The fog was finally beginning to thin out when they crested the ridge and looked down into a long, narrow valley. Harael could see a small lake, nestled against a sheer cliff along the east side. The village itself stretched along most of the length of the valley, hugging the shore of the lake for much of its breadth. As they made their way down the trail, winding back and forth against the slope, their view became clearer and clearer.
By the time they reached the bottom, Harael couldn’t help but stare: the valley was mostly brown, of course, but the winter couldn’t fully grasp the pines coating the far slope. Tall and oddly angular, they gave the area a sort of green fur unlike anything he was used to in Letaal—or even in his hometown of Arbor, many miles north of the capitol. The peaks, rising high ahead, were crowned with white.
“Isn’t that something else,” Harael murmured.
“What was that?” Teramus asked from his perch in the back of the wagon.
“Nothing,” Harael answered, his attention mostly on the surroundings. There did not seem to be any sign of the soldiers they were hunting, but he felt uneasy despite the scenery. “Just admiring the view.”
“I will give you that. I’m not likely to see something like this north of Gellop.”
“Gellop?” Harael asked. “Is that someplace in Pallonia?”
“Yes. To the far south, where things get mountainous along the Ice Coast.”
“You know, Teramus,” Harael mused, “someday I think I would like to go to Pallonia with you.”
“I do not think that would be a great idea,” Teramus muttered.
Harael frowned at him as they finally reached the first houses of the village. Letaalese soldiers were everywhere, the vanguard of their force poking around and looking for signs of the men they were chasing. A small commotion ahead drew his attention before he could ask Teramus to elaborate.
Harael was unsurprised to see Oritten at the center of things. Two angry-looking villagers, a man and a woman, were shouting at him as he shook his head. His face was smooth; Harael idly wondered what it would take to make the man really lose control.
To his surprise, the villagers spoke fluent, if accented, Letaalese. “We cannot afford to sell to you. Our winter stores are bare enough as it is!”
“We require rations for our journey. Not much, I assure you, and we will pay.” Oritten held his ground despite the villager’s insistence. “But we will require rations.”
“Bah! And why would we give you food, anyway? What are you Letaalese doing past your Three Gates? You are no merchants.” The woman was less irate than the man, but she seemed much more suspicious.
Oritten answered calmly and without hesitation; Harael marveled at his poise. “We are scouting. Some of our people were attacked by Avernen, up north. We want to know why.”
His half-truth placated the man, but the woman merely laughed. “Avernen! You deserve whatever you get by going into those swamps.”
By then, the rest of their Phoenix Guard contingent was gathered around, and no few of the soldiers as well. A smattering of villagers peered on, curious, but Harael could see the majority of them were gathered further on, in what seemed to be a market square. More of their Letaalese men were there, obviously trying to barter for food or, more likely, whatever ale or spirits these people could whip up. Teramus was eyeing that direction with interest as well, Harael noted.
“Come on,” he said, dismounting. “Oritten can handle this. We should take a look at that market up ahead, and see if anyone here knows anything.”
Teramus nodded and hopped down from the wagon. He groaned and stretched; Harael heard two or three loud pops and cracks when he did so. Teramus sighed with relief. “Better than a horse, certainly, but it comes with its own type of stiffness.” He nodded back at the wagon while raising his hands in the air and stretching out first one shoulder, then the next. More popping followed.
Harael let out a laugh and shook his head at him. “I seem to be doing fine.”
“Yes, well, Master Horseman, I am less inclined toward four-legged hoofed animals than you. Perhaps you should go on about that fact at further length.”
“It is only practice, you know.”
“Or, you could regale me with another pleasant little story about Katreina.” Teramus’ grin said only too plainly how much he savored that little jab.
“Come on,” Harael snapped, gathering his robes about him and walking by the ongoing spat between Oritten and the two villagers. He gathered that they were the village’s mayor and her husband before he and Teramus moved beyond earshot and into the hubbub of the market square.
Here, the dirt road widened into a roughly oval shape; the shoreline jutted out, so that water lapped playfully just a few yards away from the eastern edge of the market. Two stalls sat there, with men and women hard at work behind them unloading fish from a couple of small boats.
The rest of the market was ringed with tents and stands of varying sizes, with men and women bundled in cloaks and hats raising a general din as they traded and argued. Harael was amused by their active bartering; he was used to Letaal, where a price was set and paid for in hard coin. Here, he watched men trade bags of grain—the Flame only knew where they grew it, this high in the mountains—for fish or slabs of frozen meat. He supposed it was efficient, but it was definitely foreign to him. He wondered how much they would give for real, solid gold.
“You’re brooding, Harael,” Teramus said, and gave him a little nudge to the shoulder. “Get your mind off of it and start asking questions.”
Harael sent a withering glance at him. “I wasn’t brooding. I was inspecting.”
Teramus chuckled and waved a hand. “Sure. Well, go inspect some of these villagers more closely. For my part, I am going to see what these fishermen have to say.” He moved off, leaving Harael standing by himself in the midst of a growing sea of Letaalese soldiers.
Harael saw two of the Phoenix Guards hurry through the throng; one peeled off after Teramus and the other, a very tall, slender man, made a straight line for Harael. He bowed when he drew near.
“Brightness Harael. My name is Pallo. Captain Oritten assigned me to assist you today. These locals should not be trusted.”
Harael could not help a small smile when he saw how Pallo’s blue eyes darted around, alert, even as he introduced himself. “Of course, Guard Pallo. Please, follow me.”
His new escort in tow, Harael ventured into the busy fray. He imagined that this village had never seen such demand. Two hundred hungry soldiers were striking deals everywhere he looked, no matter what the mayor wanted. The villagers were too eager to make a profit; indeed, Harael saw that they more than readily accepted coin in return for their goods. A small tavern was doing a roaring business, despite a red-faced lieutenant attempting to keep his men sober.
“This is pandemonium,” Harael muttered. “Might as well start where the ale is flowing, right Pallo?”
His guard grunted, keeping his angular face calm, but Harael could just sense that Pallo would like nothing more than to fill his belly with some nice, numbing alcohol to take the edge off the winter mountain air.
The two of them wove their way through the milling villagers and soldiers, Harael leading the way to the tavern. No sign hung over the door, but a curious, looping snake was painted in black and red over the lintel. He had not a single clue what that could mean.
Inside, however, it was like any other tavern he had seen: a merry fire crackled along two of the walls, men and women lounged or stood with their drinks readily tended by three harried-looking serving girls, and the barkeep was more than busy behind the bar. A row of glass bottles lined the shelf behind him, with wood and clay mugs on a counter below. Here, Harael saw nobody trying to barter with anything but money.
While many of the patrons were Letaalese soldiers, with their think winter cloaks thrown back over mail shirts and their leather gloves tucked behind sword belts, a good number seemed to be natives. Harael picked out two of them, a skinny man with very pale skin and black hair, and a plump woman who must have been at least a foot shorter. They sat at a table against the back wall by themselves, but neither seemed antagonistic to the newcomers.
“Mind if we join you?” Harael asked as he approached the table. “Not many open seats, today.” He hoped they, like the mayor, spoke Letaalese.
As it turned out, they did, and with less of an accent than he had expected. “You are welcome to them,” the skinny man said, gesturing to the two open seats.
“My thanks. I am Harael,” Harael murmured as he and Pallo drew out their chairs and sat down. He caught the eye of one of the serving girls and gestured for her to bring two mugs of ale. Pallo, Harael noticed, was all but ignoring their tablemates; his eyes tracked the serving girl as she wound her way through the room and to the bar, where she gathered up their mugs. Harael couldn’t decide whether the Phoenix Guard was more interested in the girl or the beer.
“I am Pendra, and this is Ella,” the man said, nodding to the women next to him. His eyes narrowed speculatively. “Lots of you folks coming through, recently.”
Harael looked over in surprise at the man on the other side of the table. The man nodded, took a sip of his own drink, and went on. “Letaalese soldiers have been through, what, four times in the last couple months?” The woman with him nodded in agreement, staying silent and keeping her eyes fixed on Harael. There was something unsettling in her steady gaze.
“Really?” Harael asked, trying to come off as amiable and not at all suspicious. “I have only been told of one group.”
Pendra shrugged. “Four, I tell you. And only one has come back through. They were down a few, though.”
He must have been talking about the first scouting party, Harael realized, the one that was ambushed by the Avernen. “Sad. I have never liked hearing of deaths.”
“Deaths?” The man leaned forward, and the Ella’s brows drew down. “I said nothing about death. Only that some of them didn’t come through.”
Well, so much for not being suspicious.
“My apologies. That is why we are here, actually.” Harael paused, shrugged, and went on. He had no problem being only partially truthful with these locals. “Well, passing through, at least. Some of our scouts were killed by Avernen a few months back. We are looking for answers.”
Harael could see that Pendra and Ella was unnerved by mention of the Avernen. Even people living high in the mountains, safe from their swampy homeland, were uncomfortable with the creatures.
“Avernen are bad news,” Pendra said, his voice flat. He exchanged a look with Ella. “Very bad news.”
“So we have gathered,” Harael muttered, and cut off as the serving girl approached with their mugs. He accepted his and dug out a few small coins to pay for both his and Pallo’s. She flashed him a pretty smile and moved off. Harael noticed that Pallo’s gaze was now firmly fixed on the drink in his hand.
Trying to keep a smirk from his lips, Harael turned back to Pendra. “Yes, the Avernen. Have there been problems with them, lately?”
Pendra looked down at the table before answering. His words were careful. “No, not as such. They are vicious, but they do not leave the swamps unless at great need. Nobody has seen one outside of Averna in a long, long time.”
“So they are territorial?” Harael mused. He rubbed a finger along his jawline, feeling the stubble growing there. He needed to find another soldier’s razor to borrow, soon. “Interesting. We have stories of the Avernen, but nothing about their habits. This is helpful.”
Pendra shrugged and stretched. “Well, if there is nothing else…” Harael had a feeling that, as much as the man seemed nonchalant, he truly did want to the conversation to continue.
“Actually, yes.” He paused, uncertain of how to continue, and tried to cover it by taking a gulp of ale. It was good, he realized: strong and bitter with flavors of nuts. He grunted appreciably and took another sip. Across the table, Pendra waited and Ella raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, well,” Harael said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “We are also looking for some…bandits.” He hesitated, unsure if he could be convincing with this new charade. “Some bandits, who stole supplies from one of our northern camps. On the other side of the border.”
Harael decided that he was getting tired of it when Pendra and Ella exchanged expressionless looks once again. “Bandits? And what does a Pirin priest have to do with bandits?”
Harael started. “A priest?”
Pendra leaned forward, eyes narrow. “We are not fools, here. We know what you and the other man in blue robes are. We know what Pirin priests are used for, down south.”
Harael leaned back, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. Pallo looked up from his mug—empty now, Harael noted with bemusement—and saw Pendra’s stance. He made only a slight move, shifting in his seat and moving his hand down to his waist, but Harael suddenly saw the Phoenix Guard as much less a drunken fool and much more a dangerous man.
“I assure you,” Harael began, “I am not here to burn down your town. If anything, I was hoping to preach a bit before moving on.”
“Preach,” Pendra snorted. “Preach. We don’t need your lies here.”
“Lies?” Harael exclaimed, indignant. “I teach no lies. The Flame is the truth!”
Ella showed real emotion for the first time, laughing quietly to herself before tugging on Pendra’s sleeve. “Come, Pendra. I have had enough of this foreigners.”
Harael felt a sick bubbling feeling in his stomach, and hurried to wash it away with more ale. Pendra scowled at him one last time before allowing himself to be pulled away by Ella. He watched as they hurried out of the tavern, heads together in urgent conversation. The feeling in his stomach refused to abate.
Pallo growled. “Such rudeness, and to a priest! If they were citizens, I would deal with them right now.”
Harael rested a hand on Pallo’s arm. The cold metal of his armor heated at Harael’s holy touch. “Leave it be. They are harmless.” He sighed. “Though not quite as helpful as I hoped. At least we know that we won’t have to deal with any Avernen as long as we stay away from the swamps.” Even as he said it, Harael realized that staying away from Averna was likely the exact opposite of their plan. He sighed again, this time with emphasis. He did not hesitate to reach for his mug and finish the bitter brown drink.
Pallo eyed him while he drank before looking around the tavern. Harael realized that the Phoenix Guard was looking to catch the eye of the serving girl again.
“No, Pallo. We should go find Teramus.” And stay sober.
The Phoenix Guard shrugged, but Harael could tell that he was disappointed. The man had a problem, it seemed. He pushed back his chair and gathered up his helmet from where it sat on the table. “Very well.”
Harael led him back through the tavern, all the way noticing the abandon with which the Letaalese soldiers in the place drank. He frowned…and then stopped short. His eyes fixed on the fire place set in one wall. It took him a moment to realize what was wrong with it. Wood! Why are they wasting wood like that? Several logs crackled merrily under the long tongues of fire. And how did they make it, if they don’t have priests here?
He suddenly wished that he had undergone missionary training. Perhaps that would have given him the answers that eluded him. It took an effort, but he tore himself away from that thought and led on, a confused but silent Pallo trailing him.
Outside, the sky was much clearer. A wan sun shone down on the market, still busy with villagers and soldiers alike. It took only a minute to pick out Teramus in his blue robe, talking with one of the fishmongers on the far side of the square. The lake behind them sparkled in the new-found sun.
Despite the sun, the sudden chill was enough to make Harael pull up his hood and envelope his hands in his sleeves. He wondered idly what it was like for the soldiers and villagers, who did not have the Flame running so strongly through them.
Wending their way through the crowd, he and Pallo passed soldier after soldier with ale or spirits in their hands. The Letaalese contingent was well on its way to becomingly almost uniformly drunk. Harael sighed, wondering if the whole village was as uniformly obstinate as the Letaalese men were drinking.
With the sun casting down wan warmth upon them, Harael squeezed between two soldiers and reached out to grab Teramus by the sleeve. The other priest was concentrated on a fishmonger, frowning and glancing at the lake.
“Teramus,” Harael said, interjecting.
Teramus turned with a start. “Ah, Harael! Just in time.” The vendor Teramus had been speaking with raised his eyebrows and turned his attention to Harael.
“Just in time, you say? For what?”
“We were just discussing the fish trade. It seems that business has been slow, lately. Going both north and south.” Teramus managed to sound surprised and suspicious at the same time.
“Is that so?” Harael murmured. “I could understand slow trade to the south, of course, but the north as well?”
The vendor butted in. “Good sirs, I promise you that I am not excluding your people. Not at all! I send just as much south with my son as I do north with my daughter. We have simply not been catching fish, lately!”
Teramus met Harael’s eye, an eyebrow raised and corner of his mouth turned down. “He keeps saying this, but the goods here seem to tell a different story.” Teramus gestured at the buckets filled to overflowing with varieties of fish behind him.
“No, no!” The vendor yelled, wringing his hands. “This is a small catch! Ask any of the other vendors! We keep most of our catch for the village, you see, because our fish are the main feed here. Few crops are grown, so high in the mountains, and trade into town is scarce. We must keep ourselves fed as we can.” His voice turned miserable by the end, and Harael mulled over his words.
“He seems genuine, Teramus.”
Teramus scowled. “If that is so, why was this such a poor catch?”
Harael chuckled and smiled at the fishmonger. “Teramus, you must understand these things. Fish are hard to catch, sometimes.”
“Well, of course they are!” Teramus spluttered. “But these men and women do it for their lives! If what he says is true, there must be a reason for it!”
The vendor paled as Teramus ranted. Harael tried to give him a sympathetic look, but he wasn’t sure it worked. Nevertheless, he went on, “Teramus, please. This man is struggling. Leave him be. You are being paranoid and overwrought.”
Teramus grumbled a few half-concealed curses. Harael couldn’t tell if they were aimed at him, at the fishmonger, or at the world in general. He had a shrewd idea that all three might have been applicable.
“Come, Teramus. We can find out more elsewhere.” Harael grunted and grimaced, gesturing to the soldiers milling and generally cavorting in the square. “It certainly doesn’t seem as though we are lacking in time.”
Teramus proceeded to follow Harael’s point to its logical conclusion. It was only minutes later that he was draining the last drops of a heady dark lager from a mug and eyeing a return for a second. Harael watched, amused and a little startled.
“You know,” Harael said, leaning in to whisper in Teramus’ ear, “we are in enemy territory. You probably should avoid having more.”
Pallo, standing a few feet behind them with the Phoenix Guard assigned to Teramus, chuckled and belched. He certainly did not avoid more of the drink, despite Harael’s admonitions.
“We could be called to move out at any time,” Harael continued, but Teramus cut him off.
“Hardly. Look: even Oritten seems to have settled in.” Teramus was right. The captain of the Phoenix Guards was indeed planted on a bench not too far away, a mug of something steaming in one hand and the other resting comfortably on the hilt of his sword. He did not look like a man who wanted to move.
Harael sighed. “Very well, have your fun. I will be keeping my head clear, though, thank you very much.”
“Have it your way.” Teramus grinned and led Pallo off in search of something alcoholic.
The remaining Guard, standing stiffly to the side of Harael, bowed. “Your Brightness.”
Harael eyed the man. He was very tall and very wide at the shoulders; just the way he stood bespoke power and strength. His helmet was on, his eyes peering out from behind the ornamentation. The Guard did hold a ceramic cup in one bare, dark-skinned hand, but judging by the steam and the aroma emanating from it, he had elected for tea rather ale or something harder. “Yes, Guardsman?”
The Guard straightened again, looking thoughtful. He sipped at his tea, his dark green eyes wandering a bit before snapping back to Harael. “Pallo insists on being a fool; it may not be my place to say so, but your brother Teramus is no better. I appreciate your sobriety. It makes my job easier.”
Harael bowed in return, though not as deeply, and smirked a little. “It is my pleasure, Guardsman. Do you have a name?”
The man bowed again, his eyes still busy watching the bustle and general tumult in the square around them. “Tyler, Your Brightness. From North Hareen.”
“North Hareen?” Harael smiled. “I have been there, you know. Just over a year ago.”
Something sparked in Tyler’s eyes, and Harael knew he had hit the spot he was aiming for. “Is that so? It is a fine place, truly fine.” The pride in Tyler’s voice only made Harael’s smile grow wider.
“It is indeed.” Harael turned and began to stroll through the crowd, Tyler tagging along beside him. He always felt more comfortable moving while chatting; he thought it gave him a better chance to get to know the mannerisms of people. “I was sent there on assignment after the Roeteli civil troubles.”
Tyler grunted. “Yes. I remember well the unease in the streets. We did not know whether they would make a push for our eastern cities, with their new warlord in charge.”
“Precisely. Oh, I grumbled a bit at the assignment. I have never been one for the fighting and warring and whatnot.” Harael sighed wistfully. “I prefer my comforts in the capitol.”
Tyler’s helmeted head nodded in understanding. “It does have its draws. But you enjoyed your time in North Hareen? The Roeteli never did attack.”
“No, as far as I know, they never even came close to the border. Our buildup must have scared them off.” Harael shrugged, squinting through the sunlight at the snowy ridges and peaks rising above the lake next to the village. “But North Hareen had other attractions than war. The tea was remarkable, as I recall.”
Harael could just feel Tyler smile inside his helmet. The Guard raised his cup of tea in salute. “The best in the world.”
Harael laughed. “I know a priest who might disagree. Well, I knew a priest.”
“You mean Old Crispy?” Tyler chuckled. “The old Black Robe obsessed with his tea?”
“The very one! How do you know him?” Harael looked sidelong at Tyler. “You can’t be that old.”
“Older than I seem, I assure you.” Tyler shrugged, his massive shoulders moving under his armor like the roots of an oak heaving up. “But I met him only briefly. I was part of his escort up to Heart when he retired. He may have gone on by himself after we left. The man certainly didn’t need an escort.”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Harael laughed. “Crispiin taught for half a year at Meriil. Every combat prayer and blessing I know, I learned from him. Everyone whispered that he was the most dangerous man in the Empire.” He paused, then snorted softly. “Selonius probably should have dragged him out of retirement and sent him here instead of me. The Flame knows I’m no missionary.”
“Those whispers were probably the reason why Selonius didn’t do that,” Tyler remarked.
“Good point,” Harael said, impressed by the Guard’s shrewdness. “I had not considered that side of things. From what I can tell, Selonius likes his security as First Cleric.”
“You can bet on it,” Tyler said.
Harael was surprised at how frank the man was, and decided that he liked him. “Have you met the First Cleric?”
Tyler nodded, his head swivelling and scanning the crowd. Despite his jocular banter, the man was on constant alert. “I have served on his personal guard from time to time.”
The man continued to impress. Only the best Phoenix Guards ever made their way that high. Of course, all Phoenix Guards were dangerous and as well-trained as they come.
They were nearing their circuit of the market area. Harael picked out Teramus in his blue robes, Pallo beside him, resplendent in his armor and a mug of something held high in the air. He appeared to be encouraging several nearby soldiers to sing. Harael shook his head in exasperation. Just beyond them was the main road into town, crowded with locals to the point that he could barely see beyond them. He frowned, trying to make out what they were so excited about.
“Tyler…” he said, a sinking feeling in his stomach.
The Phoenix Guard, with the advantage of at least five inches on Harael, saw it more clearly. “Soldiers. Nashan soldiers. A lot of them.” He turned so suddenly that Harael stumbled over the hem of his robe trying to emulate him. “To arms! Letaal, to arms!” His bellow carried through the market and cut through the throb of conversation.
Letaalese soldiers stopped what they were doing and stared at him dumbly, slow to react. A few sober men did not hesitate, adding to the alarm and pointing to the other end of the village—and to the lake, which Harael saw, to his horror, was churning with froth and undulating, scaly bodies.
“Avernen!” he screamed. “Avernen from the lake!”
That cut through the inebriated haze wrapped around so many of their men. The shouting increased tenfold, men scrambling everywhere to prepare themselves for the onslaught. Villagers were doing their best to disappear; no doubt they knew the Letaalese would show them no mercy for being complicit in such an ambush. Indeed, Harael saw a few bodies on the ground already, and blood on swords and knives in the hands of Letaalese soldiers.
Teramus came bursting through toward Harael, Pallo drunkenly following. Harael saw Tyler glare at his fellow Guard, shaking his head in disgust. “Harael! We must help the men!”
Harael nodded, his heart pounding as he saw the Avernen emerge from the lake, sinuous, scaly bodies dripping. There must have been a score of them, and they tore into the terrified soldiers closest to them. Harael gritted his teeth and began a prayer.
Read the next chapter: “Avernen Winter”