Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Markan Throne Characters - Jenn, Belaika and Eleka

These three characters are sylphs belonging to the Vintner family, more particularly Marcus.

Jenn-y-Marcus is an infertile sylph and Marcus's personal servant. Small, even by infertile standards, she has served Marcus for a quarter of a century, effectively growing up with him. Her name translates as "careful, hesitant". Born at the Vintner stud, she was the runt of her litter and not expected to survive. But survive she did. Although her three litter-sisters were easily sold, Jenn was passed over, and was eventually given to the young Marcus.

Having grown up with Marcus, Jenn was jealous when her owner married, and she still harbours resentment towards Zandra. She is a lot more tolerant of Marcus's children, even if she competes with them for his attention.

When Marcus took over from his father, and now expected to go on campaign, Jenn managed to wrangle her way onto his staff, so she could continue serving him directly. It also meant she had Marcus to herself.

Encouraged by Marcus in her early days, Jenn can be very forward with her owner and is willing to speak her mind. However, she is mindful of her place within the strict sylph hierarchy and very polite to almost everybody else.

Belaika-y-Marcus is a male sylph and a trained scout in the army. Once he completed his training, he belonged fully to Marcus. He was also granted permission to marry. His name translates as "superior, outstanding".

Although Belaika is properly deferential to his owner, he is a little taller than Marcus. Like Jenn, he has been encouraged to speak his mind. It is rare he does so - certainly far less often than Jenn - but on the occasions he speaks up, he is rarely ignored.

He and Jenn became firm friends while in the field and they often exchange banter.

Belaika is the first character met in Markan Throne.

Eleka-y-Marcus is the third sylph belonging to Marcus. A female sylph, she transferred to Marcus's direct control when she married Belaika, to whom she is utterly devoted. Her name translates as "loyal" and it seems that her parents named her well. As is normal for a sylph first-wife, she is a little older than her husband. By the beginning of the book, she has given Belaika a litter of infertiles and twin female daughters. But sylphs being sylphs, the infertiles aren't counted. She is again expecting and they both hope for a son.
***

I will be posting more about sylphs in the near future, as well as more character thumbnails.

Markan Throne is available on Smashwords and Amazon.

Markan Throne Characters - Marcus and Zandra

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting about the characters in my books. A character list for Gifted Apprentice has already been posted. There are quite a few more characters in Markan Throne, so I'll begin with Marcus Vintner and Zandra Ems.

Marcus Marcus Vintner is one of the claimants to the vacant Markan Throne and the first we meet in the book. The reason for the double Marcus is because of the way children are named on this part of the ilvenworld. The first name is the given name; middle is the father's given name; surname is the father's family name (but see Zandra, below). Because Marcus's father is also Marcus (no imagination in some families!), junior is Marcus Marcus.

I chose this name to underline that he is the genuine claimant. Marka is named after the first Mark - or Marcus - who founded the original city and empire.

Marcus took over from his father as claimant about six years before the book but, although nominally an army commander, his political gifts are better than his military skills.  Politically, he is prepared to use underhand tactics to win his throne, but is astute enough to know that such methods can only be used as a last resort.

A tall man, Marcus certainly has presence. Dark-blue eyes hint at his Markan ancestry and he follows the fashion of having his dark-brown hair medium length, curling over his ears. He had no problem finding a wife.

Zandra Caralin Ems comes from a wealthy Calcan family and married Marcus Vintner eleven years before Markan Throne begins. Girls' names follow the same pattern as above: first name is the given name; middle name is the mother's given name; surname is the mother's family name. On this part of the ilvenworld, human women do not assume their husband's name on marriage.

Born into a political family, these skills were absorbed by the young Zandra and she is also blessed with the gift of being a natural networker. Intelligent and mentally strong, she works tirelessly to see her husband's claim recognised. Despite a strong moral compass, she is willing to use unpleasant tactics to further that claim.

Marcus and Zandra have three daughters and one son. Unlike most men of his position, Marcus has not sought a second wife and has publicly stated he has no intention of acquiring one.

As is often the case with the ambitious, their planned course does not turn out to be as smooth as planned.
***
I'll be posting about more characters over the next few weeks.

Markan Throne is available on Smashwords and Amazon.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Bank Holiday Monday Evening Walk

I know this is a favourite, but I like to call in at my favourite chippy in Barmouth when I do this walk of an evening.  Just a quick jaunt above Barmouth, it has been posted before.

Photos below:

 Diffwys from the approach to Barmouth Bridge.

A distant Cadair Idris, cloud has lifted!

View of Barmouth Bridge on my way uphill.

View north towards a distant Lleyn Peninsula.

View south from the same place.  My favourite lay-by is over there.

The sun on Cadair Idris, from the bridge on my way back.

View from the Bridge up the River Mawddach.

Zoomed in to hide all the buildings.  The eagle-eyed can probably spot a windsurfer and a motorboat in there somewhere.  If I was ever exiled, this is the view I would miss the most.

Well, that ends the Bank Holiday weekend.  Until the next walk, be well all.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Circular Walk via Llandecwyn

As the weather forecast was so bad, decided to stay low again.  This is a delightful walk which starts north of Harlech, follows the dyke to Llandecwyn before turning inland and uphill.  It picks up the beginning of the Ardudwy Way (which I'll be taking a closer look at soon) and eventually returns to Ynys.

Pictures below:

Looking across Afon Dwyryd from the small parking area on Ynys.  The village opposite is Port Meirion.

Zoomed in on Port Meirion.

Looking back to the parking area from the dyke.

The path uphill and inland follows the electricity pylons.

On the Ardudwy Way.

Winding uphill at the feet of the pylons.

Retrospective - or an excuse to catch my breath - looking out to Cardigan Bay.

Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf, almost at the highest point of the walk.

Another shot out to Cardigan Bay, just as a shower rolls in!

The highest point of the walk is over now, looking across to the Lleyn Peninsular.  Llandecwyn Church in the centre.

Zoomed in on Harlech Castle, especially impressive from this angle.

Above and below: now the shower has passed, the view from the churchyard.


 Looking north to where there should be views of mountains.  If only the clouds weren't there.

Once a common sight throughout Britain, most red phone boxes have been replaced.  Here a red phone box and a wall mail box serving Bryn Bwbach .

Some signs worry me.  Is it a warning that I might fall over a cliff, in which case it should be a triangle, or is it telling me human sacrifice is mandatory??

 Above and below: offroad again.  Pleasant walking through an old coppice.


Although the cloud has lifted, most of the mountains remain shy.

Footbridge that I crossed on the outward journey.

So that was today's walk.  Not my longest (about six miles), but certainly one proving more photogenic than I'd expected.

Until the next walk, be well all.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Chapter Two - Markan Empire (second draft)

As promised on Sunday, am catching up with reposts. Here is Chapter 2 of Markan Empire, second draft.  The second draft is a tidying up exercise, looking for plotholes, unexpected character changes, confused timelines (as I've found further into the book, editing that now) and shoddy research. Making everything as pretty as I can (spelling, grammar, etc) comes during the third draft, after which it should be ready for publication. Should be, because I usually find things that need tweaking.

But anyway, here's Chapter 2, second draft. As always, comments are more than welcome.


***
Chapter 2
Marka

Petan looked across the table at his companion and smiled. He wore a work smock, woolen trousers and cracked boots suggesting a laborer rather than a soldier. Nothing to say that he was - or had been - a sergeant in Hingast's recently defeated army. Just as well, as his beard fanned to his chest; no Eldovan officer would tolerate so much facial hair.

His companion was unknown in this alovak house and was similarly dressed to Petan. He had used a plant sap - or possibly paint, in which case he was a fool - to dye his hair black. When he first met Councilor Brendin Jendran, the man's hair was sandy, almost red.

An idea the councilor had probably borrowed from the sylph scouts.

Petan tugged irritably at his beard, though the itching stage was long past. "There's no need for this," he growled.

"If not for that sylph you didn't kill last year, you'd not need it," retorted Brendin.

"I tried," said Petan, defensively.

"And failed, or else he made a miraculous recovery. I don't believe in undead sylphs."

"He looked pretty dead to me."

"He looks pretty bloody healthy now."

Petan changed the subject before he got angry. He might not have killed Janin-allegedly-no-owner, but he was very effective at finishing off stroppy humans. "What are the latest instructions?" Most who patronized this alovak house were more sympathetic to Hingast's cause than Zenepha's, or else were just plain disreputable, but discretion came easily.

"A sylph named Tangan was left behind. He's in Sandev's house and we want him out."

Petan nodded. "You expect me to wander into the home of one of the most powerful Gifted and steal something guarded by another of the most powerful Gifted. And a man who acts as though he was born with a sword in his hands. And several sylphs in the building, including the one I believed dead, who will doubtless recognize me the moment I walk in."

Brendin's smile had remained in place too long to be genuine. "You don't have to be there in person. I'm sure you know many who are more than capable."

"And if this sylph makes a noise?"

The smile was gone now. Without it, those eyes were very cold. "The neck arteries are in the same place in sylphs as they are in humans."

"So, an assassination. Why is this sylph important?"

"All you need know is that we want him back. Preferably alive, but dead will do." Brendin threw a coin onto the table. "For the alovak."

Petan stared at the table for some time after the Councilor had gone, his mind awhirl. Why was a sylph so important?

***
Marcus Vintner leaned on his fists and stared at the large-scale map spread across the table. His gaze flickered all over, pausing briefly at each flag marking the positions of his own detachments and the scattered groups of Hingast's army. The map covered from Eldova in the west to Re Taura in the east. Known positions were marked in red and estimated positions in blue. The Eldovan flags were distinguished by a black border. The further from Marka, the more blue flags.

Sylph scouts were thinly spread: all available trained scouts - and many part-trained ones - were in the field and staying there longer than was really fair. Complaints and grumbles would begin soon, if they had not already. He must tolerate out-of-range detachments for now.

Marcus was not alone in the room. Emperor Zenepha was far more knowledgeable about what he was looking at than six months before. Mikhan Annada, Zenepha's War Minister and Marshal of Marka, stood beside the emperor. Annada was also Marshal of Sandester and one of Zenepha's closest confidants. Too close, in Marcus's view, worried that his already too-small influence on the Emperor was slipping away.

He hoped everybody remembered who had won the battle on Candin Plain last year. Annada's influence over Zenepha rankled.

Captain Mansard, commander of the Imperial Guard, and General Kelanus, again Field Commander, were at least Marcus's men, even if Kelanus used to serve under Annada. Captain Crallin of the City Guard was also present, but his only loyalty was to Marka.

The gwerin Silmarila stood just behind Zenepha, ready to whisper in the sylph's ear, though Marcus was certain she had no concept of military tactics. Because war was the subject, the ilven Djerana was conspicuous by her absence.

And ilven were allegedly the sephiroths' warriors!

Jenn, who had belonged to Marcus since both were children, sat cross-legged on the floor, not wanting to be any further from her owner than necessary. Whenever he was away from Zandra and the children, Jenn was nearest.

Supreme Councilor Olista was also missing, but his duties kept him elsewhere. Discussions here were no longer his concern.

"There is little change from our last meeting," said Marcus. "The Eldovan Army is still scattered, and all the pieces are moving. But they only move around and not away. To the best of our knowledge, Janost and Hanan are alive. General Mirrin lurks further west, beyond the communication lines."

There was a small stir; people were so used to sylph scouts that they forgot their limitations. Marcus continued.

"The enemy avoids contact, despite skirmishes. We are still to learn precisely who exercises overall command, but despite the rumors, it is definitely not Hingast. More worrying is that these groups have been reinforced with fresh men. Which means they must be in contact with each other. We suspect either the Gifted or, more likely, sorcerers maintain communications between the groups."

Another small stir. Everyone knew there were rare individuals, born with an inborn ability, a gift from the Father of the Benefic Sephiroth. It was not sought, nor could it be learned by those without the Gift inborn. Those who sought such powers became sorcerers and their power was no gift, but inspired by the Malefic Sephiroth. It was human nature to seek power, so there were more sorcerers than Gifted, though both types were thankfully rare. Nobody liked the thought of such a person controlling an army.

"Bringing fresh men forward suggests they want to try again," rumbled Kelanus, his bass voice quiet.

"One of the patrols presently out of range should send a sylph within distance in the next day or so." Marcus ignored the interruption. "General Mirrin has also increased the size of his force."

"How?" Zenepha's voice was quiet.

"These things happen, Majesty," explained Kelanus. "Armies on foreign soil attract recruits. Lots of farmboys get bored of staring at an ox's rear all day. We gain some, so do they."

"The Eldovans refuse contact, yet do not return home," said Mikhan. "Are they planning something, or just taunting us?"

"We should chase them down, Majesty," said Kelanus, speaking to Zenepha. "If you would permit me to-"

"No." Zenepha's voice was light yet firm. "We need you here, General Kelanus. Perhaps the General of Lances could be sent?"

Both Marcus and Kelanus smiled. The newly promoted General Kestan had more than proved his mettle during last year's siege.

"Perhaps, Majesty," agreed Kelanus, after a quick glance at Marcus.

Marcus noted Mikhan's scowl. The man hated anyone coming to Zenepha's attention without his approval. Mikhan would do anything to help Zenepha continue as Emperor and deny Marcus his birthright.

Zenepha turned to Crallin. "Have we uncovered or captured any more enemy agents in Marka?"

"They have gone to ground, Majesty. Only those already known to us have been brought in. We can't rule out the possibility of more - there are always traitors ready to be bought off or turned - and only one man known to us still evades capture."

"Petan?"

Crallin inclined his head. "Him, yes."

"Might Sallis ti Ath help?" Zenepha looked unsure whether ti Ath's name left a bad taste in his mouth or not.

"He's been busy." Crallin smiled. "We've not set him onto Petan. Yet."

"What are the intentions of Eldova's new ruler?" asked Zenepha.

Marcus spoke. "We don't know if Eldova has a new ruler. Representatives take a while to cross the continent in unsettled times. It's unlikely that there will be any change in policy. Hingast's uncle will press the claim I feel. And we heard that one of Hingast's wives is pregnant. She'll have birthed by now. If the child's a boy..." He spread his hands and shrugged.

"The way of humans," added Silmarila. "There will always be somebody to press a claim until the question of who sits the Throne of Mark is settled."

"The question is settled," interrupted Mikhan.

Marcus tried not to sigh.

Silmarila sniffed. "For now yes, but there will always be those who refuse to see anything any way except their way. Your assumption is the most likely, Marcus-ya."

Marcus's dark-blue eyes met the gwerin's dark-brown. She held his gaze easily, as if passing an unspoken message for him alone. It was impossible to tell whose side she was on; she claimed to speak only in the best interest of Marka. It was not her place to comment on claims, but to serve whoever sat on the Throne. She would give the same loyal service to whoever sat on it. Not her place, but surely she had an opinion? Marcus was unsure how to take the gwerin. That she was involved with his gwerin did not make him feel any better.

"I recommend," said Mikhan, "that we leave Petan alone unless he moves against us. The Eldovan soldiers who surround our city, even from a distance, are a more immediate concern and I strongly urge we increase our soldiers engaged in eliminating the enemy dotted about. And there is another concern."

Zenepha raised an eyebrow.

Here we go, thought Marcus.

"We must pay attention to Re Taura. They've raised a sizeable army and clearly intend using it."

"Marka and Re Taura have never had problems before, Marshal." Zenepha's voice was quiet.

"Re Taura may feel a resurgent Marka will monopolize trade in the Bay of Plenty." Mikhan tapped the relevant area of the map. "They may wish to seize land to gain greater control in the area. Trenvera is the most likely place to drive a wedge between Calcan and Sandester."

"That would be no more than a diversion," countered Kelanus. "We denude Marka to reinforce Calcan, Sandester or Trenvera, and the Eldovans will kick the gates in again. Leave defense of the area to the armies already in place while we concentrate on destroying the Eldovans. Ignore Re Taura."

"Re Taurans on the mainland could threaten Marka," protested Mikhan.

"How?" demanded Kelanus. "Even if they seized land they still need to resupply from overseas, which is no easy task. Both Calcan and Sandester have ships to interfere with any supply route. Trenvera is the same size as Re Taura and has as many people. No invader could reach us from there, unless they can live off the land and do without supply trains. Look at the problems the Eldovans have; look at the problems we have."

"Conjecture." Mikhan waved a dismissive hand. "We can't afford to ignore Re Taura. The Mametain has not built up an army of that size for no reason at all. He is a threat."

"Whoever leads the Eldovans was forced to retreat almost all the way home over the winter," pointed out Kelanus. "They've only managed to push forward again in spring. And they crossed relatively sparsely populated regions. That isn't the case to the east. Re Taurans would have to fight their way here and defend the supply routes." The general shook his head. "Not a chance."

Marcus added support. "Historically, Re Taura has no territorial ambitions on the mainland and they always avoided trouble with Marka. They have always treasured their independence, which would end if they attacked us and lost."

"If they attack Calcan," spluttered Mikhan, "you might not be so dismissive of them."

If they attack Sandester you mean, reflected Marcus.

"Marka alone is the target," insisted Kelanus. "Any Re Tauran actions are intended as diversions."

"We must track and destroy the Eldovans who infest our lands." Zenepha looked from Mikhan to Kelanus, perhaps to remind them who was really in charge.

"Yes," said Kelanus. "That's the policy I recommend."

"Marshal Mikhan?" Zenepha's voice was quiet.

Mikhan inclined his head, but said nothing.

"Then that is what we shall do. Should we offer Trenvera protection?"

"Let them ask for it." Silmarila pursed her lips. "They will suspect your motive otherwise."

Zenepha's ear-points sagged a little. "Not very many prefectures have returned to the fold. We may have to force them all, eventually."

Mikhan laughed. "Majesty, you rule lands from the tundra in the north to the Trading Council in the south. All of Sandester and Calcan has submitted to you. Entry to the Bay of Plenty is controlled by lands you rule. Your achievements are greater than any other emperor in our history."

Silmarila smiled. "That is true," she said. "If Marka expands to Frodger in the north and Eldova in the west, you will rule lands the size of the first Empire."

Zenepha sniffed, but he had flushed a slightly darker blue under the praise.

Marcus's eyes were flat. Some lands were supposed to submit to him, but Nazvasta Vintner had never replied to his letters. Marcus's instincts warned of trouble ahead from that quarter.

"Very well, we will leave it there." Zenepha smiled around the table. "If anything changes, inform me immediately."

All remained standing until Zenepha, followed by Silmarila, left the room.

Jenn almost trod on her owner's heels as he walked the opposite way.

Marcus ruffled his sylph's hair affectionately. "My duties keep me from spending as much time with you as I would like."

Jenn smiled up at him and her ear-points twitched. "We are together now," she said. "It is enough." Fatalistic, as always.

"Missing the field?" Marcus raised an eyebrow.

Jenn nodded. At least there, she had him to herself.

"I'm sure the time will come when we must campaign again. But we must return to Zandra now; apologies if that disappoints you."

Jenn pulled a face, but knew that Zandra's company was better than none. Before Marcus reached his rooms, Morran Fynn stepped out to speak with him. Whatever the clerk had to say was clearly meant for Marcus's ears only, as Smudge turned from a tapestry to engage Jenn in conversation.

"Your Majesty," began Fynn. "Is Zenepha still unaware of Sandev's disappearance?"

"To the best of my knowledge."

"He wants to know why she has not been to see him all winter. My assurances that she is about her work elsewhere are beginning to wear thin. Any news from Grayar or Stanak concerning her whereabouts?"

Marcus smiled. It must grate that Fynn was reduced to ask his employer for information. Or perhaps this was a warning.

"Nothing," he replied. "What are you trying to tell me?"

"Tell, Majesty?" Despite Zenepha being Emperor, many of Marcus's servants still referred to him as if he were the Emperor and not a cast-aside claimant. "Better Zenepha remains in ignorance, or he might panic when he discovers that Marka's true protector is a prisoner. But if he discovers the truth for himself..." Fynn shrugged.

Marcus looked over his shoulder at Jenn, deeply engrossed with whatever Smudge was saying. Sylphs saw much and let on little, but he was certain Jenn neither knew nor suspected the truth about Sandev's whereabouts.

If people learned that Sandev was a captive of the enemy... He reached a decision.

"The secret must be kept for as long as possible. Any news from the east? Mikhan grows more concerned."

Fynn inclined his head; if he was annoyed by the abrupt change of subject, nothing showed. "Nothing yet. In fairness, Majesty, our people may only just have reached Re Taura. Far too early to expect information."

"Fair enough."

Fynn changed the subject back again. "Must the secret be kept at any cost?"

Marcus wagged an admonitory finger. "No deaths. Nobody wants that. If rumors start, we tell some version of the truth. Keep your ear to the ground."

Fynn bowed. "As you command, Majesty." He turned to leave. "Come Smudge, we have work."

After one glance at Jenn, the other sylph ended her conversation, inclined her head to Marcus, and trotted after Fynn.

"What was that all about?" asked Marcus.

"Just chit-chat." The position of Jenn's ear-points showed she knew that was a diversion to stop her overhearing the humans' discussion, but she wisely kept questions to herself.

Marcus nodded. "I know where there's some choca."

Jenn's ear-points twitched fully upright and a smile spread across her face. "So do I," she said.

***
Tired and irritable, Grayar scowled at Sandev's desk. He was often short-tempered, and had a reputation for it, but the tiredness was new. He had not yet fully recovered from carting an army across hundreds of milas to defeat Hingast. Despite using an aid that should no longer exist, the effort had drained him. If not for the foci, he would likely be dead.

Stanak stood beside him. His employer was the Father-knew-where, presumably a captive. If he worried for her safety, nothing showed in his gray-blue eyes. Always calm, one of the best things about him.

Certainly much calmer than Sandev's two sylphs.

Janin was a recent acquisition and had barely had time to bond with his mistress, but his worry was palpable. He continued his scout training, which helped keep his mind occupied.

Unlike Caya. Oh, the two humans did their best to keep the female sylph busy and working to her usual routine, but she had bonded with her owner and was terrified she would never see Sandev again. Although initially hostile to Janin, she had drawn closer to him during the winter months and even missed his company when he was out of the villa training.

Janin, rapidly approaching the age when he should marry, had already been rebuffed. Caya, so she said, was wed to her role looking after Sandev. She was happy for him to look elsewhere for a wife.

Grayar expected sulks, but the male sylph had held up quite well and continued to offer Caya moral support.

There were two other sylphs in Sandev's villa.

Salu belonged to Grayar. She offered comfort to Sandev's sylphs but trod carefully. Sandev's two were breeders and Salu only an infertile, of much lower status.

The fourth sylph concerned Grayar most. The ownerless Tangan troubled him. The sylph was unfamiliar, but not his name. A name "more-or-less" granted to him by his mother. Grayar feared the boy was lying; perhaps he was unable to be completely honest. A worrying thought. Something had been done to this sylph and Grayar was determined to find out what.

Tangan squatted in one corner, staring at the floor and apparently unaware of the unease his presence caused.

Stanak was aware of some of it, but not all. The bodyguard knew Grayar was wary of the male sylph, but had no idea why. Stanak's main concern was getting his employer back.

Dervra and Nicolfer held Sandev. Stanak knew these were among the original humans to be granted the Gift by the Father, that they had betrayed their companions and the deity who had offered shelter.

Those two were the enemies of Sandev and Grayar.

It did not make Stanak feel any happier, but didn't make him want to give up either, which was another of his good points.

"We've done little since mid-winter," said Stanak, looking at Tangan. "That boy's been useless; enslave him or send him to the sales block."

Tangan lifted his head and twitched his ear-points; his eyes were expressionless.

Grayar grimaced. "What would you have us do? We must discover where Nicolfer and Dervra are hiding themselves before I - we - can move against them."

Clattering pots betrayed the presence of Caya and Salu, preparing the midday meal.

"Anything could have happened." Stanak lowered his voice. Just because the sylphs clattered pots, it did not mean they weren't eavesdropping. "She might even be dead."

"No!" Grayar was sharper than intended and immediately moderated his tone. "Not that. She is basically unharmed."

Stanak's eyes were as steel. "How do you know?"

"I believe it."

"That's only what you want to believe."

"You want me to believe I'm chasing a corpse?" Grayar snapped, and immediately wished the words back.

Taller than Grayar, Caya stood in the doorway, bearing a tray with two steaming bowls of gruel and an alovak can. Her silver-gray eyes brimmed with tears, her face crumpled in grief and her ear-points tucked away completely.

Stanak moved quickly to relieve the sylph of her burden, while Grayar spoke to reassure her.

"She's still alive," he said softly, massaging one of the sylphs hands between his own. "We will find her."

Caya nodded, but said nothing. Pulling her hand free, she fled from the room. Embarrassed, both men looked at each other.

"This is what it's come to," growled Stanak. "Her would-be rescuers squabbling like gulls over food."

Grayar inclined his head at the unspoken apology. "We must locate Dervra and Nicolfer. They're working together, so I doubt if they're far apart right now." He glanced down at Tangan, as if the sylph might lead them to their prey. "And it's time to check your health, young man. How are you feeling?"

Tangan stared back up at the silver-haired old man. "I am well, donenya," he replied.

Stanak sighed. They had gone over and over this since midwinter. Just as well he wasn't in this for the money alone.

***
General Kelanus Butros met Marcus Vintner outside the maproom. The man was at least punctual. Jenn heeled her owner and Kelanus blinked in surprise. He had not expected the sylph.

"Shall we go inside?" Marcus smiled.

Kelanus started. "Of course."

They went into the maproom together.

"Light-crystals, Jenn," suggested Marcus.

"Se bata."

The infertile walked around the room to uncover the crystals.

"Have you shared your concerns with Zenepha?" asked Marcus.

"Not since the meeting," replied Kelanus.

"Mikhan?"

Kelanus grimaced. Once, he had served under Mikhan Annada; once, they had been friends. Perhaps they still were, despite everything since.

"No," he replied. "Zenepha is too much in Mikhan's hand and Mikhan works hard to keep you off the Throne."

"Just you and me then." Marcus smiled.

Both men could now see the detailed map spread across the table. The flags marking known and estimated positions of the soldiers were exactly as they had left them that morning.

Jenn stood by the door, listening. She nodded to her owner.

Kelanus crossed to the smaller scale map hung on one wall, showing Marka and its immediate surroundings. He used the stem of his pipe to tap several places.

"Why are you looking at that?" asked Marcus. "The battles will be fought out here."

Kelanus shook his head. "There are thousands of men out there - more if we include Mirrin's mob out west - who show no inclination to go home. They are coordinated and controlled; they are waiting."

Marcus nodded. "If they combine, they will fall on Sandester. Or Trenvera. Or even Calcan."

Kelanus almost smiled. "The target is Marka."

"You sound certain."

"Because I am. Re Taura."

"What about it?"

Kelanus drew deeply on his pipe before exhaling a long streamer of gray-blue bacca smoke. "The Eldovan commander wants us to react to that threat. If we don't, he'll force action. Sandester is the likeliest target; it's harder to reach Trenvera or Calcan from the north. Wherever, so long as we react and send our forces. The Eldovans are conveniently pointed toward Sandester."

"Why?"

"They might know more about the Sandesterans here than we do."

"Your point being?"

"Zenepha is in Mikhan's hand, in military matters at least. I suspect Mikhan still gets his orders from Sandester."

"Nazvasta?" Marcus's voice was quiet.

"Nazvasta. He wants you nowhere near the Throne; he would far rather see Zenepha hold it until death than see you take it."

"Thank you for the reminder. What about Re Taura?"

"A diversion. Trenvera is my hunch. Not easy for us to send soldiers there, unless the Trenverans ask nicely. Diplomacy takes time, but the army will be out of Marka." Kelanus smiled as he relit his pipe. "But the Throne here is the target."

"Oh?"

"The Eldovans may or may not have territorial ambitions in the north, but what's the point in seizing lands there when Marka can so easily cut them off from Eldova itself?"

"The Re Taurans might want the Throne."

"Maybe they do." Satisfied his pipe was drawing properly again, Kelanus took a few draws. "They'll never get to it though."

"The Eldovans nearly succeeded last year."

"To get here, the Eldovans crossed lands that are either empty, in chaos or indifferent towards Marka. The Re Taurans must cross territory that will be at least passively hostile. Their supply lines will stretch and be susceptible to attacks. They must supply from overseas and their ships will be at risk from us and probably Sandesterans, too."

Jenn watched both men from her position at the door.

"Even so, we cannot abandon Sandester or Calcan. Neither can we afford to lose Trenvera to a third party. It would throw the east into total chaos." Marcus grimaced.

"The intention, I suspect. But we must look first to Marka. We can drive the Eldovans away, our first priority. Even if the Re Taurans occupy lands to the east, the Eldovans must be dealt with first." Kelanus's eyes flashed. "We can drive Re Taura out at leisure afterwards. If they come."

"We have people on the ground in Re Taura," said Marcus. "They'll discover the truth or otherwise."

"The rumors will probably prove true." Kelanus smiled. "But whatever the Re Taurans do is nothing more than a diversion."

"What's in it for Re Taura? Assuming they have allied themselves with Eldova."

Kelanus shrugged. "The lucrative trade in the Bay of Plenty and perhaps some mainland territory."

"Supposition."

"True." Kelanus nodded agreement. "But if you're Janost, what would you do?"

Marcus glanced at the large map on the table. "Drive a wedge between Marka and the Vintner lands. Then drive a wedge between Sandester and Calcan."

Kelanus tapped the wall map again. "The Throne is here.  That is the objective. First, entice troops away from Marka by having an ally drive a wedge between the Vintner lands by invading Trenvera. Then, divide Marka from the Vintner lands by falling on the city from the north. Add pressure by falling on the city from the west." He stroked his pipestem against the Candin Plain, the scene of Marcus's decisive victory the previous year. A gentle reminder of who had ensured that victory.

"I see. Any evidence to support this theory?"

"Only by omission." The pipestem moved slowly around to the west of the city. "Anybody in western Outer Marka? Or Finnan, in Dras or Elas? Senda?"

"Of course not. General Mirrin is much further west than that. Detachments are trailing him. What are you getting at?"

"Local militia aside, our entire western march is unprotected. Why haven't the Eldovans gone home? Eldovans to the north, Eldovans to the west, Re Taurans to the east... We cannot fight everybody at once. They encircle us, but we must deal with the Eldovans first."

Marcus stroked his chin. "Might the Imperial Republic be involved as well?"

Kelanus considered for a moment. "Unlikely. The Imperial Republic is too far away and Enthan too engrossed with the south. He would never ally with Eldova unless his claim is the one to be pressed. But I don't see anyone in Eldova going along with that."

Marcus raised an eyebrow. "A bit like Sandester and Calcan."

Kelanus laughed. "Something like that."

"Still conjecture," insisted Marcus.

"Informed guesswork," agreed Kelanus. "But my outline, Marcus Vintner, is pretty much what I expect Marshal Janost to do."

A small smile turned the corners of Marcus's mouth. "The Emperor is sending Kestan north to harry the Eldovans. Is that enough?"

"Perhaps not."

Marcus continued. "He told me this afternoon that we must reinforce Calcan and Sandester. The army we send should hover near the border with Trenvera. He wants you to command that flank."

"Not convinced that's needed."

"Should you decide to defy the Emperor's orders, I hope your analysis of the situation is better than Mikhan's. I'll not be able to save you this time." Marcus smiled. "Don't tell me your decision; it's between you and your conscience."

Kelanus inclined his head. "I will see you at tomorrow's meeting."

Marcus barely acknowledged the general's departure. He stared at the large-scale map and again assessed the positions of the flags. In his mind's eye, he repositioned some of the blue flags and added fresh ones to represent Re Taura attacking Trenvera. He saw the army driven from Marka, fleeing south and east, heading for Calcan because that was the only way out. He shivered when he realized that the repositioned enemy was ideally placed to wheel around and fall on Calcan. There would be nowhere left to go. Vintner power smashed, Marka captured. Kelanus had seen it; Marcus could accept the possibility of it. He shook his head.

"What do you think, Jenn? And don't tell me you're just a sylph."

Jenn changed what she had been about to say. "You should listen to him, enya."

Marcus nodded to himself. "Why oh why, did Branad ever let you go?" he whispered.

***
Melnea, more familiarly known as Cloudy, leaned against Flying Cloud's bulwark and stared morosely at the narrow strip of dirty water below. She should be thinking about the proposal put forward to her and Captain Liffen, but she worried instead about the red tea stored in the warehouse. Brought back from Emplar for the winter, it had not sold as well as last year. Cloudy feared a small trading loss on the last trip. And add to that the cost of a new ship...

With a small smile, she glanced outboard to her identical sister-ship, Velvet Moon. This one did not wear the horizontal gold-green-gold striped ensign of Marka, but the vertical black-white-black stripes of Hejiller. Black and white streamers looked prettier than green and gold ones.

Cloudy shook her head. She was not supposed to be thinking about bunting for the mastheads.

Velvet Moon and Flying Cloud had planned to travel together for this first season, then winter in their respective homeports. Sometimes plans must change and it now looked as if they would travel in company for part of the first trading trip only. The relatively inexperienced Velvet Moon had a great deal to master, despite the obvious intelligence of both sylph and ship.

As for the proposal, the ship remained ominously silent.

To sail to Re Taura and stay there in case Imperial agents needed to escape. Through Cloudy, the ship had asked for those agents' names, so she could tell when or if they approached.

The proposer had demanded an acceptance of the commission before he would divulge names, warning that careless talk cost lives.

The answer impressed neither sylph nor ship and the ship's initial reaction was to refuse the commission.

Cloudy glanced at the ensign now flying from the stern. Not as impressive as the old Trading Council's ensign of two black anchors, crossed and fouled on a gold field. Nor as impressive as the Imperial Ensign of a gold eagle in flight on a black field, which the ship would wear if she accepted the commission. Certainly more impressive than that she wore now. The streamers for the peak of each mast would look more impressive in black and gold.

Small matters. The ship spoke directly into her mind with a gentle rebuke for her continued concern over bunting.  I still say no.

The money is good, retorted the sylph.

The silent conversation came to an abrupt end as Liffen's large hand closed on Cloudy's shoulder. "He wants an answer."

"It will be awkward; we already have the cargo for Beshar aboard."

Liffen winced. "We can sail in company as far as Beshar, offload there, collect the rum and sail back."

"What about Velvet Moon? She does not know the route."

Liffen smiled. "We'll swap Sedaro and Raldtu with their opposite numbers, and some of the crew. They'll be fine."

"The ship still says no," said Cloudy.

"Then come below and tell him."

Cloudy steeled herself. She didn't want to face the man with the flat eyes and devil-may-care attitude. A local man named Jeckon, he was some sort of minion for the Trading Council, always fishing for information about events in other lands.

She followed Liffen down the double companion ladder and entered the main cabin that stretched from one side of the ship to the other.

"The Emperor wants a speedy response to his question." Jeckon's eyes were uncaring; if the commission was refused here, he would go elsewhere. "One hundred crowns, the old gold standards, is a lot of money to turn away."

"The ship wants to know the names of the agents."

The other's eyes went even flatter; perhaps he did not believe ship sylphs were more than they seemed.

"Or the answer is no." Cloudy turned on her heel and made her way back to the door. "Take your commission elsewhere."

"Two men and one sylph." Jeckon spoke quickly, as if he had no intention of going to any other ship. "The sylph is named Neptarik. That will have to do, I can tell you no more than that."

She stopped walking. The ship was silent, but Cloudy knew she had changed her mind. Another thought came and she smiled. "In Re Taura, do they drink red tea?"

***
***

Hope everybody enjoyed the read.  Comments are welcome.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Dee Estuary Walk

This is something a little different for me - an urban walk.  This walk is along the Dee Estuary from Flint Dock to Flint Castle.  This is the industrialised side of the river.  Although the walk is pleasant enough, with views across the estuary to the Wirral, the sights and sounds of commerce are never far away.  Here are the pictures:

Above and below: two shots looking from Flint Dock towards the estuary.  Until silting put an end to it, lead, timber and soap were exported from here.


Looking across the estuary to the Wirral.  When the tide is out, this is a vast expanse of mud and sand.

Zoomed in on Parkgate, once a ferryport.  Now the water only reaches Parkgate twice a year.

 Looking upriver to the Deeside Industrial Estate.  Flint Bridge in the centre.

Flint Castle with the RNLI station in the background.  The Lifeboat often rescues stranded walkers, caught out by the Dee's creeping tide.

Another view of the Wirral.

Flint Castle is allegedly the "most vandalised monument" in Wales.  I don't know quite how that squares up to Oliver Cromwell's act of destruction!

Another view of the castle.

A fisherman's boat waiting for action.

This was a far more pleasing walk than I expected, despite being surrounded by industry and a town.

Until the next walk, be well all.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chapter One - Markan Empire (second draft)

As promised on Sunday, am catching up with reposts.  Here is Chapter 1 of Markan Empire, second draft.  My second draft is a tidying up exercise, I'm looking more for plotholes, characters' eyes or hair changing colour, confused timelines (as I've certainly found further into the book, am sorting that out now) and shoddy research.  Making everything as pretty as I can (spelling, grammar, etc) comes during the third draft, after which it should be ready for publication.  Should be, because I often find things that need tweaking.

But anyway, here's Chapter 1, second draft.  As always, comments are more than welcome.

***
Chapter 1
Hunting

Banner-Sergeant Yochan looked at the heavens and shivered in the pre-dawn gloom as his breath clouded above. Shooting stars whizzed through the night sky and the soldier watched with interested curiosity. Exactly one year ago, on a day as cold as this, two claimants to the then-vacant Markan throne had clashed. That battle triggered events in which soldiers from both armies were now caught, this time as allies, if not exactly friends.

Done staring, he ducked into his commander's tent, the only one with an uncovered light-crystal.

"Good morning, Sergeant."

Yochan grunted what might have been the correct response. Lance-Captain Dekran's advancement from lieutenant was only confirmed immediately before they left Marka, months after his field promotion.

"News from the sylphs, Sir?"

"Not yet. Belaika can't be too far away from them now."

"There has been a lot of pinging," continued Yochan. "We're still out of contact." Pinging was the term used by sylphs for a short ranging whistle, to ensure they were still in touch with each other, and in the correct positions. It was also used to keep contact with other patrols.

Dekran grimaced. "If I'd thought our orders would have brought us this far west, I would've insisted on fully trained scouts."

Yochan nodded. "We've only got Belaika."

"Fhionnen's not bad. He can at least compose messages and not just pass them on."

"True. But all the hardest tasks fall to Belaika and that's not fair."

Dekran smiled. "You seem to have taken quite a shine to our leader's sylph."

"We have an agreement, but this is more a question of fairness."

"What can we do? It takes five years to train a sylph up to the required standard and our emperor was in a hurry to increase the corps' size."

Silence stretched between them. The emperor Dekran referred to was Zenepha, a surprise candidate for the vacant Markan throne. A sylph. Neither man could quite believe it. That a sylph was emperor in Marka caused consternation, ridicule and awe in equal measures everywhere they went. A sylph ruling humans was an idea so preposterous, that nobody quite knew how to deal with it, human or sylph. Belief systems were stood on their heads.

"We should have asked for wild sylphs," said Yochan. "They're not too bad either. A sight more independent minded, anyway."

"And don't complain so much. That Samel was whinging something about a bath last night. Baths!"

Yochan laughed. "He was joking."

"You can never tell with city boys. And those left in the corps show greatest promise."

"They do. Just not trained enough, Sir. Fhionnen doesn't whine."

Dekran smiled. "Doesn't speak much either. Ever get the feeling that he ended up with us because his owner wanted to see the back of him?"

Yochan shrugged. A sylph's past was irrelevant as far as the scouts were concerned. Only the now mattered. "We need to find out what's happening further east, Sir. For all we know, Hingast's mob has already regrouped."

"Is it still Hingast's mob? The man is dead, Yochan. Forget rumor: the man's bones hang outside Marka's gates for all to see."

"Of course, Sir. But what do his men believe? If they believe he's alive, then as far as they're concerned, he is."

"If the lot in front of us turn east, then we can assume the others have regrouped," said Dekran. "So far, they're just gadding aimlessly about the countryside."

The conversation was interrupted when a scout, barely recognizable as a sylph under his paint, entered.

"Belaika has found the men we hunt," said the newcomer.

"Thank you, Fhionnen." Dekran smiled. "What else did Belaika say?"

***

From his elevated vantage point, Belaika stared at the army. Three thousand men were difficult to hide, but these Eldovans were surprisingly good. Since learning about sylph scouts, they had got better.

Just not quite good enough.

A small smile ghosted across the sylph's face before he was serious again. These men were resting before moving on again.

So long as he avoided silhouetting himself against the skyline, he would not be seen. Gray, green and brown paint helped camouflage him, but stillness was his best defense. Vivid black slashes crossed his chest and face, but they were more for show than concealment.

He pinged to ensure Samel was still in position before sending a more detailed report. Three thousand Eldovans, with no war-machines, but certainly a lot more force at their disposal than the Markan patrol had. His message was acknowledged. Faintly, he heard it passed on. Bar perfect.

Belaika wriggled away from his place. He found better cover, from where he could keep an eye on the enemy. The Eldovans would have scouts - even if they were only humans - so he must be wary not to blunder into any. Had his sylph companions been trained to the proper standard, he would feel happier this close to the enemy. For now, the dangerous task was his alone.

Worse, they were alone. A patrol of one hundred men and five scouts could only avoid battle against three thousand, or else show how to die gallantly. Belaika was not ready to die yet, gallantly or otherwise. Dekran had brought his detachment so far west, they had lost contact with all other patrols, and news of events nearer Marka.

He waited for a response from Dekran.

When it came, the whistle was stronger; Samel had closed the gap a little. Belaika hoped the instructions reached him correctly.

Command to Belaika. Stay with target, follow and report course changes.

Belaika scowled as he whistled.  Sounds like another night in the open.

Choca tonight, taunted Samel.

That was surely a joke. It was not funny.  Remember to save mine, whistled Belaika.

Not a chance, brother.

Then, he saw sylphs in the enemy camp.

There was nothing special about them, just ordinary infertiles. Probably officers' servants, dressed in the usual garb of plain work smocks. But Belaika's attention was caught by what they were doing.

At the first whistle, they tumbled out of their tents. Some headed for the center of the encampment and others to the sides. A soldier was with each sylph as she pointed into the forest. Belaika stiffened.

Difficult to tell, but he suspected they pointed to where his orders had just been whistled from. Towards Samel.

He whistled a warning and another message before abandoning his lookout point. He must find another.

***

"Donenya!"

Lance-Captain Dekran turned from the morning inspection of his men as Fhionnen ran to him.

"Message?" He had never seen this sylph so animated.

Fhionnen nodded. "Belaika and Samel have changed position. The Eldovans have found a way to pinpoint them when they whistle."

Dekran's eyes widened and he drew the excited scout to one side. "How?"

"They use sylphs to show our positions. They stand in different places in the camp and point."

"Triangulation." Dekran shook his head and resisted the urge to swear. Sylphs were the one advantage he held over the Eldovans. Had held. "They send horsemen out to run the scouts down?"

Fhionnen nodded. "So says Belaika. He and Samel have moved."

Dekran nodded. "Thank you. Keep me informed."

"Se bata."

Dekran stared into the distance, hoping the sylphs were capable enough to avoid capture. He could not afford to lose one.

***

Sandev scrubbed the pot hard. Her hands were sore from the work and she wished her skin was as tough as that of the small infertiles working alongside her.

She had spent the entire winter a prisoner, but she could not contemplate escape while so far from Marka. There was no guarantee that her plan to break free would actually work. The block that prevented her from using the Gift held, but she had worked out how it was made and certain she could break it when needed.

She was so far west she doubted if she could easily find her way home. Except by using the Gift. It showed her captors were confident she could not break the block.

Dervra - one of her captors - was away with the bulk of the Eldovan army. Doubtless working on the next part of his plot. Nicolfer came and went, but spent a lot of her time with General Mirrin's army. Sandev wished she would stay with Dervra and leave her alone.

Mirrin held frequent conferences with his officers and sergeants, which sometimes involved Dervra and Nicolfer. Tactics and plans were never discussed while Sandev was present, and if not for the sylphs, she would have less idea what was being planned.

A small smile played about Sandev's mouth. The sylphs.

Most officers and a few of the sergeants had their own sylphs; there were almost two hundred in the camp. They made themselves useful and were always discreet. Which in turn meant that the blue-skinned creatures were all but invisible to the leaders, who spoke freely where long ears could eavesdrop.

Sandev did not doubt every sylph was loyal to her owner. But there were six exceptions, ignored even more than the others.

Deaths were inevitable in an army. Accidents, disease and enemy action all helped whittle down numbers. Immune to most human diseases and not expected to fight the enemy, there were sometimes sylph "orphans". They were usually sent home at the earliest opportunity, but Mirrin's camp had six of these unfortunates.

Orphaned or not, they must still work where needed and they often served alovak during meetings, because few sylphs liked to be near Dervra or Nicolfer. They heard everything.

Sandev had not remained idle while a captive. Seizing the opportunity to use these sylphs for gathering information, she looked after the six because nobody else did. Oh, the quartermaster ensured they were fed, clothed and kept clean, and made sure they were disciplined, but that was all he did.

But sylphs also had emotional needs and these six especially so.

Sandev offered kind words, a shoulder to cry on for those recently bereaved and sometimes stole choca for them. In return, the six fed Sandev every scrap of information that came their way.

She had learned that the plan was for some "country out east" (as the sylphs put it) to attack Marka or her allies, to get a reaction. While Marka's forces were otherwise engaged, the Eldovans would fall on the city from the west and north with what was now a superior army. The plan sounded effective and Sandev was desperate to get word to the city.

She felt a gentle touch on her arm.

"I'm sorry." Sandev hastily passed the pot across to Gajaran. One of the "orphaned" infertiles, it was unlikely she enjoyed working for the sake of it. Sandev began to wash the next pot.

The sylph dried the pot quickly and waited patiently for the next. Gajaran had lost her owner during the siege of Marka. Raw with grief, she was handed over to Mirrin's group during the winter and now waited to return home. She looked eager to finish her chores.

There might be another reason why Gajaran wanted to finish quickly. The sylphs were wary of Sandev for the same reason they were of Dervra and Nicolfer. They would sense the Gift flowed through Sandev, even if she was temporarily blocked from it. Sylphs avoided practitioners, whether sorcerers or those blessed with the Gift.

Gajaran stiffened as another sylph joined them. The newcomer carried two dirty plates which she washed herself. Shashi-y-Mirrin belonged to General Mirrin.

Plainly dressed in a work smock, no different from that other sylphs wore, Shashi enjoyed as much influence among the sylphs as did Jenn in Marcus Vintner's army. Her collar was gold and studded with several jewels, unlike the dull metal the camp sylphs wore.

"You should know my owner expects Nicolfer tonight." Sympathy glittered in her eyes and her ear-points twitched.

"Thank you." Sandev saw no reason to be anything but polite to Shashi. Gold and jewels or not, that was still a collar. And it was useful to know Nicolfer was due to return. She'd been gone two days. No sylph dared serve Nicolfer any longer than she must, so Sandev had learned almost nothing new about her captor.

Done with her chore, Shashi nodded and left them.

Gajaran glowered. "All right for her, she is safe with her owner."

Sandev shook her head. "Nobody is safe from Nicolfer," she replied.

Gajaran stiffened and her ear-points turned. "Whistles," she said. Something akin to rage flashed across her face.

Sandev tried not to smile. The sylphs had heard whistling off and on for the best part of the day, which meant Markan scouts had found them. Soldiers friendly to her were not far away. Sadly, she knew it was unlikely to be a very large Markan army. They were too far west. But whistling meant at least two scouts.

Many of the officers' sylphs already pointed towards the source of the whistling. Horsemen rode out, hoping to run the scouts down before they had chance to move out of harm's way.

"They will catch one of the dursanonecul soon or late." Gajaran did not point, but it was clear that she wanted to see a scout captured. Her ear-points wilted.

The camp sylphs called the scouts dursanonecul: devils. The Eldovan sylphs were terrified of the scouts. They were sylphs who had actively involved themselves with an army, so were to be reviled and feared.

Both Nicolfer and Mirrin wanted to question a sylph scout. To do that, they must first capture one.

Sandev hoped they never succeeded.

"They might never catch any," she murmured. Gajaran gave her a level look, the nearest Sandev ever got from the orphaned sylphs to open disagreement.

There was another stir in the camp.

"Nicolfer is here," breathed Sandev.

Gajaran's look grew more sympathetic.

Four men carried Nicolfer's sedan, which was set down outside her tent. Another of the sylph orphans stepped forward, but was curtly dismissed. Nicolfer stared around imperiously and her jet eyes glittered.

Sandev tried to remain unnoticed and for once, Nicolfer did not call for her attendance. She was usually harried all day and half the night, waiting hand and foot on her captor. The sylphs disapproved, but there was little they could do except offer sympathy.

The dismissed sylph crossed to join Gajaran.

"Tula." Sandev smiled at the newcomer.

Dusk gathered around them.

"Pots done already?" asked Tula.

Gajaran nodded. "And the laundry. Some of it's not fit for burning. Why don't they...?" Her head came up. She and Tula looked at each other, then at Sandev.

"What?"

"Short whistle; very short." Tula stared into the darkness.

"Like he got stopped," added Gajaran, satisfaction in her tone. "Maybe caught." Her eyes were solemn for Sandev's benefit, but her ear-points lashed with unsuppressed glee.

"Surely not?" Sandev tried to peer into the surrounding forest, without success. Like everybody else, she was forced to wait until the riders returned.

The captive scout was slung unceremoniously across a saddle before the rider. Sandev moved closer so she could see more than just a shape. Long legs - painted gray, green and brown - dangled down one side of the horse. As the horse turned, she saw black slashes of paint. Only younger scouts wore black as part of their camouflage scheme.

Her heart pounded. Surely it was not her sylph scout? They could not be so desperate to send Janin into the field?

A crowd of humans and sylphs gathered to watch the rider show off his prize.

"Firedrake trod on'n," said the rider. "Even then, had'n not squeaked, I'd not 'ave found'n."

He lifted the upper end of the scout and let him slide from the horse. Unable to stand unsupported, the sylph collapsed and squealed as he scrabbled in the dirt.

Gajaran looked at the captive and emotions flickered in her eyes. Sympathy was not among them. Most of the other sylphs looked at the moaning scout with a mixture of loathing and terror.

"This is a sylph scout?" General Mirrin looked inquisitively at the heap beside the horse. "Where did you find him, Camanda? Is that leg broken?"

Sandev almost stepped forward, then was pleased she had not moved. Nicolfer put her hands to both the sylph's legs. The unfortunate creature shrank back from her touch.

"Nothing broken," she said.

Sandev masked a sigh of relief. Broken limbs were usually fatal to sylphs, for their bones were like a bird's. They rarely broke cleanly and caused massive internal bleeding.

"Closer than we'd like," said Camanda, the man who had captured the scout. "And it was luck we caught'n."

"So you said." Mirrin gave a mirthless smile.

"Stake him out and I'll speak with him in the morning," continued Nicolfer. "Make sure he is secure."

Mirrin nodded to his yeoman. "See to it, Taved. Come, Shashi."

The yeoman gave orders and two men hammered a stake deep into the ground. The unfortunate scout was chained to it by a wrist and given water, but no food. The small crowd lost interest and melted away, although some sylphs lingered for longer.

Once the humans were gone, the captive immediately began to look about. He gave the watching sylphs a savage, feral grin that drove most of them away.

"Beast." Gajaran sounded bitter. "He's in the best place now." She and Tula moved away.

Sandev stayed, if she kept her distance. A small smile turned her lips. Whatever had happened, this boy had not lost hope. Several soldiers watched the scout try repeatedly to uproot the stake. She doubted he would be succeed; these stakes secured the tents against even gales.

At least it was not Janin, though she suspected she knew this sylph.

Sandev waited until the guards moved further away, and everybody else had lost interest in the captive. She carefully picked her way towards him.

The scout's head swiveled toward her long before she thought she might be noticed, especially in darkness. Or perhaps he sensed her. His eyes glowed faintly in the gloom and grew brighter the nearer she came.

"Sandev-ya." The sylph inclined his head.

As he spoke, Sandev's suspicions were confirmed. She knew who this was.

"Belaika?" Her voice almost squeaked. "You're the last scout I expected to get caught." She sensed his embarrassment.

"Lucky chance," he muttered.

"How's that leg?"

"Sore." Belaika's eyes glittered with wariness.

"Wish I could do something, but I'm trapped somehow."

"It is not broken." If anything, the scout sounded even warier.

"Are you in contact with Marka? Can you get a message out?"

"I can try. Not in range of the city though, we moved too far west."

"Not tonight. Not yet. Any more scouts nearby?"

Belaika nodded, perhaps having exhausted his stock of words for tonight.

"I have information that must reach the city."

The scout inclined his head, but said nothing further.

Sandev gripped his shoulder. "Remember you have friends here."

***

Belaika's eyes betrayed nothing as he watched Sandev meander away. He remembered her of course; she had helped with the plan to break an innocent man out of jail. But she served Marka's interest only, which meant he doubted if he could fully trust her. As always, it was best to wait and see. If only the dull throb from his leg was gone. He managed to make himself comfortable and, after a quick whistle - acknowledged as quickly - to let the others know he was still alive, fell asleep.

***

Yochan listened as Fhionnen-y-Neffas reported to Dekran. He carefully watched his commander's reaction and already made his own plans.

Yochan was as startled as Dekran, but was better at hiding his reactions.

Fhionnen held Dekran's gaze easily; he was not easily intimidated. "Belaika is captured, donenya," he reported. "He is held by the enemy-"

"Yes, yes," interrupted Dekran, almost angrily, "I know what captured means."

Yochan saw Fhionnen's face go blank, though his ear-points shot upright in anger. Was this a defense the boy learned before becoming a scout? He held himself surprisingly well.

Yochan stepped forward in case angry words were spoken. "Sir, I suggest we take him back before they try to get information from him."

Dekran ignored him. "You have more to tell me, Fhionnen?"

The sylph nodded. "Belaika is injured and cannot walk. He was trodden on and needs to recover."

"Then we won't mount a rescue just yet."

"Sir-"

"No, Yochan. I'm aware of your foolish promise to the boy, but the needs of the hundred men under my command must come first."

Even so, Dekran looked a touch indecisive and Yochan did not blame him. Marcus would probably take a dim view of the loss of his scout.

"If an opportunity presents itself, I'll do something," continued Dekran. "For now, we're forced to move closer to our enemy and use our scouts more." The lance-captain turned to Fhionnen. "Can Samel take over Belaika's task, or would you rather do it?"

Fhionnen's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. "Better if I do it," he replied.

"Summon Mezhen to take over from you."

"Se bata."

Yochan waited until the sylph was gone before turning to his commander.

"I must protest, Sir. We can snatch Belaika out of their hands tonight, before they make him more secure."

"Protest noted, Banner-Sergeant. But there will be no rescue attempts until after a thorough assessment of that army. That's an order."

Offended, Yochan stiffened. "Se bata," he hissed.

He left Dekran's tent and looked across the few fires in the camp. There were two here who used to be scouts, until sylphs replaced humans in the role. He doubted if their skills had deserted them. No rescue attempt. But there was nothing to stop him from getting that assessment done. Yochan would see to that tonight.

***

Belaika woke from a pleasant dream about flying just before dawn. His shoulders were stiff thanks to the chain that secured his wrists and his leg ached thanks to a heavy horse. He gave a feeble tug against the stake, but it held firm.

He glanced at the dried blood on his leg and wondered if it would support his weight. While he carefully felt the injury, he heard a pinger that showed Fhionnen was now the nearest scout.

Unless Samel had got confused again, which would not surprise him.

Belaika was tempted to whistle, but wanted no trouble. Sylphs in the camp would know who made the noise.

Although there was only a hint of light in the sky, the camp was already busy. A meal was prepared while men struck tents and packed equipment away. The army was getting ready to move on.

Feeling uneasy, he glanced the other way. A pair of jet eyes, so dark he could not tell where iris and pupil met, met his gaze levelly. Those eyes belonged to a youngish-looking woman with hair as dark as her eyes, who crouched before him. He held her gaze just long enough to show he was not cowed.

The woman was the cause of his unease; he sensed she possessed either the Gift, or had abilities with sorcery. He knew her; he had been asked to find her in Marka.

His heart pounded.

"Tell me your name." The woman forced a smile.

"Belaika." The sylph bit off the rest; best that these people never learned his owner's name. His ear-points twitched; deceit was not his strongest point.

"No owner? Most sylphs are proud to speak their owner's name, why are you an exception? I am Nicolfer."

The scout swallowed nervously. He must be careful.

"Efforts to protect your owner's identity are futile, Belaika-y-Marcus; I know exactly who he is. And now I know who you are, the rest of your secrets are mine. Or will be."

What else did Nicolfer know about him? It was bad enough she knew him at all. She was not alone; a female sylph stood behind her.

Nicolfer saw where he was looking and gestured off-handedly. "This is Haema-y-Jinsla. She reads and writes musical notation."

A small frown crossed Belaika's face. Haema looked terrified.

"She has written down most of the whistles we heard yesterday. We know how they go." She pursed her lips and gave an imitation of Belaika's ping, only pitched for human ears and with the sounds all wrong. Another small smile. "Of course, we do not know what they mean." The smile was gone as if spat away. "Which is where we need your help."

Belaika's ear-points slanted forwards and were still. His mouth firmed. "I will not aid you." He had no idea what the whistle Nicolfer had demonstrated meant either. He looked at Haema, who stared at the ground.

"Oh good, you want to resist." Nicolfer made an almost apologetic gesture with her hands. "Let me see. Torture? Humiliation perhaps?" The small smile was back. "Many here would enjoy hearing you howl. You scouts have caused people here so much trouble. But I do so abhor violence against sylphs. Usually. A pity to damage such a fine sylph-" She touched Belaika's cheek with a finger and he shrank back. "-and such actions would reduce your ransom value."

Determination faded from his ear-points.

Nicolfer gave a delighted clap of her hands and a small giggle. "I know! Eleka. Of course."

"No!"

"Beautiful wife you have. Acid perhaps? Missing limbs? Would you like to return to that?"

Belaika snarled at his tormentor.

"Foolish boy." Nicolfer's jet eyes were hard. "Perhaps not Eleka. I'm sure you're not too bothered about your infertile daughters - cruel of you sylphs, that - but what about Callie and Sallie? Slow, painful deaths? Salafisa perhaps? Lovely gwerin, but I never did like them, far too intelligent. They see too deeply and say too much. Unlike you full-bloods, who see deeply and keep your mouths shut. She would suffer long, boy. I would return the corpse for you to view what you caused. Yes, what you caused, by your own, stubborn... stupidity."

"Ne! Dson an, dson san!"

Listening to the screamed epithets, Nicolfer sat back and giggled in pure delight. She had not expected so much pleasure today.

***

Belaika was not the only one awake early. The two human scouts Yochan had sent out woke him just before dawn. They conferred in whispers in his tent.

"Belaika is held in the center of the camp," explained the older scout, Felnar. "The perimeter is closely guarded, which means they learned lessons from our raids."

Udan, the second scout, nodded. "A sylph might slip past unnoticed, but we'd have no chance."

Even though the sylphs had replaced almost all the human scouts in Marcus' army, there was little animosity about it from those forced to learn new skills. Not now, anyway. These two had been among the best scouts and had worked with Yochan for many years. Even they recognized the advantage of sylphs.

"We might force a way through, but we'd take casualties in any rescue attempt," added Felnar.

Yochan shook his head. "No rescue. The Boss has said no."

Felnar shrugged. "Probably wise. Even if a sylph slipped through, he couldn't free Belaika from that chain."

"We must think of something," insisted Yochan. "We're not going to leave him to the enemy."

"Of course not." Felnar and Udan exchanged a look that suggested they thought there was no choice but to abandon Belaika to his fate.

Yochan sighed. This would be difficult, but he always kept his promises. There must be a way.

***
***

I'll be posting this Chapter on #SampleSunday, replacing the earlier draft.  I'll repost Chapter Two later in the week.  Hope you enjoyed the read!

#SampleSunday Thank You

A big thank you to all those who downloaded, read and re-Tweeted my samples for #SampleSunday.  I trust everybody has enjoyed, or still is enjoying, their read.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Prologue Markan Empire

The Prologue to Markan Empire is setting the scene for the book.  It links plot threads from the end of Markan Throne and weaves them into new sub-plots introduced in Markan Empire.

As the week progresses, I'll also update sample chapters 1 & 2 of Markan Empire.  There aren't a huge amount of changes from earlier postings, but they have evolved enough to be reposted.

As always, comments are welcome!

Enjoy the sample.

***
Prologue
I: The Pledge

One hundred men - thirty of them mounted lancers - and five sylph scouts formed up in the square before the newly reopened West Gate. Husbands and wives had said their final goodbyes, and the small army was ready to leave.

The worst of the ice had been cleared away, but sylph ear-points sometimes gave an irritable flicker as stray snowflakes found an eartip.

Lance-Captain Dekran and Banner-Sergeant Yochan made their final checks, ensuring all was as it should be. As senior scout, Belaika glanced at his companions. The other scouts were Markans and - at best - only part trained. Which meant he would have to carry them most of the way out and back. Only one - Fhionnen - could be regarded as reliable for formulating messages. The rest could pass messages, but would be of little use either as Dekran's messenger or as furthest scout. Belaika knew which of those dangerous jobs he and Fhionnen must shoulder.

Of the scouts, he was the only married sylph and he felt a stab of loss as he looked across the square to Eleka. His wife was again pregnant and this time certain she carried a son.

Lance-Captain Dekran mounted.

Banner-Sergeant Yochan looked from Belaika to Eleka.

"You didn't drag her out in this?" he demanded.

Belaika shrugged. "She insisted."

Yochan shook his head. "Foolish sylphs. Selinde is expecting too. We said our goodbyes before I came out. Best for her to keep warm. Best for pregnant sylphs, too."

"We hope for a son." The scout's ear-points twitched before sagging a little.

Yochan nodded. "So do we, but after five daughters maybe Siranva has other ideas."

"I will probably miss the birth." Belaika's ear-points sagged further.

Yochan gripped the sylph's shoulder. "Us married men must look out for each other. If anything happens, I promise to tell Eleka."

Belaika blinked and bowed his head. "Should you fall, Selinde will know what to tell your son when he is older."

Yochan's hand left the sylph's shoulder and he smiled. "We are pledged," he said.

"Pledged," agreed Belaika. He looked away; silently praying that nothing happened to either of them.

Yochan mounted and hefted the Vintner Standard: a gold dragon's head on a dark-blue field. He nodded to Dekran.

The captain lifted an arm and motioned ahead. The gates swung open and the small army passed out of the city.

Belaika turned to smile at his wife and held her gaze as long as possible until the city walls hid her from view.

He turned his head to the front and his expression hardened. He had a job to get on with; he would meet his son when it was done.

***
II: Homecoming

Even snug in the folds of her cloak, Silmarila wished the late winter wind would ease its chill blast. Carts and sedans queued, patiently waiting their turn to enter Marka. She waited with them on the narrow road into the city, wanting to draw no attention to herself. Many - less patient than she - walked past and ignored choice comments thrown their way by those less mobile than themselves.

She smiled wistfully at the huge pyramid dwarfing the city, a giant ruby light-crystal at its apex. Those who had never seen Marka before stared more at this feature than any other and she overheard their awed murmurs. The city was impressive, but the pyramid overwhelmed it, dating from a time when much now-lost knowledge abounded.

Mounted guardsmen rode down the line to break up a fight a little further along. One glanced at Silmarila; he eyed her walking staff and tried to see into the cowl of her cloak. Then he was past and she was forgotten.

Many fighting men had eyed her walking staff with respect. They knew a quarterstaff when they saw one. She'd had little call for it on her journey, but these were troubled times.

"All right, that's enough!" One of the guardsmen tried to break the fight up. "Enough, or your time in Marka will be spent in a cell."

The queue surged forward before halting again after a few steps. Many were travel-worn family groups, drawn by the offer of free land. Some might even be farmers and their families.

Silmarila wondered how much "free" land was left and of what quality. Although for very different reasons, the rumors that lured these people were the same that brought her back to Marka. She had no need of free land. She looked towards the city gates.

Marka had an emperor again.

Rumor that two claimants to the vacant Throne had been called to Marka caught her attention and stirred her to action a year before. She left her comfortable village to return home and hopefully reclaim her rightful place.

More rumors followed hard on the shirttails of the first. One claimant had defeated the other; one had murdered the other after the battle; a general had gone berserk and murdered both claimants... Silmarila could hardly wait to learn the truth.

There were always rumors, but these were many and too fast to be other than truth, even if embellished.

"Break it up, I'm telling you!" The scuffle had broken out again. "Any more and you're arrested. All of you!"

She was already on the road when she heard the whisper of a no-longer-vacant Throne. She had initially discounted what the rumor said; she had laughed at such a ridiculous notion. A sylph on the Throne? A sylph, ruling humans? But the nearer she came to Marka, the more persistent the tale and, now she was here, she had no alternative but to accept it as truth.

When stories of the siege reached her, she almost turned back. She had never flinched from advising it when necessary, but she hated war. All that suffering and pain and hunger and grief.

Then other stories came.

There was an ilven in Marka. She hadn't seen one of the sisters for, for… Well for longer than she cared to remember. But it was not the ilven who pulled her onward. There was also a young gwerin. A baby gwerin with no idea what was expected of her, alone and in need of schooling.

She shivered as the wind chewed through her cloak.

The city walls were more or less as she remembered them, with a repair needed here and there after last year's siege. Most of the buildings that poked their upper storeys above the walls were different, but some familiar edifices loomed benignly toward her.

The only constant in life is change. She smiled as she recalled her tutor's words. Sometimes it came slowly and sometimes it seemed as though change had ground to a halt, only to rush forward like an avalanche in winter. It was inexorable, but blind and not all was for the better. She wished change would affect this damned wind. In early spring, the Markan winter clung tenaciously to its empire, spiting nature's attempts to drive it away.

She grimaced at the human remains hung in a cage above the gate, picked white by carrion and weather. The placard announced to the literate that these were some of the remains of Hingast, failed invader of Marka. He was not the first to fail to take the Jewel of the World and she doubted if he would be the last. Some rumors claimed Hingast was still alive.

She pushed the cowl of her cloak back to show her face to the guard at the gate. He gave her a once-over before nodding her through. He had no reason to deny her entry, even if he knew who and what she was. Especially if he knew. She passed through the gate and into the city.

She took a deep breath, she was home.

Though the trees that lined the center of the main road were new, the streets followed a familiar layout. The bustle of Marka at work was the same and she was certain of the way to the Imperial Palace.

Sylphs thronged the crowd, as numerous as ever. If any recognized what she was, they gave no sign of it, but Silmarila increased her pace anyway. She sensed the end of her journey while drinking Marka's sounds and scents, all so painfully familiar she knew she had missed them.

She turned another corner and was there.

The Coronation Building was the same; she would be shocked if that had changed. She grimaced at the ugly warehouse, built a good time ago to judge from the state of it. That would never have been allowed in Emperor Evlander's day. She left Senate Square and the Imperial Palace was before her.

Silmarila mounted the stone steps, ready for the guard's challenge.

"Halt!"

She obeyed instantly. This guard wore the uniform of a Markan soldier, which might be an advantage. She kept her voice calm. "Please send a messenger to inform His Majesty of my arrival."

A small smile played around the guard's mouth as he weighed her up, taking in her dusty cloak and somewhat travel-worn appearance. "You are expected, young lady?"

Silmarila masked her irritation, but her grip on the quarterstaff tightened. This... this boy dared address her as young lady? She almost told him that she had been born in the first year of Emperor Evlander's reign and was only three years short of completing her third century. She mentally cursed the color of her eyes: the dark-brown irises made it almost impossible for humans (and many sylphs) to tell where the pupils began and ended. Or what shape they were. Instead, she pushed her cowl all the way back and set her ear-points free. They now twitched irritably as the guard's eyes widened in recognition of what stood before him.

"My name is Silmarila-y-Marka," she told him. "Gwerin Adviser to the Throne of Mark and I believe that my presence is demanded by bonds of duty stronger and older than yours."

The guard nodded and called for a messenger; when he arrived, the young boy stared pop-eyed at her before dashing back inside. Silmarila smiled at the guard to show she meant him no harm. No matter how exalted her status, she belonged to the Throne. She was property, as surely as the sylphs dotted about.

The messenger returned moments later.

"His Majesty will see you now," he squeaked, breathlessly.

Silmarila's smile widened. Sylph or no, this Emperor at least knew not to keep gwerins waiting. "Thank you," she said. "After you."

She followed the messenger through corridors and up two flights of stairs. Servants and guards looked at her, but hurried about their business. Those who noticed her ear-points stared.

The messenger stopped and knocked at a door. He opened it, but did not enter. "In here, um, Miss."

The boy was forgotten as Silmarila swept past. Two sylphs and a human stared at her.

The human male was tall with dark-brown hair curling over his ears. His dark-blue eyes were expressionless and he studied her as closely as she studied him.

An infertile stood behind the human's chair; her silver-gray eyes held a mixture of awe and fear as she stared at Silmarila. Her work-tunic had a dragon's head emblazoned on one breast, symbol of the Vintner family. The other sylph in the room must be Zenepha, Emperor of Marka.

Silmarila dropped into a deep curtsey. "Your Majesty. I am Silmarila-y-Marka, Gw-"

"Silmarila," said Zenepha, "come and sit." He indicated a vacant chair at which the gwerin stared in surprise. She was allowed to sit in his presence? The sylph made hasty introductions. "This is Marcus Marcus Vintner and this is Jenn-y-Marcus and I am Zenepha."

She inclined her head toward Marcus and Jenn as they were named, but no more. Her attention was fixed on Zenepha. "Your Majesty, I hurried back as quickly as I could. Have… have any others returned? Samrita or Marasil?"

Zenepha's silver eyes were grave and his ear-points twitched once. "If you ask after gwerins, you are the only one to make herself known."

Silmarila's ear-points sagged. "I hoped others might have arrived. Even though I am the youngest, I should not be the only one." Her eyes flickered briefly to Zenepha again. "Was the youngest. I hear there is a young one here?"

"There is," replied Marcus, before Zenepha could speak.

"She will need schooling," the gwerin said. "I am happy to offer my services."

A smile played around Zenepha's mouth and his ear-points twitched in amusement. "Part of your duties as I understand them. Although Salafisa belongs to Marcus Vintner, you may teach her."

"Surprised she does not belong to the Emperor?" asked Marcus, his gaze fixed on the gwerin's face.

Silmarila was not surprised at all and she shrugged. "The Emperor is only protector of gwerins. If one is no longer needed or wanted by her old owners, the Throne has first refusal. We needed such protection. And still do, I don't doubt."

Marcus nodded.

"The Emperor never laid claim to gwerins born to wild tribes," continued Silmarila. "They usually end up leading their tribe, as wild sylphs elect the oldest as chieftain. Given our longevity, it is inevitable gwerins come to lead such tribes."

"There are wild sylphs here, if you bore of serving Zenepha." Marcus smiled.

"I am pleased you have come, Silmarila," interrupted Zenepha. "The gwerin rooms have been kept ready for your return."

Jenn came around the chair and, still wide-eyed, bowed to Silmarila. "I will show you the way."

Silmarila smiled at the small infertile. Provided the correct ones had been prepared, she knew the way, but she wouldn't deflate the sylph. Jenn was nervous; infertiles usually were around adult gwerins. She had never learned why. "Please lead on. I trust the bathwater is hot? I have come a long way and..." Jenn lead her out and away.

Outside the palace, the late winter wind chilled everything in its path.

***
III: Sandester

The Aboras - the freezing north wind that scoured everything between the polar ice and Sandester - rattled windows and doors at the observatory. Only a few scruffy villages, soil-poor but mineral-rich, stood between city and icecap. Sandesterans were used to wrapping up against the Aboras, which often blew until mid-spring. Even so, the wind found its way though most things meant to keep it out.

The Vintner Palace was built into a hill, which gave good protection against the wind. Few buildings in Sandester had north-facing doors and windows for the same reason. A century before, Staflan Vintner built the observatory on top of the hill, although it was no longer used as one. It could be reached by means of a covered stair without leaving the palace. Most of Staflan's notes were still here, though the telescope was long gone. What had turned him away from stargazing was still a mystery, why he had destroyed his telescope equally unknown. But his pastime was the reason why the best lensmakers were still gathered in Sandester.

Staflan's grandson, Nazvasta Ulvic Vintner - brother of Branad Ulvic Vintner, late claimant to the no-longer-vacant Markan Throne - used the observatory as his study. Here he kept his most troubling correspondence. Troubling, ever since his brother had left Sandester for Marka more than a year before.

His library was here, row upon row of books lining every wall bar one, shelved as high as he could stretch with his arms. A couple of reading desks, three chairs and eight light-crystals completed the furniture. One wall held an impressive fireplace, the stone surround carved into every animal the sculptor's imagination could remember. Above that was a lone painting of a ship battering her way through heavy seas.

Nobody but the servants knew he came here; in truth only a few of them were supposed to know, but when one servant knew a thing, they all did. In his experience, they knew more about what went on in palaces and grand houses than the owners. Even here, his spies included servants.

Spying had always been part of Nazvasta's duties, learned from his uncle. As the potential claimant to the Throne, he had no intention of relinquishing his role of spymaster. Not yet. Siranva knew there were problems enough to keep him busy if he lived to be ninety. His hand hovered over the wooden box where he kept the most important letters.

"Will you lay your claim?"

Nazvasta glanced at his companion. Fareen was Sandester's best-kept secret. His father and brother had ignored her and most had forgotten the gwerin even existed. She moved through the palace at night and was sometimes not seen even when someone looked directly at her. Useful to his uncle, now she was useful to him.

She had been the last gwerin adviser in Marka, going to the city to shelter in the Emperor's protection and arriving as the last three official gwerins left. She liked to say she entered Marka by the east gate as the other three left by the west. Emperor Rono had kept her presence in the city quiet, commanding his scribes to ensure her presence was never recorded.

"The claim is the least of my worries," he replied, "yet you demand I press it. Branad renounced it. Not a good result, but it happened."

Fareen nodded. "Renounced it on behalf of himself and his descendants. You are not a descendant."

Fareen stayed in Marka for five years, leaving only as the Empire collapsed the day Rono was murdered. She took his third son with her, and brought him to Sandester. Nazvasta's potential claim originated with that young man, allegedly smuggled out of Marka in a basket.

"Branad was captured in battle by Marcus Vintner. The claim was renounced before Marka's Senate." Nazvasta shook his head. "There's no way around it."

"Even now Marcus works to secure his claim at the sylph's expense."

"Zenepha." A sylph emperor.

"Mikhan was wise to accept to post of Marshal of Marka," continued Fareen. "He helps keep Marcus off the Throne."

"The Emperor demanded Sandester's submission to his rule."

The gwerin smiled. "Which you supplied. The Senate was not pleased, but they acquiesced."

"Eventually." Nazvasta knew that Sandester's Senate was unhappy at its demotion to provincial status.

Fareen's eyes flickered to the small wooden box. "You still have Marcus Vintner's letter. You are not going to accept his offer?"

Nazvasta laughed. "I have the letter offering what is already mine. Sandester has accepted the Emperor's authority, not Marcus's. My title of Steward is sufficient, Viceroy means nothing to me." Marcus claimed that his own prefectures and those of Branad were now united under one rule. His. "I've not replied."

Fareen smiled. "Good. If you accept his offer, you recognize his claim over your own."

Nazvasta never knew why this gwerin was so keen to ensure Marcus Vintner's claim was ground to dust. Perhaps something had happened to her in Marka. Perhaps she doubted his pedigree. She never responded to his questions, only stated that Sandester's claim was the best for a future Markan Empire. Perhaps she wanted to be the first - or only? - gwerin adviser to a resurgent Marka.

"Will you raise the dragon's head banner?" asked Fareen.

"Not while Zenepha holds the throne."

"He is only a caretaker. Marcus Vintner is there, politicking."

"A sylph ruling humans is a temporary aberration. I expect he's held on a tight leash."

"Nobody knows who holds the other end of this alleged leash," said Fareen. "That suggests nobody does, which in turn indicates there is no leash."

Nazvasta changed the subject. "And the sylph scouts. Has the world gone mad?"

Fareen laughed. "Annada and Tennen were quite explicit in their report. An excellent idea."

"Several beggars were almost lynched when the story of sylph scouts mutated into a story of sylphs spying for Marcus on our streets." Nazvasta grimaced. No matter how distasteful beggars might be, they did not deserve to be lynched on a rumor. And they were only sylphs, with no chance of defending themselves.

"You stamped down on it."

"Yes."

"And now there is a new threat?" Fareen's pale-brown eyes gleamed. She loved having problems to puzzle over.

"A threat to Trenvera."

"Our cushion."

A buffer between Sandester and Calcan, the Kingdom of Trenvera had kept the warring factions apart. That the Vintners had never fought a battle on its soil was testimony to the effectiveness of its diplomacy.

"Prince Mikel warns that Re Taura's army has grown so large that he fears Trenvera is the intended target."

"Or Calcan. Or us."

"If it's Calcan, that's their problem." Nazvasta was sharper than intended, so smiled to take the edge from his words. "I've sent Field-Captain Tennen to Maturia and other armies to our coastal prefectures. If Mikel requests assistance, I've more men to send there."

Fareen grimaced.

"I know." Nazvasta showed his teeth. "Potential repercussions from Calcan. We cannot let Trenvera fall to a third party."

"Espionage in Re Taura has failed." Fareen's eyes flickered to the small box. She had of course read all the correspondence. "Someone in Re Taura is good at unmasking infiltrators. So nobody knows the Mametain's intentions."

"If Trenvera's spies fail, I'm sure ours would fail too. I will not send men to their deaths unnecessarily."

Fareen nodded. "The risk outweighs any chance of success. I agree." She grinned again. "Isn't life fun?"

***
IV: Re Taura

Tektu stared across a mila of wind-chopped water to the City of Taura, capital of Re Taura. Her sylvan face contorted as she wrinkled her nose and twitched her ear-points. She reveled in the fresh breeze, but was unable to shake off a feeling of unease.

Castle Beren stood on what used to be the small island of Re Beren, separate from, yet all but surrounded by, the main island of Re Taura. A previous mametain had built a causeway to link the two islands. Despite this, it still felt like an island, sheltered by its larger sibling on three sides, with the Eastern Sea to the fourth.

Tektu's head swiveled briefly west, towards the mainland, before her attention returned to the harbor.

Soldiers patrolled the ramparts of Castle Beren, though none approached her. Even other sylphs - especially other sylphs - gave her a wide berth.

Let them hate, so long as they feared.

Her silver-gray eyes focused briefly as the door onto the walkway opened, but it was not the Mametain. Not yet.

Masts hid the buildings beyond Taura's harbor, betraying the presence of a large number of ships. Beyond the city walls, thousands of soldiers practiced their maneuvers, preparing for the planned invasion of Trenvera. This was intended to drive a wedge between the two branches of the Vintner family and help throw the re-emerging Markan Empire into disarray. It did not matter to her that a sylph sat on the Markan Throne. Her real masters did not want to see the Markan Empire rise again. Ever.

A hand closed on her shoulder and she turned to stare into the face of the Mametain. His dark eyes glittered at her.

"Something is wrong?" asked Nijen da Re Taura.

"A feeling," she replied. Her ear-points gave one violent twitch as she shrugged. "You should allow me to interrogate the spy Talnan again."

The sylph carrying refreshments for the Mametain stared at Tektu and her eyes widened in fright. She could sense what Tektu really was. Which did not bother Tektu in the slightest. After all, who would believe the word of a sylph over that of her owner? [i]She[end i] held real power, as those who fell foul of her quickly learned.

"Thank you, Mya." Nijen smiled. At a nod, the serving sylph scuttled away, eyes still wide.

The Mametain looked down at Tektu over his drink. "I will arrange it," he promised. "This afternoon. Try not to kill this one too quickly."

Tektu managed a bow. "Se bata, henyi." She licked her lips in anticipation.

***

Mya crouched over the furthest privy and chewed the edge of her tunic to stop any moans. She rocked on her heels and fought tears. She had started at Castle Beren the same day as her owner, Talnan.

He worked for the King of Trenvera, the latest in a line of spies sent to Re Taura to try and discover the Mametain's plans. Now he was a prisoner.

She had no illusions; her owner would die once Tektu was done. She was more terrified for him than for herself. If he failed to keep her existence a secret, she hoped her death would come swiftly so she could continue to serve him in the next life.

Execution as a spy was a less terrifying prospect than spending the rest of her life here, under Tektu's eye. Even worse, wondering if Tektu and the Mametain knew whether she was a spy. Might they realize if she asked to be released from service? That was not unusual in itself; there was a high turnover of sylph servants here, even if the alternative work was worse than at the castle. But if anyone noticed that her start day was the same as her owner's, questions might be asked.

She dried her eyes with her tunic and stood. She forced herself to feel happy so her ear-points would not betray her true feelings. The meal break was almost over, it was time to work and she did not want anyone to find her crying here.

She must carry on as if life held nothing more for her than working for the Mametain. Mya hoped that it did.

***

"They send spy after spy after spy. They obviously know something's going on." Nijen da Re Taura looked at his companion, sprawled comfortably in the easy chair opposite. They were quite alone; the loyal Tektu still dealt with a now-dead spy.

The fire burned cheerfully, banishing all cold. The study was oak-paneled to half-height, the stone walls rendered and whitewashed above that. A rug was between the two chairs and a large desk was behind them.

"They're supposed to know something's going on, that's the point of your army. Last year's siege was an unfortunate setback, nothing more. We have spent time gathering an army large and competent enough to try again."

"The rumor is that Hingast is dead."

"Just rumor. He is alive and well, I assure you."

Nijen only just restrained a shudder. It was impossible to like the man sat in his study and equally difficult to trust him. Yet trust him he must, for without him Nijen would still be roving the lands selling his sword to the highest bidder. "It is only a matter of time before they decide they want to try to replace me, or else send one of the Gifted."

The other man snorted in contempt.

The Mametain's dark eyes sparkled with anger. "The Gifted may be easy for [i]you[end i] to deal with, but not for me. I'm a swordsman, not a sorcerer."

"The opportunity to learn was offered." Long, iron-gray hair swayed as he shook his head, his blue eyes boring into Nijen. "I have something for you."

A pocket suddenly bulged as he put his hand into it. As if something had only that moment appeared. Sorcery had just been used.

Nijen stared at his companion's hand. "A bottle."

The other man smiled. "You might call it essence of sorcery. Rub a small amount onto your hands, make a throwing motion... like so... and a ball of fire. Sufficient to defend yourself, I suggest."

"The throwing motion is necessary?" asked Nijen.

"For an adept, no. But you are not an adept."

Nijen leaned forward and took the gift. "Essence of sorcery?" He looked as if the bottle might melt into his hand.

"Only two living can make it." The smile widened. "Be warned, anything you produce can be deflected or even reflected back at you." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "A rebounding flame made from this essence will have very unpleasant consequences." The man abruptly stood and his voice returned to normal. "Continue as before, extract information from the spies and let Tektu kill them if necessary." A small frown furrowed his brow for a moment, as if he was unsure exactly how Tektu could do the things she did. "When Marka and her allies finally move against you, I'll be ready to move against them. Be well."

Nijen saw something briefly spin in the air and glimpsed a tent interior. He looked into the startled eyes of a young woman before his companion was gone and he was alone.

He carefully put the bottle on his desk. Visits from Dervra were supposed to reassure him; he was yet to feel reassured from any meeting. If anything, he felt worse.

***
V: The Mission

"I understand someone wasted her winter teaching you to read and write."

Neptarik-y-Balnus stared at Morran Fynn and wondered why one of Marcus Vintner's clerks should make him so uneasy. Not wanting to speak, he nodded his head. Not only had Tahena Mithon taught him his letters, but she had also tried to find him a wife.

Sandev's own sylph - Caya - had turned her nose up at him. She had her own worries and two other male sylphs to chase her affections. Not that she seemed particularly interested in them, either.

Breeding female sylphs could be very choosy when it came to a husband; most found by Tahena knew Neptarik was a gambler and believed he could never stay with just one wife. Or two. They were friendly, but no more.

Neptarik needed no encouragement to keep practicing his letters; his literacy had opened doors to a new world. This new skill must be utilized as much as possible.

He was not alone in the clerk's study.

Staff-Captain Balnus - Neptarik's owner - stood beside the scout, together with Verdin Vintner, son of a claimant to the Markan Throne. Son of a dead claimant to the Markan Throne. A young man who apparently wanted to cover himself with glory while reunited the Empire.

So long as it was only glory he covered himself with and not blood. And if blood, preferably not Neptarik's.

Fynn's desk was at the opposite end of the room from the fire and visitors had to sit facing him, their backs to the fire.

Another sylph was present, curled up on a rug before the open fire. Neptarik could not see much of her, except that she was rather plainly dressed. She probably belonged to Fynn and the scout thought she was lucky to spend her time asleep.

He glanced up as Balnus placed a protective hand on his shoulder.

"He learned well and quickly," he said, expression daring Fynn to say anything different.

Fynn nodded. "His Majesty is concerned by news received from the Overseas Office of Trenvera."

Neptarik stared. The Majesty Fynn referred to was not Zenepha, for he was always named. He spoke of Marcus Vintner.

Fynn continued. "The Mametain of Re Taura plans invasion. Given his location, there are only three possible targets: Trenvera, Sandester or Calcan. Most likely Trenvera."

Neptarik eyed Fynn as if he had never before seen him. He was not a remarkable man; anyone might pass him several times a day and never remember or notice. His expression was neutral, no threat to anyone. His clothing was clean and plain, with nothing to mark him out in any way. But he discussed these threats as if he had a right to know of them. No ordinary clerk.

Fynn continued. "Trenvera's spies in Re Taura have an unfortunate habit of disappearing. The King has decided to send no more." He sniffed. "Plans should always be re-evaluated whenever an agent is lost."

Neptarik exchanged a look with his owner.

Verdin nodded. "Prince Mikel is Trenvera's spymaster."

"That may be so."

Neptarik changed his mind about Fynn's unremarkableness. Those pale-blue eyes were as flint as Verdin spoke. He looked over his shoulder at the sylph sleeping in front of the fire.

"Is there something His Majesty wants us to do?" asked Balnus.

Fynn steepled his fingers. "We must establish the Mametain's intentions and to do that, we must send people to Re Taura. Infiltrating Castle Beren is no easy task and I don't recommend sending a human to do it, as they have all been compromised."

"So you will send a sylph." Balnus' eyes hardened and his grip tightened on Neptarik's shoulder. "My sylph."

Fynn inclined his head. "There is a steady turnover of sylph servants in Castle Beren. Many leave, or ask to be released from service. Some may even run away. Who knows why; they're not mistreated. But they are frightened of something or someone there. They prefer to work the hard way, rather than enjoy an easier time in domestic service. Either way, the turnover of sylphs is higher than of humans, which means it is easier to insert a sylph. But I need an exceptional sylph and there are not many of those."

Neptarik's ear-points twitched in pride.

Fynn smiled. "A sylph used to operating alone, which means a scout. A courageous sylph. Is that a field commendation stud in his collar? Thought so. A sylph who knows which plans to steal, so one who is literate. My list of candidates has one name on it."

"You can't have him," said Balnus.

"When do I start?" asked Neptarik, at the same moment.

Fynn inclined his head, as sylph and owner responded in opposite ways. Neptarik wondered if the man had guessed his response.

"Your protectiveness is commendable," Fynn told Balnus. "Which is why you will travel with Neptarik. You must not attempt to enter the Mametain's service."

"Why do you need me?" asked Verdin.

"There is some unrest among the population. It seems they are not altogether happy with the new Mametain. We want to discover what happened to the old Mametain and his family."

Verdin nodded. "You want to replace the existing Mametain."

"With the old one, yes. I'm not suggesting you claim a new throne."

Verdin spread his hands. "My loyalties are to Marka."

"Glad to hear it. If you accept this assignment, I will arrange more detailed briefings for each of you. Everything we know. Have I picked the right people?"

"When do I start?" repeated Neptarik. His eyes danced, ear-points bolt upright in anticipation of adventure.

"I'm up for it," added Verdin.

Balnus sighed. "Answer the question. When do we start?"

Fynn gave another smile. "In a few days. I'll send for you later this evening, when you will be briefed in more detail."

Fynn watched them leave his study. Only Neptarik glanced at the still-sleeping sylph as he left. The clerk leaned forward on his arms.

"Well, Smudge?"

The sylph who had spent the entire time before the fire sat up the moment the door closed behind the visitors. The dark-blue birthmark after which she was named was quite prominent in this light, looking like an ink stain that spread across her right cheek from nose to ear. Spots of it were visible on her ear-point. "The boy is impressive, enya," she replied. "I told you he was."

Fynn's smile was warm. "How could I function as spymaster without you? You've done very well to bring those three to my attention. Choca tonight."

Smudge grinned. She had said what she must and needed say no more.

***
VI: Shadow Riders

Fared Amel Granton leaned forward, to better hear the whispered words of the old Wise One.

Only a select few in Kelthane boasted a properly Markan name, instead of the more usual that, or son of, between given and parental name. For more than two centuries, these few and their descendants had helped protect their adopted homeland from the attentions of the less savory. They helped defend a people who sheltered and succored them in return.

Their ancestors had come from Marka, commanded to leave the city by the last Emperor, as the empire collapsed about them. They were the Shadow Riders.

Fared was their Captain, a post he would hold for life. The Shadow Riders restricted themselves to no more than five hundred. Many were now indigenous Kelthanians, as those of Markan descent grew rarer. None of the Riders had ever seen Marka.  Honor, Service and Glory was their ancient motto, sworn with one hand gripping a dagger until blood was drawn.

A spasm seized the Wise One and she reached up with suddenly strong arms to grasp Fared's shirt collar, watery blue eyes clear as ice.

"You must go east," she whispered.

Fared leaned further forward to catch her words. Instructions from a vision? After all, she was Gifted.

"Home?" Fared's own blue-gray eyes brightened.

"East." Those eyes were insistent. "Seek the banner-sylph."

"A banner with a sylph emblem on it?"

The Wise One shook her head. "Sylph as bannerman. A sylph with a warrior's fire. Seek him. The banner-sylph."

Fared blinked. Sylphs did not carry banners and they were not warriors. Sylphs took no part in fighting.

"I don't understand." Fared shook his head. "What sort of sylph is a bannerman?"

The Wise One wrapped herself in her blanket and fell asleep.

Fared turned to his companion. "What did you make of that?"

Samrita moved closer: her ear-points twitched and her hazel sylph-slit eyes held a thoughtful expression. Not only had the gwerin seen Marka, it was her birthplace.

"Up to you whether you follow her counsel. Her visions have always proved true before." She shrugged. "Not being Gifted, I cannot help you in your decision. She might tell us more when she wakes again."

"Just when I could use gwerin advice most, you fall silent on me." Fared admired Samrita: she remembered the last days before the Empire fell.

The gwerin grimaced. "Perhaps it is time to go home," she said. "If Kelthane can survive without us. We seek this... banner-sylph. A warrior." She shook her head in disgust. Warlike sylphs were as much a mystery to her as to Fared. "One with a warrior's fire."

"Home." Fared ignored the gwerin's spoken thoughts. He could not contain a delighted smile. "The Jewel of the World. Marka."

Samrita nodded. Unlike Kelthane, sylphs and gwerins did not remain free in Marka.

"Yes," she replied vaguely. "Home."

***
VII: Haema

Nicolfer's carriage turned into one of the many quiet backstreets in Eldova and halted outside the music shop, unobtrusively squeezed between two warehouses. The few people out took one look at the plain black carriage and hurried about their chores. They did not want to know what business one of the Prefect's agents might have with a lowly music man.

"Wait here," commanded Nicolfer, as she stepped from the carriage.

The coachman inclined his head.

Inside, musical instruments lined the walls and a man looked up from his work. A breeding female sylph worked alongside him, her pen scratching on parchment. Her blue tongue protruded and her ear-points were bolt upright in concentration as she worked.

After a quick glance, she ignored the newcomer.

"May I help you?" The man had a pleasant expression; interested enquiry shone in his eyes and a slight smile turned his lips.

"You are Jinsla?" asked Nicolfer.

The man drew himself a little more upright. "I am Jinsla Renkra, composer and builder of musical instruments. I also sell sheet music. I have composed-"

"Among other things, you have composed several pieces that might be construed as treason." Nicolfer smiled. "And I am told your sylph is literate."

The sylph looked up from her work and her ear-points slanted forward. As she took in Nicolfer properly for the first time, her eyes widened.

Jinsla was a little off balance. People never came to his shop to accuse him of treason. "Haema." He gestured to the sylph. "She's not literate in the true sense of the word. But she is intelligent."

"She can read and write musical notation." It was not a question.

"She can. May I offer alovak?"

"No need." Nicolfer's jet eyes glittered. She watched Haema blink and put her pen down. The sylph looked from Jinsla to Nicolfer and back.

"What is it you want with Haema?" asked Jinsla.

"I want to borrow her for a vital task. I'm sure His Majesty will overlook your treason when that task is complete."

A look of horror crossed the sylph's face and her ear-points wilted.

"What task?" asked Jinsla.

"Our enemies use sylphs as scouts. They communicate with each other by whistles and we need to learn what they say. Our code-breakers cannot hear the whistles as they are pitched too high for human hearing. Our sylphs can hear the whistles, but we have so far been unable to train any to break codes. So we need a sylph to write the whistles in musical notation. Then our code-breakers can work on them."

"You intend taking Haema away." Jinsla was aware of his sylph's distress.

"I'm afraid so, she must be in the field to hear the whistles. I hope she is not needed for very long."

"I can't let you take her."

"Very well. But your next visit will be from the City Patrol who want you to answer charges of treason."

"Treason?" Jinsla's eyes widened. "A piece of music, treason?"

Haema put a hand on her owner's arm. "I will do it, enya," she said, only a slight tremor in her voice. "For you."

Nicolfer smiled and lifted a purse. "There is remuneration."

Jinsla relented, more for fear of treason than because his sylph had spoken or a heavy purse was offered. "You can have her tomorrow, when I-"

"Now," insisted Nicolfer. "Anything she needs I can buy."

Jinsla and Haema exchanged a look. The composer slumped and shook his head.

"I'm sorry, but this is necessary." Nicolfer turned to Haema. "My carriage is outside. Get in it, please. I'll join you in a moment."

Haema gave her owner's hand one last squeeze before she left the shop, feet dragging. Nicolfer watched as the sylph climbed into the carriage.

"Close the blinds," suggested Nicolfer. "You never know who's watching. Don't want to be robbed of this, do you?" She hefted the purse again.

Jinsla blinked before he complied, aware of Haema's frightened gaze from the carriage. He forced a smile.

As promised, Nicolfer was not very long and she gave the sylph a compassionate look.

"What you are about to do may save lives and help Eldova defeat her enemies." She lifted her voice. "Drive on!"

The carriage jerked forward and Haema looked over her shoulder at her old life. She whimpered.

"You can stop that," said Nicolfer. "You'll rejoin your owner when I've finished with you, I promise."

Nicolfer, aware of what Haema was looking at, drew her cloak over her purse, as fat and heavy as before. The sylph's ear-points wilted completely. She was intelligent enough to realize that no money had changed hands.

Nicolfer forced a smile, wanting to put the sylph at ease. "We shouldn't be too long, I promise."

Behind them, the music shop was silent, and lifeless.

***
***

I hope everybody enjoyed their read.  As always, comments are more than welcome.