I think the first section has changed to the tune of about 3,000 additional words and been slightly restructured. Which means that I would advise readers to start over from the beginning when they get the updated link and download the newest copy. I think you will be pleased by the changes.
As a treat, I'm pleased to include these snippets....
- Cretch led his men deeper into the Wild Woods. Even with firm assurances of their safety from their unseen patron they were all uneasy travelling through the haunted forest. However, they were more frightened of their benefactor, whom they only knew by the initials "M.A.", to disobey his "request". While he had shown himself to generous to a remarkable degree when he was satisfied with work done on his behalf, he had also shown himself to be ruthless to those he felt had failed him. So they grimly rode in silence, each man clamping down on his fear and dread as they approached their destination.
The message calling them to their present hunt had arrived as they all had, borne by an unspeaking and blank faced messenger. Neither Cretch nor his men talked much about these unearthly couriers (for as alike as they all were in their manner, they had all been different men), but they all felt uneasy while in their presence. Cretch wasn't even sure that they were alive. Once, while meeting a courier in the forlorn foothills on the outskirts of the Waste, he was sure he had spotted a broken arrow shaft and prodigious blood stains amongst the folds of the creature's robes.
Sensing movement in front of them Cretch signalled his band to a halt. Gunnell stayed by his side while the rest melted quietly away into the surrounding woods. Moments later the foliage ahead of them parted and Cretch was relieved to see Timmis, their scout, appear. The rest of the band slowly worked their way onto the thin trail when they saw him.
"They have entered the Keep."
"You saw them?"
"Yes, five riders matching the description we were given. Although none of them stood out in any way that I could see.""
"We may have to wait to see about that when they come out. Hopefully it will be more apparent then. Any others about?"
"Just a few of the King's Guard patrolling outside the Keep. The riders were able to slip through their lines unseen. The Guard has become complacent."
"Lazy dogs, still I'm grateful for that. It will make our job that much easier."
"Cretch, one more thing...."
"There are ... there are things... in these woods. Watching things."
"I feel them too Timmis, do your best to ignore them. Our patron has sworn that we are protected from any ill they could harbor towards us while we are here on his business."
"Aye... so he says, so he says. I'll still feel better when we are miles away from these cursed woods and spending our silver and copper on drink and women."
"We all will. Fall back with the rest of the men. Gunnell, your turn...." -
- Eren watched Dorial carefully as their group approached the forbidding gates ahead. The path ahead was straight and clear, Eren realized that any debris that fell from the heights above must be regularly removed. Dorial seemed unperturbed as they rode towards the massive shuttered gates. His mount walked forward briskly, the rest of them followed suit. Eren didn't feel comfortable. There was no cover for them to hide if things went poorly with the Lord of the Gates of Yaresh and Teffin decided that he didn't want a possible High King to pass through the gates he was charged with. They all knew that by this time messengers had ridden out from the Great Keep to points all over Weyland to announce the coming of a new claimant for the throne. Not only that, but the first one to do so riding an Aybeer and wielding Fingerling.
Eren did not know Lord Teffin personally, he only knew of him. He was said to be a prideful man, one who kept his own counsel and one who held grudges. He was not a man to cross. Dorial, whom Eren had found to be remarkably well versed in the personalities and allegiances of the various provinces, had to know these things also. Yet he seemed remarkably calm and self-assured, as if he knew that Teffin would pose no threat to him. Eren could not decide if he was simply being brash, or he did indeed know something that Eren did not.
From a distance they could see that the gates ahead were shut. Eren knew this was unusual. The lord of this keep was responsible for keeping the Yaresh Pass open for trade between Valley Crag and the Swept Plains. It was not a good sign that Lord Teffin had ordered the gates closed in the middle of the day. It was possible to get Valley Crag without going through the Gates of Yaresh, but the trip would be both arduous and dangerous.
If he hadn't been so preoccupied with their circumstances, Eren knew he would have enjoyed the sights around him. The pass was a deep groove cut into solid rock. For the last mile before the Gates of Yasher, the cliff walls rose at steep angles almost five hundred feet above the road they traveled on. The roadway, broad enough for ten horsemen to ride abreast, was flanked on each side by ditches the same width. In most circumstances the road would be considered generously wide, but the looming cliff walls on each side seemed to constrict the path.
On each wall leading up to the gates, there were elaborate glyphs that extended up for at least the height of three very tall men. The bas-relief carvings ran for thousands of feet behind the company and before them to the gates barely one hundred feet ahead. The carvings consisted of a teeming rush of animal life, done in an archaic, primitive and almost childlike style, yet full of vibrancy and life. Flocks of birds wheeled under billowing clouds and over herds of leaping two horns. Salmon swam up rushing streams past bears and howling wolves. The very number and variety of creatures was staggering, so much so that Eren had to keep looking away. To stare too long was dizzying. A part of Eren's mind noted all of this while the rest paid attention to the gates ahead of him.
The gates themselves were impressive works by their own rights, standing as tall as the glyphs on the cliff walls and as wide as the road that led to them. The battlements above rose another twenty feet above. The gates were a matched set, constructed of massive slabs of stone oak bound by thick bands of black iron and hung on hinges that Eren could not see. Issus had described them in his Histories of Weyland as being "stoutly made of Dunian Bronze and as large as a man's thigh," but unlike the walls leading up to the the Gates of Yasher, the gates had no ornamentation. This alone made them more forbidding to Eren. '
- Anson Vaunte had been angry for as long as he could recall. His early childhood had been marred with abuse from his monstrously temperamental father and indifference from a mother, who while stunningly beautiful, was more interested in her pet songbirds than in her offspring. He had not been saddened to see his father die after a fall from his mount while hunting. He actually had been relieved. Even at the age of twelve Anson Vaunte hated and feared his father. It could be reasonably said the he had sufficient reasons to do so. While he was an only child, it had not always been so. He had already witnessed an older sister and a younger brother succumb to injuries incurred from beatings. Not one person in Burrow Keep had seemed to have the courage to stand against Lord Betram Vaunte. The few that had, a brother, an uncle, and a cousin, had also died by his father's hands.
With no one to turn for protection, Anson had withdrawn into himself, determined not to give his father any reason to notice him more than was necessary. He spent his time skulking around the passages of Burrow Keep spying on his father's retainers and stealing morsels from the pantry. The servants were too frightened of Lord Vaunte to let him know what his son was doing, so they endured the younger Vauntes antics. As he grew older his behavior became less innocuous as he started stealing more than just food and began spying on the serving girls. By the time his father died Anson Vaunte had developed into a sneak thief and a manipulative blackmailer who trusted no-one else and was trusted by no-one. At first he was content to harass the servants in small ways, but when he found that no-one would discipline him for fear of retribution from his father his behavior had become worse. Anson found that he liked to torment others. The only time he approached a feeling that resembled happiness was when he caused someone else discomfort or pain.
The constant fear regarding his father's temper ended the day that he received the surprising news that his father had fallen from his Aybeer and had broken his neck. It did not take long for Anson to realize that once his father was gone that the people of Burrow Keep no longer feared Anson. It tool several thrashings from various guards and male servants for this information to sink into his consciousness. He adapted, but not did not stop his behaviour. He merely became more circumspect in his actions. He also came to the realization that his father had failed in him in most every way. In life the only gain Anson had from being his father's son, other than his position, had been the implied threat of his wrath. Once he was gone that threat vanished, leaving Anson to make his own way amongst the household.
The common perception around the keep was that Lady Meribel Vaunte would remarry. It was known that her only ambition in life was to raise her songbirds and that running the affairs of the keep were of not only of no interest to her, but also probably beyond her capabilities. The late Lord Vaunte had made it no secret that he had chosen his wife not for her intelligence, or conversational skills, but for the way she looked in a gown and Meribel's impeccable lineage. It also hadn't hurt that her father had sent her along with a sizable dowry. It was not a surprise to anyone in the keep when she started to entertain suitors shortly after Betram's unfortunate accident. While Burrow Keep was not the most prepossessing of fiefdoms, it was still a Lorded Keep, so the widowed Lady Vaunte had rather a busy social life immediately following the proper minimum mourning period. There seemed to be an endless stream of noblemen in and out of the keep's front gate. The Lady Meribel met suitors for luncheons and dinners, she met them for tea in the Grand Cavern and for bolle matches in the Inner Gardens. Some witty knave in the court quipped that it took Lord Vaunte's death for Burrow Keep to become a social hub. -
- The old man stood at the battlements. The wind whistled and screeched at his back, constantly threatening to push him forward into the chasm below as it buffeted him. He gave it no attention. He had spent his life ignoring many things while in the service of his Creator and his King. This cold wind at his back was no different. At a distance it would not be easy to see that he was an old man. His shoulders were still wide and his muscular frame was still trim. It wasn't until you got closer that one could see his white hair and the age in his weathered face and hands. Those knobby hands were still filled with strength though, as many a young squire had discovered when they had sparred with him on the practice field.
He was tired though, so very tired. Once his life had been filled with adventure and purpose. he had been blessed to be considered the right hand of the High King of Weyland. Larien prophets had declared the Creator's blessings upon him, saying that he would serve both the High King and later his son. His heart had been broken when Caran had been struck down, but he had kept the faith as he dutifully searched the width and breadth of Weyland for Caran's son. A year stretched to a decade and then the decades rushed inexorably past him, wearing on him as if he were a stone in a stream. Until he stood today, alone and high above the lands he had been charged to protect and serve.
This would be the last one, he thought, the last one. He was tired of the pretenders. Sixty years of liars flouncing, striding, capering, and marching across the wide hall of his keep towards him, each convinced that he would be the one to trick Josia and steal a throne. Striking poses, cajoling, threatening and debating they tried to win him over and gain his aid in their bids. The last one had just perished recently, after languishing in the dungeons below the keep for almost eight years.
He had kept the faith through it all, always believing that the next could be young Dorial. It never was. Some had looked the part, but his hopes had been crushed each time. He had paid a high price for his loyalty. He had never wed, too pressing was the search for the heir to the throne. So he was, like the land itself, without a rightful heir. He knew that several of the low lords were already maneuvering and scheming to gain possession of his lands after his passing. He mourned for his people, knowing that they would be the ones to suffer the most when he died and those lords clashed over Valley Crag.
He waited for this last pretender. This one had managed to convince people that he bore Caran's blade, Fingerling. Josia had seen many Fingerlings in his life, yet the one, true blade had vanished when it's master had died that dreadful day. The rest had been as false as the ones who had carried them. He had thrown each of those swords off this very battlement to the depths below, where they lay, rusting and corroding in the chasm depths.
To say that he was bitter did him no justice. Josia hadn't lost faith in his Creator. That bond could not be broken. His was a more subtle wound. He had lost faith in himself. He believed that somehow, somewhere he had failed his Creator and failed miserably. So insurmountable was his failure that it had turned aside the very words of his Creator and dashed those prophetic words to the ground, broken beyond repair. After this one, he had decided, he would entertain no more. Let the Creator find a better tool to do His will.
Yet his sense of duty was so strong, that when a messenger found him and gave word that the pretender had arrived and was awaiting below, he instantly turned about and strode towards the landing. The wind whipped his dark gray robe into a banner flying from his tall frame and for a moment the young messenger following him believed he was seeing the very standard of their Creator manifested in his beloved lord. -
So, until we meet again dear reader, let us cheer on Spring and greet the returning s