room.
“That’s the way Commander.” The red-haired serving girl stopped him cheerfully, “Have another drink.”
“I’m fine.” Liuden ignored the young woman and continued through the Hall.
The large fire places that sat beyond the Hall’s pillars and torches on the walls glared in his eyes as he pushed gently passed the people. Smoke seemed to hang in his path and slow his movements, causing everything to feel and look surreal.
Taking a deep breath Liuden squeezed through a gap between the lords and to the spot he had seen the military woman. But she was no longer there.
Liuden quickly glanced around the area but she was no longer to be seen and his shoulders slumped in disappointment. With a slight sigh he continued around the busy room, his curiosity about the woman lingering in his mind.
“Here, Regional Commander.” Someone called from a seat at the table. “Over here. Come sit down.”
Liuden smiled slightly at Lord Felldinghr and glanced at the man’s wounded arm that was still in a sling.
“Now tell me,” the Lord said with a booming voice as Liuden distractedly continued to glance to the crowd for the mysterious woman. “Have you met Captain Idunn before?”
Liuden leaned forward so he could look around Lord Felldinghr and to the person sitting on the other side, who had been shielded from view. His breath suddenly became stuck in his throat for sitting calmly beside the Lord was the military woman he had been chasing.
“No,” Liuden manage to stammer, “I haven’t had the pleasure.”
Up close Captain Idunn was even more attractive. Her sharp features and large chocolate coloured eyes mesmerised him. A radiance seemed to emanate from the woman, making him feel warm and alive.
“Now you have, Regional Commander,” Idunn replied, emphasising his title.
“I am surprised neither of you have met.” Lord Felldinghr remarked, “You are both in the Regional Command, are you not?”
“Not exactly.” Idunn was quick to say. “I have been working in and around White Loch, in Chillbreeze predominately, as well you know my Lord. The Regional Command has little concern for the goings on in that area.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Liuden replied with a smile, “So you work under Captain Hoth?”
“’Under’ is not the word I’d use.” Idunn said sternly.
“I shall have to visit the White Loch more often then,” replied Liuden cheerfully, “And I will be if this war with Sesserrech ignites. Chillbreeze is our greatest navel asset.”
“True it is.” Lord Felldinghr replied wholeheartedly. “No ships can outmatch the speed and power of my Frigates and Galleons.”
“That is good.” Liuden smiled, “Perhaps you can show me the armada personally, Captain Idunn?”
“No.” Idunn replied flatly, causing Lord Felldinghr to chuckle and Liuden to feel as if Baron Barrgarah had just punched him in the gut.
“That ain’t no way to speak to the Regional Commander,” Lord Felldinghr laughed aloud.
“Regional Commander.” Idunn scoffed and turned her full attention to Felldinghr, “Back to what we were discussing before. Tell me more about the Alpha Grinlocks that attacked you.”
Liuden was stunned and he blankly looked down at the table. He had never failed so utterly with a woman before, quite the contrary even. During his time as a guard at the Gaia Mountains Penitentiary he had been quite popular with the ladies, as he was with those under his command now.
“Regional Commander.” Boomed a voice from the Baron’s throne. “Get yourself over here.”
Barragrah waved him over and reluctantly Liuden obliged. With a sigh he pushed himself to his feet and slowly walked to the throne at the head of the tables.
The Baron watched him approach, his intimidating build and stature increased by the pelt of an enormous wolf across his shoulders and jagged crown made from the teeth of the same beast atop his head.
“Baron.” Liuden greeted rather meekly as he stopped before the man.
“Take a seat.” Said Barrgarah with a commanding tone and slapped the chair to his left. “Have a drink with me.”
Suspicion flooded through Liuden’s mind as he sat down and accepted the pint offered to him by the petite redhead.
“A game.” Baron Barrgarah roared above the music and chatter. “My favourite drinking game: ‘Iron Balls’. The true test of a man’s worth.”
A cheer rose up from the lords and ladies and Liuden winced slightly for he knew well the game. Over the past six nights the Baron had played the same game no less than fifteen occasions with the other lords, and he had won every time.
The game involved drinking down a pint of the strongest ale in one gulp before throwing an axe into a target at the other end of the tables. The players then grabbed the closest woman and kissed her.
The point of the game was to show that you were a man by not vomiting up the ale, hitting the target and imposing yourself on the woman.
The last part did not concern Liuden, nor did the second part. His concern revolved around his ability, or lack thereof, to be able to finish the strong ale without throwing it back up.
“Barons go first.” Barrgarah laughed as he grabbed the axe handed to him in one large fist and lifted his drink to his lips with the other.
Tilting his head back Barrgarah gulped down his ale slowly and deliberately. Awkwardly Liuden glanced towards Lord Felldinghr and Commander Idunn, but only the Lord remained and he gave Liuden an exaggerated wink. A sense of anger annoyance sparked within him. Why had Idunn been so unaccommodating?
A loud laugh from Barrgarah caught his attention and the Baron slammed the empty cup to the table. With suddenly roar the large man took a long step forward, his axe in hand behind his head. With an explosion of movement Barrgarah’s arm snapped forward and he launched the throwing axe towards the large target at the other end of the Hall.
The axe ended with a thud, embedded into the wood just a few inches to the right of center. A cheer rose up from the crowd and increased tenfold as Barrgarah grabbed the nearest woman and passionately kissed her.
For several long seconds Liuden stood their uncomfortably as the kiss continued. Finally the Baron broke away and pumped his fist into the air. More cheers echoed around the Hall before all turned their attention to Liuden.
From the side the red-haired serving girl handed him his drink and throwing axe, which Liuden hesitantly took.
“Let the Baron win.” The young woman whispered in his ear before turning away.
Liuden paused before he lifted his drink to his lips. The anger that had been churning within him suddenly billowed into a raging flame from the young woman’s remark.
He had had enough of this game, of Captain Idunn for disliking him for no reason, and of this ill-tempered warmongering Baron beside him.
His hand clenching the leather handle of the axe tightly Liuden brought his pint to his mouth and began to swallow. The potent liquid smelled horrible and it burned his throat on the way down. Uncomfortable warmth flooded through him as his eyes began to water and his stomach turned. He could feel the desire to vomit building within his gut, but he stubbornly pushed down the urge. If he threw up now he would never receive respect from any of the people in this Great Hall.
The last of the disgusting ale slowly went down his gullet and Liuden roared angrily as he tried to force away the need to vomit. Shattering the clay cup on the stone ground he took a long step towards the target and threw the axe with all his strength.
Without bothering to see if it had even hit the target Liuden grabbed the red-haired serving girl by the arm and pulled her into a forceful kiss. The young woman responded wholeheartedly and wrapped her arms around his neck. Her lips were warm and wet, her scent intoxicating, but all Liuden could think about was how he felt as if he would vomit all over the redhead.
He had to keep the strong ale down, if he did not he would not only lose the drinking game, he would be the laughing stock of all Gaianaus. Trying to distract the churning in his gut Liuden swung the girl into a dip before bringing her back up and breaking away.
“Find me later.” The redhead whispered to him before she moved away.
It was then that Liuden noticed the loud cheers from the audience and a proud smile came to his face when he saw that his axe had indeed hit the target. It had even landed extremely well, just left of center.
As he turned to the Baron his smile disappeared for the man was scowling at him. Slowly the applause stopped and every one fell silent as Barrgarah held up his hand. Several tense seconds passed by as the Baron continued to glare at Liuden.
“You.” Barrgarah growled, “Broke my cup.”
The large man pointed to the clay mug that lay in shards on the ground. Awkwardly Liuden looked at the broken mess and back to Barrgarah’s fierce gaze. Liuden was not sure what to say and he began to offer an apology. But the haughty laugh that erupted from Barrgarah’s gut interrupted him. As the Baron continued to laugh aloud the rest of the room joined in causing the confident smile to creep back onto Liuden’s face. Barrgarah slapped him on the shoulder before motioning Liuden to sit down next to him.
“Well played boy.” The baron congratulated sincerely as the audience went back to their own conversations. “You’ve got more balls than I gave you credit for.”
“Thanks,” Liuden chuckled slightly, “We Regional Commanders are made of sturdy stuff.”
The Baron laughed, “We’ll see. The true test of a man’s worth is on the battlefield. And I would have you join me on the front lines as we storm the gates of that traitorous Varrintine city.”
“Varrintine city?” Liuden echoed as he rubbed his eyes and tried to focus his drunken thoughts. “It is unlikely we will ever make it that far.”
“Have faith.” Barrgarah bellowed as he grabbed another drink.
“No. I mean you won’t get that far.” Liuden replied seriously.
“What?” exclaimed the Baron before took a plate of mutton legs from a serving girl.
“Lord Varrintine has enormous resources,” Liuden tried to explain. “He will call upon his friends in Norrendōrel and have cavalry of the finest horses in the West March. A battle in Sesserrech would be on his grounds. And your men will lose.”
The Baron chewed on his mouthful slowly as he regarded Liuden closely.
“But our naval forces are stronger.” Barrgarah stated.
“The Magi Guild owes their allegiances to The Port.” Liuden was quick to say, “Be sure that there are Magi who are still very proficient with magicks. Your ships will burn and sink before they even make it into the bay.”
The Baron was nodding as he finished, causing Liuden to think that Barrgarah had already thought of all this and was simply testing him. Liuden did not like that thought.
“Exactly.” Barrgarah replied, “This is why we draw that bastard Vincent Varrintine to us.”
“Lord Varrintine personally?” Liuden asked with confusion and a clouded mind.
“That would be good,” Barrgarah chuckled menacingly. “I could choke the life from him myself.”
“You talk as if he killed Ellengar himself,” Liuden remarked.
“He did.” Barrgarah snapped.
“But they were good friends, even I know that.” Liuden wondered.
“What do you know of our friendship?” The Baron roared as he jumped to his feet and grabbed Liuden by the throat.
With one arm Barrgarah lifted Liuden off his feet and pulled him close to his sneering face. Liuden could barely find the wit to respond and before he realised he was two inches from the Baron’s growling visage and struggling to breathe.
“You know nothing of our friendship.” The Baron said slowly through clenched teeth before he tossed Liuden to the ground like he weighed nothing at all. “Get out of my sight.”
The room became suddenly quiet as all eyes turned to them. Rolling to his back Liuden turned a bewildered expression upon the Baron who turned towards the gathered nobles and dignitaries.
“That is enough celebrations.” Barrgarah yelled, “When Inüer dawns tomorrow we prepare for war.”
A massive cheer rose up from the crowd and the music continued on with a jolly tune. As Liuden staggered to his feet the red-haired serving girl was quick to try and help him, but he pushed away the aid and headed for the exit.
Annoyance and confusing plagued Liuden’s thoughts as he shoved through the doors and strode down the hallways. It was late and the torches burned low on the walls, through the iron-bound windows the light of the twin moons drifted in and his footsteps echoed of the cold stone of the walls.
“Psychotic bastard.” Liuden grumbled to himself before he took a deep breath and rubbed a hand over his face.
“Regional Commander DeVaan.” The call from behind caught his attention and he swung around to see Idunn walk up to him looking unhappy.
“Captain, how nice to see you.” Liuden replied sarcastically, “Have you grown tired of Lord Felldinghr’s company?”
“I left him some time ago,” the Captain replied seriously.
“So what do you want of me?”
“Nothing.” Captain Idunn stated, “Lord Roht Ellengar is looking for you.”
The beautiful woman moved passed him and down the hall leaving the scent of blueberries and snowdrops to fill his senses. Still feeling the effects of the strong ale Liuden drew in that scent and held it for as long as he could before slowly exhaling.
As he thought of Idunn irritation again filled his thoughts and with a sigh he headed for Roht’s chambers.
Liuden took his time as he walked through the long hallways and up the spiralling stairs. Running a hand along the walls he felt the moisture on the stone from the condensation of the hot springs that lay deep below the city. As he came to Roht’s private chambers he pushed through the doors without knocking to see the man looking out across the city from his window.
“Roht.” Liuden greeted, “It is Lord now, right?”
“Yes it is,” the middle aged man replied with a slight smile, “Thank you for coming. Please join me.”
Slowly Liuden walked over to the large window and looked out across Issia. From this room high in the castle he could easily see the brightly lit streets of Issia and even here the dull sounds of celebrations echoing up from below.
“It will be dawn soon and still they celebrate.” Roht remarked offhandedly, “Barrgarah is a favourite among the people. As was my brother. The commoners admire physical strength and stature along with the fierce mentality to match it. This is why I would never have made a worthy Baron.”
Liuden regarded the man curiously. Roht was right in his statement of course, the people did hold obvious strength and stature in high regard and Roht was neither tall nor physically large. The man was only slightly taller than Liuden, with a similar build and mentality when it came to unnecessary conflict. Roht possessed a wisdom that Barrgarah could only dream of and the graying around the man’s temples seemed to personify that.
“Barrgarah has initiated the war.” Liuden stated and Roht turned his blue eyes towards him.
“That is a pity.” Lord Ellengar nodded, “I am not surprised, but neither do I think much will come of it. Barrgarah likes his posing.”
They both looked back to the view over the city and to the brightening of the eastern skies.
“So did you want me to come here for a reason?” Liuden finally asked.
“Yes.” Sated Roht, “Lord Felldinghr is dead.”
“It is true.” Roht did not look away from the view. “The report is that he staggered from the Great Hall just after you left and died. The Magi has put it down to the fact that his wounded arm became poisoned from inadequate cleaning. The poison got into the blood stream and that was the end of him.”
“That’s …” Liuden looked away as he digested the information.
“It’s not important.” Roht finished his sentence causing Liuden to regard the man in surprise.
“What do you mean?” Liuden asked incredulously.
“I believe it was intentional.” Lord Ellengar stated seriously.
“How do you figure that?”
“The Alpha Grinlocks that caused his injury,” Roht explained, “I believe that Felldinghr was meant to die then.”
Liuden snorted derisively and shook his head.
“You don’t think so?” Roht regarded him slyly and again Liuden shook his head. “Alpha Grinlocks hardly ever come down from the wastes to the north and when they do, the lords are quick to exterminate them. Barrgarah would have been quick to do so as well upon first sighting.”
Liuden was not subtle in his disagreement at this outlandish theory and chuckled as he continued to shake his head.
“Grinlocks don’t just appear out of the air.” Roht said with annoyance.
“So you are saying that Barrgarah deliberately let these Alpha Grinlocks attack Feldinghr in hope that they would kill him?” Liuden asked cynically.
“Come Regional Commander,” Roht said sternly, “You should know well our traditions. A Baron’s rule can be challenged in three ways. Firstly: by strength; which is exactly how Barrgarah became Baron. Secondly: by deed; a rather self-explanatory means where all challengers set out to kill the biggest and meanest monster they can find. And thirdly: by vote; the most civil of the three and where all the lords hold a vote to see who will be the next Baron. I am sure you can guess that the third option is not the most popular. But it is one I was and still am considering making, and I am certain Lord Felldinghr would have supported me.”
Liuden continued to regard Roht disbelievingly, “You are saying Barrgarah knows of your intent to be Baron and is eliminating your supporters?”
“Exactly.” Roht nodded with a slight smile. “And as being the Regional Commander of Gaianaus I am sure you know that a Baron can only be challenged once every year. If I become Baron one year is more than enough time to secure my position and prevent any further challenges.”
“So get more support over the next year and make the challenge by vote.” Liuden shrugged.
“You are missing the point Commander.” Lord Ellengar replied dryly, “Barrgarah knows of my intentions and will prevent me from establishing that support. He also has facilitated the murder of Lord Felldinghr. So I ask: if he is prepared to kill one lord to keep his position as Baron, what do you think he did to attain it?”
Liuden nodded slightly as he began to see what Roht was indicating.
“You are saying that he orchestrated the assassination of Baron Ellengar.” Liuden stated and Roht smiled slightly.
“Now you catch on.” Roht smiled wider.
“But if you cannot prove this we cannot act upon it.” Liuden stated seriously.
“Find the assassin.” Roht was quick to say and Liuden nearly burst out laughing.
“That is what Vhindr Varrintine is trying to do and I am nowhere near as skilled as he is in the investigative fields,” Liuden replied seriously.
“But you are Regional Commander of Gaianaus,” Roht stated, “And last I heard Vhindr Varrintine was heading for Gaianaus.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Despite the looming war I still have associates in Sesserrech.” Lord Ellengar smiled, “So what is your plan of action Regional Commander?”
Liuden regarded Roht closely and chewed his lip.
“I’ll look into it.” Liuden stated and headed for the door.
“Let me know what you find.” Roht called after him.
Liuden waved over his shoulder without turning and made his way back through the castle towards his chambers. The conversation with Roht played over in his still drunken thoughts but somehow that morphed and changed into thoughts about Captain Idunn. Irritation and frustration filled him again and he clenched his jaw as he swiftly moved down the hallways. With his head down Liuden barreled into someone as he moved around a corner. He was about to yell at the person for getting in his way but he stopped himself as he noticed it was the redheaded serving girl.
“Excuse me Commander,” the young woman apologised, “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Its fine,” Liuden replied awkwardly before he regarded the petite woman more closely, “What’s your name?”
“Anaid, sir.” The redhead replied with a smile and brushed back her red hair.
“Join me for a drink Anaid.” Liuden offered with a smile and a sparkle came to the woman’s blue eyes.
As the dawn came the two of them retired to Liuden’s room and before he even closed his door they fell into each other’s arms. As they kissed passionately Liuden picked the girl up and she wrapped her legs around him. Kicking the door shut Liuden carried Anaid over to his bed where he tossed her onto the mattress. As he eagerly pulled off the woman’s clothes his thoughts again returned to Idunn and the scent of blueberries and snowdrops filled his senses.